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Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie. L Weston’s book on the Grail legend … Indeed, so deeply am I indebted, Miss Weston’s book will elucidate the difficulties of the poem much better than my notes can do; and I recommend it (apart from the great interest of the book itself) to any who think such elucidation of the poem worth the trouble.
Jessie Weston (1850–1928) was a scholar of the legends around King Arthur and the Holy Grail. Her work was influenced by one of Eliot’s other named sources, Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890); at the beginning of the book she describes Frazer as ‘the initial inspiration’ which set her ‘on the road to the Grail castle’. Both Frazer and Weston were members of the Folk-Lore society; Eliot himself joined in December 1922.
In 1937, Eliot sent his brother a selection of his ‘most valuable books’ and included this one, which he called ‘my original copy, which I used in preparing The Waste Land. Weston’s summary of chapter II is particularly notable:
Importance of Waste Land motif for criticism.
In 1957, Eliot told a correspondent that ‘I was certainly not concerned with the validity of her thesis, but with the value of the imagery as a spring-board!’ Particularly, Eliot used the image of the Fisher King – whose impotence condemns the land around him to similar infertility – as a broader metaphor for the society he saw around him.
This chapter, from towards the end of the book, is titled ‘The Fisher King’. As Weston explains in her summary, this mythical character has been discussed at various points in the book up to this point. Here, Weston sums up:
We have already seen that the personality of the King, the nature of the disability under which he is suffering, and the reflex effect exercised upon his folk and his land, correspond, in a most striking manner, to the intimate relation at one time held to exist between the ruler and his land; a relation mainly dependent upon the identification of the King with the Divine principle of Life and Fertility.
Weston stresses that this character is not confined to Christian literature and Western myth; ‘This relation, as we have seen above, exists to-day among certain African tribes.’ For much of the rest of the chapter she goes on to describe the appearance of rituals surrounding Fisher King-type figures at various points in African, Jewish, Polish and Irish cultures. Then, towards the end of the chapter, she asks
Can it be denied that, while from the standpoint of a Christian interpretation the character of the Fisher King is simply incomprehensible, from the standpoint of a Folk-tale inadequately explained, from that of a Ritual survival it assumes a profound meaning and significance?
Lyndall Gordon explores how modernist art, dance and music, as well as the experience of early 20th-century urban living, shaped T S Eliot's The Waste Land, which both describes the modern condition and searches for something outside of it.
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