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Recently, I was invited to attend Natcon, New Zealand’s national Science Fiction & Fantasy Convention as a guest of honour. As such, I was also asked to put forward some panel suggestions. One of the first that occurred to me arose out of an earlier post here on Orbit about the grand symbiosis between fantasy and history. But I didn’t want to just repeat that discussion, so I’ve added in an extra wrinkle, focusing on weapons and armour, battles and military tactics in the historical context—another fascination that arises, not just out of my love of history, but from my martial arts background.

I am not sure why I’ve always loved martial arts. As kids, my brothers and I were always making ourselves toy swords, bows and arrows, and wooden guns so we could run wild and whack each other with them. I suspect this experience probably established the first element of my love for martial arts—their physicality. The martial arts are all about knowing your own physical strength and limitations, learning those of others, and finding sneaky ways to deal to those with superior strength. Physicality and sneakiness lead straight to the next reason I have always enjoyed martial arts—they’re really fun. I’ve practiced a number of different martial arts and found a great spirit of camaraderie in all of them. And in “aikido, the early years” (aikido is the martial art I have practiced longest) training always wound up with a session of “elbow-waza”, i.e. bending our elbows as we all raised a glass together at the pub.

A little more seriously, I’ve re-experienced that same spirit of camaraderie in the aftermath of the February 22nd Christchurch earthquake. The first person to knock on my door after the world stopped shaking, was a fellow aikido black belt and friend from my earliest years in the art, who lives close enough to risk negotiating the wreckage on foot and make sure I was ok. As recorded on my blog, the five to six days that followed were taken up with digging out liquefacted sludge from around my house—and the overwhelming majority of the twenty-odd people who turned up to help were either aikido people or their partners and friends. Camaraderie, esprit de corps, a sense of community—call it what you will, but it’s one of the elements I most love about the martial arts.

I tossed up “use of weapons” for reason four—having done both fencing and archery in my time, as well as various kung fu sword forms, and trained with the Japanese sword, staff and knife in aikido—but in the end I opted for “values.” Most martial arts I have experienced are based on an ethical code around personal behaviour and approach to living, which can begin and end at the dojo door, but ideally becomes whole-of-life. Zen Buddhism, with its precepts of (both) mindfulness and ‘no mind’, as well as compassion, infuses martial arts such as aikido. Honour and responsibility are values that still characterise both western and eastern martial arts—and I’ve talked about camaraderie and community already.

The fifth reason I love the martial arts—well, that’s pretty easy: it is love. My partner and I met through aikido: literally “on the mat.” When asked what kicked it all off for him, he usually says something like: “this stranger half my size walked into the dojo and nearly took my head off; I liked that level of commitment.” (The technique, for any aikidoka reading this, was iriminage.) To be fair, it was a committed iriminage, but I like to think the subsequent blossoming of romance owed far more to all that elbow-waza.


The Heir of Night (The Wall of Night 1) is currently shortlisted for the Sir Julius Vogel Award 2011 for Best Novel. The awards ceremony will be held as part of Natcon, over the Queen’s Birthday weekend of 3-6 June.


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Helen Lowe

  1. Karate Mart

    May 31, 2011
    at 7:19 pm


    You really hit the nail right on the head when you were talking about how your fellow martial artists were the ones who helped you out after the earthquake. I’ve been studying martial arts all of my life and can honestly say that my closest family are the people in my aiki-jujitsu dojo. I’ve been through many personal problems and have always had my fellow martial arts practitioners to fall back on. I’m glad to see that others have experienced one of the greatest joys that come from the martial arts.

  2. Helen Lowe

    June 3, 2011
    at 4:48 pm

    Karate Mart–I’m sorry for having missed your comment earlier, but besides loving the art, the camaraderie and sense of community do stand out for me.

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