This legendary king is the leader of the pack. He's earnest, God-fearing, and determined to defend his role. He knows who he is:
ARTHUR: It is I, Arthur, son of Uther Pendragon, from the Castle of Camelot. King of the Britons, defeater of the Saxons, sovereign of all England!
Not everyone's impressed:
ARTHUR: I am your king
WOMAN: Well, I didn't vote for you.
ARTHUR: You don't vote for kings.
WOMAN: Well, how'd you become king then?
ARTHUR: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest samite held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I am your king.
DENNIS: Listen, strange women lyin' in ponds distributin' swords is no basis for a system of government.
Dennis has a pretty ironclad point, there.
The movie begins with Arthur searching for some knights, because he has some very, very important things for them to do… most of which involve sitting around a table. But really, why is Arthur rounding up knights? It's never really made clear. (Maybe he's really tired of having a very quiet servant as his only pal.) He knows who he is, but he's less sure of what he's supposed to be doing.
We see that on his journey he doesn't exactly get a whole lotta love. He meets a man who would rather kill him than get out of his way; two men more interested in the physiology and behavior patterns of swallows than in helping him out; and an old man named Dennis (and Dennis' mom) who completely ignore and ridicule his kingly authority. They not only challenge his divine right, but also berate him for obtaining power through class exploitation.
In many ways, Arthur may just seem like the idiot leader in charge of an even dumber group of grown men. He's taken aback by the faux wisdom of Bedevere about the banana-shaped earth:
ARTHUR: This new learning amazes me, Sir Bedevere. Explain again how sheep's bladders may be employed to prevent earthquakes.
Evidently, the Lady of the Lake didn't hand out brains along with the swords.
At times, Arthur's brave as Sir Lancelot, charging a Killer Rabbit and attacking castles that are impenetrable by his sorry handful of men. He courageously attacks the black knight who stands in his way. But, by the end of the movie, "Run away!" seems to be his catchphrase. He hasn't had much military success, so maybe that's a smart strategy?
Arthur's not completely clueless. In the Bridgekeeper scene, when posed with the omnipresent swallow question, he counters with a question of his own:
ARTHUR: What do you mean? An African or a European swallow?
This foils the Bridgekeeper's difficult questions, casting him into the Gorge of Despair and allowing Arthur and Bedevere free passage. When Bedevere asks how he knows so much about swallows, Arthur replies, "Well, you have to know these things when you're a king, you know." Another Python stab at the uselessness of the monarchy? Probably. (And this was a good ten years before we learned that Prince Charles talks to his plants.)
Then there's the episode in which Arthur's being taunted once again by the French, who have beaten him to the Castle of Aaarrggghhh. Previously, Arthur, enraged by the insults, ordered a very unsuccessful attack on a castle. But this time he tells Bedevere to "walk away; just ignore them" and then proceeds to gather an army which might actually have a chance of success. We think there's a case for some real character growth inside this loony plot.
In the end, Arthur's quest is a complete failure. Three of his knights fall victim to the Killer Rabbit, two more fall into the Gorge of Eternal Peril, and the final two are arrested. The Holy Grail is never found. Arthur's comment that God's idea was great might have been a bit premature. In fact, the whole idea of questing for a desired object seems a bit selfish when he has a kingdom to manage. Who knows, maybe Arthur will learn a thing or two in the slammer.
The character of the well-meaning but hapless Arthur is a Python specialty: a stab at the idea of royal authority—or any kind of authority, really. He looks pretty dapper in armor, though.
Bedevere is the token smart guy of the group. He's obviously the most learned man and quite experienced in the arts of science and subterfuge.
Well, maybe not subterfuge exactly. He almost gets the Trojan rabbit to work… he just forgets the middle part about actually getting inside the rabbit before sending it into the castle (although if they had, they would've gone for quite the ride, so maybe it was for the best).
He's also not the most articulate; he struggles to say "ni" to the poor old woman Arthur decides to torture for information. On top of that, he begins to harass Roger the Shrubber (also by saying "ni") when Roger's the very man that can provide what they need.
Okay, so maybe he's a parody of the wise knight. Maybe you're thinking the tree of knowledge that is his official crest should be cut down since he's as dumb as a stump.
Ah, but you've forgotten his wisest moment: the witch trial. Notice how, even before the scene properly begins, Bedevere's seen releasing a dove carrying a coconut. There are a few different ways to interpret this: maybe he's running some strange experiment and has imported the coconuts, giving us the explanation for how Arthur and Patsy found them.
Or, maybe he's heard of the most popular scientific question of the time: whether a swallow could carry a coconut. Dude's a scientific genius seeking answers—he's just using the wrong kind of bird. Anyone could make that same mistake.
At any rate, his true genius shines when the villagers bring him a witch to burn. He asks how they know she's a witch, and it turns out that, despite the clever disguise they made her wear, their only real evidence is a bit of circumstantial evidence about a villager being turned into a newt before quickly recovering.
Well, no need to fear, Bedevere the Wise is here with the Socratic method:
BEDEVERE: Tell me, what do you do with witches?
PEASANTS: Burn them!
BEDEVERE: And what do you burn apart from witches?
SECOND PEASANT: More witches!
FIRST PEASANT: Wood!
BEDEVERE: Wood! So why do witches burn?
FIRST PEASANT: 'cause they're made of . . . wood?
BEDEVERE: Good! So how do you tell if she is made of wood?
PEASANTS: [Confused Silence]
BEDEVERE: Does wood sink in water?
PEASANTS: Nah, it don't. Nah, it . . . floats. It floats! Throw her into the pond!
BEDEVERE: What also floats in water?
PEASANTS: [Confused Silence]
ARTHUR: A duck.
BEDEVERE: Yes, exactly. So logically...?
PEASANTS: If she weighs the same as a duck. . . she's made of wood.
BEDEVERE: And therefore...
Inescapable logic, right? You learn something new every day with Bedevere.
Okay, maybe Lancelot doesn't use a lance, but he certainly does stick his sword through a lot of people. Lancelot's definition of brave looks a bit barbaric… even by 932 AD standards.
The first time we see him in action is when Arthur orders a charge on the French castle. There's a quick shot of him stabbing the castle wall—he's literally hitting the enormous stone façade with his sword. That's Lancelot for you. After the retreat, he has to be verbally restrained by Arthur when he says angrily, "Fiends, I'll tear them apart."
The next time we see Lancelot is actually in Galahad's story. Galahad has just started to get on quite well with the lovely ladies of Castle Anthrax when Lancelot has to burst in and threaten them all with his sword (and not even in a euphemistic Shakespearean kind of way). Lancelot believes Galahad is in great peril… but we're thinking Lancelot's bravery was a bit misplaced this time around.
In fact it's… always misplaced. In one scene, Lancelot slaughters countless guards and wedding guests, none of whom are even fighting back. Then he starts slicing right and left, killing more guards who are just standing there—even the poor confused guard in Herbert's room. The hack-happy Lancelot tries explaining to the father that he can't control himself:
SWAMP CASTLE KING: You only killed the bride's father, you know.
LANCELOT: Well, I didn't mean to.
SWAMP CASTLE KING: Didn't mean to? You put your sword right through his head.
LANCELOT: Oh dear…is he all right?
And as soon as they go back down the stairs, he starts carving people up again.
Later, Lancelot's happy to be the first to take the bridge single-handed. He says he will "make a feint to the north-east… and then attack from the south" but Arthur has to stop him and explain he simply has to answer a few questions; he doesn't have to kill anybody.
Lancelot makes it across the bridge, but he's apprehended with the others by policemen investigating the murder of the historian. While Arthur and Bedevere's arrest seems out of place, we think Lancelot has a lot to answer for.
Galahad is probably the most chivalrous of knights. He's ever so polite when the Frenchman is taunting him and his companions. Arthur asks them what they're doing in England if they're French, to which the Frenchman yells, "mind your own business!"
This exchange makes Galahad looks away timidly, as if he'd just committed some offense by overstepping his bounds in this new relationship with the Frenchman. After the Frenchman has finished insulting them quite thoroughly, Galahad's only response is, "What a strange person." It's as if he's not even offended or assumes the Frenchman's intentions to be good. He even nicely asks, "Is there someone else we could talk to?"
He even respectfully corrects the mathematically challenged Arthur:
ARTHUR: Right. One, two, five!
GALAHAD: Three, sir.
Galahad may be a bit naïve, but he's certainly a knight's knight when it comes to being gallant.
But there are some things that Galahad is wise enough to fear, namely the perils of evil temptresses. Notice how he says his name is Galahad the Chaste, emphasizing the sexual meaning of his true title of Galahad the Pure… in case we didn't get it.
Is Galahad naively squandering the chance of a lifetime, or does he barely escape eternal enslavement with the hotties at Castle Anthrax? We never find out because the brave Lancelot comes to his "rescue." But we have a feeling that, based on Zoot's reaction and the nature of parody, that Galahad missed out on quite the opportunity. Chaste or not, he seems to think so:
LANCELOT: We were in the nick of time. You were in great peril.
GALAHAD: I don't think I was.
LANCELOT: Yes, you were. You were in terrible peril.
GALAHAD: Look, let me go back in there and face the peril.
LANCELOT: No, it's too perilous.
GALAHAD: Look it's my duty as a knight to sample as much peril as I can.
LANCELOT: No, we've got to find the Holy Grail. Come on.
GALAHAD: Oh, let me have just a little bit of peril?
Galahad leaves the castle without getting any "peril." Poor dude.
In the end, Galahad's sincerity is what does him in. He's such a nice guy that, every time Arthur says "five" when he means "three" (which is sometimes a very important distinction, like when you're performing hand grenade rituals), Galahad politely corrects him as if it were the first time he made the error: "Three, sir".
When it's his turn to face the Bridgekeeper, Galahad is as sincere as ever. He says his favorite color is blue but then quickly realizes that it's not. Good Guy Galahad can't even spin his mistake as the truth. When his honesty gets the best of him he's sent flying into the gorge. Sometimes nice guys do finish last.
Right from the beginning the narrator makes us aware that Robin is not-quite-so-brave-as-Sir-Lancelot; he even has a chicken on his shield.
Here's how his very own minstrels describe him:
MINSTREL: Brave Sir Robin ran away!
MINSTREL: Bravely ran away!
ROBIN: I didn't!
MINSTREL: When danger reared its ugly head, he bravely turned his tail and fled.
ROBIN: I never did!
MINSTREL: Yes, brave Sir Robin turned about, and valiantly he chickened out.
Robin is just straight-up cowardly. But maybe this isn't such a bad thing. Just look at what happened to the brave and valiant Black Knight. The Black Knight claimed he would move for no man, but after Arthur was finished with him, he couldn't even move for himself.
What if Robin would have fought the three-headed giant? Sure, they seemed a bit out of sync, but then again we saw a shot of three knights nailed to a pole with a giant lance, not to mention all of the literal signs that warned of "certain death." While the minstrels taunt Robin for his cowardliness, at least he's a living coward and not a dead brave man.
Unfortunately, Robin's spinelessness puts him in peril (eternal peril, to be exact) in one final, fateful and ironic twist. When approaching the Bridge of Death, Arthur tells Robin to be the first to answer the questions of the Bridgekeeper. Robin, being his usual self, says that he has a great idea… Lancelot should do it. Lancelot, being his usual self, readily agrees.
However, when Lancelot's questions are easy-peasy, Robin feels confident. He steps up to the plate and is asked to name capital of Assyria. Robin doesn't know (hey, we don't know either), so he's cast into the Gorge of Eternal Peril. Well, it turns out there really wasn't much of a happy ending anyway. At least he got the satisfaction of seeing his minstrels eaten.
Dennis is a political thinker who's way ahead of his time. When Arthur calls him an old woman, Dennis is offended (and understandably so… not that there's anything wrong with being an old woman). When Arthur apologizes, Dennis insinuates that Arthur is talking down to him, making Arthur point out the fact that he is the king, so…
Uh-oh, not the right thing to say, Arthur. Once Dennis gets situated on his soapbox built on Marxist political views, there's no stopping him. He starts going off about how Arthur's position as king was obtained through:
DENNIS: […] exploiting the workers; by hanging on to our dated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society.
Wow, Dennis is quite learned for a peasant. He even goes on to explain the peasants' anarcho-syndicalist government, which irks Arthur.
Dennis is certainly a parody of a typically oppressed peasant. He's portrayed as both angry about and accepting of his or her place as the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder. But it gets more interesting when we take a step back and survey his situation: he's… digging mud.
Why? It's unclear. He and his old lady are just sort of plopping it down in one place. Despite all his political mumbo-jumbo, he and his autonomous commune brethren are stuck digging in the dirt. Maybe Dennis isn't just a peasant parody but a larger political joke about inescapable medieval class distinctions and inherited privilege.
Tim the Enchanter is an interesting fellow. First off, his name is Tim. He's an all-powerful enchanter and he goes by a common name? What about something like Aldaerus, or maybe Thunderwind—something with pizazz?
But no; he's just Tim. Even he seems a little self-conscious about it—Tim's somewhat of a pyromaniac. Fire seems to be his main trick; he throws around flames like Zeus throws lightning bolts.
He knows Arthur's name and quest as soon as he sees him, leaving Arthur to marvel, "You know much that is hidden, oh Tim." To be fair, his enchantment abilities leave a little to be desired. His fire looks a lot like low-budget special effects. (We'll just go along with Arthur and call it "eccentric.")
At least he tries to be scary, though. He delivers a frightening monologue warning the knights about the fearsome creature guarding the Cave of Caerbannog.
TIM: Follow. But! Follow only if ye be men of valor. For the entrance to this cave is guarded by a creature so foul, so cruel, that no man has yet fought with it and lived! Bones of full fifty men lie strewn about its lair! So! Brave knights! If you do doubt your courage or your strength, come no further, for death awaits you all with nasty, big pointy teeth!
As much as Tim's a parody of an all-knowing wizard, he does actually know a bit more than the knights do. He tries to warn them about the fierce bunny rabbit but they just won't listen.
Actually, Tim seems to get quite a kick out of all the death wrought by that cute little bunny. He's just cracking up when Arthur orders a full retreat and leaves three knights bleeding and headless on ground.
Herbert thinks his father is his mother… and we have no idea why, because his father has a full beard. Herbert's father calls him Alice. Their relationship is a classic clash of ideals: the young man who seeks true love against the pragmatic father who just wants some land (they do live on a swamp after all).
He plans to marry Herbert off to a woman whose father is a rich landowner, but Herbert wants a girl who—actually we never find out, because just as he's about to burst into song about it, his father cuts him off. Herbert has a nasty habit of bursting into song to express himself.
Herbert's father has him confined to his room so he doesn't run off before the wedding. Under the not-so-watchful watchful eyes of the guards, he writes a note, attaches it to an arrow, and shoots it out the window.
When Lancelot barges in, thinking the note is from a fair damsel in distress, both Herbert and his father are actually quite pleased. Herbert believes he's finally found the man to rescue him from his controlling father, while his father thinks he's finally found an inside track to the great lands of Camelot.
While Herbert tries to escape out the window on a rope, this father cuts the rope, sending the luckless Herbert to certain death. Now he can take on Lancelot as a proxy son who can marry what's-her-name, so Dad can get his hands on some choice real estate.
Just as Herbert's father thinks everything's settled, Herbert suddenly shows up not quite dead. Plenty of wedding guests are definitely dead. But Herbert breaks into song about why he's not dead while his father is saying things like "merger"' and "legally binding" as he tries to adopt his land—er—his new daughter-in-law.
Okay, first we have to ask, is he really a Frenchman? They're in England, they speak English, he points to his own "outrageous accent," and they even speak to one another in English. In the scene where they're going to get the Trojan bunny, they have to translate the French into English to understand it.
So maybe they're actually Englishmen pretending to be Frenchmen so they can be uncharacteristically rude? All this isn't just a shot taken at the French (a favorite British pastime)—it's actually a parody of the jokes that the British make about the French. Wheels within wheels, bro.
Everything is hyperbolic: the accent, the insults, the silly mustache and ridiculous-looking helmet and gauntlets, even the flippant way he conducts himself, holding his hands on the wall and slapping his helmet. Having the French be the antagonists in the film is more of a joke about a joke. So when the Frenchman says, "I shall taunt you a second time," we not only get some hilarious potty humor, but also some commentary about stereotypes… by using these stereotypes and taking them over-the-top.
Way to be meta, Monty Python.
There's a difference between someone who has a lot of determination and someone who just doesn't know when to quit. The Black Knight really should have stopped while he was ahead (by which we mean he had all or most of his limbs intact).
When we first see him, he appears to be a very powerful and mysterious man. He remains silent even in the face of Arthur's generous offer. In fact, he even refuses to move for the king (which also brings us to the question of why he's guarding such a small, insignificant bridge).
He continues with a still stoic "'tis but a scratch" when he loses his first arm. Even by the time he's completely limbless he's screaming
BLACK KNIGHT: Oh oh, I see, runnin' away hey? You yellow bastards! Come back here and take what's coming to ya!
Like Tim the Enchanter, the Black Knight episode is a parody of a stereotype—this time, of macho invincibility. The Pythons make quick work of destroying that stereotype.