Summary

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 909

Anthony Powell employs a variety of narrative forms to recount the drama of the Alecto’s cruise; each fresh perspective adds to the irony of the novel. The structure is reminiscent of the English “whodunit”: A small, enclosed society—in this case isolated aboard a ship—attempts to solve a mystery in its midst. There is no murder at the core of The Fisher King, but rather a puzzle involving the vagaries of the human heart. Saul Henchman is the ultimate enigma: Famous for his photographs, controversial for his manner of living, pitied for his disabilities, he is immediately recognized as a celebrity. Nevertheless, Henchman is shrouded in mystery; a shadowy past, apocryphal tales from his war service, gossip about his relationships might illustrate the outer man, but the novel makes it painfully clear that attempts to fathom the inner man are inept, at best. Barberina Rookwood is his partner in mystery. Their fellow passengers long to know the precise nature of her relationship to Henchman. Her celebrity derives not only from her companionship to Henchman, who is said to be impotent, but also from her immense sacrifice in giving up a career in ballet that promised fame and fortune. Was this supreme renunciation her idea or Henchman’s?

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As the novel unfolds, the reader slowly gains at least a partial understanding of the characters. The reader’s limited knowledge has at its base the misapprehensions and lack of perception in the narrators. Valentine Beals, the primary narrator, first observes Saul Henchman and Barberina Rookwood as they board the Alecto to begin the cruise. While Beals has never seen either in the flesh, he immediately recognizes their names on the passenger list and spots the couple—Henchman by his crutches and camera, Barberina by her effortless grace and delicate beauty. Beals, an author of swashbuckling historical romances, is always on the lookout for a story, adventure, or prototype hero, and he is immediately fascinated by the complexities of the Henchman-Rookwood partnership. Aided and abetted by his interested wife and the Bealses’ friends and traveling companions, the Middlecotes, he engages himself in a minute scrutiny of the pair’s actions. The four stockpile rumors, facts, gossip, and opinions to attempt an understanding of the famous couple; all keep an eagle eye on them during the cruise and witness the breakup of the partnership.

Beals’s most fascinating addition to the narrative stockpile is his assertion that Henchman is the archetypal Fisher King of Arthurian legend. Beals’s “innate taste for pin-pointing archetypes” seems to spread to others during the cruise; Elaines, Don Juans, and Loathly Damsels find their way among the passengers. When Beals tries his theory out on his wife and friends, they are unimpressed at first. Beals mentions the parallels: kingship with celebrity and power; the thigh wounds and impotence, the same in both cases; fishing as a hobby, the same; a young apprentice knight, Perceval, who fails to restore the Fisher King, later equated with Robin Jilson, the apprentice photographer. The myth of the Fisher King involves the reader in two realms: the shadowy, ancient world of the Arthurian court and T. S. Eliot’s brooding, modern epic, The Waste Land (1922).

From his post as observer, Beals is able to spot an early complication in the Henchman-Rookwood enjoyment of their holiday. Gary Lamont, a recently bereaved widower and newspaper tycoon, is on board hoping to further his infatuation with Barberina. Beals, always ready with a parallel, sees Lamont as a “latterday Gatsby, a Gatsby retired from a life of open illegality, while retaining the Midas touch in commercial dealings; buccaneering ventures tempered in his own eyes with a few high ideals, one of them probably the image of the Perfect Woman.” Once on board, Lamont gives every indication that Barberina is his Perfect Woman and that he believes she should be restored to the stage, freed from her Sleeping Beauty bondage to dance again. Some of Lamont’s zeal may be based on a heart condition that does not indicate a long future.

Another invalid on board besides Henchman and Lamont is young Robin Jilson, who is afflicted with a rare muscular condition of the cranial motor nerves as well as with an anxious, garrulous mother. Jilson, although dismissed by most of the narrators as a very ordinary young man, attracts the attention of Henchman and, more important, of Barberina. Henchman offers Jilson help in launching himself as a photographer; Barberina falls in love with him, only to be outmaneuvered by the bossy, antiseptic Dr. Lorna Tiptoft. Barberina’s decision to leave Henchman is revealed in a silent gesture—one only Henchman and the observant Beals can comprehend. An incident as simple as Barberina dancing to the ship’s orchestra’s selection from Swan Lake tells Henchman that Barberina’s companionship is lost to him forever. Henchman leaves the Alecto early to fish a Scottish loch; Barberina must continue alone, knowing that the balance of Jilson’s affections are tipped in the Loathly Lady Doctor’s favor.

The novel ends at The Ring, a circle of standing stones, where past, present, and future merge. There Henchman leaves his fellow travelers: “Come. Let us leave these pilgrims seeking forgetfulness of the Present in a Promised Land of the Past.” Yet forgetfulness is not the aim of these particular pilgrims; the story of Saul Henchman and Barberina Rookwood has made a profound and memorable impact upon each human heart.

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