Monday, November 28, 2011

Why A Rapier Is Not Like A Broadsword

Seems like a simple enough concept, right? Well, it is and it isn't.

Okay, I should provide a little bit of background on this one. While I was at SFContario this year I attended a panel on HBO's A Game Of Thrones television series. I'm a big fan of the books and have seen the entire series so far, so of course the panel was interesting to me. In addition, media panels at relaxacons or more "literary" conventions tend to be sparsely attended, providing a great opportunity to interact with the panelists when you don't have to fight to be seen or heard with thirty other people.

One of the panelists made what was a cogent argument on its face. If you haven't seen the series or read the books then be forewarned, SPOILERS ahead.

Still here? Okay.

Anyways, this panelist (who shall remain nameless so that nobody thinks I'm picking on him/her) questioned why Syrio didn't pick up one of the fallen broadswords after his wooden training blade was broken.

Now, as I said, on its face this is a sensible question. It's only when you get into the mechanics of swordplay that it becomes obvious why he doesn't.

Swords all have a different weight and feel. This is true for metal blades as well as their wooden analogues. For instance, the bamboo shinai I use for kendo will perform differently based upon where and how they are balanced.

Even two shinais of the same type can feel different depending upon a number of factors such as weight or how well-oiled they are. Also, there are sub-types that affect things as well. Shinais, which stand-in for katana, have different sub-types such as practice and dobari which affect performance. Practice shinai tend to be straighter and more evenly weighted while dobari are heavier towards their base so as to better simulate a real blade.

Switching between shinai types is difficult enough for me, and while I've spent some time in training I have nowhere near developed the muscle memory a true master has, so when I switched to dobari I didn't have to completely retrain all of my ingrained responses.

Now, this isn't to say it's impossible to cross-train to be able to utilize more than one style of blade. However, it does require a person who can compartmentalize their muscle memory responses, and that I have a feeling can be a rather rare trait.

So with that being the case, let's take another look at Syrio's situation. Here he is, with a broadsword at this feet and a broken training blade in his hands. Why stay with the broken one? Simply put, he'd be ten times as effective with a broken blade as he would be with a whole broadsword.

Trying to use the broadsword without any training would be suicide in the life or death struggle Syrio was in. His arms wouldn't be used to the weight. He could go for a lunge and find his back giving out because of the stress put on it. He'd get tired quicker. His ingrained footwork, which is the basis for all swordplay, probably wouldn't work with the broadsword. All in all, a bad idea.

So what is the point I'm trying to make? Aside from providing a more involved answer than I was able to give at the con, I wanted to put it out there for other writers to know\consider. If you're going to write stories involving swordplay than know the basics. Have a general idea between the rapier and the broadsword. Know what periods of history they were in and how they developed from what came before. Know their strengths and weaknesses.

Most of all, know what type of men carried these weapons. Syrio's choice of sword tells us as much about him as all the words he says and every drop of description George R.R. Martin provides us with.

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