The Rapier: Seven Minutes in Hell Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (Gideon the Ninth and the Perils of Pop Culture)

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite:

Have you read Gideon the Ninth? What did you think of the swordplay? I found it ridiculous, Gideon is supposedly so “strong” she uses a “Greatsword” with one hand.

I’ll be honest, I got about seventy pages into Gideon the Ninth before I gave up due to the novel’s pacing issues. So, in terms of sins, the swordplay itself rated pretty low. The reason one reads Gideon the Ninth is for lesbian necromancers in space, and it’s good for that. I’ve no judgments on anyone who enjoyed it, dumb space fantasy fun is one of my favorite genres. Gideon’s combat sins are the same as pretty much every other novel, they’re the same legion of sins you see when any writer takes conventional wisdom and pop culture knowledge at face value without giving it any thought. 

The short answer to Gideon the Ninth and pretty much anything to do with swordplay from conventional understanding of weapon utility to training to the wisdom spouted by the main character’s titular teacher is: it’s all wrong, often hilariously so, to the point of being nonsensical. So wrong, in fact, that I question whether or not this character was actually trained to fight because she couldn’t grasp the fundamentals. (Longsword and rapier? Not that different.) However, while Gideon was exceedingly wrong with great confidence, she’s very in line with our cultural perceptions of swords.As a result, Gideon is very convincing if you don’t think about what she’s saying too much.

Let’s start with the basics:

  1. The longsword is the battlefield warrior’s weapon. 
  2. The rapier is the tooty fruity dainty noble’s fancy dueling weapon. (It’s super fancy because it’s French.)
  3. And if you just nodded along to those descriptions, oh boy, is this post going to blow your mind.

Here’s our first foray, rapier is not a French word, rapier is derived from a French word, but is an English and/or German word. They didn’t care enough to get the pronunciation right, which sounds exactly like the English and the Germans in regards to the French. It’s also a horrible mistake if you follow suit. The French happen to be great at stabbing people. You’re welcome.

I’m not going to focus on Gideon’s issues with the zweihander or claymore. We’ve discussed the weight of swords at length in the past and how these large weapons only weigh about eight pounds because, in the real world, you’re expected to use them all day. (No, really.) In this post, we’re going to focus on the sword Gideon truly does dirty in quintessential fantasy fashion and that sword is the rapier and it’s shorter sibling, the smallsword.

One of the major problems of Fantasy as a genre, usually pulling from Dungeons & Dragons, is it tends to look at the past as The Past. A bleary amalgamation of stuff slammed together in an incoherent jumble that doesn’t really make sense but seems like it does if you don’t look too closely. Any fantasy setting, for example, that lets you have a greatsword but not a single-shot handgun is a little confused about history. So, a lot of weapons that are actually sequential technological evolutions during society’s growth and progression toward the modern era get held up as the same as their ancient counterparts. Oftentimes, these are weapons separated by hundreds of years and, in some cases, thousands. The zweihander, for example, is not a medieval weapon, it’s early modern and post the invention of the gun. It’s a 16th century weapon, and requires the smithing technologies of the era in order to exist. Your DnD Barbarian patterned off the Visigoths or the Norse using a greatsword is the same as your hard bitten 1920s P.I. using a goddamn phaser. It’s anachronistic. Now, why is this important to the rapier?

The rapier comes from an era when everyone got to have swords and the swords themselves were seen as status symbols. The rapier was not just the weapon of the super rich, but the weapon of the rising middle/merchant class. While it did see battlefield use, they were also weapons carried for self-defense and in polite society. Due to its light weight, they could be carried as a fashion accessory, just like high heels for both men (and women.) Which is where our cultural bias for the rapier being a non-serious weapon comes from, but it was the military fashion of the time because it was the military sidearm. The rapier is a weapon for killing and it is very efficient at its job. The rapier, if you didn’t know, is one step off Europe’s pinnacle of sword technology. The epee stood at the peak, which was a weapon so quick it was famous for what was called the double suicide where the duel ended with both duelists killing each other at the same time. The rapier, the smallsword, and, really, all the thrusting swords epitomize, “you’ll be seven minutes in hell before the Devil knows you’re dead.”

This is a problem that follows the weapon into modern sport fencing where we have to use electronic scoring because it is too fast for the judges to follow with their eyes. As an Olympic sport, it’s one of the reasons why fencing really struggles to draw an audience because your brain genuinely cannot process what’s happening. Again, one of the most common injuries for smallsword masters (and these are instructors who trained others professionally) was the loss of an eye. The thrusting family is fast.

Ignoring for the moment that Gideon confuses the rapier with modern fencing as most pop culture does, the narrative runs into a basic issue when it comes to training. The narrative wants Gideon to maintain her smug attitude in regards to the rapier’s frippery, so Gideon never gains an appreciation for the rapier’s rather absurd lethality (even in comparison to other swords.) This is functionally impossible from a realistic standpoint because you can’t train on a weapon without gaining some appreciation for it, even if you don’t like it or it’s not your preference. 

I’d actually say the greatest sin of Gideon is the way it writes off modern fencing without attempting to understand it. I say modern fencing because neither Gideon nor the narrative is utilizing the historical techniques of the rapier but rather falling back on the audience’s conventional understanding of fencing, which is modern fencing. Modern fencing grew out of the military sabre and the smallsword or epee, respectively. It is important to note that Gideon is not using historical smallsword fencing either, but rather the idea of it. In essence, Gideon’s fencing is Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood yelling, “Parry, parry, thrust, thrust! Good!” at the Sheriff of Rottingham.

The problem is that any character who has a juvenile disdain for the weapon they’re training with is a major red flag for an author’s inexperience. Experienced writers who’ve worked with weapons will write characters who have disdain for certain weapons and preferences for others but the character will express a grounded, detailed reason for their preference. Those reasons may be petty, as real world complaints often are, but they can provide you with a reason regarding the weapon’s function beyond “this is a girly sword.” (The rapier is three and a half feet of fuck you. The rapier is a needle razor blade of death.) I’ll put it in blunt terms, at the beginning of the novel, Gideon essentially whines about one of the most lethal swords ever created not being masculine enough for her tastes. And to that, we all say, fuck you too.

This is why we do our research. Remember, the Musketeers carried rapiers. As did most other soldiers of the period. So, complaining that it’s not a battlefield sword is kind of stupid. Especially since the battlefields of Gideon’s setting aren’t really explained very well.

So, now, I’m going to go over some pieces from Gideon’s text that really stood out to me as wrong and we should address why they’re wrong so you don’t replicate them in your own work. Then, I’ll give you an example from an author who famously did it right.

“She spent six hours a day learning where to put her feet when she wielded a one-handed sword,”

Gideon the Ninth, 59

This is the sort of statement that sounds good when you don’t think about it, but I’m not actually certain what it means in context. The longsword, which is a 19th century term and usually what we think of when referring to the Arming sword (which can be wielded two handed when it has a longer hilt for greater leverage) can be wielded with one hand and often was either on its own or in conjunction with a shield. The rapier/the thrusting blade family are not the only weapons you wield with one hand, most swords can be, even those that normally use two.

The idea that martial combat is ultimately and fundamentally different between weapon types is untrue, the stances do change between weapon types but the same rules usually apply. So, if Gideon is used to training with swords, then the rapier wouldn’t be totally alien.

“Where to rest (what seemed to her to be) her useless, unused arm,”

Gideon the Ninth, 59

Raise your hand if you’ve ever looked at the fencing stances in films like Princess Bride or Robin Hood: Men in Tights and gone, “well, that’s just dumb.” You and Gideon have something in common, but you shouldn’t because Gideon is trained in swordplay. Gideon should understand the fundamental importance of balance. Gideon does not. (Gideon’s teacher does point out the balance part later, though rather nonsensically and the knuckle weapon makes no sense, but Gideon should already know this from her years of training.) The bagh naka and the katar/punch dagger are amazing melee tools in unarmed combat, but not useful as the offhand guard against a rapier.

Useful offhand tools for the rapier — the buckler, the parrying dagger, the cloak, and the whip. (Yes, Zorro was right.)

What is the point of that off-hand position in fencing? Balance. Yeah, those hand positions are about helping you maintain balance in your stance, allowing you to move and strike cleanly without falling over or stumbling. No matter what weapon you choose, even if you’re going hand to hand, martial combat is built around your central balance point. (In fact, there are a great many styles and techniques that focus specifically on disrupting your opponent’s balance to gain an advantage in combat.) If you haven’t guessed this, falling over is very bad.

The off-hand allows for a narrower sideways/diagonal stance (making yourself a smaller target/ more difficult to hit, more on this later) while maintaining your central axis, which also, ironically, plays into the importance of your footwork (more on this later.)

Another, very important, practical reason for the position of that off hand is it brings your shoulders into line while in your stance, allowing you to take the weight of the sword off your arm and carry it in your back. This way you take the strain off the arm, and fight longer, or fight multiple duels in succession. The rapier only weighs about two pounds, but with your arm constantly extended, it becomes a lever and the weapon grows heavier as time progresses.

One of the key aspects of martial combat that is most difficult is holding position in your stance, you’re in a constant battle against gravity and your own muscles. This is why, when you watch fights progress, you’ll see stances get shallower, hands drop from their defensive position, the arms fall out of line, etc. A well-balanced stance conserves energy.

Your shoulders being in line is one of the aspects you give up if you choose to duel wield. Why did some people just fight with one sword if other tools were convenient? Well, there are several, but one is conservation of energy.

Gideon being derogatory about this and not knowing makes Gideon look like a really shitty warrior. (Which, ironically, were my feelings at the time of reading the book.)

“How to suddenly make herself a sideways target and always move on the same stupid foot.”

Gideon the Ninth, 59

This one really caught me, “make herself a sideways target.” The weird thing for me with this is, why “suddenly” and why is being sideways bad? All martial combat happens on a diagonal, some more so than others, but everything is on a diagonal. Nobody fights squared up, nobody, no one. It’s a terrible position that is out of balance. You can literally destabilize someone by stepping between their legs and shoving their chest with one hand, and they will stumble. You fight sideways on diagonals, on specific degrees, your feet spread and in balance, with your central axis protected. Combat with a rapier is, ironically, not more sideways/on a diagonal than with a longsword.

Then, the second line “always move on the same stupid foot.” I get what this phrase is referencing, but it’s also wrong. In martial combat, you always move with the lead leg first (there are exceptions to this rule, there always are, but by and large) and then the back leg. Or, when moving forward (advancing,) the back leg and then the front leg. One foot always acts as your central balance point while moving so you don’t give your opponent an opening in your defenses or the opportunity to destabilize you. This is basic combat training. Gideon is whining about basic combat training which would apply with any weapon she trained on, including the longsword.

This is really how we tell a writer isn’t approaching combat with the idea of their character being at risk of dying. Gideon has no concerns about being up against other characters who have trained their entire lives with one of the deadliest swords, mostly because the author hasn’t fully processed that there isn’t a major difference in outcome between a battlefield and a duel to the death — both will kill you. Now, this should be a point of tension in the narrative, but it isn’t because Gideon doesn’t take the rapier or dueling to the death seriously. Your POV dictates how your reader responds.

Moving on, a very important one for all you swordsmen out there:

“This isn’t your longsword, Nav, you block with it again and I’ll make you eat it!”

Gideon the Ninth, 59

A parry is, essentially, a deflection or redirection of your opponent’s blade. Instead of taking the force, you redirect that force away from you and counter strike if the opening presents.

A block involves taking the full force of your opponent’s strike and stopping it cold. Which, I’m sure, sounds cool and tough. (Far more so than it actually is.)

You don’t block with swords, at least, not swords with edges. If you block with a sword that has an edge, you will damage the edge or break the blade. Both are bad to the functionality of the weapon. Hollywood has a variation of sword combat that’s called Flynning (after Errol Flynn) for eye-catching moves where the blades bang against each other, it looks very pretty and has no relevance to real combat. All swords parry, not just rapiers, sabres, and smallswords. Estocs can block, lightsabers (beams of pure plasma) can block, longswords? No. Or, at least, you shouldn’t.

I will forgive any reader for thinking they could because pop culture trains you to believe it’s a normal part of sword combat.

So, what does the response look like from a writer who understands the art of fencing. I’ll give you an example from Rafael Sabatini’s Master-At-Arms, which was written in the 1940s. For reference, Sabatini was popular in his time for his contributions to the swashbuckling genre.

This scene is a training scene between a main character, Quentin de Morlaix (our swordmaster) and Chevalier de Saint-Gilles (one of his inevitable rivals.)

The Chevalier complied. He launched the botte with which he had twice got home. This time, however, the stroke was not only parried but with a swift counter Morlaix hit the Chevalier vigorously over the heart.

He lowered his blade. ‘That should not have happened,’ was his quiet comment to the hotly answered: ‘That shall not happen again. On guard!’

The attack was repeated, with an increase of both vigor and speed. Yet once again it was met and answered by that hit in quarte.

The Chevalier fell back and spoke sharply in an annoyance that was shared by his scowling, startled brother. ‘But what is this, then? Were you trifling with me before?’

Morlaix was of perfect amiability. ‘You confuse a master-at-arms with an ordinary opponent, Chevalier. That is an effective botte of yours, to which I must suppose you have given much practice. The fault in its execution lies in that you offer too much body. Keep yourself narrower. Then if you are hit it will be less fatally. On guard again. So. That is better, but not good enough. Swing your left shoulder father back, more in line with your right. Now, hold yourself so, whilst making your attack. Allongez! Excellent. For whilst I counter-parry it thus,and make my riposte on the binding of the blade, I can only touch you in quinte. Thus.’

The blades were lowered again and Morlaix expounded to the discomfited swordsman. ‘That correction of your position to an unaccustomed one will have cramped you a little, so you have lost pace and force, and left it easier for the counter to get home. With practice, however, that will be overcome. When it is corrected we will come to your other faults,’ he promised, and added the cruelest cut of all: ‘You display so much aptitude it should be easy to render you really formidable.’

Master-At-Arms, 29

What should really stand out from Sabatini’s passage is the detail both in terminology and in explanation, a lot of writers skirt around detail and explanations because they don’t know and didn’t do the research. Research is hard, but when you have a solid grasp of what you’re working with, it ultimately creates better material.

The teacher who doesn’t explain, while an easy cheat, is a crappy teacher. 

What Sabatini is referring to with quarte and quinte are the eight classical parries and attack in foil fencing, basically the parts of the body he’s hitting. (I’ll point out, Quentin knows why you stay narrow and informs both Saint-Gilles and the audience: so you don’t die. Learn things, Gideon.) Interestingly, this chapter serves to establish both Quentin de Morlaix’s skill as a fencer, his rivalry with his cousins, Chevalier de Saint-Gilles and Constant which are central to the novel’s plot, and that he’s a little shit.

In short, given poor training, poor understanding, and dismal interest, Gideon would probably be murdered by a real duelist on the first strike of her first duel and then necro’d back to life. Fortunately, she lives in a setting where the rapier is not an effective weapon with which you might thoroughly humiliate your opponent.

-Michi

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