In the heart of a red rock canyon just outside of Moab, on a recent May weekend, a cavalcade of cars are making their way to a campground on a strip of land that hugs the banks of the Colorado River. The entrance to Kane Springs Campground is marked “private,” with a small painted sign taped to a fence post that reads “SCA.” Typically, you’d find off-road enthusiasts, hikers and mountain bikers flocking to this scenic locale. But on this particular weekend, the campground has been transformed from a grassy field to an ancient realm, populated by medieval knights, archers, dancers, artisans and nobles.
Instead of pop-campers and motor homes, there’s a small village of old-style tents being set up, inhabited by pot-bellied men donning chain mail and full-plate armor, pipe-smoking heralds and women and children wearing tunics and garlands while dancing to drums.
A thin strip of trees divides the village from a nearby road where onlookers in motor homes and Jeeps drive past, rolling down their windows to take a closer look at the time warp in the field. “Who are you?!” a teenage girl shouts, as she passes by. “What an appropriate, existential question,” I thought. It’s a common mistake for “mundanes” (as you and I are called) to think we are seeing a renaissance fair. But these people aren’t in a festival mood at all. Their gathering isn’t for anyone’s amusement but their own. On weekends like this, they don’t care to be intruded upon by influences from the outside world.
They’re called the Society for Creative Anachronism—historical re-enactors who believe that the lifestyles and principles that defined the Middle Ages still hold weight in today’s contemporary age. Despite modern troubles and ridicule from gawkers and hecklers, the members of this society find refuge in dedicating a few days a week to dress, act, speak and live, in their words, “as it ought to have been.”
Surrounded by the wind-carved buttes of southern Utah, this medieval enclave is officially called The Marvelous City of Ahmar, and only exists once a year as part of a weekend-long gathering dubbed Arabian Nights. Every weekend all over the globe, the SCA puts on similar “themed” jamborees that attempt to preserve the look and feel of pre-17th-century Europe (or anywhere on Earth during that time period). The exclusion of modern luxuries is, of course, selective. Not everything has to be historically accurate, but a reasonable attempt is put forth to maintain the atmosphere. This usually involves basic gestures like wearing period-based garments or parking your car far from the “Enchanted Ground.”
From Friday evening to Sunday morning, the lords and ladies of the SCA (or SCAdians) live in this secluded world, partaking in archery tournaments, artisan crafts, merrymaking, medieval music and of course, hand-to-hand combat. For some SCAdians, the allure of the SCA is the traditional atmosphere and the sense of community; for others, it’s the fighting. Just like in medieval times, the main event of any festival is the violence. The SCA prides itself in accurate, period-based fighting, and here at Arabian Nights, combat is the big show.
“Lords and ladies of the realm,” shouts the herald, “The heavy fighting is about to commence.” As the hot desert sun sinks behind the buttes, the fighters suit up in their armor. Emerging from various tents are sword-wielding Vikings, Turks, samurais and Scots (to name just a few). Everyone leaves other activities and gather to watch the fighters as they assemble in an open area outside the village. The clashing of swords is what the SCA was founded on; it’s what these guys train for.
Back in Salt Lake City, the SCA holds fighting practice every Wednesday evening in Sugar House Park. Here, fighters prepare for weekend battles, swap stories and essentially retreat from the real world for a few hours. To be clear, they don’t use real swords; most weapons are made from rattan (a bamboo-like wood). To help introduce me to medieval fighting, I met up with Mark Andrews, the Knight Marshall (or safety officer).
“Did you bring a cup?” Andrews asked.
“What? No. No one told me to bring a cup,” I said, slightly puzzled and scared.
“Hmm. No one told you to bring a cup? Well, you’re going to have to wear the cup of shame.” He reached into his duffle bag and produced a well-worn sports cup that looked as if it was a hand-me-down from the ’84 Colts.
With Andrews’ help, I managed to put on the 50-pound set of armor, and I reluctantly slipped the cup of shame over my pants. Not gonna lie—the combination of leather, steel and a codpiece made me feel like some sort of S&M warrior. As he helped me buckle up the suit, I started to wonder what kind of carnage I was getting myself into. “So Mark, uh, do you think you could just hit me with your sword real quick? You know, so I know how bad it’s gonna hurt?”
He smiled. “Sure.” A couple of nearby fighters turned and laughed.
I lifted my arms and squinted my eyes, and without hesitation, he swung a half-strength blow and smacked me dead in the ribs. I immediately dropped to one knee. “Oh, goddamn it!”
“You all right?” Andrews asked.
“Yeah, shit. Gaaah daah. I’m fine. Totally fine.” I imagine the pain is similar to getting shot with a paintball-gun firing squad. I realized at that point that I didn’t want to play swords anymore.
We stepped out into the field to begin our practice fight. Scattered throughout the grass were small groups of men and women in full armor, beating and clobbering one another. Like a scared little puppy, I stood there while Andrews gave me some pointers. “OK, go ahead and stagger your feet and lift your sword up above your head,” he instructed. We circled each other for a few seconds. “OK, go ahead and swing at me.” I felt like I had no chance in hell of landing a single blow on this guy. Every time I swung, Andrews blocked it. “This is pointless,” I thought. “I might as well be fighting with a pool noodle.”
The next five minutes were an homage to the film Cable Guy: I was Matthew Broderick, and Andrews was Jim Carrey. Crank the Star Trek battle music. Ding! Andrews smacked his sword against my helmet. “What the hell?” I cried out. I had no idea where his sword was coming from because the visibility from my helmet was awful. I blindly swung at Andrews; he deflected it and landed another swift smack to my head.
If this were a “real” SCA fight, I would’ve been dead. Fighting is based on the honor system. If your opponent hits you in a vital organ or a “kill zone,” then it’s over. However, if you get hit in your leg, for example, you have to drop to one knee and fight from the ground. Andrews gave my legs and torso a medieval tenderizing while I staggered around like one of those inflatable, arm-flailing tube men.
I was a sore mess afterward, but I didn’t really care. I most definitely got my ass kicked, but there’s something rewarding about the experience that’s hard to place. Within the SCA, there’s a common phrase: “We want to kill our friends, not hurt them.” I discovered that evening that these fighters love inflicting pain as much as receiving it. I was more than grateful that I had on that cup of shame.
This type of fighting is the core of the SCA. It all started back in 1966 Berkeley, Calif., when a group of history buffs decided to throw a backyard party, don buckets on their heads and smack each other with sticks to see who was the “fairest” to their ladies. That event was styled as a “protest of the 20th century,” and is now referred to within the SCA as Anno Societatis, or “in the year of the Society.”
In 1968, the SCA made an appearance at the World Science Fiction Convention and peddled a book titled A Handbook for the Current Middle Ages in hopes that it would inspire other people to start their own kingdoms. Well, it worked. Shortly after, new SCA chapters began to form, and the SCA became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, with three major kingdoms spanning the United States. Since the late ’60s, the SCA has blossomed from a backyard melee to 30,000 active members (and 60,000 participants) in 19 kingdoms covering the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, South Africa and Australia.
Locally, Salt Lake City is within the kingdom called Artemisia. With over 1,000 active members, it covers Utah, Montana, southern Idaho and parts of Colorado. A kingdom needs at least 400 members living in the area. Each kingdom is then subdivided into local branches. As recently as 15 years ago, Artemisia was merely a principality (which is run by a prince and has at least 100 members), part of the Kingdom of Atenveldt.
But it made the jump from princedom to kingdom largely because of one legendary local, Brion Tarragon. His name is invoked with reverential tones among local SCA members and he is referred to as “The Once and Every Other King.” In the mid-’90s, according to Michael “Fish” Jensen—a 42-year-old IRS employee who, on weekends, plays a Viking named Math—Brion Tarragon was not only a badass fighter, but a great artisan and historian. It was through his magnetic personality and love for the organization, Jensen said, that the SCA flourished in Artemisia.
Some in the SCA argue about how much power a king actually has, but overall, it’s agreed the king is the boss. He oversees the kingdom, hands out awards and knights the fighters. But he holds the crown for a mere six months. Becoming a king isn’t a popularity contest—the SCA holds a crown tournament twice a year, where any “knighted” individual can battle it out in single combat for the throne. Every six months, when Brion Tarragon won the crown for Atenveldt, he brought it to Salt Lake City, officially called the Barony of Loch Salann.
As king of Atenveldt, Jensen says, Brion Tarragon reveled in the lifestyle and created traditions still practiced 17 years after he left. Because of his influence, Artemisia grew in numbers and officially became a kingdom in 1997.
Though a great king, Brion Tarragon was a stockbroker by day and was offered a job in Boston, where he presently lives and remains an active SCA member. Sadly, he never got to rule the kingdom of Artemisia.
The current holder of the crown is Sean Oppenheimer, a one-time squire of Brion Tarragon. While Oppenheimer’s day job is in the IT field, in this realm, he is known as His Royal Majesty Sean Kirkpatrick Tarragon.
“This is my fifth reign as king,” Oppenheimer says. When Oppenheimer shows up at the Wednesday practices, his subjects run over, grab his bags and carry them to the field.
Meeting Oppenheimer for the first time, it’s hard not to be nervous, as he is the king. So I did some research on the SCA website and found a link to His Royal Majesty’s preferences (e.g., good beer, enjoys the scent of vanilla, but do not bring him cantaloupe). “Your Excellence, I present to you some vanilla-scented lip balm. I hope it is to your liking.”
“Uh, thanks. Carmex. I love this stuff.”
The king and I have been on good terms ever since.
More Than Weekend Warriors
As previously mentioned, historical fighting is the group’s primary focus. Think of it like a video game where you’re trying to level up. First, a knight takes on a man-of-arms. After enough practice and ass-kissing, he can level up to squire status. And finally, after maybe five to 10 years of bruises, he may be asked to become a knight.
But not every knight wears shining armor. He or she can take on any cultural persona that may have existed prior to the 17th century. At SCA events, it is not uncommon to see Vikings, Turks, samurais, Zulu warriors and even American Indian warriors, all in one fight. Every one of these fighters has a specialized martial art, be it rapier (baggy tunics and fencing), heavy (full armor with big-ass swords or spears) and even range weapons (archery, axes, etc.).
“Yeah, it takes a special type of brain damage to fall in love with this and do it on a regular basis,” Jensen said as we sat in the shade in Moab. Jensen has been an active member for over 20 years and seems to have a solid understanding of the organization.
“I’ve learned my values through Old World ways, and I do believe that those values still hold true,” Jensen said. “This way, I can do those things without looking geeky. Look, take the movie A Knight’s Tale. I love that movie because it’s basically a documentary about the SCA. It’s people running around in ‘period’ looking ‘polyester’ while dancing to David Bowie. We hate to admit it, but it’s true.”
An important principle within the SCA is keeping things “period.” For example, at Arabian Nights in Moab, a woman shouted from across the campground, “Look! A naked man!” I panicked and hastily looked around only to realize she was referring to me. Why? Because I wasn’t wearing period-based clothes.
Keeping it “period” means more than just wearing appropriate clothes and armor. It can even boil down to conversation. “It’s not period to discuss Lady Gaga at an SCA event,” I heard someone say. Though this is true, it’s also not period to say something’s not period.
While some SCAdians may have taken the period thing a little far at Arabian Knights, others could be found chewing on Red Vines and relaxing in lawn chairs, discussing when pewter cups first emerged in Europe.
Another factor that seems a little vexing is the role of women. An organization based on historical fighting is going to attract dudes who like to beat on each other—at least that’s what I observed in Utah gatherings. But women also participate in this world.
“There aren’t that many female fighters,” said Shana Durrant, an interior designer whose SCA name is Shauna Sasperonsa. “I actually fight more guys than [women]. It’s funny. People in the mundane world treat me like a girly girl. My in-laws, my friends and family—they all treat me like that. But when I come out here and fight, I get to be another person. The only problem is when people come up to my husband and say, ‘Are you hitting her?’ I always have to explain to them that it’s not like that!”
Female fighters like Durrant are few and far between. Most women in the SCA participate in the less-combative realm, and in more traditional roles, often working in the kitchens at events, holding political roles, belly dancing or creating period-based crafts and goods.
“There’s far fewer women doing this than men,” Jensen said. “It’s not like women can’t [fight]—they can. They just have to adapt to fighting a 300-pound man.”
The SCA’s Darkest Hour
Though SCA members try their best to live in the Middle Ages—where courtesy, chivalry and honor are the principles they abide by—members still exist in a modern world and are subject to modern problems. In 2003, Ben Schragger, a SCA member known as Lord Ben the Steward, who, according to news reports, hosted weekend fighter practices at his farm 60 miles northeast of Philadelphia, was charged with multiple counts of child sexual abuse. He pleaded guilty by reason of mental illness in 2004 to 11 criminal counts and was sentenced in 2005 to a 62-year sentence.
Repercussions of his conviction were felt throughout the organization. According to online SCA documents, a civil suit was filed in 2009 against the SCA, claiming that the organization should be held liable for not having “effective policies in place at that time to protect these children.” The suit named the Pennsylvania SCA officers at the time as defendants, demanding $7 million in damages. The organization’s bylaws required the SCA to defend and indemnify the three officers.
Only one of the SCA’s insurance companies would defend and indemnify the organization, requiring the SCA to file a lawsuit against its other insurance companies.
In October 2011, the victims agreed to settle with the SCA for $1.3 million. One of the SCA’s insurance companies paid $450,000 of the settlement amount, while the other refused to pay anything at all. The legal battle with insurance companies is ongoing.
However, the settlement had to be paid, and with legal fees, it left the SCA hanging with a balance of over $1 million. Even though the abuse took place in Pennsylvania, the SCA board asked all its U.S. kingdoms to chip in and help pay the settlement.
“That was a horrendous, horrible thing that happened to those kids,” Oppenheimer said. “It really changed the whole infrastructure of the organization. Not only did everyone pitch in to cover those costs, but we had to incorporate new rules about being alone with kids—rules that we probably should have had in place beforehand. It was an awful thing for the victims and for the SCA. Really, nobody saw that coming.”
The Other Battles
Keeping the mundane world out can be a struggle, but most SCAdians seem to balance their fantasy lives with the real world fairly well. “Your personal life is your personal life, and I try to keep the two separate,” said Cameron Fullmer, a 20-year-old rapier fighter and windshield installer. “Some of my best friends are here in the SCA. I don’t even know what their real names are.”
Fullmer’s parents are SCA members, and he was essentially born and raised within the society. Recruiting young fighters like Fullmer is one of the SCA’s biggest challenges. At Arabian Nights, there were plenty of little kids, middle-age adults and seniors. However, out of the hundred or so people in attendance, there was only small handful in their late teens and 20s.
“It seemed like the coolest thing to me when I started,” reminisces Jensen. “But now America is so centered around instant gratification. People will ask, ‘How long does it take to become a knight?’ and I’d say, ‘Oh, five to 10 years.’ The next response is usually, ‘Well I could get knighted on World of Warcraft in a weekend.’ ”
One of the ways the SCA addresses this issue is through its weekday practices in the park. “People see us out there with our swords and armor. They either think it’s cool, or they think it’s stupid. Either way, it’s good exposure,” pointed out His Majesty the King.
Being visible, though, can have its pluses and minuses. “In the late ’80s and early ’90s, we a had kung-fu guy who would come out in his robe, run around and try to fight every one. It was funny, I guess, but you know, we’ll always have our hecklers.”
A Call To Arms
Back at Arabian Nights, the herald summoned all SCAdians to the showdown. Little kids dueling with foam swords stopped beating on each other and turned to watch as their dads raised up battle-axes, spears and broadswords. Standing on either side of a dusty field, two groups of roughly 10 or so fighters began marching toward each other. Almost as though plucked from a scene in Braveheart, the two forces clashed into each other with tremendous force. Shouts and cheers could be heard from the crowd as swords and spears collided, and “wounded” men dropped to the ground in a lifeless heap.
The heavy fighters are the rock stars of this society. Their battles are recorded and joked about. Sometimes these tales are elevated to the status of SCA legend. One of the most talked about battles is the SCA’s premiere event called the Pennsic War. Every July, in Slippery Rock, Penn., more than 10,000 SCAdians from all over the world descend upon the small town for a two-week full-scale war (or party) usually involving archers, catapults and even castles.
However, during small gatherings like Arabian Nights, it’s more about hand-to-hand combat. At this event, the fighters act out different scenarios such as last man standing and capture the flag. After wailing on each other for a few minutes, the men stop, take off their helmets, pat each other on the back and laugh about what just went down. The ladies run up and offer their men pickles and oranges (a SCA tradition). After a short huddle, the helmets go back on, and the fighting resumes until everyone’s too whipped to continue. In the end, there’s no definitive winner or loser. In fact, fighters often switch sides because, to them, it’s not about the victory, it’s about the experience.
That evening, as the sun dipped behind the cliffs, the village became a place of celebration and reflection. Campfires popped up, each with a different feel. Some were entertained by bards while men puffed on pipes and women and children listened to ancient stories and poems. Others were circled by belly dancers while food and drink were passed to those in attendance.
As violent as the SCA may seem at the surface, the true identity of this society can be found in these nightly gatherings. The family atmosphere is calm and respectful. People from all walks of life sit around a campfire, oblivious of their troubles in the mundane world.
Looking into the fire as the bards told their tales, Salt Lake City seemed farther away than ever. No one was thinking about the drive home.