Thursday, January 24, 2013

Infinite Games

               What were your favorite games when you were a child? I don’t mean indoor board games like Parcheesi or Monopoly, but outdoor, running around games you got up to with a bunch of other kids. Mine was Kick the Can, a hide and seek game where you could free everyone already captured and held at home base by kicking the can off it. What was yours? When you were playing your favorite game, what did you feel like? Did you give a hoot about what your parents were doing?

            At my all-girls’ school we were always being told to look up to this or that grown up because we might want to be like her someday — our principal  was big on role models — a suggestion I never could get my head around because I thought that adults belonged to a different species from children. In the parent-centered households of the l940s and 1950s, grown-ups pursued their mysterious and incomprehensible lives while we lived in another realm entirely. All they wanted was for us to still and listen to them; all we wanted was to get away from them and back to our own world, which was the world of play.

  Fiona Opie, one of the great collectors of games and pastimes, writes that
“Childhood is a time more full of fears and anxieties that many adults care to remember, and play is a way of escape. A game is a microcosm, more powerful and important than any individual player; yet when it is finished it is finished, and nothing depends on the outcome.” 

     If you are listening to them from a distance, she goes on,
“you hear a kind of thin screaming noise…Vitality? Yes. But come closer and step into the playground; a kind of defiant light-heartedness envelops you. The children are clowning. They are making fun of life; and if an enquiring adult becomes too serious about words and rules they say, ‘it’s only a game, isn’t it. It’s just for fun. I don’t know what it means. It doesn’t matter.’”  Opie, The People in the Playground

Think back to your favorite running around game. Did you care whether you or your side won or lost? Did you think the game mattered?  Of course you did. Who wins and who loses, not to mention how long they can play and when they can get out to play again matters terribly to children. It is what they live for.


           In the first chapter of my novel, The Marshlanders,  Clare is playing hopscotch with her friends, totally obsessed with winning. (for my blog on Hopscotch, scroll down or go to ( She is so busy looking for a perfect hopscotch potsy that her mother gets captured.  I chose a game as a way to dramatize her energetic and harum-scarum character only by happenstance, but I liked the way it expressed her character much better than my describing it could do.  So, having been a research scholar, I  researched childhood play.

After my hyper-intellectual life as a college professor and academic writer it was such fun to work traditional games and pastimes into my story. I used an ancient “game of toss,” in which you throw a bean bag back and forth to a set pattern of rhymes, as a way for Clare to get a bit of food to her mother and the children she is imprisoned with.  When she is lying in a coma after being savagely beaten, her insistence that only one “choosing rhyme” is the correct one brings her out of it.  These nonsense jingles are rigidly upheld, considered absolute in a child’s home village; that’s why Clare is so furious when she hears the Marshlander children doing a choosing rhyme all wrong:


                            Inty, minty, tippety, fig
                            Delia, Dilia, dominig
                            Otcha, potcha, dominotcha
                             Hi, pon, tusk.
                             Huldy, guldy, boo.
                             Out goes you.  

Opie, Children’s Games in Street and Playground


Some games fairly lept off the pages of the library books to embody moods and themes. “Sheep Sheep come home,” played with sheep trying to get to their mother through a line of wolves, worked nicely to foreshadow approaching danger:

                 “Sheep Sheep come home,
                   Afraid. What of? The Wolfs.
                   Wolfs gone to Devenshire
                   Won’t be home for seven year
                    Sheep Sheep come home – “

                                          Norman Douglas, London Street Games       

At a meeting last night, everyone said that the idea of play was meaningless for them at this stage of their lives;  they felt too “serious” to even talk about it. I wondered if there was medicine for that, until I realized it probably wasn’t true.  For example, most of us make time during the year to set our adult concerns aside and plunge into light-hearted activities. Purim, Holi, Christmastime, Eid ul-Fitr  — these are all seasonal festivities that reawaken our perennial hunger for play. Long ago, before there was electricity or television or even radio, the European world seemed ominously darker and colder as the nights drew in.  With their candles inside and bonfires outside, people threw themselves into all kinds of games and frolics to lighten the midwinter gloom.


                Joseph Strutt, Sports and Pastimes of the People of England

In England, you could hire companies of fools to fill your house with music and laughter at your midwinter festivities, all to an energetic kind of gymnastic dancing.  I used one of these fools’ dances as part of a frolic at  the Tapestry House, a weaving community where Clare is apprenticed.

          Although The Marshlanders Series isn’t strictly historical,  it is based on the East Anglian Fens where “Fen Tigers” fought for their autonomy against the encroachment of “Merchant Adventures”(they were really called that) trying to drain their homeland for agricultural development. So I was delighted to come upon Sybil Marshall’s first person account of Fen folkways, including games and frolics.

          “The rhymes we said were often about courting or getting married, and the ones we loved best were the vulgar ones

              Polly went a-walking one fine day
              She lost her britches by the way
               The girls did laugh, and the boys did stare
                     To see poor Polly with her backside bare.”

          On Plough Monday,  a Christmastime holiday,   she describes “The Straw Bear” as

“a sort o’ceremony [in which] a party of men would choose one of their gang to be ‘straw bear’ and they’d start a-dressing him in the morning ready for their travels round the fen at night. They saved some o’ the straightest, cleanest and shiniest oat straw and bound it all over the man until he seemed to be made of straw from head to foot, with just is face showing…some parties used to do a play about  ‘Here I come I, old Beelzebub,’ and there were another place where one man knocked another one down, and then stood over him and said

                    Pains within and pains without
                    If the devil’s in, I’ll fetch him out
                    Rise up and fight again.’”

                                       Sybil Marshall, Fenland Chronicle

           One of the joys of sitting down at my computer every morning to find what Clare is getting up to is that I can plunge into all these fun and frolics as I work them into my writing. I turned the Sybil Marshall’s Straw Bear into a Straw Lion and combined him with a Fool’s Frolic for one of my favorite chapters in The Marshlanders.  Here is how it all came out:

After enough dances to tire them, Mother Eleanor asked the apprentices to sit. Then she and the Master Artist and Weaver rose to serve them mead and sweetmeats.  Sister
Barbara pretended to trip and spill Clare’s mead, but Mother Eleanor refilled her mug with a reproving look. Then, returning to the high table, she called for the revels to begin.

It was always fun to see the new apprentices’ surprise when this happened.   Constance and Sally watched Clare’s her face as the kitchen door was flung opened and a procession marched into the hall. This year it was led by Foxy, sporting a red bow around his neck and bells jingling on his feet. Behind him pranced four little folk, not as tall as Clare but, she thought, adults full grown. How could that be? They were dressed in bright green tights, red tunics, and a headgear of red and green shaped like pointed horns tipped with bells that jiggled and jangled this way and that as the Fools flew through the air. Like Foxy, they wore bells on their ankles, and their leaping feet were bare. Behind them came musicians playing flutes and drums.

            As the Fools' began their frolic Foxy ran over to Clare and buried his nose in her lap. He had never liked flutes, and the Fools had frightened him out of his wits when they had dressed him up with an undignified bow and aggravating anklets. Clare hugged him tightly as they leaped in the air, bells chiming, to a rollicking of flutes, then somersaulted to the roll of the drums.

 It was an astounding performance of cartwheels and walking on hands, splits and leaps and double somersaults front and backwards, beyond what any of the apprentices had ever dared, and all precisely timed to the music.  The frolicking Fools and the feast and the music and the joyous dancing were felt to shoulder the wheel of a year and nudge it forward. Reveling in the excitement, loving the feeling of Foxy in her lap, catching Jean's eye, Clare felt assured that the Tapestry House could protect her from all the world's cruelties. She resolved to be less impatient about carding and dying and running back and forth with shuttles, however long it took until she could try her own hand at weaving.

But the frolic wasn’t over. At a roll of drums, the Fools opened he kitchen door to usher a very peculiar creature into the hall. It had straw sticking out in all directions. Foxy stiffened, ready for attack, but then, unaccountably, relaxed. Clare thought it was human, but it went on all fours, like some kind of a riddle. There was straw all around its face, straw bound to its legs, a long straw tail and a straw mane. Suddenly, it rose on two feet, shouting and growling:

            “Here I come, Old Beelzebub!”

This seemed to be a challenge to fight, as Nathan stepped forward, fists up, to box with the whirling bale. Everybody was shouting at Nathan to conquer the Straw Bear but he was soon knocked over, the Bear crowing over him:

           “Pains within and pains within I
            If the devil’s in, I’ll fetch him out
            Rise up and fight again!”

Clare shuddered at the mention of the devil: she knew perfectly well that Nathan had no evil in him.  One after another the boy apprentices challenged the Straw Bear and were knocked down.  After he had laid the last one low, he tramped angrily around the circle of onlookers, demanding

            “Now your defenders all are down
           What pretty maiden will wear my crown”

Coming to a stop in front of Mother Eleanor, he seized her in his arms and tore off around the room in a whirl of dance raucously accompanied by drums. Clare was amazed to see Mother Eleanor leap and stamp as lithely as her partner, whose coat must surely prickle?  After leading her back to her chair, he tramped around the circle, choosing first this girl and then another to whirl with him, accompanied by chapping and cheers. Clare began to feel left out as the golden being chose one after another, but never approached her. Had he sensed something evil in her, the way the ministers had?
            Now the music changed: the flutes played a soft adagio which resolved into the tune of a womanhood song Clare had learned last summer:

            “Green grow the leaves on the hawthorne tree
             Green grow the leaves on the hawthorne tree.”
The Straw Bear stood in the center of the circle, swinging his mane this way and that, while everyone laughed at a joke Clare didn’t get.

            “What pretty maiden will wear my crown”

he asked, pulling a circlet of gold from the straw around his waist while Clare sat, unaware that, as the last apprentice to arrive and the newest to womanhood (Mother Eleanor had wormed this out of Constance), she would be chosen as the Straw Bear’s Queen. Everyone was pointing at her and laughing as he approached and took her by the hand and placed the crown upon her chestnut braids.

            As flutes and drums took up the song, the Dance of the Midwinter Queen was accompanied by “Green Grow the Leaves” sung lustily by the whole community. Whirling through the intricate figure as if she had been dancing with the golden bear since the world began, Clare thrilled at the applause, and all for her!  Staring through the mane to two penetrating black eyes, she realized it was Joshua. Seeing her recognition, he threw back his head to belt out his great, resounding laugh.  When their dance came to an end they joined a long line of apprentices and their masters, fools and cooks and gardeners and stable boys weaving hand in hand around the floor and in and out of the looms, singing in the new year of the sun and wishing for each other its every blessing.