In the age of the gun, the romance of the sword lingers in pop culture. From wuxia novels to martial arts flicks, heroic fantasy tales and stories of sword and sorcery, people enjoy stories of blademasters cleaving their way through hordes of enemies.
On first glance, this seems strange. These stories hardly have any bearing on modern life. In a world where war is fought with button presses and trigger pulls from long range, how relevant are stories of men who throw themselves into a storm of steel? Likewise, they don’t necessarily educate the current generation of how their forebears might have lived; authentic they may be, but there is no substitute for scholarly research. Even if these stories reflected the reality of the lives of hard men of a hard age, it is an experience utterly alien to lived experience today.
Yet, because of this alienness, the romance of the sword is very much relevant today.
In the pre-gunpowder era, war was fought up close, at arm’s length or closer. Men prevailed through skill, courage, and raw muscle. Combat was a personal affair, so close you could smell the enemy’s breath, taste his fear, feel his lifeblood ebb on your blade–or yours on his.
Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s On Killing posits that the closer a soldier is to the act of killing, the greater the psychological trauma he endures. A World War Two bomber pilot can sleep peacefully in his bed after killing hundreds from the air with incendiaries; an infantryman who bayonets his enemy in the heat of battle may never sleep well again. Combat in the age of the bullet is a far cry than war in the age of the bullet, paradoxically less destructive and far more ferocious at the level of the individual.
Yet despite the cost of killing at close range, history lauds famous warriors who spent their lifetimes at war. The conquistador Francisco Pizzaro, the man who conquered the Incas, who at the age of 70 faced an assassination attempt by 10 men, and slew 3 before succumbing to his wounds. William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, renowned for his personal courage and skill at arms, who claimed to have defeated 500 knights in various tournaments throughout his life. Miyamoto Musashi, who claimed to have fought 60 duels and never lost.
In the days before massed firepower dominated the battlefield, it was not inconceivable for such apex killers to have slain scores, even hundreds, of opponents by their own hand. And they did so at melee range, without the benefit of modern armor or armaments. In such a deadly environment, how can a man survive — even thrive?
For starters, he must be strong and healthy, ideally with an excellent immune system. He would have been exposed to filth and hazards that modern society deems intolerable, and he would have to win his battles not with a simple finger press but with the power of his entire body. In this unforgiving age, an age without penicillin or modern medicine, strength is power and health is all. The weak succumb, and the strong take what they will.
He must possess courage and cunning in abundance. Courage is obvious: when a man charges at you intending to take your head off, it takes courage to step into the arc of his swing to deliver the counter-cut. But cunning is also necessary, arguably even more so. The bravo who walks up to his enemies demanding a fair fight would be quickly stabbed in the back by a blade he didn’t see. Honor and chivalry were ideals, not reality. The grim reality of war, pre-modern and today, is that you must strive to end combat quickly and efficiently, lest the enemy find a chance to counterattack — and kill you. Thus, the apex warrior must be well-versed in the art of strategy and deception, to gain a decisive advantage over his foes without allowing them to outwit him.
To achieve mastery of the blade, the warrior must be disciplined. He must be devoted to the art of weapons and war, rigorously practicing it without cease for years and decades on end. Without such single-minded focus, he will surely fall to a foe who put in more time and effort practicing the trade. Not only that, he must discipline his heart and mind, to never allow fear of death to creep into his soul, lest he make a fatal mistake.
He who achieves the acme of skill also gains the greatest quality of all: insight. Throughout his life, he would have seen the difference between men and women, the weak and the strong, the rich and the poor, the craven and the chivalrous, and thus knows the nature of humans. To grasp battlefield strategy, he must develop an understanding in human psychology, geography, physics, space, time, and where they intersect. To see through the stratagems of his foes, step into the blade and cut down the enemy without being cut, he must cultivate a calm heart and unclouded vision.
Classical Japanese martial arts teach that the way of the sword is the way of strategy, and that he who practices the way of the sword also walks the long road to enlightenment. He who masters the sword becomes the master of himself, and in so doing becomes the master of all.
To go back to the original question, the romance of the sword lies in the romance of the swordsman. He is the embodiment of the idealized man, the warrior and conqueror par excellence.
From the West, immortal figures like Conan the Cimmerian, Solomon Kane and John Carter of Mars display the Western heroic ideal of the swordsman. He is usually a noble savage, apparently primitive in his ways, yet more honorable than men of the city. He is loyal to his friends, merciful to those in need, yet relentless in war. He is a specimen of Olympian vitality, strength and endurance.
Eastern swordsmen are paragons of skill and virtue. The youxia of Chinese wuxia fiction are celebrated for their mastery of arms, live in a milieu that holds personal honour and morality in high regard, simultaneously upholding the tenants of civilization while living apart from it. Xianxia stories take things one step further, with heroes and villains alike striving to cultivate their personal qi, eventually gaining the powers of gods. Warriors from Japanese jidaigeki are compelled to live by the strictures of a rigid class-bound society or thumb their nose at it. Martial valor is held in high regard, and warriors are at the head of the pack. More esoteric fiction would even follow the warrior’s quest for enlightenment through the blade, such as the award-winning manga Vagabond.
The appeal of the swordsman lasts through the ages because he embodies many masculine virtues. Strength, skill-at-arms, valor and virtue combine to create an unparalleled warrior; with insight and faith, he ascends to the role of warrior-priest. He represents the archetype of the hero, one of his countless reflections across the ages.
He is a hard man of a hard age — and in this era of softness and comfort, he is an ideal even the common man can aspire to.
(image from Pixabay)
When ordinary college student Yamada Yuuki is transported to a death world teeming with monsters, his only hope is to practice the way of the warrior. Follow him on his grim campaign through a bloodsoaked dungeon in the DUNGEON SAMURAI trilogy!
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