Phi Beta Cons

King Arthur Shrinks in Great Courses Treatment

Graham Chapman (left) in Monty Python and the Holy Grail

A revived interest in the Arthurian tales led me to download and watch the multi-part “King Arthur: History and Legend,” given by Dorsey Armstrong of Purdue University in the Great Courses series. It was good, a solid tour of the voluminous material, separating out the historical facts as these are recognized by mainstream scholars at the present time, and detailing the different treatments of the legend in different ages. I might have suspected, however, that things would go awry when we got to the present, but I was utterly floored when Professor Armstrong declared that the best treatment of the Arthur story in her view is…Monty Python and the Holy Grail! And in case you missed it the first time she said it, she repeated it in a later episode.

Of all the profound, brilliant, compelling, mesmerizing, inspiring retellings of the Arthurian legends, why choose this silly, debunking, if mildly entertaining farce? Granted, Graham Chapman, God rest his soul, is rather charming as a naively believing king and was at least the best looking of the Python group. But the key moment in the film, and its ultimate comment on the legend, to which the professor was no doubt referring, occurs when Arthur announces his kingship to some peasants, offering as his justification the sword given him by the magical Lady of the Lake. This aspect of the legend obviously invokes the transcendent power behind human endeavor that the Arthurian tales address (and which, in the actual legends, must be proven by deeds of wisdom, valor, and humility). But in the Python retelling, the peasants mock the idea of any sacred or mystical origins of kingship, and declare that they are living according to a different model, through collective deliberation and self-government. It’s a cute moment (see video below), kind of a précis from Magna Carta to the American War of Independence. But how does this become the best — repeat, the best – treatment of the mammoth body of legends and their embodiment of the heights of aspiration for nobility, justice, and spiritual perfection in human affairs?

The whole idea of a king, a heroic leader among men who exemplifies courage, virtue, and self-sacrifice, whose power derives from a moral order above and informing human reason and deliberation — this is simply an empty story, an outdated cultural artifact awaiting its redemption through elections? The professor’s statement seemed to undercut the whole value of her scholarly work. Arthur is just a pleasant diversion, like the traditional architectural “references” on postmodern buildings, something to look at and talk about but little more. (Is this what Michael Oakeshott means by “the conversation”?)  Oh well, as we learn from the tales of the Table Round, the seeds of destruction do arise from within.

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