10 Classic Tales for Fans of Swashbuckling and Historical Intrigue

The origins of the word swashbuckler, in case you were curious about this particularly esoteric etymology, comes from a combination of swash, meaning “fall of a blow,” and buckler, an archaic word for “shield.” Together, they appear, since the 1550s, to have meant something like “blustering, swaggering fighting man,” which of course hardly brings to mind the dashing, chivalrous swordsmen of our favorite adventure tales. Clearly, it’s acquired some new meanings on its travels through time—as words do.

This look back in time is fitting in its own way, because the swashbuckler as a genre is difficult to disentangle from the development of historical fiction. Such stories tend to be full of intrigue, historical events, or at the very least historical settings where a man could reasonably be expected to carry around a sword and use it (if he was of noble birth, anyway; commoners weren’t allowed, though the outlaws and pirates the populate the genre certainly turned up their noses at that rule).

Growing up, I devoured such stories, raising myself on a steady diet of pirates, musketeers, honorable bandits, and princes in disguise—and then digging into historical primary sources about them. Then I managed to get a PhD in literature, and I learned even more about the history and context out of which my favorite tales of adventure and heroism sprung. And so, as I began compiling this list of the best tales of swashbuckling and intrigue, I couldn’t help stuffing it as full of detail and context as any historical novelist. I offer, you, then, some of the richest and best examples of tales of swordfighting, intrigue, and panache (did you know that’s the French word for the feather in your hat?) that also humbly presents some of its history and development.


Ivanhoe by Walter Scott

I don’t know if Walter Scott’s tales count as swashbucklers, properly—for one thing, most of them are set at an earlier period in history than the typical example of the genre, which tend to take place in the Renaissance and early modern period. However, Walter Scott pretty much pioneered the historical fiction genre, without which we wouldn’t have a good number of the books on the list. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, he brought to life lesser-known periods of history in books like Ivanhoe, Waverley, and The Bride of Lammermoor; prior to this, classical antiquity tended to be privileged in literature, scholarship, and philosophy. Set in 12th-century England, Ivanhoe is perhaps the best known of these novels in the anglophone world, following Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe, a nobleman and knight out of favor due to his allegiance to Richard the Lionheart, and features jousting tournaments, witch trials, and damsels in distress. What more could you want?


The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

This list couldn’t possibly exist without featuring at least one book by Alexandre Dumas. Inspired by Walter Scott, Dumas became one of the most famous historical novelists in the world. It bears reiterating that classicism was pre-eminent at this time, but Romantic writers such as Dumas broke with that tradition, insisting on celebrating French history by writing plays and novels about previously overlooked periods of the nation’s history. And so The Three Musketeers begins with a marvelous conceit possibly stolen from the Gothic novel (which also rebelled against classicism): it pretends to be a lost document found by Dumas in a library, an account of a man who actually lived: Charles de Batz-Castlemore d’Artagnan, king’s musketeer. What makes this novel so memorable in addition to the political intrigue, romance, camaraderie, and friendship (“one for all and all for one!”) however, is its moral nebulousness. Are the musketeers the good guys, and if so, why are they helping the queen commit adultery with an enemy of the state? They care about honor, but do they care about France? What right do they have to take the law into their own hands? (Strangely, adaptations rarely plumb these depths, preferring to take a more straightforward black-and-white approach, and making me think that one day I’ll have to take matters into my own hands).

Since The Three Musketeers is so famous, however, I felt that a lesser-known work from Dumas’ oeuvre also deserved inclusion in this list. While that oeuvre is gargantuan, the work that is heaviest in swashbuckling rather than just political intrigue (and which has an English translation) is Georges, the story of a mixed-race man who leads a slave revolt in the French colony of Mauritius—a unique tale with resonances for Dumas, who was also mixed race, the descendant of a Haitian slave and a French aristocrat.


The Musketeers (BBC)

I have to admit that I’m not overly fond of most adaptations of The Three Musketeers; I hold the novel too close to my heart. But, though this series’ sensibilities are decidedly modern, it seems to me to understand and capture aspects of Dumas’ story in a way other adaptations do not: the sense that, for all their loyalty and courage, the musketeers live in a cruel world where their fates are decided by the whims of petty, capricious, and flawed human beings who have more power than any person should possess; Porthos, the character generally understood to be most like Dumas himself, is played by a mixed-race actor, the brilliant Howard Charles; and Aramis is an incorrigible Casanova. Of course there’s also plenty of adventure, suspense, and swordfighting, but most of all, it has heart.


The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

This is another one of those books that you end up discovering if you ever fell in love with Dumas and wanted to read everything like him. In its period, it inspired an entire genre of what was called Ruritanian romance, and yet, somehow, it rarely gets mentioned in literary histories of the Victorian period. Its stalwart protagonist is English nobleman Rudolf Rassendyll, who visits the fictional kingdom of Ruritania on the eve of the coronation only to discover that he is, somehow, identical in appearance to his distant relative and heir to the throne, Rudolf V. When said heir is kidnapped by a pretender to the throne, Rassendyll must step in and take his place until the true king can be found, balance restored, and, in true Victorian fashion, until all the “good” characters choose duty over love.


Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini

Italian-born novelist Rafael Sabatini is considered one of the masters of swashbuckling historical fiction after Dumas, so if you’re in any way a lover of the genre and go down the rabbit hole of searching out the best examples, you’ll inevitably encounter Sabatini. Known for titles such as Scaramouche, The Sea Hawk, and half a dozen others, he was also a significant contributor to the genre of nautical fiction, which Alan Brown covers in his recent piece on that genre’s contributions to space opera. Captain Blood is swashbuckler, maritime tale, and historical novel all in one, and in my opinion one of Sabatini’s best. Beginning with the Monmouth Rebellion (an attempt to depose King James II in 1685), it sees its protagonist, the surgeon Peter Blood, arrested for treason and sent to Barbados. Escaping imprisonment, he becomes a renowned pirate: Captain Blood, who combines the swordfighting skill of Inigo Montoya with the cunning of Vizzini. In fact, Blood was so popular that Sabatini was able to do what Arthur Conan Doyle did with his own most famous creation, giving the public more in the form of stories collected in Captain Blood Returns, each of which turns just as much on Blood’s cleverness as on his bravado, making each an utter an absolute delight. And I hear the film with Errol Flynn isn’t too shabby either…


The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley

If you’ve ever wondered about the origins of Zorro, wonder no more: the masked vigilante first appeared in 1919 in a serialized novel by McCulley, subsequently reissued in book form with the more familiar title of The Mark of Zorro. It has many of the features we’ve come to love about the character in the dozens of adaptations and variations he’s appeared in since: his double identity, his swordfighting prowess, the distinctive ‘Z’ he leaves as a calling card, and his penchant for taking up the causes of the poor and defenseless. Many of these qualities, of course, Zorro shares with the masked vigilantes that have come since, and whose metaphorical progenitor he is. In such cases, the first incarnation of a beloved superhero can be a lackluster affair, but this novel more than holds its own among our many caped crusaders, and is more than worth picking up if you loved the humor, charm, and swordplay of the ’90s classic The Mask of Zorro (which, with its revenge plot, owes more than a little to Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo).


Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger

If you ever fell in love with Dumas, like I did, Shellabarger is another one of those authors you inevitably ended up discovering. A scholar and Princeton professor, he published a small handful of incredibly well-researched historical novels bursting with period color, memorable characters, and pathos. Prince of Foxes is set during the Italian Renaissance, with an Italian peasant named Andrea Zoppo concealing his identity and pretending to be a long-lost member of the Orsini family in order to take up service with Cesare Borgia and aid him in his machinations against France and the Holy Roman Empire. Somewhat like Captain Blood, it’s full of cunning, trickery, and dastardly deeds as well as swordplay, all vividly painted against the backdrop of a bloody, complicated, and fascinating period of human history that Tor’s own Renaissance historian Ada Palmer has written about so brilliantly. Another contender for this list is Shellabarger’s Captain from Castile, though given that its protagonist serves under Cortes during his conquest of the Aztecs, and given that I last read the novel as an impressionable teenager, I can’t speak to how well his treatment of such a topic might have aged.


Swordspoint: A Melodrama of Manners by Ellen Kushner

Swordspoint is a defining text of the “fantasy of manners” subgenre, but worry not, manners don’t get in the way of sticking the other guy with the pointy end! In the world of Riverside, you live and die by the sword, and even nobles settle their disputes via duel—though, granted, they usually use a swordsman-for-hire to do so for them. In this world, Richard St. Vier is an undisputed master with the sword, until events conspire against him…

Also worth mentioning is the fact that this is an explicitly queer story, which is a welcome addition to a genre that is heavily preoccupied with deep, lasting relationships between men, but usually of the platonic variety.


The Phoenix Guards by Steven Brust

So, funny story: I mentioned that, as a youth, I read quite a bit of the historical swashbuckler fiction stuff. In fact, I mostly spent my time reading Alexandre Dumas, and then the historical sources he used, until my friends offered me money to read a book younger than myself, for goodness sakes. Fine, I said, and picked up The Phoenix Guards, a fantasy adaptation of The Three Musketeers…which turned out to be older than me by several months. Clearly, it simply wasn’t meant to be.

Described by Brust himself as “a blatant ripoff of The Three Musketeers,The Phoenix Guards is set in Brust’s established fictional world of Dragaera. It borrows quite a bit from Dumas in addition to the obvious (Duels! Adventures! Honor! Friendship!), such as long-winded and misleading chapter titles and the pretense that it’s actually a historical document, written about real people, and these are all facts, actually. And that’s all I will say, though Jo Walton did write an excellent review of the book for Tor.


Pirates of the Caribbean (Disney, 2003)

I understand that the presence of Johnny Depp is a non-starter for many people, and we won’t be rehashing the conversation surrounding his behavior here. But, taken from the point of view of storytelling and craftsmanship, this is a film that has stood the test of time. It was iconic to the generation that grew up with it, and though this year marks 20 years since its release, its mix of character, story, humor, action, and macabre set pieces still resonates.

More generally, it should be noted that, given how old some of the texts on this list are, there are parts of them that are problematic by modern standards, but I’m not sure it would be realistic to try to address that in each entry in the list. Just be aware that certain elements may not have aged well if you’re diving into any of these books or movies for the first time.


I hope this gets you reading and excited, especially in light of the upcoming adaptation of the Three Musketeers (watch this space for more discussion of the film once it’s widely available!) And in the meantime, what are some of your favorite works that you would have loved to see included on this list?

Dr. Anastasia Klimchynskaya is a Sherlockian, a Trekkie, and a scholar specializing in nineteenth-century science fiction. In addition to her writing (which includes a top-secret Jules Verne project – stay tuned!), she has appeared widely to speak about science fiction and the cultural history of science, including on the Rosenbach Library’s Sundays with Frankenstein program. Find her on Twitter @anaklimchy.


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