Ask any avid fiction reader who their favorite authors are, and you’ll invariably hit on this topic. Every one of us has an author or two, sometimes many more, who we feel has been forgotten, pushed aside by modern readers. Some of these authors may be obscure artists with few works, or prolific giants of literature we’ve let fall through the cracks. I feel Fritz Leiber, one of the Grandfathers of Fantasy I mentioned in a previous post, is one of these forgotten greats. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had people supposedly well-read in fantasy ask me, “Fritz Who?” As much as Leiber doesn’t get the recognition he deserves today, though, one specific author brought this topic to mind for me: Rafael Sabatini.
For those of you who are familiar with Sabatini, I’m sure you’re cheering over your keyboard; for those of you who aren’t, I’m hoping you’re eager to find out about him. His life itself was quite interesting. Sabatini was born in Italy to an Italian father and English mother, both opera singers turned teachers. He lived in various European countries throughout his life, and spoke six languages. Although English was only an adopted language, he wrote in this language because he felt all the best stories were written in English. He wrote at an impressive clip, too. At his peak, he put out a book a year, over a span of more than a decade, along with many short stories, a play, and multiple nonfiction works.
Yet many writers have written a lot of dreck. Why should Sabatini still be considered a great? Because his work withstands the test of time. It’s just that good. But don’t simply take my word for it. Sabatini had several best sellers, and enjoyed critical success. A good number of his books were adapted to film, some of which are lost to posterity. His biggest film successes were significant. Scaramouche earned over 2 ½ million dollars in the first year of its North American release, an impressive figure for that time period. The Sea Hawk, a silent film, was considered by the New York Times to be the greatest sea adventure to date, and held that unofficial honor long after. Captain Blood was adapted to film twice, the second film launching Errol Flynn’s impressive career. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, and director Michael Curtiz finished second in the Best Director category as a write-in. The Black Swan starred Hollywood giants Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara and won an Academy Award.
The success of film adaptations doesn’t make for a great author, though. I’ll reiterate how good Sabatini’s works are. Granted, they won’t be to everyone’s tastes. He wrote a lot of historical fiction using original styles of language and description. Still, critical success both on page and in film says a lot about an author. Sabatini’s writings are filled with passion, pathos, adventure, villainy, redemption, fights against tyranny, lust, love, and most of all, realistic characters dealing with exceptional but believable circumstances. I find the scope of his writing encapsulated within his famous opening line to Scaramouche, which is engraved on his tombstone: “He was born with the gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad.”
Rafael Sabatini, author, a forgotten great. Check him out, read a few of his books. They don’t pack the shelves of Barnes and Noble, no. You may find Captain Blood there, or Scaramouche, or on rare occasions my favorite, the Sea Hawk, but no others. Heck, take the plunge and order one online. You won’t be disappointed. If you are, blame it on some crazy blog writer.
Now tell me, who are your forgotten greats?