The Gemmell Award ceremony at the World Fantasy Convention was a hoot. It was also illuminating.
Out of the five contenders for the Morningstar Award (Best Debut Novel), two appeared with weapons in the brochure: John Gwynne (who won!), with a nice non-fantasy looking longsword, and Miles Cameron, in Hundred Years War era armor.
Cameron is obviously a part-time sword person. Mr Gwynne, when I asked him, ‘fessed up to being a collector only, but still interested in authentic historical combat.
Later in the bar, I got talking to a journalist and the conversation turned to my obsession with Historical European Martial Arts, especially the superiority of the German Longsword tradition.
“Ah,” said the journalist, backing away and holding up his hands defensively. “You should chat to Adrian Tchaikovsky. He talks about that.”
So, I wove my way over to a somewhat hirsute fellow I didn’t know. As an opening gambit, I barked “Zornhau!” hoping he might respond with a verbal Zwerchhau. That failing — the bar being noisy — I sat down and talked to him.
It turned out that Adrian Tchaikovsky has a pile of books in print so large that monkeys occasionally stop by to worship it. (This is a hazard of cons. The field is so fragmented that you often have no idea who you are approaching.)
But we fell to sharing a mutual enthusiasm for good old German Longsword, and Adrian took out a book, opened it and jabbed at a paragraph. “Look at this!”
It was, it seemed, his first fight scene based on the authentic historical martial art.
I squinted at the text — I’d left my reading glasses in the hotel room — and parsed out the action. The prose was tight and non-technical — Clang! Wham! Splat! Argh! — but behind it I could see one of the early plays from the Liechenthauer family of manuscripts:
A opens with a Zornhau (diagonal cut).
B counters with the same cut.
A changes to a kind of parry.
B starts to “wind” (raises her sword to change the leverage).
A pushes away.
B pushes her right hand under her left elbow and doubles (a hooking action behind the blade).
A realistic fight. The technicalities don’t really matter (except to people like me), but the shape does.
Real Medieval combat is nasty, nifty… short. William the Marshal once killed five spearmen on the walls of a castle (that he was single-handedly storming) in as many heartbeats. Don Pero Nino once took down an enemy champion with a single blow that split shield, helm, coif, and skull and went to the teeth.
Real Medieval combat is not usually about grunting and shoving, nor wielding 15lb blades, nor — so help me — waiting for an “opening” in narrative summary then thrusting, nor — worse! — the old grit-in-the-eye trick, again.
And this takes us to what matters in this literary context: Real Medieval combat is about cunning, courage, and presence of mind, all driven by talent, training and drill.
It follows that combat with swords (and axes and maces…) is not so different from any other human endeavor and has a much more universal resonance than one might expect from watching the first Conan film — William the Marshal was not so very different from a star Java coder, he just killed more people. We can use warriors to tell stories about humanity in general. It also follows that realistic depictions of hand-to-hand combat are more intuitively believable and hence more threatening, more edgy, than the less well-informed efforts.
It’s decades since Poul Anderson wrote On Thud and Blunder, but only now does it seem that the people who know about swords are lifting the literary bar.
One day, perhaps, if you want to write Sword and Sorcery or Heroic Fantasy, your first natural step will be to google your local Historical Martial Arts club (if you are in Edinburgh, Scotland, come learn German Longsword with us!)
And perhaps, if you read these genres, you will also be inexorably drawn to taking up the sword for real.
I dream of a Gemmell Award ceremony that ends with a foot tournament….
M Harold Page (www.mharoldpage.com) is a Scottish-based writer and swordsman. His debut novel The Sword is Mightier came out recently. His Foreworld SideQuest, Marshal versus The Assassins is available on Amazon for preorder.