I have a character that’s been trying to learn to fight by reading books. Aside from the fact that it’s a terrible way to learn (she doesn’t really have other options) is there a possibility that someone who was actually trained in the tradition of those same books would recognize what she was *trying* to do? When the character does start getting actual training, how much would her knowledge of theory actually help?
The answer is in that quintessential Yoda line:
“You must unlearn what you have learned.”
Unlearn what you have learned means throwing away all your preconceptions and starting from scratch. You leave behind what you think you know because the truth is at the beginning of the journey you know nothing. Only when you accept this as a truth will you begin to learn. Otherwise, your preconceived ideas of what the thing is will color your training. Doing this is much more difficult than it sounds. Every person comes to their training with baggage, no one comes in clean. It’s only after those are left behind, when the mind opens, that the training truly begins. In the case of Luke, this means redefining what he knows to be true about the universe itself and what he knows to be possible. Struggling with this idea in the beginning, learning to let go and leave our initial understanding behind is the beginner’s very first struggle.
The limitations are in what we think we know, and that false confidence is the first source danger which must be defeated. False knowledge, half-knowledge lead to misleading confidence, and that confidence is based on a false belief in their own ability. This is a very dangerous position for the individual. Enough knowledge to think you know what you’re doing, to get you into enough trouble that might actually become life threatening, but without the necessary skills to get yourself back out.
In some ways, as a beginner, it is easiest to start raw. However, a person who truly enters into training carrying nothing with them is rare. Everyone comes with expectations, with bad habits, with misunderstandings of basic terminology, with pride; thinking they’ve mastered the little ideology they’ve had access to.
“What’s in there?”
“Nothing, except that which you bring with you.”
The most dangerous enemy of the beginner is themselves.
The Empire Strikes Back really is a fantastic movie for understanding core concepts of martial arts training. For what its doing, it is actually very realistic.
For your character, the best example from fiction I can pull out is the first training scene from The Mask of Zorro with Antonio Banderas and Anthony Hopkins. Alejandro pulls out his sword, and Diego uses his to just slap the blade right out of his hand. The scene is played for laughs, but it has merit. Alejandro doesn’t know what he’s doing, he doesn’t even know how to hold the blade properly. The big thing to remember is that he thinks he does. After all, he saw Zorro fight as a kid. Like so many other kids, he practiced with the sword. He carries a sword because that’s what his hero did. His transformation under Diego is complete that Captain Love, who has encountered, fought, and totally defeated him before, takes forever to recognize him.
Your character is starting in the same place as Alejandro, except she has the added bonus of that she thinks she knows what she’s doing. She starts out with a little of that arrogance of someone who has studied the theory and thinks they know, even when they don’t know because they’re missing crucial context and the pieces she was expected to know before she read the document. This is what they don’t tell you about “How To Manuals” and demonstration videos: they’re supplementary. They’re great if you already know what you’re doing, if you’re a student with a teacher and has partners to practice the techniques with. They really suck if you’re starting from scratch. They won’t include basic detail because they’ll assume your training already included the explanation of why.
She’ll have spent at least the first day trying to figure out terminology, and she may never totally figure it out. Tempo or the use of time is a foundational concept in European fencing. Tempo directly relates to when and how the fencer has the opportunity to strike, it only loosely relates to a normal person’s grasp of time. For a fencer, the concept is so basic and ubiquitous that the manual won’t bother to explain, and a student reading the manual will be expected to already know what the manual is discussing.
Trust me, I’ve read lots of manuals written by seasoned professionals. They’re writing for a specific audience, and that audience is not the raw greenhorn.
The book won’t explain all the other little problems either, like vibration and the way that wears down the hand/wrist. How holding a sword at a specific angle for a prolonged period of time quickly wears down the muscles. They probably won’t explain about the balance points within the blade. The problem is not that the sword is heavy. It’s the motion and stress on the limbs which wears you down. Hold your arm out in front of you, you’ll start feeling the drag of gravity on the arm. The longer this goes on, the harder it gets.
Missing a practice partner, she’ll never learn about distance and the appropriate striking distances versus the safe distances. With a sword that lack of knowledge could get her killed right out of the gate. Theory is too far ahead of where she needs to be because she’ll skip past the basics. This leads to incredibly obvious flaws.
Alejandro gets the sword slapped right out of his hand. Why? He doesn’t know how to properly hold it, or angle his wrist, or brace his arm against an incoming attack. He’s either too tensed or not tensed enough, he’s not prepared for the hit, and the sword goes flying.
A training manual has just enough information in it to allow you to conceptualize the idea in your head, this will lead you to thinking you know what your doing and feeling confident. Understanding something mentally, however, doesn’t mean you understand it.
Now, once you know what you’re doing, then a training manual becomes extremely helpful. It can get you to think about the material and the techniques in new ways you didn’t consider before, offer up opinions, ideas, and philosophies which are in fact truly wise. The training manual can indeed help you, but only after you’re past the initial hump. So, when she’s an intermediate, what that training manual initially taught her will help. As a raw beginner, it will also trick her into thinking she knows more than she does and she’ll only begin to progress after she accepts this as fact.
My second suggestion is go over to Wikitenaur. You need to familiarize yourself with the special art of the written fencing manuals. “Wikitenaur” is a fantastic website filled with free translations of historical treatises written by the masters of their art. Read some for practice, and see how far you get without needing extra research to understand what it was you just read.
Take this passage from Le Jeu de la Hache (“The Play of the Axe”, MS Français 1996), written by an anonymous Milanese fencing master in 1400 and translated from French by Dr. Sydney Anglo.
 When one would give you a swinging blow, right-hander to right-hander. If you have the croix in front, you can step forward with your left foot, receiving his blow, picking it up with the queue of your axe and – in a single movement – bear downward to make his axe fall to the ground. And from there, following up one foot after the other, you can give him a jab with the said queue, running it through the left hand, at the face: either there or wherever seems good to you. Or swing at his head.
Tell me, what does this technique look like? What sort of axe are they using? Great axe? Poleaxe? Hatchet? One handed or two? Which end is the croix? Which end is the queue?
Some manuals have pictures, some don’t. Without pictures, you’re going to be even more at a loss.
I’ll take pity on you. This is about how to use a poleaxe. You’re essentially stepping forward and connecting at the head of the axe, switching directions to drive the blow to the ground and following up by hitting your enemy with the butt of your weapon which is the queue. If you didn’t know that the poleaxe is a polearm and therefore a staff weapon, you might’ve been completely lost. If you don’t know that you use both ends of a staff weapon, often interchangeably, you might still be lost. The end of a poleaxe is, after all, a metal spike.
The book in that second link has pictures and a much better explanation, but that explanation is an explanation of an explanation. Example Two here is unlikely to be the type of training manual that your character has access to, because number two is written from a historian’s perspective with the idea that the poleaxe is no longer a ubiquitous tool of warfare. Example Two is the one both you and your character needs, but that won’t be the one she has access to unless she’s reading a historian’s explanation of the fighting style; which is, again, not what she has.
Sun Tzu is a great example of a book entirely about theory and military philosophy, whose stratagems are so on point they’re still used as the beginner’s guide today. However, a book like this is thin on practical, because this book is written by a general writing to other generals about warfare. In terms of a character learning about generalized practical theory, The Art of War is a much better example than a technical manual. However, strategy won’t teach you how to punch someone.
The Book of the Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. This is a very helpful book, and the five different books cover different aspects of combat from practical to spiritual philosophy. However, when it comes to practical technique, you’re still going to run into the same problems that we ran into with “The Play of the Axe”. These books are written for students who are already practicing the art, and not students who are considering whether or not they’re going to learn.
This is why I get much more out an instructional martial arts video found on YouTube than most of my followers do. I may get confused in places, but I come to it with a foundation which allows me to quickly grasp the concepts at play. This is a just matter of practice. I’ve spent more time with martial arts masters, I know more or less what to look for, and I understand the basics of language they’re using. A martial arts manual is not written for you, the beginner, but for the student. In this sense, the entire concept of a training manual or a “how to” book lies to you. You can ultimately end up more confused than you were than when you started, and, like Renaissance actors and HEMA practitioners, you’re going to get nowhere without a lot of trial and error.
If this character lacks a training partner to test stuff out with then she never had a chance at trial and error. She only has what she knows in her head, and practiced with her body while under no duress. She has a fighting style filled to the brim with flaws that are just barely recognizable, and I mean they’re recognizable in the way a child trying to perform moves from a Jackie Chan movie looks like Jackie Chan.
So, could they recognize what she’s doing? Maybe. However, European training manuals were mostly created on commission by those with the money to pay for them. The masters themselves tended to be fairly secretive because this training is what they made their living on. The idea of sharing knowledge only helps the enemy. So, in the European set up, your character needs to have a relative who either purchased one of these (exceedingly rare) books or who commissioned one themselves from the master. Or who was a student of the master, or something.
These other characters, if they can tell what she’s doing is a bastardization of what they were taught, are going to be rather confused. They’re more likely to start off offended than feel a sense of kinship, and may transition to kinship but only in the way one feels toward an overeager puppy. Depending on how she behaves, they may view her as a pretender. She’ll need to earn her way in, and if she doesn’t have the coin to pay them for their time then she’s going to need to think of something else.
This is the second secret I’m going to blow, martial arts masters are always paid. Their teaching is a trade, and their skills are in high demand. Their disciples pay them in coin, with a position of prestige, or labor. Or, a combination of all of the above.
So, how is she going to pay for her training? (The standard one if she’s not rich is labor and can’t scrape together the coin to pay, as an apprentice which is a glorified term for an indentured servant.) It’s not just talent, it’s coin. This is a business. You’ve got to pay for the service, especially in the European tradition. Or be the servant of someone who hired the master and is paying for the service. (Martial arts movies understand this one, but almost no one else does. Understanding this is key to writing a training sequence because physical labor like washing the sheets, cleaning the floors, and carrying water for the cook is a key component of your character’s training.) Begging is not out of the question. So, don’t shy away out of embarrassment or your character’s embarrassment. Embarrassment is actually a key part of the genre, a key part of training, and a key aspect of learning in general. Sometimes, you have to do silly things and get dumped on your ass. You’re going to get dumped on your ass a lot in martial training, both metaphorically and physically.
A martial arts master is someone whose skills are in high demand, and the onus is on the character to prove why they’re worthy of being trained. Why should this master spend their precious time on them, especially if the master isn’t getting something out of it? The only time this isn’t true is the Chosen One dynamic, where the master is usually the volunteer, but even then the Chosen One has to take their lumps. Remember, your master is a character and not a prop. The same is true for the other characters who might or might not notice her.