Ethan Gilsdorf

Geek Pride

Inside the World of Live-Action Role-Playing

Leaving Mundania author slayed zombies, wore green face paint to report on LARP.

Posted Jun 20, 2012

[Guest blogger Lizzie Stark writes about her experiences researching Leaving Mundania: Inside the Transformative World of Live Action Role-Playing Games (Chicago Review Press) and also provides an excerpt from the new book]

I killed zombies, raised Cthulhu, and smeared green paint on my face as I reported for my new book, Leaving Mundania, an exploration of live action role-playing games, or larp.

At core, larp is an incredibly diverse medium—some larps offer sweeping Lord-of-the-Rings-style escapist adventure or postapocalyptic zombie horror while others have quieter artsy aims, asking participants to play out the end of romantic relationships in the real world, or to imagine living with AIDS in 1980s New York. Some larpers game as a vacation from the real world, while others like solving the puzzles that the game master lays out, or experiencing intense emotions. The larpers are as diverse as their chosen medium.

I met businessmen and women, attorneys, students, side-show freaks, filmmakers, police detectives, IT specialists, and many more over the course of my research, which spanned three years and two continents. I found it incredibly heartening that in this age of digital interaction, larpers take the time to meet one another face-to-face, and build community around the shared narrative they create.

Lizzie Stark, author of Leaving Mundania (photo credit: Anannya Dasgupta)

What follows is an excerpt from chapter 3 of my book, ‘Queen Elizabeth, Larper.’

When Queen Elizabeth arrived at Kenilworth castle on the evening of July 9, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, stopped his castle clock to illustrate that the queen’s greatness transcended the boundaries of time. A sibyl, a mythic prophetess, clad in white silk, met Her Majesty at the gate and recited a poem written for the occasion by the queen’s chaplain, predicting that her reign would be full of virtue, peace, and the love of the people. Passing along farther, she met an excessively tall porter, Hercules, also dressed in silk. At first he berated her for making so much noise with her retinue, but then he recognized her and humbly knelt to beg her pardon. He cued a band of trumpeters eight feet tall, probably papier-mâché figures with real trumpeters inside or behind them.

Beyond the trumpeters, the queen passed by the Kenilworth castle lake, where the Arthurian Lady of the Lake, accompanied by two nymphs—all in silk, of course—appeared to glide over the water to her, conveyed by a moveable island lit by torches. When Elizabeth finally made it into the castle, she was greeted by decorative posts left as gifts by seven mythic gods. A small boy explained the significance of the gifts in poetry composed for the occasion. 

Then the entertainments really got serious, with fireworks, hunting, bear baiting, acrobats, fake jousts, and plays, with figures from folklore and myth periodically popping out of the shrubbery to praise the queen. On July 10, for example, the queen encountered a folkloric Savage Man on her way back from hunting. The Savage Man was played by poet George Gascoigne, who was responsible for much of the verse recited during the entertainment. He arrived “with an oken plant pluct up by the roots in hiz hande, him self forgrone all in moss and Ivy,” according to a letter about the event that the merchantadventurer Robert Laneham wrote. The Savage Man was talking to Echo, the figure from Greek mythology, about the events at the castle since the queen had come to visit. Eventually, the figures recognized the queen’s presence, knelt, and humbly praised her. 

It got even larpier. The following Monday, as the queen returned again from hunting, she encountered the sea-god Triton as she passed over the pool that lined one side of the castle. He swam up to her in a merman costume and explained, in verse composed for the occasion, of course, that the Lady of the Lake had been imprisoned in the lake by Sir Bruce, who was trying to rape her in order to avenge his cousin Merlin, whom the Lady of the Lake encased in rock in punishment for his inordinate lust. According to Triton:  

Yea, oracle and prophecy, 
say sure she cannot stand,  

Except a worthier maid than she 
her cause do take in hand.  

Lo, here therefore a worthy work
most fit for you alone;  

Her to defend and set at large
(but you, O Queen) can none:  

And gods decree and Neptune sues 
this grant, O peerless Prince  

Your presence only shall suffice 
her enemies to convince.

Luckily for the Lady of the Lake, the queen was a “worthier maid,” whose presence scared off Sir Bruce. The lady glided over the water on her moveable island to thank the queen again. As the queen walked farther over the bridge, the mythical musician Arion appeared out of a twenty-four-foot-long mechanical dolphin with a six-piece band hidden inside it, a boat made up so that its oars appeared to be its fins. The Greek god Proteus sang to Elizabeth to thank her for saving the Lady of the Lake. While George Gascoigne and Laneham thought the scene was delightful, another report says that the man playing Arion was hoarse and tore off his disguise to tell the queen that he wasn’t Arion but “honest Harry Goldingham,” here to welcome Her Majesty to Kenilworth.

In royal pageantry, as in a larp, not everything goes according to plan. Gascoigne writes that the scene was supposed to be introduced by a naval battle between Sir Bruce and the Lady of the Lake’s forces that never came to fruition. Likewise, Gascoigne wrote a play about a nymph and had the actors all ready to perform. A Savage Man was supposed to introduce the play in the forest by pleading with the queen to help remove his blindness. The play never went off, most likely because it rained for several days and the opportunity never arose.

Sixteen years later, in 1591, the Earl of Hertford at Elvetham put on a similar entertainment for Elizabeth, albeit a shorter one, during which mythical figures also met her at the gate. The entertainment featured a crescent-shaped artificial lake, dug for the occasion, complete with a “Ship Isle,” a fort, and a “Snail Mount”—whatever that is—from which mythical ocean gods offered her gifts and which served as the backdrop for a battle between the sea gods and wood gods.

Such Tudor pageants are similar to larp in terms of structure and presentation. The action isn’t presented for an audience locked behind the fourth wall; it’s dispersed, presented dynamically, with costumed actors appearing in the woods, on a pond, behind castle walls, and so on. The queen is in the midst of the action, and she is involved in the outcomes of the various plots. It is her presence that banishes Sir Bruce and frees the Lady of the Lake.

As in a larp, planned spontaneity governs the event. Not every plot point actually occurs—it rains, and so Gascoigne’s play is canceled. The actors, essentially NPCs, have to predict where the queen will be and wait there in order to surprise her with their speeches. As the modern scholar David Bergeron puts it, Elizabeth was often an “active participant in the outcome of the dramatic presentation. She is an ‘unscheduled actor’ in the sense that no part is explicitly written for her; on the other hand, it is intended that she will be an ‘actor’ in the whole dramatic scene.”

The sentiment behind the Tudor pageants is also comparable to larp. The pageants of Elizabeth I and the disguisings of Henry VIII look backward toward a mythical past, including the past of King Arthur and Robin Hood that so many larpers seek out today. Furthermore, this mythical past does not exist in a vacuum; larpers sometimes use scenarios to represent, re-create, or work out real-life issues. The organizers of Elizabeth’s entertainments had real-world goals—first, of course, to honor and flatter the queen by elevating her to mythical status. Elizabeth’s courtiers also used the pageants to advance political and personal causes by way of allegory.

During the 1578 Lady of May put on by the Earl of Leicester, who also threw the Kenilworth entertainment, a woman with two suitors—a shepherd and a forester—surprised Elizabeth in the woods and asked for help in choosing between them. Sir Philip Sydney had written the scene to advance Leicester’s agenda with the queen during a moment when Leicester was in ill favor. Leicester had once been considered a possible husband to the virgin queen, and Sydney wrote the forester to resemble him. In selecting the shepherd as the woman’s fiancé during the scene, Elizabeth made a political statement. In 1624, King James I canceled the performance of the entertainment Neptune’s Triumph because he disagreed with the coded message it was sending about policy toward Spain.

The Tudors were far from the only figures to stage the mythological past in spectacular fashion. The Victorian era brought a craze for everything medieval, from fake Gothic ruins put up on the property of nobility, to the Gothic novel, to jousting tournaments. The jousting tournament had been a staple of British royal entertainments from the Middle Ages on through the Tudors—Henry VIII was a notorious fan of and participant in tournaments, and Queen Elizabeth presided over a tilt nearly every year of her reign.

In the early 1800s, driven by his love of medieval lore and literature, and at the height of the Gothic revival, Archibald Montgomery, the Earl of Eglinton decided to host a tournament. The tournament took its inspiration from Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe (1819). Scott had also written a romance, Kenilworth, based on the earlier entertainment thrown for Queen Elizabeth.

The tilt at Eglinton Castle was years in the making. At the end of 1838, Lord Eglinton had assembled a roll of 150 young men who wished to compete—the same number of knights who swore to honor the rules of Arthur’s Round Table—and they met to discuss the terms of the fight. They eventually settled on a tournament in the style of the sixteenth century—a civilized joust rather than the brutal melees of earlier centuries. More than half of the knights resigned in protest on the spot.

In the coming months, driven by the heat of the Gothic revival, the press got word of the upcoming tournament and published sensational gossip about the knights, their custom-made armor, and the arrangements being made. In an era that lauded privacy, Lord Eglinton became a tabloid celebrity. As historian Ian Anstruther put it, the tournament “had made him a national figure, and within the limits of those days when important people still had privacy, everything he said and did was published in the press.”

The tournament itself was a disaster. Lord Eglinton had been prepared for about four thousand people to make the journey to his Scottish estate to see the tilts, but the rural area was overrun with one hundred thousand spectators. No food, drink, or lodging could be had in the small town for any price. A freak torrential downpour clouded the spectators’ views of the tournament, and the biblical amount of mud on Lord Eglinton’s property ruined the lovely medieval costumes that many women wore to the event, ensuring that the Eglinton Tournament would go down in history as an infamous failure.

Why did Lord Eglinton go to the extravagant expense of holding such a tourney? According to Anstruther, his romantic temperament was to blame: “One of the deepest yearnings of all people with romantic temperaments in the 19th century was the urge to experience every emotion personally; and the great ambition of every Gothic revivalist was to taste the drama of medieval life in as many ways as possible—in hawking, archery, in a Merry Xmas in the Baron’s Hall with a yule log, malmsey wine and a boar’s head; and also, naturally enough if given the opportunity, in wearing armour and taking part in a tournament.”

The yearning to experience personal emotion is one of the hallmarks of the larp movement today. Many larpers want to experience emotions—the loss of a friend, the thrill of battle, the pain of betrayal—that they would never have occasion to feel in everyday life. 

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Author Lizzie Stark is a freelance journalist who has contributed to the Daily Beast and the Philadelphia Inquirer. She is founder and editor of the literary journal Fringe and holds an MS in new media journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She lives in Edison, New Jersey. For more about Leaving Mundania, visit Lizzie Stark.]

(Full disclosure: Regular "Geek Pride" blogger Ethan Gilsdorf read an advance copy of Leaving Mundania, and submitted a blurb for the book’s back cover.)