Great fight scenes from literature
August 28, 2012 8:02 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for great fight scenes from literature. I've seen the questions on fight scenes from movies and I'm not looking for those (or TV or comics). Books only, please (I suppose plays count, but you can safely assume I'm familiar with every fight scene from Shakespeare).

I'm more interested in to-the-death type stuff than sport fighting (boxing, fencing), one-on-one (or small groups) than battles and hand weapons than firearms.
posted by zanni to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I keep feeling like I'm suggesting this for like every third MeFi question about books, but Neal Stephenson's Bonanza (Inside The Confusion, which is pt. 2 of the Baroque Cycle) has some incredible fight scenes with a variety of weapons. I'm pretty sure they're all over the series, but the ones from Bonanza stand out the best. His book Snow Crash also includes some swordfighting, but it's usually only the protagonist who is armed with them.

Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber books have some great swordfights as well, mostly fencing.
posted by griphus at 8:07 AM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

(Er, is "fencing" what you call fighting with rapiers? It's that, not sport fencing.)
posted by griphus at 8:09 AM on August 28, 2012

The best fight scene I've ever read is a duel at the end of this novel (perhaps not coincidentally, Neal Stephenson cites this author as a huge influence.) I was actually shaking at the end of it-- and as a ex-fencer myself, I appreciated her correct usage of language.
posted by WidgetAlley at 8:12 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

The duel between Inigo and The Man In Black in The Princess Bride is almost as good on the page as it is on the screen.
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:12 AM on August 28, 2012 [5 favorites]

The caravansary fight between Amram and Zelikman in Chabon's "Gentlemen of the Road" is fairly epic, and with a very satisfying conclusion.

Basically, everything Robert E. Howard wrote involving Conan or Solomon Kaine had a massive physical duel in there somewhere, written by an accomplished amateur boxer with a sense of the poetic. Hard to settle on one.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:18 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Iliad still stands as the pinnacle of this, IMO.
posted by mkultra at 8:21 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding the Baroque Cycle, and adding Anathem, also by Stephenson. In Anathem (mild spoiler?) there is a group of characters who train for hand-to-hand combat their whole lives. There is an excellent super-exciting scene where a small number of these people use these skills to fight off a vigilante mob of vastly superior number. It's all one-to-one, and very clearly written. It's great.
posted by dirtdirt at 8:32 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

The fight between the armored bears in The Golden Compass is pretty excellent. Seconding Princess Bride and Chronicles of Amber, too.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:36 AM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

The most intense fight scene I've read was in All the Pretty Horses. It was one of those moments where I was terrified but at the same time couldn't stop reading.


It's the one in the prison.

Also, are you looking to read just fight scene sections or the entire book? Because I don't know how intense reading that scene would have been if I was plopped down into it from out of nowhere.

It happens about 3/4 into the novel, if I remember correctly, so the reader is already very familiar with the protagonist and has already seen him go through a bunch of stuff.
posted by mcmile at 8:39 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another one from McCarthy: Toadvine vs. the kid in the early part of "Blood Meridian"
posted by thelonius at 8:44 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

And (almost) all of Blood Meridian. Also in Aubrey and Maturin novel there are lots and lots of exceptional, exciting, fighting and also boating scenes. I think it was in Nutmeg of Consolation where they are being pursued into the roaring 40's (the ring of land-less ocean down at the southern end of the world) and the two boats fight it out in Gale force winds.
posted by From Bklyn at 8:50 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have you ever read the classic "Cyrano de Bergerac" by Edmond Rostand? Love, revenge, sword fights (with poetry!) and more.
posted by easily confused at 8:53 AM on August 28, 2012

I think it was in Nutmeg of Consolation

Desolation Island

posted by elizardbits at 9:00 AM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

John Grady's knife fight with Eduardo in McCarthy's _Cities Of The Plain_ is also brutal.
posted by billjings at 9:07 AM on August 28, 2012

Every one of the Spenser novels by Robert B. Parker contains at least one detailed fight scene. (Spenser is a boxer, so there's a lot of detail about right hooks and upper cuts and all that stuff.)
posted by jbickers at 10:25 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Dunnett is great. Frank Yerby is great on sword fights. Alexandre Dumas (or his staff) is great on sword fights in the Three Musketeers books, much worse on gunfights.

Chester Himes is fucking immense on desperate, back-alley tussles with knives, guns, bricks, whatever.

Loren Estleman's Westerns are strong on how gunfights actually worked (or didn't) in the 19th century western US, much more accurate than Louis L'Amour.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:33 AM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

The duel between Inigo and The Man In Black in The Princess Bride is almost as good on the page as it is on the screen.

Better, IMHO.

Lots of good sword fighting scenes in various Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars books, but I don't think Burroughs was a swordsman himself.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 11:12 AM on August 28, 2012

Seconding Neal Stephenson's books and adding "Reamde," which includes a few fights: a mix of gunfight and hand-to-hand combat, but nearly all close quarters. The book climaxes with a series of gun battles, but described in detail are the complications that give the battles considerable depth compared to your average shootout, including the variety of skill levels of the shooters, who are by and large smart, or trained, or both, and make decisions based on what they know they're able to do. Bonus: man vs. mountain lion. Second bonus: massive fantasy battle inside an MMO video game, when the game's creator arrives in a godlike avatar.

The particular battle from the Baroque Trilogy I liked featured two swordsmen who really wanted to kill each other but whose weapons were too asymmetric: one had a very light sword build for stabbing, while the other had a heavy sword meant for slashing. The heavy sword was slow, but could easily deal damage; the light sword was quick, but couldn't block the heavy sword.
posted by Sunburnt at 12:12 PM on August 28, 2012

Matthew Woodring Stover's Caine series (Heroes Die and Blade of Tyshall) has some pretty epic fight scenes. They tend to be brutal, efficient, and clearly written by someone who has had martial arts training.
posted by platypus of the universe at 2:43 PM on August 28, 2012

A couple times I have reread Robert E. Howard's Kull story "By This Axe I Rule!" with the intent of figuring out what he did there. It has never worked out. I can hardly keep sitting while reading that one.
posted by wobh at 4:37 PM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Roadmarks, by Roger Zelazny, has at least one pretty good scene- a fight between a (shaolin?) monk and a cyborg WW3 vet.
posted by ergomatic at 6:59 PM on August 28, 2012

From Here to Eternity
posted by brujita at 7:01 PM on August 28, 2012

Try (but only if you have absolutely nothing else to do tonight, and no appointments early tomorrow morning).
posted by d. z. wang at 7:12 PM on August 28, 2012

The Call of the Wild
posted by ravioli at 9:33 PM on August 28, 2012

Neal Stephenson has come up a lot here, so I'll throw in one of his books you guys may not have heard of, The Cobweb, written under a pseudonym with his uncle. The protagonist is a small town Iowa sheriff. His wife's brothers are all top-notch Olympic wrestlers, and they can't understand what their sister sees in this guy, whose not nearly as good a wrestler as they are. Of course, there's a climactic fight, and of course the sheriff realizes his opponent is also an Olympic-caliber wrestler, just like his brothers-in-law...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:57 PM on August 28, 2012

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