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Orson Scott Card's The Folk of the Fringe and Medieval Mystery Cycles:
The Story That Binds Them Together

In the "Author's Note" to The Folk of the Fringe, Orson Scott Card acknowledges his debt to the art of dramatic pageantry in creating what he calls the "original story" of the collection, "the one at the root of all the others and…the hardest to write (295):

Ironically, after I signed the contract for the book that would contain "Pageant Wagon," I was asked to write the new script for the Mormon Church's Hill Cumorah Pageant, the oldest and best and most resonant of the Church's pageants. It was a mark of great trust in me, and I spent the winter of 1987 working on nothing else. The result was a script that I was proud of, given the institutional needs and pressures that must shape such a work. I also came to understand far more clearly just what such a pageant is for, how it feeds the hunger of a community; if I had not written America's Witness for Christ, the real Hill Cumorah Pageant, I could not have written Glory of America, the mini-pageant that is performed in "Pageant Wagon." (297)

Far from remaining a "satirical yet powerful fifteen minute pageant that would be a commentary on the self-congratulatory pageants that Mormons are wont to put on" (296), the pageant-within-a-story grew in scope and complexity until it formed a nucleus for five independent but interlinked stories. As the idea was transformed from sketches toward a musical comedy to narrative, it also seems to have undergone a metamorphosis of intention. The story becomes not only a story about such pageants but also a representation of such a pageant. Thus even though events in "Pageant Wagon" are occasionally peripheral to the stories of earlier characters, they are central to an underlying theme in The Folk of the Fringe -- a collection of stories that, taken together, creates a verbal pageant of faith, survival, and regeneration.

Card implies that the Aals' rickety flatbed truck fulfills more important functions than just transporting an itinerant acting company through an inhospitable land. The truck is a vehicle for salvation: first when the company physically rescues Carpenter in "The Fringe"; again when it rescues Teague physically and spiritually in "Pageant Wagon"; and finally when it becomes a nexus for community and cultural salvation.

Bearing its advertisement for "Sweetwater's Miracle Pageant" the truck links Card's stories to a central dramatic forms of the Middle Ages, the Mystery Cycles -- extended sequences of interrelated plays performed largely from the thirteenth to the fifteenth Centuries in England. When Card's characters describe their presentation, they blend classical, medieval, and contemporary terminology: "We who travel in, on, and around this truck are minstrels of the open road. Madrigals and jesters, thespians and dramaturges, the second-rate Sophoclean substitute for NBC, CBS, ABC, and, may the Lord forgive us, PBS" (148). When Deaver Teague comments that they are "Show gypsies," the actors' reactions indicates that he has misunderstood their definition of the company: "…Ollie's father winced and Ollie snapped off the inside light and the truck sped up, rattling more than ever. Maybe they were mad because they knew all the stories that got told about show gypsies, and they figured Deaver was being snide when he said "pageant wagon" like that" (149).

It seems more likely, however, that the Aals are reacting to their perception that they were more than just Show gypsies, that Sweetwater's Miracle Show is more than an itinerant pageant. Even though the company is troubled by marginally corrupt, frequently antagonistic and suspicious city officials, by an unsavory reputation (at least partially undeserved), and by having to travel from town to town, their show is a powerful force for community. Their pageant, Glory of America, helps bond the fragmented society around the Mormon Sea (Great Salt Lake). They travel under the commission of the Prophet; and, as Deaver Teague discovers, their calling exceeds mere entertainment. The company is to define and re-unify a ravaged community: "For a while tonight [the audience] saw and heard and felt the same things. And now they'd carry away the same memories, which meant that to some degree they were the same person. One" (215).

The medieval Mystery Cycles (often also referred to as 'miracle' plays) fulfilled a similar role in their societies. W. A. Davenport discusses the plays as celebrations of shared religious ceremonial occasions, employing extensive dramatic performances of plays that "told the Christian story, from the Creation of the World to the Last Judgment, in a series of short tableaux with dialogue" (1-2). Such plays were commonly presented by guildsmen on traveling stage-wagons -- originally called simply pageants -- that wound through the streets of Coventry, York, and other centers of community. The plays had theological as well as entertainment value in recreating human history from beginning to end, but "the coverage of the ages of history and the ages of mankind is selective and spare enough for one to see the patterns forming" (Davenport 127). Through these patterns, the plays instruct and edify by defining the parameters of Christian life, by blending literal history with the "interpretation of History through Christian faith. So myth and prophecy join the chronicle of ancient times, as they do in the Bible, to form a complete account of life from the Creation of the World to the Last Judgment of men" (Davenport 4).

Nearly all of the academic discussions of the Mystery/Miracle Cycles emphasize that the cycles display a unity that transcends the meanings of individual plays. According to Martin Stevens, for example, the Corpus Christi cycles were "not so many interchangeable structures built to carry out the same function, but carefully constructed frameworks that, like cathedrals, have about them a unique beauty and understanding not only of the subject that they all have more or less in common but also of the way in which they make that subject come alive in each of their dramatic settings" (11).

Human existence is portrayed as part of an overriding pattern; human history becomes a revelation of divine intention. Variations on the Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Judgment provide the surface content of the plays, but beneath that lie more critical functions. The Mystery Cycles established "the patterns of correspondence, the forecasts of the future and the echoes of the past, the symbolic prefigurings of the role of Christ, the fulfillment of the pre-known destiny" (Davenport 127) essential to medieval Christianity.

A similar purpose underlies Card's "Pageant Wagon." Called by the Prophet (157, 179), Aal's troupe entertains the people of a dark, hostile land. Their arrival is a parade; their performance, a public highlight. They may (and perhaps other pageants do) leave behind them a "string of pregnant virgins and empty chicken coops" (149)(1), but that does not invalidate their primary function: to Name, and by Naming to consolidate. As Deaver says to Katie after the performance of Glory of America, "I saw you take an audience and turn them into one person, with one soul" (218). That soul is the surviving American soul, the Mormon soul that has endured in spite of nuclear bombs that create the Mormon Sea, in spite of pogroms and hatred and bigotry, in spite of a lifestyle that is brutal and demanding and unforgiving.

In spite of everything, Glory of America asserts that the essential spirit of the people endures. When, near the end of the pageant, 'Betsy Ross' stands alone in the spotlight and asks of the American flag, "Does it still wave?" (214), the audience responds as one. For that moment (and subsequent moments, until the experience fades into memory) the people are one. Katie disparages the company's dramatic achievements; the actors are, she contends, merely repeating memorized lines. But Deaver is uniquely both part of the pageant and part of the audience. He can see the play's effect on the audience and can understand it more completely than Katie because for the first time he feels the emergent sense of community. He sees the joy that transforms a bitter, petty functionary into a smiling father and husband (215).

Perhaps because "Pageant Wagon" was conceived as a musical comedy, the pageant's effect on Deaver and its fictional audience may spill over into the reader as well. The play is, as Katie is aware, only marginally drama. The history it reproduces is questionable; its characters, wooden and stereotypical. But those are precisely the strategies that made the Mystery Cycles effective, if not as drama then as statements of a culture. Davenport's description of the cycles can stand almost unaltered as a description of Card's Glory of America as well:

Many of the named historical figures in the cycles are represented simply as 'tableau' figures and given the speeches necessary for them to fulfill their function in unfolding the story. But some figures were far more developed and the main method of development was to use historical instances as exemplification of moral ideas. This is one main way in which the bare material of Scripture was expanded, so that in the individual example one saw the types of mankind. Hence Herod becomes the type of the ranting tyrant, boasting of worldly power, and brought down as punishment for pride; Pilate becomes a more complex version of the holder of power, because he holds in trust worldly justice as well as worldly command." (7)

Hence we see America's "bumbling fool of a President" and "the evil Soviet tyrant" in the Aals' pageant, both threatening to "out-Herod Herod" or "out-Pilate Pilate." In their nearly slapstick interchange, Card defines the critical human types that lead to holocausts. In the abrupt transition from comedy to tragedy that prefigures the end of old America and the beginning of the new, a third character enters. The most heroic range rider in the ravaged lands around the Mormon Sea, Royal Aal (Marshall Aal's estranged brother) defies history and strides onto the stage: "Then he reached down to the President's body -- to lift him up? No. To draw out of his costume the gold and green beehive flag of Deseret" (213). Type reveals truth; pageant becomes reality: "This time the flag rose slowly; the anthem of Deseret began to play. Anyone who wasn't standing stood now, and the crowd sang along with the music, more and more voices, spontaneously becoming part of the show" (213).

The essence of America has been re-defined, and with it the essence of Mormonism: "George Washington, Betsy Ross, Joseph Smith, Abraham Lincoln, Brigham Young, all part of the same unfolding tale. Their own past" (211). In spite of the weaknesses and failings Card details throughout the earlier stories in the collection -- "West," "Salvage," and "The Fringe" -- the essence remains, like the prayers inscribed on crumpled bits of metal and carried into the submerged depths of the Salt Lake Temple. The surface structures may have been damaged, even in part destroyed; but the essence remains.

"Pageant Wagon," then, is what it describes. It is the story of a near-future analogue to the Miracle plays, of a stage wagon that travels from point to point bringing entertainment and spectacle into difficult lives, and that at the same time binds actors and audience into a unity of belief and story and community. And, like the great Mystery Cycles, that story is only one episode in a larger pageant, Card's verbal pageant of the essence of faith and endurance.

There are good reasons to consider Card's approach in The Folk of the Fringe as at least as closely analogous to the medieval cycles as to contemporary, more narrowly focused pageants such as America's Witness for Christ. Considered as an independent story, "Pageant Wagon" evaluates such pageants while simultaneously presenting one. In a sense, the story is such a pageant. Readers are invited not only to share Deaver Teague's responses to it, but to assess their own responses as well. "Pageant Wagon" is only one story of five, however; and even within the confines of the story, Glory of America is at best only one element in a complex drama of relationships.

"Pageant Wagon" is, according to Card, the "root" story of the collection. Beyond the meaning and value of its own narrative, however, "Pageant Wagon" also defines a mode by which to read The Folk of the Fringe. It ties the other stories together by defining the framework upon which they are assembled; it instructs readers in how to approach the sequence of stories … as a pageant, a series of tableaux that at times seems more tapestry than recitation of human actions. In speaking of the Mystery Cycles, Davenport writes that their form is essentially

episodic and panoramic. The short pageants are complete in themselves, but they depend for their logic on what precedes and follows; on the other hand, the contents of the cycle could vary, from year to year, without the essential idea of the "play" being harmed. The pieces of the mosaic are organized by an all-over simple structural design, consisting of beginning (Creation and Fall), middle (Incarnation), and end (Redemption and Judgment). (5)

Similarly, The Folk of the Fringe could easily have been told with alternate tales. Card admits as much when he talks about episodes for "West" that were conceived before he had fully developed his central character (294-295), or when he says that he could have published "Pageant Wagon" in an earlier version. But more importantly, The Folk of the Fringe is structurally "cyclical and panoramic." The culminating tale, "America," surrounds and encompasses the other episodes; it is at once the first (chronologically) and the last (sequentially) of the stories Card chooses to tell. Other stories depend on it and on each other for interwoven threads that clarify and define. And ultimately they fit into Cards own mosaic of Beginning, Middle, and End.

"West" is a paradoxical story of Creation and Expulsion from Eden. In this case, creation is ironic, since the new (in the form of Card's small group of Mormon survivors) rises from the ashes of the old America. "West" is a story about order and stability in conflict with disorder and instability that reaches from the individual to encompass and disintegrate first the family (as in Jamie Teague's life history) and finally society as a whole. In a world where everything has changed, only one constant remains: the Promise of Zion in the Salt Lake Basin. The group's goal is never in doubt, not even when they reach the seductive haven of Jamie Teague's Blue Ridge cabin. As an image of a new paradise, the mountains invite; but the focus of "West" is implicit in its title. In spite of the temptations to remain, the group moves west, toward Zion, with their "hired" guide. He guides them physically through the eastern mountains, but more critically they guide him spiritually through the accumulated guilt of a ravaged childhood. By accepting their openness he accepts their love; that love brings him into unity with himself and with others.

By the end of "West," the new world is clearly in focus. The small party is met by outriders from the flooded Salt Lake Valley and brought to the new capitol city, Zarahemla. Incorporated into Mormon Sea society, each of the characters finds a place, while retaining a sense of group unity: "Being the sole company ever to come in from the Greensboro massacre, that gave them a story that bound them together" (83). In this way, "West" becomes a story of creation -- creation of trust, of faith, of life, of health and understanding, and of love in the ruins of a world destroyed by their opposites.

"Salvage" parallels the Mystery plays based on Noah and the flood. Like those plays, it represents a world drowned as a consequence of its own sin and error. Like the antediluvian world, that world is also dead, a point that Deaver Teague recognizes more instinctively than those still obsessed with resurrecting the material remains of the past (88). In spite of his cynicism, however, Teague (the only character from "West" who did not fit into Mormon Sea society) is desperately searching for something; and he believes he has found it in rumors of gold hidden in the flooded Salt Lake Temple. The temple becomes the focus of his faith, just as it has always been and continues to be the focus of the "epick" of Mormonism. (Card's distinctive critical term, defined in "Fantasy and the Believing Reader".) In it he will find the life he desires:

It was down there, waiting for him; the future, a chance to get something better for himself and his two friends. Maybe a plot of ground in the south where it was warmer and the snow didn't pile up five feet deep every winter, where it wasn't rain in the sky and lake everywhere else you looked. A place where he could live for a very long time and look back and remember good times with his friends, that was all waiting down under the water. (99-100; italics added)

In this flooded world, Teague undergoes painful lessons on the nature of faith and belief. Finding the true treasure that the flooded temple preserves -- the prayers of the faithful, inscribed on bits of metal -- he realizes how completely outcast he is from society around the Mormon Sea. He is the only one who does not know that the temple is still the center of the Faith, that its story is part of the epic of the people it serves. For him, the flood waters of the Mormon Sea are merely the physical symbol of a barrier he can never pass. He feels pain for his two Mormon friends: "They still lived in the drowned city, they belonged down there, and the fact they couldn't go there broke their hearts. But not Deaver. His city wasn't even built yet. His city was tomorrow" (108). After the flood come dreams of new beginnings.

"The Fringe" is Incarnational. Its central character is the crippled Carpenter, condemned by palsy to a computerized wheelchair. He is one of Card's many Christic characters. Thematically and imagistically, he is the Carpenter who brings justice and mercy to a desert land. He is the teacher, the interpreter of the law who speaks harsh truths in simple parables. He voluntarily leaves the haven of the University to save the children of the Fringe. He communicates only through his computer terminal, but, as even his tormenters recognize, his power is the power of the Word (123).

Card's descriptions and authorial comments force us to see Carpenter as Christic. Carpenter's rigid, palsy-twisted body stretches "across his wheelchair like a mocking crucifix" (118). Like Card's Christic Shepherd in "Kingsmeat," he makes difficult decisions for the highest good of the community and accepts the consequences for himself: "I will bear what I must bear, as well -- the grief, the resentment, and the rage of the few families I have harmed for the sake of the rest" (121). Attacked by the sons of the men he accused of selling black market wheat, he refuses to defend himself. He refuses even to speak. As they lower his chair into a wash, knowing that it will soon channel a flash flood that will kill the crippled teacher, he still does not speak. He struggles to retain key truths: "Children are innocent in the eyes of God, Carpenter reminded himself. He tried to believe that these boys didn't know what they were doing to him" (126) -- in other words, "Forgive them, for they know not what they do."

Left to die, Carpenter faces his private Golgotha. He re-lives decisions and re-defines values that will probably lead to his death. When he is rescued by the Aals and brought back to town in their pageant wagon, he refuses to identify his assailants, understanding that they will pay sufficiently through their own guilt. His justice is tempered with ironic mercy, and the story ends oppressively as Carpenter watches one of the boys walking away, the wind catching at his jacket as if he were a kite:

But it wasn't true. The boy didn't rise and fly. And now Carpenter saw the wind like a current down the village street, sweeping Pope away. All the bodies in the world, caught in that same current, that same wind, blown down the same rivers, the same streets, and finally coming to rest on some snag, through some door, in some grave, God knows where or why. (137)

Carpenter has shown them the path; they must choose for themselves to follow it.

"Pageant Wagon" suggests a middle ground. It deals explicitly with the issue of living in a fallen world. It define family, community, and belonging, not so much theologically as culturally and socially. The Deaver Teague rescued as a child by the pioneer party in "West," and who later tries to fill an inner emptiness by diving for gold in the flooded temple, here finally discovers the thing he has been searching for. The story is complex, as are all the family relationships among the Aals. Card touches on all levels of emotional involvement: love, hate, fear, hope, greed, ambition, lust, forgiveness. The story functions most clearly, however, in suggesting the possibility of community and unity. If Carpenter's cruel but necessary actions divide a town and destroy families, Teague works in the opposite direction. He unifies. Through him a diseased family is brought to the possibility of health; an angry young man is shown an outlet for a rage he can neither define nor control. And most important, Deaver Teague receives a final sense of identity. In a dream, he sees his mother and hears her speak his real name, a name he has not remembered since the mobbers killed his family and he was found by Jamie Teague. As he wakes, the dream-image of his mother's face merges with the reality of Katie Aal's, and "when he shaped his true name with silent lips, he knew that it wasn't true anymore. It was the name of a little boy who got lost somewhere and was never found again. Instead he murmured the name he had spent his life earning" (239). In healing others, he has been healed. As Lillian Marks Heldreth comments "Because Card does not deal in cynical endings, life begins to work itself out for Deaver, but because Card is not a Pollyanna, everyone is not made blissfully happy, either -- just enabled to go on living relatively productive lives" (52).

"America" is admittedly a 'fantasy' in the sense that Card does not try to provide scientific, extrapolative explanations for what can only be interpreted as dreams, omens, and prophecies. Yet it is critical to the collection and to its sense that "there was a purpose behind all the loss and suffering" (239). It deals with Last Things: Redemption and Judgment. It narrates the culmination of America's Promise and the reversion of that promise to the Indians, now that the Europeans (including most of the remaining Mormons) have proven incapable of living up to the Land's expectations and demands. On the surface, "America" seems to be about sexuality and repression, guilt and punishment. Beneath that surface, however, lies an extraordinary vision of a Promised Land capable of sending dreams that lead to its own fulfillment, of moving human actors across the stage as it needs and desires. The story consciously layers itself (and thereby the preceding stories) with the stuff of myth and legend, as both the narrator (Carpenter) and the characters are themselves fully aware. And, no matter how else it might be read, it culminates the dramatic sequence of The Folk of the Fringe with the narrative of God's judgments on the land -- and the culture -- that Card has defined and explored throughout.

Each of the stories in The Folk of the Fringe is complex, sophisticated, and engaging; as Heldreth concludes, "These are good stories. Enjoy, whether you are Catholic, Baptist, Quaker, Mormon, or Zen Buddhist" (52). Each manifests the power of Card's storytelling. Beyond that, however, the collection presents an intriguing parallel to and analogue of the purposes, structures, and emotional and spiritual effects of the great Mystery Cycles. Card's tales create, people, develop, unify, and finally judge a fictional world; but in doing so, they fulfill similar functions for two distinctive communities that do exist. The Folk of the Fringe creates a verbal pageant that gives imaginative life to the essential ideals of America and of Mormonism.


Card, Orson Scott. "Fantasy and the Believing Reader." Science Fiction Review Vol. 11, No. 3 (August 1982): 45-50. Rpt. in Storyteller: The Official Orson Scott Card Bibliography and Guide. Compiled by Michael R. Collings. Woodstock GA: Overlook Connection Press, 2001. 426-439.
Card, Orson Scott. The Folk of the Fringe. West Bloomfield MI: Phantasia Press, 1989. Rpt. London: Legend/Century Hutchinson, 1990. New York: TOR Books, August 1990. Additional reprints include mass-market and trade paperback English editions, plus editions in Spain, Japan, and elsewhere. All quotations are from the TOR 1990 hardcover.
Card, Orson Scott. "Kingsmeat." In Analog Yearbook, ed. Ben Bova, 190-205. New York: Baronet, 1978. Rpt. in Unaccompanied Sonata and Other Stories (New York: Dial, 1981). Rpt. in Maps in a Mirror: The Short Fiction of Orson Scott Card, 505-11. New York: Tor, 1990.
Cawley, A. C., ed. The Wakefield Pageants in the Towneley Cycle. Old and Middle English Texts. 1958. Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1963.
Davenport, W. A. Fifteenth-Century English Drama: The Early Moral Plays and their Literary Relations. Totowa NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1982.
Heldreth, Lillian Marks. "Alternative History Series." SFRA Newsletter, 184 (January/February, 1991): 50-52.

1 Note the recurrence of the "pregnant virgin" as a primary motif in "America," although without the obvious satirical content. Deaver Teague cannot believe in such things; the term is an oxymoron that justifies his ironic, distanced approach to religion, belief, and humanity. In "America," the term is used consciously (by Card, and through him, by Anamari Boagente) with all of its Christic, mythic resonances. As with the Mystery Cycles, one story foreshadows, another echoes.

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