Let’s fight

by Victoria James

It’s early afternoon on a hot spring Sunday in Tokyo, and in the tranquil neighborhood park of Kodaira a fight is shaping up. Children still hurtle round the playground in one corner of the park, but at the far end, three men, burly and imposing, circle menacingly round a fourth. A crowd has gathered to watch — at a safe distance.

Suddenly, with a ferocious cry, the tallest of the assailants launches himself at their solitary foe. The noise of fierce blows rings out as the two men engage, scuffle and break apart. Then comes a loud groan, as the attacker falters and steps back. “Well struck, Lord Cadogan,” he calls, panting. He lowers his shield, lets fall his sword, and gives a courteous half bow. The chain mail-clad “victim” is visibly grinning behind the face-guard of his helm. He strikes his sword against the top of his shield with a whoop and turns to the next challenger.

Just another Sunday for the warriors of Avalon.

It’s 1966, Berkeley, Calif. A group of friends, fans of fantasy and science-fiction, throw a party with a difference — it has a medieval theme. Guests not only wear period garb, their revelry and merrymaking are also straight from the Middle Ages. The party turns out to be so much fun they agree to get together and do it all over again. And again.

The party became a group, the Society for Creative Anachronism, and today some 25,000 paid-up members and many more unregistered enthusiasts of medieval re-enactment meet and fight not just in the United States, but all over the world.

Welcome to anno societatis 38 of the “Current Middle Ages.”

“We create the Middle Ages as they should have been,” explained the Lady Celeste D’Arles (real name Rebecca McHugh, 23), an SCA member, as we sat in a coffee shop in Shibuya not long after my encounter with Avalon. “Or as we would have liked them to be. We distill and concentrate all that is good about that period — the swirl of ladies’ skirts as you walk into a room, the courtesy, the idea that whether you’re talking to a peasant or a peer, that person deserves your respect.”

Milady Celeste, who has the kind of pale eyes that would have sent troubadors into a tizzy, is a native of Ontario where she was a subject of the Barony of Rising Waters (that’s Niagara Falls to you and me) in the Kingdom of Ealdormere (Ontario). When Milady came to Japan last year, she crossed over into the West Kingdom, which comprises Northern California and Nevada, Alaska, Japan, Korea and the Pacific Realm. Here she is Marshal of the Stronghold of the Vale de Draco (Tokyo and the Kanto plain).

The Stronghold is the principal component of the Palatine Barony of the Far West (Japan). Its members often join forces to practice and fight with the realm of Avalon, an independent Tokyo-based group of fighters and re-creationists with a number of Japanese among its core membership.

“This isn’t just a hobby,” Celeste remarked, as I looked over the illuminated scrolls she brought to show me and turned the pages of the songbook composed by the bards of Ealdormere to celebrate their secession from the Middle Kingdom “10 kings” (that’s five years) ago. “It’s a way of life. Why do I do it? For the chivalry, that’s the main draw — being treated properly, both giving and receiving courtesy. I truly feel like I’ve become a better person for trying to live like this. And as a member of the SCA, I know that I’m not the only person trying to make sure that chivalry’s not dead.”

Chivalry is alive and well in the substantial figure of Avalon peer Lord Noe (Jay Noyes, 34), a towering bearded blond whose gentleness and good humor is strikingly at odds with his fearsome appearance in the field. “I cobbled together my first suit of armor in graduate school,” he explains, “and I’ve been in the game ever since.”

“Cobbling” isn’t just a figure of speech. Although armor, like pretty much everything else these days, can be bought online (www.swordsandarmor.com will do you a sleek Corinthian helmet for just $139), the peers of Avalon take special pride in making their own gear. They conduct careful research in libraries and online to get it just right. The weapons are made of rattan, but are of authentic weight and deal a heavy, though not an edged, blow. One Saturday a month, Lord Noe’s house is transformed into a temporary metalworker’s and smithy, as the peers pound out breastplates, rivet their jointed plate armor or work on shield bosses.

Back in the park at Kodaira, Lord Noe is casting around for a needle and thread. He’s noticed a strap on his arm guard is loose, and eventually settles for securing it with a tight length of leather cord.

“You should see the wars,” he says with a laugh, referring to the large-scale combat meets that are the highlight of any SCA group’s calendar. “All these huge Viking guys sitting on the sidelines doing needlework. Not just repairing things, but embroidering and decorating. I once made a silk gown for my wife. We’re just a bunch of romantics, really. This is a game of extravagant courtesies, florid compliments and really cool clothes.”

Not, of course, clothes in any normal sense of the word. Lord Cadogan (Mark Iacampo), an SCA fighter practicing alongside the Avalon peers, wanders over to show off his new coat of chain mail, and the two men go into raptures.

“This is the real thing,” Cadogan explains. “Every single link is riveted.” Lord Noe is impressed. Cadogan’s wife was less so, it seems. “She told me I look like Gimli the dwarf,” he says forlornly.

Suited up, though, Lord Cadogan is a man transformed. He repels even a concerted attack by two or more opponents and stands his ground doughtily when the peers try some tactical practice, rushing a target position of which he is the defender. Cadogan is a seasoned combatant, the veteran of “wars on three continents,” including Europe where — his eyes gleam — “you get to fight in real castles.”

In the “Knowne World” of the SCA, kingdoms are divided according to the number of SCA members rather than geographical size. Consequently Europe is only a portion of the vast Kingdom of Drachenwald (which also comprises Africa and the Middle East), while Arizona is a realm unto itself, the Kingdom of Altenveldt. In Japan there are currently upward of 30 registered members active, mostly in the Tokyo area.

Given the origins of the SCA in the United States, its activities in Japan have long tended to revolve around U.S. military bases. The heart of the Stronghold of the Vale de Draco is Castle Zama, aka Camp Zama, 40 km southwest of Tokyo. It is from here that the current Palatine Baron, Sir Guy L’Estrange (Robert Dionisio, 38) presides.

Sir Guy, like every SCA ruler be they a king, a prince or a baron, holds his position by right of arms after triumphing in a coronet tournament. (Queens, princesses and baronesses-by-right-of-arms, though rare, are not unheard of.) Rulers preside over their province for six months, after which they must resign, and cannot seek to regain their position for a further six months. On May 10, Castle Zama will host a tournament to decide Sir Guy’s successor.

Though it’s the fighting at such tourneys, wars and demonstrations that attracts the public’s attention, the SCA’s honors system doles out equal recognition to those skilled in the arts.

Members can study a wide range of cultural activities, from calligraphy and illumination to song and dance, and each person conducts thorough research into the history of their chosen period. (The group’s rules stipulate that you can chose a persona from any culture that had contact with the English court A.D. 500-1500.)

Sir Guy especially values the way the SCA activities “get soldiers out of the barracks and doing something where they can both learn and play.”

The knights of Avalon are looking beyond the bases and the expatriate community to Japanese, who may be interested in the ways of European combat in the same way that foreigners are attracted to Japan’s native martial arts. “Foreign residents tend to come and go, making it difficult to build a lasting tradition,” says Lord Corwyn (Corey Comstock). “We wanted Japanese to join us,” adds Lord Noe, “so we committed ourselves to having a bilingual group.”

Despite the obvious cultural differences between the Japanese “Middle Ages,” dominated by the austere loyalty code of Bushido, and the European experience of the same period, both cultures produced heroes and continue to inspire dreams of heroism. “Sometimes, when fighting, you feel like a hero of old,” says Corwyn. “You could be Herakles or Musashi. You strike out in confidence, send your opponent down to the dust and call with arrogance ‘who’s next?’ “

That spirit is certainly shared by one of Avalon’s most fearsome warriors — who is also one of its female Japanese members — Lord Fox (Yukie Yamada, 27). “I tried various martial arts and Budo [the way of the warrior], but they only seemed to go halfway. What really reached me deep inside was actual fighting,” she says.

In April this year, the group inducted its first Japanese member of the peerage, Lord Sporran (Keiichi Tada), who is descended from samurai stock. And joining in the melee in the park is yet another Japanese warrior, Lord Raven (Yuji Okada). Raven is a man of few words, but a keen combatant.

“I’ve done kendo,” he explains in between bouts, “but this is the real thing.”