Comedy troop Monty Python is a legend; known for their outrageously abstract sketches knitted together into a narrative, Python’s humor redefined what it meant to perform comedy. Initially spurned by many in the industry, they quickly gained traction with fans and avant-garde artists. Remembered best for their films, Python continues to entertain just as well today as their first appearance decades ago.
My first and only experience with Python has been through what is arguably their best film—Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Praised for its thunderously anachronistic slapstick and skewering of the then deathly serious takes on the Arthurian legend, Grail subverts the Arthurian sub-genre in a way which no other films manage even to this day.
Unsurprisingly, the plot follows King Arthur. In the first act, he travels Britain while attempting to gather knights to join him in Camelot; along the way, he encounters uppity peasants, witches, and babbling conundrums involving coconuts and swallows. Eventually, he gains some allies and returns to Camelot. But Arthur is not allowed to even set foot in the doors before God himself gives him a quest to find the Holy Grail. Descending quickly into Arthur's knight’s individual misadventures as they inch their way toward the mythic chalice, Grail takes everything about Arthuriana and drops it on its head in the most amusing way possible.
Why this subversion is so lasting is due to the deconstructive method. Early in the film, for example, when Arthur encounters an uppity peasant lambasting him as a false king because his authority is not derived from a peoples’ mandate, the audience sees an Arthurian thread unraveled; the absurdity of lake maidens distributing swords to future rulers is laid bare by the simultaneous dissemination of the peasant’s latent anti-capitalism (Anarcho-Syndicalism) and his insistence on voting. Such temporally misplaced ideas fuse together to reveal the inherent elitism and violence of the mythic Arthur in such a way that the modern viewer can immediately perceive “the violence inherent in the system” without having studied Marx or Kropotkin.
Notions such as these abound in Grail. As such, it is easy to become lost in the narrative—what little there actually is to be seen—as this recognizable Arthurian tale is moderated by modernity. Maybe Lancelot’s story is fairly insipid in one of the numerous medieval originals, but that is certainly not present in any of these tales, which bring in a wide array of humor to re-contextualize the gaps of the legend and make them palpable to the everyday viewer.
All of this said, though, is Grail historically accurate? The answer is a resounding “no”.
Though taking place in tenth century Britain, the attire, architecture, and general notions of what it meant to be medieval are taken from the fourteenth-century. It is not inaccurate to say that what transpires in Grail is a grafting of the mythic Arthur onto the setting of the historical Arthur. Though much of the scenarios are brilliantly rendered, and may be historically accurate, to a degree, in parts of fourteenth-century texts, as a representation of the Arthur-figure—that is, the legend as it was thought to have existed surrounding a certain Britain war-leader resisting Anglo-Saxon invasion—it simply does not work. As a tribute to the Arthurian legend as a medieval whole, it works superbly, but not as a text based off any single medieval idea.
What I am proud to report, though, is that Terry Gilliam and Python knew that their film was historically inaccurate. In the director’s commentary to the film, it is remarked that what is shown in the film is the pop culture idea of what the middle ages were like; in reality, things were likely vastly different than what we typically imagine concerning the medieval period. Essentially, one must come to terms with the fact that our fantasy of a period is separate from historical fact. Gilliam's effort is to entertain and elicit laughs, not depict an ultra-realistic take on the legend.
To conclude, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a refreshing take on the legend for any student or scholar tied of the overly-serious, non-comedic, reproductions of the king of the Round Table. It is a nice way to unwind after slogging through any of the numerous—and lengthy—Arthurian novels or series. While the film may not have the same spotlight it once had that does not diminish its legacy or value as a neo-Arthurian artifact responding to what, at the time, was a seemingly never-ending deluge of similarly built novels and documentaries on the great "king". Hard to surpass even with the passage of time, Grail should be enjoyed by any fan of comedy and King Arthur.