Study Guide

Monty Python and the Holy Grail Traditions and Customs

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Traditions and Customs

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.

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