Friday, October 22, 2010

Huntingtower by John Buchan

If you only ever read one John Buchan book, it should be Huntingtower, which is a perfect introduction to Buchan's body of work: it's not too far out-there in terms of being a conventional story, but it also positively seethes with philosophical themes, and the trademark Buchan wit and joie-de-vivre.

Before I begin, I need to define a term. Romance in the old sense means something like adventure, and Buchan himself once defined it (in The Runagates Club) as “strangeness flowering from the commonplace”. While what we know today as romantic love is often a part of the Romance, so is adventure, drama, and courage in the face of overwhelming odds. Thus when GK Chesterton refers to “that useful trick of knife-throwing by which men murder each other in Stevenson's romances” he does not mean to say that Stevenson wrote for Mills & Boon. Rather, a hundred years ago “romance” was always used to refer to Treasure Island, and certainly never to Pride and Prejudice. Such is life! In order to help you differentiate between Mills & Boon and Stevenson, I intend to use both the upper-case-R Romance and the precise “Historical romance” to refer to the latter. And it is this kind of upper-case Romance with which Huntingtower has to do.

Huntingtower tells the story of Dickson McCunn, a solid, respectable Edinburgh grocer who does duty on a Sunday as an elder down at the Guthrie Memorial Kirk. Mr McCunn is a businessman and a Scot, but he is also a born romantic. He loves the novels of Sir Walter Scott particularly and has spent his whole life dreaming, in a gentle sort of way, of finding Romance and having some brilliant, thrilling role to play on the stage of the world.

When Dickson retires from the grocery business and the good Mrs McCunn goes on holiday, he finally gets his chance to walk off in search of adventure and, supplied with a copy of The Compleat Angler, sets off across Scotland. His idyll is disturbed when he meets John Heritage, a Modern Poet. Heritage is a Realist and a Communist, and his newfangled cynicism raises all Dickson's hackles.

Then both characters are drawn to a little village on the coast, not far away from a deserted manor named Huntingtower. And villainry is afoot at Huntingtower! For locked inside it is a Russian Princess fleeing from Communists. You would be perfectly correct in guessing that she is waiting for her prince (Australian, with a motor-bike) to come and rescue her. Unfortunately, she was unable to give him clear directions, and now he is lost in the hinterlands as the bad guys close in on the Princess. Both the Realist and the Romantic must come to her rescue, ably assisted by Dickson's fake Aunt Phemy and by a gang of tough Edinburgh street boys, the Gorbals Die-Hards, who have been sent by a charity on holiday to the sea-shore for the improvement of their grubby souls. Hilarity, naturally, ensues.

This is a wonderful book, full of fun and adventure. I love the characters, and I love the chapter titles (“Of the Princess in the Tower”--”How a Middle-Aged Crusader Accepted a Challenge”--”How Mr McCunn Committed an Assault Upon an Ally”). But most of all I love what Buchan says about Romance. The Poet despises Romance, and the Grocer has been searching for it all his life. What happens when they finally discover it, in the form of a modern fairy-tale?

Fairy-tales have come under a lot of criticism these days from people who think that a damsel in distress must be a congenital idiot, that a happy ending is totally unrealistic, or that ideals are not worth dying for. Buchan tackles a lot of those objections both directly and obliquely in this book, and although the Poet learns better, so does the Grocer. Dickson, having longed for Romance all his life, is surprised to find her a capricious and terrifying goddess who can and will leave him knocked unconscious and tied to a tree to die. But for all that, Buchan argues, a life with Romance is a hundred times better than a life without, even if it's only in a book. Take that, Shrek!

Buchan followed Huntingtower with two similarly architecturally-titled sequels: Castle Gay and The House of the Four Winds, which I look forwards to reviewing in due course!

John Buchan trivia: In her book Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers has a character quote the recurring line from Huntingtower, “Ye'll nae fickle Thomas Yownie!” That's right: even Dorothy Sayers was a John Buchan fan!

Arthur's Classic Novels etext

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

how does it end?


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