Probably Ritual by Rhymer

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Story Notes:

This was written for Back to Middle Earth Month 2015, and was posted to LJ back in March. The prompt called for stories about family traditions.

From The Westfarthing Gazette, 28 Forelithe, S.R. 3217

(Transcript below)

newspaper article

Vast crowds are expected to flock to Tuckbury this weekend for the 38th annual Hobbit-Horse Festival, in which an extraordinary menagerie of creatures will caper through the streets - with frequent pauses, no doubt, in the ale-houses. But there is no need to worry about tramplings and maulings, gentle readers! The "beasts" - oliphaunts, wolves and camelopards as well as the eponymous horses - are merely hobbits bedecked in masks and elaborate clothing.

The festival was the brain-child of Ferdinand "Ferdy" Tuck, whose interest was piqued when an elderly relative mentioned an old Tuck family tradition, already mostly forgotten even in her grandfather's time. Ferdy admits that he has now forgotten most of the dimly-remembered snippets she was able to pass on to him, but one thing jumped out at him: the custom involved a young member of Tuck family dressing up as an animal on the seventh day after midsummer. Many hobbits would have delved deeper, but young Ferdy had already grasped what was, to him, the most important part of the story: what a wonderful excuse this was for a party!

The first festival was sparsely attended, and only one beast - Ferdy's original Hobbit-Horse - was in attendance, but over the years its popularity spread. Now many towns and families have developed their own "beast," and are fiercely proud of it. It capers alongside their dancers, and leads all their processions. In defiance of all evidence, some younger hobbits already believe that "their" beast is a tradition as old as the hills. Others know it is not, and care not. To them, as to Ferdy, it's just an excellent day out for all the family, with fun and merriment guaranteed for all.   


From Folklore of the Little People by Cecelia Sharp, Bree University Press, S.R. 2658

(Transcript below)

jester final

A curious tradition is observed near Tuckburrow on the seventh day after the festivities of Lithe. Its origins shrouded in mystery, the tradition involves a young heir of the Took family donning motley and an animal mask, typically fashioned after a goat. Thus clad, he processes through the environs, while tenants and relatives throw him doughnuts and drape him from head to toe in flowers and gaily-coloured ribbons.

When questioned about the ceremony's meaning, locals shrug and said that they do it because they have always done it, because "it's just what you do." Some scholars like to see it as a fertility ritual, but to such scholars, everything is a fertility ritual. In truth, what we see here is undoubtedly an example of an ancient Misrule custom, by which the normal social order is ritually overturned for a period of days. The Thain (the head of the famously eccentric Took family) is a figure of considerable consequence, yet here his heir capers around dressed as a farm animal and lets his father's tenants decorate him with ribbons like a prize cow on market day.

Once, no doubt, the procession was just one part of a festival several days long, but now it stands alone: one small part of a long forgotten whole, a mystery even to its dutiful participants.


Outside Great Smials, S.R. 1944

The goat was undoubtedly a prince of among goats, white and sleek and positively glowing. It was also the most wilful and contrary creature that Everard had ever encountered.

Not for the first time, he appealed to his father. "Do I have to--?"

"Yes," said the Thain. "It's Tradition." The capital letter was clear.

Celandine looked up from her book. "You have to suffer for tradition," she said primly.

Everard dug his heels into the ground, fighting the goat's latest escape attempt.  "You aren't the one…" He was leaning backwards now, almost diagonally to the ground. "…who has to parade around for half a day… with a decorated goat… Oof!" he gasped, as a sudden lunge almost dragged him over, "…on the end of a ribbon, while cousins and tenants and little sisters," he glowered, "try to throw ring doughnuts onto its horns."

"You should count your blessings," said the Thain. "In my grandfather's day, the heir had to ride the goat. Of course," he added, "that ended after the regretable incident of '78."

"They should have ended the thing with the real, live, kicking goat as well," Everard muttered, as the hooves narrowly missed him. "It's a stupid tradition." He would have stamped his foot, but he was too busy trying not to fall over.

"Everard!" cried his father. "It was started by Thain Peregrin himself, and I shouldn't need to remind you how important he was. It started just after he came back from the war. The Big People had so many rituals and ceremonies, you see…"

"None involving goats, I think." Celandine had closed her book, her finger still inside it to mark the page. "I don't think he learnt this one in Gondor." She giggled. "King Elessar didn't ride any goats."

"Of course he didn't," the Thain snapped, as he dodged the prancing animal. Stray ribbons wrapped themselves around his legs. "Peregrin invented it, you see. It was a solemn ceremony." He glared at the giggling Celandine. "He went so far away from home, you see: so far from the green fields of home. He saw so much death and loss, and when he came home, even his beloved homeland had been blighted. So he started this ceremony, to show that here, right here, was where he belonged. The Tooks are wedding to the land, and the land to the Tooks. The goat stands for the livestock that brings us prosperity, and as we honour it with ribbons and gift it with food, we vow that we Tooks shall never leave the land of our fathers."

"Ah, a fertility ritual," said Celandine, who read much about such things.  

"Very probably," said the Thain, as he fell over in a puddle.

goat on lead final


Somewhere near the Stock Road, S.R. 1409

"I'm staying on!" Pippin cried. "I'm staying on! I'm not falling…"

"Off," he said, when he could speak again. He was lying on his back in a crumpled patch of barley. A butterfly fluttered in to investigate, then moved on. "Oh," he said, struggling into a sitting position. "I fell off."

"Yes. Yes, you did." Merry was panting from his long run in Pippin's wake. At least a mile, it had been. Merry had fallen off long ago. The bonnet trailed behind him from a tattered knot of ribbons.

"Better than last time," Pippin said. "Now, where are my…? Oh." Shielding his eyes against the sun, he searched for the fleeing goat. Crushed crops and scattered ribbons showed where it had gone, but of the animal itself, there was so sign. "That goat stole my doughnuts!"

"I told you it was a mistake to store your lunch on a goat's horns," Merry said, shaking his head.

"But I needed my hands for holding on with!" Pippin protested. "Come on. We just need a--"

"Pippin," Merry said warningly. 

"Another goat."

"Pippin." Merry grabbed his arm, and pointed back towards the road. The farmer was very large indeed and very angry. Behind him came a red-faced lady, a cluster of labourers and a shepherd, and there behind them, just visible above the waving barley, was a gaggle of furious pitch-forks, determined not to miss the party.

Pippin straightened his clothing, smoothed his hair, and tried to look as respectable as possible. Merry was clearly doing the same. Pippin could only hope that his attempt worked better than Merry's.

"It's just not good enough, Master Peregrin, Master Brandybuck," said the alarmingly-large farmer (all of four feet tall, if he was an inch!) "I know you're gentlehobbits and I don't want to be disrespectful-like, but you can't just go trampling my crops like this…"

"Or decorating my goats," someone else shouted.

"Or stealing my goats!"

Or crushing my clover."

"Or taking the washing from my very own front garden! My bonnets! My apron! My second best dress!"

They all looked very angry indeed. And Pippin's father had promised him that if he got up to mischief one more time this summer, then he would be in Very Big Trouble Indeed. Somehow he always seemed to forget that when there were fun japes just sitting there waiting to be had.

"Um…" Merry swallowed. "Pippin," he whispered, leaning close. "Let me…"

"It's a family tradition!" Pippin blurted out. "A very special Took family tradition, only for Tooks. And our cousins," he added hastily. "We… er… we have a procession with goats, to signify something. The oldest son - that's me - always rides one. And because it's a festival, we dress up." He gestured at the lady's dress, then wished he hadn't, because it was a poor fit on him, and was badly torn. "Ribbons," he said, "and party food. It's very solemn and dignified. Father knows all about it. In fact, he's waiting there at home ready to start it. We're late. Go to go…"

"A ceremony?" asked the farmer.

"Yes!" Pippin was warming to his theme now. "Every year on the sixth day after Lithe."

"Seventh," Merry whispered.

"On the seventh day after Lithe," Pippin said, "because seven is a special number, and it shows that… Fertility," he said, "and crops and a full week of summer's bounty, and… things," he finished, failing slightly.

"I've not heard of no such ceremony, Master Peregrin," the farmer said, but there was a seed of doubt in his voice now.

"Ah, but you wouldn't have." Pippin tapped his finger against the side of his nose. "Very secret. Hush-hush. Known only to Tooks." He bit his lip anxiously, leaning forward as if confiding a secret. "And you now, of course. So we need goats," he said, "just to borrow, just to take to my father until the ceremony's over. You'll be handsomely repaid - and you for your kind loan of clothing, mistress, of course. No need to tell father anything about this little… misadventure that befell us on route to the perfectly respectable family ceremony."

"Pippin!" Merry hissed.

"Not now!" Pippin whispered, because now, finally, he had stepped out of Merry's shadow. Merry had stood there tongue-tied, while he, Pippin, had thought on his feet and had come up with a truly inspired solution.

Futher inspired explanations were needed from him before at length the crowd departed, leaving Merry and Pippin the proud owners of a set of women's clothing, one goat, a promise to deliver said goat to Great Smials in a year's time, a basket of honey cakes, and near-empty purses.

It was then that Merry tugged his sleeve again, doubtless wanting to express his awe at Pippin's quick-thinking. "I know!" Pippin said.

"Did you mean to invite them and all their friends to a private repeat performance of the secret Took ceremony this time next year, and buy them all drinks?" Merry asked. "It did wonders for their mood. They all felt quite honoured, I think. Humble as they are, they will get to see something that until now, only Tooks have ever seen."

Pippin nodded proudly. "It considerably lessened the cost to our purses."

"You do realise," Merry said, "that now you've got to actually do it. They won't forget. An annual ceremony, you told them?"

The goat reared up and started to nibble his hair. Pippin tried to bat it away, but it was most insistent. There really was something quite sinister about its eyes.

"Every seven years!" Pippin shouted. "Every seven times seven years!" but even the pitchforks had gone, and they were alone together in a trampled field, entirely surrounded by a goat.



Historical note:

To this day, the town of Banbury hosts an annual hobby-horse festival: a gathering of folk beasts and their accompanying dancers. Although the festival in its current form is a fairly recent invention, it is clearly one with a very ancient history indeed. "Hobby-horse" is a clear corruption of "hobbit-horse," and Banbury is not that many miles from Oxford, where a lost copy of the Red Book of Westmarch was unearthed by Professor Tolkien. Most compellingly, the festival takes place on the first weekend of July, which in some years, precisely coincides with the day the hobbits would have called the seventh day after Lithe.

The tradition of Misrule has been studied in depth in several scholarly works. The general reader, however, may prefer a fictional approach. Although it has some fanciful elements - there is no evidence that King Elessar was in the habit of attending village festivals in disguise - the story referenced below provides an at-times passably accurate depiction of the adoption of the tradition by the court of Annúminas.

Lord of Misrule


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