My wench wanted to go to Ren Fest yesterday because it’s Irish Heritage Weekend. My wench—er, wife—is part Irish, though less so than she is German and French. She just likes being Irish more than she likes the other. So she’s Irish. Me? Not so much. A little Swedish, a little Czech, and a lot of Norwegian. The closest to Irish I get is whatever contributions my Viking ancestors made to the Hibernian gene pool—mostly the red hair—when they sacked, looted, and raped their way up and down the Irish coasts.
I should know better than to go to the Renaissance Festival. I hate crowds, noise, and t-shirts with ostensibly witty slogans. I hate bad British accents, though I employ one from time to time. I hate obnoxiousness masquerading as humor. There would seem to be no reason for me to pay $15.95 just to get into this place, but I do. Every year. So, five pages away from finishing Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, I accompanied my we—wife—and her school friend, an astrophysics grad student, to Ren Fest.
Here’s the best and worst part of Ren Fest (and yes, it’s the same part): these people are geeks, and they don’t care who knows it. They wear chain mail and manage to take themselves seriously. They say things like “huzzah,” and “my lord,” and “prithee.” Without batting an eye, a Renaissance regular can shift from accosting a complete stranger with: “Scoundrel! Wouldst thou defend thine honor on the battlefield?” to mumbling into the Bluetooth on his ear: “Hello? Oh, hi. No, I think I’ll stay until about five. No, there shouldn’t be any traffic.” Absurdity is the order of the day, and if I don’t let it get to me I can be amused the whole time I’m there.
Plus, there’s food. And beer, but the food is more reasonably priced, and if I drink too much beer I’m liable to get thrown in the gaol. Or get my ass beat by a druid with a fanny pack. I’m partial to the Scotch eggs, but yesterday I had bangers and mash—partly so I could ask someone for bangers and mash. It’s just a sausage with mashed potatoes, but it beats fill-in-the-blank on a stick.
People have taken liberties with the Renaissance. Even though Europe during the 14th through 16th centuries is remembered as a time of great learning, an era of poetry and painting and science, the people at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival insist on dressing as tavern maids and peasants with swords. And they dress like sorcerers and Vikings and fairies and the devil. And elves. Something has gone awry in the Renaissance. And, as I’ve mentioned, these people are shameless. Every woman wears a low-cut blouse with a bosom-enhancing corset, no matter how ill-advised that might be. There may be no more terrifying sight than a size 24 woman encased in a size 18 dress, with maggot-white breasts like a pair of diseased cantaloupes oozing over the top of a tortured peasant blouse. Seriously. I’m scarred for life.
Another recognizable group of attendees is the elderly, who can’t accept that the State Fair—the Great Minnesota Get-Together (ugh)—has ended, and they’re desperate enough for a fix that they’re willing to head down to Shakopee for a glass of mead and a turkey leg. They gaze in uneasy wonder at d’Artagnan Anderson in his tunic, coif, greaves, and Reeboks. They crap their Depends when they hand a twenty to the bespectacled urchin at the t-shirt wagon and the kid yells, “Twenty pounds for the King!” They go home at the end of the day still wondering where the network affiliates were broadcasting their news programs from.
Why do we go to the Renaissance Festival? What appeal could this life have to a twenty-first century American? I don’t have any idea, but maybe it’s some lingering romantic notion that when people lived as farmers and simple laborers they had a purpose. Everything they did was essential to their continued survival. Maybe when the cultural advances of the European Renaissance allowed people to divert their attention from the essential to the abstract they lost that close link to their own lives. Maybe that’s why at the Renaissance Festival nobody dresses like Leonardo da Vinci—an iconic Renaissance figure—and hundreds dress like Molly the Seamstress. Seven pages from the end of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Kilgore Trout says:
In time, almost all men and women will become worthless as producers of goods, food, services, and more machines, as sources of practical ideas in the areas of economics, engineering, and probably medicine, too. So—if we can’t find reasons and methods for treasuring human beings because they are human beings, then we might as well, as has so often been suggested, rub them out.
Plus, I really like Scotch eggs.