On the Mechanics of the Bardic Arts within the SCA
by Hector of the Black Height
What are the Bardic Arts?
From time to time people in the SCA talk about "Bardic Arts". What are they talking about? Bardic Arts are recognized generally as recited poetry, recited prose (see note 1) a cappella song (solo or chorus) and accompanied song (solo or chorus). Members of the Society refer to "Bardic Circles" and take great delight in live music, especially at camping events where people gather around the night fires to tell tales and sing songs.
There is a group of people within the Society who are called bards. Some people decide they want to be bards within the SCA; others become recognized as bards by the people of the Society because of their actions. There are bardic competitions and awards, Bardic Colleges, even the occasional Bardic Arts Laurel. All this suggests that Bardic Arts in the SCA are a specific, defined activity or activities within the framework of the Society (see note 2). I think there's a much more pervasive aspect to what people call Bardic Arts, and this deserves some consideration.
Persona as Story-Telling
Owen Alun, the famed skald of Nordskogen, has pointed out that when a participant in an SCA event puts on garb and assumes a persona, he or she is acting out a role; he or she is telling a story about the persona that has been assumed. At an event site people circulate, consciously or unconsciously presenting their personas to each other. The individual's persona tells a simple story; who I am, where I come from, what I do, why I wear these clothes or look at life in a certain way (see note 3). When we get a room full of personas (or personae, if you will), suddenly the simple narrative line of the single story-teller is presented with literally dozens of new story-lines to explore, characters to interact with and references to include in the basic persona.
As well as the opportunities for the persona to be enriched, the contributions by that single persona add to the richness of the panorama of the Known World. The persona may be a crusader; the outside influence may be a samurai; the synthesis of the two adds to the flavour of the event and their actions may contribute to the history and culture of the local group. Suddenly there's a much wider effect than just the editing of two stories. This wider effect is one of the things that makes the SCA an interesting place to play in.
Levels of Narrative and Narrative Voices
Let's look at the activities of the SCA from a literary or dramatic perspective. An analysis of the stories being told indicates that there are a variety of levels of narrative developing. The first level is that of the persona; the second level is that of the persona which is influenced by another persona, such as the crusader walking through the marketplace who happens to bump into a wandering samurai. Now the levels of narrative get more interesting, because the samurai and the crusader, as citizens of the Barony of Northwoods, take part in a tournament and win great honour while in combat with warriors from Nordskogen. I know of no historic Northwoods Barony in
Western Europe between 600 C.E. and 1600 C.E., nor am I
aware of a Nordskogen. For that matter, I am unaware of any instance where
English and Japanese warriors took part in tournament combat together in that
thousand year period, regardless of the temporal displacement of an 11th
Century crusader and a 16th century ronin. We, the participants, have created
this Barony, this political and social entity, as a medium for our recreation
(in both senses of the word). This level is separate from our personas, yet it
relies upon those personas as a jumping-off point. The joint activities of the
SCA form a third level of narrative.
Let's go further. Say our crusader friend sits around the campfire at the event he fought in and tells a story, with a separate narrative voice, to his friends from Northwoods. Suddenly we're imposing a new level of narrative upon the scene, and this can be complicated further by voices within voices, like Hamlet's "play within a play". At this stage our analysis of narrative voice becomes an arithmetical study of metaphoric refraction and permutations and combinations of reflection in a series of prisms. Like any arithmetical process, it can be taken to any extreme you wish.
Within that arithmetical process, consider a twist. What if the stories in question refer to a persona, say a tale of a King Jafar and a wicked djinn? There's obviously an element of the fantastic in a tale about a genie, but there was a SCAdian Arabic persona named Jafar who also happens to have been a King in the Middle Kingdom. Suddenly the lines we draw between fact and the fantastic get blurry, and again we're trying to sort out the sources of narrative voices (see note 4). In this case, however, we're not merely stacking narrators one atop the other; this creative aspect twists the question.
Creating a Persona vs Watching it Develop; History vs Fiction for the Individual
Let's step back for a minute and look again at the roots of the narrative voices we're dealing with. When we create an SCA persona we're developing a character, just like a novelist, a playwright or a D'n'D fantasy gamer. Whether from the outset or as time goes on, the individual who has created that persona and is portraying that role in the venue of the SCA will give the role background and will develop its history. This isn't limited to "tombstone data" like place and date of birth (see note 5), occupation and the like. It can include a résumé of travels and campaigns, knowledge of the period setting and so on. These details set limits upon who the persona is, and these are as a rule set by the creator of the persona. The only way another person can find out these details about the persona are by deduction (he's wearing a crusader surcoat over armour appropriate to the crusading period of history, therefore I'd guess he's a crusader) or by direct questioning ("so, where are you from anyway?"-- see note 6).
Once we enter the SCA environment, however, certain aspects of our crusader persona's biography get out of our control. Is the persona a fighter? Actions in the list will dictate whether the persona is known as a hero or a coward. The Crown may give the persona an award, make him a Baron or may even recognize him as a member of the Royal family after a successful Coronet or Crown Tournament. These are positive things; our crusader persona may also prove himself to be a coward in the list, a braggart, a bully, a cheat or any number of other types of person held in low regard within the Society.
I think it's facile to say in this case that "the crusader isn't a cheat, the guy in the crusader suit is a cheat". (see note 7) True, a guy whose birth certificate says "John Doe" can show up in his crusader suit this weekend, be thoroughly obnoxious and then appear next week in a samurai get-up. Yes, it certainly appears that John Doe is, within the framework of accepted social standards of this group, a thud-puck. What makes a difference in all this is that most of us in the SCA won't know who "John Doe" is if asked (see note 8). When this nasty person appears again, most people won't say "Isn't that John Doe, the thud-puck?" Most will say something along the lines of "Isn't that the obnoxious guy who was wearing crusader last weekend?" In my experience a persona soon reflects the personal qualities of the person (see note 9); I believe it is too hard for most people to maintain a separate identity on an ongoing basis, especially when considering the social, inter-personal nature of the SCA. In some extreme examples this can lead to a split personality, where the individual has his or her SCA side and the day-to-day, office and home side (see note 10). That, however, is a question of individual behaviour and is beyond the scope of this essay. In terms of this essay, however, I think it's vital to note that our experience of another participant in the SCA's activities is objective; only the person inside the garb can decide whether the behaviour being exhibited is that of the person or the persona. As a result, I think we all accept people at face value. While this makes us very open with each other, I think this also means we are willing to accept direction and suggestion from others on how they should be viewed. In this cultural milieu where participants are open to suggestion, we are giving special influence and power to those with a talent for self-expression and creativity, whose imaginations can build reputations and shape perceptions. In the SCA we call some of these people bards.
One of the things that many SCAdians find attractive about their pastime is the eclecticism of the SCA. Anyone can participate as long as he or she recreates a persona from within a one thousand year slice of history. According to Corpora, that persona must be rooted in a culture which had contact with western Europe in the time in question. To be fair, that rule is often honoured in the breach, or at least it's stretched to the snapping point, by various North American, Central American and Asian personas.
These various personas represent and recreate any number of different cultures and backgrounds on their own, individual levels. At the common level, the SCA culture has established its own cultural mores. For a variety of reasons I believe that the SCA culture that has evolved over the past thirty years (more or less) is an Heroic culture in the Germanic model. To be sure we have a variety of other cultural or quasi-cultural sources for some of our institutions (for example the Tennysonian roots to the Chivalry, the vaguely Medieval style of our Royal Courts and the direct quotes from Tolkein in some Kingdom ceremonies -- see note 11), but I believe the mechanics of our Society are fundamentally Heroic.
What are the heroic characteristics of our Society? First and foremost, we select our Kings by right of arms. After winning the Crown our Kings are expected to conform with an Arthurian model of chivalry, but the actual selection process is single combat, albeit a combat fought by our modern rules. When all is said and done, our Society prizes its warriors and warrior-Kings. For many, the penultimate measure of a Midrealm or Eastrealm King is "was he a War King?" and, if the King did rule during a Pennsic War the ultimate test is "did he win?" Legends of valour on the field survive for generations (see note 12) within the Society, told and re-told (and distorted like good fishing stories about the one that got away) until they develop and perpetuate our own warrior myths (see note 13) and legends, based in part upon existing mythic types (as set forth in such post-period sources as Mallory, Tennyson and Rutger Hauer movies -- see note 14) and in part on our own cultural standards and mores.
The Society recognizes in Corpora that one of the attributes of a Peer of the Society, like any heroic noble, is hospitality. The Society prizes generosity and its great Kings, in their extremely bountiful awards system (architecturally a later period affectation, but in the liberal distribution of the various awards not at all like the Tudor or Elizabethan Orders), seek reputations as generous patrons, much like the "ring givers" of ancient days. Finally, the culture has sought out, created and encouraged the creation of an oral tradition of fame-singing by what it hopes is (or will become) a class of specialized performers. The members of this class collect titles appropriate to their "parent" persona cultures: skop, skald, troubadour, minnesinger and the like. As a whole, within the SCA's own culture, they are known as bards, harkening back to ages past when a bardic class or order maintained the heroic names and attributes for the parent culture. Perhaps nothing so exemplifies the SCA's heroic foundations than its fascination with and apparent reliance upon bards.
In pre-literate cultures, the bard was the receptacle of history. In Germanic cultures where the theological concept of an after-life was, at best, murky, the only tangible immortality available to the warrior was the lasting memory of the warrior's name. Through deeds worthy of note and emulation would the warrior enter the corporate memory of his culture, being held up as an example to his descendants.
The Nine Worthies Within the Cultural Framework
In the introduction to Mallory's Morte D'Arthur the author cites the Nine Worthies recognized by his culture as models for emulation and as justification for writing about one of them, Arthur (see note 15). The tales of deeds that are evoked by these names set forth the standard of behaviour required of a warrior in a feudal society (see note 16). The Worthies were figures with a high (if not universal) recognition factor that could provide common references for noble attributes.
Given the scope of the SCA's activities and its history, several "worthy" persons have stood out as heroic figures in the past decades. Given the Society's creation and perpetuation of Bardic Arts, the tales of these heroes have been spread through oral transmission, becoming cultural fixtures. I believe these heroes of the SCA are our new Worthies; for all but the most serious student of medieval history within the SCA, Paul of Bellatrix is certainly a more recognizable name than Godfrey of Bouillon. The tales of our new heroes' deeds set standards of prowess and conduct that can be emulated and celebrated. How is the process central to this different from a tale of Charlemagne or Hector of Troy (as opposed to Hector of Ansteorra?)? I believe our SCA heroes serve the same function for our culture as Mallory's Worthies served for European culture in the past. I also believe the mechanism for this function is the same for both cultures, oral transmission through the media the Society now calls Bardic Arts.
Take a concrete example of this phenomenon. Duke Laurelyn's Lay of the Midrealm Kings includes an historical note about a battle at an early Pennsic, with about one hundred fighters on a side, fought on Runestone Hill. It seems that the field battle turned into a debacle and the Middle's forces were shattered in the early going. A handful of survivors managed to retreat up the hill and assembled waiting for the much larger Eastern force to reform and advance. The Earl Marshal of the Middle turned to Crown Prince Moonwulf and reported that the King had fallen and the remaining Middle Kingdom force awaited His Royal Highness' orders.
The tactical situation was straight-forward. The outnumbered Midrealm force had no hope of victory, but by standing firm on the high ground they could force the Eastrealm to charge uphill. In such a situation the Midrealm would be able to inflict greater casualties than on level ground. The outcome would not change, but the victory would prove more costly to the East.
Moonwulf took in the situation, pointed to the Eastern lines below and said to his Earl Marshal, "There's the short road to glory". He then charged down the hill, with his band of warriors at his heels.
Moonwulf of course died like a bug, as did the remainder of his force. History does not record who slew Moonwulf in his charge; who really cares? The fact worth recording is that Moonwulf charged, not that he fell. In this case victory was less important than the honour and glory of the act itself. This is easy to say about a battle where nobody died and victor and vanquished had a beer together within a few hours; there is very little danger of fatal injury on the battlefield, and any such injury would be both accidental and tragic. Still, the battle could have been fought in a much less glorious manner. In this case the legend celebrates ethical courage over the commonplace, not just physical courage (see note 17).
The best evidence of the resonance and longevity of this anecdote is its citation here. I did not see Moonwulf's charge; I read the tale in the notes to Laurelyn's Lay. In fact, the charge took place before I had even heard of the SCA. Be that as it may, the episode itself is so compelling to me, and is so illustrative of the heroic ethos I believe central to the SCA, that I remember it and repeat it to others. I think this repetition is, in its most simple form, the essence of the Society's oral tradition. We remember things of worth and reinforce their effect upon our Society's culture through telling and singing.
Mimetic vs Didactic vs Poetic
Whatever a bard in the SCA does, orally or in writing, live or in a recorded form, will fit into at least one of three broad categories. Tales, verse and song may be mimetic, didactic or poetic. A final artistic product may be mimetic, a straight reproduction of an event ("and then he did this and she did that..."). Such a product serves to record history and pass that history along. Admittedly we live in a literate and technologically advanced age, where the bardic function of chronicling events is done more efficiently by cameras and tape recorders and is transmitted more quickly and efficiently by newsletter, the
Rialto and the local canton's web page.
Still, there is a place in the Society for a rendition of the events of a day
or an individual where art adds emphasis and beauty and life to the mere facts.
Bardic Arts add extra dimensions to the merely mimetic. As well as chronicling the events taken place (see note 18) the narrative voice can pass judgement upon what has transpired. An event, an individual or group of individuals can be held up as an example (good or bad) for others to learn from. This didactic quality can have a profound impact upon the listener, given the heroic nature of our Society and the audience's willingness to perpetuate this heroic ethic by seeking out, accepting and celebrating heroes.
Certainly the degree of didacticism in any performance depends on a variety of factors, including "editorial" viewpoint of the artist, performance style and the level of receptiveness of the audience. A didactic performance without art or artifice could turn rapidly into an harangue; part of didacticism in Bardic Arts is being able to make palatable the lessons or morals inherent in a tale with pleasant music or beautiful words.
Finally there is the possibility of poetic Bardic Arts. This is not a reference to "poetry" as opposed to prose; poetic refers to the Greek root poeaea, or "making". Bardic Arts can be purely creative, working beyond mere mimesis and perhaps beyond didacticism. This is not completely free-form; at the same time as the bard is creating new ideas, images or plot lines, he or she is bound by the strictures of the historical societies encompassed by the Society's field of study, or by the culture of the Society itself. Any SCA poetry must by definition include such references as will set the piece within the cultural framework of the Society and the audience, or must omit those references that would place the work outside that shared framework.
There is no hard and fast line dividing the mimetic from the didactic or the poetic. These qualities overlap in much of the verse and prose circulating within the Society, varying in degree and proportion. At the same time, these three properties of Bardic Arts are emphasized or minimized in proportion by each artist in composition and performance, whether consciously or unconsciously.
Willing Suspension of Disbelief
Northrop Frye described the theatre-goer's acceptance of the patently artificial events unfolding on stage as "the willing suspension of disbelief". The audience can make a decision, whether conscious or unconscious, to ignore the artificiality of events happening on stage and submerge themselves in the spectacle. If you accept Duke Cariadoc's thesis that activity within the SCA is theatre on a grand scale where there is no audience, only participants, the willing suspension of disbelief is essential to the success of the Society in general and any SCA event in particular.
While I acknowledge the theatrical and spectacular aspects of the SCA, I think the theatrical model is on its own inadequate as a description of the Society's functions. We take part in unscripted, spontaneous full contact martial arts, we interact within our joint culture and, perhaps most importantly to my thesis, we interact on a level separate from our daily existence, setting apart the passive role of the member of the audience. After a few months of activity, most people in the SCA will discover they have several acquaintances whom they know only in terms of the Society. They are pleasant company and share mutual experiences within the culture of the SCA. At the same time these people are known only by their SCA names. We do not know their home addresses or telephone numbers or the names on their drivers' licences. We only know of these people through their activities in the Society, but I believe our logic would be flawed if we denied acquaintance with them. The relationships are real; the cultural framework of these relationships simply differs from most of our "mundane" friendships and acquaintances.
I think that it requires a very distinct suspension of disbelief to pretend that a Saturday afternoon in the 1990s is a market day in 1350 or that
Pittsburgh is Paris. I think there is no disbelief involved
when we greet the seneschal of a local group or bow before a King by right of
arms. Historical re-enactment requires pretending; recreation of a culture (or
creation of another culture based loosely on an earlier culture) merely
requires the shifting of cultural reference points and acceptance of this other
culture's rules (see note 19). To paraphrase Rousseau, participation in the SCA
assumes compliance with our own "Social Contract". Part of this
contract is formal and set out in legal documents which frame our rules and
regulations, just like any other organization. In this case we are not saying
the guy who beat forty others is a King for purposes of world history and
international affairs; we are saying the guy who won Crown Tournament is a King
within our set of rules. We will acknowledge him according to our custom for
Kings by right of arms. Just as those of us within the contract will honour
this King, those who are not part of the contract will not render any special
honours, nor would anyone expect an outsider to do so.
Part of this contract is implicit, based on the dynamics of the populace and the culture. This is where the roles of Heroes and Worthies take on importance and the Bardic Arts, as a didactic vehicle for conveying cultural attributes, become critical.
In many ways the various levels of Bardic Arts are just as important for the success of the culture as the laws and formal arrangements. This is primarily because of the Bardic Arts' appeal and accessability. Not every SCAdian has read the Corpora; almost all SCAdians have sat around a campfire at night, listening to tales and singing songs. This informal transmission is vital to the success of any culture.
The Processes of Oral Tradition in a Literate Society
The concept of oral tradition working within a culture is a popular field of study, from both literary and anthropological points of view. Various works, including The Singer of Tales and in particularOral Poetry, confirm that in a literate society, works meant to be performed orally can be transmitted non-orally (i.e. on paper). The context of the original performance is made plain in the printed copy and, while there is a loss of immediacy, there is the added benefit of the contents of the performance being available for subsequent reference by the audience. Accordingly the recorded works of the SCA bard (whether circulated on paper, audio or video tape) can reach a greater audience than just those immediately at a live performance (event, feast or Society meeting). These works can keep on reaching people as recorded information that can be accessed at the audience's pleasure.
I think the essence of the literary transmutation of oral tradition is recognizing that we are not referring to straight-forward, narrative reporting or photographs. The Bardic Arts can travel on paper, as long as they are recognized for what they are. There has to be an element of recognized art to the text, be it verse or use of story-telling conventions. On the one hand, this raises our expectations beyond banal mimetic narrative. On the other hand, it lowers our expectations of accuracy and detail. If we accept this statement and we agree that there is still some appeal in a bardic performance or creation even though superior recording media exist, then we must assume there is something intrinsically valuable in the performance or creation itself. This is, of course, the artistic content. Even today poetry, song and story-telling are accepted as art forms by most Western cultures, and the intrinsic value of art is accepted generally in many cultures, past and present.
What's in a Name? Bardic Arts as the Arts of the Bards
Why do we call oral performance in a variety of forms (and some written work, to be fair) "Bardic Arts"? Words carry a lot of baggage, and the word "bard" has many connotations. There are echoes of many compelling images (see note 20): the poet-priest, the law-giver, the possessor of great, mystical powers. Ascribing these powers to modern poets or singers within the SCA without any sort of consideration, discussion or investigation strikes me as simplistic, to say the least. In a Society with a Board of Directors, a written constitution and a prohibition against organized religion, the role of the law-giving high priest cannot exist. At the same time, the SCA has hung onto its bards for thirty years. There must be something bard-like in the Bardic Arts, even if the connection is tenuous.
I believe there are a few "real bards" working today within the Society, people who could be dropped back a thousand years in time (see note 21) and would be recognized in an earlier society as a bard. These are people with intimate knowledge of the culture of the SCA (whether locally or on a wider scale) and the skills to help shape that culture. This is usually through positive reinforcement of acceptable behaviours (praise-singing, especially of warriors), but it can also be a negative process such as shame-singing, the mobilizing and focusing public opinion within the Society against an individual or a specific type of action (see note 22).
The ability to help shape the popular culture does not appear overnight. It takes both a deep understanding of the Society (its personalities, its traditions, its history and yes, even its politics) and technical expertise. Having insight and understanding is one thing; being able to convey that in a manner which draws the attention of the audience is another thing entirely. In this regard Bardic Arts in the SCA seem to mirror the development of professional court poets in the Middle Ages. Through practice and mentoring (whether through a Laurel-Apprentice relationship, through membership in a guild such as the Eastrealm's
informal support from fellow performers), young aspirants learn how to perform
and write. They also are exposed to a body of standard works popular with their
intended audience. As time goes on the budding bard changes the mix of his or
her performance; as competence and confidence build, more original work can be
used and fewer "old favourites" are required to win over the
audience. Finally the bard has an audience, a repertoire and the skills to make
use the best use of both. Bardic
As well as repertoire and technique, I believe the few "real" Bards in the SCA also possess credibility. This is the key characteristic which allows our culture to cultivate a pale imitation of the original Bardic role as law-giver, and allows the bard to sing shame effectively, if and when it is required.
As was pointed out to me by Grimwulf the Hairy several years ago, a true bard, in archetypal terms, is the voice of the land, not merely a voice of a patron of the arts. A true bard has the power and the obligation to act as an objective, neutral voice, speaking truth. This may include saying things the bard's patron or the Crown does not wish to hear. Credibility surpasses mere popularity. It also may mean saying things contrary to the popular will, which is always a risky move politically. Ignoring all external forces may be evidence of a dedication to objectivity. Such objectivity leads to credibility and is essential for establishing credibility before all sides considering any given issue or argument. At the same time, credibility requires prudence and discretion. Anyone can be right at any given time; not everyone wants to hear what's right, and few people are interested in listening to someone who is right all the time and lets you know it!
The Power of Words
Let me recapitulate. Within the SCA as a whole we have a culture with its own standards. These standards are defined by common agreement (a social contract) and transmitted through such media as corporate publications, newsletters and the Bardic Arts. The SCA's common culture is an amalgam of individual recreations or reenactments, and thus the individual adds to and helps shape the common culture. At the same time the common culture, through both its own mechanical processes (events, tournaments and other formal activities) and the intangible and insidious aspects of cultural patterning, shapes the individual's participation in the Society and helps shape the individual, whether as a persona divorced from the personality of the participant, or as a facet of the participant's life. Let me illustrate this idea.
I wrote a poem called "The Dragon'sHeart Guard", which was very much about cultural roles. I decided to combine the mythic proportions of the Nine Worthies with the SCA culture, by setting forth individuals active in the SCA whom I believed (and believe) to be worthy of emulation. I used as a device for this combination a very potent myth, the romance of the Foreign Legion (see note 23). Having created a military body sworn to idealistic service, I peopled it with those I considered Worthies of our Society (see note 24). I sat at a campfire at Pennsic and read this poem of warriors sworn to serve the Queen of the Middle Kingdom to one of the warriors named therein. He liked the poem, but there was a deeper effect. A couple of days later heralds cried the camp, announcing (among the other daily business) that the Queen was going to have a dinner for her champions in a two nights' time. For those two days the Worthy I had read to didn't know if he was expected for dinner or not.
What I had written resonated within this individual so strongly that he could accept and believe in the poem's message of service to a romantic cause. The poem recreated in miniature the old chestnut about the SCA, "not as it was, but as it should have been". My invocation of these myths of romanticism, idealism and martial honour corresponded so closely with this individual's beliefs about the way the Society and his place in that Society should be (see note 25), that what I had written became part of his cultural framework. He was part of the Dragon'sHeart Guard because someone else said so. I suggest this element of independent confirmation is an important aspect to any popular culture (see note 26).
In a Society with arbitrary but indistinct rules (dressing funny and behaving in a stylized way), anyone can put a distinct spin on how he or she interprets or abides by those rules. Some people become fops; others are "authenticity police". Some others are party animals or prototypical beer'n'T-shirt "stick jocks". All these people, while interpreting the same rules in wildly different ways, interact in the common forum of the SCA. Common points of reference are provided by the SCA so that, however far from the centre you diverge while interpreting the rules, there will be a solid centre to relate to and recognize. This centre is the foundation of the culture. Bardic Arts can shape or add to that foundation, and thus can shape the way participants in the Society perceive their culture and their place in that culture.
This essay will be, for many, an exercise in abstract navel-gazing. For those who see the SCA is a straightforward venue for entertainment or relaxation, the Bardic Arts are background music or a rustic replacement for electronic audio-visuals. For those who see a deeper level of activity (and effects on participants) in the Society, I think the Bardic Arts can be seen as interesting and important parts of our ongoing efforts to create and maintain a separate and distinct culture. Bardic Arts are more than just the means for the perpetuation of the values and myths of the culture; they can be the force which shapes and creates those values and myths.
The SCAdian bard can be an instructor, a leader, a commentator or an artist within a Society which respects his or her talents and appreciates the efforts needed to hone those talents. How the bard uses the opportunities the Society offers is up to each performer's whim, and the performer's conscience as a maker and shaper of the Society's culture and the reputations of those who choose to participate in that culture. I wish all the people of the SCA bards worthy of their deeds, and I wish all the bards of the Society the joy of their art. May they ever sing well, and wisely.
NOTES to this essay
Note 1: I do not mean to imply that all spoken word performance is memorized or read. Just as period, the mark of a true skald is his ability with extemporaneous verse. Being able to tailor existing works or create new ones on the spot is a skill most SCA bards aspire to as a means of winning over an audience with topical material.
Note 2: Even though Arts and Sciences mavens in the Society hold up the category of "Bardic Arts" as an example of categorization so vague as to be useless for the formalized activities of Society competition or judging.
Note 3: For analysis of how to build up a persona, I suggest the reader refer to Cariadoc's Miscellany. Duke Cariadoc has explored the creation and maintenance of a persona, as well as considering the various compromises inherent in living out a medieval persona in the Current Middle Ages, such as spoken language and wearing eyeglasses.
Note 4: In this case, there was a story circulating about a genie and a great hero named Jafar "Iron-Hands"; I wrote this story about six months before Sir Jafar won his first Crown Tourney. When Jafar was crowned King of the Middle, he was heralded into the hall -- not by me -- as "Jafar, called by some Iron-Hands". Where do we draw the line between fantasy and real experience? In the SCA, I think the answer has to be wherever we want to; this is one of the reasons Bardic Arts, as a means of shaping fantasy (or one way of drawing the line), are so important to the Society.
Note 5: Or death, for some people. I think whether or not a persona has a date of death (defining it as a character separate from the person who has created it) says a great deal about the way the creator of that persona looks at his or her participation in the SCA.
Note 6: Yet another important indicator of how the participant views the SCA. When asked this, is the answer "I'm from
France", "I'm from France in
1250" or "I'm from Northwoods"? These three different answers
tell you quite a bit about the person in the crusader suit.
Note 7: It's just as facile to say that the guy in the crusader suit's a nice guy, also.
Note 8: This wonderful phenomenon is experienced by anyone who tries to telephone a SCAdian at work and realizes, as the phone is ringing, that the only name you have for the person you want to talk to is "Ragnar the Unbathed".
Note 9: As an aside, this is one of the significant differences between the SCA and role-playing games. True, in dungeons and dragons games the participants create characters, give them personal histories and interact with other characters, just like people at an SCA event. The difference lies in the ability to prove these characteristics. If someone at an SCA event claims to be a great warrior, several other SCAdians in armour will no doubt offer to meet the "warrior" in the Lists and put his or her self-stated reputation to the test.
Note 10: I would hazard a guess that people who split their SCA persona from their "real" selves advocate the belief that the SCA is grand theatre, and therefore patently unreal. See "Willing Suspension of Disbelief", later in this essay.
Note 11: For example, in the Middle Kingdom the Royal response to a Knight paying homage is a direct quote from Tolkein's The Return of the King.
Note 12: Given the combination of population growth and turnover in the majority of the population of the Society, a "generation" is usually considered to be about two years. This turn-over rate is consistent with studies done by the US Army Reserve, US Marine Corps Reserve, Canadian Army Reserve and British Territorial Army, other large-scale volunteer-type groups with martial aspects and appeal to 18 to 25 year-olds.
Note 13: By myth I'm referring to specific episodes in the overall mythos of the culture. In our modern culture it is recognized that a myth can be rooted in reality but can expand or change into an archetype. In the SCA some of our myths are based on actual events, others are completely fictitious and others yet fall somewhere in between these two extremes. The ability (if not desire) of the SCA's culture to accept fictitious myths gives the bard great power in the role of a myth-maker.
Note 14: It's interesting to note that the SCA is very much our recreation of others' ideas; we are reliving a strange amalgam of Mallory and Tennyson, Tolkein and Marion Zimmer Bradley (herself a SCAdian). Perhaps our celebration of Bardic Arts is an unconscious acknowledgement that the culture and customs of SCA build on themes and images in fiction?
Note 15: Mallory's Nine Worthies were three Ancient Worthies (Hector of Troy, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar), three Biblical Worthies ("Duke" Joshua, King David and Judas Maccabaeus) and three Modern Worthies (Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon, King of Jerusalem).
Note 16: And later. In Castiglione's The Courtier, the first premise established is that the ideal Courtier is a warrior. Having set this concept forth, the book proceeds to elaborate and define the attributes of the Courtier based upon his martial background. Even as late as the 15th Century, a leading member of society had to be a warrior, which I believe reflects both the political realities of the feudal economic system and the echoes of Roland, Beowulf and, most importantly, Arthur.
Note 17: As the SCA ages and members die, we are developing legends about actual deaths. In particular the legends of Queen Eislinn stand out as examples of nobility in adversity. The actual physical death, while adding tragedy to the tales, is secondary to the myth. Just as in most tales from the SCA battlefield, courage and chivalry have primary importance. The Eislinn myth is a story of the ability of grace and courage to transcend pain and illness. This myth is very important to the SCA, as it describes how a SCAdian, by drawing upon the qualities prized by the SCA culture, triumphed over adversity with a very real (or "mundane"?) source.
Note 18: It can be argued that any historian places some editorial "spin" on the recording of events. Even the camera has to have a viewpoint. In Bardic Arts I believe the viewpoint tends to be more pronounced, simply because the narrative tends to use vocabulary or voice which, implicitly or explicitly, pass judgement or take a stand on what a character has done.
Note 19: This is one of the reasons Bardic Arts in the SCA, for good or ill, includes "filking". Singing about a surfer Duke living in
California to the tune of the theme
from "Gilligan's Island" has nothing
to do with reenacting an incident from 1350. These terms and forms are part of
the culture of the people who make up much of the SCA. These carry-overs from
1990s culture are identifiable immediately by participants in the SCA's
Note 20: The images we invoke today have more to do with
Hollywood or paperback
fiction than solid historical research. This does not minimize their effect on
our Society; merely I think it important to be honest about the roots of our
customs, traditions and perceptions.
Note 21: The infamous SCA "stick it in a time machine and see how it would compare with the real thing" test, which probably owes more to H.G. Wells (and Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee) than anyone else.
Note 22: When focused against a particular individual, this is referred to by some as the "Bardic Curse". This is a faint echo of the supernatural associations bard-priests may have had in ancient times (as described in film and fiction); it is also acknowledgement of the power Society bards have in ruining reputations.
Note 23: It could be argued that one of the original Foreign Legions was the Varangian Guard, but that was a purely mercenary unit. Inherent in the French Foreign Legion's mythic Victorian origins and perpetuated in our culture by novels and films is a romantic appeal to (lost) love and idealism. "Dragon'sHeart" plays upon the idealistic, romantic aspects of this myth.
Note 24: In retrospect, this may be the true mark of the Society bard. Anyone can say "these are my heroes". A bard has the technical skill to have his opinions heard by an audience and the credibility to be have his opinions adopted by others. The ability factor is a measure of skill; I think a political scientist would say that the credibility factor is a measure of power.
Note 25: Not his alone; a Lady from Ealdormere heard the poem and, among other things, made a dozen baldrics decorated in the manner described in the poem, for the Queen to give her Guard. What does this mean? Are the members of the Society susceptible to suggestion as a matter of course? Or are we merely taking ideas and running with them?
Note 26: Today we talk about believing something because it's in print or on TV and we bemoan the power of the mass media. In a Society which arbitrarily discards mass media, the place of the TV commentator is taken by the bard at a campfire. Just as with television, the listener can "change channels" and find another fire and a new bard to listen to, so talent and skill remain important for any bard seeking (and trying to hold onto) an audience. At the same time, SCAdians come from a culture reliant upon and shaped by mass media, so bards (as TV surrogates?) assume great prominence as a source of popular entertainment.
Copyright 1996, 1998 Arthur McLean. All rights reserved.