Some Scattered Thoughts on Swordplay, Part the Second
Because I like swords, and I want everyone to like swords as much as I do, I am offering up some of my own thoughts on the subject of swordplay, for use perhaps by artists interested in drawing good duels, or stage combat persons interested in choreographing fights, or writers who want to write about it. I’m starting off with this fight on page 8 of Lady Sabre and the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether, but I will probably go wildly off the rails at some point.
3. Parries, Panel One
This is what made me want to write this, and let me just say again that there’s no ill-will or insult implied here. This isn’t nitpicking — I don’t think it’s nitpicking to seriously discuss the details of anything, frankly, and I hate the idea that because a detail is small that it just doesn’t matter — but I’m not implying that Burchett’s work is bad or anything. I know about fencing because I’ve spent ten years at it; obviously, not everyone else has.
The first thing you see, right there in panel one, is a lunge / parry that just doesn’t seem to make any sense. Sabre is in a fully-extended, classic sportsman’s lunge, and Hans is parrying point down, weapon across the body (this is, incidentally, a parry typically referred to as “Prime”, but pronounced “preem”), but somehow Sabre’s sword is UNDER his. I think we have to attribute this to artist’s error, just because I can’t think of any way that this arrangement of weapons could happen that makes more sense than “the artist just meant to have Hans’ sword under Sabre’s.”
Ostensibly, if Sabre had feinted a cut in quinte (that is, a cut to the top of his head) drawing up a high, horizontal parry and then disengaging into prime, and Hans had panicked and instead of dropping his hilt to stop it with a parry quatre (that is: moving the weapon down from his head and across his body, with the point up, instead of down) had dropped his point instead, he might have folded over her weapon rather than parried it.
This would reveal two interesting pieces of information, actually: the first is that Hans isn’t an especially good swordsman, despite the compliment that Sabre delivers. The second is that she CLEARLY isn’t trying to hurt him, because with his parry stuck on the outside of her weapon, it’s obvious that she just thrust all the way past his body, missing him entirely. It’s hard to just hop out of the way of a thrusting smallsword, because the weapon is so light and the point can track so easily, which makes it unlikely that she thrust and missed.
Of course, the backmatter suggests that Hans is competent at the least, and there’s another problem with blade position in the corps-a-corps (I’ll get to that in a minute), so artist’s error is probably the best guess. This is understandable, though; if you’re using as a photo reference any of those old-timey fencing manuals it’s not always clear which blade is on top and which is underneath (in fact, I suspect a couple of plates actually already have errors in them). The general rule of thumb is: as much as possible, your sword is meant to be between your opponent’s sword and your body.
The other interesting thing about this prime, since we’re talking about it, is the displacement of his body with the parry. Prime is a pretty unusual parry in sport fencing — left-handed foilist’s sometimes use it, because it fits very naturally into a sequence after your regular parry, but it still ends up not being very good for anything. The reason for this is because prime is one of the few parries with which you typically close distance — stepping your back foot forward and towards the outside of your body so that your torso is turned at a slight angle away from your opponent (this footwork is called a “degage”, with a little accent over the e, I don’t know how to do that; if you displace a little more, you’re doing a demi-volte, and a little more than that and you’re in quarta). In sport fencing, all other parries are accompanied by footwork that opens the distance up, giving you a little more room between yourself and your opponent; in classical fencing, parries are usually done only with blade work, and so there’s no backing up, but also no advancing.
Except with prime, and the reason that it isn’t used often in sport fencing is that the only way you’re allowed to hit your opponent is with the tip of your sword, and that gets exponentially more difficult the closer you get to each other.
What prime does exceptionally well, and which many sport fencers have learned to their extreme embarrassment when they’ve kind of done it instinctively, is set you up fairly nicely to elbow your opponent in the face. Imagine that first panel again: reverse the overlap of the swords, so that the parry is working. Now, imagine that Hans’ feet are firmly on the ground, so that he’s canted in the other direction. His elbow is right there, see? And if she starts to back away, he can straighten his arm and conk her with the pommel or, if he’s really trying to kill her, he can just follow through with that parry and turn it into a horizontal cut, taking her face right off.
4. Parries, Panel Two
I’m not actually sure what’s going on in this scene, and it seems like a good time to bring this up: in stage combat, the rule for basic, sabery fighting like this is that attacks are horizontal, parries are vertical. In real fencing there’s alot more angle happening, but this isn’t really real fencing, it’s the image of fencing; for that to work, it needs to be clear who’s attacking and who’s parrying.
My instinct would be to say that Hans is on the attack and Sabre is parrying, because her sword is held in such a classic parry quatre (remember that one? point up, across the body, just your basic old parry); that’s almost exactly what it looks like, except typically with a smallsword, the wrist would be turned all the way over so that she could parry with the other edge of the sword. In the smallsword and related weapons like the foil and epee, the “true edge” of the weapon — the one that’s aligned with your knuckles — always faces inwards, and you parry with the false edge, requiring you to turn your wrist over in a kind of a weird way. In saber the opposite is true — the true edge always faces out, and it feels much more natural. I don’t know why this is, and I’ve never heard a satisfactory answer; sometimes people say that it’s faster, which I’d like to see some numbers on, I don’t know if I believe that at all. Sometimes they say it’s to protect the true edge of the weapon so that it stays sharp, but then it would make more sense for sabres to have the true edge inward, since they’re the ones that actually have an edge.
ANYWAY. The problem with the parry quatre is that it just doesn’t look like Hans is attacking, so I don’t know what’s going on. The other possibility is that she’s using something like that degage footwork to close distance with him, and is actually thrusting with a bent arm. This is a rare but interesting attack — once you’re closer than optimal distance from your opponent, it becomes much harder for him to get you with his point. So, if you close and know you’re closing, you can keep a bent arm. This is most often done in response to a strong thrust, and works better when the weapons are heavier. Here is a picture of that technique in quarta — turned basically as far to the side as you can get — with the rear foot kicked out ninety degrees from its original position:
What makes that seem unlikely is the fact that Hans’ weapon, in this in-between state, is neither committed enough for a long thrust to make the quarta reasonable, nor is his parry in place to explain why she just hasn’t stabbed him. I think the notion that this is a parry is a little more reasonable. Especially because obviously her feet aren’t doing that — I was thinking that maybe she was about to.
5. Parries, Panel Three
So, this looks like a typical thrust with a parry in seconde, and it leads to an interesting point. See how high Hans’ arm is, here? With the elbow cocked all the way up? And the way that his body is also canted to the side a little? That happens when your opponent is too close — rather than comfortably parrying the weapon at optimal distance, you have to bring it all the way back in. It can happen generally in one of two ways: you’ve over-committed on a lunge and are now vulnerable; or, your opponent has ducked or disengaged your weapon and just come right at you.
I’d think the first scenario, in this case, is more likely, as it supports the parry quatre theory from the previous panel. The problem with both of these scenarios, though, is that they both rely on Lady Sabre trying to close distance. This is weird for a number of reasons: 1) the smallsword has no edge, only point, so there’s a very specific distance at which it’s dangerous — namely, when your opponent is exactly far enough away that you can thrust about six inches into them. 2) The saber DOES have an edge, and also a very heavy guard and pommel, so it’s a lot more dangerous in close quarters; Lady Sabre’s thrust is actually too long to hurt Hans in this case — she’d have to withdraw in order to stab him — but Hans is easily close enough to whack her arm with the heavy bottom third of his weapon. And 3) you close distance to neutralize the effect of the sword, and if you’re doing that it’s because you intend to fight with something else: a knife, your hands, your body weight. Lady Sabre’s free hand is empty, she doesn’t seem like she’s trying to punch him, and she’s about my height and weight — it’s a perfectly serviceable height and weight, thank you very much, but it’s not the sort of mass I’d be throwing around in a fight, if you get my meaning. Especially because that guy seems bigger than her.
What we’ve seen in each of these first three panels is Lady Sabre trying to close distance when, by most reasonable accounts, she should be trying to keep that distance open, using that space to take advantage of how fast and light her weapon is. Why does she keep closing in on him, rather than keep him at bay with her faster, more aggressive bladework?
This leads us to the corps-a-corps, which I’ll actually do in a third part, I guess. Haha!