Albatross: What Flavor Is It?

Though officially defined as a large, web-footed seabird, the albatross has held cultural significance since Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s publication of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” While seen as a symbol of good fortune in nautical lore, Coleridge’s omen of a murdered albatross continues to permeate modern media, retaining much of its original meaning despite its shifting context. One of the more ridiculous examples of the mariner’s impact on pop culture can be seen in Monty Python’s appropriately-titled sketch, “Albatross.”

The sketch, originally airing on Monty Python’s Flying Circus in 1970, stars John Cleese as a girl selling concessions during a theatre intermission. Unfortunately, her only item for sale is a sizable dead bird, conveniently hanging around her neck. When approached by a customer, played by Terry Jones, he notoriously asks, “What flavor is it?”

“It’s a bird, isn’t it? It’s a bloody sea bird. It’s not any bloody flavor! Albatross!”

Both the Coleridge and the Python interpretations are extremes: one Gothic and one comic. While the ensuing action is radically different, both works deliver their exaggerated themes on the wings of a lifeless albatross. As the scenes progress, both protagonists are berated by their respective peers. After his senseless killing of the sacred albatross, the mariner receives “evil looks from old and young” for doing such a “hellish thing.” Instead of begging for food and water like the mariner’s shipmates, the customer instead launches into an extensive list of demands, including “two choc-ices” and some complimentary “wafers.” As a result of their insensitive behavior, both characters suffer from social isolation in addition to the waterfowl around their necks.

Apart from social struggles, the two stories also share in their resolutions. Just as the mariner’s acceptance of the “slimy things” lead to his loss of the albatross, the frustrated theatre employee is forced to come to terms with her question-heavy clientele before finding freedom. After aggressively refusing her client’s demand for crackers, her demeanor calms and she successfully sells the deceased albatross for nine pence. The stories’ mirrored stances display the importance of acceptance when dealing with sea creatures, as well as people at the workplace.

On the surface, both titles may appear to be void of any significant moral value. However, each story reflects a cyclical sense of justice. Coleridge’s poem concludes with the mariner recounting his story everywhere he travels, spreading his Romantic message of embracing life in its various forms. A few scenes later, the Python sketch concludes with the buyer of the albatross attempting to resell the lifeless bird from his cramped seat in the theatre. If nothing else, the two narratives show that life comes in stages – complete with turmoil as well as laughter.

Since its publication in 1798, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” has marked the albatross as a bird of supernatural significance, extending from Wordsworth and Lyrical Ballads to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Though written for different audiences, mediums, and eras, both Coleridge’s poem and Monty Python’s sketch utilize similar symbols to represent comparable messages. Laughing and grieving are innate characteristics of life. These cycles are best influenced by valuing the lives around us –  with or without a large, web-footed seabird strapped to our neck.

Monty Python – Albatross.” YouTube. N.p., 14 Sept. 2008. Web. 01 Nov. 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1PJix23IeF8&gt;.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Online-Literature. The Literature Network, n.d. Web. 01 Nov. 2013. <http://www.online-literature.com/coleridge/646/&gt;.

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