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Like T.S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land, much of The Natural is informed by a book entitled From Ritual to Romance, by Jessie Weston. Weston examines the many myths and legends that have grown up around the Holy Grail, particularly Arthurian legends, arguing that these Celtic and Christian stories have evolved from rituals relating to ancient fertility cults. These vegetative-fertility myths are so primeval, argues Weston, that they have insinuated themselves in myth and literature ever since the creation of writing.
These vegetative myths are based on nature, particularly on the cycle of the seasons. Spring is clearly a time of life and birth, when the trees grow leaves and animals come out of hibernation. Summer is the high tide of this life; in the fall things start to die, ending with the dark and dormant months of winter. Many ancient rituals marked the passage of the seasons, often occurring at times of solstice or equinox—even Christmas has strong roots in pagan winter solstice festivals. These rituals often invoked one god or another; when fall and winter came, these gods or goddesses were often thought of as "dying" only to be reborn, or replaced by new gods, the following spring.
In the Grail stories, Weston sees many characters as having parallels in the older vegetative-fertility myths. Most significant is the figure of the Fisher King, who, like the vegetative god, is inherently tied to the land. When the Fisher King is ill, the land itself is ill. This is the quest that Sir Perceval must fulfill: he must find a way to heal the Fisher King, and thus heal the land. In The Natural, Roy Hobbs is easily identified as being the Perceval figure, just as Pop Fisher is the Fisher King. But Roy is not simply Perceval; he is also the hero-god of the vegetative cycle itself, who defeats and replaces the previous god (the Whammer) only to be replaced himself many years later.
The Fisher King is a character found in several mythological sources, mostly Celtic in origin. However, he is best known from Arthurian mythology, particularly in the story of Perceval. There are several versions even of that story, but the basic elements are consistent. According to the story, Sir Perceval is out questing for the Holy Grail, as are all of Arthur's knights. While traveling, Perceval comes across a strange, ruined land. In the midst of this land he discovers a castle, and inside there is an old man. The old man has a regal bearing, but is deathly ill; in some versions of the story, his hands are wounded. The old lord invites Perceval to stay the night. The old man even gives the knight a special sword. After dinner, Perceval witnesses a strange procession. A youth enters the hall, carrying a white lance that holds a single drop of blood on its tip. Next, two more youth enter bearing golden candelabra. Finally, a beautiful maiden enters bearing a dazzling golden cup. Perceval wants to ask about these items, but he holds his tongue for fear of offending the old man. The next morning, Perceval awakes to discover that everyone is gone. He leaves the castle, which then disappears. Later, he encounters a woman who informs him that the lance was the one that pierced Jesus' side, and that the cup was no less than the Holy Grail itself. If Perceval had simply asked about these things, he could have brought about the healing of the old man, who is the Fisher King. If the King were healed, then the land would be healed as well. This story is found in Chrétien de Troyes's Conte del Graal, a series of stories about knights questing for the Holy Grail. Chrétien never finished the tale of Perceval, so the outcome of the knight's quest is not known, although most critics believe he was eventually successful.
In The Natural, the most obvious representative of the Fisher King is Pop Fisher. His hands are wounded, afflicted with "athlete's foot." As the team continues to lose, Pop is ill; the playing field is dry and dead, and the fans are absent. However, it is difficult to equate Pop Fisher entirely with the Fisher King. Malamud admitted to using Eliot's The Waste Land as an inspiration for his novel; one of the implications in Eliot's poem is that the waste land of modern civilization has no Fisher King to be healed.
In the legend of the Fisher King, the Waste Land is the king's domain. Based on a belief that surfaces in a number of ancient cultures, the idea behind the Waste Land is that the King is so tied to the land that when he falls ill, the land itself falls ill as well. This parallel has a very literal meaning in the story of the Fisher King; when Perceval heals the King, the land, which is barren and cracked, suddenly bursts into new life, covered with plants and animals. In The Natural, the Waste Land is represented by the Knights' baseball field. When Roy first arrives, the field is dry and barren; there has been a drought, in both the team's long losing streak and the weeks without rain. Roy ends both of these droughts: when he makes his first hit, it not only results in a tie game (though not a win, at least not a loss), but it also heralds the arrival of a great storm that drenches the playing field for three days, making it green once again when the grass springs back to life.
The ballfield a highly simplified symbol for the Waste Land. In Eliot's poem of the same name, the Waste Land is a symbol for what Eliot saw as the decay of modern society. For Eliot, there is no Fisher King to heal (and thus heal the Waste Land), and there certainly are no heroes to do the healing. Malamud explores this idea in The Natural, seeing if what amounts to a modern-day hero—a baseball player—can indeed bring about the kind of healing for which Eliot hopes. With Roy's abject failure of strength and character at the end—the fulfillment of the cyclical vegetative myth, if not the story of Perceval—Malamud appears to come to the same conclusion as Eliot: there are no heroes to do any healing, nor a "quick fix" Fisher King to be healed. The decaying society is run by the Judge Banners and the Gus Sandses of the modern world, and even seeming heroes like Roy Hobbs are not immune to corruption.
Roy is loosely based on Chrétien de Troyes's character of Sir Perceval. In Chrétien's story, Perceval is introduced as a young man living with his mother. His father was once a great knight (much as Roy's father was a semi- pro ballplayer), but died while Perceval was young. Perceval's mother raises him, and she attempts to keep him away from knights so that he does not suffer the same fate as his father. Therefore, Perceval is quite ignorant of the codes of chivalry; like Roy, he is essentially a country bumpkin, uncouth and lacking in manners. One day, Perceval catches sight of several of King Arthur's knights, and he immediately goes to Arthur and demands to be made a knight. Arthur demands that Perceval prove his worth, and the young man sets out to do so. He has great natural talent, like Roy, but no manners or wisdom. Perceval meets a knight who teaches him the codes of chivalry, but the teaches these codes too well; ultimately, Perceval, in his quest to be the finest knight of all time, adheres too strongly to the codes of chivalry. When he meets the Fisher King, he does not ask the right questions for fear of offending the King. This silence prevents Perceval from healing the King and thus, the Waste Land.
Eventually, Perceval succeeds in his quest; this success is a marked difference from the story of Roy, who obviously fails to "heal" the Waste Land. The source of Roy's failure is his own greed and childish impulses, but more superficially, it is Memo, who distracts him from his duties. In the Perceval legend, the knight is distracted by his infatuation with a girl named Blancheflor in a way somewhat similar to that of Roy with Memo. However, Blancheflor is a good deal nicer than Memo, and appears to love Perceval; in some versions of the story Perceval actually marries Blancheflor and lives happily. Obviously, this romantic happiness is not the case in The Natural. There is an undercurrent of realistic pessimism in Malamud's novel, and by the end Roy has failed in his quest to heal the Fisher King and, by extension, heal the Waste Land.