Monday, May 13, 2013

The Five Greatest Fictional Pirates

Pirates get a lot of attention, but most of us are more familiar with fictional pirates than real ones. And why not? Fictional pirates enjoy great lines, wonderful wardrobes, and ships with catchy names, and never have to deal with bilgewater, scurvy or rats in the hold. Let’s look at some of the most famous.

5. One-Eyed Willy 

Ship: The Inferno, venue: 1985 movie The Goonies. Willie was a generation’s earliest introduction to pirates, and what an introduction it was: secret treasure, a mysterious map, and traps only the kids can solve, all in the name of saving the family home and sticking it to the rich guys.

One-eyed Willie didn’t bury his treasure, he walled himself up with it.

Willie’s the story of how pirates become part of local legend. Both coasts of America and the whole of the Caribbean are filled with stories of local pirates, their adventures and hints of their buried treasure. Captain Kidd’s fortune has yet to be found along the Carolina coast, but a real map led to the 26 million dollars that went down with Sam Bellamy’s ship. And as long as there are legends of ill-gotten gains, kids (and adults) will go out in hope finding a little for themselves.

4. The Dread Pirate Roberts

Ship: The Revenge, venue: The Princess Bride movie (and the book).

The Princess Bride is one of the best movies ever made (not like I have an opinion or anything) and part of its appeal is the mysterious Dread Pirate Roberts. Roberts dresses all in black, wears a mask to conceal his identity, and is legendary for allowing no survivors on the ships he captures. As the movie progresses, we learn that the name “Dread Pirate Roberts” is a franchise, with one man after the other taking the title as the previous holder retires with his plunder.

TDPR is one of the most famous pirates ever, but we don’t get to see him doing much pirating. His appeal lies in his fearsome reputation, his fantastic sword fighting skills, and his classic costume. And true love. Never forget that.

There is no record of an actual pirate handing down his name to a successor, but there are plenty of real pirates who tried to assume an alias, with the plan to go back to using their own names upon retirement. There are also pirates who flirted with the idea of leaving no survivors, but none ever committed to such a plan. Ultimately being a pirate is about having a good time, and killing unarmed captives just didn’t appeal to that many people.

3. Captain James Hook 

Ship: The Jolly Roger, venue: Peter Pan, the play, several other movies, and a ton of Disney merchandise.

Captain Hook is one of the most famous pirates ever, and the very model of a pirate captain in action. Hook lives elegantly on his magnificent ship, dining in his well-appointed cabin, enjoying the services of a personal servant (Smee), smoking two cigars at a time and playing the harpsichord. Despite his sometimes effeminate manners, Hook is a tough guy, bellowing orders in a frightening voice and shooting any member of his crew who shows signs of rebelling against his iron will.

In fact, Hook is probably the origin of the myth of the pirate captain as an all-powerful dictator. In fact, pirate captains were elected by their crews, and could be deposed just as easily. It would be hard to find a crew loyal to a man who shot subordinates with so little reason.

Hook’s greatest resemblance to real pirates lies in his costume (yes, a lot of pirates dressed like that, with the huge wig, lace shirt and fancy coat) and his desire to be considered a gentleman. Retiring to a life of wealth and respect was the goal of many a pirate, and pirate crews from the captain to the lowest powder-monkey plundered ships of fine clothing, gold watches, wigs, silk stockings and gold shoe buckles in an effort to  appear to be members of the aristocracy.

2. Long John Silver 

Ship: Flint’s ship the Walrus and later the Hispaniola, venue: Robert Lewis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island, and the approximately eighty movies made from it. Also a string of seafood restaurants.

Long John Silver is the most historically accurate pirate ever to walk out of the pages of fiction. In the novel, we first see Silver as the one-legged owner of a seaside eating house, the Spyglass. Pirates, unlike the Royal Navy, paid a disability benefit to crewmembers who lost limbs in battle, so the vision of Silver as a business owner is in keeping with actual pirate practices.

His longing to return to a life of crime is also typical of real pirates. Several prominent pirates accepted a “King’s Pardon” or established themselves as rich men under onshore aliases, but almost all of these returned to piracy when they became bored.

Silver operates under pirate law, holding his position as leader of the mutineers by popular vote, supplemented by guile, cunning and manipulation.  He does not have strict control of the crew, who see themselves as free agents, and frequently lose focus when distracted by rum. Silver needs to keep up appearances to remain leader, and must hide his growing, fatherly affection for Jim Hawkins in order to keep his position.

I’ve always believed that the secret to Treasure Island’s popularity has a lot to do with the fact that Silver gets away at the end. We still dream that he might show up on OUR doorsteps one day, with another treasure map and a mouthful of promises he’s probably not going to keep.

1. Captain Jack Sparrow

Ship: The Black Pearl, venue: Four Pirates of the Caribbean movies, a string of kid’s novels, a load of Disney merchandise, and approximately 20,000 posts on

Captain Jack Sparrow, and the big budget movies he stars in, were the point of entry for millions of pirate fans. Jack’s got a certain feel of authenticity, even when we know he’s not real. He’s dishonest and proud of it, clever rather than violent, often in desperate straits, and deliciously dirty. It was the worn clothes and the dirt that drew me in first. Jack looked like he lived 300 years ago and worked for a living.

The extras of the first DVD disc describe the first moment when Johnny Depp went off-script to reveal Jack’s character. In the original fight with Will Turner, Jack was supposed to draw his pistol, tell Will, “This shot is not for you,” cock the pistol and point it. Depp chose to draw, cock the gun, point it at Will, pause for a moment and then deliver the line. It gave Jack a level of menace that made him believable. Jack Sparrow will kill you, even if you’re a good guy, because saving his own hide comes first.

Obviously the Aztec curses, zombie pirates, mermaids, enchanted sea goddesses and trips off the edge of the map are in no way realistic. But they reflect the way sailors of 300 years ago viewed their world. No one knew what caused weather, sickness, or a run of bad luck. Old time sailors were no fools, but they followed superstitions and gave credit to wild stories because they had no better way to control events around them.
Jack Sparrow’s life looks a lot like a real pirate’s in a lot of ways. Real pirates drank heavily, and sometimes made poor decisions because of it. They wore the same clothes every day, and rarely bathed.  They lived by luck and reputation as much as by violence.

Johnny Depp famously said that pirates were the rock stars of their day, and he got it right. Even as pirates were derided as minions of the devil, breaking the laws of God and Man, their stories were devoured by contemporaries eager to learn about the cutthorats’ latest exploits. From The General History of the Pyrates (1724), to Treasure Island  (1883), to Pirates of the Caribbean (2003), we have been fascinated by their adventures, their deeds of daring, and their lives of freedom. 

And now about my own pirate adventures.

This blog was inspired by research for my serialized novels, The Pirate Empire by TS Rhodes. The first two volumes, Scarlet Sails and Gentlemen and Fortune, are now available on Kindle, with the next volume, Bloody Sea, due on June 1st of 2013. If you enjoy this blog, I hope you will choose to purchase the books, and perhaps even to review them on Amazon.

Scarlet Sails

The year is 1717, and pirate Captain Scarlet MacGrath wants nothing more than a decent meal, a glass of rum and  a good man waiting for her in the next port, but life rarely works out that neatly.
When the rum runs out, Scarlet sets sail for the mainland to look up an old friend. But friends turn into enemies pretty quick in this part of the world, and before long Scarlet, her crew, and the good ship Donnybrook  are caught between the lawless Donnelly boys and the bloody-handed Red Ned Doyle himself. Can Scarlet use her Irish charms to free herself and her crew, or will it be cutlass and cannon?

Gentlemen and Fortune 

The stormy seas of the Caribbean are home to rogues and gentlemen, Navy captains and pirate ships like Scarlet's own  Donnybrook.  Join Scarlet and her crew of outlaws, misfits, and runaway slaves as they carry out missions of diplomacy, mercy and aggression.
The pirates are gathering strength, but they're still hunted by Navy  frigates, and soon it's Scarlet's turn to dance with death in the form of Navy Captain Robert Davenport. Scarlet's used to sailing close to the wind, but can she sail away from the HMS Nightingale and the long arm of English law?

Bloody Sea

First it’s an uneasy alliance with the Donnelly brothers in a clash against bloodthirsty natives, then a seaborne attack goes awry, leaving the Donnybrook and her captain crippled. With their very survival on the line, Scarlet and her crew must find greater courage than ever before.  Join Scarlet MacGrath in her most desperate moments, marshalling muskets, cannon and magic against forces bent on her destruction as she and her crew sail The Bloody Sea. Available on Kindle June 1.

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