The Kingdom Next Door
Fantasy meets reality in the Society for Creative Anachronism
The Kingdom of An Tir stretches across thick evergreen forests and boasts wild rivers that cut through mountain gorges with reckless abandon. In this land of fantasy and intrigue, chivalry is prized and positions of power are seized with the tip of a sword (and likely a flair of lace). Here, feasts, games, and great drunken parties reign supreme. Welcome to An Tir — otherwise known as Oregon, Washington, the northern tip of Idaho, and parts of Canada.
The year is Anno Societatis XXXIX. The thirty thousand members of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) spend their weekdays in the present and much of their weekends and nights recreating the lifestyle of pre-seventeenth-century Europe.
Two society members cross swords beneath a bridge in Eugene. The winner is decided when a fighter concedes that a blow landed by an opponent was of sufficient force to have caused death.
Outside of the society, members are students, waiters, historians, doctors — jobs more fitting for this century than the positions most members hold within the society. Although there are some who build social worlds and maintain lucrative businesses entirely within the SCA, there are also those who participate in societal activities only once a year. Even the most casual member can register an SCA name, a fictional history, and a coat of arms.
Rob Alba, a thirty-three-year-old resident of Eugene, Oregon, embodies the alter ego of Captain Juan Ramirez and has participated in SCA events for nearly a decade. In his own history, Alba was not very social. But now, he considers bringing people together his greatest talent. His smile broadens as he gazes across his living room, packed with fellow society members. Among the crowd are a few strays, the unsuspecting friends of a friend who have no idea that they’re surrounded by people with lavish pseudonyms and sharp fencing skills. Nor do they know the humble home they have crashed doubles as a merchant ship named “The Devil’s Whore.”
The Early Years
Alba’s pre-society life in the Los Angeles suburbs was one of quiet desperation. “I had nowhere I was going in my life, nothing that was going on,” he says. The organization has been his vehicle of escape from loneliness and awkwardness. “When I created that character [Captain Ramirez], I gave him a story that would lead to the existence of all the traits I felt were lacking in my life,” Alba says. “He would be charming, gregarious, clever, dashing, dependable, trusting — and social.”
Two-and-a-half years since the creation of Captain Ramirez, Alba says he can now claim those traits as his own. The loud and heavily attended parties he often throws in his modest two-bedroom house support this declaration. The dependable members of his “crew,” the core group of friends that participates with Alba in official events, also attend his informal fetes. Alba maintains that his main goal, within the SCA and as an informal host, is to help others find the confidence and social contentment he struggled so long to obtain.
Alba recalls having a miserable time at the first events he attended. Later, when he discovered that he could create an alter ego within the society, Alba began to see the benefits of the SCA. Eventually, his newfound congeniality allowed him to give back to the society by helping those who also needed a shepherd in the social sphere.
When the mast is up, “there isn’t a single person aboard who doesn’t stop, look up at the rigging, and say, ‘Wow! Look what I belong to.’”
Luke Langstraat is one crew member who appreciates Alba’s efforts. After the workday, he transforms from a Federal Credit Union teller in his mid-twenties (with a degree in exercise and movement science) to Andrew Crowe, an Englishman aboard a sixteenth-century Dutch galleon with the manual dexterity necessary to tie a mean knot (an essential talent if the ship is to be seaworthy). “Luke used to be so quiet,” says Kori Beyer, another crew member who shares Alba’s goals of bringing out the extrovert in everyone.
“We’re not very good at letting people stay in their shell,” says Alba. He states his goals are to “bring people in and not have them feel like I did those first three or so years.” To build community, official SCA events usually involve camping, feasting, and drinking — all done with a pre-seventeenth-century panache. For Alba’s crew, they also involve raising a fifty-foot wooden mast on the crew’s campsite. When the mast is up, “there isn’t a single person aboard who doesn’t stop, look up at the rigging, and say, ‘Wow! Look what I belong to,’” Alba says.
The Middle Ages
Beau Gardiepy was recently elected for a three-year term as Baron of Adiantum, a province that includes Eugene and the surrounding area. The thirty-three-year-old spent fifteen years as a bodyguard but is now a full-time student training to becoming a physical therapist. A kind, courteous man who speaks with confidence, Gardiepy takes his job as baron seriously. “Here in Adiantum, we’re a working barony,” he says, his leather jacket wrapped around his thick frame. “For the people, by the people. My job is to get behind the people, to encourage them.”
After becoming involved in the SCA when a friend held a wedding at an SCA event about six years ago, Gardiepy gradually came to see the society as an organization that offers unlimited enrichment and enjoyment for a diverse group of people. “There is literally anything to catch your fancy,” Gardiepy says, noting that people who join the group can explore skills and develop talents such as carpentry, metalwork, alchemy, nobility, and myriad other trades and positions of authority.
Dancing concludes a day dedicated to learning the roles and traditions of heralds in pre-seventeenth-century societies.
Viscountess Magistra Marian Staarveld, who in the “real world” answers to the name Marian Harris, has served as baroness in the past and recognizes the challenges Gardiepy faces. The king owns the land, but the baron and baroness manage it and serve as a resource for the people. “It’s the job of the baron and baroness to make sure that the populace is happy, well-fed, productive, and has someone they can go to when they have problems within the SCA,” Harris says. Her boyfriend, Sir Ambrose, who once served alongside her as the baron, adds that the perks, while strong within the SCA, rarely extend beyond its borders. “My comparison is that it’s like being president of the local Moose lodge,” he says. “You’re a big man in the Moose lodge and your own town, and you get a lot of respect, or at least minimal respect, from Meese [sic] the world over — but it doesn’t matter to anybody else. [If] you get stopped by the police, they’re not going to care that you’re Baron of Adiantum.”
Although Gardiepy finds the task fulfilling, he concedes it’s not always a walk in the park. “Sometimes the coronet can be very heavy,” he says with a slightly weathered smile. The pressures are easier to bear than those of his previous job, however, where he had been stabbed and shot at.
The Later Years
Sir Ambrose peeks with stony brown eyes from beneath long silver eyebrows. His slight shoulders and small stature are hidden beneath a bulky coat of armor. With a pipe or a pointed hat, he could be Gandalf or Merlin. Tonight, with his metal helmet equivalent in weight to a medium-sized dog, he is a heavy-fighter.
Wednesday nights, under a concrete bridge in Eugene, silhouettes brandish swords and sticks in intricate fights that centuries ago might have decided the fates of countries. Within the SCA, fencing tournaments determine positions of power in the society’s eighteen kingdoms. But unofficial meetings such as these are merely chances for fencers and fighters to flaunt their skills and engage in sport.
While the fencing is relatively tame (an honor-based sport more focused on flair than brute strength), heavy-fighting, the darker, more dangerous brother of fencing, evokes combat styles from the Middle Ages. Langstraat describes heavy-fighting as “guys in heavy armor beating the crap out of each other with pieces of wood and stuff.”
Ambrose has nearly twenty-four years of fighting under his belt (which is white, incidentally — to signify his stature as a knight). He sparkles with an energy that could be a result of the intense physical conditioning demanded of him as a fighter. But his glow may also be the result of something much simpler — heavy-fighting makes him happy.
Society member Amy Carpenter prepares dessert while adhering to centuries-old cooking methods — and plastic wrap.
Late in 1982, Ambrose (also known as Karl Kokensparger) often passed the heavy-fighters under the Eugene bridge. One day, while walking to a meeting (he won’t say where – “That’s in the past”), he decided to change his life. “I just thought to myself, ‘They look like they’re having more fun than I am!’”
Although entertaining, heavy-fighting poses significant risks. “I stick with fencing,” says the younger but more reserved Langstraat, “because heavy-fighting leads to broken bones.” He pauses, then adds, “And we’re prettier,” referring to the lacey garb of fencers.
“We stay true to the way it was [in the Middle Ages],” says Gardiepy of heavy-fighting, “right down to the helmets made of metal.” The helmets can weigh from fifteen to twenty pounds, and although they’re worn in addition to other armor, the risk of injury is still high. After one intense fight, Gardiepy needed shoulder reconstruction. “I was fighting two other guys, and, basically, he took a cheap shot,” Gardiepy says of the opponent who broke his shoulder. “He came from the blind spot. The chivalrous thing to do would have been to announce himself.” This cheap shot resulted in a slew of surgeries. “There’ve been people who have had their necks broken, knees blown out, backs severely injured — it’s a dangerous sport.”
Ambrose explains through his wispy storm cloud of a beard that heavy-fighting schools used to be prevalent in big cities like London, until the crown started fearing for its head. That civilians would have the skills to defeat a king in combat was understandably worrisome to any monarch, so schools were shut down and fighting was forbidden. Perhaps another secret to Ambrose’s mischievous smirk is the knowledge that he’s defying a royal decree, no matter how many centuries the order has been moot. Without further ado, he dons his helmet, grabs his sword, and prepares to fight.
As the younger crowd parties in historical garb and the unconventional athlete sharpens his sword skills, a key element of the SCA is illuminated: the organization appeals to all types of people. “It’s a whole little world,” says Langstraat. And, although this fantastical world seems to have little in common with the modern world occupied by most, the social need remains the same: people seek happiness, be it by mastering a sport, finding a core group of friends, or sailing into the sunset on a Dutch galleon.