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The swashbuckler is the most rigidly conventionalized of all the subgenres of the Adventure genre, and one with close affinities to the Historical Fiction and Romance genres as well. A descendant of the capa y espadanote  plays of the classical Spanish stage, it is nearly always set at some remote date, usually in the distant past (The Middle Ages and especially 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. Expect a lot of these heroes to be Chaotic Good; this genre practically codified that alignment.

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. He may also display feats of acrobatics, such as a Chandelier Swing or a nimble climb through the rigging of a ship. Historical Hero Upgrading and Historical Villain Upgrading will also be along for the ride.

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 and Errol Flynn under the blanket of "Pirate movies." Swashbuckler tales can double as Sea Stories, piratical or otherwise, although they tend to eschew or downplay the Wooden Ships and Iron Men tone for a more romantic and idealistic vibe.

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 The Mask of Zorro and The Legend of Zorro are examples of a swashbuckler mixed with a Western ( Mask leaning more to the former and Legend more to the latter).

Furthermore, the Superhero genre, partially inspired by Zorro itself, continues the Swashbuckler tradition in a usually contemporary setting with SF/Fantasy elements that can incorporate any genre with as much character and/or moral complexity as the artists desire.

Curiously enough swashbuckling heroes rarely get depicted wielding an actual buckler, even when the story is set in a period when the sword-and-buckler combo was a common choice of armament.

Compare with Wuxia and Jidaigeki, the genre's East Asian (Chinese and Japanese, respectively) counterparts. See also Picaresque.

Do not confuse with Cloak and Dagger, which is the genre of modern spy fiction.

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: One of the favorite settings of the genre.
  • Chandelier Swing: From the sparkly to the more prosaically thrifty... the odds are good you'll find some poor lighting fixture being used outside its intended purpose.
  • Chaotic Good: While the heroes are presented as unequivocally good, they tend to not favor the law of the land as much as their own moral code. Indeed, many of the Trope Codifiers of the swashbuckler fall into this alignment, including Zorro, Robin Hood and the Three Musketeers. Thus, the bad guys tend to be Lawful Evil corrupt high-ranking members of state.
  • Conservation of Ninjutsu: The heroes of the swashbuckler can take out any number of henchmen simultaneously in sword fights.
  • 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 and Amalia 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.
  • Ruritania: An extremely common setting for the genre.
  • Swordfight: An almost inevitable feature of the genre.
  • Wooden Ships and Iron Men: Closely associated with the Genre

Swashbuckler stories by media:


Video Example(s):


Nine Reasons

Wolverine and Nightcrawler hold the line to protect an unconscious Rogue from the Prime Sentinels.

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