Growing up, I made several trips to open air museums such as Old Sturbridge Village and Plimoth Plantation. They made me feel like I had stepped into one of my textbooks or traveled in a time machine. The historical accuracy of the buildings and land as well as the acting and dedication of those who “lived” and “worked” in the villages made for an immersive experience, one that stuck with me through the years. So when my sister Helen asked me if I would be interested in attending King Richard’s Faire with her, I immediately said yes. As we drove to Carver, Massachusetts, I thought of what awaited me, trying to recall commercials I had seen for the fair in my childhood; knights, horses, jousting, swords, and turkey legs as big as your head. I had brought my camera with me to document all this and more. I was excited, to say the least.
I was also very, very mistaken.
King Richard’s Faire is not Sturbridge Village; it’s not a museum, it’s not educational, it’s not historically accurate, and it lacks any truly immersive quality whatsoever.
I’m apparently not to blame for thinking it would be, though; there’s apparently a large rift in the Renaissance fair community regarding how authentic a fair should be. Some feel it should be similar to an open air museum like Sturbridge, and others feel that entertainment should be the main focus. I hope to inform those like me who might come looking for the same thing I had and leave disappointed, or those who might enjoy a day at a themed carnival but avoid it, mistaking it for an educational experience in disguise rather than a carnival in the woods.
The first 50 feet of the fairgrounds were not at all dissimilar to a casino. Immediately following the entrance/exit was a wall of ATMs. Instead of a casino gift shop, there was a “Remembrance Shoppe,” which accepted “Lady Visa” and “Master Card.” Instead of exchanging money for gambling chips, there was a wooden stand that sold “food tickets,” the currency used at the fair in exchange for food. The tickets were only 50¢ each, but were only sold in nonrefundable sheets of 10 for $5.
In retrospect, the proximity of these to each other and to the entrance/exit should have served as an ill omen of things to come, but I missed the warning signs, being too busy taking in the sights around me (there are only so many period costumes and feathered hats one can take in before suffering sensory overload). Having outgrown the childhood impulse to buy things for the sake of buying things, and having no children of my own, I was immune to such capitalist tactics, but judging by all the children I saw walking around with plastic shields and wooden swords and other gift shop goodies, it was an effective strategy.
The fairgrounds had been set up in a wooded area that they had cleared out for the purpose, though many trees remained (perhaps in the hopes of lending an “authentic” atmosphere to the affair). Years of fair-goers’ feet had eroded the ground, kicking up dust and exposing roots that I and many others tripped on throughout the day.
As I walked along, I realized the quaint medieval buildings that I had seen from the entrance were little more than particleboard facades with chipping and faded paint, and they were all selling something. It was at this point that my hopes for what would be a delightful reenactment of historically accurate medieval festivities eroded more than the ground on which the fair was built, and I realized King Richard’s Faire is little more than a carnival and medieval-paraphernalia exposition with a thin caricatural veneer of Elizabethan England. This is not necessarily a bad thing, if that’s what you’re hoping to experience, but for me it was a shock. My first impulse was to leave, but the thought of wasting $25 and the fact that my sister had driven forced me to reconsider. I decided to stay and view it as an educational experience-not historical, but anthropological; I’d study those that attend and work at the fair.
The fair is first and foremost an exposition. Unlike other expos I’ve attended, those with wares to sell were set up in small themed “shops,” instead of merely having tables set up in a large expo center. The shops were of limited variety, and could be placed into five categories: weapons and weapon-like product; hand made pottery and crafts; leather and armor; corsets and clothing; and body art (typical of any carnival).
There were several “armories” selling swords, axes, and maces. Although one shop sold particularly high quality goods, the rest consisted of what I’d call “sword-like product.” The “swords” sold at these shops were the mechanically separated chicken of the weapon world; recycled scraps, combined and reshaped into something resembling a sword, in much the same way a Slim Jim resembles meat. A blunt, heavy, and warped sword, yes, but still a sword, and to many of the small children and even adults that crowded the shops, that’s all that mattered.
The people of the fair could also be categorized. When my sister and I first arrived at the fair parking lot, we were presented with a remarkable scene. On the left was a young couple in historically accurate period costumes. In the center, a normally-dressed husband and wife unloading their three little girls, dressed in Disney princess dresses, from their minivan. Walking by on the right were two burly men holding hands, one in leather chaps, the other a kilt, each wearing not much else besides. The man in the kilt had the most immense mohawk I have ever seen, and as if its incredible height were not enough, he had attached black cloth between the spikes of the mohawk and as an extension at the end, so that it resembled a massive Indian Chief’s headdress. The three little girls in pink dresses began crying as the men passed by.
This triptych perfectly captured the essence of the three categories of people who attended the fair: those in normal clothes, those in historical costume, and those in fantasy costume, the latter two categories almost always speaking in terrible English accents. Somewhere in the grey areas of this spectrum, however, are those who wear utilikilts (think of a mix between cargo shorts and kilts) and those that wear large brimmed hats with equally large feathers in them. Both feathered hats and kilts were as numerous as baseball hats and jerseys at a sporting event, and seem to be the standard uniform of renfaire enthusiasts.
As far as entertainment went, there were scheduled performances, an assortment of musicians stationed throughout the fair who played at seemingly random times, and a collection of costumed characters who traveled around interacting with customers. I have to say, the musicians were by far the strongest group. I enjoyed the bagpipers, though I might be biased, being of Irish heritage and having grown up attending Irish cultural festivals. The hammered dulcimer was very good, though not really my thing. Lastly, there was a group of professional singers who sang period songs and most likely made a killing in the Christmas caroling season.
The shows were terrible. While the actions were great-swallowing fire, juggling torches and swords, driving four inch nails into nasal cavities-the showmanship was awful; terrible accents abounded, jokes fell flat with nary a chuckle, and the performers spent most of their time criticizing the audience for not laughing or applauding the way they thought the audience should. As a result, the shows were awkward and uncomfortable, and I often left when they became too annoying to listen to. Alienating and criticizing your customers is never a good business strategy, and this is where King Richard’s Faire lost major points with me.
The costumed characters were mostly amusing, and almost made up for the faults of the scheduled entertainment. My favorite character was a displaced nobleman. Evidently not used to interacting with “peasants,” he wandered around the crowds and when he saw something he liked-a souveneir someone had purchased, or a sheet of food tickets someone was holding in line-he would command the person to hand it over as he reached for it, while other characters would try to explain to him that that wasn’t how things worked outside of his castle. He was funny, well acted, and not at all annoying, unlike a similar character of a displaced king, whose sole act seemed to be merely walking through crowds and lines for food while shouting at people to move out of his way.
Other characters were somewhat confusing, including a man who walked around with a skeleton ventriloquist dummy, but had a black mask over his face! I assume he never quite mastered the skill of not moving his lips when he spoke. Another man walked around with a beer tankard balanced on his shiny bald head, though he might have been tasked with keeping order over the more inebriated fairgoers. There was another man in a tall chefs hat and clothing, wearing a butchers apron, who had a bandolier of plastic sausages slung across his chest, and held a large plastic salami in his hand, whose existence and purpose could only be described as inexplicable.
The food was surprisingly delicious. I ordered turkey stew in a boule, expecting watered down, overly salty, and mostly meatless stew with a stale, thin bread bowl. I received an extremely tasty and perfectly seasoned stew with large pieces of turkey, and the bread was fresh and even delicious by itself. In the same way that you can’t go to Fenway and not get a hot dog, you can’t go to a Renaissance fair and not get a turkey leg. Though I had expected a jumbo version of a thanksgiving drumstick, the turkey legs at the fair were likely smoked, and tasted very similar to pork or ham. Overall, I was very impressed, and the meal really helped to bring up my spirits.
Speaking of spirits, vastly overpriced beer was served on tap, which may serve to markedly improve one’s experience at the fair. I had originally wanted to try mead, but unfortunately I was chosen as the designated driver for the day, and could not sample the wares of the preposterously-endowed barmaids, who seemed to be making a joke in the absurd ways they showcased their cleavage-one woman even went as far as to have eyes painted on her bosom.
I managed to have a good time at the fair, thanks in part to the constant jokes my sister and I made about it and the friendly conversations I had had with others in line for food and watching the awful shows. But I don’t think the fun I salvaged from the experience justifies the $45 total I spent just for entrance and food. If you’re in the market for some leather bracers, a new corset, a sword to hang on your wall, or just want an excuse to dress up as an elf and you’ve got some coin to spare, King Richard’s Faire would likely be a good investment. If you’re like me, and are looking for something a little more historically accurate and less oriented on buying things, I’d recommend attending an open air museum like Sturbridge Village or Plimoth Plantation. Overall, I give King Richard’s Faire 2 out of 5 turkey legs.
I wrote this for one of my journalism classes. I got an A-.