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Smaller tournaments and skirmishes occur nearly every weekend, and on weeknights practices are held in several Valley parks. "In this kingdom," says Tempe resident Frank Eager, "you can fight just about every night of the week.
"SCA members point out that fighting is not the sole focus of what they do--there's "court" and its elaborate rituals, costume work, historical research, medieval arts such as heraldry and brewing, and the general partying of the feast. But it's fighting that attracts onlookers, and it's fighting that tends to bring in new members.
Unlike other forms of exercise, slaying knights with rattan weapons isn't the kind of activity that's likely to score points at the office. So some SCA members choose to be quiet about their involvement, maintaining a fairly strict division between their workaday lives and their chivalric identities.
Under the lights of Encanto Park, the knights, squires, merchants and ladies come out and put away their "mundane" selves.
If fighters ignore the people who show up to gawk, it's because for many of them the fantasy becomes so palpable that the 20th century and its denizens, if only for a brief moment, cease to exist.
Matthew Richardson became King of Arizona, Utah, Montana and parts of Idaho, Colorado and Wyoming in an elaborate ceremony held at South McClintock Baptist Church on September 2. Actually, the kingdom goes by the name of "Atenveldt," and it's one of 11 that divide up the United States.
Four months earlier, Richardson had won a tournament in Missoula, Montana, which is the SCA's way of selecting its prospective monarchs. He first heard of the SCA 21 years ago when he read about it in his Tucson high school's newspaper and realized that it was exactly what he wanted to do.
Even then, at age 14, he dreamed of being king one day.
Looking back over his ascent, Richardson is particularly satisfied at the historically accurate progression of his career. A squire at 14, he was made a knight at 21, and became Prince of the Sun (Arizona's principality) at 27.
After two decades of fighting, Richardson had finally reached Atenveldt's ultimate throne at the age of 35. The black-robed king strode majestically up the church's aisle with his queen--his real-life girlfriend, Kathy Callahan--as five musicians struck up a medieval arrangement of Darth Vader's theme song.
Richardson did not become king without some controversy.
Central to the SCA way of life and method of determining battle is the concept of honor. It's something that permeates the SCA from the meanest chore to the most r rarefied court procedure.
But when all that separates a fighter and the throne is a few more rounds in the crown tourney, the temptation to wave off an opponent's hit can be great.
Richardson's predecessor decided at the Montana tournament that the temptation had gotten out of hand.
"Rhino-hides, they're called," says Richardson, remembering the two fighters who had finished ahead of him in the crown tournament. "Rhino-hides are guys you can't hit hard enough."
In a rare move, the reigning king disqualified the two top finishers, effectively awarding Richardson the crown.
"Your personal honor has to outweigh your desire to wear the hat," he says. "What makes the victory better for me is knowing that I lasted that long and my honor was still intact."
Richardson inherits a realm of 1,800 members, about 600 of whom live in the Phoenix area. Known to his subjects by the imposing name of Mathghamhain (pronounced "Mayen"), Richardson works for KUTP, Channel 45, where he oversees maintenance of equipment.
Like most serious SCA members, he has no trouble separating the two halves of his life. "There are people who get so involved in it that they lose track of the modern world," he admits. "We've had a few people like that, but they generally go away."
Still, boundaries do blur. His subordinates recognize him as king, even when he's not wearing his crown.
"It's kind of strange to be bowed to in Mega Foods," he says.
It all started as a going-away party.
Friends of Diana Paxon, a recent college grad who had majored in medieval history, wanted to give her an appropriate sendoff before she began her stint with the Peace Corps. So they dressed up as knights and noblewomen, held a tournament at arms and started a new society.
Starting new societies was the thing to do in Berkeley in 1966.
"Afterwards," says Lee Forgue, a member of the SCA board of directors, "the whole party walked down Telegraph Avenue protesting the 20th century."
"That's a Berkeley tradition, you know," she says. "If you're going to start any kind of revolution, you have to walk down Telegraph Avenue."
The fledgling movement got its name a few months later when it reserved a park for an event. That meant filling in a form with the name of the organization, so Marion Zimmer Bradley, an original member who would go on to fame as a science fiction writer, came up with "Society for Creative Anachronism" on the spot.
Three decades later, 26,000 dues-paying members are scattered throughout the "known world," as it's called. The SCA's popularity among U.S. servicemen and women has helped spread it overseas.