A Mummer’s Play for Yule

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Woodcuts by David Gentleman from Saint George and the Dragon – a mummer’s play by John Langstaff, published in 1973 in the United States and Canada. It contains the script of a typical mummer’s play which explores the death of Winter through the symbolic figure of Saint George:

First comes Christmas,
Then comes Spring.
Like Winter I must die,
Then to life again in Spring!

Saint George - David Gentleman

The Hobby Horse - David Gentleman

The Hobby Horse (above) ‘a symbolic life-giving figure’. A sprig of holly from the Hobby Horse restores Saint George to life.

Fool - David Gentleman

Room (above), the presenter of the play, decked in paper ribbons with ‘a noisemaker’.

Jonny Jack - David Gentleman

Jonny Jack (above) carries his family on his back – his role is to sweep the area of the performance. I was hoping for a convoluted fairy tale to explain this image, so a little disappointed by the explanation of his character… some investigation probably worthwhile!

The battle of the robin and the wren

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Solstice Battle of the Robin and the Wren

There’s a lot of fascinating folklore around the robin and the wren. At the winter solstice, the Holly King is driven away and the Oak King takes his place until the summer. Similarly, I have read that the robin rules once the wren is vanquished in December.

Jean Harrowven writes in her book Origins of Rhymes and Sayings that ‘Who Killed Cock Robin?’ is about King William Rufus, killed in the New Forest by an arrow, citing his red hair or the blood on his breast as explanation.

There is also a poem by John Webster, as stark and beautiful as you would expect…

Call for the robin-redbreast and the wren,
Since o’er shady groves they hover
And with leaves and flowers do cover
The friendless bodies of unburied men.
Call unto his funeral dole
The ant, the field-mouse, and the mole
To rear him hillocks that shall keep him warm
And (when gay tombs are robb’d) sustain no harm;
But keep the wolf far thence, that’s foe to men,
For with his nails he’ll dig them up again.

More Winter in July – Frost at Midnight by Sarah Nixey

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A magical song from Sarah Nixey and the 2011 album ‘Brave Tin Soldiers’, which made driving along in the mist and rain yesterday something fantastically atmospheric in a Coleridge sort of way. I like her received pronunciation which gets me thinking of some lost gem of British cinema from 40 years ago or so. Luckily someone has posted it on Youtube…

Winter in July – Dr Zhivago and Pasternak’s poems, 1968

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Pen and ink illustrations by Bill Greer for Boris Pasternak’s poems from Doctor Zhivago. They were issued as a single volume in 1969, and followed David Lean’s film from the year before with Julie Christie and Omar Sharif. The stills are taken from Lean’s film.

I remember Doctor Zhivago being screened on a Sunday evening sometime in the late 1970s. Even in black and white the scenes of the palace in winter made a lasting impression.

A favourite couple of words for me are ‘russian snow’. They don’t come up very often, but when they do, this is what I see – with all the melancholy of the closing scenes. Thank you, Mr Lean…

When putting this post together, I found some of the film stills on a blog called The Museum of Dying Giants, by an artist called Gwyneth Scally. If you like the atmosphere of this post, have a look here. She credits David Lean’s film as an inspiration.