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Winston Churchill famously observed to an Admiralty Lord; "Bah, British naval tradition!  Two hundred years of rum, sodomy and the lash."  And, while Churchill was actually a wild romantic, this view seems to capture much of the modern attitude towards this type of patriotic idealistic war narrative.  After the disillusionments of Vietnam, films like Apocalypse Now and Platoon replaced more salutary fare, like Sands of Iwo Jima and Sergeant York.  But in recent years, the wild popularity of Patrick O'Brian's ongoing Aubrey and Maturin series and the excellent A&E miniseries, Horatio Hornblower: The Duel, The Fire Ships, The Duchess and the Devil and The Wrong War (1998), have brought about a welcome revival of the fortunes of one of the most traditional war heroes in all of literature, C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower (A&E has even begun a Hornblower Book Club).

While not the first written, this novel is the first chronologically in the Hornblower series, beginning when he is a 17 year old midshipmen just coming aboard his first ship, The Justinian:

    [Mr. Masters] looked with attention at the approaching figure.  It was that of a skinny young man
    only just leaving boyhood behind, something above middle height, with feet whose adolescent
    proportions to his size were accentuated by the thinness of his legs and his big half-boots.  His
    gawkiness called attention to his hands and elbows.  The newcomer was dressed in a badly
    fitting uniform which was soaked right through by the spray; a skinny neck stuck out of the high
    stock, and above the neck was a white bony face.  A white face was a rarity on the deck of a ship
    of war whose crew soon tanned to a deep mahogany, but this face was not merely white; on the
    hollow cheeks there was a faint shade of green--clearly the newcomer had experienced seasickness
    in his passage out in the shore boat.  Set in the white face were a pair of dark eyes which by
    contrast looked like holes cut in a sheet of paper; Masters noted with a slight stirring of interest that
    the eyes, despite their owner's seasickness were looking about keenly, taking in what were
    obviously new sights; there was a curiosity and interest there which could not be repressed and
    which continued to function notwithstanding either seasickness or shyness, and Mr. Masters
    surmised in his far-fetched fashion that the boy had a vein of caution or foresight in his
    temperament and was already studying his new surroundings with a view to being prepared for his
    next experiences.  So might Daniel have looked about him at the lions when he first entered their
    den.

This description reveals much of the genius of Hornblower's character.  He is an awkward neophyte, both socially and nautically speaking, and is often thrust into situations which threaten to overwhelm him.  But his natural humility, indomitable will, quick mind and willingness to learn from mistakes all stand him in good stead.  His superiors and the reader quickly recognize that this is a man who will accomplish great things.

The novel is packed with action sequences, even unrealistically so.  But Forester handles naval scenes brilliantly, and it is, after all, fiction.  [Anyone who saw the miniseries will be shocked to hear that all four episodes were drawn from the events of just this first book (let us hope they continue to produce more)].    This is old fashioned storytelling in the grand tradition, especially recommended for youngsters.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A)

  

Websites:

See also:

C.S. Forester (2 books reviewed)
Sea Stories
War
Book-related and General Links:
    -C. S. Forester, Storyteller (by his son)
    -The Unofficial Horatio Hornblower Home Pages (info on chronolgy, plot summaries, etc.)
    -Hornblower Bibliography (American Library Assoc.)
    -Ha - H'm. The Hornblower Page
    -A& E Hornblower Book Club

THE A&E MINISERIES:
    -A& E's Horatio Hornblower Site
    -REVIEW: A&E launches a seaworthy 'Horatio Hornblower' (Rob Owen / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
    -REVIEW: The First Action Hero  Horatio Hornblower (Flick Filosopher)
    -REVIEW: Exploits on the high seas  ( Doug Nye   KNIGHT RIDDER NEWS SERVICE)
    -REVIEW: 1st class stories of naval hero (Hal Boedeker, Orlando Sentinel)
    -REVIEW: Hornblower films try for realism, offer gritty, grisly but exciting tales of English sailor (R.D. Heldenfels,  Beacon Journal)

GENERAL SITES:
    -British National Maritime Museum
    -Napoleonic Wars Series (War Times Journal)(articles & Links)
    -Royal Navy During the Napoleonic Era
    -A Guide to Maritime History Information on the Internet
    -The Sea Room (nautical fiction website)
    -The Nautical Mind: Marine Book Sellers & Chart Agents
    -THE PATRICK O'BRIAN PAGE
    -Patrick O'Brian Web Resources
    -REVIEW: of O'Brian series In Which We Serve  (John Bayley, NY Review of Books)

If you like the Hornblower books, try:
O'Brian, Patrick
(Aubrey/Martin Series)
    -Master and Commander
    -Post Captain
    -HMS Surprise
    -The Surgeon's Mate
    -The Ionian Mission
    -The Mauritius Command
    -The Truelove
    -The Letter of Marque
    -Treason's Harbor
    -The Nutmeg of Consolation
    -The Reverse of the Medal
    -The Fortune of War
    -Desolation Island
    -The Far Side of the World
    -The Commodore
    -The Wine-Dark Sea
    -The Yellow Admiral

Other recommended books by C.S. Forester:
    -The African Queen
    -1) Mr. Midshipman Hornblower
    -2) Lieutenant Hornblower
    -3) Hornblower and the Hotspur
    -4) Hornblower and the Atropos
    -5) Beat to Quarters
    -6) Ship of the Line
    -7) Flying Colors
    -8) Commodore Hornblower
    -9) Lord Hornblower
    -10) Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies
    -11) Hornblower During the Crisis
    -12) The Hornblower Companion

Also check out the Hornblower movie from the 50's:
Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951) (Director: Raoul Walsh, starring: Gregory Peck, Virginia Mayo)

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