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Sir_Patrick_Spens_window,_Abbot_House_Dunfermline

Stained glass window from the Abbot House at Dumfermline

I’ve had the opening lines of “Sir Patrick Spens” running through my head for the last few days, probably because I’ve been thinking about narrative economy. And rarely will you find a more economical opening than this:

The king sits in Dumfermline town, drinking the blood-red wine.

“Where can I find a good captain to sail this ship of mine?”

Then up and spoke a sailor boy sitting at the king’s right knee:

“Sir Patrick Spens is the best captain that ever sailed the sea.”

And there you have it. We know that king. He’s idling away his time, he’s contracted for a new bride from Norway, and he’s eager to get to the business of siring heirs. With the wine in his blood, he’s growing impatient. But why won’t anybody sail over to fetch her? We know the reason. It’s a crazy mission this time of year to cross the North Sea. But he will not be brooked; he’s the king, and his word is law.

And we know that sailor boy, too. Eager to please, the little underling. Eager to show off his knowledge. So he “up and speaks,” and from that foolish remark the tragedy unfolds. Sir Patrick, his frightened crew, and “all the lords and noblemen” sail off to their doom. The blood-red wine foreshadows their fate.

A chance exchange of words sets off a chain of events, unforeseen by those who speak the words but inevitable as death itself. Now that’s narrative economy.

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