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We’ve been watching a series of made-for-TV movies based on C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower. The stories have a reputation as ripping good yarns, which are deserved. They also have a reputation for historical accuracy and capturing the flavor of naval life in the Napoleonic era, with which I have to quarrel—although it took me several days to realize why.

Hornblower is a young British naval officer who rises quickly from midshipman to admiral, managing to see just about everything worth telling a tale about in the course of the Napoleonic wars: sea battle, boarding action, landward action, duels (two), mutinies (also several), abusive superior officers in an inflexible military bureaucracy (many), sinkings, rescues (both ends), and that’s just the first two episodes. He is cut from the same cloth as Horatio Nelson: eager to get to grips with the enemy, even at insanely dangerous odds and despite forbidding complications. In a just world, he would be killed by his third action, yet always manages to come out on top, often through a deus ex machina, or even several in rapid sequence. His adventures and misadventures are all plausible; indeed, I suspect Forester didn’t so much make them up as copy them from history; all these remarkable events, with a few names changed, actually happened at some time or another, to someone or another.

But not all to the same person!

Any individual segment of the Hornblower tales is plausible, and backed by the attention to naval detail that can only come from a lover of ships and everything connected thereto. It carries the weight of history. Collectively, the events that comprise a Hornblower tale grossly exaggerate both the excitement of naval life and the self-evident superiority of Nelsonian aggressiveness over caution. (A lot of officers seeking to emulate Nelson got shot up and lost their ships and crews in the bargain. For all he was a brilliant seaman, Nelson was also damned lucky.) In doing so, the stories do the reader a historical disservice, even in the good cause of telling a ripping yarn. The Hornblower stories are trivially accurate—in the telling of details like how watches are counted, or why sand is sprinkled on deck before a battle—but substantially every bit as fabulous and fantastical as your typical swords-and-sorcery tale, which is also typically a ripping good yarn.

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