The Fire is Lit
It was a typical end to a day in early spring, the cool warmth of the day giving way to a colder and damper evening. My friends and I had just finished digging the pit and arranging the seats around it. On what would eventually become a seven year odyssey of historical exploration and killer parties. Earlier that year my friends had introduced me to an organization called “the Society of Creative Anachronisms” or the S.C.A. for short. The people who participate call themselves Scadians. It’s an international not for profit group started originally here in the U.S. from there branching out all over the world. They study the medieval periods of history known as the early and late renaissances. They do this by re-creating and living it. They focus not on exact dates or regions but instead on such things as medieval technology, for example metalworking, woodworking, and brewing (brewing is considered both a trade, and an art). They also study the arts illumination, heraldry, combat, and medicine. The Society is organized by a houses being the smallest group and Kingdoms being the largest. This evening we were focusing on something that happened daily, was mundane even in the medieval world.
If you have ever sat around a fire drinking and chatting then you can claim a link to and are continuing in, the traditions of our ancestors in the distant past. However, our ancestors took this activity a few steps further. Besides discussions of current events and general gossiping over the news of the day, our ancestors would usually go from person to person each performing for the others as a way to expand on the entertainment. They would tell mythological based stories, sing a song, tell a joke, recite a poem, or play an instrument either solo or as an impromptu group. They also might perform an act of great dexterity such as juggling, balancing or of strength challenging others to wrestle or to lift. Or finally just stand up and give their opinions on the issues of the day. For them it was important that everyone participated in some way. Frequently there would be traveling musicians, and storytellers added into the mix.
In the SCA we call this a Bardic Circle. They usually take place at the end of the day when there is a SCA event happening. They’re also a great way to introduce new into people into the world of the SCA so they also occur during such special occasions as Friday or Saturday, or Friday and Saturday!
We were enjoying a Saturday night special occasion at my friend Brace’s house. He was our group leader and had a small piece of land that as ringed with thick bushes and a few trees behind his garage where we were secluded away from the rest of the neighborhood, we were there with two other SCA households the Grey Gargoyles and Tree Girt Sea. Our House name is Nordwulf. It was our first time hosting a circle. We lit the fire; put the beer on ice just as the first few people showed up. At first there was a lot of banter, people catching up with one another, discussing SCA news as well as the events of the day and filling up the seats around the fire. After the influx of arriving guests had slowed, the fire was well underway and all the seats around it had been filled. Jonathon of Osprey from Grey Gargoyles stood up and thanked us for hosting the circle and in a booming voice declared “Let the entertainments begin!” At which point he began to sing the medieval song “Blackbird” which is about a young man who is pining over losing the love of his life when she left him for foreign shores. My friends Brace and Jordan were familiar with the song and began to accompany him, Jordan on the guitar and Brace on the doumbek drum. After they had finished and the accolades of the crowd had subsided, Jon’s wife Kira started a round which a song like row row row your boat which everyone joined in on and sang for a bit. Sadly, exactly which song she picked has long since disappeared into the darkest recesses of my mind. After Kira the next person took their turn and then the next. Soon it was going to be my turn, I have to admit I was a bit nervous, although by this time I had been playing guitar for close to twenty years and had on occasions performed in front of significantly larger crowds, I found myself debating between playing a traditional medieval piece or doing one of my own compositions, after all, Scadians fondly say “We are not the Society of Compulsive Authenticity!”.
The night air had become colder, the dampness was allowing people to see their breath, but the radiant heat of the fire was pleasantly keeping most of it at bay. My friends Brace and Chris had started drumming, they both had doumbeks, and a couple of people from Tree Girt Sea had brought some tambourines and joined in with them. It didn’t take long before most of the people there had joined in with them drumming on whatever was available. After the drum circle had completed. Jordan took his guitar and played Why I Sing the Blues by BB King with Tim accompanying him on the harmonica. After the opening musical pieces others told some jokes and those who were feeling a little shy they stood up and introduced themselves to everyone, first by their real name and then by their SCA name and what they did or hoped to do in the SCA. When it was my turn I picked up my guitar took a look around at everyone there. I gave a quick glance at the fire as I entered into a mindset where I shut out most the external distractions, allowing me to focus on the guitar and what I’m playing. It’s at this point that I decide to play the medieval piece, an instrumental version of “Greensleeves”, as I play I feel the vibrations of the wooden guitar body as my left moves from chord to chord gliding up, down and across the neck and as my right hand dances about plucking the strings. As the melody progresses I adjust my playing to match the feelings of the moment holding on notes or pauses and adding accentuations as my muse required.
I can still remember the thick heavy smell of the smoke from the fire and hearing growing silence of the voices around me as I play. I’ve known this particular song for many years and found much joy in playing it, the somewhat simple structure of the song gives a lot of room for interpretation and improvisation. The song was going well, I felt in tune with the piece and apparently it must have been translating well to the people around me. When I finished playing I realized that nearly everyone there had stopped what they were doing and had been listening to me play. As I began to once again look around I noted that I had everyone’s attention. The smiles on their faces and the nods of their heads as I made eye contact with them showed their approval, so in a sly voice I said “I didn’t think it was that bad…..” at which point everyone started laughing. After the laughter ended, the next person took their turn. I took a drink from my beer sat back and ruminated over the experience. I had made it through my first, but not last time playing a circle. As the evening progressed I played serveral more times. Before any of us had realized it the light of morning sun was peeking its way through the sky and the birds joined in the circle as a new day had begun.
Over the seven years I spent actively in the SCA I probably performed at well over a hundred of them. They usually tend to be very intimate group gatherings because the people in them share experiences or a talent with others there. While attending them I learned the basics of juggling and even composed the only piece of poetry I’ve ever written because of them. The larger ones can be outrageously fun. Groups of musicians playing all manner of instruments, lines of belly dancers dancing and whirling while circling the fire pit their outfits sparkling, casting bits of light from the fire in all directions, and others carrying on in all different forms of entertainment from fire eating to fire walking, jugglers encircling the pits throwing their juggled items around and through the fire to each other.
Unfortunately, because of other commitments these days I don’t get much of a chance to attend events. But during the holidays when I hear “Greensleeves” or the song “What Child is this?” (Which borrows it’s musical score from “Greensleeves”) or I smell burning wood I find myself thinking back on those nights and my times in the SCA.