Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Thomas Covenant, Martial Arts, and the Oath of Peace

Literary genre-wise, this blog has something of a tendency towards thrillers and mysteries. However, I am also a big fantasy fan. In fact, my love of fantasy predated my fondness for spy and detective stuff.

One classic series I never got around to reading until very recently was Stephen R. Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. I tried to read the first one, Lord Foul's Bane, when I was in high school back in the '80s. I wasn't quite ready for it, and quit reading it after a certain infamous scene involving Covenant and and a girl named Lena.

This January, I decided to give the book a second chance. I'm glad I did. I quickly devoured both it and the follow-up, The Illearth War. I am in the middle of reading the final book of the first trilogy, The Power That Preserves.

Leaving aside the trilogy's important contribution to the genre, the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant isn't just outstanding fantasy fiction; it's outstanding fiction, period. I really appreciate the complex moral and ethical themes, and the fictional setting of the Land is simply an outstanding and well-developed setting. Due to Donaldson's power of description, I—unlike Covenant—almost believe it is real.

In addition to being a novelist, Stephen R. Donaldson is also a martial artist, holding a Black Belt in Shotokan Karate. (As a side note, Donaldson didn't start training until he was in his early forties. He wrote a nice essay about "The Aging Student of the Martial Arts" that's worth a read.) I was surprised to learn that he was not a karateka at the time he wrote the first Covenant trilogy, as the books have something of a martial arts sensibility.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Martial Artists and the Arts

Enson Inoue.
I mentioned in passing to someone that mixed martial arts champion Enson Inoue is a talented jewelry maker who crafts very nice bracelets that he sells for charity. (Check out his website, Destiny Forever.) The person I was speaking to expressed surprise, saying that making jewelry "doesn't seem like something a fighter would do."

Enson Inoue's handcrafted bracelets.
Perhaps to a non-martial artist the idea of a fighter making jewelry seems odd, but it certainly doesn't seem odd to me. There is a long history of warriors creating art.

A self-portrait by Musashi.
One famous example would have to be Miyamoto Musashi. A 16th century samurai, Musashi is best known today as the author of Go Rin No Sho, or The Book of Five Rings. Musashi was a skilled fighter who is said to have fought over 60 duels and was never defeated. Yet Musashi wasn't merely a warrior. He was an artist,  excelling at calligraphy and classic ink painting. 

Musashi's 'Shrike on a Dead Branch.'
Today, there are professional fighters who also create art. Mac Danzig is a skilled photographer. Eddie Bravo makes music. Personally, I have had the pleasure of training with many individuals who are writers, artists, musicians, glass blowers, and so on in addition to being martial artists. 

I believe it is important to balance the fighting arts with the non-fighting arts. As much as one may talk about self-development, mental discipline, etc., the truth of the matter is that most martial arts at their core are essentially about destruction. On the other hand, fine arts are at their essence about creation. By balancing these twin impulses—destruction and creation—an individual becomes a more complete person.