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By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions


By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions Cover



Author Q & A

A Conversation with Richard Cohen, author of BY THE SWORD

Random House: In America, sword fighting has something of a hidden cache. Of course, we often see jousting in action movies, and other types of entertainment venues. But, the sport — at least in America - has been lost to a large sector of the general populace for quite a while. Why do you think this is?

Richard Cohen: From the 1870s on swordplay in America pretty well disappeared, being kept up by certain aristocratic groups and by the military. It became an elitist,

minority interest. But from 1896 on - really, the birth of the cinema -

swordfighting has been a staple of adventure films. So there's always been

this underground interest in swordplay, and when in the last ten years or so

some great European masters came to the US there were plenty of people

willing to take it up. Two years ago the US won its first fencing world

championship - at women's saber! It's now a rapidly growing sport.

RH: The artwork on the jacket of BY THE SWORD is so evocative and lush. Can you tell us about the image and why it was chosen to go on the jacket?

RC: We tried several approaches. We wanted to get at the romance of fencing -

that seemed its crucial quality - but at the same time not make it look like

a sports book. It's much more than that - a general work of history that

appeals to all sorts of people. After about six or seven different attempt a

friend of mine suggested we model the cover on MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA - which

shows just a small section of a Japanese woman. It's atmospheric and

beguiling, and very effective. Spurred on by this, the jacket's designer,

Misa Erder, found a superb turn of the century painting, LE MAITRE D'ARMES,

by Tancrede Bastet (1858-1942), and used that to put together the superb

cover the book now has. But I also love the book's spine -it almost makes

you feel you're looking at a leather-bound classic. Which is a nice feeling

to have.

RH: How did the idea for BY THE SWORD come about?

RC: Back in 1992 I had just left the British publishers for whom I worked and

decided I'd have one last go at getting to the Olympics. I was already 45,

and my first Games had been in 1972, but in 1990 I had been selected again

for the British team, and again in 1991, so I knew there was a chance. Well,

I thought I'd keep a record of the year, as I went off to internatinal

competitions in Bulgaria, Boston, Padua and so on - to be called ONE LAST

FENCE. It was to be a personal account, taking in history as appropriate. In

the end, I failed - in the last bout of the last competition before selection

- in Madrid, I remember, so there was no happy ending, so no story. But I had

all this research - interviews with champions and their coaches that captured

stories that had never been written down or recorded anywhere; and when in

1999 I moved from London to America I thought maybe I should expand my

original idea to write an entire history.

RH: What were the main challenges in writing a history of sword fighting?

RC: The main challenge in all this was that I never knew the history would

turn out to be so vast or so complex! I knew Churchill had fenced, but

Lincoln? Teddy Roosevelt? Harry Truman, of all people? I would come back from

my main research home, the NY Pub;ic Library, each day with what I hoped wasa

minimum of two 'nuggets' - two new pieces of information that I knew I would

want to see in the final ms. But often I would return home with six or seven.

From the organizational point of view, there were some fascinating problems.

Many non-fiction books have a tension between their being a chronological

account and their dealing with specific themes, and that was certainly a

battle I had to work out. Some themes I decided to allow to carry on through

the entire book - the often intense relationship between master and pupil,

for instance. At other times - say with the story of swordfighting and the

cinema - I'd work an entire subject into one chapter, even though that was

covering a period of over 100 years. On the other hand, quite early on I

created an entire section - three chapters - on the idea of perfection -

perfection in sword-making, in the longing for a perfect stroke, in the

philosophical notion that via swordplay one might become perfect. I wanted

the reader to know that these quests have lasted through history, and to

carry a sense of what these quests involved as they read on through the rest

of the story.

RH: Why did you persevere in writing a book about sword fighting? To some, it may seem an esoteric subject.

RC: IS swordfighting an esoteric subject? Well, I know it's a minority sport

both here and in Britain. But nearly everyone, boy or girl, has picked up a

stick or madeup sword at some time or another and started to fight. It's a

very basic enthusiasm. And as for my persevering, it really wasn't hard. I

loved the research, even (dare I say it) loved the writing. The subject just

got bigger and bigger. It wasn't that I kept on finding out so much more than

I ever thought I would. It's that swordplay led into so many different areas,

so that I discovered that I wasn't writing about a sport at all, but a social

history, a book about an entire culture. I had grandly described the book as

I first envisioned it as a 'biography of a sport', and I hope that element is

still there. But it's more how the most important weapon known to man - for

that's how the sword has to be seen - has opened the way to so much that

isn't to do with swords at all.

RH: I understand that you are an accomplished swordfighter (is that the correct terminology?) yourself. What drew you to the sport? What is your specialty within it?

RC: I think I'm just a plain'fencer' rather than a 'swordfighter', though I

like the second term! I first took up fencing when I was at my main school,

in England, at a large boarding school set in the Somerset countryside. The

school was run by Benedictine monks (I was brought up as a Catholic - Jewish

father butn Irish mother) and one day, early on in my time there, a monk came

into the 'junior' house and talked about the sport he ran at the school -

fencing. He was a marvelous character, and very compelling. Locals called him

'the fighting monk', and he would sometimes come to our sports hall wearing

his habit, a mask and glove and wielding a saber above his head. Anyway, how

could I resist? I started with foil, the light French sword, did a bit of

epee, which is the sword used for dueling, but soon turned to saber full

time. It's more mobile, more dramatic. Better fuel for one's fantasy life.

RH: In sword fighting, which skills are most prized? Similarly, what are the least important — or least desirable — characteristics in a swordfighter?

RC: I recently asked my first national team coach what made a great fencer. He

was called Bob Anderson, and besides his coaching duties (he went to seven

Olympics) he was Hollywood's main fight director. He said a champion fencer

had to have four qualities - anticipation; a superb sense of rhythm; timing;

and physical ability, especially leg strength. Of all the people he coached

in film roles the actor with the most ability - over 50 years of assessing

actors - was Antonio Banderas. Bob taught him to fence for THE MASK OF ZORRO,

and will be doing so again next year, in the sequel.

Least important? Strangely, because there can be such a strong mental element

in fencing, it's not vital that you are a great athlete. Obviously, that can

be a tremendous help, but I've known a champion fencer with one hand, another

with one arm, even a German sabreur with only one arm and one leg, and three

fingers on his one hand. He was suprisingly fast, and a really difficult

fencer to beat. What I hate in a fencer is someone who cheats - who goes

against all the traditions of honor that surround the sport. Sadly, success

at international level is now often judged so important that the pressures

not to be honorable on the fencing strip are very great.

RH: BY THE SWORD must have required quite a lot of heavy research. Was this so? Or were you already acquainted with most of the history? What were your primary sources? How did you go about researching the history in the book?

RC: I took just over two years for research, although in truth I suppose I'd

been taking material in through my pores for the previous forty. I travelled

to twselve countries in the course of research, and spoke to over 100 people.

The NYPL was a wonderful resource, but I went to libraries in Spain, Germany,

Britain and France as well. My languages aren't great, and so I had fellow

historians and fencers in countries like Russia, Hungary and Poland

translating long-forgotten memoirs and ancient texts for me. I felt by the

end I had a whole brotherhood helping me get the research for the book right,

all of them aware that probably it wouldn't ever be attempted again - or at

least not for a very long time. I was really enormously lucky in the help I


RH: I know that you were integrally involved in the book publishing industry in England for many years. Can you tell your American audience the primary differences, as you see them, between American and English publishing?

RC: I was an editor and publisher in Britain for 25 years. Really, the

similarities are more striking than the differences. As an author, though,

it's been an enlightening experience being published simultaneously in both

countries. At the time of writing, a month after the book went on sale in the

US, I have had one review (albeit a marvelous one, in the NYT) yet the sales

are strong. In the UK, where there are so many national papers, I have had

twelve reviews, all in broadsheets or national magazines. It seems so

difficult to reach readers in the US. Bob Anderson, who I've mentioned, got

me to be an extra in the latest James Bond movie, DIE ANOTHER DAY, and so I

rubbed shoulders - very briefly - with Piers Brosnan and Madonna. It was all

great fun, and a little absurd; but that probably got my book more publicity

than anything else.

RH: Was BY THE SWORD also published in England? If so, what kind of reception did it get? In what ways did the American publication differ?

RC: In Britain I was published by Macmillan. Like Random, they've been very

good, and I've also been very lucky with reviews, nearly all of them pushing

the book as a really good read. One interesting difference is that the Random

version is printed on very good thin paper, so it doesn't look as if it's 520

pages. It looks an elegant but not threatening package. In Britain they

really bulked up the paper, so there's over half an inch difference in width.

They wanted readers to feel it was value for money. Both editions have

reprinted, so maybe both publishers were right!

RH: Many readers have begun to come to BY THE SWORD. Who do you envision your primary audience to be?

RC: My primary readership is obviously those whop have fenced or who have an

interest in swordplay. But as I've indicated, it's really mainline history

that I've written. In Britain, one of the leading sports columnist has called

for BY THE SWORD to be given the best sports book of the year award. (I

wish...) But I was even more pleased when the Random edition was picked by the History Book Club and also the Military History Book Club. It even got picked, I was told, by the Science Fiction Book Club. Work that one out.

RH: Which main points in BY THE SWORD appeal to the general reader? I ask because the flap copy on the book jacket gives many tantalizing hints about the continued relevance and legacy of sword fighting in society (i.e. it explains why buttons are sewn on a certain side of a jacket; why we shake hands in the way we do; and so on.) It would be interesting to hear your take on the book as a whole.

RC: When I began writing BY THE SWORD I never felt it was going to have a

central theme. To my surprise, it grew one - the place of honor in our

society, and over time. Because swordplay developed from people trying to

kill each other, it was more necessary to have not just rules but a code of

behavior that fencers would abide by. Even more than other martial arts,

fencing expects people to be honorable in the way they behave. In Japan,

swords were seen as a reflexion of a man's soul, and even in the West they

have a huge symbolic value. This gives any history of swordplay a resonance

beyond most other books on a specialist subject. I enjoyed COD, for instance;

but the opportunities for honorable and dishonorable behavior are limited.

RH: It’s the holiday season. Many of our readers are looking for gift books for loved ones. If you could recommend this book to certain people on readers’ holiday shopping lists, who would they be and why?

RC: In all seriousness, it's difficult to see who WOULDN'T enjoy the book, if

they like reading at all. My 14-year-old has started to read it (very

critically), and he normally reads only science fantasy. The lady who cleans

our apartment has a copy; our doorman gives me a chapter-by-chapter critique.

I thought it might be more a man's book, and certainly there's so much

derring-do in the book that I hope that audience will get their money's

worth. But three of the most appealing longer stories in the book are to do

with famous women fencers. And in the end fencing is the most romantic of

sports - perhaps the most romantic of all. But you'd have to read the last

chapter in the book to see how that has particular play for me personally.

RH: Lastly, what’s next?

RC: What next? Something of a similar approach, I suspect, but to a very

different history - the history of the sun, and man's relation to it.

From the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

Cohen, Richard
Modern Library
New York
Military - Weapons
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Modern Library Paperbacks
Series Volume:
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
7.9 x 5.1 x 1.1 in 0.9 lb

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Related Subjects

History and Social Science » Military » Ancient Weapons
History and Social Science » Military » General
History and Social Science » Military » Weapons » General
History and Social Science » Western Civilization » General
Sports and Outdoors » Martial Arts » General
Sports and Outdoors » Sports and Fitness » Martial Arts » General
Sports and Outdoors » Sports and Fitness » Miscellaneous Sports

By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions Used Trade Paper
0 stars - 0 reviews
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Product details 560 pages Modern Library - English 9780812969665 Reviews:
"Review" by , "A vivid and hugely enjoyable pageant of extraordinary tales . . . irresistible."
"Review" by , "A virtual encyclopedia on the subject of sword fighting."
"Review" by , "A fascinating story told with literary verve."
"Review" by , "Like swordplay itself, By the Sword is elegant, accurate, romantic, and full of brio — the definitive study, hugely readable, of man's most deadly art."
"Review" by , "Cohen loves the punctilious dressage of fencing...and is particularly drawn to instances where this vanished world has given us a cultural legacy.... His narrative style, too, with its outspoken opinions and talk of fair play, embodies the "heroic archaism" that so evidently delights him."
"Review" by , "There are copious playful asides as footnotes filling the reader in on wonderful facts and anecdotes. For those with even a casual interest in fencing, Cohen's work will be a delightful read; he brings the daunting breadth of the history of the sword within easy reach of the curious."
"Review" by , "A literate, learned, and, beg pardon, razor-sharp history of fencing and kindred martial arts, by an English Olympian and saber master."
"Synopsis" by , Napoleon fenced. So did Shakespeare, Karl Marx, Grace Kelly, and President Truman, who would cross swords with his daughter, Margaret, when she came home from school. Lincoln was a canny dueler. Igantius Loyala challenged a man to a duel for denying Christ’s divinity (and won). Less successful, but no less enthusiastic, was Mussolini, who would tell his wife he was “off to get spaghetti,” their code to avoid alarming the children. By the Sword is an epic history of sword fighting—a science, an art, and, for many, a religion that began at the dawn of civilization in ancient Egypt and has been an obsession for mankind ever since. With wit and insight, Richard Cohen gives us an engrossing history of the world via the sword.


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