I’ve no idea how many times I’ve been asked about what I do most every summer. Trying to explain the Pennsic War to someone who has never been there, let alone someone without any experience with the SCA, is nigh-impossible. It’s a fool’s errand, but one I’ve taken on more times than I could possibly count. Most often it just sounds like a drunken bender when I try to explain why I go to Pennsic.
Here’s another attempt. It’s a tale of two men, and the magic spell they’ve placed upon me year after year.
There’s a man at the War who goes by the name of Gabriel. Until recently, he made his trade as a soldier in the world outside. During my first visit he wasn’t there, but serving his country. I heard tales of him, many of which strained credibility.
Close your eyes. Imagine, if you will, a tent city in a forest. Though there are common camping tents and a few trailers, at night there are only torches to see by, and you feel as though you’re in another world. As you wander the trails between camps you come across a tavern, fully lit, with trestle tables and a brass-railed bar. It’s outdoors, but set beneath a large canopy to keep off any inconvenient showers. It is separated from the road only by a rope strung between stakes, but still has an entryway set up, and that is crossed by a red velvet rope.
There’s a smiling gentleman in kilt and tam with a pair of sandals on his feet who will make a joke with you if you stop. If you’re of his acquaintance, are a pretty lass (or are lucky enough to have a pretty lass on your arm), can make a quip that makes him laugh, or simply ask, he’ll invite you into Gabriel’s Landing.
There will be people laughing. Someone, or just as likely several someones, will be expounding at length and making claims that seem dubious at least. They stand in groups or sit on benches at the long tables. They may sit around a fire under the open sky. The best part we’ll get to shortly.
Behind the bar is a row of shelves filled with booze. Liquor of every sort is visible, but there’s a special emphasis on whiskeys. Below are several ice boxes filled with various beers. Between the bar and those shelves is a man with bright eyes lighting a cigar off a torch. He draws a puff of smoke, lets go, and with a wide grin exclaims more than asks, “Eeeeey! Welcome! What’ll ye have?” This is Gabriel. The Messenger.
As one might guess, Gabriel’s Landing is named for the man himself. They’re what would be considered a smallish camp at the War. They gathered together under their “leader” to offer hospitality. And they do it well. These men and women build the bar I inadequately described above in the middle of the woods. They spend their own money stocking it, and not with swill. They supply a roaring fire to sit around if the air is chill. They open up their camp several evenings of the War to anyone and everyone, asking only that you share in their hospitality in good cheer. And they’ll keep serving drinks until the sun is coming up. Make no mistake, there is a tip jar on the bar, and they are more than happy to take donations to their cause. But I’ve never seen or heard of anyone being turned away for being unable to drop cash into it.
Now, the best part, which I made mention of earlier — the music. Someone will be singing. If you’re lucky, or you know when to be there, it will be someone with Talent. It might even be the second man I made reference to in my opening.
Michael Kelly is a Canadian the other 50 weeks of the year, but we won’t hold that against him. His annual journey to Pennsic is nearly 3,000 miles. He’s a man with a gift; one of those rare voices that needn’t be raised to quiet a room. Or even a group of rowdy drunks in the woods. Spare, and almost-but-not-quite what some might call slight, conversations will stop when he walks in with a reserved smile and opens his guitar case. He’ll sip Irish whiskey or a Guinness between tunes. Some are modern, more are old, a few border ancient, and some are his own. You will see a few ladies, more if you’re paying attention, swooning. Some will barely be old enough to be served a drink. I’ve seen it from at least one with steel gray hair.
If you’re steadfast, and make it to the end of the night, Gabriel and Michael create real, true magic. The host will call that the night is coming to an end, no matter that the sun is coming up so it’s technically morning. I’ve seen it happen for dozens and barely more than a handful. From behind the bar he’ll carry a cup of silver. More a bowl, really, with two handles decorated with knotwork. He’ll fill it with whiskey. This is the quaich.
The quaich will be passed amongst all present until everyone has drank and the whiskey is gone, Gabriel will explain. We drink to those present, those who couldn’t join us, and those we’ve lost. Michael will pluck his guitar, and he will begin to sing A Health to the Company. As the chorus comes round, every voice will sing. Some in quietude and sadly. Others heartily with wide smiles.
“So here’s a health to the company and one to my lass
Let us drink and be merry all out of one glass
Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain
For we may or might never all meet here again”
I’ve seen tears, particularly when sung the last night Gabriel plays host before War’s end. People, some strangers, will hold hands. Arms go ’round shoulders. Couples hold close. Gabriel’s quaich turns bottled whiskey to a potion. Michael’s voice makes of that song a spell. Combined, it’s a powerful thing. While I am a skeptic to my very bones, keeping no truck with any faith I’ve found, I can describe the experience as nothing other than magical.
All of us who’ve been there, every single one I’ve ever spoken to, wishes for few things more than to fall under that spell, woven of the grace of these two men. That’s why I go to War.
If you’re interested, Michael Kelly has a YouTube channel, though he hasn’t touched it in a while. Though it isn’t the same when recorded and played through a set of speakers, go have a listen.