Clifford Beal is an author of history, historical fiction, fantasy, and supernatural horror. His latest novel just out, The Guns of Ivrea (Solaris Books), is a “renaissance” fantasy of merfolk, pirates, war and betrayal.
The dedication to my latest fantasy novel is probably a bit cryptic to many readers: it’s to the inhabitants of “the Barony of the Bridge”. For those in the know, that’s the Rhode Island region for the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), a medieval recreation group that does costume, dance, cooking, and not least tournament-style armoured combat. It’s fifty years old this year and it was a big part of my social life for a long time.
I dedicated the novel to my old chums not just because I shamelessly appropriated their “persona” names for my novel, but because of the experience of SCA armoured combat and how that influenced the way I write battle scenes. Swordplay is a large part of fantasy fiction, particularly the epic variety, and I know it divides readers like Marmite does for Brits: you either love it or hate it. I would argue that the outcome is often dictated by the way combat scenes are written but the fact remains that combat in epic fantasy is indispensable to action, plot and character as any fan of GRRM will tell you.
And readers are changing these days. I would wager that a fair few SF&F bookworms are also increasingly participants in things like HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts), kendo, the SCA and LARP gaming. That means genre writers cannot take for granted a complete ignorance of real swordplay on the part of their readers-nor can they be ignorant themselves about the mechanics of fighting. There’s nothing more frustrating than following a character who gets hacked to bits despite wearing plate armour, or who uses epee moves with a broadsword. Or conversely, is indestructible on the field fighting a hundred assailants without a scratch. Mistakes such as these at best erode the suspension of disbelief and, at worst, are laughable.
So how does one inject more high-fidelity into crafting medieval combat and duelling scenes? Well, having fought medieval and renaissance styles on and off for over 30 years I can say it has given me insights that I’ve directly plugged into my books. And, like writing sex scenes, research can be fun. But that said, medieval re-enactment or HEMA isn’t a requirement for writing a good scene. Appreciation for the reality of swordplay is. Here are some of my top tips to bear in mind.
- It’s a myth that knights were slow, stiff, and if knocked down just rolled around. Good armour was flexible and the weight distributed on the body. However, if you put on a suit of armour and run around in it you quickly realize a high level of endurance is required to keep running and swinging a sword after a few minutes. Dehydration and heat exhaustion are a constant danger. It was difficult to cut through plate armour with a sword so by the high Middle Ages the poleaxe and mace were adopted to crush opponents. Swords became thinner and stronger to puncture rather than cut. Chain mail affords protection against a cut but not the force of a sword blow. Remember your padding!
- The fog of medieval combat: In a full helm with an eye-slit your visibility is drastically reduced but you can adjust to it. But you’ll still be in the dark as far as what’s going on around you on the battlefield. Even in a shield wall you are totally focussed on the enemy immediately in front of you. “Tunnel vision” can set in and the sounds of hundreds of yelling, cursing men can be both terrifying and confusing. If you fall, you’ll be trampled.
- It’s also a myth that medieval combat was just gorillas in steel bashing the hell out of each other with no skill or artifice. Throughout the middle ages, schools of the sword and various systems for fighting were plentiful. Skill can trump brute force but bear in mind physicality when arming your characters: a slender female warrior or a beardless youth is hardly going to fight with a Conan-style steel girder if they want to survive. When you’re small you need a faster weapon to compensate for mass.
- Bad luck: Shit happens. To everyone. Even the most skilled warrior can get surprised from behind, hamstrung, shot by a crossbow, or be overwhelmed by sheer numbers. And that’s probably game over. Fighting with minor wounds sets a timer running: you will soon run out of energy and your shield will come up one second too late. Remember that by making your combatants mortal, you add an element of jeopardy for the reader that keeps things interesting.
- Balance is key. And by that I don’t mean parrying while standing on one leg. I mean in the writing context. Knowing the mechanics of good swordplay doesn’t mean you should belabour the scene with endless blow-by-blow description unless there’s a good reason for it. You can impart a sense of the reality of the fight and all the risk but don’t get bogged down in detail. Keep things flowing.
As writers, we want to give our readers a reason to keep on reading. It’s worth bearing in mind that as readers learn more-including the ancient art of the sword-we need to raise our game too.