By Eric Lowe, Sword Class NYC student in the German Longsword (Liechtenauers Kunst des Fechtens) class
I think everybody remembers the first time they saw a lightsaber ignite (okay, I am sure there are people who don’t, but I don’t want to hear from those people). I’m not sure why that is. Swords are one of those weapons, like pistols, that have an impact on culture that is all out of proportion to their impact on war, but there is something about a lightsaber that I find thrilling even now, even when I prefer to see the Jedi as a morally bankrupt collection of self-important slavers. I can recall the scene from Episode IV where Obi-Wan ignites Anakin’s lightsaber for Luke with vivid clarity, visually and emotionally. I remember feeling like I was going to pop out of my skin in excitement when I saw the new, more Hong Kong-inspired lightsaber choreography in Episode I. I remember the entire theater erupting in approbation when Yoda first drew his lightsaber in Episode II.
In 2002, Star Wars Insider 62 made a serious go at building the lore of how you actually use a lightsaber (like many fans, I suspect, I first encountered this work in 2005’s Knights of the Old Republic II). I was instantly hooked. I think all geeks love having datasets to master, and this was a dataset about lightsaber combat. The seven canonical forms of lightsaber combat, to be specific. They even have cool names, and who can resist memorizing cool, arbitrary names to refer to cool fictional concepts? It was useless to resist.
On the other hand, the more I learn about fighting, the less enamored I am of the concepts of systems of fighting. That is to say, I am increasingly convinced that true mastery of an art (be it a martial art or not) lies not finding the best collection of teachings about that art and mastering them, but in realizing that all teachings about the art are merely tools to be encompassed. He is not the master of lightsaber combat who can effortlessly switch among the seven canonical forms, each of which he has mastered. Rather, he is the master of lightsaber combat whose form cannot be categorized, meeting always the needs of the moment. To reach this level of mastery, perhaps it is necessary to master the seven individual forms, and perhaps not, but in no case is the form – the system – the goal.
This being my understanding of real fighting, many of the uses of lightsaber combat lore in actual Star Wars media now seem amateurish and hackneyed to me. Obi-Wan Kenobi is sent to confront the famed Jedi killer General Grievous because Obi-Wan is a master of soresu, the defensive form, and only a master of soresu can be expected to withstand Grievous’ furious assault. Nineteen years later, he will be unable to defeat Darth Vader aboard the Death Star because he is, well, a master of the defensive form. Count Dooku is a nearly unbeatable duelist because he has concentrated on mastering makashi, the dueling form. But he can be beaten by Anakin Skywalker once Anakin has mastered djem so, with its emphasis on powerful counter-attacks. The whole affair is dreadfully rock-paper-scissors to me.
“You’re using Bonetti’s defense against me, eh?”
“I thought it fitting, considering the rocky terrain.”
“Naturally, you must suspect me to attack with Capo Ferro.”
“Naturally, but I find that Thibault cancels out Capo Ferro. Don’t you?”
“Unless the enemy has studied his Agrippa … which I have.”
That’s just … not how it works. Or if it is, I shall be very much surprised to discover it.
For me, the magic is gone if the unreality rises above the height at which I can suspend my disbelief. But recently, I found something to revive the magic of lightsaber combat.
Although each of the seven canonical forms may be a caricature of real fighting, collectively, I think they can be thought of as standing for principles that are actually useful in actual sword fighting. Yes, I actually sometimes think to myself in sparring, “Ataru. Keep your hands high.” Yes, I may be a giant nerd.
Shii Cho, Form I, was noted for its preference for direct, simple movements. Of course, in reality, the idea that somebody would create a fighting system whose movements were not stripped to their simplest workable form is ridiculous, so shii cho stands for the principle of efficiency: every movement of the sword should be as simple as will get the job done. For me, at this point in my development as a fencer, this most often means eliminating extraneous movement. For instance, when striking, I remind myself: don’t cock the sword back first. Strike from where the sword already is, or if it must be cocked back, I should incorporate that into my guard. Shii cho means the elimination of extraneous movements, flourishes, and tells.
Makashi, Form II, was noted for its elegance and precision. Considered the height of lightsaber dueling, makashi stylists were noted for their closely controlled bladework. Makashi can stand for the principle of precision. This means that my weapon should always go as far as necessary to complete a movement, but no farther. For instance, if I am moving my blade to offset an incoming blow, the principle of precision is violated if I don’t move far enough to intercept the blow, but also if I intercept the blow farther away than I need to. While it is important to strike with power, it is equally important that I aim to end a strike at a place from which I can quickly recover, so a missed strike does not leave me dangerously open. Makashi means that movements must not only be simple, not only direct, but also precise.
Soresu, Form III, was noted for its defensive emphasis. Soresu stands for the principle that Tristan (the KDF instructor at Sword Class NYC) phrases thus: “Priority one: stay alive. Priority two, kill the other person.” The most obvious application of this principle is never to ignore the threat the enemy is presenting. This is all intuitively obvious even to those with no fencing experience. Nevertheless, I was surprised how difficult it was, even in the mock-combat of sparring, not to take an opening that presents itself even if doing so resulted in me being struck. Now, unlike Jedi soresu stylists, we real-world fencers know that aggression is an integral part of successful fencing, and we know that one should never draw a sword without being willing to put somebody in a coma, a wheelchair, or a bodybag. Nevertheless, a true fighting art aims to do so with maximum safety. Priority one is to stay alive. The enemy’s incapacitation is priority two. Soresu.
Ataru, Form IV, was noted for its mobility and use of the Force to assist the practitioner’s movements. Ataru stands for what I will call the principle of athleticism. We can view this in two ways. The first way to view athleticism is that every movement should be made not only directly, simply, and precisely, but also with speed and power. It does no good to strike or parry slowly, for the slow sword is easily intercepted or overpowered and will not cut. If we step slowly, the enemy will react and no positional advantage is gained. This leads us to the second way to view this principle: nothing the swordsman does should be limited by the fact that it is a strain. I have a dangerous tendency to keep my hands close to the body, for fully extending them with a three-pound sword is a strain – not a great strain, but enough of one that I unconsciously seek to lessen it. This is bad form and unsafe. The only way to effortlessly achieve proper form is fitness. Athleticism. Ataru.
Shien / Djem So, Form V, was an evolution of soresu with an offensive twist. Whereas soresu would deflect a blaster bolt, shien would deflect it into an enemy. Soresu defends and waits for an opening; djem so looks to create an opening. In shien, we may see an expression of the concept of fühlen, or feeling. Fühlen is the art of sensing how the enemy is moving his blade against yours in order to predict what he is going to do and, armed with such knowledge, to exploit his momentum. I think of it as a sort of sword judo. The application of fühlen that makes the most sense to me at this point in my development is to deflect and exploit, rather than resist. If the enemy is attempting to overpower my blade, I should not resist – rather, I should let his determination force his own weapon off balance as I strike. If the enemy is offering no resistance, I should seize control of his weapon and strike. Djem so stands for another principle the German masters are always repeating to us: the principle of controlling the fight. This can mean striking first, but more importantly it means that one should never simply defend. The ability of the longsword to defend and attack with the very same motion is one of the things I find most attractive about the weapon, and yet this is also one of those things of which I constantly have to remind myself in sparring. When I parry, I should do so in such a way that my blade is poised for a counterattack while my opponent’s is not – or, if possible, counterattack and parry with the same (simple, direct, precise, powerful) motion. When attacking, I should do so in a way that controls the enemy’s blade either directly (i.e., blade-to-blade contact) or forecloses the counterattacks that can easily be made from his current guard. Together, shien and djem so mean that safety lies not simply in defending oneself, but in dominating the enemy and his weapon.
Niman, Form VI, was a moderate form that lay somewhere in between the other lightsaber forms. Niman may stand for the principle of synthesis. That is to say, all principles of fencing must be combined and internalized in a unified way. One cannot be direct one moment, precise the next, and then fast the third, any more than one can only think about defense in one moment and then only think about offense the next; all movements must be governed by all principles at once, and ultimately the individual principles ought to merge in the unconscious mind until they are simply “fighting,” so that one’s movements are not only simple, direct, precise, and powerful, but also spontaneous, without the hesitation that comes from thinking, “What am I supposed to do next?” Niman means what the heroes of the Iliad say to encourage their comrades: “Remember all your excellence, for now is the time for you to be a spearman (well okay, swordsman) and a bold warrior.”
Form VII, in both its juyo and vaapad variations, was a form characterized by a bold offense and intense emotional focus on the enemy. Known as the “ferocity form,” both vaapad and juyo stand for the principle of aggression. I break this into two applications. Vaapad, known in the Star Wars universe for its relentless barrage of blows, reminds me always to move my sword so that I can launch another attack. This does not mean that I always need to be attacking, but rather reminds me that my weapon should never be in a place where it can’t attack. Juyo, on the other hand, is my shorthand for killer instinct. Many of us value fencing for the deep self-mastery and control it promotes. For me, an important part of that inner enlightenment is respecting, and being at peace with, the fact that a itself is a tool to put people in wheelchairs, comas, or body bags. Juyo reminds me that I must strike not only simply, directly, precisely, powerfully, spontaneously, but with intent. The goal of striking is not to score points, but to so devastate the enemy’s body that he either surrenders or is physiologically incapable of continuing to attack. This is not to say that only fight-ending strikes should be struck. Rather, the killer instinct that juyo stands for underlies proper form itself. One cannot strike spontaneously or quickly if one is hesitant to hurt the enemy. In fact, as many masters remind us, hesitation in a sword fight is a good way to get yourself killed. Juyo is training to suppress the resistance to harming another human being. It is, as one of my favorite fictional characters says, deciding right now, ahead of time, that you’re gonna kill the motherfucker if that’s what it takes.
And so this is how lightsaber combat becomes relevant to me again. There are more principles to Liechenauers Kunst des Fechten than these, of course – these are simply devices to give extra mnemonic weight to things I should be thinking about. When I am sparring, are my feet so placed, my hands so gripping the sword, and my guard so held that am I set up to strike or defend without any extraneous movement? Shii cho. When I practice my cuts, am I hyperextending my wrists; when I wind, am I keeping my point on target; when I parry, am I wildly over-committing? Makashi. Am I thinking, at all times, of how my feet can move to void an attack and how my sword can displace an attack given their current positions – and whether those defensive movements match up with what attacks my opponent can make given his stance? Soresu. Am I thinking not only of how I can void and displace, but how I can do so in a way that will threaten my opponent and regain the initiative? Shien. Am I not simply planning how to react to my opponent but how to make him react to me? Djem so. Am I striking to full extension, keeping my parries strong and extended, and holding my guards in their proper position even if it makes me tired? Ataru. Am I ready, physically and mentally, to strike at any time? Vaapad. Am I in this to win the game that is sparring, or to kill my opponent? Juyo. Am I thinking about all this at once? Niman.