Sunday, September 11, 2011

Helm Magic

We have been back from our family's annual camping trip to Pennsic for a few weeks now, and I need time to write a post about helm magic. Pennsic is the annual, worldwide gathering of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), when this year over 13,000 people camped out for two weeks in sweltering August heat in Southwestern Pennsylvania. As I have written before, it is impossible to explain Pennsic completely to one who has never been: it is 13,000 people camping in a huge, open field in August; it is 13,000 people recreating the Middle Ages from archery to brewing to period campsites to reconstructed bog-finds clothing to men, women and children wearing shining armor and bashing one another with PVC weapons. Really.

My kids drug me into the SCA, again as I have written before. They all enjoy youth boffer fighting, that shining-armor/hitting one another with pvc pipe sport, that, thankfully, is wonderfully and safely taught in our barony (yes there are kingdom and kings and queens and barons and baronies and dukes and all. . .) by the fabulous Lady Zoe. (If not for Lady Zoe, I would have overruled the kids and never allowed them near a boffer!) At Pennsic, the youth fighting is carefully and lovingly overseen by a group of men and women knights, whose dedication to the sport is awesome to behold. Yes, many of the adult fighters are walking around semi-drunk; yes the adult fighters, especially some of the guys, are annoying and pushy louts; yes I think grown men need to think about why they like to put on stainless steel in 90 degree heat and bash one another on the head (no I don't question the women in armor as they all tell me the same thing: they love hitting men - and who can argue with that?). Yet the youth fighting knights are all loving, giving, and dedicated to helping youth learn the sport and chivalry itself.

So pacifist, feminist me spends two weeks each summer watching my kids don their armor and hit each other. Ok, the first year or two I went to every fight and sweated every knock they each took - not to mention being pulled in as a marshal (in other words referee) when occasion demanded (I still have a reputation as being useless at teaching fighting but also as having been scrupulously fair and hard on everyone - a reputation I rather like!), but nowadays they are old enough that I don't have to supervise anymore. I have also watched my eldest daughter and my only son grow tremendously in the sport.

For many years, my eldest was the only girl on the youth battlefield. The boys treated her terribly. In boffer fighting, the hittee has to "take their blows," and it is all honor system as to admitting whether or not you the hittee has taken a blow that kills you. "Not taking your blows" is unchivalrous, an insult, and ultimately will draw unwanted attention from other fighters, parents, and finally the marshals.

For many, many years, boys would not take their blows from my eldest daughter. Yet the boys' behavior was so obvious, and my daughter so reliably took her own blows, that year after year she has won awards for her chivalry and behavior on the field. Now, since my eldest is at least 50 lbs. lighter than the boys on the battlefield, her ability to win even when everyone is as chivalrous as possible is limited, and she would dearly love to win some tourneys due to prowess and not just her amazing chivalry. Yet, year after year, she has stuck to fighting, won tremendous respect from many of the more serious boys, and also won tremendous respect from the knights in charge. In my own schoolwork this year, when the work has been overwhelming and the possibility of ever learning all this vocabulary and theory seemed impossible, I have deliberately thought of my eldest, hanging in there at every practice, taking her blows, losing over and over but not quitting just from the sheer love of the sport. My eldest is an inspiration.

And so to helm magic. Pennsic, that wild and indescribable village/ren faire/art festival/camp out combined, has its own magic. One of my kids' friends is an avid musician, has mild ADHD and is often difficult to manage, but has and still loves Pennsic and the SCA with utter abandon. Over the years Pennsic musicians have gifted him with musical instruments for his Middle Eastern persona, from a gift scholarship for an oud two years ago to a saz this past Pennsic. Giving to kids who show their willingness to work is part of the SCA culture. And it can bring amazing experiences! Last year I was shopping in the marvelous, amazing, gobsmacking and huge marketplace (picking up some badger's claws, the kind of thing one can do at Pennsic!) when my eldest daughter came running into the tent where I shopped. She was sobbing and incoherent and clutching a helm.

Helms, by the way, are just what you think they are: those helmets from knights in shining armor movies we have all seen. That shiny helmet is the piece de resistance of a good knight. In the SCA helm rules are strict and affected by modern medicine: hockey helmets work with some additions for chin and neck protection. Of course, your adult and youth boffer fighter dreams of a good, metal helm, though. Getting helms, visiting armorers at Pennsic and trying on helms, decorating helms (animal tails and horse manes are popular) - all are daily points of conversation.

The helm my daughter carried while in tears was stainless steel, a step up from my daughter's older helm which rusts endlessly. It was also quite small, fitting for my petite daughter's head, but not many of the fighters in the SCA are as small as my daughter. I hugged her while adults gathered around and my daughter explained through her tears that an armorer she admired had watched her try on the helm over and over all Pennsic, and here in the last days, had decided to give her the helm since she wears fighting favors and medallions and clearly is an active youth fighter. The helm itself was worth several hundred dollars, an amazing and magical and loving gift. Just finding a helm to fit her was itself amazing, let alone having the armorer give it for free! My daughter didn't know if she should accept such an expensive gift, but all adults there and in our barony camp reassured her that yes, giving away is part of the SCA and part of Pennsic. My daughter, the one who hung in there never winning year after year, was getting another kind of recognition for her love of boffer fighting. That in and of itself was a day of magic, and I have written about that kind of Pennsic magic elsewhere.

And so to this year. Returning to Pennsic with her new helm ready for fighting (all helms have to be padded and inspected for head safety so that blows to the head won't cause brain injury - this isn't football), my daughter was in her last year as a youth fighter. For the first time she didn't make every single fight practice, but still participated in tourneys and joined her friends on the battlefield. There she met a mom with a teen son in the sport, whose son actually has been a grand friend and supporter of my girl in the world of mostly-boys fighting. The mom was searching for a new helm - hard to find for many women, since the armorers mostly make their wares for men. Like my daughter, she needed a small helm for a small head. And of course my daughter had a helm to sale. By the end of Pennsic, this mom decided to buy my daughter's helm, at a price she could afford, and which will help my daughter with her own fighting costs. My daughter made a special price for the mom, who knew others were interested and willing to pay more. And my daughter knew how hard it is to find a small helm and wanted to make a price to help this mother.

And when the sale was complete, the mom herself broke down and cried - she had never thought she could find a helm that would fit her or that she could afford one if she did. For the second year in a row, a woman fighter, who like my daughter may never be the top champion or even that successful in tourneys, was herself finding a way to be honored as a boffer fighter. My daughter was so happy she was able to pass on the helm magic that she herself experienced. And all of us watching were in tears as well. Anyone who has ever been an underdog, worked their butt off with no hope of recognition, or ever felt that they did something they loved just out of love and never any hope of winning will understand all these tears. That is what this was.

For me the magic was eye opening. I theoretically get it when adult women tell me they love fighting in the SCA and bopping men on the head. Our just retired Baroness is one of the best fighters in our kingdom, male or female, and every kid in our Barony is so gobsmackingly proud of her. However much I dislike the drunken men running around Pennsic with pole arms, I have learned to love and respect the women who fight and challenge sex role stereotyping as well as they assert that chivalry is for women, too.

Yet the incredible reaction of my daughter and this friend's mom to their own metal helms, so much a part of chivalry and knighting, spoke to me of metal magic and Bridget. My Goddess of blacksmithing and healing is also a goddess of armorers and women knights in shiny helms. She is the goddess of girls and boys and men and women learning to take their blows, and she is the goddess of anyone willing to pass on magic. I had not seen helm magic before this Pennsic - I had seen adults teaching and leading youth as magic, and I had seen tremendous attention to crafting and art as magic, but now I realize helms are magic, too. Helms have meanings of power and art, prowess and healing. My daughter and the friend's mom both cried healing tears when given - nay, awarded, their helms. Ok, I still really hate boffer fighting. Yet I can see the healing and love there, too.

So that is helm magic. Bridget at work in mysterious ways. The Goddess at foot on a battlefield. As I continue my journey as a blacksmith, I find more and more ways Bridget the Goddess of blacksmithing, and patron saint of smiths in Christian traditions, lives as central to our lives. Next time you pull out a cooking pot that is stainless steel, think of my daughter and her helm. Or the next time you cook on cast iron think of the mom who bought my daughter's old helm. Metal magic, through Bridget, is all around us.

Our last day at Pennsic, the circle of helms became complete. Another mom with a fighting son asked my daughter if she had heard the story of the girl youth fighter who had gotten a free helm from an armorer? My daughter smilingly explained the story was true and she was that girl. My daughter's helm is becoming part of Pennsic magic, Pennsic myth, and helm myth. I know that everytime the story passes on, Bridget is smiling.