On the morning of the Calafian Anniversary, King Patrick is still wearing his white belt, but instead of chain mail, it cinches a burgundy tunic trimmed with gray and gold. Instead of a helmet, Patrick wears a crown bearing the Caidian crescent borne by two medieval-ish dolphins, images that also appear on the delicately carved wooden thrones — a little bit gothic, a little bit Arts and Crafts — provided for both king and queen. Also provided: pillowed footstools, and in front of them, blue velvet pillows bearing the heraldry of Caid’s five baronies. Upon these will kneel all those who approach the thrones during Court, whether they come to present gifts or receive honors or swear fealty.
Fealty? Oh, yes, fealty. “Do you,” the question will be asked of a woman seeking to join the queen’s guard, “swear fealty and service to the Crown of Caid, and to the King and Queen of the realm, to come and to go, to serve and instruct in such methods as concern this realm, in peace or in war, in living or in dying, until your lord release you, or death take you, or the world end?” And the subject, kneeling, with her hands placed along the flat of a sword held out by her queen, will so swear.
“You can learn more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” That’s from Aristotle, and it’s cited by Scott Farrell, aka Duke Guillaume de la Belgique, once baron of Calafia, twice king of Caid, in the introduction to his second book about life in the Society, Here Comes the Reign, Sir Guillaume! Court is by no means a compulsory aspect of Society life, but it’s there, complete with attendants and heralds and royal welcomes and favors bestowed and oaths taken on bended knee. And it is well attended. What sort of play is this?
“The oath is taken straight from The Lord of the Rings,” says Guillaume. “And of course, the author, J.R.R. Tolkien, was a brilliant medieval scholar, so it does come from that Celtic, medieval tradition — as opposed to a Tony Curtis B movie. Though from the level of research we have now, we look back and think, You know, if we could do that over again… You have to keep in mind that the SCA was not started as a serious historical study group. It pretty much started as a birthday party, people putting together costumes and fighting with wooden swords, ‘like the knights in the movies.’ ”
And the oaths? Farrell’s wife April, who goes by Felinah Tifarah Arvella Memo Hazara Khan-ad-Din in the Society and teaches biology at UCSD outside it, answers: “We fully, with open eyes, and without any idea that the SCA oath supersedes real-world commitments and duties, choose to give form to gestures and recognitions that aren’t common today. And sometimes, it’s an uneasy mix — you’re aware that you’re participating in a social convention that in the Middle Ages was life and death. But we choose to do this because we’re part of a social group, and it’s part of what we call the core traditions. We’ve got a pretty strong sense of how far it goes and when it’s appropriate to invoke it.”
In his book, Farrell/Guillaume muses on “not what we bring into the Society but what we take away from it. The standards of chivalry and honor linger with us…helping us each in our own small way to make the world of the 21st Century a better place.” In conversation, he says that “you can’t delve into those [chivalric notions] of honor without internalizing them a little bit. A knight can take in a squire, and you kind of give your word to train them and be an example for them. They look to you to train them in armored combat; you don’t want to blow that off. And that makes you question all aspects of your life: ‘Hey, what is my word worth?’ I think a lot of people come away from the SCA with a greater sense of what it means to live by a code of honor.”
April/Felinah agrees that kneeling “is very unusual in a modern setting. I had to think about why I would do this. It seemed uncomfortable, and it made for some interesting internal exploring.” Her findings? “There are social superiors in our own society — we call some people Sir or Ma’am and some people Doctor. Our social conventions change, but people are people — the physical gesture of kneeling means as much as calling someone Sir or Ma’am or Doctor. It’s an outward manifestation,” one that may or may not reflect an internal reality but which adheres to a social convention either way.
“And there is a respect for those who have been in the group for a long time and have contributed to the group,” concludes Farrell. “People who put in a lot of time and effort to make things happen. But we also know that the status is just part of the fun. A king reigns for six months. Maybe in six months, I’ll be king, and he’ll be bowing to me. There’s no sense that he’s a king appointed by God to whom I must bow. It’s simply that he’s in this position, and I respect him. When I’m in that position, he’ll respect me.”
So, back to Court. “Lords and ladies!” calls Master Thomas the Herald from beneath the broad yellow brim of his hat. (Appropriately enough, he is dressed in a tunic that is basically a wearable Caidan flag.) “All rise! Now come their Majesties Patrick and Kara, rightful king and queen of the Kingdom of Caid! And now come their Excellencies Oliver and Kate, vassals to Patrick and Kara, holders of the lands of Calafia. And their guests, former Barons and Baronesses of Calafia: Guillaume and Felinah, David and Adaleisha…” Couple by couple, the royals and former royals process down the center aisle under the heavy wooden roof of the El Monte Park pavilion, attended by guards bearing spears and axes and swords, by ladies who take up their places behind the thrones. Their expressions are earnest but not overly serious. The array is, frankly, kind of gorgeous; Calafia does not go in for half-measures.