THE FISHER KING: A Tapestry of Arthurian Symbolism

By Peg Aloi

The Fisher King -1991 – dir. Terry Gilliam

Filmmaker Terry Gilliam’s version of the Fisher King legend posits a Manhattan where knights joust in Central Park, a thousand strangers waltz in Grand Central Station, and courtly love lives alongside dementia, decay and death. The ancient tale has been analyzed by scholars like Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Jessie Weston and Robert Graves, and is a central aspect of the Arthurian legend. The wounded king is Jack (Jeff Bridges), a popular radio talk-show host whose brash, arrogant misanthropy leads indirectly to a mass shooting that claims a number of victims; his ensuing guilt and shattered reputation leave him unemployed and depressed, riddled with guilt and self-loathing. In a scene slyly reminiscent of It’s a Wonderful Life, Jack meets a sort of guardian angel in Perry (Robin Williams, in one of his most enjoyable and eminently watchable screen portrayals). Perry is a former professor of medieval studies, who was personally affected by the shooting and who ends up homeless and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. When the two men cross paths several times, it seems inevitable they will both bring about the other’s rejuvenation, and the roles of wounded king and questing knight are often reversed and overlapped: which of these men is more wounded, and which one is most capable of selfless compassion?

For those familiar with the legend and its accompanying stories in the Arthurian genre, the characters function as archetypes expressed in the legend of the Grail Quest, which is here re-imagined as a way to make whole the shattered psyche of two very contemporary characters: a disgraced media celebrity and a homeless academic.  Perry is Percival, the “wild man in the woods” whose innocence and unshakable faith help to inspire others. Despite his borderline status in society, he is a wise teacher and mentor to Jack, and something of a wizard (in fact, he is the closest semblance of Merlin in Gilliam’s Camelot). Jack is the deposed and weakened king, an exiled nobleman and also naive swain who can’t figure out how to make his relationships work. Both Perry and Jack are wounded kings, in a way, and both are questing knights; this doubling is one of the more inspired expressions of Gilliam’s vision. We see this archetypal doubling in the main female characters as well: Lydia (Amanda Plummer) is a naïve and socially-awkward publishing assistant whom Perry is secretly enamored of. Her otherworldly quality and uncanny ability to heal Perry’s life give her the qualities of both the Lady of the Lake and the Morgan le Fay. Jack’s live-in girlfriend Ann (Mercedes Ruehl, who won a Supporting Actress Oscar), is the feminine, assertive but vulnerable matriarch: a reluctant, dissatisfied queen like Guinevere, a victim of manipulation like Elaine or Nimue.

But Gilliam goes far beyond Arthurian legend in his themes and imagery. One motif that functions as a complex visual and symbolic backdrop to Gilliam’s re-imagining of the story is the dichotomy of nature versus civilization. Despite the film’s ultra-urban contemporary setting, Gilliam reveals a New York full of forests, stars and animals: a supernatural city where romance reigns supreme and thrilling anachronisms lurk around every corner. One scene that is in no way pivotal to the plot remains one of the most magical in contemporary cinema: in a crowded Penn Station at Rush Hour, Perry watches Lydia weave her way through the crowds, and as her normally clumsy gait turns to graceful dancing in Perry’s eyes, everyone in the station forms into couples and waltzes beneath a glittering call of light. Another visual invention that is central to the story is the Red Knight, Perry’s imagined nemesis and horrific reminder of the violent tragedy that ruined his life. This terrifying being roams the forests of Central Park, where Perry sleeps at night and where he shows Jack the joys of lying naked beneath the stars. Amid the pain and horror in this contemporary, Gilliam creates moments of joy and redemption, utterly plausible within its magical framework. It is certainly worth viewing this film again and again to engage with the full rich tapestry of its visual detail and symbolism, within an unexpected and often subversive treatment of widely-accepted “Arthurian” conceits of nature, chivalry, magic, and romance.

Peg Aloi is a film critic for the Boston Phoenix and film studies scholar.

Andrea O Written by: