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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #12: Horatio Hornblower

Oh captain, my captain

The titular character in CS Forester's beloved classic series of adventure on the high seas, Hornblower was the prototype for many who would follow, from Aubrey to Kirk. Through the books we are able to watch Hornblower evolve from the young midshipman who gets seasick at anchor, to his first tenuous attempts at command, to the eventual admiral and lord. Brave to the point of reckless, consumed with ambition and duty, plagued by insecurities, he is tough and demanding, particularly with himself. He is a mathematical sailor, obsessed with detail; fiercely devoted to England, he wages a lifelong struggle against Bonapartist France.

The books are extraordinary, though the A&E series from a decade ago was remarkable in its high production quality and fidelity to the character, if not the precise storylines. While some may have enjoyed Gregory Peck's 1951 film version, I'm partial to Ioan Gruffudd's Hornblower on A&E. He ably captures the man's ongoing internal struggle with his own expectations, his prickly and absolute sense of honor, and his abject fear of failure. There's a humanity to Hornblower, and we groan at the mistakes we know he could avoid if he would allow himself a little more flexibility, such as his inexplicable and ultimately tragic first marriage.

Things work out for Hornblower, somehow, and justify the reader's faith, though he always seems to make things harder than they need to be. In the end, that may be what appeals to us, and makes his struggles so very familiar despite their exotic setting. Throughout eleven books, he faces no greater foe than himself. Who among us can't relate to that?

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