American Renaissance
Purchase Book
Well Met: Renaissance Faires and the American Counterculture
author: Rachel Lee Rubin
publisher: NYU Press
pub date: 11.09.2012
pp: 359
tags: History , Cultural Studies

Ander Monson on Well Met: Renaissance Faires and the American Counterculture

American Renaissance

November 26th, 2013 reset - +

The following is a feature article from the inaugural issue of the LARB Quarterly Journal, which is now on sale in bookstores, at Amazon, and B&N.com. It is also shipped free to Sustaining Members.

 

 “America, having come to grips with 1776, is devouring the Real Past.”

– Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality

IT'S A LONG ROAD to the faire. We skip the interstate and instead take Arizona State Route 79, the Pinal Pioneer Parkway, through Florence, Arizona, on our way up to Apache Junction, where the Arizona Renaissance Festival (“& Artisan Marketplace,” the website reminds me) awaits. It’s the last day of the 25th annual Festival, concluding oddly — and surely arbitrarily — on Easter Sunday. This is the first free weekend in a month for my trusty companions, Jon and Clint, so we have sallied forth into the sun for faux-medieval fun.

Today I’m driving, one reason why we’re taking the back roads through country filled with blooming chollas; and besides, as I’m informed, the wildflowers are out along the roadside, so as we drive on this two-lane road, Clint points out a white desert lily, and Jon is murmuring something soft about lupine. These gents know a lot about plants.

A Chevy Aveo with a pennant on its antenna passes me at what must be a cool 85 mph. Maybe they are also on their way to the faire? In 2011 USA Today named this road the fastest-traveled highway (excluding interstates) in the nation, having taken regular radar readings at what one presumes must be nearly every highway in America. Why they did this, I’m not sure, but I’m glad they did, and I’m glad also to know that another two of the top 5 are here in Arizona. Well, that’s one thing we got, I say, not out loud, because I’m quoting Deep Blue Something’s crappy nineties song “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and it is too early to be mocked for my deep and terrible knowledge.

Jon and I first attended the Arizona Renaissance Festival, 45 minutes east of the Phoenix sprawl, two years ago. We were duly amused and pleased, and so we meant to come again last year, this time with Jon’s partner, Clint, who, in spite of living his entire life in Arizona, has never been to the faire. We were a little too busy or forgetful, though, and for men like us, the Renaissance Festival is not quite the priority it is for some. That is, none of us are usually serious enough about it for the two-hour drive to the eastern edge of Phoenix, in spite of a fairly encyclopedic collective knowledge of fantasy, AD&D, The Chronicles of Narnia, Game of Thrones, and applied linguistics (not even to get into the sci-fi domains that each of us may or may not be masters of, and will not admit to in print). I don’t mean to suggest that Jon, Clint, and I are not serious about anachronism, but we are not members of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), that federation of lovely geeks who faux-fight with swords on college campuses and in yearly “wars” (or, in the Society’s own words, “an international organization dedicated to researching and re-creating the arts and skills of pre-17th-century Europe”).

Part of the reason I insisted we come to the Renaissance Festival today is that I’ve been reading Rachel Lee Rubin’s outstanding cultural history, Well Met: Renaissance Faires and the American Counterculture, which makes a strong case for the statement implicit in its subtitle: that the history of the faire (now in its fifth decade, making it a longer-running American cultural institution than, say, the Super Bowl, which also features men in tights) is deeply intertwined with the history of the American counterculture since the 1960s. If you’ve been to a Renaissance faire recently, the countercultural roots of the phenomenon may not be particularly obvious. In fact, while you’re standing in line to pay your $22 to get in, surrounded by a succession of fat kids, pre-sunburned princesses, self-described “redneck knights,” teens in Game of Thrones shirts, and a group of hipsters in matching blue costumes apparently dressed as “Aquabats,” whatever those are (I ask but still don’t understand: I believe it might be a band), it may be hard to parse exactly what the point of the whole thing is.

The primary point of the faire, according to Rubin, is not authenticity, but a shared sense of play: “In the fifth decade of Renaissance faires,” she writes, “historical authenticity characterizes them, and their participants, unevenly.” This is one of many amusing understatements in Rubin’s academic but pleasingly readable book. Ask the Aquabats, the Harry Potter kids, or the contingent of Depped-out pirates what year their outfit hearkens back to and prepare to be spat upon, subtweeted, or challenged to a duel. Or else they’ll say “the Renaissance” or “the Middle Ages”; but what we mean by these terms is absurdly vague to begin with, spanning basically a millennium from the fifth through the 15th century. Furthermore, since Americans never actually participated in the Middle Ages that we deify in books and film, it’s an odd choice for a shared fantasy. Except that, as Umberto Eco points out in his essay “Dreaming the Middle Ages,” “all the problems of the Western world emerged in the Middle Ages”:

Modern languages, merchant cities, capitalistic economy (along with banks, checks, and prime rate) […] modern armies […] the modern concept of the national state […] the struggle between the poor and the rich, the concept of heresy or ideological deviation, even our contemporary notion of love as a devastating unhappy happiness […] the conflict between church and state, trade unions […] the technological transformation of labor.

We continue to dream the Middle Ages, then, even if we know nothing about them; so why be surprised that, like the subtexts of dreams, we’re still working them out of our collective craw?

It’s not just about the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, of course: it’s about role-playing. “American popular culture has always had a lot to do with dressing up,” Rubin notes, citing the examples of minstrelsy, early 20th-century historical pageants, Wild West shows, and the New York drag balls of the 1930s, among others. These American traditions provided the background to the first actual Renaissance faire, the Renaissance and Pleasure Faire and May Market, held in Thousand Oaks, California (but conceived in Laurel Canyon), in 1963. The SCA would be founded three years later, also in California, but further north, on the Berkeley campus of the University of California.

There was a political aspect to the faire, as well. The first people to plan and attend Renaissance faires saw them as acts of protest against the inauthenticity of consumer capitalism. The 1964 Pleasure Faire and May Market, according to a report by R.R. Witherup cited by Rubin, featured “an authentically attired ‘monk in full beard and hooded robes’ hawking papal indulgences and calling to fairegoers: ‘Let me absolve you of the punishments and everlasting torments of commercialism!’” The faire, for the California radicals who first participated in it, was not just an entertainment but a critique “well situated to marshal a sense of motivated whimsy to serve an antiestablishment agenda.”

Though that antiestablishment agenda has perhaps been papered over somewhat in many contemporary faires, it still persists today, in subtle ways. Citing Kevin Patterson, one of the founders of the Pleasure Faire and May Market, Rubin says that “getting people to ‘play’ was the Renaissance faire’s strategy for effecting social change.” And even now, “faire participants use the verb ‘play’ more often than is common in American English, with concrete and professional connotations.” She also makes an argument that the faire remains a space for accommodating or performing otherness of various sorts, for airing out or taking on identities that mainstream American culture does not typically allow for:

[A]ttending the Renaissance faire was, during the 1960s and 1970s, a sort of statement of purpose: of belonging in some way to the counterculture, of resistance to consumerism, of side-stepping — albeit briefly — the external constraints of social convention. Through the faire, people could demonstrate public participation in, and affirmation of, a new type of community that was resolutely transnational, transhistorical, transcultural, and one of choice rather than birth.

In practice, the desire for historical authenticity becomes subservient to the general spirit of play present at the faire. In fact, the idea is that you don’t just pay to attend the faire: you pay to play at the faire. That is, you’re meant to interact, and to be interacted with. Even though most attendees — referred to by many of the faire’s workers as tourists or mundanes — do something like this only once a year and are here just for the show, this is not a show that you can simply sit back and enjoy. (Rubin notes the early faire’s connections to experimental immersion theater.) In fact, it’s often difficult to tell whether an impressively attired person is a paid performer or not. Take, for instance, Christophe the Insulter, who, berobed, hurls amusing invective at passersby. Some attendees come dressed in garb (period clothing, often quite elaborate, pegged to a very vaguely medieval style). The term used by workers to describe these serious players is playtron. Later, in our Skype conversation, Rubin noted that many playtrons have now adopted the term for themselves and wear it like a badge of honor.

I’ve always suspected that attending the faire in garb, as a playtron, would be an entirely different experience than showing up in the wicking golf shirt and cargo shorts that I have embarrassingly come to depend on in the desert. This demonstrates the casual nature of my interaction with this place, and to some extent dictates our terms of engagement. Jon, Clint, and I had originally talked enthusiastically about coming in garb, possibly as badass wizards with glorious and contrasting gnarled, runed staves. Attired thus, we would not just be here to gape, but we’d get to play harder, like the other dressed-up thousands. Imagine what it might be like! Muscled vassals kneeling at our feet! Maidens blushing at our demonstrations of skill! Laudations from our authentically costumed peers! I dream a thousand huzzahs on our behalf, but renting a costume seems like weak sauce, and to my father’s continual dismay, I, unlike the guy I went to grad school with who made his own set of chain mail for my grad school Old English class, have no crafting skills to speak of, so what is a self-conscious playtron-wannabe supposed to do? Ergo the cargo shorts.

Besides, this is the last day of the Faire, and it’s 90 degrees, the end of March, full sun, and we are not small men. So we choose convenience. Still, seeing some of the impressive garb around us, I have to admit I feel weirdly unmanned.

¤

The Arizona Renaissance Festival may not be the most representative example as far as Rubin’s counterculture thesis is concerned: there are few places less obviously countercultural than Phoenix, Arizona. That’s not quite fair, I admit, to the many weirdos who have made the desert their home, but the overwhelming experience of Phoenix — a satellite campus of Southern California without the light from starlets — is one of endless consumer creep, blinding heat, inexplicable lawns, palm trees, IKEAs, casinos, gas stations, football, roads, malls, roads, malls, roads. Phoenix, like Las Vegas, like Los Angeles, projects a powerful fantasy: that of unlimited possibility, utterly disconnected from the environmental realities of the West’s rapidly depleting water.

Arrive at the faire via the Phoenix interstate and you’ll see exactly what I mean: it’s spotless, lovely, white, weirdly green, sprawled, traffic-jammed, hot-asphalted, and spiritually bereft. But if you travel the back route from Tucson, you’ll get a different experience: one of great speeds, desert lilies, and cactus forest, a relative wildness modulated by the occasional development. Then you’ll pass through Florence, Arizona, home to nine county, state, federal, and private prisons and host to the yearly Country Thunder festival.

Hop on U.S. 60, and out of nowhere from all this flatness the Festival ariseth, and there is mucho parking to be had for free, courtesy, as giant banners remind us, of local grocery chain Fry’s. We park my Subaru in the Knave row, by the exit, just in case we need to leave early.

If you’ve been to a faire in the last decade you pretty much know what it’s like inside: plenty of stuff to buy, including Frozen Princess Lattes and turkey legs and other meats on sticks; plenty of beer and “medieval” margaritas; probably too much mead to really be good for anyone; lots of fairy princess regalia to fit all comers; plastic and pewter dragons; and, if you look a little more closely, plenty of BDSM stuff buried a little further back in the leather shops (a “Where There’s a Whip, There’s a Way” display just below the fur-lined handcuffs, and so on). There are a lot of swords; a few improbable chain mail bikinis you might remember from viewings of schlock eighties films like Red Sonja or the covers of fantasy novels; places with names like the Horn Shoppe (which sells horns for “Drinking, Blowing and Combination”); scads of fat kids; scantily clad teens; a large proportion of people dressed like pirates; jousting; funnel cakes; some kind of doubtfully medieval-themed nachos; a couple dressed up as garden gnomes; falconry; rides; games; tests of skill; cleavage displayed by anyone with half a boob to boost up and display; heraldry; courtliness; staves; knaves; sad imprisoned hawks and owls; and ATM after ATM to facilitate your hunger for more of it, whatever “it” is that you’re looking for more of here. Though an amusing sign, conscious of its anachronism, claims, “We accept Lady Visa and Master of the Card,” cash is preferred.

In America — and certainly in Phoenix — we do love a spectacle, not to mention a Frozen Princess Latte. Clearly many of us are here just for the spectacle. All these playtrons, all these people: if this many people come out to see something, then we should come see it, too. But the real appeal of the faire appears to be the opportunity it affords for role-playing. For an afternoon you may choose to discard your regular life, put on the garb, and party like it’s 1399. Sure, it’s stratified: know your place, vassal! Of course, though we prefer to think otherwise, our ordinary lives are severely stratified, too: how recently have you dined with royalty (or with a Hollywood star, or a Pulitzer Prize winner, or the president)? Here you can, kind of, at the Pleasure Feast, twice daily, at noon and 2:30 p.m., for $69.95 if you purchase tickets in advance.

A lot of Americans, obviously, like to role-play, and not just in the bedroom: if you count computer and video games and tabletop RPGs, or if you look at what you do on your smartphone when in the post office line or driving, there are a whole lot of us who enjoy disappearing into a character. Reading fiction is a kind of role-playing, too. Sure, we can’t always control the characters (let alone the plot), but the best novels involve us via a deep and prolonged identification that’s very much like playing a role. And how else do sports work, if not via a kind of imaginative identity transfer? It’s not as if rooting for the Green Knight in a joust is much different than cheering for the Crimson Tide as they uproot and steamroll Notre Dame. In all these pursuits we lose ourselves, if we’re lucky, for a moment, and in the clash we feel alive by proxy.

It’s hot. We enter through the gate. I feel alive just inside the door when we see a giant treant (a huge, living, speaking tree; I’m using the D&D term — Tolkien calls them ents) stretch out its huge tree branch arms to encircle a teen. A sign tells us he is called the Greenman. We have stepped out of the real world.

In addition to the role-playing inherent to dressing in garb or throwing out a few thees, thous, and huzzahs, there are also plenty of actual games to play inside. On the car ride up, I’ve been talking about the ax-throwing from two years ago that I remember I was totally great at, though we don’t see that yet. First there’s the Dragon Climbing Wall, the High Stryker (one of those ring-a-bell-with-a-hammer deals), the darts that you throw at balloons to win prizes. None of this is very interesting, we think, and it’s hardly Middle Age–appropriate (you see how it is easy to slide into authenticity-nitpicking, itself a kind of sport). There’s a “medieval” version of the bar game shufflepuck (which I love), in which you slide a “medieval” beer stein down a sawdust-coated wooden lane and try to land it on a bull’s-eye. It is called “New World Slider Joust.” It is real hard. Why do people even enjoy playing these games, I wonder? The odds are against you. You know this. But then there’s Vegas, the lottery, carnival games. Thank god the dream — the hope — is more powerful than the math.

Jon’s face lights up as we approach the archery range, which has no prizes, but you do get to rent arrows and shoot them into a giant purple octopus and a very large evil prince figure pinned to a backdrop of hay bales. This is surprisingly enjoyable. It is evident that Jon has discovered a hidden talent that will be useful in the end days. Actually quite a few skills demonstrated at the faire — blacksmithing, glassblowing, ax-throwing, hypnotism, falconry, even henna tattooing and belly dance — may prove useful when the apocalypse arrives.

Jon and I agree that the “& Artisan Marketplace” part is more apparent on this visit than last time, or perhaps we’re just noticing it more because of Rubin’s book (and herein is much of the pleasure and usefulness of Well Met). Perhaps the recent resurgence of the handmade and DIY in the age of mechanical reproduction and digital commerce (Etsy, etc.) is partly responsible for this, but it’s been a part of Renaissance faire culture from the beginning. “The English country fairs on which the first Renaissance Pleasure Faire was modeled occurred at the marketplace; practically speaking, they were seasonal celebrations organized around commerce,” Rubin writes:

From the beginning, the faire’s organizers imagined selling not only food and drink […] but also handmade crafts. And although the faire’s origins may have been in performance, this craft vending quickly turned out to be not only one of the most popular aspects of the faire but also one of the most influential and central to its self-conceptualization.”

In fact, performance and craft are not so far apart. For those of us who grew up without instruction in the physical, here you can actually learn how to make a thing, preferably with a plastic cup of mead on hand and ready for the quaffing. You can buy things from humans crafted by human hands. Even if our parents never taught us the domestic arts and we grew up educating ourselves on the best way to microwave pot pies (bad idea: you want to pop that shit in the oven to brown the crust properly, even if takes an hour), we still respect people who can make things — who have made things. There is an obvious power in it. They carry themselves with the swagger of the accomplished.

Despite its origins in hippie resistance to commercialism, then, there’s no denying that the contemporary faire, what with the Monk’s Bakery and Cappuccino Inn, and the ubiquitous signs directing you to ATMs, is a commercial space, and that this fact helps account for Ren faires’ continued existence. (There’s only so much money to be made, one imagines, in blacksmithing demonstrations.) While Rubin demonstrates that the faire’s antiestablishment tendencies still exist, she also finds that they have had the edges sanded down somewhat over five decades. The term widely used by Rubin’s interviewees (and Rubin herself) for this slow middling and settling is Disneyfication, which began, unsurprisingly, in the 1980s. Rubin writes that this process is widely lamented by faire workers, who, though they understand the commercial pressures of events of this size,

still feel that an excessive level of rationalization and a policy of playing it safe so as not to alienate the “lowest possible denominator”(as one dedicated visitor puts it) has had a high cost in terms of creative values and spontaneity and has turned some faires into “shopping malls with entertainment,” a phrase that came up often enough to cause one to wonder how commonly, and through what media, it is circulating. [A performer] reminded me that a more anarchic, less regimented philosophy is what allowed the faire to develop into the financial success that brought mandates of increased regimentation to it.

Rubin’s interviews with faire veterans remind me of the laments of those self-proclaimed weirdos and outsiders involved in the early days of Silicon Valley (another California phenomenon, we duly note) who have since been corporatized and 401(k)-ed and groomed. Innovation often arises from play, from unorganized and chaotic forces, but long-term success breeds (and requires) some degree of organization and rationalization. Still, Rubin reminds me in our conversation that the faires are yet quite various. Some, like Arizona’s, are highly corporatized, while others, “run by individuals rather than corporations with New York boards of directors,” try harder to hold the line against anachronism and consumer creep. Faires in Maryland and Oregon, for instance, remain more historical, artisanal, and idiosyncratic than the Arizona faire. In fact, Rubin notes that faires are largely tech-free spaces, aside from patrons’ inevitable cellphones:

For the most part, there’s no amplification, no machines. At the very beginning of the faire, there was this whole idea of the 60s generation saying no to the machine, as the Berkeley Free Speech movement said, and now we have this time where the machine is something totally different […] [T]here are ways in which Internet culture allows people for whom the faire is very important to prolong it in the off-season as they’re in touch with each other in all these different ways. But then, when they go to the faire, they put it all away, and they’re very attracted to that.

¤

Faires still have the reputation — well-deserved, as Rubin points out — for sexual permissiveness, and that’s part of the draw. This being America, that the presence of sex makes the faire appealing to some also makes it appalling to others. It’s not as central in this faire as I expected, but it’s certainly here, as I discover when I head into the Metal Shoppe to look at the chain mail bikinis, which are gratifyingly real, if of dubious utility. In a caption of women in chain mail outfits, Rubin writes, wryly: “Women at the faire frequently reframe the martial implications of chain mail.” I consider buying one as a joke for my wife — or for myself — but worry about the marital implications. When I come out of the Metal Shoppe, Clint has taken up residence on a wooden bench. I join him there to watch the sword swallower. (His name is “Thom Sellectomy”; the tagline on the sign that abuts the stage reads: “He can’t help the way he is!”) Long wands of metal disappear, one after another, into his mouth. Jon can’t handle this particular brand of entertainment, it appears, so he’s wandered off into the shade. Clint and I gape, impressed. It’s hard not to appreciate this skill, which does seem almost like a form of magic.

We finally happen upon the ax-throwing, and of course Clint goes over immediately and starts dropping dollars on the bar. The skinny hawker kid hands us three axes for $3, which we’re meant to throw into another stack of hay bales 20 feet away like the fine examples of ax-hurling masculinity we surely are. There’s a little painted heart that if you hit you get a crappy prize. Kid has some advice for us on how to throw these axes — the secret is … Whatever, sirrah, I say, I’m Nordic. This is my ancestral skill, handed down by my forefathers through the mists of time. I line up and launch, and … my first ax clatters weakly to the floor. I look at Clint, and he buries one in the target, biceps flexing, like a golden, glowing god. His face swells with virility; my face just swells. I look back and Jon is helpfully shooting video. Two axes later I do finally hit the target … with the handle. A child gives me the thumbs-up, and I turn away, again unmanned.

I tell myself that perhaps, like halitosis and an instinct for parallel parking, my ancestors bequeathed me a skill that I will yet discover, but not this day. Clint has stuck all three axes in a nice pattern around the heart, like he’s ready to cut it out and consume it to level up and double in strength and size. He receives his prize, which is a paper certificate. What does it say? I can only guess: this knowledge is for the victor.

Exhausted from demonstrating my inadequacy, I grab another ale and immediately feel better. “Huzzah for the good tipper!” the vendor calls out as I disappear a buck into the elaborate wooden tip jar. Perhaps this is my skill.

Aside from the thumbs-up kid, my companions, and Christophe the Insulter, whom everyone avoids but watches from afar, no one’s here to mock me, not really. There is, however, a long tradition of faire attendees being mocked. If we’re looking to understand the historical or contemporary cultural significance of the faire, Rubin suggests, we must pay attention to  “the terms on which it is commonly derided.” So, in my favorite chapter, she interviews some haters — both in person and online, where, as we all know, the haters are particularly strong. “Probing the reasons for [their hate],” she finds, “yields some useful insights about the way both the faire and ridiculing the faire function in tandem as collective social practice.” According to Rubin, “contempt for the faire falls almost exclusively into three major categories … nonconformity, clothing, and body size. ”In particular, she discovers, “[t]he wearing of tights by men comes up in the majority of mocking accounts of the faire, the practice seemingly inspiring an outpouring of dread about what constitutes proper masculinity”:

The sheer frequency with which the specter of “men in tights” is invoked reveals that tights are operating as a sort of code or shorthand for transgressive male behavior, not unlike the wearing of long hair did in the 1960s and 1970s […] To put it more simply, anxious discussions of male tights-wearing vis-à-vis the faire are frequently tied to what we now call homophobia […] If “men in tights” operates as a kind of shorthand for gender disobedience in men, women at the Renaissance faire are most widely punished for departures from mainstream beauty culture in terms of body size.

While Rubin’s analysis of the gender politics of the faire is broadly convincing, it is odd that, in order to be able to commit acts of contemporary gender disobedience, playtrons choose to dress and conduct themselves according to a vague reading of a repressive feudal code with deeply rigid gender roles. As Rubin reminded me during our interview, “that’s the oxymoron of any kind of historical recreation”: donning the clothes of a medieval character doesn’t necessarily mean subscribing to the whole medieval mindset, but it does mean layering past on present and perhaps escaping from both. What we’re experiencing here is the past, but slant, filtered through what we Americans imagine, dream, or want the Renaissance to have been like.

When we speak on Skype, after I’ve returned from the Arizona festival, I ask Rubin about her focus on gender and sexuality at the expense of class or race, which receive only a few pages each in Well Met, and she says that it was the most obvious lens she found, perhaps because of the performativity of the faire (and gender), and since the faire’s critics mostly object to it on the grounds of gender and sexual norms. But these questions remain intertwined with class:

We wear clothes to show people — clothes have always been connected to class. That’s one thing they’re for. Here men prefer the garb of the upper class. They want as much velvet and lace as they can put on themselves. Some of them are very clear that this is not something they get a chance to do outside the faire. Women tend to go for dressing like what inside the faire is called a wench. They want to be able to be sexually aggressive. So they tend to wear lower-class clothing and call out semi-obscene things.

Rubin was surprised to find that attendees of the contemporary faire, despite its early links to the student radical movement, are largely working class: “To learn that the faires switched to being a working class thing largely: I didn’t see that coming.” Reinforcing her argument about the faire as a space to perform otherness, she writes that

the largest subgroup of playtrons — in Massachusetts, Maryland, Texas, California, Georgia, and Wisconsin — identifies as blue collar. Given time to compose their answers (as opposed to answering on the fly in the midst of faire activities), this identification was often articulated in ways that expressed a tension between faire identity and mundane identity.

It is easy to mock the faire for its seeming weirdness and its lack of historical depth or fidelity. But that’s partly what’s so amazing about it: of course it’s easy to mock. It offers itself openly to haters, and, in so doing, transcends their hatred. Any group engaged in collective play — going for it this deeply, this often, on this scale —requires you to buy into its magic or risk being a chump. That’s a good definition of counterculture right there: a collective opt-in hallucination, an afternoon of play, an experience that’s preferable, at least for a day, to your job at the private prison in Florence, Arizona. At the faire, you have two choices: either opt in or float above it, aloof, bored, cargo-shorted, incapable of feeling wonder or losing and thereby finding yourself. Will you like what you find?

¤

We’re too early for the joust, but I’ve seen it before. Then Jon says he’s feeling ill, his intestinal distress providing a touch of conspicuous medieval authenticity. A hero feeling sick is a sad thing, so we decide to head quickly toward the exit. A court processes by us: we saw them earlier, at “The Princess Meets the Suitors, Scene 1.” The last woman to pass has her breasts bustiered to the level of her face.

Jon’s getting greener as we evade the Greenman’s bark arms yet again and pass through the gate and back into the reality of outer Phoenix, flat and dusty, unmagical, hot as ever, still very much ourselves. We talk again of dressing up next year. We’re thinking monks. Or maybe grim reapers, in robes. We can just silently point at people until they freak. We should go earlier, before it gets this hot. I threaten to come in drag, thinking back to the possibilities offered by a chain mail bikini. We find our car safe in the Knave lot, and roll the windows down as we hit the road, going east then south, back through an infinity of cactus. We know we’ll miss “Knighting Ceremony,” “The Suitors Compete, Scene 2,” and “Royal Dating Game & Finale.” But I think we all know it has a happy ending.

¤

Ander Monson is the author of Vanishing Point (2010) and the forthcoming Letter to a Future Lover.

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