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The swashbuckler is the most rigidly conventionalized of all the sub-genres of the Adventure genre, and one with close affinities to the Historical Fiction and Romance genres as well. A descendant of the capa y espada plays of the classical Spanish stage, it is nearly always set at some remote date, usually in the distant past (The Middle Ages and The Cavalier Years being favorites), generally either European or heavily Europeanized.
Its buckler-swashing hero (rarely a heroine) will be a Gentleman Adventurer, in ethos if not in rank; character motivations will be simplified to the point of Black and White Morality, and the whole work will be heavily tilted toward the idealistic side of the Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism.
It will nearly always include a love-story as an important factor of its plot; despite the historical setting, the Rule of Cool will inevitably trump historical accuracy and Hollywood History. One may expect the hero to wear a sword for the inevitable Sword Fight. Historical Hero Upgrading and Historical Villain Upgrading will also be strongly in evidence.
The genre flourished most vigorously in the years in which the ideals of Romanticism dominated popular fiction, ca. 1830-1950. It found its original inspiration in the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott. The "juvenile historicals" of authors such as Harrison Ainsworth, G. A. Henty, Luise Mühlbach, Charlotte Yonge, and above all, Alexandre Dumas, père further defined the genre.
The "penny dreadfuls" of the mid-Victorian era, very often adaptations of the adventures of Folk Heroes such as King Arthur and Robin Hood, contributed to the jettisoning of all the non-essential characterization and historicity of the stories, and when at the end of the period the genre was picked up by serious authors such as Richard Harding Davis, Anthony Hope, and Robert Louis Stevenson, it had essentially assumed the character it would bear throughout its future career, both in novels by authors such as John Buchan, Johnston McCulley, Stanley J. Weyman, and Rafael Sabatini, and supremely in the films (based, in theme if not in actual plot, on those novels) generally associated in the public mind with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and Errol Flynn under the blanket soubriquet of "Pirate movies."
The measure of a true swashbuckler lies precisely in its mixture of the Adventure, Historical Fiction, and Romance genres (which compare and contrast), combined with extreme simplification and stylization, particularly of the moral outlook. Since the swashbuckler is a mixture of other genres, its constituent elements will often be found in those genres.
It can occasionally itself be mixed with other, less likely, genres, (as, say, The Court Jester is swashbuckler mixed with comedy, The Princess Bride is swashbuckler mixed with Fantasy, A Princess of Mars is swashbuckler mixed with Science Fiction, The Pirate and The Vagabond King are swashbucklers mixed with the Musical, and Salome, Where She Danced is a swashbuckler bizarrely mixed with the Western (complete with a Sword Fight on the stage of a saloon(!)). The Mask of Zorro and The Legend of Zorro are other examples of a swashbuckler mixed with a Western, Mask leaning more to the former and Legend more to the latter.
Tropes Associated With the Swashbuckler Genre Include:
- Black and White Morality: One of the hallmarks of the genre: heroes will be entirely heroic, and even sympathetic villains will rarely be allowed to be too sympathetic. There's some Unbuilt Trope in play, as two of the earlier ones, The Prisoner of Zenda and The Three Musketeers are fairly cynical and more like Gray and Grey Morality (although the film versions of them tend to go for Black and White Morality).
- The Cavalier Years: The favorite setting of the genre.
- Duel to the Death: The almost inevitable climax, nearly always fought out with swords.
- Flynning: The most usual cinematic procedure for the Sword Fight.
- Gentleman Adventurer: The typical hero of the swashbuckler is nearly always a gentleman in character, if not in actual social rank.
- Gorgeous Period Dress: One of the raisons d'etre of the genre, whose characters will be clothed in graceful, and often opulent, versions of historical modes.
- Happy Ending: The swashbuckler will very rarely end on less than a happy note, though exceptions such as Rupert of Hentzau exist.
- Historical Domain Character: Occasionally, though rarely, used as the protagonist (e.g. Charles II in The Exile), but frequently used as subsidiary characters (e.g. Richelieu in The Three Musketeers) or as figures in the background (e.g. George II in Kidnapped) to set the period.
- Historical Hero Upgrade: A concomitant of the Black and White Morality of the genre.
- Historical Villain Upgrade: A concomitant of the Black and White Morality of the genre.
- Hollywood Costuming: Since the emphasis of the swashbuckler is on action and beauty, those features of period costuming that detract from those qualities in the contemporary mind (e.g., "millstone" ruffs, pea's-cod doublets, and trunk hose) will be omitted.
- Hollywood History: In what has been called the "In-Love-With-Loretta-Young" school of history, great historical actions, such as wars, will be decisively influenced by the love affairs of the characters (e.g. Buckingham's love for Anne of Austria in The Three Musketeers).
- Loveable Rogue / Guile Hero: The swashbuckler hero is very often a "noble brigand", turning to the life of an outlaw to protect the oppressed and exact revenge on his nemesis. As a results, he has to resort to small-scale trickery to advance his noble goals.
- Luckily, My Shield Will Protect Me: Oddly enough, this trope is itself the Trope Namer. Even odder, bucklers almost never appear in Swashbuckler movies, and are not swashed if they do. The buckler, a very small round shield, was used by some 16th century sword fighters, and a man who "swashed" his buckler was banging or scraping his sword on his buckler to intimidate people or seek out a fight. In Swashbuckler stories, however, combatants' off-hands are usually empty or holding a main gauche dagger.
- Master Swordsman: A swashbuckling hero will almost certainly be the best swordsman around.
- Middle Ages: A favorite period for the setting of the swashbuckler, second only to The Cavalier Years.
- Pirate: An extremely common occupation for both the hero of the swashbuckler and his opponents.
- Princess Classic: The heroine of a swashbuckler is nearly always a high-born lady of quality, which commonly leads to the necessity of the hero's Defrosting Ice Queen.
- Romance Genre Heroes
- Ruritania: An extremely common setting for the genre.
- Sword Fight: An almost inevitable feature of the genre.
- Wooden Ships and Iron Men: Closely associated with the Genre
Some Authors and Series Associated With the Swashbuckler Genre Include:
- Many works by Alexandre Dumas (père), including:
- Many Works by Baroness Orczy, including:
- Many works by Rafael Sabatini, including:
- Many works by Sir Walter Scott (though more in their Movie Adaptations than the original novels), including:
- Many works by Robert Louis Stevenson, including:
- The Master of Ballantrae
- Many versions of the Robin Hood story, including:
- The Zorro series of novels and films, including:
- The Curse of Capistrano -- The first appearance of the masked bandit, who is arguably the first Superhero to boot.
- Don Q, Son of Zorro
- The Mark of Zorro -- Two versions. The 1920 Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., original introduced the iconic cape and Andalusian hat.
- The Mask of Zorro -- One of the latest swashbuckler films made.
- Red Steel (in Mystara). It's the setting which gave Dungeons and Dragons fencing rules.
Other Notable Swashbucklers Include:
- Cyrano De Bergerac
- Monsieur Beaucaire
- Nate and Hayes
- Pirates of the Caribbean -- Will Turner was an Errol Flynn Expy.
- The Princess Bride
- The Prisoner of Zenda -- More in its film adaptations than in Hope's original novel.
- Sinbad the Sailor -- Perhaps the first in a surprisingly ample number of Arabian Nights Days Swashbucklers
- Under the Red Robe
- The Dungeons and Dragons 3.5E supplement Complete Warrior adds a Swashbuckler base class, designed to fight with speed and agility rather than brute force.