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It may be that ideals are necessary for humanity. Without idealized images, codes of behavior, even idealized objects, mankind would have difficulty functioning. There would be a lack of context or criteria with which to judge objects that may be termed less than ideal. However, the problem with idealized images is that they can never be described fully, and certainly never attained. An example is the contemporary ideal of feminine beauty, which has led to countless problems such as depression and psychological dietary disorders among women who perceive themselves to be "inadequate." The more culturally emphasized an ideal is, the more ordinary people are made to feel inadequate.
This has led to a trend common to all centuries, that of puncturing ideals by showing them to be less than what they are supposed to be. In art and literature we see manifestations of this mechanism. It is a protective mechanism in a sense, for it prevents total absorption in the ideal, forcing us to see it for what it is, a benchmark and not a realistic goal. Even in the works where men and women achieve the ideal, it is usually accomplished by supernatural means, for a concomitant of the ideal is that it cannot truly exist in the natural and hence imperfect world. Examples of such mechanisms range from the colloquialism "out of this world" to describe the superlative to the common mythological pattern of the religious leader being the son of a god.
One of the most enduring myths in the Western world is that of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Regardless of the origins of the tales, the fact is that by the time they had been filtered through a French sensibility and re-exported to England, they were representations of not one but several ideals. Courtly love and chivalry and the various components thereof, such as martial prowess, chastity, bravery, courtesy, and so on, were presented as the chief virtues to aspire to, and the knights as role models. Arthur's eventual fall is precisely because of having failed at some level to fulfill these ideals in his life.
The Arthurian cycle shows a sporadic awareness of the impossibility of mere humans fulfilling all the ideals that Arthur and his court represent. The story of Lancelot and Guenevere, Merlin's imprisonment by Nimu‘, and numerous other instances testify to the recognition of this tension between the real and the unrealistic.
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The film Monty Python and the Holy Grail is primarily a movie about the process of moviemaking about the Middle Ages, and our modern romanticized view of the time period and the Arthurian cycle. Likewise, the medieval poem Gawain and the Green Knight has customarily been interpreted as an allegorical work exploring "Gawain's fault." However, it is integral to the strategy of both works to read them as critiques of the idealized Arthur. Despite the centuries that separate them and the wildly disparate treatments of the subject, the film and the poem are essentially using the same technique. In both cases the chivalric virtues of chastity, bravery, religious faith, martial prowess, and courtesy are examined and found to be unattainable by mortal man. at least in their romanticized and idealized form. In this sense, they are both about Arthur's unreality, puncturing the bubble of fantasy and reducing the benchmarks of perfection to absurdity.
There is, however, a fundamental difference in the approach to this undermining of the ideal bweteen the film and the poem. The film ends with a total elimination of the fantasy, of the romanticized medieval milieu, from the modern world. With this elimination the ideals are also eliminated. As a rule, the critique of chastity, bravery, and the other chivalric virtues is much harsher in the film than in the poem. Gawain on the other hand not only engages in a gentler critique, but also ends on a more hopeful note. There is not an apocalyptic moment in which all the virtues are swept away; instead, the unattainability of the ideal is acknowledged without removing the ideals themselves from the fictional framework.
The ideal of chastity, as presented in medieval times, was rigorous enough to prevent all but Galahad, the one knight who was pure in every sense, from reaching the Holy Grail. Knight who had lain with women but regretted it were unfit; only one who was pure in deed and in thought was capable of reaching the transcendent icon of the Grail. The question of sinning in thought and deed is precisely the issue when examining the way in which this virtue is undermined by the poem and the film.
In the film, the attack on chastity as a knightly virtue centers on Galahad himself, who is shown struggling with great difficulty through a forest full of brambles in the middle of a rain storm. He sees a vision of the Grail hanging over a castle, and exhausted, demands entrance. Once inside, however, he finds the castle, named Anthrax, to be entirely populated by young women "between the ages of seventeen and nineteen and a half."
Just in presenting the guardians of the supposed Grail in Castle Anthrax as women, Monty Python suggests several things about the nature of chastity among knights; these suggestions all rely on the momentary expectation that the Grail is indeed in the Castle Anthrax, as Galahad believes it to be.
In place of the Grail, knights find women who are in every way the typical male sexual fantasy, suggesting that to these knights, perhaps the true Grail would be a castle full of sex-starved beautiful virgins. In effect, they are an alternate Grail. This reading of the film is reinforced by the fact that the names of the women are all typical upper-class English nicknames for young women, names like "Zoot" and "Winston." Were the film American we might expect to hear "Muffy" instead.
The fact that these women are presented as guardians of the treasure, a temptation to prevent the successful completion of the quest, implies that they must be a supreme foe of the knights, and therefore, one to which many knights fall. The virtue of chastity starts to seem one which few knights have, particularly with the suggestion that these women might be an alternate Grail.
The only thing that saves Galahad from losing his chastity physically is the arrival of Lancelot with his machismo and single-mindedness. Notice I say losing it physically. Galahad's mind is most certainly impure from the very beginning. Consider the way in which he reacts to the suggestion that doctors examine him, saying "I say, must you do that?" when the supposed doctors try to undress him. He clearly has sex on his mind from the moment he enters the castle.
The departure of the knights from the castle emphasizes the fact that in effect, Galahad has already fallen from virtue. He is begging to stay rather than be rescued, couching it in terms of a challenge to meet; as viewers we cannot help but hear that challenge as being that of sleeping with scores of women, as an indication of his desire to prove his male prowess. Chastity has been redefined as a weakness, and sexual contact as a new grail, one which many knights choose to follow. Indeed, when Lancelot hurries Galahad away, Galahad challenges his manhood, saying to him, "Are you gay?"
The fact that even Galahad the Chaste (as the film terms him) falls prey to this indicates that not even the figure traditionally granted the purity to reach the Grail is pure enough; therefore, no man is. When Monty Python's Galahad must face the final test at the Bridge of Death, he is one of the two knights who perish for failure to answer the riddles; perhaps he dies also for having failed to be what his title terms him, just as Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave dies for his flaw.
In Gawain and the Green Knight, the tempation in an analogous castle is again that of the hostess, "Her bright throat and bosom fair to behold,/ Fresh as the first snow fallen upon hills." (lines 956-7) However, the critique of chastity is entirely on the grounds of sinning in thought and not in deed. Whereas Galahad the Chaste was perfectly willing to give up his chastity, Gawain is not willing--but he does consider it.
The temptation is presented is much less lustful terms in the poem. The lady offers herself using remarkably similar terms to those used by the Anthrax women, who say first to spank them, and then to "do with them as you [Galahad] will[s]." In the poem the lady uses these words:
My body is here at hand,
Your each wish to fulfill;
Your servant to command
I am, and shall be still.
Again, we see the ultimate male fantasy being offered; however, here it is qualified with a touch of respectability. The woman offers herself not as one sexual plaything among many, but as wife.
And I should hunt high and low, a husband to take,
For the nurture I have noted in thee, knight, here,
The comeliness and courtesies and courtly mirth--
And so I had ever heard, and now hold it true--
No other on this earth should have me for wife.
Gawain does not resist the tempation fully, in part because the codes of courtesy and chivalry are in conflict with his duty to his host. If the duty of the chaste knight is to avoid thinking impure thoughts, Gawain fails, but only slightly, when he says "I am yours to command, to kiss when you please," nearly as sweeping an offer as hers (1501). Although his defenses against her tempation are described in fairly glowing terms--"no fault appeared"--this is true only insofar as he refuses to speak words of love to the lady. He must consider the offer and think about the freighting they convey. In lines 1760 to 1775 he entertains the thoughts of accepting her offer. Upon waking to see her, "He sees her so glorious...His heart swelled swiftly with surging joys." (1760-3) It is interesting that after every kiss he gets from the lady, he makes a point of going to Mass, perhaps to be absolved.
It is precisely in these actions that Gawain fails on yet another chivalric virtue: that of courtesy to his host. He is torn between competing virtues, thus demonstrating the impossibility of being the perfect knight. Courtesy demands that Gawain kiss the lady, and courtesy demands that he refrain. Already a dilemma is created. Similarly, if the situation between the two of them is taken to be an instance of courtly love, Gawain is extremely rude to deny her a token, and wouldhave been rude to refuse the girdle she offers.
However, the clearest example of Gawain's failure of courtesy lies in his oathbreaking. He is a guest in the knight's castle, but he breaks the bargain made with him and keeps the girdle. As Gawain admits to the Green Knight at the end of the poem, "Now I am faulty and false, that fearful was ever/ Of disloyalty and lies..." (2381-2)
There are numerous examples of lacks of courtesy in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and again, they are harsher critiques of the impossibility of the virtue. In some instances, such as the foulmouthed French knight, the rudeness is gratuitous; in other, more intriguing scenes, the rudeness comes about precisely for the same reasons that it does in Gawain: the inevitable conflict between different portions of the chivalric code.
At one point John Cleese's Lancelot receives a message that asks him to rescue a prisoner held in a tower in Swamp Castle. He does so, with the same singleminded and remarkably thickheaded bravery that characterized his rescue of Galahad from Castle Anthrax. He bursts in on a wedding and kills tens of people, with no real attention to their guilt. He is caught between his duty to the prisoner and the common courtesy of not interrupting a celebration, of not killing someone who does not deserve it. In attempting to do the impossibly brave, Lancelot fails to be impossibly courteous.
It is as an exercise in martial prowess that Lancelot's rescue succeeds, and then only partially. It turns out to be an exercise in futility. In Gawain martial prowess is also futile. There are two man-to-man combats in the poem, the first challenge and the second. In the first, the Green Knight cannot be killed, and in the second, Gawain cannot be killed either, by virtue of the girdle he wears. The only blows which accomplish anything in the poem are those struck against animals while hunting.
Martial prowess is perhaps the first thing we associate with the ideal of knighthood, and much of Gawain and the Green KnightÊpurposefully undermines this idea in order to advance the author's alternate agenda of making Christian virtues central. The challenge offered Gawain is intrinsically ridiculous, a mockery of single combat. It is particularly revealed as such because of the timing of the challenge: a high feast on New Year's Day, a time when boons are granted and petitions heard. The Green Knight's mockery of the custom of single combat and challenges undermines the validity of martial prowess as a criterion of knighthood.
The indestructibility of the Green Knight has a direct parallel in Monty Python's movie: the Black Knight King Arthur fights and dismembers. Both knights lose parts of their body without death ensuing, when it should have. The Green Knight is literally decapitated, yet he only picks up his head and goes on. Similarly, the Black Knight keeps fighting even when all his limbs are removed. He is an absurd parody of bravery. Of what use is martial prowess when the consequences are so light?
The film makes more direct assaults on fighting ability than this. The episode of the Trojan Rabbit calls to mind the great epic of heroism, the Iliad. But here we have a group of knights who can conceive of the strategy, but only on a reduced and ludicrous scale, and cannot execute it. Heroism is taking some mighty blows from comedy here. Few of the knights in the film display great evidence of martial prowess, and those that do usually do so by sacrificing a different aspect of heroism. Lancelot, for instance, is a deadly fighter but incredibly stupid; considering the role of leaders of armies that knights are supposed to play, he seems incredibly ill-suited for the role of knight.
It is precisely his stupidity that makes Lancelot the example of bravery in the film. The choice offered seems to be one of Sir Robin's version or Lancelot's--that is, either a false bravery that arises out of idiocy, or sheer cowardice. In the film Sir Robin is termed "the-not-quite-so-brave-as-Sir-Lancelot," and the name is apropos, for the two characters are clearly set in opposition to one another.
It is helpful to think of this as a direct progression from Gawain to Sir Robin: in essence, Gawain's act of taking a girdle which makes the wearer so indestructible that "...There is no hand under heaven that could hew him down,/ For he could not be killed by any craft on earth," (lines 1853-4) is as cowardly as the running away that so engages Sir Robin's minstrels. We already know that Gawain is afflicted by nightmares, afraid of the blow which the Green Knight will give him:
Deep in his dreams he darkly mutters
As a man may that mourns, with many grim thoughts
Of that day when destiny shall deal him his doom
When he meets his grim host at the Green Chapel
And must bow to his buffet, bating all strife.
The description here can be taken just as easily to refer to life in general. Gawain has many "grim thoughts" of the day when destiny or fate ordains that he die, with no recourse or hope of reprieve, meeting the "grim host" that is Death in the Green Chapel that is the earth itself. Gawain is, simply put, afraid to die.
In and of itself this is not necessarily a flaw. True bravery lies in going on despite the fear. Gawain, however, fails to go on. He sees the girdle as a "pearl for his plight" (1856) and his desire to escape the doom he sees bearing down on him leads him to rationalize his acceptance of the girdle as "a noble scheme." (1858) He is backing out of the agreement to "take such a dint as you [Gawain] have dealt," as the Green Knight charges him to do (451-2).
The acceptance of the girdle is a three-fold sin. It betrays his host, for he does not reveal it to him, and thus loses all pretense toward courtesy and honesty; it betrays a cowardice on Gawain's part, and pushes him to violate the agreement made with the Green Knight; and finally and perhaps most importantly, it is a fundamental act of loss of faith. Gawain is dressed from head to toe in Christian numerological symbols, as can be seen from his description in lines 619 to 665. The inside of his shield has "the high Queen of Heaven" painted on it (647-9). He is, in every sense, Mary's knight, Christ's knight, and therefore should rely on faith in God to carry him through his troubles.
Upon leaving Camelot, Gawain acknowledges that he took on the challenge "for empty pride," (681) and he is incapable of finding the knight's castle until he prays for forgiveness for his misdeed. In lines 750 to 762, he is lost in the wilderness, afraid he will fail to make the deadline for his meeting with the Green Knight. It is not until he prays and trusts in God's aid that he finds the way:
No sooner had Gawain crossed himself thrice
Than he was ware, in the wood, of a wondrous dwelling...
It is precisely this trust in God that Gawain abandons when he accepts the girdle.
The green knight is not only associated with vegetation king mythology, but is referred to as "half a giant" and as "elf-man." Even after the challenge has been resolved, he acknowledges that he has his power thanks to Morgan le Fay. Kittredge points out that making the Green Knight physically green rather than merely dressed in green was an innovation of the Gawain poet, as opposed to being a traditional aspect of the story. Given this fact, it is impossible to separate the color of the girdle from the nature of the knight's power and from the paganism of the vegetation king myth.He is pagan magic set up against the Christian virtues that Gawain is supposed to embody. Rather than trusting in God, Gawain chooses to use a pagan girdle to defend himself. The girdle is green, just as the knight's hair is, and it is "with gold overwrought," (1831) but it bears no Christian emblems, nor does it seem to have any associations other than with the same power that the Green Knight possesses. In essence, Gawain fails in this most important of ideals, perfect religious faith, in that he cannot submit his will to that of God. Instead he accepts external magical aid.
The God that Gawain then goes to worship at Mass and confess his sins to then begins to bear a suspicious resemblance to Jesus as portrayed in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The Jesus that appears in the clouds is a "poster" Jesus, contentedly waving like a pop star, dispensing light and peace, but not at all a figure of power or awe. Gawain has abandoned faith in the power of God.
Monty Python takes it a step further yet. Faith in God, perhaps the central idea of the Middle Ages, is stripped of all its motivation in the film. The figure of God presented to us is a testy God, one with no desire for bowing and scraping at all, who wishes people wouldn't ask for forgiveness and worship him. It s the God created by the lack of faith Gawain exhibits, the God that is himself less than ideal. With this final exploding of faith and religion, all the ideals that we see as iconic of chivalry, the Middle Ages, and specifically, of Arthur and the Round Table, have been thoroughly destroyed.
It is completely inevitable that the Round Table be forever lessened in our eyes, for Gawain is the best of Arthur's knights, and where he has failed, they all shall. There cannot be any ideal knights, nor could there ever have been. Likewise, as Monty Python concludes its metafictional critique of Arthurian films, it leaves us with the image of knights as common criminals, unworthy of our reverence, being packed into police van.
Thus the myth of Arthur falls by the wayside. As a shining example of how men can achieve the ideal, it fails miserably. Its best knights are shown, in both works, to fall well short of meeting the prescribed agenda of excellence. There is however, one fundamental difference between the two works.
In the film we are forced to give up on the myth completely, and realize that it was all a fantasy in the first place. It closes with fifteen minutes of intermission music, as if to remind us that it was all a figment of our imagination. We do not leave the movie with any remaining confidence in the ideals is skewers. In that sense, the film may be seen as nihilistic, providing no hope.
The poem, however, ends with forgiveness of flaws. All that the green knight ordains is that a token be worn: the green girdle. It becomes a sign of humanity and imperfection, but also a sign that while perfection may be unattainable, one can come pretty close. The Green Knight himself terms Gawain a man of "matchless faith," implying that he did as well as any man could under the circumstances. The ideals are punctured, but in a way they still remain, not as benchmarks of attainment but rather more like suns for the plants of men's hearts to be drawn to. It is a fitting end to the poem that Arthur decrees that all his knights wear green baldrics, for it reminds them of their nature and of the misleading nature of the ideal.
That the modern version is less optimistic about the possibility of ideals is not surprising, but it is perhaps the original poem that provides a better lesson to live one's life by, a less cynical view of the world. One may perhaps consider humor and laughter to be the green belt born by the Monty Python troupe against the disappointments of this world, for to make us laugh at our failures to be perfect is as appropriate a response as any other. This is one instance where a modern film and an ancient poem may stand side by side and not be ashamed to see themselves reflected in each other's lines.
1. Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Mists of Avalon (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1982).
2. All citations from the film are taken from the final screen version as seen on
videotape, written by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry
Jones, and Michael Palin and directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones; released to
theaters in 1974 and on videotape by RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video in 1991.
3. W. R. J. Barron, Trawthe and TreasonÊ(Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press,
4. All citations from Gawain and the Green Knight taken from M. H. Abrams, E. Talbot
Donaldson, et al, eds., The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume One,
Fourth Edition (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1979), pp. 246-98.
5. George Lyman Kittredge, A Study of Gawaine and the Green Knight (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1916), p. 141-2.
Abrams, M. H. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume One, Fourth Edition (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1979).
Barron, W. R. J. Trawthe and Treason: The Sin of Gawain Reconsidered (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1980).
Benson, Larry D. Art and Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1965).
Blanch, Robert J. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Reference Guide (Troy, NY: The Whitston Publishing Co., 1983).
Goltra, Robert. "The Confession in the Green Chapel: Gawain's True Absolution" in The Emporia State Research Studies, vol. xxxii, no. 4, Spring 1984 (Emporia, Kansas: Emporia State University), pp. 5-14.
Kittredge, George Lyman. A Study of Gawain and the Green Knight (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1916).
Savage, Henry Lyttleton. The Gawain-Poet: Studies in his Personality and Background (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1956).
Shoaf, R. A. The Poem as Green Girdle: Commercium in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Gainesville, FL: University of Florida, 1984).
Thompson, John O., editor. Monty Python: Complete and Utter Theory of the Grotesque (London: British Film Institute, 1982).