Monty Python And The Crown: Two Sides Of The Same Problem
How a new Netflix series and an old Monty Python sketch both reveal a deep truth about British delusion
Half a century ago a group of Oxbridge graduates coalesced to create one of the most iconic television comedy shows in the English language: Monty Python’s Flying Circus. After their time with the BBC ended they ventured into the world of film, with their first effort being the low-budget Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Unlike their television programs which comprised largely unrelated sketches following each other in no particular order, Grail was an affectionate parody of the Arthurian legend and thus had something approaching a plot. Nevertheless, the film can also be viewed as a series of sketches and one of the most famous is the scene in which questing Arthur encounters the Black Knight. We shall have a great deal to say about this scene later.
This week, Netflix released the latest in its ongoing multi-series dramatization of the British royal family. Although it is hardly a literal account, it has been sufficiently well-researched as to qualify as a meta-representation. The British royal family is an anachronism, a peculiar tribe of astonishingly privileged people whose contact with the realities of everyday life is effectively zero. As such, they are as worthy of anthropological study as any isolated primate group or religious cult sequestered on the edge of some third-world jungle. As no anthropologist has been permitted to live alongside them and publish records of their bizarre behaviors in scientific journals, The Crown is a second-best illumination of the oddities and psychoses the royal family has come to regard as their own local normal.
King Arthur and Queen Elizabeth II both hold similar places in people’s imaginations. Both are primarily symbols and as such ordinary people project onto them whatever hopes and illusions they happen to possess. The reality of a fifth-century former Roman citizen desperately attempting to cling onto the last vestiges of civilization in a remote northern corner of a dead Empire is obscured by the fanciful and wholly unrealistic dreams later generations conjured up as psychological feel-good props. The reality of an uneducated and emotionally stunted woman who just happened to be a member of the lucky sperm club is obscured by the fanciful and wholly unrealistic dreams conjured up by people living in a dreary middle-rank country crippled by perpetual nostalgia who are desperate to believe they are part of something grand and meaningful.
Just as The Crown depends for most of its appeal on lavish sets and costumes to create the aura of something other than simply a squalid series of dysfunctional family problems, so too does Holy Grail depend for its comedic impact on costumes and context. The bathos of Holy Grail arises from the disparity between Arthur’s self-image (which is the image we too have of him when we read the various legends) and the reality: a well-meaning incompetent whose attempts at greatness are doomed to perpetual failure. The bathos of The Crown arises from the contrast between the quasi-majestic surroundings and the reality: a highly privileged well-meaning but intellectually vacuous tribe whose continued good fortune depends on perpetually doing nothing at all except smiling and waving during carefully staged photo opportunities.
Holy Grail is essentially a gentle film in which poking fun at the delusions of the Knights of the Round Table is sufficient. We no longer live in fear of heavily armed bands of knights roaming the country taking whatever they want from defenseless citizens, so we can afford to indulge Arthur and his shambling band of pretentious halfwits. We can chuckle at their mishaps because they belong to an age long-gone.
The Crown however is necessarily more pointed and is essentially a long-running critique. Unlike the legends of Arthurian times, the British royal family still exists today and still powerfully contributes to the mass delusions the British cling to about their “greatness” and “being special.” Yet the very existence of unearned hereditary privilege is anathema to notions of equality of opportunity and personal achievement that supposedly dominate today’s technological world. The British thus inhabit a schizophrenic mental universe in which two irreconcilable opposites are forced to coexist; inevitably each undermines the other and so the result is a psychic shambles.
Brexit was one inevitable result of this long-lasting incoherent British self-delusion, as is the perpetual harping on about the supposed “special relationship” that is claimed to persist between the USA and the UK.
So the question must be: why do so many people live in a delusional fantasy-world and thus are incapable of engaging sufficiently with reality?
This question does not pertain only to the British, with their fixation on outmoded models of social organization and their delusions about supposed past glories long since evaporated. Many other nations suffer from similar problems. Trump, Modi, Bolsonaro, Erdogan, Putin, Orban, Le Pen, Salvini, Kuczynski, Duterte, and far too many others to name, are all baleful symptoms of the same fundamental problem. But for the purposes of focus, we’ll stick with Britain as it is more than sufficiently illustrative of the general case.
When people feel themselves deep down to be inadequate they desperately seek to associate themselves with something they believe makes their lives less entirely meaningless. As we’re a primate group species we urgently need to feel we’re part of a group, because for our entire evolutionary history being outside of a group meant death. The more inadequate we are, the greater our need to feel part of a big, important, special group. This is the appeal of populism/nationalism and why so many “patriots” mouth mindless nonsense.
This is why people who’ve spent their lives cramming junk food down their throats and rarely moving from the sofa frantically wave the Union flag and cheer loudly when other people they’ve never met accomplish some well-publicized feat that supposedly reflects well on the entire nation. It’s why uneducated low-income British people genuinely believe Brexit will Make Britain Great Again (mostly by kicking out foreigners).
The British royal family has often played a central role in promoting a wholly imaginary version of British history, whitewashing away facts that would belie the desired narrative and misrepresenting other events with the intention of rendering them glorious. On the occasion of her 21st birthday the woman who has for decades sat with majestic inactivity upon the British throne claimed, in a recording broadcast around the world, that Britain “stood alone” to defend freedom and democracy during World War II — a war which British inactivity and shameful appeasement largely made inevitable.
For generations, British people uninterested in a more accurate account of matters have swallowed the kind of nonsense uttered by Elizabeth on her birthday and have repeated it ad nauseam. During the Brexit campaign it was common to hear ignorant Brits making statements along the lines of “we won the war, they (the other member states of the European Union) should be grateful” and mouthing absurd notions about how the EU should pay the UK hundreds of billions of pounds in “reparations.”
Meanwhile, of course, those same low-IQ ignorant Brits would loudly rubbish any idea of the UK making reparations to the many nations that were asset-stripped over the two centuries during which they were subject to British colonial rule.
Sitting comfortably on top of this seething pile of misinformation and misplaced resentment is the Queen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
When Arthur meets the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, both are delusional. Arthur’s delusions of kingly greatness are perpetually undermined by the fact his horse is nothing more than two coconut half-shells being clacked together by his squire Patsy to imitate the sound of hooves. The Black Knight’s delusions of invincibility are undermined by his lack of actual martial prowess. As he loses each of his four limbs in turn, he refuses to accept the reality of his situation and continues to make fantastical boasts about his ultimate victory.
The Black Knight is a perfect metaphor for today’s Britain. After the collapse of the Empire and decades of decline the British had lost their legs, but rather than accept that reality they went on to embrace the astonishing self-harm of additionally chopping off both arms under the belief this would enable them to be “stronger alone.” Now the UK is merely an impotent torso doomed to bleed out painfully while babbling Brexit nonsense that everyone else will simply ignore.
Although many who watch The Crown will fail to grasp its underlying message and will simply gawp at the country estates, the costumes, and the tiaras, it is nothing less than a scathing critique not only of the dysfunctional Windsor family but of Britain as a whole.
Confident nations look forward rather than running away to hide under the bed of simple-minded nostalgia. Confident people embrace change rather than clinging to anachronistic traditions that serve no useful purpose and impose a deadweight on society as a whole. Confident people question and seek to improve things rather than retreating into resentful defensiveness and spurious patriotism.
Confident people create anew; the British cling to tattered remnants of past glories.
The British lost their confidence a long time ago. The Crown reveals the cracked mirror far too many British people still cling to in the desperate hope that the fragmented illusion they see reflected back at them is real. In the end, regardless of her personal views on Brexit, the Queen and all she represents are an inextricable part of the national psychosis that made it possible.
Perhaps it would be better for the British to stop looking backward and start looking forward, because in the end we’re all being carried into the future regardless of which way around we’d prefer to face. After the catastrophe of Brexit wreaks its inevitable harm on the UK, a little non-delusional forward vision will be a very important skill to cultivate.