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Bad Swordsmanship, As Illustrated by Book Covers [May. 10th, 2012|04:37 pm]

When brand new students show up at AEMMA wanting to learn medieval swordplay, I often volunteer to be the person who takes them aside and shows them the basics. After two or three classes of personal instruction, they’re ready to join the drills with the rest of the recruits. Attempting to teach something really helps to clarify its underlying principles. However, the upshot of this instructing is that every time I see a depiction of medieval-esque swordplay in pop culture, I’m seized by an overwhelming urge to correct the swordspeople’s form.

Even book covers are bad. There seems to be some kind of unwritten rule that everyone on the front of a genre novel has to be striking an awkward pose. Here are a few concepts that every newbie learns in their first classes at AEMMA, but the illustrators of many book covers have yet to discover.

Violating the Pointy-End Rule

It’s an old cliché: The pointy end goes in the other guy. When you’re choosing a sword, why would you want one that’s liable to stab you in the hand every time you make a small-compass cut? Why would you want one you can’t even grip?

The Conan Grip

Pick up a sword, or even a stick, in two hands. Hold it just tightly enough that it doesn’t get away from you. Try swinging it around. (Be careful of the light fixtures.) Try whacking the couch a few times (assuming your weapon isn’t sharp). Notice the way your hands naturally line up on the hilt? If you were to straighten your index fingers, they would be at no more than ninety degrees to one another when the sword was close to your body and they’d be nearly parallel when your arms were extended. So why do the swords-folk on so many book covers have their hands pointing in completely opposite directions?

My theory is that it’s a result of too many artists copying the same heavily sexualized male poses. The awkward grip helps models pose for extended periods of time with their pecs and biceps flexed. This “Conan grip” is so ubiquitous that artists even depict their fully-clothed subjects employing it, probably because they just assume it’s how you should hold a sword. But try hitting something from that pose. How’s it working for you?

You can tell this artist was thinking of Conan. He even used the sword from the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies.

Chicken Wings

This pose is a side effect of the Conan grip. The strain on the pectorals and biceps makes the elbows creep upwards. This much tension in the upper body will shorten the swordsman’s range by as much as a foot.

Bad Posture

If male models get posed with too much tension in their chests, women get posed with too much tension in their spines. When you’re fighting, your ass needs to stay under your tea kettle. That way, you don’t fall down when you move your feet.

This woman’s shoulders are actually behind her hips. As Jim Hines has hilariously demonstrated, the ways that women get posed on urban fantasy covers can range from the awkward to the physically impossible.

Improper Edge Alignment

After having designed an extravagant sword, artists really want you to admire their handiwork. As a result, they always position the blade with the flat side facing the viewer, even when the angle makes no sense in the context of the picture. The thing about swords is that you’re supposed to kill your enemies by striking them with the edge or stabbing them with the point. Slapping people with the flat doesn’t kill them; it just makes them angrier.

This artist decided to solve the problem by giving the blade a corkscrew twist.

Body Dysmorphic Behaviour

Baseball batters don’t make good models for swordspeople. They’re preparing to hit a ball aimed three feet away from them. Sword fighters are striking and/or parrying something directly ahead of them. Their hands should move directly from their shoulder or hip towards the target. If I’m standing in the path of the blow, there should be no daylight between their hands and their body. Some of the people on book covers seem to think their bodies are much wider than they really are.

Also, why are leather vambraces so fashionable in fantasyland? Believe me, a sharp sword will cut through those things. Maybe the ones in this picture are supposed to be forearm guards for archery? It would explain why these left-handed swordsfolk are wearing them on their right arms.

Funny Footwork

Body mechanics dictate that a sword blow will tend to go in the direction that your leading foot is pointing, and it will be able to deliver the most force in that direction. Looking at the target you’re planning to hit is also helpful.

In what direction is this guy even supposed to be swinging? The cover cuts off his feet, but on the spine of the book you can see that his right foot is pointing towards his sword. Pick up a sword and try cutting towards your own heel. Just try it.

False Time

The Elizabethan swordsman George Silver coined the expression True Time. It means that, as a rule, your weapon should arrive at the fight before your face does. Stage fighting usually reverses this timing in order to give actors a longer opportunity to make emotional grimaces as they fight and so they can telegraph the impending blow. This timing allows the audience to follow the action and the recipient of the blow to react safely. Real swordsmen didn’t want their opponents to react safely: they wanted to them to get hurt.

More subtly, a forearm or hand that arrives at the fight ahead of your blade is also in danger of being cut.


Why does the swordsman on the left look so casual? Because he knows that his opponent’s gestures are just empty posturing until he steps into range.

Conversely, when two fencers are in a position to strike one another without moving their feet, and their weapons are not crossed, both fighters are going to be hit. An alternative title for this book could be Conan Loses his Cojones. Or possibly, Conan Gets Slapped With the Flat of the Blade.

Bonus Round

What’s going on in the fight at the bottom of this cover? Who’s going to win that exchange?

The thing about swordplay is, it’s not like the flight of fairies or the conjuring of magic fireballs. It exists in the real world. There are plenty of pictures from historical fencing treatises and present-day action photos of Historical Eurpean martial artists on which to base an illustration. Why try to reinvent the art from scratch?

[User Picture]From: curgoth
2012-05-11 01:53 am (UTC)
Have you heard about Mongoliad? Apparently the books started when Neal Stephenson decided fantasy swordplay should be more realistic, and fell in with EMMA types.
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[User Picture]From: curgoth
2012-05-11 01:54 am (UTC)
Also, do you mind if I distribute this further afield?
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[User Picture]From: henchminion
2012-05-11 07:22 pm (UTC)
Go for it!
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[User Picture]From: zornhau
2012-05-11 10:37 am (UTC)
Highlander could have been... something with a Zwerchau, I suppose. But yes, agree.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-05-11 03:00 pm (UTC)
My favorite, aside from the flat of the blade pose, is the one-hand pose where the hilt is gripped near the pommel instead of near the hilt.
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[User Picture]From: livejournal
2012-05-11 04:00 pm (UTC)

Interesting Links for 11-05-2012

User draxar referenced to your post from Interesting Links for 11-05-2012 saying: [...] ) Chronica Minora - Bad Swordsmanship, As Illustrated by Book Covers [...]
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[User Picture]From: l_clausewitz
2012-05-16 07:49 pm (UTC)
I wonder if the problem with the Conan grip is that realistic medieval wards with the sword are quite relaxed until the blade actually starts moving, so they tend to look rather lazy to the untrained viewer. Just show one of your free-play videos to a stage combat director/instructor and I wager he/she would say that you need to look a bit more dramatic.
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