- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 29, 2002

By Richard Cohen
Random House, $29.95, 529 pages, illus.

It isn't enough that Richard Cohen thinks he must tell us about the history of swords and sword fighting literally from the invention of the first sword all the way to today's electrified epees and sabers and foils.
It isn't even enough that he feels a need to tell us about the development of sword fighting, dueling and fencing, to say nothing of sword swallowing, not only through the ages but also throughout most of the world with emphasis on Europe and Japan. In a way, though, that's all kind of fun and I'll get back to it shortly.
Unfortunately, however, Mr. Cohen eventually wanders off into some lengthy anecdotal material that seems to me to be included for the express purpose of showing his disapproval of certain persons who have been prominent in the modern day sport of fencing.
Finally, without much advance warning, he gives us to know that fencing is in danger of being dropped from the Olympic Games, mainly because not many people bother to watch it on television. Which is true. Raise your hand if you're a fencing fan.
Better, I think, that he'd stuck with the development and changes in the weapon itself and in the methods of and changes in fighting, dueling and fencing that have accompanied its development, as well as the effect of all of those activities on the culture of nations where sword fighting for centuries was an accepted way of life.
In these areas Mr. Cohen, a champion fencer in his own right, has done his homework, perhaps to excess. Certainly he feeds us more technical information than necessary. Not many people, I'll wager, are excited to learn that the addition of carbon lowers the melting point of iron by as much as 400 degrees. And the detailed descriptions of sword making are not the sort of information most people are seeking.
But swords and sword fighting are integral parts of and can hardly be separated from the history of civilization in both the West and the East so in a way it is important to know not only how swords are made but also where the good ones came from places such as Toledo in Spain and the German town of Solingen where these days they settle for manufacturing kitchenware.
Toledo, Mr. Cohen reminds us, is in La Mancha, home of Don Quixote, more known for his lance than his sword. But fine sword steel also came from Damascus and Arabia, and, half way around the world, Japan.
In Japan, more than in any other nation, Mr. Cohen tells us, there was a mysticism to the sword. Sword making itself was a "spiritual activity" accompanied by elaborate purification rites. Indeed, the sword "lay at the heart of Japan's highest culture" for centuries, up until its defeat in World War II. From the end of the war until the United States ended its occupation in 1952 sword making and even the possession of a sword were banned.
Originally, it is thought, Japanese swords came from China and were not made in Japan until late in the eighth century AD. Mr. Cohen quotes historian John Keegan as saying that eventually, however, Japanese swords "became the best edged weapons that have every been made."
More interesting than the development of the Japanese sword is the tracing by Mr. Cohen of the rise of the Samurai class. The worth of a Samurai, Mr. Cohen says, depended on his mastery of swordsmanship. But steel swords weren't the only weapons the Samurai fought with; they also used wood. Mr. Cohen tells of how in a duel a famed Samurai armed only with a makeshift weapon fashioned from a wooden oar killed an equally famous opponent using a steel blade.
But Mr. Cohen, a Britisher now living in New York, naturally devotes most of his book to the history of sword fighting in Europe. He touches almost none of the rest of the world with the exception of how could he avoid it Hollywood where sword fighting has been common place, at least on the silver screen. As early as 1911 an Italian movie, "The Crusades," featured sword play as did the made in Hollywood "Quo Vadis" the following year. After that the woods were full of them "Captain Blood" and "Scaramouche" and all the versions of "The Three Musketeers," among others.
In Hollywood a number of actors had fenced. Mr. Cohen lists both Fairbankses, Doug and Doug junior, John Barrymore, Rudolph Valentino, Errol Flynn and others. But not Ronald Reagan.
Other prominent Americans, from the founding of the country until the present and including several presidents, also had some fencing experience and one or two even fought duels. George Washington, Mr. Cohen reveals, was a dedicated fencer and was reputedly "the best fencer in Virginia."
One of the delights of the book are the little historical nuggets Mr. Cohen has dug up and included. Abraham Lincoln, it seems, was the participant in a proposed duel that fortunately was settled before any blood was shed. As a young lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant drew his sword and threatened to run a senior officer through unless the officer apologized for an insult. He did.
Even Harry Truman fenced, but better than that, so did Bess.
Winston Churchill, it turns out, was a fine swordsman but once, in combat with his life at stake, he dropped his sword and drew his pistol, fired nine shots and leapt to safety. Regarding that incident, he said, "I changed my mind about cold steel."
The German statesman, Otto von Bismarck was a frequent and avid dueler. And the Three Musketeers were real people. One of Mr. Cohen's longer anecdotes has to do with Jerzy Pawlowski, a swashbuckling Polish fencer who doubled as a Central Intelligence Agency spy when Poland was under communist rule.
It is difficult to know if western civilization evolved because of the sword or if the sword evolved because of civilization. Mr. Cohen's book seems to indicate that it's some of both. Certainly swords evolved in part because. as men became more skilled in their usage, technology and design had to change to keep up with technique. As a result sword fighting today, which is fighting for sport instead of blood and honor, has evolved into fencing with foils, sabers and epees. And the duel, common up to the 20th century, is now a thing of the past.
In reading Mr. Cohen's book one can't help but wonder how at one time there was anyone left alive in parts of Europe, so frequent and deadly was the dueling. And even when killing for the most part seemed to be pretty much a thing of the past there was in Germany a kind of duel called a mensur fought with a type of foil. They were bloody but seldom fatal and mensur fighters wore their facial scars as badges of honor.
Mr. Cohen is nothing if not thorough. He discusses not only sword swallowing but also in America the invention and use of the Bowie knife. The invention of the stirrup, he tells us, revolutionized mounted saber fighting because the stirrup allowed riders to guide the horses with their knees.
Finally, if you are interested in the best fencers of the last two centuries, Mr. Cohen can tell you who they are the British, the French, the Italians, the Poles, the Germans, the Hungarians and Russians. He can name both the men and women and the Olympics they participated in and the medals they won. He can also tell you who cheated. They are all there.
Mr. Cohen has some prejudices and he feels it necessary to include them at length. He has, in the end, little use for Helene Mayer, a champion German fencer whose father was Jewish. He titles his chapter on her "The Woman Who Saluted Hitler."
And, while he is grudgingly fair in explaining the circumstances of her salute to Hitler during the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, he leaves no doubt as to where he stands. She was, he admits, perhaps the finest woman foilist ever "but she was the wrong woman for the times." Perhaps. Mr. Cohen is good enough to tell her complete story so the reader can decide for himself if he is right.
In another lengthy chapter Mr. Cohen talks about Emil Beck who, after WWII, built Germany into a world fencing power that for a time dominated the sport. Beck's is an interesting story but clearly Mr. Cohen has problems with his unorthodox ways and feels it necessary to relate in some detail the German's eventual downfall.
In fairness Mr. Cohen also writes adequately about a few of the men and women he regards as the heroes of the sport. Regardless, and even though some of the book's early detail makes for heavy reading, "By the Sword" is well written and heavily documented by a writer who knows and loves his subject.
And much of it is truly fascinating, even for those of us who have never drawn a sword in earnest.

Lyn Nofziger, a Washington writer, was a political advisor to President Ronald Reagan.

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