An Oxford Arthurian in Middle America

by Rachel Locklin, Queen Isolde

You may think that authentic Arthurian sites would be rather hard to come by in the Mid-West - and you'd be absolutely right. But since when has an incontrovertible connection to our illustrious hero been a prerequisite for a visit to something that looked vaguely interesting? Just think of all the stone circles, castles, long barrows and hill-forts you've probably visited on pilgrimages, which undoubtedly have no link to Arthur whatsoever, Bearing that in mind, I thought I'd tell you about a few places and events around here that seem worth mentioning.

First on the list is the Renaissance (pronounced RENaissance) festival, an annual event held at a permanent purpose-built site not far from Minneapolis. It begins in mid-August each year, and runs each weekend until the last weekend of September, which is Labor Day and traditionally regarded as the end of the summer season. In spite of being a huge event it is very easy to miss; advertising is quite low-key, and since the site is in the middle of nowhere you can't exactly stumble across it. The first time I decided to go there it took quite a bit of finding, and the day trip involves a drive of over 200 miles. Nevertheless it is worth it. To appreciate this event, first of all you need to forget any ideas you may hold dear about what constitutes the Renaissance. Then try to imagine an Arthurian mediaeval banquet but with a rather relaxed idea of what constitutes 'mediaeval'. Add to this an outdoor setting, public access and numerous traders and entertainers, and that will give you a good idea of what to expect.

The site is approached from a busy dual carriageway, and there's only one sign to let you know you're almost there. If you don't miss the sign, then a mile further on you will be waved into the entrance to a gravel track by a bored-looking highway patrol officer. The track leads to a big field for car-parking.

If you're planning to stay longer than one day there is also space for camping, but if you turn up with a tent you'll look sadly inadequate. This being America, the 'campsite' is chock-a-block with RVs (recreational vehicles), each the size of a luxury coach. Anyway, let's assume you park your modest vehicle and walk to the entrance. The end of each row of cars is marked with a sign to help you remember where to find your car. Each is shaped like a unicorn's head, and marked with a date, so that if you park at the far end of the field you will start out at the present year and as you approach the entrance you 'walk back through time', passing signs for 1899, 1799 etc. As you get closer to the entrance the dates get closer together until you find yourself sometime in the 15th century, outside a gateway arch designed to look like part of a walled mediaeval town. You buy your ticket - which, at around $17, is moderately expensive - at a little booth, then enter through an arch in a wall surmounted by battlements, from where costumed 'townspeople' wave and shout out cheery welcomes.

Inside is a different world. The site is a large field, and all around the edge are rows of trade stands, each of which is a wooden building made to look like a shop or house of the town, but styled like the illustrations from a child's story book. Scattered around the central space are other structures where various events take place at intervals throughout the day. The place is thronged with people in the most bewildering variety of outfits, ranging from the usual shell-suited family on an afternoon out, through the re-enactment enthusiasts in authentically styled costume, to people looking for an excuse to dress up in a leather bikini and face mask. This is one of the few places where you can get away with that sort of thing! The whole event is designed to allow you to experience life in mediæval Europe - interpreted as one long round of revelry - without missing out on the conveniences of modern life. Telephones and cash machines are available around the town, and credit cards are accepted everywhere. Porta-potties are grouped together in fenced 'privies'.

Admission to the site includes most of the entertainment events, and there are a whole range of attractions going on at 14 different sites at intervals throughout the day. Fortunately they give you a map to help you find your way between the various venues, which are all designated names like 'King's Arbor', 'Robin Hood', 'Folkestone Hall' and 'The Boarshead Inn'. There are jugglers, folk-dance demonstrations, comedians, mime troupes, puppetry, comic theatre (audience participation is encouraged), minstrels of all sorts, storytellers, magicians, jousting, Morris dancers, and demonstrations of sheep-herding and falconry. In addition there are booths where you can throw ripe tomatoes at the man in the stocks, plunge your friends into a trough of water, or try your hand at archery or fencing. There are face-painters and fortune tellers. There's a petting zoo, and a children's play area including such 'old fashioned' amusements as swingboats and a helter-skelter. In short, something for everyone. There's also a 'Royal family' who perform various ceremonial duties including opening the 'court' each morning, leading interludes of revelry, and knighting the lucky winners of certain contests. For die-hard enthusiasts, an additional charge allows you to join one of the select 'Royal' events, which include food and entertainment in an intimate setting. These vary from the 'Renaissance Smoker' (cigars, beer, snacks and entertainment) to the 'Feast of Fantasy' (described as "a seven-course gourmet meal with audience participation dinner theatre entertainment.") And for those who really want to live in the past, you can arrange to hold your wedding at the festival.

In addition to the regular events, each weekend has its own theme. The 'Mid-East Mirage', for example, features belly dancing, regional music and an Arab horse show. The 'Mighty Irish' features Guinness tastings, language lessons and a hot potato toss, while at the 'Wine and Romance' weekend you can participate in winetastings, a grape stomp and a wooing competition. There is also unofficial entertainment in the form of costumed characters who wander around the site and are liable to accost passers-by. These vary from lords and ladies in all their finery to apparently drunken beggars, carousing Scotsmen in kilts, peasants, wandering minstrels and leather-clad mercenaries. Since many visitors also dress in costume it's often difficult to tell who is a visitor having imbibed one tankard too many of Nordic Brew and who is a paid townsperson acting the part, but if trouble looks likely you can always summon the help of one of the King's Guard, distinguished by their red tights and yellow tunics.

If the entertainments don't grab you, you can easily spend a large part of the day (and the contents of your wallet) exploring the shops of the tradespeople and artisans. There are almost 300 merchants on site (all in costume of course), and their wares vary from the gimmicky to the almost authentic. At one end of the scale are rather ordinary products with an added 'mediaeval' touch and an inflated price tag to match - dried flowers, incense sticks, candles and name-plates, for example. At the other end are truly beautiful products that you would have trouble finding anywhere else - unique sculptures, jewellery, ceramics, musical instruments and even exquisite hand-made armour. Many of the artisans also stage demonstrations, so you can watch glass-blowers, candle-makers, blacksmiths and wood-carvers, calligraphers and paper-makers, sculptors and perfumiers at work.

The most laughably anachronistic part of the festival are the food stalls. In spite of being called 'Ye Olde Sandwich Bar' or something similar, they all serve exactly the same food as can be found at any other mid-west event. Some things are renamed but otherwise unchanged, so you can have Royal Shish Kabobs, The Friar's Fries, Queen's Greens, Chicken Littles or Steak on a Stake. Hmmm. Well of course the visitors simply wouldn't buy anything too out of the ordinary, so I suppose they're stuck.

Altogether I thought the festival was a fun day out, and a breath of fresh air in an otherwise extremely conservative environment - it makes you wonder where all these people are hiding the rest of the year! It's been running for 29 years so far, and looks to be going strong, There's no doubt that the more you put into it the more fun it can be, so be prepared to dress up and play "let's pretend" for the day. You'll probably end up buying pewter tankards, garlands of flowers for your hair, and all sorts of other things that will be completely useless when you get then home - except of course to use at Arthurian revelries. And at the end of every day, to help you back into the 20th century (or the 21st, if you believe the media) there is a totally anachronistic ?new age? drum jam session, where anyone who has any energy left can let their hair down and work themselves into a frenzy before staggering out of the gates and forward again through time to their cars.

[Anyone interested in participating in the festival in any capacity can contact Minnesota Renaissance Festival, 1244 S. Canterbury Road, Suite 306, Shakopee, MN 55379,U. S. A., Tel: 1-800-966-8215)]

The second place I'm going to tell you about is in a different mould.Carhenge is such an outrageous concept that I just had to see it when I was passing through Nebraska on a 'road trip' last summer. At a family reunion in 1982, the founder, Jim Reinders - who had been greatly impressed by a visit to Stonehenge some time before - decided to create a reproduction using a collection of scrap cars. The cars are arranged in what is claimed to be the same positions and orientations as the stones of the original, and are of approximately the same size (these are American cars, remember; most of them are as big as your average monolith). With six families of helpers, a forklift truck and 38 cars from the 1950s and 60s, the monument was erected in a week. The cars were later welded in place and painted grey, and the site was dedicated, in memory of the founder's father, at a ceremony at the summer solstice of 1987.

While driving home to Minnesota with a friend (and fellow 'old Arthurian') from a wedding in Colorado last July we were passing through Nebraska, and having heard of Carhenge it seemed a shame not to go there. In any case, Nebraska is such a God-forsaken place that any distraction is welcome. The town where we stayed the night is probably the nastiest, most unfriendly 'city' you could ever hope to visit, its only appealing feature being the prairie-dog town at the back of the motel. The drive through Nebraska isn't the sort of thing you would do for fun either. The landscape is largely given over to endless fields of maize, with occasional areas of pasture and nodding oil wells here and there. The towns all consist of a railway siding with a row of enormous grain silos and a few weathered wooden houses, and are at least 40 miles apart. Goodness only knows what people around here do for a social life. I suppose that explains why Carhenge was erected in Nebraska - nothing else to do and a handy collection of several dozen junk cars lying around.

Anyway, after what felt like a very long morning on the road, we finally arrived at Alliance, which laughably calls itself a city. Like all American towns, it proudly announces its population (9,765) as you drive in. There's one wide main street, lined with box-like buildings and a neat row of trees, and a billboard proclaiming the city 'Home of Carhenge' and then you're out of it again and back into the wide open spaces. A gift shop down the road announces, "We sell Carhenge souvenirs." We didn't stop, since there didn't seem any need to buy souvenirs for a place we hadn't even set eyes on yet.

Carhenge itself is located just off U.S. Highway 385, 2 1/2 miles north of Alliance. It's in a field just beside the road, partially screened by some trees, with just one small sign to catch your attention. There's a gravel parking area, an information board, and boxes for suggestions and donations for upkeep (one wonders what sort of upkeep is necessary for scrap metal). The information notice proclaims "CARHENGE. This attraction is preserved and enhanced by a local support group. Donations are appreciated. Carhenge replicates Stonehenge as to dimensions and orientation. It was conceived by Jim Reinders who once lived on this farm. Constructed during a family reunion, it was dedicated on the Summer Solstice of 1987. As to why, the artist declines comment, saying, 'Plane, loqui deprehendi.'

Compared to the original, Carhenge has in the advantages of free admission and unrestricted access. I expected it to be a hideous parody of our celebrated henge, which in many ways it is, and yet there's something about the setting which offsets your innate dislike of it. It is so quiet. With no sound but the warm wind whispering through the grasses and your footsteps crunching over the gravel; with the smell of warm plants in the sunshine, the enormous empty fields stretching to the horizon and the endless Nebraska sky overhead, it is a very peaceful place. Of course you could easily stop in any empty field and soak up the peace and quiet. But you probably wouldn?t because there isn?t anything to make you stop - and you never know when an irate rancher toting a shotgun might appear. And you do have to admire the founder's quirky sense of humour.

In recent years Jim Reinders has added ten acres to the site, which he named the Car Art Reserve (CAR for short). In addition to the original henge it now also features other automotive-themed works of art, made of cars or car parts. Among others there are a dinosaur and a spawning salmon. There's also an exhibit called 'Ford Seasons' which is simply four old Fords set upright in the earth and painted in colours supposed to depict the seasonal changes in the Nebraska landscape. Enough said.

When it was first erected Carhenge brought on the wrath of the local authorities. The Nebraska Department of Highways wanted Carhenge to be designated a junkyard and surrounded by a high fence to screen it from the road, while the city of Alliance said that Carhenge violated land-use restrictions, as the property was zoned for agricultural use. However, a group of local supporters, calling themselves 'Friends of Carhenge' got together to fight these restrictions, and in the meantime the word started to spread and visitors started to arrive. As always, financial considerations won out, and, finding itself with a growing tourist attraction on its doorstep at no cost to itself, Alliance eventually excluded Carhenge from the city limits and granted it a zoning variance as a tourist attraction. Today almost 90,000 visitors a year come to Carhenge. According to the self-appointed caretaker, only about 40% of the people who visit know about the original Stonehenge. "We get a lot of remarks like, 'What the hell is this?' in our comments box," he sighs, "But the people come from all over just the same." In recent years it has featured in a film (Omaha, the Movie), on TV, in a commercial by Honda, and on the cover of the New York Times. Celebrations are held there at both the summer and winter solstice, with the 10th anniversary celebration featuring specially created dance and drama, poetry readings and contests, a bonfire and live music. Carhenge is still maintained by Friends of Carhenge which has become a registered non-profit organisation and plans to expand the site with the addition of bathrooms (presumably in the American sense of the word - Ed], a gift shop and even an amphitheater. Should you ever happen to be passing, stop for a quick look - after all, since it is hundreds (if not thousands) of miles from just about everywhere, you?ll probably never get another chance!

[For more information, contact Paul Phaneuf, P.O. Box 464, Alliance, NE 69301 U.S.A. 1-308-762-4954.]

Last on my list, for now, is Effigy Mounds National Monument. This is the only authentic ancient site I'm going to tell you about; also the one with absolutely no connection, not even the most tenuous, to Arthur or to ancient or mediaeval British history. Nevertheless, it is exactly the sort of place we would visit on a pilgrimage if we had the chance. The area is a large park containing 191 known burial mounds of differing styles, which were constructed between about 450 BC and AD 1400. The site covers almost 1,500 acres and stretches from prairie grassland up wooded slopes to end abruptly at steep bluffs which drop 300 feet to the Mississippi river valley. The mounds are only shallow, most being less than four feet high, and their shapes vary depending on when they were built The oldest mounds are simple conical shapes, mounds which date from about AD 300 onwards are cigar-shaped or are com pounds of conical mounds connected by linear mounds, and the most recent, dating from around AD 650 onwards, are constructed in the shapes of animals - bears and hawks. The shapes of the mounds are not easy to see except from the air, and even then they are difficult to make out- among the trees unless specially outlined. Nevertheless, they are impressive; some of the birds have wingspans of over 100 feet, while the largest bear is 137 feet long and 70 feet at the shoulder. The people who built these mounds, known to archaeologists as paleao-Indians, were the ancestors of the 'historic' tribes who inhabited this and surrounding areas when Europeans first arrived. They buried their dead in pits lined with red ochre, accompanied by stone tools and copper beads. Later burials included pottery and items traded from all over the continent. The animal-shaped mounds appear to have been used for ceremonial purposes as well, with evidence that fires were lit at the head or heart.

In addition to its historic interest, this site is just a beautiful place to visit. There are several miles of "trails" to explore. in summer the prairie Is full of spectacularly colourful wild flowers, and the woods are cool havens of dappled sunlight. In spite of being a very popular attraction, not too many visitors venture to the further reaches and you can wander between clearings in the trees that look exactly as you would imagine the faery glens of the old romances. In autumn the oaks and maples turn to shades of red and gold, and deer wander among them. The view over the Mississippi is fantastic, and It's also an excellent site to look for birds, including vultures, peregrine falcons and bald eagles.

Should you ever find yourself in north-eastern Iowa, I would highly recommend a visit here. The site is off Highway 76, across the Mississippi from Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. Stop at the visitor centre to watch one of their short introductory films, then take a whole afternoon to wander in the woods. On a nice day, take a picnic. Who knows, after a glass or two of foaming blue mead, you might even see a magic boar or a white hart?