7 July 2022
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
And the Fisher King.
By Neil Tidmarsh
This week the Department of Psychology at the University of Essex announced the launch of ‘Angling for Good’, a ground-breaking scheme which will study the therapeutic effects of angling on military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s hoped that the study will encourage the NHS to enable GPs to prescribe fishing as a treatment for patients with mental health problems (Greater Manchester’s Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust already prescribes angling for ex-service personnel struggling with depression, alcoholism, homelessness, anxiety, etc).
It’s a great idea, but not a new one. It’s hundreds – even thousands – of years old. And, as ever, the writers got there way ahead of the scientists and politicians.
Take Hemingway’s Big Two-Hearted River, for instance. This short story in two parts, published in 1924 when Hemingway was 25 years old, is an apparently simple and even banal account of a young man’s solitary fishing trip. In all of two dozen pages, the man hikes from a train station through woods and over hills and sets up camp beside a river. He cooks supper. He sleeps. The next day he goes fishing. He catches a small trout and lets it go. He hooks a huge trout but it escapes him. He catches two more trout. He eats his packed lunch, guts his catch, decides not to fish further along the river because there are swamps ahead, and returns to camp. That’s it. The third person narrative is little more than a description of the young man’s actions in the here and now – carrying his pack, pitching his tent, cooking his supper, preparing his breakfast, assembling his fishing gear, etc, etc.
And yet Hemingway somehow ensures that the reader is almost painfully aware that there is so much more going on below the surface. It’s the finest example of his famous ‘iceberg’ theory (“the beauty of the movement of an iceberg is that nine tenths of it is below water” – the idea that a minimalist, understated literary style can nevertheless communicate a huge amount of unspoken material; in fact, the more a writer leaves out, the more powerful his work will be; the readers will sense that they are not being told everything and will thus be impelled to work out for themselves what has been omitted).
There’s something uneasy – even neurotic – about the story’s relentless, exclusive and exhaustive description of the young man’s simple actions. The surface is too controlled. It must be hiding something, holding something down. So what’s going on underneath? There are hints. The occasional statements “Nick felt happy” suggest that he is usually unhappy. His mental focus on the here and now (anticipating today’s ‘mindfulness’ therapy) suggests that the past has been traumatic and the future is a source of anxiety. He appears to be damaged not only in mind but in body too; there’s something tentative and cautious about his physical efforts, so closely observed during this very physical adventure, and he has to take a rest and go to sleep half way through his hike to the fishing spot.
Anyone reading this story in the 1920’s would immediately have perceived the invisible nine-tenths of this iceberg; Nick is a veteran of World War I, so damaged and traumatised that he can’t even speak or think about it, but is nevertheless finding some sort of therapy in nature (the river is ‘two hearted’; it nourishes the body with its bountiful fish and it nourishes the mind and soul with its material yet transcendental beauty) and in the straightforward actions and rituals of a simple and enjoyable recreation.
The full story is even more obvious to later readers. Hemingway wrote many more Nick Adams stories and some of them deal explicitly with the character’s war experiences and with his injuries and traumas. Jake Barnes, the hero of Hemingway’s first novel The Sun Also Rises (also written and published in the immediate post-war years) has also been terribly injured in the war and finds solace in fishing trips in Spain. Hemingway, famously, was himself badly injured and deeply traumatised as an ambulance driver on the Italian front, and equally famously was a keen angler; the fishing expeditions described in his non-fiction account of the 1920’s, A Moveable Feast, were clearly therapeutic, and Nick Adams and Jake Barnes are obviously autobiographical characters.
Another great work of literature, published just a few years before Big Two Hearted River and The Sun Also Rises, connects the University of Essex’s ‘Angling For Good’ investigations with an even more distant past – the dim and distant past of myth and folklore. T S Eliot’s The Wasteland, published in 1922, rests heavily on the ancient and mystical story of the Fisher King.
According to legend, the obscure mythical figure of the Fisher King has sustained a terrible wound from some unspecified trauma in the past. His lands are desolate and infertile (symbolic of his impotence) as a result of this wound, and he now spends his time fishing in a lake by his castle. In the Arthurian legends, he is the keeper of the Holy Grail; Sir Percival’s quest for the Holy Grail ends when he finds the Fisher King; he relieves the King of the heavy burden of the Grail (whether it is the chalice used by Christ in the Last Supper or the bowl used to collect the blood from Christ’s wounds on the cross, the Grail is unmistakeably associated with suffering) and heals his terrible wound. The King’s lands flourish once again, no longer an infertile wasteland. Sir Percival is the Round Table’s purest and most simple knight and thus an embodiment of Nature and its healing force, his appearance presumably triggered by the King’s act of fishing.
Eliot acknowledged his borrowings from this ancient myth, even though explicit references to it in his poem are few and his take on the story is ultra-modern and not as optimistic as the original;
“ … A rat crept softly through the vegetation / Dragging its slimy belly on the bank / While I was fishing in the dull canal / On a winter evening round behind the gashouse / Musing upon the king my brother’s wreck / And on the king my father’s death before him … ”
It’s hardly surprising that this poem and this myth should have struck such a chord in the Europe of the early 1920’s, a wasteland devastated by the Great War and inhabited by the ghosts of the fallen and by mentally traumatised and physically disabled young veterans.
It’s even less surprising that it secured a tight grip on Hemingway and his imagination, as it happens. He must have had an early glimpse and explanation of The Wasteland from his close friend Ezra Pound who helped Eliot revise and edit the poem. One can imagine what a revelation the story of the Fisher King must have been to Hemingway; traumatised and badly wounded as he was, and desperately seeking solace in fishing, it was inevitable that he should self-identify with this mythical figure. Otherwise unacknowledged symbols lurk everywhere in his early work from the 1920’s; it’s a shock to realise that his modest prose – so clear, so apparently simple and unsophisticated, so purely realistic and naturalistic – has in fact a mythic undertow and is studded with throw-away references to an ancient legend. At the beginning of Big Two-Hearted River, for instance, Nick Adams finds himself in a burnt-out town surrounded by hills devastated by fire, a true wasteland. The only bird mentioned in the story is a “kingfisher”, which “flew up the stream” i.e. in the direction which Nick must follow (“the shadow of the kingfisher moved up stream” we are told again for emphasis). And Jake Barnes, the emasculated hero of The Sun Also Rises who goes fishing in Spain, is so clearly the Fisher King that no symbolic references are needed.
But the Fisher King myth, like all myths, seems to have a life of its own, simply putting clothes on a timeless truth and universal archetype which has its real and persistent existence in mankind’s collective history and in each individual’s subconscious.
How else to explain its presence in, for example, the greatest and most famous work of literature promoting the pleasures and healing qualities of fishing, Izaac Walton’s The Compleate Angler, first published in 1653? Fishing, for Walton, was an escape from the traumas of the recent Civil War in Britain; his work offered fishing as a cure for others who were nursing physical or mental wounds from the conflict and as a way of reintroducing the healing force of Nature into a land – a wasteland, indeed – devastated by the war. Walton was a Royalist, who lamented the execution of Charles I and who helped his son Charles II to escape the country after defeat in the Battle of Worcester. It’s unlikely that Izaac Walton was aware of the myth, let alone deliberately used it, but there it all is: an exiled and impotent king; his country a wasteland; fishing; the healing powers of nature…
Could it even explain the unexpectedly huge success of the TV series Gone Fishing, where those two kings of comedy, Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse, both brought low by serious heart conditions, do nothing but sit on the bank of various rivers, discussing their physical ailments and the accompanying mental health issues, while they pursue a hobby which is clearly not just a hobby but is in fact an invaluable therapy?
It seems that the scientists ‘Angling for Good’ in the Department of Psychology at the University of Essex will be casting their lines into very deep waters indeed.