Myth in The Waste Land

T.S. Eliot was the most eminent poet of the modern age. He handles the theme of his poem masterly. In ‘The Waste Land’ he uses the mythical method to show the relationship of the present with the past. The essence of the mythical method lies in establishing a parallel between the past and the present.

The comparison and contrast between the myths of the past and the solutions in the modern world bring out the poet's meaning. Indirectly the poet gives his comment through the myths.

T.S. Eliot uses myths as the organizing principle in structure in ‘The Waste Land’, and he draws the myths from two sources: Sir James Frazer's book, The Golden Bough, and Miss Jessie Weston's book, From Ritual to Romance. He takes his mythical matter from Frazer's cultivation rituals and Miss Weston's Fisher King and Grail myths.

The Holy Grail (cup or dish) legend is associated with the adventures of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, The Grail was the cup or plate used by Christ for his Last Supper. It was discovered to have acquired medicinal and miraculous properties and so it became an object of devotion and worship. Chapels for it came to be built in several countries and its worship was organised. The lance used to discover a mystery the sides of Christ was also kept with it.

But a time came when the original Grail disappeared mysteriously many a bold knight staked his life and lost in the arduous task of searching for it. Miss Weston has concluded that the Grail was originally connected with the fertility myth, as is witnessed by its sexual symbols (cup and the lance symbolising the male and female organs respectively).

Eliot connects the story of the Holy Grail with the Fisher King. According to him, the Grail was in the possession of the Fisher King. He was a very sensual and sinful king and therefore he became sick and his kingdom suffered from drought and famine. According to another legend, the soldiers of the king raped the nuns attached to the chapel of the Holy Grail.

As a result of their sin, his kingdom suffered from famine. The King Fisher hoped that one day a knight would go to Chapel Perilous and thereafter, he would get well and his land would get fertile. T.S. Eliot poem The Waste Land, the Fisher King stands for the waste land of the modern world. The sick king stands for the sick humanity, and just as the sickness of Fisher was due to sexual orgies in the same way the sickness of the modern men is due to their sexual perverts. 

Another legendary figure in the Waste Land poem is Tiresias, the protagonist of the poem. He had the experience of life both as a man and as a woman. Later on, he was questioned by his wife Hera and Zeus, as to whether the man is more passionate than a woman. He declared that woman was more passionate than man. For this reason, Hera cursed him with blindness and Zeus granted him prophetic power for compensation.

By means of his prophetic power, Tiresias revealed that the King Oedipus was responsible for the epidemic and famine of his country Thebes. Thus Tiresias is a link between the Waste Land of King Oedipus and the Waste Land of modern civilisation.

Thus in ‘The Waste Land’ Eliot handles myth very successfully to connect the modern waste-land with other waste-lands of ancient times. The idea behind this pattern is that it is possible to restore the waste land to fertility through the remedies followed in the past, mainly repentance and penance.
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