January 15, 2011

Tales from a North Carolina Yankee In Shakespeare's Land

The first semester my older brother Ken came home from college, he would make me memorize Shakespeare. The second semester, he threw in Chaucer, but this time, I had to recite the words in old English.

What’s in it for me,” I innocently asked.

“You get to read my books, you don’t have to iron my shirts, clean my room, and I’ll buy the beer.”

Ken was 18 and legal to participate in buying massive quantities of alcohol. But only if he drove to New York or Maryland.  Not a problem because either border was less then two hours away.

Hmm, I was reluctant to respond. This concerned me. Although Ken did not drink and drive and was often the designated driver, I had been in a car before when Ken drove and was extremely un-nerved. Ken had a lead foot and liked to exceed the speed of sound. I always sat in back seat next to my mother or other passengers. It was amazing how many people that you could fit in the backseat of a Volkswagen Beetle.

“Promise you’ll follow the speed limit. Who speaks old English?”

“No one.” 

I mulled over the possibilities.
- I would become popular overnight.
- I could become Prom Queen.
- There was possibility that Ken could actually teach me something – (Nah).

I am both foolishly brave and stupidly clever. This happens to be J. R. R. Tolkien’s definition for his last name and because this story includes him, my real maiden name (which I will not reveal in order to protect the innocent) means besides being foolishly brave and stupidly clever, is – she stretches the truth – a lot.

Phew. . . now that we’ve gotten this out of the way --- on to my adventures in England.

Not too many women my age, decide to become a scholar, go back to school, and rethink their whole life after living almost half of a century. There are parts of my stories about Oxford that are quite true. I also have a vivid imagination. “Aye there’s the rub” as Shakespeare would say.

I reserve the right to embellish. This lends interest to the true story. Therefore it is up to you – the reader --- to decide what is true (or not).

A truth is that I easily get lost although I sometimes do a good job of finding my way home – sooner or later (mostly later). St Peter's College in Oxford is where I first met Bill the Duck. Bill was an English Duck, which is similar to Canadian Geese (some are of English heritage). Ducks and I seem to be attracted to each other, most likely a form of animal/human magnetism.

Bill claimed he was an Inkling (note the similarity to duckling), often sat in with C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien at the “Bird” no less, which, is short for – ‘The Eagle and Child,’ a.k.a as the ‘Bird and Child.’ Whether or not Bill’s story is true may be questionable but I had been to the Pub often during my stay at Oxford and enjoyed a Brakespear Bitter (pronounced the same as Shakespeare only with a B sound) along with their roast duck specialty.

Then there is the tale of the pub’s beginnings, handed down over the centuries. A sign hung over the doorway shows an eagle though it’s beak and feet are oddly duck like. A mythical bird in flight swooped down over a watering hole and wooshed up into its talon-webbed feet, a baby born out of wedlock. The babe was a male-child and would one day become a once and future king. Now it seems to me I heard a similar story --- about King Arthur.

The event happened long before Bill’s time, even longer before Shakespeare’s time if one were to believe that Bill the Duck was William re-incarnate. Of course Art was the once and future King – I know – he told me himself.  

Back to the “Bird.’ Soon after my fiasco of being lost in Shakespeare, I returned to Oxford. The following night I was walking along the River Thames by Christ’s Church, which happens to be a popular place for ghosts of writers past, not to mention present or future writers such as myself. Dusk had settled in and it was time to weave my way back to St Peter’s. I closed the book that I was reading, “In Search of Lost Time” by Marcel Proust. Ironically this book was also known as “Remembrance of Things Past,” a phrase taken from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30. I felt a sudden chill and goose bumps up and down my arms.

I heard a commotion coming from the bend where the River Thames meets the River Cherwell. A duck glided up to me, took a bite of bread from my hand, then nodded his head. A regal bow, reminded me of long ago kings, and if the duck could stand tall, I am certain he would have kissed the hand I extended. This duck’s shading, is the same color as --- wait it can’t be – Yes – It is.

“Would you care to drop in at the ‘Bird’ for a pint?” Bill charmingly quacked. “C.S. and J. R. R. are anxious to meet you.

“But,” I said, “aren’t they both dead?”   

“So I thought too, once.”  Bill replied.

“Wait a moment --- didn’t Froto say those lines in the Fellowship of the King?”

Bill flailed his wings. His quack this time sounded more like a hurrumph. “I told Tolkein he could quote me. They were more interested in you. I mentioned to them that you would be a great addition to our weekly discussions. They balked at first saying that adding a woman would turn us into a hen party. Then I explained who you were. They were impressed when I said you were THE North Carolina Yankee in King Arthur’s court. By the way” his voice went real high and pitchy, “they wondered if you would be wearing thongs?” 

Bill had heard about me being lost in Wales. I ignored his last remark on the thongs. While playing one day with a sling shot, I had a sudden inspiration and took my idea to my former employer whose name happened to be deeply imbedded into underwear. The idea did not come to fruition until our rivals saw the validity in a new style.

I was hooked though, on Bill’s invitation. Meeting two of my favorite authors would be like being lost in nirvana. I happen to be a Lord of the Rings fan as well as the Chronicles of Narnia, and to me, being in England was like living in a never ending dream of fantasy and make-believe. I was also quite hungry and thirsty. I did not hesitate. “Tis a consummation devoutly to be wish'd.”  I would confront the dead part later. On the other hand, Bill could possibly be taking me on a wild goose chase.

“Ahh, yes – you quoteth from my play, Hamlet.” Bill offered me one of his wings and we took off.

Bill is Shakespeare, nah – he couldn’t be, could he?

We walked (Bill of course waddled) down cobbled streets, though streets might be carrying it a tad to far. More alleyways and barely wide enough for Bill and I to walk and waddle side-by-side. Ancient lighting cast an eerie greenish glow that reminded me of the color of peas (I was glad that I was walking by Bill’s side). A thick fog settled to the ground and I began to feel like I was in a scene reminiscent of the Exorcist.

We passed by many ancient Universities, even St Peter’s though it wasn’t quite as old as some schools. Oxford at night can be weird particularly for someone like me who has an over-active imagination. Both dark and white shadows danced up and down the walls in front of us.

Just as I was about to mention this to Bill - - - Oh – oh – there was no sound of motor cars and the street lamps suddenly began to fade.

“Have no fear Bev. I will protect you.”

I looked backwards over my shoulder and in the last blink of lamp light, saw the trail of green peas. Bill was protecting me in a way --- no one was walking behind us. Bill’s leavings had once again saved the day. Hmm, I thought, I might be able to find my way back to St. Peter’s after all. But that’s another story, along with how I became an Inkling. On the other hand, the roast duck that night was exceedingly delicious and went quite well with a few pints of Shakespeare - - oops I mean Brakespear Bitters.  

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