Sometimes you see a movie and just have to read the book that inspired it. But with older books, you sometimes end up with mixed feelings. Perhaps you can see the genius that kept the work alive through the decades or centuries, and can appreciate it in its own right, but something about the original material doesn’t meet up with your modern expectations.
Take, for example, The Three Musketeers. Wonderful adventure adapted many times since film began, one that has become synonymous with adventure and daring-do. But if you’ve only read books written in the last fifty years, the first thing you discover is Alexander Dumas was paid by the word, and it shows. Had you read the adventure when it premiered you wouldn’t have minded. It was a different time with different tastes, and epic stories were first released in serial form. But today having a whole chapter dedicated to how the Musketeers bought their soldiering equipment and how much it cost them doesn’t quite work.
Rafael Sabatini, on the other hand, is a product of the modern age, at least in terms of literary sensibility. Born in 1875, he wrote prolifically from the turn of the century to his death in 1950. And when it comes to Captain Blood, it not only reads like an Errol Flynn movie, it was an Errol Flynn movie (1935).
Captain Blood was written in 1922, but you’d be forgiven if you’d thought it had been written much earlier. It has a flowery prose one associates with historical novels, and yet it’s less than half the length of The Three Musketeers. Its pace and cinematic imagery is clear and easily read like a modern novel, yet it wouldn’t feel out of place in Alexander Dumas’ time, either.
The title of the novel sounds comically overblown, like something a child writing GI Joe fanfic would dream up. Why not Jake Steelballs or Captain Badass? But don’t let that fool you.
Sabatini was the quintessential historical fiction writer, one who believed in basing his work as closely as possible to actual history. While Peter Blood is a fictional character, most of the events (and some of the characters) that shape the course of his adventures are real. And his name is no doubt inspired by Thomas Blood (who, like Peter, is Irish and a charismatic speaker) who daringly attempted to steal the Crown Jewels, yet somehow managed sweet talk his way into a pardon (and a title) from the king.
I say don’t let the title fool you, but it’s also fair to say not to let the opening chapter fool you, either. The story begins as far away from the Caribbean as possible, with a man whose adventuring days are behind him.
Peter Blood is a village doctor who’s settled down and uninterested in current politics. However, in short order he’s inadvertently caught up in the failed Monmouth Rebellion of 1865, is arrested and tried, and sent to Barbados to be sold as a slave. In time he escapes and ends up becoming a pirate, though an honourable one by all accounts.
There is also a romance tied into this high seas… er… romance, one that is reasonably well developed under the circumstances. While you won’t find any pirate queens swashing any buckles in these pages, Arabella Bishop is nevertheless a bold and interesting character. It’s a shame, though not a fault of the novel, that more time isn’t afforded to her.
Captain Blood certainly has had a huge impact on how Hollywood chose to portray pirates, from the flamboyant days of Errol Flynn right up to the Pirates of the Caribbean films (minus the supernatural element). Even more so than Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, this book portrays pirates the way we want to see them, both good and bad, and fleshes out the world they operate in. Deep down Blood is how most of us would want to behave if we were pirates ourselves. Good men done wrong, forced to take up a rebel life but still considering ourselves as fighting in the interests of our country, if not our king. But that doesn’t mean anyone else in Torguga behaves the same way.
Sabatini walks a fine line to keep Blood a moral man in charge of men who are not so moral, and is often faced with “civilized” men who are all-but-impossible to deal with. He has the wit and charm of a sober Jack Sparrow, or perhaps a Blackadder who isn’t a jerk. Odd comparisons, I know, but they do feel apt. Like those characters, he deals with stubborn men and fools with wit rather than steel. These conversations are at least as entertaining as any of the ship battles in its pages.
From a gamer’s perspective, this is an ideal novel for inspiration. I found myself loading up Sid Meier’s Pirates! again, simply because this book so vividly reminded me of it. And if anyone planned an RPG with a seafaring or piratey theme, this would get any player or GM in the mood.
Sabatini released two more Captain Blood books, both of which are collections of short stories that take place within the time frame of the first novel. If one were to combine all these stories chronologically you would no doubt have an epic of Dumas worthy length, but there is no need. Captain Blood is an excellent example of a novel that is just the right length, and satisfying from beginning to end.
Originally published in KODT #204