You know the Fisher King myth even if you don’t think you do. You know it as part of the Arthurian legends or part of Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail. The Fisher King is far older than Monty Python, of course. It’s actually believed to be the oldest story of the Arthurian legends. And it continually gets reworked into today’s stories (T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Malamud’s The Natural, Silko’s Ceremony, Gilliam’s The Fisher King), because its themes are universal: natural and spiritual rebirth. Ain’t nothing more universal than that.
Children of Men, the film directed by Alfonso Cuaron based on the P.D. James novel of the same name, uses the Fisher King myth to structure its dystopian vision of the future. It begins with an injury to the Fisher King (more on that later) which through exact sympathy brings his land to waste. T.S. Eliot describes it in his Modern epic poem The Wasteland:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
“Fear in a handful of dust.” We are dust to dust, but what gives us hope in between are the generations we produce to take up the gauntlet to make a better world. Without that hope, we are nothing more than a “handful of dust.” Eliot’s Wasteland is dead and parched, desperate for water, taunted by the Thames, which is filled with garbage and filth.
In the stories, the Fisher King rules over a land that has fallen to disease and waste. Livestock and crops grow sick and die. The women are infertile. The people of his land are suffering, though he is numb to their pain, stuck in a static suffering of his own.
In Children of Men, it has been 18 years since the last baby was born. Fertility tests are mandatory, and because of the widespread infertility, humans are looking at species death in about 50 years. The elementary schools are abandoned and crumbling. People can’t remember the last time they saw a baby or heard it’s cry.
The opening scene announces the pointless, violent death of the world’s youngest person, known as Baby Diego even though he is 18 years old. Theo (Clive Owen), the Fisher King of our story as well as our Grail Knight, survives the bombing of a cafe full of people sobbing as the news reports Diego’s death. He’s numb though–Baby Diego was a wanker he tells his friend Jasper. To which Jasper responds, “But he was the youngest wanker on earth.” “Wanker” here is the perfect word, common British slang for a person who masturbates, because not only does it imply that Diego is a self-centered d-bag and reinforce the setting, it also subtly nods to sexual activity without fertility, the exact source of the film’s conflict. During this conversation with Jasper, the two are driving by the burned bodies of cattle smoldering in a field, indicating a sickness in the cattle something akin to Mad Cow Disease. Furthermore, the world is in anarchic chaos because of the infertility. The television reports sieges, bombings, uprisings, and more from all over the world. The only surviving civilization, such as it is, is Britain, where people still have jobs to go to and laws to live under. Refugees from the rest of the world fight their way to Britain, only to be detained in refugee camps reminiscent of Nazi Internment Camps. The cost of Britain’s “civilization” is their humanity–they’ve become bloody racist fascists.
The film never names the cause of the infertility–the scientists don’t seem to know–but the implications are clear that humans brought this curse on themselves. The Fisher King mythology indicates the cause of this infertility is a wound suffered by the King, although it often stands as a metaphor for a much wider spread ailment. Theo’s wound is clearly the death of his young son 18 years back, the same year the last baby was born. But the deeper loss was faith. When his toddler died, he stopped believing he could make a difference in the world. Now seemingly no one and nothing can save humanity from its doom, and despair has set in, personally and globally.
In Part II, I talk more about the role and characteristics of the Fisher King and how Theo comes to be a perfect modern embodiment.