In my column this week, I time-travel back to the Medieval era with the help of three friends, a grumpy 3-year-old, and hundreds of peasants and royalty. All of us journeyed to a Northern California fairground to watch sword-fighting, show off our finery, and feast. Yes, it was one of the biggest gatherings of the Society for Creative Anachronism, a group that gets together to, well, act Medieval. Unlike historical reenactors, SCA folk are pretty relaxed about things — they don’t insist that you wear outfits and weapons that are perfect replicas of historical ones, even though they will get mildly grumpy if you show up to the Crown Tourney in jeans and sneakers.
I almost became a Medievalist when I was a dorky graduate student at UC Berkeley because I loved learning all the dialects of Middle English — and Anglo Saxon (AKA Old English) is one of the coolest languages EVAR. And no, it doesn’t have “ye olde” in it. For some reason, though, I never went to an SCA event. Eventually I stopped studying the Middle Ages, and went on to write my dissertation about contemporary American pop culture. (You’d be surprised how many similarities there are between Medieval and contemporary pop culture — hence, perhaps, the enticements of the SCA.)
Then, about a year ago, I found a battered old copy of Peter S. Beagle‘s book Folk of the Air. I have no idea why I bought it — the jacket copy made it sound so cheesy — but it turned out to be one of the best books I’ve ever read about academic politics and Berkeley culture of the 1970s. It’s the tale of a bunch of Medievalists (many of them Berkeley profs) who are deeply involved in the SCA. Beagle does an amazing job of bringing to life the weird, internecine politics of small groups devoted to esoterica, and in the process tells an alegorical fantasy tale about an old, good witch who must fight a young, evil witch. The book reawakened my interest in the SCA, and so I was excited to finally go to an SCA event, especially since this one included a series of fights that would determine the new King of the West Kingdom.