Great Books about Ships at Sea
People’s imaginations have always been captured by the dream of setting sail to faraway lands. Legends, songs, and stories have long reflected this romantic obsession with life aboard ship. Those who listened to fireside tales or opened the pages of an adventure novel set at sea didn’t do so to read about peaceful sunsets under palm trees. What people hoped for was hair-raising accounts of dire voyages, perilous crossings, monstrous sea creatures, or murderous piratical crew. Writers have done their best to satisfy this desire for as long as they have been putting pen to paper.
Or even before that. One of the earliest sea stories, the epic poem, The Odyssey, was recited, not written, by the blind poet Homer more than 2000 years ago. The Odyssey is the story of Odysseus, King of Ithaca, who after spending ten years away from home at the walls of Troy, sets sail for his home in Ithaca. Offending the sea god Poseidon, he is cursed on his return voyage, spending another ten years wandering treacherous seas, facing tricks of devious gods and attacks by horrendous sea creatures. Odysseus at one point famously lashed himself to the mast so that he could hear the song of the sirens without going mad as his crew sailed the ship with their ears plugged.
Madness and obsession is always a dangerous thing. Aboard ship, it can be life threatening. In Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s classic 1851 story of obsession and revenge, Captain Ahab sets sail from Nantucket in the Pequod, a 19th century whaling ship, to seek the great white whale, Moby Dick, who took Ahab’s leg in an earlier voyage. Considered one of the greatest American novels, Moby Dick is a study of human passion and obsession, as well a fascinating account of whaling life in 19th century New England.
The Pequod was featured again more recently, along with Ahab and his crew, in another novel – the brilliant Ahab’s Wife, by Sena Jeter Naslund. Told from the point of view of a young woman with a salty history of her own, it gives a different perspective of events aboard the doomed Pequod. In addition, Una, Ahab’s wife, has her own harrowing adventures aboard another whaling ship, where she poses as a boy in order to follow friends to sea, with dire consequences.
Sometimes boats serve as the catalyst for disaster. In Walter Farley’s classic children’s story The Black Stallion, the boy Alec meets the fiery stallion, Black, when traveling aboard a tramp steamer with his father. Alec shows the spirited Black simple kindness. When an explosion causes the ship to sink, the boy and horse must struggle for their lives in the open ocean at night.
Times of war have always provided an exciting backdrop for stories of courage and daring at sea, and luckily for writers and readers, sea battles have been waged for as long as man has set sail. Patrick O’Brien authored a beloved series of novels that are as salty and adventurous as they come. Set during the Napoleonic Wars, the novels, starting with Master and Commander, follow the naval career of lucky Jack Aubrey, and his ship’s doctor Stephen Maturin, who is also an agent of the British government
The books are chockfull of naval battles, deadly storms, perilous voyages, shipwrecks, intrigue, and wit. Over the course of the series, some twenty novels, the characters sail in the HMS Surprise and other ships, circumnavigating the globe, with countless salty adventures along the way.
One of the most famous pirate stories of all time is Treasure Island, written by Robert Louis Stevenson.Treasure Island is the story of young Jack Hawkins, who stumbles upon a pirates’ treasure map at his mother’s Inn. Setting out to search for the treasure with a few others, Hawkins and his friends hire the ship Hispaniola. To his horror, Hawkins finds that he has unknowingly set sail in a ship manned by bloodthirsty pirates. Treasure Island is a fantastic story, and children’s adventure classic.
A boat need not be a grand ship to be an important part of a story. A simple dory boat will sometime do. A great story of a man pitted against the elements, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, is about an old fisherman from Cuba, who, while fishing in a small open boat, manages to hook a big marlin on his hand line, and is towed out to sea by the fish. This is a powerful story told in Hemingway’s simple prose about man’s frailty in the face of the powerful forces of life.
Obsession, revenge, unlooked for friendship, treasure, pirates, and monster fish are just some of the fantastic elements that can be found in sea stories. Whether setting sail on a homemade raft down the Mississippi River with Huckleberry Finn; or on board a ship foundering in a storm of Shakespeare’s devising in The Tempest; novels set aboard ship offer an extra thrill – the thrill of the unknown and unpredictable element of life at sea.
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