The Vocational Novels of CS Forester

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As a literature teacher, a large part of my reading consisted of preparing to teach my classes or follow my discipline. So a few years ago, I decided to make a point of reading also for pleasure, in order to remember why I started this profession in the first place.

My problem is that as a literature teacher my standards are high so the pleasure of reading has to be really well written. the Aubrey / Maturin Patrick O’Brian’s series met my criteria, and after reading all these wonderful seaside novels, I wanted more. So I turned to the 10-pounder Horn Saga through CS Forestier. In many ways, I liked these novels even better than O’Brian’s, with their brooding, introverted, self-doubtful yet still brilliantly succeeding hero, gripping action scenes, and twisty storylines.

Forester is also the author of The good shepherd, a WWII story of a destroyer captain whose job it is to guide merchant ships across the Atlantic and fight off German submarines that attempt to sink them. The novel is of particular interest to many readers of this blog because its central character is one of the few fully realized Lutherans in English literature, and Lutheranism is developed in detail and sympathetically portrayed.

In the midst of his mission filled with tension and outbreaks of fighting, Commander George Krause prays, reads his Bible, and uses Luther’s devotions. As we penetrate his mind and perspective, we find verses of Scripture still popping up in his head and that he is constantly struggling with the meaning of his sin and his limits on his faith. (Luther called this kind of spiritual test Anfechtungen.)

I appreciate my fellow blogger Patheos Chris Gehrz for reminding me of this novel in his article The good shepherd. He discusses the recent film version of Forester’s novel, The Greyhound, with Tom Hanks. I don’t have Apple TV +, where it’s streaming, so I haven’t seen the movie. So I am grateful to Professor Gehrz for his comparison of the film with the book and for his thoughtful analysis of both.

As you might expect, the film toned down the book’s religious emphasis, but Lutheranism is still there. Commander Krause (his name changed to Ernie, for some reason), pray Luther’s morning and evening prayers and says grace before his meals, which are always interrupted. There’s a little bit on a picture of Jesus that he has in his quarters. But, as Professor Gehrz says, it is nothing compared to what is found in the novel, as he illustrates.

One detail he cites particularly struck me. In the film, Commander Krause stops his pursuit of a German submarine in order to retrieve the survivors of a previous attack. But in the novel, he doesn’t! The film obviously interprets Commander Krause’s faith in terms of conventional Christian piety and good works. But the destroyer’s captain apparently read Luther’s treatise If soldiers can also be saved. Serving in the army is indeed, says Luther, a rightful call from God, a sphere in which a Christian can love and serve his neighbor, even when it requires fighting and killing.

It made me realize that the larger theme in The good shepherd is vocation. Through all the difficult choices that Commander Krause must make, in all of his struggles, bravery and heroism, he pledges to do his duty. He would have learned to do it in the Small Catechism, who teaches vocation in his Homework Board.

This, in turn, made me realize that the Hornblower saga is also about vocation! The ten novels follow Horatio Hornblower’s entire career, from a young aspirant, to his rise to the rank of lieutenant, to commanding his first ship, to becoming captain, then captain of ever larger ships, then commodore in charge. of several ships, then an admiral, and finally retired, in which he has his most remarkable encounter with his enemy. At each step, he must figure out how to fulfill his new role, overcome obstacles and gain a new understanding of what it means to do his duty.

Most striking is what we see in Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, in which Horatio is an inexperienced teenager suddenly raised to the authority of an officer of the Royal Navy, the lowest echelon, of course, but he finds himself in charge of rough and rowdy adult sailors, having to command those of whom he has the charge, which implies winning them over to his leadership. In doing so, and as he comes under the intimidation of his fellow aspirants and engages in combat, we see Horatio developing a quality crucial to military vocations, a sense of honor.

A good collection to show the development of this sense of vocation is the Young Omnibus Horn Ringer, which includes the first three novels in the series: Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, Lieutenant horn blower, and Horn Ringer and the Hotspur (his first commandment). Later, the Hornblower books contain non-explicit adultery and other adult material, but these early books strike me as appropriate for teens, especially teens, who will identify with and love them. And it will be the same for anyone who wants to read for fun, while learning something.

Photo: CS Forester, by source, fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33436168

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