Thursday, June 7, 2018

Lieutenant Hornblower

I first read the Horatio Hornblower novels as a teenager because I knew that this was a character that had influenced the creation of James T. Kirk. And anyone who can be an influence on Kirk is by definition awesome. It's a known fact. Just like the fact that Kirk is better than Picard--AND NO ONE SHOULD EVER SAY DIFFERENTLY IN MY PRESENCE!

But I digress. I read the Hornblower novels in internal chronological order (which is different from their original publication order) and was hooked by the time I was one chapter into Mr. Midshipman Hornblower. I've re-read the series multiple times since then.

It was easy to see the aspects of Hornblower that influenced Kirk: his sense of duty and responsibility; his ability to think quickly under pressure and improvise clever plans; his courage and his need to lead from the front even when he gained command of a ship and could have legitimately delegated front-line duties to someone else. He's often unable to communicate with his superiors and his ship is thus often on its own. Perhaps the most notable similarity with Kirk is Hornblower's willingness (however reluctant that willingness) to break a rule in order to do what he thinks is right.

But Hornblower is quite different from Kirk in a lot of ways. He's more melancholy and given to deeper self-doubts that Kirk ever was. He's perpetually unable to fully accept that others admire and respect him. When he does have to confront this startling fact, he assumes that this is only because they don't really know him. He stinks at personal relationships.

That last point is important--perhaps the most notable difference is that Hornblower, unlike Kirk, could never establish the sort of close friendship that Kirk had with Spock and McCoy. The closest he ever came to this was with William Bush.

Bush would serve Hornblower for years as First Lieutenant and, when Hornblower became a commodore, command the flagship of Hornblower's squadron.

Bush was already an established character in the series when the book recounting his first meeting with Hornblower was written. But since I read them in chronological order, I met Bush along with Hornblower in the pages of Lieutenant Hornblower (1952).

Both men are lieutenants on the Renown, a 74-gun ship-of-the-line assigned to carry out a mission in the Caribbean. Bush is our point-of-view character--in fact, this is the only book in the series not told from Hornblower's point-of-view. Though Bush himself is unimaginative and perhaps a bit thick about some things, he comes to understand Hornblower better than anyone else and can often be very perceptive in regards to the man who would eventually become his commanding officer.

At this time, though, Bush is senior to Hornblower. The Renown, it turns out, is tasked with capturing a Spanish port that was being used as a haven for privateers. This would be a fairly straightforward if dangerous mission, but its complicated by the fact that the captain is nuts.

And not just a little nuts. Captain Sawyer is full-on paranoid, convinced his officers are plotting against them and constantly giving them harsh punishments. He simultaneously sucks up to the crew, which is extremely damaging to the stern military discipline that is necessary to keep a ship operating efficiently.

The officers meet secretly in a dark hold one night, trying to figure out what to do. Are they justified in relieving Sawyer of command? If they did, who would the crew support? And if they succeeded, was there any hope of convincing the inevitable court-martial they were justified? Mutiny in the early 19th Century was a hanging offense and even if they saved their necks, they would certainly be flushing their careers away.

Well, the problem is solved when Captain Sawyer takes a tumble down the hatch, breaking a number of bones and setting off a wave of paranoid delusions that make it obvious he has to be confined to a sick bed.

The beautiful part about the novel is that there are indications that perhaps Hornblower gave Sawyer a shove down the hatch. Lt. Buckland, who takes command of the Renown, and Bush both think Hornblower at least knows more than he admits. But these are only suspicions.

And, by golly, we as the readers don't know either. Did Hornblower push Sawyer? Was it someone else that Hornblower is covering for? Was it just an accident. Author C.S. Forester sets up the situation perfectly, leaving us with our suspicions along with our doubts.

The bulk of the remaining story is about Renown accomplishing its mission. Buckland is in command during this time, but he's uncertain and hesitant. It's up to Hornblower to come up with one plan after another, respectfully urging Buckland in the right direction to accomplish their goals. He never steps outside the bounds of military propriety, but he makes sure stuff gets done. Gradually, Bush comes to feel the respect and fondness for Hornblower that will allow the two men to work together so well for years to come.

The action, as is typical in Forester's novels, is exciting and vividly described. Forester's characterizations are equally vivid, with both action and characters used to move the novel along at an appropriately brisk pace.

I've just re-read Lieutenant Hornblower for perhaps the 15th time. It's just as exciting and engaging as the first time I read it. And I still have no idea whether Hornblower pushed Captain Sawyer down that hatch.

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