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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

06 January 2023

A group of mummers enact their play at Malcolm Guite’s local

WE WERE treated to a Christmastide tradition in our local, the White Swan, when a troupe, or “side”, of mummers came in, as promised, to enact their play. They came somewhat past their hour, but this was understandable, as they had been mumming earlier, at the Hop Inn, where, it seems, they hopped and danced and played so well that the locals detained them for a few more drinks.

But, once they assembled at the White Swan, we were well rewarded for our patience; for they played with great gusto, and with a wonderful and easygoing mixture of the old and the new. All the old characters were there: St George; the Turkish Knight; Father Christmas (properly decked in green fir-trimmed robe and crowned with holly — none of this post-Coca-Cola red and white); Beelzebub, duly horned; and, of course, the Doctor, with his magical life-restoring serum.

There was also an extra that I’d not seen in mumming before: Beelzebub was accompanied by his monstrous hell-hound Black Shuck, who did much more of the scarifying than his master. This was fitting for East Anglia; for it is in this part of England that tales of the dog abound. There is, for example, an account of him running through a church in Bungay, on the southern edge of the Broads, in A Straunge and Terrible Wunder by Abraham Fleming, in 1577: “This black dog, or the divel in such a likenesse (God hee knoweth al who worketh all,) running all along down the body of the church with great swiftnesse, and incredible haste, among the people, in a visible form and shape. . .”

The Edwardian folklorist W. A. Dutt went so far as to suggest that these tales of Black Shuck represent a folk memory from the days when the Vikings settled in these parts: a memory of “the old Scandinavian myth of the black hound of Odin, brought to us by the Vikings who long ago settled down on the Norfolk coast”.

But this mummers’ play, for all its old traditions enshrining folk memory, both pagan and Christian, was also played for laughs, with plenty of contemporary references, from the pantomime punning — when, having been told in rhyming couplets that the Turkish knight had been “slayed”, the whole company, and, indeed, the whole pub, burst into the Slade anthem “Merry Xmas Everybody” — to more serious echoes: when the Doctor arrived and revived the afflicted to great rejoicing, there was more than a nod to the heroic NHS during Covid. We all applauded the resurrection of the dead.

I was glad to see it all still going on, notwithstanding the efforts of the puritans, also numerous in these parts, to ban it altogether. For them, “mummery” was a term of abuse, and, indeed, they went so far as to call the eucharist a “popish mummery”. They were wrong, of course, to the extent that they meant that word to signify a foolish play of falsehood; but, if we were to take mumming in its deepest sense, as a dramatic representation — indeed, recreation in the present — of a collective memory of the death and resurrection that changed everything, then maybe to call the sacrament a “mummery” is to hint at another facet of its mystery.

The White Swan stands hard by St Nicholas’s, our parish church, and, just as the landlady of the White Swan welcomed the mummers, so I was glad to see that she herself and some of the mummers were welcomed and exchanged the Peace with us all at the midnight mass.

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