November 20, 2005

Through The Ivory Door

Today, The Wife and I learned of a fascinating play written in 1928 by A.A. Milne, the author of the famous Winnie-the-Pooh books. Milne wrote this play, The Ivory Door, for adults. It is told as a fairy tale. Near as I can tell, the name of the play comes from a chapter of a novel by Lewis Carroll. The story goes something like this:

The eight-year-old Prince Perival barges into the throne room where his father, the king, is doing some sort of kingly business. The king sets his work aside to speak to his father.

"Father, is it true that I will be king one day.”

“Yes,” the king says, “When I am dead, you will be king.”

“When will you die?”

“I don’t know; no one knows.”

The young price was now upset. “But they say that kings know everything!”

“They say that, my son, but a thing is not true just because many men say it.”

“They say that kings are the best swordsmen, the most clever artists, and the wisest leaders of all men, too.”

“Yes, son, they say this, but not all kings are good swordsmen, or good artists, or even wise, I am afraid. We are men, and we do the best we can. Surely you know that you are not the best swordsman in the court; Baram is.”

The young prince thinks for a second, unhappy about what his father has said. Then he remembers the first part of his talk with his father. “What will it be like when you are dead?”

“No one knows, son. The chaplain says that I will go to heaven. Others, I am sure, think that I may go to hell. The jester says that there is no heaven or hell. But no one knows for sure.”

“Father, what is behind the ivory door?”

At this, the king bristles. He interrogates his son, “Who told you about the ivory door?”

“Father, everyone in the kingdom speaks of the ivory door. It is supposed to be here, in your throne room, and they say that there are evil spirits who live behind it and use the door to come into and out of the world. But I’ve never seen one of these spirits here, and I don’t think you’d want evil spirits here in the throne room.”

“No, son, I don’t, but I don’t know what’s behind that door. The truth is, I’ve never opened it. It’s behind the great tapestry here, but no one has gone into it since your grandfather, King Stephen. He went into the door and was never heard from again. I do not dare enter.” The king pulled the tapestry aside, and showed his son the ivory door. “I do not know if there are evil spirits or not, son, but I dare not tempt them.”

“Father,” the young prince asked, “If it is not true that you are the best swordsman, or the wisest man, or the most clever artist, what else do they say about you that is not true?”

“Son, they say that when I met your mother, I snuck out of the castle, disguised as a peasant, and met her, also in disguise, and we fell in love the day before we were married. But no, as with the custom of the day, I did not meet your mother until the wedding ceremony. I have only come to love her after marrying her. No, our marriage was arranged by my father, for political reasons. This will be the way with you, too, when the time comes, for a king’s marriage is a matter too important to be otherwise.”

And many years later, it came to pass that young prince Perival, now twenty years old and king himself upon his father’s death, was to be married. His betrothed was Princess Lillia, the daughter of a king from a neighboring kingdom. Perival did not meet Lillia, but the tale was told exactly as had been told for his father. On the day before his wedding, Perival spoke to the Captain of the Royal Guard, Baram.

“Baram, today is my last day as a single man, accountable only to myself. I wish to learn what lies beyond that ivory door.”“No, Your Majesty!” Baram protested. “You, of all people, should know your responsibilities, and know what lies beyond that door. Evil spirits and death await you if you forsake your kingdom!”

“I’ve never believed any of that, Baram, and as you king, I command you to let me go.”

Baram bowed. “Very well, Majesty. But if you are gone too long without giving me some signal that you have returned, I shall sound the bell that you are dead. Will three hours be enough time for you?”

“Yes, Baram; surely I will be back in three hours’ time.”

And so King Perival opened the ivory door and went through. And not thirty minutes later, did he come out of a secret passage by the river, outside the town and castle. Covered with dirt and filth from the passageway, all his fine royal clothes had been torn and shredded, and many of his jewels had gone missing in the passage. But King Perival knew of where he was, for he could see his own castle and town in the distance, and he heard travelers moving along a path nearby. So he set out to return to his town and his castle.

Along the way, he met troupe of mummers. The mummers did not recognize him, and thought it a fine joke to hear that this dirty, penniless man dressed in torn clothing claimed to be the King. For the amusement of himself and his fellow travelers, one of the mummers tried to teach this itinerant how a King should act, which in turn amused Perival greatly. So greatly indeed, that Perival lost track of time and nearly the entire three hours had passed by the time the mummers’ party arrived at the gates of the town. At the town gates, the guards let the mummers in, but would not allow Perival to enter.

“But I am the King!” protested Perival.

“You are no King of mine,” said the guard. “Ho! We have an imposter here! You know that in this kingdom, impersonating royalty is punished with death, do you not, villain?”

“Aye, I do, but I do not impersonate your king – I am your King and I command you to stand aside!”

At this, the guards seized Perival and took him to the dungeon. But along the way, the bells tolled in alarm – the signal that the King was dead!

The jailer at the dungeon looked at Perival and cried, “O how much like the late King does this man look! Surely he is one of the evil spirits from behind yon ivory door who now impersonates the King! Yet he looks different; the spirits of evil are no match for the keen eye of the good and wise men of the realm, even bereaved of our beloved ruler as we!”

“Fool!” cried Perival. “Your king lives; he stands before you; he is I and I am he! I have gone through that ivory door and found nothing but a dark passage out to the river outside of the town gates. There are no evil spirits, only the roots of trees and sharp rocks, which tore my clothes on my way!”

The jailer’s face turned white. “Lies! Lies! Foul demon, be silent!” And with that, he threw Perival into the dungeon.

Meanwhile, in the throne room, Princess Lillia entered and spoke with Baram. “Why do you sound the bells so early, Captain? Surely the King is not dead!”

“For the King is gone three hours and that was the time he commanded me to wait before sounding the bells. The story is told that none who enter the ivory door live and none but evil spirits emerge from it.” At this point, the castle’s chaplain burst into the throne room, crying that the guards had captured an evil demon who was impersonating the late king.

“Surely,” Princess Lillia protested, “You do not want your King to be dead!”

“The people, my dear Princess, would rather the King be dead than their beliefs be false,” replied Baram. “Chaplain, waste no more time with the demon; I shall examine him soon enough. Go and find the King’s brother, who is next in line for the throne, and proclaim, ‘The King is dead, long live the King!’”

“Nonsense!” cried Princess Lillia. “I know nothing of evil spirits, and I shall show you all that this so-called demon is your right and true king, and my betrothed!” And she pulled open the ivory door and ran through it, before the chaplain and Baram could stop her.

Now, Lillia, too, became very dirty and her fine clothes were also also ruined by the time she emerged by the river, blinking in the bright sunlight. Yet she made her way back to town, and she, too, was arrested by the guards, who said that she was no princess and instead was a peasant impersonating a royal. She too was taken to the dungeon.

There, the jailer said to her, “If ye truly be the princess, then surely ye can see who among the prisoners here is the man you say is the King. For we all know that the Princess and the King met last night in the forest, both escaping your royal confinement, and fell in love while in disguise. Show me, then, your beloved!”

But Lillia had in truth not yet met her fiancĂ©, as was the custom of the day, and of the prisoners in the dungeon, all looked the same – filthy, wretched knaves, every one. “I cannot, jailer, but I am the Princess all the same! Surely you know this story is told as a romance, so that all the people will believe that the marriage is for love and not for politics between your kingdom and my father’s. Yet all wise men know better; pray release me and let me marry my King, and perchance grow to live him as my mother grew to love my father over time.”

“Silence! You too are a foul demon, more dangerous than even he, and I will not hear you!”

Perival and Lillia then spoke for the first time. “My Lord,” Lillia asked, “How is it that we have come to be here?”

“I see now, Lillia, that you are a fine match for me and would that we had met last night. You see, when I emerged from that tunnel, I found that all the stories about the evil spirits were not true. Just like you, all I found was a secret path to the river. Yet none had the courage to see for themselves what was truly there. When I came out, and cried to the world that there was no abyss, there were no demons or spirits, and that the tunnel was harmless, what my people heard was me calling them fools and cowards. I was the fool, to expect that they would be grateful for this.”

Lillia spoke as would a princess, “You speak true, Perival; for I see now that your people would sooner sacrifice their King and Princess than admit their cowardice. We can only hope that there are other brave souls who will speak the truth and help us.”

Now, the King’s brother had not yet been found, and the chaplain, the jailer, and merchants from the town all were gathering in response to the rumors that the King had been found alive, and other rumors that a demon had come to impersonate the King and trick the entire realm. So it was that Perival and Lillia were thrown in to a crowded throne room, for the townspeople said, “Surely, if anyone shall know who the true King is, it will be his best friend and Captain of his Royal Guard, Baram, and he shall decide for us all.” And with that, Baram had Perival and Lillia summoned to the throne room.

The crowd gathered in a circle as Baram looked at the dirty couple. He leaned in close to them, and said, “You have but one chance to live. They will never believe me if I say you are the King and the Princess, and this you will never be again. You must go through the ivory door again, and leave the Kingdom and never return; else you will be executed. This I do because we were once friends.”

Perival whispered back, “But, Baram, we are royals! We are not wise in the ways of the world? What is to become of us? Am I to be a merchant? Is she to become a washer-woman? We know nothing of such things!”

“Do not take our stories from us!” whispered back Baram, and with that he stepped away from the two prisoners in the circle. “This,” he cried, “is not your King!" And Baram, to his dying day, believed he spoke true. Baram went on, "We shall send them back from whence they came!” And so the chaplain opened the ivory door and the jailer forced the two in.

For this, Baram was given the title of Savior of the Realm. Lillia and Perival were never heard from again.

The story ends, a hundred years later, with a new King on the throne being asked by his young son whether the legendary Baram was really a hero.

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