Documentary Review: Reclaiming the Blade

I watched a fascinating documentary last night. I’m not normally a documentary-watcher, though I suspect if I were ever to sign up for cable and get the History Channel I’d probably not surface for several weeks at least. I’m a sponge when it comes to history and learning in general. But I can’t say I usually go out of my way to find such things, probably because I know I won’t be able to stop.

But I digress. My local library recently put up a display of “Things to do while waiting for The Hobbit”, including some of Tolkien’s other fiction, some non-fiction about Tolkien and his writing, and a few videos. One that caught my eye was “Reclaiming the Sword”, narrated by John Rhys-Davies and including Viggo Mortensen and Karl Urban.

The program very briefly discusses the history of the sword in medieval culture, but really begins with the advent of gunpowder. The sword as a weapon declined and transitioned into the sword as a sport. In that transition we lost the true art of sword fighting, instead replacing it with a “genteelized” version, complete with polite rules and objectives that bear little resemblance to the original purpose for swords–to kill people.

Hollywood, for its part, has managed to romanticize the sword and keep it in the cultural psyche, while simultaneously perpetuating the “all flash and no substance” image (Did you know that most swords are silent coming out of their scabbards?).

From my own experience with fencing, the sport version of sword fighting is a lot of fun, and is good exercise and training, but quite removed from reality. If I were ever in a fight for my life I wouldn’t care a fig whether my opponent had the “right of way”, and I wouldn’t consider myself victorious if my sword tip struck my opponent’s heart a fraction of second before his struck mine. I also wouldn’t care if I stayed in a narrow, arbitrary strip of territory.

It turns out (and I’ve caught wind of this previously) that there is a movement afoot to uncover the lost secrets of true sword fighting. Training texts are being found from the middle ages and renaissance, and historians and sword aficionados are using them to rebuild the art of sword fighting as taught by those who literally lived and died by the sword.

The old style was much more brutal, practical, and even functional. The idea was to incapacitate your opponent as efficiently as possible–form was barely a consideration. The hilt of the sword was just as viable as the blade for inflicting damage, as were feet and arms, and often the duel ended with one or both swordsmen on the ground BEFORE the finishing blow.

As a writer of fantasy fiction, this concept has opened up new vistas for me. I’d long understood that movie swordplay was anything but accurate, and while I have already begun to explore just what “real” sword fighting would look like, actually seeing it was like a bolt of lightning. I MUST SEE MORE!

So whatever your interest in swords and history may be, this documentary is well worth the time. Add to that the little gems that come out here and there about the art of sword making, and it’s well worth the investment as a jumping-off point to deeper investigation. If you’re a writer who is likely to include swords in your work, this is a must-see. It’s good stuff!