All that research for my contribution to last week’s Escapist-wide coverage of Dungeons & Dragons left me with an itch for swords and sorcery that could only be scratched with a trip back to Days of High Adventure. Fortunately for me, the Faire was in town. I’m not quite sure how or when Renaissance Faires became more accurately described as Medieval Faires and then most accurately described as Medieval-Fantasy Faires, but the moment was surely a flashpoint in the evolution of geek culture, near to the genesis of fan conventions, fandom in general and – of course – cosplay.
King Richard’s Faire is located in Carver, Massachusetts – quite literally in the middle of nowhere. In the Northeast, nowhere is easy to find: When you start seeing more churches than Dunkin’ Donuts, you’re there. While many such Faires are mobile in the style of most carnivals, KRF – while generally open only in September and October – is a permanent installation built deep into 80 acres of Carver’s pine forest, an assortment of structures loosely recreating the feel of an outdoor 16th Century marketplace.
From a design standpoint, the location is rather ingenious. The forest surrounding the place effectively cuts off unwanted intrusion by the real world outside while the towering trees growing right in the middle of it provide consistent day-long shade everywhere save the appropriately dusty, sun-scorched jousting field. The effect is genuinely immersive – right up until you raise your cell phone to take a picture of it, of course.
If you’ve never been to one, a Renaissance Faire can be a slightly jarring experience. Not only a hodgepodge of different vaguely medieval motifs, but of different motivations and personalities – they straddle the line between whimsical childhood fantasy and mischievous adult escapism. As I enter, there’s an older gentleman playing a flute, costumed with striking authenticity as a genuine Renaissance minstrel. Not far from him, on the other hand, strides a man (I think, it was sort of hard to tell) in a suit of armor adorned with talons and skulls that wouldn’t have been authentic in any time period, but would be quite at home on Azeroth. Little girls in princess gowns skip about in a daze, swept up in awe, while princesses of a more mature vintage drift by, as elaborately corseted as extras from a Xena rerun.
I pass a crusader in full chain mail eating a turkey leg, and an elf maiden of Rivendell. Down at the jousting field, a sword duel is in progress. These are professional stunt performers, doubtlessly well protected by their gleaming armor and wielding their deadly-looking blades with rehearsed precision – but tell that to the six year-old in the knight Halloween costume (by the design of it, he may technically have been dressed as Peter from the Narnia movies) who cranes his neck by the railing, completely transfixed by what must look utterly like fantasy-made-flesh unfolding in front of him.
If you know what to look for, you can even discern a research sample of where the RPG/fantasy fandom is at in any particular year. In the early 2000s, Lord of the Rings couture was ubiquitous, for example. Perhaps a sign of the times, the Final Fantasy/JRPG look is all but entirely absent, while in years past you couldn’t turn a corner in such a place without colliding with a Cloud or an FF1-era Black Mage. This particular year, partial-animals seems to be a big trend – pointy ears and fuzzy cat (or fox) tails turning what would otherwise be casual clothing into a costume in what I assume is an offshoot of furry fandom. I see many, many pirates, but only one ninja, unless the rest are in concealment.
I’m not costumed myself for this visit, though I suppose the Triforce insignia on my t-shirt counts after a fashion. A wizard – or, perhaps, merely a Grateful Dead fan – raises his glass as I walk by and bellows a hearty “Zelda! Yeeeaahh!” It’s not the best reaction I’ve ever gotten to a videogame themed shirt, but it’s up there.
Barbarians mingle with bikers (“Pray tell, how many a fortnight’s journey to this Sturgis of which ye speak?”) A belly dancer walks at pace with a pair of Victorian courtesans and dwarves of the jolly “Hi-ho!” variety tread the same path as dwarves of the bigass-stone-axe variety. Men dressed as Scottish highlanders nod in passing at men dressed as The Higlander. One group – more appropriately, party – moves past me in jovial formation. Their costumes can’t help but lead you to guess at their classes: warrior, archer, thief, the one with the staff must be the cleric, or would he go by “mage”? I wonder which one is on potion duty?
Potions, incidentally, are rather a big part of the day. Alcohol – in the form of beer, wine, mead and hard cider – flows freely (well, expensively actually, but you get the idea) so long as you’ve got your “I’m of drinking age” wristband on; poured by serving wenches often costumed in such a fashion that their décolletage (look it up) can serve as a handy extra pocket. The beer can be purchased in yards (to my European readers: Here in the states, we think drinking beer in yards is a crazy new thing) that come in plastic glasses that can be linked into an ever-growing staff after consumption. By the end of the day, men can be seen proudly walking with staffs five or six links high. I managed just one yard – but only because the wine, cider and mead I’d enjoyed came in normal cups.
There are multiple stages for dance, song and comedy shows, but one in particular is set aside for “The Tale of The Tiger.” This is something of a KFR perennial, handled by the animal conservation outfit T.I.G.E.R.S. and featuring a presentation of rare big cats. The star attraction is Hercules, a 12 foot tall, 900-pound liger (lion/tiger hybrid) you may have seen making the talk show rounds. He’s the rare “perfect specimen” liger, gifted with the best traits of both species, and according to the Guiness Book of World Records, is the single largest cat known to exist in the world. The sight of him, in person, is awe inspiring.
Also prominent are games. Throngs of men line up to prove their prowess throwing very real axes, knives and throwing stars into wooden targets. The prize: honorary knighthood, and probably some short-lived bragging rights. Archery features as well, offering everyone the opportunity to discover how easy it is to really, really suck at archery.
Alongside the costumes, revelry and libations, one of the biggest reasons to hit up Renaissance Faires are the artisans. Painters, weavers, blacksmiths, seamstresses and other specialty craftspeople come from all over to sell their wares amid a concentration of their target audiences. There’s some genuinely unique, impressive stuff to be found – old-timey leather boots and gloves, blown glass, family crests, and so on. A small girl, dressed as a witch and with eyes the size of saucers, inspects an assortment of “Magic Crystals.” Going by the jewelry, the older woman browsing alongside her might well be the real deal.
But the craftsmen who draw the most attention, of course, are the weaponsmiths. I count three separate installations this year, each one constantly busy. These guys are the real thing, professionals pounding their wares out of real steel with real fire and laying the finished pieces out for display. Every year the scene is the same – a constant swarm of boys gawking at the REAL METAL SWORDS (and knives, and daggers, and axes,) laid out that they could TOTALLY ACTUALLY BUY … and the also constant swarm of moms repeating “Absolutely not!” At one, I see a group of young men with impressive beer staffs react with almost preposterous enthusiasm and a cacophony of “Dude!” “Sick!” and “Yo!” arrangements when the smith produces a chain mace. The smith at another looks more medieval as himself than almost any of the cosplayers do – shirtless, bearded, barrel-chested, polishing the edge of a truly mighty battle axe. “This man,” I think to myself, “likely has very strong feelings about the impending Thor movie.”
At the end of the day, I’m sad to leave in a manner I dimly remember feeling when leaving parks or outings as a kid. I could easily stay longer, were they open longer – drink more beer, throw more axes, ogle more elven maidens. I resist the temptation to purchase one of those glorious swords, my hand stayed only by the specter of trying to explain its presence to a traffic cop while driving back through Boston (and the unlikelihood of being able to claim it as a business expense).
I’m not sure what it says that I’m so at home in what amounts to a strange hybrid of biker rally, historical recreation and comic convention, but I don’t care.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.