First comes the whisper of a sword being drawn from the scabbard, then the glint of steel catching the light, and, all too soon, the sinking feeling in your stomach when your opponent looks at you and smiles. That’s when you know this duel isn’t going to go well…
Duels are the ultimate expression of the enchantment of violence: the drive to kill another channelled through rules and ritual, given the pretence of civility and the illusion of consent. How can any sane person consent to gamble away their lives on a single contest, on the whims of a broken blade or a boot heel slipping on loose terrain?
Since Falcio val Mond, the narrator of my Greatcoats series, is often called upon to duel during his adventures, I sometimes wonder who might one day defeat him. Below are five duellists from literature whom neither Falcio nor you should ever consider challenging.
Inigo Montoya—The Princess Bride by William Goldman
A childhood tragedy launched a lifetime of training in the blade, making Inigo a swordsman with few peers. Now, I know what you’re thinking…’but wait, didn’t Westley beat him?’ That may be true, but Inigo was reticent about that fight and it soon became a test of two fencers, enamoured of their art and fascinated with each other’s skills. The true duel comes later, when Inigo finally faces the man who killed his father. Even mortally wounded, Inigo finds the strength and the raw steel inside himself to utter those immortal words: ‘My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father. Prepare to die.’
Lieutenant Gabriel Feraud—The Duel (A Point of Honour) by Joseph Conrad
Some men duel out of necessity, others for the sake of honour. Feraud, however, duels because he is a mean son of a bitch with a serious chip on his shoulder. When Armand d’Hubert, a fellow soldier, is sent to bring him back to his unit, Feraud takes umbrage and so begins a series of duels that last decades. This story, which became the basis for Ridley Scott’s directorial debut, The Duellists, reveals better than any other the way that our basest aggression can be given license within the twisted sense of personal honour that was embodied in duelling culture.
Vlad Taltos—Jhereg by Steven Brust
In this noir-influenced, crime-ridden fantasy series, Vlad Taltos is a human stuck living in a society of taller, stronger, and more powerful beings known as Dragaerans. To those around him, Vlad is an inferior—someone who can be bullied and beaten on a whim. Unfortunately for them, Vlad has other plans. Using the lighter blade and elegant fencing techniques learned from his grandfather, Vlad uses his quick wits and insights into the nature of his opponents to find the holes in their defences and defeat them. This aspect of sword fighting—of finding the weakness in an otherwise unbeatable opponent—is a key aspect of duelling and one that Steven’s Brust’s hero illuminates for us in every encounter.
Adela de Otero—The Fencing Master by Arturo Perez Reverte
When fencing master Don Jaime Astarloa meets the enigmatic Adela de Otero, he is initially insulted by her request that he teach her his secret “two hundred Escudo” thrust—an attack for which there is no defence. His resistance gives way when he sees how skilled Adela can be with the blade and so he begins to teach her his techniques. But Adela has her own secrets, including the true reason why she is so determined to master the unstoppable thrust—secrets which will draw Don Jaime into a dangerous game of intrigue and murder. Arturo Perez Reverte brilliantly intertwines an exploration of the philosophical underpinnings of our fascination with the sword with a complex and engaging mystery.
Bardas Loredan—Colours in the Steel by K.J. Parker
Imagine if court cases were not debated by lawyers but fought by fencers-at-law whose razor-sharp blades took the place of trenchant legal arguments, often leaving one of the advocates dead on the floor of the courtroom. This is the society that K.J. Parker’s world-weary swordsman Bardas Loredan must contend with as everyone from his legal opponents to the relatives of those he’s defeated seek to find a way to bring him down. Through K.J. Parker’s hero, the glamour of fencing is lifted from our eyes, revealing that victory comes from a mastery of complex techniques and careful selection of the right weapon, and a recognition that death is always just one small mistake away.
A Final Note: Where Are All The Women?
As I was putting this list together I found myself struggling to remember reading about great female duellists—especially ones who were the heroes of their own stories. It’s odd because there were, in fact, many real-life women sword fighters of note such as the French duellist Julie d’Aubigny and the 19th Century sword master known as La Jaguarina. I can name more from movies (such as Kill Bill) or comic books (such as Red Sonja) who have been given prominence than I can in the books I’ve read. No doubt a lot of this comes from my own ignorance on the subject, so enlighten me: who’s your favourite female duellist from literature? In the meantime, I’ve got a great idea for one that I think I’ll start writing!
Originally published in March 2015.
Sebastien de Castell had just finished a degree in Archaeology when he started work on his first job. Four hours later he realized how much he hated archaeology and left to pursue a very focused career as a musician, ombudsman, interaction designer, fight choreographer, teacher, project manager, actor, and product strategist. These interests and experiences provided fodder for his burgeoning writing career. Tyrant’s Throne, the fourth book in de Castell’s Greatcoats series, is available from Jo Fletcher Books.