Monday, July 26, 2010

Book Review: Knights Next Door

A few months ago I read a book similar to I Believe in Yesterday  in premise but completely different in feeling. The Knights Next Door by Patrick O'Donnell is about O’Donnell’s experiences spending a year in as a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, or SCA. O’Donnell is a journalist writing from an outside perspective, but his girlfriend is in the SCA, and he has been to one or two events with her before he decides to jump in. He does join up expecting to write a book, but he seems to do so with a better understanding of what he is getting into, and a genuine interest in participating than anything shown in I Believe in Yesterday.

The prologue and every chapter of Knights Next Door starts with a quote from Shakespeare’s Henry V, which sets the historical mood, but also lets you know that the concentration is going to be on the more martial aspects of the Modern Middle Ages. The writer is from the mid-west and is able to join up with an SCA group called Darkyard, well known in the SCA for their fighting prowess, and gets help with his endeavors from a Cleveland group called “SFU” which stand for “Something For Us.” Over evenings and weekends they help O’Donnel with clothes, they lend him armor then help him make his own. He attends fight practices with his new friends, and learns all about the lives of the SCAdians he meets.
My favorite part of O’Donnell’s tale is that he gives voice to an amazing array of people that me meets. His chapter headings include The Contessa’s Tale, The Tale of Brannos’ Keep, The Teacher’s Tale and many more. Though we learn about the author’s first wobbly steps on the path to becoming an SCA fighter, he also gets his reader involved in the lives of those people who make the SCA a large part of their lives. We get to learn a little about a lot of different people, but we also meet a few individuals that O’Donnell follows for the year, and weaves throughout the book. We learn about their mundane jobs, about their love lives, about the trials and awards that are so important to some in the SCA. O’Donnell’s empathetic portrayal of some very real people made this into an enjoyable read as well as an informative one.

I also appreciated the frank discussions about the differences in what the SCA does and what we know of Medieval history. He discusses different levels of accuracy, and what different groups hope to get out of their involvement in the SCA. He discusses his transition from army surplus boots to some historical footwear, and how modern accoutrements will never be left completely behind. When discussing a visit to a spring time event in Mississippi called Gulf Wars he writes:
 “It takes about 2 hours for the SCA’s time warp illusion to kick in… for the garb, the people and the events to gradually pull me along. But eventually, my eyes start skipping over the modern tents, dismissing them as irrelevant background, while I focus on the more medieval items… The shift of mindset is crucial for anyone pursuing this hobby. There will always be anachronisms. Members see the full half of the glass rather than the empty half. If that moment never happens, if you can’t suspend belief just a little, you go home and dismiss the Society for Creative Anachronism as a waste of time.” (p. 107)

And towards the end of the book he justifies the open but forgiving tone in which he discusses most anachronisms and, un-period attempts:
 “I had scoffed at some of the makeshift equipment, at the passion many display for this game and at many of the “attempts” at clothing. But somewhere along the way, I had started looking beyond those shortcomings and started seeing things in a more forgiving light. It is easier to criticize something you don’t know and never try, I realized, than it is after you have struggled through the same, often difficult tasks.” (p.284)

He does not hide the less pleasant things he runs into: bitter internal politics, slighted members, a casual relationship with the history of the Middle Ages. But he manages to tell a sympathetic story all the same. I only have a few issues with his writing style: the clichés are a little thick, he repeats stock phrases a little too often for my comfort.  The chapters are broken into small chunks so he has or do a lot of re-introducing and repeating when we get to the next section about something or someone he has not visited in a while. He hints at story outcomes I could have waited to find out about. Still the book was easy to read and the story kept me engaged.

While I have attended many SCA events, and have friends and colleagues involved on many different levels in the SCA I am not an SCA member, I have never been a part of an SCA group. From my position as a well-informed outsider I learned quite a bit from The Knights Next Door.

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