Norrington is, arguably, the most popular so-called secondary
character in the Pirates franchise. He is complex and compelling; he grows
and changes more than any other character - except, perhaps, Will - in the
course of the two movies so far released. 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. "...an 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
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
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
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*
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
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 we never quite know what he's up to - the story is left
hanging with nothing resolved at the end of Dead Man's Chest.
I have faith that Norrington will redeem himself in At World's End. We will
find out on 25 May.
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
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
5. Jack Davenport, DVD commentary
Resources (of necessity a partial and somewhat arbitrary listing):
- essay on
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
very Naval Norrington. No pirates here!
(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
(part one, links to subsequent chapters in the post) Another take on
Sparrington, with some delightful original characters, as well.