Wildly inaccurate portrayals of sword fighting in the media are nothing new. Recently John Clements dropped by io9 to debunk modern sword fighting, and Martin Page and Guy Windsor talked to IGN about the problems with sword fighting in video games. These guys know sword fighting. Me? I'm just a writer, trying not to embarrass himself on the page when it comes to a bit of the hack and slash. I'm the showrunner for The Foreworld Saga, a secret history of the Western martial arts, and one of the writers of The Mongoliad. I've been party to writing a few sword fights, and I'll let you in on a little secret: they are an incredible pain in the ass to write.
For example: in the first volume of The Mongoliad, we had a fight between one of our knights and a samurai. This was the big opening set piece, the flashy "dance number," if you will, that was meant to draw people in. It took us six months to write it. We wrote three complete drafts, and each time we discovered that we really didn't know what we were doing. We had an extensive choreography session, from which I've got hours of video footage which are funny to look at now as we spend most of our time clustered around a laptop at one end of the practice hall, trying to see what our sword expert from Finland is trying to show us over a laggy Skype connection. We learned that stopping a naginata stroke with a sword blade was laughably foolish (and have high speed video capture demonstrating this lunacy), and we discovered that a 10,000 word sword fight is probably too long. Even for sword nerds.
There's a bookcase down at the office that we call the "Library of Violence," and it's been filling up over the last year. Writers don't need much of an excuse to buy books, and with the resurgence in scholarly and practical interest in the historical western martial arts, there has been a delightful flood in available research material.
The Getty Center, which holds one of four existing copies of Fiore dei Liberi's Fior di Battaglia, recently released high quality images of the manuscript. And there was much rejoicing amongst Fiore students worldwide; we could do away with the tattered illicit copies we'd been poring over. Rory Miller's Meditations on Violence is an examination of the modern day psychology of violence, but his discussion about the fundamental nature of combat is timeless. Osprey Publishing has a line of illustrated books that are focused on a specific type of combatant from a very specific point in history. The Oxford University Press has a three-volume, 1800 page set entitled The Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology. Oh, and let's not forget David Nicolle. His two-volume set of Arms and Armor of the Crusading Era is a thousand pages of his personal annotations of EVERY armored figure in art, sculpture, bas-relief, or illustrated manuscript page.
That's the top shelf. There are five more shelves.
Nearby, there's a bin or two of broken swords-the discarded remnants of efforts to figure out how to recreate the tools of sword fighting without having to actually buy steel swords and shirts of chain mail (here's another secret: nothing really replaces steel and chain). One of the in-jokes in our Kickstarter video for CLANG is that the demo sword controller came out of these bins. It was a prototype from a few years ago. It still lights up when you toggle the switch on the hilt.
I was in a cycle gear shop recently, looking at gloves. The old Lacrosse goalie gloves I've been using protect my thumb nicely, but I can't move it around the hilt of the sword. "What kind of bike do you ride?" the sales guy asked as he wandered over.
"Oh, I don't need them for riding," I said. "I need them for sword fighting."
To his credit, he only paused for a few seconds before soldiering on. "What kind of sword fighting?" he asked.
"Longsword," I said. "Italian. Early fifteenth century."
Alas, he didn't know the proper response, the key words that would have told me that he and I were part of the same underground study group. Few do, but what has surprised me over the last year is how many actually nod knowingly. "Ah, Fiore," they'll say, and then they'll respond with some other name. Lichtenauer, Talhoffer, Ringeck, or even I.33. There are many fechtbuch to choose from, and that's what has made this study of the western martial arts so endlessly fascinating.
Mark Teppo is the author of the eco-thriller, Earth Thirst, as well as the urban fantasy series The Codex of Souls. He's the showrunner for the Foreworld Saga and one of the authors of three volume medieval adventure story, The Mongoliad.
The Mongoliad: Book Three is out today, February 26, 2013 from 47North.