Thursday, July 28, 2011

Favourite Novelists: John Buchan and What He Taught Me

I have already written a lot about Buchan, so I shall keep this brief.
John Buchan taught me that decent men, ordinary men, boring men are heroes. Most of his heroes are boring in a worldly sense; which is to say they are disciplined, virtuous, and shy around women. They believe in God. They are hard workers, commonly in trade or one of the professions. To these men alone come adventure:
It is to those who seek only peace and a quiet life that adventures fall; the homely merchant, jogging with his pack train, finds the enchanted forest and the sleeping princess; and Saul, busily searching for his father's asses, stumbles upon a kingdom. (Salute to Adventurers)

There are certain character traits, Buchan tells us, which must be present in a man in order for him to rise to the occasion: self-discipline is a big one; faith is another. This is simply common sense. A man under pressure does not simply develop courage and perseverance. He must have learned it at his mother's knee; it must be the result of rigorous lifelong practise.
It was borne in on me that it was only when evening fell that that house was interesting and that I must come, like Nicodemus, by night. Besides I had a private account to settle with my conscience. I had funked the place in the foggy twilight, and it does not do to let a matter like that slide. A man's courage is like a horse that refuses a fence; you have got to take him by the head and cram him at it again. If you don't, he will funk worse next time. I hadn't enough courage to be able to take chances with it, and though I was afraid of many things, the thing I feared most mortally was being afraid. (Mr Standfast)
Cold-blooded discipline. Work. Long-term faithfulness. That’s heroism.
Although his characters at various times become Attorneys-General, Major-Generals, or the biggest name in dried provisions in Glasgow, Buchan knew the true secret of success.
For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, but lose his own soul?
Success is obedience. All the money, power, and prestige in the world don't matter to a man in rebellion against God; they cannot make him truly successful. A faithful beggar, on the other hand, has the only kind of success that matters. Buchan's preoccupation with goodness extended to the many, many stories he wrote in which obedience is the happy ending. One interesting example is The Blanket of the Dark, about a young man with royal blood in his veins, who could have become a king; but fades away into obscurity instead. Yet this is the truly happy ending, because it is an act of obedience. Another is A Prince of the Captivity, a book with surprising parallels to Mr Standfast. The hero starts out disgraced in prison and things only get more hopeless from there; but no regular reader of Buchan could suggest that the difference between Richard Hannay and Adam Melfort is that the one is successful and the other is not. Both are obedient; that is enough.
This is what makes Buchan's heroes almost unique: their strength is located in their ability to obey and to serve. This is the only sure foundation for any heroism at all. This is the heroism of Cromwell, of St Athanasius, of all who have stood contra mundum for truth.
The final chapter of Buchan's lesson on discipline and obedience is perhaps the hardest of all, and that is that goodness that is not militant is not goodness at all. You cannot be a lover without being a fighter. You cannot pretend to virtue unless that virtue is able to repel assault. Buchan made the point in The Dancing-Floor with the discussion of the mailed virgin-- “Was the blushing sheltered maid of our grandmother's day no more than an untempted Aphrodite?” but the same theme re-echoed in most of his books. It was not just about chastity; it was one overarching theme of the strenuous life. In John Macnab, Janet Raden says, “People should realise that whatever they've got they hold under a perpetual challenge, and they are bound to meet that challenge”; while in The Island of Sheep Richard Hannay worries that he has become fat, not bodily but in the soul. And in Sick Heart River Edward Leithen is driven to one last adventure by a sobering realisation:
His mood was the opposite of self-pity, a feeling that his life had been too cosseted and fur-lined. […] He had used most of the talents God had given him, but not all.
Adventure, says Buchan, comes to the disciplined. To the obedient. To the fighters. These are the three traits of a storybook hero, but only because they were first the traits of a contented and peaceable man.


Christina Baehr said...

Hey, have you ever thought of sending a query to "Quadrant"? You could write a stellar piece on John Buchan. There was a piece not too long ago written by a novelist (I think) of some kind reminiscing about reading Mary Stewart novels. Anyway, if you haven't thought about it, you should.

Sherrin said...

Hi Suzannah,

I am thinking that you should write my 2012 book list :). In one of your posts you described Australian history as recent. Do you mean written history? How do you view indigenous history?

Suzannah said...

Christina--maybe one day I'll have the chutzpah!

Sherrin--I guess I meant partly written history, partly Christian history, partly history of Australia as a single nation instead of a handful of nomadic tribes, and partly history that has been culturally significant so far to Australia. Whichever way you slice it, the indigenous history--whether because it wasn't written down, or because they didn't do an awful lot with it as far as we can tell--hasn't had a huge impact on Australia as a nation.

For saying which I shall probably be hung, drawn, and quartered. But specifically in regards to James McAuley, I think we can all agree that there was no antimodernist Christian poetry in Australia prior to 1788 :)

Liz said...

I'm currently in the midst of Greenmantle. I had read The Thirty-nine Steps years ago in the midst of preparing for a mystery unit with a class of homeschoolers (we didn't end up reading that one in class). I liked it, but didn't realize that Buchan had written more novels with Hannay as a character. I almost think that I (at least so far) like Greenmantle even more. I never realized how prolific Buchan was, however. Now that I have a Kindle, finding titles by him has become worlds easier than looking in either our local library or nearby bookstores. I have a feeling I'll be reading a lot more Buchan and watching to see if you have more Buchan inspired posts.

Suzannah said...

Liz, Buchan wrote a LOT of very worthwhile, very unusual books! My favourite is "Mr Standfast", the sequel to "Greenmantle".

I'm trying to lay off the Buchan posts for now, but you can find screeds and screeds about him, including many reviews, under the John Buchan tag (look at the names on the left, at the bottom of the above post, or click here).


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