Tuesday 30 June 2020

On the Bardic Arts: Correspondence between Master Hector and then Laird Colyne

----- Original Message -----
From: "Hector of the Black Height" <REDACTED>
To: Colyne Stewart< REDACTED >
Sent: Friday, September 06, 2002 8:10 PM
Subject: In response

Milord Colyne:

Please forgive my delay in responding; it's been a busy few days. I will discuss your specific poems in another message.

"Three lessons are plain to me..."

Good. It's important to look at our art and the effect it has, to learn from it and to drive on thereafter.

"First, the word of a Bard has power, sometimes more than s/he may realize..."

A valuable lesson indeed. To use Justinian Clarus' highest word of praise, "Truth".

"...this poem, inked to thank a group of fighters and their support staff, may help strengthen already strong ties with this House..."

That's a fringe benefit, and a splendid one, that falls out of the first lesson.

"Second, words know no boundaries...though they do not come from the same land as I, they respond to the words..."

Not one of the major lessons I saw, frankly, but an entirely valid one.

"...I cannot readily think of a third..."

It's all a question of how you look at life. And in my case, I'm a sententious son-of-a-dog and love to preach at people (ask any of my long-suffering kin) so my mind picks up these sorts of things. Navel-gazing, like poetry, improves with practice.

"I also think my first and second are kind of the same..."

Not entirely. The first lesson you saw is about the very real power you wield. The second is about the ability of the receiver to receive. Different directions of information flow entirely, o Voice of the Bear. Information, like water, flows. Be sensitive to that flow and you'll be able to harness its power far more effectively.

Now it's my turn. Let's go back to first principles and look at the message from Mjolnir that kicked off this exercise:

"in my opinion, we have received no better booty that this. Llallogan"

What a spectacular tribute to what you did, how you did it and even why. And thus these lessons leap to my mind.

First, one of these Mjolnir mercenaries, who have received some pretty nifty gifts from Septentria, likes your words best of all their booty.

People forget the value of word-fame. What you do as one of the two Bards of Septentria includes the creation of valuable gifts in service of your patrons and the Barony.

So what?

We need bards in service to the mighty. The mighty of our lands need bardic service to create truly magnificent gifts in aid of the war effort and other diplomatic initiatives, before and after the fact. And believe me, a selling point in SCA diplomacy is word-fame. The Qon used it all spring and summer. Examples like this get trotted out to potential allies. 'This is what we do. Join us and we will give you word-fame too.' Poetry in particular is portable in our web-connected society. It's a gift that travels widely, quickly and well.

We need to remember that poetry and prose are art, just as calligraphy, embroidery, gold-smithing and anything else you'd care to mention. Again, a poet's raw materials are cheap in terms of cash. That's a real advantage to leaders who want to achieve gold-and-rubies results on a brass-and-plastic budget. That's one big reason why I encourage all the high and mighty to patronize bards, poets, and whatever. Such patronage is a cost-effective approach to the exercise of a medieval style of nobility.

Patronage encourages an artist to actually do his or her art -- which leads to practice, which usually leads to better artistic quality, especially when the art is practiced in a co-operative and knowledgeable environment such as ours.

Patronage encourages the creation of art that in turn is injected into our living culture. It's an authentic medieval practice. It supports the prestige of the offices (the Crown, the Barony, even the Peerage and Royal Peerage) which in turn reinforces our group culture. And again, it does all these wonderful things and costs pennies. We live in the real world most of the week; cash cost is a real factor.

People crave word-fame. This is a period phenomenon. This also is psychologically positive. Your words affirmed the value of what Mjolnir does. This is an important part of the didactic quality of bardic arts. By praising certain behaviours we encourage those behaviours, both in those praised and in others who hear the praise. Thus do we reinforce the positive aspects of our culture. Thus do the bards shape the game.

The SCA ultimately is artificial. As an artificial social construct, how do we as members know what is and isn't appropriate conduct? Given the SCA's theme, we draw upon cultural archetypes from literature, mass media and our childhood memories of King Arthur stories. As participants we observe the behaviour of those around us at our first events (examples matter!). And, being children of the age of mass media, we listen. If people within the population pf the social construct sing us songs and tell praise tales of chivalry, courtesy and honour, we soon will come to the conclusion that
chivalry, courtesy and honour are Good Things in this place. Thus we are given role models to emulate.

The root word of "poetry", as I recall, is the Greek word "poaea" which means "making". In mechanical, literary terms the poetic impulse is purely creative (as opposed to the mimetic or didactic impulses). In the grand and glorious sweep of things, o Voice of the Bear, bardic arts are poetic,
creative. We help create the SCA with our words and images. We hand people ideas and say 'try these.' That is the power of the bard; in the broadest terms possible, we can shape others' games.

That is why it's so vital for us as the bardic community to get out there, especially among new people. We have a great opportunity and a profound ability to hand new people positive images. We can and do portray the SCA in its best light. I've said this for some years now; if I didn't haul out the tale, who'd tell the little children about Moonwulf's charge? Somebody had better, or we'll forget that amazing example of SCA ethics in action. And that would diminish the game.

We must not allow the game to diminish. We must preserve our cultural heritage, for that cultural heritage is the root and foundation of whatever successes we have achieved in our Barony and Kingdom. Why do you think Ealdormere works, Milord Colyne? Why do you think we brush up against people from all over the Known World who walk away changed, who maintain friendships from thousands of miles away, who return here again and again? Why do we play the best flavour of the great game in all the Known World? In part it's because we use bardic arts to create and maintain a vital, active, supportive and extremely positive culture (as the High Lady Gwerydd reminded me recently).

You said that this wonderful episode pointed out that "words know no boundaries". You're right, and that's a critical insight. But I think it's more than that also. It's more than just words. Concepts are understood universally (if not practiced universally, sad to say). We preach a game centred on respect, on co-operation and pride in ourselves and in each other. Listen to the words we sing:

"With our children as our future and our legends as our pride"

"My sword has won battles, my bow has won honour"

"You are true and destined King and my sword is by your side"

"Bow to the Crown and bow to the throne"

"For as long as one still stands, the North shall rise"

"Our power we extol; we are a river"

That's the party line, Milord, and more besides. That's what we teach our children it is to be Ealdormere. That's what we tell newbies. That's what we remind each other around the fire. That's what we scream into the faces of our foes on the field as we break them, and as they break us. Pride.
Respect. Celebration. Power. That is what we preach.

And then we practice it, and we achieve glory.

This is cultural engineering. We are building something magnificent and Mjolnir now is being sucked into that vortex of self-sustaining splendour, in no small part thanks to your words.

As a final lesson, art matters. Art matters a lot. Art is a major venue for generosity within our culture. Why are Corwyn and Domnhail Galbraith so amazingly generous? Because they are two of the most switched-on artists you will ever meet. They love to make art, to try new things, to learn, to get better at what they do. If they kept all their art they'd not have room to move in their house. So they give it away.

So do our amazing, wonderful, devoted and inspiring scribes.

In their own way, so do our chirurgeons.

So do our group marshals who coach baby fighters.

So do our bards, every time they open their mouths.

The list goes on and on.

[sic] They were your words, and they were better than all those magnificent things, according to a guy in a far land who'll never forget how Ealdormere says thank-you. We forget just how valuable a few minutes' scribbling can be to a reader or listener who finds something in your message. That recipient can find word-fame and immortality. Or affirmation. Or permission. Those all are profound gifts, perhaps permission most of all.

It's about generosity, Milord. Your words have given a great gift to those who found riches in unexpected places. They have taught a great lesson to foreigners. They confirm the fundamental worth of our culture, for what you have done is so clearly, utterly consistent with the ethics that underlie Ealdormere.

And finally, from an entirely petty and personal perspective, your words and their effect inspire me, challenge me and humble me. I think we need to talk about the use of period form and metre, you and I, but nobody needs speak to you about honesty and raw power. It's obvious you've got those sorted out.


Post scriptum: I am sending a copy of this message to my grand-daughter the Septentrian Arts and Sciences officer. She needs to see what's happening in the arts within the Barony.

I also am sending a copy to the King's Bard. She needs to see what results you're achieving, in order to best reinforce the College and thus the Kingdom.

And finally, I am sending copies to our Baron and my daughter our Baroness. They need to see what you are accomplishing; that too is part of patronage.


----- Original Message -----
From: "Hector of the Black Height" <REDACTED>
To: Colyne Stewart < REDACTED >
Sent: Saturday, September 07, 2002 2:31 AM
Subject: Let me address a couple of your points

O Voice of the Bear:

"I witnessed [REDACTED] do that this year at War at Garraed's Vigil (so you likely saw it too)...she [sic] a tale that held up to ridicule those who do not practise courtesy and chivalry."

I know the tale. I know its message. I understand its value.

At the same time, part of what we do, part of who we are as the Northern people, is our positive focus. There is a place for shame-singing. There also is a place for letting go, for forgiveness, for accentuating the positive.

Be careful with this dark concept. The so-called "Bardic Curse" is a double-edged sword and those edges are sharp. I have the scars, and a couple are far more fresh than I'd like to admit.

"I remember seeing you at Bad in Plaid, having learned that it was one good gentle's first event, taking him aside and telling him tales..."

Never underestimate the powerful draw of a new audience that hasn't heard all your old crap seventeen times...

But part of the SCA is the magic of myth and legend. And just because you're an Arthurian scholar doesn't mean you've heard all the legends fit to print. What about the Knighting of Kief and Bellatrix' Spur? What about Moonwulf's Charge? What about Eislinn's War? What about Palymar, Jafar and the best six fights never fought? What about the Tallest, Blondest Knight and even the Entire Midrealm Army?

The people around us carve legends into the living rock of a Kingdom. We just get to read the stones out loud.

I value those legends. I value our people and I am very proud of those people. I am selling Ealdormere to newbies; I have a great product to sell. It's fun switching somebody on to a whole new culture.

And that's also how you build a Kingdom's future, one new heart at a time.

"...the time you took Thorfinna and I aside, oh-so-green we were, and told us tales, and the importance of our new position of Baronialbards..."

I am a Laurel; I swore to my Queen and King to teach.

I am numbered among the bardagh: I have a joyous obligation to teach and spread my art.

I held the office you now share: as I respect the office, I owe you the courtesy of discussing my experiences therein.

I am from Ealdormere; as I teach I enrich the Kingdom.

I am a SCAdian; people taught me, so now I repay.

I am a father: by teaching others I ensure a strong and vibrant Kingdom will be there for my son to inhabit and enjoy.

"I agree...when we all have the same songs we become like one people..."

That's one of the things that unite us. There are others, but the songs are among the most obvious.

"I often hear of Kingdoms that do not sing and the very thought makes my heart weep..."

Yes and no. The Outlands drums. Calontir still sings, though less than they did once, I think. Northshield sings.

And we fight shoulder-to-shoulder, as a clan should fight, and the power of friendship, of kinship, unites the army too.

The SCA is a big place. There is room for many different unifying traits. However, some Kingdoms, some cultures, have no unifying trait and yes, I pity them too.

"I cannot imagine living in a land that did not sing (though I myself am a very poor singer)..."

Of course you can't imagine it. That's because any land you lived in you'd sing in. One voice matters. Ealdormere doesn't sing, it thunders. That's the sound of a people. That once was a lone voice, then a couple of voices, then a few, then many, and then we shook the Known World and we still do. One
voice matters. You can shake the world with one voice if you're patient and generous and joyous.


Maybe those sad, silent Kingdoms haven't found a Colyne yet. Or a Thorfinna. Or a Hector. Or somebody else.

"...was I moved..."

Why? Because Marian's that good? Maybe (she is, of course).

Because she was one voice singing with joy about the truth she had seen and found? Maybe.

Maybe it was because in her history she acknowledged that so many individuals, working together, can create something utterly wonderful.

"...thank you..."

You're welcome.

Part of being a bard is being a true observer. You must observe truly the land and its people. You must observe your own interaction with the land and its people and frankly assess your effect, your power for good and your efficacy in wielding that power.

That's how you get better at what you do. That's how you best serve the

"I do indeed need to work more on reproducing a period style and wouldappreciate any input..."

Start with the toolbox. Got access to the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics?

Your present style will slide nicely into Germanic poetry. You'll like a flexible syllable count.

"...like you, he thinks that there is a fundamental connection between bards and the shaping of our reality..."

We write the songs that make the whole world sing. We write the songs of love and special things. We write the songs that make the young girls cry. Yes, we ARE Barry Manilow.

Excuse me. It slipped out.

We teach. We remind. We cajole. Some day ask me about DragonsHeart Guard and Haakon's dinner. That's several essays in one story and, like all good stories of the SCA, every word is true.

"Tomorrow I head out for A Day in the Country...I hope to perhaps see you there..."

No guarantees, but if Calum's up for a pig roast we shall see.

"Again, many, many thanks for this missive..."

That's what I'm here for. And remember, I'm from Ealdormere. That's what we all do.


Tuesday 9 June 2020

That's No Lady, That's My Leman: Translating modern jokes into SCA-speak

Master Hector of the Black Height (b. 2003)

After some research, including pre-600 C.E. Classical sources and a variety
of medieval literature and graphic art, I am comfortable in saying that
humour is period. So, it's reasonable to extrapolate that telling jokes is a
period pass-time. But what is a medieval joke?

"The Romans say that if you have a Frank for a friend, it is certain that he
is not your neighbour"
(from Cariadoc's "Miscellany", attributed to a ninth century Life of

You can borrow material from period sources, safe in the knowledge that
copyright has lapsed; Boccaccio's "Decameron" is a veritable gold-mine of
funny stories written in period (and a mother lode of smut, but that's
another essay). However, in general terms I think we can work from a basic
premise, that the modern sense of humour and the sense of humour of people
in period are pretty consistent. The vocabulary has changed; the reference
points are wildly different, but irony, cynicism, sarcasm and broad humour
remain constant.

So what?

If you feel like telling a joke and you don't know any period humour, take a
modern joke you like and translate it. You just have to keep the humour in

As I have written elsewhere, a good story has some ZING to it, a snappy
punchline that will elicit the desired response from the audience. Keep your
eyes on the prize and, whatever else you do to that favourite story,
preserve the punchline. If placing the joke in a medieval context changes
the punchline radically, it's not the same joke and may suffer in your
translation as a result. It may not suffer; just be aware that, if the joke
changes radically enough, you may have trouble telling it, that's all.

Analyse the joke. Some elements will stay the same. Others will require
embellishment to fit the period motif. Others will have to be changed
completely. Again, the more you deviate from the modern model you're
familiar with, the harder you're making this on yourself (and possibly on
your long-suffering audience).

Let's see how this works. Take the modern tale of the souvenir peddler at
Dublin Airport. He saw a wealthy Texan getting off the plane, came up to him
and said, "Sure and 'tis your lucky day. Due to dire financial straits, I am
forced to sell a prized possession held in me family for generations. Would
you be willing to pay me $500 for the skull of Brian Boru, High King of all
Ireland?" The Texan was suitably impressed and started off his vacation with
a nice new skull. The peddler walked off with $500 (in US dollars, no

A week later, the Texan was at Dublin airport to catch his plane home. He
was approached by the same peddler, obviously forgetful, who took him aside
and, due to dire financial straits, offered to sell the Texan the skull of
Brian Boru, High King of all Ireland. "Now hold on a second, pilgrim,"
snarled the Texan, "You sold me the skull of Brian Boru just a week ago.
What are you trying to pull here?"

The peddler thought for a second and replied, "Indeed, I sold you the skull
of the High King, but this is the skull of Brian Boru as a much younger

Insert rim-shot here.

How to translate this? Some elements have to stay the same. The same relic
sold twice, the second time from the younger version of the same person.
That's essential to the story and sets up the punchline. Relics are a very
period concept and interest, so this story will translate well. Indeed, the
crooked priest selling fake relics is a stock comedic character in period
(q.v. "Canterbury Tales").

Obviously the airport has to go, it's a blatant anachronism. Any medieval
travelling motif works in its place; pilgrimage, trade caravan, Viking raid,
crusade, whatever.

Some details can vary. Does our crafty peddler sell the false relic to a
pilgrim? Is a frightened monk trading his life for a holy relic to a
rampaging Viking? Will a gullible infidel crusader hand more Frankish silver
to a crafty Levantine? In all cases, the characters and situation set up the
sale of two alleged relics to the traveller. Pick a traveller to suit your
audience, pick a logical cause for that character to travel in period, add
the local peddler and set up that same, modern, punchline.

One aside; is the peddler in this story a fool, selling the same relic over
and over, or a crafty crook with a bad memory? Either way the joke works;
how you sell the character is a question of personal taste and skill as a
storyteller. Reliable material helps, but good storytelling technique is
both period and necessary.

Other genres of modern stories translate nicely. Military jokes tend to be
ironic, cynical and/or deprecating, often at the expense of somebody else,
usually superior officers or another branch of military service. If you see
the modern military as a class-conscious, hierarchical society, the
parallels with medieval feudal structures become obvious. Other jokes,
usually at the expense of a specific class or trade, work well too, both in
a medieval and an SCA context.

Q. What do you call a ship full of heralds/priests/barristers/Knights/rent
collectors foundering ten leagues off shore?
A. A good start.

Shaggy dog stories can be translated too. Just remember, a shaggy dog story
is built upon long narrative full of extraneous detail, leading eventually
to the grim, inevitable punchline. If you're not comfortable spinning out
medieval-style narrative for a live audience, stay away from shaggy dogs.

One category of stories that does not lend itself to this kind of
translation is religious stories. Many of these stories begin "There was a
priest, a minister and a rabbi." or some variation on that theme. Apart from
the SCA being non-religious by decree, to avoid offending anybody, such
modern jokes are built on a cultural foundation of religious tolerance and
even ecumenism. Neither tolerance nor ecumenism are period concepts. I
suggest most of these "jokes", in period, might well have the same
punchline, involving the two "wrong" clergy burning at the stake. That's
just not funny. I think most people today would call such jokes offensive in
the extreme.

This is not to say you can't use clergy in your jokes: you have to look at
them as supporting players (the clerk who can read) or sources of irony
(Boccaccio is riddled with references to the stock comedic character, the
randy priest, usually coupled with a bored housewife. Exactly). And gentle
commentary on religion can be acceptable, especially when the butt of the
joke isn't the religion but the religious.

Q. Why are the hills of Lebanon bare?
A. Because every Frank in Christendom has a splinter of the True Cross
(from Cariadoc's "Miscellany", otherwise unattributed).

Not all jokes will translate, and just because you can hammer that round peg
into the square hole doesn't mean it's a good idea.

Q. How many Knights does it take to change the torch in a wall sconce?
A. Two: one to unscrew the torch and the other to dress the burns.

Yes, you can create a parallel to light bulb jokes, kind of. It really
doesn't work all that well in a medieval context, though; it's a
technology-based joke and the technology really doesn't translate well. We
all understand the torch is supposed to be a light bulb, but why would you
unscrew a torch?

You can tell jokes that rely on the tension inherent between medieval
concepts and modern life. The television series "History Bites" proves this,
brilliantly, though it achieves this result by relying on costumes, settings
and effects a storyteller doesn't have available. Without props you can
extend this concept to comedic tension between the SCA and 21st century
reality, too.

Q. What does a Knight need to make a phone call?
A. A belt, chain, spurs and a quarter, but only at a touch-tone phone. The
buttons don't call "light".

Q. What does a Pelican need to make a phone call?
A. A medallion and fifty cents, because that poor person whose car broke
down on the way to the event has to call the auto league first.

Q. What does a Laurel need to make a phone call?
A. Nothing; phones aren't period. Laurels use E-mail; hypocrisy **is**

Jokes built upon the SCA's fit with the 21st century can be funny and may
well resonate with your audience. They also drag modern images, ideas and
vocabulary into the event site, which some participants may not appreciate.
Keep such jokes for post-revels or local meetings.

To get a feel for period humour read funny books from in period. Chaucer is
one source of humorous characters and situations, Boccaccio is another.
Consider reading Castiglione's "The Courtier", in part because it's simply
an unsurpassed portrait of its times. In this context, various forms of
humour, starting with irony, are used by Castiglione to illustrate points
being made in the central dialectic of that brilliant book. I think you'll
see that setting may change, social structures may change (very important in
comedy of manners) and vocabulary definitely will change, but people stay
pretty constant, both as characters to build jokes around and as an audience
looking for a laugh.

So dredge up the funny story that works around the water cooler, change its
setting, dress up its characters in garb and tell it at the feast table. And
never forget, one of the reasons the story is funny is because you're
comfortable with the material and you tell it well. Think through your
translation, tell your story with your eye always on reaching the punchline,
entertain those around you and feel good about developing your skills as a

The invaluable contributions of His Excellency Corwyn Galbraith to this
essay are acknowledged with gratitude. "Take my Baron. Please" (after
Youngman, mid 20th century).