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Sir Barchan of the Joust

For the honorable knights of the Maryland Renaissance Festival, every charge is aimed for the win — knocking the other rider off his horse

The chance of serious injury is very low, but the chance of minor injury is very high.

“A piece of armor may fly into the crowd. If this happens, please do not be harmed,” says Sir Barchan of Dinglebury, who comes armed with a sense of humor and over 90 pounds of 14-gauge stainless steel to introduce his fellow jousters. As champion of the Maryland Renaissance Festival’s home field, Rebel Grove, the 60-year-old knight loves this contact sport. 

The self-taught champion leads the Ren Fest knights into battle against the new era. With no high-tech gadgets, equipped with only a friendly yet fierce attitude and knowledge of his knightly predecessors, Barchan acts as spokesperson for his fellow jousters while they make themselves ready.

Tomorrow he will joust. Today he transports peasants — who’ve stumbled drunk to wooden benches lining the arena for a good view of the action — back to the glory days of knights. Knights on horseback were the cavalry of wars immemorial, but they cantered into extinction after the development of heavy artillery. Jousting endured as a sport — it is, for example, Maryland’s state sport — with the addition of rules to reduce deadly mistakes.

Though the rules helped, Sir Barchan is living proof you can take the game out of the war, but not the war out of the game. “Broken teeth, broken ribs, broken fingers and concussions” are on his list of injuries — not to mention cuts and bruises. “It’s worth it, though,” says Barchan, who beams as bright as his armor in describing the behind-the-scenes competitive “bruise-offs, to see whose were worst.”

“It’s like football. You play football, then you get hurt, then you get better, then you play football again,” Barchan says. But instead of jerseys, tight pants and pads, jousters don armor and drape their sturdy steeds in their king’s colors. Instead of rushing into a crushing melee, jousters race toward each other to get a big stick poked in their chest.

Barchan’s life as a knight started in a University of Maryland history club. The club’s reenactment of historical battles took off into a passion that led club members to volunteer at the Renaissance Festival. There, they defended the royal court from dastardly drunks and portrayed Viking characters from the wrong century before segueing into jousting.

After teaching himself, Barchan taught his horse. Horses, he says, “are the athletes. We just sit there.” Even trained horses have personalities, however, so “you can never be sure if two had a fight the night before and now won’t run past each other.” 

Once training is complete and knights understand the odds — the “chance of serious injury is very low, but the chance of minor injury is very high” — it is time to enter the arena. 

The queen arrives as trumpets blare the Rocky theme song. Drunken screams erupt once the arena’s instigator of applause informs the crowd that “cheers are like food for a knight.” Onto the field parade horses carrying knights armed with swords.

With no courageous challenger today, Barchan hypes up the crowd as the knights hype themselves by riding with drawn swords at a stationary shield. The queen wishes to see the knights’ strength. Can they slice a head off a man in a single slash? They can, but today they strike a wooden block, instead.

Now comes the main event.

The knights line themselves up and take the lances in their right hands, by custom. Hoping to knock the other rider off his horse — for 10 points — or to break their own lance — for three points and a show of strength — they set off.

These knights play the “more brutal North American style,” Barchan says. “Every charge is to make a guy fall off the horse and to try to win.” Still, the champion adds, “it should be kept honorable, as knights joust as friends.”