One of the first and most important things to understand about The Natural is that the story is strongly based on Arthurian legends, particularly those of the knight Perceval and the Fisher King. To briefly summarize the legend, the Fisher King was an old king who had been deeply wounded as a child. Since a king is intimately tied to his lands, the king's wound became that of his kingdom's, and it became a barren, wasted land. Only the healing powers of the Holy Grail can restore the Fisher King's health—and, as such, the health of the land. One day, Sir Perceval, a pure but largely untested knight, comes across the Fisher King. Perceval witnesses a strange procession where a great cup is carried before him, but, believing courtly silence to be the best move, Perceval fails to ask the Fisher King the meaning of the procession. In his silence, Perceval loses an opportunity to heal the King, who is ultimately not healed until much later, when Perceval forgoes the rules of courtliness to succeed in the quest of the Grail.
In The Natural, Roy Hobbs is a kind of Perceval. Like Perceval, he is a young country bumpkin with a "natural" talent, but also with a preoccupation for the conventions that surround his area of expertise. Just as Perceval is too focused on the rules of courtliness and achieving fame as a knight, Roy is too focused on setting records and achieving glory as a baseball player. Like Perceval, Roy fails his knightly "test" when Harriet Bird asks him about his plans for the future. He tells her he is going to be the best the game has ever seen, but when she asks, "Is that all?" he has no other answer. Roy is unable to see beyond himself and his own desires or, at best, outside the game of baseball. He does not see himself as part of a larger system in which he is the vegetative hero-god who can rejuvenate the Fisher King (Pop Fisher) and therefore the Waste Land as a whole. The tragedy of Roy Hobbs is that he is unable to understand his gifts and how he is meant to use them until the very end of the novel, when it is too late. Most significantly, he does not grasp the fact that Memo Paris is a destructive force, while Iris Lemon offers him the best chance for a happy life. It is his childish lust for Memo that ultimately leads Roy to his downfall.
One significant aspect of Roy that must not be overlooked is his bat, Wonderboy. While the bat may seem counterintuitive to modern ideas of individuality and free will, Wonderboy is an essential part of Roy's ability as a natural. Roy is a "bad ball hitter," meaning he goes after poor pitches. As long as he is wielding Wonderboy, he can strike those pitches. Wonderboy is, like Arthur's Excalibur, a symbol of manhood, but it is also the source of Roy's special "psychic energy," as critic Ed Wasserman calls it. The Natural is more a romance than a realistic novel, and so Wonderboy can exist as this magical weapon. It is only when Roy misuses Wonderboy, firing angry foul shots at Otto P. Zipp while intending to throw the game, that Wonderboy fails him; one of Roy's foul shots strikes Iris Lemon, and then the bat breaks on his next hit. Just as Excalibur breaks when unfairly used by Arthur against the perfect Lancelot, Wonderboy does not bear its misuse.
The Natural is filled to the brim with characters and themes that stem from a number of different myths. While the most prominent are Arthurian myths, there are also echoes of Greek tragedy, "vegetative" myths (the cyclical system in which the land renews itself each year with new life, while at the end of the year the old life dies to be replaced with a new one), and even psychological archetypes, such as those catalogued by the psychological theorist Carl Jung.
In all of these systems, the role of Memo Paris is fairly obvious: she is the destructive force, the antithesis to the hero that leads to his downfall. She is not a vegetative goddess, the source of life; that role goes to Iris Lemon, the woman who is such a life force that she is a grandmother at thirty- three. Simply by standing and supporting him, Iris can help Roy break out of his slump. Memo, on the other hand, only saps Roy's energy away. Pop Fisher warns Roy to stay away from Memo, as she "weakens a man." After Roy's first and only date with Memo, he immediately falls into a slump. It is his desire for Memo that causes Roy to become sick, and later, to take a bribe from the Judge to throw the playoff game that decides the pennant. Roy's desire for Memo does not come from love, but merely childish lust; he does not want to take on the responsibility of being with Iris, a grandmother, which would make him a grandfather. Roy therefore pursues Memo, despite all the fact that all signs point to the idea that he will never win her. Memo is not at all the nurturing life force that Roy, as a symbolic vegetative god, should be with: her breast is "sick," and she claims to be "strictly a dead man's woman"—meaning, specifically, the late Bump Baily, but more symbolically men who have no life in them. The only real opportunity Memo offers Roy is the option is to sell his soul to the Judge. Only then, when Roy has sacrificed his talent and ability for money, can he be with Memo, however happy being with her may make him. Memo is the "Bitch-Goddess of the American Dream" in the words of one critic—the trophy wife who must be purchased and mortgaged. She is a vacuum, sucking away Roy's energy while giving him none of her own.
Critic Steven J. Rubin notes that Malamud, in his novels, creates female characters who "are often presented as either saviors or destroyers. Nowhere is this more evident than in The Natural. It is Roy Hobbs's fate, however, not to be able to distinguish between the two." If Memo Paris is the vacuum that sucks away Roy's energy, Iris Lemon is the life-giving force that lends him strength. Even her name evokes both her conception as a vegetative goddess and a fruitful, energy-giving force. Simply by standing up and revealing herself to Roy, she is able to revitalize his strength. Iris has so much life and fertility in her that, at age thirty-three, she is already a grandmother. But she is still young; Roy notes that she is "a girl above the waist and a woman below." At one point, seeing the red-haired Memo in a black mourning dress, Roy wonders what it would look like if the colors were switched—black hair in a red dress. This is Iris Lemon—Memo's exact opposite. But it is indeed Roy's tragic fate to misunderstand which woman he should pursue—at least until it is too late to save his baseball career and, thus, to use his natural gifts.
As mentioned elsewhere, Pop Fisher represents the Arthurian figure of "The Fisher King." He is the ailing king with the strange, inexplicable illness—athlete's foot of the hands—and his health is tied to that of the land. Without the novel's version of the Holy Grail (the pennant), Pop can never be truly healed. While the team is in last place, their field is dead and dry, as if from a drought; the players are all depressed; and even the dugout water is unfit for drinking. Upon Roy's first hit, however, the clouds burst, and within minutes the field is drenched as it proceeds to rain for three straight days. Pop's hands clear up and his health improves as the Knights do better and better. The jeering crowds are replaced by cheering ones, and the whole city becomes wrapped up in the joy of their team, led by the unstoppable Roy. But Malamud is a realist, and though Roy is modeled on Sir Perceval, he is not destined to have the same success. Roy fails, and Pop, the Fisher King, is left with his Waste Land.