a demi-finale: the arthurian legend continues

by John Bellairs
May 22, 1959, Scholastic #24

Now that I am about to pass into the pages of history as one of the maligned and maligning wits of this fair campus, I deem it time to try once more to wrest the somewhat battered laurel wreath from the head of the Arch-fiend, Bowen. My response to Bowen's archaeological coup of last week is the announcement of a discovery of my own.

While rummaging through some of the more moldy section of the library, I discovered a decaying volume which was being used as a doorstop for a fire exit. The barely legible gilt lettering of this old folio edition proclaimed it a first edition of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, but what interested me most was a hand-written addendum at the back. This manuscript, dedicated to a fellow named Ralph Roister Doister, is entitled Ye Legende of Kynge Baldric of Umbrage. I shall attempt to reproduce on this page this quaint legend, preserving if I can the inimitable mediaeval style.

Once in a valley yclept Promisse (that is, blight-ridden) there dwelt a King Baldric. This goodly knight built in the valley a castle (ne'er seraph spread a pinion o'er castle half so fair) called Umbrage, and called to it knights and damozels from all the country round, so that he might have jousts, quaff mead, and become legendary as all get-out. To guard the castle from dragons, knights-errant, and other riff-raff, King Baldric organized a society of guardian knights called the Order of the Baggy Blue Doublet, or Serf-Templars. This society was composed of men who were by rule no less than 86 years of age, and no more than three feet tall, with a weight of at least 200 lbs. Net. The members of the society were ranked according to their ability to growl gutturally, make meaningless gestures, and protect entrances, portcullises and the like. Clad in their garb of baggy blue (which was decorated with tinsel) these stalwarts guarded the castle against enemies, but especially against those who wanted to get in or out of the premises for any reason whatsoever. For instance, if Sir Falconet, a teacher at the castle-school wished admittance at the sallyport, the following ritual would ensue:

Serf-Templar: Get the (wheeze) devil out from under that portcullis! Yez can't come in here after the ninth hour between Swithinmas and Michaelmas, except on tournament days, when yez can't come in at all.

Sir F.: But, marry, this is mine own place of study, and besides I have on my shield the Seal of Righteousness which gaineth me access.

S.-T.: Oh yeah? Well it ain't gonna gaineth yez entrance here. Out!

This ceremony was always completed by the guard's confiscation of all the knight's regalia amid violent curses, and the expulsion of said knight from the premises. It came to pass that these stalwart protectors would challenge anyone who even passed near the castle, and those who wanted admittance could gain it only by donning a hairshirt and advancing on the knees bearing propitiatory bouquets of forget-me-nots for the guards. On tournament days, when the most burly knights of the castle engaged in mortal combat, visitors were forced to tether their palfreys at least 12 miles from the castle, and advance the rest of the way on foot chanting the Carmina Burana in four-quarters time. The guards not only obeyed all orders but made up their own, and their watchword or motto became: "The nights who own the castle are no better than anyone else." It may be wondered that these aged protectors were not sorely beaten or at least challenged by the men-at-arms whom they discomfited, for they bore neither halberd nor broadaxe. But the fact was that the Serf-Templars were said to be enchanted and that their very touch would bring down on the victim of their wrath a murrain of gnats, ague, and acid stomach to boot. And indeed the countenance of these men bore witness to the efficacy of the curse.

But in time the Templars became dissatisfied with mere entrance-guarding, and took to rebuking the pages of the castle, who would bait the guards to make them give chase. New rules were invented to keep the pages off the ramparts after the tenth hour, and the pages were forbidden to burn candles in the evening. All candles and wicks were controlled by the Templars (who claimed to have invented light), and their chief amusement was to patrol the castle with water-buckets, dousing the candles of those who disobeyed them. The guards demanded of the pages small bits of parchment, which were collected and burned in a great fire every Walpurgis-nacht. If the parchment was not forthcoming, a hue and cry would ensue, and the page (if caught) would be sorely flogged.

These tireless guardians of the castle never tired of insulting visiting dignitaries. The Abbot of Cul-de-sac was pitched into the moat on the charge of being an imposter (The guards had decided that all those who were not of their number were imposters, or at least very naughty people), and on one occasion King Baldric himself was ejected for not knowing the password of the day.

It came to pass eventually (as all things do) that no one was able to get in or out of the castle, all the passageways having been bricked up by the guards. The palace lay thus, as if enchanted, until the doughty Sir Hugh Demi-Culverin and his men (who did not believe in the curse) decided to assault the castle. As he said:

"I think it is time to take Umbrage."

So Castle Umbrage was taken, nor was it the last time that Umbrage was taken, since it was discovered that the guards were unable to elicit from outsiders the respect accorded them by the castle personnel. It was also discovered eventually that the castle had nothing worth the taking but a few dented wassail bowls and a few paynims left over from the last Crusade, so the invaders went away, leaving the guards to their games. It is said that the Serf-Templars watch over the castle to this very day. Some say they are the husbands of the Valkyries, some claim they are descended from the Troll-god, but others (and wiser ones, too) say they are just bothersome old men.


Commentary

"There is so much in the realm of total Bellairsian fantasy that there isn't much for me to comment on," says Myers, only adding that the mention of 'a fellow named Ralph Roister Doister' reminds him of that the title character was featured in an English play. "I don't think you have to worry much about what it all means. Bellairs liked the sound of the name, and he would always prefer the baroque and/or convoluted over the simple and straightforward."