An Author's Notebook

In which the author shares reflections on the watery wilderness in Master and Commander.

An Author’s Notebook

Welcome, Dear Reader, to An Author’s Notebook, where I share notes from my week in reading and writing. Today, thinking in writing as I work on the Wilderness Essay.

The Wilderness of the Waves

“And though we be on the far side of the world, this ship is our home.”
- Captain Jack Aubrey

I recently rewatched the Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany movie, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. (Who knows how many viewings this makes.)

Adapted by drawing from a few of Patrick O’Brian’s rightly famous volumes, this is the story of a British warship of the Napoleonic era, the Surprise, hunting the Acheron – a much larger and more heavily armed French privateer – into the waters of South America.

As I was watching, the first thing that struck me was the ingenuity of these men of the ship. Wood, cloth, rope, oakum, nails – all holding together this little world far out beyond the shores of England. All the fruits of ingenuity and invention.

But beyond materials, one sees the skills of navigation and shiphandling (“That’s seamanship, Mr. Pullings. By God, that’s seamanship”), gunnery and battle cunning (“I never realized that the study of nature could advance the science of naval warfare”), and leadership.

As the film progresses to violence, I feel the primalness of it all: Cannons boom and smoke, men and wood break and splinter, blood soaks the planks. In the bowels of the ship, the carpenter, Mr. Lamb, stands up to his waist in rising water, struggling to plug holes. Shirtless, lean, exhausted men turn the great crankshaft of the bilges to purge water. The rowboats drag the wounded ship on behind them into the cursed (yet fortunate) fog on the strength of backs and oars.

The doctor, Stephen Maturin, works his grim and grisly profession by sullen lantern light, with sand beneath his feet to soak up the blood so he can keep his footing, the wounded and the dead crowding in around him. He is struggling against The Butcher’s Bill, as Captain Jack Aubrey (Lucky Jack) will later call it.

Out on the wilderness of the waves, the crew of the Surprise are surrounded by their manufactured world. They must keep it secure in the face of weather and war and internal uncertainties, or their personal worlds will end together. Yes, this is a "fascinating modern age," as Captain Aubrey calls it, but beneath the paint, symbols, and uniforms is a primal conflict of blood and the sea. And the stakes are life and death.

These men have what they brought with them and what the can find, out beyond any harbor. But most importantly, they must be united in common purpose with stern resolve. They must be disciplined.

But we must bring them right up beside us before we spring this trap. That will test our nerve, and discipline will count just as much as courage.
- Captain Jack Aubrey

Discipline keeps this little world a float. Indeed, without discipline there is the risk not only of defeat but mutiny. The crew must trust and respect their officers, and the officers must demonstrate that they are worthy of said trust. This is a harsh world with stiff penalties for those who flaunt the laws of the ship because without its laws, chaos could cost everyone their lives.

Men must be governed. Often not wisely, I will grant you, but they must be governed nonetheless.
- Captain Jack Aubrey

Ingenuity, primalness, discipline. The crew of the Surprise must be ingenious and disciplined to survive and prevail in this primal wilderness of waves and war.

Here we must pause our conversation for now, Dear Reader. Perhaps the above will find its way into my Wilderness Essay in some form or another. Are you interested in some of the reading I did this week? Here are some paths to travel:

Best regards,



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Well met, Traveller into Perilous Realms. I am your guide Bryan Rye, Game Master and Author. Stay awhile and let us speak of many things.

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