Reader in The Waste Land

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Born in 1888, T.S Eliot grew up in America and attended Harvard University. Later in life, he moved to England and became an English citizen in 1927. It was around this time he joined Anglican Church.

Eliot wrote The Waste Land in 1922 four years after "the Great War". Europe was in ruins - morally, physically and spiritually and was literally a wasteland.

Between 1181 and 1191, Chretien de Troyes wrote Percival, the Story of the Grail or Roman de Perceval. It was the first written story about Percival and his venture into the land of the Fisher King in search of the Grail.

I will be comparing Eliot's Waste Land to Percival's quest and his venture into the wasteland of the Fisher King. I will be looking at what Eliot's wasteland lacks, faith and love. By looking at different passages, I am going to argue that Eliot is sending out a message to modern society to follow.

Percival's quest

"As a first step I propose to ask whether this 'Quest of the Grail' represents an isolated, and unique achievement, or whether the task allotted to the hero, Gawain, Percival, or Galahad, is one that has been undertaken, and carried out by heroes of other ages, and other lands."

In his book From Ritual to Romance, Jessie Watson presents the idea that the Grail legend was the surviving record of another fertility ritual. Eliot took great inspiration from Waston's book and also from the "Golden Bough", which he mentions in his notes.

This quote suggests that the "task of the hero" is one that not only the three knights of the Grail myth have undertaken, but is a timeless quest that recurs in different generations.

One of the first Grail stories, Roman de Perceval, is about the knight of the round table Percival and his quest for the Holy Grail. He is distinguishable from the other knights because he is very innocent and he does not fall for temptation as the other knights do. For example: "O and those children's voices singing in the dome" Paul Verlaine's poem on Percival is mentioned in line 202. Here he is resisting sexual temptation so he can stay pure for the Grail.

Percival ventures into the land of the Fisher King who has a wounded groin. When the king suffers so does his land. His infertility does the same to his land, which is reduced to waste. According to the legend he does not do much. Mostly he passes his time by fishing in his wasteland. In part III, the section opens by presenting the speaker fishing in a wasteland that is cold, barren and dry.

Percival fails at first to recognize the Grail. Having previously been scolded for asking too many questions, he does not ask anything when he was at the Fisher King's castle such as why the Lance bled and who the Grail belonged to. Asking this would have healed the king who was wounded and restored his land.

In the first passage, Lake Starnberg is mentioned. This is significant because King Ludwig II drowned in it. He identified himself with Percival later on in life and supported Richard Wagner when he wrote Parsifal, an opera about Percival's quest for the Grail.

In this opera, Parsifal resists seduction by Kundry, who is cursed to live forever because she laughed at the crucifixion of Christ. She later tries to seduce Percival. He rejects her and then later in the final act baptizes her on Good Friday and she is reborn.

Later in the final act, the curse that is put on Percival earlier, which prevents him from finding the Grail, is lifted and he is washed with water from the holy spring and enlightened with compassion. To have compassion/mercy is "what thunder said" to the demons (Dayadhvam), which is mentioned at the end of the poem.

Faith in the wasteland

In the wasteland, it is man's decaying spirituality that needs to be restored. As plants require water to grow, humanity needs faith to grow out of the stony rubbish. Eliot continually refers to lack of water in the wasteland:

L23-24 And the dead tree… and the dry stone no sound of water."

L 331-360 The lack of water is repeated.

L385 "Voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells."

Faith has run dry, and it needs to be restored. There is a lack of faith in today's society and the people Eliot sees crossing London Bridge are "in limbo" just like the people Dante sees in the first ring of hell. London Bridge crosses the Thames, and here Eliot is comparing himself to Dante who watches the people traveling into hell.

Percival is in limbo before he rediscovers God and is redeemed and able to find the Grail and complete his quest. We need to rediscover God and go upon our quest in life so we can be redeemed in death.

The "Chapel Perilous" is introduced in the final passage. However no one visits it yet it still stands there discarded with a cock standing on the roof (symbolizing the denial of Christ). Something that had such a profound meaning in previous society stands empty in ours. After the cock crows, lightening strikes bringing rain.

Faith is dead.

Broken relationships

Throughout the poem, broken relationships are mentioned through the mythic method. Dido-Aenas, Ophelia-Hamlet, Tristan-Isolde, Philomel-Tereu, etc.

Tristan and Isolde, another Arthurian legend, are mentioned through texts from one of Richard Wagner's operas, Tristan und Isolde.

L31-34 Fresh blows the wind

To the homeland

My Irish darling

Where do you linger?

L42 Tristan, looking for Isolde in the horizon, says: "Desolate and empty is the sea."

Tristan is waiting for Isolde to come and heal him. However, she does not arrive until it is too late. Tristan observes that the ocean is a void, with no possibility of healing him. This sets the theme for the rest of the wasteland as throughout the poem it is more evident that the wasteland is beyond healing.

In part II, "A Game of Chess" is referring to seduction. One could say Eliot suggests that in modern day intercourse is just a game where the point is to flirt and seduce. Making moves is just like a game of chess.

L249-256 - Hardly aware of her departed lover…She smoothes her hair with automatic hand.

After the typist's "Game of Chess" where she let the clerk have his way with her, the typist seems to have a mechanical routine, she paces her room and smoothes her hair with her automatic hand. Her only thought is that she is glad the encounter is over.

Romance is dead.


Thrown into the wasteland, we, the readers, are distorted. "We know only a heap of broken images." However, the narrator teaches us how to make meaning from the alienation and the fragmented imagery.

Percival is very innocent and naïve which protects him from evils and sin. However, he has forgotten his faith and God. Later he is forgiven for his sin and becomes the king of the grail and is washed with holy water, born again.

So how can fertility and growth return to the wasteland? Unlike the land of the Fisher King in Percival, we cannot heal the land through asking the right questions.

Eliot emphasizes that there is no water in the wasteland. However at the end of the poem when thunder speaks: DA DA DA he gives three different types of people three principles to follow: Give alms, have compassion and have self-control.