A series of stories of a British member of the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, and probably C.S. Forester's most well-known work. The eponymous character, Horatio Hornblower, starts as an overaged midshipman at the start of the Napoleonic Wars, shy and awkward but with a knack for innovation and an inner drive that propels him to attempt improbable and daring feats. Unfortunately, he also has a complete inability to think well of himself, crossing the line from Humble Hero to someone afflicted with genuine, miserable self-loathing who views himself with "a sort of amused contempt" at best.Fighting the eccentricities of the Royal Navy and his own temperament as much as the French and other enemies, Hornblower rises through the ranks with difficulty, worrying about his poverty, the many ways his career could be ruined, and the constant possibility of violent and painful death; meanwhile he conducts his missions to the utmost of his considerable ability. His career is detailed in twelve novels (written out of chronological order) and several short stories, and he rises from seasick midshipman to Lord.The books also describe the mechanics of sailing wooden warships in exquisite detail, but Forester does go to the trouble of (occasionally) explaining the jargon to his readers, which may make them more accessible to the average reader than the Aubrey Maturin series.The character of Horatio Hornblower was inspired by the career of real-life Thomas Cochrane.
A little-known series called Star Trek has been described as "Horatio Hornblower Recycled In Space". The rumour has it that both captains best known in the mainstream culture, Captain Kirk and Captain Picard, are based on the two different sides of Hornblower's character.
Science fiction writer A. Bertram Chandler based his John Grimes character on Hornblower, even making Hornblower a distant relative.
Honor Harrington - A Space Opera novel series by David Weber with a female version of Horatio Hornblower. The HH initials are not a coincidence. Author David Weber actually hangs a lampshade on this in the sixth book when he shows the title character reading one of the Hornblower books.
Echoes of Honor is basically Forester's Flying Colours taken Up to Eleven. Hornblower, under sentence of death, steals a cutter and escapes with twenty other prisoners; Honor, under sentence of death, steals a fleet and escapes with half a million other prisoners.
Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey Maturin series. Takes place during the same time frame as Horatio Hornblower. Not sci-fi.
Author Avatar: According to his biography, C. S. Forester came up with Hornblower and The Happy Return during a one day cruise of the Bay of Fronseca in the motor launch with photographer Barbara Sutro, while on a freighter heading for England while escaping a paternity suit by a fading opera singer. He envisioned Hornblower as himself as he wished he had the courage to be.
Authority Equals Asskicking: Usually subverted. Hornblower might be a brilliant captain, but more than once he thinks that he couldn't match the men's physical capacity for backbreaking work or brawling. However, there are a few occasions where he does fight hand-to-hand.
Awesomeness by Analysis: This seems to be Hornblower's main method of gambling, seamanship, and war. In one incident, Hornblower challenges a man known to be a better shot then he to a Duel to the Death with the understanding that there will be one pistol randomly loaded, neither will know which one and the contestants will choose it unknowing and fight at point blank. Thus giving a fifty-fifty chance (better than his odds, Hornblower figures, than in any fair fight). Not knowing that the captain, not wanting to lose either midshipman, arranged for both guns to be left unloaded.
Badass Bookworm: Hornblower is a seadog who uses math skills and meticulous research.
Battle Butler: Brown was originally Hornblower's coxswain, became his servant at first as a ruse because he's a good man in an escape attempt, but he stays in the position afterward, then became his coxswain again.
Be as Unhelpful as Possible: You'd think the, say, Spaniards would give the British Navy all possible assistance when trying to retake crucial military positions. Nope. Heck, everyone outside the British Navy seems slightly or greatly incompetent, and a good deal of the people within.
Be Careful What You Wish For: Flying Colors ends with Hornblower getting everything he's wanted; wealth, fame, prestige, a title, and the way clear to marry Lady Barbara. He starts hating it before the end of the book.
Inverted. The author deliberately keeps Horatio out of the way of most of the major historical events of the time. One would imagine this gets harder as Hornblower progresses up the ranks, eventually ending up as a Admiral.
The first Hornblower book written places Captain Hornblower in the Pacific in 1808. This was specifically to avoid him having any involvement with the Peninsular Wars or the war against Napoleon.
There is one short story that takes place during the War of 1812, where Hornblower has a brush with an American ship. Since he's on a barely-armed ship to take the King on a day trip, he evades battle.
He never becomes admiral himself until peace. In Commodore Hornblower it is implied that his actions were essential to foiling the French attempt to take Riga. In the (unfinished) Hornblower and the Crisis, he helps lure the enemy into the Battle of Trafalgar with a false message.
It's mentioned several times that as a midshipman he served with Captain Pellew on the Indefatigable, and was present at the sinking of the larger Droits de l'Hommes in 1797. Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, which details his career as a midshipman, ends after his release from a Spanish prison in 1797, several months before the battle.
Hornblower interacts with a number of historical officers, such as Sir Edward Pellew and Admiral Cornwallis, over the course of his career.
Played straight, though not world-shakingly, by the creation of a fictional Wellesley named Barbara whom Hornblower romances and eventually marries, making the Duke of Wellington his brother-in-law.
Blatant Lies: Napoleon's propeganda announcement decrying Hornblower as a pirate in Flying Colours.
Bowdlerise: Done in-universe in Hotspur, when Bush has to resign himself to calling the hapless midshipmen from the Naval Academy "young gentleman" rather than swearing at them, in view of Hornblower's preferences.
Byronic Hero: Hornblower is an honorable, dutiful, and humble man who acts with great courage under fire. However, he's also a brooding, melancholic mess whose view of himself is often actual self-loathing, often shocked that people might care about him. Underneath his stoic facade is a world-class worry wort, and his courage under fire (in spite of his fears) is matched only by his cowardice in matters of the heart. He's also tone-deaf and never gets over seasickness, much to his humiliation.
Canon Discontinuity: C. S. Forester himself discouraged reprinting of the short stories The Hand of Destiny, The Bad Semaritan and Hornblower and His Majesty because of the continuity snarlThe Hand of Destiny caused (the capture of the Castilla and the powder burns to Hornblower's hand). All three were included in a biography of C. S. Forester, but it is incredibly rare, but can be found here.
The Captain: Guess who. Bush is eventually promoted captain at the end of Flying Colours, in keeping with the odd custom of complimenting distinguished captains by promoting their first lieutenants (mostly out of the inability to promote the captains themselves).
Catch Phrase: "Ha... h'm." Lady Barbara's teasing compels him to stop after he marries her.
Hornblower is himself a great fan of the game of whist, and will often play it to pass the time during stressful situations, such as during a Stern Chase, giving him something to think about other than things he currently can't control. Forester often describes the games in great detail.
In Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, Hornblower finds an opportunity to challenge his tormentor to a duel when the latter angrily implies that Hornblower is cheating (in front of officers from another ship) and then pointedly refuses to apologize.
Casual Danger Dialog: The protracted discussion between Bush and another lieutenant in Beat to Quarters, where they academically debate how the Natividad's officers are laying their guns... while they are shooting at the Lydia. Hornblower, who is trying to concentrate (and slightly envious), eventually tells them to knock it off.
Characterization Marches On: Hornblower is also a lot more ill-tempered and choleric in the first book published than in the books first in chronology, although that can be rationalized by being older and more cynical.
Chekhov's Gun: The set of double barrelled, rifled, percussion pistols Lady Barbara gives Hornblower at the beginning of The Commodore. One is stolen by his Finnish interpreter, Braun, who attempts to assassinate both Czar Alaxander and the King of Sweden at a banquet, for vengence over the conquest of Finland; he chose Hornblower's, which were likely the only of their kind in Eastern Europe, because they were very accurate, wouldn't misfire, and had two shots. Hornblower puts everything together (after remembering seeing the pistol in Braun's waist while embarking the boat to the palace which he forgot in the excitement), and stops him in time. He also retrives the stolen pistol.
Cigar Chomper: Hornblower, at least in the earlier novels. In The Happy Return, he is so overjoyed he almost forgot to hide it at El Supremo's offer to supply him with several hundred cigars rolled in El Supremo's "domain" in Nicaragua of Havana tobacco, and relfects to himself that the last cigar he had was a rather mild Virginia cigar, and in The Commodore, Lady Barbara includes several boxes of Jamaican cigars in the supplies she gives him for his mission in the Baltic, which Hornblower smokes after most meals.
The actual practise of impressment was strictly limited to homebound merchant crews and only during wartime, with exemptions for East Indiamen and coal ships. The admiralty, in fact, hated impressment more than anyone, including those affected (who, being legally limited to merchant sailors, considered it an occupational hazard), and only used it because there was no other viable option. Criminals were offered a pardon in exchange for service, although more often than not they were rejected by the Navy, for obvious reasons. Aside from there only being two instinces of actual press gangs (in which the officers responsible were severely punished), any officer who pressed a tradesman, farmer, or anyone with an exemption was in deep trouble.
Hornblower (illegally) presses outbound East India Company sailors who were legally exempt in Ship of the Line, and he also releases French prisoners he'd promised freedom in Flying Colours.
Dead Sidekick: Hornblower sees the loss of several protégés: Wellard in Lieutenant Hornblower, Longley in Ship of the Line, Mound in The Commodore, and finally, Bush himself.
Death Seeker: In the very first Midshipman story, Hornblower feels that getting shot dead in his duel would be equally as desirable as victory, because both outcomes mean he doesn't have to deal with his tormentor anymore.
Deliberate Values Dissonance: England in the 1800s was chock-full of racism, sexism, classism, and general disdain for anyone not white and British. Take a shot every time you see the word Dago or Frog! Then get a new liver.
Deus ex Machina: Played with by having the DXMs usually be actual historical events. If the series was an entirely original work, people would doubtless complain about the author pulling them from his unmentionables.
Dirty Coward: Seaman Grimes, from Hotspur. More sad and pathetic than evil, though.
Dramatic Irony: Hornblower spends a good portion of Commodore worrying about Napoleon's unstoppable advance into Russia. Any moderately knowledgeable reader knows that did not work out so well.
Dressing as the Enemy: Hornblower's ruse flying the French tricolour in Ship of the Line, and later when Hornblower himself dresses as a Dutch customs officer in his escape from France.
Drink Order: Contrary to the common English stereotype, Hornblower prefers to drink coffee rather than tea, or at least whatever passes for coffee depending on supplies (in one book, the coffee is described as being made with crushed burnt bread, with enough sugar to mask the taste.) This was possibly because most of the readers of the Hornblower series were American. Or alternatively, because tea was expensive and Hornblower was poor. Some consideration though should also be given to the hypothesis that Forester knew enough history to be very well aware that coffee was enormously fashionable in England for many years, and London in particular was lousy with coffee-houses in the 1700s.
Dropped a Bridge on Him: Bush dies offscreen while leading a raid on a French munitions stockpile, with no foreshadowing for it whatsoever, after having gone through most of the series at Hornblower's side. And he's not the only one. Several likeable characters die entirely off-screen. Because it's a war.
Duel to the Death: An accepted practice at the time the books take place, which allows Hornblower to challenge a bullying midshipman during his first voyage. He asks one gun be loaded and the other not so as to compensate for his dubious aiming skills. However, challenging a higher-ranking officer is illegal (for obvious reasons).
Early Installment Weirdness: Readers following the series in chronological order rather than publishing order may scratch their heads when the opening paragraph of Beat to Quarters, the first published book, suggests that Lt. Bush has only just gotten to know Captain Hornblower in the last few months.
Earn Your Happy Ending: The short story "The Last Encounter" is set after Hornblower's retirement at the rank of Admiral with his son grown and successful, comfortably settled with his wife Barbara and, finally, content to be content with himself.
Embarrassing Nickname: His first wife Maria calls him "Horry", much to his dismay. In the midst of a battle, an unidentified member of Hornblower's crew refers to him as "Old Horny", but the officers are unable to figure out which sailor said it.
Everybody Knew Already: Hornblower's sea sickness, which he goes out of his way to keep secret from his men. It takes him years to figure out that his officers and crew are plainly aware of it, and simply choose not to comment on it out of respect.
Fair for Its Day: Invoked with Hornblower's general worldview. He can be quite racist at times, as well as sexist, but he also expresses some anti-slavery sentiments and doesn't share the Navy's general fondness for A Taste of the Lash.
Hornblower is acutely aware of how his every move will appear, which is strange, because this is the book that started the genre. Hilariously, he has trouble believing anyone could like him, despite evidence to the contrary. Even when he does believe it, he finds some way to make himself rationalize or downplay it.
In Hotspur, his ship is being fired upon by shore artillery. He hears noise aloft, and a howitzer shell falls to the deck at his feet. He takes a fraction of an instant to realize that there's about a quarter-inch left on the fuse before he hurries to extinguish it. When he stands up, he sees everyone on the deck staring at him, and realizes he's about to become Shrouded in Myth.
He has his men dance the hornpipe during a long battle specifically because it will keep morale up. The narration goes on to describe how the battle would become legendary because of it. It also describes how one man kept dancing even after someone's brains were smashed out by a cannon ball and blown onto him.
Guile Hero: Horatio steps into this role at different points over his career, but the guiliest would probably be Lieutenant Hornblower. His rank is thoroughly unremarkable (fourth lieutenant), but he's able to persuade his superiors to implement pretty much all of his plans.
In Flying Colours, Hornblower sees an American ship and thinks it inevitable that they'll have to give up their neutrality soon—the only question is if they'll fight Napoleon or if they'll decide to have another go at the British.
Basically any well-known historical event can be seen that way. Such as when Hornblower is involved in a naval action off Cape Trafalgar in 1805 in "Crisis".
Honor Before Reason: Deconstructed, as Hornblower is profoundly aware of the difference between the right thing to do and the logical thing to do. On several occasions, he's actually dickered over courses of action, then justifiably angsted afterward.
Played straight in a couple of Midshipman stories, where he feels obligated to request staying aboard the Justinian rather than transfer to the Indefatigable, even though it would basically kill his career before it started, and when he refuses to take credit for stopping a privateer to punish himself for losing his damaged prize vessel.
I Can Still Fight: In Lord Hornblower, Hornblower loses his temper when Bush and his other officers suggest that he take it easy after his medical leave for the case of typhus that knocked him out at the end of Commodore, but he apologizes for the outburst a moment later.
I Just Shot Marvin in the Face - There are a handful of gun-handling failures throughout the series. At one point, Hornblower narrowly remembers to put his fllintlock on half-cock before putting it into his belt, which would likely have blown his genitals off.
In-Series Nickname: "Horny" Hornblower, as well as the various other real-life officers with nicknames.
Ironic Birthday: Hornblower was born on the 4th of July 1776, the same day as the United States, which is remarked upon a few times.
Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Bush is a hardass who brooks no incompetence or disrespect and doesn't question the Navy's draconian discipline, but he takes the first watch after he and his men have gone over a day without sleeping, gives nearly all his pay to his sisters and mother, and extends subtle kindness to Wellard after he's beaten without cause.
Late Arrival Spoiler: The fourth book wasn't completed by Forrester before his death, and has two short stories, from Hornblower's midshipman days and retirement, added to it. This means that if you flip to the wrong page, you now know Hornblower marries Lady Barbara.
The Laws And Customs Of War: In Flying Colours, Napoleon sentences Hornblower and Bush in absentia to be executed for a Dressing as the Enemy maneuver performed in Ship of the Line (There were several precedents that proved what they did was legal; courts conducted in absentia are also a violation of the defendants rights. Napoleon didn't care; he needed a propaganda coup). Hornblower later mentions that Napoleon put a "quite flattering" bounty on his head.
Lightning Bruiser: Bush in Lieutenant Hornblower, who is described as immensely strong and lightfooted.
Lost Episode: The short stories, namely The Hand of Destiny, Hornblower and His Majesty and The Bad Samaritan. Because of the Continuity Snarl caused by The Hand of Destiny and Hornblower and the Atropos, Forester discouraged their reprinting. Fortunately, scaryfangirl.com has found them, as well as the (increasingly rare) biography of C. S. Forester they were published in.
Made of Explodium: Black powder. This was Truth in Television; men who worked in the powder stores even had to wear slippers because a spark from a nailed shoe could send them sky-high.
Meaningful Name: Inverted. Horatio Hornblower is absolutely tone-deaf, unable, on at least one occasion, to recognize even "God Save the King."
Obstructive Bureaucrat: The Royal Navy might be the greatest enemy besides Napoleon. During the Peace of Amiens, they refuse to confirm his promotion to commander and then put him under pay stoppage for months because he has to "repay" the commander's salary he drew, forcing him to pawn or sell anything valuable he owns and support himself entirely by playing whist. In Hotspur they try to reprimand him for using too much stuff while he's on the front lines of blockade duty; Cornwallis tells him not to worry about it.
Officer and a Gentleman: It takes Hornblower some time after his promotion to captaincy to achieve the gentleman part, as he rarely has any prize money with which to supplement his pay.
Oh Crap: Numerous, but one particularly large one happens during the incident mentioned in Chekhov's Gun, once Hornblower realizes the Czar, with whom he is supposed to form an alliance, is about to be shot by Hornblower's own aide with Hornblower's own pistol. Cue giant flashing CAREER DEATH alert.
Painting The Medium: Hornblower thinks of Bush as having little imagination. Lieutenant follows Bush instead of Hornblower, and there's a profound lack of Hornblower's usual metaphors and similes, especially when compared to Atropos.
Parental Substitute: Inverted. Bush loves Hornblower like a son, even if he's too out-of-touch with his own emotions to realize it. When they first served together, this was more of Big Brother Instinct for Bush.
Plucky Middie: There are several capable young midshipmen. However, any time you meet one, there's about a 75% chance of them dying. The more endearing they are, the more likely this is.
Others, like Midshipman Simpson, are just the opposite. At 33 and having failed so many times that he's more than halfway to an automatic promotion to Lieutenant at age fifty (something of an Epic Fail by itself - most passed on their first or second attempts after only three or four years at sea), he would have better served the Navy as an Ordinary Seaman.
Subverted. Hornblower is usually unlucky in the matter of prize money, and has a dislike for the entire system. He doesn't mention this in front of others, though, and is aware that his views would likely be different once he won a prize. It does in Ship of the Line, when he takes nearly a dozen prizes, and escapes back to England in Flying Colours with The Witch of Endor, a Royal Navy cutter captured by the French a year earlier.
Played straight by the French at the beginning of Flying Colours. They even strip the gold off of his sword, and the brasswork from the Sutherland. They also gorge themselves on the unappatizing rations and drink themselves into a stupor on the ship's rum and beer stores.
Popcultural Osmosis: You've probably encountered the tropes this series popularized long before you ever heard of the series itself.
Privateer: There are numerous encounters with them. The ship's entire mission in Lieutenant Hornblower is to incapacitate a Spanish privateer base in Haiti.
Punishment Box: In Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, Hornblower, while being held prisoner in Spain, is placed into a small hole in the ground covered by a grate. The hole has neither room to stand upright or lie down, forcing the prisoner to crouch uncomfortably while exposed to the elements.
Purple Prose: Invoked in Beat to Quarters when Hornblower thinks of the morning light on the ocean as "argent and azure," and then realizes he's used the exact same mental phrasing every day for the past two weeks.
The Quiet One: Hornblower is naturally inclined towards shyness and maintains a deliberate reserve beyond what would be typically expected of a captain, and despises what he calls "unnecessary words."
Refuge in Audacity: At one time Hornblower scares away a Spanish ship bigger then his by sailing towards it to while signalling to his nonexistent backup.
Retcon: Hornblower's age in Beat to Quarters, set in 1808, is given as 37, and his exact birthdate is stated by Word Of God as June 11, 1771. Mr. Midshipman Hornblower changes it to July 4, 1776, so his career could start just before the French Revolution instead of peacetime. There's also the story of how he received powder burns on his hand and the capturing of the Spanish ship Castilla. Forester overwrote the events of the short stories in the novels, later discouraged their reprinting. See Series Continuity Error below.
Royally Screwed Up: Practically all non-British nobility, royalty, and other civilian leadership. Examples that embody this trope include The Marquis of Pouzauges from Midshipman and "El Supremo"*
admittedly only "royal" in his own delusional mind
Not in the series, but on this wiki; Honor Harrington is frequently described as Horatio Hornblower IN SPACE!
Bush rubbing his hands together when pleased.
Hornblower's seasickness when setting out to sea after a long period on land.
Series Continuity Error: How Hornblower received the powder burns on his hand and, subsequently, the capture of the Spanish ship Castilla. Even which hand is burned is inconsistant. In Beat to Quarters, he mentions his right hand was burned during the Castilla's capture while he was a lieutenant, yet in the short story The Hand of Destiny, which details the capture while he's a lieutenant, it's his left hand that's burned, and Hornblower and the Atropos, in which he's a post captain in command of the 20 gun Atropos (a post ship, the smallest ship to warrent a post of full captain), he aids in the capture of the Castilla in a completely different action from what's described in The Hand of Destiny, and doesn't receive a powder burn to his hand.
Shout Out: Hornblower shares his first name with Lord Nelson.
Shower Scene: In Lieutenant Hornblower, Hornblower decides to have a shower on deck. It's described in great detail: the hoseman pumping a stream of water on him, him casting a towel aside, standing there naked in the sunshine, an amused crowd gathering to watch and Bush's musings that it might be pleasurable despite being unhealthy.
Shown Their Work: The books are exceptionally well-researched in terms of understanding naval matters and the period. It's relatively easy to miss that this was written as historical fiction.
El Spanish O: There are a number of occasions where British sailors and officers gamely attempt to communicate with Spanish, French, or Italian people (either their prisoners, or their erstwhile allies, depending on what is going on) by speaking slowly and adding vowels to the ends of their words. It generally doesn't work.
Spirited Young Lady: Although she's out of the 16 - 25 age bracket, Lady Barbara Wellesley fits all the other qualifications. She's traveling without a male companion, doesn't mind the tiny accommodations, and is basically described as being so capable that it aggravates Hornblower, who thinks that a properly feminine woman should at least be a little incompetent. His opinion changes significantly by book's end.
Squick: In-Universe, Hornblower has a little bit of this when he cuts a wedding cake with his sword because his sword had cut other things before.
Stealth Insult / Snark-to-Snark Combat: Hornblower's conversation with his brother-in-law Richard Wellesley in The Commodore. Hornblower will have a translator, but it will be his problem how the translator is rated on the books, to which Richard adds, "I believe that's what it's called". Hornblower calls him by his Christian name, which he is entitled to use as brother-in-law, and calls Richard a "master of all trades" just to annoy him by insinuating the Marquis was in a trade. Wellessley makes an equally snarky comment, and Hornblower gives up, deciding it was just too difficult because Richard was so good at it.
Stiff Upper Lip: Horatio acts like he has one, even if he's panicking on the inside. This is also one of Bush's key traits—at one point he muses that having to endure injustice (such as being beaten without cause) in a world that is essentially unjust is an essential part of growing up.
Tap on the Head: Averted in one of the Midshipman stories. During a cutting-out expedition, when stealth is key, Hornblower has to silence an epileptic sailor and thumps him quite hard with the boat's tiller; he is almost certain that he he killed the man by doing so. The boat is later set adrift somehow during the fight, meaning that even if he wasn't killed by the hit, he would have certainly died at sea.
Tempting Fate: Near the end of "Midshipman", Hornblower attends a banquet where a toast is made to the hope of the Spanish fleet leaving Cadiz. Hornblower is also ordered to convey a Duchess to England in a small sloop. Guess what fleet he sails right into the middle of?
Unbuilt Trope: Even in what's arguably the flagship of the Wooden Ships and Iron Men genre, Hornblower is brilliant captain, and a frequently self-doubting man who has difficulty remembering or believing that people actually like him.
Unwanted Harem: Marie (not Maria) points out that he is a very easy man for women to love but a man who finds it hard to love in return. She's mostly right.
Unwanted Spouse: Horatio essentially marries Maria out of guilt because he can't bear to hurt her feelings when she throws herself at him. He spends as much time as possible avoiding her at sea and finds writing letters to her to be a chore.
Unfortunate Name: Hornblower regards his name as pompous and ludicrous, and avoids using it whenever possible, preferring to sign his personal (as opposed to official) correspondence with a discreet 'H'.
Viewers Are Geniuses: Don't know a halyard from a hawse-hole, a maintop from a mizzenmast, or a sea-anchor from a sea-cucumber? Good luck!
War Is Hell: Forester goes out of his way to describe what happens to men who are hit by cannonballs, then what happens to them when they visit the surgeon, and then the funeral. Not to mention the weevils and bad water.