(For a more recent appraisal, see Knightmare: the 25th Anniversary).
Those who know me well enough will know that Knightmare is never far from my thoughts. It is a permanent feature, for better or worse, of my being. Knightmare elegantly punctuated my primary years. It introduced me to fantasy, encouraged me towards intellectual pursuit, and proved to be a strong enough source of a fair majority of my strongest friends.
It may seem bizarre to introduce a 1980s gameshow through the guise of early-modern literature, as I’m about to do, but there’s an ideal opportunity to “yoke” together heterogeneous ideas here that I cannot overlook.
A few months ago, I was aligning myself to the ill-fated grasshopper from a poem by Richard Lovelace [Farewell Frost]. I have often, in similar vein, sought inner counsel to Sir Thomas Wyatt’s famous sonnet.
I find no peace, and all my war is done;
I fear, and hope. I burn, and freeze like ice.
I fly above the wind, yet can I not arise.
And naught I have, and all the World I seize on…
When I refreshed the thought in my mind, what emerged was an image that encapsulates one of Knightmare’s most enigmatic in-game mysteries: a firestone cased in ice.
Attaching this to Knightmare has unique significance to me. Knightmare was a revolutionary and groundbreaking virtual-reality television gameshow that aired in the UK between 1987 and 1994.
The ‘quest’ was undertaken by groups of four aged 11-16, with the objective (in almost all cases) of retrieving a magical historical object. Achieving this required surviving three ‘levels’ of increasing difficulty, interacting with in-game characters, and solving and navigating around tough puzzles.
One player, blindfolded by a helmet, took the role of ‘dungeoneer’, and entered a chromakey blue-screen set, onto which was superimposed an atmospheric fantasy dungeon environment. Three companions remained in the central antechamber along with the Dungeon Master, and gave aid and directions. [Visit Knightmare.com for more]
One of the attractions of the game was its controversially graphic nature and its notorious degree of difficulty – features that carried political forbearance.
Created in the uncompromising Thatcherite era of the 1980s, the show was fantasy escapism that, paradoxically, found no escapism. The vast majority of the participating teams met the ‘death’ of their dungeoneer, which was achieved in a variety of creative ways, including falls, bomb explosions, piercing by spikes, and massacre by blades.
There is a glint in the eye of Tim Child, the show’s creator, when he states in an interview in 2007:
Some of the gameplay was really quite complex. It was always challenging, and also, it was quite scary. A dungeon is a dark, dank, dangerous place. It’s not the sort of place you would send six-year-olds in. Even in fantasy terms, with drawn environments, it’s pretty convincing. We scared an awful lot of children, but it made for great gameplay once they had been scared.
(Tim Child, ‘Children’s TV on Trial‘, 2007)
Knightmare, refreshingly, did not suffer fools, and it often displayed exacting standards. Failure, for example, to answer one riddle correctly in the final level, after 45 minutes of airtime, would withhold the vital information needed to complete the game, and rendered the team’s demise inevitable.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, several weak teams – especially in the early seasons – did not escape the first level. As Knightmare’s audience swelled and the fiendish fantasy world built its reputation, the gameplay evolved from a series of sporadic single-room challenges to greater background narratives and synopses.
Autopsy and Fragments: Knightmare in Research
The evolution of the gameplay added a strong autopsic value to the legacy of the programme.
It has long been argued amongst fans that elements of the show were intrinsically unfair. Even now, 20 years on, we attempt to decipher some of the more tantalising mysteries behind some of the failed quests that continue to baffle us.
It’s a familiar problem for me that the primary evidence teases out fascinating questions that encourage speculation but offers little chance of ever finding conclusive answers.
As a literary historian (of sorts), one of my research objectives is to present a historical case and then to read subjectively within that context. The other is to present an original contribution to knowledge.
To my regret, I have only been able to offer two small contributions towards Knightmare encyclopedia, though at least I manage one for each of the above.
The first is a factual contribution, which, endearingly enough, relates to my hometown. The shortest quest, in terms of airtime, I calculated, was actually the first team of series 2, and not, as commonly thought, a later team of that same year.
The second is a proposition of conjecture, and relates to the quest featured below. My interpretation of the synopsis of this level, to the best of my knowledge, has not been registered elsewhere.
[The images are linked to clips, but this does not come close to representing Knightmare at its fiery best. The docile series 5 of 1991, plus a young team, has produced a mystery, not a thriller. However, these clips assist in following the events].
The team learn that passage to the third and final level will require a firestone. One is frozen away in the level, they are told, but it will require magic to release it. The hint they receive in the clue room is ‘Fair Trade is No Robbery‘. Straight afterwards, they encounter trickster Julius Scaramonger, who offers to sell them a potion of impurity.
The team, still mindful about the advice for magic, ask him about spells. Scaramonger becomes evasive, which makes them assume they are on the right track. They persist until he concedes and offers a choice of spells: Change or Switch. With little on which to base their choice, the team take Change, and later attempt to cast it at the encased firestone.
However, it turns out to be a trick, and turns the dungeoneer, Chris, into a goblin. They are left to progress without their required object, and inevitably their progress is doomed. Their (unique) death is consumption by a Blocker.
The discussion has all centred around the choice of spells. What might Switch have done? What indications were there of which to choose? To me, though, both are a misnomer. ‘Fair Trade is No Robbery’ indicates that Scaramonger’s initial offering (a rarity for him) is, in fact, the correct option. And, logically speaking, the impurity solution would go on to dissolve the ice.
However, this does not solve all of the mysteries. In a later scene, the team encounter the monk, Brother Mace, for the second time. Mace hints, rather uniquely, at a second chance saloon. He advises them that with a folderol (available earlier from the clue room, but not chosen), the team could summon the dungeon jester, Motley, who could reverse the cast-locked spell.
We learn after the team’s demise that Motley would have provided them with the password they needed to bypass the blocker. So, despite failing to retrieve the firestone, the synopsis still provided a route for the team to advance to the end of the level and give themselves a chance.
This compounds both the mystery and the unfairness. Even if the ‘Fair Trade’ hint was decipherable, there was no obvious clue that the team should choose the folderol. And, as lucidly noted, the percentages of guessing were not always consistent. Without taking a wild gamble on the folderol, one can only assume that their quest was bound to end in the same manner.
Little wonder that one of the most seasoned fans was left to consider: ‘This has got to be one of the best teams as far as wild speculation is concerned, since there are so many possibilities about what could have happened’.
Enough pieces of the synopic jigsaw have been revealed to start forming an hazy image of how the level could be cracked, but not enough to be conclusive. If a dozen academically minded fans contemplating the case cannot conclusively decipher the fact, goodness knows how 12-13 year olds are expected to. But that, in a nutshell, was Knightmare.
The Fire That Burns Within
The same degrees of mystery are true of the good poet. A recent doctoral thesis speaks of the poet in a way that could just as easily relate to the show. An amendment would read thus:
Why is Knightmare brilliant? Precisely because it perplexes the viewer, perhaps perplexed itself, and often tacitly makes perplexity its subject.
Why I come to this in the first place is distinctly personal: back to the firestone cased in ice. The same striking, iconic paradoxes in Wyatt’s sonnet strike a curious parallel with Knightmare, and the wonderful antithesis of fire and ice would make another telling contribution in the series finale.
There is some icy barrier inhabiting my own fire, and it stops me from moving on, figuratively speaking, to the next level. And I don’t know how to break through it. The game reminds us, rationally enough, that the only way is onwards. I fear that to take the wrong option is to spell-cast Change and inflict further damage that cannot be easily rectified.
If only all such problems could be consigned to a gameshow, to remain on a pedestal for others to heartily discuss for decades to come.