Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Fisher King

On the crisp early mornings of November, my son and I walk across frosted fields to the brow of the hill, the sun behind our backs throwing blurred shadows across the whitened grass. We are talking today of Arthurian legends, and the story of the The Fisher King; the keeper of the grail who, confined to his castle by his injuries, must wait for the Knights of the Round Table to arrive. Meanwhile, all he is capable of doing is fishing in the river which flows by the castle. My son is animated, alive; I envy the way his agile mind leaps from one topic to another, the way that his body can jump from stone to stone whilst I follow leadenly behind.

I have been kept from my desk by a bad back; a benevolent injury in which I cannot lie down or sit, but which can be eased by walking. So I have taken to walking the lanes around the village once or twice a day like a restless soul, destined to beat the boundaries of the parish until I collapse. Call me Ishmael.
In doing so, I can observe the progress of autumn like a wave covering the land; the hawthorn berries burnished like worn saddle-leather, the dusting of blue over the ripening sloes, the last of the crab apples, mustard-coloured jewels half-buried in the mud. From a hedgerow, a sparrowhawk rises from its kill, buoyed on a cushion of air. We watch it jink across the field in its jaunty, irregular flight, keeping low to the hedges. I recall John Baker's description in The Peregrine of tracking hawks across the bare autumn fields of East Anglia, his recognition of his own mortality in the face of these expert killers. 'I think he regards me now as part hawk, part man;' he wrote towards the end of the winter, '...never wholly to be trusted; a crippled hawk, perhaps, unable to fly or kill cleanly, uncertain and sour of temper.' Baker himself was beginning to suffer from the rheumatoid arthritis which would blight his life, and his pursuit of death became an act of atonement for the ill we have inflicted on the land, the 'filthy, insidious pollen of farm chemicals' as he called it.

The Fisher King, my son reminds me, lives at the edge of a wasteland, a barren landscape which is an external reflection of the king's injured soul. Only the bravest and truest of knights can heal his wounds, and in doing so heal the fractured land. I think of this as I hear the rumble of the quarry on the hill, smell the sulphurous taint of splintered limestone on the wind.

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