The Journey to Become Real: The Tale of The Fisher King

movie poster of The Fisher King

Author’s note: It is with great sadness that I heard the news today about the apparent suicide of Robin Williams. Incredible comedian and superb actor, he will be missed. When I saw the movie The Fisher King, I was more than moved; I was transported. It has remained one of my favorite movies, and Williams’ portrayal of the deeply wounded Parry remains a moving portrayal of someone the world doesn’t understand and who battles demons every day that the world cannot see. I wrote this chapter some time ago for a book I was working on. I offer it now in tribute to his wonderful character. Peace, Mr. Williams, and God’s everlasting mercy. 

Throughout the history of philosophy and religion, one question perhaps more than any other has dominated discussion and debate. What does it mean to be human? The question has elicited numerous responses, and how you live your life may very well depend on your answer to the question. Plato believed that to be human meant to be trapped by the material world, the soul locked inside a physical body; the purpose of life, then, was to free the soul from the body through knowledge and eventually through death. Aristotle, taking a much more optimistic view of humanity, believed that the soul and the body are one composition. The highest attribute that separates humans from other animals is rationality, and so to be human is to be rational. Later philosophers believe that we are nothing more than the materials that make us up and that our “souls” or our consciousness are simply a result of our DNA, with all of our actions being determined by chemical responses.

A related question might be phrased “So what?” What does it all mean to anyone? Does any of it have meaning? If I am just a mass – no matter how complicated – of chemicals and their reactions, does it matter what I do to other masses of chemicals, or what they do to me?

The Fisher King, directed by Terry Gilliam, shouts the answer “Yes!” through almost every moment of this hard-to-categorize movie.

We are introduced to Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), a New York shock jock who is at the top of his trade. He rides in limos, his apartment is rich and modern, and he signs off his show by saying, “Thank God I’m me.” At one point, we are given an extreme close-up of Jack’s mouth; he is all mouth, offering little beyond the persona he projects into the microphone.

In his apartment, we see his reflection in mirrors and glass. If we recall that in the language of Hollywood, mirrors signify identity, we are clued in to the fact that the movie is about the struggle for identity. Jack talks about how he wanted to name his biography “Jack Lucas: The Face Behind the Voice.” He thinks he knows who he is, but the underlying current suggests he doesn’t.

Jack’s rich, privileged, and ultimately meaningless life falls apart when Edwin Melnick, one of his callers, misreads Jack’s shock-jock diatribe and takes a shotgun into an upscale yuppie restaurant and opens fire, killing six people before turning the gun on himself.

Three years later, Jack is jobless and living with his girlfriend, Anne (Mercedes Ruehl), who owns Video Spot. She basically takes care of him, as he has become somewhat of a recluse, afraid of human contact. He says at one point, “I hate desperate people,” and she replies, “You hate people.”

While Jack may hate people, the one he hates the most is himself. He tells Anne, “I feel like I’m a magnet, but I attract ****.” Overcome by grief, he decides one night to kill himself. He is saved by an unlikely source, a homeless man named Parry (Robin Williams), who believes he is a knight called by God to perform good deeds, the greatest of which is to find the Holy Grail. More than a simple homeless man, though, Parry used to be a college professor until Edwin Melnick shot and killed his wife in the restaurant, thereby depriving Parry of not only a reason for living, but also of a reason to remain sane.

Jack’s guilt, always overwhelming and omnipresent, has seen a way out through his chance acquaintance with Parry. If he can just help Parry, if he can help him with money or help him get the girl of his dreams (every knight must have his queen), then maybe things will turn around for him as well. As surely as Parry’s quest is to find the Holy Grail, Jack’s quest becomes to find his own redemption.

As we saw with The Big Kahuna, things that happen very early in the movie can give a clue to what the movie is about. Three minutes into The Fisher King Jack is having a conversation with Edwin Melnick that will ultimately turn tragic. This lonely man, whose only contact with the world was through the radio, tells Jack that he thinks a woman may be interested in him. Jack argues with him; after all, who would be interested in this loser? Melnick assures him that this is the case. Jack replies, “And Pinocchio is a true story.”

Pinocchio is a recurring theme in The Fisher King, and it is not accidental. Chances are, what we remember best about Pinocchio, what is almost always referred to, is Pinocchio’s nose growing when he lies. We may also remember Pinocchio growing donkey’s ears, or his conversations with Jiminy Cricket in the movie version. The theme of the story, though, and what lends the recurring theme to The Fisher King is that Pinocchio wanted to be a real boy. Made of wood and controlled by string, Pinocchio believed that he would be loved when he was a real boy. And so we come to the question that opened this chapter. What does it mean to be human? What is, in the words of Pinocchio, a “real boy”?

Part of the answer comes in a conversation Jack has with the wooden puppet he is given one drunken night by a small boy who believes Jack is a bum. Jack sits and philosophizes with Pinocchio about Nietzsche, who believed that there are two kinds of people: those who are destined for greatness, like Walt Disney or Hitler, and the rest of us who are the “bungled and botched.” “We get teased and sometimes get close to greatness, but we never get there. We’re the expendable masses. We get pushed in front of trains and take poisoned aspirin, and get gunned down in front of Dairy Queens.”

Nietzsche’s use of the term “bungled and botched” was in Beyond Good and Evil, and although Jack misquotes him here (Nietzsche was referring to anti-Semites), the underlying current of power remains intact. Nietzsche believed that the bungled and botched as well as anyone weak should be annihilated. He was a man who had no tolerance for suffering, believing it to be a sign of weakness. Although he much admired Jesus, Nietzsche despised Christians and organized religion, because he believed that they encouraged people to become weak.

In response to weakness, Nietzsche put forth the idea of the ubermensch, the Super-man who represents the height of human development. In fact, he has progressed so far in human development that he is beyond the moral categories of good and evil. He asks, “What is good? All that heightens the feeling of power in man, the will to power, power itself. What is bad? All that is born of weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome.”[1] It is clear that Jack in the beginning of The Fisher King is the Super-man. He has it all in his glassed-in existence high above the grime of the streets. It’s telling that when he’s dancing around his apartment, full of satisfaction with his life, moments before he learns of the shooting at the restaurant, the song he is dancing to is “I’ve Got the Power.” If he were truly Nietzschean, however, when learning of the shooting, he wouldn’t feel guilty, much less let it destroy his life.

Nihilism of this sort, though, is difficult if not impossible to live out. As human beings, we search for meaning in suffering, for a higher purpose to our lives. If this is indeed the case, The Fisher King offers an alternative to, and perhaps an attack on, nihilism, on the will to power, and instead looks to love rather than power to make one a human being.

The Bible has a great deal to say about what it means to be human, about God’s divine grace, about the differences between love and power. Let’s take a look at these three points.

Being Human

First, what does it mean in the Bible to be human? There are a number of answers we can give to that, but throughout the Bible, which tells the story of human creation and God’s dealings with his creation, one thing is clear: human beings are fallen creatures in need of forgiveness and redemption.

Jack on some level knows that he needs forgiveness. After discussing the “bungled and botched,” and immediately before he tries to kill himself with Pinocchio strapped to his leg, Jack asks the question of Pinocchio that supports the theme of becoming (and being) human: “Do you ever get the feeling sometimes you’re being punished for your sins?” Having been the cause of a tragedy, Jack can’t forgive himself and can’t move forward. He tells Anne, “I really feel cursed. . . . I wish there was some way I could just pay the fine and go home.”

That’s a human response – we want to pay the fine ourselves and go home. We don’t want someone else to do it for us. It’s an obligation that needs to be fulfilled. And so we begin to try to live better lives, to be good people, to follow the Ten Commandments.

The problem with that is that it’s cleaning up the outside without touching the inside. We might be able to clean up our outside behavior, but our fallenness is internal, it’s in our DNA. Galatians 3 addresses this issue. These Gentiles had accepted Jesus as savior and had become Christians. Eventually, though, they were told by well-meaning people that in order to truly be God’s people, they would have to be circumcised. That was, after all, what the Law commanded, and God had given the Law to his people. They wanted that outward sign.

This is Jack’s first response to the tremendous guilt he feels about Parry. He first offers Parry money, and although $70 is a huge amount of money to a homeless person, it’s laughable to think that it could pull together the broken pieces of Parry’s life. Jack’s second attempt is to help him get the girl of his dreams, Lydia (Amanda Plummer). Jack does what many of us would do to try and transform someone; he tries to make Parry into Jack. Remember, at one time Jack had been a man of power, the ubermensch. It makes sense, then, to remake Parry as Jack. He dresses Parry in one of his old suits, even stapling up the pant legs to fit Parry’s shorter stance.

It doesn’t work, of course. The demons Parry carries in his head – disguised in this instance as the evil Red Knight – are far too powerful. The Red Knight will not be fooled by a cleaned-up outside. The Red Knight is afraid of something, however. Parry says that the Red Knight is afraid of Jack. Jack has the power to destroy the demons that haunt and pursue Parry; he just isn’t aware of it yet. When he becomes aware of it, he will realize what it means to be human.

When we focus on trying to clean the outside, we’re relying on power. The Bible, as well as The Fisher King, reminds us that it’s not power that transforms lives, but love – God’s divine grace.

God’s Divine Grace

What does God’s divine grace look like? The Fisher King refers to God’s divine grace two or three times, always in conjunction with the Holy Grail. What is the Holy Grail? According to Ann, it’s “Jesus’ juice cup.” If we expand on that succinct definition, though, we must include what that cup represented: redemption for humanity.

When Jack awakens the morning after he has tried to commit suicide, he is in Parry’s domicile, the basement of an old building. Parry introduces himself to Jack. He calls himself “the janitor of God” and tells Jack that he is a knight on a special quest and he needs help. He was chosen to get back something special that God had lost. Parry tells Jack that “the little people,” invisible and cherubic angels, have told him that Jack is “the one.” One what? The one to help him retrieve the Holy Grail, the symbol of God’s divine grace.

After Jack tries to earn his own redemption through giving money to Parry, he tells him, “I gave it to you to help you.” Parry asks, “Do you really want to help me?” and he takes him to the mansion of millionaire Langdon Carmichael, where Parry is sure the Grail is located. Jack tells him there is no Holy Grail. Parry says, “Oh, Jack, ye of little faith! There has to be a Grail.” What Parry is trying to tell Jack, what the gospel story tells all of us, is that there is no redemption without the Grail.

This point is made in the middle of the movie when Parry tells Jack the story of “The Fisher King,” where a young prince is given a vision. Out of the fire appears the Holy Grail, the symbol of God’s divine grace.

“You shall be keeper of the grail so it will heal the hearts of men.” But the boy was blinded by greater visions of power, glory and beauty. He felt invincible. So he reached inside the fire to get the grail, but the grail vanished, leaving his hand in the fire to be horribly wounded. His wounds grew deeper until he lost all reason; he had no faith in any man including himself. He couldn’t love or feel love. He began to die. One day a fool wandered into the castle and found the king alone. But he didn’t see a king, he only saw a man alone and in pain. He asked, “What ails you, friend?” and the king replied, “I’m thirsty. I need some cool water to cool my throat.” So the fool took a cup from beside his bed, filled it with water and gave it to the king. As he drank he realized his wound was healed. He looked at his hands and there was the Holy Grail – that which he had sought all his life. He asked, “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 story, Jack is like the boy/king, blinded by visions of power, seemingly invincible. What he really wants, though, is to be special, to be someone. At one point when Jack agrees to help Parry, Parry says, “You’re a real human being.” Jack replies, “I’m not. I’m scum.” Later in the film, he tells Parry, “No matter what I have, it feels like I have nothing . . . There’s nothing special about me.” His whole life, as horribly wounded as the king’s hand, has been searching for meaning, for someone to say that he is valuable. He only wants power, not realizing that what he has right in front of him is the thing that will heal him. Parry, of course, is the fool. Parry, who doesn’t see the lifelong quest but certainly sees the thirst that drives it, gives Jack what he longed for: specialness. The fool in the story offers service to the king, thereby showing his greatness, for he is greater even than all the brightest and bravest of the kingdom. In like manner, Jesus, the King of Fools, showed his greatness to us through service. He did it through identifying with human beings by becoming one of us, and by substituting himself for us. Jack will only be able to fully heal his wound when he lays down his life for someone else.

Love and Power

As I noted earlier, some transformations take place only on the outside (the same point was made in the movie Chocolat). Jack dresses Parry in his clothes in preparation of his “date” with Lydia. Anne paints Lydia’s fingernails, her own outward transformation from a shy, plain girl to someone more desirable. In a humorous sequence, Lydia is looking through videos at the video store. In her clumsiness, she knocks over an entire display. She puts one back on the shelf; it’s the movie Roxanne, the Steve Martin comedy about Cyrano de Bergerac. Once again, the filmmakers have taken pains to remind us of long noses, human ugliness, and the longing for transformation.

Before the issue of transformation can be complete, however, one must wrestle with identity. One cannot transform without the mirror of reality first being faced. Parry learns this after his date and first kiss with Lydia. As she shuts the beveled glass door, he gets a glimpse of himself, dressed in Jack’s suit, his hair combed as much as possible. The bevel distorts the picture, divides him, and for a moment he sees glimpses of his former life. This summons the Red Knight, the psychological manifestation Parry uses to keep reality at bay. He begs, “Please let me have this.” What he’s asking for, though, is an impossibility. We cannot have both reality and fantasy. In order to have the reality of love with Lydia, he must also embrace the reality of tragedy. As the Red Knight pursues him, so do his memories, until at last he remembers it all. Just as Jack had been overcome by grief and sought to kill himself, so now does Parry, even in the same spot. When the teenagers who had beat Jack come for Parry, he welcomes it. He doesn’t desire transformation; he longs instead for the blissful peace of oblivion. His retreat from reality places him back in the mental institution in his self-induced coma.

This would truly be a tragedy if left in its Nietzschean form. Anne, however, has named the panacea, the anti-Nietzschean remedy for both Parry and Jack. Anne states, “Love conquers all.” While referring specifically to Lydia and Parry, Anne has unwittingly hit upon the one thing that can heal these two tragic figures, the king and the fool.

In order to heal Parry, to awaken him from his coma, Jack tells him that he will get the Grail. He tells the unconscious Parry, “If I do this, it’s not because I feel cursed or responsible or guilty. I do this because I want to do this for you. For you.” Even though he has everything again, he has power if he wants it, it’s empty without Parry. Power, Nietzsche’s Super-man, would have left Parry to die, but Jack has finally learned that love is the only thing capable of healing.

He dresses in Parry’s clothes and experiences identification with Parry when he hears horses (“Parry would be so pleased”). A window in Langdon Carmichael’s mansion has a stained glass Red Knight, a signal perhaps that the demons aren’t gone. Jack’s substitution, his very identity, is complete when he sees a hallucination of Edwin Melnick, his own personal Red Knight.

After taking the cup, Jack sees that Langdon Carmichael has taken an accidental overdose of sleeping pills. He trips the alarm to summon the police, thereby saving Carmichael’s life. In doing the opposite of Edwin Melnick, doing in fact the opposite of what Nietzsche would do, Jack finally lays to rest his demons.

Jack’s healing and the love that prompted it become the vessel for Parry’s healing. Parry awakens from the coma with his hands around the Grail, the symbol of God’s divine grace. When he says to Jack, “Can I miss her now?” his transformation is underway. He has embraced reality with all its wonder and its pain.

Conclusion

As was stated earlier, Nietzsche despised weakness. His philosophy leaves no room for the homeless and mentally ill who permeate The Fisher King. The Super-man will not identify with those who suffer in order to relieve their suffering. For the nihilist, the parable of the Fisher King, as told by Parry, is inconceivable, a meaningless story.

We as humans, though, search for meaning. We seek to transform our suffering into something better, something stronger, just as coal is tortured into being diamond. Through recognizing their fallible humanness, through identification with another, through suffering, through laying down their lives for someone else, through an acceptance of God’s divine grace, Jack and Parry are both transformed.

The Fisher King ends in Central Park. Both men are naked as they try to “cloud bust.” Jack has become a little crazier like Parry, and Parry has become a little saner like Jack. And both have become, in the words of Pinocchio who lies on the ground between them, “a real boy.”

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist, section 2.

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2 thoughts on “The Journey to Become Real: The Tale of The Fisher King

  1. Thank you. An excellent telling. Even though I don’t align myself with the teaching of us all being born under a dark cloud, I bow nevertheless to the great wisdom of your tradition. And you do a fine job of using that tradition to see into the human condition. Thank you.

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