Tuesday, February 01, 2005

First Battle

by AJ/Skald

A howl from the opposing army..... swords thudded against shields... thunder beat in unison. Hearts pounded. I gripped my sword... and braced the shield against my shoulder. Giddy tendrils raced through my gut and chest....... a wild grin broke upon my face. I began to bounce.... knees spring-like.....standing on toes. A racehorse in the gate.

A wild shout went up to my left..... I turned to see a wiry warrior clad in sparkling scale and a green cape..... carrying a coffin shaped shield. He strode the front of our lines, turned to our enemies and threw insults against them, ìCowardly vermin of Trimaris, prepare to dieî... he shook his sword and our army let out a cackling howl. Goose bumps spread across arms and belly..... I thudded the butt of my (rattan) sword on the inside of the shield.... our lines advanced.

The enemy continued drumming their shields, and likewise strode forward. Nerves shot with adrenaline, eyes wide with awe, muscles tense as steel....... I approached my first battle... almost forgetting that none of this was ìrealî. No one would die. No one would kill.

This was my introduction to the SCA, or the ìSociety for Creative Anachronismî. The SCA is a collection of eccentric oddballs who dress in medieval clothing, strap on armor, and beat each other with wooden swords. They also dance, sing, and create works of art. The group is a repository of outlandish creatives, hyper-intelligent geeks, talented artists, hammish performers, history buffs, academics, poets, social misfits, and folks who simply refuse to succumb to the drudgery of being ìnormalî. I was a member for nearly ten years.... and loved every minute.

The heart of the SCA is the weekend ìeventî..... an affair that revolves around a number of semi-historic activities, usually held at a state park. Typically, a battle or tournament is the centerpiece of the ìeventî. My first battle was small by todayís standards..... each army had only 100 people. The group now hosts battles which involve thousands of participants... the largest is held annually in Pennsylvania, in August, and is known as the ìPennsics Warî. As the Pennsics example implies, SCA groups and events are spread throughout the United States. In fact, the group is growing internationally, especially in Europe.

The SCA divides the US, and the world, into a patchwork of regional organizations, called ìkingdomsî. Georgia, for example, is part of the ìKingdom of Meridiesî, which also includes Alabama, Tennessee, and Mississippi. North and South Carolina are the ìKingdom of Atlantiaî. California is in the ìWest Kingdomî. Each Kingdom is further divided into local groups, called Baronies or Shires.

The function of local groups is to host events, welcome newcomers, and teach medeival skills. Skills include artistic arts such as calligraphy, jewelry making, woodworking, and costuming; craft arts such as armoring & blacksmithing; performing arts such as medeival dancing and singing; and martial arts such as hand-to-hand fighting and archery. Most groups host a weekly business meeting and various ìguild meetingsî to practice these arts.

Since I joined, the organization has expanded tremendously and is now a full-fledged counter society: with its own government (a monarchy- with rulers chosen by combat), its own economy (some members make a full-time living selling their arts), and its own social system (a system of titles, clans, knights, and nobles). Every member of the SCA develops an alternate persona: a medieval character they become during events.

The combined effects are stunning. At times, I felt Iíd been transported back in time. My first SCA battle produced all the nerves, all the excitement, all the intensity of entering a ìrealî battle: pounding heart and manic energy and fear of being ìkilledî. These feelings intensified as our line strode towards the enemy.

As the armies neared, each gathered speed-- then slammed together with a mighty crunch.... wood against wood--- storm and thunder. I was surrounded by a sea of swinging clubs (rattan ìswordsî), fierce metal helms, glittering armor, and hedges of spear points. Swords crashed on my shield. Warriors jostled. Lines pushed back and forth. In the churning humanity I caught sight of a monstrous man in black leather.... with the build of a middle linebacker... who likewise saw me. He dropped his shoulder and charged. I braced, crouched low, and swung wildly, but my sword caught a spear and the viking pounded into me dead-on. I staggered backwards, sword flailing, shield flapping. He raised back and hammered a blow directly atop my helmet.... bells rang. I dropped to the ground- dead.

But never have the dead been so joyful. Lying in the heart of swirling chaos, I watched the battle unfold. Warriors flowed back and forth. Lines broke and re-formed. Shouts rang out.... banners flew... then dropped. In the end, the field was littered with bodies. Some were still. Others writhed or crawled or hid under shields- a scene of mass carnage. I looked overhead for crows, but there were none.

My eyes dropped back to the field and at that moment the marshals called ìholdî..... instantly the battle was over. The twisted waves of carnage... the littered bodies of the dead, gave an exuberant cheer and jumped to their feet. Enemies embraced... shook hands...patted one another on the back. They clustered in groups- and though it had all ended seconds before, the tall tales began immediately. Fighters traded stories of glory, victory, and defeat. ìNo shit, there I was......î. This was the post-battle pow-wow, an SCA tradition.

Some ten minutes later.... tales told, foes praised... the lines re-formed: Time for the next battle. I couldnít get enough. The wild, psychedelic, adrenaline-rushed fantasy had me in a giddy mania. I rushed from fight to fight. When the war finished, I lingered on the field for another two hours... challenging individual warriors to single combat. I was lost-- completely and blissfully lost in the play world of the SCA..... transported back to those magical days of childhood; playing for the sake of play.

Eventually, the setting sun forced me from the field. I showered (thankfully the SCA retains a number of modern conveniences... thus ìanachronismî). Once clean, I donned a simple costume and bounced to the feast hall..... a wooden pavilion lit by lamp light. Night fallen..... candle & lamp lit.... the scene blurred. Once more I felt the sensation of time travel.... I joined my friends at a rough wooden table. As we ate, we again shared our exploits from the dayís fighting.... each growing more fantastic and heroic with the re-telling.

Following the feast, tables were cleared and pushed aside... musicians entered... and a long night of dancing began. Medieval dances generally fall into two categories: folk dances and court dances. Folk dances are rigorous and athletic-- the forerunners of modern square and contra dancing.... while the court dances are staid and stately affairs. The hall filled, music flowed, and the floor shook from stomping feet.

My body ached from the long dayís fighting. I had bruises on my legs and a lumpy welt on my right arm. Hours of wearing armor in bright sun had dehydrated me. My mind was blank with exhaustion. But still I danced. And danced. And danced..... a dizzying whirl of dress hems, thudding feet, clapping hands, and beautiful girls. On and on it went..... deep into the night. My legs grew wobbly- my mind hazy. But magic and enthusiasm bouyed me and kept me going.

When the music stopped..... hours later... I stumbled back to bed.... and truly slept like the dead; with that sweet exhuastion of a child after a full dayís play.

For some, the SCA is an exercise in living history. Many members are meticulous researchers- accomplished experts in a chosen discipline of history. Others join the group for its unique social characteristics-- its embracement of eccentricity.... its community and cameraderie. But for me, the SCA was an act of jubuliant defiance: an enthusiastic refusal to surrender to tedium.

I did not, and do not, want to abandon the creative flow of childhood. I am convinced that play.... fantasy and creativity for its own sake... is a deep and profound human need; one we, as adults, must nurture and maintain. Play is not an escape.... it is a celebration. Play is the essence of creativity.

We, as adults-- for the sake of our happiness and our souls, would be well advised to re-discover it.

No comments: