An unarmoured Jamie maintains a careful distance and threatens his opponent.
Fencing, Bullshit, and Game of Thrones
The show presents a difference between “Lordly combat” on the show and “Street combat,” which can only have been written by individuals with absolutely no grasp of what fencing is and why anyone would be trained at it (hint: because being trained makes you better at it). Examples of this difference being illustrated in episodes are numerous: Jamie-in-training vs. Bronn, Bronn vs. Ser Egan, Karl vs. Jon, Jon-in-training vs. Trainees, the Hound vs. Arya, Arya-in-training vs. Syrio, and Jorah vs. Dorthaki guy in S1. Of these examples Jon-in-training vs. Trainees (season two, I think) is probably the most realistic for any fencer who has encountered a large amount of unskilled fencers in a given setting all at once (a tournament), that is to say the die quickly. Also, not all of these scenes show precisely the same aspects of fencing, but anyway, I am getting ahead of myself.
Fencing has some fundamental concepts that are important. In rough order of importance, they are:
1) Distance. People who are too far from you cannot effectively attack and hit you with a sword, or a dagger (looking at you, Karl). This is an iron rule. If the setting would be a polite fencing match or a street fight, this rule would remain unaltered. In practice, the rule means that you should be as far as possible from an opponent’s sharpened steel/point-scoring pointy end while at the same time threatening him from as close a position as you dare to maintain. There is an inherent tension between your ability to attack and his ability to respond.
2) Movement. Movement is related to distance. If you have room to move forwards or backwards (formal fencing), you can quickly change the distance between you and an opponent. This is another iron rule. Movement is important because if you move faster, you can manipulate this advantage into being able to quickly strike and retreat, complicating his responses. The interaction between movement and distance in time is called tempo. The Dothraki, I am willing to bet, would be masters of tempo.
3) Actual moves with your sword. Surprisingly for many new fencers, this is actually one of the less important parts of fencing, both as a beginner and probably in very high levels of competition. Parries and attacks both must occur in distances where they matter. Why parry an attack that can never land (just retreat!)? Why attack when the attack can never land (the opponent retreats or attacks first)? But of course attacks, parries, counterparries, ceeding, and all the rest of actions happen a lot. These are important when something like Attack– Parry— Counterparry—counterattack occurs and the final action (we call this whole sequence “a phrase” in fencing jargon) lands. The third element of fencing, the mechanics of swordplay in terms of moves and counters, is not an iron rule of fencing in the GoT world because some people fight WITH armour and some WITHOUT. In Arya-in-training Vs. Hound and Joran Vs. Dothraki in S1 we see this illustrated (also we see it in the books with Barristan vs. Pitfighter Guard of Hizdahr). The armour basically modifies tempo and particularly distance rules: you do not have to respond to successful attacks that hit an armoured part of your body, you can just close distance and deliver a finishing blow.
Going back to my original point, that fencing training makes a difference, let us look at a scene: Jon vs. Karl. Karl is armed with two daggers, which are longish. Karl is known to be an expert at using his weapons and is dangerous. Jon approaches Karl as he talks, Karl with weapons raised and in a somewhat protective posture, while Jon has his weapon down, trailing at his side. If Jon knew what he were doing, he would have his weapon raised. Whether he were lordly or not in is fencing, he would know to do this.
As we discussed, distance is the iron rule of everything, and in this situation it seems that both parties are not wearing armor apart from some leather protective gear (not unlike Kevlar fencing garments). Therefore Karl’s knives are very deadly.
Jon should raise his sword and assume a protective posture (similar to Karl’s) and put the point of his sword halfway between himself and Karl. Why? Because he should put a passive threat out there, i.e. Come any closer and you will be stabbed by this thing, which is longer than the daggers you have. From this point Karl will be at a large disadvantage, despite being a “streetfighter.” He has the choice of either relinquishing combat, attacking, or holding his ground. If he relinquishes, i.e. throws down weapons, it is over. If he attacks, he has to cross the very dangerous distance between the area where JON CAN ATTACK HIM WITH A LONGER WEAPON AND HE CANT ATTACK BACK. This is a very, very, big disadvantage. We also know that Jon wields Valerian steel. Steel so sharp it slices silk in half. Karl’s leather is useless against such a weapon. He would die attempting to cross that distance through superior speed (a quick attack). If he attempted to take the blade (another fencing term), i.e. made contact with his dagger and the tip of the sword to deflect it and attack, the dagger would probably be cut by the valerian steel, and Jon will counterattack, which would result in Karl dying before he made it close enough to attack himself. Getting around Jon’s guard with a valerian steel sword, having no armour of your own, and having no sword of your own, is not that easy.
So how does the show solve this? Jon very politely moves his distance close enough to Karl so that Karl could launch an attack and hit him with his given position.
What should Jon have done? Well what any competently-trained fencer would do. Raise guard and launch a series of attacks at Karl’s closest hand – the easiest and safest attack to launch. Karl for his part can’t do much to counterattack because he is far away. He will parry, but his parries will create larger holes in his defence that defend dearer organs of his body. The end will eventually come for him this way.
Now we are being super unfair and classist. What could Karl do against the Lordling bastard Jon Snow?
Karl could throw his weapon(s). This is a gambit and probably his best chance. If he misses or Jon ducks, or the hit is not significant enough to stop Jon, he is finished. It’s probably what I would do if I were Karl. More than anything, Karl needs to get a rise out of Jon (if Jon is a fencer and not an actor named Kit Harrington) to break his guard, make/find, an opening, and end this dangerous situation where he does not have the upper hand.
I think, my Dear Readers, you have the point. If you are fighting with swords, the swords are sharp and dangerous. The best defence against them is not being in the way, (stay away from the pointy end), and if you can’t do that, move away from the pointy end. This is why fencing training is useful. It gives you an awareness of the movement, your ability to strike, his/her ability to respond, and the dynamic dance of steel between the both of you (to borrow from R. R. Martin).
Martin in fact has a far better understanding of fencing dynamics than the show. The fight between the Mountain and Oberyn is illustrative: Oberyn uses his spear as a classic point of leverage against an stronger and larger opponent. He cannot possibly challenge the mountain with another great-sword, so he chooses a spear. It is both the emblem of his house, and a good way to threaten from distance (what we have been discussing). The mountain cannot close this distance because he is armoured (decreasing his movement). The advantage of armour is softened because Oberyn adopts tactics that decrease it: he does not attack armoured zones. He attacks linkages in armour, the eyes, holes in the armour. So the Mountain must respond to these quick attacks aimed at vulnerable places, and must respond in a slower fashion than he otherwise could because he is weighted with useless armour made useless by Oberyn’s strategy. The only problem was that Oberyn became bored of playing the slow, careful game, and closed distance with a weakened opponent who was many times stronger than him. Had he simply kept it tougether and racked up the points, he would have won.
In fact, this fight and Jon’s could have played out the same had Jon adopted rational tactics of staying far and nibbling at Karl’s extremities.
Further, I do not want to say that the TV show’s depiction of fencing is always bad or ridiculous. I am by no means an excellent fencer (and moreover, I’m old now), but what I am is dyslexic, and I was an OK fencer and experienced in my time. So is Jamie. I found it interesting that he is both a real talent and dyslexic. Many times I have found the inability to tell right and left in normal life to be a curse but in fencing to be a blessing. I feel that I have far less preconceptions than those with solid directional footing, am more creative in attack, and am never phased by individuals who alternate their right/left hands or who are left-handed (a major point of confusion for right handed fencers who are not dyslexic). In a medieval setting, where reading is less of a thing and driving swords through people’s faces is more of a thing, dyslexia could be one’s ticket to being a truly great knight.
In conclusion, lordly or no, fencing training makes a difference. No amount of street cred will allow a person with an inferior weapon to cross a dangerous distance without paying the price (unless Kit Harrington nicely allows them to do so). Moreover, I am not sure what the GoT writers think about formal fencing, but the fact is that people everywhere play to win, especially when everyone is watching and one’s honour and name are on the line (I mean they write down the results and everything, guys!). Part of playing to win means giving your opponent nothing. No space, no further room to run from your attack, no option but to launch his own failed attack, movements designed to unbalance, him, tricks to make him misjudge his distance, etc. These kinds of strategies are universal and often effective, giving the odds almost entirely to those with training and experience versus those who do not know one end of the sword from the other. Simply being able to read the reactions of the opponent, his leaning forward before an attack or where he is looking, is a valuable skill providing information about a future attack or retreat. Using these competencies is why people learn fencing, and why people who know how to use swords, in history and in sport, tend to slice up those who do not.