Monday 2 June 2014

On Scroll Texts

On Scroll Texts

By Master Hector of the Black Height

When an award scroll is created, great care is taken in the layout of the text, the illumination for the text and the hand the text is written in. Often, less care is taken in the selection and creation of the text itself. To be sure, the various heralds ensure the text meets the legal standards of the Society as set forth in the Middle Kingdom Text Standards, Ealdormere Scribes' Handbook or other applicable authorities. Such inspection ensures heraldic compliance with bureaucratic standards and meets legal requirements, but what does it do about aesthetic requirements? A scroll is a work of art (who better to know this than the visual artist who created it?); why not let the whole product become a work of art? Careful creation of a suitable text can embellish, compliment and complete a scroll.

First, let's look at the legal requirements I referred to above. According to the Middle Kingdom Text Standards (which you should use as your authority when composing text for Midrealm awards. In the Kingdom of Ealdormere, you should check the Ealdormere Scribes' Handbook. When this essay and the appropriate reference differ, the reference should be taken as authoritative), each scroll must contain all of these elements:

a.     the address ("be it known that");
b.     the intitulation (identifying the donor, for example a member or members of the Midrealm Royalty);
c.     notification and exposition (a lead-in phrase, such as "having heard much good of NAME..." and a description of what the service or accomplishment being recognized is);
d.     the disposition (the phrase where the donor actually bestows the award in question); and
e.     corroboration and date (which authenticates the time, place and donor of the award).

This is all necessary and significant. If care is not taken, however, the obligatory text can read like a car rental agreement.

There are very few limits on what you can say on a scroll: the biggest caution is not to use the word "grant" (i.e. "We do grant unto her...") in the disposition unless the award is a Grant of Arms. Beyond that you can say almost anything you want, as long as you touch on all the points listed above.

This is the stage where the scroll can stop being only a piece of visual art and may also become a work of literature or poetry, if you want. Let's look at how you can do this.

First, let's examine the importance of the narrative voice in the text. Who is this person who proclaims the award? If you stick to the cut-and-dried texts in the Middle Kingdom Text Standards, the text is proclaimed by a herald, a bureaucratic functionary, acting as the voice of the Crown. In such a case the text is dry and the message is dry. The text will meet the legal requirements but it sits on the page. There is no passion to the text, nothing individualistic about it. It is nice (in that it says something nice has happened to someone), but not inherently special beyond the fact. The new Ealdormere texts are better (in my opinion) but there's only so much that can be done when creating a generic text.

Instead of being in the voice of the herald (individual or corporate), the text can be written in the voice of the King or Queen, or of someone from the time and background of the recipient. These latter examples are often exemplified by the elaborate texts in foreign languages that sound so splendid in court. There's nothing like hearing an award in Norse for a viking, or in Japanese for a Samurai. The sound of the words takes on a new beauty as the court herald (and eventually the scroll's reader) explores the rhythms of another language and the shapes and sounds of other characters and words.

Selecting an appropriate verse or prose form to compliment the persona of the recipient makes the award a very special gift. It customizes what could be a very generic text and adds artistic and emotional impact. There are other options, however, than merely suiting the text to the recipient.

The King, Queen, Prince, Princess or any other noble person who bestows an award is fulfilling two roles. First, the donor may be acting on behalf of the Society by creating a new member for an order, encouraging the efforts of others and thereby perpetuating the existence of the order in general and the Society as a whole. The donor also acts on his or her own behalf. Consider the heroic model of society so central to Germanic culture (and, to cut a long story short, I believe central to the SCA also). The King in such a culture sought a reputation as a generous patron, the "ring-giver" of the sagas. Awards in the SCA are the King's rings, his valuable (and valued) gifts. Each donor knows his or her signature (and thus his or her name) will hang on walls across the Kingdom for decades. Wise awards ensure the immortality of the King's name. Given the donor's role in the award process, it is entirely proper for a scroll to reflect the character, persona and cultural background of the donor instead of the recipient. This is especially true of awards that reflect a bond between individual donor and recipient (say a Queen' Favour from the Queen or a martial award from the King).

Another factor to be considered is the cultural climate of the recipient's home group. For example, in Ealdormere we have very strong Celtic and Scandinavian roots. If a Mongol is King of Ealdormere and is giving an award to a non-Mongol, you might want to create a text that reflects the abiding cultural milieu of the area and not the transient specifics of that particular Prince's culture. Such decisions may be best based on the nature of the award being bestowed. If the award is for long service to a particular group, it seems reasonable that the group's cultural character (if it has developed a specific culture) should be indicated in the text of the award.

Once you decide that you want to try to do something different with your text and determine what voice you're going to use, you have to select a style that reflects the narrative voice. If you decide you want your text to be poetry this is not as hard as you'd think. Various poetic forms are very period- or location-specific. For example, a Shakespearean sonnet sets the text in the last years of the sixteenth century in England, whereas alliterative poetry of the Germanic saga type places the text much earlier, and perhaps in a different place entirely. Different cultures developed different poetic forms, almost always based on the grammar and rhythms of the mother tongue. These forms can be imposed on modern English with varying degrees of success; the degree of success usually depends on the author's familiarity with the form in question, and the culture that created that form.

Let's say you've decided that you want your next award scroll's text to reflect the donor of the award, and the donor is King Comar II (i.e. Comar during his second reign as King of the Midrealm), who is an early-period Saxon. Where can you find out how to write a poem suitable for this scroll? There are a couple of good sources. The best of all is The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Enlarged Edition), which is the most complete single survey on poetic forms I have found. Most good libraries have a copy; if you really want to get serious about poetry it's available in paperback in good book shops for about thirty dollars. To understand the mechanics of alliterative verse, especially in early England, you could refer to The Earliest English Poems, which is a Penguin paperback. It has an excellent introduction which explains the importance of both alliteration and rhythm in this form of poetry.

Having sat down with the references and boned up on alliterative verse (in this case), you set out to write the poem and discover you don't know where to start. Take the Kingdom standards and use them as a framework; your text will have to include the five critical points, at the very least. The donor will have to identify himself, say who's getting what and why. The donor, in this case Comar, will have to bestow the award and then corroborate the award. Take an award of arms to the fictitious Ragnar the Unbathed of the Canton of Great Bog, awarded at the springtime Feast of Good Cheer, for example:

Comar the King am I, now Crowned Midrealm's monarch
Sword-hewn throne sit I, the second so named
Bench long shared with Lisa, our Queen true and well-loved

Past winter wind's whistle have I heard words of praise raised
Marked well I the many deeds, made note of glad service
Have given good thought to the Great Bog petition
Begging a boon of me, arms to bestow by me
On subject deserving such, sterling example

Know my will, northmen, and none ever hinder
The rights of Lord Ragnar, remarked as Unbathed
To always bear arms, as heralds would counsel
From now and forever, in lands far and near
Such lands as my holdfast to Imperium's ends
King's word I commend to you, ring-giver's counsel

Mark well mighty Comar, made true declaration
From long bench in Great Bog, beyond inland waters
At fine feast of good cheer, fourth day of fair April
Said scribes that date is year our folk cite XXVII
King's word once clear uttered will not be forgotten

This is one example of a form of alliterative verse; the whole poem doesn't flow too well because I tried to fit all five parts of the award text in. You can tack the corroboration on after the Royal signatures; it is truly a bureaucratic and archival requirement. It's hard to make an indexing feature into poetry, as the fourth stanza proves beyond question. Given the reference to Comar's second reign I wonder if a specific year reference is required; the award is set in the SCA's history (this decision would be best made by a senior herald well before you start calligraphy on this project). As for dates, it's possible to consult a good hagiography (mine is The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, available in paperback) and cite a Saint's feast day, eve of a feast day or octave of a feast day instead of a Julian calendar date. This religious citation is not always appropriate, of course; you have to know the desires of the donor and the inclination of the recipient, within the limitations of Corpora regarding religious observance and reference.

There's an easy way to avoid the problem of starting a poem; have the text appear to pick up in the middle of a longer text! You don't need to sit down and write seventeen pages of poetry and then grab a bit from the centre, however. Rather than creating a huge saga, you can create an excerpt from a non-existent longer work. I've been involved with a project like this; in this one case, the scroll looked like it was a page lifted from a complete period book. It was a very effective way to suggest continuity (in this case, recognizing recipients of an annual award). It was also a lot of fun, as this lay-out let the calligrapher and the illuminator play with marginalia. If this idea doesn't suit you, you can simply start in the middle (a technique called "in medias res" as I recall, and used very effectively by Homer in the various openings of sections of The Odyssey). These aren't the only answers to writer's block; any literary style or form can contribute to a project that will turn out as that little bit more than the run-of-the-mill scroll.

If you want to do a poetic text but just can't get a handle on the verse form appropriate to the donor, try a different form suitable to the recipient or the location. You can be flexible; you're the one creating the work of art, after all. Whatever you do, the recipient will be delighted you went that little bit farther and added interest and merit to the scroll, as will the donor.

When all else fails, ask your local musicians and poets for ideas for award scrolls or assistance with your composition. I've seen Awards of Arms which are knives, axes and drinking horns; why can't an AoA be a song, or a poem that gets published in a local group newsletter (or in Tournaments Illuminated, for that matter)? The text of an award is a collection of words of praise, after all. Use of an interesting prose or poetic form adds to the circulation of the text, and to the spread of the recipient's praises.

Words are like paint or ink; they sit, waiting for the artist to use them and give them value. Play with words like you play with inks and paints. Just like in a sketch pad, you'll tear up a lot of false starts and doodle a lot, but Da Vinci had lots of notebooks so why shouldn't you? Experiment with styles and forms on your own or, better yet, collaborate with another artist. You'll both learn something from the creative process, and your efforts will make a person or persons very happy. After all, the recipient won't just receive a scroll from their King, he or she will be given a work of visual and literary art.

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