Posted by: Harold Knight | 03/12/2011

Robin Williams and “water to cool the throat”

Moving books around—trying to get all my novels together and all my books about writing together; the rest will just have to wait until I retire—I came across a strange books I wonder why I purchased: The Fisher King, by Leonore Fleischer. It’s a bizarre novelized version of a pre-existing movie (1).

I have it because the movie is on my “top ten” list (with Chinatown, Mulholland Drive, Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou, and Kiss of the Spiderwoman).

The Fisher King is the wounded guardian of the Holy Grail. Not directly in Gilliam’s film. But Robin Williams is the Fisher King. Or is Jeff Bridges The Fisher King and Robin Williams the fool who cures him. I don’t know. I haven’t seen the film for ten years. I’m going to watch it next week.

I’m also going to watch Richard Wagner’s Parsifal. I have a superficial acquaintance with Parsifal. I’ve seen it once on stage. I know one thing: it’s slow. The Prelude takes nine minutes to play. When I saw the opera nearly 50 years ago with a group of college music students, about halfway through the interminable prelude, one of the girls leaned forward to whisper to her friend several seats away, “This is a real toe-tapper!” in a stage whisper half the audience heard, I’m sure. Nearly five hours later, at the climax of the opera when Parsifal uncovers the Holy Grail, she said in the same stage whisper, “It’s baked Alaska!”

So much for reverence for the Holy Grail and Wagner’s music.

I’ve been meaning, now that I’m old and wise to revisit Parsifal to find out if age brings understanding.

The search for the Holy Grail is one of the great archetypal myths of the European—and therefore the American—unconscious. How else can one possibly explain the idiotic popularity of (or is it the popularity of the idiotic?) The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown? Eighty million book-buyers can’t be wrong, right?

The story of Parsifal (Percival, Parzival) comes in several versions. Wagner mostly used the 13th-century German version by Wolfram Von Eschenbach. The bits and pieces of the story most Americans know are the version from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (from which is lifted the musical Camelot). Everyone knows about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. In all versions of the story, Percival, one of the Knights of the Round Table, eventually achieves the honor/duty of the keeper of the Holy Grail.

He achieves this holy obligation by asking the right question. Anfortas, The Fisher King, is the guardian of the Holy Grail, but neither he nor his Knights can see it. Years before Parzifal shows up, Anfortas was wounded, and his wound will not heal. Parzifal, either as himself or dressed as a poor beggar, a fool—depending on the version—finally asks Anfortas the question everyone has been waiting for, “What ails you?”

Here’s the description the homeless Parry (Robin Williams) gives in The Fisher King:

And he asked the king, “What ails you friend?” The king replied, “I’m thirsty. I need some water to cool my throat”. So the fool took a cup from beside his bed, filled it with water and handed it to the king. As the king began to drink, he realized his wound was healed. He looked in his hands and there was the Holy Grail, that which he sought all of his life. And he turned to the fool and said with amazement, “How can you find that which my brightest and bravest could not?” And the fool replied, “I don’t know. I only knew that you were thirsty” (2).

Asking the right question is what heals the Fisher King, not giving the right answer. Parzival doesn’t come up with the right question until far into the legend. The first time he visits Anfortas he doesn’t ask a question at all. That’s because his mother taught him not to be nosy. And then there’s the interlude in which he kills the Red Knight (the wildest moment in The Fisher King). In some versions of the story he then becomes the Red Knight by stealing the Red Knight’s armor and horse.

Somewhere between Parzival’s first visit to Anfortas and his second, he meets Trevrezent, his first mentor, who tells him

“You must not ask many questions. But get used to thinking about [a] thoughtful answer, one that truly addresses the question of [the person] who wants to get to know you with words [in conversation].” Here the teacher invites Parzival to imagine himself in the mind of the other, rather than hitting the other over the head, either literally with the sword or figuratively with words (3).

Imagine yourself in the mind of the other.

Imagining yourself in the mind of the other, you will ask the right question, and you will find the Holy Grail. Don’t get all huffy on me. I’m not on a quest for the Holy Grail. In fact, I’m not sure what this writing is all about (as usual). In a conversation they have had in print, Joanna Macy says to Donald Rothberg about Parzifal’s question,

That question elicited the pain; it led to where the pain was, where the door had been shut to the pain. Such a question swings the door open and lets one enter in a healing way, lets the acknowledgment of pain heal the split in the psyche (4).

Rothberg describes the experience of asking the right question as coming

. . .out of the confines of my “small” world and my “small” self. . . inquiry has to take me out of my sense that I’m living in this world in order to manipulate the objects and people of the world, in order to get certain things or experiences that I want, and in order to avoid what I don’t want (5).

What we all want is not to face our own mortality. We all want to find the Holy Grail because it bestows life. We don’t want to think about death. We don’t want to ask questions that lead us to think about death. We want to bask in the glow of the (or our own personal) Holy Grail.

Death prompts us to wonder, “Ah! What is there to be said? What is there to be seen?” Death rips away all artifice and all delusions of certainty, reminding us that certainty is the enemy of honesty. We really trust someone who’s dying, don’t we? We trust that person to tell the truth. What a good use of our dying in this time, to bring us to inquiry, to honesty and truth (6).

Baked Alaska?

Baked Alaska?

This quest I’m on (and I think that’s what’s been going on for that year or so—a quest) is not about finding the Holy Grail. It’s about learning to ask the right question. What I’m trying to do is remember that “certainty is the enemy of honesty,” and come to “ inquiry, to honesty and truth” (6).
(1) The Fisher King. Dir. Terry Gilliam. Starring Robin Williams, Jeff Bridges. Tri-Star Pictures, 1991.
(2) Ibid.
(3) Riedel, Eberhard. “Fundamentalism and the Quest for the Grail: The Parzival Myth as a Postmodern Redemption Story.” Psychological Perspectives 52.4 (2009): 456-481.
(4) Macy, Joanna, and Donald Rothberg. “Asking to awaken.” ReVision 17.2 (1994): 25.
(5) Ibid.
(6) Ibid.


  1. Well written – thanks!



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