Monty Python and the Holy Grail
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Could a rabbit really kill a person and other pressing Monty Python and the Holy Grail questions

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Apr 29, 2020

This week celebrates 45 years since the release of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, commonly considered, if not the best, at least the most accessible, most universally beloved of the works of Monty Python. Holy Grail is endlessly quotable and seemingly everlasting in its influence on popular culture.

It's unlikely you're unfamiliar with the movie. In fact, it's incredibly likely you have at least 60 percent of it committed to memory. With that in mind, we won't waste any time on introductions or plot summaries and will get right to the point.

While Holy Grail is not the most realistic of narratives (three-headed knights, wizards, animated cave monsters) in the spirit of celebration we've endeavored to examine some of the movie's most memorable moments and ask, is this movie wise in the ways of science?

ON SWALLOWS AND COCONUTS

How could we resist? Despite a narrative that oscillates between the ridiculous and the absolutely absurd, Holy Grail opens with a moment of admirable skepticism. King Arthur (Graham Chapman) appears on screen, joined by his trusty servant Patsy (Terry Gilliam), accompanied by the sound of horses.

Those horses (or at least the sound of their hooves) turn out to be little more than two halves of a coconut being banged together. The pair approach a castle, make their introductions, and entreat upon the occupants for an audience with their lord and master.

What follows is a delightful back and forth between Arthur and the castle's occupants regarding the provenance of the coconuts. You've surely seen it before, but it's worth watching again.

Over the course of their discussion, several bits of information are provided and scenarios suggested as possible explanations for how the coconuts found their way to these lands. Let's examine.

First, it's suggested that a typical European swallow weighs 5 ounces and must beat its wings 43 times per second in order to maintain airspeed velocity. This is given as evidence that the bird could not, in fact, carry a 1-pound coconut. At least not without a partner and a strand of creeper held beneath the dorsal guiding feather.

Firstly, the average European swallow is not actually 5 ounces. In fact, they weigh less than an ounce, which surely makes a difference in how much weight they are capable of carrying while on the wing, especially when it comes to the question of couriering coconuts.

Additionally, a European swallow need not flap its wings 43 times per second in order to maintain airspeed. It's more like 12, or fewer, depending on the species.

So far we've determined Arthur's opponent to have overestimated both the mass of the bird in question and the number of wing flaps per second. To further diminish the case for coconut-carrying swallows, the average coconut is approximately 1-and-a-half pounds, approximately 34 times heavier than a European swallow.

There is little information available on the carrying capacity of swallows, either African or European. But given the weight disparities involved, we can safely assume that even a team of swallows, utilizing some sort of makeshift litter devised of creeper vines woven together, would still be incapable of transporting a coconut over even short distances. Assuming, of course, that was something a group of swallows wanted to do.

Fun fact: A group of swallows is called a gulp.

There are, however, birds capable of carrying something as heavy, or heavier than a coconut. Namely, some of the larger raptors, like eagles.

Again, there is some dispute among experts as to the maximum carrying capacity of eagles in flight. (Clearly, we need to pump some funding into bird weight-lifting research.) It's common for these predatory birds to capture and carry prey weighing in at 1 to 2 pounds, though there have been instances of carrying prey upward of 5 or 6 pounds over distances of at least a mile. Suffice it to say, a single eagle could pretty easily carry a coconut without breaking too much of a sweat (only an expression, birds don't actually sweat), and a couple of eagles with some vine and a little gumption could carry a whole group of coconuts.

Fun fact: A group of eagles is called a convocation. A group of coconuts is called... a group of coconuts.

Bonus fact: The airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow is roughly 20.1 miles per hour. Put that in your gee-whiz file in case you ever find yourself on the Bridge of Death.

THE CASUAL DISMEMBERMENT OF THE BLACK KNIGHT

In another of Holy Grail's most well-remembered scenes, King Arthur finds himself unwillingly at odds with The Black Knight (John Cleese). It's clear that Arthur's heart isn't in the fight. In actuality, he wants the Black Knight to join him on his quest. When the knight refuses (and makes Arthur sad), Arthur hopes only to pass in peace, but it isn't to be. An epic duel ensues. And the Black Knight is shortly relieved of each of his limbs.

What's curious is the Black Knight doesn't seem entirely bothered by the injuries, claiming them to be mere flesh wounds and announcing to all who will hear that he has, in fact, had worse. He's so untroubled by the lack of extremities he promises to bite Arthur's legs off if only he'll come back and get what's coming to him.

There's no question that the Black Knight's injuries are severe and will, should he recover, have an everlasting impact on his life. But, would he recover?

Given the medical expertise available at the time, the odds of survival, as compared to similar trauma today, are... not great. Such traumatic injuries, sustained in such a short period of time, would likely throw the patient into a state of shock, which might explain the Black Knight's peculiar response to his wounds.

The most immediate concern is, of course, blood loss. Though, luckily for the faceless warrior, it is sometimes the case that complete amputations, like the one seen in the aforementioned scene, may not actually bleed all that much.

In response to the trauma, the affected blood vessels may spasm, retract into the body, and shrink, stemming blood flow. Given what we see in the scene, this appears to be the case. There is an initial spurt of blood, but no continued blood loss.

Assuming the Black Knight were able to obtain adequate medical assistance, clean his wounds, and prevent infection, it's possible he might heal and live to fight another day. We can only hope there is a trained medical professional available so deep in the woods. All of that said, should you find yourself down two arms, and with an opponent willing to call it a day, you should probably take them up on the offer and walk away while you still can.

LOOK AT THE BONES!

Later in the quest, Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table encounter Tim (John Cleese, again), a mystical horned enchanter who leads them to a cave guarded by a terrible monster. When the party arrives, they find only a cute, white rabbit waiting there.

Understandingly disbelieving of the danger, the knights attempt to raid the cave, disregarding Tim's warnings that the bunny has “a vicious streak a mile wide” and if they don't believe him, they need only to “look at the booooones.”

Sir Bors approaches and is swiftly killed by the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog. Now, sufficiently intimidated, the knights retreat and make plans to kill the rabbit from a distance, utilizing the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch.

It's clear the party made a grave and deadly mistake by not heeding the warnings of Tim the Enchanter, but they had good reason to be skeptical. Who ever heard of a killer rabbit?

Apparently many people from the time period.

At least, it seems to have been a popular joke of the period. The image of rabbits engaged in acts of aggression was a not-uncommon form of humor in the middle ages, as depicted in this collection of drolleries.

Hilarious drawings aside, there is little risk to humans as it pertains to rabbits, outside of diseases they sometimes carry. In fact, rabbits have more to fear from us than we do of them, by a long shot. There is even some evidence that fear itself can be cause enough for a rabbit to die. No holy hand grenade required. Outside of the passage of disease we were unable to find any evidence that a rabbit has ever caused the death of a person through injury.

That said, they may have been tangentially responsible for the demise of an entire hominid species.

John Fa of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust's examination of prey animal bones (boooones!) in caves once inhabited by Neanderthals and modern humans showed an inability or unwillingness for Neanderthals to hunt rabbits.

Their findings indicated Neanderthals specialized almost exclusively in hunting larger game. When those prey animals diminished in abundance, humans made the switch to small game like rabbits, while our evolutionary cousins did not.

This shift in available prey correlates with the disappearance of the Neanderthals. This inability or unwillingness to adapt to changes in available hunting options may have resulted in famine for our brothers and sisters of old. A tragically poetic end, involving an animal typically associated with renewed life.

In conclusion: Remember to enlist the help of large raptors for your in-the-air package delivery needs. Don't engage in armed combat with the King of Britain, even if he was given power by a strange woman lyin' in a pond, distributing sword. And remember, four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out.

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