What’s Going On In Prince Valiant? What is a ‘Virgate’ and why would someone want it? November 2019 – February 2020


A ‘virgate’ is an Old English measure of land area. It’s about what a team of two oxen could plough in a year. Somewhere around thirty acres, give or take. (They didn’t have modern ideas of uniformity, especially about things like farmland, where some land might be there but unusable.) So if that’s all you wondered about Mark Schultz and Thomas Yeates’s Prince Valiant, thanks, and bye. Meanwhile if you’re looking to follow the plot, this will get you caught up to mid-February 2020. If you’re reading this after about May 2020, there’s probably a more up-to-date plot recap at this link. Also any news about the comic strip that seems worth the mention. And, as ever, I look at other comic strips on my mathematics blog.

Prince Valiant.

24 November 2019 – 16 February 2020

Prince Valiant and company were heading home, last time, after adventures in Egypt. Here “Home” means the Misty Isles. Queen Bukota is furious with Ambelu, the last of her surviving advisors. Ambelu and his fellow nobles had tried to keep the young Ab’saba queen under control through Fewesi the Healer. That worked out great when Fewesi killed them, kidnapped the Queen, and fled to Egypt where his own people laughed him off as a dangerous incompetent loser. Her vengeance is fairly mild: she’s reassigning Ambelu to be her ambassador to Camelot. Bukota, the current ambassador, will take a post canoodling with her. Their first wedding — they plan to hold another back home — is a merry affair.

After two years in the Misty Isles, Val and family, escorted by the longship Skjalssdis, are bound north for Camelot. Crossing the Mediterranean, there is much reacquainting and catching up. Much time in the south was spent apart. Only the Ab'saban nobleman Ambelu stands alone, banished by Queen Makeda to serve as ambassador to King Arthur's Court. He moves uneasily over the deck, hobbled by a ruined leg, the result of his part in the plot that went horribly wrong. As he morosely struggles to understand his part in this awful, alien world, the ship heels suddenly, and his balance is lost. At this point, things could not seem worse for the proud man. Then he hears the sound of a footstep, followed by a thump, and Gundar Harl is beside him. [ Harl has a wooden leg. ] ``It took me some time to learn to dance with the ship,'' offers the shipmaster. ``We have something in common. Perhaps I can share some tricks.''
Mark Schultz and Thomas Yeates’s Prince Valiant for the 22nd of December, 2019. So recently I read a book that contained a lot of discussion of Prince Valiant, including summaries of every story done from the origin to the book’s publication around 2005. Among the surprises is that, after some initial work, Hal Foster settled on a specific time and, when it could refer to historic events, made them reasonably consistent with character ages and such. The coherence of this has varied over the years, but still, that’s some amazing work considering how few people would ever notice. Also, there was at least one story that Foster wanted to start aboard ship, but he didn’t want to set about getting everyone on board. So he had the story start with an explanation that the “ancient scrolls” from which the text of the strip is based had some gaps and here’s what comes after one of those gaps. I genuinely love that sort of meta-writing.

And then it’s time to go to Camelot, for the first time since I’ve been doing these What’s Going On In features. Valiant’s been focusing so on tromping around Asia, the Misty Isles, and North Africa so much I didn’t realize he even went to Camelot anymore. The strip says (on the 22nd of December) that Valiant’s spent two years in the Misty Isles, which I assume is character time.

And so, with 2020 dawning, Prince Valiant returns to Britain and his first adopted home. They run across a funeral procession for the local baron, and about how some witches summoned a demon to kill the baron. Valiant would rather leave this all alone. But Aleta asks questions. Gareth, the new baron and one of the mourners, explains the case: the Baron criticized these women, and then he died of demonic possession. In fairness, bats do swarm one of the women. Plus there’s a pox going around. Valiant would really like to just let this be. But then Sir Gawain, a day’s ride out of Camelot, arrives.

Valiant’s suspicious about this well-timed visit. Sir Gawain explains there was a request to the court to deal with a dispute about a parcel of land. And now here’s these women accused of witchcraft and sorcery. The woman with the bats argues that “the ignorant peasants” would destroy their bats’ home.

As Val and Aleta move between an angry mob and its intended victim, they are joined by a friend long unseen --- Sir Gawain! Once the intimidated crowd retreats, Gawain wastes no further time in ceremoniously greeting his companions. But Aleta's attention is fixed on the accused with-woman, who distractedly watches her cloud of bats flit away. 'All this commotion! These fools have disrupted the bats' behavior! They are very sensitive creatures!' Val is more interested in Gawain's unexpected appearance. Gawain explains: 'There was a supplication to the throne - someone here with claims to a parcel of land says she's being forced off her plot. Arn sent me to investigate - but I stumble upon this odd situation' The strange woman snarls at Gawain: 'Do not take this lightly, sir knight! These ignorant peasants would destroy the home of our bas! And I am very familiar with the facts in the behest to Camelot ... come ... I will take you to Afton.' And so, while the majority of Val's entourage is sent on to Camelot, Val, Aleta, and Nathan follow Gawain and the cryptic woman to a lonely cottage - and a dark mystery.
Mark Schultz and Thomas Yeates’s Prince Valiant for the 26th of January, 2020. Val fears that something is missing to make this puzzle sensible. “Would you by chance know of any meddling kids and their talking dog,” he inquires, “and perhaps whether there is an abandoned amusement park or perhaps candy manufactory hereabouts?”

To facts, though. Gawain confirms the grant of two virgates made to Afton, one of the locals. Nathan, who’s part of Valiant’s retinue, notices a clue in the house, though: a bat’s skeleton and a sketch of a bat. Afton petitions Gawain for protection from Lord Imbert, who’s the one who had just died. But part of Afton’s grant is a cave with a spring that allegedly restores youth. It doesn’t, but Imbert thought it does, and wanted the land for himself. Gawain consider that now that Imbert is conveniently dead, and there’s a rumor of Afton or the women summoning a demon to do it … that could be awkward.

Gawain, Valiant, and all go looking for lodging. And that’s where the story has gotten. Where is it going? We’ll have to see over the next few months.

Next Week!

Action! Adventure! Super-detection! People dressed as robots! It’s Joe Staton, Mike Curtis, Shelley Pleger, and Shane Fisher’s Dick Tracy, unless something demands more attention first.

Hey, did you know that in his travels Prince Valiant has been to North America at least twice? Like, all the way to Manhattan and stuff. Also he’s made it to South America. I don’t know that he’s ever set foot in Australia but that’s some amazing travels. I mean, we moderns forget that while people back in the day — much like today — were happy to stay where they were, some folks really got moving. (He lived in a time that made this considerably easier than Prince Valiant “did”, but do look up James Holman sometime.)

Statistics Saturday: British Folklore Spirits That I Think Someone On Wikipedia Made Up


As opposed to being made up properly, for fun and to hurtle clothes at and stuff.

Spirit Spirit’s Deal
Cellar Ghost Guards wine in cellars from would-be thieves
Lazy Lawrence Protects orchards
Awd Goggie Scares children away from unripened gooseberries
Melch Dick Guards nut thickets
Kilmoulis Has no mouth; inhabits mills

Reference: A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, Barbara W Tuchman.

In Which Reuters Explains Just Enough To Confuse Me


So Reuters offered this Oddball News piece, “New St Andrews students welcomed with shaving foam fight”. The third paragraph:

Several weeks into the first term, the university holds its annual “Raisin Weekend”, during which the academic parents hold parties for the new students. The weekend culminates in “Raisin Monday”, when they dress the new students in costumes and send them into the university main’s lawn for a shaving foam fight.

And so I’m left here pondering whether I’m more curious about why raisins or why they count Monday as part of the weekend. I’m pretty sure it’s not a long holiday weekend, like, October Bank Holiday or one of the estimated 44 days listed as the Queen’s Birthday. (You know although Elizabeth II is recorded as ninety years old she was actually only born 26 years ago; all those Birthday holidays add up.) Well, I guess we all pad out the weekend when we figure we can get away with it. Probably the students do. How would someone find who was skipping class underneath all that foam? Fair enough, I suppose.

Also, my mathematics blog had that comic strip thing again. Please read, won’t you?

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The trading community saw its confidence fully restored today with a whopping six point gain, that’s gain, that’s a bigger number than was here this time yesterday and isn’t that thrilling? Anyway, analysts are sure this reflects the market being over-sold and that we’re poised for a new bull market full of growth and happiness and the return of joy to the world.

114

On Things You Can Touch Or Punch


I was with a friend at the local hipster bar. I mean my local hipster bar. We weren’t anywhere near his. I know I talk about it a lot as the local hipster bar, but please understand. Their new logo is a rendition of their raccoon puppet, holding a couple of fireworks and a can of beer that’s labelled “Ham”. It’s a fine place and they’ve started having glazed-pottery nights.

My friend got to mentioning something or other coming up, and how he hoped it would go, knock wood. And he knocked on the bar. To this extent all seems well. I’m pretty sure the bar is wood and his knocking was in fine mid-season form. He carried off the knocking with no injuries and no dryads left stranded on base.

It got me thinking about the custom of knocking wood. It’s a good-luck gesture. It’s supposed to work by getting the attention of the wood-spirits who overheard you. You can see why that would work. Gumans drawing the attention of supernatural spirits has worked out well for the human according to every legend ever. “Well,” say many humans in these legends, “drawing the attention of that naiad or whatever it was sure has cured my problem of not being turned into a grasshopper!” Or else, “I used to think there was no way I would wake up chained every morning to be torn apart by hyenas. Then I stumbled into that pooka drinking party!” “I didn’t ever used to have a ferocious lightning-beast living in my belly button. But then thank goodness I fell through the wall of that Shinto shrine!”

Still, apparently the knocking of wood does help, if we can take any guidance from how rarely people at hipster bars get their eyes dipped in magic nectar so they can see the fairy creatures and then have their eyes gouged out so they can’t see the fairy creatures anymore. It did get me to thinking about one of those little cross-cultural differences. The English, I understand, merely touch wood, tapping the nearest piece lightly, rather than rapping sharply on it.

Full disclosure: I’ve never been a dryad. And I couldn’t find any to interview before deadline. I have to think if I were one, though, I’d be more inclined to do favors for someone who tapped me rather than knocked on me. It’s got me wondering about the cultural differences. Why should Americans figure the best way to get a magic spirit to do what you want, or at least leave you alone, involves punching it?

Well, because Americans are good at punching, I admit. Look at the great legendary figures of 20th Century American Culture: Popeye, Superman, Dwight Eisenhower, Muhammad Ali, Mary Richards. They’re all people who punch through problems. Even Captain Kirk only used his phasers when he couldn’t punch for some reason. And they’re all pretty successful so maybe they have something with their punch-based plans.

At least they look successful. But, like, if you watch the cartoons Popeye gets shipwrecked a lot. Probably that’s because he has more chances at shipwreck than the average person. Someone in, say, Havre, Montana, who never enters a body of water bigger than a coin fountain might expect to be shipwrecked only eight times in her life. Popeye must run a higher risk. Still, you have to wonder about if he shouldn’t pass up on sailing in favor of a punching-based lifestyle.

But punching is a cherished part of American culture. One of the leading myths of the early 19th Century Mississippi River valley was of Mike Fink, a bombastic, tough-talking, hyperactive bully who spent his time punching, shooting, or punch-shooting (punching with a gun) everything he could find, especially if it wasn’t a white male. His friends explained he was really a great guy, just you had to understand his point of view, before he punch-shot you. But that’s what friends of sociopaths always say so that they don’t get punch-shot-punched next.

I can’t draw any big conclusions about British touching and Americans knocking wood, though. Most of the differences between British and American cultures were invented by the Tourism Boards in 1958, so that people could share stories of how different things were on their vacations. I’ll bet any number of British people who don’t care about tourists knock wood whenever they feel like.

It still seems risky. I’d stick with touching, or if it wouldn’t be redundant buying the wood-spirits a round. Culture is a complicated thing.

In Which I Give In To A Tea Menace


I had been looking around the tea aisle because, as mentioned, I’m one of those people, and came across an honestly menacing and quite large box of a brand I hadn’t heard of before. It proclaimed its contents to be Make Mine A Builders Tea, “Britain’s Cuppa”, and as you can see from the picture if I don’t forget to include it, it’s got the styling of hazard signs warning you that the road is going to be torn up and there’s going to be dug-up roadbeds and people wielding things that make sparks at what sure looks like the waffle iron ordinarily hidden underneath the asphalt.

A box of 'Mike Mine a Builders' tea bags, with a warning that Britain wasn't built on camomile.
A box of ‘Make Mine A Builders’ tea bags. Note the plush toy bunny in the background peering over the table to see what’s going on.

I’m not seriously ashamed to admit it’s the first time I’ve been intimidated by a box of tea, because its cover copy suggests that if I don’t buy it they’ll send a pack of football hooligans over to wallop me silly and stuff tea bags down my pockets. It warns, “Britain wasn’t built on camomile”, and further that “Fancy, frilly, flowery teas are all very well. But to get through a busy day, us Brits need a strong, satisfying brew. The type that gets right to the heart of your thirst.” I should point out I’m not a Brit, although I have spent nearly a whole week in England, where I enjoyed a visit to the Blackpool Pleasure Beach amusement park on an early July day nearly hot enough that the carbon dioxide wasn’t liquefying out of the air and raining down on us. It wasn’t a day for the water rides, due to icebergs.

The tea goes on to explain how making a proper tea is much like a sturdy building. Much like tea, you construct buildings by putting a bag full of building parts into a large pot of hot water and then, after a while, taking them out again, and finding there’s nowhere you can put the bag that won’t leave a puddle of mis-colored water where you don’t want it, and it’s starting to burn your hands, so you scoot over to the trash bin and try to toss it in cleanly, and miss. This is why so many suburban developments have to have swooping, curved roads, so that the houses look like they were built street-facing.

It’s the comparison to camomile as a particularly un-manly tea that’s got me, not least because who knew that tea was really missing gender essentialism, somehow? But a while back I was tossing out a box of Celestial Seasonings Tummy Mint Wellness tea, which probably would make the Builders Tea people explode if they heard about it, and I noticed on the back an actual, honest-to-goodness, somewhat alarming warning:

WARNING: If you are taking prescription medication, or are pregnant or nursing, consult your health care provider prior to using this product. Persons with allergies to the daisy family may be sensitive to chamomile.

Also apparently chamomile is a kind of daisy, and there’s different ways to spell it. The thing is while Builders seems ready to send roving packs of b’hoys wielding cudgels and shouting things like “Oi!” at people not drinking manly enough teas, apparently it’s conceivable you could end up in hospital with a severe case of chamomile. It’s not everyone who can say their life was endangered by the Celestial Seasonings corporation, at least besides the people who have to actually pick the tea leaves, and Celestial Seasonings probably subcontracts that job out to some company whose actions they can plausibly deny anyway. But then b’hoys were a 19th-century Bowery thing, out of place and somewhat anachronistic for modern Britain, so everybody’s on an equal footing again.

But the discovery that chamomile might be the world’s most dangerous tea not actually regularly containing guncotton was surprising, although not so surprising as if it actually exploded out from under me. Particularly I wondered why about eight percent (by volume) of the Internet and the columns of Dear Crazy Abby wasn’t entirely warnings about tea. I mentioned this on Usenet and a friend helpfully pointed out that according to Google, there were 3,750,000 matches for “Chamomile warnings” compared to 7,350,000 for “Snooki”. I suppose tea being half as threatening as Snooki is about the right balance of things. But I get completely different numbers trying it now, with much more concern about Snooki and far less about chamomile, so either we as a society have come to peace with tea recently or Google’s decided we need to stop asking questions about chamomile.

The Builders tea was fair enough, by the way. I haven’t seen another box since.

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