Drizzt Do’Urden and the Infamous Parry

Let’s take a break from movies, and delve into books for a second.

This comes up every once in a while in the salle, among people who know Dungeons & Dragons (hi Matheus!): the double cross down parry, and the counter executed by Drizzt Do’Urden. This is of some interest to me because I do some training with a case or pair of rapiers, though I use smallswords because it’s hella tough on the arms. Dual weapon fighting is very interesting! Here’s what I’ve said before about it, while I was musing about random stuff:

“Historically, dual-wielding swords just didn’t happen, especially in war. But one-on-one techniques did and do exist, especially in eastern martial arts. What you notice about these techniques is that they use one long/one short, or two short swords or knives.

Why is that? Well, I think it’s because two longer weapons are easier to tangle up, especially against an opponent who knows their stuff. It’s also harder to learn how to use a pair of weapons – splitting your mental focus and reaction time at high speed is a level of multi-tasking that a lot of people just can’t do, regardless of what you see in the movies.

The eastern techniques seem to focus on extending their unarmed techniques using weapons. What I’ve noticed in the western weapon-only styles (that I’m familiar with, anyway) is that they focus on doing different simultaneous actions with two different weapons – the rapier and main gauche or dagger, for example – or the same actions, with the same weapons, but in sequence.

I experimented with this, and here’s what I think is going on here: dual-wielding a pair of matching swords might give you some real benefit IF you could learn how to parry with one and attack with the other, but at the same time and with whichever sword gives you the best advantage. So attack with the left while parrying with the right, or attack with the right while parrying with the left. This would give you a major boost over someone fighting with a single sword of the same style because you have more options, and you’re not limited to parrying THEN attacking.

However – learning how to do this consistently and at the same level of skill as what you have with a single sword is like trying to tapdance on the moon, because you’re hitting the limits of human brain multi-tasking. And after all that, it’s still not any better than using a sword and shield, and you’re less well defended because you can’t pull one side of your body back to protect it – gotta keep that second sword in range!

So, in conclusion – the classic dual-wielding we see in movies and books is historically rare because it’s ludicrously difficult to train, takes too much effort to actually do in real combat, and doesn’t give you any benefit vs. an offensive + defensive combo. I know some really top notch swordfighters do it very well, but I think they’re the exception that proves the rule. You can teach anyone to use a rapier, but only a few can learn how to use two.”

The Double Cross Down Parry

So – Drizzt is known very well for being an excellent dual-wield swordsman, and this parry comes up in the book Homeland by R.A. Salvatore. The sequence, if I understand it correctly, is that an attacker thrusts at a defender with both weapons, and the defender crosses their swords in front of them in a shortened V or X shape, catches both blades, and drives the points down before backing off. Drizzt’s counter to this, as the conventional wisdom was that there was no attack possible from the parry, was to execute the parry and then kick over his swords into the face of the attacker.

I read Homeland and thought it was quite good, but Salvatore spent far too long geeking out over the sword stuff. And, like many things in books, this particular maneuver will get you killed, because it breaks some very basic rules of defense in swordplay.

Crossing the line

This is one of the first things we learn. You must cross the center line to drive your opponent’s sword to the left or right, not up or down. This is a simple spatial alignment – the shortest distance from your body (a target) to not-your-body is almost always in the horizontal plane, so parrying left and right is the fastest and most effective way to protect yourself when attacking or defending. We can drive the sword down to get leverage, but you cannot ever forget the crossing or you’re going to get stabbed.

So the double cross down parry fails on its face, solely because it doesn’t respect the crossing. It’s a longer, more risky action to drive a pair of incoming swords down, and possibly into your legs, than to drive them to either side.

Versatility

This is my other beef with the parry itself – if you screw it up, you’re basically in deep, deep trouble. Crossing your swords in front of you is a hilariously bad idea because, like I said above, it’s much easier to tangle up your weapons. It also only takes a second for the opponent to step back, disengage over the cross, and thrust through your now-exposed chest with the sword of their choice, and there just isn’t any good response to that from a cross in front. So the parry also assumes that the opponent is completely stymied by it, which really isn’t the case.

Two swords vs. two swords

Something I’ve noticed, over and over again, is that storytellers seem to think that a pair of swords must be (a) better than a single sword in all instances, and (b) if both fighters have a pair, that two swords must defend against two swords. What I mean by that is that if one attacks with both weapons, the other must defend with both weapons to survive. And… no. Neither is true, sorry.

I think I’ve explained the first well enough above. The second can be seen in this parry specifically – one attacks with two identical actions, and the other responds with both swords to defend. But this just isn’t necessary! A double-thrust is still defeated by a parry to either side with one weapon, because the same attack in the same line with two weapons behaves exactly like an attack in that line with one. The strength of dual-wielding, if one exists, is when a fighter can perform two different simultaneous actions with the weapons – in this case, two different attacks of which the other fighter can only defend against one. And this isn’t to mention the fact that a fighter who thrusts with both swords at the same time is pretty much asking to get stabbed, seeing as they’ve left themselves with no defense at all if they’re parried.

The physics of swords – which are basically levers, when you think about it – favours whoever can win the crossing and get leverage over their opponent’s weapon, no matter how many weapons that opponent is attacking with.

The kick

Okay, leave the parry to one side for a moment. The kick over the top of your crossed swords, people. Assuming you actually perform this parry and pull it off without getting stabbed in the crotch or legs, why, WHY would you kick someone in the face? You have two swords here, both of which are sharper and better at doing lethal damage than your foot. They also come with the added bonus of not being your fleshy foot which you need in order to move around, and so they can take a hit from another sword without disabling you. Now consider that, if both swords are crossed in front of you, and assuming that your opponent hasn’t laughed at this point and stabbed you in your unprotected chest, you can raise whichever sword is on top and counterattack immediately. No need to unbalance yourself or put your fleshy body parts out where they can be chopped off.

See what I mean? This is not good swordplay. It’s a wonder that Drizzt survived to make it out of the Underdark.

This isn’t to say that the book is bad – again, I liked it a lot. But this is the fantasy equivalent of Tom Clancy’s obsession with boring military details; if you’re going to totally geek out over swordplay, you need to get the details right, and that largely means getting the physics and biomechanics right. Salvatore can write so well, and I enjoy his battles, but… damn, man. He’s said that he got the ideas for Drizzt’s style from hockey and acrobatics, of all things. This irks me just a bit – it gives the impression that he thinks of swordplay as being a strength game, where knights bashing each other with big, heavy swords is the norm. We already know from historical records, and from the massive HEMA community, that a merely strong swordfighter will lose every single time to a skilled one.

Get a big enough lever and you can move the world. Physics matters a lot more than you’d think, when you’re fighting with what amounts to a long, steel lever!

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