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Tuesday, July 20, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Fellowship of the armor: Chivalrous times beckon modern-day knights

By J.J. Jensen
Seattle Times staff reporter

MARK HARRISON / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Tamara Walling practices with her husband, Mark Walling. They are members of the Seattle Knights, a Medieval fighting and reenactment troupe.
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On most days, the cafeteria at the Seattle Armory is just a dark, cavernous room, with a concrete floor, stacks of plastic chairs and rows of lunch tables.

Wednesday nights it's a war zone, a battlefield from the Renaissance or Middle Ages, with dozens of sweaty, grunting knights, Vikings and other warriors swinging swords and axes.

Members of the Seattle Knights, a Medieval fighting and reenactment troupe that meets here most Wednesday nights to learn historical fighting techniques, are among several hundred men and women in the region who research and re-create fighting and life in pre-17th century Europe. Many of them concoct personas and mentally transport themselves to made-up realms from that period.

"Most members are people bored with reality," said Seattle Knights director Dameon Willich, a shaggy-haired artist from Issaquah in his early 50s who also goes by Ironwolfe, a fierce Russian warrior from the late 1400s. "A large amount of the people are tired of sitting behind a desk doing absolutely nothing that gives them any kind of sense of accomplishment."

Are they weird? Not any more extreme than, say, a Seahawks fan who paints his face and screams into the TV cameras, members say. And their hobby teaches lessons and requires physical activity.

In Seattle, three popular reenactment groups, the Knights, Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) and Academia della Spada, all happen to meet on Wednesday nights. The groups differ in philosophies, but most members share an interest in learning about weapons and combat. About an equal number of men and women participate in the groups.

The Knights, founded in 1991 by Willich, hail from Tir na n'Og, or "the fairy land," and are the group most likely to be seen at Renaissance fairs such as next month's Washington Renaissance Fantasy Faire in Gig Harbor, or the ongoing Camlann Medieval Village in Carnation.

Choreographed shows

The group's steel fights and jousting are choreographed, akin to big-time wrestling, and the entertainers, who also perform at parties, schools and libraries, can earn up to $200 each for a performance.

MARK HARRISON / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Doug Herring, a Knight who goes by Belgermir, "a big, likable, dumb barbarian," said he got hooked on fantasy as a kid thanks to "Star Trek."
The SCA, which has groups around the world, began in 1966 in Berkeley, Calif., as a theme party for some science-fiction fans. It now has some 30,000 members. Seventeen Kingdoms, or regions, make up the Knowne World of the SCA. Washington lies within the Kingdom of An Tir; Seattle within the Barony of Madrone.

While the SCA focuses on period cooking, heraldry, crafting and the like, fighting is the big draw for many members.

Unlike the Knights, SCA fights are full-contact donnybrooks with weapons made from rattan, a wood similar to steel in weight. SCA rules dictate where opponents can be hit and what type of protection is needed. Entire families — kids and all — will take on personas in the SCA, and attend weekend campouts and reenactments.

Academia della Spada began as an offshoot of the SCA.

Cecil Longino, 34, a longtime fencer and former SCA member, started the group in 1998 for fencers more interested in studying techniques. Academia della Spada encourages period clothing to enhance the experience but steers clear of the fantasy aspect, Longino said.

A membership in the SCA is $35 a year, while lessons in the Knights and Academia della Spada range from $60 to $300.

"Misfits ... and engineers"

Willich jokingly calls his members "a lot of misfits, computer geeks and engineers," but members in each group come from diverse backgrounds with myriad reasons for joining.

MARK HARRISON / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Karl Hohnstein delivers a punishing kick to Justin Speyer. Hohnstein said he was "in shock" the first time he saw Seattle Knights in action. "My first impression was, 'Oh my God, they're wielding swords.' "
Some, like Doug Herring, 51, a Knight who goes by Belgermir, "a big, likable, dumb barbarian," got hooked on fantasy as a kid courtesy of the original "Star Trek."

Deborah Fisher, 52, a writer from Bellevue, joined the Knights last year. "I've always had a tendency that when I do something, I do it strategically," she said. "This is the first time I've done something detached from rhyme or reason and is totally for fun."

Karl Hohnstein, a 24-year-old law student who's known as Diarmuid, "an evil scumbag," in the Knights, has always been fascinated with Medieval armor and blades. Aware of his interest, a buddy took a skeptical Hohnstein to a practice a few years ago.

"My first impression was, 'Oh my God, they're wielding swords.' I was in shock," said Hohnstein, clad in his 80-pound suit of armor, his brow a spigot of sweat after a practice.

"Since then, I've had the utmost respect for the troupe and what they go through."

Tough misfits, engineers

Participation isn't for the faint of heart, members in the groups warn.

Practicing in a suit of armor, 20-pound coat of plates or 30-pound chain-mail shirt, can be grueling.

And then there's the 14-pound steel helmets and other war hats, leg plates and leather boots. Swords, made of steel or rattan, are all about four feet long and three pounds. Shields can be another 10 pounds.

"The reality is it's pretty hard work. It takes initiative and drive," said the SCA's Sir Martin le Harpur, modernly known as Martin Caspe-Detzer, an engineer from Fall City.

Said Hohnstein of the Knights: "You either have to love it or be nuts ... Most of us are both."

It also takes some serious coin to participate. Getting outfitted can cost almost $2,000, although home-made armor can be cheaper.

Once members get involved in the groups, though, they say the cost is worth it. Friendships and opportunity for escapism are some of the best results.

"I get the sense that if something were to happen to me or someone in the company in their personal life, you would have this really tight community around you supporting you in anyway they could," said Fisher.

"There's a feeling of support and a very high level of acceptance. You could say we're all a little weird, but there's a lot more acceptance of diversity in a group like this."

At an SCA fight practice at the 65th Street Northeast park-and-ride, Elizabeth Crockett, 35, sat amid a sea of Chevy Novas and Ford Tauruses, watching her husband, Jack. She said Middle Ages values such as honor, chivalry and respect carry over into everyday life.

"It becomes a part of you and a way of life," she said. "You tend to find you become more polite to people. Ideals like that are never bad."

Nearby, Mandy Zabohne, 23, and Breona Gutschmidt, 24, quizzically stopped to watch the SCA practice.

"It's definitely fascinating," Zabohne said. "It's nice to see weird things."

J.J. Jensen: 425-745-7809 or jjensen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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