Why you missed out on Hornblower, and need to fix it

The original Star Trek was described as ‘Hornblower in space.’ Do you understand what that means? If not, a great experience awaits you, one I had long ago. You missed it because, in a world of endcaps and trash, C.S. Forester is often forgotten. The closest you ever got to a view of the age of fighting sail was Russell Crowe’s utterly un-naval, chin-challenged persona, which you were led to imagine authentic because the effects were so impressive and realistic-looking. For my money, Master & Commander was to Hornblower as an average drag performer is to Sandra Bullock. As in, don’t even. You cannot ‘pull it off.’

You’ll like the process of fixing your Hornblower deprivation. Think of it as a dental procedure in which you feel no pain and vague arousal, and can eat solid food that very night.

The English are by nature a seafaring people. In the UK, the Royal Navy is the senior service. Royal Navy captains and admirals were expected to win, whatever the odds. These people produced Admiral Sir John Jervis, who risked the fate of an empire at 1:2 odds at Cape St. Vincent; for that he was Lord St. Vincent. They produced Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, pivotal commodore at Copenhagen and victor of Trafalgar. They produced Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, later Earl Jellicoe, victor of Jutland. They produced Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, later Viscount Cunningham, who covered the Commonwealth evacuation at Sphakia, Crete at great risk, even as a world away, my mother was being born in Colorado, with the words: “It takes three years to build a ship; it takes three centuries to build a tradition.” If I have not convinced you that the Royal Navy comes to do battle, nothing will.

Want to feel it? Read C.S. Forester’s Hornblower novels. Not kidding.

They came out in non-chrono order. Begin with Mr. Midshipman Hornblower. (Sorry, but WordPress’s link adding is currently broken. Try http://www.amazon.com/Mr-Midshipman-Hornblower-Saga/dp/0316289124/ .) Should be easy enough from there. What you gain:

  • Obvious and wondrous knowledge of the age of sail. The art of sailing was heart and soul of capable naval maneuver in those days, and you will walk away understanding much about what sea captains faced in the Napoleonic era.
  • A great and protracted adventure and romance story spanning the Pacific coast, Caribbean, eastern Mediterranean and Baltic.
  • A savagely self-deprecating Royal Navy officer who never accepted less than anyone’s best, especially his own.
  • Often hilarious reading of the best kind: that which avoids pushing it, and lets the reader find the comedy.
  • A picture of the times, credible and textured. Excellent political and historical detail, nestled perfectly in the times.
  • While not many women in the story, one key female character is very strong and inspirational.

Flaws? I think Hornblower’s escapes and linguistics a bit convenient, especially his quick mastery of two romance languages despite terminal tone-deafness. However, my rule is that fiction authors get one area in which they bend credulity a bit. Forester uses this token on language knowledge and absorption in his protagonist. Okay, fair enough. Given that, the escapes are less suspending of our disbelief. Artful.

The whole series is artful. It is also fantastic international adventure, with some warfare but not at all constant. Some of the language reflects prejudices of the era, and there’s nothing for that. Some feel that such things must be excised. Others, among them myself, believe that to excise them is selective denial. If you take the racial slurs out of Huckleberry Finn, for example, you take away the authenticity. We should not try to pretend our forebears were better than that, and lived by modern standards of our day which would have shocked them. Yeah, there’s one jarring moment where Hornblower yells at his crew for a feeble effort, and says that he’s seen it done better by ‘Portuguese niggers.’ Dislike button. But if you’d read Mark Twain in spite of that, you’d read this in spite of that, I should hope. Plus, if I recall, that’s the only use of that term in all the series. Use of deprecatory slang for adversaries (Spaniards, French) is far more common, and is part of military culture. Unless we’re going to denigrate the WWII generation for all the times they said ‘Krauts,’ ‘Jerries,’ ‘Huns’ and so on. No takers? Didn’t think so.

It is also great military fiction. To write top-grade military (including naval) fiction, the author must have a firm grasp of military culture: the varied attitudes and competencies that make up an armed force. This will mean some crazies, some saints, some spuds, some plodders, some fools, some cowards, and mostly pretty competent people doing the best they can. It will mean cumbersome regulations and constant worry about career impairment. It will mean good people sometimes getting a bohica, and bad people sometimes getting benefits they do not deserve.

I read a couple of the Bolitho novels by Douglas Reeman (as Alexander Kent), and one other in the same genre whose name now escapes me. None compared to Forester in authenticity, storytelling or flavor.

The books came out in a strange order, beginning in the middle, but are best read in the order of Hornblower’s career. The only weird one is Hornblower During the Crisis, which is an unfinished novel with some previously published stories included. I’d save that one for last, and accept the jumping around that is in it. The rest of the books, if read in story order rather than order of release, will tell the full tale of our hero’s career.


8 thoughts on “Why you missed out on Hornblower, and need to fix it”

  1. I wish I could give you 6 stars, J.K. I think you hit the nail straight on the head, and then some. I read and thoroughly enjoyed several of the Hornblower books. Classic series.

    While I didn’t particularly enjoy the movie, Master and Commander, I would highly recommend the Patrick O’Brian series that M&C was taken from. I was on the 13th or 14th book of the series when I gave had to give up my library to move to S.A. If you haven’t checked it out, be sure to start at the beginning and give the characters a chance to develop.

    Anyway, thanks for a fun step back in time.


    1. Thanks, Gary. There’s also a companion book and a ‘biography’ of Hornblower. I have to go back and check them out again before I can suggest them, though, since it’s been so long. But I know that Hornblower will be a re-read series for me all my days. The power of Forester’s thundering cannon never fades.


    1. Heh. I tend to deal with that by the unfortunate method of reading too quickly…but it does mean that when I return to a book, there’s stuff to discover. Thanks for stopping by, Laurie!


  2. I finally finished the Aubrey/Maturin series last year, and that’s outstanding. Some of your comments strongly reminded me of it. Particularly the underplayed humor, great sense of time, place, and varied personalities in the service. O’Brien’s area needing particular suspension of disbelief is the bending and stretching of time. Definitely need to give Hornblower a try as well.


    1. Thanks, Ragnar. I have heard a lot of good things about the Aubrey/Maturin series. I didn’t much cotton to the Bolitho books (O’Brien, I think); I’m not sure what the term is for what’s wrong with his storytelling, but I think ‘overtold’ comes close.


  3. Bolitho is Douglas Reeman/Alexander Kent, no? I don’t think anyone could ever accuse O’Brien of overtelling. One of his signatures is undertelling, if anything, particularly in later books, giving you just enough details to fill in what’s happening without going into unnecessary detail.


    1. Correct on Kent (I’m inferring that’s the pen name). I’ll have to look more closely at O’Brien, then. There is a limited amount of good salty age-of-sail fiction available.


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