Monday, February 27, 2012

Providence and Greenmantle

My family has been greatly enjoying working through George Grant's lectures on the history of modernity lately. I was, of course, extremely gratified to see John Buchan's Greenmantle as required reading for the course and interested to see what he would say about it.

(Maybe I should just change this blog's title to Nothing But Buchan).

A brief biography of Buchan by George Grant can be found here.

Here is another post by a lady also using the Modernity course with a homeschool co-op. I quote part of the post verbatim:
Some readers criticize the novel [Greenmantle] for being too full of coincidences, and Buchan addresses this issue in the novel’s dedication:
“Let no man or woman call its events improbable. The war has driven that word from our vocabulary, and melodrama has become the prosiest realism. Things unimagined before happen daily to our friends by sea and land. The one chance in a thousand is habitually taken, and as often as not succeeds.”
George Grant identifies the novel’s “strange and sudden providences” as “its greatest attribute” that shows the intervention of God.
And lo, a thing became apparent to me which has puzzled me many a long day. And that is this. There are certainly one or two coincidences in the plot of Greenmantle. And these coincidences seem to cause a certain kind of reader to froth at the mouth. Just have a look at some Amazon reviews:
This time the story is set in wartime (WWI) but follows the same formula of Hannay staying one step ahead of his pursuers through the most unlikeliest of means. Not boring but the smugness and chauvanism [sic] of Hannay and his companions becomes tiresome and date the story badly.
Or what about this, with the hilarious claim that the writer of the review knew more about WWI than John Buchan, who, uh, lived through it, losing both his brother and his best friend in it?
The number of absurd coincidences, cliffhangers, and deus ex machinas required to sustain the plot of this boy scout daydream would challenge anyone's ability to suspend disbelief. I would rate it as slightly less credible than the Wizard of Oz. This silliness spoiled it for me, though I might have loved it if I had run across it at the age of 12. This book does not give any kind of reliable view of World War I. It is a fairytale.
This attitude had always surprised me. After all, Greenmantle is exciting. It's clean. It's uplifting. Morally and spiritually, it's the feeling you get after a long, perspiring trip to the seashore in midsummer, when you've plunged into the freezing surf and come up again with every nerve tingling and the roar of the waves in your ears. And a few minor coincidences ruin it? Come on!

What further confused me is that I had read dull and depressing modernist books and I knew there were just as many crazy coincidences in these books as in Greenmantle. Only here, instead of the coincidence turning out for good, the coincidence turns out for evil. Of all the things one could wake up as in the morning, for example, Gregor Samsa just coincidentally wakes up as a giant cockroach. Of all the hitchikers the protagonist might accidentally pick up, he just happens to pick up the sole sociopath.

You actually can't construct a plot without there being a string of coincidences. Monte Cristo just happens to meet the one man who can tell him how to become fabulously rich. It turns out that the one person Elizabeth Bennet can't stand is the person who wants to marry her. And how many times has Hercule Poirot or Lord Peter Wimsey stumbled across a murder mystery as if by chance?

But Buchan's little coincidences—or providences—go a little beyond what is necessary to get the plot rolling. Friends meet by chance in a little town on the Danube. Help comes when it's least expected. Is Buchan just being a lazy storyteller here? I doubt it. Rather, his theology is affecting his plot. Like many Calvinists, he has seen the hand of Providence—which he invokes more explicitly in Mr Standfastat work in everyday life, and knows that God moves in the lives of men. He is working in tones of the utmost realism here.

And that is why people are so infuriated when they read a book like this. They didn't expect to charge up against a Calvinist doctrine of Providence here. And they may not be able to put their fingers on exactly why—but they know they hate it.

For those of you who want to read a little further Grantian endorsement of John Buchan (and his ridiculously unbelievable, boy-scout, absurd, adventurous life), together with a rave review of Greenmantle, click here.

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