From its origin in medieval romance, to Wagner’s opera, to Hollywood films, Percival’s quest for the Holy Grail has kept an enduring grip on the popular imagination. On the surface, this legend doesn’t have anything to do with the contemporary climate change crisis. Nevertheless, one episode from the Grail legend, Percival’s encounter with the Fisher King, resonates with our contemporary concerns in intriguing ways.
I’d originally intended to reflect on our ecological climate crisis in this essay. Midway through the drafting process, an insurrectionist, white supremacist mob breached the United States Capitol. As that invasion made clear, the people of my country now also face an unstable political climate. (Of lexical note, the Oxford English Dictionary traces the term “political climate” back to 1750.) I realize that we are hardly alone in this, but that development nonetheless shaped the course of my thoughts.
Ultimately, I believe three concepts from the Grail legend illuminate both forms of climate crisis: (1) the link between leadership and the land, (2) the importance of asking the right questions, and (3) the necessity of empathy. Let’s take a closer look at the Grail legend before considering each lesson in turn.
There are various versions of the Grail legend, dating back to the twelfth century romance by Chrétien de Troyes, but for our purposes, the following will suffice:
The young knight Percival, a new member of King Arthur’s Round Table, is off looking for adventure when his travels take him through a wasteland. The wasteland is a motif from Celtic mythology; wherein the land becomes cursed through some error of the king, and a hero must accomplish a difficult task to break the spell. Percival doesn’t know any of this though. He is still an innocent youth, ignorant of what the circumstances demand. Percival eventually finds an injured man fishing on a riverbed. This enigmatic figure is the king of the realm, commonly referred to as the Fisher King. At some earlier point, he received a thigh wound that refuses to heal. Explanations for the injury vary, but on a mythological level, a thigh injury suggests sterility or lack of potency. Percival helps the lame king back to his castle. The Fisher King, in turn, invites Percival to share his table and stay for the night.
During supper, the wandering knight witnesses a mysterious procession through the great hall. Young men and women dressed in white silently march past carrying an assortment of mystical objects, culminating with the appearance of the Holy Grail itself. Percival is awed into silence by these events. When he awakens the next morning, the castle’s inhabitants have vanished. Later that day, having left the empty castle behind, Percival meets a beautiful woman. To his shock, she chastises him for failing to ask questions about the Grail and the king’s injury. Had the knight done so, the king and his land would have been healed. Now that he knows what is expected of him, Percival takes up his quest to find the mysterious court again, ask the required questions, and break the curse.
Although Percival was the original hero of the Grail legend, later versions substituted Gawain, Bors, or Lancelot. Eventually, all these Grail knights were superseded by a newer icon of chivalrous chastity: Galahad. With this narrative sketch in mind, let’s explore those three echoes between the legend and our climate change crisis.
The Link Between Leadership and the Land
Something is wrong with the king. The land and the people suffer as a result. Can there be a stronger metaphor for linking failed human leadership to damage upon the natural world? Today’s leaders aren’t walking around with literal thigh wounds, and the majority of the world’s governments are no longer monarchies, but powerful people still have an outsized impact on global affairs. Their errors and actions still hurt nature and other humans. Consider what former Exxon CEO and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged regarding climate change in 2019 court testimony:
“We knew it was a serious issue and we knew it was one that’s going to be with us now forever more. It’s not something that was just suddenly going to disappear off of our concern list because it is going to be with us for certainly well beyond my lifetime.”
Although Tillerson denied intentionally misleading stockholders about climate change, there can be little doubt that a coalition of business, political, and religious leaders misled the wider public about the underlying science for decades. For example, the Greenpeace website has a useful timeline of “Exxon’s Climate Denial History” that maps out both how early Exxon knew about the causes and consequences of climate change, and the efforts they took to confuse the general public.
Yet the Grail legend points us toward an inescapable truth: we are always entangled with nature. What we do affects the more-than-human world, and what happens to nature in turn affects us. The king (leadership) is wounded, the land turns to wasteland, the people suffer. In the legend, at the heart of an ecological crisis lay wounded leadership. That’s also what we face with our climate crisis today.
The U.S. Capitol riot had its roots in wounded leadership as well. The direct cause, of course, was the debunked conspiracy theory that denied the legitimacy of President Trump’s election defeat. Trump himself championed the “stolen election” narrative at a rally immediately preceding the riot. During this rally, he even encouraged his supporters to march on the Capitol, which led to his impeachment in the House of Representatives for “incitement of insurrection.”
Yet a post-mortem report by the President’s own re-election campaign pointed toward deeper and earlier leadership failures. As Alex Isenstadt of Politico reported,
“The former president suffered from voter perception that he wasn’t honest or trustworthy and that he was crushed by disapproval of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. And while Trump spread baseless accusations of ballot-stuffing in heavily Black cities, the report notes that he was done in by hemorrhaging support from white voters.”
The total U.S. coronavirus death count passed 400,000 before Trump left office. The former president incorrectly gambled that he would maximize his re-election chances by sacrificing lives to stimulate the economy. Rather than unify the country in the face of the pandemic, he politicized and undermined the response. That strategy backfired, though, contributing to his election defeat. Rather than acknowledge the consequence of his choices, Trump waged the most transparent attack on Black voters’ legitimacy since the Jim Crow era. Something was wrong with the president. The people and the republic suffered as a result.
The “thigh wound” in American civic life is hardly restricted to Donald Trump though, backed as he is by the Republican Party. When we survey the landscape of Q-Anon conspiracy theorists, enthused white supremacists, and long-serving politicians willing to accept Mr. Trump’s corruption provided he helps satiate their base, what was once the party of Abraham Lincoln looks increasingly like a wasteland. It remains to be seen whether some “Lincoln Republican” Percival may even yet accomplish a viable redemption quest.
The Importance of Asking the Right Questions
Despite the former president’s copious mendacity, he certainly didn’t invent weaponized misinformation. In fact, the notorious climate misinformation campaign discussed above points toward a second echo between the Grail legend and the climate crisis: the need to ask the right questions. Clearly, scientific research—the process of scientists asking and answering questions—has expanded our understanding of how we humans are changing and harming this planet. As previously noted, though, asking the right questions proves just as crucial for the questing knight Percival.
Variant versions of the Grail legend differ on what the necessary questions are. In some, the knight must ask, “What is the Grail and whom does it serve?” The grail is then revealed to be Christ’s cup from the Last Supper (though this may be a Christian overlay upon an object with pagan roots). This revelation signals a transformative encounter with the sacred dimension of life. In others, Percival must ask about the Fisher King’s health. In this case, it is the expression of care that proves transformative. Some versions hedge their bets by including both question types.
Climate change is similar; just one type of question won’t suffice. To answer “what’s going on?” is a matter of science. To answer “what should we do about it?” is a matter of policy. To answer “how do we convince people to take action?” is a matter of rhetoric. The PBS Digital Studios series It’s Okay to Be Smart tackled this complex range of questions back in 2014 with a pair of videos entitled “Climate Science: What You Need to Know” and “Why People Don’t Believe in Climate Science.” The series host and creator Joe Hanson, who holds a Ph.D. in Cell and Molecular Biology, even suggested, “I think the psychology behind climate science might actually be more interesting than actual climate science.”
Responding to climate change requires an interdisciplinary effort spanning the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. In that spirit, we should also remember the mythic dimension of human experience, the powerful stories and motifs that shape how we live in the world. As these parallels between the climate crisis and the Grail legend suggest, our present disaster connects to deep mythical themes. Perhaps drawing on the power of myth will strengthen us to confront our contemporary challenges.
Turning to the matter of political climate, the United States is infused with potent national myths, such as the promise in the Declaration of Independence for “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” These can inspire our idealism, but also impair our vision of the messier historical legacy that now bears down upon us. Where does myth diverge from history? How do both shape us today? These are crucial questions for Americans to wrestle with during this troubled time.
Beneath the false claim of a stolen election, the Capitol invasion recycles the unprocessed baggage and unfinished business of the Civil War and Civil Rights eras. In many ways, this is much easier to address as a justice issue than as a peace issue. After all, the fight against white supremacy in the United States is and has always been a fight for justice. Insofar as we are also peace advocates, though, the matter becomes more complicated.
This question now hovers over us: Will events unfold according to 1860 rules or 1960 rules? It took the most devastating war in American history to end the scourge of slavery. Conversely, the Civil Rights movement achieved powerful reforms through predominantly nonviolent means. Can we beat without violence the Proud Boys and their fellow travelers—those who wore “Camp Auschwitz” on their clothing while marching under the Confederate flag—or do the times call for some version of just war theory? I don’t have the answer to these questions.
With that said, we shouldn’t forget hard-learned nonviolent methods, nor abandon the difficult mandate to love even our apparent enemies. Resist them, yes, but love for one’s enemies can offer a critical door out from recurring cycles of violence. Furthermore, a war in the streets fought primarily through violent means—that’s exactly what the Proud Boys and their allies want. Perhaps civil and human rights activists can use nonviolent direct action to undermine, derail, and bracket the open warfare that the insurrectionists seek.
When our civil rights history shifts toward the tone of legend, it bestows a mixed blessing. We might forget that we are just as capable of nonviolent campaigns as the heroes who accomplished those great deeds. Conversely, their stories may also seep into our souls like myths do. As a mythic model, Percival is worth consideration: a questing paladin whose greatest heroic deed was no act of violence, but the tenacious pursuit of truth. For present day Americans to save our own troubled realm, we too must ask challenging questions and follow where they lead.
The Necessity of Empathy
Let’s now consider, in particular, those versions of the Grail legend where Percival must ask about the Fisher King’s injury to break the curse. That is, Percival must show concern and empathy for another’s suffering. From the polar bears’ melting habitat to island nations being swallowed by rising sea levels, responding to climate change also requires responding to the suffering of others. In both Percival’s story and ours, empathy is crucial.
As the legend makes clear, though, it’s not enough for Percival merely to feel compassion for the wounded king. He must also act on those feelings. He must say something, do something. Percival’s silence, however, is rooted in neither apathy nor malice. Rather, he just doesn’t know what’s appropriate in the situation. Indeed, his upbringing works against him, having been taught to equate silence with politeness.
That condition of not knowing what to do or say feels very familiar for many of us when we think about the climate crisis. That’s why empathy must be our lodestone, as it was for Percival. We are concerned, scared, and confused, surrounded by other people who are also concerned, scared, and confused. Empathy makes it possible for us all to give each other the breathing space necessary to communicate.
In other words, the mandate for empathy taps into both the “peace” and “justice” dimensions of “peace and justice studies.” Responding to the critical needs of those most harmed by climate change, but often least responsible for it—that is a clear matter of climate justice. On the other hand, to recognize how we share our fear and confusion with those who initially appear as opponents—that lays a groundwork for conflict resolution.
Unfortunately, contra the Grail legend, we can’t solve this climate crisis just by uttering the right charmed words. We face a far more stubborn curse. Empathy, though, gives us a better chance of navigating the perilous path ahead. Although the Grail legend can’t teach us about the science of climate change, it does have lessons about compassionate response to a crisis in our interconnected world.
In the wake of the Capitol riot, calls for unity have emerged from across the U.S. political spectrum. Indeed, this was an important theme of President Joseph Biden’s inaugural address. Certainly, empathy can lead to unity, and unity to reconciliation. Nevertheless, I find myself turning to something Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka wrote about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness:
“Truth as prelude to reconciliation, that seems logical enough; but Truth as the justification, as the sole exaction or condition for Reconciliation? That is what constitutes a stumbling block in the South African proceedings.”
Unfortunately, we seem to be in a far more dangerous rush in the United States, with many calling for “unity”—for reconciliation—without requiring even truth as a prerequisite. To unify on those terms would validate the conspiracy theories and white racial grievances that girded the Capitol attack. Indeed, if we prioritize empathy for white supremacists above empathy for their victims, then we’ll merely engender a “whites only” unity in the service of a “whites first” reconciliation. That’s where we landed after the collapse of Reconstruction, and the ideological descendents of those “reconciled” white supremacists eventually stormed the U.S. Capitol.
In President Biden’s defense, he has made it clear that true unity involves dismantling the power of white supremacy. Nearly a half century ago, Biden was a bit like the naive Percival; that idealistic young senator was driven by empathy and goodwill when he reached across the aisle to find common ground with older, segregationist colleagues. The president appears to have learned, though, at this late stage in his political career, that his instinct for empathy must always be married to the interests of the oppressed.
Of course, there’s no quick fix for the American political climate crisis; its roots lie in slavery’s preservation at the very founding of our republic. Like Percival in the wasteland following his chastisement, we must first embrace uncomfortable truths, then struggle toward a difficult reconciliation. That process will indeed require us to tap great reservoirs of empathy, but if we have the heart to see it through, we may achieve a transfiguration far deeper than some fragile illusion of unity.
An ecological climate crisis, a political climate crisis—with so many problems at once, we might feel besieged on all sides. Still, these aren’t entirely separate problems. Ecological climate crisis is itself a political flashpoint; and many who would let the republic burn, would also let the planet do the same. (Notably, the Trump administration pulled the United States out of the Paris Agreement on climate change.) The Venn diagram may not be a circle, but it certainly isn’t goggles. In a similar manner, any alliance to save the American republic—by finally breaking the power of white supremacy—will include many who also seek sustainable reforms to save our planet.
Just as our problems intersect, so do the lessons we learn from the Grail Legend. Leadership and the land are linked, but that doesn’t mean we’re stuck with failed leadership. We can heal the king; we can elect new presidents. In fact, grassroots efforts are often as important as legislative committees, for the former influences the latter. Effective action requires correct and relevant information though, requiring we ask the right questions. Whether confronting climate change or white supremacy, we have to look at each crisis from diverse angles. Only then will we learn what is needed to break the curse and bring new life to the wasteland. Finally, we must have empathy for all parties, even those we consider our opponents. We must recognize that they too are human beings navigating fear and confusion. Yet we cannot allow empathy for victimizers to overwhelm empathy for their victims. This is the treacherous course that nonviolent paladins traverse.
In How We Win: A Guide to Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning, the veteran activist George Lakey writes about how campaigns can combine into a movement, and how movements can combine into a “movement of movements.” That idea gives me hope. It reminds me that in the face of these towering challenges, I’m not alone. We’re not alone. We can quest together.
Biden, Joseph R., Jr. 2021. “Inaugural Address by President Joseph R. Biden, Jr.” The White House.
Briggs, Helen and Victoria Gill. 2020. “Climate change: Polar bears could be lost by 2100.” BBC News.
“Climate.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press.
Curry, Rex. 2016. “Exxon’s Climate Denial History: A Timeline.” GreenPeace.
“Declaration of Independence: A Transcription.” The U.S. National Archives.
Grandoni, Dino. 2019. “The Energy 202: Rex Tillerson takes the stand in New York’s climate change lawsuit.” The Washington Post.
Hanson, Joe. 2014. “Climate Science: What You Need to Know.” It’s Okay to Be Smart. PBS Digital Studios. YouTube.
Hanson, Joe. 2014. “Why People Don’t Believe in Climate Science.” It’s Okay to Be Smart. PBS Digital Studios. YouTube.
“H.Res.24 – Impeaching Donald John Trump, President of the United States, for high crimes and misdemeanors.” 2021. United States House of Representatives.
Isenstadt, Alex. 2021. “Trump pollster’s campaign autopsy paints damning picture of defeat.” Politico.
Soyinka, Wole. 1999. The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness. Oxford University Press.
Troyes, Chrétien de. 2019. Perceval. Translated by A. S. Kline. Poetry in Translation.
Worland, Justin. 2019. “The Leaders of These Sinking Countries Are Fighting to Stop Climate Change. Here’s What the Rest of the World Can Learn.” Time.