Published May 2009 at TheFatherLife.Com
On a recent trip to the store, my wife returned with more than the usual necessities. Walking in the door, she held in her hands two foam swords. While images of broken lamps and scattered knickknacks flooded my brain with the thought "Oh why?" I realized the time finally arrived. My son is growing up. Little by little the toddler stage loses ground to boyhood. Play swords, like toy guns, are inevitable.
I can't say I haven't enjoyed our sword slinging moments. He is hardly capable of understanding the mechanics of fencing or true swordplay, he simply swings with wild abandon like a farmer hacking down a clump of weedy bushes. Still, the play is invigorating and I had to ask myself, why are we drawn to swords? When we encounter baguettes of French bread to little cocktail skewers holding our cherry or olive, we become D'Artagnan, King Arthur or Inigo Montoya. Why do we at all ages grab long, slender objects and pretend to be Errol Flynn?
Most boys either own a sword or dream of owning one. I was no exception. My mother easily lost track of the hours I spent roaming the few acres of woods behind my country home swinging sticks, paper tubes, or whatever other suitable materials I could scrounge up as a sword. I dreamt of the day I could grasp the handle of something like Excalibur or fight alongside Porthos, Athos and Aramis. The movie Highlander introduced me to the katana and who can forget the buzzing electric hum of Luke Skywalker's lightsaber?
Unlike many boys though, I finally did receive my own sword. After attempting college and then abandoning it for "real life," I found a small apartment and a job at coffee house. I spent hours reading story after story of heroes and their awesome feats. I wrote poetry in the semblance of Shakespeare and Keats. I still dreamed of being someone exceptional, someone men admired and women swooned for. Then through a series of fateful decisions, chance meetings and unique opportunities, I enrolled in a program whose motto read Take nine months and plant yourself. We'll do the watering.
Those nine months turned into three years culminating in a graduation ceremony unlike any I have ever witnessed or participated in. After three years of apprenticeship, three years of my character being pruned and formed, I received my sword with great ceremony and honor. I realize this wasn't any traditional graduation, any normal ceremony for any normal school. But that hasn't diminished the significance of the moment. This "school" took three years of my life and through close, intense and intentional personal development instilled skills of conflict resolution, integrity, and character among others. Unlike a piece of paper or a plaque, my rapier embodied the spirit of this school, the significance and the full essence of surviving that crucible.
Still, the sword, whatever its form, holds about it an air of romance, the promise of excitement and destiny. Children everywhere depend on swords as a fulcrum for their dreams, leveraging towards reality that fulfillment of adventure, the maiden's white knight, the hero's vanquished dragon.
And Sara, my youngest, is no exception. She too will pick up one of the foam cutlasses discarded by her older brother for some other distraction and take to poking or swinging at my legs. Like my kids, people are drawn to or inspired by the heroics of a sword-toting masked man or chivalrous knight. While Zorro's near blockbuster status faded long ago, everyone still remembers the iconic "Z" the masked man left behind, gouged into our memories by the tip of his rapier. Of the brilliant duel between the "man in black" and Inigo in The Princess Bride, who can forget the honor of the could-be villain as he cuckolds the Spaniard saying, "I'd as soon destroy a stained glass window than an artist like yourself."
What inspires a father to play-fight with his boy? What sparks a child's imagination to enact a fierce battle with imaginary dragons, raiders or villains? Perhaps it's the underlying belief, the faith, in the existence of pure pursuits, untainted dreams of valor and victory, the vanquishing of fear and evil for the sake of good and overcoming injustice with honor and poise.
Maybe children don't understand these intricacies and I'm not sure I fully do either. I have yet to comprehend why I root for the hero in some epic film, heart racing as if my whole world depends on his success, his victory. Or why I read into the wee hours of the morning, eyes heavy and stinging, hoping the protagonist overcomes his adversary with a hero's deed.
I suppose that same unnamed belief causes me to keep my sword, though it remains in storage, and to continually anticipate the day when I can proudly display it as if to say "There! There is the implement of triumph, the blade of accomplishment."
Not that I owe those things to a slender piece of metal. It's what the sword represents¾ a symbol of achievement and discipline that I can overcome any obstacle, any hardship. But I do owe to it the remembrances of the occasion upon which it was gifted. Every time I pull my own rapier from its hiding place, I fondly recall the encouragements and admonitions spoken to me, the battles to secure my integrity, to bolster my character and shore up wisdom. Marks that have taught me that no matter how skilled one might be with a blade, it becomes useless without studied discipline¾ Knowing when to use it and when to leave it sheathed.
In years future, mayhap I will present my son with his very own real sword. Maybe I will talk to him of service, humility, triumph, defeat, danger and dreams. And when he's older, perhaps he'll knight his own son, instilling him with all the values and wisdom available to him. In this way, maybe we can cultivate character and inspire a greatness that is nearly forgotten, a greatness that hails from the knights of old and is echoed by the heroes of tomorrow.
Thus is the importance of swordplay. While to some it may seem superficial or an anachronistic childhood quirk, there are invaluable lessons to be learned from the thrust and parry of the play kind as well as the professional art. By it we learn patience, we learn discipline. We learn cunning. Regardless of the legitimacy of the threat, Styrofoam or tempered steel, we perceive each stroke, each attempt as a danger either to our mortal body or our inner sense of self. With it can come the refinement of character, the sculpting of an individual beyond pretend battles for the making of someone heroic, someone legendary. In this way a new breed of men may be born. Men unwilling to sit idly watching the exploits of others, but men daring to take on demons and dragons, men who cultivate honor and bravery in every relationship, triumphant in marriages, in business, and in life rich with the pursuits of heroes with own their swords held high.