I've mentioned more than once my early feelings about foils, my lack of respect for them. They reminded me of car antennas. Whippy little things. Not real swords. Toys. For pretending. And there's still that French thing going on.
I'm sure many, many people- especially those who have a romanticized image of swords, as most people do- feel pretty much the same way.
I'm equally sure that they, like I was, are mistaken.
I could go on at great length about what foils are and are not, how they are made, why they are as lightweight as they are, what the practical applications of that are. I could write about how they are safer to use. I could explain how the foil is a practice weapon, never intended to be "real."
And it would be deadly dull and boring.
And it wouldn't convince anyone of anything anyway.
They still don't look like real swords.
Here's the thing: what makes a sword real? Is it the size, the weight, the shape of the thing? Or is it something else?
Way back in the long time ago, when I was just starting to pick up the foil, when I was still trying to reliably find my feet, and when I was beginning to realize that waving those things around might not be as easy as it looked, I finally accepted the invitation to watch a tournament.
Not just any tournament.
A fencing match between two fencing masters.
Can't get any better than that, right?
Until this point, I had seen my mild-mannered fencing master.... oh, wait. That must be some other guy.
I had been taking individual rapier lessons for a couple of years, and had taken some foil classes by this time. I had only seen our fencing master as a teacher. His persona as a teacher was one of strength, focus, balance and mystery, mixed with patience, an uncanny skill in knowing exactly what a student needed to work on next, and an attitude gained from having grown up in Chicago. Not someone anyone would want to meet in a dark alley. Not scary, exactly, but... well, maybe scary, exactly, at least some of the time. Stern, when necessary. And no nonsense, always.
I didn't know what to expect, seeing him fence for the first time, but whatever it was, it wasn't this.
He picked up his foil, and stood on guard.
And became someone... something... else.
Playing with a mouse.
Light hearted, joyful, even.
Still the same focus, the same intensity, but with an undeniable joi de guerre.
And something else.
That foil in his hand was clearly, unmistakably, a weapon.
No willy-waving here. Nothing silly or frou-frou about it.
Even though it looked exactly like one of those lightweight things I had held in my hand, in HIS hand, it was something else entirely.
It was, in a word, real.
There are some questions that new students often ask. One of the most frequent is some variety of "If one person had one kind of sword, and the other had a different kind of sword, who would win?"
They almost always expect the answer to be that the longer sword would win.
A few, occasionally, hoping to be clever, expect the smaller sword to win, that somehow there is some "trick" to it.
There's no trick.
I usually ask them this: if I had a rapier, maybe even two rapiers, and the master had a toothpick, who would win?
That gets the point across.
The truth is... he wouldn't need a toothpick.
It is not the sword in someone's hand that is, or is not, "real."
It is the hand- and the heart- that the sword is in, that makes it real.