Literature Review – John Steinbeck, Cup of Gold: A Tale of Sir Henry Morgan, With Occasional Reference to History

A swashbuckling adventure that also carries some very strong elements of medieval and Arthurian folk legend, John Steinbeck’s first novel Cup of Gold is an exciting and wonderful read for those interested in a little escapism that also happens to be more than fair in its historical treatment of Sir Henry Morgan‘s life.

Cup of Gold – Exotic Locales such as Panama, Jamaica, Tortuga, Barbados

Cup of Gold presents a wild variety of locations in which to place the action of such a whirlwind life, beginning with his life as a boy in Wales, complete with a teenage love story. After seeking sage advice from the aged minstrel, Merlin, Henry Morgan sets out for the Indes in search of fame, fortune, and the sea.

Sold into indentured servitude by a less than scrupulous Irishman named Tim, Henry Morgan is thankfully taken as a pupil and, over time, a dear son to the plantation owner – James Flower. The plantation in Barbados becomes the launching point for Henry’s dream, as he is able to learn how to speak to men in order to command respect, cunning tactics for battle and diplomacy via James Flower’s immense library and business contacts, and a small fortune by investing in a worthy ship for the plantation itself.

From this point of departure, Henry Morgan’s career as a pirate (and later, privateer) begins in earnest as he sails for Tortuga and begins his terrible series of strikes against Spanish trading ships and port cities. Eventually, that Spanish pearl, Panama, must surely fall before the cannons of the fearsome and legendary pirate.

Sir Henry Morgan as Tragic Hero, Fatal Love for La Santa Roja

Perhaps the most interesting part for the reader to consider when encountering Steinbeck’s Cup of Gold is the engagement of the text as a character study. While it is true that the book reads very similarly to a boy’s adventure tale common to the era in which it was written, there is a depth of character afforded to Sir Henry Morgan that lends a maturity to the book which might have otherwise gone unnoticed.

Henry Morgan is a dreamer who, unlike his father Robert, is willing to actualize his goals – setting out, no matter the cost, to attain the reality that he sees within his own mind. This is the cause for his great success, and in keeping with the trope of the tragic hero, similarly the cause for his greatest defeats.

The Achilles heel for Henry Morgan comes into play in the second that he meets the famed La Santa Roja, reportedly the most beautiful woman in the world. Legends of her fairness spread the world over, and any man who might possess her love would be a mighty king indeed. As Panama burns, Henry Morgan, having taken the prize with nary any casualties of his own, it is, in fact, La Santa Roja that destroys the mighty pirate.

The clever and cunning Santa Roja manipulates Morgan emotionally, preferring to blindside his immense ego and carnal jealousy rather than to attempt any physical resistance – a far more effective ploy. What defense can a man such as Henry Morgan mount against this assault, far more terrifyingly introspective and deprecating than the more conventional hazards he might whisk away under the aegis of martial expertise?

Cup of Gold is a beautifully written fantasy tale that provides rich imagery of a time soaked in rum, violence, and plunder – truly an appropriate tone for a boy’s adventure with themes reaching far beyond the traditional boundaries of the genre.

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