High schoolers have been reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby for decades. Since most sophomores are too, well, sophomoric to appreciate it for the great work of literature that it truly is, they usually leave high school with The Great Gatsby as one of many sour tastes left in the mouth. Since most teens hate what they have to read, most don’t re-read Gatsby once they have become adults.
That is a terrible shame, since it is truly a wonderful book. Despite being not read enough (in my opinion), The Great Gatsby remains one of the most familiar stories to date. It has been the subject of several movies and even an opera.
With the most recent rendering in theatres now, I knew there would be a renewed interest, and possibly a few folk might look one more time at this great work. I wrote a few articles a while back on Nick Carraway as a narrator (more links below) and they are always my more popular archive searches. So I thought to follow that up with a new series on The Great Gatsby. This will explore Fitzgerald as another writer to tackle the Grail Legend.
When we read that the valley of ashes is a waste land, or that Gatsby had committed himself to the following of a grail, it seems clear that Fitzgerald intended to intertextually layer his novel with Grail Quest imagery. This requires three particular tasks: identifying the Grail Knight, the Fisher King, and the Holy Grail.
According To Weston
In 1920, From Ritual To Romance by Jessie Weston broke new ground concerning Grail scholarship. Before Weston, academians took one of two positions: Grail lore should be considered strictly as Christian literature or pagan lore. Weston pointed out both the strengths of both positions while further demonstrating the insufficiency of both positions alone. Her solution is to combine the two.
In other words, the panoply of Grail literature is a combination of Christian and pagan sources. In this it is not much different from other medieval works like Beowulf. Weston relies heavily Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. It was published in two volumes in 1890, three in 1990, and a dozen between 1906-1915.
The Maimed King & The Fisher King
Weston explores the pagan roots to the Grail as manifestations of ancient fertility cult. In particular, Grail legends call upon the mysteries of Tammuz, Adonis, and Attis. According to Frazer and Weston, the notion of the king as divine comes from the idea that he represented god. And when god is good for nothing more than providing a bumper crop, fertility cults commonly held the sway of primitives. So with Tammuz, Adonis, and Attis, and as extension, the kings of people who worshipped these idols, their personal health reflected on their ability to provide for the worshippers.
So if the king is wounded, then the land is laid waste. So in literature, this becomes the Maimed King who presides over the Waste Land. Based upon the variation, there is also a Fisher King, who is sometimes also the Maimed King, or other times, related to the Maimed King. The image of the fish has often been a symbol of fertility. For example, within the fertility cult of Dagon, the chief deity was pictured as a fish. And thus, the term Fisher King refers to the king as divine who has the power to provide for the livestock and crops of his citizens.
Within Grail writings, the Fisher King and/or Maimed King are more central to the story than the Grail knights. By obtaining the Grail, the waters are freed, the king is healed, and the land becomes fertile once more. Based upon the individual texts, the king or the knight vary in importance, with the older texts laying more of an emphasis on the king and the more recent stressing the story of the knight. Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur does not even mention a Fisher or Maimed King, although their fingerprints are all over the Sangraal section of the book.
The Grail Knights
Gawain, Percival, and Galahad have all been Grail knights. And while they may have their small differences, their role is basically the same. The Grail Knight is tasked with finding the Holy Grail, the chalice used by Jesus at the Last Supper. Only the pure may obtain it, and finding the Grail is the ultimate of spiritual ascendancy. The success or failure of the Grail Knight has to do with asking, or not asking, the correct questions: What is the Grail? Whom does it serve?
Fitzgerald would have been well aware of Weston’s work. T.S. Eliot writes in the commentary of his own 1922 poem “The Waste Land” that he leaned heavily on Weston in composing his poem. It is not a stretch to think that Fitzgerald would have learned these things and worked them into his 1925 epic. The issue for the reader is to figure out if this is the case or not. The question is answered by looking at another question: Can I identify the Grail Knight, the Fisher King, and the Holy Grail in The Great Gatsby? These matters will be explored over the next few weeks.
Here are other articles regarding The Great Gatsby:
- “The Reliability Of Nick Carraway: Part One – The Naysaying Narrator” (10.9.12)
- “The Reliability Of Nick Carraway: Part Two – The Drive To Lunch” (10.11.12)
- “Why The Great Gatsby Is The Best American Novel” (6.21.12)
- “What Made Daisy Faye Buchanan & Jay Gatsby So Attractive And Attracted To Each Other?” (8.28.12)
- “Who Shot Jay Gatsby?” (3.4.13)