It’s launch day, at least in the UK.
I started writing these novels in 2012. I think there’s at least 2400 pages of material, and I could write more. It’s odd to say goodbye.
However, I want to take this space to discuss origins and books I loved, not endings. Who knows, maybe Gollanz will eventually want more. I certainly hope so… a great deal of effort went into world development, both thirty years ago and right up until a few days ago… but that’s another story.
Today’s story is the origins story, with a few tiny spoilers. Really, it’s a social history, or an historiography, with lots of thanks.
Alba started as an RPG. There were between nine and twenty players, and we always had a heavy element of war gaming involved, so there was an RPG level, a political level, and a military level, and the three were not always the same players.
I happened to be the nerdy president of the Simulation Gaming Association. (The war games club). We shared an office with the other campus pariahs (we called ourselves the Pariah Alliance)(NB not to us, but, hard as this may seem to believe, being Gay was a huge deal in 1982) the Gay and Lesbian Association (GLA) and the Drama Club. Nerds, Dramies, and LGBTQ. All in one office. A considerable crossover of people…
It was fantastic for my game. Sure, we started with a bunch of pudgy undergraduates, but by the end of the first year, RPGs had caught on with the two clubs with which we shared the office, and the Alba universe took on a wider scope. Frankly, some people from the Drama club and the GLA massively upped our role-playing level. And we had visiting GMs, who included my friend and mentor Celia Friedman, better known to you as C.S. Friedman the SFF writer, and Doug Snyder, one of the best GMs I’ve ever known and a man who sometimes wrote modules for GenCon. We migrated from AD+D to ICE and eventually Chivalry and Sorcery, and as many of the core gamers were studying Medieval History (and Classics) we gradually discarded other systems and designed our own, like people everywhere.
The story of how our office came to dominate the financial and social life of the campus shall remain for another time. Suffice it to say that war games conventions, SFF conventions, and dances run by the GLA were the top moneymakers in the Student Association…. and when we had all the money… No, no one was injured. We owned a lot of miniatures, though.
But I digress… About three years in, Alba had a depth to it unlike almost any RPG I’ve ever played. By then, we had about 60 players, some occasional, some always there; I remember well the night that three sorority women showed up to play… causing nerdy gamers to lose their ability to focus…ahh, university. Did I mention that I managed the Student Union? We always had great rooms in which to play. Aesthetics matter.
So, back to Red Knight and onward. It didn’t all happen that way. That is, you are not reading a compilation of events that unfolded, like history or news reportage. On the other hand, many characters, from Sauce to Gabriel’s mother to Desiderata, represent the role-playing efforts of real people. I gather that most readers feel there are far too many characters, but honestly, who was I supposed to leave out? Oak Pew? Father Arnaud?
I have always loved big stories. When I began to put Alba together, my favorite series were 1) The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett, probably the best HisFic writer of our time, and 2) the Lord of the Rings, with 3) The Deryni Chronicles in a close-run. Katherine Kurtz (who founded the SCA and represents the William Morris approach to Fantasy, at least to me) does not, I feel, receive enough credit. Her world was beautifully crafted. Yes, it was mostly Medieval England. And Christianity functioned, for good and ill, a choice I chose to share, and I suspect for the same reasons; without Christianity and all its warts and magnificence and weird – arsed Saints and all that baggage, you can’t have the Middle Ages. You can have sometime completely different, but my Alba was an alternate Arthurian world… and it still is. In case you didn’t see that coming.
Yeah. The King, never named, is Arthur. Desiderata is Guinevere. De Vrailly is Lancelot. Gabriel is Mordred. (Gabriel was, in fact, Mordred’s name int he early cycles, and Mordred was one of the heroes, not a villain). Gawain is… Gawain. My favorite character. So sue me. This really shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it seemed fitting to just lay it out at the end.
Later, Alba was modified by other books; Glen Cook’s ‘The Black Company’ and Steven Donaldson and perhaps most of all, the magic system, which was pretty much defined for me by the books I was reading on Hermeticism for classes but beautifully brought out in Ursula LeGuin‘s Wizard of Earthsea, still, maybe, the best novel I’ve ever read. But I was also influenced by the Riddle-Master of Hed, by Jerry Pournelle‘s novel ‘Janissaries’ (bit of a spoiler there) and, overall and most of all, by all the history I was reading; Froissart, and the Chronicon, and charter roles, and books on knights, real ones like Geoffrey de Charny and Sir John Chandos and Sir John Hawkwood. Look them up. Dick Kaeuper and Perez Zagorin ( the professor who, as a life-long socialist and anti-McArthyist, told me ‘If people like you don’t join the military, then it is just people like them’) and a few other professors gave me History. It’s the best story ever. It is far wider and deeper than fantasy. In it is the whole story of the human condition, and I never tire of it.
But it wasn’t all history. I owe a special debt of gratitude to my core friends for being passionate orators about politics and philosophy. Jevon, Bob, Rob, Leslie, Kate, Janis, Doug, Doug, Ann, Joe, Regina, Bill, Sean-Patrick, Greg and Mike Hauser, Mike Putre and Gail and Marjorie and Jim Dundorf and Rich Daprix and (More recently) Sarah and Nancy, Aurora, Chris, Chris, Cole, Len, Abby, Fil, Elisabeth, Dave, Melissa, Greg, Tasha, Sean, Marc Auger and then all the people in Italy… Simone, Maurizio, and Giuglia… anyway, perhaps more than anyone, Mark Stone, a young man getting a post-doc in Philosophy and philosophy of science. Mark, and his ally in philosophical crime, Doug Snyder, were relentless is asking ‘why’ about RPG cosmology; why are there gods? More recently, Rajiv Kaushik, professor of Philosophy, and Matt McIntosh have filled the same role.
Who made the Gods? Who made the universe? Is it a multiverse? Why does magic function? What role is there for science? How do societies develop? How does economics function? How do people study? How does learning work? Who gets to be ‘better’?
Where does the gold/fur/silk/gunpowder come from?
Is there good?/Evil?
Can we defeat evil? Militarily?
Well, here we are, at the end of all things. Mostly, I want to say, THANK YOU to the teachers, writers, books and friends (apologies to anyone whose name was missed!!!) that made the Traitorson books. It’s been fun. Come by and tell me if you want more.
Oh, by the way, tonight at 7PM EST I’m doing an online launch with Nicholar Kotar. You can find it here. Ask me anything about the Traitorson series, or really, anything else.
This is a blog about fighting; about teaching martial arts; about admitting when you are wrong, and most of all, about how well-run and fascinating WMAW is.
But first, if you are, say a fantasy or HisFic fan and not a sword person, you may well ask ‘What is WMAW?’ The short answer is ‘The ‘Western Martial Arts Workshop.’ It is an interesting title which might just conjure images of a lot of white nationalists practicing for Hitler’s second coming, so let me immediately note that the word ‘Western’ here has a slightly different history, and we’re really talking about ‘Not-so-much Eastern’ martial arts, and let me add further, most of the attendees have or will practice ‘Eastern’ martial arts as well. This year we had Ethiopian, Spanish, Italian, German, American and Persian martial arts demonstrated and taught. Most of the concentration is on the Middle Ages and Renaissance. In two years I’ll be an instructor teaching what we can know (and can’t) about Ancient Greek martial arts.
WMAW is where most of the instructors and senior students in the historical martial arts movement (and some lucky beginners) go to learn and teach and hit each other with swords (or spears, knives, cudgels, sticks, fists, or throws. Also pole axes, pikes, partisans, and probably pretzels.) The event happens every two years in Racine Wisconsin. It includes a large and very well run armoured deed of arms. More on that later.
Historical martial arts have a gamut of practitioners and instructors, and they do not all seek the same goals, as I have said before in this column… That’s fine! WMAW brings many of them together to share knowledge and to share their points of view. It is incredibly useful to here from other people who have points of view radically different from your own. Perhaps this might be applied outside of swordsmanship… but I won’t get preachy. (Oh, but I will.)
As a veteran swordsman, one of the things I value most about events like WMAW (and it is, for my money, the best of its kind, at least in North America) is that it allows me to experience the teaching of other instructors AND to fence/fight with them and their students. (A small digression. I learned at age 13, in good old Olympic foil, that it was actually immaterial whether an instructor could beat me in a bout. By 16 or 17, I could beat many of my coaches. And…they still knew all kinds of things I did not know, although I confess it wasn’t always apparent to me! Because I was 17)
Despite this, I DO find it useful to actually test other instructors a little. All of us create ‘Glass Houses.’ All of us, left to ourselves with our own sword school, develop theories based on the manuscripts and our own experience; we develop them with our students. And… sometimes, they are just wrong. Sometimes this development is a closed loop. Only active combat with a peer who is not ‘one of us’ can reveal the flaws in our thinking and our teaching.
Sadly, the example I will use here is me. It’s Christian’s glass house, and the subject is the arming sword/side sword style of Marozzo, an early 16th c. Italian master. I did not consider myself (thank God) an expert on Marozzo, but we do touch on Marozzo in our Hoplologia curriculum, utilizing two of his assalti (plays) to touch on the fine points of Italian-style sword and buckler fighting. I would have said that I understood (pretty thoroughly, thanks) what Marozzo had to say about theory and practice… and, in my club, and even among a larger group of swordspeople, I have used the techniques as I taught them with some success…
Then I went to WMAW 2017. There, I had the chance to cross swords with a variety of other folks who specialize in side-sword as a weapon, and who teach Marozzo. The bout that comes to mind especially was with John O’Meara (Chicago Swordplay Guild). He pretty much hit me at will. Here’s the thing that will make swordspeople smile and puzzle others… we’d just fenced a different weapon to a virtual draw (small sword) so that I think we might be said to be relatively EQUAL as ‘swordsmen.’ That meant, to me, that my whole idea of Marozzo was…probably wrong. Ouch.
Put another way, as we had just discovered, to our mutual delight, that we were on roughly equal footing with another weapon, I had to assume that what was different with side sword was that he used it more effectively. I misunderstood the material.
Now, it was not just happenstance that throughout the WMAW curriculum I followed a ‘Marozzo’ track; I was aware of the deficiency (but not it’s scope!). So I had about twelve hours of classes with Ton Puey, of Spain, with Montante/Spadone (long two-handed sword), and with Roberto Gotti of Brescia, Italy, with Spadone, but specifically and precisely examining Marozzo’s theory and method.
The result was that in one four-day period, I was able to discover the depth of my misunderstanding, and start towards correcting it, all in one place, while having a devil of a good time. (NB If you really want to know what I did wrong and what I learned about it, you have to go to the end of the article, because I don’t want to bore anyone).
Field-testing your historical research and your practice is at the heart of all good reenacting, and any attempt at scientific experimental archaeology. I have no interest in competitive, highly-structured HEMA events; they are not examining the historical uses of weapons, but instead, creating a new, Olympic-style combat sport (totally fun; just not my approach). Events like WMAW allow the historical practitioner to see if all that experimentation and practice and theory has validity. Of course, the practitioner has to be prepared to admit that S/he is wrong. (Digression #2. A few years ago, a fairly senior HEMA practitioner said ‘I don’t need to go to WMAW; no one there has anything to teach me.’ To me, this statement is roughly analogous to saying ‘I know my fencing is weak; I choose not to test myself.)
A few posts ago, I did a blog on teaching yourself Armizare. Here’s a shocking statement; to some extent, everyone is teaching themselves. That is, even masters of this art, people who are fully immersed in Armizare or in one of the other forms, Talhoffer, Marozzo, Carranza; long sword, Montante, side sword, sword and buckler, what have you; even the men and women who TEACH these arts are, to some extent, simultaneously teaching themselves. The good ones also practice what they preach; they will engage in fun bouts with others; they are not adverse to showing their skill in public, so that their peers can see if what they practice actually works. Everyone should attend such events; both to learn from others, and to test what has been learned. It is fun, and because all of us build theoretical glass houses, it’s essential to keep the quality of our fighting arts high.
Oh, yes, and there was an armoured deed. So, if I’m a relative piker with Marozzo, I’ll say that I am a fairly competent armoured fighter and I actually teach the Italian form of Armizare. The armoured deed was splendid, from the initial parade to the closing fight; twenty armoured fighters in two teams, Italy vs the world. I was on team Italy.
And here’s the rest of the world (mostly German, but with Persian and English armoured styles as well).
Italy won. I will say no more.
And we all had a really good time, too. A lot of wine and beer flowed; many nice bruises were incurred; there were some fantastic demonstrations; I got invited to learn more Marozzo in Italy next year. Did I mention the party?
Really. WMAW. Everyone should go.
And now the technical bit about Marozzo.
So, I’ve memorized the whole of one of his Assalti, about 39 individual actions (a cut, a parry). And I’ve fenced the style for a couple of years. I confessed myself puzzled by the repeated use of heavy cuts and off-line guards, which I put down to the use of heavier swords and armour for a weapon that was quickly becoming the common ‘carry’ weapon in Italian streets.
What I saw almost instantly, both in John O’Meara’s fencing and in my instructors, was a constant use of development of lines and line changes as a fundamental of the art. Looked at in modern terms, I was trying to use what I had learned to score with first intention attacks or simple counters/ripostas. I had, utterly incorrectly, written the side sword out of the complex second intention as too unwieldy. (Just to reveal the depth of my misunderstanding, my ‘long sword’ fighting is a whole world of second and even third intentions, so how I came to this stunning glass house is… oh well. Apparently I thought that Marozzo the long sword teacher and Marozzo the side-sword teacher were different men…)
Looked at as a writer, I learned that the young knight from a small castle who goes off to war is likely to die from the errors of his master-at-arms; in a combat situation, isolation from mainstream practice could be as dangerous in the past as no training at all…
Last weekend, I went to the Adirondacks with two of my favorite camping partners, my wife Sarah and my friend Elisabeth. I was still jet-lagged from Greece, but I wanted to fit in some wilderness after all those ancient sites and tough days at the beach…
In thirty-six hours of relatively civilized life in the woods with good modern equipment, I was reminded of all the problems that face us in the wilderness, and thus, how very complicated the Wild must have been for our foremothers and forefathers.
Which is why, by and large, they didn’t go there. I guess the rest of this blog is really directed at readers and even more so, writers of fantasy, and to a lesser extent, Historical Fiction. I want to discuss some ideas of travel in the wilderness and some expectations and mostly, just lay out some hard facts.
Let me start with some credentials. I have only got extensive wilderness experience in two places; Central Africa (Kenya/Tanzania/Zambia/Congo) and the Adirondack Mountains of New York State. But the differences between those regions ((and they have internal differences as well) are immense, and they bring out my first point…
The Wild is a different place everywhere you go. I have camped in an arid, water-less pine forest in central Africa (no kidding) and in the non-tropical rain forest of the West Canada Creek Wilderness in the Adirondacks. The insects are different, the fish are different, the edible plants are different, the things that will kill you are…
Actually pretty constant. Hypothermia and Dehydration (both of which are frequently and accurately mentioned by Tolkien, for example, in the Hobbit especially) are far, far more dangerous then bears or lions. I mean, OK, a lion is spectacularly dangerous (I have done some stupid crap around lions, but I lived and I don’t recommend it) and a bear is pretty fearsome (and really big) and rhinos…don’t even mention rhinos…
But they are easy to avoid, and frankly, they avoid you too, thanks. You MOSTLY have to go out of your way to find yourself facing an Adirondack black bear or a leopard or what have you, but fail to fill your canteen just one time on a hot day…
Anyway; credentials. Every year I take ten to twenty people into the Adirondacks in various period kit. We do cheat; I am 55 and I carry a linen covered thermarest. I use an 80 liter dry sack to hold food safely and to close it up at night against…well, bears. Bears are real. Otherwise, there we are, in Medieval clothes with Medieval tools and Medieval tents and shelters and Medieval food. This year will be our 25th expedition; we’ll be out nine days. We won’t be on a trail system, or in a camp ground.
Right. So here’s point two.
Twelve people ( the typical D+D party) consume roughly sixty pounds of food per day. In ten days, that’s six hundred pounds. Or, put another way, every person needs to carry at least five pounds of food for each day. Most strong people can capably carry a total load of 60 pounds; trained men and women may go 80 pounds, and that includes weapons and ammunition and armour and clothes and magic items…
Next point. You can travel, or you can hunt. You cannot hunt and travel. It’s true that a highly trained woodsperson can snare, in the right terrain, and get a couple of rabbits every morning. So let’s say that you can, in fact, hunt and travel with two people. But at some point,t he noise of the group makes any hunting impossible, and as to the idea that a person can ‘go off and hunt’ and ‘rejoin the group’ while traveling in a trackless wilderness…
Laughable. It’s hard enough re-joining people after stopping to have a pee.
And while I’m attacking various fantasy and HisFic memes, let’s look at bows and other weapons. In the woods. (Point 3)
Nothing worse, really. If you haven’t walked in woods with undergrowth carrying a six foot yew bow and twenty livery arrows, you should try it. That quiver (which is not usually on your back) is perhaps the single most annoying piece of kit you’ve ever carried. It’s heavy and it seems to have a life of its own and it catches on everything. And the bow is not particularly fun either. And that heavy arrow for penetrating chain maille isn’t really much use against deer; massive overkill. In Greece or Africa I can see it as practical; in deep woods and undergrowth, what you want, young ranger, is a crossbow. Or maybe a very light, fifty pound bow with light arrows; carry say, three, (total) in your belt, and move like an elf. Of course, you are not engaging in along archery fights with three arrows… The crossbowman carried his bolts much more easily…
The man with a flintlock wins every time, though, as he can carry forty rounds and rest his longe carabine on a log for accurate fire. And use the butt of the thing to cross streams which I don’t recommend with your bow…
The two ideal Medieval weapons in the woods are the axe and the spear. A good light axe is good for everything from Orcs to Anglo-Saxons to wood cutting (of which, more below). A stout spear on a six foot haft is a walking staff with a persuader at the end. I have never faced a bear or lion with a spear; I have faced a very angry, or possibly rabid racoon. No one died, but the racoon didn’t like the spear. The spear also keeps the large animal comfortably far away. Do not try this with a rhino.
Knives and swords… here’s something that you see all the time in the woods; modern men, whether macho deer-hunters or their supposed antithesis, macho hipsters, armed with knives as big as a seax or a short sword. I’m always tempted to ask if they’ve ever used that knife. True confession; in Medieval kit, I carry a very big dagger. It’s true. It cuts bread. And string. And very small kindling. Otherwise it’s just excess weight, but at least it does not catch on stuff. It looks good. That may mean I’m both a macho deer-hunter AND a macho hipster. In the 14th century.
This year on trek, I may wear a sword, as a sort of experimental archaeology. I have worn a long sword in the woods, on a waist belt (the real way, as opposed to on your back, the silly way). It was not that hard; suspension systems of the period are well-designed, and people really wore swords. But the long sword was completely, absolutely useless; it wasn’t even good for cutting bedding. And it was long, and scabbards are expensive and take a real beating in the woods.
Point four is about distance traveled. Carrying weight, I can move about four miles an hour on a trail; faster on a road. But I’m fast. Bushwhacking, that is, moving without a trail, I’m moving perhaps two miles an hour, and if there’s a swamp anywhere (and there always is, unless it’s a desert, and even then, you’d be surprised…) even more slowly. And the energy burn in broken country is incredible; walk a mile in a city or on a road. Then walk the same mile on a ploughed farm field, and finally do the same mile across actual wild country. I’ve seen trained and hardened professionals (soldiers in this case) make as little as four miles in a day, over really bad country.
And then leave time to make camp. One person is pretty easy; around ten people everything from latrines to cooking gets a little more complicated (and don’t even get me started on armies). You need space to camp and time to set up and cook and gather firewood*…
Did I mention gathering firewood? Pretty easy in the Adirondacks, even in a driving rain. Not so easy in a desert, or in central Greece; hard to find anything that you want to cook over on the Savannah of East Africa… But regardless, it’ll take time to find; time to gather, cut to length, and manage. This is one thing that is easier with ten than with one. Fire all night? Nothing for ten. Huge work for one. And cooking? Real cook fires require knowledge and management, because of…
5) Weather…. There are sunny days, but the weather is a far more intimate companion out in the Wild then it is in your home. By intimate, I mean it wants to have its way with you at odd hours of the day and night. Rain, sheets of rain; all day drizzle, high wind, freezing wind, hail, burning sun, sun with high wind, sun with wind carrying gritty sand, snow. Freezing rain, the worst of all. Brutally hot days with plunging temperatures. My favorite? All day rain that clears off at sunset so that the temperature drops and you are left cold. Really cold. Hopefully, you stopped and cut firewood.
Listen. People in the past avoided the Wild like they wished they could avoid war and pestilence. They just didn’t go there. People traveled by going from town to town. If you doubt me, read the opening of Dante’s Inferno. Nor was it different in North America, where most First Nations people traveled by going from town to town, and when they went hunting, were back home at night. Or made large, family-size camps in the good hunting grounds like the Adirondacks, and used them as bases. They didn’t travel across the ‘trackless’ wilderness unless need or war drove them to it, and even then they moved carefully. Same in Africa, which is cross-crossed with a veritable capillary system of tiny trails, as I assume North America once was. And the trails lead to tiny hamlets and villages…
Here’s my point. The Wild is hard enough, without having to fight anyone in it. And the people who cross it or use it are like sailors on a sea; it takes long experience to develop the knowledge to survive in this environment. It is seldom dashing and manly, and often involves patience, careful forethought, and good packing…
And then there’s pack horses…
*And another note on firewood. The best tool with which to cut firewood is the handy saw. Sadly, saws were a high tech item until fairly recently, and I doubt anyone traveling across Mirkwood had a handy folding pocket saw. (However, I’m willing to bet that Thorin Oakenshield would have passed on a magic sword to get a folding Japanese saw; maybe Legolas had one.) The second place tool is not the axe; it’s the standing, live, hardy forked tree. A tree with a deep fork can be used to break even big wood, up to about two inches thick, into fire lengths. Two people can make a lot of standing dead wood into a really big fire in no time, if there’s a nice forked tree growing nearby.) The axe comes in third; it takes a LOT of time and energy to make hardwood into firewood with an axe. But it’s a good reason to practice using the axe; deftness counts, as does strength, and it saves time. And keeps you warm. Which reminds me of another blog.