This week on Down the Stacks, I’m stepping out of the Science Fiction section of the library again to fulfill a promise I made to myself: to take a look at C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series. After reading and reviewing two different sets of books inspired by Hornblower, I wanted to get back to the source and see how good it was. Fortunately, my local library appears to care about Hornblower quite a bit, since I found the entire series on the shelf, and multiple copies of some volumes. I haven’t read them all yet, but I’ve got a good feeling about the series based on what I have read.
So, to borrow Honor Harrington’s catchphrase again, let’s be about it.
Horatio Hornblower takes place in the early 1800s, during the Napoleonic Wars, and follows the eponymous Hornblower through his career as an officer in the British Royal Navy, ranging from mere midshipman all the way to Lord and Admiral. Although the French are the primary enemies, Hornblower’s adventures pit him against other foes such as the Spanish, his propensity to seasickness, mothers-in-law, the Royal Navy’s draconian rules regarding punishment and pay, and a ship full of rice. Our hero perseveres through his trials with a combination of patriotic loyalty, creative intellect, and a deep self-loathing that drives him to be better than he is.
So far as I’ve read, the Hornblower novels consist of a great deal of sailing about interspersed with swashbuckling action, and rarely a dull moment. Forester pays great attention to the hustle and shouted orders of moving a massive sailing ship around the seas while avoiding running into reefs and other ships, but he doesn’t dwell on the routine too much. I wouldn’t call the books a primer on sailing, but the lexicon of masts, topmasts, and rigging isn’t incomprehensible and there are enough descriptive details to form a decent mental image of what’s going on.
As a character, Horatio Hornblower is an interesting study in contradictions. On the one hand, his aptitude for the sea and naval action is unquestionable. In the very first chapter of Mr. Midshipman Hornblower he demonstrates a gift for concocting plans that will benefit him and those who serve with him the best, and he’s just as skilled in land-based operations as he is at sea. He’s educated in the classics, and knows exactly how to guide superior officers through moments of crisis without overstepping his own authority. Hornblower lacks the kind of high-class connections like money or close friendship with important people that would accelerate his career, but seeing how he’s managed to impress every captain and vice-admiral he’s served directly under in the first three books I don’t doubt his rise through the ranks will be too slow.
On the other hand, Hornblower has serious self-worth issues and disdain for the system hidden under his professionalism. He’s highly prone to seasickness, especially after extended periods of time ashore, which is a matter of shame for a career sailor. He’s also a perfectionist in regards to his behavior and thoughts, with the Articles of War and naval custom as his guidelines. He’ll berate himself endlessly for feeling fear in battle, even if the cause of that fear is a howitzer shell heading toward him, because cowardice is a hanging offense, and in the third book he winds up married and spend the whole book putting on the act of a devoted husband because he’s too much of a gentleman to break a girl’s heart. Hornblower’s self hatred is what drives him to be such a good naval officer running a perfect ship, but that drive can lead him to neglect his own health for the sake of seeing a plan through to the end. His biggest fear is that anyone will discover he is less than the ideal man.
The closest thing Hornblower has to a true friend is Lieutenant William Bush. Bush is more at ease with the hardships of the British Navy than Hornblower, accepting without question things like bullying young seamen who are still learning their trade. Bush enters the second book as Hornblower’s senior and becomes Hornblower’s first mate in third book when the latter is elevated to Commander and given a ship of his own. Professionalism keeps the pair from really bonding while aboard, but Bush does admire and trust Hornblower’s quick mind enough to only blink once or twice at strange orders.
The only real complaint I have about Horatio Hornblower is that Forester’s transitions can be a bit obtuse and sudden. Conventional wisdom dictates that when changing time or place in a story you should start a new paragraph, if not a whole new chapter. Forester usually does that, but on occasion I’ll be halfway through a paragraph and suddenly realize time has leaped forward by days or weeks and Hornblower’s ship is no longer anywhere near where it was at the paragraph’s start. It throws me off every time, requiring me to take a minute and re-read the paragraph to get my mental images caught up with the text.
Of the two Hornblower-inspired works I’ve previously covered - Honor Harrington and Halcyon Blythe - it seems to me that Blythe bears much closer relation to the original than Honor does, at least so far as the books I’ve read are concerned. That has as much to do with the scope of the derivatives as the technology within them. Halcyon Blythe inhabits a world that, while full of magic and dragons, still operates wind-powered sea vessels, while Harrington’s universe is one of interstellar spaceships operating in three-dimensional arenas over massive distances. The comparisons cna only go so far. Also, Honor’s story started with her as a Commander and quickly brought her up to Captain, then to flag ranks, which I haven’t yet reached with Hornblower, and the very nature of the Honorverse and Honor’s enemies means her story has long since deviated from the path Forester established for Hornblower. Perhaps Blythe’s tale will parallel the original closer. Actually, I hope not, because it would be boring to read the same story twice.
The Horatio Hornblower novels don’t fall under my preferred genres, but they are still more than interesting enough and well-crafted to hold my interest. If the Hornblower series isn’t considered a classic, it should be. It’s the kind of high-seas adventure that anyone who loves a good story will enjoy. The books aren’t too thick either, so reading them won’t be too grevious a time sink.