Once upon a time there was a beautiful land that called itself the Shire. Its people were happy. They lived and worked on their own small pieces of land, growing their own food and trading the surplus with their neighbours. Many of them were also craftsmen, making and fixing things so that everyone could work well and live well. Even the simple things that they made were beautiful because they put all that they loved into all that they made. Occasionally a trader from distant lands would arrive with interesting things which the people from the Shire had never seen before. They traded their own simple things for these novelties, but saw them as niceties and certainly not necessities. Trade with the outside world was the exception, not the rule, which is why traders never became their rulers.

Like any other place, the Shire was threatened by evil. There were dragons and serpents raging in neighbouring lands, as well as the dragon-folk who served them, devouring crops, burning villages, and carrying off maidens. The Shire was kept safe from such ravages by the courage of two legendary knights, Sir Cata and Sir Veta, who were famous for their slaying of dragons.

All was well until Aravice, a wicked merchant, began to bring things from a distant place in the distant East, called Anchi. These included the usual strange novelties but also the things that were made by the folks in the Shire. They were not as beautiful as the things made by the Shire-folk, but they were functional and were much cheaper. People began to buy the cheap things from Anchi, making Aravice so rich that he soon had an army of merchants working for him. Many Shire-folk gave up their lives on the farm or abandoned the ancient crafts they’d learned at their father’s knee, in order to work for Aravice. This allowed them to purchase more of the things from Anchi, which they now desired more than the beautiful things that their parents had valued and enjoyed. Many of the things from Anchi, being made poorly, needed to be replaced often, increasing the wealth of Aravice and the dependence of the people of the Shire on the imports from Anchi. And the neglected farmland became rubbish heaps full of discarded trash.

Seeing what was happening to their beloved Shire and feeling suspicious, the two noble knights, Sir Cata and Sir Veta, set out on a treacherous expedition to find out more about the mysterious place in the East which supplied Aravice with the things he traded. As they got closer to Anchi, they noticed a great proliferation of dragons and serpents, all of them wicked and deadly. Having fought their way to the very borders of Anchi, the two knights dismounted their trusty chargers and proceeded on foot, disguised as poor travelers from the West. To their horror, they found that Anchi was even more wicked than they ever imagined. Its ruler was the largest serpent they’d ever seen, who went by the name of Arammox and who ruled by fear and force. Couples were only allowed to have one child and additional children were systematically murdered, or culled, to give it the official name that Arammox gave to the practice of institutionalized infanticide. The people of Anchi were worked like slaves with very little in terms of payment, which was the reason for the cheapness of the things they produced.

Sir Cata and Sir Veta returned to their beloved Shire and warned the Shire-folk of the poisonous source of the river of cheap things which had flooded the marketplaces in every village. To their surprise, they discovered that this news was not welcomed by the folks of the Shire, who were now addicted to the cheap things and had learned to despise the joy of working with their hands. Forgetting the many times that the two knights had saved them from the dragons and the serpents, and the dragon-folk who served them, the people of the Shire forced Sir Cata and Sir Veta into exile.

For many years, the Shire-folk became richer in terms of the number of cheap things they possessed. They had forgotten how to farm and now needed to get their food from Aravice also. They were wealthier but not healthier in terms of happiness. They no longer respected or loved each other. Neighbour turned on neighbor. They even adopted the Anchi practice of killing their own children.

And then, one day, an elderly and blind knight rode into the Shire, led by his daughter, a beautiful maiden. He told the Shire-folk that his name was Sir Estia and that his daughter’s name was Anne. They had been sent by Sir Cata and Sir Veta to warn the people of the Shire that a pestilence would fall upon them unless they repented of their evil ways and returned to the healthier way of life of their ancestors. Sir Estia and the girl were mocked and insulted and were cast out from the Shire unceremoniously.

In the following year, a great pestilence spread through the Shire, infecting one person in every three. Life in the Shire was thrown into chaos so that even Aravice’s great wealth was threatened. A few people recalled the prophecy of Sir Estia, and a few others began to wish that Sir Cata and Sir Veta were once more guardians of the Shire. But soon, after things returned to some semblance of normality, most people slipped back into their bad habits, encouraged by Aravice, who was keen to regain his own wealth and power.

Another pestilence followed, which was much worse than the first one, and then another, which was worse still. And, in spite of all, guided by greed and ignoring the wisdom of charity and truth, they never repented. And, of course, they never lived happily ever after.

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The featured image is “A Marriage Feast at Bermondsey” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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