“Potter” and “Python” – Part 2: “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”
by Dr. Beatrice Groves
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the first Monty Python’s Flying Circus broadcast on October 5, 1969. A year ago, the Times (on August 1, 2018) published excerpts from Michael Palin’s archive of unused material from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It included such incongruous literary pleasures as a Hamlet who “has abandoned life as a Danish prince to take up a career as a particularly foul-mouthed private detective” and a Wild West saloon-cum-bookshop that has stopped selling drinks since it “started specialising in modern European authors.”¹ The Pythons, like Rowling, have a mild obsession with bookshops – most famously in their joyous “Bookshop Sketch.” Their oddest, and most erudite, version of this genre is their “Pornographic Bookshop” sketch, in which the bookshop is raided by a policeman – except that everyone mistakes him for the Elizabethan-poet-and-all-around-Renaissance-man Sir Philip Sidney (a man who embodied Renaissance ideals of “soldier-scholar-poet” so fully that he even composed a song to be sung over him as he lay dying on the battlefield).
The name of Rowling’s bookshop – Flourish and Blotts – is a celebration of handwritten, rather than printed, books. This is a nod to Rowling’s own habit of writing longhand, but both “flourishes” and “blotting” point particularly to the ink-and-quill writing that wizards share with Renaissance authors (see, for example, the beautiful flourish with which Elizabeth I habitually signed her name). This bookshop is a hymn to the joy of books:
They bought Harry’s school books in a shop called Flourish and Blotts where the shelves were stacked to the ceiling with books as large as paving stones bound in leather; books the size of postage stamps in covers of silk; books full of peculiar symbols and a few books with nothing in them at all. Even Dudley, who never read anything, would have been wild to get his hands on some of these.” (SS, ch. 5)
Some of these books have quite a Renaissance feel to them – and at Hogwarts too, some of the books are bound in gold like the superbly valuable bindings of the most precious medieval and early modern texts. We discover in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets that polishing (not just dusting) the books is one of the Hogwarts librarian’s jobs when Madam Pince glares at Harry for making a noise while busy “polishing the gilded cover of a large spell book” (CoS, ch. 11).
Some of Rowling’s wilder bookish creations – The Monster Book of Monsters, the Invisible Book of Invisibility, and Hermione’s weaponized bookcase in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – all feel like things that would fit right at home in the world of Python. Python’s and Rowling’s bookshops come together when Harry arrives at Flourish and Blotts and asks for The Standard Book of Spells, which – although only a slight link – reminds this reader, at least, irresistibly of the customer asking for Olsen’s Standard Book of British Birds in Python’s “Bookshop Sketch.”
I have written before for MuggleNet about links between Potter and Python’s Holy Grail, a film I’m confident Rowling knows well. The recently rediscovered Holy Grail material on Hamlet the hard-boiled private detective and the Wild West bookshop are perfect examples of Python’s signature surreal take on traditional cultural clichés. Python uses surprising juxtapositions to create comedy out of ordinary British institutions, and Rowling’s wizarding world likewise uses comic juxtapositions to defamiliarize the workaday world. One example of this is the incongruous synthesis of someone who is a stickler for correct pronunciation and nonsense language – which happens in both Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. This is an early joke in Sorcerer’s Stone that has now become one of the series’ most popular memes:
‘Wingardium Leviosa!’ he shouted, waving his long arms like a windmill.
‘You’re saying it wrong,’ Harry heard Hermione snap. ‘It’s Wing-gar-dium Levi-o-sa, make the “gar” nice and long.'” (SS, ch. 10)
As Rowling has noted, “Wingardium Leviosa” is nonsense.
Sometimes I just invented it. It usually depended on the gravity of what I was inventing. I often tended to give a richer provenance to things that were very significant – like the Cruciatus Curse or ‘Avada Kedevra’. Whereas the more fun things… ‘Wingardium Leviosa’ is exactly what it sounds like: It’s flippant, and it’s fun.²
But for all that it is flippant and fun, Hermione is a stickler for how it is pronounced – and the spell won’t work unless you say it correctly. It seems possible that this moment may have been influenced by one of the most surreal and perennially popular parts of Holy Grail: the Knights Who Say “Ni!”
In Holy Grail, Arthur corrects Sir Bedevere’s pronunciation of “Ni”:
Arthur: No, Ni! More like this this. ‘Ni!’
Bedevere: Ni, ni, ni!
Arthur: You’re not doing it properly. Ni!
Arthur’s comic insistence that what sounds like nonsense needs to be pronounced properly – “You’re not doing it properly. Ni!” – recalls Hermione’s famous correction of Ron’s pronunciation of a similarly nonsense phrase: “‘You’re saying it wrong,’ Harry heard Hermione snap. ‘It’s Wing-gar-dium Levi-o-sa.'”
¹ Malvern, Jack. “The Full Monty: Surreal Sketch Found in Palin’s Treasure Trove.” The Times, 1 August 2018, pp. 8–9.
² Harding, Alex and Jude Ho, directors. Harry Potter: A History of Magic. BBC Studios Documentary Unit, 2017. Available on Amazon.
Dr. Beatrice Groves teaches Renaissance English at Trinity College, Oxford and is the author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, which is available now. Don’t miss her earlier posts for MuggleNet – such as “Rowling’s Goblin Problem?” – all of which can be found at Bathilda’s Notebook. She is also a regular contributor to the MuggleNet podcast Reading, Writing, Rowling.