Apropos of nothing, I found myself thinking about The Iliad today. I've mentioned the work and what it means to me before, but for some reason, one of Homer's central themes just feels a little timely these days.
It's probably nothing.
At any rate, thinking about Achilles, heroes, and epics reminded me of a little thing I wrote some years back. I was taking a few classes on the G.I. Bill at the time, including a Creative Writing elective. It was a good class, but when we got around to the poetry unit, I found it dense and impenetrable.
That's absolutely no fault of the professor. Fact is, I only understand two kinds of poetry: heroic sagas or epics, and bawdy limericks. That did nothing to dissuade my professor from requiring an original poem from me to earn a "complete," of course. So I decided to just blend the two.
Digging it up again, it wasn't as bad as I thought.
So here it is, my first—and likely only—experiment in poetry. If you're familiar with the Pub song 'Ay-yi-yi-yi," you'll probably recognize the meter I used for the refrains.
Either way, hope it brings a chuckle.
The Hero From Limerick: The Ballad of Connor McCann
There once was a tale that was told,
Of a man both courageous and bold!
So sit back and hear,
Of a far away year,
And adventures and dangers of old.
A great serpent, scaly and brown,
Slither’d to Limerick Town.
It had a barbed tail,
As sharp as a nail,
And it screeched with a terrible sound.
By the High Road, it staked out a lair,
And snatched out as quick as a hare
At unlucky trav’lers,
And—especially—maidens, most fair!
But a young man from Limerick
Came up with a gimmick
To save all those lovely young damsels!
His name was Connor McCann.
He had no titles or land.
But strong as a fox,
And smart as an ox,
He was the pride of his clan.
Of his woman, he had grown fatigued.
Her name was Maggie McTeague.
Though club-foot and blind,
And out of her mind,
She was still out of poor Connor’s league.
But if Connor could just slay the beast,
In his honor, there would be a feast!
The grateful young girls,
Would let down their curls,
And give him some options, at least.
Yes, the man with the gimmick,
He set out from Limerick,
To save all the lovely young damsels!
First he took up his great spear.
Of its like, you never did hear!
Sharp was the brass end,
But carved in the ass-end
Was a secret compartment for beer.
And his shield was fashioned so well!
Of its like, you've never heard tell!
On its face was enameled
A scene of great scandal
‘Tween a man and a mademoiselle.
And he dressed in the finest of mail!
Of its like, you've never heard tales!
It included an odd piece:
A hammered steel codpiece
That showed off his manhood to scale.
Yes, the hero from Limerick,
Deck’d out for his gimmick
Would save all the lovely young damsels!
As Connor approached the great brute
His resolve wasn’t quite absolute.
The monster’s foul screeches
Made him wet his breeches
So much that he filled up his boots.
But Connor, he did persevere!
He sloshed forth and brandished his spear!
But the serpent's barbed tail,
It struck without fail.
And Connor was done for, I fear!
Well Connor, he wasn’t quite dead,
But he sighed and hung down his head.
It was time now, he thunk,
To go and get drunk,
And call on Saint Patrick instead.
Yes, the young man from Limerick
Had failed in his gimmick.
To hell with the lovely young damsels.
With Saint Patrick, you know how it goes.
The snakes he forced out in their droves.
And to this very day,
In Erin they say,
You’d sooner find scales on a rose.
So that just leaves Connor McCann.
Whatever became of the man?
Did he settle down
In Limerick Town
And father good sons for his clan?
Well his sweet Maggie, Connor did wed,
But his bloodline was never to spread,
Because his sweet Maggie
Made him wear a baggie
Each night in their marital bed.
The other day, my wife asked me a dead-simple question: "What's your favorite book or story of all time?"
Of course, I couldn't pick just one. But after thinking a while, I did manage to narrow the list down to only three. My favorite story of all time is Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game." If I'm forced to pick something novel length, then it's a toss-up between David Morrell's First Blood and Glendon Swarthout's The Shootist.
What's telling, especially for a guy with "SF/Fantasy Writer" in his bio, is that none of my answers is even tangentially SF or Fantasy.
That's because—as I realized somewhat recently—I don't actually like SF or Fantasy all that much. What I really like is Action/Adventure. I just don't mind if my Action/Adventure has magic or ray guns in it.
That said, I don't want to hammer on my growing disillusionment with SF and Fantasy (even the supposedly "pulpy" classics). What I want to talk about today is something else I realized about my answer, particularly the two novels.
Of my three favorite stories of all time, two are directly related to a pop culture transition that happened in America in the 1980s, one more obvious in retrospect than it was in real-time.
I'm talking about the complete shift from Cowboys to Commandos as our "default" pop cultural heroes.
Backyard Bradleys and Saturday Morning SEALs
Maybe it's tough to remember with the rise of superhero media and the resurgence of Star Wars. But once upon a time, kids in America were obsessed with all things G.I. Joe. Toy shelves were absolutely crammed with Hasbro's pint-sized, plastic commandos and their intricately designed vehicles. The cartoon played on a practically endless loop in syndication, spawning an animated movie. Real life celebrities like Sgt. Slaughter and Joe "the Refrigerator" Perry joined the franchise with figures modeled on their likenesses. Slaughter even voiced himself in the cartoon.
And of course, let's not forget the comics. Marvel's G.I.Joe actually ran longer than the toy line did, owing mostly to writer and Vietnam vet Larry Hama's rather sophisticated treatment of the subject. To this day, it's rightly regarded as one of the best tie-in comics ever produced.
G.I. Joe mania was a surprisingly long-lasting and robust trend, driving other toy companies to cash in with their own military-themed figures. Mattel put out GUTS, beefed up, cooler versions of the traditional plastic army men. Galoob made figures based on The A-Team, both in 3.75 and 6-inch scales. Coleco put out toys for Rambo: The Force of Freedom, a kids' cartoon (lol) spun off from one of the most successful R-Rated action franchises in history.
What, you didn't know there was a Rambo cartoon?
Ruby-Spears' Rambo was clearly an attempt to cash in on the success of G.I. Joe. Aimed at the same audience (and with the same goal of selling toys), it featured a similar set-up and premise: an elite, secret counter-terror organization, called on to fight a group of evil militants with a catchy name (S.A.V.A.G.E. instead of Cobra).
Needless to say, this pop-cultural saturation colored the actual-cultural landscape.
There was barely a TV in my old neighborhood that wasn't tuned in to the Joes or Rambo on any given afternoon. Our connected back yards were turned into one massive, constantly-evolving plastic battlefield. Whenever we played in the woods or at the local playground, we invariably fell into some variation of "war" with sticks as guns, pretending to be G.I. Joe characters, A-Team members, or characters from the various action movies we'd caught on cable.
And yes, folks, we saw a LOT of those.
Bottom line, if you were a typical kid in the 80's, there's a good chance the relatively new (but so very old) archetype of the Invincible Super-Commando ruled your imagination.
It was different for my father's generation.
My dad, my uncles, and everyone in their generation grew up with John Wayne, the Lone Ranger, and Hopalong Cassidy. The western gunfighter was the hero of the day, and though "war" was an ever-present game, kids were just as likely to play variations of Cowboys and Indians. There was a pop-cultural mythology to draw from with the Gunfighter, and with public boogeymen like Geronimo and the Dalton Gang.
By contrast, there were few, if any, named soldier-heroes in their fiction. Certainly not characters as towering as the ones found in Westerns. That might be because WWII was still fresh in the public consciousness. Sure, John Wayne played in war movies, notably The Sands of Iwo Jima and The Longest Day. But while his characters were always square-jawed and tough, none were as invincible as his cowboy heroes.
If you think about it, that's only natural. My dad's generation knew men who'd fought at Iwo and Normandy. And while they certainly looked up to and respected these men, seeing them up close—and so soon after the action—reduced them to human scale in the popular imagination. The mythology of the war hadn't had a chance to grow up around them, and it wouldn't for another decade or so. They weren't Brokaw's "Greatest Generation" yet. They were just immediate family, friends, and neighbors.
This extended even to the bonafide heroes of the war.
Never mind that Audie Murphy did more in real life than most fictional commandos ever will. The fact he was still a living, flesh and blood man made him appear less mythical than other folk heroes like Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp.
Ironic, because First Blood author David Morrell has stated in interviews that he partly based his original conception of Rambo on Murphy. The idea of a troubled war veteran at home was one of the pieces that took hold of his imagination, and inspired him write one of the greatest thriller novels of all time.
From Printed Page to Silver Screen
Note: this section contains mild spoilers for the books and films discussed.
First Blood was published in 1972, and introduced the world to Rambo. If you're familiar with the 1982 film of the same name, then you're familiar with the plot. Drifting Vietnam vet and Green Beret Rambo is hassled and hustled out of town by a local sheriff. He bristles at this treatment, and begins pushing back, until it escalates into an explosive moment of violence at the jailhouse. Escaping into the woods, Rambo must evade the largest manhunt in state history, led by the same sheriff.
Much like Tarzan and Conan the Barbarian, if you're only familiar with the Hollywood treatment of the character, then you don't really know him. The novel's Rambo is much more of a sympathetic villain than a hero, and the movie's villain, Sheriff Teasle, is far more heroic and admirable in Morrell's book.
Naturally, the Stallone film made significant changes. The script turned a morally complex struggle into a more straightforward story of an underdog being harassed by the authorities. The movie's body count is much lower (just one, and it's an accident; a fact most people forget in the wake of the uber-violent sequels).
The biggest change, of course, is that Rambo survives the movie's climax, whereas Morrell's book gives him a tragically fitting end.
Along with Kurt Russell's performance as Snake Plissken in 1981's Escape from New York, Stallone's version of Rambo helped usher in the 80's era of Action Movies. While both Escape and First Blood are somewhat sedate, cerebral films, the decade's box office would come to be dominated by an archetype that blended Russell's rough, cool, demeanor and Stallone's raw physicality.
The Action Movie tough guy, typified by Stallone's performance in the First Blood sequels, Schwarzenegger's Commando, and anything starring Chuck Norris, was usually a military or ex-military badass.
Whereas traditional, John Wayne-type war movies emphasized the camaraderie of the platoon, the Action Movie commando was usually alone, fighting hordes of disposable enemies with nothing but his rippling muscles, a machine gun, and maybe a little karate. If he was lucky, he had a team, but they usually didn't survive through the third act, necessitating the Action Hero squaring off against the villain mano-a-mano (or tank to helicopter, in the case of Rambo III).
The Shootist was published in 1975, and it deals with the death of the last great gunfighter of the American West, J. B. Brooks.
In the novel's opening, we learn that Brooks, a larger-than-life figure in his youth, and a man who always lived life on his own terms, is dying of prostate cancer. He decides he doesn't want to go out in bed, wracked with pain and too feeble to stand. So he looks for an opportunity to die the way he lived: on his feet, facing life head-on, with his guns in hand. In the process, he befriends a middle-aged boarding house proprietor named Bond Rogers, and her young son Gillom.
It's a deeply moving story, one dealing with themes of modernization, violence, and facing death with dignity. It's as much about the death of the West itself as it is about the death of Brooks.
The Shootist was made into a movie in 1976, the last to star legendary actor John Wayne. Criminally underrated, and sticking close to the source material, the film was a fitting swan song to Wayne's career, one he spent playing the type of characters J. B. Brooks used to be before sickness and old age caught up to him.
In addition an aging Wayne, the film features performances by classic Western film stalwarts like Jimmy Stewart, John Carradine, and Harry Morgan. The movie also opens with a montage of scenes from Wayne's earlier Westerns, under Gillom Rogers' narration describing J.B. Brooks' life and career.
Simply put, this film—arguably even more than the novel—unfolds as if it knows it's saying goodbye to an era of mythic storytelling, one that dominated the American psyche since the age of the dime novel. Like Brooks himself, it's trying to be the last of the "heroic" Westerns, going out on its feet, on its own terms, with guns in hand.
From Six Shooters to Uzis
Looking back, you can't readily blame the influence of blockbuster action films for trickling down to inspire G.I. Joe. The "classic" G.I. Joe toy line debuted in 1982, the same year as First Blood's cinematic adaptation, and the 80's Action Movie as a defined genre wouldn't really get going for another couple of years. Direct inspiration simply wouldn't have been possible.
Rather, there was just something in the social zeitgeist of the time. The Miracle on Ice gave everyone a proxy for victory in the Cold War. Reagan was in the process of re-building our military, creating a budgetary arms race that eventually spent the Russians into submission. The economy was good. Americans felt good about being Americans again.
It was this overall zeitgeist that fueled the creation of both the 80's G.I. Joe line, and the 80's Action Hero.
It's hardly surprising. If the "Tough Cop who Doesn't Play by the Rules" is the hero we can associate most with the 70's (via Dirty Harry), then it's easy to see why America was eager for a change. There's a gritty, grimy realism to those old 70's cop thrillers. And while the "Rogue Cop" archetype may be good for audience catharsis, he also serves as a stark reminder of an overall corrupt and lethargic system. After all, Dirty Harry was at least partly a response to public anxiety about the police being unable to catch the Zodiac Killer.
The 80's Action hero, with all the flash and boom of special effects behind him, is another animal entirely. Even when he's nominally a cop (or, as in the case of Mel Gibson's Martin Riggs, a commando turned cop), the Action Movie hero took on the bad guys with guns, explosions, and a macho swagger his nihilistic 70's counterparts couldn't match.
These weren't stories of lone men doing the right thing against an uncaring system. They were stories of men at war against the Bad Guys.
And they were winning.
That said, the mano-a-mano fight at the end of a typical 80's Action Movie has far more in common with the classic Western's high noon showdown than it does anything in a traditional war movie.
Whereas classic war movies give us stories of valor in the face of uncertainty, the 80's Action Movie gives us stories of strength and courage against easily identifiable villains. Faceless Japanese soldiers aren't enough here. The evil Russian officers in Rambo III and the corrupt ex-soldiers in Commando are Black Hats, just as surely as the outlaw Liberty Valence was. The audience jeers at them the same way a wrestling crowd jeers at a heel, and they're paying good money to see them shot down in the climax.
The 80's Action Hero is, in effect, an updated gunslinger, transported from the dusty streets of Dodge City to the jungles of the South America, the deserts of the Middle East, or the high-rises of Los Angeles.
In a way, Regan was the most fitting President we could have had at the time. In a decade where an updated gunslinger dominated our pop culture, who better to serve as leader of the free world than a former Western movie star?
Riding off into that Saigon Sunset: Commandos to Capes
The disillusionment of Vietnam is arguably what killed the "heroic" Western. The movie most often given credit for ending the genre is Pekinpah's The Wild Bunch, with its gritty, graphic violence. Pekinpah himself wanted the climactic massacre to feel more like a firefight on a hot LZ than a showdown, and few would argue that he missed the mark.
Westerns after The Wild Bunch just weren't the same. Any filmmaker trying make a Western had to rely on grit, deconstruction, and revisionism to be taken seriously. From 1969 on, the bright, hopeful Western was largely a thing of the past.
Similarly, the Post 9/11 era killed the Cinematic Super Commando. While "straight" Action Movies had already declined somewhat in popularity by the late 1990's, the fall of the Twin Towers and the wars in the Middle East made it impossible to take a John Rambo or a John Matrix seriously anymore.
After all, it's hard to buy into Invincible Super-Soldiers mowing down waves of terrorists when simple, roadside bombs are sending planeloads of real soldiers home in flag-draped coffins. The IED and the insurgent have reduced the larger-than-life, cinematic Super-Soldier to human scale. With the war in Afghanistan entering its 20th year this fall, it's doubtful the old archetype will return to popular consciousness any time soon.
If the Cowboy Gunslinger was my dad's generational hero, and the Invincible Super-Commando was mine, then the current one is undoubtedly the Comic Book Superhero. He provides the same kind of escapism that Westerns and Action Movies used to, complete with the easily identifiable Black Hats and the mano-a-mano showdown.
Time has marched on, and our default heroes have traded in their Uzis and camo for superpowers and spandex, just as surely as they traded in their six-shooters.
Which brings me, in a roundabout way, back to that question my wife asked me a few days ago, and my answer.
I find it fascinating that two of my all-time favorite books are a Western about the death of the last Gunslinger, and a thriller about the first modern Super-Commando (even if he is arguably the bad guy). I didn't read either of them until later in life, well after I'd already been immersed in the existing archetypes of both genres.
When I first read Morrell's book as a teen, I was shocked by its departure from what I—and everyone else in my generation—thought the Rambo character was. The Shootist I only read last year. Like Morrell's book, it's grittier than the film it spawned, refusing to flinch from the ugliness and the regrets carried by a man who has outlived the bad times. It takes the mythical Gunslinger typified by Jack Schaefer's Shane, and reduces him to human scale.
Two books. One that explores the passing of the archetypal hero from my dad's generation. The other, inadvertently, giving birth to the archetypal hero for mine.
I suppose it just means I'm a product of my generation, in one way or another. And that while each generation will have its larger-than-life heroes, sometimes the most memorable stories are the ones that take those titans, and simply examine them as men.
I ended up talking about Westerns with some buddies of mine the other day. More specifically, we spent a great deal of time talking about Jack Schaefer's classic novel Shane, and the 1953 film of the same name.
If you've never read it or seen it, I highly encourage you to do so. It's a story that deals with themes of courage, manhood, the morality of killing, and the struggle against an untamed wilderness.
It's not just a classic tale of the American West. It's arguably the classic tale of the American West.
In fact, scholar and critic Will Wright made that same point in his landmark survey of the Western film, Six Guns and Society. Wright argued there were four basic plots to the Western: the Classical Plot, the Revenge Plot, the Transitional Plot, and the Professional Plot, each one differentiated by how "society" (usually represented by the frontier town) deals with the presence of the gunfighter.
And while he admits that Shane isn't the first story to use the Classical Plot, he convincingly argues that it's the definitive example of one. Simply put, Shane is nearly the Platonic ideal of everything the Classical Western should be.
Which is why it should definitely go on your viewing/reading list if you're planning a Dungeons and Dragons game.
Yes, I'm serious. Fact is, Westerns make up a big part of the missing DNA of D&D, at least the way most people play it today.
And sure, plenty of folks fancy themselves "Old School" players. Maybe they've even read a good chunk of Gary Gygax's Appendix N for inspiration. They can quote Vance's The Dying Earth chapter and verse. They've ripped off Leiber's Nehwon as a ready-made campaign world. They've even turned the people and places from Leigh Brackett's Mars stories into weird, exotic locales.
That's fine. But they should be probably be turning to Leigh Brackett's Rio Bravo, instead.
The missing bit of DNA I'm talking about is the Domain Game, the higher-level game where player characters clear a chunk of wilderness, build a fortress or tower, and set about running a a safe-haven against the forces of Chaos running rampant in the world.
Rules for that state of play were clearly baked into the oldest editions of D&D, with the ability to build castles and attract followers being treated as a level perk for 9th level and above in AD&D. OD&D didn't even have a rule stating the characters needed to be a certain level to begin. All they needed was a pile of gold, a plan, and ambition.
Of course, this state of play heavily implies a world with vast sections of untamed wilderness in need of settling, with all the attendant problems that creates: steady supplies, a struggle against nature, and keeping law & order against the violent hooligans.
In other words, it's implying a setting with the exact same problems, factions, and conflicts you'd find in any story set in the American West.
This is no accident.
Even a casual glance at Appendix N—or at the recommended reading lists in B/X and OD&D—reveals a heavy presence of Golden Age writers inspired by the Great Westward Expansion. That whole setting and era was very much a part of our American Myth at the time, and it was only natural to see parts of that Myth play out on the sands of Barsoom or the primeval forests of the Hyborean Age.
Of course, most modern players don't take their inspiration from American pulp writers like Burroughs and Howard. They follow the school of fantasy descended from Tolkien: extensive world-building, in minute detail, with plenty of lore about the cultures, races, and regions found on the map.
What they're missing is that in its earliest incarnations, D&D was a game about filling in that map. It was about adventurers exploring a hostile land, looking for gold, and eventually carving out a tiny slice of civilization there.
That's a Western, folks. No matter how many Tharks, Picts, or Orcs you try to cover it with.
If you want to create a truly unforgettable game for your players, don't bother trying to create a vibrant, overstuffed campaign world for them to explore. Give them an empty map on the edge of the world, a hostile wilderness full of ancient ruins and unimaginable treasures... but only for the daring.
Give them the opportunity to expand it.
And if you have no idea how you'd even run a game like that, I suggest you put down the SFF reading for a couple of weeks. Sit in for a movie-marathon of classic Westerns. Grab a stack of pulp Western paperbacks while you're at it.
Either way, I'd suggest starting with Shane.
Last week's post on Mishima and his sword-meditations reminded me of this question, which popped across my Twitter feed about a month ago.
There were plenty of answers offered, most of which dealt with things like speculative tech and world-building.
My own answer is a little more pragmatic: because real life can occasionally justify them. Combat isn't a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, and "gun" doesn't automatically beat "knife" (or "sword," in this hypothetical case). In a deadly encounter, there are plenty of factors that can skew the odds in favor of the guy with the blade.
One is distance. Or rather, lack of distance.
Studies have shown that at ranges under 21 feet, unless a defender has his gun already in hand, it's incredibly unlikely he's getting a shot off at a committed, knife-wielding attacker. This basic principle is behind the "21 Foot Rule," which has played a major part in both Law Enforcement and Defensive Firearms training for decades. This short excerpt from the police training film, Surviving Edged Weapons, gives an excellent crash course and overview. I also recommend tracking down and watching the entire film. It's an hour and a half well-spent for students of the subject.
Just to underscore the point, long before I ever saw Surviving Edged Weapons, an old cop in my hometown told he'd rather face a gun than a knife at arm's length. His reasoning was that with the gun, all you had to do was control the direction of the muzzle. The gun, he said, is only dangerous from one angle. But the knife—especially one in the hands of a violently struggling suspect—can come at you from any angle. And it's deadly from all of them.
Bottom line, combat is a messy, chaotic affair. Even in the age of firearms, it can end up at the eye-gouging, hair-pulling, throat-ripping range. Once there, a blade can be a more ideal weapon than a gun.
Don't believe me? Just ask the US troops who were hacked down after emptying their revolvers into barong-armed Moros in the Philippines. Ask the 40 bandits who tried to fight the lone Gurkha on a train a few years back. Or ask the men who tried to shoot and kill Jim Bowie during the famous Sandbar Fight.
And sure, those incidents are rare* and extraordinary exceptions in a world where the gun usually dominates. But remember, we're talking about fiction, and justifications for bladed weapons in a Science Fictional setting.
Rare and extraordinary exceptions are what those kinds stories—what stories in general—are about.
Nobody remembers Shane because he was the most average gunfighter in the West. Nobody still reads Conan of Cimmeria because he made himself a Local Alderman by his own hand. And we certainly don't thrill to stories of John Carter of Mars more than one hundred years later because Burroughs made him the most adequate swordsman on two worlds.
We love them because they're the best of the best. The one in a million.
Sure, your fictional universe may have tech that makes a melee fight unlikely. But real-world tech doesn't work 100% of the time, and combat is always going to be a brutal and chaotic affair as long as humans are involved in it.
So go ahead and keep your swords and knives. I can promise you, the fighting men of the future certainly will.
* The Moro incidents actually weren't rare at all. Thanks to repeated battlefield reports of poor stopping power, the US stopped issuing the .38 Long Colt M1892 revolvers, and replaced them with a heavier .45. Once they did, incidents of the amok tribesmen reaching US lines with their fanatical charges began to drop off.
For about a year now, I've been studying Kali/Arnis, the Filipino art of stick and blade fighting. I had some brief exposure to it a bunch of years ago, thanks to my travels in the Marine Corps and some guest instructors in my hometown dojo, but this is the first time I've ever been able to really study the art in depth. It's been a wonderful experience, and I am more than grateful for my instructors and their dedication.
I've also been slowly rehabbing my injured knees, both of which were abused hard in the military. Success is coming by inches, but it's coming. Whereas nine months ago I couldn't even do one squat with no additional weight, through long hours of careful rehab, I've worked my way up to doing two sets of 20 squats with a light resistance band on the weight bar.
It's a slow improvement, but a dramatic one.
The bottom line is I'm at the age where I have to start taking my my own fitness a lot more seriously. I can't rely on youth and good genetics to keep me healthy anymore. That means working out much more regularly—and with much more careful focus—than I ever used to.
To that end, I recently read Sun and Steel by Japanese author Yukio Mishima.
Something of an infamous figure, Mishima was a hard-right Japanese nationalist who orchestrated an unarmed takeover of a Japanese Self Defense Forces facility back in the 1970s. His stated goal was to inspire the soldiers to rise up and overthrow the Prime Minister, and install the Emperor as the new and rightful ruler of Japan. Failing in his ultimate goal, Mishima committed ritual Seppuku the old fashioned way, with a knife straight to the guts.
Sun and Steel is Mishima's meditation on weightlifting, martial arts, and physical culture. Fans of the book describe it as Mishima's odyssey in search of new and more extreme experiences. And while while the book is justifiably famous in certain weightlifting and bodybuilding circles for its inside look into an iron-willed mindset, it's Mishima's thoughts on the martial arts—the sword arts in particular—that have stayed with me.
Some of the book's most striking passages talk about seeking the deeper, truer reality beyond the flash of the fist, or beyond the the tip of the sword. But he's not just rehashing the idea of the Void or the Nothingness from Miyomoto Musashi.
Quoting Mishima: "There, above all, lay the essence of action and of power. That reality, in popular parlance, was referred to quite simply as the opponent."
The empty space beyond the sword isn't a Void. According to Mishima, it's alive, vital, and powerful.
I've been thinking an awful lot about that quote since I first read it. I've been pondering what Mishima really means here, and how it links to the rest of the book as a whole. And after a few hard sparring sessions—including one with training knives that left me sore for about four days—I think I've finally got it.
Human beings have deeply buried instincts, survivals of older memories from our ancestors. How do you know to be afraid of a bear or a lion the first time you ever seen one? How do you know what it's after—what it's even capable of—as it's stalking towards you? How do you know to fight of flee rather than offer it a hug?
Answer: you automatically know the big predator is going to eat you because in the distant past, big predators tried to eat your ancestors. Fear of them became an ingrained survival trait.
Taking the idea a step further:
Every single person alive today is only here because some ancestor of theirs won a fight over a watering hole or a piece of food. I don't care how peaceful you are personally. Someone in your family tree caved in the skull of another human being with a rock and took their stuff. Or ripped open their guts with a flint knife and squatted on their territory.
More likely, it was several someones.
Just like every human has a deeply-buried instinct telling him to fear a predator, every human has a deeply-buried instinct urging them to fight, conquer, and kill for survival.
Blade and stick arts—perhaps more than any other martial arts—drive us back into contact with that primal mindset. Practicing overhand blows to the head with a stick, or practicing straight thrusts to the stomach with a knife while your opponent tries his damndest to stop you... There's something about it that drops you into a mentality stretching back to the dawn of time.
That extreme reality beyond the tip of the sword, that level of vital experience Mishima kept chasing with his hours of dedicated practice? What he was chasing was a connection with the primal reality of our distant past.
What Mishima was looking for wasn't a new experience. He was looking for an old experience. One of the very oldest possible.
It's a shame he didn't find it until the very end.
Sun and Steel is published by Medina University Press. Copies are available from Rogue Scholar Books.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.