Horatio Hornblower

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A series of stories of a British member of the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Written by C.S. Forester.

Hornblower goes from midshipman to admiral, and from commoner to lord, over the course of the stories, which were written out of chronological order. They lack the exquisitely detailed sailing lore of the Aubrey-Maturin series, which may make them more accessible to the average reader.

The character of Horatio Hornblower was inspired by the career of real-life Thomas Cochrane.


The inspiration for such modern works as:

  • A little-known series called Star Trek has been described as "Horatio Hornblower IN SPACE!".
  • The Hugo and Nebula nominated science fiction work, The Mote In God's Eye.
  • 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.
  • Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series. Takes place during the same time frame as Horatio Hornblower. Not sci-fi.
  • Dudley Pope's Ramage series. It's mentioned that Ramage and Hornblower were junior officers on the same ship for a time (Pope and Forester were friends). Not sci-fi.
  • Alexander Kent's Richard Bolitho series. Not sci-fi.
  • The Sharpe series of novels and TV movies, starring a soldier in the Napoleonic wars, sort of a land-based equivalent of Hornblower.
  • The Gaunt's Ghosts series of Warhammer 40,000 tie-in novels, being based on Sharpe, are thus in turn based on Hornblower.

Tropes used in Horatio Hornblower include:
  • Accidental Truth: Hornblower tells one of these about Napoleon's death (and beats himself up about it).
  • Anachronic Order: Quarters, Line, Colours, Commodore, Lord, Midshipman, Lieutenant, Atropos, West Indies, Hotspur, Crisis (unfinished)
    • In chronological order, these are books 6-10, 1-2, 5, 11, 3-4.
  • Anyone Can Die: Hornblower himself, obviously, makes it to the end of the series. There are no guarantees against anyone else being killed or seriously injured.
  • An Arm and a Leg: During the climax of Flying Colours, Lt. Bush loses a leg.
  • Author Existence Failure: Crisis was left unfinished when Forrester died.
  • Authority Equals Asskicking
  • 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
    • Badass Bookworm: Hornblower is a seadog who uses math skills and meticulous research.
  • Badass Army: The Royal Navy
  • Battle Butler: Brown was originally Hornblower's Coxswain, became his servant, 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.
  • Boarding Party
  • But I Read a Book About It: Hornblower considers constant research both a duty and a pleasure. It enhances his Badass Bookworm status.
  • 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 humility verges on 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.
  • The Captain
  • Catch Phrase: "Ha... h'm." Lady Barbara's teasing compels him to stop after he marries her.
  • Card Games: 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. The duel is Subverted by the ship's surgeon, who does not load either pistol.
  • Child Soldiers: Midshipmen and powder boys.
  • Cliff Hanger: The ending of Flying Colors and Ship of the Line.
  • Conscription: The vast majority of seamen on British ships are conscripts dragged from their homes and family-supporting livelihoods by press gangs or criminals given a pardon if they join the King's service. Hornblower presses merchantmen who were supposed to be exempt in Ship of the Line, and he also turns over prisoners he'd promised freedom in Flying Colours.
  • Death by Childbirth: Maria, with Richard, their third child.
  • Death of the Hypotenuse: Admiral Leighton and Maria Hornblower die in Flying Colours, and Marie Ladon is killed in Lord Hornblower.
  • 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.
  • Die for Our Ship: Maria and Lady Barbara's husband. In-universe.
  • 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 Boney gets his rear handed to him by the Russian winter. Though the Russian Czar basically flipping him and his entire invasion off ("Surrender? Never.") helped too.
  • Dressing as the Enemy
  • 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: More on the trope page.
  • During the War: Set during the Napoleonic Wars.
  • Eagle Squadron: In Admiral Hornblower and the West Indies Hornblower is on policing duties in the West Indies. In one of the best of its several short stories, while guarding British neutrality in the Latin American Wars of Independence, he matches wits with a millionaire of British/South American parentage who sets himself up as a privateer and gunrunner for Simon Bolivar's army. Interestingly he is one of Hornblower's more likable opponents and also, though not a professional officer one of the few that is almost as cunning as he is.
  • 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.
  • Fancy Dinner: The first time that Hornblower attended a formal Russian dinner as a flag officer (in chapter XII of The Commodore), he makes the mistake through inexperience of eating far too many of the canapes and drinking far too much of the alcohol that his hosts served before the meal. He manages to soldier through the entire dinner.
  • A Father to His Men: Not Hornblower, Sir Edward Pellew.
  • Genre Savvy: 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.
  • Good with Numbers: Hornblower is very good with numbers.
  • The Gump: 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. This was to avoid any mention of the War of 1812 between the British and the USA, which was ongoing in the time period of the book. The stories themselves were written 1937 to 1967. Avoiding any hint of conflict between the RN and the USA was a priority.
    • He never becomes admiral himself until peace. In Commodore Hornblower it is implied that he helped bring about the invasion of Russia and thus the downfall of Napoleon. In the (unfinished) Hornblower and the Crisis he helps lure the enemy into the Battle of Trafalgar with a false message.
  • Having a Gay Old Time: Invoked by the author. Every time someone is apparently racist toward French, Spaniards, Italians, or anyone not White and British, take a shot.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Horatio's ship at the end of Flying Colors.
    • Not to mention Bush blowing up the powder barge.
  • 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.
  • Ho Yay - Between Hornblower and Bush.
    • In the 1951 movie it seems to be just about every man in the British Navy towards Hornblower, apart from Lady Barbara's husband.
  • 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.
  • Improbable Age - Inverted, since Hornblower, when the series begins, is improbably OLD to be a beginning midshipsman. He is in his late teens, while his messmates went to sea at age 12 or thereabouts.
  • Indy Ploy - Hornblower has to make plans up as he goes along to get out of the various scrapes he gets into.
  • 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.
  • 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: Horatio and his boarding team capture a heavy French frigate in An Even Chance, and use it to sail back to their mother ship, who is currently under attack by three French corvettes with only half of their crew on board to fight back (the other half being part of Hornblower's boarding team). They notice that, as they advance, they are not taken under fire by the corvettes. They wonder why, but then notice that they forgot to take down the French Colours after taking the ship. Horatio orders the flags to stay up, seeing what a great strategic advantage they have, although he knows what a blatant offence it is against the standard customs of fighting of the time[1]. Yet his plan works, and they infiltrate the small French fleet unhindered. However it should be noted that Your Mileage May Vary, seeing how the French sailors of the corvettes run onto the open decks to celebrate the arrival of an alleged heavily-armed ally to finish off the British flagship. A wink of an eye later the jubilant French are blown apart by grapeshot.
    • In Flying Colours, Napoleon wants Hornblower and Bush executed for a similar Dressing as the Enemy maneuver performed in Ship of the Line. (There were several precedents that said what they did was legal. Napoleon didn't care; he needed a propaganda coup.)
  • Meaningful Name: Inverted. Horatio Hornblower is absolutely tone-deaf, unable, on at least one occasion, to recognize even "God Save the King".
  • Mutual Kill
  • Napoleonic Wars
  • Nerves of Steel: Hornblower has these.
  • Never Give the Captain a Straight Answer: Inverted. Hornblower doesn't tell his men his plans so it looks better if he succeeds. It works.
  • Nicknaming the Enemy: Frenchmen are always referred to as Frogs. Napoleon is often called "Boney".
  • Noble Fugitive: The German Prince serving as a Plucky Middie in Hornblower and the Atropos.
  • The Not-Secret: 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.
  • The Obi-Wan: Pellew, though more in the TV series than in the books.
  • Obnoxious In-Laws: Mrs. Mason. "His Nibs," the Marquis Wellesley.
  • Officer and a Gentleman
  • Painting the Fourth Wall: 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.
  • Plucky Middie: Subverted. Any time you meet one, there's about a 75% chance of them dying. The more endearing they are, the more likely this is.
    • Played straight a few times too depending on which Plucky Middie you are talking about.
  • Plunder: 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.
    • Played straight by the French at the beginning of Flying Colours.
  • Popcultural Osmosis: You've probably encountered the tropes this series popularized long before you ever heard of the series itself.
  • Privateer
  • 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.
    • The same hole appears in the Hornblower telefilm The Duchess and the Devil.
  • Recycled in Space: Got recycled as Honor Harrington and others, as seen above.
  • 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.
  • 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"[2] from Quarters. Worst of all, these are England's allies.
  • Running Gag: 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, and Hornblower's seasickness when setting out to sea after a long period on land.
  • Shown Their Work
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The Strategist: Hornblower always comes up with clever schemes.
  • 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 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.
    • 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.
  • Values Dissonance: Racism toward...well practically everyone who is not British is taken for granted. Americans get a pass the few times they appear, because of course a lot of readers are Americans.
  • 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.
  • Wooden Ships and Iron Men - The books are a fairly pure distillation of this trope, most adaptations somewhat less so.
  1. That depends. Sailing under false colours was a legitimate ruse de guerre The correct colours had to be run up before opening fire.
  2. admittedly only "royal" in his own delusional mind