By Steve Spitzer: A victory romp for Jane the Phoole, rabid Sir Thomas Radclyffe the Earl of Sussex (portrayed by Frank Skony), Gertrude the Bringer of Total Rampaging Death (portrayed by Sandra Howard), and silent assassin Lady Ann Seymour the Countess of Warwick (portrayed by Mary Hough).
What made me take up arms against a sea of Barbarians last Sunday? Was it the soul-cringe I've felt the past several months that life is short and should be enjoyed sans prohibition at all times? Was it the surprising and endless kindness of the Barbarians themselves (savage though they could seem)? Was it boiling frustration with the endless, pointless, ego-fertilizing Machiavellian machinations surrounding me in nearly every social sphere? Was it a burning need to smash people with stuff?
Regardless of the root of it, I woke up this past Sunday morning with a death wish. I hurtled through my morning with what my venerable college roommate Paul Herbert (a/k/a "PHB," which is short for "Paul Herbert's Butt") would call "Thanatos-Glam" or "Than-Glam," which is that feeling you get when you're on a subway platform, and you get very close to the dangerous precipice, and something in you says, "You could just tumble over." I don't know where the feeling came from, but there it was, pushing me to do even sillier things than I usually do.
I quickly understood that I wasn't the only person enthralled with Than-Glam that day -- everyone was up to strange heroics on Sunday. At the morning Joust of Skill (mind your speaker volume if you click - the music will terrify you if you aren't careful), a young man named Keith approached the dais with two wingmen, humbly asking if anyone ever proposed to their fiancées at the Joust. I assured him that it would be brilliant to do so, and it was, and his sweet Lady Heather nodded vigorous, joyously-tearful assent when the question came, eliciting thunderous cheers from the excited crowd:
Photo by the beautiful Satine Keala
Then Sir Maximillian and Master of Arms Sir Mauldron got up to a world of hijinks during the tournament itself. In one moment, Sir Maximillian (portrayed by longtime Phoole friend and brilliant leather mask artist, the legendary Matthew Mansour) rode slowly over toward the dais, made eye contact with me, and just started singing, "Did you ever know that you're my heeeeerooooo...", which naturally killed everyone on the dais with explosive guffaws. In another, Sir Maximillian and his mighty steed Kilvarough managed to sneak up on the Master of Arms; after nearly leaping out of his saddle in surprise, Sir Mauldron snapped, "Get away from me, or I'll stab you!" Again we all barked with mirth -- and the dais was jam-packed, by the way, full of beautiful people. And at some point the Quintain attacked Sir Wilfort and unhorsed him, which I confess I don't understand, and later his horse's caparison just flew away, which made even less sense! Wyckham Field was Bizzarro-Land Sunday morning, and it was a delightful time of Big Laffs.
Feeling strangely invincible, I remembered that Lady Warwick and I had planned to get ourselves some weapons and join Barbarian Battles for their 300 Battle that afternoon. So I drifted up the hill with Phooligan genius Ivan Phillips and Mistress of Misrule Magnolia May in tow, and I selected my weapon. As Ivan notes, it had a strange effect on me:
Photo by the brilliant Ivan Phillips. MBTC calls this "The Angry Hamster Face" and it is not often allowed at home.
Barbarian Battles are a company of merchant-adventurers at the Bristol Renaissance Faire and many other excellent venues around the world, and they deal in sheer, unadulterated adrenaline. They allow patrons to try out their less-harmful (not harmless, of course, if wielded dangerously and without caution, but useful in conscientious brandishment) daggers, swords, warhammers, spears, pikes, throwing stars, throwing daggers and more, and they offer these weapons for sale. All day, you can enjoy patrons and participants alike whacking one another silly with these things, and I'm here to tell you this: it's a joy to behold, and it's an even greater joy to join in!
At 4:30 p.m. every show day at the Bristol Renaissance Faire, Barbarian Battles organize what they call The 300 Battle, essentially a reenactment of the Battle of Thermopylae. (I haven't seen the movie, but from a glance at the trailer, it's exactly completely correct, albeit in full color.) Lady Warwick and I had made up our minds to join in Sunday's battle, and I'd Tweeted my intentions that morning, so we were committed to action. The day before, the too-kind Barbarians presented me with one of their excellent stout short swords, but I wanted to buy a gigantic two-hander sword, because in my tiny brain, it made sense to compensate for my little Tyrannosaurus-Rex-proportioned flipper arms with a monster sword. Of course that doesn't actually work, but it amused me at the time, and I had fun running around town brandishing the thing:
Photo of Jane on her way to attack Little John by Ivan Phillips
Jane the Barbarian with Maid Marian (Stephanie Murphy) and Little John (Heath Denikas) by Ivan Phillips
So I carried the frightening foam instrument of Phoolish destruction around with me all day. I ran off to show the thing to Ivanovich the Impossibilist and Dinty the Moor, and they agreed I was completely terrifying and warlike; and everyone we encountered approached with a measure more approbation than usual, which interested me.
Excitement about the battle sparked all over town! Phoole Friends working at the Front Gate reported patrons had been asking, "Where's the tiltyard? When is Jane the Phoole in the big fight? Are we here in time to see it go down?" Phooligans checked in from all quarters reporting they'd be in the stands cheering us on. And my very own barbarian horde, the Nation of Dark Cloud, surprised me with their reaction to my announcement about joining in the battle.
His Majesty King Zavier of Dark Cloud himself came forward and said, "Jane, we'll be your guards in the battle. Just tell us when and where."
I was really moved by this -- I got a little choked up. I mean, it's not every day you have a King of a Barbarian Horde declare not only his fealty to your cause but also offer to defend your silly hide in a massive war! I'm serious when I tell you that that was an intense little moment.
And the hours between flew by, as I toddled around the city waving this enormous sword around, daring patrons not to laugh at my awful, horrible jokes. Everyone was delightfully obliging. Then I collected King Zavier and his two Lieutenants, and we went back to Barbarian Battles for a briefing on the order of battle. Once the Battle Barbarians had instructed us, patiently and clearly, on how the battle would proceed (I was very excited about everything, so I had to ask them to explain things very simply and with a little repetition -- you know how I get), the Dark Cloud legion retired to their pavilion to prepare, and I descended the hill toward Bristol Castle to retrieve Lady Warwick.
Meanwhile, Sir Thomas Radclyffe the Earl of Sussex decided he wanted to fight too, and Lady Warwick invited Mistress Gertrude Bridgewater, Mistress of the Bedchamber in the Sussex household (formerly of the Norris household) to vent her frustrations in the fray as well, and Gertrude was beside herself in glee at the invitation. We happy four trudged back up the hill to make ready for the Battle of the 300.
The forest fairly vibrated with the energy of the fighters and their supporters preparing for battle. Phooligans clustered around us, some revving us up for the clash, some providing gentle well-intentioned warnings about what we were about to face. It occurred to us for the first time that we might well get the ever-living snot kicked out of us, and that we'd be running around on the sand at Wyckham Field, which was dusty, gritty, and, by the late afternoon, baked to a blinding glare. But a razor-fanged King Zavier and his tall, black-clad Lieutenants arrived and met the Noble Party, and said to us: "We'll look out for you. No one will touch you."
And as absurd as the whole situation may seem, in that moment, we were bathed in golden shining tingly protective reassurance. I thought, "I will never have this feeling again. I'd better savor it."
The Bristol Renaissance Faire's own Royal Brass came to blast fanfares for the battle, which humbled and awed me completely. I wish they had a website; I'd like to link to it and connect you to them. They really make the entire show, and Pete, Jim, Tom and Jennifer always make me feel like I'm in a Really Exciting Movie of Thrilling Moments of Pageantry when they play.
And then it was TIME. The Barbarian Battles barbarians led the martial procession down the hill to the tiltyard, beating their weapons against their shields, representing the Spartans; and the Persian team's barbarian Generals allowed the Phoole Party to lead their part of the march, chanting "PERSIA! PERSIA! PERSIA!" all the way. Swords aloft, marching and chanting, my heart began to pound, and I realized we were a part of something much larger than ourselves, much more ancient, much more powerful than I'd reckoned for as an afternoon's amusement. Gertrude was beside me, and I thought I heard her growl more than once, and I wondered if she would suddenly change into a slavering werewolf and devour the enemy, but I put that down to those novels I've been consuming lately. And I admit that I turned to Warwick and murmured, sotto voce, "I think maybe we might be about to die." We laughed, but I think we may all have wondered, just even only a little, if we'd survive.
Entering Wyckham Field, we were stunned and thrilled by the patrons packing the stands - and on the dais, Sir Robert Dudley the Earl of Leycestre presided, ready to provide color commentary during the battle. The dais was jammed full of the glitterati of the Elizabethan age -- Lord Mayor Egads Newcastle was in attendance, as was the young Christopher Marlowe, Her Majesty's Dwarf Thomasina, and a host of dazzling characters besides.
And then someone cried havoc, and we let slip the dogs of war!
Photo by Cara Strong
Photo by Cara Strong
Photo by James Martin
Photo by Laura Kresch
I know "epic" is a word overworn, but it applies. EPIC BATTLE! And Gertrude was the fiercest among us, charging in again and again, wiping out, face-planting, getting back up, and returning to the front line. Warwick and I began delivering some strategy for the younger fighters -- we'd block for them with our ridiculous huge gowns, making holes for them to get through the Spartan defenses, if their sheer terror didn't stop them in their tracks, which it often did. Sussex clamored through the lines, limbs gangling everywhere - over the din, I heard Lord Leycester comment, "And now there seems to be an orangutan on the field -- no, sorry, that's just Lord Sussex." Dust and sand filled the air and ground our teeth. Battle cries soared, and swords thudded on shields and shoulders and backs. And throughout, little boys with big swords kept encouraging us: "Ladies, you're doing really well. Jane, you're doing a good job!" And that too was overwhelming.
And then the day was ours! Persia broke through the Spartan defense for the seventh time and seized the trophy helm, and the victory cry went up. Valiant soldiers returned loaner weapons to the indulgent Barbarian Battle horde, and the Barbarian Queen took Gertrude's sword from her hands with a kind of reverence that made our hearts swell with lung-burning pride. Later, Barbarian Battles and their fierce-but-kind Queen would honor our Gertrude with a gift of a sword for her to keep, and I think each of us, we few, we happy four, we band of usually-merely-decorative Nobles on Progress, shed a tear of proud joy for Gertrude, our surprise Berserker protectress.
None of us will ever forget that day, that march, those cries, the frenzied fray, and if you've never tried Barbarian Battles or engaged in the 300, I hope this little tale inspires you to heft some of their swords and give them a swing. There's something in the experience that defies description, and you and your fellow-fighters will share a bond thereafter that's unlikely to be forged in any less fiery a furnace than the sizzling sands of Wyckham field!