Posts Tagged ‘medievalism’

No Halloween costume for me this year. I’m still getting in character for my new everyday role as a widower. But my time will come around again, and meanwhile I’m thinking of the costumes I wore in the past.

The earliest costume I remember was a cowboy, put together when I was four or five., under the influence of Lone Ranger episodes, whose introduction I knew by heart. I was under the belief that the costume would actually disguise me, and was bitterly disappointed when people had no trouble recognizing me.

The next costume I remember was a monk’s habit, salvaged from a play in Grade Two that never happened. To my outrage, I had been cast as Friar Tuck when my destiny was clearly to play Robin Hood, or at the very least Little John. But, next Halloween, I added a skull mask to the costume. I remember in my juvenile cunning, I figured that, if I took off the mask, I would have a completely different costume, and could go around to the houses twice without anyone noticing. I was right, too, although my conscience kicked in after the fourth or fifth house and I stopped the deception while keeping the candy.

Treasure Island must have produced a pirate or two, because I remember a plywood cutlass that my father cut out for me and spray painted silver. But the next costume I remember clearly was the remnants of my Cowardly Lion costume from the Grade Five production of The Wizard of Oz. I had loved acting, and using the costume for Halloween was a way of hanging on to the excitement of the production a little longer.

Then came the age when I thought myself too old for trick or treating. It started in Grade Seven and lasted until my second year at university. By then, I was in the medieval club, and used to dressing in costume most weekends. But for medievalists, Samhain, the Celtic predecessor of Halloween, was always a major event. Once or twice, I simply went in my usual persona of Ullr Ericsunu, the Icelandic farmer sojourning at the court of Athelraed Unraed in England.

But for Samhain and other events, I also created a minor persona of Alain d’Alancote, a small-time Breton merchant living in York, so I would have an excuse to wear fourteenth century costumes with dagged hems and sleeves. Alain was born of the medievalist custom of coming to Samhain as an ancestor or descendant of your main persona – although how exactly Ullr and Alain were related, I never quite figured out.

However, Ullr and Alain disappeared when I left medievalist circles, and so, for the most part, did the costumes. I remember once pulling on a farmer’s smock that Trish made for me, and lugging along Ullr’s shepherd crook, which became a nuisance by the end of the evening.

Right now, I have no idea what my life will be like next Halloween. But, judging from my enjoyment of the costumes I’ve seen on the Skytrain in the last few days, I suspect I will be spending it in costume – and about time, part of me is muttering.

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Looking back, I sometimes think that my youth was not nearly as mis-spent as it should have been. A case in point: the night I helped to erect the dragon crossing.

The idea began as a joke at the university Medieval Club. Newly moved out from my parents’ house and feeling I had missed out on the socializing at university because I was too busy commuting, I had joined as soon as the fall semester began. Loosely connected to the Society for Creative Anachronism, the club centered largely on dressing up and some moderate drinking in the pub. Punk or new age, it definitely wasn’t – but we enjoyed the thought of what we called “freaking the mundanes” by wearing costumes and doing the odd bit of impromptu theater. Probably, we weren’t nearly the novelty we imagined.

Anyway, we were talking one night about how to publicize the club more. The ideas kept getting sillier as the night wore on. Vaguely remembering something I had seen a few years before, I proposed the idea of a dragon crossing: a sign on the university ring road, with some spray-painted giant tracks going across the road nearby.

The idea wouldn’t do much for publicity, since we couldn’t admit what we had done without risking the wrath of the campus authorities. At best, it would give people a chuckle and get them thinking of things medieval.

At least, so we hoped and so we began preparations. One Club member, who had worked as a flagger on a road crew the previous summer, produced a Yield sign that she had somehow acquired (we didn’t ask how). I produced some giant stencils of foot prints, and someone else some paint.

In theory, we had everything planned. We would gather at the pub for some liquid courage, and wait until closing time, when fewer cars would be on the road to spoil our handiwork. One person would wait up the road and act as a spotter, in case campus security found us. A couple of others would dig a hole for the sign while others painted the foot prints across the road.
In practice, things went with less than Mission Impossible ease.

After the pub closed, we drove to the park next to the campus, and climbed the hill to the ring road. We even thought to turn the cars around so we could make a quick getaway if necessary (we were so proud of that detail).

The hill was steeper and, in the dark, more crowded with trees than we remembered, but with a few stumbles and moments of disorientation, we reached the road. For a long time, that was the last thing that went right.

Crouched in the scrub alder, we waited for the cars to thin out. There were far more than we expected. When we finally psyched up enough to start work, we could barely get a few minutes of work before the spotter called out a warning and we scattered like rabbits with pounding hearts.

A traffic sign, we soon found, needed a far deeper whole than any of us imagined. It also needed packed earth around the base of the post if it wasn’t going to sag.

As for the footprint templates, they would have worked a lot better if anyone had remembered to bring masking tape to hold them in position. It didn’t help, either, that cars kept running over our work before it had dried.

Eventually, the inevitable happened, and campus security surprised us by coming on us from the direction in which we had no spotter. We scattered, quickly getting lost – only to find that one of us had kept her head and, knowing the campus cop, assured him that we weren’t doing anything really destructive. But, good middle-class kids that we were, we were terrified, and called it a night.

A few days later, in the cold light of day, our efforts did not match our vision. The Dragon Crossing sign looked distinctly amateurish, the post it was on had a definite tilt to it, and the tracks were smeared with tire marks. But they made the campus paper, leaving us in paroxysms of regret at the thought that we couldn’t claim credit.

Still, someone must have noticed our efforts. A few years later, the science fiction club produced their own Mutant Crossing, with green glow-in-the-dark footprints. “Immortality is ours,” those of us still on campus murmured. But the truth is that all of us had been scared straight by our own daring, and almost getting caught, and would never again do anything wilder than wear medieval costumes on campus.

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Learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then–to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.”
–T. H. White, “The Sword in the Stone.”

After Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the book that most affected me as a child was T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. The book is best-known through the and for the Camelot! musical and later movie of the same name in which Robert Goulet and Richard Harris played the title roles, and perhaps through the Disney animation of The Sword in the Stone, the first part of the book. However, in each of these cases, that’s like knowing a sunny day through a tanning clinic. What White accomplished was not just an entertainment – although it’s all of that – but, rather, the main retelling of the Arthurian legend for the twentieth century.

White was rather unfortunate in his personal life. He seems to have been throughly dominated by his mother in his early life, and an accusation – apparently of homosexuality and possibly true – made him unable to continue working as a public school teacher. He turned to his love of naturalism and medievalism for solace as well as a living, but remained largely solitary and introspective.

Every great re-telling of the Arthurian legend reshapes the story for its times, and White is no exception. In White’s version, Arthur is a well-meaning and earnest man who has the luck or misfortune to be afflicted by a visionary tutor. For Merlin, Arthur is a tool to attempt nothing less than a major change in human psychology, away from the “Might is Right” philosophy that seems to rule international politics to a more moral, humanistic way of life. The Round Table and the Grail Quest are both efforts to steer life in this direction. At the end of the book, Arthur is even experimenting with the rule of law, although he finds it suddenly used against him.

The tragedy is that human nature seems to pre-doom this endeavor from the start. But the problem is not just the natural selfishness of people, but the fact that they are not.

The romance between Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere that dooms Arthur’s efforts is not simply a matter of selfishness or uncontrollable passion. After all, White says, if Lancelot had been a normal person, he simply would have eloped with Guinevere, and nothing else would have happened. Instead, the tragedy happens because Lancelot is genuinely torn between his love for Guinevere and his whole-hearted support of Arthur’s ideals. Similarly, Guinevere is a young woman married to an older husband whose ideals she can’t really share, and lacking any outlet for her energies. As for Arthur, he is warned from the start about the love affair, but turns a blind eye to it out of guilt and out of his own sense of fairness.

For White, the other element that dooms Camelot are the five sons of Queen Morgause of Orkney, including Mordred, whose father is Arthur. White devotes a rather chilling, if somewhat racist section to the sons in early childhood, showing them totally obsessed with gaining their aloof mother’s approval. Of the five, only Gareth has the imaginative sympathy to support Arthur’s ideals wholeheartedly. Gaheris is slow, Agravaine and Mordred downright vicious. Gawaine, the head of the clan, is at least good-natured, but even he has trouble thinking beyond the tribalism on which he grew up.

In short, what White manages to do is create a psychologically convincing portrait of the main people in the Arthurian cycle, making them credible to twentieth-century readers, and winning through to a pathos in several scenes as effective as anything else you can name in English literature.

But, although that alone would be enough to make The Once and Future King an extraordinary book, it contains far more. The first part, which depicts Arthur’s childhood, is broadly comical as Arthur – or Wart, as his foster family calls him – is transformed into a variety of animals to broaden his mind, a conceit that gives White a chance to put his naturalist’s rambles to good use. At the same time, Wart receives the usual education of a country squire, learning to joust and work with hawks. In fact, the whole book is crammed with medieval lore that gives the book a ring of authenticity.

Tragically, as adult affairs absorb his mind, Arthur quickly forgets his idyllic childhood, retaining only the ideas that Merlin has given him. After he establishes his rule, the whole concept of rooting out the idea that Might is Right slowly goes wrong in a series of descents that last over several decades. At the end of the book, in a scene whose imaginative power is only faintly captured in the movie, Arthur sits awake in his tent, waiting for the battle with Mordred that he knows will end in his death. Abruptly, he remembers his childhood, and wonders if his life effort was futile. The anarchistic geese, who see no borders in their flights, have the right attitude he concludes, but he despairs of humanity ever following their example. In the end, he finds a small consolation in sending a young page – evidently Thomas Malory, who will grow up write La Morte D’Arthur — out of the battle zone, so that somebody can remember the example of Camelot for future generations, then prepares to go out and die.

Having read the Arthurian legend for years, I was ripe for White’s version when I discovered it in Grade Six. I not only devoured the book, but lived and breathed it for months in my mind, even going so far as to ask a local artist down the lane to bring the description of the mews on Sir Ector’s estate to life (she refused, polite and more than a little puzzled).

Unlike Arthur, I’ve never forgot the story of his early years, or his effort to realize Merlin’s vision. Looking back, I conclude that the book seems to have played a large role in establishing my social and political leanings, and every few years I like to return to it. Each time, I find new pieces to appreciate, and I’m reminded yet again that the literary canon is not the only source of artistic excellence.

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