Monty Python and the Holy Grail: Parody and Satire that Shine a Light on the Legend of King Arthur, Term Paper Example
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Arthurian legends have served as the basis of everything from ancient myths to modern movies; the diverse array of forms these stories have taken range from the serious to the comical and everything in between. At their core, most of these stories share some common themes, and offer audiences insight into the chivalric code and the values and ideals that informed and motivated the knights and others who lived by them. The themes and ideas explored in Arthurian legends are timeless, and continue to provide a compelling basis for storytelling for contemporary audiences. In the mid-20th century, the brief period during which John F. Kennedy served as the President of the United States was referred to then and now as “Camelot,” a name which clearly demonstrates not only the idealized and romanticized views many people had about Kennedy’s life, but also shows that centuries-old stuff of legend is still compelling and even fascinating to modern audiences.
In the film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” the British troupe known as Monty Python satirizes Arthurian legend by presenting a comedic take on the most famous stories about the King and his knights. Although “Holy Grail” is played for laughs, it also touches on many of the most important and resonant themes of chivalry and honor that typified idealized views on the Arthurian legend. While “Holy Grail” amuses audiences with its silly and satiric version of Arthur’s life and legend, it also demonstrates how deeply ingrained these stories have become in Western cultural history. This paper will examine “Holy Grail” and compare and contrast the events of the film to their more serious historical antecedents and counterparts.
There are no canonical stories of King Arthur; the various legends associated with Arthur were authored by numerous figures over the course of history, and many are amalgamations of other, earlier myths and legends (Roberts, p85, 2001). The film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” not only offers a nod to many of the different legends, it also combines story elements that have no previous connection to Arthurian myth. The events of the film are loosely associated with some of the well-known tales of chivalry and honor that have historically been ascribed to King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table; by viewing these events through the lens of parody and satire the filmmakers make it clear that they are both familiar with such legends yet do not take them too seriously.
From the outset, “Holy Grail” mocks the conventions associated with King Arthur and his legend. There is little backstory; the events of the film begin as Arthur is an adult, and is on a quest to amass a group of knights he plans to gather at his round table. The film quickly stakes out its satirical territory, as Arthur’s divine and royal authority is challenged by the first group of people he meets. As Arthur, portrayed by actor Graham Chapman, comes across what he believes is an “old woman,” he demands to know where her king lives so that he can request that the king join him. The “old woman” turns out to be a young man, though one whose appearance is clearly weathered by his harsh, agrarian lifestyle. This man begins to question Arthur, who has announced himself the “King of the Britons.” The man wants to know what “Britons” are, and by what right Arthur claims his royal authority. Arthur replies by beginning to recount the tale of the Lady of the Lake and the sword Excalibur (Roberts, p96, 2001), to which the man replies that this “watery tart” cannot grant authority; authority can only be derived from the people. As Arthur yells at the man to “shut up” and begins to shove him the man cries out “I’m being repressed” and “come see the violence inherent in the system.” In this brief scene the filmmakers completely undermine the notion of divine authority (Aberth, np, 2003), and turn Arthur’s legend from something grand to something that is merely silly.
The tone established in the opening scenes in the film present a thematic juxtaposition: while the film satirizes, and even mocks, the Arthurian legends, it also makes it clear just how significant and resonant these legends are. There is little need to explain the settings or to offer context in which the events and characters function; the stories associated with Arthur are so well-known that it is possible to parody them without needing to offer any complicated or clunky exposition. Viewers are familiar enough with the legends of Excalibur and the Lady of the Lake, for example, that the character of Arthur needs only to begin to recount the story of how he came to own the great sword before the other character can interrupt him and the rest of the scene can be played for laughs. The same can be said for many of the elements and events of the story; the concepts of chivalry, honor, and valor are so closely associated with Arthurian legend and knighthood that they can be swiftly and mercilessly parodied throughout the film. The use of coconuts to create the sound of clattering horse hooves, for example, is humorous on several levels; first, it is simply a funny and silly visual and aural image, and secondly, it plays off of the strong association between knighthood and horsemanship (Taylor and Brewer, p22, 1983). A knight that uses horse sound effects in lieu of riding an actual horse is obviously not one that is to be taken seriously, either in the context of the story by the other characters, or by the audience witnessing the events of the film.
One of the film’s funniest scenes comes fairly early on, when Arthur and his companion Patsy come to a clearing and witness a battle taking place between two knights. As Arthur and Patsy look on, the Black Knight swiftly dispatches his enemy, only to turn to Arthur and Patsy and announce that they will not be allowed to pass through the woods. Arthur again tries to impress a listener with his nobility and royal title, and again he is rebuffed. Arthur responds by drawing Excalibur and engaging the Black Knight in battle. As the two combatants swing at each other, Arthur begins to lop off limb after limb from the Black Knight. Rather than surrender, however, the Black Knight insists he has only received a “flesh wound,” and demands that Arthur continue fighting. Even when both his arms and legs have been severed, and Arthur and Patsy continue on their journey, the Black Knight threatens to “bite” their legs. Again, this scene works on multiple levels; the sheer ridiculousness of a limbless knight vowing to fight on is worthy of laughter, and it also effectively plays off of, and in support of, the chivalric code by which knights were expected to live (Taylor and Barber, p22, 1983). A chivalrous knight would never run from a battle, and would fight to his last breath; although mortally wounded, the Black Knight adhered to the code of chivalry.
At the central point in the film King Arthur begins to amass a group of knights, including Sir Robin, Sir Galahad, and Sir Lancelot. The knights are them met by a vision of God, who appears in the clouds above them and commands Arthur to seek the Holy Grail. The legend of the Holy Grail was not a component of the earliest Arthurian tales, but was added later and adapted by other writers in the centuries after the first stories of King Arthur were told (Barber, p53, 2004). The quest for the Holy Grail became one of the most notable features of Arthurian legend, however, and it is also featured as the major plot element in the film. Like the other story components, however, Arthur’s vision of God and the subsequent quest are played for laughs, as God quibbles and complains over the way in which he is spoken to by Arthur and the knights. In Arthurian legend the quest for the grail and the divine nature of Arthur’s authority are central to the power of the stories (Barber, p53, 2004); in the film they are parodied and mocked, though with the understanding that the audience needs little in the way of explanation.
As Arthur has amassed a group of knights and his quest for the Holy Grail is underway, yet another major element of Arthurian legend is introduced. Arthur announces that he and the knights will make their way to his castle, Camelot, at which point the film cuts to a musical number that takes place inside Camelot. The lyrics of the song make Camelot out to be as ridiculous as the other elements of the film; as the song concludes the film cuts back to Arthur who announces that he and the knights will forgo a visit to the famed castle. It is, says Arthur, a “silly place,” and he decides instead that they will continue on their quest. Viewers who are unfamiliar with Arthurian legend may not find the scene to be as amusing as those who recognize the significance of Camelot in the legends of King Arthur; for those who are familiar with Camelot, however, the dismissal of the legendary castle is yet another example of the multiple levels on which the film operates.
As the stories and legends of King Arthur were written and expanded upon over the centuries, some of the tales associated with the larger set of legends focused on the exploits of individual knights (Barber, p56, 2004). The names of Galahad and Lancelot, among others, are as well-known as the name of King Arthur, though historians differ in their views of these knights and their association with Arthurian legend. The character of Lancelot, for example, is believed by some to have originated in tales that were originally entirely separate from the stories of King Arthur, and were fused with Arthurian legend over decades or centuries (Barber, p53, 2004). The film, like many of the stories in literature, tells several separate, parallel tales of the individual knights, while naturally playing them for laughs. At the core of each of these individual stories the chivalric code is parodied, and the brave and virtuous knights of legend are portrayed in the film as cowardly and fatuous.
The chivalric code dictates, among other things, that knights must defend the weak and protect the innocent, and chivalry places romantic and even chaste love at the pinnacle of knightly virtue. In “Holy Grail” these elements are entirely subverted as each of the individual knights is seen making his own quest for the Holy Grail. The character of Sir Robin, for example, is accompanied by minstrels who sing of his bravery and fearlessness while offering gruesomely ridiculous details about the variety and seriousness of injuries he faces on his journey. When Sir Robin is actually faced with peril, he chooses to slip away rather than fight, prompting the minstrels to sing proudly about Robin’s decision to “run away.”
One of the most well-known of Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, Lancelot, is parodied in the film in an equally vicious manner. Viewers are shown a scene wherein a young, and not particularly masculine prince is being held captive in a castle tower by his father as the father makes preparations for the prince’s impending wedding. The prince writes a note which he pins to an arrow, and fires the arrow out the window of the tower. This arrow strikes Lancelot’s coconut-clapping assistant, and Lancelot reads the note and believes that a damsel is in distress. Lancelot determines that by saving this damsel he will be following the fate God has laid out for him, and will presumably come closer to his goal of finding the Holy Grail. Determined to save what he believes is a woman in peril, Lancelot storms the castle.
Lancelot’s efforts to rescue the prince –whom he believes is a princess- are completely in opposition to the chivalric code (barber, p53, 2004). As he reaches the castle gate, he begins slashing murderously at everyone in sight. He does not just kill the guard at the gate; he stabs at women, children, and old men with equal verve. Although his goal is to make his way to the castle tower, Lancelot takes the time to stab and slash at virtually everyone present in the castle below before beginning his ascent. Just as the earlier scene with Sir Robin played off of the stereotypically chivalric code of valor and fearlessness, the scene with Lancelot completely subverts the chivalric dictates that knights must defend the weak (Barber and Taylor, p315, 1983). Not only does Lancelot not defend the weak, he actually goes out of his way to kill them. Once he realizes that the princess he hoped to rescue is actually a prince, he abandons any pretense of continuing his rescue mission and allows the prince to fall to his death during an attempted escape from the tower. When he is invited downstairs by the prince’s father (who is not in the least bit distraught by the prince’s death), Lancelot again begins to slash and stab the people that remain alive, before apologizing for getting carried away.
The scenes involving Sir Galahad also send up the chivalric code, this time by satirizing the chaste, romantic love espoused by chivalry (Barber and Taylor, p315, 1983). When Galahad sees what he thinks is a sign that the Holy Grail is being kept in a nearby castle, he makes his way there. Upon his arrival, he discovers that the castle is populated entirely by young, beautiful women. Galahad has suffered a slight wound, and the doctors who are called to tend to him are just as young and beautiful as everyone else in the castle. At first Galahad tries to fend the women off and reject their blatant overtures, but he is eventually overwhelmed by their demands for attention and affection. Just as he is about to succumb to the women, however, Lancelot and Robin storm the castle to rescue him. Galahad tries to convince the other knights that he does not need rescuing, but they insist they to remain would be to face great peril. Galahad practically begs them to let him stay and “face the peril,” but they forcibly drag him out of the castle and continue on their quest.
The film touches on several other key elements in Arthurian legend, while continuing to subvert them and to play them for laughs. The famous wizard Merlin, who plays an important role in the tales of King Arthur, is not present in the film; instead, a man with magical powers with the unlikely name of “Tim” confronts the traveling band of knights. While Tim does take the time to speak with King Arthur and his cohorts, he seems far more interested in shooting flames from his magical staff and blowing up rocks scattered around the surrounding hillsides. Tim then warns the venturers about a dangerous, vicious rabbit which does in fact attack the men. Rather than come across a dragon or some other enormous creature, the knights face a deadly rabbit.
As the film nears its conclusion, the King and the knights come across clues scratched in the walls of a cave that they believe might lead them to the Holy Grail; a closer inspection reveals that the clues are incomplete and therefore useless. In the end, King Arthur’s quest is interrupted by a modern-day police force that is investigating a death that took place earlier in the film. The sheer ridiculousness of the ending echoes the silliness and satirical elements of the entire film, reinforcing the notion that none of it is to be taken seriously. At the same time, however, the jarring, unexpected ending and the emphasis on the ridiculous elements of the story also reinforces the manner in which the film both parodies and honors the legends of King Arthur. In nearly every scene in the film some fundamental component of Arthurian legend and chivalry is skewered and held up to ridicule, yet the only reason these comedic elements are actually funny is because at their core they evince an abiding respect for the ancient legends. If the stories of the life of King Arthur and the chivalric codes which guided the Knights of the Round Table were not so firmly woven into the fabric of history, the film would fail completely. By embracing and satirizing these legends, “Holy Grail” demonstrates that, at its core, the film holds a deep and abiding respect for their timeless resonance.
Aberth, John. A Knight at the Movies: Medieval History on Film. New York, NY: Routledge, 2003. Print.
Barber, Richard W. The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004. Print.
Roberts, Jeremy. King Arthur. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications Co, 2001. Print.
Taylor, Beverly, and Elizabeth Brewer. The Return of King Arthur: British and American Arthurian Literature. Rochester, NY: Boydell and Brewer, 1983. Print.
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