Once upon a time, I was a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism. It’s a medieval reenactment club with membership worldwide. I was first drawn to it for the sword fighting…and the women in renaissance boosters. And I stayed for the feasting, the dancing, the music, and the friendship. The SCA was my life from about age seventeen to about thirty-five when I started work in law enforcement and there went my weekends. Good times.
It is no small stretch to say that the SCA changed my life. It was there that I met my wife, and it was there that I discovered the art of the story. Now, I’m an author, and my tales are published on the page. Then, I was a storyteller, and I stood before many a campfire spinning legends and folklore. I got pretty good at it too and am proud to say that the highest award I ever got for any story was received at Pennsic War.
Pennsic War is an annual event held by the SCA where thousands of folks in medieval costume descend upon Cooper’s Lake, Pennsylvania to do battle over Pittsburg (the loser gets it).
According to the HERSTAĐR-SAGA: An Incomplete History of Pennsic,
One day, almost 30 years ago, Cariadoc of the Bow, the King of the Middle, got bored with peace and declared war upon the East, loser to take Pittsburgh. The King of the East read the declaration of war, filed it away and forgot about it. Time passed. Cariadoc moved to New York and subsequently became King of the East, whereupon he retrieved the declaration from the file cabinet and said, “Let’s fight.” The Middle won, and Cariadoc has the distinction of being the only king who declared war upon himself and lost.
Now, in the time I was active in the SCA, Duke Sir Cariadoc was no longer anyone’s king. Instead, he contented himself to hold court at the “Enchanted Ground” during Pennsic War. As the SCA is made up of many casual hobbyists, the Enchanted Ground was created as a secure refuge for the more seriously inclined. No flashlights, coolers or plastic tent stakes are allowed within these enchanted bounds, and I swear to God, the folks who choose to camp there wore either medieval underwear or none at all.
One night, my lovely wife, the Lady Aoife, led me to this magical place, and I had the privilege of sitting amongst the Vikings and Sericins who dwelt there. None other than Duke Sir Cariadoc sat within our fireside circle, and tales were told and songs were sung. I heard minstrels sing in the original French, poets recite in the tongue of Chaucer, and stories told verbatim from the Arabian Nights. Man…it was COOL!
Now, I am no introvert by nature and it didn’t take much for my wife to nudge me into telling one of my own tales. But which one to tell? This was a unique challenge (as it was certainly not the place for me to tell my famous three-legged chicken joke). Standards were high, and the eyes of the great were truly upon me. Besides, if I embarrassed my wife here I’d never hear the end of it!
Now, at the time, I was dressed as an Irish sailor of the early renaissance. I even affected an Irish accent (that would probably make a true Irishman cringe). So, to fit the part with the whole, I needed to tell a tale as such a seaman would. I also was keenly aware that my host, Sir Cariadoc, was dressed as a Muslim warrior and was playing his part to the hilt. Lucky for me, I had taken a class in Islamic studies at Miami of Ohio just a few months before.
In that class, I read a story from ancient Baghdad wherein a tailor climbed a minaret to shout the call to prayer at the wrong hour of the night. The tailor did this to draw the Calif’s attention to a Turkish brigand who was attempting to rape a married woman. The Calif heard the call, and when he discovered the taylor’s reason, he sent his soldiers to rescue the woman. After the Turk was thrown into the river with stones tied about his feet, the Calif charged the tailor that should he witness any future crime, he should to do as he had done before in the sure knowledge that the Calif would come.
I thought it was a pretty good story and an appropriate one for my host. But how would an Irish sailor tell it? Well, I know Morocco is the closest Muslim country to Ireland and that the medieval Irish trades with Spain–which is just a hop skip and a splash away. So, I crafted a tale of an Irish merchant ship who’s crew was hired by a Spanish Muslim to help his family escape the Inquisition. The Irish merchantmen were to transport the Muslim household to Morocco where they were to be paid by a sultan who was a relative of the fleeing family. In my story, the Irish sailors fulfilled their contract, but the sultan refused to pay. The sailors went to an Islamic lawyer, but he could not help them. The sailors then went to the captain of the Moroccan guard, who was also turned away by the sultan. Then the sailors stumbled upon a strange old tailor…who was treated with much respect, and soon the Irishmen were walking away with gold in their pockets.
I put myself in this story and had my character ask the tailor why he was treated with such respect when the lawyer and the captain were turned away. This gave me the chance to tell two stories for the price of one at Sir Cariadoc’s campfire. All the while, I made sure to add every inaccuracy a 15th Century Irish Catholic could make in the telling of such a tale. Minarets were called steeples, Islamic prayer services were called Muslim Mass, and Sultans were called Chieftains.
When I finished, Cariadoc smiled. He said to me, “I’ve heard a story like that before. I thought it was in Bagdad…but no matter.” He then asked me if silver was spent in my country of Ireland. I answered. “Aye.” So he reached into his sleeve and produced a woven bracelet of finest silver and presented it to me as a gift.
I have it still.
I later discovered that the good Duke hand made only a very few of those bracelets for each Pennsic War. He only gave them to performers who had especially impressed him in the Enchanted Ground and others had spent years trying to earn one. It is an honor I will never again equal, and the ring is one of my most treasured possessions twenty years later.
So now I write novels. People ask me where I get my ideas and the answer is the same today as it was then. I comb through old stories and tease out the best parts for my inspiration. However, I know that using the bare bones of some old tale is not enough. If you’re going to tell a good story, you must make it your own. It is that element of perspective that only you can give that makes a story not merely good but great. I honestly believe that everyone has it in them to create great stories out of the whole cloth of research and their own perspective. And in my case, I have some silver to prove it.
Thank you, Duke Sir Cariadoc