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    The Mummer

    by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
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    The night before Christmas Eve I heard a burst of musical voices so close
    that they might as well have been inside the house instead of just outside;
    so I asked them inside, hoping that they might then seem farther away.
    Then I realised that they were the Christmas Mummers, who come every year
    in country parts to enact the rather rigid fragments of the old Christmas
    play of St. George, the Turkish Knight, and the Very Venal Doctor. I will
    not describe it; it is indescribable; but I will describe my parallel
    sentiments as it passed.

    One could see something of that half-failure that haunts our artistic
    revivals of mediaeval dances, carols, or Bethlehem Plays. There are
    elements in all that has come to us from the more morally simple society
    of the Middle Ages: elements which moderns, even when they are
    mediaevalists, find it hard to understand and harder to imitate. The
    first is the primary idea of Mummery itself. If you will observe a child
    just able to walk, you will see that his first idea is not to dress up as
    anybody--but to dress up. Afterwards, of course, the idea of being the
    King or Uncle William will leap to his lips. But it is generally
    suggested by the hat he has already let fall over his nose, from far
    deeper motives. Tommy does not assume the hat primarily because it is
    Uncle William's hat, but because it is not Tommy's hat. It is a ritual
    investiture; and is akin to those Gorgon masks that stiffened the dances
    of Greece or those towering mitres that came from the mysteries of Persia.
    For the essence of such ritual is a profound paradox: the concealment of
    the personality combined with the exaggeration of the person. The man
    performing a rite seeks to be at once invisible and conspicuous. It is
    part of that divine madness which all other creatures wonder at in Man,
    that he alone parades this pomp of obliteration and anonymity. Man is not,
    perhaps, the only creature who dresses himself, but he is the only
    creature who disguises himself. Beasts and birds do indeed take the
    colours of their environment; but that is not in order to be watched, but
    in order not to be watched; it is not the formalism of rejoicing, but the
    formlessness of fear. It is not so with men, whose nature is the
    unnatural. Ancient Britons did not stain themselves blue because they
    lived in blue forests; nor did Georgian beaux and belles powder their hair
    to match an Arctic landscape; the Britons were not dressing up as
    kingfishers nor the beaux pretending to be polar bears. Nay, even when
    modern ladies paint their faces a bright mauve, it is doubted by some
    naturalists whether they do it with the idea of escaping notice. So
    merry-makers (or Mummers) adopt their costume to heighten and exaggerate
    their own bodily presence and identity; not to sink it, primarily speaking,
    in another identity. It is not Acting--that comparatively low
    profession-comparatively I mean. It is Mummery; and, as Mr. Kensit would
    truly say, all elaborate religious ritual is Mummery. That is, it is the
    noble conception of making Man something other and more than himself when
    he stands at the limit of human things. It is only careful faddists and
    feeble German philosophers who want to wear no clothes; and be "natural"
    in their Dionysian revels. Natural men, really vigorous and exultant men,
    want to wear more and more clothes when they are revelling. They want
    worlds of waistcoats and forests of trousers and pagodas of tall hats
    toppling up to the stars.

    Thus it is with the lingering Mummers at Christmas in the country. If our
    more refined revivers of Miracle Plays or Morrice Dances tried to
    reconstruct the old Mummers' Play of St. George and the Turkish Knight (I
    do not know why they do not) they would think at once of picturesque and
    appropriate dresses. St. George's panoply would be pictured from the best
    books of armour and blazonry: the Turkish Knight's arms and ornaments
    would be traced from the finest Saracenic arabesques. When my garden door
    opened on Christmas Eve and St. George of England entered, the appearance
    of that champion was slightly different. His face was energetically
    blacked all over with soot, above which he wore an aged and very tall top
    hat; he wore his shirt outside his coat like a surplice, and he flourished
    a thick umbrella. Now do not, I beg you, talk about "ignorance"; or
    suppose that the Mummer in question (he is a very pleasant Ratcatcher,
    with a tenor voice) did this because he knew no better. Try to realise
    that even a Ratcatcher knows St. George of England was not black, and did
    not kill the Dragon with an umbrella. The Rat-catcher is not under this
    delusion; any more than Paul Veronese thought that very good men have
    luminous rings round their heads; any more than the Pope thinks that
    Christ washed the feet of the twelve in a Cathedral; any more than the
    Duke of Norfolk thinks the lions on a tabard are like the lions at the Zoo.
    These things are denaturalised because they are symbols; because the
    extraordinary occasion must hide or even disfigure the ordinary people.
    Black faces were to mediaeval mummeries what carved masks were to Greek
    plays: it was called being "vizarded." My Rat-catcher is not sufficiently
    arrogant to suppose for a moment that he looks like St. George. But he is
    sufficiently humble to be convinced that if he looks as little like
    himself as he can, he will be on the right road.

    This is the soul of Mumming; the ostentatious secrecy of men in disguise.
    There are, of course, other mediaeval elements in it which are also
    difficult to explain to the fastidious mediaevalists of to-day. There is,
    for instance, a certain output of violence into the void. It can best be
    defined as a raging thirst to knock men down without the faintest desire
    to hurt them. All the rhymes with the old ring have the trick of turning
    on everything in which the rhymsters most sincerely believed, merely for
    the pleasure of blowing off steam in startling yet careless phrases. When
    Tennyson says that King Arthur "drew all the petty princedoms under him,"
    and "made a realm and ruled," his grave Royalism is quite modern. Many
    mediaevals, outside the mediaeval republics, believed in monarchy as
    solemnly as Tennyson. But that older verse

    When good King Arthur ruled this land
    He was a goodly King--
    He stole three pecks of barley-meal
    To make a bag-pudding.

    is far more Arthurian than anything in The Idylls of the King. There are
    other elements; especially that sacred thing that can perhaps be called
    Anachronism. All that to us is Anachronism was to mediaevals merely
    Eternity. But the main excellence of the Mumming Play lies still, I think,
    in its uproarious secrecy. If we cannot hide our hearts in healthy
    darkness, at least we can hide our faces in healthy blacking. If you
    cannot escape like a philosopher into a forest, at least you can carry the
    forest with you, like a Jack-in-the-Green. It is well to walk under
    universal ensigns; and there is an old tale of a tyrant to whom a walking
    forest was the witness of doom. That, indeed, is the very intensity of
    the notion: a masked man is ominous; but who shall face a mob of masks?
    If you're writing a The Mummer essay and need some advice, post your Gilbert Keith Chesterton essay question on our Facebook page where fellow bookworms are always glad to help!

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