The Fisher King
The Fisher King is the second novel published by Anthony Powell since the completion, in 1975, of A Dance to the Music of Time. That series of twelve novels presented a satiric social history of England from the mid-1930’s to the 1970’s and established Powell as one of the preeminent British writers of the postwar era. The Fisher King is more playful than the earlier series, more nearly a game in which the author challenges his readers to recognize and try to follow the mythological associations of the characters. Social commentary is present; Powell makes clear his views about advertising, popular novelists, the press, the civil service, and American scholars. He is less concerned with such matters, however, than with the shifting connections between the characters on his “ship of fools” and their mythic counterparts.
Powell sends his characters on a cruise around England, Wales, and Scotland aboard a ship called the Alecto, a name which suggests that this will be no peaceful voyage in the sun; Alecto was one of the Eumenides of Greek mythology, known as the “unresting,” a source of grief who reveled in war, violence, and quarrels. No war breaks out on this voyage, nor is there much overt violence, but unrest and quarrels are omnipresent. Much of the unrest centers on Saul Henchman, “the Fisher King,” a famous photographer who was crippled and disfigured in World War II, and his companion and assistant, the superbly beautiful Barberina Rookwood, who abandoned a highly promising career as a ballerina to devote her life to Henchman.
The action of the novel evolves from these two. It is Barberina’s fate to attract the attention and admiration of men and women. Gary Lamont has loved her for a long time but has remained faithful to his wife. Now that the wife is dead, he joins the cruise at the last minute to try to win Barberina away from Henchman. Barberina, however, has never regarded Lamont as more than a friend, and bypassing Lamont, she gives her affection to Robin Jilson, a tentative young man in bad health. When Jilson proves incapable of meeting the challenge Barberina presents, falling instead into the clutches of the domineering female physician Dr. Lorna Tiptoft, Barberina announces through an impromptu performance that she is ready to resume her career in the ballet.
Saul Henchman demonstrates throughout the novel that he is a thoroughly unpleasant person. He uses his position to dominate others, he manipulates people through his physical condition, although when he wishes he can abandon his crutches and scale a difficult wall unaided, and he seems to compensate for his sexual impotence through sadistic treatment of others. At the same time, paradoxically, Henchman genuinely loves Barberina, whose departure is painful to him, and he is capable of kindness; when Jilson helps him and reveals that he has ambitions to be a photographer, Henchman offers to assist the younger man with his career. Even when it becomes clear that Barberina intends to leave him for Jilson, Henchman does not withdraw the offer of assistance, only modifying it with a promise to apprentice Jilson to another photographer. In the end, Henchman leaves the cruise to fish on the shore of one of the Orkney islands, in imitation of the Fisher King of Celtic mythology.
The tone throughout The Fisher King is that of comedy combined with and to some extent undercutting high drama. At the climax of the novel Barberina takes Jilson on deck after dinner to declare her love; apparently rejected, she returns to the salon where the ship’s orchestra is playing a corrupt version of music from Swan Lake, dances beautifully as a way of announcing her return to ballet, and leaves to the applause of all who have seen her. It is the moment at which the major relationships among the characters are changed irrevocably.
This scene is followed by one of low comedy. Unable to sleep, Valentine Beals leaves his stateroom to go on deck to watch the sunrise. In the passageway he sees Jilson, evidently going to the lavatory; Lamont, Jilson’s rival and cabin mate, emerges from Barberina’s room and encounters Jilson. From his hiding place, Beals then sees Henchman emerge from his cabin opposite Barberina’s to confront the other two; Henchman sardonically compares the activity to a French bedroom farce. After it is made clear that Lamont’s visit to Barberina has resulted in her final rejection of him, Jilson suffers an attack of weakness. Since Henchman cannot help Jilson and Lamont will not, Beals is forced to leave his hiding place to pick Jilson up. Beals offers a lame excuse for his presence and pretends that he has not been spying on them. Beals and Lamont, carrying Jilson to his stateroom, are stopped by a call from Henchman, who takes a snapshot of this disheveled trio and disappears. It is a farcical conclusion to a tension-laden evening.
The action of The Fisher King, however, is of less interest than its parallels in legend. Most of these are first pointed out by Valentine Beals, a...
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