Brother Michael Cain was kind and generous enough to offer me and Maribou a small tour of a fencing tournament. Three different weapon bouts were on display: epée, foil, and sabre fencing.
Now, before this tour, the only real information that I had about fencing was that they trained you on footwork for months at a time before they ever thought about giving you a sword, and what I had read in a little trifle of a book written by Robert Aspirin called Phule’s Company.
Phule’s Company had a fencing tournament in it, you see. With, believe it or not, three separate events… the epée, foil, and sabre fencing.
Here’s how Chapter 15 of Phule’s Company opens:
It is doubtful that you have ever attended a fencing tournament unless you are directly involved in the sport, either as a participant or through some emotional or professional relationship with a fencer. This is due to the simple fact that fencing is not a spectator sport, the action being far too fast and subtle for the uneducated eye. (It might be of interest to note that fencing is one of the few sports where the competitors pay a fee, but the spectators get in for free.) Usually such an event is held in a large gymnasium or field house, with anywhere from six to several dozen “strips” laid out. The competitors are divided into groups or “pools” and fence each person within their pool. The top two or three advance to the next round, where they are reassigned to new pools and the process begins again. The bulk of those attending are in the competition area, consisting almost entirely of competitors and coaches, while a smattering of spectators made up of friends and parents of the competitors loll about in the bleachers getting bored. Only the final bouts generate much interest, but even then there are few spectators, most competitors packing their equipment and leaving as soon as they are eliminated.
While this is a bit, erm, harsh… I would say that reading this book back in the early 90’s prepared me for what I saw after meeting and greeting the dear Michael Cain. There were somewhere between six and a dozen “strips” laid out. When we got there, there was sabre fencing all the way down at the other end of the gym, foil in the middle, and epée (pronounced “eh-PAY”) closest to us. There were a smattering of competitors, friends, and family lolling about in the bleachers but they seemed engaged and pleasant rather than particularly distant or bored.
The rules for fencing both sabre and foil are pretty complex and rely on a concept called “right of way”. Rather than trying to recreate the version that Michael Cain gave us (along with multiple interruptions as we asked questions), I’ll just quote from Phule’s Company again:
Simply put, “right-of-way” was a set of rules designed to preserve the true spirit of dueling, from which fencing descended. By those rules, once fencer A had “declared an attack” by extending his weapon to an arm’s length, threatening a valid target area, fencer B had to parry or otherwise remove that threat before retaliating with an attack of his own. The logic was that if the competitors were using “real” weapons capable of inflicting injury or death, it would be foolhardy, if not suicidal, to ignore an attack in favor of launching one of your own. Though the concept itself might be simple, a goodly portion of any fencing bout was spent with the competitors standing by impatiently after a blinding flurry of action while the director sorted out exactly who had the right-of-way at each moment during the exchange so that the touch, or point, could be awarded. This was, of course, a little less exciting than watching grass grow. The only thing duller than sorting out right-of-way was listening to it being explained.
Michael Cain told us that Olympics fencing for sabre was downright unwatchable due to each point being decided by frame-by-frame video replay with judges checking out each tiny moment to see who has the right of way because if you have the right of way, you’re the only one who can get the point. In both sabre and foil, something as simple as whose wrist twitched first can be the deciding factor. So the judge has to figure it out.
Now, sabre is a weapon that lets you get a point (or “touch”, I guess) with either the tip of the sword or with the edge. Foil is a weapon where you can only get a point with the tip.
Sabre is the one that gets described as “aggressive”. I mean, we saw a half-dozen guys do the “bellow/roar” thing either after they got a point or after someone got a point on them and each time these guys were doing sabre. Michael Cain looked at us and said “the old guys tend to think that you should act like you’ve been there before” after a particularly vigorous bellow. Sabre was a bunch of bellowing followed by explosive action followed by more bellowing. Foil, by contrast, seemed to be all finesse and footwork and delicate precision.
The fun one to watch was epée, though. I’ll let Phule’s Company do the honors one last time:
“Thank you. Our next and final bout will be epee. For those of you who have been confused by my explanation of the right-of-way rules, you’ll be glad to know there is no right-of-way in epee! Whoever hits first, gets the touch!”
This was a lot easier to figure out as Michael Cain was explaining stuff. One of the competitors nearby heard us talking and did us the honor of showing us his sword and the electrical wires coming out of his wristcuff. Each swordsman is plugged in and each sword is now a smartsword. The outfits for sabre or foil are similarly smart. Since you can’t get points against a person for, say, striking them in the legs in sabre or striking them in the arm in foil, the swords and outfits have to communicate together to tell the judge that something has just happened and then the judge has to figure out the right of way stuff.
Luckily, epée just has to deal with the button at the tip of the sword. Press that and *DING!*, congrats. You got the touch. And we watched people dance back and forth, getting hits, and seeing the differences between the swordfights that ended 15-2 and the ones that ended 15-14.
Michael Cain has some seriously sweet stories about fencing that he seriously needs to turn into a post. The horrible Smirnov incident, the story about the attempt to make fencing better television by buying see-through visor masks in bulk, and an absolutely awesome one involving “the story from my fencing teacher about his own fencing teacher”. You guys seriously need to bug him to put those into a post of some sort.
But, in the absence of that, you should pick up Phule’s Company. If you like Robert Aspirin’s stuff, you’ll love this fun little read that will fly past, and even give you a fencing tournament in the middle for you to think about if you ever happen to go to a real one.
So… what are you reading and/or watching?