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9 Most Memorable Fight Scenes in Literature

Posted: 02/26/2013 7:12 am

There's a quote in an old fighting manuscript from the fifteenth century fencing master Fiore de Liberi that my first instructor liked to drill into me over and over and over. It goes, roughly; "Train slow, because anger will give you speed in the fight." My first teacher drilled me with it so often because like any enthusiastic student with a sharp, pointy thing in his hand, I was prone to energetically trying to replicate what he was showing me at light-speed. That's not really conducive to learning how to do anything properly. Learning any sort of physical motion effectively requires you to calm down and understand the pieces of the movement, then practice them until they're programmed into muscle memory, then you should be able to replicate it effectively when you're in the adrenaline-driven insanity of fight or flight mode. It's also a good way to avoid cutting your own ear off.

There is another lesson I took from this quote, however: Sword fighting, and its pursuit, is about passion. It's this passion that drove our team of seven in the creation of The Mongoliad (Book Three available 2/26), and if you look closely you'll see that truth stamped in just about every fictional and real fight throughout history, and in both the symbology the sword represents in our collective cultural consciousness. The fight in fiction serves the very specific purpose, in most cases, of acting both as a vehicle for entertainment, and as a metaphor for the struggles between the characters. The Mongoliad is full of these fights, both as attempts to be true to the historical traditions from which the fiction draws its inspiration, and as expressions of the feverish intensity of emotion that these heated confrontations evoke in us as authors and as readers. As colossal sword-nerds, my fellow authors and I have a few fights from classical and contemporary literature that stand out as memorable (if not always accurate). Spoilers ahead!

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  • 1. Homer, The Iliad: Hector vs Achilles

    This is one of the great classics, and one that almost everyone passingly familiar with mythology knows. Homer's depiction of the emotional confrontation between Hector, who would later come to be held up by Europeans as the epitome of chivalry, and Achilles, the tormented greek hero out for vengeance against the man who killed his cousin is the model on which so much of the literature that followed it would base itself. The struggle between the two of them is the core of the Iliad from which <em>The Mongoliad </em>derives the thematic inspiration of its title, and as a child, it was one of the first stories I became obsessed with. The fierce, tragic heroism and burning hatred between the two heroes has fueled generations of poets and storytellers with its expression of the opposition of a love of home and the relentless power of determined vengeance, and it's still one of my favorites.

  • 2. William Goldman, The Princess Bride: Inigo vs Wesley

    The quips that fly back and forth between The Man in Black and Inigo Montoya as their rapiers flash in tune with one another makes the scene a beautiful melding of dramatic skill and satirical humor, though it's not the most accurate depiction of sword-play, which is most often extremely fast and over abruptly. The film's depiction of the scene is better known than the book, but the novel's depiction is just as entertaining. One of the bonus points for me recently was realizing that the fencing masters the two men name as they dance back and forth were real, which is a nice easter egg for sword enthusiasts.

  • 3. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of The King: Eowyn vs The Witch King

    As well known to any fan of fantasy as <em>The Iliad</em> is to ancient world buffs, to the extent that there is an iconic duel in Tolkien's masterpiece, it is this confrontation between the Shieldmaiden of Rohan and the Lord of the Nazgul. While the fight is written in the sweeping terms of a mythic confrontation rather than the highly technical details of a blow-for-blow account, the language gives it a visceral realism both in the emotion it evokes in the reader, and in just how swiftly it's over. The famous dialogue - "But no living man am I! You look upon a woman" - is better remembered than the specific movements Tolkien describes (a shattered shield, a thrust to the back of the Witch-King's knee, and the Shieldmaiden's sword through the empty space between his crown and shoulders), but it calls to mind, for me, the hyper-fast and quickly over real fights for which history is known.

  • 4. William Shakespeare, Macbeth: Macbeth vs Macduff

    "For none of women born shall harm Macbeth" goes the line of the Witch's prophecy at the start of Shakespeare's play, and sets up one of the best duels In stage literature. Macduff is noteworthy in that he is both the antagonist of the play, as well as arguably the story's hero, and his final sword fight with Macbeth is simply fantastic. I've seen it re-interpreted several ways on stage (once as a fist-fight and once as a gunfight), but the sword-fight that it's intended to be is always the best way to do it, and with the blades that would have been wielded in Scotland in 1057. Call me a snob. You'd be right.

  • 5. Bernard Cornwell, Excalibur: Derfel vs Lancelot

    The fiction world is awash with Arthurian adaptations and re-imaginings, and Bernard Cornwell's <em>Warlord Chronicles (The Winter King, Enemy of God, Excalibur</em>) are one of the best I've come across. A mixture of mythology and historical fiction, the series attempts to construct the Arthur that might-have-been in the historical context of post-Roman Dark Ages Britain, told through the eyes of one of Arthur's warlords, Saint Derfel. Amongst the many interpretations of the book is the character of Lancelot as a cowardly, ruthless wretch of a human being, and the duel he fights with Derfel in the trilogy's last installment is viscerally real, and so charged it nearly sparks off the page.

  • 6. Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe: Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert vs Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe

    This is one of those iconic fights from classical literature, and it stamped itself on my young boyish mind in elementary school when I was the only kid in english class who thought that reading Walter Scott was cool. Sir Brian's tragic despair as he finds himself forced to fight against the champion of the woman he loves is dripping with sentimental romanticism, and it's considered an iconic moment for good reason. This one has been adapted numerous times to the big screen, but I have yet to see an adaptation that I'm really happy with.

  • 7. The Song of Roland: Count Roland's final stand

    The oldest piece of French Literature is part of the stories of the Twelve Peers of Charlemagne known as the Matter of France, and it features vile treason, monstrous villains, pure-hearted heroes, tragedy, and one of the most famous magic swords in history; Durendal. Not strictly a duel, Roland's final moment comes in the form of a heroic final defense of the Christian rear guard against impossible odds is a grand example of chivalric heroism as well as the fault of pride. The imagery of the mortally wounded count attempting to shatter his enchanted sword upon a stone as he lies dying so as to deny it to his enemies enflames the imagination.

  • 8. Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d'Arthur: Arthur vs Mordred

    This is the most iconic moment of the Arthurian saga, next to Arthur pulling the sword from the stone. It's been depicted in near every version of the story, and remains one of the most culturally poignant depictions of a sword-fight as a struggle between good and evil as Arthur and Mordred vie with one another for the fate of Camelot. From artwork to film adaptations to sculpture, this duel has imprinted itself on the genre so fundamentally that it's easier to list ways it hasn't influenced what came after than those that it has.

  • 9. George R.R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire: The Tower of Joy scene

    "Ned's wraiths moved up beside him with shadow-swords in hand. They were seven against three." In a series with so many well described sword-fights, it seems odd to pick a dream-sequence that ends just as the fight it recalls is getting started. But the famous standoff between Eddard Stark and his six companions against the three white-clad knights of Aerys Targaryan's Kingsguard - Ser Arthur Dayne, Ser Oswell Whent, and Ser Gerold Hightower - is one of the most poignant, moving, and beautifully described scenes in the entire series, reading like a Romantic Painting in prose. This one brief dream sequence wherein the seven face the three, seconds before a skirmish ensues that leaves only two survivors, captures the essence of everything one should get out of the best written fight-sequences in the genre: heroism, courage, and heartwrenching sadness.