Tag Archives: Medieval

Monty Python and the Holy Grail and its Arthurian Antecedents

posters 08-29-2008

Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the story of a divinely-appointed king, his initial quest to recruit followers for his court, their ordination from God, their battles against enemies both domestic and foreign, human and otherworldly, and an adventure that will test their mettle and put the codes of chivalry and chastity on trial. There are also some jokes.

Despite the film’s farcical quality scholar Norris J. Lacy admits that “There exist well over 100 Arthurian films, but a good many professional Arthurian scholars readily acknowledge that, in their view, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the best of them.” John Aberth makes the same admission, writing that it remains “the best interpretation of both the history and the legend of King Arthur.”

The film earned such a vaunted reputation by remaining faithful to Arthurian and medieval literature despite its reams of absurdity and apparent non-sequitur. Even the animated interludes, drawn by co-director Terry Gilliam, reference and borrow imagery from medieval texts like The Book of Hours. The film’s tone avoids mystical treatments like Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and instead shares more common ground with Mark Twain’s irreverent A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. A passage from the book can almost be read as a synopsis for the movie itself:

The boys all took a flier at the Holy Grail now and then. It was a several-years’ cruise … though none of them had any idea where the Holy Grail really was, and I don’t think any of them actually expected to find it, or would have known what to do with it if he had run across it […] Every year expeditions went out holy grailing, and next year relief expeditions went out to hunt for them.

The opening tells us that the film takes place in 932 A.D., five centuries too late for a historical treatment of Arthur and centuries too early for Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chrétien de Troyes, or Sir Thomas Malory. The film elects not to mention, let alone focus on, the familial relations between the Knights of the Round Table or the internecine conflicts between Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere. In fact there is no Guinevere at all. Co-director Terry Jones reveals in the director’s commentary that “In most of the Arthurian legend, they’re actually told in the 14th century about the 10th century, so really the period of the film is 1350s or something like that.”

This allows for a fair amount of anachronism but, as it demonstrates with its conversations about coconuts and swallows, plus the inclusion (and swift removal) of ‘A Famous Historian’, the film is not concerned with the pedanticism of actual logic or history. Holy Grail instead occupies a mythological rather than historical space; where great tracts of England lie undiscovered, where each village and castle is isolated unto itself, and where literally every hill, plain and gully is flooded with rolling mist. It is, in effect, the Middle Ages of the common imagination.

In one of the first scenes King Arthur (Graham Chapman) and his squire Patsy (Terry Gilliam) ride alongside a peasant called Dennis. Arthur asks who the lord of the nearby castle is, but Dennis, an apparent Marxist, questions Arthur’s legitimacy as king. Aberth writes that

The joke is that some medieval historians, such as R.H. Hilton, C.H. Brennen, and Guy Bois, really do apply Marxist theory to the Middle Ages […] Monty Python is only carrying to extremes the misguided attempts of Marxist scholars to impose their thoroughly modern historical models on the medieval past, where Dennis’s obnoxiously combative jargon would sound just as foreign as in a medieval film.

Another joke, parrying with Dennis’ anarcho-communist diatribes, is the apparent ignorance of his fellow peasants, one of whom enters the frame by crawling through the mud and calling, “Dennis, there’s some lovely filth down here!” Python regularly exploit as much lunacy as they can by pairing up absurdities and juxtapositions that both play on and defy audience expectations. Dennis’ “See the violence inherent in the system!” is not merely a mockery of twentieth century protest but a winking critique of a very real ‘might is right’ ethos that can be found in the literature. As Merlin advises the young Arthur in Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur: “Come out boldly and speak with them, and spare them not, but answer them as their king and chieftain, for ye shall overcome them all, whether they will or nill.” Despite the apparent conclusiveness of Arthur’s kingship and divine sponsorship, he has to fight many battles and wars to quell any objection, starting with King Lot and his men:

King Arthur on horseback laid on with a sword, and did marvellous deeds of arms … Sir Arthur turned with his knights and smote behind and before … Then he drew his sword Excalibur … And therewith he put them aback, and slew much people.

As hysterical as Dennis’ sloganeering sounds, there is real criticism to be made behind the laughter, so long as it remains, in true Python style, behind the laughter. Dennis and his partner later cameo during ‘The Tale of Sir Robin’, and can be overhead bickering: “Oh Dennis, forget about freedom. What about that mud?”

In the next scene Arthur encounters a black and green knight battling near a small river crossing. The Black Knight skewers his enemy and Arthur approaches, congratulating him for his prowess. The Knight makes no response except to deny Arthur passage. Scenarios such as this were popular in the 14th century, where knights would engage in a pas d’armes with other wandering warriors. The pas d’armes “was an aristocratic game”, the purpose of which was “to give the individual knight a formalised means of earning ‘worship’, that is, honour,” but it could take on deadlier forms, as it does here. The outrageous violence of the scene mocks the dismemberments and spurting blood from Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac, released the year before, but also honours the brutality of medieval literature. For example, the end of Chrétien de Troyes’ Lancelot or The Knight of the Cart features a bloody battle between Lancelot and Meleagant, the action of which is reminiscent of Arthur’s battle with the Black Knight:

[Lancelot] gives him a great hard blow past his shield directly onto his mail-clad right arm, severing it at a stroke. Feeling the loss of his right arm, he declared that Lancelot would pay dearly for it […] He runs towards him, trying to grapple with him.

Lancelot quickly puts the stubborn Meleagant out of action by cutting off his head, though Arthur’s dismembered opponent is defiant even after Arthur has rode off.

Arthur eventually gathers his band of knights, including Sir Bedevere (Terry Jones), Sir Lancelot the Brave (John Cleese), Sir Galahad the Brave (Michael Palin), and Sir Robin the not-quite-as-brave-as-Sir-Lancelot (Eric Idle). They stumble upon a castle where they are harangued by the French guards upon the battlements. This scene with the French taunters references not only the historic and military rivalry between England and France but also the shared responsibility in shaping the legend of King Arthur himself, since staples of the Arthur canon, such as Camelot and Sir Lancelot, were inventions of de Troyes. The French were also the creators of the Grail legend in relation to Arthur, with it first appearing as a device in literature in Perceval, the Story of the Grail by de Troyes. It is only fitting that they “already have one” of their own, and also appear as the castellans of Grail Castle in the finale.

After the Knights of the Round Table split up to seek the Grail the film processes each of their stories in the style of book chapters before rounding them up again for the final approach towards the Grail’s alleged location. The first of these chapters is ‘The Tale of Sir Robin’, which follows the knight as he travels through a forest with his favourite band of minstrels. They pass a signpost pointing to ‘Camelot’ in one direction and ‘Certain Death’ the other. In the literature leaving Camelot to go questing is always greeted with fanfare and some sorrow – the questing knight will inevitably come into great danger, and if he can persevere then glory and acclaim will be his. If not, then he is merely another corpse to be added to the piles littering the Arthurian landscape. Sir Robin’s minstrel acknowledges this danger in his song:

He was not in the least bit scared to be mashed into a pulp,
or to have his eyes gouged out and his elbows broken,
to have his kneecaps split and his body burned away,
and his limbs all hacked and mangled, brave Sir Robin!

Robin is an invention of the film, having no direct precursor in Arthurian canon. As the film establishes earlier, he is a coward whose only fame stems from having “personally wet himself at the Battle of Badon Hill”, some four hundred years before the chronology of the film, and having almost “stood up to the vicious chicken of Bristol” (tellingly, Sir Robin’s sigil itself is a large chicken). Though the other members of King Arthur’s troupe are at times feckless (“Run away!” being a repeated line throughout) Sir Robin is the most spineless of the lot. As Chrétien reminds us in his tale Yvain, cowardice is a cardinal sin for the ordained knight: “There’s no valour in a man who fears too much.”

Hapless Sir Robin.

Hapless Sir Robin.

In his segment Robin and his band cross paths with a three-headed giant who demands that they halt and state their purpose. His minstrels answer for him in verse (“to fight!”) but are told by a shaken Robin to shut up. The hilarity comes from the obvious dichotomy between the minstrels’ song and Robin’s actual cowardice, but there’s also a point to be made about the reliability of the oral legends when contrasted to a knight’s actual prowess, especially when said tales and songs depicted their heroes as veritable supermen. Robin is obviously pompous and in love with his own legend, which is quickly and publicly dismantled. The encounter with the giant is likely derived from Chaucer’s likewise heckled Sir Topaz, a bumbling knight mentioned in The Canterbury Tales who “had got to fight a monstrous giant whose heads were three,” though the battle itself consisted of the knight being chased off by his adversary:

Sir Topaz beat a quick retreat;
This giant pelted him thereat
With stones from a terrible sling;
But he escaped, did Childe Topaz,
And it was all through Heaven’s grace,
And his own noble bearing.

Terry Jones, in his book Chaucer’s Knight, wrote that he had started studying Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in 1972, shortly before writing for Holy Grail began. The unfortunate Sir Topaz found himself (or elements of himself) transposed into the movie. The minstrels’ song follows the same pattern as Chaucer’s text, ironically singing enthusiastically of Robin’s “brave retreat.”

Brave Sir Robin ran away, bravely ran away, away,
When danger reared its ugly head he bravely turned his tail and fled,
Brave Sir Robin turned about, undoubtedly he chickened out,
bravely taking to his feet he beat a very brave retreat,
Bravest of the brave, Sir Robin!

In ‘The Tale of Sir Galahad’ we find Galahad the Chaste being lured into Castle Anthrax, which just so happens to have a “Grail-shaped” beacon. Inside he finds a score of young girls “between the ages of sixteen and nineteen-and-a-half” whose retinue, he is informed, consists of “bathing, dressing, undressing,” and “knitting fuzzy underwear”. The women flock to Galahad and insist he rest and succumb to their massaging. The chaste knight at first resists and then relents before being ‘rescued’ by Lancelot. John Cleese relates in the DVD commentary that he felt the Galahad segment was more focused on technical proficiency (cinematography, lighting,) than communicating a good joke, but every component of the scene has an analogue in Arthurian literature, making for subtler hilarity. After all, ‘Castle Anthrax’, as far as names go, is no more on the nose than the ‘Castle of Evil Adventure’ featured in Yvain. The scene itself pokes fun at such a well-known aspect of medieval lore (Christian and knightly vows of chastity) that viewers who are not students of Arthurian literature may not get the references, but they will understand the jokes.

The maiden in the castle trope is recurrent in medieval literature, as are chaste knights being beset by voluptuous women, and its history can be traced to Irish tales like the 8th century legend The Voyage of Bran. In Malory we have Sir Percival’s encounter with the disinherited lady of the ship who gets him drunk and undressed with the offer to “do with me what so it please ye” (the sight of the Cross on his pommel causes him to relent). The trope plays a central role to the Green Knight’s plot in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where Gawain is beseeched to make love to the Lady of the Manor “while my husband’s far from home.” Gawain’s resistance is described as being akin to combat, he “parried so well that he seemed without fault.” In Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal the titular character experiences the kind of delicate hospitality that Monty Python are specifically lampooning:

Damsels in rich clothing and lovely of person arrived, as befitted courtesy’s ways. They washed and quickly smoothed away his bruising with white, soft hands. Indeed, there was no need of him to feel he was in foreign parts, orphaned though he was of wit. Thus he endured pleasure and ease, paying little for his folly with them […] I believe they would willingly have looked to see whether anything had happened to him down below.

The same treatment is doled out on Yvain in Chrétien’s The Knight with the Lion:

But now hear how, and with what kind of welcome and hospitality, my lord Yvain was given lodging. All those in the garden leapt to their feet the moment they saw him, saying: ‘”Come over here, good sir!” […] I do not know if they are deceiving him, but they receive him with great joy and give the impression that they are delighted for him to be very comfortably lodged.”

Chrétien adds that even the lord’s daughter “completely disarms him, and not the least of her attentions is to wash his neck and face with her own hands.”

This segment’s joke and Arthurian critique is arguably the most obvious in the entire film. In the literature women are the instruments of either salvation (if they can be rescued) or damnation (if they don’t need to be, in which case they are a source of division and licentiousness). “But it’s no wonder if a fool should lose his senses and be brought to his downfall through the wiles of women,” Gawain explains in Green Knight, adding that even “the noblest of old, attended by good fortune” were misled and led to ruin by women: Adam by Eve, Samson by Delilah, David by Bathsheba.

In ‘The Tale of Sir Lancelot’ the lord of the rickety Swamp Castle is foisting his unwilling and meek son Herbert into marriage with Princess Lucky so that he may inherit her lands. There is no superlative courtly love here, merely politics and gain. The architectural nightmare that is Swamp Castle alludes to Vortigern’s tower as described by Geoffrey of Monmouth: “However much they built one day, the earth swallowed up the next, and such a way that they had no idea where their work had vanished to.” Herbert manages to send a plea for help (via arrow) that reaches Lancelot (via the chest of his servant, Concorde.) Lancelot, exhilarated by the opportunity to save what he reckons is a helpless maiden, is so caught up in his excitement that he is driven to avenge Concorde, even if he does not need avenged.

Lancelot: No, no, sweet Concorde, stay here! I will send help as soon as I have accomplished a daring and heroic rescue in my own particular…
Concorde: Idiom, Sir?
Lancelot: Idiom!

Of course, the rescue is no more than an unrestrained slaughter, with Lancelot swinging his sword and rappelling through the castle like Errol Flynn. The entire skit is a jab at Arthurian literature’s portrayal of heroism and machismo, where knights trawl the landscape eager to, as Calogrenant relates in de Troyes’ Yvain, “put my prowess and courage to the proof”. Lancelot and his ilk, the film says, cannot exist but as an archetype, blithely cutting his way to glory. “I’m afraid when I’m in this idiom I sort of get carried away,” he offers as way of apology, though Herbert’s father’s anger is allayed by Lancelot’s standing as a knight from Camelot (“Very good pig country!” again spoofing the supposed medieval predilection for grime.)

The segment has a correlation in a chapter from Le Morte d’Arthur, which has Lancelot rescuing maidens from the grasp of two giants: “Then Lancelot went into the hall, and there came afore him three score ladies and damosels, and all kneeled unto him, and thanked God and him for their deliverance.” Cleese’s Lancelot clearly expected the same scene to greet him. Unfortunately, he finds Herbert rather than a helpless woman (one of the only notable women present is the unlucky Princess Lucky, whom Lancelot kicks in the chest.) Mistaken identity is also a source of humour in Malory, where a sleeping Lancelot is mistaken for the lover of Sir Belleus, who “laid him down beside Sir Launcelot, and took him in his arms and began to kiss him. And when Sir Launcelot felt a rough beard kissing him, he start out of the bed lightly, and the other knight after him.”

Another association between the scene and the literature is found in Chrétien, where Yvain chases down and mortally wounds the lord of a castle and is subsequently hounded by his angry servants. Yvain’s declaration that “they’ll never kill me, nor shall I be captured by them” is reflected in the film by Lancelot’s boisterous attitude and second violent outburst. When Yvain spies the dead lord’s wife he quickly falls in love. Luckily, the widow also has a pressing concern to remarry and is convinced to wed her husband’s killer to tie her estates to a strong and renowned warrior. Chrétien writes that the lady “proves to herself that there is justice, good sense and reason in the belief that she has no right to hate [Yvain].” When this line of argument is transposed to Prince Herbert’s grasping father the callousness is preserved but has a new sense of hilarity. When the lord beseeches the wedding guests to spare Lancelot he does so by appealing to their deference for his social status: “This is Sir Lancelot from the court of Camelot, a very brave and influential knight!” But the reality is that respect is not given for its own sake; the lord of Swamp Castle has aspirations of his own, and dashing knights are not often easily separated from murderers.

With the Round Table reunited, they travel further north to seek the Grail, where they meet the pyromaniac Tim the Enchanter, who substitutes for Merlin. Tim is, despite his everyday name, a throwback to Arthur’s Celtic roots. Tim is heavily bearded, clad in rags and wears a headpiece that evokes Celtic horned god Cernunnos. Merlin himself is believed to have been based on a Welsh seer called Myrddin, who after the death of his lord in battle “was so horrified by the slaughter that he went raving mad” and “fled to the Caledonian Forest in the Scots Lowlands, where he lived for years as a ‘wild man of the woods’.” Tellingly, Cleese plays Tim with a rolling Scots accent.

Tim leads them to the Cave of Caerbannog, where they battle a killer rabbit, which is not so ludicrous an enemy when compared to Cath Pulag, a ‘clawing cat’ of Welsh and Continental folklore that fought Arthur and, in non-Galfridian legends, actually succeeded in killing him. After passing through the cave (where they are saved from the Legendary Black Beast of Aaaaarrrrrrggghhh by a fortunate deus ex machina) and crossing the Bridge of Death, only Arthur and Bedevere remain to storm Grail Castle. Unfortunately, they are arrested by the police in the process for the murder of ‘A Famous Historian’, perhaps representing the crime of being silly and irreverent towards the source material.

The ever-beleaguered Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.

The ever-beleaguered Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.

The ending is fittingly absurd, but it also says, perhaps serendipitously, that the Holy Grail is, as it is in the literature, ultimately unattainable, destined to always be sought after, and its presence on Earth only transient. Python, consciously or not, mimicked the conclusion of de Troyes’ The Story of the Grail by simply not having one.

If the film can be said to have a ‘mission’ (other than laughs) then it is to play on the expectations of its audience. Characters that are meant to represent the height of chivalry and bravery are exposed as a gang of bumbling and violent fools. And while Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Arthur is “an idealised medieval ruler, a skilful general and a ferocious fighter, proud, impetuous, ardent and inspiring,” Graham Chapman plays him as an easily exasperated and numerically-challenged man whose status as king is not only slighted, but largely unrecognised. Likewise we are introduced to peasants who literally roll and toil in the mud but are also capable of complicated political discourse. Not only that, but the people inhabiting the film are also quite physically hardy too, far removed from the common perception that they led soft, short and atrophied existences. After all, two repeated lines of dialogue are the knights’ cowardly exclamation to “Run away!” and the reassuring “I’m getting better” of the peasants. Co-director and Python troupe member Terry Jones remarks in the DVD commentary that “I think, in the modern twentieth century, we like to believe that the Middles Ages was like that, so, when we showed it, a lot of critics said, ‘Oh, yes. Really authentic looking.’” The contradictions between what we assume to be the reality of the Middle Ages and what the film depicts is a running gag throughout.

Arthurian literature makes a perfect subject for a comedic interpretation because it cannot be read today without an unintended sense of knowing amusement sometimes creeping in. After all, it depicts a world where knights strut like peacocks, where peasants unquestioningly defer to their ‘betters’, where monsters exist to be vanquished and maidens flock to their rescuers. But this romantic view of the age of Arthur never existed in reality, and its outlandishness is both exposed and further spoofed by Monty Python primarily by depicting the literature as faithfully, and cheekily, as they can.

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