Monday, October 18, 2010

In Defence of Buchan

If you've known me for any length of time, you'll have heard me gush about Buchan's works. And chances are, if you've then picked up one of his books—say, The Thirty-Nine Steps—you've come away wondering what the fuss is about. Sure, he writes a fun book. But the dialogue is really dated, you might say, and the plot is completely unbelievable, relying on coincidence and sometimes fatal stupidity on the part of the villain. And what about that crack about the Jews on page ten?

Well, some of these criticisms are valid. Buchan is certainly guilty of writing books that are fun to read. As for the dialogue, it's just how they talked back then—but if you look underneath that dialogue, you will find a prose stylist of classical beauty and elegance beyond anything that is produced today.

And yes, there are coincidences here and there in the plots, but none as ridiculous as the ones in, for example, Slumdog Millionaire. And I'll give you the occasional villain stupidity, but don't make the mistake of thinking Buchan was racist. His characters sometimes are, and perhaps he was not entirely free from the prejudices of the day, but as G-G of Canada he supported an early form of multiculturalism and also Zionism, and Janet Adam Smith's biography tells how at the end of World War II his name was found on Hitler's death-list of prominent pro-Jewish Allied politicians.

These are all common criticisms of JB's works. Yet people throughout the years have loved him just as much as I do. CS Lewis was a big fan, who once said the only twentieth-century authors that would be remembered afterwards were GK Chesterton, JRR Tolkien, and John Buchan (see Humphrey Carpenter's book The Inklings). And after reading him for years, I think I've figured out what was so special about JB's works, what elicits such devotion in those who know him.

The thread that runs through all his books, sometimes more and sometimes less obvious, is a discussion of goodness: purity, virtue, and innocence in the face of a sometimes obscene, always wicked world. In the Chronicles of Narnia, I learned how goodness works and what it can accomplish. But Buchan taught me to love it for itself.

Buchan's idea of virtue and innocence was not, as it is thought of today, something like a snow-globe, a perfect tiny microcosm captured briefly in one fragile bulb of glass; rather it was more like a sword so keen as to cut the wind. This idea surfaces in a famous line in Mr Standfast: one character says of another, Mary, whom they have sent into danger, “She can't scare and she can't soil.” Then he mused in The Dancing Floor: “Was the blushing sheltered maid of our grandmother's day no more than an untempted Aphrodite?” In Buchan's view, ignorance is not innocence, and true innocence is incorruptible.

This theme surfaces in many of Buchan's historical novels. These have many superficial similarities to Robert Louis Stevenson's stories, but are usually darker and do not always end happily in the usual sense of the word. Usually there will be an ordinary young man sucked into some dark conspiracy. There will be a lady, and he will not attain her. There will be a chance of endless glory, but he will forego it. The historical novels—especially Midwinter, Witch Wood, The Blanket of the Dark, and The Free Fishers—are dramatisations of one verse of the Bible: What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world, but lose his own soul? The Blanket of the Dark is perhaps the most striking example of this. It revolves around Peter Pentecost, an Oxford scholar in the reign of Henry VIII who turns out to have royal blood. Before long he becomes the pawn of powerful men who wish to dethrone the capable Henry and have Peter crowned in his place. Peter—an innocent youth—comes under grave spiritual attack and learns much of the world, but eventually his faith and innocence triumph, and he relinquishes his claim to the throne. His triumph is the same as Galadriel's in The Lord of the Rings, who will “diminish, and pass into the West, and remain Galadriel”. This, Buchan tells us, is why future ages of the world never heard the name of Peter Pentecost: not because he lost, but because he won.

If The Blanket of the Dark skirts around the idea of innocence and purity, The Dancing Floor dives right in. The heroine, Kore Arabin, comes from a decadent English family who have oppressed the Greek island of Plakos for decades. Now she is the only one left, and she has inherited the family mansion, a black hole of horrific obscenity which the locals dare not go anywhere near. Kore rebels passionately against her family's memory and tries to expiate their sin, shutting herself away in the house and cleaning it room by room. This is to ignore another aspect of the book, another of Buchan's eerie and strangely effective discussions of ancient paganism (Greek, in this case, rather than Celtic, as in Witch Wood) as compared, contrasted, and pitted against plain everyday Christianity. But it all weaves together and culminates in the definitive statement of his thesis:
I remembered a phrase which Vernon had once used about 'the mailed virgin'. It fitted this girl, and I began to realize the meaning of virginity. True purity, I thought, whether in woman or man, was something far more than the narrow sex thing which was the common notion of it. It meant keeping oneself, as the Bible says, altogether unspotted from the world, free from all tyranny and stain, whether of flesh or of spirit, defying the universe to touch even the outworks of the sanctuary which is one's soul. It must be defiant, not the inert fragile crystal, but the supple shining sword. Virginity meant nothing unless it was mailed...
That is what above everything else, I learned from Buchan. That is why I love his books so much—because no matter what else they are, despite the dated dialogue, and the thrilling adventure, and the magnificent command of the language, they are above all else a celebration of what is pure and good, clean and healthy, shining and incorruptible. CS Lewis recognised this about Buchan too—in That Hideous Strength, it is part of Mark's disenchantment with the NICE that “He saw himself in his teens laboriously reading rubbishy grown-up novels and drinking beer when he really enjoyed John Buchan and stone ginger.” Buchan's works are definitely and defiantly clean and innocent, and that is why I and others will always love them.


Morgenländer said...

I've just discovered your blog, looking for information about Buchans historical novel "The Blanket of the Dark".

I have not yet read any of his historical romances, but I love his thrillers. At the moment, I'm reading "The Power House" - it's short, but great.

Suzannah said...

Hello, and welcome! I really enjoyed "The Blanket of the Dark." It's deeply profound with an unusual ending.

The thrillers are great too. I'll be posting my take on a few of them this week, but don't have time for "The Power-House." A couple more I don't have time to mention but would recommend are "John Macnab" (a poaching yarn notable for being as exciting as any of his thrillers) and "Salute to Adventurers" (a swashbuckling tale of Scots grocers, pirates, and Red Indians in colonial Virginia).

Morgenländer said...

Thanks for your recommendations. I've just ordered "The Blanket of the Dark". If it's as good as any of Buchans thrillers, I'm sure I'll enjoy it.

Andrew of the House of Lacey said...

I have just finished reading the three Dickson McCunn books. They were indeed a healthy draft. I found much to admire and gloat over while reading Mr. Buchan and I am grateful for your reviews of them, (which prompted me to sniff them out in the first place).

I did have a moment's confusion halfway through The House of the Four Winds. Buchan had struck me, for the entirety of my experience up to that point, as being a generally old-style Protestant. Therefore I made a double-take when I came across the line where Dickson is described as having...

"that Calvinistic belief in the guidance of Allah which is stronger than any Moslem's and he had also the perpetual expectation of the bigoted romantic...."

Eh? Where did that come from? I was slightly confused as to whether this was some literary/poetical licence, or a small example of the Christian idea that Allah and YHWH are the same. I had not pegged Mr. Buchan as an adherent to that concept, but it does seem strange.

Suzannah said...

Yes, Buchan would occasionally let off an odd comment like that about Calvinism. I think this is a bit of literary licence--he isn't so much saying that Christians worship Allah, as saying that Calvinists have a similarly absolute conception of the will of God.

He often used to let off odd comments about Calvinism, which is odd, because as far as I recall he considered himself one. WITCH WOOD contains quite a scathing critique of Calvinism taken to extremes. I'm not sure whether he honestly misunderstood the doctrine, or whether (more likely, in my opinion, though perhaps I'm letting him off the hook) he was simply trying to sound a note of caution about reducing Christianity entirely to the Calvinism system.

Andrew of the House of Lacey said...

Ah, he is in a habit of making such remarks, is he? Ok then, I was just wondering. As I said, I found every other inch of these three books fantastic. :)


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