A Pelican scroll text

These lines were composed for the Pelican scroll of Mistress Gwyneth Banfhidhleir, O.P., of the Middle Kingdom. Her scroll was commissioned from me (text) and Steve of Tirnewydd (calligraphy and illumination) ten years after her elevation. Notes follow.

Great nobles of Our Kingdom, know Our Word–
Eikbrandr King and Runa Queen decree
By all Our Populace must now be heard
What doom to Gwyneth Banfhidhleir shall be.
The captain of a doughty band though few,
Whom she inspires in skilful cookery
To do what erst they knew not they could do,
And folk wide scattered o’er the Dragon’s land
She makes one company in service true.
So to reward that ever-eager hand
Whose praise resoundeth in Our ears full oft,
Now Gwyneth, do We give you Our command
To seek your noble seat, your apron doffed,
As Pelican, the merit of your zeal.
Your sister raised this day, join her aloft.
We do commend your faith to that ideal
That’s best upheld by deeds—‘tis a rare art
To serve our dreams forth tangible and real,
And give your many gifts with modest heart,
As a great voice in a chorus may sound
And seldom rise to take the solo part.
Thereto commands the Middle Kingdom Crown
Whose pow’rs draconian none can gainsay
The said Gwyneth: proclaim her just renown,
A Pelican in its piety display
Which honours she shall nevermore lay down
Till Sky be fallen and great Earth shall drown.
~~ Given Fifth of September, A.S. 44

Process Notes

Mistress Gwyneth–my friend Ginny–asked me to create a text for this scroll in the summer of 2019. I interviewed her at Pennsic XLVIII for details of her experience as a Pelican and of her elevation. She has generously allowed me to publish the text, although as of December 31, 2020, she does not yet have the scroll in her hands because of the pandemic.

I’ve posted poems before that seemed to fountain out of my pen. Some were finished the same day they were begun, or the next day. Under Siege was one of those, as was Master Peter. This is not one of those poems. From the initial interview to completion was over 11 months.

Gwyneth favors Italian verse and had asked for the form to be terza rima. I was excited to do it because terza rima is one of the great medieval forms; Dante used it for the Divine Comedy. But Italian has many fewer ending sounds–and therefore many more rhyming options–than English. The patterns of accents in the words are different, too. And there were things I had to say, things that could not be left out. And I had to write precisely 30 lines so that they would fit neatly onto the page that Steve, the artist, was already creating.

All of these challenges and constraints combined to make the writing process slow and painstaking. I started, got stuck, came back to the text, sought my Laurel’s advice, got stuck again, put it aside, came back, got stuck, sought another Laurel’s advice…it was a long process. If it had been a personal piece, I might have let it lapse unfinished. But one of the advantages to accepting a commission is that, once promised, the thing has to be done. And so, at last, it was, I hope to the credit of all involved.

Under Siege

These blank verse lines continue the account begun in On Watch.

Ten long months had the castle been besieged
And those within deprived of daily joys,
Of pleasures, company, safety itself.
Within the walls came sickness, fear, and want.
Physicians labored without respite; guards
Fell every day to deadly, unseen darts
That crossed the walls. Yet not the worst of pains
These dangers were. The suff’ring of the mind
Tormented more. Though sun shone down, it seemed
That necessary walls barred light and air—
No breath, no inspiration could them pass
And those once counted wise stood with the rest,
Helpless to strike the unrelenting foe.
One hope we had of succour. All did wait
Upon our ally’s force, a pow’rful Queen
Far distant, hidden. What clamorous welcome
We gave the messenger whose trumpet sang
Across the foe’s lines, heralding relief.
Our marshal took fresh courage then, and raised
The standard, rallying all to one effort:
To hold steadfast until their help arrived.

Process note

This idea was handed to me when I felt like writing but didn’t know what, and creating the lines was as close to effortless as composition gets. I began and finished on the same day, a marked contrast to the process noted for Mistress Gwyneth’s Pelican scroll text.

The Muse Addresses Dame Honor von Atzinger

Fair daughter, well thou hast deserved thy wreath.
We sisters nine rejoice to see thy crown
Of Laurel noble, and the smile beneath
Of joy at this due honor and renown
That gratifies all thy compatriots’ hearts.
Terpsichore comes dancing to the pipe
To celebrate thy mastery of arts —
Euterpe plucks the golden apples ripe
To place before you. Taste the divine fruit
And be our dear companion evermore —
Cease not to dance and sing, be never mute
In service to those virtues we adore.
The king who honor gives knows Honor well,
And honors that beyond my tongue to tell.


I composed this sonnet as a gift for my friend Dame Honor von Atzinger on the occasion of her elevation to the Order of the Laurel.

The speaker is an unspecified one of the nine classical muses. Terpsichore and Euterpe are mentioned because two of Dame Honor’s chief arts are dance and singing.

A Riddle

This forest sets a seeker free,
Though in a fence its foliage bound.
Alive in death, it drinks a sea
Of oaken ale to sate its ground.
To able men with eyes to see
It speaks good guidance with no sound,
Yet fools may falter helplessly
Wand’ring its ways, and ne’er be found.
Who dares explore its paths profound,
A well of wisdom he may gain.
Though to his hearth the road come round,
This wood his wits shall e’er retain.

Process notes

The riddle is answered and dissected at the end of these notes.

I wrote this in response to a challenge Master Owen Alun created for Bardic Madness Online Edition in July 2020: “Pondering what might be.”

Riddles in English go all the way back to the roots of the language; some famous early examples appear in the Exeter Book. Verse riddling remained popular through the 14th century, with examples appearing within a number of Chaucer’s works. In the Wife of Bath’s Tale, the urgent need to solve a riddle drives the plot.

I chose a verse model from another late-14th-century-poem, Pearl. The verse of Pearl is a tour de force of poetic composition. It uses 12-line stanzas which are both rhymed and alliterated, as well as having verbal connections between stanzas. The 12 lines use only three rhyme sounds.

My riddle uses a single stanza in this form, so I did not have to replicate the inter-stanza connections. I imitated the four-stress meter of the original. Because Middle English meter is stress-based rather than syllable-based, the number of unaccented syllables is not strictly counted (as it is Early Modern English forms such as the sonnet).

The Answer and the Explanation

The answer is “a book.”

This forest sets a seeker free: The book is made of wood products–pages and coverboards– and as a forest has many trees, so a book has many pages. The second half of the line contains a Biblical allusion to John 8:32: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

Though in a fence its foliage bound: The riddle’s main metaphor pictures a fence surrounding a forest; the fence corresponds to the book’s covers. (This element, and the next two, make it clear that the answer cannot be “library,” which has been a common guess.) “Foliage” and “folio” both derive from Latin folium, leaf.

Alive in death: the trees used to make the paper have been cut down and pulped, but have a new existence as a book.

It drinks a sea/Of oaken ale to sate its ground: “Oaken ale” is a figure for ink made from oak galls. I would have said “oaken blood,” which is spookier, but I needed alliteration in this line, and I commandeered the Anglo-Saxon convention by which all vowels alliterate with each other. The drinking is done specifically by the paper, the ground on which the text appears, which soaks up a lot of ink in order to be filled–“sated.”

To able men with eyes to see: To people who can read–
It speaks good guidance with no sound: –the book is informative.

Yet fools may falter helplessly,/Wand’ring its ways, and ne’er be found: The uneducated who cannot read will be lost in its pages.

Who dares explore its paths profound/A well of wisdom he may gain: The reader can gain wisdom from following the deep thoughts in the book.

Though to his hearth the road come round: The reader will “go home” from the forest; that is, he will finish and close the book.

This wood his wits shall e’er retain: This line has two possible meanings, and the text offers no way to be sure which is meant. (It’s deliberately ambiguous. Because riddle.) On the one hand, it could mean, “He will leave his wits behind in this wood forever,” that the wood will drive him mad. It was a common fear that too much study could drive one insane; compare Acts 26:24, “Much learning hath made thee mad.” On the other hand, the line can equally well be construed as “His mind will always contain what he has read.”

Guest poet: Sir Ephraim

In a first today for the blog, I am sharing another poet’s work.

Sir Ephraim ben Shlomo graciously consented to publish his sonnet here. Many thanks to him, and enjoyment to readers.

The Season of Spring Crown, AS 55

Too quiet are these days for Midrealm’s taste
As peace’bly we at our estates abide.
No nobles, inspirations at their side,
Hear names announced, then to the list make haste.
No Tanist speaks in court to claim a spot
In hist’ry for one who’s inspired prow’.
The arts and sciences but whisper now,
Those skills, deserving full voice, speaking not.
Yet, drag these days so slowly as they might,
The plague-threat causing let to all our wills,
Full well we know, a better day we’ll see.
A twelvemonth hence Spring Crown again we’ll fight,
And arts and sciences declare their skills.
Restored traditions, all as all should be.


Sun and storm, rose and thorn,
To joy and sorrow we are born.

Grief and laughter, thorn and rose,
What fate decrees no woman knows.

Process Notes

Unusually for me, I did not seek a specific period model for this. The form, trochaic tetrameter couplets, is found solidly within the 16th century, for example in the refrain Ben Jonson’s hymn to Diana, Queen and Huntress Chaste and Fair.

The proverb or saw goes back as far as English itself. Examples are found in Beowulf and in every century since. This one came to me in a solitary moment during a thunderstorm.

A Tanka Pair

In time of sickness,
the people miss our Shogun,
we do not see him.
Our villages are lonely,
our feasts uncelebrated.

But he is with us,
at the Middle Kingdom’s heart
where he always was,
as the Sun when out of sight
behind a cloud, still gives warmth.

Ballad: The Constant Husband

For joy my heart within me sings
As I ride back from war,
For soon I’ll see my bonny wife
And my sweet babe once more.

Oh, when I rode away, my child
Did kiss and cling to me.
I left her in her mother’s arms,
Our tears were flowing free.

And now I crest the hill and spy
My home, my own green land—
But what’s this pain within my throat,
This black pock on my hand?

I sicken and may not go near
The ones I long to hold
For fear their bodies soon should lie
Under the churchyard cold.

My fair sweet wife, come not near me,
And keep our child away,
The danger unto you and she
Fills my heart with dismay.

I’ll shelter me in sheep shed rough
And on a stone between
Each day you’ll place for me my food
And walk home ‘cross the green.

Now if you love me, oh my dear,
Your promise to me give
To let me make this fight alone,
That you and she may live.

He sheltered him in sheep shed rough,
She took to him his meat,
Her aching heart she carried home
On sad unwilling feet.

Upon the seventh day she heard
A knock upon the door–
That husband true and father dear
Was a hale man once more.

They kissed his lips, their champion
Who saved them from that foe
More deadly than a viper’s tooth
More silent than the snow.

Process Notes

As I’m writing this in March, A.S. LIIII, I think my motives are obvious.

I used ballad meter to tell a direct, poignant story. Traditional ballads are terse in their phrasing, stark in their narration and intense in their emotion.

Thanks to Her Ladyship Kateryn Draper for the title idea.

On Watch

Long hours past midnight, shaken from his cot,
Dressed in darkness, through halls without a sound
Passed a lone sentry to take up his watch.
In armor polished bright, although no foe
Nor friend might see him so, all point-device
Upon the battlement he took his stand.
The air was chill, and whispers all around
Of ghostly breezes made it bitterer,
Yet faithful and alert he fixed his eyes
Into the endless darkness. Somewhere lurked
An unseen enemy who made no sound.
Far off his fellows, veiled in darkness too,
Maintained their watches to the compass points,
Invisible to one another. Yet
In unison and silence each one’s thought
With ardor shouted the selfsame intent:
“Though danger come, it shall not get by us.”

Process notes

Blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentamenter) was used in the 16th century for epic verse (such as Surrey’s translation of the Aeneid) and for tragedy.

The verse grew out of a conversation with my Laurel, Doctor Henry Best, about the SCA response to the pandemic, and relies heavily upon his recounting of his military experience.

The account continues in Under Siege.

50 Lines for 50 Winters, a tanka chain

Fifty years are dust
Rust is Quicksilver my blade
At the beginning
Winter spring, ash back to wood,
A new seed sprouts here today

Wind whispers old names
Ripples cross the Inland Sea
Stories bring wisdom
Carrying tales from the past
On the shore, a man listens.

A delicate breeze
Foretells a mighty tempest
Sweeping all before
Only the ceaseless mountain
Withstands the typhoon’s fury.

Laden with bounty
Strong in storm and sound in calm
Great sugi bursts forth.
His sheltering branches stretch
To guide and guard a kingdom.

Chrysanthemum king
Upon the great dragon throne.
Flower and fire join.
Three dragon scales shield the realm
As joy and fortune blossom.

Summer leads to fall
Winter leads on turn to spring
Each day, a sunrise
At dawn the dragon takes flight
Guarding, guiding and seeking

The Dragon’s wings rise
Beat the air with strength and flame.
War’s fury unleashed.
Dragon king, fierce in battle,
Fiercer yet in blessed peace.

Inhale wind-whispers:
The fiery exhalation
Sings out, full of joy,
Calling to the flame-hearted;
A beacon in cool darkness.

Seeds planted in rain
Rise quietly in sunlight
Flowers gleam brightly
Petals one by one recount
Ancient days and current deeds.

Wise and good is he
who tends this garden of peace.
His fame shall not die,
But live in song forever
A light to our descendants.

Notes on the Project

The inspiration for this project came from Master Owen Alun, O.L., of Northshield. After I wrote the tanka for Akira-dono, Owen engaged me in a form of poetic dialogue called a tanka chain. When, a few weeks later, Seto-heika became the Middle Kingdom’s 100th heir, I had the idea to gather a team of poets from the daughter kingdoms of Calontir, Northshield, and Ealdormere to create a tanka chain in his honor. Owen also suggested inviting Cariadoc of the Bow, our first King, to contribute the opening verse, and His Grace honored us by accepting.

The poets:

Duke Cariadoc of the Bow, now of the West
Master Owen Alun, O.L., Northshield
Madam Ursula Mortimer, Middle
THL Dulcibella de Chateaurien, Calontir
THL Emer ingen ui Aiden, Ealdormere

Reader: Magister Stephan Calvert de Grey, O.P.

Magister Calvert and I performed the verses for Seto-heika and for the populace of the Cleftlands at Regular Event in the Cleftlands, February 29, A.S. LIIII.