Years ago, I stumbled across something online called the Renaissance Festival Podcast. This was in the very early days of podcasts and I had never heard of them. How cool to have a whole bunch of music in a genre you liked instantly accessible! While I was already very keen on folk music of all types, the podcasts were my introduction to “Ren Faire” music, which is a mix of serious, beautifully performed ballads and tunes along with a lot of rollicking, frequently bawdy, sometimes downright dirty songs.
The podcasts were also my first window into the quirky world of Renaissance festivals. I was astonished to discover that there are over fifty regular Ren events across North America and more in Europe and Australia. Ye innocents, take heed: this is happening all around you—your neighbours and co-workers are dressing up in corsets and codpieces and congregating in places where they can kowtow to a monarch, drink mead, and shout “huzzah!” for knights and clowns alike. My kind of people.
Hence, I was excited when I found that the Arizona Renaissance Festival would be happening while we were down south, and not too far from Phoenix, one of our stopovers.
The Arizona festival has 32 years under its belt and it shows: this is no fly-by-night, two-days-per-year event. They run every weekend in February and March and they have a permanent site, complete with buildings, streets, 14 stages, and, most impressively, a jousting stadium. It’s extremely well organized, from food to entertainment, and things seem to run like clockwork. If you bring even a modicum of willingness, you will be jollied, cajoled, and nudged into having a good time, as the cast rouses up the audience at every performance to “ooooo!” when something dangerous is attempted, “ahhhhhhh!” when it succeeds, and applaud at every possible opportunity. Spectators at the jousts are expected to take sides and cheer “their” knights while booing the opposing team.
You may see a gaggle of Harry Potter characters sporting robes and wands and Star Wars stormtroopers in white armour, all rubbing shoulders with the Queen of England in full Elizabethan glory. Historically accurate, it ain’t, but the time-tested joy of “dressing up” carries the day. One could even argue that, when you get right down to it, what we’re really doing is finding different ways of portraying archetypes. Fantasy people get that Darth Vader is just a tech-savvy Black Knight, and that the Wise Mentor can choose to put on his Merlin, Gandalf, or Dumbledore robes at will.
The rides at the faire are simple, old-fashioned, and entirely human-powered, usually some variation on being swung, twirled, rocked, or bounced. I don’t know how genuinely medieval these are, but I certainly enjoyed the sight of small children perched in wooden dragons, screaming in excitement while a couple of burly guys in peasant shirts worked the cranks to make them “fly.”
There are streets full of stores that sell costume clothing, armour, drinking vessels, metalwork, leatherwork, woodwork, blown glass, dragon masks, fairy wings, and anything else your historical/fantastical heart might desire. You can hire the village insulter to recite your own personal insult, written on the spot, or buy a blossom for your lady love from a flowerseller.
The jousting is impressive, featuring knights in shiny metal armour tilting at each other on horseback with ridiculously long wooden lances. Between rounds, the knights parade before their fans (preassigned by seating section) to preen and boast. Colourful pennants stream in the wind, a member of the royal family presides from a high box, and you find yourself wedged between a steampunk pirate on one side and a Dr Who (4th incarnation, of course) on the other. You can even get married at the faire, afterward feasting in medieval style and viewing the joust from a seat of honour.
Onstage, the comedy is broad and often raunchy and the songs are full of double-entendres. Acrobats, fire jugglers, and storytellers pull patrons from the audience to add spontaneity and entertaining awkwardness to their shows, then pass the hat. There is falconry and “live mermaids,” roasted turkey legs for lunch and a bullwhip-cracking adept to watch while eating them.
An excursion into the Renaissance festival world is a day of delight where, with a bit of imagination and a willingness to play, all ages can enjoy themselves—without clicking buttons or staring into a screen.