At a Sword Fight with a Modern-Day Swashbuckler (in a Harlem Basement)
Dwyer Murphy Goes Underground to Get the Story of Lawrence Ellsworth
Lawrence Ellsworth’s dueling days are mostly over. For one thing, his knees are a little balky. For another, his knuckles have begun to swell with arthritis. But he still carries himself with a certain confidence—savoir-faire, you could call it, or the amiable swagger of a man who is well acquainted with rapier and dagger, a man who has dedicated the better part of his life to the lore and lure of those weapons. The hair helps, too. And the goatee. Ellsworth is now in his early sixties. His hair has gone white but he still enjoys the lustrous cascade of a buccaneer nearly half his age.
Professionally, Ellsworth defies easy description. He is an author and a dramaturge, a translator, an historian and the “Lead Loremaster” of a world known as Nirn, which includes the continent of Tamriel and also various slipstream dimensions.
The first time we met was in a subterranean lair—not quite a gymnasium, not quite a dungeon—in Central Harlem. That’s where, on Friday evenings, the longsword enthusiasts of New York City meet to do battle. There were blades everywhere—mounted on the brick walls, resting on ledges, gripped by the hands of men and women ready to draw and engage. Ellsworth was there as the club’s honored guest. Amidst the clanging steel and grunting parries, he seemed very much at ease.
“With fencing, so much of it is about deceit,” he told me. “You want to get the other man into a routine, a way of thinking, then show him that he’s wrong. There’s a narrative arc.” Nearby, a large man dressed in black went for a wicked blow to his opponent’s midsection. Ellsworth watched the action thoughtfully. “With the longsword there’s an added component—you’re also trying hard not to get killed.”
Swordplay is Ellsworth’s genre of choice, his life’s enduring passion. (Ellsworth is the name he’s chosen for his literary career; his surname is Schick.) In 2014, he served as editor of The Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure, a centuries-spanning gallery of cutthroats and knights errant. Earlier this year, the publisher Pegasus released his translation of Alexandre Dumas’s lost Musketeer novel, The Red Sphinx. There are now plans to refresh the entire series. To all his work, Ellsworth brings an evangelizing zeal. “Who wouldn’t want to face deadly danger with confidence and élan?” he asks in the Big Book’s introduction. “Who can deny the thrill of clashing blades, hairbreadth escapes, and daring rescues?”
Not I. Certainly not Ellsworth. Together we perched on a pair of hand-carved stools and watched as a young man with a samurai-style beard led the others through a series of sword-thrusting drills.
“The appeal of all this,” Ellsworth said, taking in the room with a sigh. “It’s eternal. The clothes change from one generation to another but not the impulse or the thrill.”
There’s a temptation, when speaking with Ellsworth, to think of him as the last swashbuckler—the coiffed and quixotic champion of a mostly forgotten literary legacy. The truth is far more complicated. In fact, Ellsworth may well be at the center of a culture that is not only living yet, but on the rise and rattling its swords.
For most of the history of print, swashbuckling literature has enjoyed enormous popularity. In the 18th century, there was Daniel Defoe’s Captain Singleton; in the 19th, Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson’s seafaring adventures and Dumas’s Three Musketeers. In the early 20th century, Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel and Rafael Sabatini’s Scaramouche laid the groundwork for Douglas Fairbanks, the mustachioed avenger who dominated the early days of motion pictures. The most common delivery vehicle was serialization, which helps explain the prolific output—adventure novelists, whether Dumas in Nouvelles or Stevenson (aka “Captain George North”) in Young Folks, were paid by the word and expected to meet regular quotas.
With the rise of pulp publishing in the 1920s, the US swashbuckling market enjoyed its own run of success and an expansion into the world of science fiction. The era lasted through WWII; post-war, adventure novels came to be seen as a niche, though in many pockets of the country, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard, publishing serially in Argosy All-Story and Weird Tales, were household names.
One of those households was Lawrence Ellsworth’s. His father, an engineer with a healthy appetite for adventure, would leave issues of All-Story and Weird Tales around. That’s where Ellsworth first discovered Burroughs and the “sword and sorcery” fantasies of Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance. Straight away, he was hooked.
“We were making it up as we went along. It was a new art form—collaborative storytelling. We were figuring out how to write tales with amateurs.”
This was the 1960s. A counterculture was on the rise and young people were leaving their parents’ homes and mores behind. Ellsworth found his own brand of rebellion in the pages of adventure novels: stories about individuals (pirates, space travelers, knights) who lived by their own code. Disputes were settled by sword, but the real common thread, in Ellsworth’s evaluation, was more abstract. The hero was on a journey. Neither family nor society could tell him what to do. He had to confront great obstacles and harrowing dilemmas guided only by a sense of justice.
“You decide the rules”—is how Ellsworth sums it up now. “You decide what’s right and wrong. And it’s like the Dylan line: ‘to live outside the law, you must be honest.’”
For a bookish Midwestern kid, it was intoxicating stuff.
For a while, Ellsworth believed he would end up writing stories for the pulp presses. He went to Kent State and studied journalism and English. It was the early 1970s, the aftermath of the shootings and an era of unrest. Ellsworth found himself drawn to a particular subset of the student body: the science-fiction club.
They were gamers and fantasists. One day his friend, Tom Moldvay, turned up with the rules to a new game called Dungeons & Dragons. It was, as Ellsworth recalls now, a revelation: “It was all about conflict and primitive combat. It was adventure.”
But just playing the game wasn’t enough. He and Moldvay wanted a bigger world for their adventures, so they created one, a realm derived from the great civilizations of history: Persia, Carolingian France, Egypt under the Pharaohs. Early D&D enthusiasts across the Midwest began to use the realm as a setting for their own campaigns. Soon Ellsworth and Moldvay were hired by D&D’s parent company, TSR Hobbies.
That was the start of Ellsworth’s other career—as Lawrence Schick, game designer.
In retrospect, it seems like a natural progression from the richly imagined worlds of Sabatini and Stevenson to the suburban basements and hotel ballrooms where role-playing games cut their teeth. “For a game,” Ellsworth told me, “you want two basic things: clarity of motivation and an arc that elicits a strong emotional reaction. The swashbuckling novel maps perfectly—it’s all about problem-solving and injustices.”
In the 1980s, D&D found itself at the epicenter of a movement. Those were good years for Ellsworth/Schick. The gaming community was growing all the time. There were late nights, long weekends. Game designers and writers scoured texts looking for inspiration—adventure novels, mythology, folklore. Their creations (“modules”) were published in the style of old pulp serials and distributed nationally. Best of all, there was no template for what role-playing should be. Ellsworth still lights up talking about it: “We were making it up as we went along. It was a new art form—collaborative storytelling. We were figuring out how to write tales with amateurs.” That is, the game’s authors were responsible for building an arc and a world—its culture, religions, economies—but it was up to the players how the story unfolded.
Later in the decade, the role-playing community was among the first to go online. Campaigns that once struggled to muster a dozen players could now count on hundreds. Creators wove ever more intricate mythologies and arcs to keep up with the swelling ranks. Sci-fi and fantasy literature were the touchstones for these new games. Tolkien and Lovecraft laid the groundwork, while contemporary authors like George R.R. Martin found in the online gaming world a large, devoted audience well informed in the lore and logistics of worldbuilding. It was a symbiotic relationship, one that seeped back into the culture at large, mostly through television and movies.
Ellsworth thrived in this new era. After leaving TSR Hobbies (the games he wrote there, like White Plume Mountain, are counted among the D&D greats), he served as the head of AOL’s gaming division. Later he went to work for Zenimex Online Studios, the company behind Elder Scrolls Online, a so-called MMORPG, or massively multiplayer online role-playing game with over seven million players since its launch in 2014. It is, in effect, a vast fantasy realm made up of ancient peoples, elves, monsters and hybrids engaged in various quests and industries. Ellsworth (going by the name Schick) serves as “Lead Loremaster,” the writer charged with keeping the world on axis and madly spinning.
From his perspective, it all comes back to swashbuckling. “It never really goes away,” he told me. “From Ivanhoe in the 1820s through the 1950s and Captain from Castile, this is arguably the bestselling form of fiction there is. Then it seems to go out of fashion for a while in the 50s, but the truth is it never actually does. It just migrates. It goes on-screen—into Disney movies or Zorro. Then fantasy becomes popular. Tolkien and his heirs, that’s swashbuckling with magic. Then you have the online games and TV shows. It’s a very adaptable form. It keeps moving all the time.”
For Ellsworth, the enormous reach of online gaming was an exciting challenge and an opportunity to send his stories across the world, but it could never quite replace the thrill of writing for in-the-flesh players. Starting in the 80s, he began to write and organize live games for a few dozen friends and acquaintances. They would meet at a hotel and spend the weekend playing out a scenario—for example, Rick’s Café in Casablanca. According to Ellsworth, live games require flair. “You need a theatrical sensibility,” he explained. “The best stories have passion, a love angle.” (That is also, in his estimation, how you ensured women would come to play, too—always a prized and never an easy feat in the role-playing world.) For epic romance, Ellsworth turned to a familiar source: the swashbuckling novel. “I was reading the classic books again, but now more intently,” he told me. “Sabatini, Dumas. It was invigorating.” After a year of work, he had a popular game: “The King’s Musketeers.”
That reignited the old torch. With any spare time he could find, Ellsworth immersed himself in adventure stories. He was surprised at just how gripping the books were, how relevant they seemed, hundreds of years after they were written. Dumas, in particular, had a hold on him; he taught himself French in order to read the original texts, as well as the diaries of Cardinal Richelieu, the Musketeers’ longtime nemesis.
That’s when an idea occurred to him: what if everyone could read the real Dumas? Not the stuffy old rendering of Dumas used in American schoolbooks—but Dumas, the livewire wit, the subtle observer of human drama, the storyteller par excellence. What was needed was a new English translation. And who better to do it? Ellsworth was already working on a novel set in the same era; plus, he had Dumas’s voice in his head. “I’d been living with the voice for years,” he told me. “And I figured, translation is like collaborative storytelling—it’s just that one of you has been dead 150 years.”
Dumas’s work clocks in at well over a million words. Most famously, there is the original, The Three Musketeers, and the revenge epic, The Count of Monte Cristo. Ellsworth decided to begin with Le Comte de Moret, a lesser-known Musketeer novel that ran serially in 1845 but was not collected in book form until 1946 and had never appeared in English, thanks largely to its missing component: a finale. The scholarship, however, pointed to a solution to the problem of an ending—a Dumas novella, La Colombe, that might serve as the culminating sequence to Moret’s story.
It was just the kind of puzzle Ellsworth liked. For years, he searched old bookshops, studied the scholarship, and tinkered with the text, always honing the voice to match Dumas’s—the voice that had so enchanted him with its power and panache. In the meantime, he brought out The Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure, collecting work from genre luminaries and dabblers: Sabatini, Orczy, Conan Doyle, and others. And then, at the start of this year, Pegasus published The Red Sphinx—Ellsworth’s translation of Le Comte de Moret, finally complete and available for mass enjoyment.
It is, if not a full-blown swashbuckling renaissance, a damn fun revival.
Back in the lair beneath 125th Street, Ellsworth kept an eye on the longswordsmen of Central Harlem. Their discipline is known as HEMA, or Historical European Martial Art. The weapons, techniques and customs are primarily Germanic, derived from 14th- and 15th-century texts, most of which are incomplete or only partially understood.
To Ellsworth, the affinity between his own work and theirs was evident. “They’re deconstructing a skill, the same as a writer would do. Whether you’re building a world for role-playing or literature or a martial art, it’s the same concept—you’re trying to connect facts into something bigger. Most of it doesn’t show up on the page or the screen or in the ring but it informs your interpretations. It builds confidence.”
And then, of course, there was the other connection, the blades.
“The allure of swordplay,” Ellsworth said, “is that you’re personally confronting what opposes you.” He gestured toward the ring, where two were left sparring. Sweat was dripping down from under their facemasks. “All these people here, they want to feel confident and skilled. They want to look out for themselves. Some of them are very fit. Others are less so. But they come here and they feel empowered.”
I had one more question before we left: what’s next for the swashbuckler? Ellsworth stroked his goatee several times before answering, and I found myself once again admiring the way his hair seemed to rise up and dance a rakish jig atop his temples.
With one final stroke, he had an answer. “In the early Musketeer novels,” he said, “the Musketeers, D’Artagnan—they were young, they hadn’t had to make many moral compromises yet. But as they got older, things got more complicated. That’s how it always is, right? We all get older, we have families, we take on baggage. And it might be the same with an art form, too. A forgettable swashbuckler is derivative and deep as a dime. The great ones delve into something more: a moral question. Maybe that’s where we’re headed now with the games, the fantasies, the stories—toward a new maturity, with emotional complexity. Toward more powerful stories.”
It was time to go. The swordsmen were packing up and Ellsworth and his daughter, who had joined him at the club, had a train to catch. For some reason, I insisted on carrying bags to the street and hailing them a cab. It occurred to me that in another era, I might have been mistaken for a squire. Ellsworth, though, set me straight. “You’re feeling chivalric,” he said, with an understanding nod. “It’s perfectly natural.”