Dimitri chuckles to himself as he watches Jakob, his father, rehearsing a troupe of clowns. Amid scenes of much hilarity they attempt and spectacularly fail to persuade three stubborn billy goats and a group of five lively piglets to perform a series of circus tricks.
Eventually Jakob is happy that the choreography has been established and moves on to rehearse another part of the act. It involves a performer of very short stature and an ass. The performer, Nidhar, is dressed as a Sikh, complete with black silk jacket and pantaloons and black turban; he boasts a bushy beard as black as soot. His short act is scheduled to precede that of Savitar, and is intended to be a humorous parody of the great horseman’s demonstration.
It culminates in him galloping – or what counts to an ass as galloping– around the perimeter of the ring, faster and faster with each circuit, with an arm raised in a grand comic gesture of bravado. Just as he reaches top speed the ass, whose name is Kaya, suddenly and without any apparent warning, digs in its heels and comes to a remarkably abrupt halt. Nidhar is dramatically unseated and hurtles over Kaya’s head at a considerable height, flying uncontrollably through the air with arms and legs akimbo.
For a heart-stopping moment serious injury seems certain. However, at the very last second, Nidhar gathers up his limbs, and breaks his fall with a series of forward rolls. It is a demonstration of comic genius and almost unbelievable agility. They complete the performance and make their exit with Nidhar chasing the guilty Kaya from the ring.
During the actual performance Jakob would of course wear the long red coat of the ring-master. However, since taking up the role of circus leader, he attends clown rehearsals dressed as Harlequin.
The character Arlecchino of the Commedia dell’arte, is often depicted as a quick-witted, unscrupulous serving man. The character’s English name is Harlequin, itself derived from the French Herlequin, who nowadays appears in pantomime and comedy as a mute jester, dressed in diamond-patterned, multi-coloured tights.
In times past, Harlequin was far more menacing than the comic character he eventually became, and his name is even now in some places sometimes used as a generic term for a devil. In parts of Europe he is associated with the leader of the wild hunt, called in some country places, Hennequin’s hunt.
Dimitri’s father – who before taking up the role of ring-master had for many years performed as a circus clown – had told him long ago of King Herla, or Herla King, thought by some to have been the original model. At Herla’s wedding a large group of little people appeared from nowhere and acted as servants during the feast:
“…with vessels made out of precious stones, all new and wondrously wrought… They filled the palace and the tents with furniture either made of gold or precious stones… Their raiment was gorgeous; for lamps they provided blazing gems; they were never far off when they were wanted, and never too close when not desired.”
At the behest of the little people’s satyr-like king, Herla in turn spent three days in their underworld realm as a guest at the fairy king’s wedding. Neither his kingdom, nor his splendid palace, was lit by sun or moon. It was reached through a dark cave high on a cliff. Having attended the fairy king’s wedding Herla and his entourage returned after the three days loaded with many gifts. Among them was a little dog which the fairy king advised must jump down to the ground before any man alighted from his horse. Some of his men forgot this advice and on dismounting immediately turned to dust. Herla discovered that they had been missing not for three days as they thought, but for three hundred years. Walter Map, the 12th Century teller of the tale, concludes:
“The dog has not leapt down yet. One legend states that Herla for ever wanders on mad journeys with his train, without home or rest. Many people, as they tell us, often see his company. “
An even earlier tale told by Ordericus Vitalis at the end of the 11th Century relates the experience of a priest travelling at night in the Diocese of Liseux in Normandy. The writer relates in some detail how the priest encounters an army of devils led by a masked, club-wielding giant conducting the recently dead to Hell:
“…an immense army in which no colour was visible, but only blackness and fiery flames. All were mounted on great war-horses, and fully armed as if they were prepared for immediate battle, and they carried black banners.”
The miserable sinners represented some of the many kinds of men and women, including individuals who were held in high esteem by the living, among them even eminent holders of religious office. For as the narrator observes:
“Human judgment is often fallible, but the eye of God seeeth the inmost thoughts; for man looks only to outward appearances, God searcheth the heart.”
The priest is in no doubt that the devils are the Herlechini:
“Doubtless these are Harlequin’s people; I have often heard of their being seen, but I laughed at the stories, having never had any certain proofs of such things.”
However, Dimitri’s father had also advised his son that the figure of the Harlequin had a long history indeed, much longer than that comprehended by our historians. It is one which puts the character in a very different light; and the time would come, he promised, when Arturo would provide more details.
And this he duly did:
“The laughing child of the morning sun, when all has been said and all has been done, shall at noon become the mighty lord of the steeply slanting ray. The spark that gutters in the gloomy wood shall yet become a roaring conflagration to consume the dross of a thousand lives. The nestling of night and day shall rise from the drowsy Earth, as the broad-winged eagle soars heavenward upon the scented air. The old moon shall become the new, and shall plunge into the depths of the whelming waters of light and life. The seed, long- buried in the human heart, shall burst asunder, shall slay the darkness that surrounds it; and shall yield the golden bough.
Soon enough the virgin of the dawn shall become the mother of us all; and the rosy horizon of the fulgent east shall blaze with the light of the coming child. The Christ-child shall grow to be a Man, shall die, shall descend to harrow Hell and lead all souls once lost in shade from the darkness unto light.
The spirit and all-seeing eye of fire and light, shall behold the phoenix of flame and the phoenix of water rise to the firmament like twin-stars, and shall pronounce it good; and soon enough it shall place upon them its everlasting seal. The winding sheets shall be torn and the trembling air shall be full with the aromas of spikenard, of black cardamom, of sandalwood and myrrh.
Dull and leaden philosophies shall become the radiant thoughts of living gold; dancers in the cities of the world shall dance their dance in the holy silence of the mystic night; singers of the dawning light, shall the dawning light become; the blind shall see, the lame shall walk and the dead shall rise again; and the whirling world shall find peace and poise.
Soon enough the ransom shall be paid in full, of tears and treasure, and lo, the prisoner shall be free; soon enough the cub shall be the leader of the howling pack; soon enough the high-born foster-child shall know his name and take his rightful place; soon enough the voyager shall reach the golden shore; and the foot-worn pilgrim yet shall stand before the Holy Gate; self shall breathe joy upon the waters of the world; and the wine that once was water shall be served at the wedding feast of love.
And soon enough, Dimitri, the tumbling clown shall become the diamond-suited harlequin; and Our Lady’s humble juggler shall yet become the master of the ring.”