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Rewilding the Waste Land

Adam and Eve in the Earthly Paradise Wenzel Peter (1745-1829) Vatican Museum, Rome

Emerging from his castle in search of a quest, the young king Amfortas—shouting his war cry, “Amour!”—sees another knight, a pagan, emerging from the forest. The two immediately level their lances and charge: the pagan knight is killed, but his lance slips, castrating Amfortas. The injury is so grievous that the king’s impotence soon spreads to the land around his castle, creating a Waste Land where nothing will thrive.

In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell tells Bill Moyers this version of the Grail King legend, as written by Wolfram von Eschenbach in his 13th century poem, Parzifal. Campbell offers some guidance to understanding von Eschenbach’s telling, most notably including the distinction of the second knight’s pagan identity: 

He was a person from the suburbs of Eden. He was regarded as a nature man, and on the head of his lance was written the word “Grail.” That is to say, nature intends the grail. Spiritual life is the bouquet of natural life, not a supernatural thing imposed upon it. And so the impulses of nature are what give authenticity to life, not obeying rules [that] come from a supernatural authority—that’s the sense of the Grail. (15:20-15:57)

Medieval Christians saw spirit and nature as inherently at odds; to triumph over nature was to triumph spiritually. Von Eschenbach’s version of the Grail King legend claims that this division, rather than strengthening the spiritual, has damned both. The king and the land need a savior—although he may not look like a hero, that savior is Parzifal, the compassionate fool, who heals by asking the right question: “What ails thee, Uncle?”

This simple act of compassion begins closing that severing wound. “The key to the Grail,” Campbell once wrote, “is compassion, suffering with, feeling another’s sorrow as if it were your own. The one who finds the dynamo of compassion is the one who’s found the Grail” (A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living 53).

Authenticity can only come from the realignment of spirit and nature.

Campbell often uses the concept of “authenticity” to describe humanity’s balanced and ideal state. Authenticity can only come from the realignment of spirit and nature. Without it, he says, we are left with this “enchantment of sterility”: The Waste Land. “In the Waste Land,” he writes, “life is a fake. People are living in a manner that is not that of their nature; they are living according to a system of rules.” A pall, cast over society as a whole; a spell that needs breaking.

The Waste Land, then, is the land of people living inauthentic lives, doing what they think they must do to live, not spontaneously in the affirmation of life, but dutifully, obediently, and even grudgingly, because that is the way people are living. That is what T. S. Eliot saw in the Waste Land of the twentieth century; and that is what Wolfram von Eschenbach—Eliot’s model—saw in the Waste Land of the thirteenth. (The Romance of the Grail: The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth 169-70)

In another essay, “Our Notions of God,” Campbell connects this concept to the most fundamental of human experiences, and one at the core of the Grail legend: love. 

What, we may ask, is an authentic marriage? It is a mystery in which two bodies become one flesh; it is not a negotiation in which two bank accounts merge into one. (Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor 23)

Parzifal was written at a time when troubadours of early medieval Europe were beginning to weave an image of courtly love and drive a return to the romantic. This distinction between a marriage of love and compassion—an authentic one—and a marriage of business for convenience, strategy, or material gain, nevertheless resonates today. This type of authentic marriage has been out of reach for most of humanity for nearly all of history, and remains so for many. In the West, “spirit” has long been synonymous with “the Church,” our own limiting wound still in need of healing. The concept of two people marrying for love alone remains a revolutionary one, even centuries later, because it hinges on the wild idea of compassionate and egalitarian partnership.

In cultures that are examining their collective view of marriage, things are changing: Young people are waiting longer to get married, but also stay married at a higher rate. Wedding ceremonies themselves have become more secular and more varied, taking place not only in churches but on beaches and backyards. Couples may keep the old traditions that resonate, then add new traditions alongside them, reflecting an organic ebb and flow as they mold their ritual to resemble the life they want to lead together.

The secret to rewilding marriage lies in returning it to the lovers. The spiritual and the natural, given space and compassion, are entwining again. 

Successful marriage

is leading innovative lives together, 

being open, non-programmed.

It’s a free fall: how you handle

each new thing as it comes along.

As a drop of oil on the sea,

you must float,

using intellect and compassion

to ride the waves.

MythBlast authored by:

Gabrielle Basha is a writer, illustrator, and educator based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is a working associate for the Joseph Campbell Foundation and a member of the executive communications team at the Wikimedia Foundation.

In addition to an informal yet life-long study of where pop culture meets folklore, Gabrielle holds a BFA in art history and illustration and an MFA in creative writing, both from Lesley University.

A drawing of a man and woman under a floral motif, on a pink background. With Love and the Goddess, episode 5 written on the righthand side.

This MythBlast was inspired by The Power of Myth Episode 5, and Romance of the Grail


Latest Podcast

In this episode we welcome Chris Vogler. Chris is a Hollywood development executive, screenwriter, author and educator. He is best known for working with Disney and for his screenwriting guide, The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers. Chris was inspired by the writings of Joseph Campbell, particularly The Hero with a Thousand Faces. He used Campbell's work to create a 7-page company memo for Hollywood screenwriters, A Practical Guide to The Hero with a Thousand Faces which he later developed into The Writer's Journey. He has since spun off his techniques into worldwide masterclasses. In the conversation, John Bucher of the Joseph Campbell Foundation speaks with Chris about his life, his work, the Hero’s Journey, the art of storytelling, and Joseph Campbell.


This Week's Highlights

A casual picture of Joseph Campbell

"What, we may ask, is an authentic marriage? It is a mystery in which two bodies become one flesh; it is not a negotiation in which two bank accounts merge into one.'

-- Joseph Campbell,  Thou Art That, 23



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