In the coming months I expect that readers will be seeing a few new blog posts discussing my ongoing work with the Lightsaber Combat community. I have a chapter and conference paper that will be looking at performance ethnography and material culture within this research area, so I would be very surprised if at least some of that does not find its way onto the blog. This much shorter piece might be thought of as a warmup. My friend Jared Miracle (who has guest authored a number of posts here at Kung Fu Tea) and I recently wrote the following introduction to the subject for a more popular martial arts magazine. The editor asked about the development of the current Lightsaber Combat community and role of history and mythology within it. So those were some of the questions that we tackled.
Lightsaber Combat as a Global Movement
In February of 2019 the French Fencing Federation (Fédération Française d’Escrime or FFE) made the news. Stories were run in many major magazines and the comedian Trevor Noah even graced the FFE with a Daily Show segment. Yet the topic of debate was not traditional sport fencing. Rather, the FFE had announced that the LED Saber (or replica lightsaber) was being added as an official fourth weapon within the French fencing establishment, alongside the better-established foil, epee and saber.
The response to this announcement was electric. Some commentators were delighted, others aghast. The viral spread of this conversation, which went far beyond the sorts of individuals who normally took any interest in fencing, played directly into the FFE’s media strategy. Like many old guard sports federations, it was concerned as fewer new students took up fencing. And it should be remembered that other governing bodies had already proved that adopting a new telegenic “extreme sport,” such as snowboarding, parkour, skateboarding or rock-climbing, was a tried and true strategy for boosting an organization’s relevance in the current era.
This announcement did not come as a surprise to members of France’s Lightsaber Combat community. The FFE had openly announced its intentions and publicly examined several different approaches to the LED saber championed by various preexisting clubs before finally settling on its preferred model. It is interesting to note that while Star Wars is often thought of as a quintessentially American film, Lightsaber Combat is a global phenomenon which has grown more quickly in France than perhaps anywhere else.
Yet how did this global community emerge and what is the nature of their practice? Clearly one might design a competitive sport based on ideas found in a fictional film, but is it really possible to create a new martial art while drawing inspiration from these sources? What specifically is the relationship between historical practice and the modern media? Most importantly, were the many traditional instructors who contributed to the development of these practices (and even the FFE) correct in their assertions that as a teaching tool the LED saber could reach new audiences uninterested in historical blade or stick fighting?
The following article addresses these questions. It begins with a brief description of the LED saber both as a material object and in relation to development of the larger Star Wars film franchise. Next, we review the creation and expansion of the Lightsaber Combat community between its first stirrings in the early 2000s and the current moment. Last, we directly address the function of history, fiction and hyper-reality within the martial arts.
For most individuals it is virtually impossible to separate the term “traditional” from “martial art.” Many practitioners exhibit something close to religious reverence for the history of their practice. For some cultural traditions (such as those often seen in the Chinese martial arts), the authenticity of one’s art is inexorably linked with the legitimacy of one’s lineage status. Within such a framework, a practice without the proper sort of history (such as Lightsaber Combat, Mixed Martial Arts, or even something like the Keysi Fighting Method) could not be fully accepted as a “legitimate” martial art.
Much debate has occurred recently in scholarly circles as to how we should define the concept of “martial arts” in a cross-cultural context, and whether engaging in such a definitional exercise is even a good idea. Benjamin Judkins has made his own contributions to this discussion specifically addressing why lightsaber combat should be accepted as a martial art (for theoretical purposes), and the ways in which this realization effects our understanding of how these communities function.
We do not intend to relitigate those debates here. In this article we instead focus on a related problem. Practitioners often claim to be deeply impacted by the historical legacies of their arts. Yet the development of the interdisciplinary field of Martial Arts Studies has demonstrated that a great many of the claims passed on within traditional hand combat communities actually fall into the realm of myths and legends. Most of the Chinese martial arts practiced today are not the product of an ineffable past. Instead, they are the legacies the final decades of the 19th century and the Republic of China period (1911-1949). Rather than being an “ancient Korean art,” Taekwondo developed as a clear attempt to appropriate and nationalize Japanese Karate in the post-war period. Further, the entire understanding of the “Samurai Spirit” promoted in many Japanese Budo contexts is largely the product of nationalist reformers (some working with Western sources) in the Meiji period rather than an authentic reflection of the medieval past.
While all martial arts have a history, it does not always bear a close resemblance to the stories venerated by their students. What happens to our experience of the practice of a fighting system when we cannot attempt to historicize our legends? Can real techniques be transmitted and honed when we are forced to fully accept the mythic nature of the exercise? The Star Wars films, after all, may be the most successful modern myth ever produced, but no one would claim the lightsaber as history. Yet the very nature of Lightsaber Combat forces one to practice as if they were.
Origins of a Community
One suspects that fan-sponsored lightsaber duels began to occur the day after George Lucas’ epic space opera opened in 1977. Yet the first identifiable Lightsaber Combat organizations did not emerge until late 2005 and 2006. Given the immense popularity of these films, and the iconic nature of their signature weapon, how should we understand this delay?
The current generation of replica lightsabers (including the LED illuminated stunt sabers most often used in a martial arts context) date only to the early years of the 2000s. They were initially developed as part of the marketing effort surrounding the release of the prequel trilogy (1999, 2002, 2005). It was at this time that Lucasfilm began to issue licensed replicas of a number of weapons seen on screen. These had detailed metal hilts, sound effects, and blades that appeared to ignite. It was difficult for individuals who held these early sabers not to feel as though they had just been given a relic from that far off galaxy.
Soon third-party vendors entered this market space, offering simple training sabers with in-hilt LED modules and hollow polycarbonate blades. These sabers still had aluminum hilts, though they tended to be more ergonomically designed and better balanced that the original film props. And while some of these sabers were marketed to collectors, other (nearly indestructible) weapons were developed specifically for staged choreography and martial arts applications. It was only a matter of time before a variety of martial artists decided to seriously investigate what these new sabers were capable of within a training context.
This desire to more fully explore the world of lightsabers was encouraged by the franchise’s other marketing efforts. In 2002, Dr. David West Reynolds (an archeologist employed as an author by Lucas Film) published an article titled “Fightsaber” in the October issue of the Star Wars Insider fan magazine. While lightsabers had dominated much of the personal combat on screen (and they played a progressively greater role in each new film), nothing had ever been said about the specialized training needed to wield such a weapon. Dr. Reynolds, who was not a martial artist, sought to fill this lacuna by exploring the “seven classic forms of lightsaber combat” as taught in the fictional Jedi temple. His descriptions borrow much from the image of the Asian martial arts which circulates in popular culture. This tendency towards Orientalism only grew as successive video games, novels and comic books sought to expand the lore, drawing on an ever-widening body of pop culture references.
Again, it was only a matter of time before actual martial artists started to ask what combination of real-world fighting techniques could best replicate the alluring reality that was starting to emerge around the idea of lightsaber combat. The inexpensive, durable and versatile nature of LED sabers as material objects ensured that a wide variety of practitioners would be swept up in the task of reconstructing the “lost” systems of lightsaber combat. For some this was simply an extension of their Star Wars fandom. In other cases, individuals saw it as an intellectual and technical puzzle deepening their appreciation for various stick and blade based martial arts.
Given the global appeal of this franchise, it is probably impossible to know, with certainty, where the very first dedicated lightsaber group emerged. Greg Ember, who has carefully tracked the creation of groups within this community, hypothesizes that the first schools or performance troops may actually have formed in either Russia or the Philippines. Lightsaber combat remains extremely popular in Russia and across Southeast Asia. However, the first group to generate sustained media attention was NY Jedi, which began to offer classes in New York City after marching in the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade in 2005. The press coverage that this group would generate (along with the creation of the Saber Guild in 2006) led to an explosion of other small clubs across the Eastern seaboard of the United States in the coming years.
Most of this first generation of groups focused on a type of fight choreography that attempted to emulate the techniques (and even costumes) which were seen in the films. They often organized themselves as non-profit enterprises and would perform at fan gatherings and charity events. However, as there was not yet an ecosystem of specialized lightsaber schools and organizations, many of their members actually had a relatively diverse set of interests and practices.
Perhaps the first truly specialized group to emerge was Ludosport, created in 2006. This Italian organization used the same LED sabers to develop a fast-paced combat sport. Their approach to Lightsaber Combat is unique in that they favor light contact and tend not to wear protective gear beyond light gloves and occasionally eye protection. While organized as a sports league, Ludosport offers instruction in a set of progressive techniques (originally drawing inspiration from the seven classic forms of lightsaber combat) that have been carefully selected and modified to allow for safe play with minimal gear. For much of the next decade Ludosport expanded its network of academies across Europe before, in 2016, opening its first location in North America.
Nor has Ludopsort been the only actor to approach Lightsaber Combat as a competitive sport. The publicity preceding the 2015 release of The Force Awakens helped to support a wave of specialization within the Lightsaber Combat Community. On May 4th of 2015, two important groups were created. In North America, this date saw the formal emergence of the Saber Legion, a heavy dueling league featuring full contact, full force striking. Participants in these contests wear heavy hockey, motorcycle or HEMA armor, much of which has been selected and decorated to invoke a specific persona. On the same day, the Sport Saber League was created in France. It occupies what might be thought of as a middle ground requiring the use of Fencing masks, heavy gloves, and some other minimal equipment while only allowing medium intensity contact.
A third category of Lightsaber Combat groups also emerged in the lead-up to the most recent trilogy of Star Wars films. While choreography clubs and sport leagues often appropriated the pedagogical or tactical insights of traditional combat systems, this last set of organizations explicitly identify themselves as martial arts schools. This is something that leagues such as Ludosport or the Saber Legion have been hesitant to do, even when their members or creators have been traditional martial artists.
This rhetorical choice reflects a more fundamental shift in the goals and self-understanding of these groups. The growth and differentiation of the community in recent years has allowed for the establishment of a number of schools focused on questions of “realism.” In a few cases (like the Lightspeed Saber League, formally organized in southern California in 2016) this discourse centers on the hypothesized nature of the lightsaber as a weapon with very unique characteristics. Depending on how these are understood, one can then attempt to derive a body of technique fitting this mental map.
More common are schools that seek to achieve a sense of “realism” in the sorts of techniques employed. This approach allows them to use the lightsaber as a means of testing and teaching a vast range of real-world fighting philosophies that might not otherwise come into contact with one another. One cannot easily walk into a Kendo school to test your HEMA techniques against unsuspecting Japanese martial artists. The historic, national and even ideological aspects of these practices tend to prevent this sort of exchange, except in special limited circumstances.
Yet the ahistorical nature of the lightsaber, as well as the complex mythology that surrounds it, tends to encourage exactly this sort of “creative play.” In some cases, this means mixing and matching techniques from within a single cultural framework. Other organizations might draw on a much wider variety of source materials in their attempt to realize the full breadth of the “seven classical forms of lightsaber combat,” essentially imagining each component as a distinct and separate art.
One of the first, and most influential, martial schools within the Lightsaber Combat community is the Terra Prime Light Armory. Established in 2012 it has posted instructional videos on YouTube in order to create an open-source instructional system drawing on a variety of Chinese (and to a lesser extent European) fighting styles. Indeed, the creators of this system viewed the lightsaber as an ideal tool to both test and preserve these techniques in a quickly changing era. It should also be noted that the TPLA’s approach and progressive curriculum formed the basis of the LED saber program recently adopted by the FFE. Further, it has recently entered into a partnership with the FFE to promote their competitive ruleset in the United States.
Unsurprisingly, there is often a regional component to the relationship between martially oriented lightsaber groups and the historic styles from which they draw. HEMA techniques appear more frequently in European lightsaber schools. Likewise, organizations like the Saber Authority (established in 2014) have promoted systems with a distinctly Southeast Asian flavor, drawing on their region’s rich traditions of stick and blade work.
Instructors in this last group of schools often express enthusiasm for two ideas that may at first appear to be in tension with each other. On the one hand, they note the freedom that the LED saber grants them to test and combine styles that might not otherwise meet on culturally neutral ground. This allows for genuine martial exchange and a welcome escape from the “politics” of the traditional martial arts. At the same time, they also note the LED saber’s potential to reach new audiences, popularizing and preserving skills which have emerged from historic martial arts. When commenting on his students who regularly compete in Saber Legion tournaments, Steaphen Fick, a noted HEMA instructor who also runs a saber training program notes:
“One of the things that I like about working with them [the Lightsaber Combat Community] is that they are taking what is essentially a silly weapon and learning how to bring it to life. The skills that they learn, the questions they ask and the work they put into learning the lightsaber is what makes it a valid martial training tool.”
Lightsaber Combat as Martial Art
Such commentary about the efficacy of lightsaber training as a martial art in the same capacity as other, more established styles raises still more questions about its legitimacy among the broader fighting arts community. It also draws attention to the question of history and tradition, providing a comparative lens through which to consider their pragmatic purpose in the study of any given close combat system. When the ostensible goal of a martial art is to become skillful in a given mode of fighting, why bother maintaining nonfunctional behaviors at all?
Traditional practices are embedded in many systems, including uniforms, courtesy behaviors like bowing and the use of honorifics, and the memorization of foreign words and phrases that serve no special function. From a combat efficacy standpoint, for example, there is no pragmatic reason to practice solo, dance-like patterns while counting in Japanese. Likewise, a resident of any developed nation today has no logical combative goal in studying traditional swordsmanship. Even in martial arts marketed as practical for personal protection, such as Brazilian jiu-jitsu, there is often an element of the traditional (e.g. judo uniforms, a colored belt ranking system).
Likely no component of the martial arts is more tradition-bound, however, than their origin stories. As with all types of folklore, these oral traditions are often transmitted informally between practitioners, usually growing more extraordinary over time, and tend to conform to certain “tale types.” The narrative structures of these stories are so formulaic, in fact, that they match common folk tale structures found internationally. These stories are usually fantastic in some way. Perhaps the style’s founder was inspired by watching two animals fight, or a physically weak individual developed techniques that enabled him to overcome larger opponents, or, in some of the more ancient cases, a demon or god transmitted knowledge to the founder.
Regardless, folklorist Thomas Green has argued that “martial arts folk histories reflect the desire of modern practitioners to establish credibility through association with a legendary past.” Legends are an important part of life. Humans rely on the inspiration and framework found in legends and myths to make sense of the world, as well as their place in it. These stories do not simply conform to established mythical structures—they are ultimately about finding (or creating) conformity to structure in our own lives. The historiographical events that led to any given martial art’s creation are inevitably complicated and muddy compared with the clean, formulaic renditions espoused by their practitioners. Indeed, as Judkins has written of martial arts history, “Often these genealogies exist only in the realm of popular lore.”
If the exponents of a martial art are cognizant of its fictionalized origin story, it is at least worth considering that a new style emerging from such a fantastical background is equally legitimate in every capacity to which that word might apply. Lightsabers are not imminently practical weapons for daily self-defense, but then neither are whips, flails, broadswords, deer horn knives, or polearms. Jedi clothing is not the most practical athletic wear (however comfortable), but it is no less imminently practical than the pleated skirt-like hakama or even a judo outfit.
Within any group of people, such impractical features as myths, costumes, and irrational beliefs serve very practical purposes. Uniforms of any type are a powerful means of creating group identity and cohesion. We are naturally defensive of those who appear to be members of our tribe. For the same reason, military recruits and marching bands spend painful hours training to step in precise formation with their units, not because modern warfare or music calls for it, but because it creates a collective rhythm, a sort of “flow state.”
Belief in an art’s extraordinary origins gives the individual an opportunity to project a personal identity onto known (or at least suspected) mythic structures, extending his agency beyond the self and into a realm above the mundane. This state of “hyper-reality” is a portal that allows individuals to perceive themselves as existing within a constructed reality; that is, substituting the mundane for the preferred, potentially necessary, extraordinary. This is useful from a survival standpoint as the human brain is capable of understanding the world as a harsh, unforgiving, essentially meaningless exercise in futility and suffering. Instead of accepting such a reality, though, a hyper-real existence is one in which the suffering has a purpose and actions accompany a teleological outcome. As the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz famously wrote of cockfighting in Bali, our actions become “stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.” It is largely through these mechanisms that the martial arts have become a powerful pathway for asserting personal agency in the modern world.
When one puts on a karate uniform to undergo formal training, there is an uncomfortable blurring of the line between daily mundane reality and the costumed fantasy that plays out in the minds of those within the practice space. This line is very clear among lightsaber groups, however, as trainees don acknowledged costumes and may even use Star Wars-inspired character names. The result of both karate and lightsaber combat is the same; yet there is greater clarity about the nature of the exercise among the lightsaber group. This is also true of origin narratives. Not only does Star Wars fulfill classical mythic structure, but George Lucas himself has been quite vocal about his intent to do so, stating that “I consciously set about to recreate myths and the—and the classic mythological motifs. And I wanted to use those motifs to deal with issues that existed today.”
It is instructive to compare the transparent origins of lightsaber combat with an origin narrative from the classical Japanese martial arts which did so much to inspire them. In 1159, Minamoto no Yoshitsune (then a young man) was driven into exile on Mt. Kurama by Taira no Kiyomori, where he was to live as a monk. The mountain was heavily wooded and known to house supernatural creatures. As chance would have it, Yoshitsune became acquainted with a tengu(a sort of magical, crow-like goblin), which taught him martial arts. He became uncannily powerful, skilled in arms, and could run and jump with preternatural agility. He then staged a coup and seized back his hereditary position of power. This story is the basis for a number of martial arts styles in Japan.
Historiographically, it is highly unlikely that the Twelfth Century warlord received tutelage from a mystical folk spirit. One would be hard-pressed to locate a practitioner of the Japanese martial arts today who genuinely believes the story’s accuracy. Instead, the classical combat arts community engages this and similar narratives with a comfortable skepticism, even as the tale continues to be passed on to new students with the utmost seriousness. The function of such fantasy is, rationally, not to convey historical trivia, but to contribute to the creation of a larger life schema, portraying aggrandized interpretations of both physical and cognitive behaviors encouraged by the school. Just as group identity and flow states facilitate profound development from an athletic standpoint, they can also be applied in this sense to develop the trainee’s personality through a constellation of psychosocial immersion and proprioceptive education.
Such didactic tactics have been employed by governments to recondition public thought and behavior. For instance, Japanese youths were mandated to train in kendo, judo, and other martial arts during the early Twentieth Century. There was little expectation that these would be useful battlefield methods, but rather the goal was to indoctrinate children with the morals the ruling institution found most desirable.
Although less extreme, this same basic function and methodology is visible in Lightsaber Combat communities. The Star Wars narrative is largely a chronicle of morality. It conveys the values and preferred qualities of modern heroic archetypes portrayed in dramatic fashion. These qualities are embodied in the Jedi knights, whose role one inhabits while participating. Whether taken strictly as a sporting endeavor or accompanied with detailed costuming and pseudonyms, the fact that lightsaber combat communities are organized entirely around the iconic fantasy weapon unites them in a symbolic, tangible, somatic expression of shared principles. While the lightsaber may not be real, those values and identities are.
Specific definitions of “martial art” notwithstanding, the essential qualities that attend those activities are exhibited by lightsaber combat. Compared with many “traditional” martial arts, however, the endorsed personal qualities in lightsaber groups are made clear due to the recent advent of their origin narratives. Rather than making affectations to legitimize a fictional history, they overtly embrace the fictional narrative. This, in turn, situates training and competition not as serious, life-or-death preparation for conflict, but as a community-oriented form of creative play.
Fick’s support of the lightsaber as a useful training implement points to the benefits of openly accepting a pleasurable pursuit as such: to wit, reduced stress on the trainee results in improved performance precisely because the stakes are not high, yet the practice carries powerful meaning because of the deeply mythic structure of its origin narrative. Given the natural instinct found in many animals to develop skill through play, it seems that, as Alan Watts suggested, “Man suffers only because he takes seriously what the gods made for fun.”
About the Authors
Benjamin Judkins holds a doctorate in Political Science from Columbia University and is co-editor of the interdisciplinary academic journal Martial Arts Studies. With Jon Nielson he is the co-author of The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts(SUNY Press 2015). His research interests include the international relations, globalization and the function of the martial arts in the modern world. He is an instructor in the Wing Chun system and has been conducting research with the Lightsaber Combat community for a number of years.
Jared Miracle is the author of Now with Kung Gu Grip! How Bodybuilders, Soldiers and a Hairdresser Reinvented Martial Arts for America(McFarland 2016). He received his doctorate from Texas A&M University and serves on the editorial board of the journal Monumenta Mythica. He is a disciple of the Shinkage-ryu, a former professional fighter, and spent years traveling to pursue an education in traditional jujutsu, Shandong mantis fist, aikido, Okinawan kempo and kobudo, the Horiuchi style of batto and kenjutsu, as well as Mongolian wrestling, archery, and other systems around the world. His interests include ritual violence, popular culture, and the archaeology of ideas. He primarily works as a writer and martial arts instructor.
Wetzler, Sixt. 2015. ‘Martial Arts Studies as Kulturwissenschaft: A Possible Theoretical Framework’. Martial Arts Studies 1, 20-33; Paul Bowman. 2019. Deconstructing Martial Arts. Cardiff: Cardiff University Press. 44.
Judkins, Benjamin N. 2016. ‘The Seven Forms of Lightsaber Combat: Hyper- reality and the Invention of the Martial Arts’, Martial Arts Studies 2, 6-22.
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Personal correspondence, April 16 2016.
Personal Correspondence February 21, 2019.
Thomas Green. 2003. “Sense in Nonsense: The Role of Folk History in the Martial Arts.” In Thomas A. Green and Joseph Svinth (eds.) Martial Arts in the Modern World. Wesport, Connecticut and London: Praeger. 5.
Judkins 2016, 8.
Clifford Geertz. 1973. TheInterpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books. 448.
Alan Watt. 2003. Become What You Are. Boston, London: Shambalah. 29.