I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs
Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest -
Interestingly, it is Tiresias who delivers the prophecy to Oedipus: paradoxically guiding him to restore the vitality of the land by besting the Sphinx. Again, as if paralleling Perceval’s Grail Quest, this is accomplished by positing an answer to a question/riddle.
The fisher king is often the uncle, father, or lord of the questing knight, Perceval who seeks to find the grail as a last ditch effort to heal some malady of the king.
While sometimes old age is part of the picture in the fisher king’s condition, it is typically a non-factor. Rather the ruler has been wounded in the groin and the wound refuses to heal—leaving him bed ridden, unable to enter armed combat, and sire legitimate heirs to his domain. Sometimes—depending on the version of grail romance one encounters, the King may be ambulatory but is still sterile.
Thus, the wasting of the land, which follows from the king’s ailment, reflects his loss of procreative power and the dearth of virility exemplified by the wasted land arises from his inability embody the vitality of his realm. As the lack of a successor to his domain lays barren the King’s lineage, so the wasting of his lands, people, animals, etc. come to pass as an occult manifestation of his procreative shortcoming.
This plays off an older myth that the body of the king literally IS the physical head of the body politic which is his realm: “regis vitale Determinat fata dominatio eius” or “the king’s vitality determines the fate of his domain.”
Thus, any malady he possesses becomes endemic in his subjects and across his domain. This is a continuation of an ancient mythic trope first explored in The Oedipus Cycle’s mythos.
Recall that Oedipus Rex details the diseased and wasted realm of Thebes, including not only all its citizenry, but also all livestock, and vegetation within the borders of the Theban Kingdom. Moreover, the appearance of The Sphinx—following the abdication and iniquity of Oedipus' father, Laius—indicates the consequent link between the fate of the temporal head of the state’s body politic and its existential welfare.
Only after the successful return of Oedipus from this task does the blind seer drop the hammer concerning poor Oedipus' telos. Yet, even here, when Oedipus unwittingly brings the Fates' prediction to fruition, Thebes is ravaged again by a wasting disease, drought, plague, and disease. However, Oedipus can still restore the land through his self-imposed exile which detaches his corporeal begin’s fate from that of Thebes.
“Oh Theseus, dear friend, only the gods can never age, the gods can never die. All else in the world almighty Time obliterates, crushes all to nothing…”
Another interesting parallel: the wasting of Thebes is ended by Oedipus consulting with the oracle/seer Tiresias before answering the riddle concerning the aging of man, while, in the earlier versions of Grail Myth, the questing knight is confronted by an old woman and, if the knight inquires as to the nature of the Fisher King’s ailment, the wasting of the land is instantly reversed and in some versions the king is restored to health.
However, there are those versions Perceval in which the knight fails to ask the question at the appointed time and, as a result, it is revealed to him—via a post adventum appearance by a beastly damsel in Arthur’s court—that, all he needed to do was merely have asked about the nature of the king’s malady, or the Bleeding Lance, Sangraal, or Jeweled Bowl that were paraded trough his bedroom the previous evening and all would have been well.
This elucidates the intricate paralleling of the Fisher King, Questing, and Grail myths; the wasting of the lands, mythos of Oedipus and Tiresias; and the wounding and redemption of the ruler/realm which constitute the narratological progression of Eliot’s poem.
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