Back on July 27th, I had an unexpected opportunity to attend a longsword seminar in Tucson taught by Axel Pettersson, hosted courtesy of Doug Bostic of the Tuscon Historic Fencing Club. The announcement was a complete surprise, but I would have been a fool to pass it up. Axel Pettersson coming to my state, let alone a city near me? I RSVP’d without a moment’s hesitation. But curious to know why Axel would visit humble Sonora from far-off Sweden, I found out that Doug and Christopher Nelson (a Phoenix Society leader) had arranged the seminar back in March while all three were at the Schwertkampf tournament in Mexico City. Small world, indeed. It was during this investigation that I arranged an interview with Axel while he was here, as I saw it as a great opportunity to have a conversation with one of the leaders of the HEMA community in Europe.
With everything in order, I drove down to Tucson with a friend, and we arrived in the heat of the desert afternoon at an indoor sports center, with a basketball court reserved for us. After shooting the breeze for a bit, Axel arrived and our class began shortly after. It was an engaging, challenging three hours, and I speak for everyone when I say I learned quite a lot. Axel started us out with warm-up exercise games where we used our arms and hands as swords, and attempted to hit various parts of our opponent’s torso or thighs without getting hit in return. We also played wrestling, and rapier-lunge games designed to test our measure and how we engage our opponent. Afterwards, we devoted a good amount of time to working on our form by cutting the Meyer cross in various different ways, which to me at least, opened up new avenues of attack I hadn’t considered before. Following that, we paired up and lightly sparred one another with the principles we learned from the previous lessons, all while Axel did his best to shadow every pair and offer critique on our techniques. We ended the night with freeplay, and as a monsoon storm rolled in and began to batter the center with rain and thunder, I sat down with Axel to begin our interview.
How have you changed and grown since you first picked up the longsword?
Quite a lot. I was 17, so a lot of time has passed since then. But as far as fencing goes… so much is still the same too, I mean, what attracted me was the motion of it, it was so beautiful. And the, um…
The aesthetics of it?
Yeah the aesthetics, and the idea that it’s so beautiful and also so dangerous at the same time. And also this idea that it’s something being recreated; it’s sort of fragile. The [HEMA] movement then was almost nonexistent, and we could lose it, and that was something I felt very very strongly. It became a cause to me very early to help restore this art, because it matters more than just finding out which techniques are deadly, it’s a cultural heritage that we have, that is incredibly valuable, and it really has a right to exist. These days I don’t think that we will lose the art that easily, but it’s a matter of how it’s preserved and passed on, and that still drives me.
But of course I have a whole different idea of what HEMA is from when I was a 17-year-old to being 31, having been a part of the scene ever since then; I’ve sure changed a lot.
So before it was something that looked cool, but now it speaks to you on a deeper level.
No it spoke to me on a deeper level right from the beginning, and I’m still completely in love with the aesthetics of it, so those things have remained the same, from then up until now, and that’s still a big motivator for me. That’s the cool part, that’s it deadly and beautiful at the same time. We know that the ancients thought that too, they talk about the beautiful art. But what has changed… I know more about it, I know how little I understand now, of course I’m a much more mature person, hopefully. I have clearer set goals for what I want it to be; I have actually achieved things now that I’m very very proud of, and I’ve failed a lot of times in ways that I’m not proud of, so I have a history with it now.
In a sense you’re also the face of modern HEMA, so you have some pull on where you take it, do you find that’s true?
Yeah, absolutely, I can say that without shame. I do have an influence. I’m not the only guy, for sure, but I do have an influence. I try to do good with it, of course, probably not every guy out there believes that my vision is good, but I believe that I am doing good, and I can stand for everything that I do. But, HEMA is a very complex thing, and I have a complex vision, and I think one of the main problems is that it’s very hard to convey a complex vision. For example: people associate me a lot with competition, and then some of them see me as a sport fencer. The truth is, I was a big part of creating the competitive scene in HEMA because I felt that, well for one, it’s a way of building skill and building community. But honestly, we needed to test ourselves, and bloody ourselves and bruise ourselves, in order to be worthy to practice the same art as the masters, and since we don’t fight for real, competition is a meager substitute, but a substitute, for that. Of course there are other ways to do it too; you can spar hard, you can do prize fights, but competition puts you out there against other people who want to beat you, under a ruleset that everyone else has to fight under in front of your peers. And if you can’t stand that test, like if you make excuses for stepping out of a fight, then you’re not worthy. I’m fine with people who don’t want to compete as long they fight somehow, or if you’re injured; all that is fair. I don’t give a damn about how you perform at a tournament, but I have much more respect for the new guy or girl who steps up and gets beat horribly, or the person that still gets beat horribly for years but still steps up, than the person who sits on the sideline and says, “That’s not the true art,” because those people have never put themselves out there to test themselves. Be it competition, prize fighting, hard sparring, they’ve never tested themselves. And that was my main motivator, to create an environment where we could try to become more worthy of the art and the respect of the old masters, and that’s hard to communicate. So then I’m stuck with the sport fencer persona instead. Okay, that’s fair, I can’t succeed every time. It says something about how complex these things are.
Do you think there’s a danger of the competitive, sporty aspect superseding the martial art?
Yeah! Yeah it’s a big danger, absolutely, it’s happening a lot of times already. To some extent it’s a part of the definition [of HEMA], although some people may need reality checks, but yes it’s an absolute danger. It’s really hard for people to not game the rules, everyone does it. You can’t name one person who I’ve seen fight who hasn’t done it. That’s natural, and we know historically that’s how it was too, and they tried to assign rules around it and so do we, to promote certain behaviors, but it’s not a real fight, it just isn’t. It’s a test of skill sets, but people also want to win, so they’ll try to game that. Not only that, but people have a tendency to look for as clean and simple rule sets as possible, and some of those people have tendency to draw from sport fencing and how they do things, because they think that’s “theoretically” the most sound way of competing in any sort of fencing. There is a fair argument to it, but there are drawbacks too. And the tournaments I’ve seen which draw too much on sport fencing are lacking. So yeah, it’s definitely a big danger and it’s up to us to make sure it doesn’t happen, and it’s always going to be a struggle. The balance is never going to be permanent, we just have to continue to have the right vision, and stick to that vision.
And in that regard, do you see a difference between European and American HEMA as far as how that sporty aspect is represented in tournaments?
Hmm, it depends on where you go both in America and Europe, I’ve seen [sporty and martial rule sets] in both areas. I’ve been over to America at least once a year, sometimes up to four times a year, every year since 2010, and a lot of things have changed. But I don’t know all the communities here, I haven’t been to all of the events; I know most of the people but not intimately and I haven’t seen all of them fight. So, going to IGX [Iron Gate Exhibition] near Boston can be different from Longpoint in Washington D.C., or here in Tucson, and it sure varies from one year to the other as well. It’s definitely the same in Europe or more so, because America is huge and culturally-diverse but it’s one country, and Europe is many small countries, so, Swedish HEMA might have more in common with American HEMA than it does, with, I don’t know, Russian HEMA or Italian HEMA even though they’re geographically closer. It’s impossible to say a difference between continents, but there are national differences and definitely club differences; outward appearances has a lot to do with it. For example: some people accuse the Polish guys of being sport fencers, and some of them are, but many aren’t, it just comes down to which video the people on Facebook happen to watch and choose to criticize. But I can point to sporty behavior from every single country, it’s not a problem. And I can point to sound, martial behavior from every single country, it’s not a problem. So, people are quick to judge, to form opinions based on very very, shaky data, so it’s hard for me to say that, so-
A little bit of nationalism involved behind it, right?
They say “Oh, Europe’s sport-fency but America has the real stuff,” and vice-verse.
Oh yes, I’m sure they’d say that about you guys as well in many parts of Europe. Yeah it’s definitely a bit of nationalism, we’re never gonna get away from that. However the truth more comes down to individual and club culture, I think.
So rather than what people think as America versus Europe, it’s much more regional than that.
It’s much more regional, yeah. It’s a small scene and people have personal grudges about stuff, you know, “sport fencing” is one of the most common insults out there. I happen to enjoy watching sport fencing sometimes, so it’s hard for me to say it’s bad but it’s just not what we do, but everyone knows it’s an insult. If you wan to piss someone off you say they do sport-fency behavior, and you might have no idea what you’re talking about. Some people think it’s sport-fency to remove the hands as targets, that the whole body should be a target, right? Because in a fight for your life you would hit them in the hand. Some people say it’s martially sound because otherwise it would look like sword-tag; there are merits to both of those arguments, and I can easily find historical evidence for both. Because there are historical rules where they remove the hands, there are duels where they fought with sharp weapons and they weren’t allowed to hit each other in the hand. That’s a hard thing to deal with when you try to kill a guy. And then there are manual techniques that say to hit them in the hand. I think it’s one of the Bolognese sources, it might be Manciolino, because he talks about rule sets and uses all these different guards, and he says “Well when you fight him for real, hit him in the hands.” Is it fun to watch? It depends on execution but often not, but that’s just one example, there are examples of all these different things. It’s been martially sound to strike with the flat, because you didn’t want to get fined too high by the local authorities for getting into a fight and using the edge.
And it certainly still hurts quite a bit.
Yeah it does hurt, so it’s really hard to define what is martial and what is not. I think everyone has a general idea, but it’s always a complex question. Some people are very open about [creating rule sets that favor competitive over martial aspects], and that’s something I’ve seen in Europe and America. Some countries do it more than others, so there’s definitely a trend there, that they’re open about only being interested in the competitive aspects of HEMA and for them it’s just a sport. I think that’s sad, I don’t know anyone in my home region who thinks like that, but I do know in other countries that there are, and that’s to me the wrong approach. I mean these guys are just missing out, why would you just want to compete when there’s a whole culture of martial arts out there?
Since you do have a very unique position in HEMA, and if you had the overarching power, what would HEMA look like to you? Would you have a unified body like what sport fencing has, or would you keep it regional?
Yeah I would keep it regional, because then it’s harder to corrupt, and if you standardize you’re going to lose a lot of diversity and nuances and freedom of thought. I value the fact that people train in different ways, because we don’t know the real art, and the real art was also so diverse. Northern Germany in 1510 was different from southern Germany in 1510, and northern Germany 1510 is different from northern Germany 1540. You can’t paint a broad brush, so I much prefer a regionalism to it. We could have an organizing body, I suppose that’s possible, but that power has to be limited, for sure. That comes down to maybe PR and insurance, I don’t really know. And [regionalism] is also historically valid, you know you had different systems back in those days; people were extremely proud of their art and their school and had all kinds of conflicts, it was a really fascinating atmosphere, and we’ve had that in HEMA as well. It’s definitely been benefiting us.
It is interesting that we’re reflecting nearly exactly what happened back then.
Yeah, it was only 500 years ago haha, not a very long time actually. Humans stay the same.
Speaking of the differences between clubs, what have you learned from other clubs in terms of culture and organization, and also what you learned not to do?
One thing that makes Swedish HEMA successful is that we have a nice organizational structure, that’s part of Swedish culture. Like, we get born into this thing with “Förening,” it’s an easy way to set up non-profit organization. Most parts of Swedish society is organized like this: you have a board with a director, a treasurer… and that’s how they do stuff. It’s been very natural for us to organize like that, and because of that, we’ve had structures in place that allow our clubs to grow. And because you have many people involved, individual egos can’t grow too far.
I guess I’m the biggest name in Sweden, and as you say, in many other parts as well, but I’m not the director of my board, I’m not calling the shots in my club, that’s a nice division of power; I teach. I sit on the board and I voice my opinion, but guys who you don’t even know their names, they can tell me to shut up.
A bit of a ”power behind the throne” going on.
Yeah, that’s why we split it up. The one thing that happens often that has negative impact on growth and development, is when you get one ”strong man,” who might be a passionate guy, who might be very skilled, but if he leaves, the club falls. Or he’s passionate and talented, but has the wrong attitude, and he doesn’t let other people in his club grow and take his place because he might see them as a threat. I’ve seen some ways where that kind of works out, but it’s always with some kind of supportive structure, but I’ve seen a lot of clubs never get beyond five, ten guys, and being plagued by slow growth, slow development and all these issues, because everything is dependent on one person. That might work better for other cultures, but I know in Scandanavia it doesn’t.
Shifting gears a bit, since I know we’re short on time; what are the two most important things a swordsman needs to become greater? What have you found in your own experience?
To be honest, it’s all cliches really. I mean they’re true though, you all know this stuff already. You need to understand it’s a lifelong path, and you will continue to get better… You are always going to be the eternal student, you always have to approach it as a student. I teach all the time, and I teach in different countries, sometimes they don’t speak English, I have no idea how I make that work. But I’m always confident when I teach because I know this is what I know, and if you find something better then I’ll buy that. I don’t want to stop being a student; sometimes I have this imposter syndrome where I think that people think I’m good but I’m not, I have that a lot, especially in HEMA because everything is so new and open to interpretation. But still, I’m perfectly fine teaching what I think is true, or at least good, because I assume that everyone understands if I’m wrong, I’ll happily accept that too. I’ve seen people who think that they’re not students anymore, and they rarely do very well because they stop growing. So, be an eternal student, that’s number one. You said I have to name two?
Yeah, if you want.
Yeah, you have to enjoy it. Like, even if you don’t enjoy it every single time, you have to have long-term enjoyment. You have to understand that you can’t do this, really, if you can’t find your excitement in your heart. For me, when grinding through training is mentally tough, I find longterm enjoyment from the knowledge that I am a part of an historical project to bring HEMA back to life. Or from spending time with my friends at the club. You also have to have that sort of courage, and enthusiasm to fight. That also ties in to growing as a person. Often we grow up today, at least in the West, being encouraged to be weak, cowardly, we’re supposed to turn the other cheek, we’re supposed to be so subdued in our body language and in our mentalities; I think we’ve shrunk as persons, mentally. This does not help fencing. You need to have a straight back and be eager for the fight and happy about it, have the confidence that is not afraid to lose. Like, you have to have some life to it, some passion, some fire in you. Otherwise it’s going to be really hard, and less fun, but if you do, if you allow yourself to have that passion and dedication, immersing yourself in it, you won’t be afraid of anything because you’re not afraid to lose or fail, that is just a part of it.
In summary, you would say humility and passion would be the two things you find most important?
Yeah, thank you for explaining it in two words what took me five minutes haha.
And what’s the single most important thing a swordsman needs to get rid of? Such as arrogance.
Ah, people aren’t very physically fit.
Yeah, mental and physical weakness for sure, I mean, look at other martial arts that practice harder than we do in general. Even sport fencing with lighter weapons have harder physical fitness; fitness makes you live longer and be happier. The guys back then, of course they weren’t always physically fit, it depends on what kind of food they had access to etc etc, but they walked all day, they rode all day, even the middle class guys were craftsmen, they did stuff. And for fun they wrestled and fenced, they had a very active lifestyle. If we think we can sit in an office chair for eight hours a day, five days a week, and then train for two hours and think we’re gonna get anywhere, we’re sorely mistaken. Fencers were also gymnasts, and riders, and soldiers, you know… so that’s important, physical fitness for sure Physical strength usually also helps with mental strength.
Arrogance? Absolutely. I mean we need pride, we need proud people out there and a few with too much of it to maybe boast a little bit to make things happen and then fail spectacularly so the rest of us can learn from it. Yeah, arrogance and… pettiness needs to go. One thing I really hate is people who think they have to chop off a piece of the cake and keep it to themselves, it’s so low, so base. I have a hard time respecting that, really. People who, just because they have a few skills, look down on others just because they don’t have the same skills. I can tell you right now, those guys will never respect you either. Everyone starts as a beginner, everyone doesn’t have the same chances. But as long as they train, you can never give them disrespect. Maybe for their crap personality, but not for their lack of skills. Some of that is the stupidest stuff I’ve ever seen. But it’s permanent, you see it everywhere because it’s basic human behavior, humans can be assholes, but that’s something I would get rid of, for sure.
Second-to-last question: What does the Indes mean to you? A lot of the masters talk about the importance of Indes, but it seems that so little of training is concentrated on being able to act in it. Have you ever found a way to act reliably within it?
Yeah, you make it really hard saying we’re out of time and then asking me to answer that. You can get technical explanations, it’s striking in-time, it’s… it’s a bit hard for me to describe it in English terms. You speak Swedish, no?
No, I’m afraid not.
Just kidding. One thing that helps to strike in the Indes is the ability to forsee the opponents actions. You can set an opponent up even when you’re on the defensive by making sure he strikes at the opening that you want him to, and as he strikes that opening you come in with your attack to stifle his, to take the initiative and hit him back. I see a lot of people, actually, who are very good at striking in Indes. I don’t know what the Italians would call it, striking in between tempos, Mezzo tempo? I don’t know that theory too well but you know it’s not like Blat! [makes a doubling motion], like it’s without skill, ”Gleich” in the German tradition, because then it’s like a peasant’s brawl exposed to chance. It’s striking at the right time and covering yourself at the same time, striking ”inside” the opponents action.
Some people say it’s sort of a Western equivalent of ”Zen”. Do you find that applicable?
Yeah, but in a limited sense, because I think it’s a technical term that talks mostly about timing. Like I said, you can use it to forsee the opponent’s actions, so in that sense yeah maybe there’s a small Zen to it, but we need to remember that there are many other Zen-like terms in the German tradition, that I know about. The masters talk about foresight, and wisdom; to translate it to English; and courage, and a whole bunch of terms like that, that are more Zen. Whereas I think Indes falls more into a technical category. Not because it’s not Zen, to an extent, but because we already have other terminology for the Zen stuff.
And for the last question: You’re a champion swordfighter, professional HEMA instructor, businessman. What’s next for Axel Petterson?
Yeah you can scratch that professional part because I’m not making any money haha, I’m living on my savings mostly now because Saint Mark takes so much time. We don’t take up a salary, everything we do goes straight back into product development. But I do some other stuff as well, I teach abroad like today and privately outside of regular GHFS class, and I work with the online coaching program; I really look forward to that because I love to teach, like I really really love to teach, I get such a high from helping someone learn something new. So for me right now, I focus on teaching, I have been asked to do DVD’s and that would be fun, I’d like to leave something a bit more permanent regarding my teahcing method and aproach to HEMA. I’m taking a break from competition because I don’t really feel that I develop from it anymore, I probably will again at some point, but right now when I’ve competed I’ve had so many things on my mind. I had, honestly, a shit year last year that almost made me quit, and at the same time me and Anders publicly annouced Saint Mark, and a whole bunch of other things happened. So something had to go, and that thing was competition. And because I travel so much I don’t have time to train, and then I become annoyed with myself that I don’t perform, with all this half-assed effort. I did well in the beginning of the year, I won a bunch of golds, and then my performance just kind of petered off so I just said, ”Nah I’ll quit,” so I quit right away. So now my goal is to continue to teach, continue to travel, and then to build up my business, to get products out there that I can be proud of to use and have others use. I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve had to pick between quality and money, and we always picked quality because we’re just, not that good of businessmen haha, but we are good fencers, and we have a vision, and Saint Mark is a part of that vision. So slowly but steadily I hope we make money of course, but primarily I want to have a whole line of products that completely elevates how we look as fencers; no more plastic and half-measures, no more borrowed gear from other sports. Fencing is supposed to be beautiful and functional at the same time, that’s what we like it. Few people like to just brawl, everyone wants to look good and be efficient, and we have to be the same with our gear. I think that if Anders and I can make gear that is functional and beautiful, then the people who wear it will get a sense of pride in what we do, and, they will fence better, – I don’t know, maybe it’s too grandiose to say it, but…
No, I like it. It’s good.
It’s… we need to elevate ourselves-
A higher standard.
Yeah! To be better fencers it is good if we can elevate ourselves spiritually as well as physically, have the attitude akin to what you see in many traditional Asian martial arts, and in order to do that it helps to have gear that replicates that attitude. Like, if you feel like you look good then usually you behave in a certain way too. Look how people act when they dress up in a suit, they just change their behavior, and maybe we can do the same with fencing, if me and Anders can provide gear that is up to par. I want to see beautiful fencing in beautiful and functional equipment. And then of course, we’re getting known now, people outside of the community are paying attention to us. If we look like we have class, people will treat us with class, and that will help with public relations and public opinons with whatever federations or government officials that you need to deal with in your country. If you look very professional it’s going to be a success for you. And if I can help with that, I’d be really happy.
And I wish you the best of luck with that, Axel. Thank you very much for sitting down for this interview.
Yeah, no problem.
Ian Scott Rogers, 2016