If I let my eyes blur and my mind slacken, I could be in one of two places: The movie set for Braveheart or some medieval encampment poised on the precipice of battle. There’s even the stench of sweat-encrusted leather and chainmail — a whiff of anxiety that comes before slugging it out with battle ax and shield. But then, of course, the parking lot is swept with cars, and the occasional North Face tent, and clusters of Porta Potties speckling the rows of high Middle-Ages tents, puncturing the illusion. But, hey, nothing’s perfect. And besides, what is life if not an act anyway, the pretense that things are somehow different than they really are, however often the illusion is punctured?
Such are my first thoughts as I approach the Hebron Pines Campground, 50 or so miles north of Portland, and enter the maw of the 30th annual Great Northeastern War. It is a suitably medieval day. Low gray skies herald rain. The black boughs of pines bray in the wind. Well, they don’t, but you can imagine. And in the archery range, where I feel strangely conspicuous in my Levi’s and sweater, men and women wearing medieval clothing loose arrows with ardor into targets — oddly shaped stuffed animals wedged against bales of hay, and, further out in the field, a human cutout signifying the dreaded inquisition. The arrows are real. The clothing and accoutrements look real enough: tunics, capes and cloaks, battle helmets strewn about the grass, leather breastplates, swords, you know, the basics. And off in the distance, people with sticks hit each other over the head. Some context, probably, is in order:
The Great Northeastern War is part of a larger organization called the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), which is, briefly: “An international organization dedicated to researching and re-creating the arts and skills of pre-17th century Europe.” According to the SCA website, the organization includes 20 kingdoms and over 30,000 members. Maine, along with a number of other New England states, crowns The Kingdom of the East, also known as Malegentia. In the most basic sense, The Great Northeastern War and similar SCA sponsored events are opportunities for people to get together and reenact medieval life. Through activities like weapon throwing, bardic festivities, combat archery and siege combat, medieval arts and sciences, but, first and foremost, the act of battle. For days on end, participants immerse themselves in a bygone era.
So here I am, weaponless, guard-down, armor-less, and being guided through The Great Northeastern War by my kind chauffer, Reidan Fredstrom. Why I need a chauffer, I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps she’s more of a body guard in case some battle-ax wielding rogue lunges at me. In real life, Reidan is an attorney, which makes me far more nervous than anyone with a battle-ax. But here, in the context of The Great Northeastern War, she goes by Aurelia Rufinia. By the looks of her tunic, I don’t think she’s a peasant, but I also don’t think she’s royalty, though who knows? Identity is porous these days.
By Aurelia’s estimate, there are probably a thousand people here, and she seems to know a lot of them. After we wander around the archery range for a minute, she calls over a middle aged man who, 30 years ago, started this whole thing, in his backyard, no less.
His name is Randolph Dominique. We shake hands. Randolph clarifies that that’s his mundane name: “Here, I’m Deormund Wulfscyld,” he says in a husky voice. I have to ask him how to spell it. A few times. He explains that Deormund is ancient Saxon for “bold hand.” He’s a slight, graying man with an amiable face, and he gives me a quick lesson in The Great Northeastern War mythology. Forgive me if I get any of it wrong, for it’s complicated, as all war mythologies are. But it more or less boils down to an insult visited upon Malegentia’s queen by the Crown Principality of Tira Mara (Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland) thirty years ago. “We took umbrage at this insult to our royalty,” Deormund says, and so, the two kingdoms fought it out, in Scarborough. Malegentia won, but, “among the terms of the peace,” Deormund says, “was that I, as the leader of Malegentia at the time, was entitled to an annual tribute of a six pack of Nova Scotia Ale.” In the past 30 years, the tribute has not been paid. The Crown Principality of Tira Mara is therefore in violation of the treaty, and apparently, owes Malegentia a whole lot of beer. So now, annually, they brawl.
But it’s all in good fun. The weapons are made of wood, and the narrative and myth are an excuse to get together, stage battle with one another, drink, and be medieval in various ways. And yet, it has me wondering, what’s the real appeal? For every fantasy there has to be some element of reality, otherwise there’s no glue to hold it together. “There are some folks here who just like to dress up funny and hit each other with sticks,” Deormund says when I ask. “There are some of us who are trying to get a deeper understanding of what it might have been like to live eight-hundred years ago.” But in the end, Deormund says, “There are as many answers to that question as there are people here.”
Another volley of arrows streaks across the sky. Off in the woods, the day’s first battle is about to take place, so Aurelia and I head in that direction. We pass tents where merchants sell medieval things like swords and leather artwork and helmets. Aurelia tells me a little about being an attorney, and I tell her I hope she doesn’t sue me when the article comes out. Sauntering ahead of us are two haggard looking men in medieval attire and leather breast plates. Each possesses a physical presence that calls to mind a tenacious block of cheese. “I think I’d like to talk with them,” I say.
Aurelia calls them over. They’re both pretty burly dudes.
“Hey,” I say.
They look at me.
Aurelia explains that I’m a reporter.
One has dark hair and a frayed beard. The other is blond with gauged ears. His earrings are big, amber disks with scorpions in the middle. When I ask them their names, there’s some back and forth about which one I want — their mundane name, or their SCA name?
“Both?” I shrug.
“My regular name is Steven Euesden,” the one with the dark hair says. “My SCA name is Osgkar Lawood. It’s a Saxon name.”
When I ask him what it means, Osgkar chuckles. “It means man spear … someone who hunts and kills men with a spear.”
I nod and turn to his friend.
“My mundane name is Joe Loreto, my SCA name is Hrafn, which means raven ice eyes.”
“Great,” I say. “So … what do you guys do?”
“I make armor,” Osgkar says, “and knives and tools.”
“For a living?” I clarify, and Osgkar corrects himself, thinking, presumably, that I was asking him about his medieval occupation. To be fair, it does get confusing. I always accidently tell people I’m a real writer.
“I install and service electronic security equipment,” Osgkar says.
“Mundanely, I work in home medical delivery,” Hrafn says, “but within this, mostly right now I fight, but I’m also an archer and a woodworker.”
They’re both damp with sweat and smell distinctly medieval. It’s all very authentic in that sense. Toward our left, off in a thicket of trees, the battle has begun. The clash of wooden shields and weapons is surprisingly loud. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think people were in the throes of true combat, glory and suffering.
Hrafn, Osgkar, and Aurelia walk and talk. Oskgar explains that he fights with a weapon called a polearm, which is basically a long piece of wood, but it “represents a stick with a sword on it,” he says. Hrafn fights with the same thing. “They’re representative weapons,” Oskgar affirms again, detailing how when the rattan wood starts to fail, “it broomsticks rather than splinters.” That way nobody gets any slivers. And yet, these battles are full contact. The people competing swing at each other hard. They wear armor for a reason. Chest, knees, groin, helmet, elbows. SCA regulations detail the specifics.
Hrafn knocks his chest with his first. From underneath his tunic comes the hard sound of plastic. “Mine is just what a motorcyclist would wear. But I try to hide it because it doesn’t look … great.” What isn’t medieval, in other words, is best kept out of sight.
As we draw near the trees, I ask them why they do it. “It’s about the joy of competing,” Hrafn says.
“And the camaraderie,” Oskgar adds. “There’s a lot of camaraderie.”
“You can read about history all you want,” Hrafn adds, “but some of the things you just don’t get until you put on the clothes and try it out.”
Through the trees I catch glimpses of men in armor running at each other with sticks. It looks real enough, the ardor and enthusiasm with which people are bludgeoning. But I guess this is what confuses me. It feels almost absurdist, the utter commitment and passion evinced while simultaneously acknowledging how affected it all is. I can’t quite parse how the affection is different from authentic enthusiasm.
Somewhere along the way Aurelia and I lose Oskgar and Hrafn. We’re a few yards from the battle now, and someone with a long pole keeps the bystanders at a distance so nobody gets hurt. I remark at how serious it all looks, and ask Aurelia if people ever get hurt. Not really, she says casually. In the underbrush, someone hobbles on his knees, pretending that his legs have been hacked off, I presume, while swinging his stick wildly at his adversary. Aurelia tells me that hopefully I’ll get to meet the King of Malengenita, and I tell her I’d like that.
Following the battle along the forest’s perimeter, we pause around a hydration station for a minute. Some guy comes stumbling out of the forest, and dramatically pulls his helmet off and takes long, slow draughts from a gallon of water. I walk up and sit down next to him. His real name is Max, but he goes by Edward when he’s out there, fighting. He’s second-century British Celt.
“So how’s it going out there?” I ask.
He pants into the jug of water. His hair is a slick of sweat. “Not as good as it was a little while ago.”
I sympathize with him. I don’t imagine it’s easy. “So, now, who are you fighting?”
Max, or Edward, looks around a little confused, and then yells at one of his buddies: “Mica, who are we fighting right now?”
Mica yells back something about Canada and Nova Scotia and a kingdom I can’t pronounce.
“Right,” I say, “Over beer?”
Mica nods, says, according to legend, yeah, that’s basically right. Beer.
Another dude comes stumbling out of the forest, supported by two comrades in arms. He looks like he’s actually wounded. His friends let him slump onto the grass near a bunch of water jugs, and the dude rips his helmet off, chugs water, and then slouches in a chair. One of his friends douses a rag in water and then drapes it over his eyes. It could be a Bruegel painting of religious suffering.
I nod toward the guy and ask Edward if he’s alright.
“Dehydration, most likely,” he says.
“Does that happen a lot?” I ask.
“Some people don’t know when to quit,” he says.
About 20 minutes later, I have the honor of meeting the King of Malegentia. Aurelia has brought me over to his throne. She knows all the right people. The king is wearing chainmail, a crown, and has a very lordly, gray goatee. He has just finished battle, in the forest. He smells horrible, which isn’t a criticism. In fact, if anything, it’s a compliment, a testament to the authenticity of things.
He only has a minute to talk because, as it turns out, there’s about to be a ceremony to recognize exemplary fighting. Also, someone is going to be knighted.
I ask the King how the fighting went.
“It was difficult,” he says, wiping sweat from his brow.
“But you guys won?” I ask, and the king nods. Malegentia won.
I can’t help but ask what, exactly, would have happened if they lost. “There’s nothing really at stake here,” the king says. “It’s just having fun. Getting to say you’re victorious on the battle field.”
But this is, again, what I can’t quite figure out about the whole thing. There must be something at stake, otherwise, why all the enthusiasm? Even when things are just for fun, there’s something at stake.
I ask the King what draws him to the whole scene. He thinks about. “It’s about being a knight in shining armor,” he says. “What kid doesn’t want to be a knight? It’s competition…”
A man by the name of Duke Edward interrupts our conversation, something about how they are going to knight his, Duke Edward’s, squire. Duke Edward walks off.
“It’s kind of a big deal,” the King turns to me. “Being knighted.”
“What do you have to do?”
The answer the King gives me is, more or less, what you’d expect. Show prowess on the battle field. Basically, by “killing people.”
I feel a little ignorant, but I have to ask how, exactly, one kills someone, on the battle field, that is. There’s a calibration standard, as it turns out, that everyone generally agrees on. “A telling blow,” the King calls it. “If you take a telling blow on your torso or your head, then you’re dead.”
Not to quibble, but I ask if sometimes there’s some debate about what exactly constitutes as a telling blow.
It’s not entirely uncommon, he concedes, that someone will get hit “and not recognize it as a telling a blow.”
I imagine, mid-battle, people debating if they’re dead or not.
People are starting to gather around for the ceremony, but before I leave the King, I ask him if anything practical happens to the knight. “Does he get anything? An award? Or does he get to like, I don’t know, drink more beer than everyone else?”
“We have symbols of rank…Red belts are squires, white belts are knights.” The King points to some knights in the crowd, distinguishable by their belts. How it works is basically a system of accolades. Someone out on the battle field will get recognition, then the King will ask all the other knights for advice, if said recognized person should be knighted or not. “And then the king makes a decision, based on the advice of the other knights.” When you think about it, this isn’t very different from how most prestige in the “mundane” world is bestowed upon individuals. People get together and decide something someone is doing is, well, valuable.
Right before the ceremony, I go out and find a knight, recognizable, of course, by his belt. He’s standing in a group of sweaty, armored men. “Hey,” I say, approaching the group. “So, what’s it like being a knight?”
The knight’s name is Matthew. I don’t bother asking if it’s his SCA name or his mundane name. It’s strikes me as suitably ambiguous, Matthew, and I like that it could be either — a name existing between two worlds.
“That’s a big question,” Matthew says. He has clear, blue eyes and a goatee. I shit you not, he looks like a knight. But then again, the more time I spend here, the more people are starting to look, well…medieval. “It’s something that I’ve worked for for about twelve years. The thing that’s said over and over is that it’s a recognition. People who are already knights get together and say, ‘This person is ready. This person demonstrates the ideals of chivalry, curtesy, bravery, honesty, humility, as well as prowess on the field.’ So you have these people you’ve been looking up to for years finally saying, ‘You’re one of us.’” Matthew speaks with conviction, and it occurs to me that, no matter how arbitrary the narrative of Malegentia is, no matter how arbitrary the trappings of the mythology around the whole event, the bedrock of reality in which it is grounded is interpersonal recognition, which also isn’t that different, at least when you really think about it, from the “mundane world.”
“It feels amazing,” Matthew says. “But then you’re filled with doubts about what is going on. Aren’t I an imposter? Did I just fake my way into this?” Matthew laughs heartily, and part of me wants to point out that he is, in fact, an imposter. It’s 2016, and he’s pretending to be a knight. But then again, at the same time, there’s that odd tinge of recognition. He’s talking about the reality of his fantasy, the truth of an arbitrary role made meaningful by the recognition of others.
I lean in closer, despite the fact that he, like everyone else I’ve talked to who has done battle today, stinks. “Do you feel like an imposter sometimes?”
“Oh yeah,” he concedes. “Absolutely.” If he gets beaten in battle by some newcomer, if he says something, even a joke, that accidently undermines the values of chivalry, or someone takes something he says the wrong way, if he says something to undermine the ideals that others have recognized in him as a knight, it shakes the foundation of how he thinks of himself as a knight. But more importantly, Matthew tells me, is that when he feels like an imposter, he feels like he’s undermining the whole social structure, the society. The weight of society is indeed a heavy burden.
By the time the awards ceremony kicks off, there’s a good number of people gathered around the King and Aueen, at least a few hundred. Before the knighting, the King bestows a few lower tier awards. There’s “The Order of the Silver Tiger,” and “The Order of the Tiger Combatant.” The King calls the names of those who are newly welcomed into each order, and those who are already part of those orders gather around in solidarity. Speeches are made. The king says a few words. A few songs are sung. There is a great deal of cheering.
And then it’s time for the knight. His name is Sir Mathias Greenwall. The King calls him to come kneel before his throne. It’s a very solemn affair, but before Mathias is knighted, a number of speeches are made on his behalf. People, I realize, are vouching for him, speaking to his ability to be a knight, and there is much passion behind what is said. I look out into the crowd, and everyone’s attention is on Mathias. A cool wind ruffles the many flags representing various coats of arms.
And then, after the speeches, after Mathias has been vouched for, it’s the King’s turn to speak. He starts out, “Sir Mathias,” and then stutters, starts again. “Sir Mathias, you have proved your heart to this kingdom many times over.” The King’s words are awkward, choppy, and at first I think it’s because his speech is scripted, and that he struggling to remember his lines. I can’t help but laugh to myself. “I know you to be a good man and a strong warrior,” The King pauses, goes on, “and know that you have the protection of the crown.” He pauses again and touches his eyes. And this is when I realize something odd, something I don’t expect. The King’s awkwardness isn’t because he’s forgetting his lines. It’s because he’s getting choked up with emotion.
I turn to a woman standing next to me. “Is he crying?” I ask.
The woman nods, and I realize that she, too, is crying, however slightly.
The king smiles, and people laugh good humoredly at his show of emotion. Of course, he’s not alone in this I realize, as I look around at the crowd. Everyone seems to be full of emotion.
Now, I confess, this all strikes me as a little weird. But I’ll also confess that as the King finishes his speech, as songs are sung on Mathias’s behalf, and as Mathias, standing up to receive his honorary sword from the King shakes, perhaps, with his own swelling of emotion, I can’t help but feel a surge of emotion myself. The mood, it seems, is contagious. But isn’t that the nature of these things, after all? And isn’t that, in the end, often why things matter? Because we, as a group, decide they do. And isn’t that why we do much of what we do? Where reality and fantasy blurs is where we collectively agree that it does, and the absurdity of life is that the glue that holds reality and fantasy together is often just that, an agreement between people. But what’s absurd, perhaps, is how quickly we think it’s something more.
Later, as I am leaving the Great Northwestern War, there’s another battle about to start. I watch the battles lines form, and then wait until someone, who seems to be a referee of sorts, gives the signal that each side can charge, and then they do. I still don’t know exactly what they’re fighting for, but judging by the sound of all their shields clashing, I’m pretty sure they do.