Home » Fencing
Category Archives: Fencing
The fencing salle, or school or club, if you will, is a hall of mirrors to the soul, and if not to the soul, then at least to fundamental character. It is a magical place whose special sights and insights are enriched by a special language accented with the unmistakable sounds of blade on blade.
Perhaps Rafael Sabatini put it best in Scaramouche (1921):
“From a room beyond, the door of which was closed, came the stamping of feet, the click and slither of steel upon steel, and dominating these sounds a vibrant, sonorous voice speaking a language that was certainly French; but such French as is never heard outside a fencing-school. ‘Coulez! Mais, coulez donc!…So! Now the flanconnade—en carte…And here is the riposte…Let us begin again. Come! The ward of tierce…Make the coupé, and then the quinte par dessus les armes…O, mais allongez! Allongez! Allez au fond!’ the voice cried in expostulation. ‘Come, that was better.” The blades ceased.”
And with the fencing salle come a few rules for honorable deportment, as suitable today as they were in the past. And, as the lessons of fencing are apt for the world beyond, so too are the core of its courtesies and other appropriate behaviors.
Many have been recently eroded, at least to a greater degree than in the past, among modern or “Olympic” fencers, largely due to the Federation Internationale d’Escrime’s rather abject submission to the International Olympic Committee’s desire to have Olympic sports present [melo]dramatic “spectacles” designed solely to increase viewership and therefore income from advertising. National fencing bodies typically willing to go along with almost anything as long as it means that fencing will remain an Olympic sport, no matter in what form, play a significant role as well.
Even so, all styles of swordplay are seeing rules of fencing etiquette debased by the competing egos of many fencing masters, teachers, coaches, and fencers themselves, in addition to the general degeneration of civility, including the practices of honor and humility, these days.
N.B. I am by definition a “modern” fencer, although I also practice classical and historical fencing. Any criticisms therefore are not those of an outsider attempting to disparage modern fencing or other forms of swordplay.
Here therefore are a few rules and guidelines of recommended behavior in the salle, from recent years to past centuries, with some of my own thrown in near the end of the post. I am intentionally avoiding excessively in-depth commentary on the behavior of many fencers today, for it would probably quickly turn into a near-rant. Thankfully, the majority of fencers today, in all forms of legitimate swordplay, still behave with excellent deportment on the strip–but it doesn’t take too many bad apples to spoil the reputation of a sport or other organized skill.
I’ll make two important points up front. First, the best way to teach good behavior in the fencing salle, and everywhere, is by example. Younger fencers are far more likely to behave with courtesy and dignity if they have the good examples and associated expectations of their fencing teachers, veteran fencers, and experienced peers. It starts at the top. Unfortunately, some of the most egregious violations are often found here.
Second, I don’t want this to turn into an “Olympic” or sport fencers versus classical and historical fencers. I’m ecumenical when it comes to fencing. I’ve practiced many forms of swordplay over the past forty or so years, and I’ve seen plenty of poor behavior in the form of various violations of the following rules and guidelines among members of all three groups, and among others as well. But to repeat, most fencers, no matter their preferred form of swordplay, still manage to behave well on the strip.
Muriel Witte in American Fencing magazine, 1966
Regarding number 6, some fencers past fencers would ask for or accept odds, and some today do so as well, either by having the weaker fencer’s touches count for more, or by setting a goal the weaker fencer much reach in a five, ten, or fifteen touch bout. For example, the weaker fencer wins if he gets to five touches before the stronger gets to ten. This was never a practice in the salles where I learned to fence, and I have never engaged in it. The odds are rarely well-balanced, usually favoring one or the other of the fencers.
A better practice is to avoid setting odds or a handicap, and instead set a goal of touches against your opponent, averaging them over time and working to score above this level if you’re the weaker fencer, or to improve the distance if you’re the stronger (and if you’re significantly stronger, just fence and don’t worry about the distance between scores). Too often the more experienced fencer suggests odds that will push him or her, but such odds often don’t push the weaker fencer enough. For example, a balance of 15 to 5 strong to weak may be good for the stronger fencer, but a better balance might be 15 to 8 in order to push the weaker fencer more. Further, the setting of odds by the stronger fencer can often come across as patronizing, even arrogant, at times.
Number 7 dates to the days of gyms which made much use of natural light through high windows, and which some poor sports among fencers would take the side of the strip with better light (although in bouts for touches with dry weapons, fencers swapped sides after one fencer scored three touches or half the time expired). In fact, an old dueling tactic was to place your adversary on disadvantageous ground, for example with the sun or wind in his (or at times her) face. Dueling practice in the late 19th and 20th centuries tried to minimize any advantage one adversary might have over the other by way of terrain or weather.
Outdoor fencing is not done often enough these days, although some of us still enjoy it. Unfortunately, it’s no longer permitted as a format for earning ratings in epee by the USFA. (Or as it’s now called, USA Fencing, and prior to that US Fencing. It’s hard to keep up with the name changes. In fact, it was the AFLA–the Amateur Fencers League of America when I started fencing more than forty years ago.) And with the addition of relatively new ratings (D’s and E’s) plus a direct elimination format that vastly increases the likelihood of earning a rating as compared to the old pool system (which unfortunately produced a large percentage of under-rated fencers), we find a flood of rated fencers these days. As such, modern fencing has unfortunately become for many fencers “all about the rating,” with the result that there are far fewer “fun” tournaments than in the past. Nonetheless, there’s no reason not to hold outdoor epee tournaments on occasion, ideally set in picturesque or historic venues. I have fond memories of an outdoor epee event held on the grounds of a Florida beach hotel, for example.
“Decalogo Dello Schermidore” by Aldo Cerchiari and Edoardo Mangiarotti
From their book La Vera Scherma (Milan: Longanesi & Co, 1966). The commandments are also posted on the website of the famous Milanese Mangiarotti Fencing School. Edoardo Mangiarotti was easily one of the few truly great epeeists of the past century. All fencers should strictly abide by these precepts of fencing honor and fair play:
1. Remember that you are the representative of the noblest of all sports. It unites fencers from around the world in the same ideal.
2. Practice your sport unselfishly and with absolute loyalty.
3. Be a gentleman or lady on the strip and off, from sport to social events.
4. Do not discuss fencing if you have not learned fencing and its rules.
5. Learn how to lose with dignity and win with honor.
6. Respect your opponent at all times, whoever he or she is, but try to overcome him or her in combat with all of your energy.
7. Remember that until the last thrust your opponent has not yet won.
8. Serenely accept a defeat rather than take advantage of a victory obtained by deception.
9. Do not step onto the fencing strip with defective weapons or with the white uniform in disarray.
10. Honor, respect and defend your name, the prestige of your master, the colors of your club, the flag of your country.
“No boast, threat, trick, or stratagem, which may wound the feelings, or lessen the equality of the combatants, should ever enter into the contemplation of a gentleman.”
—Joseph Hamilton, The Approved Guide Through All the Stages of a Quarrel, 1829
“Never lose on purpose, you must always fence to win for your honor!”
—Lajos Csiszar, quoted by student Roger Jones, former member of the US 1955 and 1957 epee teams, alternate to the 1956 US Olympic epee team, in an article dating to 2000, and in later conversation with me. The quote itself dates to the 1950s, and probably earlier. Csiszar was one of Italo Santelli’s three protégés (assistant fencing masters).
Roger himself best describes how Csiszar came to tell him this:
“The first time I fenced in Europe, I learned that cheating was part of the sport, unlike in the U.S. It was common for countrymen to throw bouts to the favorite during the early rounds, in order to improve his seeding for subsequent rounds. Csiszar hated this, as did I. He told me, “Never lose on purpose, you must always fence to win for your honor!” In the 1957 World Championships, an Austrian approached me just before our bout, which was the last one in the round. He pointed out that I would be eliminated even if I won, but that if he won, he would go on into the next round. He asked me to lose, saying “You speak German, therefore, we must stick together.” I refused, and then defeated him 5-2. Afterwards, I told Maestro about the incident, and he hugged me, saying “I knew you would always fight for your honor.” He made me feel so proud.”
—Roger Jones, “Fencing Generations,” manuscript, November 2000. Roger was an outstanding swordsman, business executive, writer, former naval officer, and gentleman who deplored the notion of gamesmanship and cheating in fencing. He passed away a few years ago.
“Your complete swordsman must be one who can place his hits with a gallant good grace, but one also who will not allow a clumsy opponent to prevail himself on any hap-hazard thrust.”
—Egerton Castle, “Swordsmanship Considered Historically and as a Sport,” 1903
“Gallant good grace” is too often forgotten today.
“Don’t flatter yourself in your Lessons, and still less in Assaults.”
“Be not angry at receiving a Thrust, but take care to avoid it.”
“Be not vain at the Thrusts you give, nor shew Contempt when you receive them.”
—Jean de Labat, L’Art en Fait d’Armes, 1692, as translate by Andrew Mahon, 1730
Labat has lots of good advice still relevant today.
“‘I have never,’ says M. [Ernest] Legouvé, ‘met a single fencer who would not–say once a year–deny that he had been touched when the hit was palpable. It is so easy to say ‘I did not feel it,’ and a hit not recognised does not count.'”
—H. Sutherland Edwards, “Fencing Schools,” Old & New Paris, vol. 2, 1894.
To summarize the quote above: You should always declare all touches against you when are fencing ‘dry’ in the salle!
That said, some masters will suggest that in the case of a competitive bout you leave it to the director and jury. I in turn leave this to your discretion and sense of honor. Personally, I would declare an obviously good touch unremarked by the judges.
Of course, not all touches are always obvious to giver or receiver, and allowance must be made for the possibility that the adversary did not feel a particular touch. In epee it is common for many of us to let our practice partner know that he or she hit, but that the touch was either late or flat.
There remains a vestige of the practice of declaring touches, or not declaring them, today in modern electrical epee fencing. In competitions on non-electric strips, I believe a fencer should declare a solid obvious touch on his foot in the case where the referee or floor judges have no opinion or state that no such touch was made. If, however, the fencer is unsure whether the touch was valid—when it might be just a scrape along the floor, a light touch, and so on—he or she should not declare it and leave the determination to the referee (who may overrule the floor judges). Even so, many coaches direct their fencers to never admit to a foot touch, or to any possible error that may favor the adversary, often justifying this on the premise that “It all evens out in the end.” I will always inform my adversary if, for example, I think his or her weapon is not working, and so forth. No victory in art or sport is worth anything if it is obtained through active or passive chicanery.
It is also a too-common practice, this not declaring of touches on occasion, among some classical and historical fencers today, and would be among modern fencers as well were it not for the electrical scoring apparatus. Certainly it was in the past when both saber practice and competitions were dry, and foil practice was typically conducted dry in order to suppress the “pig sticking” tendency induced by the electrical scoring apparatus. Over the past forty-one years I’ve met a number of fencers who were notorious for not declaring valid hits, over and above the possibility that they simply didn’t feel them. Of course, in saber there was a remedy: slowly escalate your hits, making them harder and harder until your adversary has choice but to declare them, if only by rubbing his arm… This was, and is, also the solution to saber fencers who consistently hit too hard.
And More Variety
“It is a polite custom to salute your opponent with your blade before the bout, and to offer him your hand at the end.”
“Once the fencer has taken the guard position, he must be considerate of his opponent. Neither fencer must talk during the bout. Fencing requires the greatest possible attention, and this may not be diverted in any way or for any reason except by fencing tactics.”
“In fencing against an opponent who acknowledges your superiority, sportsmanship demands that you do not make the most of your advantages; rather should you assist his swordplay as much as possible, and avoid placing him in a painful or ridiculous position by over-emphasizing your superiority.”
—Luigi Barbasetti, The Art of the Foil, 1932
Regarding Barbasetti’s third statement, it’s unfortunately far less common today to see fencers practicing this: many are unwilling, often solely for the sake of ego, to forgo even a few touches in the name of good sportsmanship. Another practice less often seen today is that of subtly “throwing” your opponent a touch to make up for a touch awarded against him or her due to a bad call by the director (known today as the “referee” in a bid to make fencing more “audience friendly”—I kid you not). Technically an illegal practice, its honorable intentions more than compensate for the breaking of the rule that the fencer must always fence to win.
Barbasetti’s first statement is now written into the rules due to the unsportsmanlike behavior in the past of a few fencers. See also Félix Gravé below.
“No Scholar nor Spectator without a licence from the Master, should offer to direct or give advice to any of the Scholars, who are either taking a Lesson or Assaulting… First, because without permission they take upon them to play the Master; And secondly, because they reprove oft-times their Commerads for the same very fault they themselves are most guilty of, although perhaps not sensible of, which when By-standers perceive, they smile at them (and with just reason) as being both ignorant and impertinent; therefore it would be a great deal more commendable in them, to be more careful in rectifying their own faults, and less strict in censuring others.”
—Sir William Hope, The Fencing Master’s Advice to His Scholar, 1692
More proof that not much has changed over the centuries.
“Though there are People of bad Taste in every Art or Science, there are more in that of Fencing than in others…”
—Jean de Labat, L’Art en Fait d’Armes, 1692, as translated by Andrew Mahon, 1730.
This is a sentiment I’ve heard more than once from much-experienced fencers over the last four or so decades, often expressed more narrowly: “There are more charlatans among fencing teachers than among any other sort of teachers.” Again, it’s more proof that not much has changed. The answer is simple: be of good taste, of good behavior, and of good knowledge, and let your behavior in the salle demonstrate this, whether you’re teaching or fencing. Or whatever, whenever.
“Don’t show any sign of bad temper if you are the loser.”
“Don’t get conceited, or be haughty, if you are the winner.”
“Don’t forget always to be modest and courteous.”
“If your adversary should prove far superior to you, do not show discontent or bad temper; do not be disheartened, keep up your style and do your best, no matter how badly you may be beaten. Take your defeat in the right spirit, it will help to improve you; take it as a lesson you needed. Remain always the “correct gentleman.”
“The use of the unarmed hand to parry an attack would be an incorrect movement; the use of the unarmed hand to make signs or attract the adversary’s attention would also be incorrect, whilst talking or conversing during the fight would be unruly.”
“[R]efuting a decision or arguing about the verdict of the judges would be considered bad form and ill-mannered.”
“Not shaking hands with an adversary after a match or a rencontre is a great lack of courtesy, and should be reprimanded. Saluting an adversary previously to the beginning of a bout should be done before placing the mask on the head.”
—Félix Gravé, Fencing Comprehensive, 1934
You may, of course, politely challenge the referee on the misapplication of a rule or the failure to apply a rule. Both occur far more often than they should, by the way, perhaps due in part to the modern “guild of referees” that values simple examination (and testing fees!) over experience in the practice and spirit of swordplay (and hasn’t improved refereeing at all). So know the rules, follow them, and be prepared to see them properly applied.
Even so, the best solution to bad refereeing/directing/judging is often the classic one: become good enough that the referee’s incompetence, bias, or, rarely, cheating, is irrelevant. In foil the old electrical scoring solution, and still a valid one today in foil and now saber too, was to make single-light touches, stripping the referee of the act of determining right-of-way.
As for shaking hands and saluting, the requirement has been written into the FIE and USFA rules due to repeated violations by a small number of fencers.
A Few of My Own
These aren’t quite as eloquent or pithy as those above, but to quote Horace from his Ars Poetica in my defense, when I’m brief I’m often misunderstood.
1. My more modern take on Sir William Hope above: Do not give unsolicited fencing advice unless you’re an instructor giving it to one of your students, in which case it is by definition solicited. The principal exception is that of an experienced fencer politely suggesting a correction to an egregious error committed by a beginner. The fact that fencers often appear to accept such advice can be deceiving: it may simply be politeness or mere uncertainly as to whether the novice should tell the advanced fencer to please just be quiet and fence.
2. Given that many beginners are avidly seeking fencing knowledge, and can thus be easily misled, it is incumbent upon fencers giving advice to ensure that such advice is not only solicited and correct, but useful and appropriate to the recipient. Provide only what you know for certain from experience, never what you think you know. Importantly, make sure your advice is suitable the fencer you’re giving it to. Too often, fencers assume that what is good for them is good everyone. Further, many fencers have not yet reached the level at which all good advice may be of use. In other words, don’t provide advice that’s over the fencer’s head or inaccessible due to the level of technique required. And if you’re giving advice to show off: Don’t! In sum, don’t be a know-it-all. (See also Cerchiari & Mangiarotti #4 above).
3. For a stronger fencer to constantly shout “I missed!” when fencing a weaker fencer, or any fencer for that matter, is not only rude and patronizing, but ignores the fact that his or her adversary is probably missing often too.
At the very least it can be an annoying distraction.
“I missed!” is often shouted by some advanced fencers when hit by weaker fencers, as if to excuse the touch as an accident. In fact, advanced fencers often rely on the fact that weaker fencers often do miss–thus making an advanced fencer who shouts “I missed!” a double hypocrite.
Is it OK to occasionally shout “I missed!” when in spite of setting almost everything up perfectly you miss, perhaps because your point control was sloppy? Sure, but don’t overdo it. Is it OK do do so when fencing a friend who understands your frustration? Of course. But it’s never OK to do so in order to [arrogantly] dismiss a weaker’s fencer’s touch.
The fact is, if you get hit, you did something wrong and the other fencer something right.
More simply and more broadly: keep quiet when fencing so your adversary can concentrate.
4. Related to number 3: Don’t be the fencer who is insufferable both in victory and defeat. Or in either. Or ever.
5. Avoid “showboating” and “grandstanding.” A particularly egregious example is that of a more experienced fencer moving close and opening the line widely, as if to say, “I’m wide open and even then you probably can’t hit me!” It’s an insulting practice, one that indicates insecurity on the part of the fencer doing it, and one the experienced fencer would never attempt with another fencer of the same or greater ability. It’s OK to move closer to a weaker fencer and open the line a bit more in order to work on developing one’s speed while simultaneously giving the weaker fencer the opportunity to score more in practice. It’s not acceptable to do so in a grandstanding or patronizing manner.
6. If you’re waiting alone on the only empty strip for someone to fence and a pair of fencers comes up to use the strip, you must turn it over to them. Most fencers waiting alone on a strip for someone to fence understand this and will automatically yield the strip to a pair of fencers who need it. Occasionally though, there are strip hogs. Fencers new to the sport are often uncomfortable asking a solitary fencer, waiting for no one in particular, to yield the strip. If you notice this, invite them both onto the strip immediately. And don’t be afraid to ask, even politely demand, a strip hog to yield the strip!
7. For coaches and parents, and especially, fencers: No cheating!
In particular, neither give nor, for fencers on strip, accept advice during a competition bout except during the one minute breaks in direct elimination. Strictly speaking, these breaks are the only time coaching or other tactical assistance is permitted during a bout. All other tactical aid during a bout is in fact cheating, including hand signs, “secret language,” and so on, not mention overt coaching. Don’t tolerate it! If you do, you have a personality flaw, plain and simple.
N. B. Before I continue, I must note that the USFA, or as it now terms itself, “USA Fencing” (marketing, marketing), permits coaching from the side of the strip by coaches or spectators as long as it doesn’t interfere with the bout. This is a US rule: try it in many places internationally and you’ll still get in trouble, as you should. Of course, the USFA now complains that such coaching is getting out of hand (surprise, surprise) and is now at work on a coaches code of conduct. In other words, the USFA is complaining about a problem it created, but won’t take up the appropriate solution, that of eliminating strip-coaching (and won’t admit it caused the problem, either).
So, to continue, and operating under the assumption that strip-coaching is and should be illegal…
Over the past two decades I’ve seen a new practice by a certain type of fencer in competition: the “whiplash,” that is, the head snapping around to look at the coach whenever the fencer is unsure about a touch or the progress of the bout, even in epee. Some fencers do this after each touch awarded to their adversaries. Should I challenge the call? Should I change my tactics? Should I do this again?
Sorry, but your coach is not permitted to respond in any way, notwithstanding that some coaches have trained their fencers to seek such advice during a bout. The sad fact is that many competitive fencers today are uncomfortable, some even to the point of near panic, if their coaches are not at the piste during their bouts.
A fair number of fencing coaches will “test the waters” during a competition by coaching during an early bout to see if the referee or bout committee will put a stop to it. If not, they’ll continue. Others will only try this during a challenging bout (that is, one in which one of their students is losing) during the direct elimination.
One of the most egregious violators I’ve seen was a coach who constantly decried the “cheating” by other coaches and clubs, including the giving of advice from the side of the strip during a bout, yet he was one of the most active practitioners I’ve ever seen, both as a coach on the sidelines and as a referee, although he “wisely”—if a cheater can be said to be acting wisely—limited it to critical bouts if experienced fencers and referees were present. However, he engaged in it nearly always if only inexperienced or easily intimidated fencers and referees were present—at least until someone showed up who would call him out on it.
And, on a related issue: No, the modern era of gamesmanship and cheating in fencing was not started by the Soviet Union’s entry into competitive fencing, some commentators notwithstanding, nor did this begin the general debasement in deportment on the strip. I’ll save this conversation for another day, but will note two things now: (1) there are plenty of early examples of these bad behaviors long prior to the Soviet Union entering sport fencing, and (2) it was notable how quickly nations other than France and Italy began regularly winning medals in epee and foil after the introduction of the electrical scoring apparatus–French and Italian judges could no longer pretend not to see touches.
In sum, if your child’s coach or teacher engages in any of these behaviors, tell him or her it’s unacceptable and that you’ll remove your child from the club if it continues. Many, perhaps most fencing coaches these days unfortunately follow a business model, which inevitably requires an emphasis on youth fencing: they’ll change their attitudes if a significant number of parents quit writing checks.
I’m a bit cynical about progress in this area, though, having watched for decades how often many parents, living a vicarious second lives via their children, will accept or turn a blind eye to all sorts of egregious, even outrageous, behavior from coaches and teachers in sports and performing arts on the remote chance that their child will win nothing more than a local title or become a briefly notable local performer. And when greater rewards are at stake, far too many parents will turn a blind eye to almost anything.
Put plainly, a fencing bout should be a contest between two fencers and no one else.
Fencing’s best lesson is independent decision-making under stress.
Fencing & Wine
Or, how fencing shows character and why this matters. Again I quote from H. Sutherland Edwards (1894) who is quoting dramatic author, not mention fencer and promoter of women’s rights and child education (and whose name was given to a perhaps phantasmagoric reef in the South Sea), Ernest Legouvé:
“Fencing has, moreover, its utilitarian value. It teaches you to judge men. With the foil in hand no dissimulation is possible. After five minutes of foil-play the false varnish of mundane hypocrisy falls and trickles away with the perspiration: instead of the polished man of the world, with yellow gloves and conventional phrases, you have before you the actual man, a calculator or a blunderer, weak or firm, wily or ingenious, sincere or treacherous… One day I derived a great advantage. I was crossing foils with a large broker in brandies, rums, and champagnes. Before the passage of arms he had offered me his services in regard to a supply of liquors, and I had almost accepted… The fencing at an end, I went to the proprietor [of the fencing salle] and said: ‘I shall buy no champagne of that man.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘His wine must be adulterated–he denies every hit.'”
Yes, character matters, then and now. And fencing reveals it better than anything other than the dire life-threatening circumstances of man and nature. A person who cannot be trusted on the strip should not be trusted off the strip.
Copyright Benerson Little 2018. First posted July 20, 2018, updated November 21, 2018.
A brief post on Hungarian Hussar swordplay on horseback, in honor of my Hungarian fencing masters: Dr. Francis Zold (1904 – 2004) and Dr. Eugene Hamori, both part of the extraordinary tradition and fame of the Hungarian fencing epoch of the past century and longer. Theirs was an era in which perhaps no more than three dozen fencers ruled saber fencing for half a century. It was a world in which swordplay and its associated honor were still entwined with world events. It was a time in which dueling was still practiced or had only recently seen its end. Many of these men were familiar with swordplay in both the duel and in sport. To learn fencing from my two masters and to hear the stories they told was like stepping into a novel by Rafael Sabatini or Alexandre Dumas.
Before I begin the discussion of hussar swordplay, here are two abridged biographies, given that this post is in honor of my fencing masters. One day I’ll post full biographies of these two fascinating men.
Dr. Zold, long a minor Hungarian celebrity and well-known fixture in Hungarian fencing, was easily recognized by the green glasses he always wore (Zold means green in Hungarian), as well as by the shout of “Hé, là! Pamela!” when a student did something well during a lesson. He was the 1948 Hungarian Olympic team captain, reportedly fought a duel (I have this from a very knowledgeable source), and was a student of the famous Italo Santelli. By the great master’s own admission, Dr. Zold was one of his four greatest students: “[Jeno] Fuchs the tactician, [Endres] Kabos the attacker, [Attila] Petschauer the jumper, and [Ferenc] Zold the fighter.” (From “Francis Zold’s Death” by Ko Andras, February 24, 2005.)
Regarding two of the Santelli’s fencers mentioned with Dr. Zold, Petschauer was an Olympian with two gold saber medals and also a high school classmate of Dr. Zold. He was murdered in a Nazi concentration camp at the instigation of a Hungarian officer who was also a former equestrian Olympian. Kabos was an Olympian with four gold saber medals, and was serving as forced labor in Budapest at the time of his death, when Margit (Margaret) Bridge (to Margit-sziget, or Margaret Island) blew up accidentally as the Nazis were rigging it with explosives to destroy in advance of the Soviet army. Dr. Zold had spoken with Kabos just moments before.
Dr. Zold also assisted Raoul Wallenberg in helping Jews escape from Hungary after Nazi Germany annexed the country and began shipping Jews to concentration camps, and was one of the last to see Wallenberg alive outside of Soviet custody. (Wallenberg appears to have been murdered by the Soviet secret police after being held for two years.)
I attended the party in honor of Dr. Zold’s 95th birthday (I was one of three there who did not speak Hungarian), and corresponded with him until his death, long after I had my last lesson from him in 1978. I always enjoyed his stories, as I still do Dr. Hamori’s. From Dr. Zold, for example, I learned how the Hungarian fencers were invited by swashbuckling actor Douglas Fairbanks to his famous home, Pickfair, after Piller won the saber gold in 1932. Fairbanks, an active supporter of the Los Angeles Games, and his entourage came to watch the saber finals.
I studied fencing afterward under Dr. Eugene Hamori in New Orleans. He was a member of the gold medal Olympic saber team in 1956, defecting to the US soon after; the Soviet military had ruthlessly crushed the brief Hungarian uprising that occurred that summer. He studied fencing under Alfred Tusnady-Tschurl, graduate of the famous Austrio-Hungarian fencing academy at Wiener-Neustadt; László Szabó, one of Santelli’s three proteges, author of Fencing and the Master, and a very close friend of Francis Zold; Gyorgi Piller, student of Laszlo Borsodi (one of the creators of modern Hungarian saber technique), 1932 Olympic saber gold medalist, later the Hungarian head coach; Lajos Csiszar, also one of Santelli’s three proteges; and not too long ago he even had some lessons from László Szepesi, famous as the Hungarian master who led France to international saber golds. No matter how good you are at fencing or at teaching fencing, you’re never too old or too experienced to profit from fencing lessons.
An accredited fencing master among his many accomplishments, Dr. Hamori remains a close friend and is my mentor in all issues regarding the teaching of swordplay. Dr. Zold gave me my classical foundation, but it was Dr. Hamori who really put everything together for me, even though even today he gives Dr. Zold the credit. We have corresponded for years and visit whenever we can. My wife Mary and I even attended a Royal Shakespeare Company performance of Hamlet, suitably sub-titled (or super-titled, in that the sub-titles were above rather than below?) in Hungarian on electronic boards, on Margit Island with him a few years ago, and afterward discussed both the difficulty for even a native English speaker to grasp Shakespearean dialogue, and, as expected, the swordplay as well. (We thought the final phrase d’armes was a bit too quick and lacked enough dramatic emphasis, for what it’s worth.)
Both of my fencing masters helped encourage my sense of literacy and broad learning (whose foundations were first encouraged by my parents and, perhaps not surprisingly to those who’ve read them, later by the novels of Rafael Sabatini). Fencing is simply one part of a broad education, not to mention a means of safely engaging in the martial competition natural to humans.
At Hamlet we also ran into outstanding HEMA longsword and modern saber fencer Krisztina Nagy. Not long before, she had escorted us around the famous Semmelweis University high school fencing salle, whose current fencing master is László Szepesi. The salle’s master from 1948 TO 1955 was Dr. László Emlékére Duronelli, the third of Italo Santelli’s proteges.
Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from both fencing masters is that mistakes are OK, that you learn from them, and that, as a fencing teacher, or any teacher, you don’t have to know everything, and more importantly, you must never pretend to. Neither of my fencing masters ever pretended to me that he knew everything about fencing. Dr. Zold often referred to sources, both books and people, who knew more about a given subject in swordplay than he did, in spite of his vast experience. Dr. Hamori, in one of many examples, often demurs on giving me his answer to an epee question. A few years back he would instead consult his close friend, famous fencer and fencing master József Sákovics. Since Sákovics’s passing, he has given me the recommendations of Hungarian head coach Gábor Udvarhelyi.
Too many “experts” today, or so it appears to me, would almost rather die than be seen as not having all the answers, even though it is impossible to have them all in any subject. A fulsome minority of fencing teachers (and similarly of certain personalities with PhDs, I must add) include some of the worst offenders in my experience, at times inventing empty answers and even pretending to experience they don’t have. Often this is the result of the cult of personality–excessive or insecure ego, or both, seeking adulation–far too many “experts” engage in. My own fencing masters entirely avoided this. Frankly, the honest, humble practice of the pointing out the truth wherever it may lie, with the obvious benefits of doing so, is too little seen today–all the more reason I have to thank my own fencing masters, my parents, and others like them for the lessons they’ve imparted to me.
And Now, Hussar Swordplay on Horseback!
Please note that this is just a brief introduction to Hussars and their swordplay as described in a small number of English sources, Andrew Lonergan for the most part (citation below), with a few minor observations of my own. There are some historical fencing organizations, Hungarian in particular, who are working admirably to restore Hussar saber technique both mounted and afoot in detail.
When it comes to recreating historical fencing technique, success, particularly as defined by historical accuracy, varies. In the case of the smallsword, for example, it’s relatively easy to obtain a likely high degree of historical accuracy, given the large number of available texts and its fundamental similarity to “modern classical” foil and epee, both of which are ultimately descended from it. On the other hand, some historical technique is poorly documented, Highland broadsword for example, and requires greater sifting through clues and the use of intelligent practical speculation. (There’s quite a bit of unintelligent practical speculation going on, unfortunately, in historical discussions, including those on the subject of the use of arms.)
So, who were the Hungarian Hussars? They were some of the best irregular light cavalry in the world, known for their flamboyant courage in battle and their use of the saber, a curved sword descended ultimately from the cutting swords of the Mongol invaders. The hussars were extreme swashbucklers, in other words. (My own Little ancestors were Border reivers from the Scottish West March, another famous group of light cavalry, not to mention cattle thieves.)
To give you a better idea of who the hussars were, I’ll quote from The Sea Rover’s Practice, itself quoting from the journal of naval officer Pattee Byng: “Sicilian partisans in 1719 sniped at German and Hungarian soldiers, and Hungarian Hussars ‘with their usual custom and dexterity, struck off their heads with their sabers.'” (Pattee Byng’s Journal, edited by J. L. Cranmer-Byng. Greenwich: Navy Records Society, 1950. Italics mine.)
The illustration above is sufficient corroboration.
In 1693 a regiment of Hungarian hussars was incorporated into the French army, although Hungarian cavalry had served Louis XIV prior to this. In the eighteenth century there were French-manned units modeled on them in place, and also other natively-manned units in other European armies as well. Hungarian hussars were in service past World War One.
According to a seventeenth century English dictionary, the word hussar was said to derive from the Hungarian light horsemen’s battle cry of “Husa!” However, both Dr. Hamori and a now former honorary Hungarian consul in New Orleans told me that this is not what they were taught in school in Hungary. Further, some modern etymologies, Merriam-Webster for example, suggest the word has its origins in the Serbian and Croatian word for pirate. The Hungarian word is huszár. (For a period definition and etymology, see New World of English Words, 2nd ed., edited by E. Phillips [London: E. Tyler for Nath. Brooke, 1662], s.v. “Husares.”)
Andrew Lonnergan’s practical book on swordplay, short-titled The Fencer’s Guide (London: for the Author, 1771) is one of those rare fencing texts discussion practical swordplay beyond the salle and the duel: for the battlefield, in other words.
Section VIII of his book, “Is a Lesson for and against a Party of Hussars, or Light Horse.”
He refers to Hussars as “scampering troops, who like not to attack in a body, nor to attack a body [a troop, company, or other ‘body’ of horse].”
Importantly regarding technique, he notes that they “may annoy you, in wheeling together, either by fire or sword, though even if ou were a grand division, wheeling upon its center; for they endeavour to attack all other troops behind, or sideways, as they run by them, with a Sawing-cut, and then turn to the rest of them again, that they may repeat this cut with their swords so arched, that when but an inch of the edge, near the point, catches a man’s neck, the middle, or belly of the blade, will sever a joint, and often leave the head hanging by a sinew, or a piece of skin.”
The ‘sawing-cut’ is a cut pushed or carried forward, as opposed to the more common ‘drawing-cut’ pulled or drawn backwards toward the swordsman’s body. The strong curve of the Hussar saber makes thrusting with the point difficult (it must be hooked). But as described by Lonnergan, the thrust is effective because it is made with the first inch or so with the edge which cuts through soft tissue. This is probably best effected on horseback at speed. I have tested this cut afoot via simple extension as well as via a powerful lunge, and found that it does not appear to be as effective as Lonnergan describes. (I used a Cold Steel scimitar on a variety of test subject materials, ranging from a large beef brisket to bound straw to large banana trees being cut back for the winter.) However, the kinetic energy of a rider attacking at the hand-gallop would almost certainly make the sawing cut as effective as Lonnergan describes, cutting through clothing and flesh.
This is different from what Hollywood and swashbuckling novels have accustomed us to see: that is, large sweeping head- and limb-lopping cuts. A sawing cut, if less flashy, was probably more effective and, importantly, more difficult to recognize and defeat.
Regarding defense in Hussar swordplay, Lonnergan writes that, “If you strike at them as you meet them, they will avoid your blow, by stooping forward, leaning backward, or even by throwing themselves to the opposite sides of their horses, and will recover their saddles again.” Mounted esquive!
Lonnergan recommends cutting at Hussar sword arms because “it is naturally in a St. George [modern saber quinte, more or less]to save their heads.
To thrust at a Hussar, he recommends “a Segonde [seconde] darted forwarsds, for so the height of your horses, superior to theirs, will have it, and afford you greater power over them in a close attack, which they must avoid as much as possible.”
When fencing on horseback Hussar-to-Hussar, Lonnergan notes that “their best method is to parry any cut made at them with a Quarte, Tierce, or Prime, and repost with a Sawing-Cut, and thrust, and recover with a Drawing-cut.”
Most notably, he writes that the “bent [curve] of their swords will afford them an unavoidable Quarte-over-the-arm, or a Cavè [sic: the accent grave is used incorrectly on cavé in the original text].”
In other words, the Hussar saber with its curved blade has a natural cavé or angulation against quart, tierce, or prime parries (or any other parries, in fact). I’ve heard some historical fencers note that this is an advantage the curved saber has, but I must note here that Lonnergan is referring to actions on horseback with horses moving at speed! The rider, executing the natural angulation with the saber, can escape the riposte as he rides by, while simultaneously cutting or thrusting with cavé (the thrust described is actually a cut). This is not the case afoot: fencer A attacks with an inside cut, fencer B parries quarte and ripostes covered, fencer A makes a cavé around the quarte riposte–and receives his adversary’s riposte cut, having failed to protect himself against it. In other words, use this cavé afoot at your own peril. Fencing, after all, is supposed to be about hitting and not getting hit.
A cut not mentioned by Lonergan, and in fact one in which I’ve only ever seen in Hollywood films, is the low sweeping cut forward on horseback. Often in movies you see knights and so forth lopping off heads this way. However, we probably don’t see it in fencing texts or descriptions of mounted combat for a reason: it would be easily parried by an enemy on foot if were armed with sword, pike, halberd, or musket, and the parry might even dismount the attacking rider.
It would be similarly dangerous against a mounted adversary, leaving the attacker exposed in the high lines unless protected by head and body armor of some sort. Further, the cut might easily be stopped by the enemy’s mount, again with the possibility of disarmament. Hollywood typically does things for show, for drama, not necessarily for historical authenticity.
The closest I’ve seen in reality to this Hollywood low cut is a low thrust made with a straight sword (broad or back) against a mounted adversary, the hand held at the level of the rider’s hip and the point aimed at the enemy’s lower abdomen. The mounted attacker typically has breast and back, and probably a skull cap under his hat, and the thrust is intended for the lower abdomen just under the enemy’s armor.
Lonnergan’s advice for light horsemen being pursued by larger numbers of horsemen is swashbuckling at its best: “Otherwise you may, like the Prussian or Hungarian Hussars, fire under your arm backward, or over our shoulder, and kill at random when flying and closely pursued.”
Firing pistols over one’s shoulder or under one’s arm while fleeing at the gallop? Swashbucking indeed! And it’s clearly a technique clearly used long before the Hollywood cowboys I grew up watching did so on television and in film, inspired perhaps by a famous Frederic Remington painting.
Although this has been an incomplete description of Hussar swordplay, hopefully it has dashed a few Hollywood myths, and also demonstrated that the study of swordplay–inevitably lifelong if you really intend to grasp it–is as fascinating as any other subject, if not more so.
Coming soon: knife-fighting Dutch seamen, the fusil boucanier, rules of fencing etiquette (or at least what they should be), model ships and towns from Hollywood swashbucklers, a technical post on the arm extension in the fencing lunge past and present, and more. And eventually: the duel on the shore!
Copyright Benerson Little 2018. First published April 13, 2018. Last updated May 8, 2018.
A quick post on women and epee fencing, inspired by the photograph of Frances Drake above. She was a Hollywood actress (or actor, if you prefer more modern usage) from the 1930s. The photograph dates to 1934, although I’ve been unable so far to identify the film for which this and similar publicity stills were made. I’d like to, for the the photograph is unusual in that it shows her with epees, not foils.
Until the 1980s, women were not permitted to fence epee in competition due to a patronizing chauvinism (I suppose all chauvinism is patronizing, though) that decreed that women were (1) too weak to fence epee, or saber for that matter, and (2) shouldn’t be fencing epee or saber which were originally dueling arms, therefore “man’s weapons.”
The attitude persisted well into the 1980s and even beyond with some male fencers and fencing masters. Around 1980 I had some lessons from a famous epee master, and as I walked on the strip epee-in-hand for his first epee lesson of the day, and my first with him ever, he smiled and said, “Ah, finally a man’s weapon!” In part he meant it as a compliment in that I was fencing epee, not foil, and therefore as a bit of a dig at foil as well. Still, the comment is instructive and indicative of the attitude at the time. In his defense, most fencing masters would not teach epee or saber to women at the time, even if they believed them suitable to the weapons, for there were no competitions in them available to women, certainly not at the national level.
Of course, more than three decades of women fencing epee and saber have disproved any such absurd notions that women can’t manage these weapons. Just fence my wife sometime if you don’t believe me.
Recently, I obtained a copy of Fencing Comprehensive by Félix Gravé, published in 1934. In it he makes reference to women epee fencers, in particular to how they should dress when fencing epee, clearly indicating that some women did indeed fence epee in the 1930s, and not just Ms. Drake in a Hollywood photo shoot. The fact that there were women epeeists in the 1930s pleases me inordinately.
As for the epees Ms. Drake is holding, they’re probably Castello epees. The guards appear to be aluminum with steel reinforcements. In the 1930s, epee guards were usually made either of rolled steel or of aluminum, with either flat steel reinforcements, as with hers, or angled washers made of either steel or aluminum, as in the image above. The pommels are two-piece, of aluminum and brass, again as in the same image.
Drake’s fencing jacket is quilted, a type difficult to find anymore although once common. The last I saw for sale from major vendors was in the early 1990s. The glove is decorated and might not actually be a fencing glove–epee gloves at this time had leather palms and fingers with “sailcloth” backs and cuffs.
As for women epeeists today, of the five epeeists I consider to have been the greatest in the past century, two of them are women: Timea Nagy of Hungary and Laura Flessel-Colovic of France. Frankly, I prefer women’s epee, for it balances technique with tactics, with speed and strength in support. Too many male epeeists try to reverse this, putting technique and tactics as subordinate to speed and strength. Usually they would fence better if they’d follow the practice of most women epeeists.
In sum: long live women epeeists!
Copyright Benerson Little, 2018. First published February 16, 2018. Updated July 3, 2018.
Jack Sparrow, Perhaps? The Origin of an Early “Hollywood” Pirate, Plus the Authentic Image of a Real Buccaneer
The illustration above was created in late 1926 or early 1927, and published in April of the latter year. Among its several pirate clichés (skull and bones on the hat, tattoos, curved dagger, long threatening mustache) is one I had thought was entirely modern: a pirate hair braid with coins attached.
Quite possibly, this coin braid is the artist’s idea of a pirate “love lock.” The love lock was popular among some young English and French gentlemen in the first half of the seventeenth century. Usually worn on the left side, it was typically tied with a ribbon, a “silken twist” as one author called it. Occasionally two were worn, one on each side as in the image below.
This “pirate love lock” is a noteworthy characteristic of the very Hollywood, very fantasy pirate Captain Jack Sparrow, and I wonder if this image did not inspire much of his look. Historically-speaking, though, there is no historical basis for it among pirates of the “Golden Age” (circa 1655 to 1725), although it’s possible there may have been a gentleman rover or two who wore one during the first half of the seventeenth century–but not a braid or lock with coins.
Of course, much of The Mentor pirate image above was clearly inspired by famous illustrator and author Howard Pyle, as shown below.
There’s a hint of N. C. Wyeth too, not surprising given that he was a student of Howard Pyle. However, Captain Peter Blood was a gentleman pirate, and the pirate on The Mentor cover is clearly not.
And Wyeth’s Captain Blood cover is clearly influenced by this 1921 cover he painted for Life magazine. In fact, less the goatee, the two buccaneers might be one and the same:
The Pyle influence continued through the twentieth century in film, illustration, and mass market paperbacks about pirates…
The Mentor illustration is also clearly influenced by Douglas Fairbanks’s 1926 film The Black Pirate, which was, according to Fairbanks himself, heavily influenced by Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates and to a fair degree by Peter Pan.
Seriously, check out Fairbanks’s costume in the film, it’s obviously that of Peter Pan grown up. I have a soft spot for Douglas Fairbanks: my first fencing master, Dr. Francis Zold, described him as a gentleman and a swordsman, and described how Fairbanks invited the Hungarian fencers to his mansion Picfair (named after Fairbanks and his wife, Mary Pickford) after György Jekelfalussy-Piller won the gold saber medal at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games.
And here, finally, we have Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow in the flesh, braids and such dangling from his hair, again for which there is no historical precedent among Golden Age pirates that we know of. It’s hard to see how Depp’s costume, in particular his hair, might not have been influenced by the illustration at the top of the page. If it weren’t, it’s quite a coincidence.
As noted, it’s entirely possible that the Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl costume designers never saw the image at the top of the page. They may have imagined it themselves, or been influenced by something else. A very likely possibility is Donald O’Connor in the 1951 film Double Crossbones, a campy pirate comedy that makes fun of nearly all pirate clichés.
Although this may seem to be little more than coincidence, there are other similarities between the two films, strongly suggesting the writers and costume designers were familiar with it. In particular, O’Connor plays a shy, somewhat bumbling shopkeeper’s apprentice in love with the governor’s beautiful ward, and she with him. Due to difference in social class he’s unwilling to express his love openly until by accident he becomes a pirate. Sound familiar? Even the costumes of the governor’s ward (Lady Sylvia Copeland, played by Helena Carter) are similar (homage-fashion?) to those of Elizabeth Swann, played by Keira Knightley. If not the Pirates of the Caribbean costume designer, then perhaps the Double Crossbones costume designer was familiar with the image at the top of the page.
Of course, all this so far is “Hollywood,” for lack of a better term. There are a number of serious groups of reenactors, scholars, and others trying to correct the false historical image, all with varying degrees of accuracy, agreement and disagreement, and success.
Hollywood has yet to get aboard, no matter whether in pirate films and television series, or often any film or television set prior to the nineteenth century for that matter, probably because it’s easier to play to audience expectations (and, unfortunately, much of the audience doesn’t really care), not to mention that there’s a tendency or even a fad among costume designers to do something that “evokes” the image or era rather than depict it accurately, not to mention the time and other expense of researching, designing, and creating costumes from scratch when there are costumes “close enough,” so to speak, already in film wardrobes.
Here’s a hint, Hollywood: you can start by getting rid of the “pirate boots.” They didn’t exist. They’re actually based on riding boots, and a pirate would only be in riding boots if he were on a horse–and horses aren’t often ridden aboard ship. Further, you can get rid of the baldrics in most cases, exceptions being primarily for gentlemen pirates wearing smallswords into the 1680s, no later. (You can have some Spanish pirates with rapiers wear baldrics after this, though.) And for that matter, you can get rid of wide belts and large belt buckles too. But if nothing else, please, please get rid of the boots, which, if I recall correctly, a UK journalist once correctly described as nothing more than fetish-wear.
Full disclosure: I was the historical consultant to Black Sails, a great show with a great cast and crew, but I had nothing to do with the costuming, much of which is considered as near-blasphemy by advocates of historical accuracy in material culture in television and film. That said, the show is a fictional prequel to a work of fiction that variously created or expanded some of our biggest myths about pirates–buried treasure, the black spot, and so on. Looked at this way, if you can accept the story you can probably tolerate the costuming.
I’ve discussed what real pirates and buccaneers looked like several times, not without some occasional minor quibbling by other authorities. The Golden Age of Piracy has some details, as do two or three of my other books, but several of my blog posts also discuss some of the more egregious clichés, with more posts on the subject to come.
At any rate, here’s an image of a real buccaneer, a French flibustier in fact, from the 1680s. It’s an eyewitness image, one of only a handful of authentic eyewitness images of “Golden Age” sea rovers. It and the others prove that an image may evoke swashbuckling pirates while still being entirely accurate.
Copyright Benerson Little 2018. First published January 23, 2018. Last updated April 4, 2018.
Just for fun: Samurai underwater combat! Imagined underwater fighting, both via surface supplied air (“deep sea diving”) and free swimming descents, during the very real Battle of Yalu River in 1894. Japanese forces defeated a Chinese fleet in a very close battle during the First Sino-Japanese War. The underwater imagery is, of course, quite imaginary but also quite cool.
Wishing everyone Happy Holidays, however you celebrate them! Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Solstice, Happy New Year (Western and Chinese)–all and more as you wish and please. It’s a secular Christmas here: Santa Claus, reindeer and sleigh, Douglas fir tree (except this year due to the nation-wide shortage, we cut a Virginia pine locally instead), stockings hung by the chimney with care, homemade cookies, fire in the fireplace, books read to children (and to nearby listening adults), much gift giving, plus Basil Rathbone, Albert Finney, Michael Caine, George C. Scott, Mister Magoo (aka Jim Backus of Gilligan’s Island fame), Reginald Owen, and Seymour Hicks as Scrooge, plus occasional swords and sword adventure with musketeers and pirates (and dark rum left for Santa as he makes his rounds), along with the usual excellent food, drink, family, and good cheer.
That said, this is a blog and therefore a suitable place to give praise to the four swashbucklers in the image above, from the 1952 RKO film, At Sword’s Point, also released as The Sons of the Musketeers. The movie is not considered to be the best of its genre, yet is still better than most and worth watching just to see Maureen O’Hara wield a sword–and there’s more to see than just O’Hara’s swordplay and independence, although as noted she alone makes the film worthwhile.
So, from left to right…
Alan Hale Jr. as Porthos Jr.
Alan Hale Jr., a solid more-than-character actor appeared in many films but is by far best known for his role as Jonas Grumby aka “the Skipper” in Gilligan’s Island.
Hale Jr. also starred as Porthos Sr. in a 1970s version of The Man in the Iron Mask entitled The Fifth Musketeer, a film that rounded up a variety of aging actors who had starred in swashbuckling and adventure stage, film, or television, and tossed them in with luminaries such as Rex Harrison and Olivia de Havilland, with up and comers such as Beau Bridges and Ian McShane, and with the addition of Ursula Andress and Sylvia Kristel, the latter best-known for the erotic Emmanuelle films. But not even this sterling cast could hold the film together, even coming as it did on the heels of the recent Three Musketeers and Four Musketeers films.
If Alan Hale Jr. looks familiar to fans of older films, he should, for as Porthos Jr. and Porthos Sr., Hale makes an homage to his father, Alan Hale Sr., who appeared in a fair number of swashbucklers, most famously The Sea Hawk, Robin Hood, and The Adventures of Don Juan, all starring his close friend Errol Flynn. In Robin Hood he reprised his role as Little John, having first played the character in the extravagant silent version by swashbuckling film star, producer, and director Douglas Fairbanks. He took up the role again in 1950 in Rogues of Sherwood Forest. Hale, born Rufus Edward MacKahan, co-starred in several other Flynn films as well: Dodge City, Virginia City, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, and several others for a total of thirteen films.
Maureen O’Hara as Claire, Daughter of Athos
I’ll doubtless devote an entire post one day to Maureen O’Hara and her swordplay in swashbucklers. Alas, as often as she wielded a sword in a swashbuckler, she did not in another. In The Spanish Main and The Black Swan, the most successful of her swashbucklers, she had no sword-in-hand (although Binnie Barnes took up the blade admirably in the former). So, until I post a full article on O’Hara, here are a few images of the strong-willed, independent, red-headed, Dublin-born and raised actress (or actor, if you prefer):
Cornel Wilde as d’Artagnan Jr.
Born to Czech-Hungarian parents in Manhattan, Cornel Wilde often traveled with his father to Europe where he picked up several languages and, reportedly, skill at fencing. An avid and outstanding fencer, Wilde turned down membership on the US saber team for the 1936 Olympic Games in order to accept a theatrical position–a decision few fencers would ever consider making. It’s one thing to give up a potential or possible eventual position on an Olympic fencing team, quite another to give up an offered one. That said, the several actors I know with fencing experience might very choose an opportunity in the form of a middling role in film or theater over fencing in the Olympic Games, although I’m sure the decision wouldn’t be an easy one.
An accomplished actor, Wilde’s looks, swordplay, and athleticism led him to starring roles in numerous swashbucklers.
Wilde furthered his fencing study in the US under famous Hungarian-born fencing master Joseph Vince who had a studio and fencing supplier company first in New York City, later in Beverly Hills. Wilde even illustrated Vince’s book on fencing.
If I have a favorite of Wilde’s films, it is almost certainly The Naked Prey. Relegated to cult film status by many today, it is best considered as an action art film, if such a category exist. In any case, it is a minor classic (Criterion has released it), notwithstanding mixed reviews. Wilde was fifty-two when he produced, directed, and starred in the film, a physically demanding starring role for anyone, not to mention that he was ill most of the time–demands that most men even half his age probably could not have handled.
Dan O’Herlihy as Aramis Jr.
An accomplished actor who should be better known today, O’Herlihy played a variety or roles during his long career, ranging from several swashbucklers to serious contemporary roles to character pieces such as “The Old Man” in the RoboCop films.
O’Herlihy was nominated for an Oscar for his starring role in Robinson Crusoe, directed by famous-auteur-to-be Luis Buñuel.
Ever the distinguished-voiced actor’s friend: audio books.
Copyright Benerson Little 2017-2018. First posted December 20, 2017, last updated January 7, 2018.
For your perusal, a list of a handful of swashbuckling historical novels–pirates, musketeers, various spadassins and bretteurs–with engaging swordplay, even if not always entirely accurate in its depiction. If you’re reading any of my blog posts, chances are you have friends who might enjoy reading some of these books, thus my suggestion as Christmas, Hanukkah, or other gifts this holiday season.
Three caveats are in order: all of the following are favorites of mine, all are set in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and all are not “all” in the sense that the list, even narrowed strictly to my favorites, is quite incomplete. Without doubt I’ll add to it every holiday season. And maybe one day a list of swashbuckling films, another of table and board games, maybe even of video games too…
Upon reflection, perhaps a fourth caveat is in order as well: simply enjoy the stories and their swordplay for what they are. Don’t be too critical, especially of the latter. Except for the case of the reader who is an experienced fencer with a strong understanding of period fencing terms and technique (far more rare than you might think), complex historical fencing scenes cannot be written simply and just as simply understood. Nor can technique and actions in general be explained sufficiently for the neophyte to understand, at least not if the writer wishes to keep the action flowing. The writer must strike a middle ground, one that won’t lose the tempo and thus the reader. This is not so easily done.
It’s possible the Moby Dick technique would work–explain and teach prior to the event–but it’s just as likely that many readers would shun this, unfortunately. For what it’s worth, Moby Dick is by far my favorite novel and I consider it the greatest ever written. It is not, however, a book for readers who cannot step momentarily away from the narrative. As I’ve discovered after the publication of two of my books in which narrative history is interspersed with analysis and explanation, there are quite a few such readers, some of whom become plaintively irate and simultaneously–and often amusingly–confessional of more than a degree of ignorance when the narrative is interrupted for any reason. To sample this sort of reader’s mindset, just read a few of the negative reviews of Moby Dick on Amazon–not those by obvious trolls but those by apparently sincere reviewers. Put plainly, using Moby Dick as a template for swordplay scenes would probably be distracting in most swashbuckling novels.
In regard to acquiring any of these enjoyable titles, note that some are out of print except perhaps as overly-priced modern print-on-demand editions. Even for those still in print, I highly recommend purchasing earlier copies from used or antiquarian dealers–there are plenty of highly affordable copies, just look around for them. Abebooks is a great place to start, but only if you have no local independent used or antiquarian bookstores available to try first. And these days, alas, there might not be any…
Why an older edition? Because the scent of an old book helps set the period atmosphere. Add a comfortable chair, a sword or two on the wall, a fireplace in a reading room or a fire pit on the beach nearby, and, if you’re of age to drink, perhaps some rum, Madeira, or sherry-sack on a side table, and you’re ready to go. Or Scotch, especially a peaty single malt distilled near the seaside, it will evoke the atmosphere of Sir Walter Scot’s The Pirate. Scotch always works.
So just sit back and let the writer carry you along. Don’t forget to imagine the ring of steel on steel and the sharp smell of ozone after an exceptionally sharp beat or parry. And if you really enjoy scenes with swordplay, there’s no reason you can’t further your education by taking up fencing, whatever your age or physical ability. If you’d rather begin first by reading about swordplay, you can start here with Fencing Books For Swordsmen & Swordswomen. And if you’re interested in how swashbuckling novels come to be–romance, swordplay, and all–read Ruth Heredia’s outstanding two volume Romantic Prince, details below.
Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini
Better known by its short title, Captain Blood, I list this first even though there’s really no significant description of swordplay, not even during the duel that is one of the best parts, of many, in the 1935 film version starring Errol Flynn. You must imagine the sword combat, yet in no way does it detract from this great swashbuckling romance that has inspired readers and writers worldwide, not to mention two major film versions (1924 and 1935). It is truly a modern classic. If you really want to judge the quality of the prose, read a few passages out loud: they’re wonderfully lyrical and evocative.
Captain Blood Returns by Rafael Sabatini
If it’s a description of swordplay in a tale of Captain Blood, you’ll have to settle for the “Love Story of Jeremy Pitt” in Captain Blood Returns, also known in UK editions as the Chronicles of Captain Blood. Great Captain Blood fare, follow up it with The Fortunes of Captain Blood.
The Black Swan by Rafael Sabatini
One of the greatest of swashbucklers whose plot leads, line after line, to a dueling climax. The 1942 film of the same name, starring Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara, doesn’t do the book justice, not to mention takes great liberties with both plot and character.
Fortune’s Fool by Rafael Sabatini
An embittered former Cromwellian officer reassessing his life during the early days of the Restoration–and proper use of the unarmed hand in a sword fight too!
Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini
A novel evoking many of the elements of my Hungarian fencing masters’ own history: spies, duels, intrigue, war, revolution, narrow escapes, and above all, courage. Plus Venice!
“With delicate precision he calculated the moment at which to turn and face them. He chose to do it standing on the lowest step of the bridge, a position which would give him a slight command of them when they charged. As he spun round, he drew his sword with one hand whilst with the other he swept the cloak from his shoulders. He knew exactly what he was going to do. They should find that a gentleman who had been through all the hazards that had lain for him between Quiberon and Savenay did not fall an easy prey to a couple of bully swordsmen…”
Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini
“He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.” Add a sword and you have Scaramouche.
To my mind, a tie with The Black Swan in regard to a novel built around swordplay, and far superior in its scope. Easily has the best–most evocative, that is–description of a fencing salle, hands down.
To Have and To Hold by Mary Johnston
Listed here primarily as representative of the genre at the time (the late nineteenth century) and because it influenced Rafael Sabatini, the novel has most of the classic clichés of the genre, including the duel for command of a pirate ship, something that never actually happened. A gentleman swordsman, pirates, Native Americans, a damsel incognita in distress… The duel takes place, as best as I can tell, on Fisherman’s Island off Cape Charles, Virginia.
Adam Penfeather, Buccaneer by Jeffery Farnol
The prequel to the following two novels, you may either love or hate the style in which it’s and the rest are written, the dialogue in particular. Even if you don’t much care for the style–I don’t much–the series are worth reading anyway for the adventure and swordplay, often including sword-armed women in disguise. Farnol will never come close to replacing Sabatini to me, but this doesn’t stop me from enjoying Farnol’s swashbucklers. And at least Farnol’s dialogue doesn’t sound like, to paraphrase a friend of mine, suburbanites chatting inanely at a PTA meeting–a problem with much dialogue in modern historical fiction and television drama.
As for swordplay, Farnol often takes the evocative approach, providing broad strokes to give a sense of the action without providing detail which might confuse non-fencers:
“Once more the swords rang together and, joined thus, whirled in flashing arcs, parted to clash in slithering flurry, their flickering points darting, now in the high line, now in the low, until Adam’s blade seemed to waver from this line, flashing wide, but in that same instant he stepped nimbly aside, and as Sir Benjamin passed in the expected lunge Adam smote him lightly across broad back with the flat of his blade.”
Non-fencing authors take note of the critical vocabulary for swordplay scenes: rang, flashing, slithering, flickering, darting, flashing…
Black Bartlemy’s Treasure by Jeffery Farnol
Great swashbuckling fare, the first part of a two novel series.
Martin Conisby’s Vengeance by Jeffery Farnol
This quote alone sells this sequel to Black Bartlemy’s Treasure: “So-ho, fool!” cried she, brandishing her weapon. “You have a sword, I mind—go fetch it and I will teach ye punto riverso, the stoccato, the imbrocato, and let you some o’ your sluggish, English blood. Go fetch the sword, I bid ye.”
The Pyrates by George MacDonald Fraser
Enjoyable parody of swashbuckling pirate novels and films, much influenced by the works of Rafael Sabatini and Jeffery Farnol. Fraser, an author himself of wonderful swashbuckling adventure, was a great fan of Sabatini.
The Princess Bride by William Goldman
Requires no description. The swordplay, like that in The Pirates above, is affectionate parody, and much more detailed than in the film.
Le Petit Parisien ou Le Bossu by Paul Féval père
I’m going to pass on Alexandre Dumas for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that I’ll eventually devote an entire blog to him. If, however, you feel he should be represented here, The Three Musketeers series is where to begin, but you must read the entire series of novels. Be aware that many such series are actually abridged. For a slightly different Dumas take on the swashbuckler, try Georges (an exception to the seventeenth and eighteenth century rule, an almost autobiographical novel in its focus on race and prejudice) or The Women’s War (or The War of Women, in French La Guerre des Femmes). Both are favorites of mine.
Instead, I’ll suggest a great swashbuckler by one of Dumas’ contemporaries. Le Petit Parisien ou Le Bossu is a true roman de cape et d’épée (swashbuckling novel) of revenge from the which the line, “Si tu ne viens pas à Lagardère, Lagardère ira à toi!” (“If you will not come to Lagardère, Lagardère will come to you!”), has passed into French proverb. The novel has been made into film at least nine times, plus into a couple of television versions as well as several stage versions. Unfortunately, I’m aware of only one English translation, and it is excessively–and understatement–abridged. Alexandre Dumas, Paul Féval, Rafael Sabatini are the trinity who truly established the swashbuckler as a significant literary genre.
Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand
Not a novel, but mandatory reading nonetheless, with one of the two greatest stage duels ever written, the other being that in Hamlet. Wonderful drama, philosophy in action, and sword adventure, including a duel fought to impromptu verse. Like Captain Blood, it is one of the truly inspirational swashbucklers. To be read at least every few years, and seen on stage whenever available. There are several excellent film versions as well.
The Years Between &c by Paul Féval fils & “M. Lassez”
Two series of novels of the imagined adventures of the d’Artagnan of Alexandre Dumas and the Cyrano of Edmond Rostand, filling the twenty years between The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After in the first, and immediately following Twenty Years After in the second. The books are filled with the expected enjoyable affrays and other adventures of the genre, including the usual improbable circumstances and coincidences. The first series consists of The Mysterious Cavalier, Martyr to the Queen, The Secret of the Bastille, and The Heir of Buckingham, published in English in four volumes. The second includes State Secret, The Escape of the Man in the Iron Mask, and The Wedding of Cyrano, published in English in two volumes as Comrades at Arms and Salute to Cyrano.
The Devil in Velvet by John Dickson Carr
Fully enjoyable read about a modern history professor who travels to the seventeenth century via a bargain with the devil. The professor discovers that his modern swordplay is superior to that of the seventeenth century–a wonderful idea for a novel but otherwise flawed in reality. At best, if the professor were a “modern” epee fencer, there might be parity. But who cares? After all, who can travel back in time anyway except in the imagination? If you’re a fencer well-versed in historical fencing versus modern (again, not as many as you might think, including some who believe they are), suspend your disbelief. And if you’re not, just enjoy the novel for what it is.
The Alatriste Novels by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
Leaping forward almost two hundred years, the Alatriste novels are a highly recommended recent series by one of Spain’s great novelists, although some critics note that the books are a bit dark. I’d call them realistic. Unfortunately, the latest of the series, El Puente de los Asesinos (The Bridge of the Assassins or The Assassin’s Bridge) has not been translated into English and doesn’t appear likely to be anytime soon, if at all, an apparent casualty of insufficient sales of the previous volumes and a reflection upon the state of the genre at the moment. That the genre should not have a larger readership given the times we live in is curious, but perhaps the audience awaits a few real-life swashbuckling heroes to reappear first. I have read The Assassin’s Bridge, but in French, and enjoyed it. My Spanish is simply not up to the task. The first six volumes are available in English translation. I also suggest The Fencing Master (El Maestro de Escrima) by the same author.
Romantic Prince by Ruth Heredia
For readers seeking to understand how written romances come to be, you can do no better than to read Ruth Heredia’s two Romantic Prince volumes: Seeking Sabatini and Reading Sabatini. The first is a biography of Rafael Sabatini, the second a guide to reading his many works, including some discussion of swordplay. Ruth Heredia is the preeminent expert on all things Rafael Sabatini. Long an officer and significant contributor to the Rafael Sabatini Society, she is a gifted writer in her right, and, in my own experience, an eloquent voice for sanity, empathy, and justice in a mad world. Originally published in now hard-to-find soft cover, her two volumes are now available in revised editions for free for personal use by requesting them from the author. You can find details at attica-ruth.
Fortune’s Whelp by Benerson Little
Last, a blatant effort at self-promotion, although I honestly did enjoy writing the swordplay scenes (not to mention working them out sword-in-hand), and I do enjoy re-reading the associated passages, or at least as much as I’m able to enjoy my own writing (the urge to revise and improve, even after publication, is quite distracting). A sequel, Fortune’s Favorite, is forthcoming, and at least another after it. Then, if all goes well, a series of prequels.
Copyright Benerson Little 2017. First published December 14, 2017. Updated January 8, 2018.