Thursday, July 22, 2010

Picture Book

Suburban Knights: A Return to the Middle Ages
E. F. Kitchen
July 2010 from powerHouse Books

This is a book of full-page photographs in black and white of SCA members posing in their armor (or one page, in garb). The photos are accompanied by text with quotes from many of the recreationists depicted. There is a photo leading off the book of Sir Ranthulfr Asparlundr of the MidRealm (he also gets a photo in Medieval Fantasy as Performance). The book closes with our Baroness Dulcinea Maria Magdalena von Muhlberg y Aguilar. Most of the pictures are of fairly prominent members, many from the western kingdoms, it appears.

The book itself is handsomely mounted and well bound. It's a pleasure to handle and examine, although it is a little light on content, and I'm not sure that all of the members depicted are necessarily coming off as well as they might hope. The black and white works better in some photos than others... one misses the bright colors of heraldry and some of the scenes seem bleak or melodramatic. Some are great photos, to be sure: Duke John Fitzgerald de Clare on p. 39, Sir Gaston Bonneville de la Croix at p. 47 and Sir Tristan Pfalzgraf von Eisig at p. 53 all look particularly sharp.

The black and white photos seem like an odd choice to me. It gives the book an old-fashioned air, to be sure, but an air of the 19th or early 20th century. Color would have been better for the Middle Ages... they didn't have photography anyway. But perhaps others would disagree. Certainly it's all interesting to look at. It also seems to me that the similarity of the poses fails to capture all the possibilities. There are no group scenes, no indoor depictions. Each photo has one subject, usually dramatically posed with a sword or other weapon (Duke John has an attendant with his banner, one of the reasons his image seems more interesting.) This makes the images seem more stiff... they aren't naturalistically depicted. The kind of photos taken for, for example, Embleton and Howe's Medieval Soldier, are a good deal more pleasing and even inspiring.

I'm guessing that the imagery will please and intrigue some other readers. The fact that it doesn't do much for me is perhaps a personal matter.

My principal objection to the text is the author's interest in one of the major motivations for people joining the SCA. Master Waldryk the Firedryk is quoted on p. 12:

"I killed Frank Renn 12 years ago. I didn't like Frank Renn. I killed him and I made Waldryk." The speaker notes his inability to find fulfillment in other ways, name-checking Christianity with disfavor (a frequent and highly ironic motivation for wanting to emulate medieval European figures, I always thought), and concludes that his identity as Master Waldryk is the person he wants to be.

I have never met Master Waldryk and am not knocking him. When I say this, I'm using him as a stand-in for a view of the world that I'm usually sorry to hear about in the SCA. It makes me uncomfortable and puzzles me. And maybe that's my problem, not his, or that of others for whom his comments might seem resonant.

But I just never got this business of using the SCA as an escape from modern society for more than an entertaining weekend. I suppose that's because I'm happy enough with who I am in the 21st century world. I find fulfillment in my profession and other hobbies and interests. My real identity is that person. Balian de Brionne is what, then? A mask, a pose, a role to play? A whimsy on the weekend? Well, not exactly. It is a powerful thing to choose a new identity for yourself, a new name and a new set of allegiances. One can be a new person. There is a great appeal in that. But it has always seemed to me like a momentary escape into another identity, not one that is actually preferable.

Candidly, Suburban Knights is a little pricey for what it is... I'm not even sure SCA members are the target audience. I bought it suspecting from the description it would disappoint; but it is my custom to buy books about the SCA. It's not like there are many, after all. So I recommend it mildly. It's amusing and has some interesting commentary by members of the organization.

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