The Fisher King – Arthurian Legend
The Fisher King is a character found in the legend of King Arthur and the Holy Grail. There are several versions of the story but the basic elements centre around an old king who has been wounded in some way. Often the wound is in his thigh where it is usually thought to symbolise sexual longing and the kind of lustful behaviour that Eliot was warning us against in the Wasteland.
The wound, however, is magical and it will not heal. To make matters worse, while the King remains unwell his lands suffer: they have become a Wasteland. According to Arthurian legend only a pure man can undertake a quest to heal the king and the King passes his time fishing (hence his name) until a suitably pure knight comes along to save him and his kingdom. By virtue of his purity this knight, usually Percival or Galahad sometimes on a quest for the Holy Grail, manages to heal the King and thus restore his lands to health.
The parallel with the Wasteland is obvious and many commentators have taken the reference to the Fisher King to be the central allusion in the Wasteland. The idea that the world in which we current live in is a spiritual, emotional and cultural wasteland and that mankind (the king) and the world (his kingdom) can only be healed by purity and a religious re-awakening is clearly one of Eliot’s central messages in the poem.