OLD MAN: I'm getting better.
NOT AS OLD MAN: No you're not, you'll be stone dead in a moment.
DEAD COLLECTOR: Well, I can't take him like that, it's against regulations.
Regulations? This dude is literally collecting a pile of dead people on a cart in an incredibly muddy village street, and he's talking about regulations as if he's running a modern clinic. Oh, and then he clubs the guy anyway after making sure no one's looking. So much for regulations.
BEDEVERE: There are ways of telling if she's a witch.
CROWD: [Simultaneously] What are they? Tell us! Do they hurt!?
BEDEVERE: What do you do with witches?
The wise Bedevere knows how to put on a fair trial. He's the one who brings order to the unruly crowd that dressed a woman as a witch just so they could watch her burn. However, Bedevere's standard witch trial procedure is a bit… peculiar. He proceeds to engage the people in an extended logical argument about witches. As we can tell from the first question, his string of logic is going to be anything but sensible.
ARTHUR: We will find you a shrubbery.
KNIGHT WHO SAYS NI: You must return here with a shrubbery or else you will never pass through this wood… alive.
ARTHUR: Oh Knights of Ni, you are just and fair, and we will return with a shrubbery—
KNIGHT WHO SAYS NI: One that looks nice.
ARTHUR: Of course.
KNIGHT WHO SAYS NI: And not too expensive.
The Knights Who Say Ni are quite particular. Not only do they want a shrubbery, but it must be a) nice looking and b) cost-effective. This is a parody on the typical fantasy quest trope where a traveler meets an obstacle and must retrieve an item—the orders of the quest are absurd and the item itself is, um, not what you'd expect. The whole premise is crazy, and the specific rules for the shrub just make it crazier.
BROTHER MAYNARD [Reading from the fictional "Book of Armaments" in the Bible]:Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out.
A perfect example of order mocked and turned upside down. Especially since Arthur proves totally incapable of following this rule.
BRIDGEKEEPER: Who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three ere the other side he see.
LANCELOT: Ask me the questions Bridgekeeper, I am not afraid.
BRIDGEKEEPER: What is your name?
LANCELOT: My name is Sir Lancelot of Camelot.
BRIDGEKEEPER: What is your quest?
LANCELOT: To seek the Holy Grail
BRIDGEKEEPER: What is your favorite color?
BRIDGEKEEPER: All right, off you go.
The Bridgekeeper has a very strange set of questions. It would seem that his questions, instead of being a test, are a mere formality: a little icebreaker. This is a parody of the riddles of the Sphinx, but instead of answering a riddle, the knights are subjected to the whimsical questions of the old man. The motif of the questions, and the formal verse in which they're offered, is a nod to a very traditional story line
ARTHUR [on the verge of attacking the castle]: Charge!
[Sound of police siren]
HISTORIAN'S WIFE [pointing at Arthur]: That's the one! I'm sure of it!
POLICEMAN [arresting Arthur]: Come on, come on. Put 'em in the van. Put a blanket over that one.
POLICEMAN (to cameraman): All right, sonny. That's enough.
The policemen who show up and abruptly shut down the movie serve as a juxtaposition of the lawlessness of medieval England and the rules and order of modern police procedure. Lancelot slays countless wedding guests and gets away scot-free… while one historian dies and a manhunt ensues. However, the fact that the movie just ends is itself a denial of any sort of rules that are supposed to govern a normal story. Many sketches in Monty Python's Flying Circus ended just this way; with the cast arrested for not having proper punch lines or being not funny enough.
MINSTREL: Bravely bold Sir Robin ride forth from Camelot. He was not afraid to die, oh brave Sir Robin. He was not at all afraid to be killed in nasty ways […] to be mashed into a pulp, or to have his eyes gouged out […] his kneecaps split, and his body burned away, and his limbs all hacked and mangled, brave Sir Robin.
The Pythons include the very traditional medieval figure of the minstrel, who was hired by lords and knights to sing songs of chivalry. The costumes are very convincing and the music is instantly recognizable as a traditional old English melody. But the words? Decidedly nontraditional.
GOD: Arthuurrr, Arthuurrr, king of the Britons. Oh don't grovel. One thing I can't stand is people groveling.
GOD: And don't apologize. Every time I try to talk to someone it's "sorry" this and "forgive me" that and "I'm not worthy." What are you doing now?
ARTHUR: I'm averting my eyes oh Lord.
GOD: Well don't. It's like those miserable psalms, they're so depressing.
This is a swipe at the traditional way that most believers tend to view God—a deity to be worshiped and feared. This God can't stand it. He seems to want some kind of authentic face-to-face engagement with people. What a radical idea.
DENNIS' MOTHER: Well how'd you become king then?
ARTHUR: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering 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'm your king.
Here's a mashup between Christian and pagan beliefs. Is the Lady of the Lake in the Bible? No, but that doesn't stop Arthur from linking her presence to his divine right as king, which implies a right given to him by the Christian God. The legends of Arthur are chock full of pagan figures like sorcerers and witches.
MONKS: Pie Iesu domine, dona eis requiem. [Translation: "Merciful Lord Jesus, give them rest."]
[Monks hit themselves with wooden boards.]
At the beginning of the witch trial scene, a procession of monks is seen walking through the village, hitting themselves on the head with boards and chanting. These monks are parodying Flagellants, or people who would whip themselves to serve a religious purpose. There's nothing that says "I'm sorry for my sins" like ripping up your back with a cat o' nine tails. Of course, hitting yourself in the head is a bit less painful, a lot funnier, and it points out the absurdity of this masochistic practice.
BROTHER MAYNARD: Armaments Chapter Two, verses nine to twenty one.
BROTHER MAYNARD'S ASSISTANT: And Saint Antila raised the hand grenade up on high saying, "Oh Lord, bless this thy hand grenade, that with it though mayest blow thine enemies to tiny bits in thy mercy. And the Lord did grin, and the people did feast upon the lambs, and the sloths, and carp, and anchovies, and orangutans, and breakfast cereals, and fruit bats, and large chunks of—"
BROTHER MAYNARD: Skip a bit, brother.
BROTHER MAYNARD: And the Lord spake, saying, "First shalt thou take out the holy pin, then, shalt thou count to three; no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. "
If you've ever read the Old Testament, then you get the joke. There are some parts of Exodus and Leviticus that get a bit liturgical; skipping ahead seems like a great suggestion. It's also more subtly mocking the use of violence in the Bible which may seem counter intuitive and out of synch with New Testament teachings. But hey, the Old Testament can be a pretty bloody text. The ridiculous reading from the Book of Armaments has a ring of authenticity, with the traditional language of "shalt thou" and "spake." The music is Biblical, but the words are pure Python.
ARTHUR: If you will not show us the Grail, we shall take your castle by force!
RUDE FRENCHMAN: You don't frighten us, English pig-dogs! Go and boil your bottoms, sons of a silly person. I blow my nose at you, so-called Arthur-king, you and all your silly English kaniggets. Thppppt!
GALAHAD: What a strange person.
ARTHUR: Now look here, my good man!
RUDE FRENCHMAN: I don't want to talk to you no more, you empty headed animal food trough whopper! I fart in your general direction! You mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries.
GALAHAD: Is there someone else up there we could talk to?
RUDE FRENCHMAN: No, now go away or I shall taunt you a second time-a!
Here's a single wacky scene that's actually very faithful to a couple of medieval traditions. A Bard College prof points out that the Frenchman's insults were pretty typical insults back in Arthur's day, using comments about bodily functions and insinuations about one's parentage. Also, the scene accurately depicts the traditional English-French rivalry that existed in medieval times by making the Frenchman a truly ridiculous figure. That rivalry is still a staple of modern British humor, btw.
GUARD: Halt! Who goes there?
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!
GUARD: Pull the other one!
ARTHUR: I am. And this is my trusty servant Patsy. We have ridden the length and breadth of the land in search of knights who will join me in my court of Camelot. I must speak with your lord and master.
GUARD: What, ridden on a horse?
GUARD: You're using coconuts!
In case you didn't know, "pull the other one" is an idiom that essentially means "yeah right". The guard is basically calling Arthur out, saying there's no way he's a king. To be fair, he doesn't even have a horse; Patsy is using coconuts to mimic the horse's sound, another thing the guard calls them out on.
Also, notice the elevation difference. The guard appears to be way above him on a castle wall and every shot emphasizes this, we never just get the guards point of view. The guard is in the position of power here while the famous King Arthur is not. And it's only just the first scene.
ARTHUR: Please, please good people. I am in haste. Who lives in that castle?
DENNIS' MOTHER: No one lives there.
ARTHUR: Then who is your lord?
DENNIS' MOTHER: We don't have a lord.
DENNIS: I told you. We're an anarcho-syndicalist commune. We take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week...
DENNIS: …but all the decisions of that officer have to be ratified at a special biweekly meeting…
ARTHUR: Yes, I see.
DENNIS: …by a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs…
ARTHUR: Be quiet!
DENNIS: …but by a two-thirds majority in the case of more major—
ARTHUR: Be quiet! I order you to be quiet!
DENNIS' MOTHER: Order, eh? Who does he think he is?
Arthur can't even command respect from some mud-mining peasants. Dennis is a forward thinking dude who seems to be an expert in self-government. On the other hand, Arthur is traveling the land in search of knights and Dennis is digging in the dirt.
So while Dennis isn't fazed by Arthur's title, the power discrepancy still exists. Dennis' ideal commune doesn't have a power hierarchy; everyone takes turns running the group. You can see how far that got them. Both kingly authority and egalitarian forms of government get the Python treatment here.
DENNIS: I mean, if I went around sayin' I was an emperor just because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me, they'd put me away!
ARTHUR: Shut up! Will you shut up! [Arthur grabs and shakes him]
DENNIS: Ah, now we see the violence inherent in the system.
ARTHUR: Shut up!
DENNIS: Oh! Come and see the violence inherent in the system! Help! Help! I'm being repressed!
ARTHUR: Bloody peasant!
DENNIS: Oh, what a giveaway. Did you here that? Did you here that, eh?
Dennis actually has a point here. If Arthur wanted to, he could draw Excalibur (or whatever sword he's carrying) and silence Dennis for good. Violence is power, and it won't be the last time we see it in Holy Grail.
RUDE FRENCHMAN: You don't frighten us with your silly knees-bent running around advancing behavior!
Nothing like ridicule to puncture one's confidence and reverse the power dynamic. Political cartoonists know this well.
ARTHUR: Knights of Ni, we are but simple travelers who seek the enchanter who lives beyond these woods.
KNIGHT WHO SAYS NI: Ni! Ni! Ni! Ni!
ARTHUR AND PARTY: Oh, ow!
KNIGHT WHO SAYS NI We shall say "ni" again to you if you do not appease us.
ARTHUR: Well, what is it you want?
KNIGHT WHO SAYS NI: We want... a shrubbery!
ARTHUR: A what?
KNIGHT WHO SAYS NI: Ni! Ni!
ARTHUR AND PARTY: Oh, ow!
ARTHUR: Please, please! No more! We shall find a shrubbery.
We're not sure what's up with the word "ni", but we can't help but agree that it's rather terrifying. Maybe it's the malice with which it's said, or maybe the fact that few hear it and live to tell the tale. Even Arthur resorts to using it to torture a poor old lady. Language once again, is a means to control other people, even kings.
MAN: Who's that there?
DEAD COLLECTOR: I don't know, must be a king.
DEAD COLLECTOR: He hasn't got shit all over 'im.
The whole aesthetic of this scene, and maybe the conception of the entire scene itself, seems to be based on this punch line. As if the Terrys just thought about creating the grossest, dirtiest, most repugnant scene and then have Arthur "ride" through at the end, distinguishing his kingship from the dirty life of peasants. The peasants know at a glance that he's a king.
WITCH: I'm not a witch, I'm not a witch!
BEDEVERE: But you are dressed as one!
WITCH: They dressed me up like this!
CROWD: We didn't! We didn't!
WITCH: And this isn't my nose. It's a false one.
BEDEVERE: [lifts up the false nose] Well?
Here's a pretty straightforward take on the idea that people tend to create their own realities via false appearances. Even the wise Bedevere, who sees under the false nose, accepts the premise.
PATSY: It's only a model!
In five short lines of dialogue, all you need to know about the importance of political "spin," keeping up appearances, and the importance of maintaining mystery.
[Arthur and company come to a castle where they are greeted by a Frenchman. He's wearing a tall helmet and some gauntlets that extend out when he holds the wall with his hands. He's got a ridiculously long moustache that curls up at the ends.]
Sometimes there is a lot of meaning behind the way things appear, and sometimes appearances are just plain silly. The French guard is not only yelling ridiculous insults, but the way he's dressed, along with his mannerisms and the crazy moustache, make him even more ridiculous.
[Herbert's Father orders two guards to make sure Herbert doesn't escape from his imminent wedding. The guards aren't very bright. They're both dressed in their soldier gear but are also brandishing some lovely wedding decorations.]
The soldiers guarding Herbert are wearing lacy ribbons and flowers on the helmets and weapons. The get-up fits perfectly with their characters—they're just smiling away at Herbert as he shoots his arrow out the window. Like the rest of the wedding guests, they're just happy and innocent and unsuspecting even though they're supposed to be intimidating guards.
TIM: Look, that rabbit's got a vicious streak a mile wide, it's a killer!
GALAHAD: Get stuffed!
TIM: It'll do you a trick, mate!
GALAHAD: Oh, yeah?
ROBIN: You mangy Scot git!
TIM: I'm warning you!
ROBIN: What's he do, nibble your bum?
TIM: He's got huge, sharp—he can leap about—look at the bones!
ARTHUR: Go on, Boris. Chop his head off!
BORIS: Right! Silly little Peter. One rabbit stew comin' right up!
[The rabbit attacks. Boris dies. Robin soils his armor a second time]
Aww, it's such a cute little rabbit. Surely Tim's just crazy and it's really just a harmless bunny. But we should know by now that appearances are meant to deceive in this film. Remember the wooden Trojan rabbit that Bedevere had them construct? Another demonstration that something can be more (or less) than it appears.
[Tim creates numerous explosions and then teleports himself with a blast of fire and smoke. Then he summons more fire, just for good measure].
ARTHUR: What manner of man are you that can summon up fire without flint or tinder?
TIM: I... am an enchanter.
ARTHUR: By what name are you known?
TIM: There are some who call me... Tim.
ARTHUR: Greetings, Tim the Enchanter.
TIM: Greetings, King Arthur!
ARTHUR: You know my name?
TIM: I do. [a constant stream of flame spurts forth from within his staff] You seek the Holy Grail!
ARTHUR: That is our quest. You know much that is hidden, O Tim.
[He shoots a fiery projectile from his staff that explodes in flames when it strikes a tree]
Tim tries very hard to create a certain kind of impression. He randomly and needlessly plays around with his magical fire and even dramatically pauses before saying his name… which is Tim. We get the feeling he's compensating by trying to keep up appearances that he's an evil and all-powerful enchanter. He even has the horns on his hood and bones on his tunic. He's decided to dress to impress.