Few Hollywood genres are as enduringly entertaining as the swashbuckler - I'm personally quite fond of swashbucklers about pirates, and I've also written about women's roles in swashbucklers. They combine action and romance with pageantry and, in most cases, impressive stuntwork. Their literary forbear is principally the historical novel, as pioneered by Scott and Dumas, and they are often rooted in legends of dashing heroes who perform their formidable deeds in service to a monarch. Here are ten great literary swashbucklers:
Westmark (and its sequels, The Kestrel, The Beggar Queen) - Lloyd Alexander
Alexander's trilogy is set in the fictional country of Westmark where the aging and increasingly senile king mourns his lost daughter and sole heir. After Theo's master, a printer, is murdered during a raid on the shop, the young man goes on the run, joining the carnival showman and master imposter Count Las Bombas, his servant Musket, and ragamuffin Mickle. Discovering the chief minister's evil designs of usurping the throne, the quartet is swept up into a civil war. An exciting, morally complex fantasy adventure that needs no magic to keep the pages turning.
The Decameron - Giovanni Boccaccio
One of the great classics of world literature, The Decameron is a collection of one hundred stories set in Medieval Europe, within a frame narrative about a group of young Florentines on the run from the plague. The tales range from the tragic to the salacious, the spiritual to the scatological; a few that will particularly appeal to the swashbuckler fan are: II:4, in which poor Landolfo becomes a corsair, IV:5, in which Lisabetta buries a precious relic of a former love in a basil pot, and V:3, in which Pietro and Agnolella are accosted by robbers.
The King of Ireland's Son - Padraic Colum
This 1916 children's novel based on Irish folklore is, in my opinion, the best such narrative of the twentieth century. The eldest of the King of Ireland's sons goes on a quest fraught with danger and magic to win the heart and hand of Fedelma, the Enchanter's daughter, kidnapped by the King of the Land of the Mist. The book's complex narrative structure, witty sense of humor, and gorgeous descriptions elevate it above similar children's fare and it is a perfect book to read aloud. Though comparable in content and flavor to Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, The King of Ireland's Son is much more fun.
The King's General - Daphne du Maurier
A stirring adventure set during the English Civil War, The King's General is one of du Maurier's best novels. Honor Harris at eighteen rebels and pursues a romance with the dashing, dangerous Richard Grenvile, but she is crippled by a riding accident on the eve of her wedding. The two lovers retain a bond, both emotional and political, as the war rages and Grenvile rises through the ranks to become a dreaded general. Du Maurier was inspired to write the novel when a secret room with ghastly contents was found at the estate Menabilly in Cornwall (also the inspiration for Manderley in Rebecca).
The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
Surely the most beloved and frequently adapted swashbuckling novel, Dumas's great classic follows d'Artagnan, his doughty companions Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, and the villainous Cardinal de Richelieu, as they vie for control of the French throne. While most cinematic adaptations simplify the politics of the novel and prettify the heroes' reckless violence and whoring, the novel is altogether a more complex beast: deeply critical of the monarchy and blind loyalty to its excesses and richly expressive of a wide array of political and moral points of view. An essential classic for any swashbuckler fan.
The Adventures of Robin Hood - Roger Lancelyn Green
Though there have been seemingly countless adaptations of the Robin Hood legend, Roger Lancelyn Green's version is perhaps the most readable. Green links the various Robin Hood legends, drawing from sources from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century, to create a linear narrative with consistent characters, following the hero from birth to death. Ostensibly written for boys, the book will appeal to any reader fond of a Medieval adventure; Green was also a friend of C. S. Lewis and Tolkien and like them a member of the Inklings, so this book should be of particular interest to fantasy readers.
Quest for a Maid - Frances Mary Hendry
I fell in love with this novel when I was a child and it's one I've returned to many times. Set in 13th century Scotland, the book follows Meg Wright, the daughter of a pagan Viking and sister to a witch, who must guide the princess Margaret to claim her throne after the king dies under circumstances about which Meg knows far too much. Though it is a young adult novel, it's a thrillingly good one and is a rare literary swashbuckler with a female character at the center of the action. I also recommend Monica Furlong's Wise Child, another brilliant young adult novel set in Medieval Scotland.
The Scarlet Pimpernel - Baroness Orczy
Set at the height of the Terror, when Robespierre was most fiendishly enamored of the guillotine, this novel follows stunning French actress Marguerite, married to the silly fop Sir Percy Blakeney and anxious to discover the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel, a master of disguise devoted to rescuing condemned French aristocrats from execution. Though the politics of the baronial authoress are rather too baldly elitist for my taste, The Scarlet Pimpernel is one of the most essential novels for the swashbuckler fan. The best adaptation, from 1934, stars Leslie Howard.
The Lady of the Lake - Sir Walter Scott
There would be no swashbucklers without Scott, founding father of the historical novel. In this book-length narrative poem, a particularly sophisticated reimagining of the Scottish Highlands and their legendarily feuding resident clans, the beautiful Ellen Douglas, daughter of the sworn enemy of James V, is pursued by the graceful young Malcolm Graeme and the fearsome warrior Roderick Dhu. Though the vocabulary proves challenging (I had to run to a dictionary to discover what "pibroch" and "falchion" meant), The Lady of the Lake is a dazzling work of romanticism. Fans of swashbucklers will also love Scott's novels, particularly Rob Roy, The Bride of Lammermoor, and Waverly.
Kidnapped (and its sequel, Catriona) - Robert Louis Stevenson
Nearly all of Stevenson's novels could be considered swashbucklers and Kidnapped is one of the best. It follows David Balfour, a naive but resourceful orphan who seeks his fortune in 1751. Discovering that he may have been robbed of his inheritance by a miserly uncle, he attempts to make a claim, but his efforts are soon cut short when he wakes up, bound hand and foot, on a ship captained by a slaver. An exciting adventure on a par with Treasure Island and The Master of Ballantrae, this novel and its sequel, which follows the hero's romance with the beautiful Catriona, are two of Stevenson's best works.