Flicking through Rafael Sabatini's The Tavern Knight
again - and feeling the same as ever I did; poor Kenneth :-( Sabatini, the prince of swashbucklers, has this same constant fault in so many of his books -- that of scorn towards the bookworm, the intellectual, the slender weakling who cannot compete with his bronzed brawling heroes in physical strength and must therefore be despised and ultimately forced into the role of betrayer or scheming villain. To watch an author being so deeply partisan -- as so often, he shows
one thing but editorializes it as quite another, with explicit contempt -- is both painful and frustrating: it's bad enough to watch a writer being gratuitously cruel to his characters (for Sabatini has, I suspect, a sadistic streak) but infuriatingly hurtful to have him then tell us that when they react as may be expected it is because they are bad, weak (the two are evidently, to his mind, synonymous) people.
Kenneth Stewart is an idealistic and over-imaginative young man -- a boy of only eighteen -- who has the misfortune to be thrust into the company of a superior officer he finds coarse and dishonest and whose actions even the author characterises as frequently vile: but because the Tavern Knight is cast as the wronged hero of the book, Kenneth's very natural reactions -- his repugnance at his superior's actions, his muted response to Galliard's sudden overtures, his sick horror of hanging, his hurt and jealousy when the girl he loves devotes herself instead to the romantically sardonic stranger, his horror at being tricked into an oath that requires him to assail his hosts and her guardians -- are constantly described as craven, shallow, weak and despicable, and Galliard portrayed as utterly noble to have any sympathy for his plight at all. The poor reader meanwhile is longing to wring the author's neck for his apparent determination to cram his hapless victim into a villain for the benefit of the mechanics of his plot! (Sabatini even has the nerve to write dismissively towards the end of the book that Kenneth "never yet had achieved aught for the cause he served": this of a character who had earlier been credited with saving Charles II from capture after the battle of Worcester...)
This isn't a one-off, either: in almost every book, from "Captain Blood" to "The Sea Hawk", there is a similar 'unmanly' or 'clever' character whom the author sets up as the villain by actions/reactions that often seem arbitrarily decided. It is disconcerting to discover one's own type apparently regarded as the epitome of contemptability by an author whom on the whole one admires! It is perhaps for this reason that I find Sabatini's books preferable in the form of films, where the villains are generally recreated as uncomplicated figures of evil in a hearty mode rather than the envious wimps against whom the author evidently held some deep-seated resentment -- and we are not given to share in their innermost feelings while being instructed from the pulpit to despise them...
My favourite among Sabatini's novels is for this reason a relative obscurity: Bardelys the Magnificent
, in which the arrogant, dissolute protagonist does not for once get everything his own way, but learns the lesson of humility in order to attain the woman he loves: there is a moment towards the end when my heart sank in expectation as Bardelys looks set to bludgeon his way scot-free, but for once Sabatini refrains from rigging the plot outrageously in his hero's favour. Bardelys, who learns his lesson and gets his deserts, is in consequence a more attractive protagonist than Crispin Galliard who is Wronged and therefore justified.
One reviewer writes (of the protagonist of the novel "Fortune's Fool") that nothing he does is his own fault
and, of the antagonist of "The Gates of Doom", that Lord Pauncefort, though the evillest, is also the cleverest person in this book. It would have been nice to see the characters engaged in a battle of wits...
, thus summing up my two of my basic complaints about Sabatini: that his heroes tend to prevail merely by some contrivance of the author's complicity ("This is our hero and you will admire him and be on his side because I say so, and any character who doesn't admire him utterly deserves to suffer"), and that he tends to equate high intelligence with evil -- doubtless one reason why Hollywood took to his works so thoroughly!