Context is Everything

Iceland: it’s cold

This past weekend, I participated in the King & Queen’s Bardic Championship. In the SCA, the King and Queen often select Champions of various disciplines – to serve as sources of inspiration for the populace, and to instruct people in and generally elevate their particular field. These are positions of great honor and prestige, and people work very, very hard to achieve them.

I chose to do an in-persona piece; that is, I performed as though I was actually Magnus hvalmagi, and not Peter Olsen telling you a story that Magnus may have plausibly known. I let the character speak for himself, and showed some of his personality. The challenge was to tell Their Majesties what inspired you; I responded with some lines about the cold.

This, in and of itself, was kind of an interesting piece. I wasn’t playing Magnus telling you a story, nor Magnus reciting some poetry that he wrote. No, I was trying to speak as Magnus would have spoken, to respond as though I was he and he is answering your question. Getting into his head, or the head that I imagine he has. Being the character as opposed to being in character.

Every now and again, I ask myself why I like to get dressed up and do this whole “living history” thing. Why do I want to make Magnus come to life? Why do I want to perform ancient pieces of poetry like they’re really super relevant and you should care about them a lot?

The answer, I think, lies with the act of creating context.

Way more interesting, useful, and awesome than the actual book

Sure, we can sit down, read a book, and intellectually grasp its points – but that doesn’t mean we grok those points. We can translate that intellectual understanding to a more functional form – extrapolate a real-world application from sterile, controlled laboratory experiments – but when we do that, we throw our ideas against heretofore untested variables. Invariably, it breaks somewhere, because we neglected to implement the right controls. We didn’t synthesize the ideas in the right context – and even most intellectual attempts to do so will fail at some level.

But when we attempt to make a person come to life, to make a piece come to life – we are really trying to create its proper context.  I never enjoyed Beowulf when I was in school, but when I performed it? Magic. People around me were telling me about this awesome guy who did these awesome things and I should care because he was so awesome and now he’s dead and aren’t we screwed?

When we create a historical backdrop – speaking like an ancient person, wearing their clothes, conducting ourselves in a manner in which they would have – we actively destroy the modern context that has shaped the audience and supplant it with our own interpretation of that work’s context. Sure, we’re often warping or assuming some aspects of the historical background – but the point is in the act of re-shaping. Putting the audience in a different mindset. Re-setting their expectations. We build a new emotional connection between ourselves, the audience, and the material – and so people invest themselves more heavily in the story. They want to understand the piece, and so it carries a much greater impact.

It’s a lot like playing D&D or any other RPG – we all buy in to the same world, and then tell stories that (while silly outside of that world) have a great impact for us within that world.

It’s like LARPing, only way nerdier

A lot of “legitimate academics” scoff at what the SCA does, and rightly so in some cases. We’re not about 100% accuracy – nobody wants to die of the plague, and women really don’t want to be property. That will invariably create a situation where we disregard fact in favor of colorful fiction.

That doesn’t de-value the truly legitimate academic research that many do – and that doesn’t invalidate the principle of what we do on the whole.

I may have to sacrifice some accuracy in order to build a bridge between my audience and my material, but I do so to create a deeper level of understanding of the material in question. To help the audience move from knowing to understanding. Once they’ve made that jump, we can get the facts straight.

It is a thing that I think more people should try out. Who knows – you might just learn something. I sure did.


One comment on “Context is Everything

  1. Thank you, Peter. That’s a very good answer to the question of why & how we get ourselves into a more accurate mind-frame. It is what we all should aim for, I believe. Many of us will fail to achieve what you have achieved, but the journey (and understanding it on a deeper level) is the destination.

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