Friday, May 6, 2011

Prester John

Lars Walker provides an appropriately qualified appreciation of John Buchan's Prester John [1910].

Another Buchan lover [she places him between Tolkien and Chesterton as her "second favorite"] notes that "famous John Buchan fans include CS Lewis, HP Lovecraft, Ian Fleming (natch), Mary Stewart, ND Wilson, Alfred Hitchcock, JFK, and Graham Greene."

I've enjoyed all of Buchan's thrillers, including Prester John, but, as Walker writes, "Buchan’s Prester John is a Great Story, Marred by Racial Attitudes":
John Buchan was one of the inventors of the modern thriller novel.... His most famous work is The 39 Steps, adapted out of all recognition by Alfred Hitchcock, but he wrote other excellent novels. I’m particularly fond of the Richard Hannay books.

Prester John is not part of that series. It will never be widely popular again because, fine as it is purely as a story, it strongly promotes attitudes toward race which are (rightly) offensive to the modern mind.

The hero of the book is David Crawfurd (sic)....

The action gets intense, particularly because David is the rashest of young men, consistently running into danger instead of away from it (sometimes straining the reader’s credulity). But Buchan knew the trick of keeping his characters going fast enough to divert the reader from improbabilities in the plot. The climax in a secret mountain cave is fully worthy of H. Rider Haggard.

The problem...is the racial attitudes. .... I’m no booster of the present age as opposed to the 19th Century generally, but on this subject we’re right and they were wrong.
This is the difference between white and black [David says], the gift of responsibility, the power of being in a little way a king; and so long as we know this and practise it, we will rule not in Africa alone but wherever there are dark men who live only for the day and their own bellies.
Digressions like that fatally mar what is otherwise a well-written and exciting old-fashioned adventure story. Adults who can discriminate will enjoy it. Children should be kept away from it. [more]
The illustration is from an ex-library copy I have and is probably the one to which Walker refers in his review.