Bernard Malamud, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, published short stories in a variety of magazines during the 1940s and 1950s. He published his first novel, The Natural in 1952. That Malamud chose to focus his first novel on baseball surprised and mystified his readers; even in his early short stories, Malamud had generally used Jewish characters, settings, and themes. The early reviews of The Natural illustrate the hesitation with which critics approached the novel. Many found the subject matter strange, the allegory strained, and the symbolism difficult.
Consequently, apart from reviews, the novel received little critical attention in the first years after its publication. However, after the publication of The Assistant and The Magic Barrel, literary scholars returned their attention to Malamud's first novel, looking for patterns that would emerge in his later work.
In spite of renewed interest in the novel, however, critics generally agree that The Natural is Bernard Malamud's most uncharacteristic and difficult novel. In his book, Bernard Malamud, for example, critic Sidney Richmond calls The Natural "one of the most baffling novels of the 1950's."
A number of notable critics have attempted to render the novel less baffling by identifying Malamud's sources. Earl Wasserman, for example, identifies important allusions to the real world of baseball, including events from Babe Ruth's life, the White Sox scandal of 1919, and the shooting of Eddie Waitkus by an insane woman. He also discusses Malamud's use of the Arthurian Grail story, noting that the Grail story serves as "the archetypal fertility myth." In addition, Wasserman applies psychologist Carl Jung's notion of mythic archetypes to help explain Roy's relationship with the female characters in the novel.
Indeed, connecting The Natural to Arthurian legend provides one of the most compelling ways to read the novel. Nevertheless, critics who make this connection generally look to Malory as Malamud's source. Certainly, the inclusion of Pop Fisher as the Fisher King and the motif of the Wasteland spring largely from Malory; however, there is another medieval Arthurian romance that seems more closely aligned with The Natural. "Honi soit qui mal y pense," says the Judge to Roy: Shame be to the man who has evil in his mind. This is, not coincidentally, also the closing line of Gawain and the Green Knight, a long poem written by an anonymous writer around 1400. A closer examination of Gawain may offer yet another way to read Malamud's novel.
Gawain and the Green Knight opens in the Christmas court of King Arthur. A huge Green Knight enters, and challenges the knights to a game. He offers any knight the chance to strike him with his ax. In exchange, the Green Knight will strike the same knight with the ax in one year and a day. Gawain rushes to accept the challenge, and knocks the head off the Green Knight.
To everyone's surprise, the blow does not...