The Fisher King

I SEE HIM CLOAKED in cold mist, the Fisher King, a desolate figure in a wasteland of his own making. He hunches silently over his fishing rod in a sea of silence, catching nothing except the reflection of his own shroud in the dead water.

The Fisher King, keeper of the Holy Grail, is an enigmatic figure in literature: a rich king wounded by his own spear. The earliest sources show him suffering a moral wounding—a result not of accident but of his own ethical failings. The wound does not heal. Worse, its effects creep out, killing everything around him so the abundance and richness of life is reduced to barren waste.

There is a moment in the story when the wound—of both the king and his environment—could be healed, not by medicine or technology but by insight. When the young knight Perceval arrives, he has the opportunity (which he misses) to pose the right question to the king. The healing question, the timely question, is this: whom does the Grail serve? The Grail is the cup of the Last Supper, a precious, magical food provider, and Perceval’s question is as mysterious as the wounded king’s moral failure.

The Fisher King is emblematic of contemporary culture. For millennia the oceans have thrived with stupendous life, from fish in kinetic rainbows racing currents to coral cascading color. Yet human activity over the last thirty years has poisoned the oceans and exhausted the seas, turning this blue world into a dead sump of denied life.

Humanity has manufactured “a marine wasteland,” writes Professor of Marine Conservation Callum Roberts in his vitally important book Ocean of Life. The factors are multiple: dredgers carve graveyards in seabeds; plastic waste and chemical pollution kill marine creatures; fertilizers fuel plankton blooms resulting in oxygenless dead zones; the rising temperatures of climate change threaten much sea life—coral bleaching to skeletons—while the associated rise in acidity causes the shells of many creatures to corrode.

The sixth mass extinction, some call it. The first to be knowingly caused. Two-thirds of the species we have fished since the 1950s have collapsed. Some species are down 99 percent. The oceans, says Roberts, have changed more in the last thirty years than in all of human history before. The sea is suffering a sea change into something bleak and strange.

Most people will never see this underwater world and know it only when its meaning has been processed into money, its beauty merely a discarded bycatch. The mass of ocean writing is a heap of broken plastic words: stock, fisheries, industry, offshore, tonnage, commercial fleets, sea cages, fish farms, subsidies. Through that language it is hard to see the ocean’s true nature, whose vitality needs to be rendered as beautiful as iridescence itself, as surprising as an octopus’s garden, as mysterious as whale song, as appealing as a clownfish.

Like a collective Fisher King, modernity is wounded by its own aesthetic failure to see beauty if it can grasp profit, its ethical failure to register the value of life itself if it can register economic advantage. Technology has turned us into kings, but intelligent ethics has not kept pace, and humanity itself will suffer from this self-wounding.

Although such a devastating stupidity has been unleashed on them, the oceans themselves are associated with deep wisdom. Whales and dolphins are known to possess enormous intelligence, and the oceans have long symbolized depths of thought and immersive insight. At the dawn of Western civilization, in the Sumerian period, wisdom was said to come when messengers of the gods in the shape of fish would spend their nights in the “sweet water” below the ocean and in daytime pass on their knowledge—of the moral code and the arts—to humans. After the Great Flood the mythical fish did not return, so human scholars took on their role, dressing in fish cloaks with fins and tails.

Today, the moral code is ignored as industrial fishing fleets, owned by a wealthy minority, wipe out the fish stocks on which many subsistence fishermen rely, so that the many are impoverished for the wealth of the few. In the UK, the enclosure of common land in the sixteenth century followed exactly this pattern. But those enclosures also brought in a fundamental shift in the way environmental decisions were made. Before enclosure, discussions on land use included the interests of everyone involved. Afterward, decisions were made in isolation by individual owners. As historian E. P. Thompson put it, before enclosure there was a moral economy, based on reciprocal obligation, customary rights, and mutuality. The enclosures instituted a mere market economy in which absolute rights or property ownership prevailed.

Today, the market economy is king, and the moral economy is wounded. There is no better example than the treatment of bluefin tuna. Described by the poet Oppian in the second century as “abundant wondrous . . . rich and secret,” they were valued and worshipped, depicted on ancient Spanish coins as the pillars of a temple. Rossellini’s 1950 film Stromboli, with Ingrid Bergman, records an actual celebration of the Mattanza, an ancient Sicilian communal and spiritual ritual of fishing for bluefin tuna. But industrial fishing has meant that since 1970, their numbers have declined by two-thirds. Over the last century, it is likely that 95 percent of them have been killed, driven to the verge of extinction. So at the last world conference of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) there was a call to list the bluefin.

But bluefin tuna are a delicacy, particularly in Japan, and Japanese companies including Mitsubishi have been stockpiling them in giant freezers, shoring up their profits from the ruin of extinction. If the fish is driven to collapse, this cache will be worth a king’s ransom.

There is something unhallowed in the extinctions we cause knowingly, a devastation of the soul when the holy grail of profit is pursued at the cost of life itself.

The deadened oceans are an analogy for a wasteland of human imagination. Both mind and ocean should be generous in generation, with teeming, shoaling, spawning, frothing, helical life spiraling up from the depths, bubbling at the top and spinning back down again, that liveliness of life, the vitality of ocean and intellect on which humanity ultimately depends. This life has been shrouded, polluted, and injured, and the public mind barely notices. By contrast, the rise of profits, considered the “health” of the economy, is treated as if money were somehow more alive than life. Money, said Benjamin Franklin, “is of a prolific, generating nature. Money begets money, and its offspring can beget more . . . so that the profits rise quicker and quicker.”

The bluefin, said Oppian, “lust after the frenzy of mating in the spring.” Today, their creation of new life is what kills them: the plumes of surging sexual energy in their spawning grounds are tracked by spotter planes that then send in the fishing fleets.

Callum Roberts says bluntly that fishing needs to be curtailed to half its current level and abundant, interconnected, well-policed marine reserves established. Throughout his book, he poses the necessary questions, including: what will be the effect of acidification on phytoplankton, which produce roughly half of the oxygen we breathe? “Life itself depends on them,” writes Roberts.

What happened to the CITES listing for bluefin tuna? Japan lobbied against it. And the night before the vote, which Japan won, the Japanese embassy served delegates a grail supper, a last supper, a banquet—of bluefin tuna. There is a terrible, toxic poetry to this. When profit is the holy grail, ours has become the age of the Fisher King, waiting, self-wounded and devastating the waters, waiting, waiting for the question that modernity has so far failed to ask itself: whom does this grail serve?

Jay Griffiths is the author of Wild: An Elemental Journey, winner of the inaugural Orion Book Award and of the Barnes & Noble Discover Award for the best new nonfiction author in the United States. She is also the author of A Sideways Look at Time. She lives in Wales.

Comments

  1. Nice piece but familiar territory. Yes we are commodifying Mother Earth and in the process destroying her children and ultimately setting ourselves up for a take down. And yes there is a huge desensitation to nature’s ways that goes with the process. I know all this. I use to sail cruise and feel catching fish with an individual line and hook for personal eating purposes is very different from mining and despoiling the ocean to make a profit.

    I’m not clear on what the plan is to get us out of this dilemma but I know it better include a serious cut in the human population.

    MORE BLUEFIN TUNA, LESS PEOPLE!

  2. The transition from a money economy based on domestic and global exploitation to an economy based on reciprocity and communitarian efforts is slow-going because it is a radical paradigm shift from self-interest to other-awareness and identification. The first step is grieving; the second, acknowledging our own complicity; and the third, trading in new theories of ruin and causation for committed activism in the public AND private spheres.

  3. this is to me a very weird article – I agree that Callum Roberts’s book is important, and a rallying call for all of us (plus it is beautifully written). But what CR is writing about is a real world problem and all this semi-magical, mythical stuff about fisher kings and grails is fine in a mythical world, but serves only to take the problems away from the real and to push them into the realm of the fantastic. I wish mr griffiths could just confront these problems as they are, rather than hide them away behind his own rather indulgent enjoyment of arthurian legends and so on. Will the Green man save the oceans? or the hobbit?

  4. What a poignant and beautifully written piece. Thank you for exposing more of their disgusting arrogance, and for connecting it to that which stirs our souls.

  5. Thank you to Jay Griffiths and to Orion for this excellent article.

    I’m grateful to Jay Griffiths for her discussion of The Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea by Callum Roberts and her careful summing up of the rapidly deteriorating condition of our oceans.

    Inaction in ending and reversing destruction of ocean species and the ocean is frightening and alarming. And human population continues to rise.

    I for one appreciated Griffiths’ use of the Fisher King as an organizing idea and way into her piece.

    Thanks again.

  6. Wonderful perspective. Thank you Jay Griffiths.

  7. Familiar territory? Perhaps so – but as the worsening situation becomes more pressingly urgent by the week, the inaction of western governments, and the active hostility of the Japanese to any positive steps, is even more reprehensible. It’s not merely a question of business or science either; human history is intimately bound up with our cultural heritage, which we also ignore at our peril and without which we may be less intelligent than the fish! Ms Griffiths’ article is just as timely, thought-provoking and deeply felt as her other writings.

  8. Familiar territory for some perhaps. But for me, not a familiar treatment of it and I find it has a different impact.

    Sure, I’ve seen the raw stats and read the accounts of trawling and it has indeed impacted me – I’ve scuba dived for scallops and left them on the sea bed because they looked so at home, much to the bewilderment of my fellow diver; I’ve stopped insisting on line caught fish, and simply turned vegetarian.

    But bringing in myth and deep history seems to put such behaviour changes onto more solid ground. And as a human I’m driven by more than just data – a good half of my brain needs stories and pictures to make sense of the world.

    So I’m grateful to Jay for helping me in that way so artfully.

    And David M, in your final uppercase flourish, you seem to have missed the point. A solution is not so much about drastic cuts in human population (and how ever that might be enacted), but about healing a wound. Perhaps a wound that can only be revealed through myth and story because it certainly won’t show up in a CT scan or a barium meal.

    Personally, I need stats AND stories – and most of the time find myself drowning in the former and scrabbling around for the latter. Hence I find Jay’s contributions to this territory absolutely vital (and a damn good read too).

  9. Just to get it on the record, I have no problems with myths and stories. I’ve enjoyed them since childhood. My personal perspective is I have seen them employed to better effect than Jay Griffiths did here but her choice to use myth is no problem for me.

    Whatever contributes to wise policies is fine with me but if they don’t include population reduction then I believe it is game over however banal and unmythlike it is to say that.

    Somehow the issue of human population reduction unleashes a negative reaction in people no matter how obviously connected to the human dilemma it is. There are some historical reasons for this but whatever the reasons it has become the elephant in the room that almost everyone wants to ignore or deny.

    As for familiar territory, practically every fight over protecting open space from private development brings up the destructive philosophy of commercializing nature. Thoreau, John Muir, William Blake, Native Peoples, on and on have cried out against this destructive inclination to commercialize everything. Even the Bible which isn’t particularly eco-friendly has its moments – “Consider the lilies of the field ….” Solomon in all his glory and riches is seen as the lesser. Given what tendency is winning, despite some nice parks and wilderness areas, obviously something more than nice sentiments is needed.

    MORE BLUEFIN TUNA, LESS PEOPLE!

  10. Great piece of work. Heart rending and beautifully written. How to stop this madness is the question? How not to end up dispirited Fisher Kings ourselves?

    I guess through doing what we can -making an effort, writing articles,laying bare the facts and lobbying wherever appropriate.

    I too consider the Fisher King motif an apposite one.

  11. I too appreciated the lyricism of this posting’s call to whatever, while also appreciating David M’s critique of its rather rough opening myth metaphor, and his banging on the population problem. What can I say? I must be schizo? It takes all kinds, eh?

  12. Great article.
    Hi, David M.”Somehow the issue of human population reduction unleashes a negative reaction in people no matter how obviously connected to the human dilemma it is.”
    I have a negative reaction to the suggestion that human population reduction is a solution, because the maths and the science do not support it, and have not done so for many decades. If you look at the classic s-curve for population, and at the relationship between resource use and population levels and growth, it is clear and obvious that resource depletion is primarily driven by technologically sophisticated human populations with very slow growing, steady or declining population. It concerns me that, particularly in the wealthy northern countries, we can use a technically flawed argument on population growth to avoid responsibility for our extremely high resource use.
    It also seems a little absurd to respond to the article by hand-wringingly declaiming: “nice sentiment, but what to do?” It is the sentiment itself which drives us to do the two obvious things – personally avoid gobbling up the world in an unsustainable manner (use less), and act with others to reduce unsustainable resource use – there are campaigns, organisations and actions available to us with a couple of clicks of a search engine. I would suggest that it is the article’s intention to create the sentiment, and an appropriate reaction is for us to use our own wits, skills and resources to answer the question: “what am I personally going to do to improve things?”

  13. To Steven Tame – you wrote exactly what I wanted to write (and you made your point much more cogently than I’d have managed). Thanks a mill.

  14. Yep, you guys are right. 200,000 new people added to the planet each day is no big deal.

    Mind if I go on with my illusions that it is? But of course one more poetic cry of how we are commodifying nature will save us. Earlier folks just didn’t know how to express it right.

    By the way, as I expressed on another comment venue the 20-80 copout response is pretty standard fare ie 20% are using 80% of the resources so population is not the issue. I suggested we remove the 20% and see what happens. I’ll let you guys complete the narrative.

    MORE TREES, LESS PEOPLE!

  15. It’s been a long time since the Fisher King last crossed my oath. I welcome him back into my life. This is a well written piece and very thought provoking. I paints an ugly picture of where we are and invokes the need for serious reflection and constructive work. However, I firmly believe there is an even larger item (lesson) embedded within this article. We all know that 70+% of the earth is covered with oceans. Within those vast expanses of water once is the single most effective system of CO2 absorption on the planet. The flora that’s responsible for this absorption has been ravaged by what’s being done to the oceans of Mother Earth. So, while I feel the pain, and mourn the loss, in the dying of the great creatures of the oceans, the loss of the single most effective regulator of climate in the bio-zone is cause for much greater concern. The cry across the globe should be; “save the oceans, plant a tree and save the earth!” Not just, “plant a tree and save the earth.” If we let the devastation of the ‘great waters’ progress to its natural end point, planting a tree, or even many trees, will avail us nothing…..

  16. SC you are getting overly literal on me. When I say MORE TREES of course I mean more of wild nature including freeing the ocean of human despoiling.

    MORE TREES, CORAL AND PHYTOPLANKTON, LESS PEOPLE!

  17. I concur with Virginia Konchanʻs comment. Hawaiians of old developed an appropriate procedure called hoʻoponopono, setting to rights. This entails surfacing the feelings of being wronged, discharging the emotion, clarifying actions and consequences, seeking shared vision and goals, establishing restitution for wrongs, and reaffirming spiritual and human connectedness before ending.

  18. I worry about the king being money.
    It is worse now than growing up.
    Being retired I see things outside the collective and am more of an
    original thinker, again. I think
    all the creatures that are being stripped, sharks of fins are just one
    of many. Good comments
    Neil

  19. This is another example of ” the tragedy of the commons “. Also another example of what happens, as Martin Buber has said when you change the relationship from
    I Thou to I It. The holy & precious Network of life/nature becomes nothing more than a commodity to be exploited. Chief Seattle had a lot of wisdom to say about this as well. “Your destiny is a mystery to us. What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered? The wild horses tamed? What will happen when the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men
    and the view of the ripe hills is blotted with talking wires? Where will the thicket be? Gone! Where will the eagle be? Gone! And what is to say goodbye to the swift pony and then hunt? The end of living
    and the beginning of survival.”

  20. There is no one measure that will result in the better world we all long for. But perhaps a change of conscious in all of us comes closest to delivering that. What kind of world would people full of love and mutual respect and care for all beings create? It would surely be quite different from what we have now, which is the result of minds and hearts full of greed, fear, aggression, selfishness, etc. Maybe we should consider some of the ancient methods used to transform deluded people into true humans? Only better people can make a better world. The means to transform our hearts and minds are available, we only seem to lack the awareness of the real causes of our sickness and self destructive slide, and the willingness to take the necessary steps to back away from the yawning precipice that now is opening before our fragile existence here on Earth.

  21. Re-reading the Ingenuity Gap by Thomas Homer- Dixon and it touches on some of the issues raised in the comments..dns

  22. Just as there are more trees in No. America now than when squirrels could theoretically cross from the Mississippi River banks to the Virginia coastline without setting foot on the ground, we are doing a lot to breed more fish. As that marticular need grows, more countries will get involved.

    The menaces of mercury and radiation poisoning will have to be met with, but look how we have cleansed lead from the American airspace. We have over-reacted to so many previous non-emergencies that reorienting all of human life on the planet to deal with disappearing species in the oceans seems just a tad severe, wouldn’t you say?

    Ironically, the capitalist countries (while they still survive) will be the people who approach and solve these problems, not the anti-democratic tyrannies where ordinary people count for nothing, because the states run for the top one percent of one percent like North Korea will always have enough for their rulers, even while innocents perish.

  23. In part because of this overfishing, tilapia (until recently considered a junk fish) is now the second most eaten fish in America. The fish is raised in densely populated ponds and fed corn and testosterone (to reverse sex and assure a population of exclusively male, larger bodied fish). Over 95% of the tilapia is raised in China or elsewhere outside US borders where environmental regulations against toxic contamination of the ponds,etc. do not apply.
    Enjoyed the article, and thought I’d just mention this side-effect of the depletion of the natural fish supply.

  24. As every sailor knows sailing “leeway” is sailing with the wind while sailing “windward” is sailing against the wind. We have caught the prevailing wind of technology and have sailed right past the truth. The only solution is to turn around and sailing windward. (great article by the way)

  25. What a rare and beautifully written article. Myth is the collective emotional past on which the actions of mankind are often unconsciously based. What is invisible to the eye is often the driving force to what is called reality. Think of the cell, the thought process, and yes, the bottom of the ocean.

  26. I like to revisit an article from time to time and focus on something I may not have given much time to. This meditation on an historical change in land use and its human implications is one I will give further thought to.

    “Today, the moral code is ignored as industrial fishing fleets, owned by a wealthy minority, wipe out the fish stocks on which many subsistence fishermen rely, so that the many are impoverished for the wealth of the few. In the UK, the enclosure of common land in the sixteenth century followed exactly this pattern. But those enclosures also brought in a fundamental shift in the way environmental decisions were made. Before enclosure, discussions on land use included the interests of everyone involved. Afterward, decisions were made in isolation by individual owners. As historian E. P. Thompson put it, before enclosure there was a moral economy, based on reciprocal obligation, customary rights, and mutuality. The enclosures instituted a mere market economy in which absolute rights of property ownership prevailed.

    Today, the market economy is king, and the moral economy is wounded.”

    The concept of the “moral economy” is an interesting idea to play with.

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