Why I Practice HEMA

I started regularly attending True Edge South, a HEMA club, back in August. For a while I only went once a week, but I’ve started going as often as I can (which is only twice a week, but that’s twice as much as before!) Doing something two times  (for a total of four hours, plus a few hours of personal practice) a week may not sound like it would effect your life a lot, but I’m finding that I get lots of benefits from it. I’ll start with the more relatable things, and then dive into the personal dorky stuff toward the end.

First of all, it’s good for my body.

I’m not an extremely outgoing person (you may have noticed how dorky the topics I write about are), and so I have a hard time wanting to do things like going to a gym or going for a jog in public. Attending True Edge South has given me a way to get active in a way that doesn’t feel uncomfortable to me. This club has no elitism, no strong egos, and, in general, always has made me feel that–as long as I’m working with the club–I can go at my own pace and be as bad as I need to be. It’s been great, because I tend to self judge a lot, but knowing that nobody else is judging me mitigates that voice inside that tells me that I suck too much to even try.

My body is already feeling the positive effects. Before I began attending, my lower back and hip would ache for no dang reason. Additionally, I was starting to grow a nerd gut and I would sometimes feel breathless at stupid times. Since attending, my back and hips no longer ache, my gut has receded slightly, and I have way more energy than I used to. If nothing else, HEMA is a great workout that literally anyone could get into just for their health.

Second, True Edge South makes me feel like I’m a necessary part of a community.

I don’t feel like I’m just being put through the system, but that my attendance (even if I do nothing more than participate in the day’s curriculum) is important and valued. Feeling wanted is a great thing, and the people at my club have been the best at letting me be myself while making me feel like a part of the community.

That feeling is amplified when I help out. I had an unnecessary feeling of pride when I paid my club dues. I find myself hanging around after practice just so I have the opportunity to put stuff away, or getting excited about attending tournaments just to do trivial tasks (or do nothing at all except represent the club by being there). There aren’t a lot of things in life that give us the opportunity to feel like we are necessary contributors in a community, and True Edge South has allowed me to experience that feeling.

Third, the club fulfills an important social function for me.

I’m not a loner, I have several friends and I am on good terms with most of my coworkers, however, after graduating school I’ve noticed that there’s a kind of social interaction that I’ve been missing. I miss the spontaneous exposure to new people, I miss seeing new faces, watching how new people move, listening to new voices. True Edge South attracts a lot of interesting, curious people who may come just once to check it out, or who come many times. It allows me to meet new people in a natural, pleasant way and helps me avoid the social stagnation that I was beginning to slip into.

Fourth, HEMA challenges me in a unique way (slightly dorky).

I spend most of my time either performing creative tasks or in complete leisure. I’m either coding, writing, drawing, or something else creative. When I’m not doing that, I’m playing Zeld… I mean, I’m playing a wide variety of different video games, or watching My Little Po… That is, I watch TV made for adults with adult things.

My point is that HEMA allows me to focus my attention in a way that is neither high intensity, open form creative, nor completely mindless consumption. I can focus on specific things and track my progress as I practice. I don’t have to invent solutions, I don’t have have to worry about figuring out the problems, or just turn my brain off. I can just focus on executing as well as possible. It’s a kind of slow burn, low intensity concentration that allows me to relax while still pursuing a goal that I find meaningful. I really love that there’s a club near where I live that provides me with this kind of mental outlet.

Fifth, history is cool (getting dorkier).

I like history. I like learning about how people used to live, what they thought about, what they were scared of, what made them happy. I like learning about lots of different people. I’ve studied–though I would never say I’m proficient in–six different languages (French, Russian, Japanese, Welsh, Shoshone, and German, if you were wondering), and I took an elective Chinese history class in the history department for history majors (my degree is in Computer Science) just because I wanted to understand Chinese people better. Learning about people in other places, cultures, and times is a passion of mine.

What I like about HEMA is that it gets you down in the action of history. You’re not just looking at history, or thinking about history, you’re actually living it. You get to be a part of a tradition that comes down to us through the ages. You get to connect back to people who lived six hundred years ago in a much more real and visceral way than you could get by going to a museum or by reading a book. You get to learn what they did, perform the same actions, live a small part of the life that they lived. Thinking about it is making me emotional.

Sixth, HEMA is self actualization (severe dork warning).

I have been fascinated by the image of man bearing a sword since I was very young. I don’t know if it was an inborn archetype, or if I was programmed  by my mother’s intense love of Camelot (1967, Warner Brothers). Regardless, at a very young age I told my parents that I was going to grow up to be a knight, and I consumed literally any media with a sword in it. Since that young age, I have associated the sword with self actualization. Protagonists carry swords. People who get stuff done have swords. The sword became, to me, not just a weapon, but a symbol of assertive action toward one’s goals.

I’ve wanted to learn how to use a sword for pretty much my whole life, and I asked my parents to let me do fencing lessons, but my mother was opposed to me learning any martial skills. Eventually, I found other ways to occupy my time and other ideas of what it means to be a self-actualizing person, but the image of the swordsman always remained in my mind. For me it’s connected to something deep and primal that I can’t seem to cover up or replace with more “civilized” pursuits.

When I started doing HEMA I would come home happy, and for a little while I assumed it was for the first five reasons I listed here. While those definitely help, I think the biggest thing is that deep down, I WANT to be a swordsman. I WANT to feel assertive, self-actualized, and like the protagonist of my own life. For me, swordsmanship allows me to feel that way.

And that’s what practicing HEMA does for me. I’m so happy that I got over my anxiety and finally decided to become a regular member of True Edge South, and that the instructors (I’m talking about you, Chad) take so much time and effort to make the club happen. It’s been a great blessing in my life, and it’s made me a happier, healthier person. Thank you all for being so great, and I’ll see you at the next practice*.

 

* But not the one after that because I’m going out of town 😛

 

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Everything Wrong with the Master Sword

FeaturedEverything Wrong with the Master Sword

Let me just get this out of the way: I love The Legend of Zelda, and the Master Sword is an icon of much more value than its ability to murder monsters. I get that.

Regardless, today I want to look at the Master Sword as an object, outside of its place in the Zelda lore, or even outside of its place as an icon in the minds of its fans. I would like to inspect each of its parts, compare it to swords from real life, and critique it as a piece of steel created with the purpose of defending the life of its wielder and murdering scary things.

Here’s a handy reference of the different designs of the Master Sword throughout the ages. Obviously each game has a different take on the weapon, but I’m going to be looking at the Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword, and Breath of the Wild designs, because they are all very similar (and relatively recent).

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The kind of sword that the Master Sword is based off from has three basic parts: the blade, the guard, and the grip. Each of these parts should be designed in a way to compliment the function and purpose of the sword. Let’s take a look at how real life medieval swords have accomplished these goals, and then compare it with the master sword.

First, let’s start with the blade. The blade is (obviously) the most important part of the sword, as it is the backbone which the rest of the components are mounted on to. Many different blade types have existed across time and geography, but the Master Sword has a few specific characteristics. It has two edges, which are basically parallel, that come to a triangular, reinforced point. The cross section is mostly hexagonal, but it has a rectangular ricasso. It’s rather broad, thick, has no fuller, and there is a small amount of decorative etching or engraving. Lastly, it doesn’t seem to be extremely long, probably about as long as what is often called an arming sword today ( 30-33″ or so).

I don’t know of any blade in real life that has all of these characteristics at once (if you know of a blade that does, feel free to share), however all of those characteristics exist in different combinations on different European swords from the European Medieval period and early Renaissance, so I think it’s entirely possible that this blade could have existed, although, I think there are some other things about it that might make it less than ideal.

My first critique of the blade is that it looks quite heavy. It’s very broad and thick. Normally, a trade off must be made between a sword’s broadness and its thickness. A thick, narrow, stiff sword is specialized more toward thrusting with the point, where as a broad, flatter sword is better for cutting. The Master Sword doesn’t seem to have made that compromise, resulting in a very heavy looking blade. The width and thickness of the blade doesn’t seem to taper at all from its base to its point. The edges and the flats of European swords taper along the length of the sword. Said another way, both the edges and the flats of the blade near the point are closer together than at the base. A fuller was also often placed in the blade to reduce its weight while keeping the edges of the blade stiff and sturdy. By adding these features in, the sword creator can control how the weight of the blade is distributed and reduce mass. The Master Sword has none of these features, so its blade is going to be very hefty.

Next let’s talk about the grip. The master sword has a narrow, cylindrical grip which is encased in some kind of blue material which is then embellished with some kind of green stuff. The grip is fairly long, which allows for the user to hold it in two hands. I assume that the tang goes fully through the grip and pommel, and is peened* at the end to hold the pommel in place.

A grip of this length on a blade of this length is not unheard of. There are many examples of “hand and a half” or “bastard” swords that still exist today, although they frequently have a “scent-stopper” or teardrop shaped pommel. The benefit of combining this pommel with this kind of grip/blade configuration is that it allowed the pommel to act as an extension of the grip when holding it in two hands. However, I don’t think the Master Sword needs to look like it can be used in two hands. Link always uses it in one hand, and, it is always used with a shield.

Given the huge size of the blade, the grip looks a little undersized to me. The end of the grip is used to offset and counter balance the blade. This can be accomplished either by lengthening the grip or by adding a heavy pommel, however, even with the longer grip and a reasonable sized pommel the huge blade of the Master Sword makes the grip look off balance.

My biggest critique of the grip, however, is that it is cylindrical and narrow. The narrowness is part of what makes it look unbalanced, and it would probably be uncomfortable to hold. The shape of a cylindrical grip is itself quite problematic. Straight, two edged swords, almost always have a grip with a rectangular, oval, or octagonal cross section. What this allows you to do is sense in your hand where the edge of the blade is at all times, just by the way the grip feels. Using a grip with a round cross section, it’s impossible to determine edge alignment without looking at your sword, and it’s easy for the sword to spin in your hand.

Lastly, there’s the guard. Honestly, the Master Sword’s guard looks completely ridiculous. Not only is huge and bulky, which, once again, messes up the weight distribution and total mass of the sword, but it actively blocks the wielder from using the weapon effectively. The round cone shaped thing beneath the cross keeps the fingers away from the cross guard, further preventing the wielder from knowing which direction the edge is pointing. Additionally, the round disk above the wielder’s hand prevents putting the thumb up on the flat of the blade, or wrapping their finger around the guard, two things which can be extremely useful.

Larger, heavier guards do exist in real life. They were invented at about the same time that people stopped using shields with their swords, and they are designed to protect the sword hand. Before the invention of protective complex guards, the shield was used to protect the hand. Swords that are meant to be used with a shield have smaller or almost non-existent guards (for example, notice that most “Viking” era swords have minimal guards). As noted above, Link always uses a shield with the Master Sword, so it would be reasonable to assume that the sword would have a light, reasonable guard to accompany it.

To summarize my points, the blade is too heavy. It is very thick and very broad; it should be one or the other, but not both. The guard is unpractical, being both heavy without providing extra protection for the hand, doesn’t help with edge alignment, and prevents the wielder from holding the sword in useful ways. The grip is the wrong shape–the user cannot feel the edge alignment in their hand, and the sword can easily spin in the hand–as well as too long and narrow for a sword that is used the way that the Master Sword is used. Overall, the sword looks too heavy. Medieval swords weigh about 2.5-3.5 lbs. The Master Sword looks like it would weigh about double that.

Thinking about how the Master Sword could be designed as a practical weapon, I came up with this:

Master Sword mk3 Cleanup-small

The blade is an Oakeshott type XVI**, which shares some similarities with the Master Sword blade. This blade is designed to give good point performance in the thrust with a minimum sacrifice to cutting ability. It’s a good generalist type of blade that would be the exact kind of thing an adventurer like Link would want. Like the Master Sword blade, it’s double edged, and comes to a diamond section, reinforced point. It’s different from the Master Sword in that the tip is longer and narrower, and the blade tapers, reducing mass toward the tip. Additionally, the blade has a fuller running through the majority of it which reduces the overall weight while reinforcing the cutting edges. In contrast to the bulky look of the Master Sword blade, this blade profile conveys the idea of a lively and dangerously swift weapon in the hand.

I kept the ricasso and decorative space near the base of the blade. While I have never seen a blade of this type with these elements, it doesn’t seem ridiculous to me to consider that somebody somewhere could have decided that they wanted to make a sword this way. By modifying the ricasso, the sword maker could manipulate the mass near the hand, and the decorative section were the Triforce is etched/engraved shouldn’t really effect the handling characteristics of the weapon at all. Additionally, the part of a blade near the guard is used almost exclusively in defensive actions, so making it more robust and removing a delicate edge actually makes a certain kind of sense.

The guard has been drastically reduced to a simple bar with upturned tips that imply the  wings on the Master Sword. This has the benefit of further lightening the look of the sword, and increasing its wieldiness. Additionally, this guard allows the hand to be in contact with the quillons, so the wielder can orient the edge of the blade more easily. Lastly, because the guard is so much smaller, it would be much easier to wrap a finger around the guard, or move the hand into many other useful positions near the guard. The simpler guard also matches better with the fact that the Master Sword is always paired with a shield.

The “gem” in the middle of the guard is there mostly just to make the sword more recognizable as an incarnation of the Master Sword, and it is made out of the same piece of steel as the rest of the guard. These kinds of embellishments are not unheard of on surviving medieval swords (although they were usually a quite a bit smaller). If I were to do another pass at this redesign, I would probably focus on that part of the guard specifically.

I’ve modified the grip by shortening it, improving its geometry, and adding a proper pommel. The shorter grip makes sense given the length of the weapon and the intended usage (with a shield). Rather than a straight cylindrical grip, it tapers from guard to pommel, following the shape of the tang which it encloses. Additionally, the grip is shaded to give an impression of having an oval cross section which would allow anyone holding the sword to immediately know which direction the edges are pointed at all times.

Last thing of note is that I replaced the Master Sword’s rather forgettable pommel with a striking wheel pommel. The pommel needed to be heavier due to the reduced grip length, and a wheel pommel is hefty while having a classic martial austerity that lends the design an implication of action and danger.

All in all, I’m quite pleased with the redesign. I feel that it keeps most of what makes the Master Sword unique and recognizable, while suggesting a practical weapon that looks like it could be used effectively in the defense of a Hylian hero’s life. Looking at the Master Sword artwork, I see a clunky, unwieldy object, but with just a little creativity and knowledge of European swords, the Master Sword can be reincarnated as something beautiful, iconic, and deadly.

 

* Basically, when constructing the grip, the tang is placed through a hole drilled through the pommel and it sticks out of the pommel a little bit. Then the sword maker expands the tang into the pommel by heating it up and hammering it into the pommel.

** Specifically, I based my drawing’s blade off the Squire and the Prince from Albion SwordsNext Generation line. Oakeshott typology is a system for classifying medieval European sword blades, and can be handy to know if you’re into that kind of thing.