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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

05 January 2024

Malcolm Guite is asked to stand in as the dragon in a mummers’ play

“DEPUTY dragon reporting for duty!” This is not a sentence I had ever imagined myself saying, but say it I did, and with some gusto, my excellent dragon costume in a bag beside me.

It happened like this. As I mentioned in these pages last year (6 January 2023), my wife and I had been enchanted and entertained when, on Christmas Eve, a group of mummers came into the White Swan and gave their play, with all the usual characters and motifs present and correct: St George and a Dragon, a Turkish Knight, a Witch, a miracle-working Doctor, Father Christmas, Beelzebub, and all.

Since then, my wife, Maggie, has joined the troupe, as Mrs Christmas, and, while I was still in America, they had already begun performing in various local hostelries and old people’s homes. But it turned out, just as I got back, that the lady playing the dragon couldn’t make the King’s Arms performance; so could I stand in?

I most certainly could. By the end of my American sojourns, I am always longing for England, and there is nothing more likely to convince a man that he is really back in blighty, and not stuck in some flashy Manhattan wine bar, than playing the part of a dragon, with a pint of ale in his hand, in a pub called The King’s Arms.

There was the small matter of learning my lines, but mummers’ doggerel has the virtue of being rhythmic and memorable; so my first taunt to St George came trippingly off the tongue:

Oh I could cook you with a cough

But that would be too crude
So first I’ll chew your armour off
I hate to eat tinned food.

I was there, of course, to be defeated, and, indeed, I duly was, and confined to sit on a row of chairs, along with the Turkish Knight and “Bold Slasher”, all “baddies” vanquished by the good Saint. The chairs signified the kingdom of the dead; time out for the slain. But then on came the good doctor, and, at the request of Mrs Christmas, he raised all the dead to life, and, by means of a potion mixed of ale and porter, Beelzebub was exorcised and sent packing back to hell without so much as a single soul to chew on, while we erstwhile “baddies” were invited to join the party by the very knight whom we had opposed, and to sing Christmas songs alongside the good characters. Now, there is grace for you!

William Dunbar, one of the group of 15th-century Scots poets known as “the Scottish Chaucerians”, has a fine poem on the defeat of the dragon, which was, in fact, running through my head when my battle with George was over. Fortunately, it’s rather better verse than our doggerel:

Done is a battle on the dragon black,
Our champion Christ confoundit has his force;
The yetis of hell are broken with a crack,
The sign triumphal raisit is of the cross,
The devillis trymmillis with hiddous voce,
The saulis are borrowit and to the bliss can go. . .

In fact, that’s not a bad summary of our mummers’ play, although Dunbar wrote his poem for Easter rather than Christmas. But that’s all right: I think we can still use it in the Christmas season. After all, as our vicar observed from the pulpit at midnight mass, they’re already selling Easter eggs in the shops.

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