The One Ring: Signy Fire-hair

My monthly gaming group has just finished our campaign of The One Ring: Oaths of the Riddermark.

Signy Fire-hair
Shieldmaiden of Rohan (Wanderer calling)

TOR Signy_minis 2

Signy’s minis, mounted and unmounted, painted by our GM.

Signy had always wanted to be a Shieldmaiden. Her mother, Emma, had been a Shieldmaiden and was also a great storyteller. Signy’s strongest memories of her are sitting at her mother’s feet by the hearth while Emma sang of the great deeds of heroes and plaited Signy’s bright, coppery hair, while Signy looked up at her parents’ swords and spears glinting in the firelight over the hearth, or of sitting in front of her mother while riding, and the terrifying joy of leaping over fences at a gallop. Her mother’s death in childbirth left deep wounds in Signy’s heart, and from a young age Signy feared death by childbirth as the foe against whom even a Shieldmaiden could not prevail.

In time, her father took a second wife and after the birth of Signy’s half-brother, Signy was given the care of a newborn foal. The dappled-grey foal became young Signy’s obsession, and the girl even slept in the stables some nights. Signy devoted herself to Renna’s training and to learning swordplay from her father and his thanes.

Despite her father’s attempts to keep Signy from feeling like she and the memory of her mother had been replaced, Signy still felt alienated from her father’s ‘new’ family. Even worse, when she was eighteen, Signy overheard her stepmother say that Signy should become a good wife to one of her father’s thanes. Indignant and proud, Signy rode away from the homestead for Edoras and the King’s hall. She was of age now; she would bring renown to her own name based on her own valor.

In Edoras, Signy became one of Thengel King’s outriders, riders tasked not only with carrying messages, but also relied upon for their tirelessness and speed. Her service as an outrider sends her far across the fields of the Riddermark.

Then, one winter, something began attacking a series of homesteads in the West March, her friend Felwyn’s homestead among them. Signy, Felwyn, and their friend Ava go to investigate, joining with two Gondorians and a Dunlending in what becomes only the first of many adventures…

TOR campaign 3c

L-R: Ava, Felwyn, Signy (a.k.a. the ‘Valkyries’); Falcon, Boriel, Trevir

*

The One Ring: Oaths of the Riddermark is the third The One Ring campaign my group has played. It’s set in Rohan in Middle Earth at the beginning of Thengel’s reign (Theoden’s father; Theoden is king in The Two Towers). The premise is that Thengel has returned from exile to claim the throne after his father’s death and is now trying to fix the corruption, rivalries, and distrust his father had created during the previous reign. The adventuring party here is tasked with helping the king unify various parts of the kingdom.

It’s a cool premise and makes sense for the lore of the world, but one I sometimes found frustrating as a player because I had built an archetypal Anglo-Saxon hero when I made Signy. Yes, she was skilled in Song and Awe, but not in Inspire or Courtesy — and it was Courtesy we needed the most. The success of several of our missions was determined by if they didn’t devolve into fighting, and I had built a character who had wanted to win glory and renown by fighting. I often felt like I had the “wrong” character for this campaign — except that I didn’t, because I had built a character that was “right” for this particular culture.* There seemed to be a disconnect between what the writers of the campaign wanted and the setting. I don’t know how much the other players felt this incongruence; however, I’m always going to notice medieval-related things more than the others, considering that I am the medievalist at the table. (The GM is a history teacher, but the medieval period is my speciality.)

TOR_Rohan_campaign

Fortunately, we weren’t all stereotypical Anglo-Saxon heroic characters: we had a smooth-talking Gondorian with us, and for a while a Dunlending to be a liaison with the other Dunlendings, and then this strange man from a place called Lake-town who claimed he’d seen a dragon (yeah, right), but who was also really good at talking to people. If we had all been Rohirrim though, maybe there would have been more fighting, because we’d have all botched the Courtesy rolls and not gotten along…

At any rate, Signy Fire-hair Orc-killer Kings-guard survived the campaign and did manage to win much renown during it, though perhaps not as much and not necessarily in the manner she had wanted. She may yet go on other adventures. We are returning to the north for our next campaign and picking up story threads (and some characters) we had left off with a previous campaign. What has been happening in Mirkwood and Wilderland while we’ve been riding in Rohan? I guess we’ll find out!


* Having two degrees in medieval literature, I think I’d have some idea of what Tolkien had in mind when using Anglo-Saxon source material for the Rohirrim…

Doomsday Book

Opening line: ‘Mr. Dunworthy opened the door to the laboratory and his spectacles promptly steamed up.’

Willis - Doomsday Book coverKivrin has always wanted to go to the Middle Ages. Fortunately for her, a history student at University of Oxford in 2054, time travel is possible, though still relatively new technology. When it is time for her to go, her tutor Mr. Dunworthy still holds misgivings about how her other tutor is running the ‘drop’ and whether Kivrin should be allowed to go at all. When the net technician collapses after sending Kivrin through, no one is able to confirm where or when Kivrin was sent to, and the only person who seems to care is Mr. Dunworthy. Oxford is put under quarantine; the Head of History is somewhere in Scotland; Balliol College is filled with detainees, including a group of American bell ringers and a student’s insufferable mother; Mr. Dunworthy has taken in his friend’s twelve-year-old grand-nephew while she takes charge of the situation in the hospital; it’s Christmas, and, as his secretary frequently informs him, the college is nearly out of lavatory paper. While Mr. Dunworthy tries to manage the confusion in the future, Kivrin arrives in the fourteenth century, and also collapses. She recovers, only to realize that she doesn’t know where she is or where the drop is for the rendezvous. Undeterred, Kivrin records her observations: of her hosts, the manor house, the village, the church, and the preparations for Christmas. She becomes enmeshed in the lives of Lady Eloise, her mother-in-law, and her two daughters, Rosemund and Agnes, and of the village priest, who believes Kivrin is a saint sent from heaven to help them in their hour of need. Kivrin thinks that finding the rendezvous before Lady Imeyne decides she’s a runaway nun and sends her off to the bishop is the worst of her troubles — until the first of them falls ill with the ‘blue sickness’, and Kivrin realizes exactly when she is.

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis is a detailed, fascinating, and devastating book. Willis’s attention to detail captures characters’ idiosyncrasies with wit and compassion, creating fully-developed characters. This is the second time I’ve read Doomsday Book (I actually listened to it as an audiobook this time around), and it is still as wonderful and terrible as the first time I read it. The quote from the New York Times on the cover calls the novel a ‘tour de force’, and it really is. The first three-quarters of the novel are about the daily lives of Kivrin and Mr. Dunworthy in their parallel timelines; there are difficulties, but they seem manageable at the time. And then people start dying, and it doesn’t stop.

Continue reading

Waking up

There’s nothing like a conference to get your academic brain working again. Ever since I started teaching at my university, I’ve had a bit of impostor syndrome. Everyone called me Dr. C., but I wasn’t doing what for years had defined my academic life. Instead of immersing myself in medieval research, I was teaching grammar and rhetoric to students who have trouble understanding what “criteria” were or the difference between summary and analysis. Although it appears that I am succeeding as a composition instructor, I still haven’t felt like I’m really being an academic.

Enter the Texas Medieval Association conference. The president of TEMA (and convener of the conference) suggested that I present a paper based on my PhD research as an introduction to this new network of colleagues, which I am. I’m presenting an updated version of the Avalon paper I presented at the International Arthurian Society — British Branch conference last year. Rereading my Avalon chapter was like drinking a fine red wine after six weeks of my students’ essays. I’d finally had enough distance to see that my supervisors and examiners were right: I can write damn good prose.

My paper isn’t until the last session tomorrow afternoon, but that hasn’t kept me from mingling with colleagues. The first person came up to me after I asked a question during a panel’s Q&A. Five years of attending conferences in the UK, and I was never able to get a question in during the Q&A sessions (though I did talk to many people during the tea breaks) — and at the first session at the first American academic conference I attend, I ask a question, with a follow-up question. I surprised even myself. Perhaps it was the environment — Americans are known for being more extroverted than the British, and this is evident at conferences — and perhaps it was because the paper dovetailed with my own. But I also think that teaching outside of my field and making a place for myself in a new institution’s department has given me the confidence to speak out publicly in academic settings. I spend at least nine hours a week speaking in front of groups of twenty after all.

I’ve started to settle into a rhythm with teaching and I hope that by doing so I can begin to carve time out for my own research. This conference has woken up the research part of my brain and I have a list of books and articles that I’m itching to read.

 

Deor

While going through some papers in my office this week, I came across a print out of the Old English poem Deor, which we read in the Medieval Reading Group last year. The poem in Old English is beautiful with its rhythm and alliteration, which, unfortunately, a Modern English translation can only hint at.

The poem tells of several different episodes from legend and history in which individuals met disaster, and the final stanza touches on the poet’s own troubles. Each stanza closes with the refrain: Þæs ofereode,  |   þisses swa mæg.’ That passed away, and so may this from me.

You can read the poem online (both in Old and Modern English): here. It’s a slightly different translation from the one I have printed out from the reading group.

The anxious, grieving man, deprived of joy,
Lives with a darkened mind; it seems to him
His share of sorrows will be everlasting;
But he can think that in this world wise God
Brings change continually: to many a man
He offers grace, assured prosperity.
But others he assigns a share of woe.
About my own plight now I wish to speak:
Once I was a minstrel of the Heodenings,
Dear to my patron, and my name was Deor.
I held for many years a fine position
And loyal lord, until Heorrenda now,
That skilful poet, has received my lands,
Which once my lord and master gave to me.
That passed away, and so may this from me.

Rumour has it that a number of years ago the School of English was experiencing some upheaval, and that during this time faculty were known to recite the refrain of this poem: Þæs ofereode,  |   þisses swa mæg. It’s not a bad motto.

Forgiveness in ‘Melusine’

One of my favourite scenes from the Middle English Melusine comes just after Raymondin has been convinced by his brother to break the promise he made to his wife to never see her on Saturdays. Melusine has been cursed to turn into a half-serpent on Saturdays and she can only attain salvation if her husband agrees to never see her or to denounce her in public.

Up until this time she has been a model of virtue, overseeing their lands with justice, supporting the Christian community by building churches and monasteries, and raising their ten sons well. But one Saturday, Raymondin’s brother passes on a rumour that Melusine is having an affair and in a fit of jealousy Raymondin goes to see her. He makes a hole in the door to her chamber and sees her in the bath, serpent tail and all.

What do you expect at this point? Shock? Horror? Revulsion? But no, Raymondin is instead immediately struck with remorse. He banishes his brother from the castle for causing him to betray his wife, and then laments, ‘Alas, Melusine, of whom all the world spake well, now have I lost you for ever. Now have I found the end of my Joy… Farewell all my joy, all my comfort, and all my hope.’ He is so distraught that he spends the night in anxious grief.

And yet, Melusine returns to him at dawn on Sunday as usual. She knows he has seen her, but she knows also his remorse and repentance. When she gets into bed he sighs with ‘great suffering of heart’. Melusine holds him and asks, ‘My lord, what aileth you, are you sick?’ and then comforts him, saying, ‘Worry not, for if it please God you shall soon be whole.’

Raymondin answers, ‘By my faith, sweet love, I feel much better for your coming.’ You can almost hear the relief in his voice.

You might not think love is rare in medieval romance, and it isn’t, but it is unusual to see it in married couples. Medieval romance tends to focus on the lovers before they get married, rather than afterward, and often the woman in the couple is already in a loveless marriage. In Middle English romance the married couples who stand out who are still in love with each other are Sir Orfeo and Heurodis (in Sir Orfeo) and Melusine and Raymondin (in Melusine). Rarer still is the level of tenderness seen here in Melusine, both here and later when the curse takes Melusine away from her family. After Melusine has been cursed to stay in the form of a dragon until Judgement Day, Raymondin retreats to a hermitage, where he spends the rest of his days praying for Melusine’s salvation.

Medieval Meander

Today I led a walking tour of medieval St Andrews. We started at the museum where I work and then for 1.5 hours we went to the castle, St Mary on the Rock, cathedral, Dean’s Court, Queen Mary’s House, Blackfriars, and many other sites of medieval importance that are still standing in our town. The group consisted of about twenty people, most of them retired age or older, and we had beautiful weather. Though nervous, I had a lot of fun.

About to give my talk on the cathedral. (Photo courtesy of Lola.)

About to give my talk about the cathedral. (Photo courtesy of Lola.)

Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves: several people kept vying for a place next to me as we walked from place to place, asking questions, others still thanked me for an interesting tour, and my informer in the group told me that people talked about the sites I was pointing out as we walked from one place to another. All in all, I would say it was a success. I might even do it again.