THE TRAILER for the 2001 movie A Knight’s Tale did not impress us, but fourteen years later a friend brought the DVD over so we were obliged to sit through it. The star, Heath Ledger, had impressed us in his tour de force as the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008). With the silly trailer still in our minds, we sat back and watched.
And lo and behold, what had seemed poorly conceived a few years before, was marvelously entertaining now. The characters’ modern wisecracks and the ’70s rock & roll that often seemed more a part of the narrative’s ambience that merely as a film score was fun.
A longer, less graphically interesting, version of this article was originally published here in 2015.
In the trailer, Ledger had seemed too baby-faced for a convincing jouster who consistently unhorsed his opponents. Now he seemed to fit the anomalistic shenanigans perfectly!
As friend Mike had been involved with the making of swords and armor movies locally, we had questions concerning some of the jousting scenes. He recommended an article on his friend’s website, as she had just posted a piece on the subject.
And so I visited Darragh’s Page and found that she is a published author of several fantasy novels and an actress. I read her article “Jousting In Fiction,” was impressed, and posted a comment. I contacted Darragh and requested permission to post her piece here, which she granted.
For the abridged version of “Jousting in Fiction” below, I deleted material: the original article is over 2,000 words in length; the abridged version below is less than 1,200. I altered the layout of Darragh’s text to fit this site’s style, adding sub-titles where necessary.
Darragh’s text is in quotes and indented below. And there is still plenty to read from her article, so click on over to her blog and read more! 1
The opening jousting sequence in A Knight’s Tale features the crowd (peasants and jewelry rattlers both) cheering, clapping, and stomping along to Queen’s We Will Rock You. Yeah yeah yeah, it sounds hokey as all get out but it’s humorous and a clever way to launch the squire’s tale.
Jousting in fiction
Suppose you’re writing along on your historical or fantasy novel, and suddenly realize your hero/heroine is about to be involved in a joust. If you’re not a horse person or have never done it yourself, how can you give your readers an authentic-tasting experience?
How true-to-life is jousting in movies, TV, other novels?
What glaring gaffes do you need to avoid?
I spent about ten years jousting in a professional capacity, but strictly as a performer, not competitively. So I’ll skip the long, erudite overview of the various types of jousting popular in particular time periods or geographical areas.
Despite Hollywood’s legendary ineptitude concerning horses in general, a writer can actually pick up quite a bit about jousting from many films, though I advise against using them as an exclusive source of information.
Such a wide variety of forms and equipment were in fashion at various times in various parts of the world that fantasy films that depict jousting have a better-than-even chance of getting at least something right.
“The mini-series version of Game Of Thrones has a quite spectacular jousting scene—which includes the use of strategy and the death of one of the competitors, as well as a taste of some of the pageantry and spectacle that was very much a part of the actual sport.”
Young Thomas the miller
No one would refer to the Heath Ledger movie A Knight’s Tale as historical by any means, but it did pretty well at depicting what jousting was all about and the frenzy it generated in the popular imagination. We won’t even mention those recent reality shows featuring jousting—they weren’t seriously trying to be authentic anyway.
Actually, it’s misleading to say jousting and authentic in the same breath when discussing the sport on film and television. After all, it’s all authentic, strictly speaking, so long as riders and horses are actually charging one another with lance and shield with occasionally unpredictable results. It may not be the way it was done, but it’s certainly authentic.
But on to the subject of this post: how can you, a writer who is not him-or-herself a horse person—or at least has never jousted—write a convincing jousting scene?
First off, keep in mind that up until good ol’ Henry VIII’s time, winning at the joust did not really require size or physical strength. Skill, aim, speed, and superior horsemanship were far more important. That being said, all things being equal, the heavier opponent has a better chance of staying in the saddle. 2
Winning at jousting did not require size or physical strength—skill, aim, speed, and superior horsemanship were far more important.
That means you have two superb riders, on two equally fast horses of the same size and weight, with lances of equal length and weight and equally well-aimed and controlled, and armor and shields (if you’re using shields) of equal protection and quality. Young Thomas the Miller is not going to be able to avenge his father by climbing onto his cart pony and charging against Sir Invincible in the lists. 3
So, replace Young Thomas the Miller with Young Thomas the Squire, who actually knows how to ride and has received at least a few of the basics of how-it’s-done by his liege or knight. A lot of the technique of jousting is dependent upon the equipment: if Young Thomas is wearing maille and a great or barrel helm, he is probably going to be jousting in one of the Frankish styles, which means using a lance and shield. Most of the other styles require some form of plate armor.
Very possibly, he will be free-jousting, which means without the use of a barrier between his horse and the opponent’s.
If, on the other hand, he’s in the equivalent of full Gothic plate in the late Medieval or early-to-mid Renaissance style, you’re going to have a lot more variables to deal with. For one thing, instead of a spear or lance and shield, you’ll have a heavy lance with a blunted tip or a coronal, possibly rigged to blow apart (if this is in a tournament and not a duel).
All of the above presumes we’re talking about a tournament competition—knightly duels are a different kettle of fish altogether.
Late 15th-century manuscript illumination of knights jousting in plate armor. Illustration from Paris, Bibliothèque nationale française, Español 36, fol. 22r.
Jousting horses require training
Okay, back to Young Thomas. What kind of weapons would he be using? Will he be following his five passes with some kind of foot combat? You can make the circumstances come out any way you like—it’s a fantasy, after all—but they do have to make sense.
If Young Thomas has plate armor, he doesn’t need to carry a shield, but you might want him to for other reasons having to do with your story. No problem: it happened somewhere at some time.
Take it as a given that most knights were better riders than any of us will ever be. They generally started younger, did it a lot more often, and their lives depended on it.
Unless your horse is trained with actual jousting experience, the chances of being able to get down the list are about one in ten.
If you’re writing about a culture that corresponds to our Medieval or Renaissance eras, the same rules apply: your hero/heroine has superb balance even in full armor and helm, can steer a horse with just weight shifts and simple leg aids, handle a lance and shield on a galloping horse without accidental miscues, and can—while fully armored—leap onto his or her charger from the ground without assistance.
But what was true then is true now: unless your horse is a trained warhorse with actual jousting experience, the chances of being able to successfully get down the list are about one in ten.
Most horses will turn and run when they see another horse charging at them. Younger horses will almost always yield to older ones.
But even those with the right mind and disposition for jousting require training and a great deal of practice before they can charge down the list at another horse and hold their ground.
Just as with racehorses, jousting horses can learn how to out-bluff one another and the tricks to make the other horses flinch or veer so their riders miss.
Smaller horses learn when to brace themselves for impact against bigger horses. Faster horses learn when to pour on the speed and when to reserve it.
Our lovely author astride one obsession whilst garbed in another: Darragh Metzger of the Seattle Knights, a company owned and directed by artist and fight director Dameon Willich. Eventually the two married and Darragh learned to joust, fight in armor, wield a sword and shield with conviction, shoot arrows from bows, and lance helpless lettuce heads from a galloping horse.
Woe to those lettuce heads
I’ve jousted with a light lance (a 10-to-12 foot hickory or oak pole with a rounded tip) and shield, and with just a heavy lance (false-tipped balsa or foam), as well as the massive, carved wooden lances that weigh fifteen pounds and are used by some jousting troupes for competition jousting.
All of these hit with a lot of impact—even the false-tipped ones—and armor doesn’t keep you from feeling it, just from getting hurt. At least, that’s the theory. I’ve had bruises, bloody lips, dislocated ribs, and concussions that told a different story.
Historically, death in the joust was not that unusual, and broken necks and splinters through the eye slits happened all the time.
But what if you’re writing a modern story with jousting, such as in a Renaissance Faire or something?
In that case, anything goes . . .”A writer can actually pick up quite a bit about horses and jousting from movies. Click To Tweet
HEADER MAGE: The photo at the top of this page was taken by Doug Herring of members of the Seattle Knights tilting on a lovely day, when they could be out chasing girls. Unless, of course, they are girls.
1 Darragh’s article has more on horses and women jousters, and is a more personal read that the edited version above.
2 By the time of Henry VIII, the renaissance was passé everywhere else; England was pretty much the last bastion of jousting, and that’s when it turned into the equivalent of Monster Truck rallies, with tank-like armor and so forth.
3 And yes, I know, the barrier between jousters was originally rope and called a “toil”. The term “list” referred to the list of contestants, later to the overall competition, and only much, much later to the wooden barrier between opposing jousters. But these days, people get confused if you mention the word “toil,” so I use the more well-known term.)