Asexual Myths & Tales

Monday, 28 July 2014

A Feast of Fools

As I write this, there are only 15 days to go until the UK publication of Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb.  I am a huge fan of the Farseer/Tawny Man trilogies, and especially of the Fool.  I was devasted by how his story was left hanging at the end of Fool's Fate, and am very excited (and somewhat nervous) to see how things will progress in the Fitz and the Fool trilogy.

Robin Hobb's Fool is one of the all-time great fantasy characters.  However much we get to know him, he will always remain a mystery.  (Is he even truly a he, for a start?)  A self-confessed coward yet courageous, affectionate yet capable of inflicting deep hurt, learned yet a fool, he shifts gender, changes colour and is impossible to pin down.  His love for Fitz is heartbreakingly touching, and his androgyny and insistence that love doesn't require sex make him, for me, one of the great asexual icons.

The Fool has influenced me professionally as well as personally.  It is safe to say that Tammo and Carlo in my current project, the Angelio Trilogy, would not exist were it not for Fitz and the Fool.  My Fitz/Fool influenced song, Beloved, is linked at the bottom of this blog.  And the drawing of the Fool at the head of this page is - again - one of mine.

Of course, the figure of the fool or jester is not exclusive to Robin Hobb.  He has been with us through many centuries, appearing in many guises.  So, while we await the Fool's reappearance, let us take a look of some of my other favourite fools from page and stage:

1.  Wamba son of Witless from Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
Jester to Cedric the Saxon and "playmate" to Gurth the swineherd, Wamba has always struck me as one of the most loveable characters in Ivanhoe.  A fool in the traditional mode, he makes great play of his supposed stupidity, while exercising great wit and sharpness.  His role gives him licence to insult the great and powerful (including all the plot's villains) which he frequently does.  And yet he is never cynical.  There is innocence and playfulness in all he does.  Loyal, brave and big-hearted, Wamba the fool is probably the most sensible person in the book.

2.  The Joker from The Solitaire Mystery by Jostein Gaarder
Less loveable but deeply intriguing is the Joker, "who sees too deeply and too much."  He is an actual joker from a pack of cards become a "dwarf with cold hands."  In a story where character and incident reflect each other like a maze of mirrors, the Joker could be a type of Hans Thomas' father, the amateur philosopher who sees himself as the joker in the pack.  But he is also the catalyst for Hans Thomas' discoveries, and a rebel, whose realisation that he is created from someone's imagination threatens to destroy his whole world.

3.  The Fool from King Lear by William Shakespeare 
I hated being made to study King Lear at school, but I never forgot the Fool.  I expect he is the prototype of many of the later fools - pretending to be stupid while making witty comments, and loyal to his deposed king when all others abandon him.  No one who has seen King Lear can forget the (seemingly neverending) storm scene in which Edgar, who is pretending to be mad, and the Fool, who acts mad professionally, keep up their acts while attempting to care for genuinely mad King Lear.  It always makes me very sad when King Lear says, "And my poor fool is hanged."

4.  Patchface from A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin
A Game of Thrones and its sequels contain many fools - Ser Dontos, Moon Boy, Butterbumps - but the one who stands out for me is poor, tragic Patchface.  So called because of the motley squares tattooed on his face, Patchface was sent to Westeros as a precocious talent, who could juggle, riddle, do magic and sing in four languages.  But a shipwreck deprived him of his wits, and now all he does is sing cryptic fragments ending in, "I know, I know, oh, oh, oh."  I can't help thinking that Patchface really does know something that other people don't, and that a second accident might restore his wits and enable us to find out what it is.

5.  The Little Spirit from Lord of the Dance by Michael Flatley
This could be a cheat because it was only in the 2010 reunion tour that The Little Spirit was dressed like a jester.  But her innocence and flute playing make her, for me, another type of the traditional fool. I was inspired by a combination of The Little Spirit and Robin Hobb's Fool to create The Little Fool in my interactive story, Within the Rain Palace.  Read it here.

Here is my Fool-inspired song, Beloved:

Friday, 4 July 2014

A Castrato in London

Back in March, I wrote a post about "the castrato poet", Filippo Balatri.  I said it would be great if someone who knew Italian could translate a website I'd found about him and his autobiographical poem, Frutti del Mondo.

It gives me great pleasure to say that Leon Conrad, who I interviewed in my last blog, has done just that!  What follows is Leon's rough (and amazingly speedy) translation of a section of Frutti del Mondo  dealing with Balatri's visit to London.  According to Leon, this extract really shows off Balatri's sense of humour, as well as being a fascinating insight into the life of a castrato singer.  A huge thanks to Leon for this favour.

It’s dedicated to ‘The Hon. Mr World’ by his humble servant.


This is a rough summary of the section which covers his trip to the UK, along with some additional notes added on to the text on the website.


arrive in a marvellously walled city.

Accompanied by a nobleman.

I ask him to leave me at an inn.

He’s shocked – “What? When my house is available?”

I wouldn’t want to disappoint the Grand Duke who had such high hopes that you might lodge with me (lit. be counted amongst those who dined regularly around my table)

How will you find your way around without a word of English, without a guide, without a clue how to get from A to B? I’d be committing a schoolboy’s error (lit. grammatical error) in serving you so badly as a patron.

When I was in Florence, your master treated me very kindly. It’s the least I can do to repay his favour.

can’t refuse this noble Englishman, and find myself lodged in his house where  fournoble persons were to be found: father, mother, sisters and a brother-in-law.

They greet me as if they’d known me all their lives. I put my good fortune down to divine providence.

I lack for nothing. I’ve landed on my feet, in a house with a church just round the corner, (something about finding an ambassador perhaps thanks to his escort???) and have found sustenance for both my body and my soul.

There I find 4 ambassadors – all of which have private chapels at home and priests, where I, who have taken catholic vows, can offer up [prayers] to God, without fear of repression.

Music is so popular in England and so sought after that singers who have any reason to be proud of their achievements in voice and art are fought over by rival camps – they go to war over them!

Anne, the present queen, hearing that I, a renowned singer, have arrived in town, has made it known to me that  Ill shortly be called to prostrate myself at her feet – an honour which Ivery glad to accept.

The invitation’s come – it’s made me so happy – and I’m told that if she likes the way I sing, my reputation will be established here.

My host tells me that she liked a castrato called Nicolino and rewarded him richly with gold – and that my singing’s better than his, and will probably please her more.

He says she prefers singing that’s full of pathos to the happy stuff – and that she likes voices that flow sweetly forth rather than give her earache with their screaming.

He tells me all this with more affection than any father would have shown their son. I thank him with tears flowing down my cheeks and promise him my eternal gratitude.

Lady Burlington [Miledi Borlinton], who’s greatly favoured by the queen, asks me to call on her and tells me, “Get ready to perform your best arias at court.”

(Perhaps Lady Burlington, wife of the Duke of Devonshire, a member of the court)

Her Majesty will send you word through me when she would like you to present yourself at Kensington [Kisinton] where the court is currently, and stay there perhaps for a few night.

(The reference is to Kensington Palace)

Get your things ready and as soon as you receive news from me, be ready to set off promptly to satisfy her every wish.”

Following which, she asks me to sing an aria, so she can tell Her Majesty whether Ican sing or whether I just sound like a rattle.

sing an aria that’s full of pathos, and I notice that Her Ladyship is enjoying it, which made it easier for me to hit the mark.

That done, Her Ladyship demands I sing something that – so to speak – shows off the skill I have that people admire so much of singing in my other register [?].

Apparently the royal invitation depends on whether I can cough up the goods. [this is a liberal interpretation]

take my leave, and make preparations as commanded. She’s so chuffed, I don’t think her nose stopped pointing upwards for a week! [Again – a very liberal translation – the phrase is ‘che niun osa toccarlo sotto’al mento’ that no one dared touch the messenger under the chin (or chin strap) – possibly a reference to an Italian hand gesture - – perhaps I’m reading too much into it]

Here’s a carriage that’s come to pick me up. I’m in the antechamber. While I’m waiting for the great moment to arrive when Her Royal Highness will grace me with her hearing,

The courtiers [Li Milordi] crowd round me  one or two of them speak [some sort of] Italian – and with a truly superhuman effort try to interrogate me until they’resatiated.

They want to know about the Czar, the Khan, and I make sure they have their satisfaction, until finally, face-to-face with Bacchus, I surrender – I can hardly stand, let alone draw breath.

An hour passes. Another two. I’m finally dismissed. They’re called away by affairs of state, and whatever general stuff they usually get up to.

I’m told I’ll be informed when I should return. Bowing in every direction to the courtiers around me, I take my leave from the Lords of the court.

I’m on my way back into town, to wait to be called up on another day; but Mr World decided to taunt me, to make me suffer.

It was not the affairs of state as I stated that got in the way of Her Majesty seeing my moustache and hearing me warble [lit. my ululations],

But overcome with sorrows, so bowed down by them was she that evening, got so fed up and frustrated with life,

That in three days’ time the news spreads round London that the Queen has given up. On the fifth, that she’s passed on to the afterlife, and my good luck’s run out.

(The Queen died on 1 August 1714)

The two main parties – Whigs and Tories – wake up. They have no thought for music – their main concern is to rage against everything else.

Some want George to be the king; some the president, and London’s turned upside down. The strongest party carries the vote. And now George is King of England.

He doesn’t come to claim his country; but spends his time partying to music so bad he must be deaf; so all that’s left for me is to pack my singing up in my bag and leave town [?].


It should be noted that:

FB had the opportunity, nevertheless, to be heard in aristocrats’ homes; his host, who brought him to London and whose name remains unknown, put him up for 6 months, and introduced him to society, recommending him to everyone he knew; they, in turn,didn’t hold back in terms of lavishing praise on Baratri, offering him gifts such as boxes, watches, cases, rings, swords … even though they didn’t offer him cash gifts. Londoners were generally of the opinion that he was a ‘gentleman’ – despite this, he never appeared on the London stage. It is with pride that we note that Baratri did not frequent low-life dumps, limiting his performances to churches, oratorios and chamber music. He gained much in terms of honour, and little in terms of cash: his brother came to visit him from Rome and this aggravated his relatively precarious economic situation: at last, the Grand Duke of Tuscany ordered Balatri to return to Florence, in the company of a rather dull and boring Tuscan emissary [?].