“If I Had Swashed the Buckler…”

I’ve been thinking about swashbuckling lately, after reading Martha Wells’ ArmadilloCon report and Sherwood Smith(=sartorias)’s response, and the discussions both provoked.

I thought I didn’t have any reactions, so I didn’t join in, but (now that the threads have gone stale), I find I have two.

One is that I’m glad it’s okay to use “had” again. I understand that excessive use of modal verbs can clutter up a sentence, but anathematizing certain words is almost never good practice for a writer, especially when it’s done by people who don’t understand the dynamics of English very well (which seems to be the case for people who hand out bad writing advice– not coincidentally, I feel). Another group of words I’d like to see rehabilitated is “-ing” words: gerunds and present active participles. I saw this around a lot two or three years ago–the idea that constructions with “-ing” were “weak” (that Dread Word Which Must Not Be Applied to One’s Prose). That was when I realized that, no matter what someone wrote on the internet, someone else would take them seriously, a chilling chillful moment indeed.

The other reaction is about the defining element of swashbuckling. Apparently the consensus at the ArmadilloCon panel was that a swashbuckler chooses his/her path of adventure, rather than being forced into it. Sherwood and others came up with counterexamples, but I thought there was some there there to the ArmadilloCon findings, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

Now, after some reading (a chunk of Count of Monte Cristo) and thinking, I’d say the defining element of the swashbuckler is style. If your hero shoots one of the King’s deer, carries it across his shoulders as he crashes a party of the Regent and plonks the dead beast down on the table in front of wicked Prince John and Sir Guy of Gisbourne, he’s a swashbuckler. If she puts on knightly armor and rides around in the Forest Broceliande in search of adventure and fame, she’s a swashbuckler. (In fact, she’s at least a couple of different swashbucklers.) If he challenges three different Musketeers to duel on the same day, then tosses aside his quarrels to fight alongside them against the Cardinal’s guards, he’s a swashbuckler.

Swashbucklers make a remarkable and memorable display of themselves and their fighting abilities. They may have magnanimous motives for doing so, but at some point they have to seize the spotlight and hold it deliberately. Brandoch Daha is always a swashbuckler; Aragorn almost never is (and never when he’s most interesting).

Anyway, these are my reflections in a swashed buckler; your dented shields may yield another set of images.

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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35 Responses to “If I Had Swashed the Buckler…”

  1. renesears says:

    Interestful. Style does define swashbucklement. I’ve got Going Postal by Terry Pratchett playing in my car, and I’d say the protagonist is definitely a swashbuckler, although he doesn’t draw a weapon the entire time, just participates in verbal duels. But he cheats and lies with such panache, I think he qualifies.

    • JE says:

      There’s certainly some overlap between the trickster and the swashbuckler, especially in the panache area.

  2. sartorias says:

    Yep, style indeed. Panache…Pizaz, sprezzatura.

  3. Anonymous says:

    By that definition…

    Is Conan? — Lou

    • JE says:

      Re: By that definition…

      I was thinking about that. Conan (and REH’s heroes generally) aren’t concerned with what people think about them, and a certain self-consciousness seems to be part of the swashbuckler’s panache. On the other hand, the ultimate cool comes from not giving a damn: the way needy pop-star Stanley Moon loses the girl(s) to apathetic Drimble Wedge. Maybe there’s a special category of swashbucklers, the darkbucklers, who display panache by not caring whether they do.

      I’d say Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are definitely swashbucklers, though.

      • lemuriapress says:

        Re: By that definition…

        Perhaps Kuttner’s Elak as well. He was a prince, after all, and he did fight with a rapier.

        Speaking of rapiers, the hero in Otis Adelbert Kline’s The Swordsman of Mars (next month from Planet Stories) carves his name into an enemy’s shirt.

        It doesn’t get much more swashbuckley than that!

        • JE says:

          Re: By that definition…

          Elak definitely. Although his buckler was a little dark at times, like when he’s betting on which stream of blood will reach a crack on the floor first (in the opener of “Spawn of Dagon”).

          I’ll have to check out the Kline; he’s one of the sword&planet guys I’ve been hearing about for years but have never read.

  4. zornhau says:


    This sets a boundary between Conan and D’Artagnon.

    (And nice to find others in the Ariosto club.)

    • zornhau says:

      But hang on…

      What about John Carter of Mars/Barsoom?

      • scbutler says:

        Re: But hang on…

        I love ERB, but I’m not sure he has enough panache to write swashbucklers. As goes the writer, so goes his characters.

      • JE says:

        Re: But hang on…

        I see what means, but I think ERB gave John Carter as much class as he could convey. His daring and generosity put him in the swashbuckler category in my view.

        I wish ERB had plotted better. I can forgive the clunky style more than the repetitive “Oh the princess has been captured! I shall go rescue her!” plots. But he was immensely imaginative (and also plundered from the best): his worlds are always worth revisiting.

        • Anonymous says:

          Re: But hang on…

          His daring and generosity put him in the swashbuckler category in my view.

          He often seized and held the spotlight deliberately, but I don’t recall it ever being for the sake of the spotlight. “I must make this fight drag out for an hour while the potion kicks in, so I’ll carve my initials in this guy a few times.” Does that enter into it?

          I read all the Tarzan books and Mars books in one year. Even to my young, adventure-clouded eyes, the plot got old.

          –Jeff Stehman

          • JE says:

            Re: But hang on…

            Well, I think the more heroic sort of swashbuckler usually has a (morally) good reason for his staginess: the Scarlet Pimpernel, or Zorro for instance. There’s also a more antiheroic type of swashbuckler who does it out of sheer ego or other motives. The Mouser has a touch of this, I think; a more extreme example would be Vance’s villain, Liane the Wayfarer.

    • scbutler says:

      Re: Yes!

      There should be a boundary between Conan and D’Artagnan, shouldn’t there?

    • JE says:

      Re: Yes!

      “(And nice to find others in the Ariosto club.)”

      I’m a huge Ariosto fan. I’ve read Boiardo and some Pulci, too, but they mostly don’t have the same magic. (Though Astolfo is pretty good in the Innamorato.)

  5. al_zorra says:

    Absolutely agree with you — style plus a certain balon, a bouyancy, and joy, that Dumas essentially invented. Thus a brooding byronic type does not swash — they pose and preen perhaps, in the current vampiric emo mode, but do not swash.

    Love, C.

    • JE says:

      Buoyancy is a good way to put it. I think a little brooding is okay, as long as it doesn’t weigh things down. Every portrait needs darker colors.

  6. spielmadchen says:

    ArmadilloCon’s Guest of Honor next year, Scott Lynch, has a main character that could be considered to be a swashbuckler. He looks for thejob and loves the job, but sometimes he doesn’t choose the job. (most of the time, actually.)

    • JE says:

      Sounds intriguing! I had some trouble getting into Lies of Locke Lamorra, but people I trust keep telling me cool things about it; I guess I’ll have to give it another try.

      • spielmadchen says:

        It’s a little slow to get into, but really picks up. It also has one of the ickiest deaths I’ve ever read in a book.


        • JE says:

          “It also has one of the ickiest deaths I’ve ever read in a book.”

          Now if someone had just told me that, I’d have been all over it! Thanks.

  7. davidcapeguy says:

    By your definition, which with I quite agree, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin would also qualify as swashbucklers. And my guess would be that that would have been Rex Stout’s intention. Both are utter romantics who see genuine value in the right gesture at the right moment.

    I’ve also been reading some of Robert E. Howard’s Western stories lately, both serious and comic, and I find it interesting that many of his cowboy heroes are far more the swashbuckler than Conan of Cimmeria. Breckenridge Elkins, especially so.

    • JE says:

      Maybe I’m being narrow-minded, but I’d restrict swashbuckling to people who actually fight. The gray eminence can display style, of course, but it’s usually of a different type than the swashbuckler: Richelieu rather than D’Artagnan. But NW no doubt qualified in his mysterious youth. (I’m not usually crazy about pastiche, but I’ve sometimes wanted to read or even write a story about Wolfe secret-agenting and fighting around Europe before and during WWI.) Archie, that “10 cent Clark Gable, so slick he thinks he can slide uphill”, was probably a swashbuckler at any point between birth and burial.

  8. newguydave says:

    My mother used to watch a movie with Danny Kaye called the Court Jester all the time. At first I did not like the movie because it was an old musical, but after a few viewings came to like it.

    Now I have to laugh because in trying to be The Black Fox, Danny Kaye’s character gives a great example of swashbuckling, even though he is neither stylish or daring.

    • JE says:

      Wow–it’s been a long time since I saw that. I used to like a couple of Danny Kaye’s movies (Walter Mitty and Wonder Man); maybe I’ll have to dig this one up and give it another look.

  9. Anonymous says:

    By your definition I would have to assume that the Stainless Steel Rat is a swashbuckler. Although he may not be performing his heroic deeds for his own reasons, he is certainly accomplishing them in style. Do I have this right?


    • JE says:

      I would say the Stainless Steel Rat is swashbuckly, as it were. But for me a swashbuckler needs to be someone who fights with edged weapons. I’m not sure why this matters, but Slippery Jim seems more like a caper artist. If I stacked the books in my house the way I stack them in my head, the Stainless Steel Rat would be nearer Westlake’s novels about Dortmunder and/or Parker, or the James Bond books, and farther from Sabatini or Dumas.

      But it’s not like I’d holler at someone who draws the lines a little differently. Both are types of adventure fiction that depend on a sense of style; there’s bound to be overlap.

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