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May 20, 2024

The Knights of New Jersey

By Tim Henderson

"Peace...or DEATH?" bellowed the King with a kind of rancorous hackneyed gusto usually reserved for overly-ambitious community theater troupe extras.

It was the moment of truth for the Green Knight. The self-appointed bad boy of the realm was an unquestioned master of weapons, never before unhorsed in a joust. Yet there he lay, his vile plot to kidnap the Prince, ruin His Majesty's royal jousting tournament, and thereby unsettle the kingdom's fragile peace was foiled. The Prince had escaped the Green Knight's henchman with ease, and the Red Knight of Castilla, with his golden flowing locks, had overcome taunts and treachery to conquer the dominion's renegade foe in an elaborately-choreographed duel. Formulaic as the outcome may have been -- reaffirming, as it did, the inevitable triumph of good over evil via steel and careful stage-managing -- it surprised us nonetheless, mostly because at first we'd assumed the scarlet-clad lancer Don Ruiz de Roig was a chick on account of his long hair.

The Green Knight glowered menacingly. As an audience, we expected no less. The emerald-clad Don Temple of Asturius' temper was widely-reputed to surpass even the dragon's claw in severity, and it was well-established as a matter of public record that no mantle of peace or serenity would ever grace his shoulders. He was a scoundrel, a cheat, a serial trash-talker and a war-monger to boot, and the patrons seated in the part of the arena pre-ordained as his official cheering section wore lime-hued paper crowns similar to the ones you might find in a Burger King kid's meal, and loved him for it. They stomped and they cheered and they enthusiastically banged their pewter plates and soup bowls together in exactly the manner we were all specifically warned ahead of time not to because it might spook the horses. Most of them were probably drunk; we saw them pre-gaming in the parking lot, pounding cans of Natural Light in preparation for the festivities. But now the dastard villain had fallen and he couldn't get up and the crowd turned on him in a frenzy of bloodlust. "Death," they chanted. "Death! Death! Death!"

The choice was his, but it never really was a choice. More like a foregone conclusion. It was anathema to his constitution, beneath his dignity as a ruffian to bow down to any man or beast. If there was one thing the Green Knight hated more than the idea of surrendering, it was most definitely the idea of a stable monarchy that might eventually allow the foundations for some degree of land reform, representative government, and a flourishing arts scene enabled by the rise of the merchant class. He was dark like that, but in a twisted way, ethical. Say what you will about the script's bland dialogue, at least the characters were consistent in their motivations, however ill-defined.

"I am far too sober to appreciate this," muttered Emmett Washington beside me. He had already consumed two doubles of Wild Turkey on the rocks, but he was right. I would have told him so, but at the time I was on the verge of suffering an epileptic seizure.

It was mid-July and I had driven up to New York to visit my friend Emmett and his girlfriend Jane for the weekend. They had decided to utilize my stay as an excuse to knock a few items off their list of things they always wanted to do in NYC but never had time for. Ever since she was a little girl, Jane had longed to partake of the chivalrous spectacle that is Medieval Times and, as luck would have it, there just so happened to be a branch a few miles down the turnpike in Lyndhurst, New Jersey.

Medieval Times was founded in 1973 on the Spanish island of Majorca, inspired by a combination of the invisible hand of service industry-era tourist trap capitalism and, according to the company's website, "by the true medieval tradition of royal families inviting guests to a festival and feast to watch knights compete on horseback." Popular fervor for fake sword-fighting and indoor equestrianism punctuated by mediocre acting and bundled together into a dinner theater format quickly spread across the Atlantic. By 1983, the restaurant chain had opened its first US castle in Kissimmee, Florida. Over the next quarter century, the reach of the fictitious King's dominion grew to encompass nearly every corner of the New World. Eight additional castles were constructed in Buena Park, CA; Lyndhurst, NJ; Schaumburg, IL; Dallas, TX; Toronto, Ontario; Myrtle Beach, SC; Hanover, MD; and Atlanta, GA. The dining and jousting tournament franchise gained further notoriety when it served as the setting for a duel between Jim Carey and Matthew Broderick in the 1996 comedy, The Cable Guy. Today, Medieval Times bills itself as "the No. 1 dinner attraction in North America," a claim for which little proof is offered on its website other than the assertion that "the unique combination of a medieval banquet and thrilling competition between knights captures the imaginations of all ages."

Indeed, and for a case in point example, one need look no further than Jane. By her mid-twenties, she held a master's degree and quite a few sophisticated opinions about glam-rock and public health policy. Yet in the dying day's golden-tinted dusk, she was giddy as an eight-year-old girl, too excited by the looming specter of chivalrous fisticuffs to sit still by the time we came to the freeway exit for Lyndhurst. Lyndhurst, as best I could tell, is a long drag of office parks and big box electronics stores just like any other stretch of suburban sprawl you'd expect to encounter in the continental United States, except for the soaring ramparts of the 11th Century-style castle looming like a postmodern eyesore across a vast parking lot from a luxury hotel at the far edge of the strip.

Emmett and I weren't quite as ecstatic to be there, but we had to admit that, with the proper blend of intoxicants, the place had potential. You don't have to be a mathematician to understand that booze plus hand-to-hand combat with medieval weaponry plus the freedom to eat with one's fingers due to an authenticity-inspired embargo on all forms of cutlery is an equation that would seem to equal at least moderate amounts of fun. Then again, math was never my strong subject.

Our tickets, which we reserved on-line for $45 a pop, came with limited time coupons for two free drinks apiece. Yet such promises of liquid refreshment proved somewhat misleading. We'd initially assumed the vouchers could be redeemed for adult beverages of an intoxicating nature, so much the better for heightening one's sense of child-like wonderment in the face of simulated battles atop brain-dead horses. But the drinks, as it turned out, were twelve-ounce plastic cups of Pepsi. Otherwise, the special promotional offer was entirely accurate, because we really only did get one refill. Every other libation available at the Lyndhurst Castle bar cost an arm and a leg and the corporate naming rights to your firstborn child. Jane, for example, ordered a strawberry daiquiri in a commemorative Medieval Times glass goblet the size of a small fishbowl. The damage came to thirty one dollars, not including tip. Emmett shelled out fifteen bucks for a styrofoam tumbler of whiskey, and my draft beer stein set me back nearly twenty. I'm no human rights lawyer, but in this current economic recession, Medieval Times' policy of pressuring patrons into purchasing all their alcohol in exorbitantly overpriced collectible souvenir cups basically amounted to a form of illegal torture as defined by the Geneva Convention. Maybe that's a tad bit of an overstatement; after all, Medieval Times also features an on-site dungeon/museum showcasing all sorts of antiquated instruments for the "enhanced interrogation" of prisoners, as if to prove that: "Hey, we may be price-gouging you, but at least you were spared the iron maiden." Emmett and I tried to step inside for a look at the water-boarding equipment, but we were stopped dead in our tracks by a costumed security guard who informed us there was an additional three dollar entrance fee for the dungeon/museum. Then Jane said she hadn't seen such extortion since the last time her parents took the family down to Disney World.

Inside the arena, everyone had to sit in the cheering section of whichever knight matched the color of the paper Burger King-style crowns we were all forced to wear. Emmett and Jane and I ended up in the Red-and-Yellow Knight's section. Emmett pointed out to one of the waitresses that technically, a color scheme like that actually should have made him the Orange Knight. She told him she'd alert the management, and then she served us a hearty tomato soup we had to slurp straight from the bowl because, as Janeane Garofalo so poignantly explained in her role as a beer wench in The Cable Guy, "there was no silverware in medieval times; hence, there is no silverware at Medieval Times." Later, we each received a single slice of garlic bread, a pair of microwaved potato wedges, a solitary spare rib, and half a rotisserie chicken.

There was a young couple with three children seated to my right. They spoke Spanish and were celebrating their eldest son's thirteenth birthday. They seemed like nice enough folks, but I nearly strangled their firstborn kid. He was sitting right next to me with one of those souvenir glasses, the kind with flashing neon strobe lights that circle endlessly round the base. After a couple minutes, I was agitated. After a couple more, it was all I could do to stop myself from committing a homicide. "Don't hurt him, man," said Emmett. "He's just a kid." But the worst was yet to come.

The evening's entertainment commenced with a series of over-acted monosyllabic skits to establish the plot: we were in Medieval Spain; the King had worked for years to achieve peace over all the realm; there was to be a royal tournament to celebrate the attainment of said peace at long last; the Green Knight didn't want to give peace a chance and so he kidnapped the Prince and acted like a belligerent jackass throughout the tournament by constantly showboating for the crowd and disrespecting His Highness; all of the other knights were basically tools.

The knights rode around on horses doing tricks for half an hour, and the audience learned about their backstories ("the Blue Knight's blood will not be cooled, nor his vengeance postponed, for those who bring war and unquiet to Valiente") from the King's loud-mouthed smart-assed Lord Chancellor, who provided narration throughout the festivities. Including the ten minute intermission during which he read out a list of people in attendance whose birthdays and anniversaries it was. Sometimes, he made jokes, as if to offer a wink and a nod that he knew how lame and corny all this was, but don't blame him, he'd never meant to keep this job for more than a year, he still had a chance to make it big on Broadway, just you wait and see. He got on a roll after he discovered the name of a young man on the list who was allegedly in attendance that night to celebrate his bachelor party. "And you came here?" mocked the Lord Chancellor. "Your father must be very proud." Then he butchered a foreign-sounding name and tried to make a joke out of that, too. "Happy Birthday to...um....Pie-bag? What the hell kind of name is Pie-bag?"

"It's Columbian!" yelled the mother of the thirteen year-old birthday boy next to me. The kid looked crushed, he was near tears. To console him, his father bought a giant sword filled with flashing neon strobe lights to match his souvenir glass. I'm not really sure what happened after that. Everything was so bright and jarring. Like a supernova, or Japanese anime. Maybe it was a seizure and maybe it wasn't, all I know is that at one point I lost control of all my appendages as well as several of my bodily functions and began to hallucinate. That, and the fact that the Green Knight eventually chose death, and then everybody went home.

There was a long wait for the women's restroom after the show, and Jane had managed to polish off the entirety of her obscenely large daiquiri, so Emmett and I killed time browsing the establishment's many on-site gift shops. This one coffee mug with the word "Wench" etched affectionately across it in pink cursive lettering really caught my eye. Then we noticed an impromptu dance party had formed in the waiting room beside the bar, mostly women in their forties with too much hair and make-up busting moves to what sounded like Jock Jams. Then the guy who played the Green Knight walked by out of costume, dressed like he was headed to a nightclub with a look on his face that said: oh yes ladies, I am the Green Knight and I am gonna get laid.

As we headed for the exits, we passed several ushers in medieval costume who were thanking everyone for coming out whilst distributing envelopes with special coupons to show appreciation on behalf of the corporate behemoth that is Medieval Times. Jane took one, and I reached out for another, and the usher brushed his ornately festooned collar and said he was only supposed to hand out one coupon per party but, "Hey, in these troubled economic times, why not? Yessir, have it, enjoy, and thanks for coming out!"

I opened up the envelope and found a buy-one, get-one-free admissions discount card valid through the day before the end of this calendar year. The card said each ticket came with a coupon for two free drinks.

Medieval Times has offered a link to their Coupon Page. Enjoy!

Article © Tim Henderson. All rights reserved.
Published on 2009-11-16
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