Historia Calamitatum

Most of the time, when someone first finds out I study Arthurian literature, they mention Monty Python. I smile and nod and move the conversation on as quickly as I can, because – I’d never seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Until today. As I’ve been putting together material for the Indiegogo campaign, inevitably Monty Python came up in discussions with friends who were offering help and encouragement. I reacted the way I usually do, saying that “that’s not real Arthurian stuff.” And then I realized I can’t possibly say that without ever having seen more than a few clips of it. Besides, it’s supposed to be funny, right? So worst that can happen is I have a fun, mindless couple of hours. It was definitely fun. But it was far from mindless. See, part of my fascination with Arthurian legend – most of my fascination with Arthurian legend – is rooted in its adaptability. I love modern retellings of Arthurian tales, including YA books like Meg Cabot’s Avalon High series, which is set completely in the twenty-first century and yet I still consider it Arthurian! And I’ve been saying for a long time that I love A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court because of the way Mark Twain plays with the legend – but that’s exactly what Monty Python does, albeit in a decidedly different manner. I also resisted watching it because I thought it was untrue to the “Arthurian spirit.” I still think that. It is. But it departs from the Arthurian spirit with obvious thought and deliberation as to how and why to do so. In the end, what Monty Python does with the legend is exactly what I’ve been saying I admire about how the legend lives on. Every new retelling, every variation, puts its own spin on it, molds the legend to fit its own purposes. The modern re-enactors I saw who do call themselves knights – they use the Arthurian legend unironically, and I think it’s amazing the way they use centuries-old traditions of honor and chivalry to inform their daily lives. Monty Python uses the Arthurian legend ironically in order to comment on absurdities and inconsistencies in both the legend itself and in contemporary times (if you consider 1975 contemporary). And both of these are valid and important uses of the legend and tradition, and both of these should be studied. I consider myself suitably chastened and have adjusted my view to encompass more of that “everything” I thought it already did.

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