Friday, 23 December 2011

A Tale for the Season and the Dying Year

The BBC letting us down for ghost stories this yuletide, here's a sorry substitute in the form of another meretricious solstice tale:

Saturnalia

A Fable

Once upon a time, well, Christmas Eve to be precise, but many centuries ago, a knight and his servant were preparing their nightly camp at the fringes of a great wood. Of course, strictly speaking, the servant was preparing the camp while the knight looked on in a vaguely supervisory capacity. He did not offer to help, it would not have occurred to him to do so and even if he could, there would have little he could have done to help save find some wood though that would have been help enough. He had few skills outside of fighting and courtesy.

The knights had been the guardians of the kingdom for many years. It was their job to dispense justice, swiftly and coldly if necessary, for the common weal. It was for them to set the example that others could follow, the example of chivalry and courtesy and gentleness.

But that was long before and now the knights had mostly forgotten their purpose and instead saw themselves as not guardians of the kingdom and its people, but rather guardians of their fellow knights and they had grown jealous of their privileges. And courtesy they defined as being deferential to those richer than themselves.

Sir Peregrin (for that was his name) was a typical knight of that time and he watched his servant with a kind of detached contempt. After all, the man could only be a servant because his blood was thinner and of a lesser vintage than Sir Peregrin’s. His mental acuity was doubtless equally lacking otherwise he would not be servant. For Sir Peregrin success was a lifestyle option and he held little sympathy for those who, for reasons he could not fathom, chose to be failures.

At last a fire was blazing, the horse groomed, the armour polished and a hare that the servant had caught earlier was stewing in a small pot. Sir Peregrin had not been able to kill any meat as no meat worthy of his blade or spear had been apparent for the last few days so he had been dining off what the servant could catch or snare. Peasant food, but surprisingly pleasant in some ways. Sir Peregrin debated with himself about serving some at his next banquet. It might be amusing. He lay back in an attempt to relax, but…

‘Cobb,’ he cried in irritation, ‘fetch something to soften this ground. Every pebble and stone inEngland seems to be digging into me. Find some moss or brush will you.’

‘Very well my lord,’ said Cobb and slipped away out of the circle of light given by the fire.

Now as it happens Sir Peregrin was not entitled to the honorific of ‘my lord’ but it pleased him mightily to pretend to it and as it also happens the servant was not called Cobb but Sir Peregrin had had many servants and he really could not be expected to remember their names. He found that Cobb answered nicely to all of them and as long as they answered nicely to him, well that was sufficient.

Cobb returned with an armful of brush and moss for Sir Peregrin’s bed with pine cones balanced on top.

‘What are those for Cobb?’ asked Sir Peregrin, ‘not my mattress I trust for they will not make a comfy bed.’

Sir Peregrin prided himself on his wit.

‘For the fire, my lord,’ replied the servant who wasn’t called Cobb. ‘They make a good crackle and shout when they burst and it is the solstice. We have the dark so we must have the noise.’

‘Really?’ said Sir Peregrin, slightly petulantly. ‘Must we?’

‘Yes,’ said Cobb. ‘It’s the turning of the year and the longest night. Many things walk abroad that should not.’

‘As long as they stay abroad,’ said Sir Peregrin with a chuckle, pleased with the opportunity to show off his wit once more.

And so they settled. Sir Peregrin in his robe and blankets, Cobb in his blanket, stew and stale bread before the knight which he doled out to the servant when he remembered to and the fire crackling. Every now and then Cobb would throw on another cone which snapped out sparks that arced through the dark to die on the frosty ground.

Sir Peregrin was just about to doze off when he noticed the final cone in Cobb’s hand. It looked strangely green and unripe.

‘Wouldn’t put that one on the fire Cobb,’ he said sleepily, ‘too green to burn. It will just smoulder and do nothing.’

‘Oh I don’t know about that sir knight,’ said Cobb quietly and threw the unripe pine cone into the heart of the dying fire.

And smoke it did not. Instead it crackled, it hissed, what smoke there was were sudden violent ventings of greenish steam that hissed before suddenly collapsing to be replaced with a constant crickling.

Then at last a sudden spark that arced from the flames to land spitting before the two men, a spark that turned curiously and inevitably into a something.

At first Sir Peregrin thought it was some animal as it scuttled, then he thought it was some child as it walked, then he thought it some devil as it stood showing horns silhouetted against the soft light and then he saw that it was a smallish furry figure with long hair and whiskers and pointy ears that stood proud of its head and eyes that gleamed like a cat’s.

‘Merry meet good hobgoblin,’ said Cobb with a calmness that Sir Peregrin vaguely guessed came from having frequent conversations with hobgoblins. He decided that this was one of things that peasants often did. Or was possibly some kind of elaborate joke.

‘Merry met mortal man,’ said the figure. ‘Why bring me here on the solstice night. I would be dancing with my fair Titania for this is our winter time.’

‘I thought you might find something for your humour here,’ said Cobb.

‘You surprise me,’ replied what Sir Peregrin had reluctantly decided was a actual hobgoblin even though only peasants believed in them.

The hobgoblin stepped forwards towards the knight and servant and bowed.

‘Good,’ it continued. ‘You may call me Puck, or Robin Goodfellow or Jack in the Green so long as you call me for breakfast. What brings you to the edge of the wildwood?’

‘We travel to Earl Ranulf,’ explained Cobb. ‘My lord Peregrin would aid him in his war against his people.’

‘My lord Peregrin?’ the hobgoblin seemed puzzled. ‘Sir knight, you wear a cloth not woven for you.’

Sir Peregrin was totally mystified by that so ignored it.

The hobgoblin continued with an air of academic interest.

‘Earl Ranulf makes war upon his people? I would not thought it possible to make war upon yourself for the earl is of his people and the people make the earl so why bring warfare into it? Odd.’

Sir Peregrin was not going to let that one go.

‘Here we go,’ he said with the theatrical sigh of one who has had to explain this so often and the arrogance of one for whom coherence is for little people: ‘This is the real world young Goodfellow or Green and in that world a man has one name and sticks with it. And it is dangerously na├»ve to pretend that an earl who works damn hard I would have you remember and it is he who provides for the serfs who choose not to be free but prefer to laze about working on the land and we need people like the earl and if you had read of what they did, the violence and the uproar and the damage to property – oh and the loss of life – well the sheriffs had no choice in the face of anarchy and those who say the earl should stand for his actions, well we’ll lose him to France where they don’t have such idiotic ideas and appreciate the hard work that men like him do and I am proud to be going to aid him against those ungrateful peasants who dare try to stand against him and it’s not even as if I’m not feeling the pinch as well, I mean have you seen the price of myrrh these days.’

Puck and Cobb looked at Sir Peregrin with a degree of admiration and Sir Peregrin looked back in the firm belief that he had baffled all their arguments.

‘I see,’ grinned the hobgoblin. ‘A very, parfit gentil knight. Here is sport indeed. Lord, what fools these mortals be.’

‘Fools and ungrateful inefficient scroungers,’ stated Sir Peregrin, ‘furthermore, I think you’ll find it’s pronounced gentle,’ his voice ringing with the certainty of one who has completely misread his audience. ‘And what does parfit mean anyway?’ he added to himself, uncertainly

‘So my sir knight goes for on a quest to aid his fellows against those of the land?’ asked Robin Goodfellow in the tones of one who is interested in your problems but wants to make sure he’s got all the details absolutely correct.

‘He does,’ replied the servant not called Cobb. ‘And so I brought him here on Christmas Eve and made a fire in this glade and burned a green fir cone. I couldn’t think what else to do.’

‘And Sir Peregrin and Earl Ranulf are old friends?’ Jack in the Green enquired in the same tones.

‘No. They have corresponded but never actually met,’ said Cobb, meaningfully.

‘Our course seems clear then,’ said the hobgoblin cheerfully, ‘and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief.’

At that Sir Peregrin fell into a deep sleep wearing nothing but an old shift and Cobb found himself all in his master’s armour.

Cobb smiled.

‘My thanks good Sir Peregrin,’ he said, ‘but that was not my thinking. I do not wish to go to Earl Ranulf’s and ape my one-time master and dance and eat and drink and be merry in his halls. But I have served Sir Peregrin for many years and been his butt and practice man and I know now the way of weaponry, fighting and strategy. No, by your will, good Robin, I would to those people who stand against the Earl. I think I might be able to teach them something.’

‘And will you resume your true name?’ asked Jack in the Green.

The man considered. ‘No,’ he said finally. ‘Cobb has served well enough and will serve longer. I’ll save my true christening for another time.

‘As you wish,’ said Puck cheerfully and with a wave of his paw he deposited Cobb into a meeting of those who had decided to stand against the Earl and had slowly realised that they had no idea how to do so. Sir Peregrin he placed in Earl Ranulf’s courtyard where he was immediately taken up as a spy for the peasants on account of his poor clothing and confused manner.

And a merry Christmas Day was had by all, except Sir Peregrin, who was in the dungeon.

And Earl Ranulf was in his castle.

But the next day, the poor men were at his gate and this time they were being advised by someone with a good working knowledge of siege warfare.

But maybe Earl Ranulf remembered poor Sir Peregrin languishing in his dungeon and ordered clean clothing and good food for him. He must have. After all, it was Christmas.





And a happy new year to us all.

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