Film Study: Monty Python's The Holy Grail

Mr. Steel


The Grail as depicted in Monty Python's classic comedy



All students in English are required by Alberta Learning to engage in a unit of movie analysis and interpretation. This term, our class will be studying Monty Python's 1975 film, The Holy Grail. Students will examine the movie on its own merits; however, we will also study the movie in light of its contributions to comedy, and its mythic origins in Arthurian legend and medieval literature.


Work and Assessment


A. Students will write a multiple-choice Movie Terminology Test. This test will evaluate their understanding of terms relevant to film studies; there will also be some comprehension questions on the movie itself, and how some of these terms may help us to appreciate The Holy Grail.


B. Every student will research and develop a Movie Project/Presentations on The Grail. Student projects may be done individually, or in groups of up to three. Movie Projects will respond to ONE of the prescribed thematic questions listed below. All projects ought to be thoroughly researched, accurately proofread, and carefully assembled. Projects ought to include textual analysis as well as visual aids where appropriate. Students will present their movie project to the class. Projects presentations will be assessed for their thoroughness in the analysis of themes, as well as for their effectiveness in oral communication. The use of visuals, audio and/or multi-media is encouraged.





Project Presentation Topics:


1. Arthurian Legends: Research one of the Arthurian knights. Be prepared to tell the class about that knight's quest in great detail, along with its significance. The knight you choose need not be one that appears in Python's movie.


2. What is Comedy?: Think about and discuss what makes something funny. Are there different sorts of humour? Research the manner in which our understanding of humour differs from culture to culture, and from generation to generation. Pay particular attention to the differences between American, British, and Canadian humour. How might we compare and contrast each? Is part of our identity as Canadians demonstrated through differences in what we consider to be funny?


3. The image of the quest in literature: What is a "quest"? Why are quests popular themes in literature? Why might quests be an important component of real life as well? Present a book that you have read to the class in which the symbol of the quest is used. What is the nature of this quest? What is at stake? What are the components of the quest? Is the quest successful? Why or why not? What makes a quest successful or not?


4. Modern Re-tellings of the Grail story: Familiarize yourself with the original grail story through one of its earliest authors. Examine a film or a book in which the Grail story is retold (other than Python's). How is the original story used?


5. Skit Comedy and Script-Writing: What makes Python humour unique? For those who are dramatically/comically inclined, try writing and performing your own Python-esque sketch comedy.


6. Compare and Contrast Source Texts on the Grail: Choose from among the early accounts of the Grail story, and recount each of these source tales to the class. Having done so, point out the similarities and differences between the accounts. What is emphasized, and what is de-emphasized in each account? Why do you think this is done?


7. The Grail as Symbol: Investigate the various ways in which the Grail has been viewed symbolically throughout literature and film.


8. The Knights Templar and the Grail: Research who were the Knights Templar. What was thought to be special about them? What were there practices? Where did they live, and how did they live? What was their supposed relation to the Grail?


9. Joseph of Arimathea: Research who was Joseph of Arimathea. What significance does he have in the story of the Grail? How does he figure in the various accounts of this story? Is he prominent in each, or is he absent in some accounts?


10. Celtic Mythology: Research and present your findings on the significance of a particular Celtic Myth as it relates to the unfolding of the Grail legend.



Resources for Research on The Holy Grail in Literature

(from Wikipedia and The Catholic Encyclopaedia)


How at the Castle of Corbin a Maiden Bare in the Sangreal and Foretold the Achievements of Galahad: illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1917

How at the Castle of Corbin a Maiden Bare in the Sangreal and Foretold the Achievements of Galahad: illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1917


            According to Christian mythology, the Holy Grail was the dish, plate, or cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper, said to possess miraculous powers. Joseph of Arimathea is said to have received the Grail from an apparition of Jesus, and he sends it with his followers to Great Britain; building upon this theme, later writers recounted how Joseph used the Grail to catch Christ's blood while interring him and that in Britain he founded a line of guardians to keep it safe. The quest for the Holy Grail makes up an important segment of the Arthurian cycle. The legend may combine Christian lore with a Celtic myth of a cauldron endowed with special powers.


Origins of the Grail

            The Grail plays a different role everywhere it appears, but in most versions of the legend the hero must prove himself worthy to be in its presence. In the early tales, Percival's immaturity prevents him from fulfilling his destiny when he first encounters the Grail, and he must grow spiritually and mentally before he can locate it again. In later tellings the Grail is a symbol of God's grace, available to all but only fully realized by those who prepare themselves spiritually, like the saintly Galahad.

            There are two veins of thought concerning the Grail's origin. The first holds that the Grail legend derived from early Celtic myth and folklore. Parallels can be found between Medieval Welsh literature, Irish material, and the Grail romances. There are similarities between the Mabinogion's Bran the Blessed and the Arthurian Fisher King, and between Bran's life-restoring cauldron and the Grail. Other legends featured magical platters or dishes that symbolize otherworldly power or test the hero's worth. Sometimes the items generate a never-ending supply of food; sometimes they can raise the dead. Sometimes they decide who the next king should be, as only the true sovereign could hold them.

            A second view holds that the Grail began as a purely Christian symbol. For example, 12th century wall paintings from churches present images of the Virgin Mary holding a bowl that radiates tongues of fire, images that predate the first literary account of the Grail by Chrétien de Troyes.

Another recent theory holds that the earliest stories that cast the Grail in a Christian light were meant to promote the Roman Catholic sacrament of the Holy Communion. The first Grail stories may have been celebrations of a renewal in this traditional sacrament. This theory has some basis in the fact that the Grail legends are a phenomenon of the Western church.

            Most scholars today accept that both Christian and Celtic traditions contributed to the legend's development. The general view is that the central theme of the Grail is Christian, even when not explicitly religious, but that much of the setting and imagery of the early romances is drawn from Celtic material.


The beginnings of the Grail in literature


Chrétien de Troyes

        The Grail is first featured in Perceval, le Conte du Graal (The Story of the Grail) by Chrétien de Troyes, who claims he was working from a source book given to him by his patron, Count Philip of Flanders. In this incomplete poem, dated sometime between 1180 and 1191, the object has not yet acquired the implications of holiness it would have in later works. While dining in the magical abode of the Fisher King, Perceval witnesses a wondrous procession in which youths carry magnificent objects from one chamber to another, passing before him at each course of the meal. First comes a young man carrying a bleeding lance, then two boys carrying candelabras. Finally, a beautiful young girl emerges bearing an elaborately decorated graal, or "grail."

        Chrétien refers to his object not as "The Grail" but as un graal, showing the word was used, in its earliest literary context, as a common noun. For Chrétien the grail was a wide, somewhat deep dish or bowl that contained a single Mass wafer which provided sustenance for the Fisher King’s crippled father. Perceval, who had been warned against talking too much, remains silent through all of this, and wakes up the next morning alone. He later learns that if he had asked the appropriate questions about what he saw, he would have healed his maimed host, much to his honour. The story of the Wounded King's mystical fasting is not unique; several saints were said to have lived without food besides communion. This may imply that Chrétien intended the Mass wafer to be the significant part of the ritual, and the Grail to be a mere prop.


Robert de Boron

            Though Chrétien’s account is the earliest and most influential of all Grail texts, it was in the work of Robert de Boron that the Grail truly became the "Holy Grail" and assumed the form most familiar to modern readers. In his verse romance Joseph d’Arimathie, composed between 1191 and 1202, Robert tells the story of Joseph of Arimathea acquiring the chalice of the Last Supper to collect Christ’s blood upon His removal from the cross. Joseph is thrown in prison where Christ visits him and explains the mysteries of the blessed cup. Upon his release Joseph gathers his in-laws and other followers and travels to the west, where he founds a dynasty of Grail keepers that eventually includes Perceval.

The Grail in other early literature

            After this point, Grail literature divides into two classes. The first concerns King Arthur’s knights visiting the Grail castle or questing after the object; the second concerns the Grail’s history in the time of Joseph of Arimathea.


The nine most important works from the first group are:

·          The Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes.

·          Four continuations of Chrétien’s poem, by authors of differing vision and talent, designed to bring the story to a close.

·          The German Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach, which adapted at least the holiness of Robert’s Grail into the framework of Chrétien’s story.

·          The Didot Perceval, named after the manuscript’s former owner, and purportedly a prosification of Robert de Boron’s sequel to Joseph d’Arimathie.

·          The Welsh romance Peredur, generally included in the Mabinogion, likely at least indirectly founded on Chrétien's poem but including very striking differences from it, preserving as it does elements of pre-Christian traditions such as the Celtic cult of the head.

·          Perlesvaus, called the "least canonical" Grail romance because of its very different character.

·          The German Diu Crône (The Crown), in which Gawain, rather than Perceval, achieves the Grail.

·          The Lancelot section of the vast Vulgate Cycle, which introduces the new Grail hero, Galahad.

·          The Queste del Saint Graal, another part of the Vulgate Cycle, concerning the adventures of Galahad and his achievement of the Grail.

Of the second class there are:

·          Robert de Boron’s Joseph d’Arimathie,

·          The Estoire del Saint Graal, the first part of the Vulgate Cycle (but written after Lancelot and the Queste), based on Robert’s tale but expanding it greatly with many new details.

·          Though all these works have their roots in Chrétien, several contain pieces of tradition not found in Chrétien which are possibly derived from earlier sources.


Ideas of the Grail

Galahad, Bors, and Percival achieve the Grail

Galahad, Bors, and Percival achieve the Grail

            The Grail was considered a bowl or dish when first described by Chrétien de Troyes. Other authors had their own ideas; Robert de Boron portrayed it as the vessel of the Last Supper, and Peredur had no Grail per se, presenting the hero instead with a platter containing his kinsman's bloody, severed head. In Parzival, Wolfram von Eschenbach, citing the authority of a certain (probably fictional) Kyot the Provençal, claimed the Grail was a stone that fell from Heaven, and had been the sanctuary of the Neutral Angels who took neither side during Lucifer's rebellion. The authors of the Vulgate Cycle used the Grail as a symbol of divine grace. Galahad, illegitimate son of Lancelot and Elaine, the world's greatest knight and the Grail Bearer at the castle of Corbenic, is destined to achieve the Grail, his spiritual purity making him a greater warrior than even his illustrious father. Galahad and the interpretation of the Grail involving him were picked up in the 15th century by Sir Thomas Malory in Le Morte d'Arthur, and remain popular today.

            Various notions of the Holy Grail are currently widespread in Western society (especially British, French and American), popularized through numerous medieval and modern works and linked with the predominantly Anglo-French (but also with some German influence) cycle of stories about King Arthur and his knights. Because of this wide distribution, Americans and West Europeans sometimes assume that the Grail idea is universally well known. The stories of the Grail, however, are totally absent from the folklore of those countries that were and are Eastern Orthodox (whether Arabs, Slavs, Romanians, or Greeks). This is true of all Arthurian myths, which were not well known east of Germany until the present-day Hollywood retellings. Nor has the Grail been as popular a subject in some predominantly Catholic areas, such as Spain and Latin America, as it has been elsewhere. The notions of the Grail, its importance, and prominence, are a set of ideas that are essentially local and particular, being linked with Catholic or formerly Catholic locales, Celtic mythology and Anglo-French medieval storytelling. The contemporary wide distribution of these ideas is due to the huge influence of the pop culture of countries where the Grail Myth was prominent in the Middle Ages.

            Belief in the Grail and interest in its potential whereabouts has never ceased. Ownership has been attributed to various groups (including the Knights Templar, probably because they were at the peak of their influence around the time that Grail stories started circulating in the 12th and 13th centuries).


Useful Links:


The Catholic Encyclopaedia on "The Grail"


Le Morte D'Arthur. Thomas Mallory (online text edition)


Joseph of Arimathea


The Story of the Grail by Chrétien de Troyes


Robert de Boron's Joseph of Arimathea (online text)


Arthurian Legends








Dear Parents:


All students in English are required by Alberta Learning to engage in a unit of movie analysis and interpretation. This term, our class will be studying Monty Python's 1975 film, The Holy Grail. Students will examine the movie on its own merits; however, we will also study the movie in light of its contributions to comedy, and its mythic origins in Arthurian legend and medieval literature. Some of the literary/textual themes we will be exploring through this film include Arthurian legends, the nature of comedy, comedy as an expression of identity in time and space, quest imagery in world literature, modern re-tellings of the Grail story, skit comedy and script-writing, source text analysis, the grail as symbol, the history of the Knights Templar, as well as both Celtic Mythology and Christian legend and lore.

As many of you are very likely familiar with this film, you will remember that it is very silly. There is little offensive about this film, and it has a PG MPAA rating. However, if for any reason you do not wish your child to watch this movie as a springboard into the research topics discussed above, it would certainly be allowable for your son or daughter to be released from the movie and instead engage in one of the 10 choice project/presentation topics provided.







Sean Steel