Monday, December 29, 2014

Those Crazy Captains, Part V: C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower books

Last week was Christmas, and to me, oddly enough, it’s not quite Christmas without Horatio Hornblower. When Bing Crosby is incessantly crooning about wanting a White Christmas, I'd much rather be humming the "It's the INDIE!" theme:

When the A&E Hornblower miniseries came out starring Eoin Gruffudd, I had not read the books.  Between seeing the first episode and eventually getting the second from the library, I’d read pretty much all of them. Episodes seemed to come out around Christmas-time. Even if they didn’t, it turned out my cousin was also a fan, so I’d have them on the old-fashioned VHS waiting for when my cousin came to visit at Christmas. Nobody else seemed to share our fascination for watching cannons blowing French frigates to smithereens, so we’d stay up late, the sound turned down and our heads bent close to the screen in order to hear the whisper-quiet dialog while everyone else was sleeping. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

Those Crazy Captains, Part IV: Wolf Larsen of Jack London's "The Sea-Wolf"

The reason I took a small detour last week, talking about Harvey Cheyne Jr. of Kipling’s Captains Courageous, is that he reminds me of another “land lubber” who is thrown into a naval adventure: Humphrey van Weyden of Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf. Both narrators are refined intellectuals shipwrecked, rescued, and then shanghaied into service on the vessel that saved their lives.  Both are hardened by their experiences, matured, and changed forever by the sea.

My first exposure to Jack London’s work was what I would consider the “average” introduction to his work: through Call of the Wild and White Fang, which are by far his most famous works. So I think I was forgivable in assuming, just from these two books and from the title of The Sea-Wolf, that it was probably about a canine. 

“Let’s see…Call of the Wild is about a dog that goes to live with wolves. White Fang is about a wolf that goes to live with dogs.” So I guessed that The Sea-Wolf was…about a wolf that goes to live with seals? 

Friday, December 19, 2014

A Little Side Character Comparison: Jim Hawkins and Harvey Cheyne Jr.

When setting out to write a character comparison of the fictional captains in nautical fiction, one of the first books that came to mind, by virtue of its title alone, was Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling. The book isn’t about a Crazy Captain, however, as much as it is about the Boy Coming of Age at Sea. The protagonist is Harvey Cheyne, Jr., a spoiled teenaged son of rich socialites. When he’s saved from drowning by the We’re Here, he’s forced to become part of the crew until the next time they come into port.  His experiences give him the opportunity to get past his sense of entitlement and pride in his possessions, and to mature into true self-confidence so that by the time he actually makes it home, his parents don’t recognize the overindulged and petty son he used to be.

Both Captains Courageous and Treasure Island have an environment of seafaring, and both have young protagonists who come of age in that environment. The captain of the We’re Here, Disko Troop, doesn’t have much in common with Long John Silver—unless it’s the fact that both have unusual names. 

But as I said, the main comparison to be made is between Jim Hawkins and Harvey Cheyne Jr. The two protagonists are both young boys with a lot to learn. Jim longed for and sought adventure, whereas Harvey was happy and complacent with his life of luxury, and was (almost literally) thrown into adventure kicking and screaming. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Those Crazy Captains, Part III: Long John Silver of Treasure Island

I want to love Robert Louis Stevenson’s writing. I really do. I enjoy his poetry. I like The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde well enough. I also thought Kidnapped was pretty interesting.  The Black Arrow was also reasonably exciting. So it would seem a shoe-in that I’d love what is probably his most famous work, Treasure Island….right? 

Wrong. Sure, the story starts out strong, with Jim Hawkins’ longing to have an adventurous life, the broken but mysterious Billy Bones, and especially the very menacing Blind Pew. Black spots and treasure maps from dying traitorous pirates are all well and good, and build up plenty of steam that should propel the rest of the plot by sheer inertia to its fantastic conclusion.

It, in my humble opinion, does not.  

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Irresistible Art of Moby Dick

Much as I don’t care for the plot of the book, I will admit that as a piece of literature, Moby Dick is one of the best symbolic works I’ve read. One of the ways I know if a story has good symbolism is if I can imagine visual motifs to illustrate them. If a book’s plot can be conveyed or at least alluded to on a T-shirt, for example, probably has at least one major symbol.

Maybe it’s just a matter of the colors—a white sperm whale on a dark background—that makes for dynamic visuals. Maybe it’s just because I’m a sucker for animal art in general.  Maybe it’s simply that I like sperm whales, and any time I try to anthropomorphize Moby Dick into an epitome of the world’s evil like Captain Ahab does, the unfortunate outcome is not very profound: just the part of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where a whale materializes in midair over an alien planet and has to come to grips with its existence on the way down to the ground.  

Whatever the reason, part of me wishes that I did love the book, so that I could buy, make, or wear these sorts of artistic renditions of the novel. Since I am more of a begrudging admirer, forced to admit the aesthetic value of Herman Melville’s writing Style, I’ll just leave these links and images here for others with better Taste to enjoy:  

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Name Symbolism in Herman Melville’s "Moby Dick"

As I said in my last entry, I assume that in most written works authors include things deliberately—for instance, names of character. In the case of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, or, The Whale, some names might be chosen for the sake of authenticity, like Starbuck, which was a common Nantucket Quaker name amongst whalers.* Others are subtly symbolic, the way a sledgehammer subtly drives home a nail:

Ishmael – means “God hears.” The character in the Bible was the outcast son of Abram. Since he says “Call me” and never gives a first or last name, this probably is not his real name. So he must have chosen this alias for a reason. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Herman Melville's Moby Dick: Father Mapple’s Sermon and the Book of Jonah

It’s my assumption when reading any work that whatever is included or excluded by the author is done intentionally. So what is the reason Melville includes a full sermon at the outset of Moby Dick? The account of Jonah makes it clear that Melville is foreshadowing some event or theme that will follow later in the narrative. Jonah is one of my favorite books of the bible, because of its complexity despite being only “four yarns” (or chapters) long, and also because I find Jonah as a character to be very relatable.

Father Mapple sums up the themes of the book of Jonah as “A story of sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah.” I agree with this summary, with one exception: that this is only the first part of Jonah’s story, and the second part is equally as important. In the first part as discussed by Father Mapple, Jonah is comparable to Ishmael, as they both are wanderers in a sense—Jonah running away from God, Ishmael seeking to escape from the world in general. But this comparison waxes feeble when contrasted to the similarities between Jonah and Ahab.