Author's Notes to the Twelve Days of Christmas in Camelot
A Partridge in a Pear Tree
The Twelve Days of Christmas is very much a song about food. On the top level of meaning, the first seven stanzas simply describe menu items that people would have eaten (mostly poultry and other edible birds). However, behind this layer and permeating the whole song are issues of fertility: sex, marriage and procreation. The link between food and sex is obvious (both are about life and both are sensual pleasures) and midwinter was obviously a time when these issues were at the forefront of people's minds.
In Chapter 1, I've simply gone for a twist on the literal meaning. The twelve days of Christmas were a time of feasting and the partridge is a game bird that would have been a popular main course at one of the feasts. Similarly, the pear was a common fruit which would have been available for the feasts. In this piece, the colours Merlin wears are the colour of the partridge. It is a forager and is often found on the ground. Merlin is prone at the end with fruit in his mouth: a common image associated with roasted meat to be eaten.
And if you want to dig deeper and find the sexual subtext in that imagery... well, that's your business.
Two Turtle Doves
This is one of the few stanzas with a bird that would not have ended up on the dinner table. Doves are a common symbol for love, fertility and peace. In the Middle Ages, they were often kept in cages as pets and are believed to mate for life. Giving two turtle doves in a cage is a symbol of eternal love.
Given the hopeless love theme in Merlin, it's probably obvious why I chose Gwen and Arthur for this chapter and I originally intended them to be the two turtle doves. What can I say? I know my readers (brickroad16 and Laura Elizabeth spring to mind), so I wrote an M/M part as well. Technically that makes this 2x2 turtle doves but what the hell.
Three French Hens
In the song, Three French hens are, rather boringly and literally, three chickens of a breed that originated in France. People ate them. That's it. So I decided to interpret them as three women from France and drew on the cross-dressing themes from Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night'. The shipwreck and Olivia disguising herself as Cesario and falling in love are taken from that play. Rosalind disguising herself as Ganymede is obviously from 'As You Like It', and Dernhelm is Éowyn's male alter-ego in Lord of the Rings. The name Éowyn is so obviously not French that I chose Rohan, the realm in which Éowyn lives, instead.
Four Calling Birds
Four calling birds? Try four colly birds. As in black birds. This is a case where the modern song has derived sounds from the original verses but not retained its meaning. In the Middle Ages, people ate colly birds (blackbirds) - remember the four and twenty baked in a pie? - so this is more food. I decided to keep the blackbird theme but use the 'calling' to inspire a cry for justice or revenge from four prisoners. The common male blackbird is black with a yellow beak (hence the colour I use for the more dangerous prisoners), while the adult females and juveniles are dark brown (the innocent Druids). In the wild, a blackbird's predators are often birds of prey known 'Accipiters, particularly the Sparrowhawk. Goshawks, Shikras and Besras are names of other accipiters or other breeds of Sparrowhawks so I used these as the names for the people who turned our prisoners in. And of course, since these birds would have been eaten, I used the theme of consumption for their execution.
Five Golden Rings
As you've probably gathered from the story, the "five gold rings" referred to are actually five pheasants hunted for a feast. From Roman times onward the eating of pheasants was reserved for royalty. Not only were nobility the only ones allowed to hunt them, but their habitats were preserved as well so they would be available to hunt. One of the websites I used to research the song spoke of 'peasants going cold and hungry while surrounded by a forest full of trees and game' and this obviously inspired my story.
That image reminded me of popular Christmas songs, such as 'Good King Wenceslas'. Although the 'Twelve Days of Christmas' is manifestly not a religious song, the Twelve Days themselves are. So I decided to incorporate the notion of Christian charity as contained in such songs and stories - 'Tiny Tim' also springs to mind. However, unlike Scrooge, who also set in place measures to help improve the Crachit family's lives long-term, 'Good King Wenceslas' would have been better off improving the lot of his peasants rather than sending a one-off feed. I had M/M acknowledge this notion of 'charity' as well as I wanted their actions to seem selfless rather than patronising.
Six Geese a Laying
Well, if you can't work this one out there's something wrong.
Geese were a traditional Christmas meal but these geese are laying, which would have meant a regular supply of eggs. I've gone for the fertility symbol, fitting in with the Twelfth Night themes of food and partying.
Seven Swans a Swimming
Swans have long been associated with royalty and are another bird that would have been eaten at a feast. Swans were (and still are) owned by the monarchy in the UK and it seemed appropriate to have seven noble men swimming (well, six noble men and Merlin, but he's kind of important so... anyway).
Eight Maids a Milking
In the middle ages, "going-a-milking" was a euphemistic way of asking for sex or marriage (or both). For this chapter, I chose seven female characters (and one male) to represent eight aspects of love, sex and marriage.
Nine Ladies Dancing
In the song, nine ladies dancing refers to Midwinter festivities and is, actually, ladies dancing. So I took some licence again, this time drawing on the Buffy musical for inspiration. I very much wanted, however, to continue the notion of the Twelfth Night taking the current social order and overturning it. Uther's determination to keep this order is, I think, important in understanding his character.
Ten Lords a Leaping
Unlike "nine ladies dancing", which would have been noble ladies dancing for their own enjoyment, "ten lords-a-leaping" would have been professional entertainers brought in to dance between courses of the feasts. By the time this song was written down, they were possibly Morris dancers but Morris dancing definitely evolved long after the 600 – 900 AD period where this is set (more like the 16th and 17th centuries).
To fit in with my theme of reversals and challenges to the social order, I've chosen a troupe of cross-dressing male performers (women would not have performed professionally at this time so men took women's roles). For some reason, in all human societies across time, people have found men dressed as women hilarious. It's one of the great mysteries of life; right up there with Big Brother and the popularity of rugby.
Eleven Pipers Piping
We're up to the entertainment portion of the song so the pipers are just pipers who would have performed at feasts. The pipers here are literal pipers and I've concentrated mostly on progressing M/M's relationship and preparing for Part 12.
Twelve Drummers Drumming
This chapter is split into two parts: the prologue dealing with the spell cast by the pipers, representative of the madness of Twelfth Night when social rules would be cast aside; the main chapter deals with power and who in society wields it. The reversing of power and social rules is very much a theme of traditional Twelfth Night celebrations.
Twelfth Night encompasses two ideas in culture: one is the Christian celebration of epiphany eve (twelfth night itself) and the other is the older traditional end of the midwinter feasting. The epiphany is the day the three Wise Men, also known as the Three Kings or Magi, from the East arrived in Bethlehem bringing gifts to the Christ child.
At the end of season, there would be a day where the roles of Kings and peasants would reverse and the Lord of Misrule symbolised the world turning upside down. This has obviously been very much my theme – women taking on men's roles, men dressing as women, women being portrayed as sexually assertive rather than passive, and the peasant being in control and having the power (as represented by Merlin). Morgana and Arthur both have to deal with the fact that Merlin has more power than them in some ways; even if he has no social power.
The drums have long been a symbol of announcements; of getting people's attention. Of course, in the song, they probably would have just been used to announce the next course of the feast. In this chapter, I've used them to announce the army and to announce that the Twelfth Night has arrived and our song is over.
In my story, this refers to Arthur's epiphany. I am not in any way comparing Merlin to a Christ figure. This song is not religious, as I've said before, and this is not a religious epiphany. It refers to Arthur's realisation that despite Merlin having magic, he is still Merlin. And he will protect him.