This is the moment I have been waiting for. Back in my days as a high school English teacher, one of my favorite units to cover with seniors was satire. After boring them to tears with my seemingly endless nattering about Anglo Saxons and Beowulf, they were ready for ”something completely different.”
My department best buddy and I had a running tagline about satire: you either get it, or you don’t. Satire seems to go straight over the heads of many people. I suppose because it is so contextually-dependent.
So, my unit began with Swift’s Modest Proposal. An amuse bouche, if you will. (I know, that was a horrible joke.) And, invariably, every semester more than one student would remark in horror, ”He wants to eat babies????”
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.
Our reading of The Canterbury Tales was at least broken up with bawdy jokes and dirty words. I still had to wait a few beats to get any laughs over that poor shitten shepherd, though.
But, the effort was always worth it. MY reward was waiting: Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
I should have mentioned that watching Grail was preceded by reading Gawain and the Green Knight and some of Malory’s Le Morte. The state-sanctioned textbook only included Arthur’s death (the dreams, Bedivere’s failure to follow through with disposing of Excalibur, the promised Christ-like return of Arthur). I always thought my students should hear the naughty bits about Uther and Igraine along with a brief lesson on primogeniture. Throw in a quick run-down on chivalry, and a ”create your own crest” activity, and they were ready to be entertained… Wait, that’s another movie.
While I enjoyed revisiting Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur for my graduate class, it was the accompanying article that made me reconsider the Pythons’ treatment of the legend. In “Standing Up for the Stanzaic-poet: Artistry, Characterization, and Narration in the Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Malory’s Morte Darthur,” (Arthuriana, Vol. 28, Number 3, Fall 2018, pp. 86-113) Fiona Tolhurst and K.S. Whetter make a compelling case for recognizing the literariness of the Stanzaic Morte, one source for Malory’s treatment of the Arthurian legends.
As Tolhurst and Whetter contend, central to both works is character development. Ultimately, these are tales about humans (be they king, queen, or greatest knight to live). It would seem logical that the titular figure is also the one around whom the story unfolds.
The same is true for The Holy Grail. The film follows Arthur, played by Graham Chapman (who also portrays God in an interesting and possibly deliberate case of mirroring/doubling), as he travels the kingdom coalescing an order of knights.
As the saying goes, hilarity ensues. Or, not. That depends on your definition of hilarity and understanding of satire, which, in this case, would need to be foregrounded by a passing knowledge of not only Arthur, but also the chivalric code upon which his court was founded—presumably.
This film is indeed one of my all-time favorites. I could probably make multiple blog posts about MP&THG. Heck, I even contemplated writing my MA thesis on it. So, narrowing my discussion to one scene was almost akin to Sophie’s Choice. But, I think the exchange between Arthur and the Black Knight reveals a great deal about the concepts of kingship and chivalry, and why these constructs are fair game for satirization by the Pythons.
Arthur and The Black Knight — aka, Tis But a Scratch
As we watch Arthur traipse about the countryside with no companion save his trusty servant, Patsy (not unlike the episode in which he chases after the Questing Beast), he comes upon the Black Knight. Readers familiar with the body of Arthurian legends may recognize in the Black Knight elements of the Green Knight, or really any knight willing to give his all—quite literally—for his chivalric cause. In this instance, the Black Knight commands, ”none shall pass” a footbridge.
While the Pythons were clearly ridiculing a code that would have men die on their swords for somewhat hazy concepts such as honor, they may also have been questioning the utter ridiculousness of war, in general. MP&THG came out in 1975 when the world was still contending with Vietnam, and Great Britain was mired in economic turmoil that could be said to have its foundations in WW2.
The troupe of comedians knowns as the Monty Pythons were the children of WW2 veterans, the grandchildren of men who had fought in the first ”Great War” and the inheritors of the proverbial stiff-upper British lip. That stalwart ethos is succinctly communicated by Tennyson’s Charge of The Light Brigade: “Theirs not to reason why,/Theirs but to do or die”(lines 14-15). Interestingly, it is Tennyson’s own treatment of the Arthurian myth through works such as his Idylls of The King that is most recognizable to the majority of people.
I write this as the world watches events unfold in the Ukraine. Are we at the brink of another ”great” war? We wait to see if one man, like the Black Knight, is willing to sacrifice all for wholly questionable reasons.