Days of Old When Knights Were Bold
Growing up, I was never that girl that fantasized about becoming a princess and meeting that special prince that would sweep me off my feet and save me from all misery. Even sorcery books such as the Harry Potter series did not appeal to me. I did not believe in any of that quirky fantasy land stuff so the idea of being dragged to the Michigan Renaissance Festival with my family over Labor Day weekend did not appeal to me; I would have much rather been out having fun in the sun barbequing with friends just as any other American typically celebrates the holiday. Staring out the car window all I saw was cornfields and the occasional Ma and Pa family owned restaurant or ice cream parlor. Mt. Holly came into view a little further down the road, but the slopes were dry and scarce due to it being summer. Tucked behind all the forestation was a small fairground where police orderly directed cars into the lot. The parking lot, overwhelmingly large in size, branched in two directions. One led to a general area and the other took cars single file down a long and winding path. This brought butterflies to my stomach. License plates were country wide varying from fellow Michiganders to visiting guests from neighboring states such as Indiana and Ohio and some traveling from as far away as Florida or Kansas. Once we secured our designated spot and our legs were fully stretched after sitting stationary for the hour drive we merged with the herd of people and marched together through the forest to discover this new unknown world. The walk was a journey in itself. The weeds in the wasteland of the parking lot stood knee high and tickled my leg with every movement.
There appeared to be no end in sight as it was at least a mile long containing various obstacles such as logs barricading the path and bridges. Surprisingly there were no mosquitoes but the sound of the crickets chirping and the leaves crinkling all echoed loudly. I so badly wanted to turn around and hike back to the car but as I got closer I could catch glimpses of the festivities through bare spots between branches and heard ear piercing screeches and rowdy whistles along with bursts exiting out the tall vintage buildings. This shot my curiosity level through the roof and the excitement continued to build. The path had ended and before my eyes was a new world; something I had only seen before in movies. The spirit of the festival had overtaken my body and the feeling was enchanting. Giant castles awaited me along with colorful flags and banners streamed over the entrance with cheerful greetings labeled, “Huzzah!” I was suddenly willing to give this all a chance and I had a new frame of mind that was open to adventure. Walking in those front gates was a lot to take in and represented a totally new side of the social spectrum when compared to a normal festival. People were dressed in a wide range of attire and it was hard to differentiate the workers from the tourists. The main clue was that tourists casually walked around grinning whereas the staff tended to get fully into character by perfecting their accent. Each got the chance to live out a life they had always dreamt of through roll play and step outside their comfort zone without being judged.
There were fair maidens, juggling court jesters, wizards, elves, and fairies. All fantasy elements were covered and all of this contributed to the illusion of taking a step back and reliving medieval times. Coming from a family of macho men it was absurd to see a men proudly sporting kilts along with boots accented with bells that jingled with every step creating a musical tune of its own. Even more shocking was the fact that they all had a strong family support system lined up behind them all dressed matching in theme as well. It seemed that the more eccentric the outfit, the better. Long velvet capes with matching feathered hats or flowery garland in the women’s hair were also common while others dressed as mystical animals and pranced around with tails and ears. These costumes were all things that I would never be caught dead in but after a while strangely enough, we all blended together.
There was an aroma of sweat due to everyone dressed in multiple layers but no one seemed to mind as it was a mere part of the ambiance as back in the Renaissance Period people did not shower for days. There was a plethora of patrons however that attended dressed in causal street clothes that sought a gratifying day out with friends and family but even they got sucked into the spirit of things and unexpectedly started curtseying and using the language. Dressing in garb expressed the true rapture of upgrading from being a patron to now a participant. This event catered to all ages. Fairy Godmothers rested on stones along the pathway making them readily approachable and eager to share their tales with anyone willing to listen. Their voices were so soft spoken it was impossible for anyone to simply pass by. Street peasants welcomed on goers into their dancing circle as they chanted traditional hymns. I have never been much of a dancer due to my lack of rhythm but I must say once they got me started with the basics I refused to stop and entirely forgot others were watching. The petting zoo provided a wonderful hands on experience featuring encounters with livestock as well as other exotic animals such as lion cubs, kangaroos and toucans that could be bottle fed if you wished to do so. The king set aside a playscape for the kids to interact, swing and slide but also had other ways to test one’s knightly skills. The bungee jump seemed to draw the most attention but the archery, king of the log challenge and axe throws did not fall short in interest. Little girls had the chance to learn proper waves, curtsies and poise through a boot camp run by the village Princesses themselves.
The Mermaid Lagoon was a disappointment in my opinion. After patiently waiting in a line for over thirty minutes I expected to see a luxurious area with mermaids whose tails sparkled elegantly in the sunlight, when in reality all it turned out to be was one girl in a cheesy costume floating in a dunk tank. On the flip side there was a wonderful replica wooden horse hung between two massive oak trees that allowed kids to race down full speed to master the art of ring spearing just as they had seen the real knights do out on the playing field at the nearby arena. The smiles on the children’s faces were contagious and it was a continuous chain reaction of happiness that spread rapidly. The adults had just as many activities to keep busy as well. Throughout the day various competitions were held to win bragging rights and often at times, gold chalices. Some of these included beard competitions where one could show off his whiskers and have the chance to win in the following categories: longest, thickest, most unique, and best overall. Part of me felt as if the cast and crew of the reality television series Duck Dynasty should have guest appeared at the ceremony to distribute the prizes but my wish fell short.
The tattoo contest was run in the same manner but instead with the categories being: best black and grey tattoo, best color tattoo, best overall, and worst overall. I was amazed to see that the male to female contestant ratio was relatively close to equal. To continue the friendly competitions, in one of the main colorful tents was a Root Beer belching competition that some competitors were proudly capable of rumbling the stage. It was impressive yet disturbing all in one. Good sportsmanship was well displayed and no one took the loss to heart by sincerely congratulating the winners. The objective of the Pub Crawl was to drink one beer at each of the four stations while led by entertainers to keep the atmosphere cool, calm, and relaxed. Upon the departure from each bar, fairies would splatter glow paint on one’s chest. The streets were flooded with an abundance of vendors ranging from apparel and candles, to plants and paintings. This is how most vendors earned a living so without surprise, they pushed their products diligently. Unfamiliar musical instruments such as bird whistles and bongos brought a new sense of relaxation as I closed my eyes and let my mind take me elsewhere.
I was utterly fascinated with the number of people willing to pay for palm reading to uncover different aspects of future life including successes and love. Superstitions were more common than I thought. As some would say, there is no harm in jumping on the bandwagon every once in a while. With that being said, a hookah station was set up encouraging tourists to take a break and get a little weird. Men dressed in puffy shirts and flared out pantaloons walked around carrying large, woven baskets overhead selling flowers to all the fair maidens. All were very well mannered and charming. The patrons were invited to participate in the annual fairy house competition in which the top three winners received awards for their hard work and creativity. The rules advised artists to make durable houses that could withstand any weather using entirely natural materials and furnishing the inside and outdoor with landscape. Out in the open area stood two actors that mastered the art of pretending to be a statue and were covered head to toe in grey body paint.
Their movements were slow and swift as they changed poses to be photographed by on goers. My dad was the only one to spot the man standing in a pot to look like a shrub while the rest of us nonchalantly walked by completely oblivious to such a phenomenon. In this man’s case, he could join in the fun but also camouflage his true identity. The festival as a whole is made up of hundreds of very diverse and multi-talented entertainers that never fail to please and in most circumstances is what keeps people coming back year after year. There is always a show going on ranging from group or stand-alone comedians to singers and quartets greeting newcomers at the welcome gate. A group of the finest acrobats were selected to show off their coordination and extraordinary balance doing tricks requested by audience members. A costumed human chess game took place behind the jousting arena and was played using actors instead of volunteers to bring out true combat when one tried to take out another piece. With this new twist whoever won the choreographed fight earned the right to the spot on the game board. The captain and his fellow ship mates auctioned off one of a kind items from his pirate ship. Here, buyers could purchase things such as swords and daggers at extremely low prices. Zoltan the Adequate was another street entertainer that did anything to please his audience.
He did bizarre tricks such a balloon swallowing to fire eating to nearly severing his own arm. As one would assume young children would be the easiest to deceive although Zoltan was able to keep all age groups tuned in with his sense of danger, excitement and edgy interactive magic. An unsuspected audience member was selected to assist him in a few tricks and that individual coincidentally turned out to be my mother. My mother is very shy and certainly does not like being the center of attention so we were dumbfounded that she did not object or throw a tantrum about going on stage. She faced her fears and as result, all we heard for the remainder of the afternoon was how we should be proud of her. The most attended event of the day included the heart stopping jousting tournament which had trained professionals of this skill that were willing to fight to their death to win the honor and respect of their town’s people. I really liked the concept of this because nowadays it is not as common to find gentlemen of this caliber. Back then, men were raised to be chivalrous towards women and the less fortunate, strongly serve God and do their King proud.
Each knight and their noble horse were fancily clothed and color coordinated all promising to use the strength in their hearts to ride their opponents to the dirt. As in any highly competitive sporting event, both the crowd and the contestants heckled one another and at times, I would witness the crowd unite as one as we raised up our drinks and roared together with great enthusiasm. These knights did just as they had promised and played with blood, sweat, grace, and complete dedication never losing focus. The three main events were the warm up which consisted of squires holding the rings and after a few run-throughs, actually tossing them into the air as the knights rode by spearing them. Then proceeded with the joust face off which was quite physical being that the one knight intentionally knocked an opponent off resulting in an injury that sought immediate medical attention. By the end of the joust all four knights hobbled their way to center stage to face each other one last time in a traditional sword fight. A little girl from the sidelines managed to escape her mother’s arms and ran out to an injured knight and healed him with a kiss on the cheek. The show shortly wrapped up after that and the barriers of the different cheering sections vanished as the knights mingled with the crowd and allowed the young children to pet their steed. The royal tavern had an endless array of food that would easily satisfy the heartiest of appetites.
From savory turkey legs and Barbarian burgers to deep fried desserts and apple dumplings, there were plenty of options to choose from. The portion sizes were generous for the prices being so reasonable. Most things served to eat came on a stick whether it was hot pickles, which were conveniently sold at every street corner or frozen bananas and cheesecake. Table manners and common eating etiquette did not apply at the festival hence why they did not supply utensils or napkins. In fact, the most lady-like way of eating the authentic turkey leg was to take two fingers and rip off pieces. Most importantly, there was plenty of beer to wash it all down and for the nonalcoholic attendees; sodas, smoothies and other beverages were sold. Stepping out of one’s comfort zone opens a whole new world filled with opportunity and adventure. The biggest setback for exploring something new is fearing what others will say or think. The people involved with this festival clearly did not care about any of that and it was enjoyable to see and appreciate their colorful imaginations. I gained a lot from this experience because going in, I had no clue what to expect it created an exhilarating suspense. I learned that is completely acceptable to be silly to whatever extent and people often tend to respect you more for it because you are willing to take that risk of resisting society’s norm.