Did you ever hear the story of the Fisher King? It begins with the king as a boy having to sleep alone in the forest to prove his courage so he can become king. While he's spending the night alone he's visited by a sacred vision. Out of the fire appears the Holy Grail, symbol of God's divine grace. A voice said to him, "You shall be keeper of the Grail, so that it may heal the hearts of men."
But the boy was blinded by greater visions of a life filled with power and glory and beauty. And in this state of radical amazement he felt for a brief moment, not like a boy but invincible. Like God. So he reached in the fire to take the Grail and the Grail vanished, leaving him with his hand in the fire to be terribly wounded.
Now, as this boy grew older his wound grew deeper. Until one day life for him lost its reason. He had no faith in any men, not even himself. He couldn't love or feel loved. He was sick with experience. He began to die.
One day, a fool wandered into the castle and found the king alone. And being a fool, he was simple-minded. He didn't see a king. He only saw a man alone and in pain. And he asked the king, "What ails you, friend?"
And the king replied: "I'm thirsty and I need some water to cool my throat." So the fool took a cup from beside his bed, filled it with water and handed it to the king. And as the king began to drink, he realized his wound was healed. He looked and there was the Holy Grail, that which he sought all of his life.
He turned to the fool and said: "How could you find that which my brightest and bravest could not?" The fool replied: "I don't know. I only knew that you were thirsty."
In this modern retelling of an ancient story, Parry (Robin Williams) is Percival, the fool / knight who helps Jack (Jeff Bridges), the ailing Fisher King in the guise of a radio DJ. Jack's sin of pride and selfishness is ironically translated to '80's yuppie New York, where Parry has his own demons to face, fantastically visualized by the Red Knight haunting Central Park.
The Medieval stories of the Fisher King and the Holy Grail have appeared in countless different variations, like strands of mythology woven into different stories. For instance, usually the Fisher King doesn't have a wounded hand (as Jack has), but a wounded leg or groin - emphasizing his impotence, which leaves the entire land barren.
This element led Jessie Weston, in her classic study 'From Ritual to Romance', to associate the Christian symbols of the Grail and the Fisher King (whose name is itself a reference to Christ), with the much older character of the vegetation god (Tammuz, Osiris, Adonis). His annual death and resurrection ensured the cycle of the seasons and the growing of crops. One of the earliest hints of this cult appears in the Sumerian myth of 'Inanna's Journey to Hell'.
As Weston shows, similar motifs appear in many different cultures and myths - though reading them it often seems like a game of Chinese whispers, where the same elements remain in place but their causal links keep shifting. For instance, the Celtic 'Mabinogion' contains the story of Bran the Blessed, who posessed a magic cauldron (a kind of large Grail) that could restore life to the dead. Bran is wounded in war (in the foot) and the cauldron is destroyed.
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
It would be interesting to know if Gilliam was inspired by Eliot, but his modern yet mythological Manhattan certainly evokes the waste land in a visually dramatic way. It's yet another classic strand of this ancient story, which somehow keeps striking a chord in different times and cultures.