Haunted by the somber tone of the land around him, the knight rides on, following a path that leads finally to an old castle, itself bearing the scars of time, old battles waged, and roof coverings that need repair. "What is going here," he wondered. Drawing closer, he follows the drawbridge across the muddy moat, finds a place to stable his horse, discovers a vacant room where he might spend the night, and prepares for sleep when he hears noise from a distant room in the castle which he supposed at one time must have been a bright and happy banquet hall. Curious, he decides cautiously to explore the increasingly mysterious old castle that is located in an even more mysterious and depressing countryside.
Following the sounds from the old banquet hall, the knight picks up the low level chatter of human voices and arrives at an entrance way to the dull light of shadowed walls with men and women gathered for what must be some event. They pay no mind to the knight, but seem to have prepared a place where he can sit and observe, almost as if the company of "lords and ladies" may have mysteriously expected him.
The knight sits at a small round table with others who pay him no attention, focusing instead on the dias elevated by a small dimly lit stage at the center of the room. The earlier chatter grew dimmer and dimmer until finally nothing could be heard in the disturbing silence. Then, suddenly but quietly and reverently, two stretcher bearers entered the banquet hall. Propped on the stretcher that appeared to serve as a pillowed cot was the old man who had earlier been seen fishing. Apparently he could not walk by himself, and the young knight could not be sure the old man could even speak as he said nothing, but obviously was a person of importance, a Fisher King.
Silently but meticulously, the Fisher King was served and proceeded to eat as did the men and women of his kingdom, as did the knight. There was no dancing, no music, no merriment. Finally, the knight could stand the tension no longer, stood awkwardly and was about to ask the bed-ridden Fisher King, "What ails you?" But he did not ask the question, and feeling embarrassed that he had drawn attention to himself, he quickly moved his chair aside and hurriedly made his way to the door—but not before noticing how the lords and ladies looked at him when he stood. The look was not one of anger or even surprise, but almost a look of anticipation and hope, or so the knight thought, while realizing he could be wrong about what he saw. In fact, he wondered if any of this was real. Was he dreaming? Had he lost his mind? Was his mind playing tricks on him?
The young knight's name was Perceval, a name that appears first in the story by Chrétien de Troyes (1130-1190 CE), "Perceval, The Story of the Grail." Another elaboration of the story comes to us from the pen of Wolfram von Eschenbach (1170-1220 CE) who names the knight, Parzival, which serves also as the title for Wolfram's work. The story thrusts itself in the Arthurian legends with attention on "the quest of the Holy Grail," in which with the influence of the Church, the quest became a search for mystical union with God.
My brief summary of this grand and noble story is a loose rendering, with the aim of noting a secondary theme. This theme is the identification we humans tend to make with a place, and how this identification becomes fateful. For example, consider the moving conclusion of the Jewish Yom Kippur service when the liturgy proclaims, "Next year in Jerusalem"! This represents a peoples' escape from slavery in Egypt and the experience of freedom —physically, spiritually, communally—in the new Land of Israel, a place and the symbol of deliverance and hope.
Consider also how Muslims undertake the Hajj Pilgrimage, one of the five pillars of Islam, which all able-bodied Muslims are required to perform once in their lifetime. The Pilgrimage, undertaken in some cases with canes or crutches, follows the route taken by the Prophet Mohammed, as Abraham and Ishmael are also thought to have traveled. The modern-day pilgrims make their journey to the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca and the sacred site of a cube-shaped Kaaba which is understood to have been built by Abraham and Ishmael thousands of years ago as a house of monotheistic worship. Viewed reverently as a metaphorical house of God, who is One, Muslims around the world turn their face toward the Kaaba during each of the five daily prayers.
We observe how for Jews and Muslims, these places shape their thoughts, prayers, and ritualistic life. But more, and this psychologically is very important, a "place" can also become a state of mind. And with that thought, I return to the story of the Fisher King. Why had the land become infertile, void of life and meaning? The land had become a state of mind for the Fisher King, or the Fisher King's state of mind became the fate of the land, bringing barrenness, meaninglessness, and joylessness.
What hope then was there? As the story unfolds, Perceval visits the castle not once but twice. On the first visit as I described it, Perceval burns with a question for the King, but never asks it. On his second visit, the same drama presents itself but with one exception.
The exception for Perceval's second visit to the Fisher King's castle is this: Perceval asks the question. It is a very human question, an authentic question that escapes the entrapment of role-playing human encounters. Of course, roles may serve the purpose of providing services that help people and saves lives even in some cases. But role-playing can also become wooden, formulaic, inauthentic, and deadly.
Much depends upon our state of mind, because our state of mind is the place in which we live. Our state mind is our inner kingdom, so to speak. And now we understand Perceval's second visit to the Fisher King's castle. The Fisher King had not changed; he and the land were still in a desultory state of mind but Perceval was not. And he asked the very human, authentic question of the king: "What is the reason of your illness?"
"Yes, there is an illness; yes, your state of mind is ill, and your illness has infected the land." And with that consciousness, the Fisher King and the land were healed.
Were it so easy, you might be thinking. We live in a time of rancorous divisions. Our "land" holds many "kingdoms," many states of mind. This includes the bellicose voices that seek power, control, domination, and authoritarianism, a way of life that deadens the human spirit as the land of the Fisher King was oppressed. And we come now as did Perceval to ask the authentic question carrying the weight of history: "What ails us?"