petermorwood: (Basic Sword Pic)
Advance warning for bad language - not mine, it's part of someone else's quoted post.


The Japanese sword is a good weapon. What it’s not is some weird combination of Excalibur and lightsabre.

The European longsword is a good weapon. What it’s not is some weird combination of iron club and barbell.

It would be easy to adopt the approach displayed by some, er, uncritically enthusiastic katana-fans, which is to hit capslock, shout, swear and diss every other sword and the people who used them. Like so:

Here’s the thing fuckwads. Katanas were used by MASTERS OF BATTLE called SAMURAI who knew precisely WHERE to hit, WHEN to hit, HOW MUCH FORCE THEY’D NEED, ETC. Samurai (at least when they started out, they got pretty corrupted and sloppy toward the end) were ONE WITH THEIR BLADE. The katana was known as the Samurai’s soul.

The FUCKING LONGSWORD on the other hand, was handed out to basically any fucking FARM BOY who happened to enlist/get recruited into the fucking army. That’s the equivalent of YOU picking up a fucking SWORD and getting thrown into battle. So yeah, they’re going to fucking need to be durable because no idiot who picks up a sword is going to know where to swing it so it doesn’t shatter into a million pieces. Oh and by the way, a long sword is also nearly 3 times the weight of a katana (ITS A FUCKING HACKING WEAPON), so it wouldn’t be nearly as precise or fast as a katana. And after about 10 swings, your arms will be fucking DEAD TIRED. Do you understand how much a fucking sword weighs? ITS A GIANT FUCKING CHUNK OF METAL. ITS NOT A FUCKING STICK YOU PLAY GAMES WITH…

And so on…

This reads like someone in frantic denial about something they don’t like because it may well be true and that spoils their worldview. They’re not alone, apparently. It also reads like someone who has probably never touched a real sword of either kind, or read anything about them other than on-line misinformation and hype.

Read the raving again, but add a bit of common sense. If a weapon is so heavy that swinging it ten times leaves your arms dead tired, what the hell use is it?

Farm boys weren’t given longswords, longbows or anything else required long training. They were given pikes, or bills, or some other polearm not too far removed from the farm tools they were accustomed to using, and a short, no-real-skill-required chopping sword called a falchion as backup. Again, not too different to the tools they used every day. And then like any soldier, before “getting thrown into battle” they’d be drilled in how to use them. That’s always assuming the baron didn’t leave his farm labourers labouring on the farm where they would do some good and go to war with the properly trained men-at-arms who made up his retinue.

Steel will shatter, if it’s tempered to be hard, inflexible and brittle. Drop a modern Solingen straight-razor on a tiled floor and if you’re unlucky, you’d think it had been made of glass. Bits everywhere. Swords were not tempered that way. No smith would let one out of his forge.

And yes, I do understand how much a sword weighs, and three to four feet long is not what I call “giant”.

The longsword was not “three times heavier” any more than the katana was a featherweight. Sometimes one would be a bit heavier than the other, but if they were about the same length, they were about the same weight. Any extra ounces added by the longsword’s more elaborate guard and pommel would be balanced by the single-edged katana’s thicker blade. They weren’t blunt, either. Ewart Oakshott (who handled and collected real swords and wrote real books about them) mentions a sword of about 1125 AD in the Wallace Collection, London, whose edges “are as sharp as a well-honed carving knife.” If you think that’s blunt, go into your kitchen, hone your own carving knife and run it hard across the palm of your hand. I’d recommend dialling 911 or 999 first; you might have trouble doing so afterwards…

Top-line katanas and top-line European longswords were superb things, art objects as much as weapons, but average katanas weren’t so impressive and were actually made of poorer steel than the equivalent average longsword. Japan is not a mineral-rich country (they’ve fought wars over it) and all the folding and hammering katana-fans make such a big deal about was because Japanese swordsmiths had to improve their shoddy basic material by beating the impurities out of it without beating all of them out, since those “impurities” include the percentage of carbon that makes iron into steel. This was done for all swords, but it’s obvious that weapons for the average retainer grunt wouldn’t get anything like the level of attention given to those made for a great daimyo.

Also the aforesaid retainer grunt, usually armed with a yari (straight-bladed spear), was no more a “master of battle” than the average European feudal grunt armed with a bill or pike. Learning how to handle a sword properly took time and money; low-level grunts didn’t have much of either. “Samurai” means “servant”, and for every elegant, calligraphy-writing, flower-arranging, combat-skill-honing nobleman, there were a couple of hundred not-much-more-than-peasants standing guard in the rain.

What katanas get is an unbelievable level of hype in Western media, as related in this thoughtful essay by the late Hank Reinhardt.  Working out the whens, whys and wherefores of that is another essay in itself. The sort of stuff restricted to legendary Western swords like Excalibur, Balmung and Durendal are accepted as something any katana can do with ease. Cutting a machine-gun barrel in half? Katana. (There’s supposedly “real film” of this, but like the Loch Ness Monster it’s always been seen by someone else. If it exists at all, it’s most likely WW2 propaganda with a fake gun.) Cutting stone without damage? Katana. Cutting through armour without blunting? Katana.

Bullshit accepted without criticism and defended with shrill obscenity? Katana…

What all this has done is make the katana a bit of a joke (except to the people with the itchy capslock fingers) which is a shame. It’s a good sword. Sometimes it’s a great sword. But it’s not and never has been a magic sword.
petermorwood: (Default)
I've finally been able to confirm that the UK rights for the Horse Lord / Book of Years series have completely reverted to me (though not yet the US ones – or the Philippines; why there, I wonder, and not, say, Puerto Rico?) and I'm prepping them for release as e-books, as Diane has been doing with her Young Wizards. It's given me a chance – as the dead-tree versions never did – to do some re-working, because I doubt there's a writer on the planet who hasn't looked at their early work and thought "migod you didn't ort to write a sentence like that molesworth!"

Or several sentences. Or a paragraph. Or a continuity blunder.

I've always been good at spotting those, though it's a talent that's most useful before something appears in print; afterwards can be annoying, especially when (in a recent example) the writer's finished work has been through a series of test-readers, an editor, a copy-editor and a final check of the galleys.

So it's a bit embarrassing to find one that's been in every single edition of The Horse Lord, especially when it doesn't even have the excuse of a chapter or so of action between setup and dénouement. On p.90 (UK trade) p.91 (US mass)
Aldric nodded, but slung Widowmaker round his shoulder nonetheless.
Unfortunately on p.92 of both editions
The girl's sharp eyes had noticed a fine taiken racked on the bedroom wall…
And yes, the taiken longsword is Widowmaker. In two places at once. Oops. That's going to get fixed…

There won't be massive changes; this book's been popular for 28 years, and I had evidence of that popularity a couple of days back (for which many thanks, [ profile] la_marquise_de_ - gosh, I'm mentioned in some impressive company!) so if ever there was a case of Si Non Confectvs Non Reficiat, this is it. But after those 28 years I can construct a better sentence than some of those from 1982, I can certainly write better dialogue, I know not to call mail "chainmail" any more – and I can remove my own guilty example of a pet peeve from fantasy that's started creeping into supposedly historical work as well.

It's the business of a sword slung over the owner's back and drawn from that position. The question kept coming up on Swordforum and NetSword, and nobody was able to offer any historical evidence, never mind pictorial proof, that carrying a sword that way ever happened in Europe. Seeing it done in Braveheart and King Arthur is neither evidence nor historical. But in 1982, what do we find Peter writing?
Aldric unhooked the longsword's scabbard from his weaponbelt and pulled its shoulder strap across so that the sheath rose slantwise to his back, well clear of his legs...then he gripped the long hilt rearing like an adder by his head, twisted it to loose the locking-collar and drew.
Once again, oops. That too is going to get fixed, because after experimenting with some of my own replicas (gosh, isn't Polyfilla spackle useful stuff?) it's clear that neither Aldric nor anyone else could perform this trick without arms like an orangutan or gibbon. What I did in later books was to have the across-the-back carry as a commonly-accepted "peace position", thus producing a useful bit of dramatic "business" where releasing the cross-strap so that it slides down to "ready position" for a fast draw is a direct threat, and possibly an insult as well.

Fast draw, with a sword? Yes indeed, like Japanese-style iaijutsu, because the first incarnation of Alban swords, culture and customs was very samurai-influenced. In the late '70s-early 80s it was unusual, and a change from the more usual Celtic/Viking/Medieval settings, which is why I did it, and there weren't many others. Without checking the bookshelves, I can think of Richard Lupoff's Sword of the Demon and Jessica Amanda Salmonson's Tomoe Gozen, C.J. Cherryh's superb Morgaine Cycle (especially Gate of Ivrel), a surprisingly small number of short stories, and of course me.

The fun part is to see how my fictional society evolved into something different; honourable suicide seems like a great device for dramatic tension. When you discover that it means your protagonist (all right, hero and favourite character) won't reach the end of the chapter, never mind the end of the book, it's not such a good idea, and you start looking for ways to keep him alive. When that attitude starts to influence the entire culture, soon you're dealing with people who've laid a thin veneer of lip-service honour over a bedrock of ruthless, scary pragmatism.

And that's much more interesting than ersatz samurai... :-)

April 2017



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