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John Buchan: 39 Steps, Hungtingtower, Witch Wood, Dancing Floor, Greenmantle, & more

Extollager

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John Buchan (1875-1940), Lord Tweedsmuir, is best known for The Thirty-Nine Steps, which has not been happily treated in its movie and TV versions, I think. He was an industrious and gifted writer of thrillers, historical novels, supernatural tales, and history. His memoirs are called Memory-Hold-the-Door in the British edition and Pilgrim's Way in the American.

I've enjoyed his writing for 40 years. I've read The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle, Mr. Standfast, The Three Hostages, The Power-House, Mountain Meadow (aka Sick Heart River), The Dancing Floor, Prester John, The Island of Sheep (US title The Man from the Norlands), The Runagates Club (stories), Huntingtower, Castle Gay, The Free Fishers, Witch Wood, and Sir Walter Scott. Also, I think, The Gap in the Curtain. The specialty publisher Donald M. Grant issued a collection of Buchan stories called The Far Islands and I've read most or all of it.

I've read about half of those listed above more than once, some more than twice.

The Far Islands and Other Tales of Fantasy - Wikipedia

Here's a bit of video of Buchan himself, from, I take, it, a time after his contributions to fiction had mostly or entirely been written:


Your reading in Buchan's books?



I mean to start his tale about poachers, John Macnab, today. (More specifically -- to quote from the back of my World's Classics paperback: "The three heroes... have everything to lose if their daring exploit should fail. Each is a leader in his field -- one is a barrister and was Attorney-General, one is a Cabinet Minister, one an eminent banker -- and each is suffering from an indefinable boredom and lethargy in London. They decide to emulate and extend the exploits of a famous gentleman-poacher in the Scottish Highlands and issue a challenge to three estates: that they will successfully poach from them two stags and a salmon in a given time, signing themselves collectively 'John Macnab'. Risking more than reputations, they cure themselves of ennui -- but that is only part of the story...")

 
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hitmouse

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I loved Prester John as a kid. Huntingtower was pretty good. Buchan was one of my father's childhood favourites.
I have had a copy of Greenmantle for 30+ years but have never read it.
 

Toby Frost

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I read some of his books a long time ago. I remember John Mcnab as being good, although I can't remember anything else about it. I enjoyed The 39 Steps and Greenmantle too. The Dancing Floor was an odd one, which seemed to be influenced by Arthur Machen and was quite sinister, at least when I was young.
 

dask

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I read some of his books a long time ago. I remember John Mcnab as being good, although I can't remember anything else about it. I enjoyed The 39 Steps and Greenmantle too. The Dancing Floor was an odd one, which seemed to be influenced by Arthur Machen and was quite sinister, at least when I was young
Just put The Dancing Floor on my radar.
 

Extollager

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Several characters appear in multiple Buchan novels and stories. These are set in the present day vis-a-vis when they were published. I can verify most of the information below from my own reading.

Richard Hannay appears in five novels:

The Thirty-Nine Steps
Greenmantle
Mr Standfast
The Three Hostages
The Island of Sheep (=The Man from the Norlands)

Hannay also appears in The Courts of the Morning, and in Sick Heart River.

Edward Leithen in five novels:

The Power-House
John Macnab
The Dancing Floor
The Gap in the Curtain
Sick Heart River (=Mountain Meadow); Hannay also appears

Leithen also appears in a story called "Space."

Sandy Arbuthnot appears as a supporting character in Greenmantle, Three Hostages, Courts of the Morning, Island of Sheep.

Retired grocer Dickson McCunn is in:

Huntingtower
Castle Gay
The House of the Four Winds
 

Extollager

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Yes. There's been some discussion of the possibility that Tolkien's Bilbo Baggins, as an unlikely prospect for an heroic adventure, owed something to McCunn. I quoted from Buchan's novel in this connection, in my entry on 19th- and 20th-century literary influences on Tolkien, for Drout's (ed.) J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia:

----“‘See here,’” McCunn complains to one of the princess’s protectors, “‘You can’t expect me to be going about burgling houses . . . I’m a respectable man . . . And I’ve no call to be mixing myself up in strangers’ affairs’” (53). But he goes along on the “preposterous adventure” (62), though he has to talk himself into behaving bravely more than once, like Bilbo (85).----

There's more, but that'll give you the idea. The main thing here is that the Buchan novel was a good read.
 

Extollager

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Fun to see the dj of the American edition of Huntingtower, from Tolkien's American publisher:

 

Extollager

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Frontispiece and title page, British edition -- compare title page and frontispiece of The Hobbit below:

 
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Extollager

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Title page and frontispiece, Allen & Unwin, first British edition of The Hobbit, I believe:

 

hitmouse

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I remember a bbc children's tv serial of Huntingtower in the late 70s/early 80s.
 

Bick

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I finished reading Greenmantle at the end of last week. I think it's both a good book and a poor book, depending on how you measure such things. Its very much of its time, and there would be some who would criticise its inherent racial attitudes and stereotyping, but that would be rather silly, so I won't do that. (And such things don't bother me in old fiction anyway). But there are some good things and bad things that are valid to comment on, so here goes, without giving away too much of the plot I hope -

The Good: Its well written, engaging and for the first half quite nicely done. Buchan writes in a style I like and the different characters are interesting (if a little thin).

The Bad: The plot is an absolute shocker. It makes no sense; the characters undertake a task about which they know nothing, with no idea where to go, or what to ask, or what they should try and achieve. Nor do we, the reader. And yet they manage to sort it out by randomly wandering across Europe and Turkey. It never became very clear to me how they joined the dots for some of it. It turns out what they are looking for is not what we are keyed up to expect either, but is based on a lot of hocus-pocus that is scarcely believable. Moreover, it gets resolved through a deus-ex-machina without needing our heroes anyway. The main idea of the book would have resolved in pretty much the same way if all the main characters hadn't left London! In addition, the back of my copy of the book tells us the German's have a secret weapon, and our heroes are sent on a mission to discover what it is and to stop the Boche from using it. Except the German's don't have a secret weapon and our heroes don't stop it. My last problem with the book is that the evil female enemy protagonist comes out of nowhere, is a paper thin character who we are told is brilliant and evil, but she does nothing at all that is either brilliant or evil, so we're supposedly to take it as red, just well, because.

In short, this was quite enjoyable for the first two thirds or so, until I realised how it was unfolding. Looking back on it as a whole I'd say it gets 2 out of 5 stars. Not recommended by me; the 39 steps is immeasurably better.
 

Extollager

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Is this the one about a German plot to stir up Muslims by means of an impostor Mahdi?
 

Extollager

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I have a vague impression that there may have been a real-life basis for this German plot to stir up the Muslim world, and that it's discussed in one of Peter Hopkirk's books.
 

Bick

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I have a vague impression that there may have been a real-life basis for this German plot to stir up the Muslim world, and that it's discussed in one of Peter Hopkirk's books.
I hadn't heard that, though that's interesting. Possibly against the idea, I would have thought, is that Buchan wrote the book in 1915. Could there have been much plotting for this by '15, and would Buchan and the Allies have heard of it so soon? If it were true, it would probably improve my view of the plot - though I would still have the issues with it I mentioned.
 
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