Lieutenant Hornblower by C. S. Forester

Lieutenant HornblowerInformation

Goodreads: Lieutenant Hornblower
Series: Hornblower #2
Source: Gift
Published: 1952


Horatio Hornblower, an officer of the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, faces insane commanders, enemy gunfire, and an official court of enquiry.  Nothing, however, terrifies him so much as the possibility of the war’s end, which will leave him forever a washed-up officer on half-pay.


Lieutenant Hornblower shares many of the characteristics that makes me love its chronological predecessor, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower so much—a naval hero still in his formative years and trying to prove himself, a fascinating historical setting, desperate action on the high seas, and the possibility that, at any moment, everything for which Hornblower has worked will disappear.  This book, however, like all the books in the series, is clearly its own.  New dangers and new adventures arise all the time; life at sea does not mean that Hornblower simply engages in the same types of naval engagements, like the way fight scenes in movies tend to blend all together (at least for me).  Furthermore, Hornblower’s complex characterization always lends a fascinating human dynamic to the story—watching him calculate the odds and risk it all even as he struggles with supreme doubt in his own abilities is one of my favorite aspects of his story.

Hornblower’s characterization proves even more interesting in this, the second book in the series (chronological).  Mr. Midshipman Hornblower presents Hornblower from the perspective of a third-person narrator, but Lieutenant Hornblower introduces Mr. Bush, a rather pragmatic officer through whom readers’ vision of Hornblower is filtered.  This choice adds even more layers to the already complex portrayal of Hornblower.  Mr. Bush is not theoretical.  He knows little of calculated risks and lacks the imagination to form battle plans.  He is a simple man who thinks a good officer runs a ship smoothly and follows orders.  In short, he doesn’t understand Hornblower at all.

Perhaps it will not be a spoiler to say that this is the start of a beautiful friendship.  Mr. Bush doesn’t receive so much attention for nothing.  But his own somewhat stodgy reliability initially stands in the way.  To him, Hornblower comes across as an over-ambitious whippersnapper who occasionally oversteps his bounds and might even lack in physical courage.  Well, how could that not turn into a beautiful friendship?  It is a relationship all the more touching because the two characters involved never directly address it.

Aside from the introduction of Mr. Bush, I love Lieutenant Hornblower for the hardships it forces Hornblower to face.  For most books and most series, I assume that the number of pages left means that why, of course, the hero has to live and, obviously, the hero will receive promotion.  Lieutenant Hornblower?  Please.  Future Admiral Hornblower in the making!  Forester never lets his protagonist off easily, however, and even when rereading, I can never feel sure that Hornblower will make it through any adventure successfully.  He is a hero forged by pain, disappointment, and failure–a hero who is real and perhaps more lovable in defeat than in triumph.  I feel like I know Hornblower and I am fully invested in his story.

All good books, unfortunately, must end and I it is hard not to close the pages of Lieutenant Hornblower without a sense of regret.  Our hero is growing up and one day he will be charged with his first independent command.  In this book, however, I can look fondly upon a Hornblower still learning the ways of the world and muddling through it, like the rest of us, the best that he can.  His younger days hold a special place in my heart and the portrait given here is one that I hold on to as I continue with Hornblower through the rest of his  many adventures.

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower by C. S. Forester

Mr. Midshipman HornblowerInformation

Goodreads: Mr. Midshipman Hornblower
Series: Hornblower #1
Source: Gift
Published: 1950


Seventeen-year-old Horatio Hornblower embarks on his first naval adventure as England anticipates war with France.  Though he longs to prove himself, however, life on the high seas is not all blood and glory.  Interspersed with land invasions and naval engagements are confrontations with unruly sailors, tricky diplomatic negotiations, and the upcoming examination for lieutenant.


C.S. Forester’s Hornblower series seems to have it all. Action and adventure set on the high seas during a fascinating historical moment, the Napoleonic Wars. A compelling hero who possesses an intellect as remarkable as his physical courage. One of my favorite male friendships, forged by shared hardships. Even a star-crossed romance. But, of all the books, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower holds a special place in my heart.

C. S. Forester did not write the Hornblower series in chronological order, but that is the way I chose to read it and thus Mr. Midshipman Hornblower was my introduction to one of the most intriguing characters I know in literature. Hornblower, while possessing remarkable bravery and even a certain cold-bloodedness that allows him to perform his duties and protect his own interests in terms of advancement through the service, is also a keen intellectual with a tender heart. He is a mess of uncertainties and contradictions, a man sometimes trying to be a machine. No matter how many victories he wins and how many accolades he receives, Hornblower always feels that he still needs to prove himself and it is that vulnerability that allows, I think, a naval hero to prove so relatable and so enduringly popular.

In Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, readers have the opportunity to meet Hornblower when he is young and overconfident. It is a rare glimpse into the formative years of a man who will become a legend and it will, perhaps, prove familiar to those who remember their own stupid and reckless days or heartening to those still experiencing them. I myself have a soft spot for young and reckless heroes and it is this version of Hornblower that makes the first two books my favorite. In later books, Hornblower typically knows what he is doing, though he always plays the odds and he will not always win. In Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, our hero only thinks he knows what he is doing and he copies what seems to him brave or seaman-like behavior in a bid to be one of the rare men from his social class who advance through the ranks. He has not yet learned to recognize calculated risks from rashness, bravery from foolishness. He tries too hard and he is sometimes wrong, but his earnestness and his tendency to take himself too seriously are endearing.

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower is a fantastic introduction to a fantastic series—a breathtaking naval saga that immerses readers in the life of an English naval officer during the Napoleonic Wars. Nothing about this series is ever trite or expected. Real hardships exist and real dangers, and the extreme uncertainty of Hornblower’s life and his future career are, to me, the hallmarks of a great writer. While reading Forester’s works, I can never be sure that Hornblower will come out of a fight unscathed or that he will receive promotion or official recognition for his services. Every book is a new adventure that keeps me on the edge of my seat as I cheer on one of my favorite heroes.