Phyllis Patterson, a former high school English teacher who more or less invented the American tradition of the Renaissance Faire, died last month. Per the New York Times's obit, at her demise she "was 82 and lived in a log cabin" in California. In other words, she lived the hippie-Elizabethan dream.
I've never been to a Renaissance Faire but I have heard the jokes. In an age where something called Comic Con is a major commercial juggernaut, you'd think people immersed in fantasy wouldn't stick out, not particularly. Cosplay is now a word one routinely encounters. The most popular bourgeois show on television involves a lot of men wandering around in fake fur saying things like, "Get me a flagon of wine" in vaguely British accents. Grown-ass people all over the south have always gotten dressed up as people who defend slavery and re-enacted battles. But the Renaissance Faire has its own special lingering aftertaste of embarrassing dorkery.
Looking further into Patterson's background and the Faires, you discover that they do not trace their origins to nerdery, not exactly. As its California-60s origins suggest, the Renaissance Faire was actually originally a hippie thing. When Patterson and company started holding them in the early 1960s, they were self-avowedly radical. They were not quite about nostalgia for some earlier time, either. The point of the Faires was not to fetishize old values but to use them to argue for new ones. The cultural historian Rachel Lee Rubin noted in her study of them that "most performers adopt a more playful approach, like the lute player who weaves the guitar line from Black Sabbath's 'Iron Man' in his music."
Their subversiveness, whatever its depth, made the Renaissance Faire subject to challenge by small-towners. In 1967 the town of Oxnard had already had enough of the hippie shit that went on at the Faire:
Apparently there was concern that the Faires were harboring "Reds." Which was not totally wrong: The Faire was also the birthplace and cradle of the Los Angeles Free Press, a venerated lefty alt weekly that would later publish Harlan Ellison and Charles Bukowski. Their original roots in the counterculture were strong enough to provoke that reaction.
No one worries about communists anymore. And sure, probably if you attend one of these things nowadays you can trace some distance from radical politics. But contemporary objections to the Renaissance Faires are not terribly coherent. You have to get the reasons by inference from the insults. It's something about how dorky the activity is and something about how the people aren't quite good looking enough and something about wanting to be clear that in your own life you don't indulge in anything so escapist and childish.
But really, when you think about it these things are as harmless as anything anyone does in their weirdo spare time. They've just not managed to climb out from under the rock of everyone else's judgement. It'd be nice if as a parting gift to Patterson we let this one go, at least a little bit.
[Image by Jim Cooke, Photo via Getty]