The Stowaway (the_stowaway) wrote in idol_reflection,
The Stowaway

The Complicated Mister Norrington (Pirates of the Caribbean)

Title: The Complicated Mister Norrington
Author: the_stowaway
Character: (Commodore) James Norrington
Fandom: Pirates of the Caribbean
Spoilers: All three movies
Author's Note: Updated to cover the events in ‘At World’s End’. Many thanks to fabu for her help and encouragement!


Norrington is, arguably, the most popular secondary character in the Pirates franchise. He is complex and compelling; he grows and changes more than any other character - except, perhaps Will. He's a badass in a fight (when sober), he has a kind heart, he's smart, has a razor-sharp tongue, and a snarky sense of humor. It doesn't hurt that he's easy on the eyes. He's good at his work and yet vulnerable in matters of the heart. And, perhaps best of all, you have to keep revising your view of him throughout the films – you're never able to predict and you're never bored.

In the very beginning the setup leads you to think he'll be The Bad Guytm, but then Barbossa appears and one must reconsider his role. By the *end* of Curse of the Black Pearl, of course, it's possible to have completely fallen for him in all his honorable Navy-ness. And then comes Dead Man's Chest and all bets are off. Here's how it goes:

Movie the first

We meet Norrington in the first scene of the Curse of the Black Pearl. He is at that point a lieutenant aboard the Dauntless, fresh - one may presume - from England. He is spruce and correct; very much a model officer. He is also an ardent pirate-hunter:

"Vile and dissolute creatures, the lot of them. I intend to see that any man who sails under a pirate flag or wears a pirate brand gets what he deserves... a short drop and a sudden stop."

Confident, snarky (vide the smirk that accompanies the words) and a bit smug. You get the impression that he already sees himself as "the scourge of piracy in the eastern Caribbean."1

It is interesting to note that, while obviously well-intentioned, he doesn't seem to know much about dealing with females; the above remark plainly horrifies young Elizabeth and prompts her father to step in and put a stop to the conversation.

Immediately following this awkward moment, however, we see Norrington at his best when the wreck of the merchantman is spotted. He is decisive and brisk, snapping out orders with no hesitation. He's good at what he does and, let's face it, competence is sexy. He's not a sympathetic character at this point, but he is definitely attractive.


Fast forward eight years. Norrington has risen to the rank of Captain and is about to be made Commodore.2 The Governor is impressed with him and wants him for his son-in-law. Nor is Elizabeth surprised by his promotion; he is a rising star.

The promotion ceremony - full of military pomp and some nifty sword-handling by the new Commodore - and the reception that follows are his last perfect moments, alas. Nemesis, in the form of Captain Jack Sparrow, has landed in Port Royal and things will never be the same again for James Norrington.

At the reception, he makes his marriage proposal to Elizabeth. Their conversation is sweet, awkward and hilarious - poor Norrington is so nervous he can barely speak. " example of English repression, in all its glories."3 He's really not comfortable outside his Naval milieu, poor man. Before Elizabeth can answer, she faints and falls into the sea, where she is rescued from drowning by Jack Sparrow.

The first meeting of pirate and Commodore is full of sparks (and, for those of us wearing slash-colored glasses, subtext). Norrington snarks and smirks until Jack neatly turns the tables, taunting him and escaping, albeit briefly. Once more we are vouchsafed a glimpse of the able, if exasperated, naval officer at work.

Likewise in the brief scene with Governor Swann on the battlements. When the bombardment begins, Norrington goes into action instantly - both seeing to the defense and ordering Swann to safety. He's a warrior, is our James.

And again just after Barbossa's men sack Port Royal when Will bursts in, frantic for Elizabeth's safety. Norrington is already deep in plans for her rescue; he is calm and determined and in command. Yet we see conflict in him now - this is not just about pirates, it's about his almost-affianced beloved.

Jack's second escape is when things really start to unravel for Norrington. As Jack and Will sail off in the stolen Interceptor, leaving the Dauntless disabled from pursuit, there is much to be read on Norrington's countenance and in his brief exchange with Groves:

Groves: That's got to be the best pirate I've ever seen.
Norrington: So it would seem.

Jack has just made a fool of him and dealt his career a terrible blow, into the bargain. Now the hunt is more than ever a personal, as well as a professional, matter.


When next we see our Commodore, it is at sea aboard the Dauntless. He has just retrieved Elizabeth and Jack from the island and Elizabeth is importuning him to go after Barbossa to save Will. He refuses, backed by the Governor, firm in his duty. He has delivered her and captured the detested Sparrow - haring off (with the Governor and his daughter aboard, mind you) to save a young renegade who aided a notorious pirate to escape and stole a Naval vessel is not something he's willing to do. But then Elizabeth, desperate, plays her trump card: she will marry him if he rescues Will. He agrees.

Some have argued that this was a mistake on Norrington's part but if so, it was an understandable one for which a charitable person can forgive him. He is offered his heart's desire in return for pursuing "the last real pirate threat in the Caribbean," i.e. for doing his job. He jostled logic a little bit and came up with justification4 for doing what he dearly wished to do.

Now, it is clear to the viewer through the scene that Elizabeth is in love with Will and sacrificing herself to save him. In the final cut of the film, Norrington might, to some, appear to be duped by her action, but our James is no fool - although he is a romantic, under that repression of his. There is a deleted scene, included in the DVD extras, which shows how little he is deceived. He has a short talk with Elizabeth in which he delicately questions her motives and wishes aloud that her consent had been given unconditionally. The wistful air with which he utters the words is perfect. When Elizabeth assures him that she would have married him whether or not he went after Will, James stares for a moment and gives her the sweetest smile before pulling himself together and becoming once again formal. He wants so badly to believe her. He loves her and it is easy to fool himself into thinking that such love must inspire a return. It's a little heartbreaking to see; one can hardly help feeling badly for him.

Decision made, he is all business once again. The Dauntless proceeds to the Isla de Muerta where a fairly spectacular battle ensues, in which Norrington fights heroically. He was doomed to fail unless and until the curse - of which he knew nothing - was lifted, but that does not detract from the bravery of his actions. And, of course, the curse is lifted, the bad guys are vanquished, and the victorious hero returns to Port Royal with a ship full of captives. He beat the pirates, captured Jack Sparrow and won the girl - happy ending, right? Well, not exactly.

At Jack's hanging we see Norrington, somber and inflexible, prepared to carry out the sentence despite Elizabeth's protests. He is a "man of the law."5 Jack is a convicted criminal and must hang. The fact that James doesn't look too comfortable with this necessity could perhaps be chalked up to the wish not to disoblige his betrothed, but there is more to it, as we soon see. James has come to the realization that it is possible to be a pirate *and* a good man; it is a dilemma and he's not happy about it.

When Will attempts to rescue Jack and Elizabeth ranges herself with them, you can see the ground drop from beneath Norrington's feet. One can almost see his heart break. (Can I just say here, Jack Davenport is a *wonderful* actor.)

Jack Sparrow goes over the battlements and is picked up by the Black Pearl, leaving Will to face the music. A different Commodore would have seized young Will, thrown him in jail and, in due course, hanged him for his manifold crimes. The law would have supported him. So too, no doubt, would the Governor. And yet…

James Norrington, out of love for the woman who has just jilted him in such a horribly public manner, pardons her beloved and, implicitly, gives them his blessing. Ow. The deleted scenes from this sequence are even more painful - as he smiles, sweet and so sad, and wishes the young couple well. Kind, chivalrous, good man! One's heart breaks for him. But wait, there's more.

When Gillette asks if they will be pursing the Black Pearl and Sparrow, James gives another of his little smiles and says, "Oh, I think we can afford to give him one day's head start." He's giving the pirate and good man a fighting chance. He's come a long way from that smug young lieutenant who declared that all pirates should hang.

How can one not love this man?


Movie the second

Early in Dead Man's Chest we learn that Norrington has resigned his commission and that there is a warrant out for the former Commodore's arrest for, of all things, aiding and abetting Jack Sparrow.

Not long after this we see the man himself - drunk, disheveled and pugnacious - in a tavern in Tortuga, where he starts an enormous brawl and gets himself thrown into the pigsty.

It's a long way from the upright Commodore in the pristine uniform, pacing the quarterdeck of his formidable warship, to this ragamuffin drunkard, but the fall - and the climb back up - seem to me to be perfectly in character. Desperation will make the best of men (and Norrington is unquestionably high on the list of good men) do things they never could have imagined in happier times. It's easy to be kind, just, upright and honest with a full belly, a soft bed and an entire Navy at his command - but put his back against the wall and a strong man will fight using any weapon that comes to hand. This does not make him bad.

We learn only snippets, but, apparently, he has lost his ship and his men in pursuit of the Black Pearl. He is, understandably, bitter - and he's wallowing in it. But not for long.

Almost immediately he starts pulling himself up out of the muck (literally and figuratively). He follows Elizabeth aboard the Pearl. He's still pretty drunk. She is a familiar and once-beloved face; she defends him in the brawl. Perhaps he's drawn to her as a reminder of his former life or perhaps he has some dim notion of protecting her on her mad escapade - who knows? His precise motives aren't clear to us, and, most likely, not to him either.

Once aboard ship, though, he overhears Jack and Elizabeth discussing Beckett's letters of marque and you can watch the wheels begin to turn. How can he use this to his advantage?

All his actions after that are those of a tough, resilient, intelligent and desperate man fighting to regain something of his position in the world and his self-respect. He schemes and plots, he appears tricksy and treacherous.

And he is angry – so angry – at everyone. Jack he blames for ruining his life and, to be sure, it appears from the hints we are given that his obsession with catching Jack (does he now regret having given Jack that ‘one day’s head start’, I wonder) led directly to the loss of his ship, crew and career. Will he sees as more than half pirate, and, as Jack points out, Will stole Norrington’s fiancée. Elizabeth, well, he’d love to hate her. She’s still ruthlessly focused on saving her precious Will and she’s thrown in her lot with the detested Sparrow to do it; she’s practically a pirate herself.

This anger, I think, sustains him when he strikes his bargain with Beckett. He must know that giving Beckett the heart and resuming his role as (nominal) head pirate-hunter make it all too likely that Jack, Will and Elizabeth will die. Not that he’ll be sorry to see the first two hang, but Elizabeth is another matter. If he has any doubt about his decision he probably reminds himself that she’s become a pirate and that she knows the penalties for piracy. In his hearts of hearts, he may also hope that his newly regained power will allow him to protect her from the consequences of her folly. We’ve seen enough of his emotionally vulnerable side to make that plausible.


Movie the third, or, What price redemption?

The fatal flaw in Norrington’s plan to reestablish himself is Beckett. When he gave Beckett the heart and accepted a commission in the new Navy (new as in it is now merely the enforcement arm of the East India Company) he did not know what manner of man with whom he had to deal. Beckett is a monster who claims that it’s all “just good business” but whose real motive is personal power. Megalomaniac is a word that springs to mind. He is so ruthless that even Barbossa pales in comparison. He is the real villain of these movies; a man who suspends and perverts the law, and institutes mass hangings – who hangs children - in pursuit of his power-grabbing goals.

The glimpses we catch of Norrington – newly minted Admiral of the puppet Navy - in this film (and they are far too few, dammit), show him conflicted and beginning to regret his decision to work for the EIT. One can speculate on how appalled he must be by the uses to which Beckett puts the heart. Norrington’s scenes with Beckett are very telling in this regard; his natural snarkiness is muted but his disgust shows through. And the look of horror he exchanges with Governor Swann is further proof of his disillusionment – as well as giving away how much he still cares for Elizabeth.

And it’s Elizabeth – now Captain Swann of the pirate ship Empress - who forces him to face facts, to see that he’s become the tool of a despot and murderer. In the end, he makes what amends he can.

Did he know his life was forfeit as he led Elizabeth and her crew to the stern of the Dutchman? Of course he did. The only chance he had to escape death was to go with the pirates and he could not bring himself to do that – to throw away the essence of what he was to buy a little time. He had learned that some prices are too high to pay. He was willing to die if in so doing he could atone for at least some of his mistakes.

Elizabeth realizes that he’ll be killed if he stays behind. Despite her anger, she asks him to go with them; she does not want to lose him the way she lost her father – the way she may still lose Will.

And when she changes “come with us” to “come with me” Norrington is shaken. Even to the end he loves her and wants to believe she cares for him. That “come with me” is what emboldens him to take the kiss with which he sends her on her way as mad old Bootstrap raises the alarm.

And so James Norrington dies tragically, but not in vain, for by freeing Elizabeth he made the defeat of Beckett possible. In the end he chose sides and chose right. He did indeed redeem himself.


Norrington in fandom

It should be plain if you've read this far that I adore James Norrington. I find him endlessly fascinating and I'm not alone in this. Even fans who don't like pirates at all are drawn to this franchise by love of Norrington and his lieutenants. Much good Norrington fic has been written in the years since Curse of the Black Pearl burst upon us back in July 2003.

Most popular, in terms of volume of stories written, is the Sparrow/Norrington pairing, often called Sparrington. The notion of two alpha males - each king of his own hill, so to speak - negotiating their way through a relationship is irresistible. James is the perfect foil for Jack.

Norrington is also paired with various naval associates - Gillette and/or Groves are most popular. Norrington/Elizabeth gets written quite a bit, as well. There is also some Norrington/Will, and a sprinkling of other less common pairings.

1. Actor Jack Davenport, who plays Norrington, speaking of his character in the DVD extras of Curse of the Black Pearl.
2. Yes, I know this is nonsense from a historical perspective. The movie plays fast and loose with history in too many ways to count and it's beside the point, for the purposes of this essay, to make note of them or to do anything except accept the situation as we find it. This is, after all, a fantasy - a Disney movie about undead pirates - and it's easier all round just to roll with the internal (il)logic of the created world.
3. Jack Davenport, DVD commentary.
4. "[Will] is a subject of the British Crown and therefore under my protection."
5. Jack Davenport, DVD commentary

Resources (of necessity a partial and somewhat arbitrary listing):


ship_manifesto - essay on Sparrington

Fic – a mere sampling of the riches to be found:
(Most of the writers listed below have written more Norrington – which you can find in their memories or on their websites. This very partial list is meant as a sort of jumping off place; a way to get started, no more.)

*~* The Sparrington Archive
*~* Cultural Infidelities, an archive I share with fabu (Melusina), linaelyn, and hija_paloma (Dove). We've all written Norrington in a variety of pairings (indeed, he's in almost every story of mine. Surprised?) There is a pairing index on the site, to help you find pairings you might be interested in reading.
*~* Proper Pirates by penknife Marvelous Norrington/Jack/Elizabeth.
*~* Excellence by galadhir, a very Naval Norrington. No pirates here!
*~* Marooned by viva_gloria (link takes you to her tag for the story – page back to chapter one) A really splendid Sparrington AU, wherein the writer tinkers with European history and has her characters deal with the consequences.
*~* A Strange Lull by marinarusalka (part one, links to subsequent chapters in the post) Another take on Sparrington, with some delightful original characters, as well.
  • Post a new comment


    default userpic
    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.
← Ctrl ← Alt
Ctrl → Alt →
← Ctrl ← Alt
Ctrl → Alt →