Fisher King and the Handless Maiden: Understanding the Wounded Feeling Function in Masculine and Feminine Psychologyby Robert A. Johnson
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It is very dangerous when a wound is so common in a culture that hardly anyone knows there is a problem. Such is the case right now with our wounded feeling functionour inability to find joy, worth, and meaning in life. Robert A. Johnson, the celebrated author of He, She, and We, revisits two medieval tales and illuminates how this feeling function has become a casualty of our modern times.
Johnson tells the story of the Wounded Fisher King from the Grail Myth to illustrate the anxiety and loneliness that plague men. From the folktale of the Handless Maiden, he explains the very different frustrations of women and describes how these disparities in the way we suffer account for much of the tension and miscommunication between men and women. His insightful analysis shows that these two stories, created centuries ago, are even more relevant today.
Author Biography: Robert A. Johnson is the best-selling author of He, She, We, Inner Work, and Femininity Lost and Regained.
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The Fisher King and the Handless MaidenChapter OneLet Us Now Hear The story of the fisher king
and how he bore the wounds of his time.The Wounding
There is a young prince in his teens who is out doing his knight errantry, as is the duty of every youth, when he stumbles onto a camp in the woods with no one about. A fire burns under the grate and a salmon lies roasting on the spit. The prince is young, hungry, and impulsive, and the salmon smells so good that he reaches out to take some of it to assuage his hunger. The salmon is very hot and burns his fingers, causing him to drop it. When he puts his fingers into his mouth to ease the burn, he gets a bit of the salmon into his mouth. This wounds him so badly that he lies in agony for all the rest of his life but for the last three days.
There are variations in the story: some say that he is wounded in the thigh by the taste of the salmon, others say that one of the owners of the camp comes back at this moment, sees the interloper eating the salmon, and shoots an arrow through his two testicles, an arrow that can neither be driven through nor pulled out. Yet another story tells of a wound by a poisoned sword in the thigh. All of the stories agree that the young prince is wounded in the generative region of his being.
The fisher king wound is in the male, generative, creative part of a man's being. It is a wound intimately connected with his feeling function and affects every sense of value in his psychological structure. This is the price we have paid for the cool, precise, rational, and scientific world that we have won at so high a cost. We are trained that objectivity, scientificthought, and dispassionate reasoning are possible only when feelings are discounted. We rarely differentiate feeling from emotion, and most people cannot tell the difference.
The fisher king's wound leaves him cold and he is never again able to be warm. It is eloquent that the slang expression for a sophisticated person Is "cool." We may die of our "coolness," which is one of the characteristics of a fisher king wounded man. One feels this coldness around people who are feeling wounded and they seem to reply to warmth or relatedness in some objective or dispassionate manner that stops all feeling "cold" in its tracks. It is as if such a person were unable to see over his own woundedness and contact another on a human level. Women are so often hurt by this wound in their men and often have little insight into what disturbs them so deeply. The fisher king's wounding in the thigh is symbolic of our difficulty in directly sexual matters. But it also represents wounding of other generative functions: one cannot create or produce at one's job, has dried up, or perhaps lacks warmth or attentiveness when tenderness would be appropriate.
I was about to erase the last sentence as being cold and calculating, when I am talking about a warm and vibrant subject; but I leave it as an example of the coldness that can creep into Western thought before one knows what has happened to him! It is blasphemy to talk about the appropriateness of tenderness; the English language flows into such terrible forms so easily! Poetry or song would save us from this coldness but that is not proper in this context.
The German version of our story has an even more violent interpretation of the wounding of the fisher king. In Von Eschenbach's telling of the story, a terrible collision occurs between the nature of light and dark, which reverberates down to our own time with its tensions and violence.
The young prince soon to be the fisher king rides out one day with a banner reading Amour on his staff. Rightly so, for he is in search of Love and prepared to give his all for this youthful version of the splendor of God. But he is soon deflected from his vision of Love and union by the appearance of a pagan knight recently come from the Holy Land. This contradictory fact is the beginning of the fisher king's agony, for who can cope with the contradiction that the pagan element comes from the Holy Land? The young fisher prince reverts to his medieval heroic training: he lowers his javelin and rides at full tilt to kill the pagan knight.
What a tragic transformation has occurred! The youth who at one moment was the champion of Amour, the principle of Love, is in an instant transformed into an engine of destruction and ready to kill any male simply because these are the customs of chivalry and the heroic way. I know of no worse moment in mythology, and the issue is but another statement of those terrible-wonderful events in our psychological history such as the expulsion from the Garden of Eden or Prometheus's theft of fire.
In the German version the young prince is named Amfortas, meaning he who is without power. Almost always, he who is without power is the one who boasts and is led into reckless confrontations that are not necessary. It is possible that Amfortas is so named because he inherited his power without having won it by his own effort. Titled power, not yet legitimately won, is powerless.
Power is never lost but can easily be deflected or misplaced. So the stage is set for high drama when Amfortas, the powerless one, faces the pagan knight, who has all the power of his natural and instinctive maleness.
The two clash and there is a dreadful wounding and destruction. The pagan knight is killed and Amfortas is castrated. A bit of the pagan knight's javelin remains embedded in Amfortas's thigh and the unbearable wound of the fisher king begins.The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden. Copyright (c) by Robert A. Johnson . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Robert A. Johnson, a noted lecturer and Jungian analyst, is also the author of He, She, We, Inner Work, Ecstasy, Transformation, and Owning Your Own Shadow.
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