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We Were Innocent Then

February 28, 2021


LORDS! I call thee! LADIES list now to my tale.
In Denmark’s far days came these doings dire,
when men of might were mickle and many,
when dwarf spoke doom in caverns dank,
dragons with demons vied to bring disaster,
ere even the pernicious pipes of the Scots
did assail the innocent ears of Northmen.

Thus begins a piece of writing dear to my heart, “The Tale of the Brothers (A Saga of Old Denmark)”. My wife Kim, aka Countess Ianthe D’Averoigne, recently noted to me that on a list somewhere, people were reminiscing about it. I brought out my copy and paged through. At once I thought, why not put out the text, perhaps someone may get some enjoyment out of the whole thing. The PDF is linked below. But I have been thinking much on it since and I see now a lot I did not understand back then. *Not* having the foresight of my people, I have no idea if my recollections will be worthy of note. Nonetheless, I will share them.

The year, 1979 (AS 14). At Masked Ball the previous December, I played in “The Song of Roland, or Franks (Incensed) and Moors”, a comedy penned by Eugenie de Bruges and Marian of Edwinstowe. Eugenie had a particular reputation as a wit, especially for her puns, and “Roland” while sweet and funny, was also a real groan-fest. Somehow I got it in my head I should write such a play. Why? I was a Count by then and had done more than my share of non-fighting SCA stuff, but truthfully my broader SCA interest was beginning to wane as I had started my training in Aikido. But my connection to my friends and that place and time was still there. The best answer is, it was because that is what Carolingians did.

The main subject, mythic Norse heroes, came to me instantly. I had recently read Poul Anderson’s “Hrolf Kraki’s Saga”, and also the actual “Njal’s Saga”; much of the plot was lifted from these sources and, after all, who doesn’t dig Vikings? But there was more going on. A favorite part of mine is when evil Frodhi questions Regin, the foster-father of the heroes:

FRODHI … I have longed to meet you, Sherriff, for I hear many things in my travels.

REGIN And what hast thou heard, hoary one?

FRODHI Nothing but that Regin was a fine lord with fine lands; but his pride was two hunting hounds, clever and strong beyond the measure of dogs. I would fain see them, for they are said to be a marvel.

REGIN Alas stranger, luck is not with you today. Those hounds ran away years past; and I wonder at it, for I was as a father to them. What else do they say of Regin?

Frodhi next asks about two fine falcons, and then finally about two sons. The direct inspiration for this was the ballad “King Henry”, as rendered by Steeleye Span. This is a “loathly lady” story wherein the female monster repetitively demands that King Henry first kill his hounds, then his horses, till finally he must sleep with her.

Now I must speak of wit. Words – using them well – mattered a lot back then and wit, frankly, was a far more valuable currency in the Carolingia of those days than fighting. Putting on a show for Masked Ball without a heavy larding of one-liners and puns – the more painful the better – was not to be thought on. I believe I did well enough – I’ll let the interested plumb the actual text for these “gems”, as it were. But above and beyond jokes I like to think this play, through well-placed repetition and reinforcement, got people more engaged in words than most others.

“Foresight of my people” appears 5 times in the play; this was enough for Eugenie to dub it “The Foresight Saga” – a coinage more clever by far than any of mine. Of course this is a Tolkien thing (his elves are always foretelling stuff) but he took it from the Scandinavian tradition where prophecies of doom practically come with the daily papers. Somehow after the first occurrence, the audience seemed to expect the next, then the next. Whether intuition or just dumb luck, this phrase set the rhythm of the play – hearing it was a signal of a turning point of information – and it seemed to buoy the audience and keep them connected.

The other phrase is “My name is not important”, which appears 4 times, or maybe 4 and one half. I still hear people say this today, typically accompanied by a small Jedi hand-wave to indicate the hearer is being beguiled.

This one ended up being more subtle. Again, I had no idea what I was doing, but “name” is an essential theme of the play. The heroes have 2 names each: Hrot and Hrani, their peasant names, and Helgi and Halfdan, their royal names. Finding their true names is their quest, though they don’t know it. But more, “name” is a super-important thing for a Norse hero. Such heroes seek renown in order to build the power and potency of their name; to have *no* name is to be a slave, a creature of no account. The prologue, Hugi, the avatar of Odin, says this line 2 times.; but he’s a god and beyond caring about names. Next, Frodhi says it – but he’s the bad guy and he doesn’t care about name, just grabbing power. Halfdan, played by me, is asked his name 2 times. He cannot bring himself to say his name is not important – my own vanity at work perhaps? – instead he declares his name to be “Vandrade”, Swedish for “wanderer”.

Finally Halgerde says it in the final scene. Now she’s a woman and in a trivial sense the names of women are not important, not when compared to heroes. But I like to think she sacrifices her dignity in order to save the Brothers.

Why 4 *and a half* times? Hugi, the Odin/Prologue, was played by my sword-brother Vissevald. Now even then, Vis was a man of significant name (which has only grown since). The final scene is very fast-moving, with tons of eye-patches, false beards, and flailing of weapons both long and short. Just as it looks to be curtains for the heroes and heroines, Hugi makes reassuring signs to the audience he will do a deus ex machina. But he is forestalled by the long-lost Gunnar – played by Cassandra Boell von Bayer – companion to the dead King and offstage since act 1, scene 1. The All-Father is flabbergasted by Gunnar’s impertinence:

HUGI (Indignant) What is this? Who are you? Don’t you KNOW who I AM?

GUNNAR YOUR name is not important. Away old man, I have business here!

I hope he will forgive the observation, but Vis, almost as much as me, is not blessed with an over-abundance of humility. I still chuckle at this image today.

Coming back to Tolkien, for anyone in the SCA, he is an inevitable influence for almost everything we do. The curse on Frodhi, “You will die at the hands of a woman”. is the same as that on the WitchKing, though more explicit of course. And the scene with Damnir the Dragon owes much to Bilbo and Smaug, though mainly through my determination to write something different from that iconic piece:

HALFDAN Verily, Damnir the Fierce! But first, I would have words with thee, oh calamity of the skies! For, mighty pinioned one, many questions assail my thought and only one such as thou, owl-wise mistress of reptiles, might answer them.

DAMNIR Think you so, lad? Tell me, what is your plan? To beguile me with riddling talk, and thus trick me out of my treasure? Frail youth, hardly an original plan! Though it might have proved useful if I were one of those overblown male dragons. Pride is their downfall, but I am wiser. No riddles!

HALFDAN By the hammer, how un-draconic!

DAMNIR If you will. But I warn you, I have a particularly strong dislike for young adventurers, so mind your tongue.

HALFDAN Yes, ma’am.

Damnir was played by Caryl de Trecesson. That was a truly great performance. Any play needs some suspension of disbelief but, rendering a dragon – that required an entire Verrazzano-Narrows of suspension. Yet Caryl brought it off: the looming danger, the petulant menace, the put-upon unpredicatability, all standing on an old trunk and equipped with an upholstery-and-stuffing tail that would not fool a 1-year old. Bravo.

Which brings me to another thing I now see about the play: Women do a lot in it. Damnir is a female of irritable temper – “dragon lady”, get it? – but I knew if I wrote women who were just doe-eyed damsels in distress, I’d never earn the approval of those I respected, most notably Marian. When my 22-year-old self playing Halfdan meekly answered “Yes, ma’am” to Damnir I might as well have been saying it to Marian.

Then there is Olga, wife to Regin, who defies the evil Frodhi to his face and is slain for it. And Haleth and Halgerde, the Forest Girls; they don’t wait around for help when they hear the brothers are betrayed – they make their own plan and rush to the rescue. Part of this is the Norse motif – the sagas abound with strong women. But the bigger part was the time and the place.

I write fiction today and I of course understand what I write is a product of all my experience, including the experiences of others. But today I very much write alone, saying what I think is important. In 1979 I was as much channeling the feelings of those around me as I did my own. Marian I have already mentioned. Two people I spoke with much about writing were Kali, who portrayed Halfdan’s brother Helgi, and Gyrth. They both had studied far more literature than I and in car trips to events, or late-night bull-sessions at the Buttery, I absorbed a lot from them. Finally an influence perhaps hard to recognize but still strong and foundational was Aelfwyn. His stoic demeanor, combined with a keen sense of irony and, lastly, generosity, was my image of Regin the Sherriff. The good in the story comes from them, from our other companions of those days, and the world they collectively created. Me, I just did the fiddly bits.

“The Brothers” is not great literature: It is small, topical, and lowly comic. But in the end it is a play about three things: Renown, Romance, and Honor. In our innocence that’s what we cared about back then. For a few hours each month, we sought an elevated life: To be a hero or heroine; To test ourselves; To see the right prevail. ‘Twas childish, I know. Yet I will defend it. Not because my name is important but because other names were, and are.



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