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Anthony Powell: The Fisher King

In this post-Dance to the Music of Time novel, Powell moves slightly (though only slightly) away from his customary realism and treads warily into the realm of myth. The eponymous Fisher King is Saul Henchman, as Powell tells us on the very first page. He is a well-known society photographer who was wounded in World War II. This may well have left him emasculated but he has still managed to attract Barberina Rookwood, a former dancer who gave up her dancing to be his assistant and companion. They are setting out on a cruise around the British Isles on a ship called Alecto, one of the Furies whose job is to punish mortals who commit crimes against other mortals. Valentine Beals, a romantic novelist who is travelling with his wife and two friends, the Middlecotes, is the first to suggest the analogy between Henchman and the Fisher King, though his wife and the friends do not agree with his analogy. Much of the rest of the book explores Henchman’s past as well as that of the other passengers, such as Gary Lamont, the newspaper tycoon, Mr. Jack, a retired jack of all trades, Sir Dixon and Lady Tiptoft and their daughter, Lorna, the American college professor Kopf and others. But, of course, we know that Henchman will be the focus of attention and there is a relatively complicated plot involving Henchman, Barberina and some of the other passengers. Is it a straightforward pastiche of or homage to the Arthurian legend or is it just Powell doing his usual societal interaction and throwing in the Arthurian references just for a bit of laugh? It is never really clear but it doesn’t really matter. Once again Powell gives us a relatively lighthearted tale, albeit with some serious intent, about life among the chattering classes and how their foibles will cause them problems.

Publishing history

First published by Heinemann in 1986