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The themes and motifs of Arthurian legend and literature have been deeply injected into the bloodstream of Western culture.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the classic, comedic film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail which was produced in 1974.  As its title implies, Monty Python is a movie built upon the edifice of the Arthurian mythos.  However, this film is not a glaring and sentimental tribute to the romantic middle ages, but an irreverent and sometimes subtle parody of the ideals of Arthurian literature.  This is particularly evident in the way that the chivalric code of knighthood is portrayed within the film as being silly and unrealistic.  Endurance in battle, an adventurous spirit, and (above all) a courageous heart are all necessary conditions for being a noble knight of the Round Table.  Indeed, these attributes are exemplified repeatedly in works such as Le Morte D’Arthur and the Idylls of the KingMonty Python, however, satirically skewers these romantic ideals throughout the entirety of the film. 

Take, for example, the first of the traits given above.  In Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, King Arthur’s martial merit and fortitude are clearly displayed in his battle with the Excalibur-wielding Accolon.  Arthur is badly injured throughout the encounter and he loses so much blood that “it [is] a marvel he [stands] on his feet”.  Yet Arthur is “so full of knighthood that he knightly endure[s] the pain” and he finally emerges victorious.  Contrast this with the character of the Black Knight in Monty Python.  With roles reversed, he is the recipient of various injuries (or amputations) from King Arthur until he is finally reduced to a writhing torso who screams epithets at his opponent.  Although this may sound horrific and gratuitously violent, it is portrayed in very humorous manner.  After losing his arm, the Black Knight objects, “Tis but a scratch…I’ve had worse!”  And after losing both arms, he resorts to taunting and kicking the king in the posterior.  All of these antics are a clear parody of the “knightly endurance” exemplified by King Arthur in Le Morte D’Arthur.

The adventurous spirit of the knight errant is another common motif within Arthurian literature.  The Knights of the Round Table incessantly seek glory through the pursuit of various quests.  Indeed, this is such a common endeavor that it appears to have been worked into King Arthur’s daily schedule:

Then the king bade haste unto dinner.  Sir, said Sir Kay the Steward, if ye go now unto your meat ye shall break your old custom of your court, for ye have not used on this day to sit at your meat or that ye have seen some adventure.

           

One can almost see Arthur fumbling through his daily planner and nodding his head in frustrated agreement.

The idea of the noble quest is roundly ridiculed in Monty Python however.  In fact, the primary quest for the grail is never even resolved within the film.  The grail quest seems to be nothing but a loosely assembled frame upon which the various sketches and sight gags of the movie are hung on.  This is no accident however, since the very meaninglessness of the pursuit is a satirical jab at the entire concept of questing.

This parody of questing is best exemplified by Arthur and Bedevere’s encounter with the infamous “Knights who say ‘Ni!'”.  Besides the humorous reaction elicited by exclaiming a monosyllabic nonsense word, the quest given to Arthur and Bedevere is completely ridiculous: they are to procure a shrubbery.  This demand sends the two knights on a pointless endeavor in which they learn to employ the dreaded “Ni!” as a weapon themselves.  Finally, their shrubbery is gained dues ex machina through their fortunate encounter with “Roger the Shrubber”.  To be sure, questing in Monty Python is not nearly as noble as in its literary counterparts!

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