Let Me Tell You A Story


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!

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 handmade 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

By Clayton J. Callahan






25 thoughts on “Let Me Tell You A Story”

  1. This post was itself a good tale. I remember the story about Duke Cariadoc being the King who declared war on himself and lost! I remember Enchanted Ground. I was at Pennsic 3 times in the 1980’s. It is very much larger now but hopefully has the same atmosphere, which is magical and exciting.


  2. Wow. So I became a member of SCA in 1968, when I met a group of members holding court outside a World Science Fiction convention in Oakland. When I got back to NYC, I went to events in Staten Island at the home of Marion Zimmer Bradley and Walter Breen (now there are some stories) and joined the jongleur’s guild, learning the pavanne, gavotte and galliard.

    In that august company, which included a number of well known fantasy writers, I never ventured into storytelling. And I left both science fiction and the sca in my college years.

    However, I did become a performing storyteller. I’ve told at festivals, churches and synagogues, hospitals and schools. I even taught storytelling in a high school for a while. And because story is an oral tradition, with tellers adapting tales to fit their audience and situation, I was thrilled to read how you took this story from your Islamic studies class and created a frame story around to add yourself into the story. That is indeed truly masterful.

    Thank you for posting this. It brought back many memories. I wish I’d been there to hear you.


  3. I absolutely LOVE this post! I have been in the SCA for 20 years and that is where I met my husband too. It is one of the most supportive groups of friends that we are a part of, and they are the family we choose to have. Thank you so much for posting this story of your experiences…It brings back many fond memories of my Pennsics Past (although none compare to yours, my friend! 🙂 ). Truly hope to maybe cross paths at an event in the future, perhaps. Never let the dream die!


  4. I had the privilege of residing in the now-Barony of Black Diamond in Atlantia with Duke Sir Cariadoc and his lady many, many years ago. He is a master of maintaining persona and if more people were as rigorous, the SCA “Dream” would be even better.


    1. Yes, I was a founding Shadow Dancer Scout for the Barony of The Flaming Gryphon. My wife Aoibheil and also founded the group in Hamilton which was then called Hawk’s Rest.


  5. I meat Cariadoc many years ago and have been fortunate to have had as many as half dozen conversations with him. I can’t say I know him well but he has always been this weird combination of masterful, humble, courteous, like your best friend-even if you hardly know him, and totally and absolutely an inspiration. This year at 50 year, he stopped by for one of my classes and under the roof of my “Great Machine” stopped to recite a very long poem by Rudyard Kipling about machines there failures, collapses, and accidental, murder. I don’t think he could make anyone not feel honored in his presence. He is indeed an amazing man.


  6. So, not storytelling, but teaching. For those that may not have been at a more recent Pennsic, we now have literally hundreds of classes on offer in all types of subjects. Now I’m a Laurel, and the guildmistress of a kingdom guild, and no newcomer to teaching at Pennsic. I’ve been front and center of meetings and classes and whatever for years.

    But last year His Grace, Duke Cariadoc showed up at one of my classes and I STILL had the kvelling fangirl “OMG I’m not worthy” reaction! LOL.

    He stayed to give me some related information afterward. Taking that as a good sign. 🙂


  7. I pinned Cariadoc to a tree with a spear thrust while Dagan du Darregone dented the right side of his helm, and hornets found unarmored parts as we struggled in a foot of water at the fourth Pennsic. Now that makes for a great tale! UP THE MIDDLE.

    Sir Coley Cuthbert


  8. Duke Cariadoc recruited me into the SCA in October 1969 at Tolkien Conference 2. I have spent many years telling tales in the SCA and one I tell frequently at Pennsic is how Cariadoc did NOT, contrary to legend, declare war on himself. He simply incited the war. After reigning twice in the Middle, Cariadoc moved to the East and was made MK envoy to the East. He returned to MK 12th Night and recited a poem calling for war with the East, ending “My word is war.” We all banged our tankards and the table and shouted “War, war, war!” Iriel of Brannokh, King of the Middle, gave the war arrow to Cariadoc to take to the Eastern ruler. I was not present for that part, but I understand Cariadoc did deliver the arrow to Shogun Rakkurai of Kamakura, the Eastern monarch, who accepted the challenge and broke the arrow. Thus Cariadoc did not declare war on himself; Iriel declared war on Rakkurai. It was only after that that Cariadoc won the Eastern Crown and became the King of the East for Pennsic 1. I also moved East and won the next Crown (Crowns were more irregularly scheduled in those days, and residence requirements were unknown) so I became Crown Prince of the East for Pennsic 1.
    Count Jehan de la Marche


    1. Thank you, Your Excellency, for the clarification. I only joined the Society in AS 21 so had to rely on legends rather than historical fact. Peace be unto you.


  9. My household has had the honor of camping across the lane from the Enchanted Ground at the Pennsic War for at least 20 years, likely longer. Even with the bustle of the War, and being recently crowded by a number of boisterous pirate households, the Enchanted Ground remains an oasis of quiet, simple, grace. I’m sure your audience that night counted themselves rather blessed.


  10. Of course, Cariadoc tells an entirely different story about the origin of Pennsic, and it tells it in metric verse. Congratulations on your arm ring. Those are indeed very rarely given.


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