“I used to be an adventurer like you. Then I took an arrow in the knee.”
ah, Skyrim. In the pantheon of Gaming’s Greatest Memes, “The cake is a lie” from Portal may have the edge. But anyone who was plugged into games back in 2011, when Bethesda Softworks released The Elder Scrolls V, surely remembers “arrow in the knee.”
Those two, short sentences seemed to forever be on the lips of every nameless guard across the land of Skyrim. That wasn’t actually the case; the line was just a randomly occurring “bark” in a game that featured many such lines. But it’s a memorable bark, and the internet seized upon it immediately.
Meme-tracking website KnowYourMeme traces the community’s first discovery of the line back to a post on the GameFAQs fan forums. User Aggrobiscuit’s post — shared on Nov. 11, 2011, the day Skyrim launched — simply repeats it verbatim, with the first sentence in the subject and the second sentence in the body of the message.
The GameFAQs post never took off in a way that suggests it’s the source of the meme, generating only a small handful of replies. But it is nonetheless an early object example of how the line just stuck in people’s head. There’s an air of mystery about it. Some untold story, waiting to be revealed.
More than that, though, it’s also just a funny concept when you think about the bigger picture. All across Skyrim there are guards who pine for their glory days of adventuring, all of which were cut short by an unlucky arrow in the knee.
So many arrows, so many knees.
KnowYourMeme charts the early spread from there in various corners of the internet. One week after Skyrim launched, a post on the r/skyrim subreddit poked fun at all the “arrow in the knee” guards using a screenshot of a character with a log-sized crossbow bolt piercing his leg.
Not long after, a Nov. 25 entry in Urban Dictionary defined “knee-arrow” as “the affliction of taking an arrow in the knee.” In the days that followed, captioned images — the stuff that memes are made of — popped up on FunnyJunk y Memebase. Before the year was over, a Facebook fan page had launched.
There are surely other examples not accounted for by KnowYourMeme, but already you can see a picture forming. This thing spread quickly. There was fan-made swag. It was a visual gag in an early 2012 music video from LMFAO. The CBS series NCIS awkwardly name-dropped it. People latched on to “arrow in the knee” in a big way. They loved it.
For a time, anyway. Even the best jokes get played out over time, and “arrow in the knee” wasn’t really a joke. It was just a goofy couple of lines in a video game that, for whatever reason, resonated with the internet.
Even before the pop culture shouts from LMFAO and NCIS, the gaming world was over it. The most-viewed “arrow in the knee” video on YouTube to date — published Dec. 29, 2011, and currently the owner of more than 19 million views — describes itself, sarcastically, in a single sentence: “The joke isn’t overused at all.”
Still, “arrow in the knee” landed in a way that few other game-related memes before or since have managed. No one knows why, exactly, not even inside Bethesda.
“I’m not entirely sure,” said Emil Pagliarulo, who wrote the original line and works now as a design director at Bethesda.
“It just sort of ‘hit,’ and then it seemed like it was everywhere. I do remember seeing just, like, YouTube videos of the town guard saying the line, and wondered why that in itself was generating interest. And then it became a meme, and I was pretty shocked.”
The KnowYourMeme entry suggests that the line originated as a riff on a similar passage from a novel by fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss. Even now, in 2017, longtime Bethesda exec Pete Hines still remembers that as the source.
“I had actually just finished reading Patrick Rothfuss’ Name of the Wind right before Skyrim came out, so it was a reference/joke that I immediately noticed when I first heard it in game,” he said.
In truth, however, the origin of the line is simpler than that. It’s something that was born during the natural course of Pagliarulo’s writing process. No mystery, no intentional nod.
“It just came from my head, honestly. At one point someone online wrote that I took it from a Patrick Rothfuss book, but that’s actually not true. If there’s something similar in there, it’s a total coincidence,” Pagliarulo said.
“At that time, I was writing dozens of lines for the town guards in Skyrim. Just to give them flavor and personality. So it was one of many. In this case, it just seemed like a funny opportunity, and maybe believable. Like, he could have gotten shot in the knee with an arrow at some point, and now he’s semi-retired, and just walks around town like a worn out fantasy beat cop.”
As is the case with most memes, we’ll probably never know what made “arrow in the knee” catch on. It was probably just a combination of Skyrim‘s intense popularity at the time and the oddity of this highly specific utterance coming from countless guards throughout the game’s world. After all, there’s nothing normal about a small army of former adventurers, all now retired due to the same knee injury.
Skyrim launched for Nintendo’s new Switch console on Nov. 17, and the line is still there. But the meme is effectively dead. That’s probably for the best. But take a moment before you go to look back on what was….
And finally, on a personal note: I used to be a professional writer. Then I wrote about taking an arrow in the knee.
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