Saturday, November 24, 2012

Huntingtower by John Buchan (re-read)

This seems my year for re-reading Buchan books. The latest I had a hankering to re-read was Huntingtower, a delightful novel full of wonderful characters. I reviewed it before, but at that point it had been several years since I'd read it. And now, while it's fresh in my mind, might be a good moment to go over it again.

Huntingtower is about Dickson McCunn, retired Glasgow grocer, businessman, and romantic. On holiday in Carrick, he stumbles across something he has only ever dreamed about: Romance, in the sense of adventure. Together with a not-quite-as-disillusioned-as-he-appears realist poet, a gang of hardened Glasgow street boys, a lame laird and his battered henchmen, and (not to be forgotten) the capable and pious old lady Mrs Morran, Dickson McCunn faces the challenge of a lifetime: rescue an honest-to-goodness princess from a dark tower and Russia from the Bolsheviks.

Three genres are seamlessly blended into this wonderful book. First, the fairy-tale: the princess, the tower, the ogre, the handsome prince, all present and very much correct. Second, the shilling shocker: the gorgeous international lady of mystery (complete with chaperone); the seedy Bolshevik conspiracy; the stolen jewels which must not fall into the wrong hands; the deadly villain, the square-jawed hero.

These genres are both well-worn and Buchan breaks no moulds spinning his story; his book examines and justifies the hoary tropes, rather than deconstructing them. But the unique appeal of this book lies in the third genre Buchan adds. What would one call it? Literary fiction? Light comedy? At any rate, the fairytale shocker has a hiccup: the handsome prince is delayed coming to the lady's rescue. And into the breach step a handful of the most motley bystanders you can imagine.
"Five laddies, a middle-aged man and an auld wife," he cried. "Dod, it's pretty hopeless. It's like the thing in the Bible about the weak things of the world trying to confound the strong."
These characters are drawn lovingly and vividly, from the battered and desperate Gorbals Die-Hards who have never known love or comfort to the respectable and stolid Mr McCunn and Mrs Morran who handle everything as it comes to them with unfailing pluck. It would be cozy to read about Mr McCunn selling hams and writing dutiful letters to his wife at the Neuk Hydropathic. But reading about him outwitting Bolshevik spies and occasionally injuring respectable lawyers is something on the heady side of delightful.
"I haven't been doing badly for an old man," he reflected with glee. What, oh, what had become of the pillar of commerce, the man who might have been a Bailie had he sought municipal honours, the elder in the Guthrie Memorial Kirk, the instructor of literary young men? In the past three days he had levanted with jewels which had once been an Emperor's and certainly were not his; he had burglariously entered and made free of a strange house; he had played hide-and-seek at the risk of his neck and had wrestled in the dark with a foreign miscreant; he had shot at an eminent solicitor with intent to kill; and he was now engaged in tramping the world with a fairy-tale Princess. I blush to confess that of each of his doings he was unashamedly proud, and thirsted for many more in the same line.
In the meantime I realised what this book reminds me of. Mr McCunn, a law-abiding homebody with a poetic streak, is pulled (protesting at every step) into the wildest kind of adventure, which interferes with his quiet enjoyment of comforts such as pipes and second breakfasts. Indeed: Dickson McCunn is a Hobbit, and probably a Baggins. Like Bilbo, he becomes the head of operations and opines that the really necessary thing in a wild adventure like his is good solid business sense.

Then you have the Gorbals Die-Hards, who are just as delightful. There's Dougal, their leader, who may be any age between twelve and fifteen, and is without a doubt the best military head in the book. There's the smallest, Wee Jaikie, who cries in moments of excitement--"When ye see Jaikie begin to greet, ye may be sure that Jaikie's gettin' dangerous." And there's Thomas Yownie, the un-fickle-able:
Into the hall from the verandah limped a boy. Never was there seen so ruinous a child. He was dripping wet, his shirt was all but torn off his back, his bleeding nose was poorly staunched by a wisp of handkerchief, his breeches were in ribbons, and his poor bare legs looked as if they had been comprehensively kicked and scratched. Limpingly he entered, yet with a kind of pride, like some small cock-sparrow who has lost most of his plumage but has vanquished his adversary.
With a yell Dougal went down the stairs. The boy saluted him, and they gravely shook hands. It was the meeting of Wellington and Blücher.
The Chieftain's voice shrilled in triumph, but there was a break in it. The glory was almost too great to be borne.
"I kenned it," he cried. "It was the Gorbals Die-Hards. There stands the man that done it.... Ye'll no' fickle Thomas Yownie."
The theme of Huntingtower is Romance--in the sense of adventure and drama. The story, after all, is not so much about the adventure itself as it is about the effect of the adventure on its prosaic cast. The Princess, the Ogre, and the Prince are at all times clearly distinguished from the rest of the cast: they are larger than life; they belong to a world which none of the other characters can touch.
That everybody should be in love with her appeared to him only proper, for he had never met her like, and assumed that it did not exist. The desire of the moth for the star seemed to him a reasonable thing […] He wished he were twenty-five himself to have the chance of indulging in such sentimentality for such a lady. But Heritage was not like him and would never be content with a romantic folly. […] But it was hopeless; he saw quite clearly that it was hopeless. […] He recognised that the two belonged to different circles of being, which nowhere intersected.

When we meet Dickson, he considers himself a romantic; when he meets Heritage, the Poet, that young man talks about Communism and declares himself a realist. But then when adventure does come to them, the surprising thing is that both desert their previous convictions. Dickson, self-avowed romantic, is deeply disturbed by the thought of danger and adventure and desires nothing more than to get out of the adventure with his self-esteem intact. His thirst for adventure having failed him, he is brought up to scratch by his lifelong sense of duty and a certainty that what the Princess really needs with her is a hard-headed businessman. Before long, he finds himself facing death, and not liking it much:

Last Sunday, he remembered, he had been basking in the afternoon sun in his little garden and reading about the end of Fergus MacIvor in Waverley and thrilling to the romance of it; and then Tibby had come out and summoned him in to tea. Then he had rather wanted to be a Jacobite in the '45 and in peril of his neck, and now Providence had taken him most terribly at his word.

Romance, the romantic discovers, involves the cold and chilly business of walking into death. On the other hand, the Realist has an easier time of it, because Realism, unlike Romance, is a phantom. A catch of music sung in the evening air, and suddenly the whole world changes:

A week ago he was a cynical clear-sighted modern, a contemner of illusions, a swallower of formulas, a breaker of shams—one who had seen through the heroical and found it silly. Romance and such-like toys were playthings for fatted middle-age, not for strenuous and cold-eyed youth. But the truth was that now he was altogether spellbound by these toys.

At the end of the book, the Grocer and the Poet make their peace:

"The trouble about you, Dogson," says Heritage, "is that you're a bit of an anarchist. All you false romantics are. You don't see the extraordinary beauty of the conventions which time has consecrated. You always want novelty, you know, and the novel is usually the ugly and rarely the true. I am for romance, but upon the old, noble classic lines."

Romance is not novelty and liberation. Romance is duty and convention, faith and perseverance. This is Buchan’s eternal theme: the man faithful in little who is faithful in much. It’s Dickson’s sense of duty and responsibility that goads him back into the fight. Princesses, jewels, and spies are all very well, but in Huntingtower the true romance is located right where it always has been: in the common things, the little things, the everyday things.

As a coda, I also want to note that that Buchan also locates romance within Christendom and the Church. As usual in a Buchan novel, the adventurous life is only lived within the context of faith. Providence and the Kirk are everywhere. Dickson is an elder of the Guthrie Memorial Kirk, and the literary society of which he is a guiding member is operated under the Guthrie Memorial aegis. In fact Dickson’s life in his kirk is evidenced within the story in two ways. First, his activities in the literary society are noted; he gives addresses upon life and literature, and at one point reflects that having tasted a bit of real adventure he will now be able to provide much better teaching; the insinuation is that his adventures fit him better to fill his duties as an elder of the kirk. Second, while in Glasgow, he visits a gun-maker to arm himself; the gun-maker is a fellow elder at his church. The weapon eventually passes to Heritage’s use; it might not be going too far to say that the Church symbolically provides the means for the characters to arm themselves against evil.

Then, as always in Buchan novels, the larger cultural context is Christendom. Dickson gets tips from the Covenanters on how to survive in the wilds with enemies hunting you down. And as always, there are the odd coincidences, flashes of divine grace in the plot which assure the characters that Providence is on their side.

Huntingtower is one of those books that only gets better each time you read it. I loved it more than ever this time, especially the characters. Dickson, who could be Bilbo Baggins’s long-lost  and more bloodthirsty brother. Mrs Morran, who may be a prim old lady but doesn’t let that stand in the way of saving the day. Dougal and his “men”, the first to go to the Princess’s defence and decidedly the most capable. Sir Archibald Roylance, Buchan regular, who spends two chapters worrying about Dougal giving the orders to start firing on the enemy too soon and then forgets all that “coyness about shooting” the moment the siege starts. And even Saskia, the Princess herself, and her handsome and romantic fiancé Prince Alexis Nicolaevitch, alias “Mr. Alexander Nicholson of the rising firm of Sprot and Nicholson of Melbourne”.

Sprot and Nicholson! Ladies and gentlemen, Huntingtower, a joyous experience.

Arthur's Classic Novels etext
Librivox recording


Lady Bibliophile said...

I have fond memories of Huntingtower and Dickson McCunn's adventures. It's been at least four years since I've read it; I should pick it up again. :)

Mahri said...

Thanks for a great review, and for reminding me of a truly delightful book. I think "Huntingtower" is my favourite amongst John Buchan's books. I am terribly fond of Gorbal Diehards.

I like the hobbit comparisons. A lot of Buchan's characters strike me as rather hobbit-like: decent, upstanding sorts, who rise to the occasion with admirable aplomb. Incidentally, I first read John Buchan on an impulse, after a review comparing the excitement of the Lord of the Rings to The 39 Steps, so I always have associated Buchan - albiet vaguely - with hobbits.

Suzannah said...

Good point Mahri--Buchan's theme of 'faithful in little, faithful in much' is closely related to Tolkien's theme of small things counfounding the strong.

Anonymous said...

Just found this blog-- OH, it's perfect; I'm on a constant quest for a certain flavor in books, which John Buchan captures perfectly: a sort of adventurous-intrigue-without-bitterness-or-cynicism, and as captivatingly well written as Buchan is. You seem to be on this quest too, and I"m delighted to tag along on your research!

If you haven't already run into Enid Blyton, you've got to check her out-- '30'-'50s British young adult adventures. I haven't read her in years, but devoured her when I was younger, and when my mom was growing up in India in the 50s and 60s, they were standard fare for the kids: they're part of that decent-British-empire world.

Which is itself a bit of a fantasy: there was plenty that wasn't decent about the British empire, but there's something about the stories it told about itself that is wonderful. It's as though the novels of Buchan and that genre described a British Empire that was actually, secretly, the Kingdom of God...

ps I blog over at should you be interested.

Suzannah said...

Glad you enjoy the blog! Yes, I have read quite a bit of Enid Blyton.

Hope to introduce you to some other good authors sometime!


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