Master and Commander is a simple adventure with undercurrents of sweetness and wisdom. What I enjoyed particularly was the strength of character across differences in personality, opinion, and experience. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a youth in battle or a minion below decks – you do your job. Individualities are ‘subject to the requirements of the service.’ To Captain Jack, the service means the war, but all of the characters are in service to an order of decency to each other. The legendary Nelson, Jack, Lord Blakeney, and the characters aboard, as well as brave, are kind. In what ever capacity, you give all to the task, and you do so as willingly as a wave breaks on the bow.
The men of the crew are tough. Lord Blakeney loses his arm to the scalpel. Stephen, the surgeon, extracts a bullet from his own belly. Everybody works and sails through the threat of death, taking beatings as heavy as the ones the ship endures. In such conditions, self-pity leaves the vocabulary, to the extent that the men move with joy through their struggles. The brightness of the crew testifies to their selflessness. War is a questionable cause, but in our modern circuits, in the networks of our selves and relationships, are we serving higher? The devotion of the sailors puts into perspective the issues of our modern lives.
Jack says, ‘hard-work and firm discipline is what keeps our little wooden world together,’ after dignity, I would suggest. When Stephen and Captain Jack play music together, we see harmony in their differences. The men’s disagreements and precious careers give way to their respect for each other. Nothing is severe enough to rob what John might call ‘equanimity of being,’ which the sailors demonstrate with quiet courage and kindness. Their character holds on levels both major and minor. Jack demonstrates this when he shows respect for the lower ranks, descending the dark stairs and praising the labourer who pumps the water from the bilge. Pressed for an anecdote about Nelson, Jack builds the suspense before delivering Nelson’s highly anticipated words: ‘may I trouble you for the salt, sir?’ Nobody is too great for good manners and all are at the service of the ‘little wooden world.’
However, even the cause of the ship is of less value than how the crew is being in it, as both Jack and Stephen relax about their missions. Their little world is similar to our own, drifting on a vast sea, assailed and vulnerable, destined to perish, but vital while it lasts. The little world is defined by who it contains, as the people are defined by what they too contain.