Swordsmanship for Dummies Part V: The Warrior’s Spirit

The Last Samurai: Watch Tom Cruise get his backside kicked!

This is number five in a continuing series where I offer insights for writing scenes involving swordplay gleaned from my ten years (off and on) of studying traditional kendo–Japanese fencing.  My goal in these posts is to explain some of the realities of fighting with swords that most people looking in from the outside simply don’t understand.  I hope thereby provide people with the tools to craft more intelligent, mature battle scenes.

If by chance you happen to be a serious kendoka, please go here and read my disclaimer about my rank and the spirit in which I’m undertaking these posts.


Today, I would like to talk about another key intangible, probably the key intangible:  Spirit .   “Knowing” may be half the battle, but in some cases proper spirit can win a battle before it even starts.  Warrior spirit–a grossly oversimplified conception of the Japanese zanshin,  is a huge idea, and frankly, I’m not qualified to even begin to explain it all, but here are a few thoughts that hopefully you’ll find useful.  It opens a door to an entirely new level of swordplay that you may not have even been aware of–the idea of spirit versus spirit.

In the West, there is a need to be clear what we mean by “spirit” or “spiritual” in this context.  For us, those are explicitly religious terms, particularly in the context of the truths of Christianity.  That is not what I mean here.  This concept of “spirit” in combat is more than a simple state of potent emotion (i.e. getting “psyched up” or putting on a “game face”), but neither does it generally represent any kind of communion with Deity.  Perhaps the best way to describe it is a formal, intentional development of the human spirit, focused onto an individual situation to achieve and individual end.  So, it isn’t something that really competes with religious belief since it exists on a lower level.*

When most of us look at swordplay, we think primarily of physical skills:  speed, power, and agility.  That, of course, is very important, but it isn’t the whole story.  Any good fighter will also be struggling for mental control of the fight by dominating an opponent’s martial spirit.  If he/she can win this contest, the fight is already more than halfway over.

You shall not pass either!

In a very real sense, then, when we watch a good swordfight, there are actually two separate battles occurring at once.  First, there is the very obvious flinging of swords in an attempt kill each other.  Second, there is the not-so-obvious battle of spirits between the two contestants.  Each one is trying to dominate (or at least fend off) the other by winning a contest of wills.  The point is to convince the other person that you are the superior warrior and that they will lose.  These two ideas are not up for debate, and simply must be accepted.  If you can accomplish that, in effect, you’ve already won.

In kendo, this usually takes place through the eyes.  In my previous post, I mentioned that good kenshi will generally take their opponent’s eyes as their main focal point.  One of the reasons for this is that this is where much of mental battle is fought.  Even in the West, we agree that the “eyes are the window of the soul,” and in the midst of combat it is amazing to see what can be communicated through the intense glare of a trained kendoka.  It goes beyond that, though, to take in virtually every motion the warrior makes–stance, control, and power both before and after an attack.

Another place where spirit is displayed is in the warrior’s kiai (the screaming that you see most good martial artists do).  They aren’t just making noise:  they are focusing their power and spirit and projecting it at their opponents.  Done right, it not only adds strength and speed to their attacks, it can intimidate their opponents by impressing the strength of their fighting spirit upon them.  After all, what is generally scarier?  A guy attacking you or a screaming maniac attacking you?**

Drop your sword!

These same basic tenets can be exhibited in a number of different ways.  The general idea is that each fighter wants to impress his/her will onto the other, while preventing that same thing from happening to him/herself.  Since we’re talking about fantasy and science fiction, their expression would be as diverse as theworlds you create.  Here are some random examples of what that might look like in a couple of different imaginary contexts:

  • The stereotype of the European swordsman who laughs in the face of an opponent.  What looks like bravado doubles as spirit.  He’s telling his opponent that he is not intimidated, and is certain of the outcome of the fight.  That kind of certainty is infectious.
  • Wesley in The Princess Bride.  His absolute unflappable confidence is a perfect example of this idea.  He never doubts for an instant that he will win his battles and in the end, he is so confident that he convinces Humperdink to give up without a fight.
  • Baruk KhazadKhazad Aimenu!”  Axes of the Dwarves!  The Dwarves are upon you!
  • While we’re on the subject of dwarves, Thorin Oakenshield’s sortie from the Lonely Mountain at the end of The Hobbitt is another good one.  Due to his presence and his ability to project his will, he and his small band do far more damage to the orcish enemy than one would normally think possible.
  • There are any number of examples from Aragorn and Gandalf, from Aragorn tearing control of the palantir away from Sauron, to Gandalf’s battle of wills with the king of nazgul.***

Those are a few, random samples.  How might you incorporate the idea of spirit into your fight scenes?


*Of course, some practitioners will attempt to use as a substitute for religion, since some of the emotions it can evoke are similar.  That is another aspect of kendo that makes it difficult for Americans to learn—for many of its participants, it is a pseudo religion, and they expect you to share in that level of dedication.  To illustrate, when I was first learning, I was able to practice with one of the largest clubs in the country for a time, but only at their secondary practice because their main practice met at 11:00am on Sunday morning.  When I was invited to come, I politely declined, citing the fact that my church met for services then.  The response?  “Well, change churches!”

**Kiai doesn’t always have to be loud or obnoxious.  One of the most unnerving ones I personally encountered was Onami sensei (if I’m remembering correctly) from Canada, who came to our kendo club at TCU when I was first learning.  My best description would be that he chirped at me.  When you’re expecting a loud yell and you get chirping, you’re just not quite sure that to do.

***Just a note:  Peter Jackson’s version of this scene was an abomination.  If that is the only version you know, go read the book and see what the real Gandalf was capable of—namely standing up to the nazgul without wetting his pants.