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Long Stewardship

Hilary of Serendip

©2004, Hilary Powers

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A slightly longer version of this review ran in T.I. #84.


Peter S. Beagle, The Folk of the Air; Ballantine, NY 1986
Mary M. Pulver, Murder at the War; St. Martin’s, NY 1987

     The SCA has always had firm ties to modern fiction. From the founders on, we’ve had authors among us. It’s been a game to spot our initials in their work, or to look up from a scene of court or battle and say, “This has to be written by somebody in the SCA!” But it’s been a quiet game, requiring specialized knowledge.
     Now anybody can play.
     Here we have a fantasy and a mystery both drawn directly from the SCA. They touch our reality in different ways, and are both enjoyable and disturbing. Is that what we are? Could that happen? Well, perhaps....
     Peter Beagle saw the BayCon tournament at the Claremont Hotel in 1968, the event where the Society took its first long step outside the personal circles of the founders. He came back again, several times and quietly, but was never very active—and he stayed away after The Folk of the Air began to take shape in his mind, he says, to avoid mixing fiction and reportage.
     The story is set about 1980 in the town of Avicenna, which follows the map of Berkeley, and in the “League for Archaic Pleasures”—which was meant to be as close to the SCA. But while the League is utterly realistic (aside from holding magic strong enough to move unbelievers; this is, after all, a fantasy), it’s a realistic extrapolation of what could have happened rather than what did happen. Even the things that seem most like satire—the insistence on what the League King calls “castle talk” (“you can’t call it a damn language, it doesn’t have any rules”), the disregard for safety, and the grim intensity with which people hold to their personas—are all things members liked to believe of themselves in the early days. They would have loved the description of the hero’s first sight of a torchlit dance—“[he] could not find any faces in that first won­der....only the beautiful clothes glittering in a great circle, moving as though they were inhabited, not by human heaviness, but by marshlights and the wind. The folk of the air, he thought. These are surely the folk of the air.
     Of course, the dancers in the ring weren’t the folk of the air, and nor were the founders of the Society, and nor are we, but their story still reflects our own origins. If the people who stayed with the Society hadn’t found ways to relax in it, and rest their heavy human feet on solid ground while they pursued their dreams of chivalry, we could have wound up very much like the League this book portrays.
     The story itself defies summary, as each element fits too closely into the whole to lift without damage—but it is a good read, and for those who already know the SCA, there’s a lot to be learned from it. For those who don’t, praise be, there’s no mention of our true name in its pages. Some of the mundane reviews do identify us, however, so be prepared to do some firm explaining to people who come to the Society looking for the League.
     You could hand them Murder at the War for starters. Mary Monica Pulver is Mistress Margaret of Shaftesbury, whose accounts of Deere Abbey enliven the C.A. pamphlet series. The war is our Pennsic War, and from the opening scene—two kings sitting across a picnic table from a harried autocrat, arguing archery and crowd control over a can of Bud—to the final release, the book breathes reality. You can smell Cooper’s Lake (Miller’s Pond) and you can feel the mud of the Woods squelch underfoot.
     At the same time, you’re in a well-established literary realm: the exotic mystery, where the archetypical tale of crime and detection is played out against the background of some specialized interest. There are mysteries featuring Tarot readers and comic book collectors, race jockeys and art experts—what’s so strange about an Illinois police detective who happens to be a squire in the SCA? Or his lady wife, who raises Arabian horses and happens to be on warm terms with the Governor? It’s all perfectly logical within the genre, and provides an excellent foil for the reactions of the State troopers—also well drawn—as they try to unravel murder in an armed camp. “What’s someone with friends like that doing in a flaky outfit like this?” one asks another, unconsciously echoing the ‘why did you join the SCA?’ questionnaire that threads through the story. His partner, who has begun to understand and appreciate the game, replies, “Beats doing cocaine, I guess.”
     It isn’t everyone’s SCA. It isn’t even everyone’s Pennsic War—some of the customs and rules are clearly designed to serve the plot rather than to reflect general (or even local) SCA usage. But this is, after all, still fiction and not reportage, and it does a good job of capturing the spirit behind our manifold realities—and it is a reasonably good tale. Read and enjoy, and if you find yourself thinking, “But that’s not how we do it!” get ready to explain the point to some eager newcomer who found you through this book. Because they’re on their way....
     Not only does Murder at the War use our real name, it promises that we really exist, and it opens a window onto a vivid—a­nd attainable—world of pageantry and human warmth. BayCon showed us to the science fiction world, and the first big growth spurt followed. Now the mystery-readers will see us—lots of them, since the St. Martin’s label will put the book in public libraries everywhere. Another jump is bound to follow. Mistress Margaret has done much to make sure that her newcomers get off to a good start, praise be, but there’ll be a lot of work for all of us in the next few years. The game is wide open now!

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