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Tim O’Brien as Grail Knight: “On the Rainy River”

Jay Ruud
p. 133-147


La nouvelle « On the Rainy River » d’O’Brien prend le contrepied des réactions traditionnelles face à la guerre. Dans cette histoire, le Vietnam n’est pas un lieu où se rendent les héros. Ici, c’est la fuite vers le Canada qui constitue un choix courageux. Aux yeux du protagoniste, le Canada représente un renouveau et un rétablissement spirituels et psychologiques. Historiquement, le Graal est le symbole littéraire archétypal associé à ces éléments. Par conséquent, cet article avance que l’histoire d’O’Brien est une réécriture moderne de l’histoire originelle du Graal, Perceval de Chrétien de Troyes. Dans les deux récits, le jeune héros idéaliste échoue lors de la première épreuve importante de sa vie. Dans les deux cas, les pressions sociales poussent le jeune homme à refréner ce qui lui semble instinctivement juste. Les deux débâcles ont de terribles conséquences dépassant les échecs individuels des protagonistes. La Terre Vaine d’O’Brien ne nécessite pas la guérison du Roi Pêcheur, mais celle du personnage du Chevalier du Graal, qui est, dans la version d’O’Brien, le microcosme de sa nation.

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Tim O'Brien

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1When former defense secretary Robert S. McNamara, architect of the war, said in his 1995 book In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam that “We were wrong, terribly wrong” (xx) in our conduct of that war, he was merely admitting, finally, what a large number of 19-year old draftees had been utterly convinced of twenty-five years earlier. “One, two, three, what are we fightin’ for?” sang Country Joe and the Fish, and nobody, least of all the politicians, had a convincing answer. It is important to remember this background when reading a story like Tim O’Brien’s “On the Rainy River” or the story will be woefully misunderstood. Few readers of O’Brien’s fiction, fascinated by the grim details of the brutal war, know what to make of this curious story, and readers seldom mention the story’s ironic punch-line, when the young protagonist of the semi-autobiographical The Things They Carried, whose name also happens to be Tim O’Brien, decides not to flee to Canada, and writes with bitter irony “I was a coward. I went to the war” (63).

2There was a shift in public perception of the war that was ushered in with the Reagan presidency. Reagan, who said famously of the Vietnam War on the eve of the election of 1980, “It’s time that we recognized that ours was in truth a noble cause,” also famously embraced Bruce Springsteen’s protest anthem about the plight of an unemployed Vietnam veteran, “Born in the USA,” as a great patriotic song that he wanted to use in his 1984 reelection campaign. Reagan, of course, had only listened to the chorus. When O’Brien came to write his book in 1990, twenty-two years after his experience, the United States was on the verge of “kick[ing] the Vietnam syndrome once and for all,” in the words of George H.W. Bush, in Operation Desert Storm. Thus O’Brien writes the book as a kind of corrective to the revisionist view of history that had come to prevail, and continues to prevail, among American conservatives.

3O’Brien opens “On the Rainy River” with a statement of reversed values: he begins by talking about heroism, and his desire as a child to be the Lone Ranger, to “behave like the heroes of our youth, bravely and forthrightly, without thought of personal loss or discredit” (43). It becomes apparent by the second page, however, that—contrary to his post-Reagan era readers—he is not thinking about the opportunity for heroic deeds on the field of battle that the Vietnam War might provide him. Instead, he says in no uncertain terms that “the American war in Vietnam seemed to me wrong […] It was my view then,” he goes on,

and still is, that you don’t make war without knowing why. Knowledge, of course, is always imperfect, but it seemed to me that when a nation goes to war it must have reasonable confidence in the justice and imperative of its cause. You can’t fix your mistakes. Once people are dead, you can’t make them undead. (44)

4O’Brien makes it clear from the beginning of the story that this war is not a place where heroes go. The courageous choice is instead the Canadian option. In the end, the character O’Brien makes his decision to go to the war not because he decides to do his duty—although I know many student readers oblivious to the facts of the story who read it this way—but because he is a coward. As Christopher Kocela notes, O’Brien “defamiliarizes” the Vietnam War for his readers: “the end of the story defies expectations by portraying this decision as a cowardly act, thereby reversing the poles of a certain conventional, nationalistic morality that depicts war veterans as heroes and draft dodgers as cowards” (86). What Canada means for the protagonist is salvation, renewal, hope, and the restoration of a fruitful life.

5The most common symbol of renewal and restoration, at least in western literature, has traditionally been the mythic quest for the Grail, an archetypal pattern with roots deep in O’Brien’s Celtic background. It is my contention here that O’Brien’s story is essentially a modernized retelling of the Grail legend. In most versions of the legend, the goal of the quest is seldom the physical Grail itself, but rather what that object symbolizes. In the earliest legends, the Grail Knight is not searching for the Grail, but is expected to ask the right question about it. In Thomas Malory and his medieval French sources, the Grail is synonymous with the Beatific Vision. In O’Brien, Canada itself is the Grail, the attaining of which will bring about renewal.

  • 1 Weston famously sought the origin of the Grail legends in the survival of ancient pagan fertility r (...)

6The river itself is important in this regard. Rivers are archetypal liminal symbols, marking passage from one state to another. Kocela compares O’Brien’s Rainy River to the classical river marking the soul’s passage into the underworld, and calls it “a self-reflexive comment on the ‘mythic’ aspect of O’Brien’s fiction” (91). Acknowledging this mythic aspect, I suggest that here the river has more in common with the river of the Grail legend, where the Fisher King resides. In general, O’Brien is drawing not on the “Holy Grail” as authors of the High Middle Ages through Malory depicted it, but the pagan Grail, likely born in Celtic myth, whose origins in fertility rituals were described, almost certainly erroneously, by Jessie L. Weston in her 1920 study From Ritual to Romance.1 Essentially, according to Weston, the core of the Grail Myth involves the task of the Grail Knight, which is to heal the Fisher King, whose wound (affecting his genitals) has caused his country to become a Waste Land. If the knight can somehow heal the Fisher King through the power of the Grail, then the fertility of the land will be restored along with the wholeness of the king. In practice, of course, this is not what happens even in the earliest known versions of the Grail story, but Weston’s rendering is pivotal because of its influence on T.S. Eliot’s epoch-defining poem The Waste Land (1922), and to a lesser extent on texts like Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926)—with post-war Paris as a waste land and the impotent Jake Barnes as the wounded Fisher King—and In Our Time (1925), which ends with the psychologically wounded Nick Adams trout-fishing in the woods of Michigan.

7Hemingway is the writer to whom Tim O’Brien is most often compared because of their mutual interest in the subject matter of combat and their efforts to portray the truth of war and its traumatic effects on the psyche. Certainly O’Brien must be aware of the towering presence of Hemingway, even if he rejects Hemingway’s style and code; therefore, it should be no surprise that “On the Rainy River” is what Lucas Carpenter calls “a parody of Hemingway’s ‘Big Two-Hearted River’” (48). O’Brien’s story comes near the beginning of his collection of semi-autobiographical stories about Vietnam; Hemingway’s comes at the end of his collection of semi-autobiographical stories about World War I. In both cases, the protagonist is fishing in a site far from the intrusive presence of others. Both are using the time to deal with inner demons. But in Nick Adams’ case, it is the trauma of the war experience itself that must be dealt with; in the case of Tim O’Brien the protagonist, it is the inner turmoil about how to respond to his draft notice that puts him into a moral quandary throughout the story and brings him to the Rainy River at last. In what may well be a conscious flip-side of Hemingway’s story, O’Brien describes what might be called a kind of “pre-traumatic stress.”

8O’Brien’s familiarity with the Grail legend is suggested by Lucas Carpenter, who calls the title character of O’Brien’s 1978 novel Going After Cacciato “a postmodern parody of the Fisher King” (46). In that novel, Cacciato attempts to fish in the “lake country”—an area of bomb craters filled with water, before he decides to go AWOL and head toward Paris. Paul Berlin, the novel’s protagonist, struggles mightily with the idea of making a separate peace himself (like Cacciato and, incidentally, Hemingway’s Lieutenant Henry in A Farewell to Arms) and the novel is largely a fantasy of doing just that. In the climax (an imaginary confrontation between Berlin and Sarkin Aung Wan, his Vietnamese girlfriend) around an imagined conference table in Paris, Berlin comes to a moment of truth: will he choose personal happiness, independence, and regeneration—or will he choose conformity and “duty” as seen by his family and others? As Grail Knight, will he ask the right question? “‘Do not be deceived by false obligation,’” Sarkin tells him. “‘Do not let fear stop you. Do not be frightened by ridicule or censure or embarrassment, do not fear name-calling, do not fear the scorn of others. For what is true obligation? Is it not the obligation to pursue a life of peace with itself?’” (O’Brien, Cacciato 318). But Berlin—the failed Grail Knight—responds:

“I confess that what dominates is the dread of abandoning all that I hold dear. I am afraid of running away. I am afraid of exile. I fear what might be thought of me by those I love. I fear the loss of their respect. I fear the loss of my own reputation. Reputation, as read in the eyes of my father and mother, the people in my hometown, my friends. I fear being an outcast. I fear being thought of as a coward. I fear that even more than cowardice itself.” (320)

9The sentiments are very nearly those of O’Brien in the climax of “On the Rainy River.”

  • 2 In one of the “evidence” chapters of this curiously frustrating novel, O’Brien quotes a passage fro (...)

10O’Brien’s later novel, In the Lake of the Woods (1994) returns to the Grail myth in its own way. Here the protagonist John Wade, a Vietnam veteran who has sought to suppress his complicity in atrocities at My Lai, is himself the wounded Fisher King, psychologically crippled as he takes his boat around the huge expanse of the Lake of the Woods in northern Minnesota, searching for his lost wife whom he may or may not have murdered.2

11The motif of the Grail quest and the Fisher King seems central to O’Brien’s vision, and a wider understanding of what this motif means in his work is suggested by the story “On the Rainy River,” in which the Grail theme is distilled and appears in its most complete form. I suggest that O’Brien, like Hemingway, makes conscious use of the Grail legend, but where in Hemingway’s story the myth is merely alluded to rather vaguely, O’Brien uses it in a more detailed and somewhat more sophisticated manner. I outline the story in some detail below, because the details of the story are important in demonstrating its parallels with the traditional Grail myth.

12“On the Rainy River” opens in the summer of 1968, with the narrator declaring his admiration for heroes like the Lone Ranger, and his secret belief that, in a situation of moral clarity, “If the stakes ever became high enough—if the evil were evil enough, if the good were good enough,” he would make the courageous choice (44). Upon graduation from Macalester College, he is drafted at the age of 21. Like most college students, he opposed the war, and had “rung doorbells,” he says, for Minnesota senator Eugene McCarthy, the “peace” candidate who had first challenged LBJ in the democratic primaries that spring. The draft notice puts him in a quandary that eats away at him the entire summer. Far from being the situation of his Lone Ranger fantasies, the war looms as morally suspect: “Certain blood was being shed for uncertain reasons,” he says. “I saw no unity of purpose, no consensus on matters of philosophy or history or law. The very facts were shrouded in uncertainty” (44). And this is what he is expected to die for? His first reaction is rage at being drafted over others who blindly and loudly supported the war. As the summer wears on and the day of his induction draws closer, the rage subsides, and the narrator languishes in doubt and numbness. “The only certainty that summer,” he says, “was moral confusion” (44).

13The narrator spends the summer in the Armour meatpacking plant in his home town of Worthington, Minnesota, where for eight hours every day he removes blood clots from the necks of dead pigs with a water gun. Surrounded by the smell of death all day, he says, “All around me the options seemed to be narrowing, as if I were hurtling down a huge black funnel, the whole world squeezing in tight” (47). There seems to be no way out.

14By the middle of July, the narrator says that he began “thinking seriously about Canada” (48). Canada becomes in his mind a refuge, a place he can go to escape induction and avoid the morally unprincipled act of fighting in this war. What keeps him back from this step, however, is his sense of shame. He knows what the public reaction will be in his small town: “I feared ridicule and censure […] it was easy to imagine people sitting around a table down at the old Gobbler Café on Main Street, coffee cups poised, the conversation slowly zeroing in on the young O’Brien kid, how the damned sissy had taken off for Canada” (48).

15When the narrator finally cracks, it is with a physical sensation: “a crackling-leaking-popping feeling […] I just concentrated on holding myself together” (49). He drives eight hours north in a kind of daze, until he comes to the Rainy River, which separates Minnesota from Canada. Driving along the river, he comes to a ramshackle place called the “Tip-Top Lodge” where he pulls in to rest. The place is run by Elroy Berdahl, a skinny, bald eighty-one year old caretaker with sharp eyes that the narrator says seemed to be “slicing me open” (51). Berdahl tells him dinner is at 5:30 and asks whether he likes fish.

16The narrator spends six days with Berdahl at the Tip-Top Lodge, still struggling over what to do. His conscience tells him to flee to Canada, but his sense of shame, he says, is “like a weight pushing me toward the war” (54):

I did not want people to think badly of me. Not my parents, not my brother and sister, not even the folks down at the Gobbler Café. I was ashamed to be there at the Tip Top Lodge. I was ashamed of my conscience, ashamed to be doing the right thing. (54-55)

17During his stay at the lodge, the narrator helps Berdahl out with repairs around the place, and Berdahl ultimately gives the narrator $200, ostensibly for the work he has done, though it seems clear that the old man is trying to help finance the narrator’s flight to Canada.

18On his final day, Berdahl takes the narrator out in a boat fishing on the Rainy River. When the narrator realizes that Berdahl has brought the boat to some twenty yards from the Canadian shore, he asserts “I could’ve done it. I could’ve jumped and started swimming for my life. Inside me, in my chest, I felt a terrible squeezing pressure. Even now, as I write this, I can still feel that tightness” (59).

19But the narrator ultimately can’t bring himself to make the leap. His motives are quite similar to those of Paul Berlin in Going After Cacciato: he has a vision of hundreds of people—his own past and future, dead soldiers, dead villagers, all cheering him on to one shore or the other. “All those eyes on me—the town, the whole universe—and I couldn’t risk the embarrassment […] I couldn’t endure the mockery, or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule […] I would go to the war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to” (61-62).

20Berdahl finally turns the boat back to the lodge with the enigmatic comment “Ain’t biting” (62). He has said nothing throughout the incident, but was, the narrator says, the one true witness: “like God, or like the gods, who look on in absolute silence as we live our lives, as we make our choices or fail to make them” (62). When O’Brien leaves the next morning, the old man is gone: “I do know that by the time I’d finished packing the old man had disappeared. Around noon, when I took my suitcase out to the car, I noticed that his old black pickup truck was no longer parked in front of the house” (62).

21As the story ends, the narrator makes his way through the familiar prairie towns, then, he says, to Vietnam, and then home again. “I survived,” he says, “but it’s not a happy ending. I was a coward. I went to the war” (63).

22This extensive review of the story makes it clear how much of the text reflects the Grail legend—and not simply the general outline of the Grail legend, but specifically the first known version of the myth in Western literature—Chrétien de Troyes’ late twelfth-century Perceval, or the Story of the Grail, a courtly romance in Old French that O’Brien seems to have deliberately patterned his Grail story upon.

23At first this may sound improbable. Aren’t the stories in The Things They Carried autobiographical? Aren’t they the thinly-disguised incidents in the life of the main character, “Tim O’Brien,” as he experienced them in the war? The answer is no. In an interview with Josephine Reed for the National Endowment for the Arts, O’Brien distinguished between “fact” and “truth,” and defends fiction as “a way of trying to get at an emotional or spiritual or psychological truth.” Of all the stories in The Things They Carried, “On the Rainy River” is the most fictional:

Well that never happened. I did not get in my car and drive to the Rainy River although I was drafted. I didn’t spend six days there. In fact, I’ve never been there in my life. The characters that are up on the Rainy River don’t exist. And yet, although the story is largely invented, it feels to me truer in a way than the literal truth that I could recount about that terrible summer I was drafted. […] I make things up, yes. And invent a whole—whole bunch of stuff but it’s an effort to get at you know, certain emotional or spiritual truths that you just, I can’t get at by recitation of fact.

  • 3 This aspect of O’Brien’s style—what Robin Silbergleid calls “autobiographical metafiction”—has been (...)

24This is what O’Brien means when he says later in The Things They Carried, “I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening truth” (203).3

25Thus, beyond the initial facts of the narrator’s draft notice, his opposition to the war, and his wrenching internal struggle, “On the Rainy River” is a complete fiction, and as such is consciously constructed in a manner that seems a close reflection of Chrétien’s original Grail story. Both are stories not about the Grail itself but about what Richard Barber calls “the development of a knight’s character” (14) in referring to Perceval. The stories begin in roughly the same manner: as O’Brien is raised in rural Minnesota, far from the state’s cultural center of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, and even farther from the hub of power in Washington, Chrétien’s Perceval is brought up in the Waste Forest of Wales, many days’ ride from the king’s court.

26When Perceval first encounters knights from King Arthur’s court, he deems them “more beautiful […] than God and all his angels” (386), and rides off to pursue his destiny as a knight after his mother confides that his father and brothers had all been noble knights but had been slain. O’Brien’s conception of himself as hero, the Lone Ranger fighting for the right, is essentially a modern version of this fascination with chivalry, but when O’Brien’s summons comes, he balks at riding off to join the modern military “knights,” since their chivalric heroism is far less certain. Instead, O’Brien spends his summer on the grotesquely mechanized slaughterhouse line, with the automated procession of slaughtered pigs coming at him in an endless line, like the soldiers on their way to Vietnam, turned into impersonalized cogs in the war machine. The job prefigures as well the impersonal slaughter of the enemy in Vietnam. It turns his life into a waste land—all around him is death and the smell of death—“Even after a hot bath, scrubbing hard, the stink was always there—like old bacon, or sausage, a dense greasy pig-stink that soaked deep into my skin and hair” (47).

27When O’Brien does leave his own Waste Forest, it is not to become a knight but to evade that process. Yet he, like Perceval, ultimately finds himself at the Grail Castle. In Chrétien’s story, the young knight meets a noble gentleman named Gornemant of Gohort, who instructs the naive Perceval in how to dress, act, and use his weapons, and gives him several pieces of advice: grant mercy to an enemy who asks it; console maidens and wives who are in distress; go to church and pray; and most significantly, “be careful not to be too talkative or prone to gossip. Anyone who is too talkative soon discovers he has said something that brings him reproach. […] Therefore, young man, I warn you not to talk too much” (402).

28After he leaves Gornemant, Perceval has a number of adventures before he finally comes to a river, in the midst of which are two men in a boat, one of whom is fishing. Perceval asks if there is a way across the river, and the fisherman tells him he is far from any bridge or ferry, but invites Perceval to stay the night in his home. He is well received in the castle, and joins the gentleman—the Fisher King—for dinner. The king cannot rise, he says, because of an infirmity. This is the traditional wound of infertility common in the Grail legend.

29Consider the parallels between this part of the story and “On the Rainy River.” Both stories contain a boat with two men fishing on a river. In both stories, the young traveler is granted lodging in the home of an older, infirm gentleman. O’Brien’s Tip-Top lodge is hardly a castle, however. It is itself more akin to a waste land: O’Brien writes that it is “in sorry shape. There was a dangerous wooden dock, an old minnow tank, a flimsy tar paper boathouse along the shore. The main building, which stood in a cluster of pines on high ground, seemed to lean heavily to one side, like a cripple, the roof sagging toward Canada” (51), almost, a reader might conclude, as if pointing the way. Chrétien’s Fisher King is handicapped by a wound; O’Brien’s Elroy Berdahl is a man in his eighties, still somewhat vigorous but unable to keep up the repairs on his lodge by himself, and certainly beyond the age of fertility. Most significant, however, is his name: Elroy means, of course, “the king.” And Berdahl is a king who fishes.

30While the caretaker’s name may be the clearest allusion to the Grail story, the most significant parallel with Chrétien’s romance is in the climactic scene. In Chrétien, Perceval is seated at dinner with the Fisher King when a procession passes by: a squire carrying a white lance whose point was dripping blood, two knights carrying candelabra of pure gold, a maiden carrying a golden Grail or platter, and another maiden carrying a silver carving dish. The Grail passes by with each course of the meal Perceval takes with the Fisher King, always passing into an adjoining chamber. Through all of this the lord of the manor is silent, never commenting on the procession or encouraging the young knight to speak. Even though Perceval is deeply curious about the procession and burns to know who is fed by the Grail, he never says a word to the lord, thinking that he will ask some servant the next morning rather than trouble the Fisher King with the question. O’Brien’s Fisher King, Elroy, brings the narrator to the Canadian shore and waits. The irresolute narrator sits in the boat with Berdahl, torn by his inner conflict, and like Perceval can neither speak nor act. Berdahl, like the Fisher King, says nothing at all: “His eyes were flat and impassive. He didn’t speak. He was simply there, like the river and the late-summer sun” (62).

31Neither Perceval nor O’Brien get any help from their respective “kings,” and both ultimately fail. Perceval fails to ask who is served by the Grail, a question that would, in some mystical way, have healed the wounded Fisher King and restored the fertility of the waste land, as Perceval learns from a damsel later in the story: the king will now never rule his kingdom again, Perceval is told, and as a result of his failure “Ladies will lose their husbands, lands will be laid waste, and maidens will remain helpless as orphans; many a knight will die” (438). As Barber argues, there is nothing magical in this outcome: “merely the stark reality of a land left prey to marauders. The Fisher King got his wound in battle: his enemies are presumably still at large, and because he cannot lead his army to fight them, his land is open to attack” (20). Thus Perceval’s consequences are as real as O’Brien’s. O’Brien fails to leave the boat and flee to the Canadian shore, and the result is told in the grim tale of war’s horrors that populate the rest of the stories in his book.

32The morning after his failure to ask about the Grail, Perceval awakes to find the Grail castle deserted. None of the household appears to help him arm himself, and when he approaches the chamber doors through which he had passed the previous night, Chrétien says he “found them tightly closed” (422). He rides out the gate but no servants appear. Once he has crossed the drawbridge, it is taken up, but though he calls out to the castle, no one will answer.

33When O’Brien is ready to leave the Tip Top lodge the day after his failure in the boat, he finds the lodge deserted as well:

By the time I’d finished packing the old man had disappeared. Around noon, I took my suitcase out to the car, I noticed that his old black pickup truck was no longer parked in front of the house. I went inside and waited for a while, but I felt a bone certainty that he wouldn’t be back. (63)

34In both cases, the failed Grail Knight is left to contemplate his failure alone. There is no way to escape the responsibility for that failure and there is no place to hide.

35One final parallel between O’Brien’s story and Chrétien’s is perhaps the most significant of all, and that has to do with the motives for their respective failures. In the case of O’Brien, as already noted, that motive is his sense of social embarrassment: “I couldn’t tolerate it. I couldn’t endure the mockery, or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule” (61). As it happens, Perceval’s reasons for not asking about the Grail are nearly identical: his mentor, Gornemant, had cautioned him against talking too much, and this is what stops his tongue at the Grail castle:

He recalled the admonishment given by the gentleman who had knighted him, who taught and instructed him not to talk too much; he was afraid that if he asked they would consider him uncouth, and therefore he did not ask. (420)

36Thus both protagonists fail as Grail Knights because they allow the petty shame of social embarrassment to override what proves to be a far more significant choice: in the case of Perceval, it is a choice that could have prevented disaster and restored the waste land of the Fisher King’s realm. For O’Brien it is a moral choice that he knows to be right. Life and death decisions are overriden by the need for social acceptance.


37In the end, why is O’Brien’s use of the Grail legend significant? Both are archetypal initiation stories, in which a young man filled with heroic idealism fails in his life’s first difficult test. In both cases the failure is due to societal pressures that cause the young men to fail to do what they instinctively feel is right. The parallel may be meant to suggest that the consequences of O’Brien the character’s failure may ultimately be as dire as Perceval’s. In O’Brien’s case (as in the case of Paul Wade in In the Lake of the Woods), it is not the Fisher King who needs healing, it is the Grail Knight himself, whose waste land is his own psyche in need of regeneration. Thus it might be said that O’Brien’s failure does not have the cosmic significance of Perceval’s. But considering O’Brien’s work as a whole, with its failed Grail Knights and its unhealed Fisher Kings, it might be argued that his use of the Grail myth forms a commentary on American society in general in the second half of the twentieth century. In many ways the O’Brien character in “On the Rainy River” is a microcosm of his own country: as Daniel Robinson writes, “Like the chaotic and morally ambiguous war they fight, O’Brien’s characters are unsure of their purpose or even their actions” (258). Here, the narrator represents small-town America in turmoil over the war. The crowds that he imagines urging him one way or another as he contemplates his future include “several members of the United States Senate, and a blind poet scribbling notes, and LBJ, and Huck Finn, and Abbie Hoffman, and all the dead soldiers back from the grave” (60-61). The great crowd in O’Brien’s mind suggests that perhaps it is America itself that had a chance to back away from the war—perhaps in the election of 1968—and chose not to. Perhaps the reasons for going to war are often, as in this case, petty by comparison with the reasons to eschew war. Twenty-two years later, O’Brien’s narrator finally brings himself to say, like Robert McNamara himself, “we were wrong, terribly wrong.”


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1 Weston famously sought the origin of the Grail legends in the survival of ancient pagan fertility rites, a position most serious scholars have dismissed. Roger Sherman Loomis, in his The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol, argued vigorously for the Grail myth’s origins in Celtic mythology preserved in the literature of ancient Ireland and medieval Wales. Though there may be some connections here, particularly considering the influence of the oral traditions of the Celtic Bretons in France, it is generally conceded that Loomis relies heavily on unconvincing analogues and overstates his case. Other suggestions about the Grail’s history suggest an eastern origin: Lars-Ivar Ringbom, focusing not on Chrétien de Troyes but on Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal, argued for an origin in Persian Zoroastrianism. C. Scott Littleton and Ann C. Thomas found the origin of the legend among the Sarmatian people of the Caucasus, sent by the Romans to fight in Britain in late classical times. Emma Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz, in The Grail Legend, explain the various parallel stories and folk-tales recalling the Grail as evidence of a Jungian archetype in the Grail story. In his comprehensive recent book The Holy Grail, Richard Barber, finds the source of the Grail motif in Christian imagery. While it is hard to reconcile this with Chrétien’s initial presentation of the Grail, Barber is not doctrinaire in his arguments. Comparing the many versions of the Grail story with the idea of immram—the voyage taken in a rudderless boat, relying completely on the will of God—which exists in both Old Irish and Buddhist Japan (cultures that could have had no contact with one another), Barber notes:
"There is no common source, only a common mode of existence at the edge of an unknown and terrifying ocean. So with the Grail: these widely separated avatars of cups and stones are united not by one text or one tale, but by a common imagination." (248)
In the case of Tim O’Brien, it seems implausible that he was familiar with the many controversies surrounding the Grail origins, but more likely that his chief concept of the generic Grail story and its origins came from Jessie Weston through the intermediaries of Eliot and Hemingway. But as I contend below, O’Brien may well have supplemented this with direct knowledge of Chrétien’s
Story of the Grail, or was familiar with some abstracted version of Chrétien’s text.

2 In one of the “evidence” chapters of this curiously frustrating novel, O’Brien quotes a passage from Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49:
"What did she so desire to escape from? Such a captive maiden, having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all.
Having no apparatus except gut fear and female cunning to examine this formless magic, to understand how it works, how to measure its field strength, count its lien of force, she may fall back on superstition or take up a useless hobby like embroidery, or go ad, or marry a disc jockey. If the tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else?" (Pynchon 21-22, qtd. in O’Brien, Woods 26)
In part this plays on the protagonist’s self-characterization as “The Sorcerer,” but it also makes use of imagery borrowed from the Rapunzel story and, ultimately, the Grail legend: the woman trapped in the tower is in need of regeneration, the kind of escape that the trapped Paul Berlin desires in
Going After Cacciato. But the knight here is a failed Grail Knight as well, and the woman finds it impossible to get out of the tower. The tower here is the fortress of denial John Wade has built in his psyche and in his marriage. It is the fortress/prison of Paul Berlin’s need to conform which overrides his need to escape.

3 This aspect of O’Brien’s style—what Robin Silbergleid calls “autobiographical metafiction”—has been the most discussed element in the book. From the beginning, O’Brien establishes the text as fictional: facing the copyright page of the book is a statement reading “This is a work of fiction. Except for a few details regarding the author’s own life, all the incidents, names, and characters are imaginary.” Two pages later, after the “Acknowledgements” page, O’Brien dedicates the book to “the men of Alpha company, and in particular to Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa”—that is, to all the characters in the book that he has just claimed were fictional. Naming the narrator Tim O’Brien, a 43-year old writer who has already published two books about the war, adds to the impression of autobiography. As Silbergleid writes, “In forcing his readers to question the truth as he tells it, O’Brien also pushes them to question truth more generally, particularly as it relates to the representation of Vietnam. The narratives and experiences of the Vietnam War, like the postmodern condition, are uncertain, ambiguous, multiple” (148). Steven Kaplan adds that O’Brien’s method of “constantly involving and then re-involving the reader in the task of what ‘actually’ happened in a given situation, in a story, and by forcing the reader to experience the impossibility of ever knowing with any certainty what actually happened, O’Brien liberates himself from the lonesome responsibility of remembering and trying to understand events” (51). He certainly does this in “On the Rainy River,” when, for instance, he speaks of the tightening in his chest that he can still feel, “And I want you to feel it. […] You’re at the bow of a boat on the Rainy River. You’re twenty-one years old, you’re scared, and there’s a hard squeezing pressure in your chest” (59). While this is a significant part of the story, it has little to do with the Grail motif that I am pursuing, so I merely point it out here. For more about this aspect of the story, see Silbergleid and Kaplan.

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Jay Ruud, « Tim O’Brien as Grail Knight: “On the Rainy River” », Journal of the Short Story in English, 69 | 2017, 133-147.

Référence électronique

Jay Ruud, « Tim O’Brien as Grail Knight: “On the Rainy River” », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 69 | Autumn 2017, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2019, consulté le 25 janvier 2020. URL :


Jay Ruud

Jay Ruud is recently retired as Professor and Chair of the English department at the University of Central Arkansas. In addition to articles on Chaucer, Julian of Norwich, Medieval English drama, Dante, and Tolkien, he is the author of “Many a Song and Many a Lecherous Lay”: Tradition and Individuality in Chaucer’s Lyric Poetry (Garland 1992). He has published articles on medieval influence on writers as varied as Terry Pratchett, Thomas Berger, P.G. Wodehouse, John Gardner, and C.S. Lewis. He is also the author of the Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature (2006), the Critical Companion to Dante (2008), and the Critical Companion to Tolkien (2011) from Facts on File. He taught at UCA for thirteen years, prior to which he was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota.

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