Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Waste Land

In the Grail story, the Land of the Fisher King becomes waste, reflecting the state of the king himself. In Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval (after 1182) this occurs because Perceval has failed to ask the correct questions in the Grail Castle. (Elsewhere the wasting of the land is consequent upon the Dolorous Stroke dealt to the Fisher King.) Once the correct questions are asked, however, the land is restored. Like many of the lands in Arthurian legend, its location is imprecise. The symbolism of the physical (and sexual) incapacity of a king being reflected in the barrenness of his land has been claimed as evidence for the survival of pagan motifs in the Grail legend, tied in, perhaps, to ancient Fertility Rituals. This interpretation has tended to obscure the equally valid one that the waste itself represents the spiritual barrenness of the king, who has failed in his duty as keeper of the Grail.

The image of the WL has enjoyed mixed popularity among modern fantasy writers, many of whom relegate it to a minor role, possibly fighting shy of the overtly Christian elements. T S Eliot (1888-1965) used the image to explore spirituality in an overtly Christian context; the movie Excalibur (1981) tied it to Arthur's political failures after his discovery of Guinevere's adultery (> Virginity). The most dramatic modern reconstruction is probably that of Richard Monaco, who in his Parsival sequence presents the wasting of the land in terms of savage warfare, greed and violence. [KLM]

further reading: The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol (1963) by R S Loomis; The Evolution of the Grail Legend (1968) by D D R Owen.

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.