It is difficult to appreciate The Natural without some knowledge of the mythological traditions behind it. The most important of these are the legends of the Waste Land and the Fisher King. Malamud loosely based his novel on the story of Sir Perceval and his quest for the Holy Grail, originally recorded in the eleventh century by the French writer Chrétien de Troyes. In Chrétien's story, Perceval starts out as a country bumpkin, much like Roy. Raised in the forest by an overprotective mother, he has little knowledge of manners or chivalry. One day, Perceval meets several knights of King Arthur, and he immediately wants to join them. He goes to Camelot, but Arthur refuses to make him a knight until he proves himself. Perceval goes out to do so, and he proves his worth by winning many matches; he turns out to be a surprisingly good knight. Perceval meets a knight who arms him and teaches him about chivalry, particularly the idea that he should not chatter, and should instead remain quiet most of the time. Perceval plans to return to his mother and show her his new skills, but he is waylaid by an infatuation with a woman named Blancheflor. Finally, one day, Perceval comes upon a strange castle. Inside is an old man, who presents Perceval with a fine sword. Perceval then witnesses a strange procession: several youths enter the hall carrying a bleeding lance, golden candelabra, and a golden grail. Perceval, remembering the advice of the knight who instructed him, decides to stay quiet and wait to ask the old man about the mysterious procession until the next morning. When Perceval wakes up, however, he finds the castle and its inhabitants have disappeared. He rides on and meets a woman who tells him that if he had only asked the right questions, he would have learned about the lance and the Holy Grail and could have healed the Fisher King, and thus also the Waste Land. Though Chrétien died before he finished the story of Perceval, scholars are reasonably sure, based on the sources from which Chrétien worked, that Perceval returned to the Fisher King and, swallowing his pride, asked the questions necessary to obtain the Grail and heal the King.
The correlation between this story of the Fisher King and The Natural is a complicated one. It is fairly easy, however, to match a few characters. Pop "Fisher" obviously corresponds to Fisher King; like the Fisher King, his hands are wounded (in Pop's case, he has "athlete's foot of the hands," an impossible, almost supernatural condition). Pop has a Holy Grail of his own: to win a pennant. The team he manages is the New York Knights, calling up the image of the Round Table. Roy Hobbs is a clear image of Perceval, the country bumpkin who becomes enamored of the idea of being a ballplayer (or a knight) without really thinking about what it means or entails. Both Perceval and Roy get carried away with the conventions of their chosen profession: Perceval wants to rack up defeats against other knights, whereas Roy wants to break as many records as he can. Both enjoy the life, so to speak: Perceval and Roy each have very clear ideas of how knights and ballplayers, respectively, are supposed to live, and what they have coming to them. Furthermore, both Perceval and Roy must overcome their own self-centeredness in order to achieve their goal. Roy, unfortunately, reaches this realization a little too late.
Memo has no direct correlation with anyone in the Perceval legend, unless it be perhaps the woman Blancheflor. However, Blancheflor appears to actually love Perceval; her worst crime is merely distracting him from his quest. Of course, in the world of romance, even a distraction is a crime to a knight on a quest. Memo is more of a Greek seductress, like the sirens who try to tempt Odysseus away from his journey. Roy, unlike Odysseus, is unable to resist her charms.
It is important to note that the Perceval story is not the only myth operating in The Natural. Malamud's source for the Chrétien story, as well as his interpretation of it, is a book called From Ritual to Romance, by Jessie Weston. This book examines the Perceval legend from the perspective of the vegetative myth. This myth has been thoroughly explored by the literary critic Earl Wasserman, and those interested should read his essay on The Natural referenced in "Selections for Further Reading." Briefly, Wasserman claims that Roy represents the "vegetative hero" who arises with every spring and must marry the "vegetative goddess"—Iris Lemon—in order to achieve his full potential. Roy, of course, spurns Iris and suffers the consequences in the end.
The tragic flaw is a common motif in literature, beginning with the Greek tragedies, on through Hamlet and into the literature present day. It is a sort of ingrained character flaw that the hero simply cannot overcome, and that ultimately contributes to the abject failure of the hero. Hamlet is unable to bring himself to kill his uncle until it is too late to do so properly; Roy is unable to turn away from Memo and find true happiness with Iris. Roy's obsession over Memo is at times infuriating to us, as he constantly dreams of married life with her. His childish inability to accept responsibility for anything makes him a somewhat pathetic figure at times. Sometimes we may feel as if Roy's personal growth stalled at age nineteen and never moved on—which, of course, may be Malamud's intention. Whatever the cause, Roy's single-minded obsession with Memo ties in with his other self-centered desires—fame and wealth. All of these elements contribute to Roy's ruin at the end of the novel.
The Natural is not simply a modern version of old myths. Malamud is careful to consider the nature of such romantic characters in the modern world; as the novel progresses, the struggle between the mythic and the real becomes more and more evident. Roy's life is complicated not only by Memo, but by his sudden obsession with food and his difficulty dealing with modern-day Satans such as the Judge and Gus Sands. Most modern of all is Max Mercy, the journalist who loves nothing more than ripping away the veil of heroism to show the dirty, seamy, normal man underneath. Max's job is a new one in romance: exposing the hero as being human. His personal mission is to undermine everything a hero is or is supposed to stand for. Max embodies what Malamud sees as modern society's schizophrenic desire to both raise up heroes and then watch them fail.
As one of the myths that form the foundation of The Natural is that of the vegetative cycle, it is no surprise that we see vegetation-related motifs in the story. Most of them relate to Roy's identification with the vegetative god whose powers are a force of life and healing. When Roy first arrives at the Knights' field, it is parched and dry. With his first hit, however, he unleashes a torrent of rain that lasts for three days. The field is soon green and bright. Even more obvious is Iris Lemon. Her very name evokes both a flower and a fruit; she is the very force of life and fertility, already a grandmother at the early age thirty-three. When she stands up for Roy, there is an "unbelievable fragrance" in the air. Even Wonderboy, Roy's bat, is made from a tree; there seems to be something special in the wood that gives Roy powers beyond even the best players.
Birds later became a very important symbol in Malamud's novels. They are especially prominent in the Natural, and generally, they are not signs of good. When Roy is playing poorly, birds hurt him; when he is doing well, he hurts birds. The first bird, of course, is Harriet Bird, who guns Roy down and sets his career back fifteen years. Later, when Roy hits his first home run, the ball "plummets to the earth like a dead bird." Later, when fielding, Roy accidentally catches a bird in his glove, killing it. Referring to his hated mother, he calls her "that bird"; just before he gets sick, he eats a number of hamburgers that remind him of "dead birds." Roy thinks of Memo as a bird "flitting about in a cage." Unfortunately for Roy, he is unable to recognize the danger of these birds until it is too late.
Water, commonly used in literature to signify life or femininity, appears several times in The Natural. The silver bullet that strikes Roy "cuts through the water" from Roy's metaphorical perspective. Later, when hypnotized, Roy believes he is drowning, and he sees a flitting, red-haired mermaid escaping his grasp (an image of Memo). When Roy gets his first hit, he unleashes a torrent of rain. On Roy's date with Memo, the body of water they visit is polluted, and they cannot swim; this unclean water is also symbolic of the fact that Roy can never be with Memo. On the other hand, Roy can swim at the lake to which he and Iris go; when he dives under water at this lake, he does not get lost, but is rescued by a white-armed, darkhaired "mermaid"—Iris. Finally, when Roy's bellyache attacks him, he sees himself as drowning in a flood of dirty water with the siren, Memo, staring at him.
Wonderboy, Roy's bat, is symbolic on two levels. On the first and more superficial level, Wonderboy is clearly a stand-in for a sword, like Arthur's Excalibur, that grants its user special powers. When using Wonderboy, Roy is able to hit bad pitches; without it, his bad habit gives him problems. On a deeper level, both Wonderboy and Excalibur are phallic symbols. Nowhere is this more obvious than during Roy's slump, when Wonderboy "sags like a baloney." But in the presence of Iris Lemon—the "vegetative goddess" who causes a man near her to feel a sexual urge—Wonderboy snaps back to hardness, and Roy is able to hit again. Wonderboy is a symbol of Roy's masculine strength, and it is strongest when he is with the woman who gives him the most strength and support, his proper mate.
When we first see Roy, he is on a train in a tunnel. The emergence of the train from the tunnel is an image of birth; indeed, Roy is being born, at age nineteen. He is still a child, a country bumpkin spilling things on himself and completely unsure of how to act. The train later returns whenever Roy becomes frightened, symbolizing his desire to return to the womb. He thinks of the train during his slump. Perhaps more significant, he thinks he hears the train when Iris presses him about taking responsibility for his role as both a player and a man.
As mentioned above, the playing field is a clear stand-in for the Waste Land. The field is dry and parched when Roy arrives, but after his first hit, rain falls for three days and turns the field a vibrant green once more.