‘The Great Circling Poets of Arium’ by Douglas Adams

There is an obvious correspondence between Monty James spinning a plausible yarn in his rooms at King’s and the anecdotal digressions of ‘the Book’ in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Cambridge graduate Douglas Adams, especially as voiced by Peter Jones in the original radio series.

The tale of the Great Circling Poets of Arium is presented as part of the mysterious history of the planet of Golgafrincham and Adams does various characteristic things with it – it is a parody of medieval bardic song, it has its own internal logic and structure, and as a narrative, it is a Russian doll: the legend is related by Adams in the voice of ‘the Book’ reporting the words of some travellers who are recounting an ancient story sung to them by the Great Circling Poets of Arium.

More to the point, it smuggles a magnificent joke past any reader who is not paying careful attention, a joke which has delighted me for forty years and which I shall now spoil:

The first part of each song would tell how there once went forth from the City of Vassillian a party of five sage princes with four horses. The princes, who are of course brave, noble and wise, travel widely in distant lands, fight giant ogres, pursue exotic philosophies, take tea with weird gods and rescue beautiful monsters from ravening princesses before finally announcing that they have achieved enlightenment and that their wanderings are therefore accomplished.

The second, and much longer, part of each song would then tell of all their bickerings about which one of them is going to have to walk back.

First broadcast in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, ‘Fit the Sixth’, BBC Radio 4, April 12th 1978 and published in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Pan Books Ltd, 1980