Gimbling in the Wabe – The Frivolity of Flippant History

by Sharon Browning


Last weekend I made my yearly trip to the Minnesota Renaissance Festival – one of the oldest and largest Renaissance fantasy fairs in the USA.  It’s been an annual tradition for myself and my daughter (occasionally other family members tag along) since she was a baby, and we look forward to it each year.

I know how silly it is.  There is nothing very “renaissance” about  a modern day Renaissance twig-the-fairy-2-300x200festival.  There are lots of trope-ish sound byte like things that happen at a Renaissance festival that would be incredibly bewildering to those who lived in Western Europe from the 14th to the 17th centuries.  Some quite scandalous, more than a few that would probably bring cries of witchcraft, or at the very least sins against God and country.

But then, that’s not the point, is it?  Perhaps of an SCA Bardic Congress and Cook’s Collegium or Battlemoor event, but not ye ole RenFest, with fairies prancing and pickle boys (oh, those pickle boys!), wine in small plastic cups and belly dancers – and the occasional Doctor Who cosplay (when/where is it NOT appropriate to have Doctor Who cosplay?).  Nope, this is the storybook fantasy, with only a sly smile at authenticity, and I love it.

I blame Shakespeare.

RenFestOkay, so Shakespeare himself may have little to do with it, he certainly would be as confused as anyone from the true Renaissance had he been magically transported to modern day Shakopee, Minnesota, but I still blame him.  His words and his works have become so engrained in our society, even today, known to all regardless of status or vaulting of education, that I daresay virtually all of us retain a sense of the time and age through the words of the Bard.  His Romeos and Juliets, his Hamlets, his Midsummer night dreams, still reverberate in our souls even if now they are adorned with iPhones and GPS and plastic bottles of distilled “spring” water.

So why do I love the Renaissance Festival, even though I know it to be an iconoclastic perversion of what the true Renaissance was?

Because it’s fun.  Because it’s a play date with a benevolent history.  It’s a chance for middle Ren Fest fineryaged women to dress up and play at nobility or sluttishness, for men to wear tights without ridicule (well, without much ridicule) and adorn themselves with swords (even if they are secured by cable ties) and drinking vessels made of wood or horn, for children to fancy themselves as princesses or knights.  Damn the legitimacy of fairy wings or face painting and synthetic blend clothing in colors that would rarely be seen on the streets of 16th century London – it’s fun!

And I go for the people.  Not just those who spend a small fortune on courtly dress or full sets of chain mail (which they live to rue in our humid September weather), not just the Morris Clashing_knightsdancers or authentically kilted revelers (the full nine yards!) which lend a touch of authenticity to the dusty grounds and artisans’ booths full of blown glass trinkets and leather bustiers.  Not just those who prance about and entertain with bawdy role play and royal graciousness, or the men who dress up as knights in shining armor and joust on thundering horseback on the tournament field.  But those people that I see year after year, who have become touchstones to a far flung friendship, who are drawn to me in these times of fantasy but exist far beyond them as folks who I have come to know and cherish.

There is Tammy, the woman who works long hours in the hair braiding booth, who I ask for by Josie's pictures 019name when I indulge in my annual splurge of having my long hair swept up and plaited in an elaborate crown.  She knows my kids and I know of hers, we’ve followed them as they have moved from infancy into young adulthood (for mine) and schoolboy antics (for hers).  I know that she loves fast cars and she knows that I love to write.  She is as sweet and vivacious of a soul as I have ever met, someone I treasure even if I only see her for a few scant hours in a year.  There is Kenny, first a hawker at the hairbraiding booth and now owner of his own booth where he sells beautiful wooden wands; he used to be in the travel industry, pulling down a fine salary helping others achieve their vacation dreams, but he gave that all up to dress in baggy cotton pants and silly hats, chatting and cajoling and bringing in business at festivals and fairs across the US.  He knows me by name, knows my kids by name, remembers who I am and where I have been over the years, and the hugs he gives me are more genuine in their friendship than many Twig the fairyothers that I come by more regularly.

There is Twig the Fairy, mutely ambling across the festival grounds, playing on her pan pipes and shyly smiling back at enchanted little girls and boys.  She was a real life wonder to my children as they grew, and even now we seek her out every year, to catch the twinkle in her eye.  She still graces my daughter with a glittery glass pebble when a dollar or two is slipped into her woodland pouch, and that small talisman still speaks to the youngster that continues to lie at the heart of the now graceful young woman my little girl has become.

There are Mick, Jason and Reynaldo, regular performers on the Bakery Stage, known now as the Danger Committee (formerly the Dew Drop Jugglers) who dazzle and amaze with their feats of skill and derring do, juggling fire and axes as well as pins, throwing knives, catching knives out of midair, and Ren Fest DCsometimes many of these things at once.  They also are hilarious, dressed in red and black with floppy, feathered hats and peasant shirts (and in Mick’s case, manly tights!), interacting with the crowd in ways both silly and sublime, telling their tried and true jokes that are as familiar as old friends but also folding in new jokes, new tricks and lots of wonderful, spontaneous improvisation.  We always catch one of their shows, often more than one in a day, and we always save a generous donation to toss into one of their feathered caps on our way out from being uproariously entertained.

Cheryl1There is Cheryl, a woman that I used to work with for years at the multi-national professional services firm downtown, who now spends part of her late summer weekends donning the costume of a festival security/information guard, with her own feathered hat and flagged staff which identifies her authority on the festival grounds.  Whenever we see each other she takes time to sit down with me and we happily catch up on what has transpired in our lives; even though we “keep in touch” on Facebook, these face to face meetings are something I look forward to and cherish every summer.

Then there are the chance encounters that comes from the frivolity of the festival, such as the man who joined me on a shady bench as we both rested our tired feet; he was an elderly gentleman with white hair and an immaculately trimmed beard, dressed in a fine Scottish kilt and full authentic attire, although the tartan, he told me, was a “generic” cloth – he had ties to both Ireland and Scotland (and spoke with a delightful brogue that was not an affectation), so he claimed no heraldic tartan of his own.  There was the tall and handsome young man – not a performer, just another fair-goer – in full chainmail and black leather, who wore the outfit well but admitted that he could not fathom how real knights could have fought in such heavy attire forRenFest king more than a few minutes; walking back to his car was not something he was looking forward to!

Yes, that is why I go to the Renaissance Festival every year.  For the frivolity, the camaraderie, the fun.  So what if it barely has the sheen of authenticity to it?  The most important thing is the sense of play, of celebration, the make believe that teeters just on the edge of what we once were.  The unabashed romanticized play acting at a shared heritage, however far removed from reality.  A chance to revert back to whatever fun can be gleaned with a wink and a smile – and a pair of fairy wings, a swig of mead, and a hearty “huzzah”.

I can’t wait to go back next year!

Related Posts