Western Canon: The Sea-Hawk

December 6, 2016
1 min read

Rafael Sabatini was Italian/English writer that penned some of the best adventure novels of the late 19th century.
As a son of two opera singers turned teachers, he was exposed to the ins and outs of operatic story-telling.
By the time he was 17, he was learning his sixth language, English. He chose to write in English over any other language, because, he said, “all the best stories are written in English.”[1]
“The Sea Hawk” was written before Sabatini gained popularity with “Scaramouche” in 1921. In fact, it took him about 15 years of hard work before “Scaramouche” became a hit and his next novel “Captain Blood” was also a smashing success. His older works were then rushed into reprints to meet the demands of the market.
Rafael Sabatini’s writing is fast paced, full of heroes that are larger than life while still maintaining their humanity. Sir Oliver is just such a character. Sabatini builds him up, he falls due to his good nature combined with his faults and at the hand of his cowardly half-brother and begins his journey of transformation. Along the way we readers are treated to brave acts, swashbuckling, court intrigue, dastardly villains, fair maidens and adventure on the seas.
Sabatini is a master of setting scenes, creating conflict and drama, creating characters that are excellently drawn. Their actions align with their characters. It’s a thrill ride from page one until the last. The hero wins through his own pluck and verve with a dash of good fortune, gets the girl, and the villains get their comeuppance.
Sabatini is hardly known in these blighted times. While using Good Reads as a measuring stick isn’t precise, it’s good enough for my purposes. Looking at stats for a book close in tone and theme, “The Princess Bride”, it has an average rating of 4.25 from 615,303 ratings and 14,539 reviews.
Compare it to “The Sea-Hawk” 4.02 average rating with 2,274 ratings and 118 reviews.
Now, “The Princess Bride” is a fun book and a great movie, but it’s not as good as “The Sea-Hawk”. Sabatini is a better writer, knows pacing better, knows drama better, and knows action better. But he’s unknown today, and lesser writers are more popular.
It’s these sorts of novels that a Man of the West should also know as almost as much as the works by such luminaries as Plato, Shakespeare, Alighieri, Dickens. Sabatini gets to the heart of what drives men to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. He understands how to tell a story that celebrates manly virtues, cast against their opposites. There is good and evil in the story and you know which one is which.
Sabatini should be on the shelf of the well-read Man of the West because manly, swashbuckling adventures are always in style.
[1] https://infogalactic.com/info/Rafael_Sabatini


  1. Thanks for the recommendation. The Rafael Sabatini Mega-Pack of 20 books is free on Kindle. Includes The Sea Hawk, Scaramouche and Captain Blood.

  2. I think most people are more familiar with Errol Flynn’s portrayal of Captain Blood and the Captain in The Sea Hawk than the actual books involved. I know I am. But I have watched all three of the movies made of those books and they did them fantastically well.
    Dorothy Hamill even won her Olympic Gold by using the theme music IIRC, from these movies. The other thing people remember about these movies is Olivia DeHavilland as the leading lady in Captain Blood.

    • I’ve never seen the film, but I adventurered with Sakr el-Bahr via Sabatini’s excellent novels when I was a kid. Thanks for the reminder. I know several young men impatient for the next John Flanagan adventure who might enjoy The Sea Hawk.

      • Never seen the film TSH? That’s a accomplishment. It is however ‘different’ than the book, the titles are the same, that’s it.
        The movie is a lot of fun, totally stupid, but fun; repeating firelocks, models of Spanish galleons with fake oars stuck in the sides, Flynn sword-fighting against four men at a time (not one of whom thinks to get out of line and attack from the back or side!). And of course the beautiful Spanish noblewoman who falls in love with Flynn at first sight (well, that probably did happen).
        The movie is on Warner Archive.

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