I had never been to Medieval Times. I told Josh I had been to the Renaissance Faire a couple times, to which he responded, “Oh, this is so much more.” If you say so…
For those of you unfamiliar with Medieval Times, it is basically a Renaissance-themed dinner theater. There are chicken dinners, princesses, knights, serfs, wenches, horses, weapons, chivalry and a falconer, oh and a dungeon, but only if you pay more. A really good introduction to Medieval Times is the This American Life episode on simulated worlds: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?episode=38. In this episode, they visit Civil War Reenactments, the fake coal mine in the Museum of Science and industry, a dinosaur museum, and Medieval Times. Though the whole episode is good, the part about Medieval Times is the last section, in case you only want to hear about this. For their trip to Medieval Times, Ira Glass and staff take along a medieval history professor from the University of Chicago to see his take on it. Much to their surprise, the professor had a ball.
Josh’s friend Kevin had extra tickets to the Times a few weeks ago, so we went along. I fell asleep in the car ride to Schaumburg, and when I awoke we were pulling off the highway to a castle complete with crenellated turrets and a parking lot moat. I think I would have been pretty disoriented anyway, even without being groggy from my nap. Disorientation at Medieval Times, mind you, does not come from feeling like you have been transported to another time, but rather because the anachronisms evident from the very doorway make your eyebrows wrinkle in confusion. The exposed plumbing and the electric lights in the hallway candles were a dead giveaway, I thought. Nice touch with the hanging, crested flags, though.
After passing through a series of faux wood doors, we reached a series of check-in desks where, at each of them, we were greeted as Lord and Lady and invited to proceed on to the next desk. The first check-in desk confirmed our reservation, the second crowned us with cardboard black and white crowns, very similar the crowns we used to get at Burger King with a kids meal, and the third desk gave us our table number in the Black and White Kingdom section. From there, the nice employees in tunics, tights and sneakers bid us nobles hence through another door where we were practically pushed up against the wall, turned around, and photographed with a lady who, we assumed, was the princess considering her crushed velvet flowing garb. The princess then told us we had just been immortalized and could purchase the captured moment for a small fee of $25.
Through yet another door, we ran in to Kevin and two of his friends, all of whom greeted us with hearty Huzzahs! and were already decked out with crowns, Black and White banners to wave, and bright red alcoholic beverages in souvenir cups which I assumed were purchased a the Budweiser-packing tavern behind them. Crests of different kingdoms hung on the walls, along with calligraphied signs to the toilets, horse display and dungeon. Along The Great Hall, as I soon learned this room was called, was merely a holding place where guests were tempted to buy souvenirs and alcohol. The entirety of the front wall stood gift shops ranging in merchandise from pink princess conical crowns, dragon miniatures, magic wands that glowed in the dark, a hat with light up dreadlocks (I still don’t know what this has anything whatsoever to do with medieval anything), and life size weaponry of different varieties. Josh purchased a couple of banners for us from a very surly looking wench at the cash register.
Two trumpeters in tunics appeared played a triumphant welcoming riff, ushering in the King and the royal family who all floated across the room, noses held high. An announcer got up on a balcony and explained to the crowd that the King would be available in the throne area to knight any guests who had paid the extra fee. Josh made an interesting note about this in that it would actually have been a demotion to go from a Lord to a knight, but I gathered most of the crowd didn’t think too hard about this. After the knighting ceremony, the announcer, an older gent with crimped, silver hair flowing down to his colorful shoulders, explained that the colors of our crowns corresponded to a kingdom to which we owed our allegiance. Our black and white crowns apparently allied us with the kingdom of Santiago de Compostela. Sure, why not? The announcer also made sure to tell us, “Thou shalt not use thy cell phones during the entirety of the performance, nor shalt thy bang and clang your metal plates, as these activities distract and disorient the horses making it dangerous for the riders, of which I am one.” Then, with a flourish and the most robust, manly man voice he could muster, the announcer threw up his hand and bid a toast to chivalry, to which all the congregation responded in unison, “Chivalry forever! Huzzah!”
On a side note, Ira Glass says in his account of Medieval Times that he began subconsciously to speak without using contractions. He is right. It does not fail to happen.
As our kingdom was called into the dining hall, we proceeded past the king knighting people and through a set of large doors into an enormous arena surrounded by seats and bar-like tables. Multi-colored lights flashed and flickered around the dining area and the enormous sand pit at its center. A series of serfs and wenches guided us to table 8, where we were seated at places set with tin cups and plates. No cutlery at Medieval Times. Pepsi, yes, but forks, no. The menu for the evening was typed on the back of our napkin: Roast chicken, Ribs, garlic bread, spiced potatoes, and a pastry. The chicken turned out to be an entire half of a very large chicken—everyone got this, by the way, kids and adults alike. That’s a lot of chickens. Our serf’s name was Mike.
Midway through our meal, the announcer man came back, riding an enormous horse into the center of the arena. He announced, one by one, each of the riders of the different kingdoms, and with each new name and their corresponding colors, a different section of the atrium erupted in raucous hurrahs. Our black and white knight was a smug-looking feller, with curly, shoulder-length hair and very shiny pants which I suppose were supposed to create the illusion of chainmail. He had pouty lips and a pompous air about him. I decided I didn’t like him. He died first, anyway, the creepy bugger. It is all rigged of course, which is ironic in and of itself considering this would make it the third time Josh has gone to Medieval Times just to see his knight die first.
The fight, I should mention, was wrapped up in a fairly complicated plot. The king of Castilla had sent his son as envoy to Leon in attempts to secure peace with this long-time rival nation. Along the way, the prince was captured. Worries of the prince’s welfare loomed in the air back home, especially considering that the prince was to play master of ceremonies at the king’s jousting tournament and he still had not returned. Despite the prince’s absence, the tournament goes according to schedule. At the event, we are introduced to the Green Knight of Leon, a glowering, greasy-haired, portly fellow absolutely born to play the bad guy. Putting on a voice as husky and threatening (and I would wager throat-damaging) as Christian Bale’s Batman, the Green Knight threatens the king in front of his guests and challenges all of the knights to battles to the death. The king, unable to lose face in front of the crowd, concedes to the challenge, and his knights proceed to vanquish each other. The final battle came down to a contest between the Red and Green Knights, and at first it seems that the Green Knight wins. To top off the moment, the Green Knight produces the missing prince, bound and guarded, a move to which the entire crowd produces gasps, hisses and boos. As the Green Knight laughs a laugh as heartily malicious as would be appropriate, the Red Knight, filled with patriotic rage (I assume), found miraculously enough a second, third, fourth, and fifth wind, eventually defeating the Green Knight in a fantastic display of flying sparks, dramatic lighting, and one heck of an epic soundtrack.
As the show ended, most of us had been so transfixed we didn’t realize how much Pepsi we had been drinking. “To the Royal Urinals!” yelled Kevin. The girl’s bathroom was kind of a disappointment, a wasted opportunity for more medieval creativity. Don’t know about the boy’s potty. Oh well. It was a good day anyway.
Full of greasy food, delight in anachronism, and a new found knowledge of yet another strange facet of American culture, we left for home, still crowned in cardboard.