Study Guide

The Natural Mythic Themes

By Bernard Malamud

Mythic Themes

First, T.S. Eliot. Eliot's super-famous 1922 poem "The Waste Land" describes, well, a waste land. Here, everything's dried up, no water. It's a spiritual, cultural, and physical wasteland, kind of like the lack of rain that's dried up the Knights' field and all their hopes for winning. We'll talk about rain later in this section, but Malamud was obviously taken with Eliot's imagery of the absence of water to describe a world where everything seems hopeless.

Eliot, in turn, was influenced by a book published in 1920 by Jessie Weston titled From Ritual to Romance. The book cited a lot of legends of King Arthur, particularly the story of the Fisher King and the Holy Grail, about a king suffering from incurable illness who could only be healed by a seeker of the Grail. Whatever caused his illness has also made his lands totally dry and useless.

That seeker would be Percival, a young man whose mother raised him in the woods so he wouldn't learn the ways of the world or get any ideas about running off to war. But his natural skills and piety lead him to King Arthur's court, where he becomes a knight of the Round Table. He meets a mysterious fisherman, who brings him back to his castle; it's the Fisher King, badly in need of someone to bring him the Holy Grail to heal him and his parched land. There's also a broken sword in the story that can only be mended by the successful finder of the Grail.

Well, that was easy. Pop Fisher, the Knight who heals Pop's incurable sickness and brings back rain to the ball field with the promise of winning back the Grail/pennant; the naïve backwoods youth who becomes a hero, a broken bat—oops, we mean sword...

There are a lot more Arthurian legends you could apply to the story. You might see Roy's bat as the famous Excalibur, Arthur's mighty sword. How about Doc Knobbs, team hypnotist, as Merlin the Wizard? Or Iris Lemon as the Lady of the Lake, who first gives Arthur his magical Excalibur? Or Memo as Morgan Le Fay, who steals Excalibur and throws it into the Lake? We report, you decide.

If you're a fan of Greek mythology, you can think of Roy as Odysseus and Memo as one of the seductive sirens. We've even got a one-eyed monster: Gus Sands.

Of course, there are plenty of real-life baseball references in The Natural, too. The story of Roy hitting a homerun for the injured boy is based on a (probably not true) story about Babe Ruth doing the same thing. Throwing the big game recalls the Black Sox scandal, when eight players on the Chicago White Sox, including the legendary Shoeless Joe Jackson, were charged with conspiring to throw the 1919 World Series and banned from baseball forever. Like Jackson, Roy played ball with a homemade bat that was almost white in color.

The scandal was blamed on the fact that owner Charles Comiskey, like Judge Banner, paid the players so poorly that they were willing to cheat. Like Roy, the players changed their mind towards the end of the Series and played to win, but ultimately failed. The scene at the end of the novel when the newsboy begs Roy to tell him that he didn't is taken right from the legendary (and also probably not true) words, "Say it ain't so, Joe" that reporters claimed a young fan said to Jackson.