Sunday, June 16, 2013
Captain Blood: His Odyssey
Sabatini's Captain Blood: His Odyssey is a defining book for the swashbuckling buccaneer genre. I wish I'd read it as a kid, but I think I got more out of it as an adult. There is a lot of derring-do and high adventure, but there is also a good bit of history.
Peter Blood, adventurer, soldier, and physician, is caught up in the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685 and railroaded into a conviction of treason. The charges are spurious, at best, but given the political climate of the times, very little is needed to have Blood packed off into slavery in the Caribbean. Blood is given more latitude due to his expertise as a doctor, but it's still a dreary, harsh, and often arbitrarily cruel existence.
When the Spanish raid Barbados, Blood and a number of other slaves take the opportunity to make an escape. They seize the Spanish ship and off they go, with Blood's experience as a captain earlier in his career making him the natural skipper. Eventually, Blood's daring and ingenuity make him the scourge of the Spanish in the Caribbean, and beloved by buccaneers.
Along the way, Blood makes a number of enemies, from Colonel Bishop, who owned Blood as a slave, to a family of Spanish admirals. He makes a few friends, including Colonel Bishop's beautiful niece, Arabella, but he is destined to suffer from a series of romantic misunderstandings with her and a fellow suitor that will almost bring him and much of the British-ruled Caribbean to ruin.
There is a lot of fun here, with Blood leading raids and fighting off attackers almost non-stop, except for months of lazing around Tortuga or Jamaica, often feeling sorry for himself because of being scorned by Arabella. He also walks a tightrope between being a buccaneer preying upon the Spanish without being technically a British agent, and outright piracy. He briefly enters into the service of both the English and the French at different times, but both times he is faced with superiors so ludicrously villainous that he soon finds ways that his contracts with them have been violated, and thus, null and void. Colonel Bishop is one of those superiors, and is so wrapped up in his desire for revenge on Blood for escaping slavery, that he spends a good bit of his time as governor of Jamaica thinking of ways to hang Blood rather than doing anything productive.
George MacDonald Fraser provides an interesting introduction to the book I have, taking us back to his days as a Scottish schoolboy discovering Sabatini's book and being transported by it. Fraser is, of course, best-known for his Flashman books, about one of the worst poltroons I've ever read about. Although Peter Blood is a heroic character, always ready to risk death for what is right, one can discern Sabatini's influence on Fraser's writing, mostly in how deftly both authors wove the exploits of their characters around and through historical events.
That's N.C. Wyeth's artwork on the cover, which is the same painting that graced early editions of the book in 1922. Wyeth's work is always interesting, and in this case, it's easy to see where Errol Flynn's look came from when he played the title role of the 1935 movie of the book.
The book alternates between lighteartedness and some rather grim events, giving it a jarring, dichotomous feel. Also, major characters die "offstage" at times, making the demise of some of Blood's most persistent antagonists and faithful companions frustratingly anticlimactic. The ending of the book itself is oddly, and ambiguously, ominous, casting a shadow on what might have been a happy resolution. All of these things sound like I found them to be detriments, but I ended up finding them adding to the mystique of the book. There was something realistic about it all, with no character safe and some plot points left dangling, as often happens in real life. Sometimes life is messy and unresolved, and even Captain Blood cannot swashbuckle his way out of every grim situation...even ones he'd hoped for and found not as satisfying when he finally got his wish.