In 2002, Star Wars Insider 62 made a serious go at building the lore of how you actually use a lightsaber. No, I didn't read the article. But the idea still thrilled me when I found out about it (through Knights of the Old Republic II, I think). Geeks love datasets to master, so how could I resist learning about the fictional lore of the seven canonical forms of lightsaber combat? They even have cool names, and who can resist memorizing cool, arbitrary names to refer to cool fictional concepts? Well, I can't.
On the other hand, the more I learn about fighting, the less enamored I am of the concepts of systems of fighting. That is to say, I am increasingly convinced that true mastery of an art (be it a martial art or not) lies not finding the best collection of teachings about that art and mastering them, but in realizing that all teachings about the art are merely tools to be encompassed. He is not the master of lightsaber combat who can effortlessly switch among the seven canonical forms, each of which he has mastered. Rather, he is the master of lightsaber combat whose form cannot be categorized, meeting always the needs of the moment. To reach this level of mastery, perhaps it is necessary to master the seven individual forms, and perhaps not, but in no case is the form - the system - the goal.
This being my understanding of real fighting, many of the uses of lightsaber combat lore in actual Star Wars media seem amateurish and hackneyed to me. Obi-Wan Kenobi is sent to confront the famed Jedi killer General Grievous because Obi-Wan is a master of soresu, the defensive form - only a master of soresu can be expected to withstand Grievous' furious assault. Count Dooku is a nearly unbeatable duelist because he has concentrated on mastering makashi, the dueling form. The whole affair seems awfully rock-paper-scissors to me.
"You're using Bonetti's defense against me, eh?"
"I thought it fitting, considering the rocky terrain."
"Naturally, you must suspect me to attack with Capo Ferro."
"Naturally, but I find that Thibault cancels out Capo Ferro. Don't you?"
"Unless the enemy has studied his Agrippa ... which I have."That's just ... not how it works. Or if it is, I shall be very much surprised to discover it.
For me, the magic is gone if the unreality rises above the height at which I can suspend my disbelief. The clone army (among other things) destroyed the magic of the Jedi for me (well, put the final nail in the coffin), and it took Karen Traviss' Republic Commando books saying, "Hey, no, that is simply genetic slavery, you tossers" to bring it back (yes, oddly, being able to admit the Jedi are morally bankrupt, self-important slavers revives the magic for me). And recently, I found something to revive the magic of lightsaber combat.
Although each of the seven canonical forms may be a caricature of real fighting, collectively, I think they can be thought of as standing for principles that are actually useful in actual sword fighting. Yes, I actually sometimes think to myself in sparring, "Ataru. Keep your hands high."
Shii Cho, Form I, was noted for its preference for direct, simple movements. In reality, simple is always better, but shii cho can still stand for that principle: every movement of the sword should be as simple as will still get the job done. For instance, when striking, don't cock the sword back first - strike from where the sword already is, or if it must be cocked back, incorporate that into your guard. Shii cho means the elimination of extraneous movements and flourishes.
Makashi, Form II, was noted for its elegance and precision, considered the height of lightsaber dueling. Makashi can stand for the principle of precision. For instance, when parrying, move your weapon as far as necessary to displace the incoming blow - but no farther. Makashi means that movements must not only be simple, not only direct, but also precise.
Soresu, Form III, was noted for its defensive emphasis. Soresu stands for the principle that Tristan phrases thus: "Priority one: stay alive. Priority two, kill the other person." The most obvious application of this principle is never to ignore the enemy's blade. It is surprisingly difficult, even in the heat of mock-combat, not to take an opening that presents itself even if doing so results in you being struck. True it may be that one should never draw a sword without intending to put somebody in a coma, a wheelchair, or a bodybag, but a true art aims to do so with maximum safety. Priority one is to stay alive. The enemy's incapacitation is priority two. Soresu.
Ataru, Form IV, was noted for its mobility and use of the Force to assist the practitioner's movements. Ataru stands for the principle of athleticism. We can explain this in two ways. The first is that every movement should be made not only directly, simply, and precisely, but also with speed and power. It does no good to strike or parry slowly, for the slow sword is easily intercepted or overpowered and will not cut. The second is that nothing the swordsman does should be limited by the fact that it is a strain on the body. It is easier to keep the hands close to the body, for fully extending them with a three-pound sword is a strain, but that is bad form and unsafe. The only way to effortlessly achieve proper form is fitness, athleticism. Ataru.
Shien / Djem So, Form V, was an evolution of soresu with an offensive twist. Whereas soresu would deflect a blaster bolt, shien would deflect it into an enemy. Soresu parries and waits for an opening; djem so parries and creates an opening. In shien, we may see an expression of the concept the German masters referred to as fühlen, or feeling. Fühlen is the art of sensing how the enemy is moving his blade against yours in order to predict what he is going to do and, armed with such knowledge, to exploit his momentum. If the enemy is attempting to overpower your blade, do not resist - rather, let his determination force his own weapon off balance as you strike. If the enemy is offering no resistance, seize control of his weapon and strike. Djem so stands for the principle of controlling the fight. This can mean striking first, but more importantly it means that one should never simply defend. Parry in such a way that your blade is poised for a counterattack while the opponent's is not - or, if possible, counterattack and parry with the same (simple, direct, precise, powerful) motion. When attacking, do so in a way that controls the enemy's blade either directly (i.e., blade-to-blade contact) or forecloses the counterattacks that can easily be made from his current guard. Together, shien and djem so mean that safety lies not simply in defending oneself, but in dominating the enemy and his weapon.
Niman, Form VI, was a moderate form that lay somewhere in between the other six canonical lightsaber forms. While niman proved unsuitable for actual combat (as many Jedi discovered to their cost during Episode II), it may stand for the principle of synthesis. That is to say, all principles of fencing must be combined and internalized in a unified way. One cannot be direct one moment, precise the next, and then fast the third, any more than one can only think about defense in one moment and then only think about offense the next; all movements must be governed by all principles at once, and ultimately the individual principles ought to merge in the unconscious mind until they are simply "fighting," so that one's movements are not only simple, direct, precise, and powerful, but also spontaneous, without the hesitation that comes from thinking, "What am I supposed to do next?" Niman means what the heroes of the Iliad say to to encourage their comrades: "Remember all your excellence, for now is the time for you to be a spearman (well okay, swordsman) and a bold warrior."
Juyo, Form VII (that's right, I don't count vaapad), was a form characterized by a bold offense and intense emotional focus on the enemy. Known as the "ferocity form," juyo stands for the principle of aggression. Swordsmanship may lead to deep self-mastery and control, but the sword itself is a tool to put people in wheelchairs, comas, or body bags. One must strike not only simply, directly, precisely, powerfully, spontaneously, but with intent. The goal of striking is not to score points, but to so devastate the enemy's body that he either surrenders or is physiologically incapable of continuing to attack. This is not to say that only fight-ending strikes should be struck. Rather, the killer instinct that juyo stands for underlies proper form itself. One cannot strike spontaneously or quickly if one is hesitant to hurt the enemy. Juyo is training to suppress the resistance to harming another human being. It is, as Chief Harkness says, deciding right now, ahead of time, that you're gonna kill the motherfucker if that's what it takes.And so this is how lightsaber combat becomes relevant to me again. There are more principles to KDF than these, of course - these are simply devices to give extra mnemonic weight to things I should be thinking about. When I am sparring, are my feet so placed, my hands so gripping the sword, and my guard so held that am I set up to strike or defend without any extraneous movement? Shii cho. When I practice my cuts, am I hyperextending my wrists; when I wind, am I keeping my point on target; when I parry, am I wildly over-committing? Makashi. Am I thinking, at all times, of how my feet can move to void an attack and how my sword can displace an attack given their current positions - and whether those defensive movements match up with what attacks my opponent can make given his stance? Soresu. Am I thinking not only of how I can void and displace, but how I can do so in a way that will threaten my opponent and regain the initiative? Shien. Am I not simply planning how to react to my opponent but how to make him react to me? Djem so. Am I striking to full extension, keeping my parries strong and extended, and holding my guards in their proper position even if it makes me tired? Ataru. Am I in this to win the game that is sparring, or to kill my opponent? Juyo. Am I thinking about all this at once? Niman.