Alina Boyden is a pilot, swordswoman, and the author of Stealing Thunder, a fantasy novel that you really should read (no spoilers! but I really enjoyed it, especially the dragons-as-fighter-planes). We talk about birds of prey, fighter pilot training, Indian swords, Kunst des Fechtens, and even pedal powered flight.
You can find our wide-ranging conversation here: Podbean, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts or wherever else you get your podcasts from. Please consider supporting the show on our Patreon account, here: https://www.patreon.com/theswordguy.
GW: Hello, sword people, welcome to the show. This is Guy Windsor, also known as The Sword Guy. I'm here today with Alina Boyden, author of the excellent fantasy novel, featuring, among other things, dragons used like fighter planes, called Stealing Thunder. She is also a Kunst des Fechtens exponent in Madison. So without further ado, Alina, welcome to the show.
AB: Thanks so much for having me, I really appreciate it.
GW: It's nice to hear from you. So, Alina, why don't we just start with whereabouts in the world are you? I just told everyone you were in Madison. Is that still true?
AB: Yes. And in Madison, Wisconsin, currently. And for the foreseeable future, thanks to the Covid situation in the U.S..
GW: OK. And what got you started with swords and historical martial arts?
AB: You know, I got started with swords from quite a young age. I think my first interest in swords was when I was a very young child. And I think it was seeing The Return of the Jedi and lightsabers because they were big, glowing, cool things. My dad, he was a woodworker, and so he turned lightsabers on a lathe for us to play with. I remember that.
GW: That’s a parenting gem, that is.
AB: Yeah, right. And then from there, it had always been an interest, but I didn't get a chance to pursue it until I moved to California when I was 12. And at that time there was a local European sport fencing club that I joined. So I learned foil and then kind of specialized in épée. That was my go to weapon because it had no rules, so I thought it was more realistic. And even as a child I needed that. And then pretty quickly, I think I was 13 or 14 when I switched to Kendo because I guess because I'd read Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa at that time, and because I like slashing at things it just seemed really cool to me. And being on the West Coast that was available. So I switched to Kendo and did Kendo for quite a while. Trained in various other martial arts. And then around the time I was an undergraduate in college, I got on Sword Forum back when that was a thing. People have different memories of Sword Forum. So, you know, I got Sword Forum when that was a thing and met just a wide variety of other people in the HEMA scene. And at that time, I became interested in HEMA. But I was leaning more in the direction of the military sabre, the singlestick sort of thing, because those sources were readily accessible. I didn't speak German. We didn't have really good translations at that time. Everybody had a medieval combat, I think it was called Talhoffer, a manuscript with no text. And you looked at the pictures and, I don't know, played in a parking lot or something.
GW: Or stitched yourself into skintight black leather outfits.
AB: Yes. Or you made dueling shields. I don't know. You put a rock in a scarf and whacked people with it. So I saw that and I thought it was cool and interesting, but it was one of those things where it wasn't readily accessible. And also I had other interests, I guess. So I was interested in HEMA for sure. I was also interested in Ottoman, Turkish, Indo-Persian weapons.
GW: I got that after reading your book.
AB: Yeah. Archery. And so, like, I actually moved more into archery for a while and was doing various different disciplines of traditional archery or years. I trained in Kyudo. I used Taybugha’s manuscript on archery from medieval Turkey and I then started doing traditional European archery. And it's hard to say what traditional is, am I doing war bow archery? No, I was never doing war bow archery. But looking at how archery developed and what techniques existed in archery prior to the invention of the bow sight and modern compound bows and things. And I trained in that, and became women's world longbow champion in 2014 for a hot second.
GW: I should put that in your intro.
AB: Well, you know, it's like one of those things where I got the IFJ indoor world title in March of 2014 or something like that, I think. And I set a world record actually, I was really proud of myself and it was immediately broken by some bitch in Estonia. I think it lasted like two weeks and it was such a short period of time that it didn't even officially go into the record books. At the time it was the world record for that division, for that particular organizing body, which is not the same organizing body that does the Olympics. Because it's field archery. But, yeah, I did archery competitively and then grad school kind of got rid of that. And then I was like, I miss swords, I should do HEMA again. And this must've been in 2015 or 2016. And I was like, I wonder if there's any HEMA groups in Madison, Wisconsin? And the first thing I found was the Madison Meyer Freifechter Guild. And I was like, oh, cool, you do have one. So I went there and trained with them for a while. And I was just kind of floored because I was like, feders? You don't use like a like a shinai with, like some stick tied to it anymore? What's going on, what have you guys done here? So I missed a lot of the period where it became mainstream. And I came back to this thing where they actually had equipment for sale. And I was just baffled. I was like, what? Because I gone literally from when ARMA wast called HACA, and the best simulator available is when you follow their plans to make a foam boffer with a screw stuck in like a PVC pipe with a dowel in it.
GW: We never used it. We were always using steel because we had access to steel swords. Even in the 90s we were using steel.
AB: Good for you.
GW: Yeah, we were lucky. Yes. I vividly remember those days.
AB: I mean, I never made one because I thought it seemed ridiculous. But I was like, why don't you just use wood at that point? It seems like it makes more sense. But I guess they really needed to hit each other or something. So I came from that to modern factory-made feders that are widely available for reasonable prices. So I was really baffled. I thought it was great. So I trained with Madison Meyer Freifechter Guild for a while. And Eric Mainzer I was training with at the time, he kind of stepped down. I think he was stressed out and busy working and so there was really not a sort of organized leadership at that time for a short period. Because Chris, at the time, I think he was really busy with his in his military obligations. And so then I drifted over to some other groups in Madison and eventually found my way over to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where James Riley teaches. And I worked with James for quite a while. And then I saw Jess Finley on Facebook and was like, oh, she’s doing weekend intensives or something with a sword cordage. I was like, all right. So I said, hey, can I do a weekend intensive with you? And she's like, sure. And we didn't know each other at all. And so she said, does November sound good? I'm like, November’s fine. And months go by, November rolls around. And this is November of last year, actually. And I go down there to train with her for a weekend and it's four days of four hours a day of fencing. And I was not fit. And I was like, oh, my God, she's killing me. She's so fit. And then she tells you all about her health issues that she's had and how she had to teach herself to walk again. And you're looking at yourself and you’re just thinking, what is your excuse? Get moving, do something. So she's a very inspirational human being. But what I found was when I trained with her for that period, I thought, wow, I learned so much in such a short time. It really helped me to kind of implicate an understanding of what the art was aiming to do and we meshed so well. I mean, we geeked out hardcore because I got there and she said, you know, do you know anything about falconry? And I was like, I used to train birds of prey for a living and I’m obsessed with them.
GW: OK, you’re going to have to tell us about that in a minute.
AB: My whole life, being a fighter pilot was my dream as a kid. And I got kicked out of Air Force ROTC for being trans back in 2002. So that didn't pan out. But later, a U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel took pity on me and gave me the entire training that the U.S. Air Force gives to new fighter pilots through Flight Sims over the course of like six months training me. I was playing a lot of flight sims after my older brother's suicide – it was like a coping mechanism. And he was sick of flying in virtual fighter squadrons with people who didn’t know what they were doing, so he was like, well, if you're going to fly, I'll train you, then you have to train everybody else. That's the rule and you have to take it seriously. But I'll do it. And I was like, great. And so he trained me in that art. And at the same time, I was training birds of prey for a living. So one of the things I saw was, he had gone through, explained how fighter piloting works, what the martial art of fighter piloting is, because it's absolutely a systematized martial art. It's the only surviving lethal dueling art in the world that still is used for its intended purpose. And lo and behold, I was watching a falcon go after a duck and I was like, holy shit, that falcon just made a good turn circle entry into the lag window, executed a clean talon shot, low aspect. Oh, that's so good.
GW: Could you explain those terms for the non-fighter pilot listeners?
AB: So what I mean is that if you imagine, and it's so much easier to talk about these things with visual references, but if you imagine that you're diving after an opponent. At another airplane, or a duck if you're a hungry falcon. If you dive straight at it, you have a chance of hitting it. But that chance is in a split second, you have that one moment to hit it. And if you miss, you miss. And that's the end of it. Whereas if you dive slightly behind it and pull up into it, you have several seconds of a very easy low aspect, that is you don't have that much deviation in your angles and your flight paths from one another. And therefore, you have this long, easy, period of time in which to land your hit. And so by diving behind it and pulling up into it, the falcon has the opportunity to hit the duck and also to course correct if the duck decides to make a maneuver against it. And so that's what they trained fighter pilots to do in the US Air Force. And when I saw a falcon just do that, I was like, wait a second. The reason it was so striking, you might think, well, of course, a falcon knows what it's doing, that's how they live. Which makes sense. But if you took any new person, put him in a flight sim and told them to dive on an enemy airplane they would point straight at it because they want to go after that aircraft. So the falcon to know I'm going to point behind it, I'm going to do what is called “lagging out”. The “lag window” is the space behind the duck, and then “turn circle entry” is you're making a turn. Whether that turn is vertical, horizontal it doesn't much matter. Or somewhere in between. And so it's making this turn into the duck as the duck itself is turning. By coming in behind it so that it aligns their flight paths for the longest period of time to get a clean kill. Well, most people don't know to do that. Most people wouldn't do it that way. And most people would never really learn to do it that way.
I mean, “never” is kind of a strong word, but it’s certainly not something that's intuitive and it's actually not something that’s necessarily is obvious or even that something you would learn from trial and error. Because even if you're doing it on a flight sim, you may just get real good at taking that really difficult shot and missing a bunch of times, but hitting enough times that you're successful. But the margins for birds hunting are much stronger than that. If they miss, they die essentially because they go hungry, if they miss enough. So the fact that the bird was able to do something that that a human being wouldn't think to do without training blew my mind. I was like, that's crazy. And then I watched a couple of eagles chasing a seagull to exhaustion and killing it, a couple of bald eagles. And they were taking turns trading off, exactly the way that fighter pilots are trained to do it. One hundred percent exactly: the way one would go high and linger while the other chased the seagull. And then at the moment the seagull made a turn that was too sharp for the eagle that was following it to manage it would go up high and the other one would dive down and make a turn circle entry to continue chasing it. And it was just so perfectly coordinated. It was unbelievable. It's better than most people do. And again, it's something that humans require a ton of training to figure out. And these eagles were just doing it. I was like obsessed with that. And so I would just go over [to see Jess Finley] for this weekend and she's like, “Do you know anything about falconry?” And I was like, tell me more. I'm sure that she's talked about it at length and most people who are familiar with her floated this idea that these terms that are used in the German longsword tradition and the German martial arts tradition are terms that are also used in hunting and specifically in falconry. And for me, it was like a light switch just went off because for a long time I thought there's a huge overlap between fighter piloting and fencing. There's just a huge overlap. And then when she said that, it just flipped a switch in my brain and I was like, oh, I get it. OK. So this is a hunting falcon. It has nothing to do with swords in my brain anymore. It has to do with lift vectors and lag roll displacements. And this is fine, we can do this. And so the two of us, I think, spent half the night reading this horrible medieval French poem, horribly brilliant medieval French poem called The Alerion, which is basically a romantic primer where the guy talks about courtly romance, but he talks about it through the guise of training birds of prey. And so I was just explaining to her what all the terms meant. It was the most hilarious poem to me because I train birds of prey. But the poem at the beginning says this isn't a popular word because no modern person has the knowledge of or interest in falcons for this to really make sense as a metaphor. And I was like, excuse me.
GW: these people do exist. I just have a question: are the origins of fighter piloting 100 years ago or so, do you think it's likely that someone who knew about falconry influenced the development of fighter plane tactics?
AB: I actually think it's somebody who knew something about horsemanship because all of the fighter pilots in World War One, not all of them, but a strong number of fighter pilots in World War One who were quite successful, made their start as cavalry officers, including Richthofen, the Red Baron. And Jess and I have been talking – she's working on horsemanship now. Horsewomanship, I suppose. Anyway. So she's working on horses and on the mounted combat sections of Kunst des Fechtens that are less widely taught because we don't usually have horses. And interestingly, you're doing the same thing with horses that you do with fighter planes to a degree, because if you make the horse slow down too much in a corner, it drops its gait and then it becomes less manoeuvrable. Just like if you go too slow in a plane, you'll fall out of the sky, and you want to keep your speed up so that you're not overtaken. And so there's a sense in which this kind of dogfighting is very similar to the kinds of paths that are ridden by people when they're fighting on horseback. And similarly, you want to aim for a place where you can hit them, but they can't hit you, which tends to be in horsemanship, from what I understand from Jess, it's like the seven to eight o'clock position, this position that's on the left side of the opponent and behind them.
GW: OK. I've had a mounted combat lesson from Jennifer Landels. When we did a bit of sparring at the end – both of us on horses – where do you think she was the entire bloody time? She was on my seven o'clock, slicing the crap out of me.
AB: Right. And so how do you get somebody off your seven o'clock position? Well, fighter pilots and birds know how to do that, right? There's a reason that falcons were compared to knights. Strongly compared to knights in the period, so much so that the hood of the falcon was considered to be like a knight’s helmet. And so the idea that these falcons are knights, well the combat must have looked very similar to them in some respects, because you're familiar with what the birds are doing, you see how they fight where there's only certain ways that birds can fight against one another. And there's only certain ways that the horse, the horsemen, can fight against one other as well. So like the head-on pass. You can take something head on. To do that is the most dangerous. It opens you up to the most assault from your opponent. And you see all these talks in medieval documents about falcons that were killed by a heron when the heron, of course, is a bird that has a very long beak. And so if it makes a head on pass, it can stab like a jousting knight. Well, this must have looked very much like somebody getting skewered with a lance in a charge to them. Whereas the falcon really wants to manoeuvre to get behind the heron and then hit it from the six o'clock position, low six o'clock, which is the equivalent of the seven or eight o'clock position on horseback. So this connection between what they're doing with their falconry and what they're doing with their horse combat, I think probably would have been very clear to them at the time. And I think then the swordsmanship, the swordsmanship that's on foot, the unarmoured swordsmanship, has a ton of elements that are derived from that understanding of combat anatomy. And that's sort of what I got from my initial four day intensive with Jess and I came back saying, “This is fantastic. We should do it again. Let's do it for a month.” And she's like, a month is a long time, Alina. And I was like, well, I'm a writer. Let's do a month. And she's like, what about two weeks? So then I went in February and we spent six hours a day for two weeks training, going through the entire system of KDF. The entire longsword system anyway. We didn't manage to go through everything and two weeks is not enough time. A month would have been better.
GW: Yeah, Jess has kids, she has obligations and things to do.
AB: Brian and Scarlett took care of themselves. They're fine. They'll just play video games all day. It's all good. So yeah. So that's what I did before Covid hit was training with her and that was fantastic. And I think the other reason that I trained with her was because she has a real systematic understanding of the art. And one thing that comes from a lot of the Japanese sword training I did, because I trained in Kenjutsu as well. One thing that I noticed in HEMA is that because we're often getting things in dribs and drabs from books, from new interpretations, from something somebody posted on the Internet, from some piece of somebody else's book. It's a very syncretic system in that in that regard, we're getting information from a lot of different places and we are sort of required to synthesize it ourselves inside of ourselves. We say, OK, I'm going to systematize it in my way after having gotten all this information from these different places, from that one seminar I went to that one time, from that guy in my town who taught me this, from that tournament I went to and this guy talks about this. Well, the result of that is that it's one of the only martial arts ever practiced where when you learn it, you're not learning how to teach it, because in any other kind of martial art, when you go to a school, you have a teacher who teaches you and you learn the art. But as you're learning the art you're also learning how to teach the art. You learn what you did first and what the first lesson was. And in this respect to my sport fencing days, the first thing we did was footwork. Then we learned how to hold the sword. Then we learned how to move with the sword. Then we learned the parries. You know, so on and so forth. So you have a systematic way of doing it. And when you want to show it to somebody else you take the same system that you were given and you systematically teach it to them. And you produce a new fencer. But in HEMA we haven't had that historically or traditionally in the last 20 years or so.
GW: I’ve run my school that way. But most people who train in HEMA don’t train in my school.
AB: It's like we have pockets of it. I mean, it's not universal and it's something that I think is becoming more common now than it was in the past. But now I think we are getting some people who are doing this. But one of my goals to address was that I had been put in a position where I needed to teach beginners in a HEMA group in Madison and I felt so unprepared for it and so at a loss for how to do it. I could teach some basic cuts, some things. I could teach them what words were, but I was like, what is the system for teaching this? What is the core of it? What do I want to pass on to people? How do I systematize it in a way that I'm giving them something on day one that then builds to day two, and builds to day three, rather than giving them a bunch of disjointed things that, sure they're all important, but why did I teach them in that order? And why did I teach those particular things? And so the reason that I really went to Jess was, OK, if I'm going to have to teach people things, I want to have a systematic understanding of the whole art first and to know what it is and to know what I think it is, and to know what the salient features are so that I can figure out how I would want to build a student up to an understanding of that art in its entirety, rather than saying, well, I have an incomplete understanding. Here are some of the pieces of the incomplete understanding I have, which is not wrong. I don't want to discourage people from trying to start groups or whatever, but it felt to me really incomplete. I felt lost, I really did.
GW: Yeah, having that sort of structured system is very helpful. You start with what you've got. Back when I was in the mid 90s we were teaching, “Oh, I saw this cool trick in this book yesterday, now I’ll show it to you today. And how does it fit with everything else? No idea.” It was better than nothing.
AB: No, sure. It's better than nothing.
GW: But, you know, I actually feel this way, if you compare Fiore as a source to the German sources, Fiore presents a complete systematic picture of the entire art of arms as he sees it.
AB: So do the Germans sources.
GW: It's not the same. You have most of the German sources that appear to me to be, OK, here's a bunch of longsword stuff, which is cool, and then we've got some dagger stuff over here and we've got some mounted stuff over there and we've got some wrestling stuff over here. And it's not a coherent artistic vision of the whole. It’s here are these different sections, from which you can then create your own complete vision perhaps? But that's not the way the information is presented.
AB: I disagree.
AB: I think, and keep in mind my knowledge of the system is still limited. I don't know the Rossfechten well. There are there are holes in my knowledge and you can correct me if I'm wrong, but just from my training with Jess especially we just went through the whole Zettel for the longsword, just went through the Zettel, and if you go through the Zettel it is a training program. That's what it is. It's a training programme of how to teach somebody longsword. And you start at the beginning. Some of it is not clearly laid out. The gemeine lehre is not clearly laid out. But if you have some idea of what gemeine lehre might be and you get some of that from Messer, you can bring that in and say, OK, here's the gemeine lehre. You can track a student that way. And then once the gemeine lehre is taken care of, you break right into the Zettel and you go to the Zettel and it's a complete system. And it and it actually trains them in a way that even alternates which parts of the body are doing work and which parts are heavy training days, as it were, and which are heavy thinking days. And it teaches you a progression of opponents so that you understand how to use each different Meisterhauwen in different contexts and against different opponents. And once you go through the entire Zettel, you have gone through the complete longsword system from start to finish.
GW: Ah, yes. What about the dagger and the mounted combat? The Zettel is absolutely a systematic look at the longsword. But knightly combat is not just longsword on foot.
AB: Sure. No, of course not.
GW: That’s what I mean by Fiore as a complete picture of the art of arms. Basically all branches of knightly combat are covered by this one coherent artistic vision, as opposed to there being a deep dive on longsword, and then a whole separate section on dagger, which is not explicitly connected. Whereas, for example, Fiore will say, “And this thing where you're wrapping up somebody’s arm is, for instance, just like the third play of the first master of the dagger.” So he explicitly connects all his sections together so you can see how, for example, the spear is related to the longsword, is related to the dagger, is related to wrestling, is related to lance on horseback.
AB: Sure. I think that in the case of Kunst des Fechtens, as I understand it, there is to some degree, obviously I don't think that there's that connection that you're talking about. I don't think that's the way that they organized it. But I don't think that that means that they're disjointed. Because if you look at, for instance, Jess in her training, there came this sort of question of what a zucken is. What is a “zuck”? What does that mean? Pulling. Well, the way it's often been shown and taught is exactly the same thing as a abnehmen, which is that when you come into, say a zornhau against your opponent and you have a bind, the opponent is strong in the bind, very strong in the bind, making a strong parry. So you pull your sword back up over your head and back down on the same line or even on the opposite line. And what you have done is essentially cut around, right? Well, a lot of people taught that and called it zucken. And it's not. It just isn't. Zucken is pulling where you're literally pulling your point back. So retraction of the point. And when you retract your point, you are then able to thrust in on another opening. Well, you know that if you look at what a zucken is in harnischfechten and spear, because in spear and harnischfechten it very explicitly tells you that it's a retraction of the point. So there's no confusion about what it is. In one of the early ones we have, the earliest translation for it was not clear what it meant in the description. And so people carried forward with this misunderstanding that it's the same thing as abnehmen, but it's just not.
And so I think that the fact that the same words are used for same actions in spear and in harnischfechten suggests that they're part of a coherent art and a coherent understanding. And again, it's something you have to tease out. It's not something I think that it is as clearly laid out as Fiore. Again, I have a lot of work to do on my knowledge of rossfechten and some of the other aspects of KDF in general right now. Unarmoured longsword is pretty much what I feel competent in. And so I would have to go back and look and maybe there are those connections and I just don't know them and they may not be there.
GW: Welcome to the joys of the historical martial art, where you can actually do some research and contribute to the general of knowledge. That's actually one of the things I like best about historical martial arts is that in most established martial arts, you show up and you train and 30 years later you're teaching and 50 years later, you retire or die or whatever. And the art is the same as it was when you started pretty much. It's unusual for a single practitioner to materially contribute understanding to an existing art without going off and creating a whole new separate art.
AB: Sure. What interests me, though, is that I found on Amazon some guy had translated a bunch of historical Japanese martial arts treatises ranging from the 17th and 18th Centuries up to the early 20th Century. And he has one on Itto-ryu, the one cut school. And he has like three different treatises translated at that school where you can actually see the understanding of the art change over time, the terminology slightly change over time. The core seems to be similar, and obviously it's not necessarily a manual in the way we might understand it. But it is nonetheless a change over time in how the artist practices, which you might expect in changing circumstances. Now you can say, OK, well, when you start training a martial art, you're passing on what was passed on to you. But I think there's a process of forgetting and remembering where some people tend to remember some aspects of the art more strongly, and some other people tend to understand other aspects of the art more strongly. And you see this too in Aikido, where there's a bunch of different Aikido schools now based on what the particular students of Ueshiba understood best or liked best or were most focused on.
GW: You have styles developed but your average Aikido student starting now, is unlikely to materially affect the way Aikido is practiced ten years from now in the way that a beginner starting historical swordsmanship can start working with sources and maybe start working a source that no one's really looked at yet and materially contribute to our general knowledge of how swordsmanship works that way. I don’t see much of that happening in an established martial arts, which means that it’s much easier to start and then much easier to learn because you have a teacher who had a teacher who had a teacher. And don’t get me wrong, I love all of these martial arts. I've done probably almost as many you have. And I've liked pretty much all of them. But the opportunity for a relative beginner to make a material contribution: I think that's really attractive in historical martial arts.
AB: The part of historical fencing that I like as well I think appeals to those of us who come from backgrounds that are more academically inclined or more giant nerds or something. I mean, I have an undergraduate degree in medieval history. But it's one of those things where I find that the part of me that loves history and research and is very gratified by research, I mean, my favorite part of being a novelist is getting to do research, to prep a new fantasy world by drawing on our actual world. So that's my favorite part. I like writing, but, man, the research is fantastic. When we do HEMA the ability to go and do research and to learn more about the subject and to draw connections to other places, I think is really exciting. And I think what I took away from Jess that was just really invigorating in terms of how I want to approach the art is just how far off the deep end she has plunged. I mean, it's crazy, she hand stitches the clothes, she reads all the books on how they thought about the world and what other things they were doing. And I mean just like totally crazy in a way that I love and admire, but also, you know, you heard me talking about birds, so I think we made a great match when I was training with her because we were just like two different kinds of total, total nut jobs. And so that helped. But I think that deep dive that she was taken into, “Hey, what are these words used for in other contexts. How might they have understood these words? And what does that tell us about what they might have meant for the art?” I thought that was just an incredible sort of mental awakening because OK, doing etymology is not a new thing, but for her to bring in all of the hunting terminology and to realize to the way that people learned in the medieval period, the fact that hunting was seen as training for war, I mean, if you go back to certain manuscripts on hunting, you have, “How do you deal with a charging boar?” That tells you something about how you fight with a spear on foot and on horseback. And so I think it's a really incredible contribution that she's made. And then for me, well, I can play this forward with falconry no problem. I know falconry really well. I know birds of prey really well. I know this fighter piloting stuff really well. And so when I looked at how that applied to the art it really informed my understanding of the art. The way that a bird goes after its prey and the way that you go after somebody with a longsword: to me, that’s the same thing.
GW: Yes. That makes perfect sense to me at least. I mean, I do have a question for you that it just struck me when I was reading Stealing Thunder that you have descriptions of the weapons. You clearly like blades, you really like blades. So you are very much one of us. But there isn't actually a sword fight anywhere in the whole book. There is a lovely wrestling moment, which I'm not going to give any spoilers for. That was great. But no swordfights. Actually I don't particularly care for sword fights in books, generally speaking. So it's not like I missed it, but I was just curious.
AB: Yeah, well there are the dog fights instead.
GW: Yes you have fighter pilot stuff in there.
AB: I mean, I guess the reason there's no sword fights in the book is the main character is smart enough not to put herself in positions where her life depends on a sword fight, right? Because she knows that there's other people who have done it more than she has and have practiced longer and harder than she has. And that's their bread and butter. And so she's like, I'm not going to put myself in a position where that's the deciding factor. There are many more fighting scenes in book two, including a couple of sword fights, though they're not really swords because the main characters uses katars, which I think are like the most brilliant weapon ever devised. Oh, my God.
GW: Gorgeous. Just describe for listeners who might not know them.
AB: So a katar is a punch dagger from the Indian subcontinent. We think probably South India is where they originated, but it's not clear. And they have a handle that's shaped like a capital letter H. So you grip the midsection of the capital letter H. And these langets come down your wrist and then from your knuckles sort of protrudes. This dagger blade can be anywhere from six inches long to 18 inches long. I mean, these things are practically short swords, you know. And you can use two of them. And they use the power of a punch. I think to me, and I'm just going to talk about the beauty of katars for a second here, because why not? I know it's not historical European stuff, but whatever. I want this debate.
GW: Just hold it for a second. I am very explicit in that I'm interested in historical martial arts. The European thing to me is just a distraction. There’s fantastic stuff from everywhere, so you go into katars.
AB: What's the first debate? If I tell you we're going to we're going to fight with knives, what's the first debate?
GW: You're asking me the question?
GW: There is no debate. I wouldn't fight you with knives.
AB: Oh, OK. Sure. No problem. We don't have to fight with knives. But like, if you're training with a knife, what's the first question a student might ask about what you do with the knife?
GW: How do you not get cut?
AB: Well, okay, sure. But what about how do you grip it? Sword grip, or ice pick, right?
GW: Oh yeah, OK. There are lots of variations you can play around with.
AB: I mean, like if you got a Rondel dagger, you know, obviously they usually showed it in this ice pick. But plenty of people fight with knives in sort of a forward facing grip, in a sort of sabre grip or sword grip. Well, which is better?
AB: All right, well, which do you use in what context?
GW: Good question…
AB: What do you want to do in a knife fight?
GW: I would hold it in a forward facing grip because I'm just more of a kind of slasher than I am a stabber, I think.
AB: OK, and what's the disadvantage of holding it in that forward facing grip?
GW: You can’t thrust quite as hard.
AB: OK. And what's the disadvantage of holding it an ice pick grip?
GW: It’s shorter. And you can’t really cut so well.
AB: Yeah. So you've got this position where if you hold it an ice pick grip, you can stab somebody really hard, but your movements tend to be pretty telegraphed. Your wrist doesn't really bend in that direction, so you can't really make good cuts with it. And you are limited in your flexibility in what angles you can cut at. Whereas if you hold it in a sabre grip or a forward facing grip, you can certainly cut better. You can't thrust as well. It's not as strong in the thrust. You when you run a risk, when you when you thrust with it of having your hands run down by the blade itself. So you end up in a position where you're making some kind of compromise between a grip that's more flexible and a grip that is harder hitting. Why is it do you think that in all the dagger fighting treatises, we see them holding them in this icepick grip?
GW: I think that's because how people armed that way would tend to attack each other in that period. You know, we do see both. Fiore shows us very clearly both. The 8th and 9th dagger are both defending against basically an underhand stab in what would you call a forward facing grip, so holding it like a regular knife.
AB: OK, interesting. OK, cool. So we see some of that. Katars, you don’t have to make that choice. The choice is made. It comes out of your knuckles. Well, the great thing about it is it hits harder than any other grip and you can move in every angle that you could move in with a forward facing grip and far more angles than you can move in with a reverse grip or with an ice pick grip. And you can at the same time also cut with it just as well as if you were using a forward facing grip, and parry with it just as well as if you were using a forward facing grip.
GW: I need to play with some Katars, I really do.
AB: They have all the advantages of an icepick grip and all the advantages of this forward facing grip and none of the disadvantages of either. And it's a stronger grip than the forward facing grip. You have a much more secure hold on your hand. And the langets that run down the side of your wrist on your forearm mean that if you're slightly off in your parrying with this somewhat short blade, you're not getting your arm cut off because they can go down as much as six inches down from your wrist. And so you end up with a position where you're locked in and comfortable, still extremely flexible because you have all of your elbow rotation and shoulder rotation from which to move it, and also some wrist rotation as well. And so you end up with a weapon that is sort of the best of both worlds when it comes to a knife or a dagger as a fighting weapon. And then you get to box with it. How great it that?
GW: It’s fantastic.
AB: And you get two of them. And I'm sorry, but if I had two footlong or 18 inch katars, I would take those against a lot. I would take those against anything. I mean, all you have to do is get one strong bind and then punch them in the face.
GW: Let's do it. Next time I’m in Madison. When we don't have coronavirus charging about, I go to Madison usually once or twice a year to see my friend Heidi. And yes, you and me. Katars against longsword, let’s see what happens.
AB: Let’s do it. I actually talked to Landsknecht Emporium about making me some, because one of the makers there, he also loves katars. I said, can we have fencing katars? And he's like, well, it's incredibly difficult to make them safe because you're hitting harder than you would hit with any other dagger. And so getting a flexi blade that withstands the punching of a katar without injuring your opponent is difficult, without breaking the blade is difficult. But I think probably I could get like an 18 inch rapier parrying dagger blade and made it to a handle and make some Katar trainer.
GW: OK. I wasn't suggesting that we try and kill each other. So, you know, any katars will do. You know, I play with sharps.
AB: Well, I do have an original Katar sitting on the bookshelf behind me. I used it on YouTube to punch a pineapple. I was challenged to participate in that “deed of arms” that was happening the other month, so I did. One of my entries into it was you have to do some cutting practice. And I thought, well, why don't I just punch something with a katar instead? That would be fun. And granted, it was a very ripe pineapple, but I could not believe how little resistance there was when I punched that thing. I thought I had missed. I was convinced that I had missed. And then suddenly I had a pineapple hanging off the end of my fist. And I was like, oh, I didn't miss. I just went straight through the entire thing and rammed the guard of the Katar into it without even realising that I'd done it.
GW: It's a perfect mechanical extension of the bones of the forearm which is what we're trying to do with a longsword all the time.
AB: And it's got a diamond cross section. The tip of it has a reinforced diamond cross section for punching through mail. That's what it's for. And it actually resembles some of the long bodkin points that you see in longbow arrows which are brilliant for punching through metal as well. So, it's just incredible at punching through things. I mean, that's what it's designed for. So, yes, those make an appearance in the books. Those are incredible. I think they're some of the coolest, most underrated weapons. And there are versions that most people don't see that have the footed katars and they have these fancy, clamshell style guards over the back of the knuckles.
GW: There’s one in the Wallace Collection that has a blade about three feet long on it.
AB: Oh, fantastic. We know about the Pata, which is a gauntlet sword, they call it. It has a blade about three feet long and it's a full gauntlet. But a Katar is usually not a full gauntlet over the hand and it's quite a bit smaller, but there's a similar principle. But I think what the advantage of Katar over a Pata is in it's being shorter and more maneuverable it makes it harder for you to get tied up in a position that's mechanically disadvantageous. Like, if you get in a bad bind with any sword and it's attached to your whole arm, you are then in a really bad place. Whereas with a shorter sword, it's very difficult for you to get in a position where the opponent has the kind of leverage advantage by being on the weak that you get in longsword.
GW: OK, so that was an excellent answer to my question. Thank you. I have a couple of questions that I tend to finish up with as we’re running fairly close to time, which is what is the best idea you've never acted on?
AB: The best idea I've never acted on?
GW: It doesn’t sound like there are very many because you seem to be doing quite a lot of ideas.
AB: It's one that I'm training for right now. Have you heard of e-bikes? Electric bicycles. Now we have bicycle engine and bicycle motors, these electric motors, that can produce 400 percent of your pedaling power and that are designed in such a way that the harder you pedal, the harder they work. Well, it occurs to me that you could create a human electric hybrid aircraft. So my goal is to train to have a pedal plane because there have been pedal aircraft, the best one was the Daedalus from 1988. And it went seventy-one miles over the ocean from Heraklion on Crete all the way to the island of Santorini. And the guy was a Greek Olympic cyclist. So obviously no mere mortal can go seventy-one miles in this plane. But it occurred to me if you're not doing all or even most of the work, if you're doing 10 to 20 percent of the work and the electric motor is picking up the slack, you could actually make a more robust, faster airframe and still have a normal mortal pedal it. And so what I'm trying to do is, is an electric human hybrid aircraft, and I have a long way to go. So I'm working on my cycling skills and then I'll have to figure out how to fund it. Maybe I'll just Kickstarter it. I don't know. But I feel like it would be such a cool sport to be able to do. Something that's like part glider, part electric aircraft, part pedal aircraft so that your fitness makes a difference in it, but it's still something that is not, you know, flimsy, the way that Daedalus was too flimsy. So for actual flying. So that's the best idea that I've never acted on. But I’m kind of moving towards.
GW: Something you probably don’t know is I've had so far two flying lessons in very light aircraft, and both of them are in my top ten life experiences of all time, including my children being born.
AB: Oh, yes. I have a pilot's license, and I'm going to work on my glider rating. So I want to have something that's basically like a sail plane that you can pedal.
GW: Just please don’t have it ready for another seven years because my youngest child in seven years’ time will be a legal adult and so if her father kills himself doing something stupid in a light aircraft, it isn’t quite so bad.
AB: So I'm going to you know, I know we're close to time so you can cut this. But the one kind of flight that we've never mastered as humans is the kind of flight that most inspires us, which is the flight at low altitude and low speed, the way that birds fly. And we haven't managed yet. We can't do it because we're heavy, which means that our stall speed has to be high, which means that we have to go a certain speed, you know, say between fifteen and 40 miles an hour not to fall out of the sky. And so because of those limitations, we can't do the kinds of flights that I think are most exciting, which is going low over things, which is going and seeing your local area from the air the way that a bird does, which is exploring, thermalling, that kind of thing. The closest we can do for that is hang gliders and gliders and ultralight aircraft. But even those things there's this difference with ultralight aircraft where you have this big gas motor on the end of it. It's not very good for the environment. It's very loud, but a pedal powered aircraft where you are actually connected to the machine physically in a way that you're producing the energy to do it. I think people would go nuts for that. I don't know. Just maybe I'm going to go and ask for that.
GW: I would totally go nuts for that. Would you please act on that idea straightaway?
AB: I'm working super hard at it, so I'm working on my fitness and I'm going to get a glider rating. I think having it be a hybrid that's also a glider means that you don't always have to have the engine running. You can thermal, which allows you to go longer distances, and then you can pedal between thermals. So I'm definitely working on it. It's just going to probably cost one hundred thousand dollars that I don't have to spend on a pedal plane right now. But who knows, maybe I'll Kickstarter it and people will be happy to donate a hundred thousand dollars to me to do this.
GW: Just a thought, combine it with paintball.
AB: Yes, there's no question that there's going to be dog fighting. I mean, that's the ultimate goal. I don't think there was any doubt. I mean, I just biked sixty miles yesterday as part of my training for this. I'm pretty serious. I have friends who are good with computers and one of the things I've always wanted ever since I was a kid and now I'm going to make, is I'm going to get one of those really cool bicycle trainers where you can put your bike on the trainer for winter and pedal it inside. Well, they have ones now that are set up in such a way that they send enough information to a system that there's an app called Zwift where you can actually race other people in virtual bike races by using this thing. And based on the terrain in Zwift it will actually make it harder or easier for you to pedal and so it actually allows you to do these bike races. I'm going to have them set up an IO controller for it so that I can use it as the throttle for flight simulators. So then you can actually use flight simulators to explore the performance envelopes of these kinds of things.
GW: That is super clever.
AB: I’m kinda crazy.
GW: That's very exciting. OK, my last question, I think I already know your answer. Technically that answer wouldn’t quite count because of the phrasing of the question. But somebody gives you a million dollars to spend to improving historical martial arts. But for our purposes, let's say that seeing as it is at least a hundred years old we can call dog fighting in airplanes a historical martial art. How would you spend that money?
AB: How would I spend a million dollars to sort the martial arts? I think that if I had a million dollars to spend on historical martial arts, I would definitely spend it not on dog fighting because the U.S. military pumps enough money into that. There's no question that that martial art is well-funded. Every military on the planet is still doing the same. It's a living art. You know, given social inequalities today, I might feel not great about spending that much money on historical martial arts, in spite of my desire to spend an insane amount of money on a pedal plane. But anyway, that is good for the environment anyway. But if I were going to spend a million dollars on historical martial arts, I think what I would do is create a series of scholarships for teachers so that they can basically get a grant to teach exclusively and research and not do anything else. And dedicate their time to doing this art that they love and practicing it. And some people get that luxury, as it were, because they're married to somebody rich or somebody who makes a better living or they're able to do it because they make enough of a living at it that it pays the bills.
GW: Yeah that’s me.
AB: Right. But that's uncommon. And I think even you probably would benefit to some degree from having a little bit of the pressure taken off by something like a grant that would say, OK, you know how you're always doing all of these things and scrambling to make enough money? Well, here's money for a few years to just do the kind of research that you want to do and do the kind of teaching that you want to do. And I would just tie it to seminar obligations or something. And there would be an event where the people who had these grants would come and teach and show what they had developed over that course of time.
GW: Now, it may sound a little bit self-serving, but I think that's a brilliant way of spending the money.
AB: Once I get my million dollars I will let you know. I mean, because I think the art honestly is one that benefits from more people having access to it, having the time to think about it. As a novelist, I think one of the things that I'm always conscious of is that it's a very privileged occupation because in order to become a novelist, you have to have been a failed novelist for like a decade. You have to have written so many books people didn't want and didn't pay for. Well, that means that you had to have a certain amount of free time to be able to do those things. I think that HEMA is the same way. In order to really make a contribution to the art you have to have a certain amount of free time and you have to have a certain amount of time that you're actually devoting to thinking about this rather than basic necessities. And I think that that means that a system where we could provide grants or something like that would open up the ability to learn and to teach to segments of the population that might not otherwise be able to afford it.
GW: Yes. I think that’s a brilliant idea. I was lucky in that I've never had to worry about starving because even if my school had totally failed, my parents wouldn't have let me starve. If my parents weren't around, my brother or sister wouldn't let me starve. And then worst case scenario, I live in a country where the healthcare is free and there is health insurance, but nobody needs it, that just gets you a better quality room. And so I was able to just risk it and then enough students showed up that I could pay the bills pretty much from day one. That’s lucky on all sorts of levels. There's a lot of people who I think could do amazing work, but they can't take the risk because they don't have that kind of support network.
AB: Right, social safety net. And I think one thing that would be nice for HEMA would be also, well, not just HEMA, but all historical martial arts would be to include in this, not just people researching and teaching the art itself, but people researching and developing safety equipment, training equipment. Because I had a really bad concussion on the last day I was training with Jess, it was awful. So the fact that we have a sport now that's developed in such a way that that's a really common problem where it isn’t in sport fencing for various reasons, to the same degree. I think that researching better safety equipment is really important.
GW: Yes, yes. I couldn't agree more. Okay. Yes. We are at time. So thank you very much for talking to me today Alina. It's been a fascinating conversation. It went in directions that I could not possibly have predicted. It was great.
AB: Well, thanks for having me. I really, really appreciate getting a chance to be on it to talk with you about all the things that I really love. So thanks.
GW: I hope you enjoyed my conversation today with Alina Boyden. And remember to go along to www.guywindsor.net/podcast-2 for the episode show notes and for your free copy of Sword Fighting for Writers, Game Designers and Martial Artists. Now, tune in next week when I'm talking to Kirk Williams, also known as The Knight of Green, about his reconstructing swordfights from video games, which is a fascinating conversation. So subscribe to this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from, and I will see you next week.