Monday, June 20, 2005

Horblower and the Atropos ~ C. S. Forester

When I first started Horblower and the Atropos, I couldn't help feeling that Atropos is an odd name for a ship. Atropos is one of the three Moirae, the Fates, in Greek mythology; she's the one who cuts the thread of mortal life spun by her sisters Clotho and measured by Lachesis. It would be fitting for a big frigate or ship of the line, an intimidating man o' war. But Hornblower's got the smallest ship in His Majesty's Navy; he spends most of the book avoiding trouble because he knows his ship is no match for the Turks and the Spanish in the Mediterranean. Naming it Atropos just seems to be, well, tempting fate.
But then, the whole theme of the book seems to be how he can't avoid trouble or outwit Fate. Things just go wrong for the poor guy the whole way through. Just when he gets out of one scrape, he lands in another. He's got to orchestrate Nelson's funeral while his wife is giving birth, the coffin's barge almost sinks in the river, he's saddled with a 12 year old German prince for a midshipman (Horblower, very sensibly, addresses him as "Mr. Prince"), the ship's doctor gets into a duel and nearly kills a Very Important Passenger, he spends three chapters or so getting chased by a Spanish frigate, ends up losing his ship to the slightly crazy Sicilian king, and comes home to find both his kids have smallpox.
As always, I find myself torn between feeling bad for the poor slob and wanting to smack him upside the head. He's such an infuriating and endearing person, which is probably why I like the series so much. Swashbuckling adventure on the high seas goes a long way as well. Because really, there's a lot a pacifist radical feminist hippie chick like me could take issue with (the less said about Forester's depiction of the Ceylonese pearl divers, the better). I did spend most of the first time I saw Master and Commander dissecting the discourses of masculinity informing the story, after all (don't worry, I spent the second and third time just relaxing and watching shit blow up). But Hornblower himself belies what an act the whole stiff-upper-lip-patriotic-sea-captain bit is, because he's got a truly awesome inferiority complex and basically is just PMSing all over the place. He's very good as a sailor, but he's not very good at being an impassive macho dude, and he overcompensates as a result. Forester gives us a few scenes of Hornblower being a dad that betray what softie he can be:
Little Horatio was sitting up in a highchair. His face lit up with a smile as he caught sight of his father--the most flattering experience Hornblower had ever known--and he bounced up and down in his chair and waved the crust he held in his fist...This was happiness again, fleeting, transient, to have his little son tottering towards him with a beaming smile.
All together now: Awwwwwwww!! The BBC/A&E sure as hell better make some more episodes of the series, I'd love to see Ioan Gruffud playing this scene.
But, now, the big news is I finally get to read Beat to Quarters, where Horatio meets his Twue Wuv Lady Barbara. Much angst-ridden pacing of the deck and hand-wringing, I'm sure. I think I get a bit of a kick out of watching him torture himself.


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