I was thinking about the Mongoliad earlier. I’ve mentioned it before, but I thought the topic was worth revisiting for another roundabout session of musings. On BoingBoing, it says about the creative team:
Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear and several very talented friends (including one of the neatest hackers I know and somene whom I’m reliably assured could lay claim to the title of “World’s Greatest Swordsman”)
From a CNET news story about it:
Stephenson came up with the idea for what became “The Mongoliad” after writing some sword fighting scenes in the novels that made up his so-called “Baroque Cycle.” The problem, Bornstein said, was that Stephenson worried that the way he’d written the scenes wasn’t true to how medieval sword fights in Europe actually looked and felt. From that humble beginning, the project grew into a collaboration between Stephenson, Bear, and a group of people with experience in martial arts. They wanted to re-enact the sword fights and build a new novel around them.
Now, I’m not sure if it was the intention, but all the things I read about the group of martial artists, the swordplay, the fight re-enactments, etc is the implication that writing from the perspective of an expert swordsman results in a better swordfight than that written by an amateur, or indeed someone with only a scant knowledge of the martial arts.
I’d argue the opposite. I’d say that there are some brilliant fight scenes out there that have little to no basis in the reality of fighting whatsoever, and they are made brilliant by the skill of the author. The pace of the writing, the character’s development up to that point, the brush strokes of action that paint the outlines of the scene and allow the fertile mind to fill in the gaps – these are the essential elements of great fight descriptions.
While familiarity with the mechanics of any expertise-based skill, be it swordfighting, farming, knitting or baking, can add verisimilitude to the act in describing it, experience in the skill itself is not really necessary. In fact, I’d argue that if the practitioner and author is too eager, excessive knowledge can be a hindrance.
In the first case, the jargon that becomes commonplace to a skilled person is esoteric to anyone outside that group. You might describe your hero’s beautifully-timed liement in seconde that counters their opponent’s thrust, but a lay reader would have to look long and hard to find an explanation of what that is,* and what it actually means. A lay observer’s description (albeit one observing in bullet time, the real-time effect being lunge, CLANG, urgh, dead) of how the defender seems to brush the blade away with apparent ease and turns the assault on his attacker is much more suited to the audience in general.
In the second, there’s a limit to how realistic you can make things and still have them be any fun. Martial engagements are notoriously short, nasty and brutal affairs. People who get shot fall over, go into shock and require immediate medical attention. People who get stabbed, likewise. Actual fights in bars or in the street are typically over before you even notice they’ve started.
Even competitive sport fights can be zero fun. Watch pretty much any high level sabre championship and prepare to marvel in disgust as two people skip forward, all form forgotten, to slap each other with their blades and then roar their heads off simultaneously as they both claim a touch. A seriously large portion of the fight time is spent gesticulating wildly at the judge in the hope of gaining favour, a pantomime which puts me immediately in mind of high-level footballers diving onto their faces to try and get a free kick.
People tell me it’s what you have to do at that level, that everyone does it and it’s acceptable behaviour, but I don’t see the entertainment value in it. And for someone interested in character and character development, I don’t see anything honourable or defensible in it.
This is all just my opinion, of course, and thus not worth worrying about. I know that the opposite opinion is widely held, most commonly among practitioners of whatever skill is being described in prose. I know this is a cinematic example, but it’s pretty much the same argument – feel free to split hairs if you disagree – this is the internet after all.
I remember having a conversation with a fencer about the famous (and brilliant) fight scene in The Princess Bride between the dread pirate Roberts and Inigo Montoya. She scoffed as she told me how disappointing it was. “Watch the bit where Westley (spoilers!) changes hands,” she said. “The other guy could easily go for the face, but he doesn’t. It’s not fencing.”
She was absolutely right. It’s not really fencing at all. A fencer responding to such a low attack could indeed step back to protect the leg and attack the head. The fight would be short, nasty, and brutal – and far, far less fun to watch.
*the attacking blade is engaged in quatre; pronating the hand and dropping the tip of the defending blade into seconde, the bind and change of line opens an opportunity to press the defending blade into attack…or something like that.