NOTE to our website readers: During this coming year (Nov 2015 to Oct 2016), in addition to comments on LGBT issues and reflections on Thai religion and village life, I will be providing a series of reminiscences about historic Christian buildings and programs in Chiang Mai and a few short-short stories. The following is the first of at least 5 stories about Professor Virgil Verbal who believes English language can be just as magical as other subjects taught at the world’s most famous school of Witchcraft and Wizardry. As with most of the Virgil Verbal stories, I have investigated possible sources of J.K. Rowling’s magical ideas, and for this story came up with fascinating facts about hobgoblins, elves like the Kobold elf in the picture, and Samhain (November 1, a day far older than Halloween).
A familiar, large, maroon book hovered in front of Professor Virgil Verbal as his third year students came from breakfast into the semi-circular classroom. The November sky in the Great Hall ceiling had looked overcast with scudding clouds fleeing from the north. But the “Advanced Adventures” classroom had only an arrow-slit window at the far end which was always covered with thick black drapes. Student chairs had been replaced by cloak racks on which hung green capes and large scarves which Professor Verbal was modeling. Without needing to be coached, the students put down their backpacks and donned capes and scarves.
“Today we will venture into Sherwood Forest…” the teacher said, matter-of-factly, even though what was left of the famous forest was a long Hogwarts Express train ride south. “…into the fourth century,” Professor Verbal finished his announcement. “Ranklin will be our guide.”
Many of the ten students taking the elective course on Advanced Adventures knew that Ranklin was a house elf attached to the Attlee estate which Professor Verbal had inherited from his Anglo-Saxon ancestors. Like most teachers at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Professor Verbal did not talk about his family, although some students assumed he had descended from a long line of magical ancestors despite his affinity with Muggles and his love of history and academic studies. It was altogether possible that the ghost of Professor Binns had mentioned the Attlees and their aristocratic Verbal branch in some droning lecture the students had dozed through. If he had been more forceful they might have perked up because they liked benign, bland Professor Verbal. Quite despite his character, his imagination and creative teaching were such fun that he drew a loyal group of students year after year. There was nothing pale and colorless about the adventures that poured out of his maroon book floating in the center of the room. Unlike such standard courses as Herbology, Potions and Transfiguration, Adventures was not always confined to the present or even the past, as was History. Some stories moved students into the future, but it did seem that today’s adventure into Sherwood Forest in the fourth century would take them into the past.
“If we only had access to a preserved wisp of memory from our intended informants we could perhaps impose on our Headmistress to let us use the Pensieve for our journey, but you have now mastered the art of this sort of travel through the drier medium of old books,” he joked. In an earlier course the students had been “enchanted” into the stories they read. But by now, merely touching the maroon leather would get them transported. For a few students, just imagining touching the book or looking at its enthralling pages was enough.
However, to get them all to the same destination, Professor Verbal began reading, “On the day of Samhain in the Christian year 409 a fateful confrontation was undertaken in a little Roman village with the pretentious name Antonius, a short way north of Segelocum, which is now the hamlet of Littleborough in Nottinghamshire. In a field on one side of the village Druid priests prepared to sacrifice a virgin, while a Christian missionary just arrived from across the Channel was preparing to oppose it.” The classroom faded.
The students found themselves huddled in misty shadows at the edge of a thick wood. Before them stood a giant figure made of sticks and straw with a gaping hole in its torso. A young woman lay on the ground at its feet while townspeople watched a naked dancer feverishly menace the victim with a spear in one hand and a long knife in the other. The dancer was screaming chants while a chorus of townspeople droned responses accompanied by three drums. The woman, clothed only in tufts of dry grass bound by rope, was perfectly still, as though resigned to her fate or drugged.
Opposite them a lone figure holding a wooden cross accompanied by two boys, was also chanting from a book one of the boys held open. In truth, the Christian monk could not read the book, but he had memorized what he wanted to say. The monk was dressed as a Roman, as were the elders of the village. His chant was in Latin, the language of the Romans who had conquered all this part of the island of Britannia, which the people considered their whole world.
From time to time the naked shaman took a slice at the supine woman, catching a few blades of grass, making the people gasp. Each time he did this the monk thrust the wooden cross forward and forbade danger to come to the girl. It seemed a futile gesture. What could sticks of wood do against a flint spear and iron sword?
This contest was not what it appeared to be. It was not about the Roman-Celtic monk against the Anglo-Celtic Druid. Nor was it a battle between the old order and the new, as later accounts would have it. A much more definite and final struggle was going on with the Druid and the Christian just holding the attention of the townspeople to keep them out of the way. There was no clue that the monk and the Druid knew they were a sideshow while the main event went on deeper in the thick wood.
Ranklin tugged at Professor Verbal’s cape and he waved his students to follow him. They turned away from the unconcluded sacrifice that would decide if the village was to become Christian. They walked soundlessly into the dense forest. After but a few hundred paces they came upon a scene that blotted out all thought of the village and its drama. There before them gaped a large hole in the ground as if the earth had sunk causing a long hollow. Clustered around the rim of this crevasse were thousands of creatures. They were of similar build, like hairy little men and women the size of four-year-old human children, with big pointed ears, enormous noses, bulbous eyes and heads too large for their small powerful bodies.
At sight of this mob the students all glanced at Ranklin standing beside Professor Verbal. These were Ranklin’s ancestors, surely. The house elf paid attention only to the scene before them.
In the middle of the pit, two clusters of about ten individuals each were milling about and apparently jeering at each other. Then the action became more intense. With a sudden gesture, two of one group seemed to devastate two of the other. The attackers had not touched their targets, but the victims crumpled in agony.
Chaos ensued, accompanied by cracks as loud as thunder when boulders were hacked in two by unseen forces. This escalated the action and a group on the rim waved their arms as if to concentrate the air to produce a whirlwind. The wind was countered by bolts of lightning. Here and there the battle got personal and some individuals sparred, attempting to pull ears and gouge eyes. These attacks were all ineffectual, as no one was actually wounded. Pride, it seems, was the target. The goal was to humiliate each other.
The student spectators could make nothing of the fighting. The students couldn’t even tell who was on which side. The combatants looked the same.
But apparently some objective was reached because all at once, after quite a breathtaking final melee, half the group flocked into the cavern and were gone, while the other half clustered around their champions without, however, displaying signs of victory or defeat. Whatever had been decided was not about which side won.
A couple of student noticed that Ranklin was stock still, as if thunderstruck or dumbfounded.
The hundreds who had not withdrawn underground disbanded, moving away in all directions, until there were none left to be seen.
“What was that?” one of the students asked.
“That was the war of the Hobgoblins,” Professor Verbal replied. “On this day the Hobs and the Goblins separated, each withdrawing to the conditions they preferred.”
“Couldn’t they have done that without a fight?” a young wizard from Aberdeen asked.
“There was the question of whether one group could dominate the other, I suppose,” Professor Verbal replied.
“Was it a draw?” a witch from Surry asked.
“It was,” the teacher assured her. “From then on the Cofgodas of the Anglo-Saxons and the Lares of the Romans in Britain remained domestic. We think of them as elves, or Brownies in Scotland, although ones like the Kobold from Germany tend to be even more attached to hearth and home. The Goblins prefer the underground with its minerals and mines and are known throughout our lands as Dwarves.”
“But they are Goblins,” a Slytherin student insisted.
“How have the elves been turned into slaves?” a girl asked, avoiding a glance from Ranklin.
“I think you will find they are not all so subservient,” Professor Verbal suggested. “Those attached to magical families and households have been severely subjugated. But outside our magical world elves can be quite independent. They all retain great skills, when allowed to manifest them.”
“They can spin straw into gold,” one Muggle-born student recalled from the story of Rumpelstiltskin.
“And produce wonderful leather slippers,” remembered another.
“Puck,” announced a third. The students born in strict magical families had never heard of dangerous Puck or “Robin Goodfellow” as he was called. Even after the Battle of Hogwarts and the end of terror against the Muggles, independent elves were seldom mentioned.
“Perhaps it is time to return to our classroom,” Professor Verbal suggested since no further adventures seemed forthcoming right then in Sherwood Forest.
Ranklin, for once, was inattentive to his master. Still staring at the now-vacant crevasse he muttered, “We were once one. We were gods.”
“We were, we all were, if we go back far enough,” Verbal reassured his elf and his students.
Ranklin was never quite the same after that.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.