on writing about knights and jousting with darragh metzger

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.

 

Knights_Jousting

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.


FOOTNOTES:

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.)

 

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Great job, Neal. Love the whole foot­notes idea; wish I’d done it that way. Love the il­lus­tra­tions you used, too, but I gotta say, that one cap­tion from the Catholic Uni­ver­sity of America source is in­cor­rect. Not your fault, I’m just won­dering who the heck would write some­thing that dumb.

OF COURSE knights wore plate armor in combat! That’s what it was for. Maybe the rest of the source dif­fer­en­ti­ates be­tween tour­na­ment plate and combat plate; late-period tour­na­ment plate was in­deed use­less as tits on a boar for combat.

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