Tuesday, December 23, 2003

What the SCA misses 

When in college I had a grand time in the Society for Creative Anachronism, a medieval recreation club. Calligraphy, fighting and fencing, cooking, and above all singing and storytelling made for a wonderful hobby. Travelling across the Midwest once a month or more for daylong events culminating in massive feasts breaks the insularity of college, too. But the more I learned about history, the more I came to realize that the SCA is missing the heart of the matter. The arts and sciences are done well; rediscovering skills and reproducing material culture is a noble aim; but there's a sort of grotesqueness about the SCA culture in which these rediscovered arts are lived. The grandest feast or most magical "bardic circle" is invariably marred by modern references deliberately thrown in for comic effect.

Some might say this is just human weakness not playing the game to its full, but I think there's more to it than that. For most people I've met, the SCA is about the subculture it builds: a widespread "family", a new group identity built out of powerful stories and songs, magnificent ceremony and royalty, complete with politics and dashed hopes. All this is little different than any other club offers, except perhaps more fully realized. But two things eventually sour the taste of the SCA, I think. First, it builds this subculture by desiring the subculture itself. No romance is happy when the couple is desiring romance instead of each other. A graduate student who loves academic life but not his subject will be miserable. Similarly, when the focus of a social organization becomes social life itself, it starts to fester. The shared goal of the SCA--studying and re-creating the Middle Ages--always runs the danger of being eclipsed by the friendships and community it produces; and if this happens, that very community, like a plant taken out of the sunlight, begins to wither.

But the second problem with SCA culture is deeper. What makes the Middle Ages, what attracts us modern Americans to them, is not just the physical culture (however more beautiful than ours their clothing and buildings may have been). We could just as easily go to the Far East or ancient Mesopotamia, if our only goal was to revive lost skills and experience something "foreign". No, the "magic" of the Middle Ages lies in its thought. It is Roland tossing his sword in battle, it is a knight on his knees before a lady, it is Lavrans Björgulfsson presiding over a Christmas feast in his hall that capture our imagination and make us long for something pure, something honest and upright, something fully human that only the Middle Ages seem to offer.

The SCA does well to try to capture those scenes, but by and large it misses the point. Why did Roland laugh in battle? Why would a man who wields so much power put his sword at the service of someone so physically weak? Why did Christmas revelers feel in the dead of winter a joy unbounded by fear of death or starvation?

As usual, G.K. Chesterton put it best; in The Return of Don Quixote England has become much like the SCA, but one woman, talking to her friend near a former abbey, begins to see:
Why have all our toppling fancies about kings and knights come with a crash; why is all our Round Table ruined? Because we never began at the beginning. Because we never went back to the Thing itself. The Thing that produced everything else; the love of the Thing where it really lives. On this spot long ago two hundred men lived and loved it.

[I]f we want the flower of chivalry, we must go right away back to the root of chivalry. We must go back if we find it in a thorny place people call theology. We must think differently about death and free will and loneliness and the last appeal. It's just the same with the popular things we can turn into fashionable things; folk-dances and pageants and calling everything a Guild. Our fathers did these things by the thousand; quite common people; not cranks. We are always asking how they did it. What we've got to ask is why they did it.... Rosamund, this is why they did it. Something lived here. Something they loved. Some of them loved it so much.... Oh don't you and I know what is the only test? They wanted to be alone with it. (pp.285, 286)

Everything we love aesthetically about the Middle Ages flowed from the love of Christ. It flowed from the prayers of the hundreds of thousands who streamed into monasteries and convents, locking themselves up in a bower with the One they loved. It flowed from the love for Our Lady that saw women no longer as property but as mirrors of God's love to be served. It flowed from a political philosophy that made a king the father and servant of his people, not merely their master and owner. Like all good things, the joy of the Middle Ages can only exist when man returns God's love. And on those rare occasions when the Faith enters the SCA, even if disguised...even the neo-pagans cannot but feel the earth shake with the true King's footsteps.

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