My love-hate relationship with Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Movie poster for Monty Python and the Holy Grail

One of the great moments of film comedy occurs early in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the 1975 British parody of the Arthurian legends. King Arthur comes upon a peasant, and an argument ensues over the ultimate source of government. Arthur recounts the ancient legend of a lake spirit who hands the sword of power to Arthur, conferring kingship to him. The peasant scoffs, saying “strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.”

The comment enrages Arthur, and he starts to choke the peasant. “Oh! Come and see the violence inherent in the system!” the peasant screams. “HELP! HELP! I’m being repressed!”

The scene seems relevant in the present 21st century moment, as tens of thousands protest what they see as oppression by the police. What is the legitimate source of power? Who should wield it?

Thing is, the whole movie wrecks a perfectly good reservoir of narrative tradition for a 21st-century writer like myself who wants to tell a different story.

Like many boys born in the mid-20th century, the medieval legends of Arthur and his knights—Lancelot, Galahad, Gawain, and the rest—provided hours of imaginative play. After the Victorians reworked the ancient stories into a national myth, complete with quests for spiritual perfection personified by the chalice used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper, Hollywood converted them into mass entertainment. They became the prototypes for the epic fantasy modern audiences know in movies, such as Star Wars, games such as Dungeons & Dragons, and countless genre novels. Apart from the Star Wars movies, I never got into literary fantasy, preferring the old stories, which had a realistic, almost comforting tone.

Around the end of 2017, as I was finishing up my science fiction series, Tales From a Warming Planet, I wanted to do something with the Arthurian stories I loved so much. I doubted I could compete with the likes of T.H. White, who wrote the classic retelling, The Once and Future King. Hundreds of other writers had reworked the stories as well. However, I noticed that few writers had added futuristic elements to the stories. I thought I’d try by transporting the characters a thousand years into the future, and adding a 21st century worry: climate change. That resulted in a new series, The Future History of the Grail.

How does this connect with Monty Python? Like every writer excited by a new idea, I had to tell all my relatives and friends. Their immediate reaction was good-natured laughter. Most of them had seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail in high school or college. Unlike me, for whom old Hollywood movies and classic novels brought the story to life, the parody was the story for my friends. That’s how they learned about the tradition. Even strangers who had probably never seen the movie wondered if I was going to mock the old stories the way the Monty Python comedy troupe did, instead of experiment with a different way of telling it.

I began to dislike Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The film cast a long shadow, even on subsequent Arthurian retellings, such as John Boorman’s Excalibur, one of my favorite films of the 1980s. How could I put my own stamp on the timeless relationships among Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, Mordred, Merlin, and all the other characters if the first thing in readers’ minds is a comic king choking a mouthy peasant?

The only thing to do was to trust myself and carry on. I gave myself permission to try new things, such as playing with Arthur’s name, making Lancelot a female warrior in love with Guinevere, the king’s wife, and recasting the Grail as a piece of lost technology that Camelot’s knights need to rediscover in order to preserve their culture. After a while, it became clear that the source material was so rich and open to interpretation, that my small contribution would fit nicely into the tradition.

With the Future History of the Grail complete, I’ve come back to Monty Python and the Holy Grail like a lover who’s forgiven his beloved and reunited with her. I can’t help but laugh at the brilliant send-ups of all the classic sword and sorcery tropes that still inspire modern epic fantasy. That’s the great thing about the Arthurian tradition: There’s room for practically any interpretation, even mine.

What do you love best about Monty Python and the Holy Grail?

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