Frist written on 27 October 2019 09:16
Yesterday I tried, and failed (technical difficulties), to witness the live-streaming from the West Kingdom of the Mists Bardic Competition (which I know happened, as a friend on mine in California was able to make the connection work on her computer). However, while trying to connect I was remembering the various Mist Bardic Competitions that I attended in my years living in the West, and comparing and contrasting that event with the Norrskensbard competition that we do here in Norra Nordmark each autumn. When I first started the Norrskensbard competition it was heavily influenced by the Mists Bardic event, but wound up having some very key differences to make it work for a very different place.
So, first of all, what is the Mists Bardic Competition? It is, as they will happily tell you, not really a competition, but a job interview. The Principality of the Mists, in the Kingdom of the West, is the oldest Principality in the SCA. Every year they hold a competition to choose the bard for the principality. The bard gets to wear a pretty cloak decorated with themes from the Principality heraldry, and is obliged to spend the year as a working bard–performing in court, encouraging the bardic arts at events, writing songs in praise of the people doing good works in the Kingdom, writing songs of satire at the command of the Prince and/or Princess pointing out the flaws in Their enemies, writing songs to inspire the fighters in the Principality tournament, writing songs in praise of the Prince and Princess, and anything else they can think of that sounds fun and appropriate to the position. After their year as Bard they become a member of the Order of the Golden Branch (which order, according to the West Kingdom Order of Precedence, has been around since 1982, which means that either before then they didn’t have a Bard of the Mists, or past bards didn’t get a title that went into the OP).
The competition itself is run as a day event with a feast. The site opens for setup on a Saturday morning in October, and the first course of the feast itself is generally served around noon, or perhaps 13:00. After everyone has had a chance to eat some of the first course the first round of the competition begins, with each entrant performing in turn. After they have all had a chance to perform the Prince and Princess, their Heirs, and all of the members of the Order of the Golden Branch on site leave the room to discuss their reactions to the performances from that round. While they are gone everyone else is free to enjoy themselves. Perhaps there will be some dancing, perhaps there will be some board games, perhaps there will be some bards on site who are not (yet) members of the Order of the Golden Branch, nor entered in today’s competition, and they will offer a bit of additional entertainment. After the judges have returned the next round of feast is served, followed by the next round of the contest, the next round of discussion by the judges, more dancing, games, or other entertainment. This cycle repeats through five full rounds. The competition rounds are typically:
The Three Words Out of a Hat round is usually quite popular, with random audience members (and members of the Order of the Golden Branch) also choosing to participate in this round. After each entrant performs their Three Words piece the audience will try to guess what three words they drew.
After the final round (and desert) the Prince and Princess and other judges go to the next room to discus the results and select the winner. After their return their Hugenesses hold court, give awards, make announcements, and, most importantly, announce the winner. After court there is a little time for people to congratulate the winner and then the hall is cleaned up and everyone heads home (or, in some cases, to an “after-revel”. This year the event announcement stated that the hall would close at 21:00. Note that the new Bard of the Mists is not invested on the same day that they win—that ceremony happens a couple of weeks later, at the same event as the Investiture of the next Prince and Princess of the Mists, where the incoming Bard of the Mists will perform their step-up piece, written special for the occasion. (The outgoing Bard of the Mists will also perform their step-down piece, as well as being admitted to the Order of the Golden Branch).
So, what, then is the Norrskensbard competition? It is a contest I started five years ago, the first time I ran Frostheim’s annual Norrskensfesten event. Since Nordmark is a very different place from the Mists, and Norrskensfest is an event that has a long history and many traditions, I chose to make our bardic competition a bit different from the way they do it in the Mists. The first change is, of course, that our event keeps to the Nordmark tradition of having indoor events take place over the full weekend, with site opening on Friday and closing on Sunday, and people sleeping on site (or staying awake all night, as they prefer). Even so, I knew that the event would be busy with all of the other activities that we wanted to do in addition to the bardic contest (such as the heavy fighting tournament, the dancing, and the hot tub). Therefore, I opted to go with only four rounds of contest, so that there would be time for other important parts of the event. I choose to drop the “Masterwork” round, but I kept the other categories the same, because I knew that they work well together.
Norra Nordmark (defined as the four northern most branches of Nordmark (from south to north: Gyllengran, Uma, Reengarda, and Frostheim) isn’t a group with its very own set of royals (we have to share them with the southern parts of the Principality), and the Prince and Princess can’t always make it to our events. Therefore, we decided that our Bard will belong to the people in these branches, rather than working directly for the Prince and Princess. Likewise, we northern branches don’t have the authority to create an Order which gets listed in the Order of Precedence for the Kingdom, so we decided not to copy the ”set of official judges” aspect of the Mist’s example.
Lacking Royals and a suite of former Norrskensbards, on that first occasion for the Norrskensbard competition I decided that the logical thing to do to judge the competition is to do the Swedish thing, and let everyone vote. Therefore I bought a bunch of dried beans and painted them for the various rounds (gold = round 1, silver = round 2, blue = round three, and white = round 4). After each round of food (I kept the tradition of alternating food and competition rounds) and bardic competition everyone on site has the chance to drop one bean into the jar of the candidate whose performance best pleased them that round. This worked very well (though often people complain that one bean isn’t enough, they would prefer to vote for more than one person each round), so we have kept that format ever since. I think it helps keep the audience engaged, knowing that they will have to vote afterwards.
Since the Bard of the Mists gets a cloak to wear for the year, we decided to do one for our bard, too. However, whilst the Mists Bard wears a light-weight linen (or cotton?) suitable to wear during warm California weather, decorated with the field division from their Principality’s coat of arms and a tree with golden branches, our bard has a heavy wool cloak, appliqued (also in wool) with a period depiction of the Norrsken (northern lights), and a period medieval instrument that looks much like the nyckelharpa that is still played in Sweden.
This year’s Norrskensbard competition was held in the shire of Umeå, at their annual Höstdansen (the autumn dance) event. This means that we started Saturday morning with a dance workshop, then had round one of the competition in conjunction with lunch, followed by another dance workshop, followed by round two with afternoon’s fika. Rounds 3 and 4 plus the Princess’s court alternated with rounds of the banquette. There were six of us who entered this year. Myself and Kjartan from Frostheim, my apprentice Astrid from Reengarda, my minion Wilhelm and former Norrskensbard Gerdis, both from Uma, and, Moa, visiting from Attemark. We had decided already from the first year that we would open the competition to people who live outside of Norra Nordmark, on the condition that if they win they need to travel back up for some of our events to encourage the bardic arts, write songs about what is happening up here, and generally serve as our bard.
This year’s competition was very stiff, but this year, for the first time, we entrants were not permitted to vote (the outgoing Bard decided that we wouldn’t), which meant that we didn’t have to decide who was best each round, but could just enjoy participating. At the end of the day, when we gathered to hear the results none of us had any idea which it would be, we knew that the votes could have gone any direction. The winner this year was Lord Wilhelm Marsson, who is already full of plans on how he will foster the bardic arts for the next year. If you see him at an event you will be in for a treat.