Coconuts in Camelot: Monty Python and the Holy Grail in the Arthurian Literature Course
By Christine M. Neufeld
Florilegium, Volume 19 (2002)
Introduction: Teaching Arthurian literature affords a perhaps rare opportunity for medieval specialists to use the medium of film to interest undergraduate students in a period that is otherwise often considered foreign to their cultural world or concerns. The significant number of Arthurian films in die twentieth century reflects the continuous appeal of the Arthurian legend, a legend whose survival can be attributed to its adaptability, shifting throughout the centuries between elite and popular cultures, and disseminated in different forms through visual, oral and textual traditions.
While there has always been a ludic dimension to Arthurian tradition, one postmedieval comedic portrayal of Arthur and his knights, Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, has had a significant impact on how Arthurian material has been adapted on the silver screen. One possible consequence of Twain’s comic vision and its early transposition into the newly emerging film medium is that, while Bresson’s brooding tale of Arthurian ennui may be the hallmark of the twentieth-century cinematic Arthurian corpus, the film that has come to represent the Round Table’s cinematic incarnation in the minds of the generations that now fill the postsecondary classroom is Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a comic masterpiece that embodies the spirit of Twain’s dismissive coinage, “holy grailing.”
Student enthusiasm for Monty Python’s film contrasts with the noticeably more restrained stance of scholarly opinion which, while rarely omitting to mention the film’s existence in discussions of cinematic Arthuriana, has relatively little to say about the actual film. Part of the reason Monty Python’s medieval film has not received as much scrutiny as it deserves from medievalists is because it can be perceived as being preoccupied with its own cinematic form. The ubiquity of Kevin J. Hartys comment that Python’s film is “not so much a send-up of the Arthurian legend, as it is a send-up of other film versions of that legend” has perhaps refracted scholarly attention away from precisely how Monty Python does deal with a legend which the film itself presents as distinctly literary. By redirecting our attention to the literary scaffolding around which Monty Python and the Holy Grail is built, Arthurian scholars can encounter the hermeneutic dynamism of this film, a quality which also recommends the film as a pedagogical tool.