In this update I would like to share an article that Chad Eisner and I originally published on theKung Fu Tai Chi magazine webpage. I was quite happy with the way the essay and accompanying photographs turned out, and I believe that this meditation has something to offer traditional martial artists and Star Wars fans alike. Chad and I would like to thank Gene Ching, the Publisher of Kung Fu Tai Chi, for his support and willingness to expand the scope of our exploration of the martial arts.
On a more personal note I also owe Gene thanks as this essay accomplishes a longstanding goal. I vividly remember rushing to the local convience stores as a middle school student in the 1980s, eager to buy the latest editions of whatever martial arts magazines I could find on the news stands. As we noted in our recent roundtable, the publishing industry has changed a lot since then. For better or worse those periodicals transported me, if only for a few hours, out of my small town and into a larger world. Publishing books with academic presses and placing articles in scholarly journals has been great. But if I am honest I have to admit that it is thrilling to see my name in a publication that both has a wider reach, and one with an ability to transport me back to a time when the martial arts were still a beckoning undiscovered country.
LIGHTSABER COMBAT AND THE VALUE OF MYTH IN THE MARTIAL ARTS
by Dr. Benjamin Judkins and Chad Eisner
Martial artists love their myths, and so do Star Wars fans. After completing a major study of the Southern Chinese martial arts, I recently found myself thinking about the functions that myths, legends and stories play in our experience of the martial arts. Many Kung Fu students in the West are well-versed in the legend of the burning of the Shaolin Temple. But how does a narrative such as this really contribute to our practice of the martial arts? And how do these stories sometimes inspire individuals to do incredible things?
For better or worse, most Kung Fu students seem to accept the historical legends that surround their practice at face value. Practitioners of lightsaber combat have no such luxury. They are acutely aware that their favored weapons do not (and cannot) exist. So how does one’s experience of a martial art change when everyone accepts that the founding stories really are myths? And what can we learn about the martial arts in general by examining the creation of a newly emerging discipline? These are a few of the questions that have driven my research with the lightsaber combat community.
In other articles and book chapters I have dealt with the question of whether (and how) lightsaber combat might be considered a martial art in a purely academic sense. Rather than rehashing that here, I would like to delve a little deeper into the creation of these systems, and what this suggests about the martial arts. The first point may seem obvious, but it is so often overlooked in these discussions that it bears repeating. While we often talk about “martial arts” as a singular social phenomenon, in fact this category encompasses many different practices with distinct (and sometimes contradictory) goals.
This same diversification can be seen within the emerging lightsaber combat community. Some groups have attempted to create a Star Wars based analogue of traditional martial arts schools (including the Terra Prime Light Armory and Silver Sabers). Others have focused on the creation of fast-paced combat sports (the Saber Legion and Ludo Sport are two examples). A wide variety of other organizations, including such pioneers of the movement as NY Jedi (now known as the Rogue Alliance), instead focus on charity work and choreographed public exhibitions. But why turn to the Star Wars mythos to create something akin to a traditional martial art? Why not go mythos free? We often forget that many of the traditional arts that are most commonly practiced today date only to the end of the 19th or early 20th centuries, largely qualifying as “invented traditions.” It was the growing engagement with the global economic system and increased nationalism in the face of Western imperialism that inspired reformers in Japan and China to radically reformulate local fighting traditions in attempts to solve what were then very modern social and political problems. The traditional Asian martial arts did not emerge in a vacuum. Likewise, pioneers in the field of lightsaber combat have pointed to the emergence of not just a rejuvenated film franchise, but also a new set of needs, in the creation of their systems. Multiple individuals have noted that by the early 2000s a wide variety of weapons-based training systems were becoming popular. Yet each of these styles remained inured within its national, ideological or disciplinary boundaries. There were not many opportunities for cross training or inter-disciplinary research. Chad Eisner, the creator of the Terra Prime Light Armory, noted:
“When Matt and I started TPLA, it had grown out of our desire to be able to spar with weapons across disciplines. He was in HEMA and I was in Chinese martial arts. We discovered the lightsaber and found it to be the perfect analog to allow people of different backgrounds to set aside styles and focus on the practical, fun, and historical weapon arts we all love. It allowed us to interact with people from vastly different backgrounds and arts. And that was always the goal. I have been heavily influenced by Republican-era Chinese martial arts movements like Jingwu and the Guoshu Institute. The idea was to bring together many different arts to share knowledge and technique, creating a shared curriculum, and using martial practice as a means to better fitness and health. These very important aspects of the Republican period organizations are things that were imparted to me by my study of Yang Taijiquan and Ma Family Tong Bei Fanziquan.”
Two students at the Michigan headquarters of the TPLA engaged in a drill. This quote suggests something interesting about just how pervasive the historical influences of the early 20th century reforms within the Chinese martial arts have been. Still the question remains, why is lightsaber combat continuing to grow well into its second decade? And how might the decision to embrace Star Wars’ mythology of Force-wielding Jedi and Sith warrior monks contribute to this success?
At the most basic level a good story can be entertaining and inspiring. Most of us begin our martial arts training because we want to be part of something and improve ourselves. Myths speak to these basic impulses, and play a critical role in the organization of new communities. In the creation of lightsaber combat, the Star Wars mythos provided a rationale for engaging with, and combining, large numbers of diverse real world martial arts techniques. Eisner states:
“When I began my preliminary research on the ideas and lightsaber terminology that was already out there, I came upon the Expanded Universe concept of the “Seven Forms.” They were essentially plot devices used to transmit character traits in a novel way within a story or video game. As such they were fairly crude, simple, and often diverged from reality considerably (as one would expect). To bring them all together into a workable whole, or at least a unified framework, I relied on my Chinese weapon training, taking exercises and forms from Wudang jian, Shaolin dao, and several other styles that would form a firm technical base for many of the ideas and images being communicated through the films and other Star Wars stories.”
Japanese Kendo, European Fencing and the Filipino Martial Arts all ended up making their own contributions as well. The intellectual and physical challenge of synthesizing existing real world material into a new system seems to have been a major motivation behind the creation of various approaches to lightsaber combat. Such lofty goals notwithstanding, many students continue to be drawn to these classes simply because they look fun. Nor are they mistaken. That is important as what social scientists call “creative play” is a vital mechanism by which individuals familiarize themselves with, and then master, new skills. Whereas many traditional martial arts classes go out of their way to emphasize their dedication to core social ideals (whether they come in the form of discipline, nationalism, or old fashioned “hard work”), lightsaber classes, unsurprisingly, tend to be less rigid. This is often a space where individuals who are already martial artists come to “have fun” with friends from different styles. Still, in lightsaber combat as in life, there is no progress without discipline, practice and some amount of “hard work.” Nor are the basic skills of the styles any less complex because they are performed while holding a replica lightsaber rather than a replica dao. As with any martial art, daily practice remains the key to mastery. This is where the mythos of the Jedi (and Sith) once again enters our story. These symbols and stories provide the necessary inspiration for individuals to dedicate themselves to a demanding discipline, while continuing to engage in the sort of imaginative play that is often missing from modern life. In describing this process Eisner notes:
“Star Wars as envisioned by Lucas was a way to bring Joseph Campbell’s myth making ideas to the masses. The commercial success of Star Wars shows that we, as people, need stories to help us find meaning in things we do. The background lightsaber material we use contains a strong, internally consistent, mythological discourse. While this tends to be seen as completely superfluous in “historically grounded” martial arts, it becomes an important factor if someone is going to suspend their disbelief in a new practice. By self-consciously creating arts that can exist entirely in a fictional world, the practitioner can more completely immerse themselves in their practice without distraction.
“When people are immersed, they tend to practice longer often without realizing it. We all need to play. Even in traditional martial arts and sports, we play at combat. We are not really trying to hurt each other. But being able to feel like this is real, even when it is not, is a powerful feeling. It inspires us to keep going. And that depends on not only a history, but a mythology that our personal experiences can be measured against. Even if it is not real.”
At its best mythology does not trap us within a set of misconceptions about the past, but it reminds us of what we aspire to be. We tell stories about the burning of the Shaolin Temple not because we actually have an obligation to pass along to our students an inherited grudge against China’s Manchu ethnic minority. Rather, we continue to tell the story because it inspires us to persevere in our training even in the face of isolation and adversity. That lesson is just as critical for traditional martial artists today as it has ever been in the past. The transformative power of myth lies in its ability to inspire empathy, individual effort and the creation of communities. The success of lightsaber combat, in its many incarnations, reminds us of this. It is no wonder that so many martial artists today are drawing inspiration not just from the burning of Shaolin, but the destruction of the Jedi Temple as well. Myths do work, and sometimes what we all need is a good story.
This is the first in a series of guest posts by my friends Craig Page regarding the Seven Forms of Lightsaber Combat. Their history, their philosophy, and their real world analogues. This is meant to be a guide to help those researching and developing those Forms.This essay originally appeared on his blog The Snark Side of the Force, enjoy!
The lightsaber was the traditional weapon of the Jedi for millenia. Now, while things like culture and technology in the Star Wars Universe progressed at the pace of a listless snail, how to use a lightsaber was not one of them. For thousands of years, Jedi and Sith studied the mechanical, tactical, and philosophical underpinnings of their signature weapons. From those studies came several distinctive styles of lightsaber martial arts. They are often referred to as the Seven Forms of Lightsaber Combat.
The Seven Forms do not, per se, appear in any of the movies. They first appeared in the article “Fight Saber” in the October 2002 edition of Star Wars Insider, just after the release of Episode II.Written by Dr. David West Reynolds with consultation by fight choreographer Jack Bobo. In it, he talks on the Forms, several terms of reference and gives examples of them throughout the then five movies of the franchise. It gave us, for the first time, a sense of history about these amazing weapons.
It also added for us another means of characterizing the characters we saw on screen and in the other media. You can learn a lot about a characterfrom how they fight. Are they a patient person, dodging and defending while waiting for the perfect strike? Are they calm and patient out of a fight and explosive when needed? Are they vicious? Reserved? Are they the kind to plot out the fight before ever throwing a punch, or do they go in guns blazing and let god sort out the limbs? Is someone looking for total victory or just to get out of the fight. The Forms provided a level of depth to the prequel character whom, in my opinion, sorely needed more depth than the movies provided.
Again, contrary to popular belief, the Forms themselves do not appear in the movies. Nick Gillard, head fight choreographer for the prequel movies, has since since gone on record to state that the fights we never constructed with the Forms in mind. The Forms, for a time, existed only in the writings of the Expanded Universe, and in video games. The depictions of each Form varied between whoever was writing the story. Furthermore, aside from some brief mentions in Star Wars: Rebels, the Forms themselves have never been mentioned. This makes their canon-status tenuous at best.
Because of the wildly inconsistent depiction of the Forms, the Star Wars fans who focus themselves on Lightsaber Combat have worked over the years to try to create realistic styles that match their descriptions as best as possible. Through these saber groups, people learn and develop these Forms, and come to their own understanding of the lightsaber.
And so, of course, came the rise of people trying to create the forms in real life. Some develop variations for performance purposes, like a kata at a martial arts exhibition. Other people develop their variations of the Forms as a means of physical characterization on the stage. Other creative folk develop theirs in the sincere hope of making these fictional martial arts real.
The first confirmed creation is, without question, the most universally recognized of the Forms in the community. New York Jedi’s version of Form I was developed by Damon Honeycutt, also known by his Jedi stage name of General Sun. He used his own experiences in martial arts and translated them to the rather basic yet extraordinary features of the lightsaber. That specific Form is taught to all members of the group, and thanks to the internet is widely studied by many across the world.
Since then, there have been many attempts to not only translate the Forms, but to replicate the success of Damon’s take on Form I. Many have based their interpretations on the Forms using a mix of their own martial arts, what they’ve read in their research, and the media that claims to use them (i.e.; the video games). This has lead to varying degrees of success over the years.
One of the things that stands in the way of development is the descriptions of the Forms. They are vast, with broad definitions and very little grounded sense of martial arts. They are, not unlike the Star Wars movies themselves, deeply rooted in Jungian Archetypes. They were never meant to be one specific martial art, like some that had been presented before in writing, they were meant to be what those symbolized. This makes the representation of the Forms highly subjective and victim to the experiences and biases of whomever is looking at it. Someone with Wing Chun experience will look at a Form and immediately see Wing Chun, or a fencer will look at a Form and immediately assume it applies to what they have studied. They’re Rorschach tests, broad strokes with the mind completing the picture.
Attached to this is the disparity with which the Forms are presented. By this I often mean the video games, which somehow manage to give them the most description while also giving the least visual representation. You know, mechanically, what they do, but there is no visual component because of the graphical limitations. There is also the question of game balance, and trying to fit the descriptions of the Forms in to something that can work for the game. In short, it becomes a mess without any uniform consistency.
The other problem that occurs is that these Forms come with their own disadvantages spelled out. Where most martial arts tend to have certain deficiencies–like one relying on opponent’s initiative, or focusing too much on close range attacks to name a few–evolve over the generations of translation, the Forms are spelled out clearly, When developing these Forms, people tend to ignore those characteristics. While it seems counter-intuitive to include an inherent fault, it is my belief that as one of the key defining traits of the Form it should be taken into consideration.
While Wookiepedia does a wonderful job in compiling the information from a dozen different sources, it doesn’t do much good in painting a coherent picture. For practical purposes, those wishing to study the Forms and the lightsaber need a guide in their research. This is the goal of this book, to provide a guide for development of the Forms and Lightsaber Combat for the purpose of martial or theatrical exercises.
To conclude. The Forms represent ways of thinking, ways of being. They are as much philosophy as they are tactics. They can be useful tools of combat, and useful tools in narrative. Balancing those is up to the goal of the person studying them. There will always be multiple interpretations of them, and each has their place. The goal is to keep to the spirit of the Form, and that is what I wish to draw out for us in these posts.
The Seven Forms Are:
I: Shii Cho, the Determination Form. Also known as the Way of the Sarlacc II: Makashi, the Contention Form. Also known as the Way of the Ysalimiri III: Soresu, the Resilience Form. Also known as the Way of the Mynock IV: Ataru, the Aggression Form. Also known as the Way of the HawkBat V: Shien and Djem So, the Perseverance Form. Also known as the Way of the Krayt VI: Niman, the Moderation Form. Also known as the Way of the Rancor VII: Juyo and Vapaad, the Ferocity Form. Also known as the Way of the Vornskr
The next issue on this series will be focused on items to consider when Developing the Seven Forms for personal or instructional purposes.
***We just received the latest transmission from the Terra Prime Light Armory HQ (Ithaca Sabers is a TPLA school). You can follow them on FB, YouTube and the blog where this was originally posted. But if you haven’t been, here is what you missed in 2019. It was a busy year!***
Greetings and Happy New Year from all of us at TPLA!
It has been a big year here for us and we have been working behind the scenes all over the world. 2019 has been a year of changes, renewals, and challenges. But as we enter 2020, we are invigorated with a sense of purpose and drive.
As a way to mark the year and preview some of what we have in store, Matt, (Vor Nach) and I put together a little review and preview of the big things that are happening. I will put a few of them here as well.
The Return of Vor Nach
The first and foremost event that took place this year is the return of Vor Nach! We neglected to mention this in our review, but Matt had moved to the Island of Dominica about 5 years ago only to be displaced by a hurricane. 2019 saw his triumphant return to the fold of TPLA and wee are pleased to have him back.
Lightsaber in France and the USA
FFE lightsaber in the USA: as many followers of the blog and our videos know, I was in Paris this past October helping train and introduce the French Masters of Arms and a few other participants to the sport of lightsaber. The trip also allowed me and TPLA be to appointed the official representatives of the FFE’s Lightsaber sport here in the USA. What this means is that we will be certifying coaches and refs in the rule set with the goal of having our own tournaments here as well as being able to go to France and compete. We hope to have certification up and running by summer. Please stay tuned!
Symposium 2019: this year our symposium was dedicated to a veteran of the saber community, General Sun, Damon Honeycutt. Damon is the author of the first lightsaber dulon. We brought Damon in to help him finish and publish his Form 5 set for Djem So. We also had the opportunity to bring together some powerful minds in the martial arts studies field with Ben Judkins and Daniel Mroz. Both are authors on the Chinese martial arts in a historical and social sense and a performance sense respectively.
We had some staffing changes this year as well. Some of your founding members have moved on and left some gaps in our council. We took the opportunity to fill those spots with some of our current collaborators. Ben Judkins, Daniel Mroz, Damon Honeycutt, and Jared Miracle have all joined our ranks. They are all professionals and scholars in the field. I am looking forward to the added level of scholarship and knowledge that these folks will bring to our endeavor.
TPLA Opening Its Doors
Up to now, TPLA has been focused on producing training material and knowledge based content for those practicing or wanting to learn the art of lightsaber and one day teach. Our learner in exile program is rigorous and we have been re tooling it a bit to include the different aspects of the art. As such, TPLA will be opening its ranks to more members and schools that want to get involved with us officially. We will be partitioning our training material to reflect, the sport, performance, and learning aspects of sabering and offering levels of involvement that will reflect a persons investment. For casual people we will create more material that they can use in their pursuits. For the sport minded people we will have certifications for coaches and refs. We are working with Damon Honeycutt and Daniel Mroz to formulate a system of performance and choreography, and of course, our instructor training program will be keep going as it has. More news on this in the coming days!
Web site, Apps, and the Future of Training
We will be producing some new material. Our old stuff will remain up but we are going to be making a good effort to fix our web site and get an app ready for training. The French groups have had some luck with their app and we are looking to get one going here in the states. The technology to create good interactive media is now really getting useful so we hope to be making progress on that this year. Due to the cost and technical issues, I cannot give a ETA on this part. We are also working hard on new tech that will help the art. Again, more news as it happens.
Happy New Year
So there we are. Going in to 2020 we have some big dreams. Also remember that we have our other activities and projects going as well. Sword Lab will continue and we hope to get new sparring videos and vlogs up there as well. We will be having more guests on the blog and in the videos and I hope that everyone will be seeing a lot more of us soon!
If you are new to the sport/hobby/art, welcome! It’s a great time for lightsaber arts. We are happy you joined us!
On Friday the 13th Ithaca Sabers hosted an event on the Ithaca Commons as part of the city’s inaugural Winter Lights Festival. That makes perfect sense to me as what could be more festive than a few dozen lightsabers sabers swinging through the air? From 5-8 pm we set up a booth where passersby could learn more about the quickly growing world of Lightsaber Combat and check out the sorts of sabers and safety gear that we use.
Visitors of all ages could also take a free mini-class in which they learned the basic strikes and parries used in our system of fencing. The crowd really got into this and we soon had over a dozen new Younglings going through their paces despite the sporadic drizzle of rain.
The students of Ithaca Sabers also put on a demonstration for the crowd walking them through the basic pillars of the Terra Prime Light Armory (TPLA) system of Lightsaber Combat, and demonstrating some of the basic drills that we use in our classes. Topic covered included the first four forms of Lightsaber Combat, two-personal exchange drills and a bit of exotic weapons work in the form of the saber staff (always a crowd favorite).
The big event of the evening was an invitational lightsaber tournament fought between students of several local lightsaber clubs (Ithaca Sabers, The Gathering of Sabers in Syracuse, Synergistic Martial Arts (also in Syracuse) and the Fingerlakes Ludosport Academy in Elmira). By this point in the evening things had gotten distinctly chilly, but the city provided us with all the free hot chocolate we could want, and there is really no better way to keep warm than three minute rounds of competitive fencing. By about midway through our bracket everyone was glad for the cool breeze.
This tournament was played using the international ruleset designed by the French Fencing Federation (FFE). The FFE grabbed headlines earlier this year when they proclaimed Lightsaber Combat to be an official (government backed and regulated) sport in France, putting it on the same level as more traditional fencing disciplines such as foil, epee and saber. Rather than being a simple “first touch” system, this ruleset attempts to eliminate double hits and encourage more sophisticated exchanges by employing a right-of-way rule and the same sorts of “arming” protocols seen in some European stick fighting traditions. From an educational standpoint these two rules encourage new fencers to use their parries and defensive footwork rather than simply rushing headlong into any opening which they see. Spectators also appreciate the longer volleys and more “cinematographic” nature of these bouts.
Ithaca Sabers is part of the TPLA (Terra Prime Light Armory) network which has partnered with the FFE to offer certifications and training in this rule set in the United State. Anyone interesting in learning more, or getting certified either as a fighter or referee, should watch this space as we will be holding workshops and certification tests in either late January or February of 2020 (weather permitting). Feel free to contact us for more details on either the FFE system or the upcoming certifications.
It was wonderful to have an opportunity to preview this material in a public exhibition and tournament. We cannot say enough about how great it was to work with the festival’s organizers who provided us with both a PA system and the grand prize for the tournament winner (a brand new “mystery box” saber from Ultrasabers). Thanks also go to our students and everyone who came out to support us. Congratulations to Rob Zollinger, who took first place in the tournament. We cannot wait to do it again next year!
***What follows is the next guest post by my good friend Craig Page. You can read the original version of this essay at his now (sadly) dormant blog The Snark Side of the Force. Craig has always been one of my favorite voices in the saber community. Enjoy!***
This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not as clumsy or random as a blaster. An elegant weapon, for a more civilized age. – Obi-Wan Kenobi
The lightsaber is the most popular weapon to never truly exist, with a history that spans both a fictional galaxy and the very real world. In my last post, I spell out the mechanics of a lightsaber. A weightless blade of energy that can cut through nearly all and sundry, but because of that weightlessness made it as much a threat to the user as much as those around it. It was a weapon with the high capacity of destructive potential. When you heard the snap-hiss of a saber turning on, you knew that something was going to be irrevocably changed. People would die, things would be destroyed.
But more importantly, the lightsaber was a symbol. Obi-Wan spells it out for Luke and the audience clearly that the saber was the weapon of the Jedi, a more civil weapon for a more civilized age. Whether that was some nostalgic sugar coating on Kenobi’s part, there was clearly a way and method that Jedi–and arguably the Sith–handled lightsabers and lightsaber combat. More often than not, they weren’t wantonly activating it and using the sabers to solve all their problems. The lightsaber was a last, and often final, decision in ending conflicts.
This concept is not dissimilar from the practice of the samurai, who were a great influence on how the Jedi were developed. They knew that the katana was a dangerous tool of killing, and if they were drawing their swords, they were committing themselves to violence and their honor demanded they see their commitment through. This is why we often hear stories of samurai deflecting trouble by merely grabbing their hilts, or exposing the blade in its sheath an inch or so and then dabbing their thumb on the blade to pay their commitment to drawing blood whenever the blade was exposed. If you’re carrying a tool of death, you needed to take the death you carried seriously and treat it with respect. Otherwise, you stop existing as a warrior and consign yourself to being merely a killer.
This ethical approach to Lightsaber Combat was referred to as “Form Zero”. While not one of the official Seven, it should be considered when studying the Forms as a whole. Form Zero was the ethical practice of looking for ways to resolve a situation without the need to engage in violence. Could this situation be negotiated? Could the Force play some subtle way through this? There are even accounts of just revealing the lightsaber, inactive, as being sufficient to de-escalating a situation. As one character put it, “The Best Blades Are Kept in Their Sheaths.”
Probably the most popular example of this is Bruce Lee’s concept of the “Art of Fighting without Fighting”. In Enter the Dragon, Lee is on a boat headed towards the tournament where most of the story takes place. On the boat, an arrogant martial artist is harassing the sailors, tripping them and making them spill food and supplies. The arrogant martial artist approaches Lee and begins showing off, challenging him.
Lee accepts the challenge…but not on the boat. He suggests they get on a skiff and go to a nearby island. The martial artists accepts, and gets on the skiff first. Lee unties the skiff without getting on and lets the martial artists drift out to sea a bit, before giving the rope to the crewmen the man was harassing earlier. The martial artist only ever appears in an unrelated match against someone else, apparently he got the message. Lee took care of the situation by being clever, he never had to throw a single punch.
A warrior, which is what Lee was and often was cast as, is someone who doesn’t necessarily seek out conflict but commits to it when it presents itself. This is also prevalent in Star Wars. When the Stormtroopers were looking for the droids, could Obi-Wan have just pulled out the saber and handled them then and there? Of course! Instead he played with their senses to confuse them and let them pass. In the cantina when a few outlaws were giving Luke a hard time, Kenobi offers to buy them a drink. He doesn’t pull his saber until one of them pulls out their blaster first.
Luke begins to mirror this in his treatment with Jabba. Luke sends the droids to Jabba to plead for the return of Han Solo. Rebuked, he goes to Jabba himself and negotiates and is again rebuked. Even standing on the plank over the Sarlacc of Carkoon, he offers Jabba to let them go. Live and let live. It isn’t until he jumps that R2 reveals Luke’s saber and the fighting begins. Of course, Luke’s sincerity in the matter is open to question, as it seemed like he was controlling the situation to that moments as well. More on that when we get to Form VII.
It should also be stated that the Sith employed this as well. I know a lot of people paint them as killers with impulse control issues. But look at the facts. They were a millenia old order that has survived in the shadows for nearly as long without the Jedi or anyone else the wiser. We only see them out in the open when they decide to drop the pretenses. Where the Jedi focused on the universal “Us”, The Sith and presumably most Dark Siders worked on the basis of the singular “I”. “I want something, how best can I achieve that goal?”
Yes, you have Vader force-choking officers left and center and the poor technicians of the First Order having to replace equipment that got in the way of Kylo Ren’s tantrums. Then you have people like Dooku and Sidious, who only draw when presented with conflict. Yes, they can kill, but does killing benefit at that moment to achieve their goals? The Sith are not moral as we would understand it, but there is the potential for ethics. Right and wrong do not factor in to it, only how it benefits them. A Sith who could tell the difference was often the more dangerous.
Form Zero represents everything that a lightsaber may be. A tool of violence, a symbol of office. What a lightsaber also represents is control. Only one who has been fully trained in its use can decide when is the right time to wield it. As we’ll see, the Forms all revolve around this theme of control.
So how does this apply to us, as those in the really real world. It is my theory that the members of the saber community want to emulate the Jedi and the Sith in varying degrees. These were warriors of mythic proportions. To understand them is to understand how they approached ending conflict. To do that, we need to understand what their weapons, their symbols and totems of power and authority mean to them. I’ve seen scenes in the fan community (and in some of the movies) where people are fighting for no other reason than the script demanded it. Two people walk on to stage, clearly brandishing lightsaber hilts. For no other reason, they must do battle. That’s not a fight, that’s a porn plot. What is the conflict in this scene, what has brought these people to decide now is the time to snap out their blades and commit themselves to violence? Is this fight worth death?
There’s a rhythm to lightsaber versus lightsaber combat, an unspoken cadence. Watch the scenes in the movies. Rarely do you see any one trying to sneak attack one another unless there is no time for it (the bar scenes in A New Hope and Attack of the Clones). They openly present their arms before they engage. This is the difference between a fight and a duel. I’ll get more in to this pattern when I write about Form II–Makashi, but I suggest watching those fights and see how the combatants are behaving during it.
Finally, let me leave you with this thought. There is currently a community of people who have dedicated themselves to the understanding and teaching of the lightsaber, some of whom are reading this blog post. Some people do it for the entertainment of others, some do it as a martial thought exercise, some do it to tap in to a modern mythology on a personal level. Despite the reason, the lightsaber means a lot to a growing number of people. And while some of us may disagree and form our small groups; cliques; tribes; and blocs in the way only Humanity can do with minimal effort, the lightsaber is our common factor.
Furthermore, while we as members of this community sweat and stress the differences between each group to better identify ourselves, I can assure you that no one on the outside of our community and culture A) notices or B) cares. All they see are geeks and nerds with glowing sticks, which is what we are. I have seen people explain to those on the outside the differences between their groups and have seen eyes glaze over. By their understanding, we are one group and community, and the lightsaber our common token The behavior of one potentially reflects on the behavior of all. We have taken this weapon as our symbol, and all the burdens that it possess. Keep that in mind in your goings in the sabering world.
***Tara and I wrote a short essay for the TPLA blog about our recent workshop with guest instructor Damon Honeycutt. You can find it here, but we are also re-posting the entire thing below. It was a great event and we hope to have Damon back soon!**
Exploring Creativity and Authenticity
By Benjamin N. Judkins and Tara Judkins
Some criticize the Lightsaber Combat community for leading its practitioners away from the “reality” of the sword. Such statements have always struck us as a too sweeping. It is easy to become fixated on the glowing blade and lose sight of the hands that hold it. Simply working with steel wasters does not automatically confer skill on HEMA competitors. And in the hands of a skilled teacher even the most abstract analogs, such as the shinai or the 19thcentury single stick, can become a powerful means of instruction.
Given its connection to powerful images in popular culture, the lightsaber has a knack for animating and motivating students. The weapon routinely attracts people who would never have previously considered studying a martial art. At the same time, it’s simple form empowers experienced fencers to experiment, exchange with one another and playfully reconsider what they know. Yet again, we cannot lose sight of the hands that wield the weapon. While the saber as a mythic object may inspire students to seek out knowledge, it is the instructor who ultimately provides a more sustained type of inspiration.
We recently had an opportunity to observe this principle in action. On Sunday November 24thDamon Honeycutt (also known in the lightsaber community as General Sun) presented a day long workshop titled “The Dao of Lightsaber Combat: Foundations, Practice and Evolution.” Organized by Ithaca Sabers, the event brought together 18 participants from across central New York State for seven hours of meditation on how each one of us could find more meaning, insight and nuance in even the most basic aspects of any fencing system. While most of the people attending the workshop were TPLA students, other individuals brought backgrounds in the Japanese sword arts and 19th century military sabre. Students of all levels of experience from any school were welcome.
A few words of introduction about the instructor may also be in order. We first became aware of Damon Honeycutt’s important contributions to the development of Lightsaber Combat in North America when Benjamin Judkins was researching his first scholarly article on the subject. Damon was an important member of the early group NY Jedi and (in 2006-2007) was one of the first professional martial artists to begin to take an interest in developing lightsaber combat as a distinct discipline. Many individuals will already be aware of the Shii-cho (Form I) which he created for NY Jedi as it has gone on to be practiced by many other schools, including Ithaca Sabers. Having recently returned to the lightsaber community after a brief hiatus, Damon is now a Council Member at the Terra Prime Light Armory (TPLA), where he has been developing a new interpretation of Form V based on the pioneering style of the well-known Chinese swordsman Yu Chenghui.
What is sometimes not as well known within the Lightsaber Combat community is the depth of Damon’s training in both the traditional Chinese martial arts and dance. He has trained and taught extensively in a number of styles over the past 35 years. His teachers include Paulie Zink, the western inheritor of Da Sheng Pigua Men; Hu Jian Qiang, twice all-around Wushu champion of the People’s Republic of China; and Beijing Opera performer Qi Jian Guo. As a dancer he worked professionally with Pilobolus, Scapegoat Garden, Nai Ni chen and The Yuan Beijing Opera Company. Indeed, he is one of a small number of Western martial artists to have toured and performed professionally in Beijing opera.
All of which is to say that when Damon first agreed to present a day-long workshop, I knew that he would be bringing a wealth of knowledge regarding both the performance of dulon (or kata/taolu) as well as the practical applications of Chinese fencing. The real challenge was finding a set of narrow topics that could be covered in only a single day and with a relatively large group of students working at different levels.
On the day of the workshop students began to assemble for a light breakfast and check-in at about 8:30. At 9:10 we kicked things off with a formal welcome. After being introduced, Damon said a few words about his first experiences with the nascent world of lightsabers combat and the community’s subsequent growth. The students of Ithaca Sabers then presented him with a new Ing Chao Persuader (black hilt, with a green blade) as a token of their appreciation for the workshop.
With that everyone got down to business. After warming up with the first line of Shii-cho (which became the core set of movements that we would explore and experiment with throughout the day) Damon began a set of exercises designed to deepen our understanding of phrasing and tempo in blade work. Much of this was framed as an exploration of the Chinese martial arts axiom (passed on to Damon by his opera teacher) that when using any weapon “One’s hands must be good friends.” We looked at various methods of coordinating and using the hands (both with and without weapons), and the impact that these choices had on the rest of the body.
This led naturally into a further exploration of tempo as it related to footwork and stepping. Under Damon’s supervision students experimented with patterns of very short, very long, and mixed-interval stepping. We then observed the ways in which this affected stance, fluidity, body carriage and blade work. Together the two exercises not only reinforced the notion that the body should move as an integrated unit, but they gave students some basic exercises to explore different modes of movement within any dulon or kata that they might practice. The end result was that students became progressively more aware that the seemingly simple choreography of Shii-cho concealed a much broader range of concepts and skills than they had previously understood.
During the morning session Damon also introduced an important teaching method that would be used throughout the day. Given the large size of the workshop it was decided to split the class into either two or four groups, each of which mixed individuals from different backgrounds and experience levels. After being given a specific assignment by the instructor (“I want group one to perform the first line of Shii-cho, but this time make each step as long as possible. Explore momentum, see if you can make it to the other side of the gym in just one line.”) the other groups were tasked with making observations about the patterns of movement that resulted, or aspects of Shii-cho that they had not previously noticed in their own personal practice. These discussions were exploratory rather than critical, and really helped to advance the workshop’s understanding of the subjects that were being discussed.
By 11:30 everyone was physically and mentally exhausted. By common consent, we broke for lunch early. The workshop venue had a kitchen, so some students went about preparing a lunch. Others walked down the street to a deli named the Brookton’s Market. Finally, a third group took Damon to a ramen noodle shop in Ithaca so that he could catch a quick glimpse of the Commons and the downtown area.
By 12:30 everyone was newly energized and ready to continue. Damon started off with a few more exercises designed to encourage students to approach their study of Shii-cho from new perspectives. We performed the form with only retreating footwork, and then in reverse order. After the challenging material from the morning everyone took this afternoon warm-up in stride.
Next we looked at some additional variations on footwork, exploring how far one can push Shii-cho while maintaining the essential integrity of the form. Damon spoke on the subject while doing a version of his Form I based on the crossed leg sitting stance which was both unlike anything that we had seen before, yet somehow retained its essential flavor.
To assist us in further exploring these issues, Damon then introduced his “five element” theory of Lightsaber Combat. This drew on the five elements (or more properly “phases”) that many traditionally trained Chinese martial artists will already be familiar with (fire, earth, metal, water, wood). While the metaphor is commonly encountered, there is much variation in how it is used in different arts or school. As such we have always enjoyed collecting these sorts of discussions.
Given that this was new material to most of the class, Damon began by sketching the “generative” and “destructive” elemental cycles on a chalkboard. After that he focused on the destructive cycle as a means of assessing and countering the energy of an incoming strike or bind. This is a vast topic and so Damon gave the class very specific exercises directing them towards certain combinations (metal vs wood, earth vs water). Typically, students were instructed to work these exchanges with open hands first (it’s easier to get a feeling of what “metal” means when experiencing it through your own arm) and then attempt to apply what they had learned to exchanges with the saber. This cycle of exercises took up much of the afternoon.
At 3:30 we switched gears and ended with a group question and answer period. As one would expect, many of the early questions focused on the elements and their application to the martial arts. Damon confirmed that in his system one can use the generative cycle tactically. However, it is a more nuanced exercise, so he decided to leave that to another day. He also discussed his recent work on Form V, how it sits in relationship to the first four pillars of the TPLA system (Forms I-IV), and his desires to use it as a means of fostering Yue Chenghui’s goal of promoting world peace through the sharing of fencing systems and the exchange of martial knowledge. Unsurprisingly, he was called on to demonstrate this form a couple of times, pointing out places where it was conceptually similar to, or different from, his own Shii-cho.
Other questions focused on more philosophical issues. Many of the exercises in the workshop had asked students to experiment in their presentation of Shii-cho. This led to a discussion of how one ascertained the “edges” of a form, the point beyond which something loses its essential identity. This relates to larger questions about the “authenticity” of practice within traditional martial arts and, if one is willing to get a little meta, how Lightsaber Combat sits in relation to the arts that it was derived from. While it was agreed that these are critical questions for continual study, they do not suggest easy, universal, answers.
Finally, the conversation turned towards future trends. Entering his second decade within the lightsaber combat community, Damon noted that the continued growth of the hobby would likely result in increased specialization. The section of the community focused on sabering as a competitive sport is growing the fastest. He noted the increased diversification of rule sets and leagues that are now available (Saber Legion, LudoSport, FFE, Lightspeed Saber League, etc) and predicted that we would see an uptick in specialized athletic training for individual rulesets. Likewise, he noted that we are also likely to see an increase in athleticism in the area of forms competition and choreography. Indeed, the lightsaber would seem to be a natural fit for those interested in the more acrobatic and flashy aspects of something akin to performance wushu.
Damon made an argument that there was also room for a 3rd option, an approach that would treat lightsaber combat more as a traditional martial art and seek to find within it a “way” of personal cultivation. He noted that individuals who are drawn to both the Star Wars mythology, as well as the actual practice of traditional training, might find this the most rewarding. This is also likely to be comparatively accessible as rather than specialized athletic training best suited to young adults, such an approach could balance the demands of competition, performance and self-cultivation. This middle way was the path that he has chosen to promote.
The workshop ended at 4:10. After taking the customary group photos, the students facing the longest drives home said their goodbyes. The remaining participants gathered at a Chinese restaurant in Ithaca NY for the final workshop meal. Once our energy was restored many of the finer points of both the workshop, and the larger Star Wars Universe, were discussed for hours. If one were to accept enthusiasm and participation as measures of success, it was clear that this workshop had exceeded most people’s expectations. As the group finally broke up everyone agreed that we needed to do this again next year.
Looking back on the event, Damon’s mastery of his art was inspirational to the students, especially those who were first drawn to the study of the martial arts via the glow of a lightsaber blade. It was also clear that the name of the workshop was well chosen. The “Way of Lightsaber Combat” that he explored was focused on practice and study of the art’s foundations in an attempt to understand both what it is, and what we might all become in the future. Such a process will always be one of self-discovery, and I fully expect that some of the students in this workshop will seek out each of the three areas that Damon discussed. Yet the principles laid out in this day long meditation on the lightsaber will be invaluable for anyone seeking to balance authenticity and individual exploration in their own practice of any art.
Below is a video sample of some of the workshop. Enjoy!
***As I am sure everyone has noticed, Winter has arrived. That is a problem for students of Lightsaber Combat. Daily practice is easier to maintain in the summer, but few of us have large training spaces to work out indoors during the winter. I advocate practicing outdoors all years long, at least on days when the weather permits. In fact, there are extra benefits that can come from practicing in the snow. But before you do that, we need you might want to check out this essay I wrote for my martial arts blog (Kung Fu Tea) on the benefits and pitfals of training in the cold. I am pretty sure that Luke didn’t slack off on Hoth, and neither should we!***
Winter is Coming
There are many attributes that make Cornell unique among America’s top universities. One could choose to focus on its philosophy of undergraduate education, beautiful setting or its long and pioneering history of Asian studies. All of that is true and good. The library’s collections are stunning. And yet the campus has a dark side.
The first hints suggest themselves shortly after halloween when small signs begin to appear on campus staircases and walkways warning unwary travelers that these paths will not be maintained during the winter. One undertakes the journey at your own risk. At first all of this seems like the ramblings of an over enthusiastic legal team. The staircases and walkways in question are not in some deserted corner of “the plantations.” They are referring to the areas that one will likely traverse.
By December the situation comes into an awful clarity. The signage is neither alarmist nor paranoid. The university (like everything else is Ithaca) is built on a hill, one that is now all the steeper for being covered with ice. Walking from the bus to the library can be enough to test anyone’s Kung Fu.
And then there is the snow. Having grown up near Buffalo NY I am used to major snow events. “Lake effect snow” is a part of my life. I cannot count the number of storms I have been in that have dumped three feet of snow in a couple of hours. While we tend not to get quite as much snow here in Central NY, an uncanny combination of typography, high winds and low temperatures combine to make winter driving in the area uniquely problematic. It certainly makes fieldwork seasonally challenging.
To sum the situation up, in Ithaca winter starts as a rumor, and quickly escalates to a nightmare.
The Martial Arts(And Lightsaber Combat)
All of this can be a challenge for martial artists. While there are many ways of classifying the traditional Chinese fighting styles (northern vs. southern, modernist vs traditional, internal vs. external, Han vs. minority, hard vs. soft….) I suspect that one of the most salient sociological divisions has largely been overlooked. That would be individuals who train in the park (or some other public outdoor space) vs. those who train primarily in an indoor studio.
Coming from a Wing Chun background, I was strictly a studio guy. When a reporter once asked what sort of environment my martial art had been developed in, I surprised him by answering “warehouses” rather than Red Boats or mythical temples (the answer that he seemed to be fishing for). Nor is Wing Chun alone in this regard. Many southern Kung Fu systems tend to be practiced indoors.
Various explanations are given for this, ranging from the extreme secrecy of their transmission to the traditional lack of open green space in the region’s cities. It is sometimes hard to know what to make of the conflicting explanations. Villages in the countryside tended to have open air “boxing grounds,” but in urban environments the closed studio, or rented temple courtyard, became the norm.
If pushed I would say that this probably reflected the realities of urban architecture rather than any deep seated cultural preference for walls and a roof. Yet what begins as a matter of expediency often becomes “tradition” as we create stories to interpret our own experiences. Modern cities in Southern China (and South East Asia) now have parks and green spaces. But one is much more likely to find Taiji, Bagua, or Jingwu students within them than Wing Chun or Choy Li Fut classes. Even in America my Sifu always conducted his classes indoors, even though the back of our school opened out onto a usually empty park. (Pole training was one of the few times we headed outdoors to make use of this resource). Cultural practices within the martial arts are innovated and stabilized rather than always being a product of the distant past.
Moving back to New York state has forced me to think carefully about some of these issues. Doing more weapons work, and lacking a dedicated studio for daily practice, I have found myself migrating from the ranks of “studio dweller” to “park person.” One of the really nice things about Ithaca is that the region is covered in parks and green spaces. One is never without a place to jog or train.
The downside to that, however, is that today’s high temperature is expected to be 2 degrees (the low is -7) and all of those “green spaces” are white. So should I grab by boots, hat and dragon pole to head outside for some training?
For instance, they have noted that when leaving the gym and entering outdoor spaces individuals tend to work harder. In some cases this can be easily explained. Treadmills provide joggers with a safe, relatively low-impact, surface on which to run. Yet the exposure to factors like wind resistance and the natural dips and rises in landscape mean that when running at a given pace one always burns more calories outside. (This same effect is even more true for bikers where wind resistance is a much larger issue).
The situation gets even more interesting when scientists ask individuals to report on their subjective levels of exertion. Even though people are doing more work they consistently report feeling like they have expended less effort.
The explanation for this seems to lie in how we perceive our immediate environment and our place within it. Distance runners have long realized that keeping a set pace feels easier if you look at the horizon, or some distant point, rather than at your own feet. Being able to push our perception out helps to establish the almost subconscious goals that are important for managing feelings of fatigue or exertion.
Many of the benefits of outdoor exercise seem to derive from the links between human psychology and physiology. The medical community has known for some time that any sort of regular exercise program can reduce an individual’s stress levels and is generally good for one’s mental health. Yet all of these benefits are significantly boosted when that exercise is conducted outdoors. Studies have demonstrated additional improvements to short term memory, concentration and creativity, as well as improved levels of perceived “mental energy” and reduced stress. On the surface it would seem that there is no reason not to take your martial arts practice outside. (Except for the wooden dummy. PVC is ok, but aged wood rarely agrees with rain and temperature swings).
Unfortunately most of the existing research focuses on the benefits of training outdoors during the more temperate months. Little of it directly addresses the specific benefits of winter training, though there are exceptions. Given what we have just learned, that is a problem. Most of the benefits of outdoor exercise, everything from an increased ability to work to lower levels of inflammation, stems from the fact that our minds perceive this as a low stress environment and our bodies react accordingly.
Yet there are few things more stressful than contemplating a five mile run when its 20 degrees and snowing. It is not simply that we anticipate being uncomfortable. Exercising in the winter weather is difficult on a physiological level as well. The need to maintain a constant core temperature means that the number of calories burned while exercising in extreme weather may increase 20% to 40%. While I have always found winter landscapes to be psychologically peaceful, they do change the game in ways that require careful consideration.
Obviously there are risks involved in any exercise program, but some are unique to winter training. I have no hesitation about jogging or forms practice in the snow, but ice is another matter. Those doing cardio should be aware that individuals dehydrate more quickly in cold weather and take proper steps. Further, the universal advice to consult with a doctor before starting an exercise program goes double here. One burns more calories precisely because your lungs and heart are being forced to work harder. That can be a good thing for cardio-vascular training, but it might also be dangerous for some individuals. As a life-long asthmatic I always carry my inhaler when running in the winter and never jog when the temperature drops below 20 degrees as that can trigger breathing problems. At 30 degrees I can run all afternoon. Proper clothing (usually multiple layers that encourage wicking) is a must, and you should be well aware of the signs of hypothermia.
So why do it? Why train in a challenging environment? The easiest way to burn 40% more calories would just be to run on the treadmill in the gym 40% longer. Or maybe raise the incline. While not wishing to dismiss the obvious solutions, martial artists in particular may have a few reasons to seek out winter training.
For some purposes (such as practicing with long weapons) it may be the only chance that many of us have to advance during the winter months. But beyond that, there are at least three factors that need to be considered.
While the martial arts as we know them today are mostly a product of the modern world, they do have connections to much older systems of military training. Many martial artists are explicitly interested in reclaiming and experiencing this heritage. Given the fundamental changes within physical culture that have occurred over the last 1000 years (diet, medicine, clothing, life expectancy, posture, the experience of chronic pain, culturally inherited physical habits….) I am not generally enthusiastic about our ability to experience and understand that which our ancestors lived. But training outdoors is one of the few easy things that we can do to create a frame of experience that they would find more recognizable.
In traditional China and Japan (and all most every other area of the world) military training was conducted almost exclusively outdoors. The militias of southern China trained on village boxing grounds and in temple courtyards throughout the year. The same was true in northern China. The early training practices were by necessity weatherproof. Learning how your technique and footwork function on live terrain is an important exercise that is too often neglected. Experiencing it in the rain, sun and snow is also vital.
Nor can we forget about the age old tradition of “eating bitter” within the Chinese martial arts. When asking a friend why his elderly Chinese teacher insisted on training in the snow he laughed and said “Because he thinks that it makes us tough!” Other individuals might put forward a more complex theory based on training the circulation of one’s Qi. But in either case I think that the basic point holds. You can condition yourself to be more comfortable working in the extremes of both hot and cold, and that will improve both the quality of one’s Kung Fu and life. The more we do it, the less stressful it becomes.
The third and final reason, however, embraces the inherent stress and difficulty of the exercise. No matter how you cut it, exerting yourself in the snow and ice puts stress on your body and lungs. Windchills are uncomfortable and distracting. Footwork that is second nature in a controlled environment becomes anything but when tried on live terrain, covered in mud or snow. I find that I need to be much more conscious of my body position and balance when working on snow. It is the inherent difficulty of the exercise that makes it useful.
In their short volume on coaching (Teaching Krav Maga) Guy Mor & Abi Moriya make a distinction between ‘learning,’ ‘practice’ and ‘training.’ Occasionally martial artists use these terms interchangeably, but I think that there is something to be gained from examining the distinctions that they propose. Learning happens when a student is introduced to new material. Practice occurs when that skill is repeated or improvised upon in under near ideal circumstances. But this is not enough. Training only occurs when students are asked to apply the skill in a stressful situation. Only then can we say that the skill is pressure tested.
The problem, of course, is that there are many types of stress. Someone shouting in your face is stressful, but so is an attack without warning. Multiple opponents increase the complexity of situation (resulting in stress), but so do the introduction of weapons. Confusion, physical discomfort, injury, poor lighting, all of these things add stress and complexity to the equation.
Unfortunately neither stress or complexity are perfectly fungible. Learning to manage one type of challenge does not guarantee success when a different scenario emerges. Such is the problem with reality. There is just too much boom and buzz.
That doesn’t mean that we give up. But perhaps it can change our understanding of our training environment and the opportunities that it affords. When is the right time to ‘practice’? When we need to concentrate on acquiring a complex new skill in a relatively simple environment. When is the right time to ‘train’? To add a little stress to our study; to see how movement acquires more meaning in a different space? In Ithaca the answer may very well be on a cold January evening just as the sun goes down. Axial tilt suggests that winter is going to happen. Martial spirit demands that we make the most of the challenge.
The following is a guest post by Darth Nonymous, the creator of the TPLA system, originally published at his always excellent Fighting Words blog. (Seriously, if you are interested in either LED Sabers or historic Chinese fencing you should bookmark this resource and check back often). In it he introduced us to France’s newest official sport, Lightsaber Combat, and talks a little bit about how this exciting development came about. Spoiler alert, it would not have happened with the tireless efforts of Darth Cervall, a TPLA knight in Paris.
Lightsaber Combat in France
Thats right! Lightsaber fencing is now an official sport in France! And it is the brain child of TPLA Knight instructor, Darth Cervall (aka Cedric Giroux)! Cedric has based his system of Lightsaber Sport on the TPLA system of training and safety. We are excited to see more of this system in action!
First of all, I should point out something that some readers in the US may not understand. France has a system of government regulation in matters of sport. Each sport has its own associations, boards and regulators. This helps keep the quality of instruction at professional levels or at least up to standards set by a governing body. What this means is that when we say something is an official sport in France, it’s a pretty big deal.
Cedric has been on this project since before he came to us. In fact, one of the reasons he joined TPLA was because of our system incorporating skill level, safety, and the Star Wars aesthetic. He very quickly moved through our material and together we steered him in the right direction for gear to use and different ways of organizing material. He had put on his first tournament in 2017 and has been working closely with the French Fencing Federation (Fédération Française d’Escrime or FFE) for the past year or more. We have been watching with great interest and pride as he has tested and worked with other professionals in France to finally come to this goal. (We will be doing l show on this topic very soon were I will allow Cedric to explain himself. I am sure my account is lacking.)
Over the next few months I would like to introduce to both general readers and Ithaca Sabers students to a few of my favorite short essays on lightsabers and lightsaber combat. Some of these will focus on “in-universe” perspectives, while others will discuss real world training. Craig Page’s writings have always stood out to me for their ability to seamlessly blend the two. You can find more of his Star Wars related writing at the now dormant blog, The Snark Side of the Force.
What is a Lightsaber
by Craig Page
I think if we’re going to start discussing the Lightsaber and how to use it, we might as well start with the basics and work our way up. If the goal of some of the groups out there is to understand and address the lightsaber as if it were a real weapon (whether for stage or for martial exercises) then we should all understand the lightsaber itself in terms that relate to us. So let’s begin with the basic question: What is a Lightsaber?
The lightsaber, arguably the most famous weapon to never really exist. It has captured the imagination of movie goers since its inception in 1977. But what is it exactly? When trying to understand how to use these beautiful and destructive tools, we must look at the history of them both in the Star Wars Universe and in the real world.
In universe, the lightsaber is a weightless plasma blade of variable and programmable length. The most unique feature of the lightsaber is that it is an all-cutting weapon. Traditional bladed weapons have a flat side, which is often used to deflect or be used to bludgeon and not kill. The lightsaber doesn’t have that. No matter the angle of the blade, the saber will cut its target.
And I do mean it will cut. The power of the energy blade is such that it can through virtually anything in its path. While there are stories of ‘Lightsaber Resistant Materials’ the only things that have been confirmed to block a lightsaber without being destroyed in the attempt are energy based weapons such as electro-staves or, more explicitly, another lightsaber. Because of the energy nature of the blade, lightsabers are able to block and deflect ranged energy attacks. There are in fact forms of lightsaber combat designed for that in mind.
The hilt of the saber is often cylindrical and made of metal or metal-like materials. The design is, surprisingly, very basic, with most of the electronic equivalent being easy to acquire. There is one story of a Jedi creating a lightsaber using parts he found from a junked hover-bike. What makes lightsabers unique is that they are designed specifically by the user. It is often seen as a rite of passage for Force-users to design their own hilt. So, while the design is simple, no two sabers will be exactly the same.
By Benjamin N. Judkins, Ph.D. and Jared Miracle, Ph.D.
Lightsaber Combat as a Global Movement
In February of 2019 the French Fencing Federation (Fédération Française d’Escrime or FFE) made the news. Stories were run in many major magazines and the comedian Trevor Noah even graced the FFE with a Daily Show segment. Yet the topic of debate was not traditional sport fencing. Rather, the FFE had announced that the LED Saber (or replica lightsaber) was being added as an official fourth weapon within the French fencing establishment, alongside the better-established foil, epee and saber.
The response to this announcement was electric. Some commentators were delighted, others aghast. The viral spread of this conversation, which went far beyond the sorts of individuals who normally took any interest in fencing, played directly into the FFE’s media strategy. Like many old guard sports federations, it was concerned as fewer new students took up fencing. And it should be remembered that other governing bodies had already proved that adopting a new telegenic “extreme sport,” such as snowboarding, parkour, skateboarding or rock-climbing, was a tried and true strategy for boosting an organization’s relevance in the current era.
This announcement did not come as a surprise to members of France’s Lightsaber Combat community. The FFE had openly announced its intentions and publicly examined several different approaches to the LED saber championed by various preexisting clubs before finally settling on its preferred model. It is interesting to note that while Star Wars is often thought of as a quintessentially American film, Lightsaber Combat is a global phenomenon which has grown more quickly in France than perhaps anywhere else.
Yet how did this global community emerge and what is the nature of their practice? Clearly one might design a competitive sport based on ideas found in a fictional film, but is it really possible to create a new martial art while drawing inspiration from these sources? What specifically is the relationship between historical practice and the modern media? Most importantly, were the many traditional instructors who contributed to the development of these practices (and even the FFE) correct in their assertions that as a teaching tool the LED saber could reach new audiences uninterested in historical blade or stick fighting?
The following article addresses these questions. It begins with a brief description of the LED saber both as a material object and in relation to development of the larger Star Wars film franchise. Next, we review the creation and expansion of the Lightsaber Combat community between its first stirrings in the early 2000s and the current moment. Last, we directly address the function of history, fiction and hyper-reality within the martial arts.
For most individuals it is virtually impossible to separate the term “traditional” from “martial art.” Many practitioners exhibit something close to religious reverence for the history of their practice. For some cultural traditions (such as those often seen in the Chinese martial arts), the authenticity of one’s art is inexorably linked with the legitimacy of one’s lineage status. Within such a framework, a practice without the proper sort of history (such as Lightsaber Combat, Mixed Martial Arts, or even something like the Keysi Fighting Method) could not be fully accepted as a “legitimate” martial art.
Much debate has occurred recently in scholarly circles as to how we should define the concept of “martial arts” in a cross-cultural context, and whether engaging in such a definitional exercise is even a good idea. Benjamin Judkins has made his own contributions to this discussion specifically addressing why lightsaber combat should be accepted as a martial art (for theoretical purposes), and the ways in which this realization effects our understanding of how these communities function.
We do not intend to relitigate those debates here. In this article we instead focus on a related problem. Practitioners often claim to be deeply impacted by the historical legacies of their arts. Yet the development of the interdisciplinary field of Martial Arts Studies has demonstrated that a great many of the claims passed on within traditional hand combat communities actually fall into the realm of myths and legends. Most of the Chinese martial arts practiced today are not the product of an ineffable past. Instead, they are the legacies the final decades of the 19th century and the Republic of China period (1911-1949). Rather than being an “ancient Korean art,” Taekwondo developed as a clear attempt to appropriate and nationalize Japanese Karate in the post-war period. Further, the entire understanding of the “Samurai Spirit” promoted in many Japanese Budo contexts is largely the product of nationalist reformers (some working with Western sources) in the Meiji period rather than an authentic reflection of the medieval past.
While all martial arts have a history, it does not always bear a close resemblance to the stories venerated by their students. What happens to our experience of the practice of a fighting system when we cannot attempt to historicize our legends? Can real techniques be transmitted and honed when we are forced to fully accept the mythic nature of the exercise? The Star Wars films, after all, may be the most successful modern myth ever produced, but no one would claim the lightsaber as history. Yet the very nature of Lightsaber Combat forces one to practice as if they were.
Origins of a Community
One suspects that fan-sponsored lightsaber duels began to occur the day after George Lucas’ epic space opera opened in 1977. Yet the first identifiable Lightsaber Combat organizations did not emerge until late 2005 and 2006. Given the immense popularity of these films, and the iconic nature of their signature weapon, how should we understand this delay?
The current generation of replica lightsabers (including the LED illuminated stunt sabers most often used in a martial arts context) date only to the early years of the 2000s. They were initially developed as part of the marketing effort surrounding the release of the prequel trilogy (1999, 2002, 2005). It was at this time that Lucasfilm began to issue licensed replicas of a number of weapons seen on screen. These had detailed metal hilts, sound effects, and blades that appeared to ignite. It was difficult for individuals who held these early sabers not to feel as though they had just been given a relic from that far off galaxy.
Soon third-party vendors entered this market space, offering simple training sabers with in-hilt LED modules and hollow polycarbonate blades. These sabers still had aluminum hilts, though they tended to be more ergonomically designed and better balanced that the original film props. And while some of these sabers were marketed to collectors, other (nearly indestructible) weapons were developed specifically for staged choreography and martial arts applications. It was only a matter of time before a variety of martial artists decided to seriously investigate what these new sabers were capable of within a training context.
This desire to more fully explore the world of lightsabers was encouraged by the franchise’s marketing efforts. In 2002, Dr. David West Reynolds (an archeologist employed as an author by Lucas Film) published an article titled “Fightsaber” in the October issue of the Star Wars Insider fan magazine. While lightsabers had dominated much of the personal combat on screen (and they played a progressively greater role in each new film), nothing had ever been said about the specialized training needed to wield such a weapon. Dr. Reynolds, who was not a martial artist, sought to fill this lacuna by exploring the “seven classic forms of lightsaber combat” as taught in the fictional Jedi temple. His descriptions borrow much from the image of the Asian martial arts which circulates in popular culture. This tendency towards Orientalism only grew as successive video games, novels and comic books sought to expand the lore, drawing on an ever-widening body of pop culture references.
Again, it was only a matter of time before actual martial artists started to ask what combination of real-world fighting techniques could best replicate the alluring reality that was starting to emerge around the idea of lightsaber combat. The inexpensive, durable and versatile nature of LED sabers as material objects ensured that a wide variety of practitioners would be swept up in the task of reconstructing the “lost” systems of lightsaber combat. For some this was simply an extension of their Star Wars fandom. In other cases, individuals saw it as an intellectual and technical puzzle deepening their appreciation for various stick and blade based martial arts.
Given the global appeal of this franchise, it is probably impossible to know, with certainty, where the very first dedicated lightsaber group emerged. Greg Ember, who has carefully tracked the creation of groups within this community, hypothesizes that the first schools or performance troops may actually have formed in either Russia or the Philippines. Lightsaber combat remains extremely popular in Russia and across Southeast Asia. However, the first group to generate sustained media attention was NY Jedi, which began to offer classes in New York City after marching in the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade in 2005. The press coverage that this group would generate (along with the creation of the Saber Guild in 2006) led to an explosion of other small clubs across the Eastern seaboard of the United States in the coming years.
Most of this first generation of groups focused on a type of fight choreography that attempted to emulate the techniques (and even costumes) which were seen in the films. They often organized themselves as non-profit enterprises and would perform at fan gatherings and charity events. However, as there was not yet an ecosystem of specialized lightsaber schools and organizations, many of their members actually had a relatively diverse set of interests and practices.
Perhaps the first truly specialized group to emerge was Ludosport, created in 2006. This Italian organization used the same LED sabers to develop a fast-paced combat sport. Their approach to Lightsaber Combat is unique in that they favor light contact and tend not to wear protective gear beyond light gloves and occasionally eye protection. While organized as a sports league, Ludosport offers instruction in a set of progressive techniques (originally drawing inspiration from the seven classic forms of lightsaber combat) that have been carefully selected and modified to allow for safe play with minimal gear. For much of the next decade Ludosport expanded its network of academies across Europe before, in 2016, opening its first location in North America.
Nor has Ludopsort been the only actor to approach Lightsaber Combat as a competitive sport. The publicity preceding the 2015 release of The Force Awakens helped to support a wave of specialization within the Lightsaber Combat Community. On May 4th of 2015, two important groups were created. In North America, this date saw the formal emergence of the Saber Legion, a heavy dueling league featuring full contact, full force striking. Participants in these contests typically wear heavy hockey, motorcycle or HEMA armor, much of which has been selected and decorated to invoke a specific persona. On the same day, the Sport Saber League was created in France. It occupies what might be thought of as a middle ground requiring the use of Fencing masks, heavy gloves, and some other minimal equipment while only allowing medium intensity contact.
A third category of Lightsaber Combat groups also emerged in the lead-up to the most recent trilogy of Star Wars films. While choreography clubs and sport leagues often appropriated the pedagogical or tactical insights of traditional combat systems, this last set of organizations explicitly identify themselves as martial arts schools. This is something that leagues such as Ludosport or the Saber Legion have been hesitant to do, even when their members or creators have been traditional martial artists.
This rhetorical choice reflects a more fundamental shift in the goals and self-understanding of these groups. The growth and differentiation of the community in recent years has allowed for the establishment of a number of schools focused on questions of “realism.” In a few cases (like the Lightspeed Saber League, formally organized in southern California in 2016) this discourse centers on the hypothesized nature of the lightsaber as a weapon with very unique characteristics. Depending on how these are understood, one can then attempt to derive a body of technique fitting this mental map.
More common are schools that seek to achieve a sense of “realism” in the sorts of techniques employed. This approach allows them to use the lightsaber as a means of testing and teaching a vast range of real-world fighting philosophies that might not otherwise come into contact with one another. One cannot easily walk into a Kendo school to test your HEMA techniques against unsuspecting Japanese martial artists. The historic, national and even ideological aspects of these practices tend to prevent this sort of exchange, except in special limited circumstances.
Yet the ahistorical nature of the lightsaber, as well as the complex mythology that surrounds it, tends to encourage exactly this sort of “creative play.” In some cases, this means mixing and matching techniques from within a single cultural framework. Other organizations might draw on a much wider variety of source materials in their attempt to realize the full breadth of the “seven classical forms of lightsaber combat,” essentially imagining each component as a distinct and separate art.
One of the first, and most influential, martial schools within the Lightsaber Combat community is the Terra Prime Light Armory. Established in 2012 it has posted instructional videos on YouTube in order to create an open-source instructional system drawing on a variety of Chinese (and to a lesser extent European) fighting styles. Indeed, the creators of this system viewed the lightsaber as an ideal tool to both test and preserve these techniques in a quickly changing era. It should also be noted that the TPLA’s approach and progressive curriculum formed the basis of the LED saber program recently adopted by the FFE. Further, it has recently entered into a partnership with the FFE to promote their competitive ruleset in the United States.
Unsurprisingly, there is often a regional component to the relationship between martially oriented lightsaber groups and the historic styles from which they draw. HEMA techniques appear more frequently in European lightsaber schools. Likewise, organizations like the Saber Authority (established in 2014) have promoted systems with a distinctly Southeast Asian flavor, drawing on their region’s rich traditions of stick and blade work.
Instructors in this last group of schools often express enthusiasm for two ideas that may at first appear to be in tension with each other. On the one hand, they note the freedom that the LED saber grants them to test and combine styles that might not otherwise meet on culturally neutral ground. This allows for genuine martial exchange and a welcome escape from the “politics” of the traditional martial arts. At the same time, they also note the LED saber’s potential to reach new audiences, popularizing and preserving skills which have emerged from historic martial arts. When commenting on his students who regularly compete in Saber Legion tournaments, Steaphen Fick, a noted HEMA instructor who also runs a saber training program notes:
“One of the things that I like about working with them [the Lightsaber Combat Community] is that they are taking what is essentially a silly weapon and learning how to bring it to life. The skills that they learn, the questions they ask and the work they put into learning the lightsaber is what makes it a valid martial training tool.”
Lightsaber Combat as Martial Art
Such commentary about the efficacy of lightsaber training as a martial art in the same capacity as other, more established styles raises still more questions about its legitimacy among the broader fighting arts community. It also draws attention to the question of history and tradition, providing a comparative lens through which to consider their pragmatic purpose in the study of any given close combat system. When the ostensible goal of a martial art is to become skillful in a given mode of fighting, why bother maintaining nonfunctional behaviors at all?
Traditional practices are embedded in many systems, including uniforms, courtesy behaviors like bowing and the use of honorifics, and the memorization of foreign words and phrases that serve no special function. From a combat efficacy standpoint, for example, there is no pragmatic reason to practice solo, dance-like patterns while counting in Japanese. Likewise, a resident of any developed nation today has no logical combative goal in studying traditional swordsmanship. Even in martial arts marketed as practical for personal protection, such as Brazilian jiu-jitsu, there is often an element of the traditional (e.g. judo uniforms, a colored belt ranking system).
Likely no component of the martial arts is more tradition-bound, however, than their origin stories. As with all types of folklore, these oral traditions are often transmitted informally between practitioners, usually growing more extraordinary over time, and tend to conform to certain “tale types.” The narrative structures of these stories are so formulaic, in fact, that they match common folk tale structures found internationally. These stories are usually fantastic in some way. Perhaps the style’s founder was inspired by watching two animals fight, or a physically weak individual developed techniques that enabled him to overcome larger opponents, or, in some of the more ancient cases, a demon or god transmitted knowledge to the founder.
Regardless, folklorist Thomas Green has argued that “martial arts folk histories reflect the desire of modern practitioners to establish credibility through association with a legendary past.” Legends are an important part of life. Humans rely on the inspiration and framework found in legends and myths to make sense of the world, as well as their place in it. These stories do not simply conform to established mythical structures—they are ultimately about finding (or creating) conformity to structure in our own lives. The historiographical events that led to any given martial art’s creation are inevitably complicated and muddy compared with the clean, formulaic renditions espoused by their practitioners. Indeed, as Judkins has written of martial arts history, “Often these genealogies exist only in the realm of popular lore.”
If the exponents of a martial art are cognizant of its fictionalized origin story, it is at least worth considering that a new style emerging from such a fantastical background is equally legitimate in every capacity to which that word might apply. Lightsabers are not imminently practical weapons for daily self-defense, but then neither are whips, flails, broadswords, deer horn knives, or polearms. Jedi clothing is not the most practical athletic wear (however comfortable), but it is no less imminently practical than the pleated skirt-like hakama or even a judo outfit.
Within any group of people, such impractical features as myths, costumes, and irrational beliefs serve very practical purposes. Uniforms of any type are a powerful means of creating group identity and cohesion. We are naturally defensive of those who appear to be members of our tribe. For the same reason, military recruits and marching bands spend painful hours training to step in precise formation with their units, not because modern warfare or music calls for it, but because it creates a collective rhythm, a sort of “flow state.”
Belief in an art’s extraordinary origins gives the individual an opportunity to project a personal identity onto known (or at least suspected) mythic structures, extending his agency beyond the self and into a realm above the mundane. This state of “hyper-reality” is a portal that allows individuals to perceive themselves as existing within a constructed reality; that is, substituting the mundane for the preferred, potentially necessary, extraordinary. This is useful from a survival standpoint as the human brain is capable of understanding the world as a harsh, unforgiving, essentially meaningless exercise in futility and suffering. Instead of accepting such a reality, though, a hyper-real existence is one in which the suffering has a purpose and actions accompany a teleological outcome. As the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz famously wrote of cockfighting in Bali, our actions become “stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.” It is largely through these mechanisms that the martial arts have become a powerful pathway for asserting personal agency in the modern world.
When one puts on a karate uniform to undergo formal training, there is an uncomfortable blurring of the line between daily mundane reality and the costumed fantasy that plays out in the minds of those within the practice space. This line is very clear among lightsaber groups, however, as trainees don acknowledged costumes and may even use Star Wars-inspired character names. The result of both karate and lightsaber combat is the same; yet there is greater clarity about the nature of the exercise among the lightsaber group. This is also true of origin narratives. Not only does Star Wars fulfill classical mythic structure, but George Lucas himself has been quite vocal about his intent to do so, stating that “I consciously set about to recreate myths and the—and the classic mythological motifs. And I wanted to use those motifs to deal with issues that existed today.”
It is instructive to compare the transparent origins of lightsaber combat with an origin narrative from the classical Japanese martial arts which did so much to inspire them. In 1159, Minamoto no Yoshitsune (then a young man) was driven into exile on Mt. Kurama by Taira no Kiyomori, where he was to live as a monk. The mountain was heavily wooded and known to house supernatural creatures. As chance would have it, Yoshitsune became acquainted with a tengu(a sort of magical, crow-like goblin), which taught him martial arts. He became uncannily powerful, skilled in arms, and could run and jump with preternatural agility. He then staged a coup and seized back his hereditary position of power. This story is the basis for a number of martial arts styles in Japan.
Historiographically, it is highly unlikely that the Twelfth Century warlord received tutelage from a mystical folk spirit. One would be hard-pressed to locate a practitioner of the Japanese martial arts today who genuinely believes the story’s accuracy. Instead, the classical combat arts community engages this and similar narratives with a comfortable skepticism, even as the tale continues to be passed on to new students with the utmost seriousness. The function of such fantasy is, rationally, not to convey historical trivia, but to contribute to the creation of a larger life schema, portraying aggrandized interpretations of both physical and cognitive behaviors encouraged by the school. Just as group identity and flow states facilitate profound development from an athletic standpoint, they can also be applied in this sense to develop the trainee’s personality through a constellation of psychosocial immersion and proprioceptive education.
Such didactic tactics have been employed by governments to recondition public thought and behavior. For instance, Japanese youths were mandated to train in kendo, judo, and other martial arts during the early Twentieth Century. There was little expectation that these would be useful battlefield methods, but rather the goal was to indoctrinate children with the morals the ruling institution found most desirable.
Although less extreme, this same basic function and methodology is visible in Lightsaber Combat communities. The Star Wars narrative is largely a chronicle of morality. It conveys the values and preferred qualities of modern heroic archetypes portrayed in dramatic fashion. These qualities are embodied in the Jedi knights, whose role one inhabits while participating. Whether taken strictly as a sporting endeavor or accompanied with detailed costuming and pseudonyms, the fact that lightsaber combat communities are organized entirely around the iconic fantasy weapon unites them in a symbolic, tangible, somatic expression of shared principles. While the lightsaber may not be real, those values and identities are.
Specific definitions of “martial art” notwithstanding, the essential qualities that attend those activities are exhibited by lightsaber combat. Compared with many “traditional” martial arts, however, the endorsed personal qualities in lightsaber groups are made clear due to the recent advent of their origin narratives. Rather than making affectations to legitimize a fictional history, they overtly embrace the fictional narrative. This, in turn, situates training and competition not as serious, life-or-death preparation for conflict, but as a community-oriented form of creative play.
Fick’s support of the lightsaber as a useful training implement points to the benefits of openly accepting a pleasurable pursuit as such: to wit, reduced stress on the trainee results in improved performance precisely because the stakes are not high, yet the practice carries powerful meaning because of the deeply mythic structure of its origin narrative. Given the natural instinct found in many animals to develop skill through play, it seems that, as Alan Watts suggested, “Man suffers only because he takes seriously what the gods made for fun.”
About the Authors
Benjamin Judkins holds a doctorate in Political Science from Columbia University and is co-editor of the interdisciplinary academic journal Martial Arts Studies. With Jon Nielson he is the co-author of The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts (SUNY Press 2015). His research interests include the international relations, globalization and the function of the martial arts in the modern world. He is an instructor in the Wing Chun system and has been conducting research with the Lightsaber Combat community for a number of years.
Jared Miracle is the author of Now with Kung Gu Grip! How Bodybuilders, Soldiers and a Hairdresser Reinvented Martial Arts for America (McFarland 2016). He received his doctorate from Texas A&M University and serves on the editorial board of the journal Monumenta Mythica. He is a disciple of the Shinkage-ryu, a former professional fighter, and spent years traveling to pursue an education in traditional jujutsu, Shandong mantis fist, aikido, Okinawan kempo and kobudo, the Horiuchi style of batto and kenjutsu, as well as Mongolian wrestling, archery, and other systems around the world. His interests include ritual violence, popular culture, and the archaeology of ideas. He primarily works as a writer and martial arts instructor.
 Wetzler, Sixt. 2015. ‘Martial Arts Studies as Kulturwissenschaft: A Possible Theoretical Framework’. Martial Arts Studies 1, 20-33; Paul Bowman. 2019. Deconstructing Martial Arts. Cardiff: Cardiff University Press. 44.
 Judkins, Benjamin N. 2016. ‘The Seven Forms of Lightsaber Combat: Hyper- reality and the Invention of the Martial Arts’, Martial Arts Studies 2, 6-22.
 Benjamin N. Judkins and Jon Nielson. 2015. The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts. Albany: SUNY Press; Udo Moenig. 2015. Taekwondo: From a Martial Art to a Martial Sport. London: Routledge; Oleg Benesch. 2014. Inventing the Way of the Samurai: Nationalism, Internationalism, and Bushidō in Modern Japan. Oxford: Oxford UP.
 Thomas Green. 2003. “Sense in Nonsense: The Role of Folk History in the Martial Arts.” In Thomas A. Green and Joseph Svinth (eds.) Martial Arts in the Modern World. Wesport, Connecticut and London: Praeger. 5.