A Day in Fort Tryon Park: New York's Biggest Medieval Festival, Endured
A trip to Inwood for puppet shows, fortune telling, illusionists, and jousting. Yay?
“Today we will see a real, live dragon be born!” cried a woman in a rainbow-colored wig and shimmering wings, with a plastic sunflower on her arm. Her audience was — with just a few exceptions — a group of parents, costumed 8-to-12-year-olds, and me: a 27-year-old bearded creep in a peacoat.
I had just arrived at the “Dragon Scales & Faerie Tales” presentation, my first stop at Sunday’s Fort Tryon Park Medieval Festival, New York City’s premier Middle-Ages-themed event. It was a crisp fall afternoon, and the hay bales on which we were all sitting doubtless (in the “Unicorn Forum” section of the festival) would have been chilly under any thickness of cape or gown. We sat in the shadow of the Cloisters museum — a small castle which sits on top of a hill in the center of the park, and houses a world-renowned collection of Medieval art and curiosities.
Pulling aside a giant fuchsia sheet, the faerie-woman revealed a papier-mâché igloo-looking rig, which took me a minute to recognize as a dragon’s egg. It was time for the crowd to summon the dragon: “Use your magic fingers, magic wands … not magic boogers!” Some of the children in the front waved their hands ethereally. “What’s your favorite magic word?” The MC cocked her hand to her ear. “Expecto patronum!” a young woman in her mid-30s yelled after we’d already decided on “Abracadabra,” seemingly to impress her date. It worked; he doubled over with laughter.
To be upfront with you now, this was not what I’d hoped for from the Unicorn Forum. After the man in the (pretty impressive) glittery dragon suit emerged, and the rainbow woman had suggested we name him “Donald Trump,” I decided it was time to move on. I was apprehensive that the other features I had been looking forward to would be of a similarly pandering and jokey character. I was looking to drink in some more serious nerd culture, and perhaps to acquire some new knowledge of the Middle Ages.
My initial fears were, more or less, borne out over the course of the afternoon. This was not an out-of-time oasis a curious loner could get lost in; it was a weird, many-tentacled potluck of people and differing mythologies. As I walked past State Farm booths and trucks selling BBQ turkey legs and various shanks, it quickly became clear that those searching for a committed, poker-faced Ren Faire-ish atmosphere would not find it here. At best, it was a good mixer. The more serious artisans — the Edged Beauty swordsmiths (who were forging on the spot), the Traders of Tamerlane (whose most prominent sign read “Yurts for Sale”), the Tipsy Turtle Henna and Karmic Henna — looked bored with the whole situation, especially as the day wore on and one too many preteens had knocked over one or five of their displays. I felt sorry enough for them that I considered buying a wooden Trinity Knot or pentagram out of pity.
This festival is 31-years-young in its current form; similar parks-supported fairs date back to the ‘60s. I could imagine so many Gen X-er New Yorkers looking at this festival’s listing in Gothamist fondly, remembering their own late elementary-school excursions to Inwood, and being inspired to lug their own up there in a Robin Hood outfit. I had hoped, as a first-time attendee, that as New York’s biggest medieval fair (this year, it attracted somewhere in the realm of 75,000 in one day) there would be a more serious cosplay contingent — in some way, people lost in the dream of their own personal invented Middle Ages, or New Age-y, crystals-powered, Gaelic-speaking alternate realities.
But who was I to impose my escapist or voyeuristic desire on this situation? Most of these families were making memories to last a lifetime.
The only veritable star of a free agent I came across was a jovial middle-aged woman with a strong Long Island accent, covered in netting. She wore a ripped, silvery lingerie-like outfit; on her shoulder perched a puppet that reminded me of Salacious Crumb. She was chained to a masked woman in a dark dalmatian-print onesie, who gave off the strong air of being her daughter (“Yup, she’s my slave … oh, yeah.”) It was deep-seated, dramatic, alluring. There could be a whole fantasy franchise spun out of it. “Slave … I like that!” laughed my neighbor, an off-duty parks employee. This, I surmise, is how people imagine medieval times when they don’t have proper reference materials to consult.
I began to feel lonely. I was the misanthropic, unmoved observer who had come sans partner, family, crew, or costume. I longed for some social circle to adopt me — maybe one of many cliques of vaping goths with plastic scabbards hanging among their chains, or the sketchy-English-speaking tourists who accosted any convincingly attired young woman to get a snap (“She looks really … like from that time!”).
The Fort Tryon festival’s platonic ideal attendee would be a puffy-bloused third-grader sporting a plastic sword or a sequin-embroidered ballgown, who could handle the glacial pace of the entertainment. This was definitely the demographic for the Unicorn Forum, for the tie-dyed-tunic-clad “Phil the Science Teller,” for Marco the Magician’s jack-in-the-box snake who guessed the audience member’s card (without even letting anyone check the deck!), or the botched falconry demonstration by Mike Dupuy, which had to be discontinued after a good 15-plus minutes of futile waiting for the bird to swing back. Ultimately, I felt this was not the kind of winking children’s entertainment designed to be appreciated by both children and their parents. It probably fooled only a narrow majority of the kids and no doubt reduced the parents to the most debased, irritable version of themselves after a long four-hour-day full of it.
At the tournament, the kids were restless. For some reason eight speeches preceded the festival’s final joust. These were given by Manhattan government officials and parks department representatives. All had courtly titles bestowed upon them, and were fully costumed — with the exception of borough president (Lady) Gail Brewer, who kept it to a hat that looked like an elaborate French pastry and a lilac scarf you could probably find pretty easily at a Talbots. Public advocate Letitia Davis waved a plastic pendant of sorts that she dubbed “bling from the far off land of Brooklyn.” I think it was Comptroller Scott Stringer who addressed the audience as “lords and lordies.”
The whole thing was a farce, as — I’m afraid — was much of the joust it preceded. The favorite of the four knights in my section of the stands was Sir Auric, a stout, Sammy Hagar-looking guy with a green lion sigil, who was knocked off his horse right in the first round. “I didn’t pay 50 pieces of gold for this!” yelled a bloodthirsty young lady next to me in a sky-blue-gown and jewel-studded headdress. Sir Auric returned for the hand-to-hand combat to nonsensically and brutally slash the shit-talking Sir David across the belly. Auric ended up with a broadsword in his stomach at the end, but promptly stood up after to assure us all that he was okay. No one left with even so much as a Ugh.
I walked toward the exit behind a crew of variously underwhelmed attendees, including a costume-less 20-something guy who was mansplaining the superiority of “months-long” Ren Faires to his silent spouse. Nearby a crushed-fabric-skirted woman with a gold-encrusted satchel and wooden sword pulled her Peter Pan-ish son (with smaller sword) behind her. I wondered who had led whom to Fort Tryon that day.
At the 190th Street subway stop, I listened to a trio of youth in pseudo-Celtic attire deliver a Glee-like rendition of “Whiskey in the Jar,” and sucked in the last of the ambience. This would definitely be the last time I hit this festival without a support system. I would have to keep searching for my perfect faire.