This post contains spoilers for King Arthur vs Devil Kitty. And for Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
John Cleese’s Black Knight is surely the best remembered character from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. As Arthur lops his limbs off one-by-one, the knight is reduced to a torso who declares the battle “a draw”.
When I first read the 15th Century Prose Merlin and came across the story of “Arthur and the Devil Cat” (AKA the Cath Palug), I couldn’t believe how bizarre this story was, or how much it reminded me of the surreal humour of Monty Python. I could not find any modern English adaptations of the story (which is what prompted me to write King Arthur vs Devil Kitty), but I have a strong inkling that it informed the Pythons’ take on Arthurian Romance…
The battle between Arthur and the Cat occurs in a barren landscape “wasted and voide of peple” inside “a grete cave in a medowe that was right large and depe“. I was instantly put in mind of the lair of the vorpal bunny, the “Rabbit of Caerbannog” which terrorises Arthur and his knights at the end of the film.
But it was the amputations that really grabbed my attention.
First Arthur goes for the cat’s front legs and “smote hym with his swerde upon bothe legges that he cutte hem asonder by the knees“. Next he goes for the rear pair and “smote asonder the two hynder feet“. As if that weren’t enough, finally the King “smote of hir two legges before“. Through all of this, the cat hardly bats an eyelid. It just keeps on coming at Arthur, however many limbs he lops off.
SIX! Six legs that cat lost to King Arthur’s sword Excalibur. The poxy Black Knight only managed four! (On re-reading it’s clear that the final amputation was of the stumps left when Arthur had previously cut the front legs off at the knee).
I can’t help but think that this story was a large part of the inspiration behind Monty Python and the Holy Grail. After all, Terry Jones was a student of medieval English literature (the Prose Merlin is the earliest Arthurian literature written in English prose), and later became a respected historian and Michael Palin also studied History at Oxford University.
Wikipedia claims that the rabbit was inspired by “the façade of the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris … showing a knight fleeing from a rabbit” while, in the DVD commentary to the movie, John Cleese tells that the Black Knight comes from
a story told to Cleese when he was attending an English class during his school days. Two Roman wrestlers were engaged in a particularly intense match and had been fighting for so long that the two combatants were doing little more than leaning into one another. It was only when one wrestler finally tapped out and pulled away from his opponent that he and the crowd realised the other man was, in fact, dead and had effectively won the match posthumously. The moral of the tale, according to Cleese’s teacher, was “if you never give up, you can’t possibly lose”
I have no doubt that that’s true. But it doesn’t account for the amputations. Those, I like to think, were inspired by Devil Kitty.
I am writing the first modern English adaptation of “Arthur and the Devil Cat”, with evocative illustrations by Maximilian Hartley. Find out more here.