Swordsmanship for Dummies Part VII: A Sword’s Effects on the Human Body (1)

“If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

–Shylock, The Merchant of Venice

Its more fun to play with swords if you live on top of a mountain, like I do! It makes it seem more...dramatic.

Picking back up after last week’s silliness with the worst sword fight video ever, I would like to take two posts to talk about a gory but real consideration when writing about fighting with swords.  What actually happens to a human body that ends up on the business end of a blade?  Of course, I’m going to leave the obvious answer (“it dies”) aside.  That would be a very short article, and not very instructive.  Instead, I want to deal with two aspects in particular that you may not have really considered:  The possibility that your character will get cut, and (in my next article) the stereotype of the bloodied warrior striving valiantly through an extended  battle.

You should take for granted that any character who has credentials as a serious, practical swordsman or swordswoman will be injured on a regular basis, and they should have realistic scars in evidence of that fact.*

BTW, since thankfully nothing in these next two articles was born of my experiences with kendo, I’m not giving my normal disclaimer.  While it would no doubt have made very good reading to tell you about how I ended up with a gaping wound at the end of practice one day, the worst I experienced was blisters and bruises (I did have one brush with near disaster…).  Instead, these two posts are based on my general knowledge of history and first aid, common sense, and an unfortunate “first hand” encounter with a table saw that illustrated these concepts for me all too well.

What are the chances of a character making it through a fight without getting hurt in some way?  If we believe the movies or average fantasy novel, pretty good.  You can probably think of all sorts of examples of battle scenes where the heroes and villains walk away from some pretty intense encounters without a scratch (or with just enough of one to make them look daring and hearty).  The movie incarnations of Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli from J. R. R. Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring immediately come to mind.  They duck and weave their way through a veritable sea of blades and shafts, to emerge merely stylishly rumpled on the other side (In Tolkien’s defense, Gimli gets a nasty knock in the book.).  The Jedi in Star Wars are even worse, since even getting brushed by a lightsaber should, in theory, be enough to maim and kill, and they rarely emerge with so much as singed hair.

In reality, the chances of making it through a real fight using long swords without getting cut are very small, and if we’re talking knives and short swords, then they are infinitesimally so.  One of the first things a good martial arts instructor training you for a knife fight will tell you is that you will get cut–just take it for granted and try to make sure that the parts that get cut are the ones you need the least (i.e. the fleshy part of your off-hand arm as opposed to your throat).  The distance a longer sword allows you gives you more time to react, but it still offers no guarantees.  Any unarmored or exposed flesh is a target, and your opponents will strike for them, whether they are likely to be kill shots or not.  After all, hurting someone distracts him and that may leave him open for a killing blow.   Therefore, if you are going to write realistic battles, you need to plan on appropriate wounds and account for what that means to your characters.

An example of a grip with the finger under the hilt. It is obviously safer, but not as flexible.

One historical example of this sort of simple, regular injury resulted in a change to the design of some European sword hilts.  If you’ve ever held a traditional cross-hilted sword, you may have noticed that if you grip the handle below the guard it is a little uncomfortable.  Because of the angle of your wrist (see image at left), the blade tends to point up instead of at your enemy, and therefore you spend most of your time with your wrist bent forward in order to keep your sword pointed at your opponent.  It is also easier to lose your grip on the handle in the heat of battle when you’re swinging it.  Medieval swordsmen noticed all that, and they began hooking their fingers over the hilt to compensate.  It was a much more comfortable grip, definitely firmer, but it also left their fingers exposed (see image below).  Opponents would regularly slide their swords down the blade and simply cut off the exposed digit.  As a result, it was not at all uncommon at the time to be able to recognize a swordsman by his missing pointer.  Eventually, they got wise to this and started installing finger guards on their hilts.  Over time, these guards became more complete and more ornate, eventually resulting in the beautiful artistry of upper class rapiers.**

Gripping the sword with the finger over the hilt. This is much more comfortable and easy to maneuver, but does have its downside....

Of course there are plenty of other possibilities for you to explore with your characters:  cuts on the arms and legs would be very common, not to mention potential head and face injuries.

Finally, you need to remember that wounds don’t heal overnight, and they always leave scars.  It should take time for your characters to recover, and they should carry evidence of their battles for the rest of their lives.  You can find ways to subtly work this into your stories, if you like, by strategically placed scarring.  Just remember to keep it proportional.  If you’re writing a a high class dandy, his inexperience in hard combat would show in his clean skin and intact body, but an experienced foot soldier might be covered from head-to-toe with scars, missing an eye, etc.

The only way your characters can realistically hope to avoid being injured is to use effective armor, and then, unless we’re talking knights of the high middle ages, they will still be cut–just not in vital places.  Even with full armor, extended combat will result in injuries to the joints or the face.  Again, think things through:  Where are they weakest?  If you had to fight them, where would you strike?  Injure your characters in those places, as appropriate.

Can you think of any particularly infamous examples of cases where someone in a story or movie should have been injured but ridiculously wasn’t?  How far can be push it without losing out readers?***

Next week we’ll take a look at another practical side of wounds:  What do the wounds actually do to the body, and how long can a character realistically expect to keep going?

*Of course, as I myself have argued elsewhere, there is something to the idea that since your character is a hero, things just tend to work out for them.  That’s fine, of course, up to a point, but making sure that they have an edge of realism can make your writing more meaningful and make it easier to connect with your audience.  Finding the right balance is really an art form in and of itself.

**Incidentally, another way of dealing with the wrist-bend problem is to bend the hilt toward the opponent.  That allows for a normal grip, while keeping the sword where it is supposed to be.  A very popular example of this is seen in Count Dooku’s lightsaber, but it also manifests in saber design in western sport fencing.

***Of course the answer to this, if you are a Star Wars fan, is “as far as you like.”  The Star Wars faithful will swallow anything as long as it involves the Force and lightsabers!  If you don’t believe that, I ask you:  Explain Episodes I, II, and III?

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About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on April 14, 2011, in Authors, Books, Brian Melton, Characters, Fantasy, History, J.R.R. Tolkien, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Movie Reviews, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, Star Wars, Swordsmanship for Dummies, Universes, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. During WWII, we were trying to make our bombers less vulnerable. We couldn’t simply add extra armor to the whole plane, for that would have been too heavy. So some military expert did an extended study of where planes got hit, with the idea of just adding the extra armor plating there. And they almost did it, until someone else pointed out, “Those were the planes that CAME BACK!”

  2. Another solution to the wrist problem is to not hold the sword right at the guard. . . .

    • Very true, and that’s more or less the approach in kendo–the top finger just brushes the tsuba (guard) and the sword is slanted forward. Still, it doesn’t offer the extra grip that hooking the finger does, and depending on how the sword is balanced, it is often easier to maneuver the blade by grasping as close to the guard as you can. The farther you get from the sword’s center of gravity, the more top-heavy and slow it becomes.

      One key is to remember that people didn’t hold swords (or swing them) like Americans do baseball bats. I know once I got that idea out of my head, things started making more sense.

  3. Enjoyed the article (as usual). I keep on learning about sword play, but especially liked the first picture. VERY glad to see there were no visible scars on the arm in the other pix.

  4. Thank you for this post! 🙂 I’m a sucker for realistic details.

  5. Great! I’ll be coming back to this post.

  1. Pingback: Living Your Book: Doing Battle | Lantern Hollow Press

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