Ancient Myths in Contemporary Cinema: Oedipus Rex and Perceval the Knight of the Holy Grail in Pulp Fiction and the Sixth Sense

By Shaham, Inbar | Mythlore, Fall-Winter 2009 | Go to article overview
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Ancient Myths in Contemporary Cinema: Oedipus Rex and Perceval the Knight of the Holy Grail in Pulp Fiction and the Sixth Sense


Shaham, Inbar, Mythlore


THE GRAIL ROMANCE IS ONE OF THE MOST FAMOUS TALES in Medieval Romance and a major source of inspiration for works in literature, theatre and music, from Wagner's Parsifal to Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. (1) Explicit and implicit allusions to the tale also appear in many films: e. g. The Fisher King (Terry Gilliam, US, 1991) is a sort of a continuation to the story; and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Steven Spielberg, US, 1989) is constructed as the final sequel to the story. (2) The same is true for the myth of Oedipus. Following the modern interpretation of the Oedipal myth suggested by Freud, one can find explicit and implicit allusion to it in the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, and many more (Winkler).

In this essay I shall demonstrate the manifestations of components of both myths in current North-American "mythology"--i. e. in Hollywood films. I shall show, through a close reading of Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, US, 1994) and The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan, US, 1999), that the Grail story offers, among other things, an alternative pattern regarding father and son relationships to the one in the Oedipal story. As an alternative pattern, allusions to the Perceval myth can be found in texts of popular culture alongside allusions to the Oedipal paradigm, 'independently,' or antagonistically to it.

The meaningful relationships among motifs in the deep structure of the two myths were extensively analyzed by Claude Levi-Strauss: (3) watching the grail, Perceval dare not ask "whom does it serve?", thus failing his mission. Based on this pivotal event, Levi-Strauss stresses the structural dichotomy between the wise Oedipus, solver of riddles (the riddle of the Sphinx, the mystery of the origin of the plague in Thebes), and Perceval the innocent, the ignorant, who does not ask the right question at the right time.

The two heroes are contrasted in other respects: Oedipus finds himself in incestuous relations, while Perceval remains chaste. In Indian (Native American) versions of the Oedipal myth, the hero must banish an eternal winter by solving riddles. In the grail myth, the hero must revive a wasteland: he must banish eternal summer (Levi-Strauss, "Scope" 23).

Levi-Strauss comes to the conclusion that both myths deal with social exchange: of words (in a conversation) and of women (in matrimony). Using natural phenomena such as plague and drought, each myth presents an aberrant social behavior that should be avoided: decadent promiscuity (represented by eternal winter), and extreme chastity (represented by the threat of eternal summer). Thus, the natural change of seasons functions as a basis for an argument in favor of exchange of women between families and exchange of words in an open and honest conversation.

In my opinion, there are other contrasting details. First, Perceval and Oedipus differ in their relations with father figures. Oedipus encounters an old man on his way, gets into a fight with him and kills him. Long afterwards he discovers their familial bond--he had killed his father. Perceval too encounters an old man on his way, a crippled fisher (in a later version, he meets the fisher king), but they form an amicable rapport. Perceval fails to heal his host. Long afterwards, he too discovers their familial bond--his host is his uncle (or cousin in some versions). In Robert de Boron's version, Perceval's second visit to the castle ends with the healing of the fisher king. The patricidal relations of Oedipus and Laius are thus contrasted with the therapeutic relations of Perceval and the fisher king. (4)

Moreover, the lineage of each hero has a special part in both stories: the cause of Oedipus's tragic fate is a curse laid upon his father; while Perceval discovers that he is the heir to a long series of grail guardians.

At the symbolic level, both myths relate to relationships between fathers and sons. Healing of a father figure by a son figure means symbolically the acceptance of the fact that the father is getting old and weak, and it is now the son's turn to take over the role of caregiver.

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