A few years back I was out of town at a friend’s house helping them get ready for a big party. They decided that they as the host were going to prepare one big main dish for everybody and that the rest of the guests could bring in whatever sides they wanted. It was decided that that dish was going to end up being latkes. Wonderful! I thought. My family has the greatest latke recipe on earth, we’ll just scale that up and everything will be fine. I checked back with the old country (i.e. I called up my dad) to double check I had everything right and off we went.
As we went along, some of the other people cooking, including the host, insisted that we make some changes. They replaced the matzah meal with flour, wrung some of the moisture out, and overall tried to pick and choose what from the original recipe they wanted to use. I tried to protest, but I was overruled. Dinnertime rolls around, people are drinking, friends who haven’t seen each other in months reunite, and overall people are having a good time. That is, except for whenever they bit into the latkes. Now, I won’t say these were the worst latkes I ever ate (they weren’t made with sweet potatoes), but they weren’t particularly redeeming either. In fact, some of the people who had helped cook started coming up to me and complaining about my recipe. It’s not my recipe, I said, you changed everything. But, alas, my cries were ignored.
You might ask, now how does this apply to swordplay? To which my response is, wait five seconds and I will answer my own leading question that I pretended to have you ask.
The art of the sword, as given to us by the masters of old, comes to us in complete systems. Whether it be from the smack talking mouths of the diestroes of Spain, the grapple-happy Germans, or the grumpy lawn chair of George Silver, what is presented to us is always a complete system of fighting. When eating a latke, or most any other dish for that matter, you don’t eat the potatoes, the salt, the pepper, the eggs, and the matzah meal separately. No, when you take a bite of the crispy goodness slathered in apple sauce (or sour cream if you’re so inclined), you’re taking in an entire dish. One bite might have more of this or that than the next, but it’s still all the soul-filling warmth that is a good latke.
Unfortunately, too many folks try to pick and choose and then find themselves disappointed when it doesn’t come together as a whole. They see a weird guard from Fabris’s second book, or a certain shot to deal with a charging bull, or even a three-part sequence that ends with their sword gliding smoothly into their opponent’s right eye. When that particular play doesn’t work, though, they become discouraged with the system as a whole.
A dish is more than its list of ingredients. It matters how long you cook it, what temperature you cook it at, and how much love you pour into the whole thing. Similarly, a martial system is a set of principles, often laid down to us through a series of specific techniques. It is not a bag of tricks to be selected from but is instead a family recipe that gives you an excuse to call your dad.