Tournament of the Grail, Wednesday evening, Sir Bjorn’s backyard, Barony of Rivenoak
In the final battle of the night, Sir Bjorn slices off Claus de Saarbrucken’s arm with a wicked, whooshing, full-power strike to the lower deltoid. In the name of chivalry, Sir Bjorn puts one of his own arms behind his back. It makes no difference. Claus de Saarbrucken winds of up legless. Then dead.
“Epic!” yell the onlookers, including the dozen or so fighters who’ve already been bested. Claus de Saarbrucken does a few twitches, then hops up to embrace Sir Bjorn, their chainmail and steel breastplates clanking. “Epic!” the crowd roars again.
We are in the arena—it truly deserves to be called an arena— that fills Sir Bjorn and Hilarie, his Lady’s (and real life wife’s) backyard; a broad, brightly-lit field of playground chips sandwiched between the single-wide trailer that serves as the Armory—full of staffs, shields, swords, chainmail, steel helmets and the ubiquitous rolls of duct tape used for repair—and Bjorn and Hilarie’s home. The home has a covered patio—a gallery—where non-combatants can watch the carnage, out of range from a stray battle-ax blow.
“I set this place up to bring everyone up to my level and beyond,” says the 44-year-old 12th century Norse Crusader/ Caregiver with Butte County, after he’s removed his helmet, his brow covered in beads of sweat. Sir Bjorn is a great hulking bear of a man, with a badass beard and a warrior’s visage. His intimidating appearance, though, is charmingly contradicted by a demeanor that’s generous, non-threatening, deeply intelligent; almost theatrical. Though Sir Bjorn consistently slaughters his opponents without mercy, he also speaks to them (and to the boys and girls who look up to him) from the heart about High Values, like empathy, trust and chivalry.
I ask Sir Bjorn if what he does is the same as LARPing. His face goes through a series of grimaces and contortions. “To the outside world we look very much like LARPers,” Bjorn says.
LARPers, or Live Action Role Players, mostly use “boffers,” which are foam covered weapons, might even cast “spells” by throwing, say, a Nerf ball, and their personas include elves and dwarves. “We’re history people. They’re Game of Thrones, Dungeons & Dragons people. But I’m trying to stop my haterating.”
The group that Sir Bjorn and his ilk belong to is the nearly 50 year-old Society for Creative Anachronism, a worldwide organization with upwards of 30,000 current participants. Members of the SCA live portions of their lives in an incredibly complex, hierarchical sub-culture that seeks to replicate life from a period stretching from the fall of the Roman Empire to the death of Queen Elizabeth I (400-1603 AD, roughly). Participants take on “personas” and don historically accurate garb. They become masterful in skills like medieval cooking, embroidery, leatherwork, needlework, calligraphy and Knightly Combat. Occasionally, they have huge Braveheart-like battles with a thousand-plus screaming combatants charging each other. Positions in the society are mostly earned through combat (for women, that often, though not always—there are a few female fighters—means one’s destiny is tied to the fighting prowess of “their Lord”).
Some would say it also provides a sense of belonging; a fantasy world for people who find their own reality lacking; for “nerds.” So what? Are we Americans not a people so deeply entrenched in fantasies, in flights from “reality,” in pornography, in media, in arbitrary conventions of style and behavior, that there’s hardly anything about us which we haven’t simply imagined, which we haven’t just made up as we’ve gone along? And aren’t we who think we’re living in “real life” the most delusional of them all?
The Fool’s Tourney, a bright blue Sunday at noon, Cedar Grove, Barony of Rivenoak
“I have garb for you. So you can get your medieval on,” says Ottilie, the Fool’s Tourney’s “Autocrat.”
“Oh but…” I say. Reluctantly, I put on a pink shawl and blue cotton pants, each of which are about twenty sizes too big. I look ridiculous.
There are a few booths and camps set up in a crescent around the blinding grass. In the center of the crescent there’s a large covered area laid with thrones and pillows. In the center of the grove, ropes delineate the field of battle.
The Fools’ Tourney is the silliest event the SCA puts on, with extra-spasmodically-elaborate deaths, battles with big fish instead of swords, etc. But rumor has it that Their Majesties, the King and Queen of the West may be in attendance (The SCA has an elaborate geographical system, with Kingdoms [we are in “The Kingdom of the West,” which includes Northern California, Alaska, Japan, and Guam] which are then broken down into principalities [our own being “Cynagua”] and finally Baronies and Shires [ours here in Chico: “the Barony of Rivenoak”]). I wander around, meeting people from all over.
I meet Master Gwyn Chwith (pronounced something like a sneeze), a heavyset man in glasses and a broad-brimmed hat. “A lot of us were alienated nerds,” he tells me, stating the obvious, as he keeps his two little white dogs, Miss Muffet and Mister Winston, in line.
“I try not to treat them like slaves,” Her Highness, Catriona, The Princess of Cynagua tells me with a little laugh. She’s talking about her ladies-in-waiting, two of whom are shading her with sun umbrellas.
Her Highness, who normally works as an office assistant at UC Merced, introduces me to her Lord, His Highness, Prince Walerich of Cynagua. To become Prince, Walerich practiced Knightly Combat three to five times a week and, after much struggle, he was able to capture the crown through a Coronet Tournament, in which 25 others fought.
“I didn’t sleep for three nights straight,” the Prince—who is a maintenance man at a mobile home park in Modesto during the week—tells me, of what it was like to become a Prince. His eyes stare off into the middle distance as he becomes lost in reverie. “I don’t know how to explain the feeling. It’s a feeling I’ve never felt before. Having people look up to you like an actual Prince from the medieval ages. It gives me goose bumps just talking about it.”
In real life, their Highnesses have been married for four years. It was a surreal moment for the Princess, too. “He kept saying he would make me princess one day,” she tells me. “And he did. It’s a fairytale.”
When The Princess retires to a pile of pillows under the Royalty tent, I talk to one of her ladies, Aderyn. “Real life was kind of tedious,” she tells me. “I went to work. I came home. I went on the Internet. I watched TV.” Now Aderyn is surrounded by fascinating characters, travels all the time, is part of a thriving community, and has a super cool Lord (boyfriend) named Coronado, who is a master rapier fighter, a Don, and a Baron. “It’s not so much that I’m not me,” the office assistant from San Joaquin Valley tells me. “It’s that I’m more me. I’m exactly what I should be.”
Battles have begun on the Field of Battle. Kids run to and fro, little swords and shields in tow. People are laughing and making merry. They really are a fun group.
The King and Queen of the West are indeed in attendance. Braving the skeptical looks of their guards and servants, I approach.
“Hi Your Highness,” I say, sounding like an idiot and feeling particularly self-conscious about my oversized, sloppy garb. “Is it okay if I just kneel at your feet and ask you some questions?” I ask the King.
“Yes, don’t worry about it,” he says, forcing a little smile and allowing me to sit on the ground at his feet, though there are several empty chairs at his side.
King Thorfinn the Cruel, a 10th Century Dane, is, it turns out, from right here in Chico, though he now lives in the Silicon Valley, where he works at a microbrewery filling kegs and mixing stuff. His real name is Kelly Long. It must be nice to take a break from having gazillionaire techy people looking at you piteously and be King of Everything, instead, I think.
“All of this is mine,” he says, his hands motioning in basically every direction. “My territory is Alaska, Japan, Korea, Northern California and the State of Alaska.” This is his fourth stint as King. He’s basically just really, really good at sword fighting. He seems bored—or maybe just tired—with the whole thing, to me. I can tell the crown weighs heavy.
“I was really just fighting for my Lady, here,” he says, gesturing toward the Queen, a pretty, full time student sitting regally by his side. “To make her Queen.” They’ve been dating for about a year. When he met her, she was the bottom of the SCA food chain. She knew he had been a multi-reign King. Did she think about that when he started flirting with her, I wonder? In any event, within months she was Queen, with a retinue of three dozen (!) guards and ladies-in-waiting, who attend to her every need.
A couple dozen fighters in heavy armor begin a rendition of YMCA, exclusively for pleasure of the King and Queen, it seems. Their Majesties don’t even smile, and, in fact, the King just turns back to our interview.
“I’m the conduit by which my people receive awards,” he explains. Most of what Their Majesties do, I learn, is receive “largesse” and then dole out little gifts and awards. “See, like this, watch,” the King says as he pushes a cheap plastic ring onto my finger. “From the King, there you go.”
Later, I see the Queen doing rapier fighting. It’s cool that she still fights, I think. But I can’t get over how deeply and non- ironically she’s wielding her position. She bosses people like crazy. At one point, she takes off her helmet and screams, “Water! Anybody! I need water!” exasperated, it seems, that water is not instantly appearing to quench her Queenly thirst. Within a few seconds four people come running with goblets and bottles.
Toward the end of the afternoon, there’s an awards ceremony. Jofrid surrenders his man-at-arms belt, and Sir Bjorn, his kindly eyes twinkling, gives him a red belt, instead, signifying his new status as Sir Bjorn’s second squire. “This belt was cut from the same hide that my own belt was cut from when I was a squire,” Sir Bjorn says, with evident emotion. Jofrid’s new “Brother Squire” gives him one of his own swords—a real one. It’s beautiful, and its blade glints in the sun as he places it into Jofrid’s hands. When it’s the Prince’s turn to speak, he says, “Be true to who you are. You are still the same man, a man of the people.” The crowd looks on with solemnity. Jofred looks like he might cry. I feel like I might, too.
“The 21st century doesn’t have ways to genuinely say these sorts of things,” Sir Bjorn tells me later. “How do two men in the 21th century say ‘Hey man, I care about you?’”
“Hip Hip! Huzzah!” the gathering cheers (an Elizabethan cheer). “Hip Hip! Huzzah! Hip Hip! Huzzah!” I cheer, too, loudly. And then it’s time to take my leave.