Rafael Sabatini: King of the Swashbucklers


“Thirstily he set it to his lips, and as its cool refreshment began to soothe his throat, he thanked Heaven that in a world of much evil there was still so good a thing as ale.” 

“Only he who is without anything is without enemies.” 

The quotes above are from the works of Rafael Sabatini, who died on this day in 1950. Sabatini left us a treasure trove of pulpy adventure fiction, particularly the variety I call "swashbucklers." I'm not using the term in the often loose sense one sees fairly often--I once saw a reviewer call Wagner's Kane a "swashbuckling hero"--but in the sense of, "Draw steel and damn your eyes, you craven dog!" Fiction that is set, with some exceptions, in the Middle Ages through the 1800s and features intrigue, action and swordplay. Such tales were pioneered by the likes of Scott, Dumas, Stevenson, Hope and others, but in my opinion, Sabatini perfected the form.


Sabatini started writing at the age of twenty, often being published in the British equivalents of the pulps and cranking out a novel a year on average. However, he was forty-five before his big break came with the publication of Scaramouche, which was followed by his worldwide hit, Captain Blood. From then on, American pulps rushed to reprint his back catalog. Even the king of all adventure pulps, Adventure Magazine, bent its "no reprints" policy to get Sabatini in its pages.

Like his almost exact contemporary, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sabatini has been accused of being a "mere storyteller" and an abuser of formulaic plots. I think such calumnies are, at best, half-truths in the case of both authors. Some basic story plots are classic for a reason and, in the hands of a master storyteller, can still evoke the primal responses hardwired into mankind. Like ERB, Rafael was a keen student of human nature which he coupled with a wry wit. Unlike Burroughs, Sabatini lived in or visited much of Europe, which helped give his historical tales a tangible verisimilitude not always found in the works of lesser swashbuckling authors.

To give you some idea of his writing philosophy, here are some excerpts from Sabatini's preface to A Century of Sea Stories:

This is not a book for those exalted intellectuals to whom plot in a story is the sign of auctorial puerility, who deprecate invention in fiction, look askance on the romantic, and for whom no piece of writing can be distinguished if it has the temerity to be dramatic.

The dramatic may find no place in those essays in fiction which claim to fulfil the lofty purpose of leading the reader into himself. But mere story-telling, which time has proved to be the only enduring form of fiction, must still depend upon drama for its vitality...

Those who so glibly assert that there are only (I think it) seven stories in the world, and that every work of fiction merely a variant of one of these, will find it difficult to class these stories within the compass of those seven groups.

To the insistence that every novelist should be no better than an elegant reporter, confining himself to subjects within his personal experience, this volume supplies a disconcerting answer. For there is abundant matter here to show that the supreme and essential gift of the story-teller is a logically inventive mind functioning in a well-ordered and well informed imagination, and that this may sit confidently and authoritatively in the place of personal experience.

To an extent this may be regarded as the vicarious indulgence, which art permits to the spirit, of experiences which the flesh desires but is denied. But for the impulse thus supplied it is probable that the art of fiction would never have arisen. Often the very vehemence and close insistence with which a writer depicts a certain phase of experience may be taken to indicate the very phase from which he is by circumstances excluded, and which on that very account acquires in his sight all the allurement and desirability of things unattainable.

I don't think Edgar Rice Burroughs, A. Merritt or Robert E. Howard would find much to disagree with in the sentiments expressed by Mr. Sabatini.

While definitely a titan of twentieth century historical adventure, Sabatini's direct influence on sword & sorcery--and related genres--is harder to discern. We know Robert E. Howard owned one Sabatini novel, but everything from there is inference. The same goes for the likes of Fritz Leiber and Henry Kuttner. Jack Vance is another author that one would think was a Sabatini fan, but once again...a lack of evidence. We are on firmer ground with Tim Powers, who is on record as stating that his picaresque novels, The Sky Discrowned and On Stranger Tides, were homages to and inspired by Sabatini.

Direct influence or not--and I do think there was some influence on the authors named above--Sabatini's incredible mastery of the English language, his memorable characters and fast-moving plots are all solid arguments for reading his works. What are you waiting for?