Fool at war: a mirthful and tragic tale of Kester, the English jester.
He's waiting under an oak tree, near the concessions, holding his clubs like four parti-colored geese, necks freshly wrung. Today is the fool's first really big day. It's his inauguration. England hasn't had a State Jester for 355 years, not since Cromwell gave Muckle John the boot--military dictators, as it turns out, don't like their faults jokingly pointed out to them--so, understandably, the pressure is really on. Plus, now there's a controversy that won't go away. The last thing he wants is for questions regarding the legitimacy of his election to linger over his first day in office, as it were, and rob him of his due glory.
A German camera crew stalks the fool, as indifferent to the war-in-progress as are the handful of little girls who follow Kester the Jester expectantly. That is the fool's name, Kester the Jester. The little girls, all wearing jackets that look inadequately warm, with fake wispy fur collars, are smitten with his yellow-and-orange lozenged outfit, his red curly shoes, his silly hat with the three bell-tipped horns. He was offered a bladder on a stick too, for authenticity's sake--it said so right in the ad put out in the London Times prior to the competition:
Must be mirthful and prepared to work summer weekends in 2005. Must have own outfit (with bells). Bladder on stick provided if required.
As of yet, the bladder on a stick is not forthcoming. There's doubtless one sitting in mothballs, maybe the old mock scepter Archy
Archibald shook in the air when he railed against the bishops like a shadow version of his employer, King James. But even if they dug it up, Kester probably wouldn't know what to do with it. Which is only to say that it'd be difficult to work into his routine.
"The battle is just a little warm-up for my show," the fool says. The wind and all the clang of battle-axes are going to make it tricky if he ever lures an audience. As of now, an audience of three hundred or so has its collective windbreakered back turned to the fool. They stand on one side of the rope, like the crowd at an air show, at a safe yet thrilling distance from the medieval bloodshed. Little kids with toy swords are perched in the tree branches looking down on the battle, which is being played out sideways along the hill, rather than upslope, as the Normans and Saxons originally fought it. The extra six stones of armor per man snakes fighting uphill way too hard. Otherwise, the warriors are at pains to snake sure everything is as "1066 authentic" as possible.
When I arrive they're rehashing the Battle at Stamford Bridge, and Kester is off to the side of the vendors, juggling for the little girls. He starts with one ball, then two balls, crisscrossing back and forth, doing the yo-yo trick, juggling two in one hand while syncopating a third, weaving it in a pattern through the mobile two without letting it out of his hand. Then it's three balls. His hands work the grid in front of his face. The balls move like a trinity of fat houseflies mindlessly circumscribing a squishy rhomboid in the air. A few fancy tricks around the back, over the head, then he pretends to eat the balls, chomping each one mid-rotation, catches a ball between his legs, wedges one under his fleshy chin, all the while smiling and aping, then he balances one in the inner crook of his elbow, sets it back in flight with a puff, goes to four balls in a simple fountain, then a half-shower, and finishes with a cascade, a pirouette, and a bow.
Then, only a little out of breath, he takes a shot with the clubs.
He tosses them up one at a time, juggling for almost a full half minute before they all crash to the ground. He blames the wind and tries again. This time the clubs tangle midair and drop immediately, and the little girls titter. "You may laugh," he says, letting his retort linger like an unspoken threat. He shifts his feet, clears his throat, and counts tinder his breath before flipping the clubs upward, where, to the little girls' delight, they begin to twist in a happy bright orbit above his head: Red! Yellow! Orange! Green! Red! Yellow! Orange! Green! The clubs spin and whirl and pinwheel against the blue sky and a gently fluttering backdrop of oak leaves, creating a wonderful carousel in the air, but only momentarily before the plastic birds fall out of synch, tumble, and drop, disgraced, onto the brown grass. The little girls coo, as they might for a puppy who's fallen on the ice. He tries again, tossing the clubs into the fragile air. This time when he flops he casts an annoyed glance toward the reenactment. A Saxon, slashed in the belly, flails back from the shield wall and goes down, just feet from the spectators, playing up his death scene with a loud pathetic groan and clutching his spilt guts. He's really hamming it tip, and the audience loves it. On his fifth mislaunch, Kester shoves the clubs into his bag of tricks, a red satin sack decorated with stars and crescent moons. "Forget it," he says, in a wounded nasal voice, tossing the bag over his shoulder, and walks away.
The Germans follow uncertainly, the producer nervously studying his clipboard.
"Anyway," Kester says, "they didn't invent these until the seventeenth century." As if their inauthenticity gets him off the hook. Then, realizing he's still being followed not only by the camera crew, and myself, but by the unrequited little girls, he stops.
"Can you tell us a joke?" says a girl mantled with red hair and purple fake fur.
He tries to smile. "Good joke or bad?"
"Why did the head cross the road?"
"To see his flatmate!"
The girls giggle.
The redhead puts her fists on her hips. "Standamish who?"
He stomps on her toes. "Standamish who! Ha!" Lifted by their peals of laughter, he tries a little more juggling. This time with machetes.
The three knives are more impervious to the wind and handle easily, hurling and whirling, and the little girls stand in petrified awe, until he finishes dramatically by stabbing one of the blades into the earth, where it shudders silently. When one of the girls steps forward to inspect the knife, he barks at her, "Can you please not do that!" Then he scoops up his bag and disappears, grumbling, whether about the impudence of little girls or the cost of being fully insured one is left uncertain.
It's true, some have begun to question the legitimacy of the fool. You can sense it in the wry glances of the druids and housecarls and fyrdmen, peasants clad in wool blankets and hobbity-looking old women drinking out of wooden hollowware. They know a historical anachronism when they see one. They see the bright orange-and-yellow fruitcake on the edge of battle, working the concession lines, and wonder what's with the molded polyethylene juggling pins? Molded polyethylene juggling pins weren't invented yet in 1066. If he's supposed to be a medieval jester, why does he look so much like a harlequin from late-period commedia dell'arte? One contemptuous minstrel in a tight-fitting bonnet informed me that the presence of this fraudulent fou de roi was not only wildly inappropriate on this beautiful eleventh-century October morning but absurd, seeing how jesters, as such, did not yet exist, you see, fools yes, but, semantically, the term "jester"--stemming from geyster, or someone who told gestes, or stories, or a gestour, who sang, sometimes accompanied by a harp--doesn't really make a clear appearance until the sixteenth century. Until then a fool was a fool was a fool. The jester technically, as an institution, did not really come into his own until the reign of Henry VIII. Now, William Somer, there was a jester. Much better than Henry's other fool, who nearly got his head cut off for having the nerve to speak well of Catherine of Aragon. Anyway, Will Somer didn't dress like such a boob. The best jesters were clothed by the king's own tailor. Nothing but the finest attire. Stockings stitched with colored silk and trimmed with lace. Hats lined with crimson taffeta and plumed with feathers and silver spangles. Furred breeches. The best fools radiated the presence of a very witty and stylish mistress. Not that of some tubby mascot for a Yank burger chain.
This is the sort of disrespect court fools have always had to endure from the sanctimonious. Priests as far back as the eleventh century held them in extreme contempt, the theological provenance of their disdain being one little line at the beginning of Psalm 14: "The fool says in his heart, There is no God!" This goes to explain, if you've ever wondered, why illuminated medieval Psalters frequently showed an ass-eared fool arguing with King David, the purported author of the Psalms. Clerics likewise objected to the vulgarity of the fool's repertoire--one thinks of Henry II's fool emeritus, Roland le Pettour, who was so beloved for his special talents that he was called out of retirement once a year, as John Southworth relates, in his book Fools and Jesters at the English Court, "to make an annual appearance at court on Christmas day and to perform a 'leap, a whistle and a raft' (saltum, siffletum et pettum)." * One suspects, however, that the clerics' main beef arose because they themselves were forbidden to own fools. Deprived of one of life's principal joys, owning one's own fool, the priests did what their kind are wont to do when forbidden certain indulgences: They declared them obscene and sacrilegious.
I catch up with Kester on the footpath to the abbey. The shadow of his hat bounces on the gravel. He moves with a heavy pronated shuffle, his curly red shoes slipshod, his shoulders slumped. He's going to get his mandolin, which is up at the gatehouse. From up here, on Senlac Ridge, beneath the crenellated parapets and octagonal turrets, overlooking the valley that drops down to a smattering of woods, then slopes back upward into hillside pasture--idyllic but for the high-voltage towers--we have a good view of the battle. Arrows wigwag like stray shuttlecocks through the air. King Harold's army has met the invading forces of the Danes, led by King Hardraada, one of several contenders to Harold's crown, at Stamford Bridge. What looks like the top of a picnic table stands in for the bridge, spanning a skinny dry brooklet. Soldiers face off on it, a couple at a time, while those who can't fit on the bridge stand by shaking their swords. Two warriors bang their axes together like a couple of farmers trying to knock dirt off each other's hoes. The voice of an emcee croons to us over a PA system turned up dismayingly loud to help us picture the limbs flying, hands, heads flying off, as these terrible weapons cut into human flesh! The whole thing resembles a bad heavy-metal video from the early Eighties, making it that much more difficult to imagine as embroidered on the Bayeux Tapestry--the original graphic novel, as composed by the victors, depicting the Battle of Hastings and the events leading up to it.
Of course, this particular battle--which preceded the Battle of Hastings by a few weeks--wasn't actually depicted in the tapestry. But neither was an emcee in aviator sunglasses strutting around the field like a Dino impersonator. Vikings never wore horns on their helmets--that's a complete Hollywood invention!
Neither, while we're at it, does the Bayeux Tapestry include some of William the Conqueror's less than glamorous moments, such as when he stumbled off the boat after the Norman forces landed at Pevensey. As William's men unloaded their horses, the duke tripped on the rocky beach. It was a pratfall for history: Duke William, on his knees, arms soaked to the elbows, his face presumably turning colicky shades of purple, gritting his teeth. But then, with many nervous soldiers looking on, the stumblebum leader clenched two fistfuls of sand, defiantly raised his arms, and shouted, "God be praised! Today I have seized the soil of England!"
He had a knack for making foolish moments look great.
After all, he surrounded himself with fools. Golet, unseen here today, was a faithful enough joculator reds to help foil an assassination attempt on the duke's life. Another of William's fools, a dwarf named Turold, is seen clearly in panel 11 of the tapestry, holding the reins of a messenger's horse. The horse, if you care to know, has a visible hard-on--but so do several of the ignominiously depicted Saxons. The eavesdropper in panel 10 is also said to belong to that most humble and yet holy suborder of fools, the "innocent." In this classification lies one of the central paradoxes--or perhaps you would prefer to call it hypocrisies--of the fool's religious role. Although priests bridled at the vulgarity of the fool, the innocent was believed to be "incapable of sin," since he lacked the moral wits. "For a long series of saints and mystics," writes Southworth, "the simplicity of the fool was seen and presented as the model for a spiritual ideal of detachment and humility in opposition to the intellectual vanity and acquisitiveness of the worldly wise.... In the world as perceived by Paul and later moralists--a world that has itself gone mad in its pursuit of material values and personal profit--the fool is looked to as a source of wisdom."
The acquisition of worldly fame for Kester has, alas, come with its own bitter controversy. It started the day he won the auditions put on by English Heritage--the arm of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport responsible for maintaining historic sites like Stonehenge. Because only eight jesters showed up, the National Guild of Jesters still refuses to acknowledge him as State Jester. Nor will they stop pointing out the small technicality that the culture minister has yet to endorse his title. But criticism rolls off Kester like a flagon of sour mead off the hide of a donkey. People can think what they want. He won the competition fair and square. He showed up. Not like some other fools. So what if he dropped his spinning plates during his acceptance performance? "There were about eight or nine camera crews from all over the world watching me, which was a bit annoying." Still, the judges decided in his favor. He's got a clear mandate, nuncle.
Kester's five o'clock shadow looks greenish, but it's probably just light from the canopy of leafy trees overhead. I'm curious to know how his new role has changed his lifestyle, and he cracks wise that so far it just means the irritation of having to talk to reporters all the time. Everyone wants to know what it's like. "It feels good," he says. "I am a national fool now. It is the best thing a man can be." He grins weakly. He's said this before. He said it to the newspapers after he won. But, otherwise, the publicity hasn't done him much good. The stipend he's getting is a pittance, and the sudden fame hasn't exactly led to getting bigger gigs. Before he got to be national fool he was doing the usual stuff: birthday parties, corporate events, busking at malls. He and his wife even had a nice routine all worked out for a cruise line. He was going to play a mad scientist, and she was going to play his assistant, whom he brings back to life and teaches to juggle, and then she turns out to be the better juggler, even though she's technically dead.
For a while we talk about what sets him apart from the other jesters whom he trounced at the auditions. If it's not always evident in praxis, he takes a certain theoretical pride in his juggling. "If you want to get into the mathematics of it, it gets very deep and very complicated very quickly." An esoteric simper plays around his lips. "There's a type of notation, and if you really want to read about that you need a master's degree. It is that sort of level of complexity."
After a climb up a stone circular staircase, we enter an octagonal stone room with leaded windows .and a giant fireplace where you could, if desired, roast a tall man standing upright. He is tuning his instrument when I tell him what the pedantic minstrel said about there not even being jesters at the time of Hastings. "Well, then, he hasn't heard of Taillefer, has he?" This Taillefer character, Kester says, between whimpering goat-like notes on his mandolin, was the first jester. Sort of an ur-fool. The prototype moron. The primordial jongleur. "He's the first jester that you can find recorded in history. So he's the first one that I know about. And he was here, in battle. He was a French jester. French, Norman, pretty much the same thing. He was the enemy."
And even though just a lowly fool, Kester says, on the morning of October 14, 1066, Taillefer requested permission from Duke William to lead the first assault against the Saxons. Since morale was low--or perhaps because nobody wanted to put his life in the hands of a fool--Taillefer went on a single-man charge. "He literally did the first charge against the English," Kester says. He rode right up to the Saxon shield wall and began galloping back and forth, taunting the English to come out and fight. Between taunts he sang a French song that filled the Norman hearts with courage, and if that wasn't enough, he juggled his sword. He tossed it up in the air, and it spun and twirled and sent jags of sunlight into the wincing Saxons' eyes. Finally one of the English foot soldiers came out to challenge the lone Taillefer, but being on a horse, and his wrist all limbered up from juggling, Taillefer quickly dispatched his enemy by lopping off the man's head. At this point, he could have gone back and looked pretty good and maybe even gotten a medal or something, but instead Taillefer turned his horse toward the Saxon shield wall and charged into it like a madman. A fool's errand, without question.
That I don't have a recollection of any Taillefer in the tapestry only mildly concerns me for the moment. It's an amazing story. I had no idea that a jester played a pivotal role at Hastings.
In any event, I return to the ridge, where the battle is just over. Harold has defeated King Hardraada. He had to kill his treasonous brother, Tostig, but otherwise things are looking good for the newly crowned king. From here on out, the Bayeux Tapestry tells the story as vividly as all the other accounts--most of which, as it happens, rely on the tapestry. Everyone sensed something special was destined when Haley's Comet (though they didn't call it that then) appeared the day Harold was crowned, and all the courtiers cried out, "Isti Mirant Stella!" The thing is, by panel 32, Harold doesn't yet know that Duke William of Normandy has refused to recognize the legitimacy of his throne, having been promised it himself by Edward the Confessor, shortly before the old monarch's death. Perhaps Harold doesn't remember that, back when he was still Earl of Wessex, he had made a little trip to the duke's court and vowed over the relics of Saints Rasyphus and Ravennus to throw his support behind William once the ailing Edward finally died. But since then the Witan--the Anglo-Saxon parliament--had reversed Edward's misguided decision to give the kingdom away to a foreigner, and tapped Harold for the job. William had no recourse but to appeal to Pope Alexander II. After all, Harold had broken vows made over the holy remains of Rasyphus and Ravennus! Never mind that he was a virtual captive of the duke's when he made the promise. A holy vow is a holy vow. The next thing Harold knew he was excommunicated and the pope had given William a papal banner, the green light to invade the infidel islanders, plus, for good luck, a ring with a little compartment that held one of the follicles formerly belonging to the scalp of St. Peter. Thus did the duke manipulate the religious vote in his favor.
When Harold discovers that the invading forces of Normandy have gathered on his southern shores, he's still in Northumbria, wiping Hardraada's blood from his sword. By the time he marches his own army down to Hastings--300 miles as the crow flies--they're hardly going to be in the mood to fight anymore. It doesn't help that the pope has already put out the word that anyone who fights for Harold is bound for perdition.
I catch the host, emcee, what have you, outside what reminds me of a general's field tent, hunched over an ice-cream cone. A moment earlier, as the battle came to a close, he had begged the audience to remember that what they'd just witnessed was performed by professional actors. Ladies and gentlemen, please don't imitate anything you've seen here today at home! So, as I walk over to meet him, I can't help but take note when I see a little boy wearing a black knight's helmet stab his sister in the back with a sword, and then a kid with a crossbow lets loose a bolt into the wheel of his baby sister's perambulator. The baby, maybe ten months old, is hugging a shiny toy sword.
I tell him I'm really impressed with the way he's infused the battle with so much personality and ask if he works from a script.
"No, it's all in my head." He grins and taps his head thrice gently. His voice is unctuous and gravelly at the same time, like well-oiled pebbles. Like well-oiled pebbles strained through ice cream. "If I write it all out in a script beforehand, it's not going to follow what they're doing out there, so it's irrelevant. My attitude is, I'm really there. And I don't know who's going to win the battle."
I give him what must be a doubtful look.
"That's the way I think about it! I'm not a man from 2004 who knows what happened. I don't know whether William or Harold is going to be alive at the end of the day. Before the battle takes place, nobody knows what the outcome's going to be!" As he becomes more animated, he bounces on his toes, waving his ice-cream cone in the air. "I'm not going to talk about it in the past tense, I'm going to talk about it in the current tense, in the now, in the here and now. William is doing this, Harold is doing that. Presenting it in the here and now is a crucial part of my commentary style. That really brings the sense of today-realism. That's why I get excited. And I think my enthusiasm and my excitement add to the spectacle."
Out on the field, a woman whom I can only describe as a fair maiden is preparing the audience for a falconry demo. Perched overhead on a speaker, the hawk waits for its instructions.
"Obviously, there aren't heads being split in half out there and people losing their limbs. We can't re-create that. It's not a Hollywood film. But the reenactors are very skilled at making it look fast and realistic. I mean, if you add my voice saying: Look at the blood being spilled out here." The crooner bends his knees soulfully. "Even though there is no blood being spilt, people can see it! Their imagination comes into play, and they can see the blood, they can see the arms and hands being hacked off. It brings the history alive!" He shrugs modestly and then tilts his head to graze the untended side of his cone. A little boy from the audience has been recruited by the maiden and given the end of a leash with a floppy-looking fake bunny at the end. A piece of meat is taped to the fake bunny's back. At a signal, the boy runs off into the field, little legs pumping, dove-white cheeks flushed, and the shadow of the hawk swells on the grass as it closes in on the child at a brisk volplane, then strikes the fake bunny.
I ask how the new jester fits into all of this.
He chuckles guiltily and looks around as if to make sure no one can overhear. "The jester's been brought in to sort of razzmatazz everything up." His voice turns furtive. "In reality, jesters didn't look like that. Jesters weren't part of the common life. They were part of the court." He sucks at the remaining nubbin of his cone. "It's really a Victorian, modern interpretation of medieval life. See, there's people who want to keep things historically accurate." He makes a demure gesture. "And there are other people who want to turn it into Disneyland. And there's a bit of a power struggle. So we have to be a little careful about what we say--in case we don't get hired next year."
I look around for Kester, don't see him, and decide to go congratulate King Harold on his victory over the Dane Hardraada.
Passing through the village, as it's called, the area just off the battlefield where the soldiers and their kin are bivouacked, the wood smoke is so thick it stings my eyes. Blinded, my hands jammed in my coat pocket for warmth, I trip over a plastic deer lying next to a tent beside a half-asleep dog. Wart-faced barkers hawk everything here from toy swords to hand-carved drinking vessels engraved with runes, to medieval cloaks (49.95 [pounds sterling], "any size or color made to order"), to battered shields emblazoned with unicorns, wild boars, and pink dragons rampant. The whole place has the feel of a refugee camp, or a Burning Man Festival, except that everyone is carrying a sword or a quiver full of arrows, and every free funicular surface--tent rope, tree branch--is draped with a dried animal skin. One is under the impression that to be authentically medieval, one must be an able taxidermist. One couple struggles to right a large floppy tent blown over by the wind. Inside is a straw pallet that looks like bedding from a chicken coop. A lot of peasanty looking people, with aptly impecunious physiognomies, in tattered wool robes and rope belts huddle around sooty fires. Tired, beet-faced soldiers, some still wearing their tarnished casques, are tending to meat roasting on spits or sitting around wobbly wooden tables laden with vittles that look freshly harvested from the forest floor. It is all kept in time by the brash clank of a blacksmith's hammer and the rattle of rabbit bones cast over and over by a self-styled oracle telling generic fortunes. A hawk tied to a stake runs in circles at the end of its leash. Two monks in black robes and solemn gray faces in mourning for Edward the Confessor traipse by slowly, the shorter of the two carrying a silk brocaded pillow upon which rides a walnut-and-brass music box issuing Gregorian chant. (Hidden inside, strictly verboten, is a Walkman.)
When I stop a Viking clinking toward me to ask where I might find the Saxon king, he points to a tent with the Dragon of Wessex flag flapping overhead. I find Harold Godwinson outside, going over some diagrammatic-looking sheets of paper with one of the marshals employed by Action Warrior Solutions, the company that hires the grunts and choreographs the battles, and whose employees, with their headset mikes, jeans, and black vinyl windbreakers, are the only conspicuously twenty-first-century participants. When the marshal turns away, I approach the big, burly, pink-visaged, red-haired king, who, with his helmet off, sports a punked-out medieval mullet and a score of facial perforations--mainly ears and eyebrows from which he has evidently, prudently, removed any inauthentic and potential snags.
Feeling like a sportscaster doing a locker-room interview, I ask the king how it went out there today.
Harold laughs good-naturedly. "We've had one battle today at Stamford Bridge, which went pretty well. I won. My brother died, unfortunately, but there we go."
"So what's it feel like? Is it a big rush to be out there?"
"It is, yeah. Quite. Battle Abbey still retains quite a sense of place about it. It's still quite an evocative place," he says, casting his eyes up at the monastic compound on the hill. The abbey was built after the Battle of Hastings by a victorious William the Conqueror. Along with this Romanesque architecture, the Norman Conquest would import feudalism, mark the transition from Old English to Middle English, and miscegenate the language suitably enough to say new words like "castle," "pork," "crime," "gentleman," "tort," and even more useful ones like "aperitif." "Certainly when we're here in the evening, when the public's gone home, you've got the mist creeping into the valley bottom, the sun setting, it can make it quite atmospheric." He shrugs his kingly shoulders. "The combat is fairly motivating anyway."
At this, he asks if he might slip behind his tent, out of the public's eye, since I've asked him to hold the tape recorder so I can scribble in my notebook while he talks.
"I probably have a bit of a head start," he says, tapping the recorder with the big copper ring on his middle finger. "I actually work as an archaeologist, so this is rather a busman's holiday for me. I think most people have a vision of Harold Godwinson that is just formed on 1066, and you actually get far more of a sense of him if you look back across his life. He's a very troubled man. Because Hastings was such a comprehensive defeat, I think we almost wonder why Harold bothered to turn up at all."
"He falls pretty early on, right?"
"He falls in the afternoon. And the fight finishes at dusk. One account of the battle has Norman knights mutilating Harold's body during the battle. One of the knights is described as cutting off his 'fye.' Which is, um, um, absolutely--it's a polite way of putting something that isn't, um--but the knight in question was actually sent home in disgrace by William for doing such a dishonorable thing."
I ask him if he knows anything about a character named Taillefer?
"Ah, yes." He thoughtfully preens his beard. He's familiar with the legend of Taillefer and describes for me, more or less, the same thing as Kester had: the lone horseman's solitary charge, the jaunty twirling of the sword, the macho lyrical taunts, the psychotic charge into the shield wall. He believes, however, that Taillefer was most likely a romantic invention thrown in later, and that the character might actually have been a minstrel, not a jester exactly. "It's actually from a later source, I think, from the Song of Roland." This song, of course, being of a completely different timbre than that of stinky Roland le Pettour. "He rides out and commits suicide, essentially. It's one of these little legends that's grown up around the battle."
I ask the king if he's acquainted with the new official jester. Harold looks surprised, laughs with a shake of his head, and says, "I've only just seen him."
Later that evening I trek back to the abbey, hoping to experience medieval nightlife. Out on the street, in the real village of Battle, East Sussex, where all the establishments have names like The Hungry Knight or the 1066 Hotel, a few druids are out pub-hopping, but the gates to the abbey at the top of the hill are dark and shut tight. Indecisively, I stand outside the massive oak doors in the freezing cold, then I give the door a shove. To my surprise, it opens. Once inside, in pitch black, I quickly lose the path down to the battlefield and find myself wandering lost in the labyrinthine ruins themselves. To orient myself, I take a digital snapshot to illuminate what I can't see. The flash reveals only a looming stone spookiness, leaving the ghost impression of a disembodied ancient buttress floating before my eyes. The next flash opens a bare stone room in my mind with barrel-vaulted ceilings and cold, black, empty lancet windows. Soon enough, a small troop of noisy, happy nomads show up on their return quest from the pubs. They say they're not staying in the village but down at Plastic Camp, where they have sleeping bags instead of straw pallets, but they offer to lead me at least as far as the meadow. From there, guided onward by a small constellation of flickering orange lights and the lonely scent of wood smoke, I stumble across a lopsided lumpy heath in the dark. As I get closer I'm surprised not to hear the roaring medieval orgy I had anticipated. No skin-clad bonfire dancing, no tabor-bashing party. I hear nary a harp. Just the peaceful crackle of judiciously built, well-controlled campfires. Then I'm hailed by a friendly bearded face aglow in the firelight.
"Greetings, Yank!" Gathered round the logs, under the swagged roof of a red-and-white-striped tarpaulin, sit four or five warriors, half in costume. It's a motley bunch. There's a guy in what looks to be a chimney sweep's top hat with a tankard on his knee. An archer in a green hat and thick curly eyebrows pokes at the coals with a stick. Beside him is a woman half-asleep, wrapped in a cloak. Her glasses double and reflect the upward migration of a stray, lazy spark. Another bloke in a Robin Hood getup is calmly hand-rolling a cigarette. The most cheerful and expansive of them is a big red-bearded guy named Steve, clearly of the Viking persuasion, with a bottle of rum playing near his lips and a dagger in his lap.
I take a seat on the ground near the fire, and Viking Steve offers me the rum, which I happily accept. Robin Hood, still rolling his cigarette with a benevolent smirk, asks what I thought of the battle today. I say I liked it.
And then he asks me if I want to see his sword. He retrieves it from inside the tent, and I hold it, pleased by its lethal heft. Holding the hilt with two hands, I raise the sword so that it shines blackly against the flames. He says that back in the day, it would have cost 600 pounds to have a sword like this forged.
"To a Viking, seriously, this would have been equal in terms of prestige to a Ferrari." Watching me handle it, he twiddles his cigarette to keep the burning tobacco from falling out.
"Yeah, right," says Viking Steve. "Maybe a Buick."
"No, Ferrari, seriously."
Holding the sword on my lap, I think about the video released yesterday that showed the British engineer Kenneth Bigley getting his head cut off by masked insurgents. And then, in the way that my imagination can sometimes get the better of me, for no good reason, for no good reason at all, I picture myself standing up and, though he seems like a perfectly nice guy, beheading the guy in the top hat. I imagine the tankard hitting the ground, and the way his headless body would tip forward and the blood would gush out the stalk of his neck and douse the flames, just like that scene in Blood Meridian when White Jackson just won't stop nagging Black Jackson. This being the scene right after the juggler tells the doomed men their fortunes. La carroza, la carroza ... Carta de guerra, de venganza. But I keep this to myself. Nobody gets hurt.
I accept another slug from the communal rum and ask whether anyone actually gets hurt when they're all pretending to hit one another with battle-axes.
"I've had more injuries playing rugby," says Viking Steve. But then the stories start to ooze out. They talk of broken jaws and arrows grazing eyeballs. Split lips and bad falls. One of them had his teeth knocked out by an overeager opponent with a long spear. Another got his hand broken when somebody brought down the ash handle of a battle-axe on his knuckles. Usually, the worst that happens is that the clumsy offending party gets sent back to training school to review the finer points of mock fighting, and briefly the warriors lose me with the tedium of Display Combat versus Formation Combat and the convoluted rigors of being rehabilitated and recertified as an authentic fake soldier. It all serves to remind me that none of this is any more real than when Queen Elizabeth's favorite fool, Richard Tarlton, engaged in mock combat with her lapdog, Perrico de Faldas. It used to send the poor queen into fits of cachinnation.
When I ask if anyone's seen the jester tonight, they all scoff. Where is he now? Why isn't he down here entertaining the troops instead of back in his caravan with his wife and his microwave popcorn? What is he, waiting by the phone for an invitation from the palace? The men around the fire are suspicious of the fool. Like many others, they doubt the legitimacy of the decision-making that put him in power. There are murmurs that the whole thing was a fix. That it was rigged in favor of Kester from the beginning. They talk of a much greater fool. A fool who, it is said, can juggle three flaming torches whilst riding a seven-foot unicycle. A fool of astonishing wit. A fool who is clean-shaven and well-coordinated. A fool with a twinkle in his eye, not an aversive, sheepish, darting gaze. A righteous fool. A charitable and good-humored fool. A fool who would have swept the competition, if only he'd been there. They speak of Jonathan the Jester. Official jester to Salisbury. Appointed by the mayor of Salisbury himself. A fool named European Jester of the Year, 1999. A fool who, if the world were not the topsy-turvy place that it is and did not always insist on rewarding mediocrity, would have been here today instead of this Fester the Pester. But, of course, like every other jester worth his stilts in England, Jonathan got word of the competition with only three days notice. Three days! Who could get out of one's preexisting commitments and prepare for such an immortal gig with so little time?
"None of the best jesters even showed up!" Viking Steve fidgets with the dagger in his lap.
The men grin, however. Because Jonathan may be a fool of infinite zest, yes, but no less importantly, he is a fool of political acumen. Because his own small army of equally put-out fools--in-corporatedly known as the National Guild of Jesters--has been tirelessly fighting this "invalid and bogus" appointment from day one, and if there is any justice in England then one day soon the culture minister will give in, redress the crime, and depose this coxcombical ass in favor of a more suitable candidate.
Feeling a bit bad for Kester, I wonder out loud if, in spite of it all, he might not at least serve a purpose here. As a sort of stand-in, I mean, for the legend of Taillefer. I am, of course, half hoping that they won't be familiar with the legend, so I can tell them the story as I've so far managed to piece it together.
They all stare at me.
"Why? We've already got a Taillefer."
Sure, they say, he's the first Norman to get killed on the field.
"He was lovelorn," the archer with the eyebrows says. "So he basically committed suicide." The actor who played him today played him last year too, he says.
"You mean," I say, "Taillefer was--is actually here?"
"Yeah, didn't you see him? He goes out first."
"He's a German chap, I forget his name."
The next afternoon, well-rested and freshly showered, I go down to the village looking for the real-life Taillefer. A marshal tells me that if I want to find the cavalry, they're down by Plastic Camp but I'd better run because the battle is going to begin shortly. He quickly gives me directions, and then I hurry into the woods, along a wandering path grown over on either side with ferns and blackberry brambles, passing, on my way, groups of soldiers marching in the opposite direction, carrying maces and swords and javelins and shields all vert and gules and checkered erminois and blazing purpure bent sinister. I pass a maiden in a flowing gown, a band of little boys playing king of the knoll with toy swords, and a tonsured monk sitting on the ancient root of an elm smoking a cigarette. I come out of the woods to a small pond spattered with lily pads, a red pay phone at the water's edge, and a hundred or so scout tents bivouacked in a well-trampled meadow. Under a soaring oak, near the pond, is a horse trailer and a group of men in armor and horses snorting little blank word-bubbles of horse breath in the chilly morning air. When I say that I'd like to speak to Taillefer, if indeed there exists such a person, a young page putting the torque to a stirrup points me in the direction of one of the knights with a burnoose halfway over his head. Underneath he wears a hooded chain-mail hauberk.
"Yes," the knight says in a softly clipped German accent. "I am Taillefer."
He stands holding one wrist clasped before him, like a statesman. The cuff-length hooded tunic fits with a shapely tailored heft to his trim torso and head, like a sleek and metallic seal. Each ring of chain mail looks as if it's been meticulously polished with a Q-tip. Duke William, I think, might have profited in the estimation of his troops had he exercised the same sartorial diligence. After all, it was carelessness that led to his second great snafu, while dressing for battle this very morning. When his squire put the duke's hauberk on backward, it was, understandably, seen as an ill portent by his already jumpy men. All looked on, wondering how their liege was going to save face this time. But once he got himself rearranged, he used the wardrobe malfunction as another opportunity for self-glorification: "Let this be a sign for all of you. Today is a day of turnabout. Whereas I have been till this day a duke, after today I shall be king!" This doubletalk comforted everybody. The lying fool with God on his side would conquer all.
"In the true spirit of the time," Taillefer says regarding Taillefer, filling me in on his own version of his character's illustrious past, "he had asked for the honor of leading the first charge against the Saxons. He rode up and down in front of the Saxon lines and challenged them, insulted them, and they sent out a champion. He defeats that champion in one-to-one combat, and then gets a little bit carried away and decides that he can take on the whole army by himself. Unfortunately, he gets outnumbered in a rather unchivalrous kind of fashion and killed."
How so, unchivalrous?
"He gets dragged off his horse and slaughtered."
But, I say, before this uncomely death, he juggled his sword?
"Ah, he throws his sword into the air. But that was a feat of arms probably quite widespread with Norman cavalrymen--just being able to use your weapon well, to twirl your sword or your lance." He palms the pommel of his sword in its scabbard. "You have to be able to know its balance." He describes how Taillefer rode out, a lone horseman, up the uneven slope of Senlac Ridge. Galloping back and forth within spitting distance of the amassed Saxon ranks, he challenged the entire army to take him on, taunting them with his agile swordplay, taking it by the hilt and whirling the blade into the air, so that it stood straight against the blue morning sky while flashing and spinning around its axis, as if by magic, dazzling the enemies' eyes. "Whirling the sword around your head. You are trying to, um, impress the enemies, make them cower away from you. You are trying to encourage your own troops, so feats of arms like that are of course always impressive." His colleagues are already getting mounted. We shift slightly to accommodate his pacing horse.
Although it seems somehow awkward now to bring it up, I tell him that I've heard Taillefer compared to something like a prototype of the jester.
"To a jester?"
"Sort of a prototype," I repeat lamely, not sure now whether Kester said Taillefer was the first fool or just the first one to get killed at the Battle of Hastings. After a durable pause, and a lingering distasteful examination of my person, he says, "I must admit that I do not know about that aspect of the Taillefer character."
He shakes his head. "Taillefer is one of the most prominent knights in Duke William's army. Jesters were the domesticated court fools--clowns and entertainers--of the nobility. So if anybody had likened him in public to a jester, I don't think he would have taken well to that." In fact, this Taillefer does not seem to be taking well to it. "A Norman nobleman is a very, very proud individual who is very bent on his honor." He looks at his horse and shrugs. "So, okay, he may have been of a more humorous inclination. And he may even have impressed people by throwing his sword into the air and catching it. That may not look exactly like juggling, but, um, it is rather artistic. But I don't think he would be called a jester. Definitely not."
He dons his helmet and looks sadly at the ground. He seems resigned now to his fate, which awaits him at the top of the hill.
"Taillefer had the honor of leading the first attack. You don't give that to your court jester or your fool. Seriously, no." After another uncomfortable moment, he picks up his green kite-shaped shield, leaning like a child's sled against the tree. "I am afraid I have to mount, because otherwise I may be late for the battle."
And that is that. By the time I get back to the top of the hill, where I can get a view of the battlefield, he's already a goner. Ladies and gentlemen, the brave knight Taillefer is dead! He's been dragged from the saddle and cut to pieces!
The audience applauds and cheers joyfully. Most unchivalrous. I don't know if he had time to juggle his sword or not.
Kester, as usual, is lurking fecklessly in the background. I ask him if he saw Taillefer's performance. No, he didn't see it either. He was in the middle of a trick called the Walk of Death. For this particular trick, he had a little boy lie down on the ground, with his hands folded over his crotch, and then, straddling the boy, he was going to walk the length of the child's body while juggling three machetes, but before he could finish, the kid burst into tears and ran back to his mum. Very awkward. His Vandyke collar flutters in the breeze. As the Normans are regrouping for their second cavalry attack, the housecarls, at the front of Harold's ranks, swing their battle-axes overhead as if in slow motion. A swarm of archers moves in, bows drawn, the arrows pelting the upturned shields like eraser-tipped pencils raining down on muffin pans. The clank of swords sounds like the scuttle of flatware at an outdoor bistro amplified. The emcee, pacing before the audience, wrenches his mike for maximum effect. Swords and axes and knives and maces and hammers raining down, the Norman infantry smashing into the Saxon shield wall ...
I wonder whether Kester doesn't feel a bit foolish even being here, playing second fool to the warrior Taillefer, a bit ridiculous, a bit dispensable, and I must have said something to convey my rude thought process because he turns sharply to give me a look--his bells set off a little alarm--as if to say, Oh yeah? Well, what is your role here, mate? It's not a terrible point. With a real war going on in the villages of Tikrit and Mukaradeeb, what, as an alleged reporter, an American writer, is my role here? What am I doing at a mock battle reporting on a mock fool? Not really in the mood to answer such a question, I go to the chips truck and buy a hot dog. The battle is at a fevered pitch now. I can do nothing but observe objectively.
In the early dusk light, everything now seems to have the depthless quality of fabric--in fact, the sky is now like a beige linen backdrop, yellowed and tattered at the fringes. Exhausted now, faces haggard and threadbare, the soldiers stumble forward, their weapons too heavy to swing. Up and down their swords flash, stabbing and hacking, arms, hands, heads being cut in two, cut from bodies, men falling down, blood being spilt on this English soil, this English field. On the sidelines, at least from panel 61 of the tapestry onward, the bizarre animals occupying the borders--rabbits the size of deer, red and purple hounds, panda-faced camels, psychedelic platypuses, blue squirrels--gradually give way to arrow-ridden bodies. Mounted, his spear held aloft, the bones of Saints Rasyphus and Ravennus jangling from his neck, Duke William fights alongside his men in the melee of flashing metal. His horse struggles up the slick hill, sodden with blood, churned to mud by the hooves of 2,000 panic-stricken horses skidding and stumbling over battered corpses piled high like so much cut brush. The Normans jostle and shove and crash against the shield wall, which bucks and sways like a dying dragon, its scales tattooed with heraldic arms. Above the snapping pennants and clattering spears, the papal banner sputters in the wind with a flatulent ripping sound.
A cry goes up. "Le duc est mort!" Ladies and gentlemen, I can see William, Duke William has been pulled from his horse! Duke William is down on the ground! Will he survive! William has gone down! The blunder, this time, isn't entirely his fault--his horse's head has been lopped off by one of the giant Dane axes. Its headless body runs a few steps forward and collapses to its forelegs. The word is now spreading amongst the Norman army that William is dead. They're turning and looking at one another, they're beginning to panic. Is their cause lost? Is William dead?
To show his men he still lives, William mounts a fresh horse, takes off his helmet, holding it up in the air, and rides back and forth in front of his ranks. Ladies and gentlemen, Duke William lives! This is a miracle sent by the Lord God Himself. The Norman army has taken heart again. Let's have a huge cheer for Duke William of Normandy!
The battle rages on. History and spectacle begin to merge in my imagination. Audience members too close to the ropes are splattered with blood and horse excrement. And yet they remain as unmoved as golf spectators. Some have even drifted off to watch the jester. He juggles three balls. He shoves one in his mouth and makes like the other two are binoculars. He impersonates a monkey. He does a defecating elephant. He pretends to propeller-chop himself in the testicles with his devil sticks. He dances around in his curly red shoes and plays "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on a recorder. As his japes grow more shambolic, the generator from the chips truck blots out the screams of Harold's dying men. "God is with us!" they shriek. "God is with us!" In the border they are stripping bodies now. A Norman knight yanks the yellow woolly brains out of an English soldier's head. A mother and father laugh at their son who pretends to fall on his sword, twitching on the grass.
We've just heard word, ladies and gentlemen! One of the arrows has struck King Harold! I believe he's been struck in the face! In the eye! The king is wounded! Blood is pouring from his face as he lies on the ground, trying to stagger to his feet. William now senses that victory is shortly to be achieved, and he sends his knights again! The Norman knights are going in for the attack! Give 'em a cheer, come on! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the Saxon king, King Harold, is dead! Harold is dead, ladies and gentlemen!
And then, 938 years later, long after the last Anglo-Saxon king of England is dead and buried, and William crowned at Westminster Abbey, every. thing will come unraveled for the fool. Worn down by protests from the disenfranchised National Guild of Jesters, the Right Honourable Lord McIntosh himself--the minister for media and heritage--will furtively suggest that Kester no longer use the title State Jester. Sad to say, just before Christmas the fool will fall, they will revoke his title, he will be debaubled, impeached, demoted to the unchristened position of English Heritage Jester. As such, his role will be limited to amusing tourists at the lonely castles and ancient ruins, the inexplicable dolmens. He is the slipshod mascot strolling along the moat. He only hopes that he will not be assigned to do any jesting at Stonehenge. It is a barren, cold plain. The winds are fearsome. The sky is bleak. It would, he thinks, be like juggling in Siberia. It would be a little too much like exile.
* Again, according to Southworth: "The farters could claim a long history going back to the fifth century, when St. Augustine of Hippo found legitimate matter for wonder in those who could 'produce at will such musical sounds from their behind (without any stink) that they seem to be singing from that region.' Roland's remarkable feat was too good to be lost to the king's celebration of Christmas--even after the performer's retirement." Upon his retirement, Pettour received a thirty-acre estate. Many beloved jesters likewise retired with handsome pensions to live out the rest of their lives as country squires.
Frederick Kaufman's last article for Harper's Magazine, "The Secret Ingredient," appeared in the January 2005 issue. His next book, A Short History of the American Stomach, will be published by Harcourt.
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|Date:||Oct 1, 2005|
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