Saturday, May 26, 2018

Hornblower and the Atropos

Hornblower and the Atropos was the eighth of C.S. Forester’s Hornblower naval adventure novels to be published, appearing in 1953. The chronological sequence of the stories bears no relationship to the publication order. Chronologically Hornblower and the Atropos comes just before the first published Hornblower novel, The Happy Return.

The victory at Trafalgar has been followed by a series of promotions and thus at the end of 1805 Horatio Hornblower finds himself a very very junior post-captain. He is given command of HMS Atropos. The Atropos is a sloop of war, a class of vessel that would normally be considered too small to be commanded by a post-captain. With her 22 guns the Atropos is however just big enough to justify having a post-captain in command and Hornblower is very grateful to get a command at all.

His first mission is an odd one. He is placed in charge of the flotilla of boats that will bear Lord Nelson’s body to his funeral. It proves to be an exceptionally frustrating task but it does bring him to the attention of the formidable and rather terrifying Admiral John Jervis, Earl of St Vincent.

The Atropos is then despatched to the Mediterranean, on a most unusual mission - to recover sunken treasure. The treasure was aboard a British vessel but unfortunately the wreck is in Turkish waters and the salvage operation has to be undertaken in secret, and that’s the least of Hornblower’s problems. His salvage expert, on loan from the East India Company, is dying from a gunshot wound and there’s nobody else qualified to take charge of the operation.

There's not much action in this story, not until the end, but there’s plenty of adventure and suspense (and when the action does finally kick in it’s pretty exciting). There’s more to being a successful naval captain than fighting battles - the challenges are endless, exasperating and unpredictable. A captain has to be a good tactician but he also needs to be a sound psychologist and an effective manager, and when on detached duty rather than being part of a fleet he finds himself needing to be a diplomatist as well. Hornblower faces some surprising challenges in this story and although often tempted to give in to despair he somehow manages to rise to those challenges. It’s the way this complex man responds to so many varied challenges that interests Forester most of all. This story is as much character-driven as it is plot-driven. Forester was one of those fortunate writers who was equally comfortable with both approaches.

I continue to be impressed by Hornblower’s complexity as a character. He is a most unconventional hero. It’s not just that he is plagued by self-doubts. There’s also the calculated nature of his leadership style as captain, and the fact that his methods are on occasion perhaps just a little morally questionable. He is able to convince himself that sometimes a certain amount of duplicity is justifiable or even necessary, but then he hates himself for it and wonders if he does such things purely for the good of the service or mostly out of self-interest. He is a very self-aware and introspective hero.

Hornblower cannot be described as a particularly happy man. He has an instinctively gloomy outlook which seems to be a kind of self-protection - if you expect the worse you’re pleasantly surprised when things turn out less badly than you’d expected.

Hornblower is also not a man possessed of a great deal of natural human warmth. His marriage seems to have been something that was almost accidental and he is inclined to think it was a mistake. It’s not that it’s actually an overtly unhappy marriage but he has come to realise that he is a man who will always put his career first and that that is hardly fair to a wife and children. He does not appear to have any close friends and his relations with his subordinate officers are somewhat tense.

All this makes Hornblower sound like a very unattractive hero but he isn’t really. For all his self-doubts he’s a thorough professional, a skilful and even brilliant tactician and a fine leader of men. He’s courageous and he’s decisive. His flaws make him more admirable. Being a hero doesn’t come naturally to Hornblower. He has to work at it but he works at it very hard and the hard work pays off. And his flaws make him a more sympathetic character.

Hornblower and the Atropos is highly recommended.


  1. "his relations with his subordinate officers are somewhat tense"

    That's probably an accurate portrait of relations between captains and junior officers in most navies at that time. It's thought that one cause of the mutiny on the Bounty was that Captain Bligh [actually a lieutenant by rank in his first RN command] was the only commissioned officer on board and so got too close to the Master - a senior warrant officer and Bligh's previous rank - Fletcher Christian.
    On the other hand, captains' isolation made a great contribution to science when the captain, Robert Fitzroy, from fear of the loneliness which helped drive his predecessor to suicide, invited a young civilian naturalist named Charles Darwin to sail with him as his guest on H.M.S. Beagle.

    1. That's probably an accurate portrait of relations between captains and junior officers in most navies at that time.

      Agreed, and the difficulties Hornblower wrestles with in his relations with his junior officers and the enlisted men are probably to a certain extent universal. There's always a fine line to be walked between excessive distance and excessive familiarity.

      What makes the Hornblower novels so fascinating is the admission that command necessarily involves a certain amount of manipulation. It's not just a gift that some men possess - it's a skill that can be consciously developed.

  2. What did you think of the film and TV adaptations of the Hornblower books? I admit to a soft spot for the Raoul Walsh movie starring Gregory Peck.

    1. What did you think of the film and TV adaptations of the Hornblower books?

      The late 1990s TV adaptations were nowhere near as bad as I'd expected them to be, but somehow they weren't quite right. Maybe it was a mistake to concentrate so much on the young Hornblower. He becomes a more interesting character when he assumes the responsibilities of command.

      I admit to a soft spot for the Raoul Walsh movie starring Gregory Peck.

      I saw it years ago and liked it very much. And I've just bought a DVD copy so a review should be forthcoming shortly. I do remember thinking that Gregory Peck was a rather inspired casting choice.