I ran into some bumps in the road and had a few family emergencies in the last months of 2013. Regretfully, this lead to many a distraction from this blog. Things are smoothing out now. I’ve recharged my batteries and I’m ready to tackle writing again. Today I bring back the blog with an interview I did a few months ago with my friend and college classmate, Tom Farmer. Tom, aside from being an author, photographer, wrangler of cats and iguanas, and kilt-wearing cool guy, is a sword-fighting coach at the Knoxville Academy of the Blade in Knoxville, Tennessee. Tom was kind enough to sit down for an interview with me. Next follows a transcription of our talk where we discuss the finer points of sword play, our love of nerdy things, and a bit of the history behind sword-fighting.
Ash: Hi Tom! How are you?
Tom: Doing pretty good. How are you doing today?
Ash: Doing pretty good, doing pretty good. Thanks for taking time to talk with me. I appreciate that. So we’re going to talk a little bit today about sword-fighting, and Tom, you’ve done sword-fighting for quite a while. How long have you been playing with swords and stuff?
Tom: I started fencing, like sport fencing, or Olympic fencing, however you want to look at it in 2001 or maybe 2000. I’ve been doing that pretty constantly since then. I’ve been doing historical fencing, saber, rapier, longsword, that kind of stuff since 2005.
Ash: That’s definitely really cool. Now you say you’ve done this since about 2001 at the start. What got you into fencing?
Tom: Partly it’s because I’ve always had kind of “nerdy” parents. My parents read Lord of the Rings and I read Lord of the Rings in elementary school and had that kind of childhood. But part of it is when in ’99, 2000 or so I found part of my dad’s old fencing gear from where he fenced in college at Vanderbilt. And you know as all young teenagers, 12-13 year olds can be, I badgered the heck out of him until we found a local fencing group and picked it back up.
Ash: Very cool, very cool. You were very fortunate to have such “nerdy” parents. My dad’s not really into nerdy kind of stuff, but it always surprises everyone when I tell them “Yeah, I first watched Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and other stuff like that with my mom!” They’re all like, “Girls aren’t supposed to like that! That’s weird!”
Tom: Yeah, it was always Star Trek and Star Wars. The funny thing is like Star Trek and Star Wars were my mom–a lot of sci-fi TV was my mom, but sci-fi books came from my dad. And fantasy books like, Lord of the Rings and that kind of stuff came from my mom.
Ash: Well cool. I guess my nerdiness comes from my mom’s side then, not so much from my dad’s, but still, that’s really cool that your parents are both into those sort of things. It’s kind of ingrained; it’s awesome. Cool! So tell me about the different styles. You said you started fencing and then you picked up other kinds of swordplay. Tell me about that.
Tom: Depending on how you look at it, they’re either anywhere from a small handful of different styles if you want to lump a whole bunch of them together to if you look worldwide, easily hundreds of them, if you count individual schools and traditions and things. But modern fencing, what you see in the Olympics has the foil, the epee, and sabre, are descended from historical weapons, one way or the other. Then historically, the biggest groups of historical weaponry you tend to see are rapier, sabre, longsword, and sword and buckler. And within those, there are dozens if not more individual disciplines, schools, and masters and whatnot. Modern fencing tends to be a little more, um–unified is not necessarily the right word because there’s still different teachers that teach things different ways, but while you look at a rapier and it’s like here we have this rapier manual in 1540 and then we have another rapier manual that’s written in 1720 and they’re different because the weapons are slightly different and the context is different. A sport fencing book written in the US six months ago is going to be the same as a sport fencing book written in Russia right now.
Ash: Okay, interesting. Cool. Okay, now you teach at the Knoxville Academy of the Blade. What styles do you teach there?
Tom: I teach beginning foil. We’ve actually got three beginning foil classes. We’ve got a kids’ foil, the other two are basically both beginner/intermediate, but one is sort of de facto, a youth 12-18 and the other one is adult. I usually work with the teenage group, and then I also teach sabre based on what you’d see in the 19th century, the work of people like Alfred Hutton and Henry Angelo. I’m also the assistant rapier teacher. Our head rapier teacher focuses mostly on Italian. That’s mostly what I focus on. We’ve both got different schools that we’ve both learned about in-depth, but we both work together on that. And then I’m also working on a longsword curriculum based on the work of Johannes Liechtenhauer and his tradition.
Ash: About how many students are at the Knoxville Academy of the Blade?
Tom: On any given night, during the school year–because we have so many teenagers–attendance can be down, it can be anywhere from 4-12 or 14 people. Over the summer, when people are on summer break, and they don’t have homework tying them up and that kind of stuff, we can see attendance anywhere from those kinds of numbers up to 20-25 people a night. We’ve got individual people, 30-40 on roll, but obviously everybody doesn’t show up at the same time.
Ash: Wow! So are these classes taught like, well, when I imagine fencing, I always imagine like a one-on-one, but I guess these are taught in more like a classroom setting and you’ve got students partnered up with other students, right?
Ash: Wow! That’s really cool. I had no idea that there was such a big interest for that in Knoxville. So that’s really neat. I’m glad to see another sport making a little headway in Knoxville other than football.
Ash: Very cool. Awesome, so we talked a little bit about swordplay, a little bit about your classes, what’s the best kind of equipment, say if somebody wanted to sign-up for your class or if they wanted to sign up for another fencing class, if they’re not in your area, what is the best kind of equipment a beginner should get?
Tom: Well, if they’re coming to our classes, we’ve got gear we can loan them until they can get their own gear and that usually helps people find what they need and like best. In general for sport fencing, you’re going to need at minimum, a mask, a glove, and a fencing jacket. If you’re under 18 or if you’ve had any chest surgery or any of that kind of stuff, we recommend that you wear a plastic chest plate underneath your jacket, and then if you’re going to be fencing a lot, there’s an additional layer that just goes underneath your leading arm called a plastron. There’s a bunch of different manufacturers and they all make them slightly different, some are longer in torso, some are cut different ways. But for historical fencing–rapier, sabre, longsword, and everything–the gear needs vary because obviously you’re going to want something slightly heavier for longsword than you would for a rapier. So for those, depending the weapon, we recommend a rigid gorget, which is basically a collar made of leather and metal plates to protect your neck. You want a second glove–one for both hands–because unlike sport fencing, historical fencing does involve both hands. And sometimes you may want additional padding on the arms, or additional padding on the outside of the mask and things like that.
Ash: So we’ve touched a little on the history of fencing. I didn’t realize or would have even thought about, for example you mentioned a fencing book from the 1500s might be different 200 years later just based on the type of weaponry used. Can you tell a little bit of the difference between historic fencing and modern, and a little bit of how we got to what we have now?
Tom: Well the short version is modern fencing is a martial sport. You know, it’s still a martial art in a lot of ways because it involves direct physical competition, but it’s not a traditional martial art, like say karate even, whereas historical fencing tends to be more like a martial art. It can be presented more that way anyway. Modern fencing–the three weapons like I said–descended from historical weapons, a variety of different historical weapons. The sabre is the most obvious; it descended from the sabres of the 19th century. They are pretty similar to modern sport sabres. You started seeing lighter blades about that time rather than the big heavy chopping cavalry type sabres. The foil descended really from 2 places–one is the smallsword–which itself descended from the rapier and became sort of a dueling sword. It also descended from basically a heavier version of itself that was used as a training weapon for the dueling sword. The epee, the third of the modern fencing weapon descended from the dueling sword. The dueling sword, which itself descended from the rapier and so you have this progression from a rapier, a weapon that’s basically you know for street fighting to a very formalized dueling weapon to a very codified, there are rules and there are points into a sport weapon. But speaking of historic weapons, take for example, the rapier because there is a plethora of information on it. Numerically you’ve got the most existing books on it. And the rapier from say 1500 is going to be different from the rapier of 1700. You’ve got advances in metallurgy that allow you to make stronger, lighter blades. You see longer more flexible blades as well. So what you see in earlier rapier work is what we tend to call “cut and thrust” work. It’s a wider, heavier blade. It’s not a broadsword, it’s very well-balanced like a rapier, there’s a lot of thrusting work, but it’s a wider, heavier blade with a lot of cuts and that kind of work. And as you end up with the tradition going to longer, thinner blades you get much more thrust oriented work, which itself leads to longer blades. There’s more to a thrust because people realize that they can make sturdier blades with this new metallurgy and the thrust is able to kill somebody from 6 inches further away and that six inches means you live and they don’t! So the next person is going to take that technique of “Don’t try to cut their head off. Just slap them in the face because it’s safer!” and they’re going to add a few inches to the end of their blade so they can start people from a few inches farther away. And so you end up with some rapiers have blades up to 44-46.” There are some other examples too of even longer blades. I personally don’t prefer them that long. I personally like my swords a bit shorter, a bit more maneuverable. But you do see that sort of thing develop of 8 inches, 10 inches longer than you saw a few centuries beforehand.
Ash: I never would have thought about that. That’s really interesting. What’s the average rapier length now? Does it still vary that much or is it again, based on your preferences?
Tom: In a lot of ways, it’s based on your preferences. There are advantages to either a long blade or a short blade. I don’t know very many people who go for the super long blades any more. Not for a one-handed sword. You’ll see two-handed swords, longswords, estocs, and that kind of thing with very long blades, but I’ve only met one, maybe two people who routinely fence with a 44 inch blade. The guy who’s our head rapier coach, he fences with a 40 inch blade, which a lot of people are using nowadays. I prefer a 35-36″ blade, personally, because the longer blades do give you a little more reach, but you do have a little more leverage in your parry and binds and that kind of thing with a shorter blade.
Ash: That’s really fascinating. I didn’t know that at all. It’s really cool. Thanks for that information. I love movies and I know you do too. Do the movies get it right when it comes to swordplay?
Tom: A bit.
Ash: Ha! A bit…I’m sure that’s a loaded question.
Tom: As a general rule, the answer is no because in a lot of ways, real sword fighting, if you know what’s going on, is really cool and flashy, but in a lot of ways real sword fighting is like, “Okay, we’re going to duel now.” And you stand there and stare at each other for 30 seconds and there’s like 3 motions and somebody falls over dead.
Ash: [laughs] Doesn’t make for good battle scenes then.
Tom: It really doesn’t. But you know, take for example The Highlander TV series. The sword-fighting in that is actually very accurate *dramatic pause* for a TV show. Because what you see in Highlander is a lot of historically based sword-fighting. The weapons are being used accurately for the most part for what they are. You’re not seeing people trying to use broadswords like foils or rapiers like sabres or anything like that. But by the same token, it’s still flashy-fied for TV. Oddly enough, the original Star Wars trilogy has some of the best sword work out of a lot of movies. It’s very obvious it’s very eastern based. They’re using a katana type approach to lightsabers. Now the new trilogy is all about spins and back flips and flashiness and there’s absolutely no realism there whatsoever.
Ash: So you don’t see too many sword fighters acting like Yoda in Episode II where he’s pretty much a jackrabbit on crack, that sort of thing.
Tom: Well, jackrabbit on crack could be applied to a few people I know because they’re really active. They will literally run circles around people in the field. But in terms of jumping and doing back flips, no. To that being effective there are a few actions, people with one-handed swords and no shields start fighting a guy with a spear, you might see a spin because it’s one continuous movement to knock the spear away do this jumping spin forward and cut the guy’s head off before he can hit you with the spear again. The closest thing I’ve seen in a real sparring is when I was fencing my friend a while back and I had both of his blades locked up in one of mine and he steps back and does this spin thing. I’m momentarily so confused that I don’t have time to stab him.
Ash: Oh, wow!
Tom: I was like, “What is he doing?! Why is he spinning in a circle?!”
Ash: [laughs] It sounds like that is more of a confusion kind of maneuver, or based on what you’re fighting against it might be required. You might not have people in your classes jumping around and doing flips while swinging swords.
Tom: Nope. Talking about movies, for anyone who might want to go see some good fight choreography, there are 2 movies that I can think of off the top of my head and you can find the fight scenes on youtube–one of them is a Polish movie and I believe it’s called The Deluge, search for “the deluge sabre duel” and there’s a movie Ridley Scott directed called The Duelist that has some really good smallsword work.
Ash: Cool! What’s the absolute worst example of swordplay you’ve ever seen on a film or a television show?
Tom: Leaving aside the Star Wars prequel trilogy–the worst–I honestly don’t know because I tend to forget the really bad ones. I can point out some good ones–The Lord of the Rings had some really good fighting. The Princess Bride had some good fighting.
Ash: Oh that’s encouraging.
Tom: And The Princess Bride is a perfect example of historically accurate sword-fighting that’s been prettied up for a movie. Because obviously there’s the flipping and all kinds of the stuff that the man in black and Inigo Montoya do on the clifftop. What’s neat about it is when you watch that fight and they’re trading back and forth and they say, “Aha, I see you’ve studied your Agrippa! Well, I will counter with Capo Ferro!” If you watch, they’re actually adopting their guards. Those are real fencing masters that they’re mentioning. And as they talk about them, they’re actually adopting the guards and shifting from style to style based on who they’re talking about.
Ash: It’s stuff like that I really appreciate. I’m going to have to go back and watch that and maybe go study a little Agrippa and the other guy beforehand, but wow, that’s really interesting. I really appreciate when movies and musicians do things that like that you’re not going to catch unless you’re really paying attention. That’s so cool.
Tom: I agree.
Ash: Tom, if people in the Knoxville, Tennessee area were interested in signing up for the Knoxville Academy of the Blade, how would they do that?
Tom: The easiest way is in person, but to find our class schedule, our location, our contact info and all that, the easiest way to do that is via our Facebook page, which is http://facebook.com/kabfencing. That’s got our phone number, the address of where we practice and all that stuff.
Ash: Tom, thank you so much for taking time to talk with me today. I appreciate all this good information about fencing. This would be something I would be interested in pursuing sometime when my life is a little less crazy. But thank you again for talking with me and telling me a little more about fencing. I appreciate.
Tom: You’re welcome. Can you think of any other questions that you might like to add?
Ash: I can’t think of any right now, but can you think of anything else you would like to throw in that might be important?
Tom: Other than shameless plugs to come take my classes, let’s see…we’ve covered movies, we’ve covered very super briefly the evolution of swords to what we have nowadays…those are the biggest things, the biggest questions most people have. Other than that, I can’t think of anything else to add.
Ash: Well, thanks again for taking time to talk with me.
Tom: And anytime you’d like to do another one of these just let me know and we’ll set up a time to do another one.
Big thanks to Tom for allowing me some time for an interview. If you’d like to learn more about Knoxville Academy of the Blade or sign-up for lessons, you can visit their website, like them on Facebook, e-mail them at academyoftheblade [at] gmail.com, or contact them by phone at (865) 321-1214.
If you’d like to learn more about Tom, connect with him on Facebook at his photography page, Fourth Wall Photography. You’ll find lots of cool pictures of architecture, animals, and natural photography, all of which “breaks the fourth wall.”
Be on the lookout for more articles and posts here. I’ve got a book review, some movie reviews, and some thoughts on being a nerd in general. Thanks for rolling with me.