Ginger Nuts of Horror
There are an awful lot of people out there who claim to be experts in medieval sword-fighting. Seriously, you can’t swing a live chainsaw without hitting one of them on message boards on-line. Let me be clear right up front: I’m not one of the experts. I know almost nothing of this esoteric and long-forgotten Western martial art. But as far as those who claim to be experts go, let’s just say I’m skeptical.
In truth, I think there are damned few real sword-fighting experts out there, not the real stuff, not the life and death stuff. Don’t get me wrong, there are wonderful athletes out there who have spent a lifetime mastering fencing as a sport, but that’s a sport and it’s not the same thing at all. I’m talking about a working knowledge of longsword combat where the winner kept living and the loser didn’t; the type of knowledge that was built up over a lifetime of daily practice and study. Certainly, there are many medieval and renaissance source books out there, and there are numerous and growing clubs of very keen practitioners actively seeking to rediscover the art of longsword fighting (often through meticulous study of the before-mentioned source books). YouTube is engorged with videos of clubs and practitioners. Clearly, Western sword-fighting is enjoying a rebirth, its own renaissance period, with new clubs popping up all over the place as people realize the West really does have its own martial art.
So where’s the realism in fantasy novels?
I’ve been fascinated with swords all my life. Really. I mean like totally spellbound with them. When I was a boy, I used to draw swords all over pieces of paper. Don’t ask me why, I don’t know, other than that I thought swords were cool. I also loved fantasy novels, the more adventurous the better. I loved John Norman’s Tarl Cabot of Gor series--before Norman went all weird on the subservient role of women to men and how what women really wanted were to be sex slaves of men. No, what I loved was the adventure of it all. When Tarl Cabot fought with his short sword, I was totally digging it. It was the whole swashbuckling thing; I ate it up. Movies were even better. The 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn was a perfect example of what I loved. The scene at the end of the movie where Robin Hood battled Gisbourne in a protracted sword fight—throughout the castle, even on the stairs—was sheer brilliance.
But (and you knew there’d be a ‘but’ in there, right?) as you get older, you start to pick up on things that you didn’t really notice when you were a kid. First off, no one could swing a sword in a real fight for as long as Robin and Gisbourne did; they’d be exhausted. And, yes, I understand that knights trained with swords almost every day and were insanely fit and muscular (hence the term, ‘built like a knight’). But still, no one could do that. There are limits to the human body. Second, would the swords even have survived such a constant and prolonged battering? Maybe not. Probably not.
So, Robin and Gisbourne’s movie sword fight wasn’t realistic, but it sure did look good.
Is it the same thing with fantasy literature?
I remember the first fantasy novel I tried to write (probably about twenty years ago now. It was really bad, I mean really bad. First off, I didn’t research anything; instead, I just kind of ran with what I felt was right. The hero was an archer and used a longbow (I knew nothing about longbows either and it showed). He also had a longsword, and—again—knowing nothing of longswords and sword-fighting—my fight scenes were complete crap. In fact, the whole novel was an abysmal failure. I didn’t even finish it. On some level, I think I realized that I couldn’t just fake my way through stuff that I knew nothing about, and I didn’t want to do the research. Research wasn’t fun back then (it is now, but you develop discipline with time and your interests evolve).
I knew I had a proverbial mountain to climb, and when I finally did start researching sword-fighting it was many years later and almost by accident. I was on G.R.R. Martin’s webpage and he had a listing for source books that he had used to learn about sword-fighting. I figured I could do far worse than to emulate the amazing Mr. Martin, so I bought what looked like the best one on Amazon, John Clements’ Medieval Swordsmanship and proceeded to dig into it. Turns out I was right: I knew nothing about sword-fighting and most of what I thought I knew was wrong.
I loved this book. I’ve read it twice now and will read it again. It shattered my beliefs and exposed most of them for myths. Turns out, warriors didn’t like using their swords to parry other swords (doing so blunted or destroyed them); and if they did, they certainly didn’t use the edge. I also learned about the high, middle, and low guard positions (There were guard positions?). Previously, I always imagined you just held the sword loosely in front of you, pointy end toward your opponent. I don’t know why I was surprised, it’s the same thing in Karate, you rarely just stand there; instead, you assume fighting stances, from which you are well balanced and can easily strike out at your opponent. There’s a scene in the movie Kingdom of Heaven when Godfrey de Ibelin (Liam Neeson) corrects his son, Balion (Orlando Bloom), and orders him to use the high guard instead of the middle guard. This movie is one of the rare gems in Hollywood that get it right for a change. The high guard looks silly to our untrained eye, but it isn’t wrong; in fact, it’s very practical, but you’d never know that without researching real sword-fighting.
And the research was truly an eye-opening experience. You parry with the flat of the blade, not the edge; you rely on low strikes and rising cuts to your opponent’s arms and legs far more often than you try to lop off his head; and, straight and angled thrusts while parrying are critical if you want to survive. Again, we do the same thing in karate: when you’re advanced enough, you punch through your blocks. Medieval combat was fast and lethal. If it didn’t work, you didn’t learn it or use it. As it turns out, medieval sword-fighting was far more sophisticated than I imagined. I don’t know why I was so surprised. After all, knights drilled constantly.
Here’s another tidbit of knowledge from Mr. Clements: I always remember reading or hearing about the infamous ‘blood groove,’ the indentation that runs down the center of the blade that stops the suction effect that traps swords inside an opponent’s body after he or she has been stabbed. Turns out the blood groove is complete nonsense; an urban myth. The groove along the blade is actually called a fuller, and it’s there to improve the blade’s balance and flexibility, as well as to lighten the sword’s weight--not for stopping the blade from getting stuck in someone’s body. But doesn’t blood groove sound so much cooler?
And the coolness factor is critical, one I’ll come back to in a bit.
So, there are a number of problems for the serious author of medieval fantasy, or any other fiction where people fight with swords. First, most of what we have come to accept as truth is wrong. Swords were built for thrusting or slicing, rarely both; and what they were built for depended upon the type of armor your opponent wore and the period of history in which he wore it. It really was a symbiotic relationship, armor and swords. When your opponent wore plate or chainmail armor, you needed a sword with a point for thrusting between the plates or links. When your opponent wore leather or no armor, you needed something that could slash and cut. Many Viking-age swords, 800-1100 A.D., didn’t even have a pointed end, but a rounded one; after all, they were intended to slash and cut, not stab. Second, in fiction, as well as most films, sword-fighters are constantly beating at each other’s blades, often deflecting with the edge. But fighting like that broke swords, and swords were valuable, often really valuable—and surprisingly fragile. In fact, they snapped way more often than you’d think. Hell, you could even chip your blade on your opponent’s bones, which is something to bear in mind the next time you read about someone beheading their opponent. Third, the type of wounds in fiction often does not accurately reflect the severity of the tissue damage real swords made. Yes, swords could hack, but they were built to cut not hack. When you made contact with your opponent’s body, you’d have to draw the weapon back or shove it forward in order to cut your opponent. Think of how you cut steak. No one slams their steak knife against the meat; it doesn’t work that way; same thing with swords. And when you cut your opponent properly, you’d end up with massive trauma; I mean really horrific wounds and not the type of scrape or cut people could generally survive with a few stitches or a poultice. Check out the Bayeux Tapestries for some grisly examples of what longswords did to human bodies; think severed limbs. But the biggest problem I’ve found in a lot of fantasy literature is this: realistic sword-fighting just isn’t flashy; it’s lethal and it’s effective, but without a lot of hard work on the author’s part, it can come across as boring. The coolness factor often just isn’t there.
Let’s use the Hollywood example again. Turns out that there’s a very good reason why (most of the time) Hollywood’s sword fights are all flash and no substance: The flashy stuff looks good on film. It’s the exact same thing with martial arts. Most trained martial artists will tell you that kicks above the waist rarely work, yet the martial arts hero in the movies will always try to kick his or her opponent in the head—it looks good and it always works. In real life, however, he or she would probably miss and fall on their ass, then get said ass kicked by the opponent. The truth is, it’s really hard to kick with any power after your foot has travelled above your own waist, but few people know this. You’re actually much better off punching your opponent in the head than you are kicking him in the head. But (like the high guard with a longsword) that isn’t instinctive to the untrained eye; it just doesn’t seem right.
So, is realistic sword-fighting in fiction overrated? Does realism only matter to the die-hard medieval weapons fan? Do most authors write what they believe sword-fighting was like because they don’t know any better, or because the real stuff would bore the snot out of readers and be over all too quickly?
Well, like with most complex issues, it depends.
In my most recent novel, the hero, a Viking, fights with a Viking sword, one of the legendary Ulfberht blades that rivalled the Japanese katana for construction (check out the Nova documentary on YouTube; it’s fascinating). I took some liberties with the sword from a historical standpoint—for example, mine has a pointed end in an age that usually boasted round ends), but mostly I think I got it right. I also think I finally got the combat right. I actually researched sword-fighting this time, unlike that first, unfinished, fantasy novel twenty years ago. I even read descriptions of combat from ancient Norse sagas. I’m really happy with how the fighting came out on the page. For me, then, research and realism are necessary, and I believe they improved the flow of my sword-fights. Others would likely disagree.
So, is realism overrated? Maybe, but I think there’s a happy medium out there, one where realistic sword-fighting can still come across as exciting. We authors just need to work a bit harder and dig a bit deeper.
So I’m going to keep researching and writing realistic sword-fighting in my fiction. If it doesn’t read as fun, it’ll be because I haven’t done enough as a writer to make it fun.
And, if nothing else, maybe I’ll learn something new. And that’s never a waste of time.
A former soldier, William Stacey served his country for more than thirty years, including multiple combat tours in Bosnia and Afghanistan. William loves exercise and all things martial and is a black belt in karate.
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Beware the foe behind the strange threshold.
In 799 A.D. Viking warband leader Asgrim Wood-Nose sails his prized longship Sea Eel south along the coast of Frankia to raid the island of Noirmoutier—the Black Monastery.
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