Thursday, December 07, 2006

By C.S. Forester

Before there was an Aubrey and Maturin swanning about the seven seas, we had to rely on Horatio Hornblower to keep old Boney at bay across the Channel. It was a tough job, but someone had to do. Lucky for us, we had C.S. Forester to tell us all about it.

Ship of the Line is the sixth of the Hornblower books. Hornblower is a mature man, a post captain of some seniority and considerable experience of war. Hornblower has just received command of the Sutherland, a 74-gun ship of the line. It is the cutting edge of naval warfare technology. With over 30 guns on a side firing shot at 18 pounds and up, it can blast nearly a ton of metal through an enemy vessel. Hornblower is at the helm of a snarling tiger of the sea, ready to rip the frog-eaters a new one.

All he has to do is get a crew, supplies, permission from his superiors to cruise independently, and to find some Frenchies. In many respects Forester was less interested in Hornblower’s battles than his reaction to him. There are plenty of battles in Ship of the Line, but this is foremost a character study. While Hornblower works out his responses to a variety of naval warfare situations: training a crew of landsmen mostly recruited from jails or pressed off the street, protecting a convoy from fast sailing privateers, capturing prizes, collaborating with Spanish guerillas, or using naval gunfire to attack ground troops. All of these eventually build to a climactic ending and an unusual resolution that leads to the seventh Hornblower novel: Flying Colors. While that action is moving briskly along, the reader is inside Hornblower’s head.

In some ways this is the weakness of the story. The reader has such an intimate view of Hornblower (the only point of view character) that we lose sight of how others see him. The lack of any other point of view tends to vitiate the dichotomy of the outside and inside Hornblowers. While Hornblower is to the outside world a taciturn, unflappable sea-god, inside he’s pretty neurotic. Admittedly, it’s a 19th century, British sort of neurotic, but still a little weird. What is one to make of Hornblower’s resolve to never speak a single word more than is absolutely necessary? Or his almost obsessive fear of appearing foolish? It’s as if Forester were playing with the idea that inside the skin of a stone-killer war-hero (and Hornblower is a devil in battle) is a man filled with fears and unresolved contradictions.

While the Aubrey-Maturin novels of Patrick O’Brian may have eclipsed the Hornblower series to some degree, this is the real stuff. For seventy years, Hornblower has been the gold standard of naval warfare series. May his heart of oak keep beating.
-Dave Hardy

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