The Master Mariner

by tirial

The Master Mariner stories were written by Nicholas Monsarrat to illustrate the role of seamen throughout the ages. Famously unfinished, the existing books are considered classics.

The Master Mariner stories were written by Nicholas Monsarrat to illustrate the role of seamen throughout the ages. His title character, an Elizabethan sailor called Matthew Lawe, is cursed to wander the seas "until all the seas run dry" and finds himself drawn into events throughout history by the driving nature of the curse.

About the Master Mariner

The Master Mariner stories were written by Nicholas Monsarrat to illustrate the role of seamen throughout the ages. His title character, an Elizabethan sailor called Matthew Lawe, is cursed to wander the seas "until all the seas run dry" and finds himself drawn into events throughout history by the driving nature of the curse.

Originally conceived as a series of books, only the first "Running Proud" was completed and published. The author's death at the age of 69 prevented the second book from being completed. However his unfinished manuscript and author's notes, with the ending, were gathered and published under the name "Darken Ship"

What makes the books unique is that each chapter is written in the style of the time period it covers: the Elizabethan period uses plain spoken text, the section for Charles II is written in the style of Samuel Pepys and so on. From The Armada to the Spanish Main and on to Trafalgar, Matthew Lawe is drawn back to the sea over and over again, the only place he is truly at home as time and years change the world on land from what he knows into something unrecognisable.

Matthew Lawe

The cursed coward

"Do you want to live forever, Matthew Lawe?"

 

Matthew Lawe is a young lad impressed into the crew of Drake's fleet when they set out to face the Spanish Armada. 

He quickly proves a coward, to the dismay of his shipmates. Then when his own vessel is set ablaze instead of opening the door to the lower decks he flees, ignoring the screams and pleas of his crewmates who he has left trapped below and leaving them to burn as he escapes.

Some escape, and Matthew is confronted with them when he manages to reach land.He would likely have been quickly lynched, but hearing of his cowardice, an old woman states he has been cursed by his dying shipmates, based on the cries of the crew he left behind:

 

"...to wander the wild waters till all the seas run dry"

 

The Coward and the Curse

Matthew Lawe's curse is often compared to the Wandering Jew, or the Flying Dutchman. Unlike both of these he does still slowly age, and is often given chances to break the curse and find peace. However his real tragedy is that he is a constant prisoner of his own nature, and unable to overcome his fear enough to take these opportunities.

The curse has its origin in a literary conceit. Monsarrat wanted to tell the story of four hundred years of naval history, but was not sure of the framing narrative for the novels. He considered using a family, but as he said in "Darken ship" that would involve "too many fictionalised triumphs and tragedies".

Instead he came up with the idea of a single character who would live through and experience all of this, while his own small triumphs and disasters could be easily dealt with without distracting from the narrative. The result is one of the most interesting heroes (you might even say anti-hero) in literature: a pitiful man, intelligent enough to know what he needs to do, and yet unable to rise above his basic nature.

As the book moves onwards through time not only the background changes. The style in which the books is written moves on, the people and culture change, and though he is caught up in the gripping events we see Matthew becoming more and more adrift from humanity as the world he was born into vanishes. Only at sea does he find peace for a time.

Superbly written, the books often find their place on Top Five or Top Ten literary lists, simply because of their unique story, beautiful detail and the gripping writing. In addition, Monsarrat's excellent research means that they provide an insight into the conditions of the Navy and seafarers in the past.

However these books are quite blunt about the cultural mores and practices of more barbaric periods in history and so are definitely meant for an adult audience.

Sailing Ships 1700's-1900's

Some of the Ships Matthew Lawe would have sailed in
Ship Merchant Sailing Ships

Running Proud

The first volume of the Master Mariner

Matthew Lawe's spectacular act of cowardice, costing the lives of his shipmates, leads to a curse being pronounced upon him, forcing him to wander the seas "Until all the seas run dry". Trapped by the curse, and by his own cowardly nature, Matthew wanders from place to place and voyage to voyage, aging only ten years every century.

He experiences prosperity and hardship, meets some of the most famous people of each age, but always, always his curse draws him back to the ocean and the ships that sail her...

Running Proud tells the first part of tale of Matthew Lawe, and naval history, from the Armada to the Battle of Trafalgar.

Monsarrat concentrated on accuracy in his retelling of events, leading to Matthew being an onlooker only, rather than a participant. As he is a lowly merchant crewman, ignored by many of the officers, this is realistic. It also means the book is accurate enough to be read for research not just for fiction - although adult material makes it unsuitable for children. 

Darken Ship

The second volume

The second book covers Matthew's continued journeys from Trafalgar into the twentieth century, the death of the sailing ships, and the decline of British naval power.

The story covers the ending of an entire culture and way of life, so it is no surprise to find the ending of Matthew's own story at the end of the book.  There are notes for two endings given, and I know which I prefer. Most others agree, and it is the one used to close the book out.

Following Nicholas Monserrat's untimely death, it was decided to gather the completed sections and his authors notes for the remainder of the trilogy and combine them into one single volume. Beautifully written and surprisingly moving given that the latter half is only notes, this provides the complete story for those who enjoyed the first book.

Darken Ship: The Master Mariner - Book Two

Darken Ship: The Master Mariner - Book Two

View on Amazon

International availability

Buying outside the US

The books can be difficult to get hold of through Amazon.com. However, they are usually in stock through Amazon.co.uk:

HMS Surprise - 18th century frigate

The Surprise is an exact replica of an eighteenth century frigate, used for films such as Master and Commander.
Updated: 01/30/2015, tirial
 
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