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Cutting the Candle

[SPOILER ALERT! The following post contains analyses of a form (Pal Gwe O Jang) you may not have learned and a popular HBO series you may not have seen (Game of Thrones). If you find yourself in either boat, read on at your peril.]

If you are one of the many who got swept up in the Games of Thrones zeitgeist, chances are you have a favorite moment. Mine comes in episode 8 of season 6–specifically, the final showdown between Arya Stark and the Waif. Their relationship begins in season 5 when Arya arrives at the House of Black and White and discovers Jaqen H’ghar already has a young female protégé. Instead of taking Arya under her wing, the Waif commences a campaign of torture that intensifies when Arya is blinded for violating House rules. To survive, Arya must become accustomed to her disability. Eventually, she manages to briefly hold her own in bo staff training with the Waif. This impresses H’ghar who restores Arya’s vision.

Her good standing in the House of Black and White proves to be short-lived, however, when Arya refuses an assignment to poison an actress. H’ghar condemns Arya to death and the Waif happily volunteers to carry out the sentence. Disguised as an old woman, she surprises Arya on a bridge and stabs her repeatedly in the stomach. In an act of pure desperation, Arya flings herself into the river below, swims underwater to shore, then drags herself to the home of the actress whose life Arya spared. The actress stiches Arya’s wounds and lets her convalesce in her bed. Days later, the Waif shows up and, after murdering the actress, sets her sadistic sights on Arya.

During the ensuing chase through the streets of Bravos, it’s clear Arya is simply no match for her nemesis. In addition to being uninjured, the Waif is bigger, stronger, faster, and more ruthless. With nowhere else to turn, Arya stumbles back to her sparsely furnished, dungeon-like hideout.

A bloody trail leads the Waif into this dark room where the only light comes from a candle burning next to Arya who now huddles on a makeshift mattress. Standing in the doorway, dagger in hand, the Waif savors the end of the hunt and surveys what’s about to become a crime scene. She enters the room slowly, closes the door, then pauses to announce that “it will all be over soon.”

Feigning compassion, the Waif gives her erstwhile apprentice a choice: “On your knees or on your feet?” With great effort, Arya pulls herself up off the ground and arms herself with a small sword. This causes the Waif to sigh, “We’ve been through this before.” Gesturing at the sword, the Waif declares: “That won’t help you.”

This is not what’s sometimes referred to as trash talking. Given the Waif’s overwhelming physical advantages, pursuing a psychological edge would be pointless. Her words are less a prediction and more a statement of fact. Arya is about to die and there’s nothing she can do to stop it.

Nothing, that is, except fundamentally alter the conditions of the battlefield.

As the Waif moves in for the kill, Arya cuts the candle with her sword, extinguishing the flame and plunging the room into darkness. There is no need to see (or hear) what happens next. Arya has learned how to fight without sight. Her bigger, stronger, faster and more ruthless adversary has not.

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There are, I am sure, a number of lessons one could take from this vignette and apply inside the dojang. The one I’d like to focus upon concerns the way this tale gets told. Watching a blind Ayra develop the ability to ward off at least some of the Waif’s blows, what stands out is her grit (and the Waif’s brutality). It never occurs to us that Arya’s learning a skill that will one day save her life. Yet when that unexpected moment comes, this realization becomes the reward for anybody who’s been paying attention.

How can an appreciation for the art of story-telling aid our practice?

Think about the Poomsae. Because forms serve so many purposes, it’s easy to overlook their narrative quality. Each Palgwe we perform tells a story. Some are about people, places, and events. Others communicate the priorities of our school. While techniques vary greatly from one form to the next, when done correctly, the Poomsae become expressions of a single, overarching theme: the relationship between heavy and light depicted on the patches we place on our doboks.

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The impetus for this post is a challenge I recently encountered while working on Palgwe O Jang. This has long been among my favorite forms. O Jang is the first of the Poomsae with a back-and-forth/retreat-attack sequence. Typically, I derive great satisfaction from the four occasions this happens at bottom of the “I.” This time, as I cycled through the first two series of palm heel center blocks followed by front punches, something wasn’t quite right. But I couldn’t diagnose the problem until I reached the top of the “I.”

My moment of clarity came as I prepared to throw the first of the Palgwe’s two sidekicks. These are the first, and only, kicks in O Jang and the first sidekicks that appear in the Poomsae. Chambering this kick requires a practitioner to transition out of a front stance by drawing the front foot back alongside the back foot. For a split second, the practitioner stands erect with his or her feet touching, pointing down the bottom of the “I.”

In our style, it’s a moment that’s meant to be momentous. When my body reached this position without inspiring this sensation, I immediately understood why.

An alternate translation for Jidokwan is “The Right Way,” and the right way for us to do front and back stances is to make them deep. This is a defining trait of our style. The depth of our stances is one of things–if not the main thing–that gives them their heaviness. Without depth, there is nothing special about what precedes the sidekicks in Palgwe O Jang. With depth comes the opportunity for a deliberate, dramatic rise that demonstrates heaviness by leaving it behind. A cut-the-candle-like moment that illuminates the true meaning of what’s come before.

This didn’t happen during my performance of Palgwe O Jang because I’d unconsciously let my stances creep up. This meant that when the time came for me to stand tall, I wasn’t standing that much taller than I’d been in the moments before.

Changes in posture, tempo, and intensity happen frequently in our forms. If you are struggling to figure out the right way to handle one of these transitions, consider asking yourself what the moment might be trying to communicate then make yourself a vehicle for that message.

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