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.

Le Conte du Graal

I’ve been drawn to Arthurian legend for as long as I can remember.

When I realized a few years ago that I didn’t have an answer as to why I’m interested in the tradition, I thought about it and figured it must have started with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (Mark Twain), which I read an abridged version of when I was about 10 or 11.

connecticut yankee

One of my favorite scenes from that book: when Hank smokes through his helmet and they all think he’s a fire-belching dragon. Also the pigs/princesses, especially because the book I read (above) had an illustration there with actual pigs and not princesses. I can’t find an image of that online, but  interestingly, I found this:


What’s interesting is that I liked the illustrations in the edition I read because it showed reality while everyone was hallucinating or making things up, and here the illustration shows Hank as a fire-belching dragon. In fact, I found this image as part of “centaur alternatives.” How does an editor/illustrator choose to show reality or the fantasy? Now there’s something fun to think about…

As an undergrad, I tried a few times to take a course on Arthurian literature, but every time I registered or almost registered for a class, something came up and I couldn’t take it.

I wrote my senior thesis on Arthurian literature without ever having formally studied the tradition itself. I had an amazing thesis director who guided me in reading texts that could help me get the basics in addition to the scholarship needed specifically for my paper.

But I never gave up on the dream of systematic study of Arthurian literature and legend.

Now that might be happening…

The University of Exeter is offering a summer course on Arthurian legend this year, and I was so excited when I found out about it, I just applied right away.

But it’s kind of expensive, what with airfare on top of tuition.

The program offered me a partial scholarship, which helps tremendously, and I’m working on applying for academic grants. I also set up an Indiegogo campaign to supplement that.

I desperately want to get to this program. The syllabus touches on so many aspects of Arthurian legend that interest me: history, kingship, chivalry, court life, magic, and the continuation of the legend in contemporary media.

Besides, I’ve been dreaming of traveling in the UK for so many years. Maybe even since I read The Secret Garden and heard the sound of the wind on the moors.

I was also always interested in accents, which made me want to visit the UK even more. There are some really bad movies I watched just because they were set in Scotland or Wales or somewhere with a recognizable accent.

This is my Grail, and I’m chasing it!