Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Legend of the Jolly Roger

One of the first books I read when I started my temporary genre rebellion was Tim Powers’ On Stranger Tides, an outstanding adventure novel involving Blackbeard, the Fountain of Youth, zombies, voodoo, and much, much more. I had a rollicking good time, and it reminded me of my childhood when I simply couldn’t get enough of pirates, real or fiction. I don’t think I’ve ever quite outgrown that phase of my childhood; when I think of pirates, I think of epic adventures, and the name “Blackbeard” is particularly chilling (although I must confess my view of Blackbeard will forever be coloured by Peter Ustinov’s performance in Blackbeard’s Ghost).

But at the same time, I realize that the reality of a pirate’s life was very different from the fictional equivalent. I read quite a bit of non-fiction about pirates back in the day, but it’s been a while. And so, as a refresher of sorts, I decided to read another work of non-fiction on the subject, entitled Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates. The author, David Cordingly, sets out to look at pirates as we typically see them in our mind’s eye, and sort out the fact from the fiction, the embellishments from the simple truth.

So, if you’ve ever wondered whether pirates really did have wooden legs, whether “walking the plank” was a common practice, and whether pirates kept talking parrots as pets, this is a really good resource for a general overview of the whole affair. You can find out about the few female pirates we know about, and just how Blackbeard got his name. You’ll read of daring escapades, incredible plunders, and even one instance of actual, for-realsies buried treasure!

This is a well-written book. If you have any interest in the subject matter already, I can guarantee that you will be kept interested by this book. It’s not just a dry collection of facts, nor is this a pedantic debate about the swordsmanship abilities of a typical pirate. The author knows what you want to know, and he gets to it. He also does a very good job discussing books and films that have done much to influence what we think of when we think of pirates.

In fact, if anything, that might be the book’s one flaw. At times, I got the impression that it was only with great reluctance that the author moved away from the fictional pirates we all know and love. A lot of time is devoted to Treasure Island in particular, and when the author finally stops talking about it I got the feeling that it was only because time was short.

But the book is at its best when discussing the real men and women of the times, sifting through historical documents for you so that you don’t have to spend a few weeks looking through them yourself. I most enjoyed this book when it focused on how different (and similar!) the real life pirate was from his fictional counterpart. Although it’s true that I knew much of this information already, it was stored somewhere in the back of my mind in a long-forgotten corner. So I got that thrill of re-discovery, “Yeah, I remember that!”. And every once in a while, the author introduced a player that I hadn’t heard of before, and that was when I most felt like an eleven-year-old, learning all this stuff for the very first time.

The beauty of this book is that this book’s subject being pirates, who were the great criminals of their era, technically this book falls squarely into my blog’s usual domain of crime and detection, albeit I don’t often look at true crime. But it’s my blog, and I get to decide what’s being read around these here parts. And I wanted to learn a bit more about pirates. My goal now achieved, I can leave a hearty recommendation for this book to anyone who wants to know more on the subject.

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