It was the first night of the Known World Bardic Congress and Cooks' Collegium. I was far from home in Ealdormere, cowering in the corner. Even though my first SCA membership renewal lies some months in the future, I am not much of a cowerer, but this was different. These people were FAMOUS. And they all knew each other. And they all knew all the words to approximately 24,000 songs, none of which I had ever heard before. So I cowered. Practically everyone in the room seemed to be a Laurel – it was like an academic conference, where the ones who stand out are the ones who DON’T have a Ph.D. – and it was a big room.
I had started feeling out of my depth five minutes after arrival, when the very sweet lady who showed me to the ladies’ dorm asked me, "Are you a Bard or a Cook?" I didn't know what to say to her. I was sure I wasn't a cook, but to say I was a bard felt like gross imposture. I stammered hideously and finally came up with, "I'm here for the bardic classes," which seemed to satisfy everyone.
The accommodation, at a Scout leaders' training camp, was palatial by SCA standards. We had actual beds, indoors, with heat! And bathrooms! The long dorm rooms were partitioned, two beds to a cubicle, and my roomie was a cook and a lively, unpretentious sort who helped me unload and put me at ease. Throughout the weekend, she was good company and a great source of intelligence on where and when to find food. Thank God.
Cooks and bards generally keep very different hours, though. When I awoke the first morning she was long gone. Every morning when I awoke she was long gone. And when I came in at four Sunday morning, she was thinking of getting up.
My cowardice did not survive the first class: Improv for the SCA, taught by Master John Inchingham. I had first done improv nearly 30 years ago, so I felt I could handle this. And it was fun! And people were clever and witty! I started to relax. Better yet, I started to learn.
The next teacher – before lunch, yet! – was Marion of Heatherdale. I was not yet over my celebrity-itis, but she is such a sweet and gently-mannered lady, I managed to stop thinking about her fame and her European tour long enough to listen to what she was saying. The focus of the class was finding new inspiration for song and story. Mistress Marion suggested areas of SCA experience we could use to develop ideas, and encouraged us to make a list during the weekend of five topics we wanted to try.
My next class was Bawdy Songs, taught by Lord Gyric. I had been greatly looking forward to this one, and I was not disappointed. It turned out that, unlike all other areas of SCA repertoire, this one contained songs I actually knew! The day so far had been full of inspiration. I went off by myself to work on a piece I was writing, and I wrote in my notebook, "I don’t care any more if I'm the least experienced (I am) or if my garb is basic (it is) or if everyone else knows more songs than me (they do). I just want to get this done."
Master Garraed Galbraith, onetime Bard of Ealdormere, (the current Bard of Ealdormere is Justinian), taught a class in Words and Music, about creating a tune that goes with your words. As a longtime writer and brand new songwriter, this was exactly what I was looking for, and judging by the eager faces in the room, I was far from alone. Unfortunately the advice, while valuable, did not make the process easy! But we all did go away feeling energized and a whole lot better informed.
That night’s dinner was a formally served feast, and the Crown of Ealdormere made a last-minute decision to attend. The Cooks had spent the day outdoing themselves and creating a symphony of flavor. The entertainment at dinner was equally splendid. My heartfelt gratitude to the organizational genius who decided the two streams of classes should be combined into a single event; the bards were far better fed than we could have managed for ourselves, and the cooks had an extremely articulate group of diners to praise their efforts. Myself, I think the bards got the better of that deal.
The unforgettable moment of the evening came when the Ealdormereans sang en masse their kingdom anthem, "Rise," by Hector. The song, the night, the moment were superb. The rafters literally rang. I had never heard the song before and I wept all over my table napkin.
After dinner, a bardic circle was planned. It was to be my very first circle ever, and I confessed to a few people that I was intimidated. To perform in front of this assembly felt a bit like losing one's virginity to Errol Flynn. But it didn't turn out like that at all. My piece was well received, and I learned of the Ealdormerean custom of ring-giving. One who finds a bard’s performance inspiring gives a ring as a token. Within a year and a day, the recipient must find another performer who inspires them, and pass the ring on. I look forward to spreading this custom at home in the barony.
To mention all of the excellent performances I heard that night – songs, stories, and instrumental performances – would take pages. It was four a.m. when I headed for my bed, and I left behind a dozen gentles, still apparently tireless, whom I understand continued until daylight.
Classes continued on Sunday; the most memorable was the discussion on the nature of humor led by Master John Inchingham and Master Cerian Cantwr. After lunch I wandered off into the forest – the site was beautifully unspoiled and we had perfect weather in which to enjoy it – and composed a filk song about my experience. I trotted the song out at Sunday night's bardic circle, where to my delight people not only sang but drummed along, and I was honored to receive two more tokens.
On Monday morning before leaving, I made a list of all I had accomplished at the event. I had given the first public performances of two original songs and one poem. I had composed a tune for a new ballad and written words for a filk song. I had worked with a master storyteller on developing a story from a short poem of mine, made a list of five ideas for new projects, attended nine classes, and written a suggestive limerick about a knight and a countess. On the way home in the car, I composed another song, words and music. I got all this done, not because I am so brilliant, but because the event was so effective at accomplishing what it was designed to do. And everyone who was there had the opportunity to do as much.
The entire event was exceptionally well organized, the needs of the students considered and catered for so that all we had to do was learn and enjoy. The level of enthusiasm of the teachers and staff was far above the norm. Everyone I spoke to was eager to talk, to share and to listen. The keynote of the weekend was joy.