In that time (so Master Borage relates) the makars of the city took such great delight in the precise description of the material circumstances of their tales that they durst not leave these to their own invention, holding that to do so were to pollute the purity of an history with the rank and egotistical sentiment of its creator, so as to bring it to the level of a mere tavern-ballad. In a sarcastic phrase that became notorious, one of these bards sneered, “How fortunate that the tempest should be such a punctual guest to the wrathful castle, and the downpour faithfully attend the hero’s funeral!” Whether this poet was, in fact, the first to consult an accurate record of the weather over a period of several years, and, willy-nilly, apply it to his own story, that his characters be subjected to the same happenstance of the elements as his readers, is not known. Certain it is, though, that the attested works of this period acquired a steadily greater encrustation of accidental detail, such as tide-tables, paradigms of dead tongues, minute descriptions of the city and the surrounding country, lists of the virtues of herbs and precious stones, annals of the heads of minor noble houses, folk songs, descriptions of military engines, fortifications and strategies, catalogues of the works of earlier poets, miracles of saints, monstrous births, horoscopes, laundry lists, bills of sale and merchants’ books of accounts, and so on, leaving the substance of the narrative as a mere footnote. It was not uncommon for the action of a poem in fifty cantos to be an event as trifling as an exchange of pleasantries between friends or the purchase of a heifer, swollen to great length by the intricate, skilfully versified and, as far as may be determined, accurate accumulation of incidental facts.
The apotheosis of this fashion was that bard who, not being satisfied with erecting a veritable encyclopædia as the background to his characters, was determined that their own lives be subject to the same stern rigour of verisimilitude, and sought to apply the then novel mathematical technique of probability to their fates. With the aid of a cousin versed in the arts of chance, vast tables were derived from the lists of births and deaths in the royal archives, and lots were faithfully cast. (It is said that the cousin went on to found the Insurer’s Guild.) The results of this endeavour are, of course, well known: the developing love triangle between a lord, his lady, and an equerry, which is abruptly cut off in the third stanza by the deaths of all three in a freak falconing accident, followed by the narration of their burial, the disposition of their household and a minor legal dispute over the succession to certain tenant farms. The bulk of the work is then occupied by an hundred and forty-seven stanzas in which the slow growth of grass about the noble tomb and over the simple churchyard plot of the servant is described in exquisite and beautiful detail, to the undying gratitude of Louchébem’s literati and the equally eternal exasperation of its schoolboys.