Before you read any further, I’d like you to watch a trailer for a movie. It is a historical epic, set in a long-ago time, featuring brave knights, foul beasts, titanic struggles, and an epic quest.
Alright, so we know that movie, right?
At least, we think we did. It’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail, one of the finest comedic films ever concocted, by five Brits and a strange American in the wilds of Scotland.
This trailer, masterfully edited by Stéphane Bouley, paints Holy Grail as the traditional action/adventure film, one that we’d expect to follow a formula. Our hero, King Arthur, assembles a crack team of noble knights to join him in a dangerous quest to find the Holy Grail. It’s the kind of movie that celebrates the Road of Trials as though it were the only thing that mattered. Around a decade ago, there was a movie about “King Arthur” that absolutely conformed to the tropes we associate with modern action/dramas. It also starred Clive Owen and was very silly.
Not Monty Python silly, though. No, the goofiness we know and love from Holy Grail is very intentional. It is deliberately anti-trope, or at least it is built around aping the tropes of historical/mythical tales, and as such becomes what I’m going to call the frustrated hero’s journey. It is satire in it’s purest, most manic form.
I sat down to watch Holy Grail recently, not just because it is one of my favorite movies and I hadn’t seen it in a long time, but also because I wanted to observe and think about the film in terms of the classic monomyth structure. I knew it didn’t really follow the monomyth, but I wanted to see if some of the comedy arose as a result of turning it on the head. Here are my results.
The Chosen One
The trope I’m beginning to loathe the most. And if you’ve read my book (plug trope) then you may be like, ‘zuh?’. But I, like Holy Grail, am all about subverting and upending this trope.
The scene that exemplifies the ludicrous divine right/Chosen One thing that is plastered all over history is the anarcho-syndicalist commune scene. Dennis, the not-old, not-woman mud farmer, puts poor King Arthur in his place. He’s got the gall to suggest that power and the right to lead aren’t granted via a “farcical aquatic ceremony.” This makes our hero upset, which is a common theme in the movie.
The lion’s share of the humor surrounding Arthur comes from his expectations and how they aren’t met. A quick breakdown of the scenes involving Arthur (largely encompassing his road of trials):
– Opening scene: Arthur is seeking the lord of the castle to join him at Camelot. Gets two dudes arguing about coconuts and swallows.
– Seeks another lord at another castle: Get’s Dennis basically calling his claim to the throne ridiculous and schools him in government. Represses him for it.
– The Black Knight: He’s a loony. Arthur chops his arms and legs off.
– Knights Who Say Nee: Gets them a shrubbery (because Road of Trials?), and when they demand another, he gets frustrated and ignores their task to go off with Sir Robin.
– The Beast of Caerbannog: Finds out it’s just a bunny, then finds out it’s not just a bunny, blows the shit out of it with a grenade.
– The Castle Arrrrrgh: The second time the French have gotten the drop on King Arthur. In the legends of Arthur, he conquers Ireland, Gaul, and Rome. Here, he’s got French in his own backyard, with the Grail, and they’re not playing nice. His reaction? Materialize an army out of nowhere to kill every last one of them.
A lot of the old legends of Arthur and Camelot are split up into tales of the various knights, which I suspect is the reason the movie was fractured like this after God gives the knights their quest. We’ve got a team of heroes, each with their own stories.
But to get to their exploits, first we must have a Gathering the Team sequence.
If you want a modern example of the team-up, no movie does it more prominently than The Avengers. In fact, the corollary trope is called Avengers Assemble. There’s also a related trope I like to analyze in team-oriented stories, and that’s the Five-Man Band. For Holy Grail, the band might look like this:
- The Leader – King Arthur – Confident and cool? Hardly. Arthur’s response to a situation is typically either “Charge!” or “Runaway!” His knights get thrown into a ravine, murdered by a rabbit, and arrested.
- The Lancer – Lancelot – Second in command, a mighty hero in his own right? Yeah… well, in the original tales, Lancelot has a ton of adventures and quests and bests knights and kings left and right, and suffers a few attempts at seduction, notably from Morgan le Fay. In Holy Grail, Lancelot is like a guy trying hard to be Lancelot in a world that doesn’t make sense. In both myth and movie, he suffers a fall. In the myth, it’s because of Guinevere. In the movie, it’s because he cut down a historian. It’s a Don Quixote syndrome (see The End for more).
- The Smart One – Bedivere (“and that my lord is why we know the earth to be banana-shaped”). His ‘science’ is wonderfully absurd. Just goes to show, sometimes the wisest people in society are making shit up to sound smart. Case-in-point, “what if we built a large wooden badger?”
- The Big Guy – Sir Robin – Maybe the best place for him, chiefly for the minstrel’s song. Brave, brave, brave, brave Sir Robin, who very nearly did a lot of heroic things. I picked him for the Big Guy role instead of Lancelot because it feels right in this parody of a team, that the knight with the greatest fanfare is the biggest coward.
- The Chick – Galahad – Not a chick? Well, maybe he should have been. Don’t get me wrong, Michael Palin is stupendous, maybe my favorite Python, but I think they missed out not casting Carol Cleveland as Galahad. Why? Because he’s a bit emasculated. In the legends, he is the true chosen one, for being pure and all that (a virgin). In the film, he might be a virgin, but not for lack of trying.
- Bonus Band Member – Tim the Enchanter as the Mentor – The movie lacks a clear mentor character, as there is no Merlin, but between Tim and the Old Man From Scene 24, we get a good laugh out of the subversion of the Mentor archetype, and Merlin in particular. Merlin’s a weird character, Jesus-like in that he had “no mortal father”. He pops up here and there, disguised as a kid or old man, dolls out random advice and magics, then is gone again. The team seeks the help of Tim in much the same way, guidance when they’re lost, but all he is is a silly guy doing random tricks and spitting on them.
The movie got a lot of flack for its ending. It does sort of feel like they didn’t know how to end it so they just sort of stopped. But to me, whether this was intentional at the time or not, the end is the key to unlocking all the silliness and the point that the whole film was trying to make.
Imagine you are Terry Jones. You’re a very funny man, adept at pointing out the absurdity in every day life, and you’re also an expert Arthurian scholar. You read all day the ancient legends, from Thomas Mallory on down, and you can’t help but think how ridiculous it all is.
For this blog, I read up a bit on Arthurian legends. They reminded me a lot of the Ramayana, which I read a few years back, and which contained endless tales that ostensibly held lessons, but on the surface are totally bizarre to read in our modern times. Enormous armies, demons, beasts, heroes with the strength of ten thousand men, Hanuman. Arthur legends read like a laundry list of kings and glorious battles and knights and damsels and quests. Is this how medieval people perceived history? Was this their idealized version of life, of chivalric romance? Lancelot in particular feels like a caricature of himself, a honor-crazed buffoon who’d run screaming and slicing into a wedding party because of the way he perceives the world: one big quest, one big battle.
Lancelot and Arthur and the rest are on a quest, running around the countryside looking for the Holy Grail, and hacking people up all the while. And in the end, they get arrested for it. I’d liken this movie to Don Quixote, in that these characters think they are heroic knights doing great chivalric things, but are basically fooling themselves. They are a bunch of guys tilting at killer rabbits. They aren’t really Arthur, Lancelot, etc., because those people weren’t real. In the modern world, by which I mean a more incredulous place, myths like Arthur and Rama bad models for behavior.
And maybe, Monty Python and the Holy Grail circles back on the myth-as-lesson idea and itself becomes a lesson: If you live life like a chivalrous knight of Camelot, you’re going to be arrested.
Coming back to the monomyth, Arthur’s story is incomplete. He escapes the innermost cave because the animator went into cardiac arrest. His road of trials are rude French knights, a rabbit, a delusional knight, a crazy old man on a bridge, and some dudes who want a shrubbery. He doesn’t slay a dragon and return to the normal world with the boon of God. He doesn’t learn a goddamn thing, and the story just ends. That is the beauty of that finale, and the movie as a whole. The monomyth as it is represented by the old tales is completely illogical and silly now, and should be treated as such. And the trailer I posted above is exactly why. This story could be treated with the seriousness of a historical drama/action movie, and it has been, and that is the joke.
Or the whole thing is just a series of Monty Python sketches strung together by Arthurian legends. Either way, year after year I’ve found this movie to be brilliant.
I am not a professor of anything. I don’t have a lit degree or anything like that. I’m just an enthusiastic amateur who likes reading Joseph Campbell and scifi/fantasy stories. I’m also an author with a book out now, Absent Hero, the first part of the Gone To Wonder series. It’s about a steampunk theme park, a bunch of teens who know way more than your average teen about story archetypes, and it’s nerdy as hell. Get it now on Kindle for FREE (today, 9/6), or email me at beardedbards(at)gmail(dot)com and I’ll internet you a copy. Because I’m a nice guy like that.