by Meg Floyd
In this article, I am going to suggest we take a note from our Finnish brothers and sisters, and embrace the quality of sisu. Sisu lacks any easy translation into English. Wikipedia defines it as, “strength of will, determination, perseverance, and acting rationally in the face of adversity.” The loose literal translation is something along the lines of “having guts.” Personally, I would define it as clear-eyed, cool-minded determination, ruthless will without bravado or malice to see something through to the end without giving in.
What application does sisukas (the quality of having sisu) have to fencing? I think the implications are obvious. HEMA, like any true martial or athletic endeavor, requires a great investment of time and effort to become accomplished in it. There are no free rides or cheap solutions to becoming a well-rounded historical fencer. The demands on the HEMA student are threefold. First, it takes physical training to develop an athletic base of fitness. Second, a HEMA student requires the academic study of manuals to become well-versed in the sources and develop an intellectual understanding of their physical interpretations. Finally, and most importantly, to become a good HEMA fencer requires the willingness to embrace the physical brutality of sparring (and therein the risk of inevitable injury) in order to gain the experience to become an actual competent fighter. It takes time, money, and often literal blood, sweat, and tears to become a well-rounded HEMA fencer. I honestly think our sport is unique in the way it challenges the mind intellectually (understanding manuals requires understanding historical context, academic research, and often a second or third language) and the body, being no easy physical task. After all, it does say in Ringeck that, “if you become frightened easily you should not learn fighting arts, because a weak and frightened heart—it does not help you—it defeats all of your skills.” Sticking with HEMA in the first place past the beginning stages is tough; staying with it long enough to become truly learned is even harder.
While I would not call myself a great fighter or scholar by any means, I have been involved in the HEMA scene long enough to have the chance to observe some of the qualities that separated those people I’ve watched go on to become great people in the community, whether as tournament fighters, instructors, or scholars (or some combination thereof). These folks quite often have a few things in common. They are determined. HEMA is a passion for them, a lifelong one I have seen carry people through years of hard study, difficult training, and thousands of miles and dollars’ worth of travel. There are the trials and tribulations of expense (neither gear nor travel are cheap), and of healing from injuries and coming back stronger than before. The people who stay in HEMA in the long term, successfully, are also usually dispassionate in criticizing themselves. The truly great technical fencers I’ve seen all share the ability to separate their ego from their fencing enough to see where they need improvement, and then ruthlessly train to fix what needs fixing. This quality, of ruthless improvement, also shows in the greatest of the HEMA scholars. That’s why I’ve seen at least four different versions of schielhauw in as many years, why rule sets and things like our acceptance of an afterblow are forever changing—if something doesn’t work or make sense, it gets abandoned as we quest ever onward toward what is hopefully a historically valid and realistic interpretation of the literary sources we draw our martial heritage from. The great athletic fencers I’ve seen continue to do well in HEMA over a long time, without permanent debilitating injury, are also extremely pragmatic about their training—placing an emphasis on training smarter, and not harder.
In a world where great expense, dearth of time, and inevitable injury are constantly conspiring against the existence of a HEMA fencer, I’d say that all of the great fencers who exist in the world today have some measure of sisu in them—steel-hearted and level-headed seeking to see through their goal, against difficult odds. And it is a quality that perhaps every HEMA student should take note of and aspire to, if they want to succeed in the long run. We are all acutely aware of the bright moments of glory of HEMA—a book published, a medal placed around a winner’s neck, a champion held aloft on shoulders as he holds his sword up and roars to the sky. However, that is not the reality of most of what HEMA is—not if you’re doing the HEMA that gets you to that moment of glory at the end. The majority of HEMA is long hours spent researching and cross-referencing glosses of manuals, hours spent in the training hall drilling and sparring, bruises layered into flesh from painful lessons learned in sparring, muscles built up and shaped from months and years of physical conditioning. There is joy in it, or no one would do it, but not all of it is pleasant. HEMA is calluses, scars, and time. It takes a certain kind of person to see a passion like HEMA through, and it is a lifelong task with no end. I’ve yet to meet a historical fencer who has claimed truthfully or I believe has reached perfection. To stay with HEMA, to embrace it for all its difficulties for its great rewards, is exactly what a fencer needs sisu for. It is steel in the bones and iron in the blood. And I think, if we want to be successful fencers, we should all aspire to have some.