Q: Where does the messer fit in the history of the sword?
KJP: The messer doesn’t really have a place in the aristocratic family tree of the Western sword. It was a farm tool. Messer is just the German for ‘knife’. The grosse messer was a large version of the everyday utility knife. A modern analogy would be the Nepalese khukuri, or the bowie knife on the American frontier. Humans being as they are, they tended to turn their cutting tools on each other in moments of stress. As with the khukuri or the bowie, the messer doesn’t naturally lend itself to defensive plays – it was designed to cut things, not to ward off blows or be hidden behind, unlike the purpose-designed weapons of the upper classes, whose design is all about still being alive at the end of the fight. Because a purely intuitive fight with messers would inevitably be short and lead to mutually assured destruction, extremely complex and sophisticated combat techniques evolved to enable messer fighters to survive encounters (if you get no help from the weapon, you have to try harder). A considerable literature on the messer survives from 15th century Germany – there’s a complete manual illustrated by Albrecht Durer, no less. I stole the line “Here they fight with messers; God help them” from Talhofer’s manual; it was that line that gave me the idea for the book. For me, the messer stands for functional savagery, the desire to actually hurt people, as against the more civilized weapons, which represent a desire to win (you can’t be said to have won if you’re dead or in bits) I guess that’s why Addo, who deliberately loses at chess, starts off as a complete no-hoper with the messer, and then evolves a way of subverting it to achieve victory with the minimum of slaughter.
Napier stepped forward cautiously, checking his footing as he went, as if he did not want to get any blood on his boots, parried a belated attack, and stabbed the Fist in the thorax three times in quick succession.
Napier calmly impaled a Fist who had tripped and fallen, then turned his attention to a new antagonist, a formidable character skilled with a real sword. The duel between Western and Eastern martial arts moved back and forth across the lobby floor, the two combatants staring directly into one another's eyes and trying to intuit the other's thoughts and emotional state. The actual thrusts and parries and ripostes, when they came, were too rapid to be understood. The Fist's style was quite beautiful to watch, involving many slow movements that looked like the stretching of large felines at the zoo. Napier's style was almost perfectly boring: He moved about in a crabbed stance, watched his opponent calmly, and apparently did a lot of deep thinking.
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