Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Pirates, emperors, and Augustine

In Chapter 19 of N. D. Wilson's YA fantasy novel The Chestnut King, an old pirate captain surveys a strange-looking ship approach him on the waters (emphasis added):
The captain stood on deck, watching the green and leafy galley chop methodically through the waves toward his own pair of ships. The galley was moving slower than he would have expected with so much cloth spread to the wind, but then he didn't know what to expect from a five-tiered craft sprouting with branches and flickering leaves. He was an old man, a sailor almost from his birth. His beard was whitened with sun and salt, his eyes had bleached to a pale blue, and his bones were as toughened as the ship's beams beneath him. He had been a ship's boy, a hand, a gunner, a mutineer, a merchant, a galley slave, a commander of fleets, all before he had become the pirate that he now was. He had gone down into the sea with a ship's wreckage more times than he could count, and had seen more of the sea's secrets than he cared to tell about. But he had never seen anything like this.
. . . Both of his ships flew the imperial flag. He could think of no reason why they shouldn't. It was his business to do to ships what the emperor did to countries. And he did not think of himself as a pirate. He was simply a servant of the sea, and he took whatever it gave him.
When I read this passage in The Chestnut King, I thought of a description of another pirate who faced an emperor. This description comes from Augustine's City of God 4.4:
[T]hat was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, "What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it it with a great fleet art styled emperor."
Other writers, from John Gower to Noam Chomsky, have used this story in their writing.

No comments: