Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Barbarian and a Midshipman

What do Conan the Barbarian and Royal Navy officer Horatio Hornblower have in common?

Well, the most obvious thing would be that both have commanded ships. Conan’s checkered career includes time on the high seas as a pirate. Most famously was the few years he spent with his first real love—Belit the she-pirate. Even after Belit was killed, Conan returned to the seas several more times before settling down as king of the Hyborian Age’s most powerful nation.

And Hornblower commanded a number of ships during his country’s war with Revolutionary France and later Napoleonic France—the Hotspur, the Atropos, the Lydia, the Sutherland.  Later, as he moved up in the ranks, he commanded squadrons and fleets.

But these two otherwise totally different heroes have another thing in common. Both of them had occasion to capture a slave galley even when the odds were stacked completely against them.

For Conan, it happened when he was King of Aquilonia. During the events of The Hour of the Dragon (the only novel-length Conan adventure written by Robert E. Howard), our hero had lost his throne through treachery and sorcery. Up against a powerful wizard, he found out the only way to obtain victory was to track down a particularly powerful magical artifact.

Well, that kicked off quite a few bloody encounters—a ride through a small country racked by civil war; an encounter with man-eating ghouls; and a few instances of betrayal, torture and murder.

The trail leads him to a port city, where he dragoons help from a man who had been a fence for stolen goods during Conan’s pirate days. This guy double-crosses the barbarian, though, and Conan is knocked out and press-ganged aboard a merchant ship rowed by black slaves.

Well, that’s a mistake. A lot of the slaves had sailed with Conan in the old days. So, after breaking the captain’s arm and wrenching an axe from the weapons rack, Conan leads an impromptu mutiny. Within a few minutes, he’s the new captain.

Hornblower’s encounter with a galley happened in the late 18th Century, not long after Spain had allied itself with France and also declared war against Britain. Hornblower was still a midshipman at the time, serving aboard the frigate Indefatigable. When that ship is becalmed and a Spanish galley arrives to attack some nearby merchant ships, the young hero and a half-dozen seamen lowered a small boat and took off after the much larger enemy vessel.

But what can those few men hope to accomplish? Well, for one thing, they certainly have surprise on their side.  Combine that with the well-aimed throw of a grappling hook and…

You know, I was going to summarize that action sequence, but I don’t think I will. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it. Find yourself a copy of Mr. Midshipman Hornblower and read the chapter titled “Hornblower and the Spanish Galleys.” You won’t be sorry.

I’ve always imagined that each year, Superman’s Fortress of Solitude hosts a gathering of all the people who aren’t actually real, but should be. (There would have been talk about having it at Doc Savage’s Fortress, but the Man of Steel’s place has an intergalactic zoo and all those Superman robots to serve refreshments.)

And you’d think that Conan and Hornblower wouldn’t necessarily spend much time talking to each other. The Cimmerian would be busy hitting on Hawkgirl or Candy Matson and Hornblower always felt awkward at social gatherings. But if you think about it for a minute, the two really do have some mutually interesting stories to swap.

Well, they would, if Long John Silver would ever let them get a word in edgewise.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...