When I was very young, one of my most prized possessions was (and still is) an old book titled King Arthur and His Knights which was basically an edited collection of stories from Malory. And when I say “old book” I mean old book: I think it came from my maternal grandfather, and I suppose he got it for my uncle when he was a boy. I’ve been over it a hundred times and there’s no print date, although the publisher is listed as Grosset & Dunlap and the editor is Syndey Lanier. A quick Google search of antique book dealers shows that G&D published this book “c. 1950” and that it’s not worth any money, especially without the dust jacket.
Well, it might not be worth any money, but it’s certainly valuable, at least to me: I was a bookish, solitary child. We lived in a small village and I never really made friends with the neighbour children; I had no interest in guns, engines or professional wrestling and they had no interest in Lego or books, so I spent most of my summers left to my own devices. I must have read that copy of King Arthur and His Knights a dozen times between the ages of seven and sixteen. The romance of chivalry and grandeur of Malory’s language (however edited and, frankly, bowdlerized by Mr. Lanier) was infectious and I spent long hours dreaming of knighthood and castles and chivalry… even after one of my grade school teachers (a bitter and mean-spirited woman inclined to casual cruelties towards her charges) told me that “there are no knights anymore and there never really were, so stop wasting your time with that sort of thing.”
But of course I grew up, and went to high school, and being a bookish and solitary sort isn’t the sort of this that makes one popular in high school (talk about casual cruelty) and a bunch of other stuff happened to make me feel like I didn’t belong and years went by as they always do and before long I was in my mid-20s, living alone in a strange city, working a shitty call-centre job, with no cable, no internet, and a long ride on public transit to get to the city library. And one summer night out of sheer boredom I was digging through one of my old boxes – you know, the one that gets dragged through multiple moves without being unpacked – and in the bottom was an old brown hardcover book. I think I re-read it cover-to-cover that night. The next time I went to the library I was looking for works on medieval history and fantasy and ran across, totally by accident, a beat-up paperback by Peter S. Beagle called The Folk of the Air, a “modern fantasy” set against the background of a medieval recreation society… which reminded me of a group I’d heard of called the Society for Creative Anachronism, the local chapter of which turned out to hold its weekly A&S meetings about five blocks from my apartment.
That was in 2004. In fact, it was almost exactly nine years ago today – I showed up at a meeting unannounced only to find out there was no meeting that week: “everybody is gone to Pennsic,” for which I had no context. In retrospect the person whose front door I was knocking on was extremely patient with me – she took time out of her evening and chatted politely on her front porch with a complete stranger (and an oddly-dressed one to boot — I was at the tail end of my anarcho-punk phase) and the end result is that I started attending regular meetings. And the rest, as they say, is history… or at least a reasonable attempt at pre-17th century historical re-creation.
I’ve been thinking a lot about where I came from to get into the Society lately, because I’ve also been thinking a lot about where I plan to go. Ultimately, my goal is, was and always will be the white belt: Knighthood. It’s not going to be easy: Knighthood in the SCA is set on an incredibly high shelf, far more so than in the actual High Middle Ages. In period all you needed to do to get knighted was be of a certain social class, develop a reasonable degree of martial prowess, and have sufficient funds to shoulder the expenses involved. In the SCA the Order of Chivalry is roughly the equivalent to being a real-world Knight of the Garter: an exclusive accolade far beyond the reach of the average warrior.
I’ve been reading up on what’s expected of a potential Knight in the SCA, and the posted expectations are frustratingly vague and often contradictory. Martial prowess is obviously a requirement, but there are conflicting opinions on how great a requirement, and at what level the potential must be at. Historical accuracy of kit is cited by some as necessary… and by others as a hindrance, because one can “never fight to 110%” in historically-accurate armour. Courteous and chivalrous behaviour is required… except that some on some forums its been indicated that many Knights don’t care about that, that prowess is all: if you’re a fast stick, that’s more than enough. Non-martial service should be emphasized, but if you don’t focus exclusively on the fighting you aren’t showing adequate commitment. Being squired is important and also not necessary; being squired to the right Knight is important and also irrelevant; playing politics is a part of the game and also the kiss of death to a potential Knight… and so on, and so on, and so on.
The truth is that the Order of Chivalry is an invite-only club, and the reason there’s so many contradictory opinions is that there’s as many opinions as there are members of the Order. My impression on the situation, from the outside looking in, is that the biannual “Chiv meetings” must be pretty intense; I suspect that a lot of the Chiv just trust a gut instinct developed over years of dealing with potentials without being quite clear, even to themselves, as to what they’re looking for. They either know a fighter is ready, or they don’t.
So where does that leave the still-developing fighter, such as myself? Gods know my prowess isn’t of the best – there’s newer guys coming in all the time that are better fighters through sheer raw talent than I am after five years of sweating-hard effort. I’ve built a period-accurate kit, I contribute to Canton and Kingdom, I’ve taken on officer’s positions and I try my best… but I also hold strong opinions on both SCA and real-world topics and I refuse to conceal them. For all that I try to be open and accepting of everyone, I have certain hard limits, and I can be very hard on those limits indeed. I’m aware that, in some fairly important aspects, I’m not an easy person to live with.
I do know one thing: no Knight has taken me as a squire or even shown an interest in doing so… and I’ve stopped thinking that’s a bad thing. One Knight I know compared the Knight/squire relationship to a marriage: something profound, long-term and not to be entered lightly (a squire I know compared it to a committed D/s relationship, which might actually be a better analogy depending on the people involved.) Getting the right “fit” between Knight, squire and (to a lesser extent) squire-siblings is important… or at least I think so. Being squired to a Knight with a casual opinion of the relationship strikes me as a recipe for disappointment at the least and disaster at the worst; and as for approaching a Knight with the same opinion of the relationship… well, that sort of Knight isn’t likely to take a squire quickly, casually or without a significant commitment of time and effort. I’ve seen the fallout that occurs when those opinions don’t sync up and a squire’s belt has to be returned, and I have no desire to ever be in that situation.
I’m fortunate that there are any number of very good fighters in this Kingdom – both belted Knights and unbelts – who have taken time and effort to help me develop my fighting skills. Yes, with the right Knight pushing me, I think I might be a better fighter than I am right now… but I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to rush into a Knight/squire relationship, if only because if the wrong Knight starts pushing me I’m apt to dig in my heels (I’ve been living my life for a long time, I know how my brain works.) Certainly I don’t think it’s worth rushing into that relationship for no better reason than the right to wear a shiny red belt (and I’ve seen that on occasion, too.)
So once again, where does that leave me? My comparison above between the SCA Order of Chivalry and the real-world Order of the Garter was a considered one: One of the downsides of having Knighthood in the SCA be so exclusive, so difficult to obtain is that it tends to be seen as a goal and not as a milestone. Established by the Black Prince in the 14th century, the Garter Knights were meant to be an example to all the world; I genuinely think that the Order of the Chivalry ought to be (and is, for the most part) an example to all the Society. But the general rank of Knight was more readily obtained in the High Middle Ages; a young man of the appropriate class could become a knight bachelor relatively easily but then spend his entire life striving in chivalry and prowess for acceptance into one of the more prestigious Orders. Not that I’m advocating for something similar in the SCA, but sometimes I worry that putting the Chiv so far out of a beginner’s reach – and the impression that getting a belt is dependent on the whims of the Order’s membership – can have a dampening effect on an aspiring fighter.
(Fortunately, there is a checklist of sorts in Corpora and following it, while not necessarily being a guarantor of attaining Knighthood, certainly means you’ll be acting in a manner most becoming in a Peer.)
The best advice I’ve received on the subject is simply to not worry about attaining a White Belt. Certainly you should aim for it, but it’ll either happen or it won’t and there’s not much you can do about it since it’s really up to the Throne and the Order of Chivalry to make that decision. As an unbelted fighter and a member of the Society, your goal is to make sure the discussion goes in your favour if and when the Chiv gets around to talking about you: Be the kind of fighter that, when your name comes up at a Chiv meeting, is followed by someone saying “Right, [your name here], why hasn’t he got his belt already?” In short: comport yourself in a knightly fashion and someday the Order of the Chivalry will get around to getting you that belt you’ve already earned.
And if they never do, so what? You’ll have spent years and years acting with courtesy and chivalry; being a generally good person who’s spent their time contributing to the Society and making things nice for others; and striving for martial excellence and personal betterment. If you’re the kind of person who thinks that’s not a worthwhile bunch of stuff to be doing for its own sake, then you’re probably not the kind of person who’s going to be getting a belt anyway.