Fantasy of Swords

by John Clements, ARMA Director

jcbio.jpg (2938 bytes)

Last year, I visited some renaissance fairs in Texas and stopped by a number of the sword vendors. I moved among the racks and stands, watching the swordsmiths and their sellers at work and keeping an eye open for the occasional historical model. Some of the vendors were offering custom made spring-steel pieces while others were hawking cheap wall-hangers from Spain and the Philippines. I examined the typical wide variety of fantasy "Conan" and "Highlander" swords, the stainless steel samurai blades, and the ubiquitous blunt stage props.

I spoke with several of the swordsmiths themselves and after perceiving them as reasonably intelligent and well-studied on the subject of blades, I discretely questioned them. I had to ask why with their obvious knowledge and resources they continually offered so many designs that were clearly not only historically inaccurate, but plainly impractical. There were swords that were decidedly too big, too small, too heavy, hard to wield, impossible to cut effectively with, and just plain awkward to handle. There were hilts that were too short, too long, too fat, too ridiculous, and too silly. There were guards and pommels made of soft metals that would easily gouge on contact, or that would cut into the hand if properly gripped.

I had to ask why with their obvious knowledge and resources they continually offered so many designs that were clearly not only historically inaccurate, but plainly impractical.

In answer to my questions I expected to hear the usual familiar responses I had come across so often before, such as: "Well, that's what sells" and "I only give the public what it wants" or "It's just fantasy, people know the difference". Instead, without exception the response I received was, "What does it matter"? I was shocked. I learned that these vendors were so entrenched in their own sales pitch and marketing effort that they actually believed the nonsense they were pushing. There were those calling broad bladed weapons "armor piercing rapiers", those claiming large, heavy hilts of soft bronze were "medieval", and those claiming plastic dragon handles were historical. One vendor even said his blades "didn't need flexibility"(!). Another asserted his custom swords "Could cut clean through plate-armor". There was one who stated "Swords were supposed to be heavy" and another who answered me with "How do we even know what (real swords) were really like?".

As a scholar of the sword and long-time practitioner, I found I could not even being to offer intelligent rebuttal to ignorant statements of this magnitude. Rather than admitting that their crudely-tempered, low-quality steel blades with weak tangs and over-weighted, over-decorated hilts, were for the most part only fantasy wall-hangers, these vendors instead told heroic tales of stage-combat. It was truly sad. At each display I wandered through the crowd of bustling fair patrons and shook my head in dismay. My experience then lead me to some observations about the sword industry as a whole.


There shouldn't be any difficulty in coming up with alternative yet legitimate designs. Except, doing so comes with a price. It is a price that students of the sword must be wary of.

There are currently available far more varieties of replica swords that are make-believe (i.e., historically fake) than there are those that are made in the likeness of real-life models. It seems that copying historical examples from a museum or private collection is of much less interest to swordsmiths now than are there own "original" interpretations. This is understandable since, as artists they do not want to just redo other people's work over and over. They need to individually create and express. This would seem to be no big deal, people are certainly free to make and sell whatever they want. There shouldn't be any difficulty in coming up with alternative yet legitimate designs. Except, doing so comes with a price. It is a price that students of the sword must be wary of.

Over hundreds of years during the Middle Ages and before, tens of thousands of men used real swords for real life and death fighting. They knew what swords forms worked and why. Their sword makers came up with practical and beautiful styles and stuck with them. In a process of deadly natural-selection (not theatrical play) they tried and discarded those that were inferior and inadequate. As a result, thousands of examples have survived for us that represent designs for facing and defeating a variety of different opponents and armors.

Yet today, we now have modern, self-taught sword-makers who presume to create their own fictitious, imaginary types according to whatever aesthetics suit their fancy --regardless of functionality. This would be no problem either if these makers can admit when an original fantasy design is impractical or violates an established principle of use. It would appear many can not. If they could respect the knowledge of skilled practitioners and adhere to the fundamentals of what makes a comfortable, balanced, and functionally sound hilt or blade, there would be no need to write this. A blade should not ignore historical precedent nor the physical mechanics of cutting, thrusting, and parrying just to look cool.

When these various blades (those few that are capable) end up being used by performers of stage-combat shows, the claim is then made that they are "battle-tested". This is hardly the case. The limitations and artificial premises of theatrical combat routines with its special requirements are a far cry from the reality of wielding a sharp sword to cut, cleave, and kill. Those wanting blunt swords for mindlessly banging edge-on-edge or merely for costume also help set this false standard.

The limitations . . . of theatrical combat . . . are a far cry from the reality of wielding a sharp sword to cut, cleave, and kill.

But , can we blame these vendors completely? After all, who is there with the authority to tell them anything different? Who among them would even listen, anyway? They are artists and craftsmen, not slaves to the opinions of self-proclaimed swordsmen. They are the ones skilled in the art of manufacturing of blades in the first place. They can label their work as "historical" or "historically accurate" based on their own subjective criteria (and presumably, their own forms of sword practice as well). However, due to their creative whims, technical limitations, and marketing notions, they pass an array of fantasy swords off to an unassuming and unquestioning public.

In a perverse reversal of the ancient relationship whereby skilled warrior swordsmen provided the crucial feedback to sword-makers on blade handling characteristic and performance, we instead today have the opposite. Often it is the fantasy sword-makers themselves who will tell their customers what a sword should be able to do and how it should respond when doing it (this is a little like an auto-worker telling a professional racer how to drive!). Myth and ignorance are thus perpetuated.

It will take some time, perhaps another generation, before swordsmen knowledgeable and skillful enough in replicating historical martial skills become sufficiently prevalent to compel sword makers to heed their expertise. Eventually, the historical facts may overtake the fantasy and thereby influence better swordsmiths to produce more historically accurate weapons. Until then, the preponderance of so many inaccurate replicas and fantasy versions will continue to mislead modern enthusiasts and retard reconstruction of the historical Art. When properly educated, few individuals will choose the falsehood of complete fantasy over the reality of history in selecting their weapons. Practitioners and re-creationist today should seek out only accurate reproductions of fully-tempered quality steel. There are definitely reputable dealers of fine, accurate replica swords out there, but they are by far the exception. Buyer beware.

Back to the Essays Page

 
 

Note: The word "ARMA" and its associated arms emblem is a federally registered trademark under U.S. Reg. No. 3831037. In addition, the content on this website is federally registered with the United States Copyright Office, © 2001-2016. All rights are reserved. No use of the ARMA name and emblem, or website content, is permitted without authorization. Reproduction of material from this site without written permission of The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts and its respective authors is strictly prohibited. Additional material may also appear from "HACA" The Historical Armed Combat Association copyright © 1999-2001 by John Clements. All rights are reserved to that material as well.

 

theARMA@comcast.net