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Posted on Jan 25, 2011 in Books and Movies

Swords and Swordsmen – Book Review

By Frederick J. Chiaventone

Swords and Swordsmen. Mike Loades. Pen & Sword Books, January 2011; 496 pages with illustrations and glossary of terms. Hardcover. $70.00.

“There is something profoundly and intrinsically poetic about the use of the sword ….”

With this intriguing introduction by Dr. Tobias Capwell, Curator of Arms and Armour for the world-famous Wallace Collection at Hereford House in England, we are launched into a world steeped in legend and ever-more sophisticated technology in this magnum opus Swords and Swordsmen. This is a volume which must not be missed.

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In his introductory remarks the author notes, “From the great deeds of mythical heroes to the gentlemanly art of duelling and the swash and swagger of the silver screen, the sword remains at the heart of our romantic imagination. It is the weapon that gives the hope that skill can triumph over brute force. It is an enchanted weapon, the one with which the hero wins out over impossible odds. Moreover it is the continuity in fiction that makes the sword such an enduring icon from Beowulf to the Lord of the Rings.”

In this work by Mike Loades—veteran BBC director, program host, fight arranger and historian—the reader is quickly drawn into a journey into man’s past that is both illuminating and entertaining. If more scholarly works were as well researched and as scintillating, the hallowed halls of academia would be that much more attractive!

Beginning with the swords associated with and discovered in the tomb of Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun we are shown the evolution of one of mankind’s most constant, if destructive, tools—the sword—and we quickly learn there is infinitely much more to this weapon than its mere appearance and use. Loades takes infinite care to explain how the weapons in question were manufactured and how they evolved over time. Step by step, we are introduced to individual weapons from the mining and refining of raw materials to the forging, fashioning and finishing of the blade, to its ultimate use in battle or single combat. From ancient Egypt to pre-Hellenic Greece and upwards into Europe, Loades uncovers weapon after weapon, each associated with a particular figure prominent in history, from Phillip of Macedon to Henry V at Agincourt. In each case the research into and ultimate understanding of the object in question, its manufacture and use, is both stunning and fascinating. As a military historian of some skill myself I was delighted to learn things which were previously a mystery to me and time and again was delighted by the revelation.

Nor is Loades content to remain fully in the thrall of Western civilization but argues that one must also be aware of the amazing contributions to swordmaking peculiar to Japan. It was, Loades notes, the legendary Shogun Tokugawa Ieyesu who declared, “The soul of the samurai lies in his sword.” We are taken on a remarkable and wonderfully instructive side trip into the history of swordmaking in Japan with a visit to the snowy Japanese Highlands of Honshu and the forge of Ono Yoshimitu, a modern day swordmaker designated a National Treasure by the Japanese nation. With Yoshimitsu and his assistants hammering in the background, Loades takes us step-by-step through the process of forging and finishing a sword such as that employed by the famed 16th-century Samurai warlord Uesugi Kenshin.

All too soon we are back in central Europe to follow the evolution of the sword from the two-handed war sword of Maximillian I to the delicate paired rapier and dagger of Henry IV. This is part of the intrinsically alluring charm of this volume—each phase of the development and use of the sword is anchored to a specific, often easily recognizable, historic figure associated with the sword and its uses both in combat and as a symbol of authority or office. We are introduced to the blades associated with Oliver Cromwell and then led seamlessly through a maze of gentlemen swordsmen who announced their presence and worth wielding cold steel.

But Loades goes beyond exploring swords merely in their European or Asian context. He brings his expertise across the Atlantic to look at the blades of some remarkable figures in American history—George Washington and J.E.B. Stuart—and his examinations are both fascinating and insightful. The result is a volume which is entertaining, informative, and exceptionally well presented. Swords and Swordsmen is nothing less than a must-have for any serious military historian and a more than welcome addition to one’s reference library.

About this reviewer:
Frederick J. Chiaventone, an award-winning novelist, screenwriter, and television commentator, is a retired cavalry officer who taught National Security Strategy,  counterinsurgency, and counterterrorist operations at the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College. His acclaimed books include A Road We Do Not Know: A Novel of Custer at Little Bighorn (Simon and Schuster, 2002) and Moon of Bitter Cold (Forge Books, 2003).

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