The point of this post is to do something very bad—to explain a joke.

It’s a very famous joke, from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

King Arthur is traveling through the countryside, and he asks a peasant for information. The peasant asks him who he is, and he says:

The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur.
That is why I’m your king.

The peasant objects, saying, as I’m sure most readers are aware,

Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.

That is very funny. But why?

It is not because the peasant is right and Arthur is wrong. That would be worth a snigger: the pompous King undone by a smart peasant, but this joke rings down through the decades. It is too funny to be just another anachronism gag, contrasting the beliefs of the period with modern beliefs.

What makes the joke is that the peasant is objecting to King Arthur’s claim on the wrong basis. The weakest part of his case is its reliance on an improbable supernatural event—the Lady of the Lake presenting Excalibur—actually having happened. He needs extraordinary proof that this extraordinary event really occurred.

The peasant asks for no such proof, and just accepts the event happened. However, he discounts its significance, reciting his anarchist-socialist dogma even in the face of divine or at least supernatural opposition, and describing the miraculous in casual, dismissive language. That’s the joke.

Because, really, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords would be an ideal basis of a system of government, if only it were to happen. It takes away dispute by providing a unique, unambiguous choice of leader whose legitimacy everyone can accept, and, on top of that, it provides whatever favours might be forthcoming from the supernatural agency that provided the magic sword or whatever in the first place.

The only reason we don’t use the gladiohydrocratic system is that, unlike the Lady of the Lake in Monty Python, whatever Gods might be around today are distressingly reticent as to who they would like us to have ruling us. We have to work it out for ourselves—a distinctly second-best arrangement.


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