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References and Shipping in Once Upon a Time “Dreamcatcher”

The background symbolism begins to coalesce. Swan Queens get a whole episode all for them. And Merlin is too hot to ship with anybody but yourself.

Michael’s “Always… no, no… never… forget to check your references.”

The Fisher King

Rumple’s being set up for this and surrounded by its imagery. He fits so well that this has probably been part of the plan from the beginning. He’s got the requisite leg wound that metaphorically suggests his impotence (cowardice) and his son’s gone (a mark of broken fertility). What this episode did was collect the four hallows around him.

  • The broken sword: Excalibur and the Wavy Knife
  • The lance: Merida’s hastily crafted walking staff.
  • The grail: The chipped teacup, symbolically representing love (Belle) and literally his motivation to fight.
  • The dish: the eponymous dreamcatcher.

Morgan le Fey

Violet’s father is Sir Morgan. Given the research the writers have done, that’s no accident. It probably doesn’t mean much for him, but it sets her up as a Mordred figure. While that particular variation is a later one, Disney loves it. Think Gargoyles.

The Secret of NIMH

Nicodemus is back.

“Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater”

And Henry and Emma find him at Peter Peter’s Pumpkin Patch. Happy Halloween. See. Hallows.

5x05 Peter Peter

Star Wars

File this under speculation, but in the same way Darth Vader killed Luke’s father, the first dark one destroyed Merlin’s love.

5x05 Dark ONE

Bonus: Harry Potter – the Dark One looks like a Death Eater.

101 Dalmatians (Queens of Darkness)

The Panther De Ville’s for sale. Remember how Emma killed Cruella?

5x05 Cruella


In the same way they called out Frozen last year, they’re title dropping this with abandon.

Rumplestiltskin: I can never be BRAVE.

Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist

“Only You” by Yazoo plays over Henry and Violet’s “date.”


Henry’s got two movies on his phone. The first is a 1985 excuse for an action hero to go on a killing spree. Plot elements include returning a dictator to power and rescuing a child. But that seems coincidental.

5x05 Commando

Harold and Maude

The second is cult comedy from 1971 about a relationship between a teenager and a septaugenarian. Whether this has a bearing on who or what Violet is or simply foreshadows Emma’s control of her, it’s quite provocative. “It’s a good date movie, I think,” indeed.

The Sword in the Stone

Merlin refers to Arthur as the boy who would be king, recalling the child of this film rather than the more mature versions of the story.


“It’s like a carnival in a can”

5x05 Pepsi

Once Upon a Time

Merida gets a look in the book to find Rumple’s weakness.

5x05 Book

“The Apprentice”

They’re leaning pretty hard on 4×04 and have done so over and over again.”Love is a weapon,” was quoted and the tear of heartbreak bracketed “Dreamcatcher.”

Operation Cobra

Emma’s mission is still to bring everyone’s happy ending. Regina will be the savior. Rumple will be a hero.

Erin’s Happy Shipper Moments

Purple Prose comes to the fore! The return of Rumpbelle!


Purple Prose (Henry + Violet)

This is their episode. There are two storylines to their budding romance. The elements of each are interwoven to keep the big reveals for extra special heart-tugging at the end.

In Storybrooke, Henry suggests a dance to give people hope (read: to have an excuse to ask Violet out on a date). Unfortunately for him, she’s in no mood to dance: her horse is lost. Henry vows to find her horse. He figures he can be a hero for Violet, get her to the dance, AND reach the good part still buried somewhere in Emma.

In Camelot, Violet and Henry groom horse and chill, bonding over lost parents. Violet: “I never met anyone I could talk to about this before.” While she’s away for a bit, Henry picks up one of her father’s swords and swings it around a bit pretending to be a knight. To his utter horror, he is discovered by Violet’s father, Sir Morgan, who goes on to condescend to him–how will being a writer protect his daughter against ogres? (AU fantasy: Henry sics his moms on Sir Morgan.)

Back in Storybrooke, Henry tells Emma about how he connected with Violet over the Yaz song. Emma explains how that was Baelfire’s wooing go-to; subtext also explains why Henry would be nuts over an obscure 80’s song. They find the horse at a pumpkin patch.

Back in Camelot, Sir Morgan has effectively shaken Henry’s confidence. His moms build him back up, convince him to use his mysterious other-worlder status to hook her.

So Henry sends her a note to meet him at Granny’s diner where he’s set up a dinner date over leftover lasagne. His ace-in-the-hole: Pepsi. Just when things seem to be heading towards romance, Violet says she just wants to be friends. Henry’s tear of lost love is fresh and powerful enough to free Merlin.

But in Storybrooke, his heroic return of the horse grants him the approval of Sir Morgan and the kiss-on-the-cheek of gratitude from Violet. It seems the second chance granted by the curse’s amnesia brings him romantic success.

The great reveal: this is all Emma’s machinations. In Camelot, she took Violet’s heart to make her break Henry’s. In Storybrooke, she attempts to right that wrong by rigging up the lost horse scenario. At least, that’s what Regina suggests, and it rings with truth.


These last few episodes have been great for reminding us why the OTP’s are what they are. Many of us were so done with Rumpbelle, until Rumpel was freed of the darkness, and now he arrests our sympathies again. He immediately tells Emma, upon her freeing him to transform into a pure-hearted hero, that he needs to see Belle. Later, when he keeps saying he can’t fight, Merida reads his story in the in-town history book and uses the chipped cup to motivate Rumpel to fight. That symbol of the flawed Rumpbelle relationship is so precious to him, he’ll risk his life and overcome his cowardice to protect it–and by extension, Belle.

Meanwhile, Belle leads the Storybrooke Scooby Gang in hunting down where Emma had been keeping Rumpel. She’s on a mission and firing on all cylinders to get ‘er done. It’s pretty hawt.

Swan Queen

Speaking of hot, Swan Queen was on fire this episode. Regina even fires off a fireball to protect Emma’s ability to free Merlin. But prior to that, Regina relived her most painful memory–her mother killing Daniel–to get the true love’s tear needed to break the spell encasing Merlin. Emma was emotionally touched learning it, but then also used it for inspiration with Henry. The two fought side-by-side as magical soulmates against Arthur.

Back in Storybrooke, however, things are more complicated. Emma is at a distance, not opening up to anyone. But Regina has been keeping the hope alive. “There’s nothing you can’t come back from if you just tell us.” Emma remains closed-lipped. Then Regina reveals they’ve seen the dreamcatcher’s memory. Emma attempts to justify it: she broke Henry’s heart “to protect him.” Regina’s having none of it–that’s what her mother said when she killed Daniel. She has to distance herself, going back to calling Emma “Miss Swan” and shutting the door in her face.

Captain Swan

Killian continues to devote himself to freeing Emma from the darkness, though Merlin, when he comes, warns that she must be willing to be free of it. And we already know she’s got mixed feeling about that.

Notably, Killian is so gung-ho, he goes to pull the sword from the stone. Regina stops him because he could turn to dust (and because it’s not 5×10 yet).

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References and Shipping in Once Upon a Time “The Broken Kingdom”

The writers revel in Arthurian legend as a matryoshka index. In that spirit, we perform an act of Gonzo Analysis®. And Hook stops just short of screaming, “Now kiss!”

Michael’s “Always… no, no… never… forget to check your references.”

The Wasteland

“The Broken Kingdom” is an allusion to the Fisher King myth, of which Camelot became an example.

The Sword in the Stone

A young Kay, later Sir Kay, later dust in the wind, bullies Arthur and tells him a stable boy will never be king. Which is fairly similar to their classic animated relationship.

The Grateful Dead

Technically, this should have been in the post on 5×01 “Dark Swan,” but I totally missed it. Percival’s arms reference the cover of Steal Your Face. That he died in 5×02 “The Price” is kind of funny uh-oh.

5x04 Percival the Grateful Dead

“Come Sail Away”

Killian: “Come on, love. Let’s sail away.”

Random, right? I can’t even believe I’m linking a Styx video on my blog. But the dialog could scarcely be more aggressive about it. I went looking for an old MST3K clip to articulate my feelings about them, and, um, well…

Mystery Science Theater 3000

This is from 506 “Eegah.” Joel and the bots discuss the slow encroachment of hell into the world.

They mention Styx specifically. Once has already given us Charon, the ferryman 5×02 “The Price,” this season. And I bet we’ve seen enough Hercules to know where this season’s going.

The Secret of NIMH

Violet’s horse is named Nicodemus. This’ll come up again. They’ll make it explicit. I promise.


The Dark One removes Merida’s heart and releases her from a non-lethal bumper crucifixion so that she can train Rumpel.

Emma: “I need you to make him BRAVE!”

The Fellowship of the Ring

This could probably be referencing a lot of stuff. But the angles and movement heavily suggest Gandalf in the library at Minas Tirith. I get the feeling it’s also a nod to Once trash who do stuff like these blog posts.

5x04 Carmarthen

Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin

Arthur’s translating “The Carmarthen Scroll,” a fictionalization The Black Book of Carmarthen. The oldest surviving Welsh text contains references to Merlin and Arthur. Legend even has it Merlin was born outside Carmarthen.

There were a lot of specific episode references as well.

“The Cricket Game” (2×10)

We fade in on Emma compulsively carving dream cat4x04 Love is a Weaponchers. In season two, they were show to be able to see into people’s memories. Given the title of Sunday’s episode, I reckon this will come back into play.

“The Apprentice” (4×04)

In the first real Rumpelstiltskin scene of the season, we revisit one of the Dark One’s most devious declarations: “Love is a weapon.”

“Heroes and Villains” (4×11)

We learn how Rumpelstiltskin came to possess Merlin’s Gauntlet. It allegedly that leads to someone’s greatest weakness. So far that’s always the Dark One Dagger.

Erin’s Happy Shipper Moments

King Charming wrecks in the face of Snowing OTP! Hook totally ships Purple Prose!


King Charming / Snowing

Initially it seems like David is so immediately enamored with and loyal to Arthur, he’s willing to betray his own wife. Snow tells him they cannot trust Arthur with the dagger, but David defends Arthur. Mary Margaret calls him on it: “So that’s what this is about. You haven’t met a king in a while. And you’re starstruck.” David gets defensive, but in the next scene, he’s offering the dagger to Arthur (to the general horror of OUAT fans) in direct opposition to Snow’s wishes.

However, Arthur was not accounting for Snowing being OTP (frankly, we had forgotten too). David only plays Arthur’s special chair lad to test his motivations. And when Arthur proves less than pure of heart, David and Mary Margaret are realigned against Arthur. That is until Arthur’s guard frees him and Arthur Avalon-dusts them into submission.

Captain Swan

Killian is like the perfect partner in Camelot. Maybe too perfect…something is going to go terribly wrong no doubt. This is the kind of wonderful sweetness that gets a character killed.

So he starts by not over-reacting when Emma nearly fireballs him when aiming for head-Rumple. He merely tells her to calm down, reassures her it’s just him, and embraces her. Later, when she becomes semi-catatonic, he and Henry take her away from the castle to rest. Henry’s great idea for a resting spot is Violet’s family stables. When he reveals he’s got a girl…friend….Killian nearly grins his eyebrows right off. Finally, he gets Emma to trust him for a galloping horse ride to get her mind off head-Rumple, and it totally works. It ends in a field of pink roses and CS make outs.

Purple Prose (Henry + Violet)

Henry has to reveal his new girl friend to Emma and Killian when he decides Violet’s family stable will be a good resting place for his mom. Emma is both pleased and concerned with the news of Henry’s first crush. Killian, on the other hand, is over-the-top excited. He ships them so hard.

Arthur / Guinevere / Lancelot

This particular love triangle leaves me cold. Child Arthur and Gwen are so saccharinely sweet, I can’t even. Lancelot is terribly nice in planning a birthday party for his neglected queen, and she does kiss him after he nearly dies, but I’m not quite seeing that love as reciprocal. However, once Arthur traps her in the relationship with the Avalon dust (magic Roofies), of course we all want her to be with Lancelot. He at least respects her enough to let her make her own decisions.

But, really, the whole thing just makes me want to throw in with a new ship altogether…


When Lancelot is thrown in the dungeon, he hears the voice of fellow prisoner Merida. Now that they are both enemies of Arthur, they shall be fast friends. And I’m hoping, perhaps something more.

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References and Shipping in Once Upon a Time “The Price”

It’s Friday! We take a stand on naming two new ships. Trust us, we’re misfits; our names are better.

Michael’s “Always… no, no… never… forget to check your references.” (now with a sound file)

I intended to talk a little more about Merlin and Percival. But time and toddlers truncated the list a little. So I’ll just note that in the legends, Merlin is variously trapped in a cave or in a tree, so this is entirely legit. The tree theme fits Once much better, no matter how obscure it is. Percival seems to be dead, but the next episode title, “Siege Perilous,” refers to the seat at the Round Table left vacant for the person who eventually succeeds on the Grail quest. Percival.


Henry calls his mom on the dock. Three times. While it functions as a narrative device to remind old viewers and inform new ones that calling the Dark One by name draws his or her attention to you, it’s also a direct shout out to Michael Keaton’s second best role. Here he spells it out for you.

The Empire Strikes Back

Not I love youso much Star Wars in this episode, especially compared to last week. There are hints of it in Emma’s dress in Camelot. But the real moment recalls the eighties’ best shipper moment in Cloud City’s carbon-freezing chamber.

Kilian: “You look…”

Emma: “I know.”


The Erinyes were Greek spirits of vengeance who targeted oathbreakers. Neal Gaiman’s beloved Sandman popularized The Kindly Ones as irresistable collectors of blood debts. Invoking them with the crass “fury,” tends to draw their attention to you, so they’re a good choice for an episode where we’re being reminded about some of the Dark One rules.

OUaT Fury

Bonus – Reboot: It kind of looks like Hexadecimal. Crazy.


In order to have a fury and retain some dramatic tension – they usually just annihilate their targets – the writers have it deliver Robin to a body of water where we get some more Greek mythology. A hooded figure approaches on a narrow boat. This is Charon, the ferryman of Hades.

Once Upon a Time 5x02 Charon

Does this mean we’ll be seeing Hercules or the Olympians? Probably not. If anything it’s a visual segue into some Gargoyles references. Anyway, is that an ugly duckling in the lower right?

Guardians of the Galaxy

The magic of friendship defeats the baddie, refies Regina’s position as the new Savior, and 100% references the third highest-grossing film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Nerds will tell you that other movies used the trope. Cynical hipsters will point out that Buffy and Captain Planet did this all the time. And yet…

OUaT GotG Friendship is Magic

For what it’s worth, Arthur is the last person to to offer his help. That’s not an accident.

Beauty and the Beast

Yes, everyone knows the rose in the bell(e) jar is a reference. But here they’re showing the falling petals. They’re keeping the awkward thing around because they’ll be referencing every important scene with it.

5x02 Rose Petals

Black Swan

While Once is never going to match Aronofsky’s body horror, the narratological similarity is undeniable. Power and transformation represented by an uncontrollabale dermatological condition. Terrifying and yet desired.

5x02 Dermatological Power

“Only You”

Henry’s boon from the Savior is playing Yazoo’s 1999 remix of their 1982 hit. So’s the jukebox at Granny’s. Technically the town was trapped in the eighties for decades, so I guess this is legit. The lyrics seem to have more to do with Emma and Killian, though.

Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist

I originally thought the whole shared headphones thing with Violet and Henry was an Eleanor & Park reference. You know, because it looks so much like the cover. But it turns out that “Only You” is actually on Norah’s playlist according to Rachel Cohn, so.

5x02 headphones

Fisher King

We talk about the Fisher King here on The Dinglehopper, and we’ll have plenty of opportunities this season. But this episode made it absolutely clear that this version of Excalibur and the Dark One Dagger (cf Wavy Knife) were connected, indeed pieces of the same thing. So we have the Fisher King’s wound imagery covered.

Erin’s Happy Shipper Moments

The peril! The irony! Evil Charming and Captain Beauty come to the fore! And a brand new ship which we dub Purple Prose!

Captain Beauty (Captain Book? Belle Hooks!)

Belle opens up to Hook about how hard it is to love the Dark One. They share drinks and emotions. Perhaps soon they’ll realize the folly of loving one who cannot love them back and turn to each other for romantic solace.


Captain Swan

In Camelot, Emma and Hook get their second ball together. This one is no less dramatic than the first, but at least they’re not the ones at the center of the attempted killing action. Instead, we get a nice little exchange between them regarding Emma’s beauty. “Swan, you look…” “I know.”

In Storybrooke, Dark One Emma finally has a house all to herself, but ironically Hook doesn’t want to use that new chance for intimacy if she’s going to be all evil and stuff. Despite previously being fairly evil himself, he’s no longer into that kind of romance. If it ain’t savior-lovin’, he wants none of it. Is there any surprise that true love’s kiss fails if he’s going to be so judgy?

In general, Killian remains deeply focused and concerned about Emma’s darkness. She still wants a relationship with him, but the implications of her attempted seduction are that her interest is mostly shallow and lusty. (I’m kinda okay with that.) But I’m not sure that’s all of it. Her longing look into Granny’s shows her loneliness. Hook may be losing good opportunities to pull her back to him.

Killian, meanwhile, turns to the rum. Belle asks him if he tried to kiss her. “Aye. She didn’t even flinch. It’s not over. I spent over a century trying to kill the Crocodile. I can spend at least that trying to save the woman I love.”

Evil Charming

When Regina doesn’t know how to dance, David steps forward to teach her. It’s an adorable moment between a couple that rarely gets screen time without that harpy of a woman, Mary Margaret. Did you catch her Snowsplaining David’s response to Regina’s first choice of ball gown? That woman needs to get out of his way.

Outlaw Queen

Regina doubts she’ll convince the town she can be the savior. Robin attempts to reassure her. He believes in her. But then a Fury grabs him, and Regina’s doubts must fall away as she is called to act the savior, not just claim the title.

When she discovers she must sacrifice a life to save Robin from the Fury, she hesitates only a moment before putting her own life up in trade. Seems those two just can’t stop trying to sacrifice themselves to save the other from harm. That’s one definition of love for you–though a short lived one.

In the backstory from Camelot, Robin throws himself in front of Percival’s blade when he attacks Regina. Regina asks Emma to save his life when she herself cannot, even though Emma will have to use dark magic to do it. And, of course, all magic has a price.

Purple Prose

Henry gets prodded by Gramps to go talk to the pretty teen princess in Camelot and woos her with his strange magical music box that was a gift from the savior for saving everyone from an alternate reality. Yeah, that’ll impress the chicks. And because she doesn’t know anything about popular music, she doesn’t think it strange that he’s got obscure 20-year-old tunes on said music box.

Also not registering as strange: Granny has the same song on her jukebox. What, did Henry write the playlist? I’m beginning to suspect he doesn’t really need a pen.


Rumple is still comatose. Belle shares how hard it is to love the Dark One with Hook. Clearly her feelings for Rumple are strong, not nearly as “over” as she might want to believe.

In Camelot, Leroy buoys Belle’s spirit by pointing out that the rose is half full, not half empty. “Each of those petals is a chance to save him.”


David attempts to soothe Mary Margaret’s clear distress over Emma. He assures her they’ll win and get Emma back. But Snow remains pessimistic–“If we win, Emma loses.”

Swan Queen

Regina negotiates her literal control of Emma’s actions in Camelot to awkward, humorous, and touching effects. But, oh, the fanfic possibilities.

More importantly, Emma is willing to use dark magic to save Regina’s happiness in the form of Robin. She’s willing to pay the price for the magic, even as Ghost Rumple explains that’s not how it works.


‘Mad Max: Fury Road’: Another Modern Fisher King Myth, Part 4: The Hallows

Not all contemporary Fisher King stories fold in the four hallows from the feast procession, but Mad Max: Fury Road does. In the classic Fisher King tale, the Grail Knight finds the Grail Castle and goes inside to find a feast taking place. As part of that feast, there is a grand procession that features four sacred hallows. You know what a hallow is thanks to Harry Potter. These are sacred objects, perhaps with magical properties, and, in this case, all have a part to play in the Fisher King’s injury or healing.

Since the Fisher King myth is all about fertility, two of the hallows have phallic shape two have yonic. The masculine hallows are the spear and the lance. The spear is a tool to break the curse. The lance is often the weapon that injured the King, but it’s also crucial to his release/healing/death. The feminine hallows are the dish and the grail. The dish will take many forms, though always flat: a platter, chessboard, or shield. Finally, the grail has the qualities of a horn-of-plenty. It provides sustenance and healing. It is a life-giver.

The way that Fury Road incorporates the hallows is rather ingenious. Rather than making these hallows objects, they are fluids. This didn’t occur to me until I read another film scholar’s take: “Public Seminar: Fury Road” by McKenzie Wark. Part of his analysis concerns four symbolic fluids crucial to the structure of the film: fuel, blood, water, and milk. I’m not doing a structural analysis but an archetypal one, so I’m going to slant the significance of these four fluids to the myth structure at hand.


Our two phallic/masculine fluids are fuel (Guzzoline) and blood. Fuel, as far as it is used to both transport the wives away from the Citadel (and back) and also as a trade for passage, fits the description of a tool for healing the curse. In traditional stories, the spear appears frequently as a magical sword, you know, like Excaliber. Here, since the weapon of choice is vehicular, fuel is a clear symbol for the war-oriented phallus. A character that embodies this is Nux.

Likewise, blood is a masculine-coded fluid and aligns with the lance hallow. Since the lance is often associated with the injury itself, blood makes sense. Embodied in blood-bag Max, we see how he is emblematic of the Wasteland itself through his wanderer status, lack of family, and even shots like his “resurrection” from the sand after the storm rolls through. He initially donates blood to Nux, fueling the War Boys and Immortan Joe’s efforts. Of course, he is also the one who leads them back to the Citadel, and he acts eventually as a healer for Furiousa, who will finally kill Joe and revive the life-death cycle.


Moving to the yonic, feminine hallows, we have water and milk. The two are both so strongly connected to fertility, it’s difficult to decide which is the proper dish and which is the grail. Water and milk appear early on in the film, both tightly controlled by Joe. Water is crucial to growing seeds and sustaining life of most kinds. When the heroes’ war rig returns to the Citadel with Joe’s corpse, the release of the water to the people is the great symbol that the injury (his caustic reign) has ended. It is, of course, important to note that the water is released by the wet nurses.

Milk is clearly embodied in the wives and wet nurses–the women who are fertile. The grail is meant to be life-giving and sustaining. A woman’s reproductive system is both. The uterus itself is cup shaped, it grows life when a woman becomes pregnant, and then after birth, a woman’s breasts become the cup that sustains the life with milk.

furiosa and wives


All four of these fluids are key to the breaking of the Fisher King’s curse and the returning of fertility to the land.

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‘Mad Max: Fury Road’: Another Modern Fisher King Myth, Part 3: The Grail Knight

The only antidote for the Fisher King’s suffering is a quest by the Grail Knight. Often the Grail Knight is a descendant of the Fisher King, though that is unknown to the Knight. The Knight is also frequently orphaned in the mythology, as so many heroes are. The Knight seeks the Grail to restore live and vigor to the land. However it will also kill the Fisher King, a paradoxical aspect to the story–death brings life/rebirth. When the Knight accomplishes his mission, killing the Fisher King, he will take the Fisher King’s place to rule the kingdom whose fertility he has restored.

The most likely candidate for Grail Knight status in Mad Max: Fury Road is Imperator Furiosa.  Furiosa is orphaned–we have no knowledge of her father and know that her mother was killed. When she takes the wives, she essentially takes a metaphor of fertility. In some versions of the Fisher King story, and other stories featuring the Grail, the Grail actually is the womb of a woman–which makes some sense if you define the Grail as a life-giving vessel. The fact that one of the wives is pregnant emphasizes this.

furiosa and wives

But she must also take the wives to a place where they can thrive in their fertility, rather than be oppressed and controlled. She attempts to take them to “The Green Place.” Though this is a variation from traditional Fisher King stories, “The Green Place” is the exact opposite of the Wasteland. It would be the place that comes into being if she succeeds. Ironically, this turns out to be the place she fled from. But there is precident for this in the mythology. Traditionally, the Knight must locate the Fisher King’s castle to find the Grail. The castle exists on another plane and will blip in and out of being. When it is located, it is often only with the help of an ally–a talking animal, some children in a tree, or even the Fisher King himself. This is where Max comes in as the ally Fisher King. It is he who suggests that taking the Citadel is the best option for Furiosa, the wives, and the Vulvani. The women need to re-establish their power at the Citadel to restore the balance of life and death.


Furiosa is also the one who kills Immortan Joe, and when she and the wives (and Nux) return victorious to the Citadel (Grail Castle), Max disappears into the crowd. She set both of the Fisher Kings free. And now she is likely to step up as the new leader of the Citadel.

The fact that Max Mad: Fury Road’s Grail Knight is a woman excites me. I have not before encountered a Fisher King story the had a female in this crucial role. In some ways, having a woman bring back fertility makes more sense. She’s got the womb, after all.

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‘Mad Max: Fury Road’: Another Modern Fisher King Myth, Part 2: The Fisher King(s)

The Wasteland is the way it is because it is tied spiritually/magically/metaphorically to an injury suffered by the Fisher King. The Fisher King, stuck in a stasis that is prolonging his suffering without the ability to either heal or die, has brought on the Wasteland. His injury is usually connected to his virility–he might have gotten too old, or he might have been wounded in groin or leg, leaving him crippled. In any case, if he is infertile, so is his kingdom. He needs a Grail Knight to break the stasis, allowing the Fisher King to die.

The Wasteland part of Mad Max: Fury Road is pretty easy. Identifying the Fisher King(s) of the film is harder, more complex. Of course, contemporary versions of Fisher King mythology often take liberties with the story. Heck, that was true centuries ago when the mythology was getting fleshed out in the medieval romances.

Fury Road appears to have two Fisher Kings: Immortan Joe and Max.


First, the Fisher King has to be ruler or representative of the Wasteland. So, the obvious choice is Immortan Joe, and certainly he is infirm with his need for oxygen mask and protective armor. He rules the Citadel oblivious to the suffering of his people. Traditionally, the Fisher King lives in an otherworldly castle that is under a spell of stasis. The Fisher King’s nobility feast and drink while outside the people suffer. Certainly the Citadel is an otherworldly place on the landscape of Mad Max: Fury Road. It appears nearly magical when the water gets poured on the people and when we get shots of the greenhouses. Joe has chosen a handful of men to share in his wealth, and they ignore the suffering of those under them. Though he is clearly still virile, since he is the father of the unborn baby the pregnant wife carries, it almost seems as if he’s hoarded up the fertility to keep it for his tight circle, thus creating the Wasteland.

Max Tom Hardy

Max, on the other hand, doesn’t rule the Wasteland, but he is nearly a legend of it, at least to the Mad Max-watching audience. More aptly, he has the leg injury that makes him limp. The film repeatedly references his feet and shoes, emphasizing that part of his body (Children of Men also does this). He loses a boot, which is picked up by Nux, and which he reclaims later. His stasis is his post-traumatic stress disorder, which keeps him reliving the past events that wounded him. The flashes he gets of the little girl needing to be saved are also metaphorical. The little girl is a symbol of fertility needing to be protected and saved.

In some versions of the Fisher King story, there are two Fisher Kings–one who remains in the Grail castle, and one who appears outside of the castle and mentors the Grail Knight. I suspect what we have here is something like that, though admittedly Joe leaves the castle. But Max clearly has a direct connection to the Grail Knight and plays an active hand in killing Joe, thus breaking the stasis and returning fertility (both in the form of the wives and the seed bag).

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‘Mad Max: Fury Road’: Another Modern Fisher King Myth, Part 1: The Wasteland

Last spring, I wrote a series of posts paralleling the film Children of Men to the ancient Fisher King mythology. In that piece, I gave some background on the use of the myth in contemporary stories. Check it out if you’re interested.

FR1When Mad Max: Fury Road hit the screens, and we saw it opening weekend–the final film we’d watch before our second child was born–it was clear George Miller was also adapting the Fisher King mythology. The Fisher King is an injured king who is stuck in stasis suffering. He lives in an otherworldly castle, feasting with his nobility, oblivious to the needs of his kingdom. His injury is linked directly to his kingdom, and while he suffers, his kingdom likewise suffers as a Wasteland. The land is barren and contaminated. The Fisher King needs a questing knight to ask a loaded question that will break the stasis and bring him death. His death will then restore the dynamic circle of life–rebirth follows, and the land is restored to seasonal, cyclical health.

I’m going to delve deeply into how Fury Road parallels the Fisher King mythology, and like with Children of Men, it will take multiple posts. Lets start with the obvious.

The Wasteland

madmax2The Wasteland aspect of Fury Road is omnipresent. The world is a desert. Nothing grows in the sandy soil. Sand storms arise and block out the sun. Water is hoarded and rationed out, fought over viciously. People are starving. The few who have the power to control the resource of water control everything and everyone. They live as kings above the serfs and foot (car) soldiers beneath them, dependent on their meager gifts of water.

Those serfs and soldiers are not merely thirsty and powerless; they are also dirty, crippled, or sickly. The people shown merely as background populace and those who are named characters are shown as sullied, crippled, and ill. Everyone has at least a thin layer of dust on them. Max has a limp (and a bad case of PTSD). Furiosa is missing an arm. Nux has two tumors slowly killing him. Even the people in power are ill. Immortan Joe must wear an oxygen mask and has a skin disease that requires him to wear a full suit of clear armor. The mayor of Gas Town, The People Eater, suffers from extreme obesity and its complications.

Fertility is scarce and controlled as the greatest commodity. Immortan Joe ensures his power by firmly controlling fertility and reproduction. He has picked the most physically beautiful women to be his wives and baby-makers. Their bodies’ fertility is a commodity to him. The women disagree, declaring in a scrawled message on a wall: “We are not things.” But in the Wasteland, they have become things. The king sees them that way. Meanwhile, other women are milked like cows. Their commodity of fertility is their ability to lactate. Immortan Joe harvests their milk for his soldiers and for bartering for other commodities, like gas. Since livestock cannot be raised in the Wasteland, humans are the only source of milk. furiosa and wives

Furiousa takes the wives and sets off for “The Green Place,” a place she remembers seeing in her childhood and believes will be their salvation (and her redemption.) But it turns out that the only green anyone has seen as been in The Citadel, in the form of the tightly controlled greenhouses. Although this is the place she left, it is likewise the place she must reclaim.mad-max-fury-road-movie-screenshot-the-citadel-2

To top all that off, George Miller ends the film with an apt quote:

“Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves.” -The First History Man

Likewise, Miller has revealed that he would like to title the next film in the series, which is already scripted, Mad Max: The Wasteland.

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Children of Men: A Modern Fisher King Myth, Part III: The Healing Grail

Did you miss the first two parts of my analysis? Find Part I here and Part II here.

The Fisher King is the keeper of the Grail (the Holy Grail in Christian stories), which is symbolic of fertility and everlasting life. Now this doesn’t mean vampire-style immortality, but rather life continuing on through subsequent generations of children (or through Heaven for Christians). Often the Grail is depicted as a goblet, with either life-giving waters inside or Christ’s blood. But Children of Men makes the feminine Grail much more literally a life-giving vessel by embodying it in the pregnant refugee character Kee. When Jasper sees Kee, he exclaims, “Shanti, shanti, shanti.” T.S. Eliot translates this as “the peace which passeth understanding” and ends The Wasteland with the same repetition.

Kee must be delivered into the hands of the Human Project, the elite group of scientists and thinkers working to restore order and fertility to the world. The Fishes, the rebel group Julian leads, finds her first, but they need to get her to the Human Project’s boat, called Tomorrow. The boat, well-named, is the literal deliverer of tomorrow by rescuing Kee from the chaos of Britain. Kee is the key to Tomorrow. (A bit on the nose, no?)

The Holy Grail links the ancient, pre-Christian Fisher King myth to the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ, since this is the same Grail he offers his apostles in the Last Supper. Although Children of Men doesn’t have an overt Christian message, the theme of faith is crucial, and Kee is likened to the Virgin Mary (though she makes a joke of that idea later on). The reveal to both Theo and the audience that Kee is pregnant is set in a barn, or manger. And when Theo realizes what he’s seeing, he exclaims, “Jesus Christ.” When he turns to Luke to confirm what he’s seeing, Luke responds, “It’s a miracle, ain’t it.” All of this sets up Kee’s baby as the savior of the human race. In this case it is a physical saving, through the return of fertility.

The questing fixes Theo’s stasis. His completion of the quest fixes the infertility. Kee’s decision to name the new baby Dylan, the name of Theo’s lost son, gives him spiritual healing of that wound. But because Theo is the Fisher King, he must die to complete the quest. His death happens moments before the Tomorrow shows up on the horizon, his lifeless, hanging head pointing to the boat in the composition of the shot.

Though this initially is a sad ending, it is laid out by the myth–death restores the cycle–and it is capped by an unambiguously happy closing title card. Children of Men pops back onto the screen, matched with the presumably diegetic sound of children playing on a playground. We don’t see the restoration of children to the world, but we can infer it from the sound of their laughter.

“Running the World” by Jarvic Cocker, one of the songs that accompanies the end credits, is strikingly ironic. It does a couple things. First, the refrain, “C*nts are still running the world,” suggests the power of female genitalia through the double meaning of the slang term, which has been the point of the whole film–women might still be second-class citizens, but good luck running a world without their original functionality. Second, the same lyric suggests that despite the restoration of fertility, men are still just a bunch of wankers, and the problem will return, just as the king must be replaced each time he becomes old or infirm. This is just part of the cycle.

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Children of Men: A Modern Fisher King Myth, Part II: The Fisher King/Grail Knight

Did you miss Part I? Find it here.

The Fisher King is the ruler of this land that has fallen to waste. In fact, the Wasteland comes about with a wound suffered by the King. Usually this wound is in the leg, foot, or groin–the latter being most evocative in showing the direct link between wound and fertility. The Fisher King is stuck in stasis–he cannot heal or die. This begins to explain the Wasteland. Natural life is a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. If the King is not allowed to die, rebirth cannot happen. Some scholars believe this is a more abstract version of ye olde pagan belief that spurred an annual ritual wherein the king would have sex with an earth priestess to bring fertility back to the land in springtime (whoa–good ritual). If the king became too old or infirm, his virility would be inadequate and he would need to be replaced.

In the Fisher King myth, he is also the keeper of the Grail, the ultimate source of life and plenty (more on that in Part III). But stuck in stasis, he cannot save the land. He needs a knight to hero’s journey himself to the restoration of the land’s fertility.

Jasper: Chance. He was their sweet little dream. He had little hands, little legs, little feet. Little lungs. And in 2008, along came the flu pandemic. And then, by chance, he was gone. You see, Theo’s faith lost out to chance. So, why bother if life’s going to make its own choices?

In Children of Men, the Fisher King and Grail Knight are combined in Theo, who is deeply, spiritually wounded. As a former activist, he once had faith in the power of change, but the loss of his son has destroyed that faith. Now he drinks himself through days, separated from the wife he still loves, going to work in a numb haze. He says to his friend Jasper that he wakes up daily and “feel[s] like shit.” Jasper points out his drinking and says it’s a hangover. Theo responds that if it were a hangover, at least he’d feel something. He lost his son 18 years ago, the same year the last baby was born. The loss of his son, the fruit of his loins, is the metaphorical wound of the groin.

There’s also a good deal of focus on his feet, which later in the film become injured, causing a limp. When Theo rescues Kee (the Grail in the form of a pregnant refugee) from the rebel group the Fishes (another reference to the Fisher King, since they fancy themselves as the Grail Knights but fail in their quest), he loses his shoes while attempting to run through mud. I believe the motif of feet indicate changes in Theo on his hero’s journey. He is transformed by the quest, as all knights are. The loss of his shoes in the mud is the loss of his distance to the quest. Originally he agreed to help Julian because he needed the money. When he understands what’s at stake and that the Fishes killed Julian, he accepts his role as Grail Knight. He gets a replacement pair of flip-flops from his friend Jasper, his mentor and ally, the night before the Fishes kill Jasper. Though hardly adequate to protect his feet physically, these are a manifestation of the faith Jasper still carries to help Theo get through the next part of his journey. In the climax of the film, at the start of the Uprising, he injures his foot on broken glass but receives a final set of shoes before setting off in the boat that will take Kee to the Human Project and fix the world’s infertility. The limp at the end puts him back in to the role of Fisher King and out of the role of Grail Knight, which is important to do before his death, so that his death will restore the birth-death-rebirth cycle.

In Part III, I address the film’s handling of the Grail and its role in the restoration of fertility.


Children of Men: A Modern Fisher King Myth, Part I: The Wasteland

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.