Thursday, September 21, 2006
For most, life in 16th-century England was pretty grim. It was short and dirty and full of humiliation, suffering and the menace of unexpected death. At the time, England was poor, relatively powerless and under the constant threat of invasion by Spain.
To keep the specter of plague, religious persecution, and famine at bay, lower-class England focused on what carnal pleasures their meager lives could afford them—namely gin and ale, sex, blood sport and bawdy plays and song. The streets of London were a wild spectacle that held all the human drama, agony and short-lived ecstasy of a society dancing merrily along with death. It enthralled the writers and artists of the time—and inspired the greatest single body of literature in the Western canon.
Four hundred years later, the spirit of this vibrant time is kept alive by an odd subculture: the sexy and geeky world of the Renaissance Faire. Happily, our Northern California Renaissance Faire is a sterling example. It’s vulgar, fun but undeniably obnoxious, and springs up like a great bellowing fungus every weekend through Oct. 15 amid the Oak groves of Casa de Fruta outside Hollister.
A colorful history lesson, a shameless marketing gimmick, and an authentically unique and cool fantasy world, the NorCal Ren Faire feels like a slightly dorky precursor to Burning Man—a temporary world where the automated shackles of modern society can be shrugged off.
For the second year in a row, I loaded up my son and my honey and drove out to Casa de Fruta. In the process, I made several crucial mistakes: I let our three-and-a-half year old son stay up late watching cartoons with his cousin the night before, I underestimated my family’s wilting intolerance for direct sunlight after so many years in foggy Pacific Grove, and I buoyed their expectations beyond all reason. But by far the biggest mistake was attending on a Sunday instead of a Saturday.
On a Saturday, the RenFaire is packed to the frills with boisterous drunks and mouthy wenches. The ale pours freely and the fantasy is bolstered by the come-ons and put-downs of the crowd’s careening, horny lowlifes. On Sunday, the place is still fun but there’s a dense, turgid energy. Last weekend it felt like we were walking through some meticulously costumed hangover.
Even the most lecherous and leering of the Faire’s oglers could barely muster a proposal indecent enough to offend us. It was disappointing, but understandable considering the way the white-hot sun beat down on us. Soon our youngest limey was whining.
We hurried over to the jousting tournament with the hopes that the potential for disaster involved with men in full armor on stallions charging at each other with 10-foot lances would please our little Lord Fauntleroy. The joust was as spectacular as I remembered it, but much shorter and for good reason. I could see from the knights’ faces that the heat was nearly unbearable.
Keep in mind that each knight weighs about 200 pounds. Their armor weighs anywhere from 100-150 pounds. The lance weighs 20-25 pounds and each horse is running about 30 miles per hour at impact. That comes out to roughly 8,000 pounds per square inch upon impact. Concentrated down to a two-and-a-half inch strike, that’s a huge hit to take in the chest.
Despite this explanation, our son was clearly disappointed that none of the knights fell off his horse and “bonked his head.” Regardless, I could tell from the anguish on the knights’ faces when they took off their unwieldy helms that they were suffering for their art.
Unfortunately, we missed Moonie, a brilliantly irritating mime-clown-acrobat who had been a highlight of my last Ren Faire experience. Still, my girl loved the well-crafted fantasy gear—the flowing skirts, flower tiaras and leather corsets and our son loved the giant maypole swing and the ice cream. I didn’t love all the sweat.
It was a tantalizing taste, but ultimately disappointing. The Ren Faire can be so much more complex and animated than this, I thought. By the time we trudged back out to the car, we felt crushed by the misery of the human condition—which, of course, was probably as authentic a 16th century experience as we were ever likely to find.
THE NORTHERN CALIFORNIA RENAISSANCE FAIRE runs weekends through Oct. 15, 10am to 6pm. $22/at gate; $30/all weekend pass; $10/kids 5-11; free/under 5. Casa de Fruta, 10031 Pacheco Pass Highway, Hollister. (408) 847-FAIR or norcalrenfaire.org.