I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs
Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest -
Interestingly, it is Tiresias who drops the hint to Oedipus about his true parentage, after a plague has come over Thebes.
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 link between the fate of the temporal head of the state’s body politic and its existential welfare.
Once Oedipus has successfully defeated the Sphinx, and is crowned king (and husband of his mother, Joacasta), he unwittingly brings the Fates' prediction to fruition. Thebes is then ravaged again by a wasting disease, drought, plague, and disease. Only then does the blind seer Tiersias drop the hammer concerning the new king’s origins. However, Oedipus can still restore the land through his self-imposed exile, which detaches his corporeal being’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…”
Compare this story with the Fisher King legend. 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. As the lack of a successor to his domain lays barren the King’s lineage, so the wasting of his lands, people, animals, etc. comes 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.
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.
To help improve the meaning of these lyrics, visit “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot and leave a comment on the lyrics box