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It’s all too easy to imagine a duel on the beach between pirates or, as fiction and film often have it, between pirate captains. A sandy beach, palm trees, spectators often including both pirates and a woman in distress, a tropical sea and sky–a duel is mandatory in the genre if only because the setting demands one.
This blog post is part one of a likely five part series on the classical piratical duel on the beach, a pirate trope too evocative to pass up and one based to some degree in reality too. Only the trope of the tavern sword brawl is as prevalent, but not as romantic.
Up first is a look at the sandy duel in fiction. Part two examines the duel described by Rafael Sabatini in The Black Swan, in particular the origin of the hero’s singular technique. Part three reviews the duel on the beach in film, part four takes a close look at the most famous fictional duel on the beach, that depicted in Captain Blood (1935) starring Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone, and part five discusses the historical reality of the duel on the beach.
In particular, we’ll look not just at some classic swashbuckling episodes, but also consider how genres and tropes are created, and how misinterpretation often not only leads us astray, but also, at times, to authentic historical discoveries.
It’s entirely likely that I’ll also throw in a blog post each on the inquartata, the flanconnade, and also the intagliata and similar techniques of “lunging off the line,” given their prevalence in swashbuckling fiction and film (not to mention their utility in historical and modern fencing). I’ve already written one for the same reason on The Night Thrust; or, More Politely, the Passata Soto. I’ll likely also write a brief post on Dutch knife fighting for reasons noted just below.
The series is also part of an effort to encourage outdoor fencing, especially at the beach or seaside. (Don’t worry, any light rust is easily removed from blades! In fact, two or three hours in a sea breeze will start to rust carbon steel.) Not too long ago the FIE (the international fencing body) in its infinite [lack of] wisdom did away with outdoor tournaments in epee, at least as sanctioned events, and national bodies followed suit. Given the Covid-19 pandemic, sanctioned outdoor fencing tournaments should seriously be reconsidered, not to mention that they’re also a lot of fun for their own sake. Some of my fondest fencing memories are of outdoor swordplay, both competitive and recreational, and their associated celebrations.
So where to begin? It seems almost too easy. At least half the blame lays with the highly enjoyable illustrator and writer of out-sized piratical myth, misconception, and trope, Howard Pyle, several of whose students–N. C. Wyeth and Frank E. Schoonover in particular–followed closely in his swashbuckling illustrator footsteps.
Although he painted several sword duels, two of them by the seaside, it’s Pyle’s “Which Shall Be Captain?” that may be the significant culprit. In it, two pirate captains struggle against each other with daggers to determine who will command. The notion of dueling for command is false, however, to be discussed in more detail in part five (or if you can’t wait, you can read about it in The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth Behind Pirate Myths). Put simply, captains and quartermasters were democratically elected. Even lesser officers required the approval of the crew. Dueling was never considered or acted upon as a means to gain command.
Likewise false, or at least uncommon as far as we know, is the use of daggers in duels on the beach. In fact, among buccaneers the musket was usual weapon although some fought with cutlasses. However, there may be a possible exception among Dutch and Flemish seamen, who like many of their adventurous compatriots ashore had a habit of knife fighting, often using their hats in the unarmed hand for parrying. The style of fighting appears to have been more cut than thrust, notwithstanding the Dutch term “snickersnee,” which means to stick or stab and thrust, which Lewis Carroll turned into the snicker-snak of the vorpal sword. (See Buccaneer Cutlasses: What We Know for more information on cutlasses, including a bit on dueling.)
Even so, the only authenticated duel between buccaneer captains was between two Dutchmen–and they used cutlasses. Again, more on this in part five.
A duel on the beach between Dutch pirate captains is likely not what Pyle intended though, unless they were Dutch buccaneer captains of which there were in fact a fair number, more of them in service among French flibustiers than among English buccaneers. Their names are legend: Laurens de Graff, Nicolas Van Horn, Michiel Andrieszoon aka Michel Andresson, Jan Willems aka Yanky, Jacob Evertson, and Jan Erasmus Reyning among many others.
No matter his original intention, Pyle’s scene-setting has been imitated as homage, sometimes even copied, in numerous films as well as in illustrations for swashbuckling tales.
However, Pyle’s painting can only ultimately be said to have inspired the trope to far greater prominence, for a decade earlier, in 1899, Mary Johnston’s To Have and to Hold was published, a romantic novel of ladies, gentlemen, settlers (or invaders), Native Americans, and pirates. Notably, Howard Pyle painted the frontispiece, and, more on this later, Johnston’s works were a significant influence on Rafael Sabatini, author of Captain Blood and many other great romantic, often swashbuckling, novels.
Pyle’s painting of the duel for command, between gentleman hero and the last of three pirate villains he fights one after the other, takes place on what is known today as Fisherman’s Island off Cape Charles, Virginia. All three duels are described not in terms of fencing technique but via the hero’s thoughts and emotions as he fights–and easy way to avoid describing actual swordplay. Side note: the hero’s second adversary is a Spaniard (the best blade in Lima) and the third is the “man in black and silver”–almost as if the duel takes place in The Princess Bride. I won’t add the duel in The Princess Bride to this post, although I’m sorely tempted, as it takes place not on the shore but on the cliffs high above.
The entire composition of Pyle’s painting has been copied by many illustrators and filmmakers, including Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate (1926) and Michael Curtiz in Captain Blood (1935).
As for the action itself, duels in fiction and film require high drama. It helps if the hero and his adversary are equally matched, although often the hero ends up hard-pressed but prevails in the end, often by stratagem. Occasionally we see the hero who is always in control, whose swordplay is so exceptional that the villain comes soon to realize he (villainous duelists are almost always a he, thus the pronoun) is entirely outmatched. Here the drama derives from the villain realizing he’s going to lose and be rewarded as he so richly deserves.
Depicting swordplay in fiction can be difficult, or rather, is actually quite difficult. Explain too much and you lose drama and tempo. Explain too little, and the duel is reduced to vague nonsense, even if dramatic. Using a few modern fencing terms has been the refuge of many novelists–but modern terms lack the flavor, and often the correct historical technique, to adequately depict a historical duel. And even in this case only fencers will actually understand what’s going on. In other words, to understand fencing you must be a fencer (and this is part of the reason, in spite of the FIE’s attempts at dumbing down fencing, why it will never be, and frankly should not be, a great spectator sport). But writers often cheat and describe swordfights only in vague terms or through the protagonist’s mental state.
In related fashion, writers often forget, or far more likely haven’t learned, that fencing on a shoreline causes changes in footwork and agility. Fencing in sand tends to slow the action down a bit, footwork in particular. Lunges are slower because the foot slips even in the best-compacted damp sand. Of course, if the beach is rocky, as in Captain Blood (1935), or covered in various beach and dune plants, this may help prevent the foot from slipping although it may also increase the risk of tripping and falling. Fencing in shallow water can diminish the lunge or even negate it.
Further, sand gets in the shoe, which can affect footwork. Sand is also readily available for villainously throwing in the adversary’s eyes. And, as in the case of all outdoor fencing on uneven ground, there’s always the chance at taking a special form of tempo, that of the brief surprise when the adversary accidentally steps in a hole or runs into a bush or trips over driftwood, or is maneuvered into doing this. Distraction, however brief, can be fatal.
There are partial remedy for these hazards, which I’ll discuss in part five, and, like running in the sand, you’ll at least in part naturally adapt to the best technique over time. (Thanks Bear Mac Mahon for your brief comments and reminders on fencing in the sand. 🙂 )
Sadly, seldom does any of this make it into fictional accounts of duels on the beach. But not matter! It’s the ring and spark of steel on steel while the sun glints off sand and sea we’re after. Which, by the way, is another issue with fencing on the beach: glare, which can easily be used to advantage by maneuvering the adversary into position with his face facing sun and sea, or even a sandy sea breeze…
The duel on the beach has had a fair amount of depiction in other print media as well, including trading cards and comic books:
A duel over buried treasure below, with daggers, clearly inspired by the famous Howard Pyle painting.
Below, a duel for command–a myth, as is the duel or affray over buried treasure.
The trading card above probably owes as much to Douglas Fairbanks’s The Black Pirate (1926) as it does to Howard Pyle and various fiction, as shown below–but then, The Black Pirate owes much to Howard Pyle, purposely so according to the film program. We’ll discuss the duel in this film in more detail in part three.
Of course, one of the great duels on the beach is depicted in Captain Blood: His Odyssey (1922) by Rafael Sabatini, in particular the dramatic build-up and famous dialogue. But alas, the duel itself is described in only two lines:
“It was soon over. The brute strength, upon which Levasseur so confidently counted, could avail nothing against the Irishman’s practised skill.”
In part four we’ll look further into this most famous of duels as it was depicted in the 1935 film starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and Basil Rathbone.
Numerous illustrators have tried their hand at the duel, some more successfully than others, historical accuracy (and even fictional accuracy) often to be desired.
This is a good opportunity to segue to several tobacco card illustrations of duels on the beach. Up first is Captain Blood, although based entirely on the duel in the 1935 film.
The purportedly authentic duel between Mary Read and a fellow pirate who was threatening her lover (or at least Charles Johnson so claimed, but he lied often in his 1724-1726 chronicle of pirates) shows up in an Allen & Ginter Cigarettes trading card, circa 1888. I’ve included it here as the account may well be fictional.
Norman Price illustrated this duel in The Rogue’s Moon by Robert W. Chambers (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1929), yet another prolific (roughly one hundred novels, short story collections, and children’s books) popular genre writer already forgotten less than a century later. The story is enjoyable enough even given its light genre and Chambers’s style. It is action-filled and interspersed with scenes of mild titillation, and includes several major characters of the era (Blackbeard among them) in prime appearances, with pirates as the story’s villains. The protagonist is a cross-dressing, seeking-revenge-against-pirates, older teenager named Nancy Topsfield. The novel pretends to a background of historical accuracy, which is in fact, as with most of the genre, only superficial at best.
The duel is brief but exciting, and follows the manner described by Charles Johnson as in use by the early eighteenth century pirates of the black flag: pistols followed by cutlasses. Read’s sword is a “Barbary” or “Arab” blade, which might be a nimcha (of which were some naval captains who owned these swords, usually as trophies) but which the illustrations suggest is more likely a scimitar (or shamshir if you want to be pedantic–but scimitar was the common word in use by Europeans at the time). In either case her blade looks curved enough that she needs to hook her thrust. The duel ends with a near-decapitation.
Although Price’s drawings and paintings of men in the story are reasonably historically accurate by the low standard of popular illustration, he takes pop culture liberties with the leading female characters. He and Chambers dress Mary Read as a typical 1920s/1930s Hollywood starlet-type of pirate, sometimes termed “pirate flapper” and derived most likely from Douglas Fairbanks’s style of dress in his 1926 The Black Pirate. Female pirates were commonly depicted in this fashion during this era, ranging from magazine ads for sterling flatware to Hollywood studio portraits.
Given the rarity of known pirate duels, it’s not surprising that so few are depicted in various literature. However, at least one is. The famous duel, familiar if you’ve read the French edition of Alexandre Exquemelin’s The Buccaneers of America, or other related French texts (or even some of my books), between Laurens de Graff and Nicolas Van Horn at Isla Sacrificios near Veracruz in 1683 is also depicted on a cigarette card. However, given that this duel actually occurred and we have period accounts of it, we’ll save further description for part five. Whoever illustrated the duel below had not read the rare eyewitness account (unsurprising at it is neither easily found nor easily deciphered) although he or she may have read a secondary account, possibly Exquemelin’s.
All of this rather meandering exposition of the duel on the beach in fiction is leading us to a single novel that epitomizes it above all others: The Black Swan by Rafael Sabatini. And, given its role and singular technique, I’ll devote part two of this series to it entirely.
I’d have to do a more detailed survey of recent fiction to adequately note any other significant renderings in fiction of duels on the beach. At the moment, only one comes to mind, that depicted by famous Spanish novelist Arturo Pérez-Reverte in El Puente de Los Asesinos (2011), part of his excellent Capitán Alatriste series. Alas, there is no English translation. The first six were translated, but not the seventh due to low sales, an indication of where the genre–especially “upmarket” swashbucklers–is today, replaced largely, and sadly, by fantasy.
The swashbuckling fiction that does make it print today tends to fall into the “writing by trope” category with inaccurate historical detail (a problem with much historical fiction in general today) and “dialogue as might be spoken by suburbanites” (likewise a common problem as a journalist friend pointed out), or is sadly relegated to small ebook and print-on-demand presses with little if any access to brick-and-mortar chains and independents. I remain hopeful that this will change. And if I bother to dust off Fortune’s Favorite, the sequel to Fortune’s Whelp, I’ll let you know–it has a duel on the beach in it. In the Caribbean. Naturally. 🙂
On a more positive note, I’ll close with two watercolors of pirate dueling on the beach, by one of the most famous American painters of all: Andrew Wyeth, son of illustrator N. C. Wyeth, around the age of twenty.
And last, well, just because it’s a beautiful beach painting in the pirate genre by Andrew Wyeth…
A couple of notes on the duel at Teviot beach by Howard Pyle: Aficionados of fencing history will note that Pyle clearly took his inspiration from late 19th and early 20th century epee duels, many of which were photographed, and some even filmed. In the late 17th century it would be unusual for there to be a directeur de combat (someone who monitors the fight, in other words, and ensures that no villainy is perpetrated). Further, seconds often fought too, and spectators were absent more often than not.
Even more critically, both swordsmen are in sixte rather than tierce (although one might argue that the fencer on the left is actually correctly in carte, perhaps having just been parried to the outside line by a circular parry). Sixte, not yet called by this name, was not unknown but was disregarded by most masters and fencers in spite of its utility in closing the “light” (hole, open target) revealed in tierce. Sixte is a weaker position and requires more blade set and wrist angulation (some of the latter was later relieved by modifying the way the grip was held) than tierce, which is a stronger position physically and whose point falls naturally toward the adversary’s shoulder. The guards shown in the painting are more typical of fencers in Pyle’s day (and in ours as well).
POSTSCRIPT for members of the Huntsville Fencing Club: post-pandemic we’ll [finally] host a rum tournament on the beach. 🙂
Copyright Benerson Little 2020. First published September 1, 2020. Last updated February 1, 2021.
Jack Sparrow, Perhaps? The Origin of an Early “Hollywood” Pirate, Plus the Authentic Image of a Real Buccaneer
The illustration above was created in late 1926 or early 1927, and published in April of the latter year. Among its several pirate clichés (skull and bones on the hat, tattoos, curved dagger, long threatening mustache) is one I had thought was entirely modern: a pirate hair braid with coins attached.
Quite possibly, this coin braid is the artist’s idea of a pirate “love lock.” The love lock was popular among some young English and French gentlemen in the first half of the seventeenth century. Usually worn on the left side, it was typically tied with a ribbon, a “silken twist” as one author called it. Occasionally two were worn, one on each side as in the image below.
This “pirate love lock” is a noteworthy characteristic of the very Hollywood, very fantasy pirate Captain Jack Sparrow, and I wonder if this image did not inspire much of his look. Historically-speaking, though, there is no historical basis for it among pirates of the “Golden Age” (circa 1655 to 1725), although it’s possible there may have been a gentleman rover or two who wore one during the first half of the seventeenth century–but not a braid or lock with coins.
Of course, much of The Mentor pirate image above was clearly inspired by famous illustrator and author Howard Pyle, as shown below.
There’s a hint of N. C. Wyeth too, not surprising given that he was a student of Howard Pyle. However, Captain Peter Blood was a gentleman pirate, and the pirate on The Mentor cover is clearly not.
And Wyeth’s Captain Blood cover is clearly influenced by this 1921 cover he painted for Life magazine. In fact, less the goatee, the two buccaneers might be one and the same:
The Pyle influence continued through the twentieth century in film, illustration, and mass market paperbacks about pirates…
The Mentor illustration is also clearly influenced by Douglas Fairbanks’s 1926 film The Black Pirate, which was, according to Fairbanks himself, heavily influenced by Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates and to a fair degree by Peter Pan.
Seriously, check out Fairbanks’s costume in the film, it’s obviously that of Peter Pan grown up. I have a soft spot for Douglas Fairbanks: my first fencing master, Dr. Francis Zold, described him as a gentleman and a swordsman, and described how Fairbanks invited the Hungarian fencers to his mansion Picfair (named after Fairbanks and his wife, Mary Pickford) after György Jekelfalussy-Piller won the gold saber medal at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games.
And here, finally, we have Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow in the flesh, braids and such dangling from his hair, again for which there is no historical precedent among Golden Age pirates that we know of. It’s hard to see how Depp’s costume, in particular his hair, might not have been influenced by the illustration at the top of the page. If it weren’t, it’s quite a coincidence.
As noted, it’s entirely possible that the Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl costume designers never saw the image at the top of the page. They may have imagined it themselves, or been influenced by something else. A very likely possibility is Donald O’Connor in the 1951 film Double Crossbones, a campy pirate comedy that makes fun of nearly all pirate clichés.
Although this may seem to be little more than coincidence, there are other similarities between the two films, strongly suggesting the writers and costume designers were familiar with it. In particular, O’Connor plays a shy, somewhat bumbling shopkeeper’s apprentice in love with the governor’s beautiful ward, and she with him. Due to difference in social class he’s unwilling to express his love openly until by accident he becomes a pirate. Sound familiar? Even the costumes of the governor’s ward (Lady Sylvia Copeland, played by Helena Carter) are similar (homage-fashion?) to those of Elizabeth Swann, played by Keira Knightley. If not the Pirates of the Caribbean costume designer, then perhaps the Double Crossbones costume designer was familiar with the image at the top of the page.
Of course, all this so far is “Hollywood,” for lack of a better term. There are a number of serious groups of reenactors, scholars, and others trying to correct the false historical image, all with varying degrees of accuracy, agreement and disagreement, and success.
Hollywood has yet to get aboard, no matter whether in pirate films and television series, or often any film or television set prior to the nineteenth century for that matter, probably because it’s easier to play to audience expectations (and, unfortunately, much of the audience doesn’t really care), not to mention that there’s a tendency or even a fad among costume designers to do something that “evokes” the image or era rather than depict it accurately, not to mention the time and other expense of researching, designing, and creating costumes from scratch when there are costumes “close enough,” so to speak, already in film wardrobes.
Here’s a hint, Hollywood: you can start by getting rid of the “pirate boots.” They didn’t exist. They’re actually based on riding boots, and a pirate would only be in riding boots if he were on a horse–and horses aren’t often ridden aboard ship. Further, you can get rid of the baldrics in most cases, exceptions being primarily for gentlemen pirates wearing smallswords into the 1680s, no later. (You can have some Spanish pirates with rapiers wear baldrics after this, though.) And for that matter, you can get rid of wide belts and large belt buckles too. But if nothing else, please, please get rid of the boots, which, if I recall correctly, a UK journalist once correctly described as nothing more than fetish-wear.
Full disclosure: I was the historical consultant to Black Sails, a great show with a great cast and crew, but I had nothing to do with the costuming, much of which is considered as near-blasphemy by advocates of historical accuracy in material culture in television and film. That said, the show is a fictional prequel to a work of fiction that variously created or expanded some of our biggest myths about pirates–buried treasure, the black spot, and so on. Looked at this way, if you can accept the story you can probably tolerate the costuming.
I’ve discussed what real pirates and buccaneers looked like several times, not without some occasional minor quibbling by other authorities. The Golden Age of Piracy has some details, as do two or three of my other books, but several of my blog posts also discuss some of the more egregious clichés, with more posts on the subject to come.
At any rate, here’s an image of a real buccaneer, a French flibustier in fact, from the 1680s. It’s an eyewitness image, one of only a handful of authentic eyewitness images of “Golden Age” sea rovers. It and the others prove that an image may evoke swashbuckling pirates while still being entirely accurate.
Copyright Benerson Little 2018. First published January 23, 2018. Last updated April 4, 2018.
For your perusal, a list of a handful of swashbuckling historical novels–pirates, musketeers, various spadassins and bretteurs–with engaging swordplay, even if not always entirely accurate in its depiction. If you’re reading any of my blog posts, chances are you have friends who might enjoy reading some of these books, thus my suggestion as Christmas, Hanukkah, or other gifts this holiday season.
Three caveats are in order: all of the following are favorites of mine, all are set in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and all are not “all” in the sense that the list, even narrowed strictly to my favorites, is quite incomplete. Without doubt I’ll add to it every holiday season. And maybe one day a list of swashbuckling films, another of table and board games, maybe even of video games too…
Upon reflection, perhaps a fourth caveat is in order as well: simply enjoy the stories and their swordplay for what they are. Don’t be too critical, especially of the latter. Except for the case of the reader who is an experienced fencer with a strong understanding of period fencing terms and technique (far more rare than you might think), complex historical fencing scenes cannot be written simply and just as simply understood. Nor can technique and actions in general be explained sufficiently for the neophyte to understand, at least not if the writer wishes to keep the action flowing. The writer must strike a middle ground, one that won’t lose the tempo and thus the reader. This is not so easily done.
It’s possible the Moby Dick technique would work–explain and teach prior to the event–but it’s just as likely that many readers would shun this, unfortunately. For what it’s worth, Moby Dick is by far my favorite novel and I consider it the greatest ever written. It is not, however, a book for readers who cannot step momentarily away from the narrative. As I’ve discovered after the publication of two of my books in which narrative history is interspersed with analysis and explanation, there are quite a few such readers, some of whom become plaintively irate and simultaneously–and often amusingly–confessional of more than a degree of ignorance when the narrative is interrupted for any reason. To sample this sort of reader’s mindset, just read a few of the negative reviews of Moby Dick on Amazon–not those by obvious trolls but those by apparently sincere reviewers. Put plainly, using Moby Dick as a template for swordplay scenes would probably be distracting in most swashbuckling novels.
In regard to acquiring any of these enjoyable titles, note that some are out of print except perhaps as overly-priced modern print-on-demand editions. Even for those still in print, I highly recommend purchasing earlier copies from used or antiquarian dealers–there are plenty of highly affordable copies, just look around for them. Abebooks is a great place to start, but only if you have no local independent used or antiquarian bookstores available to try first. And these days, alas, there might not be any…
Why an older edition? Because the scent of an old book helps set the period atmosphere. Add a comfortable chair, a sword or two on the wall, a fireplace in a reading room or a fire pit on the beach nearby, and, if you’re of age to drink, perhaps some rum, Madeira, or sherry-sack on a side table, and you’re ready to go. Or Scotch, especially a peaty single malt distilled near the seaside, it will evoke the atmosphere of Sir Walter Scot’s The Pirate. Scotch always works.
So just sit back and let the writer carry you along. Don’t forget to imagine the ring of steel on steel and the sharp smell of ozone after an exceptionally sharp beat or parry. And if you really enjoy scenes with swordplay, there’s no reason you can’t further your education by taking up fencing, whatever your age or physical ability. If you’d rather begin first by reading about swordplay, you can start here with Fencing Books For Swordsmen & Swordswomen. And if you’re interested in how swashbuckling novels come to be–romance, swordplay, and all–read Ruth Heredia’s outstanding two volume Romantic Prince, details below.
Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini
Better known by its short title, Captain Blood, I list this first even though there’s really no significant description of swordplay, not even during the duel that is one of the best parts, of many, in the 1935 film version starring Errol Flynn. You must imagine the sword combat, yet in no way does it detract from this great swashbuckling romance that has inspired readers and writers worldwide, not to mention two major film versions (1924 and 1935). It is truly a modern classic. If you really want to judge the quality of the prose, read a few passages out loud: they’re wonderfully lyrical and evocative.
Captain Blood Returns by Rafael Sabatini
If it’s a description of swordplay in a tale of Captain Blood, you’ll have to settle for the “Love Story of Jeremy Pitt” in Captain Blood Returns, also known in UK editions as the Chronicles of Captain Blood. Great Captain Blood fare, follow up it with The Fortunes of Captain Blood.
The Black Swan by Rafael Sabatini
One of the greatest of swashbucklers whose plot leads, line after line, to a dueling climax. The 1942 film of the same name, starring Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara, doesn’t do the book justice, not to mention takes great liberties with both plot and character.
Fortune’s Fool by Rafael Sabatini
An embittered former Cromwellian officer reassessing his life during the early days of the Restoration–and proper use of the unarmed hand in a sword fight too!
Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini
A novel evoking many of the elements of my Hungarian fencing masters’ own history: spies, duels, intrigue, war, revolution, narrow escapes, and above all, courage. Plus Venice!
“With delicate precision he calculated the moment at which to turn and face them. He chose to do it standing on the lowest step of the bridge, a position which would give him a slight command of them when they charged. As he spun round, he drew his sword with one hand whilst with the other he swept the cloak from his shoulders. He knew exactly what he was going to do. They should find that a gentleman who had been through all the hazards that had lain for him between Quiberon and Savenay did not fall an easy prey to a couple of bully swordsmen…”
Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini
“He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.” Add a sword and you have Scaramouche.
To my mind, a tie with The Black Swan in regard to a novel built around swordplay, and far superior in its scope. Easily has the best–most evocative, that is–description of a fencing salle, hands down.
To Have and To Hold by Mary Johnston
Listed here primarily as representative of the genre at the time (the late nineteenth century) and because it influenced Rafael Sabatini, the novel has most of the classic clichés of the genre, including the duel for command of a pirate ship, something that never actually happened. A gentleman swordsman, pirates, Native Americans, a damsel incognita in distress… The duel takes place, as best as I can tell, on Fisherman’s Island off Cape Charles, Virginia.
Adam Penfeather, Buccaneer by Jeffery Farnol
The prequel to the following two novels, you may either love or hate the style in which it’s and the rest are written, the dialogue in particular. Even if you don’t much care for the style–I don’t much–the series are worth reading anyway for the adventure and swordplay, often including sword-armed women in disguise. Farnol will never come close to replacing Sabatini to me, but this doesn’t stop me from enjoying Farnol’s swashbucklers. And at least Farnol’s dialogue doesn’t sound like, to paraphrase a friend of mine, suburbanites chatting inanely at a PTA meeting–a problem with much dialogue in modern historical fiction and television drama.
As for swordplay, Farnol often takes the evocative approach, providing broad strokes to give a sense of the action without providing detail which might confuse non-fencers:
“Once more the swords rang together and, joined thus, whirled in flashing arcs, parted to clash in slithering flurry, their flickering points darting, now in the high line, now in the low, until Adam’s blade seemed to waver from this line, flashing wide, but in that same instant he stepped nimbly aside, and as Sir Benjamin passed in the expected lunge Adam smote him lightly across broad back with the flat of his blade.”
Non-fencing authors take note of the critical vocabulary for swordplay scenes: rang, flashing, slithering, flickering, darting, flashing…
Black Bartlemy’s Treasure by Jeffery Farnol
Great swashbuckling fare, the first part of a two novel series.
Martin Conisby’s Vengeance by Jeffery Farnol
This quote alone sells this sequel to Black Bartlemy’s Treasure: “So-ho, fool!” cried she, brandishing her weapon. “You have a sword, I mind—go fetch it and I will teach ye punto riverso, the stoccato, the imbrocato, and let you some o’ your sluggish, English blood. Go fetch the sword, I bid ye.”
The Pyrates by George MacDonald Fraser
Enjoyable parody of swashbuckling pirate novels and films, much influenced by the works of Rafael Sabatini and Jeffery Farnol. Fraser, an author himself of wonderful swashbuckling adventure, was a great fan of Sabatini.
The Princess Bride by William Goldman
Requires no description. The swordplay, like that in The Pirates above, is affectionate parody, and much more detailed than in the film.
Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott
Excellent if mostly, if not entirely, historically inaccurate tale of Rob Roy MacGregor told through the eyes of a visiting Englishman. It has a couple of excellent descriptions of swordplay, ranging from a duel with smallswords to action with Highland broadswords.
Le Petit Parisien ou Le Bossu by Paul Féval père
I’m going to pass on Alexandre Dumas for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that I’ll eventually devote an entire blog to him. If, however, you feel he should be represented here, The Three Musketeers series is where to begin, but you must read the entire series of novels. Be aware that many such series are actually abridged. For a slightly different Dumas take on the swashbuckler, try Georges (an exception to the seventeenth and eighteenth century rule, an almost autobiographical novel in its focus on race and prejudice) or The Women’s War (or The War of Women, in French La Guerre des Femmes). Both are favorites of mine.
Instead, I’ll suggest a great swashbuckler by one of Dumas’ contemporaries. Le Petit Parisien ou Le Bossu is a true roman de cape et d’épée (swashbuckling novel) of revenge from the which the line, “Si tu ne viens pas à Lagardère, Lagardère ira à toi!” (“If you will not come to Lagardère, Lagardère will come to you!”), has passed into French proverb. The novel has been made into film at least nine times, plus into a couple of television versions as well as several stage versions. Unfortunately, I’m aware of only one English translation, and it is excessively–an understatement–abridged. Alexandre Dumas, Paul Féval, Rafael Sabatini are the trinity who truly established the swashbuckler as a significant literary genre.
Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand
Not a novel, but mandatory reading nonetheless, with one of the two greatest stage duels ever written, the other being that in Hamlet. Wonderful drama, philosophy in action, and sword adventure, including a duel fought to impromptu verse. Like Captain Blood, it is one of the truly inspirational swashbucklers. To be read at least every few years, and seen on stage whenever available. There are several excellent film versions as well.
The Years Between &c by Paul Féval fils & “M. Lassez”
Two series of novels of the imagined adventures of the d’Artagnan of Alexandre Dumas and the Cyrano of Edmond Rostand, filling the twenty years between The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After in the first, and immediately following Twenty Years After in the second. The books are filled with the expected enjoyable affrays and other adventures of the genre, including the usual improbable circumstances and coincidences. The first series consists of The Mysterious Cavalier, Martyr to the Queen, The Secret of the Bastille, and The Heir of Buckingham, published in English in four volumes. The second includes State Secret, The Escape of the Man in the Iron Mask, and The Wedding of Cyrano, published in English in two volumes as Comrades at Arms and Salute to Cyrano.
The Devil in Velvet by John Dickson Carr
Fully enjoyable read about a modern history professor who travels to the seventeenth century via a bargain with the devil. The professor discovers that his modern swordplay is superior to that of the seventeenth century–a wonderful idea for a novel but otherwise flawed in reality. At best, if the professor were a “modern” epee fencer, there might be parity. But who cares? After all, who can travel back in time anyway except in the imagination? If you’re a fencer well-versed in historical fencing versus modern (again, not as many as you might think, including some who believe they are), suspend your disbelief. And if you’re not, just enjoy the novel for what it is.
Most Secret by John Dickson Carr
Pure genre by the famous mystery writer, this time entirely set in the seventeenth century. Cavaliers, spies, and a damsel in distress!
The Alatriste Novels by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
Leaping forward almost two hundred years, the Alatriste novels are a highly recommended recent series by one of Spain’s great novelists, although some critics note that the books are a bit dark. I’d call them realistic. Unfortunately, the latest of the series, El Puente de los Asesinos (The Bridge of the Assassins or The Assassin’s Bridge) has not been translated into English and doesn’t appear likely to be anytime soon, if at all, an apparent casualty of insufficient sales of the previous volumes and a reflection upon the state of the genre at the moment. That the genre should not have a larger readership given the times we live in is curious, but perhaps the audience awaits a few real-life swashbuckling heroes to reappear first. I have read The Assassin’s Bridge, but in French, and enjoyed it. My Spanish is simply not up to the task. The first six volumes are available in English translation. I also suggest The Fencing Master (El Maestro de Escrima) by the same author.
Romantic Prince by Ruth Heredia
For readers seeking to understand how written romances come to be, you can do no better than to read Ruth Heredia’s two Romantic Prince volumes: Seeking Sabatini and Reading Sabatini. The first is a biography of Rafael Sabatini, the second a guide to reading his many works, including some discussion of swordplay. Ruth Heredia is the preeminent expert on all things Rafael Sabatini. Long an officer and significant contributor to the Rafael Sabatini Society, she is a gifted writer in her right, and, in my own experience, an eloquent voice for sanity, empathy, and justice in a mad world. Originally published in now hard-to-find soft cover, her two volumes are now available in revised editions for free for personal use by requesting them from the author. You can find details at attica-ruth.
Fortune’s Whelp by Benerson Little
Last, a blatant effort at self-promotion, although I honestly did enjoy writing the swordplay scenes (not to mention working them out sword-in-hand), and I do enjoy re-reading the associated passages, or at least as much as I’m able to enjoy my own writing (the urge to revise and improve, even after publication, is quite distracting). A sequel, Fortune’s Favorite, is forthcoming, and at least another after it. Then, if all goes well, a series of prequels.
Copyright Benerson Little 2017. First published December 14, 2017. Last updated April 14, 2020.