One of the library science programs the Spawn is contemplating for grad school is the one at the U of Maryland — College Park, and as we did with the U of North Carolina at Chapel Hill last year, we’ll be making a road trip up that way before long. That of course will put us in proximity to DC, so we’ll make a mini-vacation of the trip and see a few sights while we’re there.
I haven’t been to the area with an opportunity to sightsee in nearly forty years — since I was there for the National Spelling Bee in the summer of 1979.
So anyway, one of the places I want to visit is the Folger Shakespeare Library, and as part of that, I e-mailed the staff in the hopes of seeing something of a personal Holy Grail. As I’ve mentioned over the years, my dissertation focused on the Seven Deadly Sins in the old Morality plays. For my money, two of the most important examples of the genre are Mankind and The Castle of Perseverance, both of which are found in the same volume, the Macro Manuscript. (That’s pronounced “muh-CROW,” by the way, not “MACK-row.” The MS was owned by a Scots cleric named Cox Macro.) The plays occupy a significant part of my diss, and I teach them with considerable frequency; in fact, I’ll be teaching them this fall in my Seven Deadlies class.
Well, in any case, the Macro MS is held by the Folger, and I’ve always wanted to see it. I wouldn’t even need to touch it necessarily, but I just wanted to bathe in the aura, as it were. So I asked the nice people at the library if I might be permitted a viewing, establishing that I actually value this thing, that I have legit professorial cred, that I wouldn’t show up with an open bag of Cheetos, and so on.
But alas, even as near-600-year-old manuscripts go, the Macro is in extremely fragile condition, having become disbound, and is only brought out for scholarly questions involving the particular-book-as-artifact, even beyond its contents. So I have been politely refused.
And you know what? I’m fine with that, and in a way, even grateful. And my reasons for that can be found in works from Lawrence Kasdan and Harlan Ellison. In Raiders of the Lost Ark (screenplay by Kasdan), there’s the sequence in which Indiana Jones threatens to blow up the titular relic if the Nazis don’t hand it over. However, his rival, Rene Belloq, calls his bluff, knowing that Jones would not harm such an important artifact. (Don’t worry, though — it turns out OK.)
And in one of Ellison’s later stories, “Paladin of the Lost Hour” (also adapted into a teleplay for the revival of Twilight Zone in the 80s), a man named Gaspar is the keeper of a magical timepiece that will keep the time for the final hour of the universe. Gaspar, like the keepers before him, is charged with keeping the watch from running through those final sixty minutes. But Gaspar (played in the show by Danny Kaye) is very old, and has to pass the watch to a new guardian. Having found an apparently suitable candidate, Gaspar — now dying — asks Billy (the prospective new keeper) for a single minute from the watch, so that he might see his beloved wife, who has been dead for many years.
Dig it — Gaspar, we have learned through the course of the story, is a fine, noble, lovable old man. Danny Kaye’s performance is at least equally ingratiating. And all he asks is this favor before he heads into the Long Dark. But the choice falls to Billy, and even as it breaks his heart, he tells Gaspar that no, not even a single minute can be spared. At which point Gaspar smiles, and tells Billy he has passed the final test, proving himself worthy of his duty as new Paladin.
And so I understand — even though my heart is pure (in this particular case, and relatively speaking), the Ark shouldn’t be risked, the minute shouldn’t be ticked away. To cop a line from Belloq, I am passing through history. The Macro MS is History. And so, even though I’m personally disappointed, I’m also glad that the Paladins of the Folger Library are keeping it safe. It’s okay, and there will be plenty of other things I can see there, and I will. I’ll also bring the Spawn along — apparently the Folger offers internships.
Besides, all hope is not lost; the librarians inform me that construction of two new underground galleries is set to begin in 2020, and that by 2022, the MS should be on semi-permanent display. I guess I can be patient a few years more.