Saturday, January 19, 2013

Most Informative Book of 2012: The Book of Five Rings

Do not think dishonestly. The Way is in training. Become acquainted with every art. Know the Ways of all professions. Distinguish between gain and loss in worldly matters. Develop intuitive judgement and understanding for everything. Perceive those things which cannot be seen. Pay attention even to trifles. Do nothing which is of no use.


If there is a Way involving the spirit of not being defeated, to help oneself and gain honor, it is the Way of strategy.

- excerpt from The Book of Five Rings, by Miyamoto Musashi

The divine magic my characters use is as otherworldly and esoteric as it's source. To balance this, I intend for the stabbity parts of the novel to be as visceral and grounded in reality as possible. All of my experience with stabbing things other than Capri Suns has thus far been restricted to the virtual realm, so I've turned to the masters of both Eastern and Western combat traditions to help me get that "grounded in reality" thing down.

Conservative estimates say that Musashi Miyamoto, a Japanese swordsman and ronin, fought over 60 duels in his lifetime, and scholars generally agree that he was never defeated. That amazing KDR (Kill to Death Ratio, for non-gamers) doesn't even take the major battles he fought into account. With this in mind, I feel comfortable trusting Musashi as an authority on what do to in a life or death fight.

One of the greatest swordsmen in history somehow manages to be both ambiguous and practical in this treatise on combat, strategy, and philosophy. If I really wanted to, and I kind of do because he's got a great voice, I could share quote after quote to further demonstrate what I mean. While a small part of the book is dedicated to breaking down specific stances and techniques, most of his advice about finding the Way of the swordsman/strategist is given in broad terms that the student is intended to reflect upon for long periods of time. It gives interesting insights into a culture where being a warrior is not just a profession or a duty but a way of life that affects everything you do - the way you eat, sleep, think, walk, talk. Seriously, everything.

Buddhist philosophy clearly influences his perspective, but as I said, it's not all navel-gazing. The man who says things like "By knowing things that exist, you can know that which does not exist" also says "Whenever you cross swords with an enemy you must not think of cutting him either strongly or weakly; just think of cutting and killing him". He emphasizes multiple times throughout the text that within a fight, any movement that doesn't contribute to the end goal - killing the other guy - is a deadly waste of time and effort.

This attitude jars with many of modern entertainment's portrayals of fights. Everyone's spinning in circles, gritting their teeth as they lock into a prolonged edge-on-edge parry, or discussing the child-rearing methods of the hero's parents in between exchanges.

As an audience, we like all those things because they're clear, easily understood images that add flash and drama. In contrast, unless someone has researched the topic specifically, if they watch a true-to-life sword fight they'll probably go, "Wait! He's dead? What happened?" because it's over so fast and when you don't have a clue what to watch for it looks like a crazy tangle of metal.

I don't interpret this to mean that "real" sword fights are by default less cool than implausible sword fights, though. I do think it means it's difficult to depict a realistic fight well. I'll spare everyone the lecture on craft that will be of interest only to me, but I will say this: after reading detailed step-by-step instructions on how to stand, how to swing, how to block, how to counter...I understand why a fictional villain would opt for insulting my mother instead.

Admittedly, the Book of Five Rings does have a narrower appeal than the books I've recommended thus far. However, to not include it in my Best Of list would be a crying shame. This little book had a big influence on the way I view combat both in fiction and in real life, and it was my first stop on a long trail of literature that was similarly formative. Ideally, my continued research will help my fight scenes become as entertaining, accessible, and realistic as I want them to be. If it doesn't, well, at least I can talk about swords (and other weapons!) without sounding like a complete ignoramus.

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