The Surprisingly Astute Lessons We Can Learn From 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail'

One of the surest signs of Monty Python and the Holy Grail's greatness is its lasting effect. Since premiering in 1975, the movie has influenced generations of comedians and comedy writers, spawned the Broadway adaptation Spamalot, and become one of the most quoted films in pop culture. Its jokes are irreverent and timeless, but some of the best scenes in Monty Python and the Holy Grail are great not only because of their comedic genius, but because they make surprisingly good points about what they're satirizing - as well as society as a whole.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail may be a parody of Arthurian legends first written in the Middle Ages, but it acts as a continuing satire of the stories we pass down through generations and the values we attribute to the characters, symbols, and themes within them. Though the movie follows the ultimately silly and sometimes nonsensical gallops of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table through the Kingdom of Camelot, Monty Python and the Holy Grail still has a lot of wisdom up its sleeve.

  • Power Shouldn't Derive From A Woman In A Lake Who Hands Out Sabers

    Power Shouldn't Derive From A Woman In A Lake Who Hands Out Sabers
    Photo: Cinema 5

    In Arthurian legend, Arthur receives his almighty, magical blade Excalibur from Vivienne, the Lady of the Lake. Excalibur plays multiple roles in the tales - first as the literal weapon Arthur uses to lead a valiant battle against the Saxons, and then as a symbol of his virtue and power as he leads the people of Briton in a just and valiant manner.

    Some people, including Arthur himself, claim his power as king derives from the blade bestowed upon him. He was chosen for the role, as kings from the late medieval and early modern eras were legitimized by divine right. But where should power really derive from?

    According to Dennis, the 37-year-old peasant whom Arthur mistakes for an old woman, "Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government," but instead, "[s]upreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses..." Now, it's questionable whether the anarcho-syndicalist commune he suggests is any better than the monarchist tyranny he's so adamantly against, but Dennis makes a good point: "You can't expect to wield supreme executive power just 'cause some watery tart threw a sword at you."

    Anyone else claiming the same would probably be written off as crazy.

  • Storming A Castle To Save Someone Isn't Necessarily Heroic

    Storming A Castle To Save Someone Isn't Necessarily Heroic
    Photo: Cinema 5

    What's more heroic than a gallant knight storming a castle to save a damsel in distress from her captors? According to Monty Python, just about anything else. "The Tale of Sir Lancelot" upends this common trope, suggesting that maybe it's not nearly as heroic as lore suggests. 

    After Sir Lancelot reads a note fastened to an arrow that struck his squire in the chest, the brave knight runs toward the nearby castle to save what he presumes to be an entrapped princess forced into marriage by her father. He storms the gates, slays the guards, and strikes down the castle's inhabitants... only to find that his princess is actually a pallid young man who would rather sing than rule a kingdom.

    His dashed expectations put the entire situation into perspective: He has slaughtered a bunch of innocent people for no particularly good reason. When his tale is over, Sir Lancelot gets nothing out of it. He has no princess, no heroics, and - since his squire survives the arrow - no story of sacrifice and vengeance. Even his "dramatic" escape is ruined, as he's left dangling on a rope above a wedding party that has broken out into song and dance.

  • European Swallows Don't Carry Coconuts To England

    European Swallows Don't Carry Coconuts To England
    Photo: Cinema 5

    The airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow is one of those things you need to know when you're a king, especially when you rely on them as your source of coconuts. The two castle guards King Arthur meets during the film's opening scene make it abundantly clear, however, that a 5-ounce European swallow would be unable to carry a coconut from the tropics to the temperate climate of England. Of course, African swallows may be able to, but they're non-migratory.

    Regardless of the animal transporting coconuts across the world, it's obvious the conversation leaves a lasting impression on King Arthur. When asked, "What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?" near the end of the film, Arthur is able to trick the old man from Scene 24 into admitting he doesn't know which breed of swallow he's asking about. The old man is thrown into the gorge below, hoisted with his own inquisitive petard.

    Arthur never answers the airspeed velocity question, but some dilligent fans have made estimates. In his personal blog, writer Jonathan Corum estimated that a European swallow has the airspeed velocity of 11 m/s (24 mph). Would such a small bird, flying at that speed, be able to carry a coconut across continents? The answer is unclear - and ultimately pointless, since Camelot's Master of Science Sir Bedivere shows us that doves transport coconuts, not swallows.

  • A Trojan Horse-Like Trap Is A Ridiculous Military Tactic

    A Trojan Horse-Like Trap Is A Ridiculous Military Tactic
    Photo: Cinema 5

    The French, King Arthur's greatest adversary, are not to be trifled with. They taunt the English knights, deny them a place to stay, and fire livestock at them. Though Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table make a temporary retreat after the French "fetchez la vache," Sir Bedivere comes up with a cunning plan: Copy the Greeks. 

    After some extremely audible construction with power tools, the squires wheel up a giant wooden rabbit to the French castle. After a bit of conversation and obvious confusion among the French guards, they bring the "Trojan" rabbit into the keep - setting the stage for Launcelot, Gallahad, and Bedivere to leap out of the rabbit at nightfall and take the French totally by surprise. The plan may have worked - if only the three knights were actually in the wooden rabbit. 

    Ultimately, the plan wasn't so cunning after all, not only because the knights weren't in the rabbit, but also because it was strategically terrible. It may have worked for the Greeks in the semi-mythological story of The Iliad, but realistically, if a besieging army leaves a giant wooden figure at the enemy's doorstep, it's foolish for any army to completely trust it without any scrutiny. Though the French guards may be "strange" people, they aren't fools. And like the cow before it, they immediately catapult the rabbit back at the English knights.

  • Despite 85% Of The Population Being Peasants, Arthurian Legend Makes Them Seem Like A Minority

    Despite 85% Of The Population Being Peasants, Arthurian Legend Makes Them Seem Like A Minority
    Photo: Cinema 5

    According to the British Library, 85% of all people in medieval Europe were peasants, but - as pointed out by Monty PythonArthurian legend leads many to think the vast majority of people in the Middle Ages (or at least those who were important) were knights and nobles. Peasants in Monty Python and the Holy Grail are rarely mentioned; those who do appear are minor to the plot, incredibly stupid, and disgusting. Some wallow in the muck, others propose to make a bridge out of someone to prove they are made of wood and thus a witch, and one is even shown in the background of a scene smashing a cat against a wall.

    In Arthurian legend, peasants are a passive collective, and Monty Python takes that to its logical extreme. There is only one named peasant - Dennis. But he, unlike every other peasant, stands up against the repression of the system. And though most of his spiel is an anachronistic Marxist criticism on the medieval political system, it also points out that the same repressed class is repressed in countless stories and legends told about the time period.

  • The Kingdom Of Camelot Would Not Have Been Pristine, But A Rather A Disgusting Cesspit Of Filth

    The Kingdom Of Camelot Would Not Have Been Pristine, But A Rather A Disgusting Cesspit Of Filth
    Photo: Cinema 5

    When pop culture presents medieval kings, queens, knights, and nobility, they are typically romanticized and made to look clean and pristine. The Monty Python troupe leads the way in upending that unrealistic image. Peasants in the film live their lives amid dirt, disease, and squalor; knights are covered in either their own blood or someone else's. Not even King Arthur himself can keep a clean veneer as the French dump feces on him late in the film.

    Medieval European hygiene was minimal. Despite people often washing their hands and faces, full-body bathing was uncommon, soap was only rarely used, and people cleaned their teeth with twigs. Yes, they cleaned themselves to the best of their abilities, but because there was rarely running water, nor any expectations to stay clean like in Byzantium or the Arabic empire, there would have been no way medieval Europeans would have stayed completely unsullied by dirt and bodily fluids.

    Monty Python blatantly points this out during the "Bring out your dead" scene when King Arthur gallops by a collector and his cart full of cadavers. "[He] must be a king," the collector tells a fellow peasant. 

    "Why?" the peasant responds.

    "He hasn't got sh*t all over him."