The town of Balingup is an idyllic southwest bush town, one in a string of Australiana-tinged communities in Western Australia—Kirup, Donnybrook, Bridgetown. Besides being home to a terrifying array of scarecrows, Balingup also plays host to a medieval fair, now in its 20th year.
Waking up bored and restless one Saturday, I grabbed a friend and drove the three hours from Fremantle to Balingup, in the hopes of seeing middle aged men dressed as Middle Age knights, knocking one another flat on their arses.
I was not disappointed.
I don't LARP (live action role-playing, for you knaves out there) and my knowledge of maces and flails doesn't go much farther than my strong desire not to be hit either. But I did not go to Balingup to mock people.
It's easy to see a group of adults dressed in high-fantasy gear and plate metal reenacting skirmishes from the War of the Roses and think, What a pack of emotionally stunted nitwits. And I probably would've been tempted to poke fun back when I was 18, and my jeans were as tight as my insecurities.
Now though, I think the line between four men who dress as their favourite characters from Baldur's Gate and wallop each other with foam swords, and four men who dress as their favourite post-punk heroin addicts from the 1980s and wallop their audiences with dreadful melodies and faux poverty-porn lyrics is very, very fine.
Hipsterdom is Geekdom by another name, m'lady.
And I've always been a geek. As a child I was a Tolkien nerd of the first degree, spending my Year Six lunch breaks pretending to enjoy and understand The Silmarillion. I know my Gil-galads from my Glorfindels.
The only thing keeping me from dressing up like Gimli and wailing on my drinking buddies with paper mâché swords is that, eventually, my hormones drove me to apply my geekish obsessions to more "acceptable" pursuits—R Crumb, Jean-Luc Godard, cunnilingus et al.
In short: judge not lest ye be judged.
Balingup Medieval Festival is like a Mrs Mac's pie version of Rivendell. Families draped in velvet, couples dressed like plague doctors stalking through the mud and mist on what was an eerily atmospheric day.
My mate and I were there to get a little bit tipsy on the mead, maybe ride a camel. Instead we found ourselves drifting unconsciously towards "the combat stage," half-expecting to kill some time watching people have at it with fake swords and foam armour—what we generally thought LARPing was.
But when my friend went to find ye olde portaloo, I was left standing ringside as three brawling barbarians mimed decapitation and ear-sawing.
"Dang," I thought. "This is hectic." They were wearing metal armour (which I later found out does indeed weigh a tonne) and yet were able to dart about like they were on K.
Suddenly, one guy hooked an axe behind another's foot and yanked, pulling him in a half-arc up and over and flat on his back, a horrible crunching crash. Everyone clapped. I turned to the five-year-old wizard next to me and asked, "Holy fuck is that dude ok?"
As it turns out LARPing is brutal. Admittedly, I'm the kind of guy who flinches if you pretend to throw an imaginary football at him, but even my sensitivities can't account for the sheer brutal terror I'd witnessed. And I'd been only watching what one man described to me as "the pussy round."
To calm my nerves, I thought it best to taste-test some fortified wine, and revel in the historical anachronism that is a court jester taking selfies with an iPhone. So many knights, wizards, and castellans wearing Speed Dealer sunglasses.
I was startled by how easily I slipped into my BS fantasy patois, complaining of Kobold raids on the outer village, bemoaning the stench of my fishwyf, and claiming that the court alchemist had successfully turned bog-iron into the finest mithril.
I was slipping…
I wanted to be a part of this.
Soon I'd created entire backstories for people who kept catching my eye. Morlock, King's Council and Court Wizard, became an obsession. The dude had the look of some stately necromancer so down pat that I couldn't imagine him not whispering advice into some lord's ear.
What was I saying? This was just a dude with a big beard in a monkish cassock. There was no Morlock.
I began to remember why I'd escaped the world of Warhammer and +2 battle axes. My hyper-mania equals hyper-imagination and, on some level, my brain already operates in a fluxing mode of high fantasy. These guys were just offering me something to project it onto.
The moment the real fighting started though, the fantasy died away.
Up until then, we'd only seen foam swords and a bevy of toddlers tear into each other in the mud. Now—with insane winds and raid cooked up in the pits of Isen itself (please help, I can't stop!)—we watched as two teams of 10 or so people in full plate metal and with real steel (if blunt) swords, axes, and spears, charged at each other.
The battle had a ferocity, an earnest fury that I—with my fondness of orthopaedic pillows and morning cartoons—was loathe to understand.
This head-rattling melee was not for the meek. Translated: this shit is insanely brutal!
I now totally understand what it means to be "aghast." These guys do not hold back—the speed and clang at which the swords ring off the chest plates, guys in their 60s spear-tackling each other, swinging around 5-foot of steel. One woman screamed like she was going to bite through her opponent's jugular.
It was like standing in an absurdist Renaissance painting: a small contingent of knights going at it, while roped off behind them people in FOX motorbike shirts and cargo shorts held up their Samsung Galaxies and cheered approvingly.
I caught the eyes of Morlock the Seer and, in his gaze, saw this was no joke.
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