The September sun, brilliantly democratic, fell sweetly on the heads of noble and beggar folk alike as the fourth annual Renaissance Festival got under way at Columbia's Merriweather Post Pavilion on Saturday.

Musicians in velvet doublets plucked lutes, bawdy wenches dispensed mead and roasted turkey legges, and jugglers, actors, dancers and musicians from every corner of Christendom were busy enticing 20th-century visitors into the heart of the merrie fantasy. To enter the Symphony Woods for the next four weekends is to leave modern life behind, precisely what festival visitors and participants have in mind.

By noon Saturday, the forest and fields had filled. Revelers munched roasted corn and sugared cakes. Redfaced visitors quaffed ale after ale, mostly because the September sun had reverted to August shortly after two o'clock.

"Good morrow," called a fair maid fetchingly, her braces not diminishing the charm of her faintly Shakespearean accent. "Are you going to the fair?"

"I'm going if you're going," teased a young man dressed in a green burlap tunic and vivid purple leggings.

With that, she and two of her companions took deep breaths, and with reassuring sidelong glances, began to sing a sweetly suggestive 16th-century madrigal.

Deep in the Symphony Woods, a wizard stood under a tree, pulled gold ducats from under his voluminous black gown, and then passed his silvery, conical cap. "Remember," he told the crowd standing on the sun-dappled forest floor, "wizards have to eat too."

Not far behind him, in the woods, Crazy Katie the madwoman beckoned all to come and watch her dog, Gretchen, leap into the air. "Gretchen," she implored to the long, empty string dangling from her hand, "jump, won't you? Jump for the nice people!"

Glen Fogarty, 4, standing between his mother and father, watched silently for a moment or two, then tugged on his mother's sleeve and began to cry. "The dog ran away," he sobbed, " and she doesn't even know it."

"Oh, Glennie, honey," said his mother, in a response that has changed little in 500 years, "don't pay any attention to her, she's crazy."

The exact Year of Our Lord prevailing at the Renaissance Festival is difficult to ascertain. On Saturday, for example, a Viking could be seen strolling toward the jousting field with an Italian noblewoman. Free-form interpretations of life in ye olde days abound, and historic authenticity takes a back seat to good cheer for the five-weekend festival. While unpleasant matters like war and pestilence are not unspoken of, they are not exactly on everyone's lips (or lippes, as the case may be).

"We have the best of those times without the worst. Rather than recreate it as it actually was, we create it as people would want it to be," boomed Orlando Lasso, a huge, dark-haired prince of a man seen squiring Catherine de' Medici along a path near the edge of the woods.

Michael and Marilyn Marzella, the two actors who will portray Orlando and the principessa for the next four weekends, are two among a crew of actors employed by the Columbia festival's promoters.Many of them, Orlando included, follow the Renaissance Festival as it goes from state to state.

"Yes, yes, there is plague, that is true," said Orlando, his black beard brushing the golden buttons on his velvet doublet. "But in general, 'tis a fair realm."

I say then, that the sum of thirteen hundred and forty-eight years had elapsed since the fruitful incarnation of the Son of God, when the noble city of Florence was visited by the deadly pestilence. In the face of its onrush, all the wisdom and ingenuity of man were unavailing. For in the early spring of the year we have mentioned, the plague began, in a terrifying manner . . . to make its disastrous effects apparent. Its earliest symptom . . . was the appearance of certain swellings, some of which were egg-shaped, whilst others were roughly the size of the common apples . . . Few of those who caught it ever recovered, and in most cases, death occurred within a few days.

Some maintained that an infallible way of warding off this appalling evil was to drink heavily, enjoy life to the full, go round singing and merrymaking, gratify all of one's cravings whenever the opportunity offered, and shrug the whole thing off as one enormous joke. -- From Boccaccio's "The Decameron"

"Buy some mudpies against the plague!" called a suspicious looking fellow. "It's the only thing that can save you. Don't depend upon God, fools! Buy my mudpies!"

He was wandering among the many small wooden stalls displaying weaving, pottery, cloth puppets and other crafts, which are sold throughout the festival ground by vendors, many of whom spend the year traveling between the dozen or more Renaissance festivals held throughout the United States.

A town crier with a bell announced that the juggling show was about to begin. The mudpie man paused and reflected, eyes blinking rapidly. And then, inspiration:

"Come to the beggar's mud show," he said tentatively. And then, "This WAY TO THE BEGGAR'S MUD SHOW!"

Rumors that Queen Elizabeth and her extensive court were approaching inspired two beggars to throw themselves upon the ground, where they murmured entreaties in anticipation

"Oh, grovel, grovel and more groveling," sang one in a paroxysm of joy, his hair sweeping the hay on the ground into harvest-like piles.

But the queen was out near the jousting field, where knights errant, including several small girls on ponies, stepped smartly across the sunbaked grass.

Her majesty, enthroned on a small shady knoll that almost disappeared under her enormous skirts, was busy positioning her human chess pieces on a monarch-sized chessboard.

An executioner, in basic black, was waiting nearby. The queen doesn't like to lose, it seems, and when one of her pieces misbehaves by allowing himself to be taken, the queen cuts him from the team, permanently.

"I take them back behind the platform, and I make them kneel down," said Matt Salisbury, 17, his blue eyes peeking out from behind the slits in his black executioner's mask. "And then I tell them to scream until they they feel the ax on the back of their necks.

"It's just a game, of course. The ax is made of cardboard, so it couldn't really hurt anyone. But, I don't know, I think I liked it better when I was the town crier."