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The 10 Greatest Duels In Literature

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During my half decade of research for The Book of Duels [Milkweed Editions, $18.00], a book of fiction focused primarily on historically and literary noteworthy duels, I came across hundreds of confrontations that could have made the cut but did not. I only had room for 33. Maybe one day I'll pen The Book of Duels 2.0. If so, I will definitely include the following: my top 10 nominations for literary duels not included in The Book of Duels.

Here are 10 of the most interested literary duels, ranked:

10. Lermontov's "Death of the Poet"
Lermontov wrote this poem in 1837 in response to the death of Alexander Pushkin, often cited as the founder of modern Russian literature. Pushkin had fought in twenty-eight successful duels, but on January 27, 1837, he was fatally wounded in a duel with Georges-Charles de Heeckeren d'Anthes, a French officer who was trying to seduce Pushkin's wife.

Lermontov began his first formulation of the poem (ending with the phrase "...his lips forever sealed") as soon as he heard of Pushkin's passing. However, pieces of the poem were thought to be Seditious by Russian authorities and Lermontov was exiled to a regiment in the Caucasus. (Picture Pussy Riot with quills and capes.) His poem, which had gone underground and viral, was widely published after his death.


9. Marcel Proust
This one is literary only insomuch as Proust is one of our greatest authors. This duel comes from one of his real life sagas. On February 5, 1897, Proust challenged the literary critic, Jean Lorrain, to a duel after the latter, a homosexual himself, alluded to Proust's sexual affair with a man of means and the publisher of Proust's Pleasures and Days, suggesting the book wouldn't have been published without the relationship. Both men fired shots and missed, and in this manner, Proust's honor was restored.

8. William Byron, 5th Baron Byron
Here's another one that's literary by association. On January 26, 1765, Lord William Byron--great uncle of the famous poet George Gordon Byron (AKA, Lord Byron) killed his cousin and neighbor, William Chaworth, in a duel at the wonderfully named Stars and Garters Tavern in London. The two men had been drinking heavily, and they began to argue who had the most game birds on their respective estates. Insults were hurled, and later, in a dark room of the tavern, Lord Byron killed Chaworth by running him through with a sword. Chaworth lived one full day more, and, in that time, he expressed regret only for the lack of light, claiming he'd have been victorious in a better lit room. Since there was no witness to come forward, Lord Byron was found guilty of manslaughter and was made to pay a fine. From then on, he acquired the moniker he would enjoy for the rest of his life: "the Wicked Lord."

princess bride

7. The Princess Bride
In William Goldman's novel the protagonist, Westley, in the guise of the Dread Pirate Roberts, fights three duels in one day: Westley fences and bests Inigo Montoya, though he leaves Inigo alive because of his decency and skill as a swordsman; next, he bests a giant named Fezzik in hand-to-hand combat; finally, he outwits and kills the "genius mastermind," Vizzini by tricking him into drinking wine poisoned with iocaine powder, which our hero has made himself immune to. But who am I talking to: You've all seen the movie.

6. Rowan vs. Chambers
Rowan and Chambers were well-known statesmen in Kentucky, whose passions, friendships, and families were aligned with opposing political parties. On the evening of January 29, 1801, Rowan and Chambers found themselves in Duncan McLean's Tavern in Bardstown, KY. They were drinking and playing cards for money when an argument erupted between the two over the subject of which man knew more Latin and Greek, and by extension, more Classical literature. After months of arguing in editorials, posters, pulpits, and on the Congressional floor concerning what course the new state of Kentucky should take, their beef came to a head over basic grammar. Instead of having a Latinate spelling bee or a Greek mythology game of Jeopardy, they decided pistols made the most sense.

The duel was held five days later, February 3, 1801. Both combatants missed with their first shots. Both men declared they were not satisfied and so reloaded and fired again. Rowan's second shot struck Chambers in the side, a mortal wound. Rowan, though prosecuted, never served time in jail. After this duel, Kentucky banned all duels, so much so that by 1849, it had added to its Constitution the following oath of office for Kentucky State officeholders:

"I, being a citizen of this State, have not fought a duel with deadly weapons within this State nor out of it, nor have I sent or accepted a challenge to fight a duel with deadly weapons, nor have I acted as second in carrying a challenge, nor aided or assisted any person thus offending, so help me God."


5. Cassanova's The Duel
In this autobiographical novella, a Polish General Branicki forces the Venetian (a stand-in for Cassanova himself) to fight a duel or to lose his honor and his place in Poland's Royal Court. The dispute: the affections of a young, Venetian ballerina. While she has a small army of admirers, she notes regrettably that the Venetian favors another ballerina, and so she uses her wiles to instigate a duel between the Venetian and the General. In order to satisfy his mistress's demands, the General does as he's told and picks a fight with the Venetian. Arrangements for the duel take place. In the duel with pistols, Branicki shoots the Venetian in the pinky and the Venetian nearly kills Branicki. The greatest line from this story is from the Polish Prince who tells the Venetian, and here I paraphrase, "When challenged to a duel, do much or nothing."

4. Ridley Scott's "The Duellists"
The Duellists is a 1977 historical drama directed by Ridley Scott. The screenplay is based on Conrad's short story "The Duel." It is set in several European locations from 1800-1815 and centers around two soldiers and their loyalty (or lack thereof) to Bonaparte. Lieutenant Feraud, a fervant Bonapartist, and Lieutenant d'Hubert, a soldier who eventually joins the army of Louis XVII. Over the course of a decade and a half, the two fight in three sword duels, each wounding the other several times but not mortally.

After Féraud learns of d'Hubert's promotion in the new French Army, he challenges the man to a final duel with pistols. Eventually the two men meet in a ruined château. In a rage, Féraud discharges both his pistols to no avail. D'Hubert catches his man point blank but does not shoot him. Rather, because he now owns Féraud's life, d'Hubert forces Féraud to conduct himself forever more "as a dead man." I couldn't have written the ending better myself.


3. D'artagnan vs. The Three Musketeers
In Alexandre Dumas's novel, The Three Musketeers, a young, cocksure man (D'artagnan) challenges all three musketeers (Athos, Porthos, and Aramis) separately, with appointments at noon, one, and two p.m. Turns out dueling was illegal in France, and so when the Cardinal's guards ascertain a crime is about to be committed, they become determined to arrest the musketeers and D'artagnan, who join forces and thwart the guards. Hence, he becomes the unofficial fourth musketeer.

2. Dangerous Liasons
Originally titled Les Liaisons Dangereuses, this 1782 French novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos is composed exclusively of letters written by the various characters each to each other. In particular, the letters between the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmon drive the plot, with those of their victims and other characters serving as contrasting figures to give the story its depth.

The two main protagonists are ex-lovers turned rivals who are as amoral as any characters in all of literature. Think: sexy Iagos. They play with other characters as cats play with lizards, proud of their machinations of manipulation and seduction. Further, they aid each other in these twisted affairs.

After a series of philanderings, lies, and double-crosses, the Marquise tricks the Vicomte into breaking the heart of the woman with whom he's actually fallen in love. Later, the Marquise tells him she did it for sport, and he declares war on her. Through a maze of intrigue and backstabbing and plot twists, we end up with a cuckolded lover, Danceny, challenging the Vicomte to a duel with swords. Though the Vicomte is the superior duelist, he throws himself on Danceny's sword due to his utter guilt and loss. On his deathbed, however, the Vicomte gives to Danceny his correspondence with the Marquise, and once her treachery is made public, she is ostracized by high society, driven out to the country where she contracts a case of smallpox that robs her of her beauty. Hence, the Vicomte ultimately wins their duel, even as he lost his sword duel, lover, and life.

1. Kramer vs. Kramer
A novel by Avery Corman was made into the 1979 drama directed by Robert Benton. However, I've only ever seen the movie.The story is one of those interesting time capsules pieces, because its plot rests on a fulcrum that just doesn't exist any longer: Namely, in the 70s, when a couple divorced, the mother was warranted custody of the child, no matter what. (It's similar to how so many brilliant old noir novels couldn't exist now; DNA evidence would end all of the deductions and what ifs.)

So, this is a family drama in which a flighty mother abandons her husband, a workaholic executive, and young child. It takes a lot of bitter fighting and hurt feelings, but the father and son eventually bond. Fifteen months after she walked out, Joanna returns to New York to claim her son Billy. The parents break out into a duel over custody. During the court hearings, the parents' lawyers unleash a tirade of brutal character assassinations neither the parents nor Billy are prepared to handle. Ted refuses to appeal the case, not wanting his son to have to go through the trial, and in the end, Joana leaves Billy with his father, saying that it's for all of their best interests.

By way of last words, let me offer the notable literary duels that I did include in the book: Cain and Abel; Musashi and Kojiro; St George and the Dragon; David and Goliath; Dueling Banjos from Deliverance; Don Quixote and the Windmill; the Legend of John Henry; and the poisoning of Robert Johnson after a Cutting Heads Guitar Duel.