In wild times of Pan and older energies we cannot yet name, the old stories and myths give us Ariadne threads to hold as we make our way through life’s labyrinth. With little else to cling to, our fingers find those woven fibers and are surprised to discover they are silken and slick with all the stories of the world. Each thread quivers with a tale and is tied to the spun, spoken magic our ancestors breathed into them a long time ago. These stories are good balm for what ails us today—the stranger they are, the more medicine they seem to carry, and the greater the healing we can gain from their insights and wisdom.
Perhaps one of the strangest stories of all is the tale of the Fisher King, which is a sliver in the larger Grail myth. In it, we discover a man who is wounded and cannot stand. Because he cannot rule, his kingdom becomes a barren wasteland. The only action he can take to reduce his suffering is to fish in the tidal river near his castle and hope someone comes along to ask him the one question that will heal him.
The old stories remind us that when magic words are involved, one has to say them in the right order at the right time. It is not enough to possess them. One must also be courageous enough to say them—only then can the gold spill forth and the spell be broken.
If we slightly modernize the Fisher King story, the incantation one must utter is not “Whom does the Grail serve?” but “Where does it hurt?” The young man who stumbles into the king’s realm—Perceval, Parsifal, or Peredur, depending on the version—doesn’t know to ask it when he sees his host bleeding and in pain. He doesn’t question the situation. It might not be polite. He might offend. He glimpses the Grail but stays mum.
It’s only the following day, after he wakes up, that he gets the sense he’s made a mistake and done something wrong. He wanders the castle, now utterly deserted, and is soon back in the ordinary world among weeping maidens who have lost loved ones to violence and been subjected to it themselves. When he shares with one such maiden that he meets along the way, she’s incredulous to learn he had been with the Fisher King and didn’t ask him the obvious question. She chastises the young man, “So much would have been restored if you had only asked.” His mistake? His silence.
Myth is a kind teacher. It shows us second chances are possible. In some versions of the tale, our hero, after much maturation and conscious reflection, finds his way back to the Grail castle, sees the Fisher King’s wound, and finally asks, “Where does it hurt?”
“Where does it hurt?”
These four, small words become alchemical when strung together. When asked, they can lower drawbridges and walled defenses. They teach us how to witness pain, often held in private places and aching to be heard. Their honeyed, human quality can press balm into all the spaces within ourselves and others that have never known love or a kind word. Most importantly, they are the necessary and obvious response to distress. The Fisher King story shows us that great and unnecessary suffering continues when the question is not asked. The wound bleeds. The wasteland spreads. There is no air to breathe.
Kelly McGannon, M.A., M.A.R. is an executive leadership coach in private practice in the Washington D.C. Metro Area. She completed her graduate work in medieval art history and pilgrimage at Yale University Divinity School and Princeton University. She is a current student in JSW's Jungian Studies Reading Seminar.