GW: I’m here today with Steven Pressfield, author of The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Gates of Fire, The War of Art, and many other novels and non-fiction titles. His latest book is A Man at Arms, and he has a YouTube channel in which he investigates the warrior archetype. So, Steve, welcome to the show.
SP: Thank you, Guy, it’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.
GW: You’re very welcome. Thanks for saying yes to the weirdo sword person on the Internet who contacted you through your website. So whereabouts in the world are you?
SP: I’m in Los Angeles.
GW: OK, so I think pretty much everybody listening knows where that is, thanks to Hollywood. Is Hollywood why you ended up there?
SP: It is actually, maybe I think around 1980, after failing at three novels in the East Coast, living in New York, I thought, why don’t I go and fail as a screenwriter? So I moved out here for the movies, to try to write for the movies. So yeah, that’s why I’m here. And I never left.
GW: If it’s working then why change it? OK, so the list of professions that you have tried your hand at, advertising copywriter, schoolteacher, US Marine, tractor trailer driver, bartender, oilfield roustabout and screenwriter. So how come you settled on novelist?
SP: Well, my ambition from the very start, Guy, was to write novels and I tried to write one way too young. I didn’t know what I was doing at all. And it was a bit of an adult portion for me, a little more than I could handle. And my life sort of fell apart. At that point, I was 23, 24 years old, and I wound up on the road, my marriage broke up, et cetera, et cetera. And those jobs were just jobs that I took just to keep body and soul together, just sort of kicking around from one place to another until I finally reached the end of my rope and just decided I better stop running away from writing and maybe get out the typewriter and try to do something.
GW: OK, so how long a period are we talking about where you were running away from the typewriter?
SP: I think it was like maybe six or seven years.
GW: So you were in denial, shall we say, for that period?
SP: I was in denial. I was running away from my destiny.
GW: OK. But then you got some measure of success in screenwriting?
SP: Actually I didn’t find any real success there either. I was able to sort of make a living, but it actually took me from the time I first quit a job to write until the time I had my first novel published, I think was twenty eight years. So it was not really an overnight success by any means.
GW: It’s really surprising me how common that sort of story is. It’s like, yes, an overnight success that only took 20 years. And then suddenly when you break out it’s like oh well this person just pitched up yesterday and wrote a book. I first came across your work when I read Gates of Fire about 20 years ago, something like that. And it was kind of magical for its immersion into Spartan life. And you really get the feeling like you were actually there seeing the actual Spartans doing their thing, which is great, so I’m not sure if I really want to ask the question, because it’s not always a good idea to look behind the curtain, but how much of that book was actually based on research and how much did you just make up?
SP: That’s a great question. In fact, you and I were just talking earlier, before recording, about a gentleman named Chip Armstrong, who is a Japanese swords master and a Hoplologist, a study of the science of aggression, I guess it is. And I went to visit him in Sedona, Arizona. He’s a friend of a friend. And we spent a couple of days together, because I really had no idea what is a Hoplite battle like, and nobody does. Nobody knows what it’s like. So Chip and I just sort of gamed it out in a way, just used our imagination and thought about the equipment and the way the phalanx worked and the fact that it was striking overhand with an eight foot spear rather than a sword type of scenario. And from the various research that I had done, knowing about how the Phalanx worked, I used my imagination and just tried to beam myself back into that era and ask myself what it would be like. But the thing about ancient Sparta, which I’m sure you know and your listeners know, is there’s very little information about ancient Sparta. In fact, I think there’s only like thirty eight words extant written by actual Spartans. I mean, there’s some information written by people like Xenophon who was an Athenian and who knew Sparta very well. But Sparta was a closed culture and they were very secretive. They didn’t want anyone to know any of their tricks of the trade. So a lot of it had to be in research. I hope I’m not blathering on too long.
GW: Please go for it. This is where we live, really.
SP: A lot of that type of research is about reading between the lines, because, for instance, when an ancient writer would write about a Hoplite Battle, let’s say it was Thucydides, he’s describing the battle of Mantinea or something like that. Thucydides, he knew exactly what it was and he knew that all of his readers or listeners, they knew what it was, they’d all done it. So he didn’t feel the need to really describe it. An analogy I use, sometimes it’s like if someone two thousand years from now, we’re reading something that you and I wrote and we might write a sentence like I went down to the grocery store and got myself a sandwich. And what we would leave out, because we figure everybody knows it, is we got in a car and we leave out that we got in a car. And we left out what a transmission is, how you have to shift gears, that there’s such a thing as a clutch and all that sort of stuff. And so the reader 2000 years from now would have to imagine themselves back into that thing and somehow using clues from other places, figure out the actual details. So a lot of it was reading between the lines, which in a way is a lot of fun.
GW: It’s a luxury you have as a novelist. You are allowed to make it all up. It says novel on the cover so you can say whatever you want.
SP: I mean, yes, but of course you got to stay as true as you possibly can. But it’s interesting because like probably a lot of what I write as a novelist is influenced by movies. So maybe I watched Gladiator and I saw something that they did there. But in fact, in Gladiator, they’re making it up themselves. They don’t know really how people fought with a gladius. Maybe you do, but I don’t know.
GW: Yeah. And we don’t have sources. I mean, most of my work is from really detailed sources dating from the 14th century onwards, when people actually started writing. Some of these sources are so detailed, they even describe the length of the sword relative to the person holding it. Later on we have quite a lot of information. But before about 1350, there’s maybe a picture in the margin of a Bible or there’s a description of it. Or when we dig up a battlefield and find these wounded skeletons and we can figure out some of the battle injuries that killed people and the ones they survive from, that gives us some windows when we’re actually recreating swordsmanship. The reason I don’t do any of the early stuff is because we have the sources for the later stuff, but not for the pre-1300 hundreds, it’s too frustrating.
SP: What you are doing is sort of like what I’m doing. You’re trying to kind of imagine yourself, if you ever try to do something that’s ancient swordsmanship, you’re taking what you know from the present or from 1450 and extrapolating back.
GW: Right. I’ve played with the some of the Greek weapons and you get a sense of they were really, really fit.
GW: Oh, my God, they were fit. I have friends who re-enact ancient Greek stuff and they re-enacted the battle of Marathon a few years ago, five, six years ago, on the 2000th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon, 2500. Well, you know, the fact that I don’t know the date exactly tells you how much I don’t specialise in that area. But yeah, they got like a couple of hundred people in a really accurate period equipment on the beach and tried to recreate it. I thought it was quite something to watch.
SP: Let me ask you, if I had known you earlier, I would be asking you this question before. The Spartan sword, or the Xiphos, was notoriously short. So clearly, at least as I imagine it, it was not the primary weapon. The spear was the primary weapon, in close combat, not thrown, but wielded as a stabbing thing. So I would imagine that the reason it was so short was because when the fighting got down to it, they were so densely packed that they couldn’t swing a sword or do any sort of swordplay. Would you agree with that?
GW: The sword generally for military purposes is a sidearm. It’s a backup weapon. And that’s true pretty much through most military scenarios, through most of history, as I see it anyway. And the thing about the Roman gladius. It’s really short. It’s basically a dagger.
SP: Of course, the Spartan Xiphos was a lot shorter than that.
GW: So really, when you’re in that close, shield to shield, when you get pressed up against your opponent, you really don’t need anything longer than about six or nine inches, because when you’re that close, you just stick it in and the shorter it is, the more manoeuvrable it is. You’re basically in a dagger fight with a shield.
SP: Yeah, that’s what I figured.
GW: Yes. And generally speaking, line of battle is not normally done sword against sword. It is normally spears and dagger-like objects. Well, once the missiles have been shot. The arrows and pilums and what have you.
SP: Then, of course, the other aspect of that that I’m trying to imagine was that there would be eight ranks or 16 ranks deep. If you’re in the front rank, somebody’s got his shield pressed into your back from behind, jamming you forward. So there’s not much room for wild swordplay, I guess.
GW: Yeah. And you can’t pull your arm back very far to get the weapon in again. So you have to manoeuvre it in front of your body and there’s really no space. So it would make sense to me to have a really short sword. But I mean, Viking swords are a lot longer and they did fight battles. But generally speaking, shield wall fighting was done with the shield and the spear. And the sword was, I think usually mostly single combat. There are going to be loads of people listening to this who are going to go, Guy doesn’t know anything about Viking swords. But this is just my general impression. And of course, there are specific exceptions. But generally speaking, what we think of as a sword, with like a three foot blade, it’s primarily a sidearm and it’s primarily for single combat.
SP: Well, that certainly makes sense to me.
GW: Yeah, OK, we’re talking about swords, so you have this YouTube series in which you discuss the warrior archetype and related topics and you talk about swords quite a bit there. So what does the sword mean to you?
SP: I think of it is probably the same way you think about it Guy, it is a metaphor, rather than as a fighting weapon, it is a kind of a mental construct. You know, if you think of a sword, it cleaves things. With a stroke, it can divide one thing from another. And so if you think about discrimination or mental acuity or trying to decide what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s honourable, what’s not honourable, the sword, a kind of a mental swordsmanship would be a form of discrimination, and wisdom, where you could decide, OK, I’m splitting this. I’m cleaving this thing in half, half I’m going to throw away or I’m going to send to the devil and the other half I’m going to keep as worthy. And so I think that’s why swords are on so many coats of arms, as much as a symbol of martial prowess or victory in the field as a more as a metaphor of wisdom, I would think.
GW: They are also, I think, symbols of wealth because they’ve always been very expensive to produce. Exclusive and desirable. And I had a philosopher called Damon Young on the show maybe 20 episodes back. And after we’d done the interview, we were just chatting about this, that and the other and we got into a discussion about what actually is a sword, how do we define a sword? So we know that this thing is a spear, this is a sword, this is a knife. But they’re all bladed weapons. How do we how do we define swordiness? And we were chatting for an hour about this. And fortunately, completely accidentally, I left the recording running. So we actually we actually have that discussion as a kind of extra podcast episode, I can send it to you, if you’re interested.
SP: Give me the gist of it. What did you guys decide?
GW: We didn’t come to a formal conclusion, but my basic distinction from a practical point of view is a sword is a weapon where it makes sense to divide the blade into a defensive part and an offensive part. So you parry with one bit of the blade and you strike with a different blade. And that distinction becomes necessary somewhere around the 18, 20 inches of blade mark. So by my definition, a gladius would be a dagger not sword and you use a Spartan sword like a dagger, you don’t use it like a long sword or a rapier. But at the end of it, I said to Damon that really my internal definition of the sword is the sword separates truth from falsehood and pierces the veil of illusion. That is what the sword is to me. One of the reasons I thought that you might be amenable to coming on the show is having seen some of your YouTube videos, I was like, OK, you and I have very similar thoughts about what swords really mean.
SP: Yeah, because we’re really talking about an edged weapon or a stabbing weapon, right?
GW: Yeah, and most swords are both.
SP: A samurai sword were just strictly be edged weapon, wouldn’t it?
GW: No, no, it has a sharp point you can thrust. The only swords I know of that are single-use are an executioner’s sword, which is only for cutting. Doesn’t have a point. It has like a square end and the 17th, 18th century smallsword has a triangular section blade that is optimised entirely for thrusting. And I mean you can do little tip slashes with it, but you couldn’t cut off somebody’s hand with it. So there are exceptions. But yeah, most swords have both capabilities. And Cappoferro, for instance, in his book, Gran Simulacro dell’Arte e dell’Uso della Scherma from 1610, he defines the sword as a weapon with two edges and a point. So he requires two edges. If it doesn’t have two edges it is not a sword. So cavalry sabres are out. It’s not an easy question.
SP: If there was a law across the whole world that the only wars we could fight from now on would be with swords alone, that would make things a little different.
GW: Yeah. There wouldn’t be people sitting in Portakabins with computers sending drones into places.
SP: It would bring back the idea of honour and the idea of nobility.
GW: Perhaps, although back when wars were fought that way, there was an awful lot of what we would think of as dishonourable behaviour. So I’m not entirely convinced by the argument that an armed society is a polite society.
SP: Well, the thing about a sword, at least, is that if you’re going to kill somebody with it, you’ve got to get so close to them that they can kill you and that changes things quite a bit.
GW: Absolutely. And actually, one of the Damon’s points was the sword is an overtly carried weapon. You can’t conceal it. It is for fighting in public. So you can’t sneak up on someone with the sword usually. You have to get close enough to get stabbed. I mean, the old 19th century saying was a bullet could go anywhere, but a sword is bound to go somewhere.
SP: I’m sure you’ve heard this story and your listeners have too, but I’ll repeat it. It was a story, I think it’s from Plutarch, Sayings of the Spartans, and a Spartan king or some Spartan warrior or something was shown a new weapon, which was a kind of a catapult that could shoot a missile two hundred yards or something like this. And when he saw it, he began to weep and he said, alas, valour is no more.
GW: And in the 15th century, the pope banned the use of crossbows for the same reason.
SP: I didn’t know that. That’s great. I hate the crossbow.
GW: There was a battle in the late 15th century. It’s in Oakeshott’s Records of the European Sword. I have the book right over there. But two Italian mercenary armies were doing their usual thing of, they basically would jockey around for position. And when one army got the superior position, they had a little bit of a skirmish. Just put on a good show for the people who were paying for things. Then the army in the worst position would surrender and very few people would actually get killed. And in one of these battles one side started using flintlocks or maybe they weren’t flintlocks, but they were some kind of firearm, handheld firearm. And the other side got absolutely incensed by this and attacked and slaughtered these gun holding people because, if that sort of thing was allowed to carry on, war would actually get really dangerous.
SP: Yeah, that’s a great story. I never heard that one.
GW: Conflict is primarily psychological, right? You win when your opponent gives up. If you think of Napoleon marching on Moscow. He actually, by all of the customs of how battles worked in Europe, he won. He got there and he captured the capital city, and that should have been that. The Russians should have surrendered and then Napoleon is Emperor of Russia. But the Russians were following a different playbook. And so they basically were, OK, he’s coming to Moscow. That’s OK. We’ll get out of Moscow. He can have Moscow. So Napoleon arrives, Moscow is basically a ghost town, and then the winter sets in and he doesn’t have his supply lines and the Russians have the countryside where all the food is and Napoleon is stuck in Moscow and he realises he has to get back and so on the ghastly retreat from Moscow everything went wrong. But if the Russians had just followed the same set of assumptions Napoleon had won, and they should have surrendered.
SP: The wars that the United States and England are fighting, like in Iraq and Afghanistan and other areas like Vietnam where the other side just won’t play by the rules.
GW: Exactly. Yeah. Like it’s famously said that in Vietnam, America won all the battles.
SP: Yes, but still lost the war.
GW: Right, because the story in their opponent’s head, wasn’t changing the way it was supposed to.
SP: Yeah, or flying aeroplanes into skyscrapers, you know, into the World Trade Center. Changing all the rules.
GW: Yeah, exactly. OK, we should talk about your new book, of course, A Man At Arms, and you have St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians as the MacGuffin. It is a genius stroke. If I was wearing a hat, I would take it off to you for that. It’s a fascinating plot device. But what prompted that choice?
SP: First of all, I got to take my hat off to you for knowing what a McGuffin is. I hope that our listeners today know what it is. We can get into that a little bit. But the sort of the story of this was, how it evolved, was my niece was getting married a few years ago and she asked me to be the officiant. So actually, my brother had already married them, but I was going to do the public version of it and so I opened the Book of Common Prayer. And I started looking for pithy quotes that I could use, and so I found a few like, you know, famous ones of “love beareth all things, believeth all things, enduring all things” and “faith, hope and charity”, etc.. And I realised that all of them I picked, which I got about four or five, all came from the same source. They all came from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, from that book in the New Testament known as First Corinthians. And so when you’re a novelist or a screenwriter, you’re always looking for some kind of hook you can hang a story on. And I just thought, what if this was a this was a real letter? Paul really sent it to the early Christian community in Corinth. And if he did send it, the Romans would want to stop it in any way possible, because this new religion, this crazy new religion called Christianity, which wasn’t called Christianity, but any far-Sighted Roman could see this was a real threat to the Empire. So I just thought, well, how about a story where the Romans try to stop this letter from getting through? And we can have some interesting characters in there and some chases and stuff like that. And so the definition of a “MacGuffin”, just to carry this through, really comes from Alfred Hitchcock. And the MacGuffin, as I define it, is the item that the villain wants. For instance, in Casablanca, the movie, The Letters of Transit were the MacGuffin, if you remember that. The letters that would get somebody get out of jail free from Casablanca, you could escape to Lisbon. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Ark of the Covenant is the MacGuffin. That’s the thing the Nazis want. So in this case, the story in my book, A Man at Arms, the Romans are the bad guys and what they want is this letter. So that was sort of how that evolved as the building blocks of a story.
GW: Yeah, it reminded me a bit of Star Wars.
SP: It’s a lot like Star Wars.
GW: R2D2 has that message and the and the secret map of the Death Star.
SP: He was the MacGuffin in Star Wars.
GW: And you take one of the characters from one of your other historical novels and basically give him his own book.
SP: Yeah. The central character is the solitary mercenary Telamon of Arcadia, who I think of kind of like a samurai, like a ronin samurai, a guy who is a lone one-man killing machine, who fights only for himself like a gunslinger, like a Clint Eastwood type of guy or like a samurai in the movie Seven Samurai or anything else, somebody who is up for hire. You want him, you want to buy his sword, you buy it, you know. And I thought that he’s a character I really love from a couple of other books that he was in. And I wanted to do a book that was finally just about him alone because I’ve always been fascinated by that kind of solitary warrior character. And you must be too, Guy, in a way, to be into swords, because that’s what this is about. I mean, I don’t think you’re interested in a thousand guys with swords, right? You want the one guy like Musashi Miyamoto or somebody like that, right?
GW: Yeah. And for me, my primary interest is martial arts. And swords are the kind of subset of martial arts that I am fixated on and you get the most technically interesting martial arts practise when it’s two experts facing off against each other, one on one in a prearranged situation, so it’s not self-defence, it’s duelling. That’s where you get the possibility of the highest and most sophisticated expression of the art. And as soon as you add surprise, things have to get a lot simpler. Everything you train has to be super simple. And when you have line of battle stuff, the actual techniques are super simple, and it’s all about unit cohesion and formation and battle tactics rather than the individual skills of the individual soldier. And that just doesn’t attract my interest in the same way as two lone duellists battling it out.
SP: Yeah, I’m with you. I mean, that’s where the drama comes in and that’s where honour and nobility comes in. It’s like sport. There’s nothing greater, like boxing, than two evenly matched antagonists that can respect each other, and it’s great to watch. Everybody wants to watch it and everybody wants to be it.
GW: Yeah. And the evenly matched thing is really important. Two people of 15th century Italy, two people of different social statuses, can’t have a proper duel. Two people of, let’s say, a warrior aged twenty five and a retired lord age seventy five. They can’t have a duel either because it’s not an equal fight. There has to be at least the possibility for the fight to be equal for it to be a proper duel. That’s written into the duelling laws of the time. And all of the sources we have, there was there was plenty of battlefield fighting going on in the 15th century, and after that, I mean, it’s not like people stopped fighting battles, but the books that were written about how to fight with swords are almost exclusively concerned with one on one. And I think this is why. It’s that sense of honour and prestige and prowess and how better to display your prowess than by fighting one on one, leave luck out of it as far as possible. It is that single combat situation that gives you that absolute focus on, OK, right now, today, which one of us is better?
SP: Yes. One of the things that was really interesting to me, I’m sure all of your listeners are totally familiar with this, in Ridley Scott’s movie, The Duellists, I love that film, they couldn’t fight each other unless they were the same rank.
GW: That’s right.
SP: And that was really interesting when Keith Carradine’s character wanted to get out of fighting the Harvey Keitel character, one of the things was, well be a different rank than he is.
GW: Yeah. That’s actually based on like an actual historical pair of characters. And some of their letters actually survive.
GW: I believe so. I haven’t looked into this for a long time, but I recall pretty clearly. I will check it and put a note in the shownotes in case I’m making this up, but I’m 99 percent sure that some of those had to survive. And they are incredibly polite, like, “Many congratulations on your recent promotion to colonel. A promotion as delayed as it was deserved. This means that we are now of equal rank and we may resume our affair. I will see you at such and such and such and such and such.” From the bits of the letters that I’ve read, they seem to really like each other.
SP: It’s a great movie. Now that we’re talking about it, I’ve got to watch it again.
GW: The opening duel with Harvey Keitel, who is an experienced cavalry soldier, is fighting with smallswords with this young man who is not an experienced anything, but might have had some fencing lessons and Harvey Keitel just like slaughters him. It struck me that if an experienced warrior with an unfamiliar weapon is up against an inexperienced person in that first proper fight, even if that person has some familiarity with the weapons, the experienced warrior will just slaughter them. It just struck me as like one of those things. It’s not maybe literally true, but it’s profoundly, shall we say, morally true.
SP: Makes sense. Yeah.
GW: OK, now I do have to ask you a question. We were talking about single combat and I did some preparation for this interview, of course, and found out that you wrote the screenplay for Steven Seagal’s Above the Law. And Dolph Lundgren’s Joshua Tree. I don’t know whether you actually got to spend any time on set with these people.
SP: I did.
GW: You did. OK, excellent. That’s going to help. So if Steven Seagal and Dolph Lundgren had an unarmed stand up fight. Who would you put your money on?
SP: It’s a great question. Let me say this. Dolph Lundgren is a real physical specimen. He’s a big guy and he’s fit and he’s strong and he’s a real athlete. That said, Steven Seagal is also a big guy. I think they’re probably each six three, six four minimum. And but I would have to put my money on Steven Seagal, at least if he was in shape, just because of the skill that he has with Aikido and all that sort of thing. And I’m no expert, but I don’t know very many people that could stand up to somebody at his level of skill.
GW: Really, OK. I was not expecting that. Dolph Lundgren is a big, very strong guy and he can punch and kick. He’s trained.
SP: I mean, I could be completely wrong, but…
GW: We should arrange it. We should get those two to have a grudge match and see if you’re right. So you were actually on set with Steven Seagal and Dolph Lundgren.
SP: Yeah, I was one of three writers of Above the Law. I don’t want to take credit for anything like that. OK, I will say of both of those guys, Steven Seagal and Dolph Lundgren, they’re both very smart guys. They are by no means dumb actors or anything like that. They’re multitalented, multifaceted individuals with real interesting stories, life stories behind them.
GW: Did you get to see any of the fight scenes?
SP: You know, I’m trying to remember. I don’t think I did, actually, I wasn’t in Chicago where they shot Above the Law, I wasn’t there for the actual shooting. I was there for the other one with Dolph Lundgren. And there wasn’t that much fist fighting in that one or anything like that. Car chases and things like that. Shootouts. But, you know, I don’t have any inside stories to tell.
GW: OK, so Steven Seagal. Dolph Lundgren, I would be very interested to know what the listeners think, because if you watch them move, obviously Steven Seagal is a very high level Aikido guy and Dolph Lundgren can really hit like a truck. I mean, you see him in Rocky IV for where he’s the bad Russian dude and when he kills Apollo Creed with a punch to the head, you can believe that the mechanics behind it are just spot on and there’s a ridiculous amount of muscle mass. OK. I really think everything we have to arrange with Mr. Seagal. Gentlemen, in the unlikely event you’re listening to this podcast, then please do get in touch and I’ll happily arrange a space for you guys to fight each other. OK, all right. Now, there is a question that I ask most of my guests, and that is what is the best idea you’ve never acted on?
SP: Do you mean a creative idea, for a story, or just an idea in your life?
GW: How you interpret the question is as interesting as the answer.
SP: You know, you actually sent me this ahead of time, I didn’t even think about it. Let me ask you this Guy, why ask in the negative of an idea you didn’t act upon? What’s your thinking behind that?
GW: OK, most people I know have something they want to have done but haven’t done yet. Maybe it’s write a book. Not in your case, obviously, you’ve written millions of books. Or what they really want to do is they want to visit Machu Picchu or they really want to learn to read ancient Greek so they can work with ancient Greek. So they have something like that. And the reason I put it that way is because it gets to talk about the things that are really important to them that they maybe haven’t quite acted on.
SP: Oh, I see, that’s a good question. Yeah, I do have an answer for you. The women in my life over the years, I wish I had appreciated them more. In the moment, and even the current lady in my life who will be my lady forever. Sometimes I take things for granted that I shouldn’t take for granted. And when I look back, I think, wow, I really should have paid much more attention to that and really been much more appreciative of it.
GW: Huh, that’s a really interesting answer. OK, I’m not sure how to follow up on that without going into it, without basically prying.
SP: Let me expand it a little bit. I would say it’s also true of other experiences in my life. We were talking before about various jobs that I that I worked, crazy jobs. At the time, when I was in those situations, I was just trying to keep above water, but I wish I had paid more attention, I wish I had appreciated things more, I just wish I had been more present for it. I’m getting old enough that the end of life is out there, and I sort of think, well, what will I think back? You know, if I look back, I think that’s what I’ll say to myself. I wish I had paid more attention to it and appreciated it more, even just things like driving a tractor trailer at before dawn. You’re out on the road and the sun comes up and there’s nobody on the road but you. And it’s just a great feeling. And I wish I had appreciated more, whereas at the time, I was just thinking, oh, shit, I’m going to get lost in a few minutes, that kind of thing. So all of life, I wish I had been more present in the moment.
GW: Wow, OK, well, that’s a good warning to or reminder to the listeners.
SP: Isn’t the discipline of swords really about that in a way you’ve got to be 100 percent present in the moment, otherwise you’re going to lose your head.
GW: Yeah, and it’s the stories that distract us. Instead of paying attention to what’s right in front of us, we start thinking about what’s going to happen two moves from now or what has just happened that we didn’t want to happen one move ago. And those are always stories and they’re not real. And if we can get rid of the story running in our head, “OK, I’m going to do this, they’re going to do that, and then I’m going to do this other thing.” As soon as we are projecting into the future we start to believe our own stories, and then when the opponent does the wrong thing, from our perspective, we get surprised. Yeah, and if you’re properly present and in the moment, things might happen. Things might still go wrong, but it’s impossible to be surprised because you have no expectations.
SP: Can I ask you a question? My understanding from samurai movies of the Zen state of mind or no mind and all that as it applies to say, a duel, a sword duel is that. Tell me if I’m wrong or not. You’re familiar with the movie, Seven Samurai, right? You know that there’s a great opening moment when they’re recruiting the samurai and the leader is sitting in a sort of hotel or whatever you would call it. And two candidates are going to come in through one after the other, come in through the door. And he orders the young guy, Katsuhiro, the young samurai, to stand behind the door, hiding, to beat this guy over the head when he comes in. Tell me if this is true, the whole concept of the state of mind that a samurai is trying to get to is that it’s so open to the moment and not having that story that he senses before it happened, senses that ambush and if you remember the first samurai that comes in, he starts to walk through the door, and then he stops and he burst out laughing and then the lead samurai says, “Oh, come on in. You passed the test.” Is that true, that sort of state of mind. Do you try to get to that in swordsmanship?
GW: OK, in some Japanese martial arts, they have those sort of meditation Buddhism or Zen Buddhism where they actively pursue that sort of that state of no mind. And they articulate it in the way that you’ve expressed. So, yeah, that’s I’d say that’s a fair description of how some martial arts in Japan treat these things. In European martial arts where I specialise, there is literally no discussion of that at all. But from descriptions of feats of arms it’s pretty clear that many people are operating in that sort of head space. It was normal before a judicial duel or before a battle for the warriors to pray. Which is a kind of chant of familiar words, often in a very specific language that is not your native tongue, that puts you into that particular headspace where, ideally from a European perspective, if you trust in the Lord and then if you die, it doesn’t matter because you’re going straight to heaven. And if it is God’s will that you’re going to win, then you will. And it takes away that storytelling focus on the ending. How is this going to turn out? And so I would say it engenders a similar headspace, but of course, modern practise of historical martial arts is largely separated from any kind of religious practise. So, I teach meditation to my students so they can get into that sort of headspace and they can be aware of the stories as they arise and I have my own tricks for avoiding storytelling. When I’m fencing, I one thing I do is I sing a little song. The storytelling part of my brain wants to handle language, so I’m singing a little song about I’m going to control the weapon and strike that has a little tune to it and it’s just slightly under my breath. And when I get really close, it freaks the hell out of my opponent because, “What the hell is Guy doing?” But it means that I have to keep my breathing under control, which keeps stress levels down. It keeps the storytelling bit of my brain active on something that has nothing to do with fencing.
SP: Very smart.
GW: It’s just really easy to do and to get into. And I would imagine, but I have no evidence for this, I would imagine the medieval knights, for instance, would often have, shall we say, the Ave Maria or the Paternoster or something running around in their head while they are doing their thing for similar purposes.
SP: Huh, very interesting, sort of like when the Spartans or the ancient Greeks would march, they would sing the Paeon, the song, for the same reason to keep breathing, the stories out of their head, you know.
GW: I don’t know if the Marines call them this, but like in the Navy, these are called Jodies where you have these, “I don’t know but I’ve been told…” Same reason. And war cries. So it just keeps that bit of your brain going so you can perform without being distracted by the things that you shouldn’t be thinking about. Brilliant. Well, Steve, it’s been a delight talking to you, thank you very much for coming on the show. I hope we’ll see you back here again soon.
SP: This has been great Guy. Thanks very much. Please invite me back anytime. It’s great to talk with you and hope we haven’t exhausted everything that I have to say.
GW: We have scratched the surface. Thanks, Steve.
SP: OK, thank you.