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
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 Lack of Modern Heroes
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.