I’m getting to this post a week late, but I had a terrific time at a convention over the Halloween weekend. Can Con is a small-ish gathering in Ottawa geared primarily towards people who like their speculative fiction in written form. This year, I had my first opportunity to participate as a writer. I spoke on three panels and went to many more. Here are some of the highlights.
The Basics of the Sword
I’ve been practicing Historical European Martial Arts for a little over ten years now. For this panel, I teamed up with Geoff Gander, Kris Ramsey and Raeanne Roy to talk about swordplay. Two of us were HEMA-ists and the other two practiced the Japanese sword arts of Kendo and Iaido respectively.
We talked a little bit about where our arts came from and how they have evolved over time. For example, the Japanese sword arts evolved in a region where there are no deposits of iron ore, which is why traditional Japanese armour has so few metal parts. The traditional method of making katanas, by folding the steel many times, arose because Japanese sword smiths had poor raw material to work with and the folding process distributes the uneven deposits of carbon more uniformly in the blade so that it doesn’t develop stress points and break.
Then we got into the kinds of things that movies and books get wrong. Armour, even steel plate armour, isn’t as much of a burden as you would think. It’s also pretty unlikely that you could make a clean cut through someone’s cranium like in the movie Kill Bill. Furthermore, swords in medieval Europe weren’t always beyond the means of ordinary people. The standard price in thirteenth-century England seems to have been twelve pence.
There was some discussion about whether it was practical to wield two swords at once. While the historical examples are limited, there are some European renaissance treatises that discuss how to use a pair, or “case”, of rapiers. This video, which extrapolates from that material but uses swords of a more medieval type, shows what it could look like.
We had all brought our training weapons, and for the last few minutes of the hour we had a little Show and Tell. There was limited space between the panel table and the audience, but Raeanne was able to show us how to start a sword fight at a Japanese tea party. I demonstrated a few things, like the way a European-type sword wants to move around its own centre of balance, and how it’s not actually possible to draw a sword that’s sheathed on your back if the sword is longer than your arm.
All in all, I think the panel was successful. I would really have liked to be able to get a bit beyond the surface of the subject, but with one hour and four panellists who all practiced slightly different arts, we could only cover so much.
Portraying the Past
Later on Saturday, I was on a panel with Evan May, Cenk Gökçe, S.M. Carrière and Jean-Louis Trudel, discussing the relationship between history and SF. The conversation ranged pretty widely. Among other things, we talked about the way that history looks very different from different people’s perspectives. Cenk had been to Italy this summer, and remarked on how the heroes and villains of the Renaissance change dramatically depending on which city is presenting its civic history.
We also touched on the controversy over Wilfrid Laurier University’s decision to erect statues of all the Canadian prime ministers on its campus. In my opinion, representing Canadian history with series of prime ministerial statues is kind of like representing fantasy fiction with statues of an elf, a dwarf and a human thief on a quest to depose the evil overlord. Yes, they are fantasy-themed statues, and yes, there are lots of books like that, but—really? Is there anyone who wasn’t aware of that hoary old trope by now? Is that the best we can come up with?
We discussed the role of women in historical SF and how to negotiate the paradox of not wanting to whitewash historical oppression but also wanting to have female characters that twenty-first century readers can identify with. One writer who has managed to pull this off is Jo Walton. Her Small Change trilogy is set in England in an alternate 1948, where Britain made peace with the Germans in 1941, the entire Continent is controlled by the Third Reich, and the UK is slowly sliding into fascism. In each of the three novels, one of the two point of view characters is female. Women in this world have very limited power, but they do have agency. They don’t get to make the decisions about how their world or their homes work, but they do get to decide how they will move in that world, and their decisions are critical to the plot.
We also talked about a bias that’s characteristic twenty-first century fantasy writers. I call it historical fundamentalism: the idea that if something didn’t happen in real history, it doesn’t belong in fantasy novels. Thinking back to the earlier sword panel and our discussion on the real life cutting capabilities of a sword, I recalled that medieval writers of fantasy didn’t care if their sword fights were unrealistic. The Song of Roland is full of examples. At one point, a hero’s single blow cuts through his enemy’s helmet, slices through his head, cleaves his body lengthwise, splits his saddle and kills his horse. The authors of the chansons de geste knew very well that such a cut is physically impossible, because they moved in aristocratic circles and talked to men at arms all the time. It didn’t matter. They were writing epic and the knights in their audiences appreciated it as such.
Transport and Armament in the Ancient and Medieval World
This panel on Sunday was also with Jean-Louis, Evan and S.M., and also covered broad territory. Jean-Louis turns out to have done graduate studies on medieval and renaissance siege engines under Professor Bert Hall, who is a key authority on the subject. Very cool!
On the subject of armament, someone in the audience wanted to know which fantasy authors portrayed it best. I immediately thought of Miles Cameron, whose book The Red Knight describes late medieval arms and armour in loving, lavish detail—sort of like the way Tom Clancy describes modern military hardware.
Another topic that came up was lodging for travellers. Commercial inns didn’t really develop in Europe until the high Middle Ages, starting in the eleventh century in northern Italy and gradually spreading through the rest of Europe in the ensuing centuries. Before that point (and indeed right up to the end of the twentieth century in some of the remoter corners of Europe) individual hospitality was the more usual form of accommodation. People took travellers into their homes because foreigners brought news and provided the opportunity to network and possibly discover new opportunities for trade. Monasteries and even church porticos also had places for travellers to stay overnight.
The audience also wanted to know where to find more resources on transport and armament. Evan mentioned the book English Wayfaring Life in the Middle Ages by J.J. Jusserand. That one is still a classic. I also brought up my blog Medieval Worldbuilding Information, where I organize useful links on the subject.
In the end, we realized that we had only discussed European history, although we really could have talked about anywhere else in the world. Maybe next year we should make a point of doing a panel on yaks, llamas, travois, turtle ships, rafts of inflated goat bladders, and other non-European forms of transport you don’t see too often in standard fantasy.
There were many more excellent sessions at Can Con this year. I’m going to save them for my next post, since this one is already becoming quite long.