Hornblower's return

Culture | The skillful, edifying fiction of C.S. Forester receives new attention

Issue: "Not-so-smart bombs," April 24, 1999

The Modern Library's list of the century's top 100 novels does not include anything by C.S. Forester (1899-1966). Academic critics tend to look down their noses at reading for mere entertainment, preferring serious but tedious experimentation to Forester's tales of excitement, action, and adventure. People still read for entertainment, as the teeming shelves of Barnes & Noble demonstrate, but today's pop fiction has action and suspense-without bothering too much with complex characters, unpredictable plots, and good writing. Forester, on the other hand, used the techniques of high literature and is hugely entertaining. On this 100th anniversary of his birth, a new generation is rediscovering Forester and his finest creation, Horatio Hornblower, the swashbuckling naval hero of the Napoleonic wars. American Movie Classics featured the 1951 Captain Horatio Hornblower, starring Gregory Peck, a film that is reportedly a favorite among battlefield re-enactors for its exuberant blasting away with cannons. The Arts and Entertainment network had its own Hornblower miniseries. Mr. Forester, an Englishman who died a Californian, dramatized how, for a hero, character really does matter. Hornblower stands in contrast to the cardboard good-guys and superficial superheroes of popular fiction; he is full of self-doubt, insecurities, and moral struggles. Whereas Jack Aubrey, hero of the excellent naval series by Patrick O'Brian, is outgoing, gregarious, and easy-going, Hornblower is introverted, shy, and a worrier. And yet Hornblower always manages to act with startling heroism, untangling the most impossible dilemmas and saving the day through his boldness, creative skill, and sheer intensity of character. The 11 Hornblower books trace a man's entire career. We first see him as a teenage midshipman, getting sea-sick and bullied, learning how to be a man. In the course of the novels, we watch him climb the corporate ladder of the British navy, earning promotion to lieutenant, then captain, and winning command of his own ship. He is knighted, makes admiral, and-for saving his country from Napoleon-advances to the House of Lords. In Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, young Horatio is as awkward, self-conscious, and confused as any teenager-characteristics every adolescent reader, especially boys, can relate to. But in the course of the loosely related short stories, Horatio develops qualities that forge him into a hero. For instance, he learned promise-keeping before Promise Keeping was cool: Horatio is captured in battle and becomes a prisoner in Spain. When a Spanish boat is floundering off-shore, Horatio offers to help with the rescue, giving his word that he will not try to escape. Although he saves the lives of people who would normally be his enemies, the tide sweeps him out to sea-to the safety of a British ship. But safe and warm and free, he remembers his promise: He insists that his comrades drop him back off at the Spanish prison. Midshipman Hornblower also has to learn leadership. Commonly, boys as young as 12 were sent to sea and, if they were of good family, were rated midshipman, a grade of officer. This placed inexperienced children in command of rough and rowdy sailors twice or three times their age. We see young Horatio keeping his men in line-away from gambling and drunkenness-and earning their respect, trust, and affection. As historical fiction, the Hornblower series captures not only the feel and the details of a bygone era, but the dominant cultural thinking. A key theme throughout the series has to do with a quality nearly forgotten today: honor. Horatio's career is by no means smooth sailing. At the helm for the first time, he can't stop the ship under his command from sinking. And a sinful nature plagues Hornblower, as he is bitterly aware, even as everyone else is hailing his greatness. He marries an innkeeper's daughter just because he doesn't want to hurt her feelings, only to fall in love with another complex character, Lady Barbara, the sister of the Duke of Wellington, the real-life military hero who actually did defeat Napoleon. Their relationship is an illicit one, until tragedies in both their families allow them to have a rather imperfect marriage. But despite his all-too-human problems, Hornblower will do battle with four enemy ships at the same time. He will save the life of the Czar of Russia. He singlehandedly prevents Napoleon from taking Latvia. Readers can identify with his fallenness, while being exhilarated and encouraged at the fact that it is possible to achieve great things anyway. Alas, for all of his inwardness and moral sensitivity, Hornblower is not portrayed as a religious man. His ships "rig church" and observe the Sabbath, but Hornblower does not turn to God in his various crises. In other of Forester's books, however, his heroes do, such as the ones set during World War II. The Good Shepherd is about a destroyer captain escorting a convoy of merchant ships through submarine-infested waters. Captain George Krause, like Hornblower, has his inner turmoils, but he is the son of a Lutheran pastor. He prays; he has faith in Christ; and he always has Bible passages flitting through his mind in times of crisis. The Good Shepherd conveys all the pressure and exhaustion of actual, unglamorous warfare in its realistic depiction of a three-day battle with Nazi U-Boats. Capt. Krause, clinging to God's Word as he depth-charges the enemy subs, is a dramatic example of a Christian carrying out his vocation in the world. Another positive fictional treatment of Christianity can be found in Forester's The African Queen. The tale of the alliance-and eventual romance-between a down-and-out river bum and an indomitable Christian missionary was turned into the acclaimed movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. In the most recent Forester adaptation, the A&E miniseries, which concludes on April 25 but will probably be repeated, contemporary special effects bring war at sea-the broadsides, the shelling from shore, the sound of cannon balls as they come closer and closer-vividly to life. The programs stand well on their own, but the writers and director Andrew Grieve sometimes think they can improve on Forester's plots, which they cannot. The duel, which serves as the title of the first episode of the miniseries, is nothing like the duel in Forester's book. Horatio's opponent is reduced, in typical Hollywood fashion, to just another bad guy. In the book, Horatio duels, but the bully is treated completely differently: The battle ends not with a killing, but with one of Forester's brilliant surprise endings. Forester's thoughtful plots give his books a valuable moral edge. Moral education, says William Kirk Kilpatrick in his book Psychological Seduction, takes place not just through abstract precepts but through stories. By identifying with characters as they work through the challenges they face, being excited and inspired by tales of heroic goodness, children-and adults-learn to admire virtue and be repelled by vices. Once, literature and other forms of entertainment served that function. Today, our entertainment often does the reverse, causing children-and adults-to admire vices and be repelled by virtue. C. S. Forester is a throwback to a higher literary calling. On the centennial of his birth, he deserves a 21-gun salute.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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