Swashbuckling adventures have been popular with the general public for hundreds of years. Tales of heroic sword fighters in pitched battle against unbeatable odds go back quite literally to some of the earliest works of written literature, surviving in the tales of Gilgamesh, books from the Bible, and the earliest works about Robin Hood. These works really hit popular stride in the 1800s, particularly after the success of Alexandre Dumas (pere) and his d’Artagnan romances. But as much as Dumas placed a stamp on contemporary versions of the swashbuckler, it is a later writer, famous at the time but often overlooked now, whose works refined the iconic profile of the swashbuckler–Rafael Sabatini.
Sabatini was a native Italian who spent much of his youth traveling and attending school in Europe. He was a polyglot, attaining fluency in several languages, but most importantly English, because it is the language in which he composed all of his stories and novels. He has been quoted as saying this is because “all the best stories are written in English.” While I can’t go quite that far, he certainly contributed several works that rank among my favorites.
Sabatini hit fame in the 1920s with the publication of Scaramouche, the tale of Andre-Louis Moreau, a French lawyer who becomes a revolutionary. The title comes from the role in Commedia dell’Arte, as Scaramouche is a charming rogue who always has some sort of scheme in progress. Moreau finds himself both advocating for and fighting against the French Revolution at various points in his life. He is trained as a master swordsman and eventually uses those skills to enact revenge upon a nobleman who once killed a childhood friend. There are echoes of Moreau’s life story in that of Inigo Montoya, the Spaniard master fencer from William Goldman’s The Princess Bride.
With the success of Scaramouche, Sabatini was vaulted into the public sphere. Although he’d been writing and publishing seriously since the early turn of the century, he now found himself churning out at least a novel every year until much later in his life. This was also the heyday of silent films and early talkies, and Sabatini’s work reached even wider audiences in film. There were silent film versions of Scaramouche, The Sea Hawk, and Captain Blood, but it was the 1935 interpretation of Captain Blood that really sent Sabatini into the spotlight. It starred a then little-known Errol Flynn opposite starlet Olivia de Havilland, launching Flynn’s career. He went on to perfect his role as a swashbuckler in The Adventures of Robin Hood and a few other films before returning to a lead role in the third of Sabatini’s most famous works, The Sea Hawk.
RafaelSabatini.com, unrelated to the long-dead Sabatini himself, says, “Sabatini’s writing . . . explores political intrigue, religion, and the place of chivalry and honor, while entertaining with clever dialogue, deftly drawn characters and action sequences as vivid and thrilling as modern movies.” That’s it in a nutshell.
Sadly, Sabatini’s didn’t have nearly as much luck in real life as his characters had. His son died in a car crash, and he and his first wife split. When he remarried, his step-son died in a plane crash. However, in at least one way his life was like his characters’ lives: he worked for a time as a translator for the British Intelligence Service during World War I. His fluency in several different languages was no doubt of use, and it helped him avoid conscription by the Italians, where he was still a citizen, while living in England.
A large portion of Sabatini’s works are in the public domain, including Scaramouche, The Sea Hawk, and Captain Blood, as well as some other great but lesser known works like Bardelys the Magnificent (famous mostly because a 1926 film version was long thought to be “lost” until a print was discovered in 2006); a rather graphic and detailed history/biography of the Spanish Inquisition and Grand Inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada; and a biography of Cesare Borgia, which is worth a read if only to sort out the salacious portrayals of film and tv from the historical reality. Sabatini always seemed to be an inveterate researcher, so these two histories rang true when I read them.
If you haven’t read any Sabatini or watched the film versions of his work, it’s worth your time. Per usual, the novels are better than the movies, but Errol Flynn’s work in both Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk is a good investment.
 There is an awful lot of good literature that the world has produced, and the vast majority of it was not written in English. A serious reader would hamstring themselves if they stuck solely to writers who originally worked in English. Indeed, this is why colleges have so many courses devoted to World Literature.
 No doubt fans of the British rock band Queen will recognize the name even if they haven’t read the books or seen the various film versions. “Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango?” is a line from perhaps their most famous song, “Bohemian Rhapsody.”