Author, administrator, historian, politician, mountaineer, and Governor-General of Canada, John Buchan is long overdue for rehabilitation as a genuine Christian intellect of the early twentieth century. A son of a minister, his favorite book after the Bible was Pilgrim’s Progress. Buchan’s progress was marked by a strong faith and catholicity of vision, and he deserves to be known for more than the ripping yarns that he fondly termed his “shockers.”
Against the approved literary tradition, Buchan’s childhood was perfectly happy. His father’s religion, although rigorous, did not inflict crushing guilt on Buchan or any of his siblings. “Our household was ruled by the old Calvinistic discipline,” wrote Buchan in his memoir Memory Hold-the-Door (Pilgrim’s Way in the U.S.). “That discipline can have had none of the harshness against which so many have revolted, for it did not dim the beauty and interest of the earth.” Buchan never lost his inspiration that the world was to be respected and life was deadly serious; eternally serious, in fact. Even if one was a mere nothingness in the grand scheme of the cosmos, one was a unique speck of nothingness; even if God had predestined you for damnation, you still owed him thanks for your lost soul.
Studies at Glasgow and Oxford took the edge from Buchan’s Calvinism, the most obvious literary remnant being over-reliance on providence as a narrative device. This was partly slack plotting, but it can also be attributed to a belief that life really was lived in the hand of God. Richard Hannay, hero of The Thirty-Nine Steps and Buchan’s most famous creation, was particularly prone to crediting Providence with his success. In one of his weakest novels, The House of the Four Winds, Buchan provides an unintentionally humorous illustration of his philosophy, as a character admits “I don’t quite know why any of us are here,” although on an existential level she echoes her creator by insisting that “here we are, and we must do something.”
In 1929 Buchan became a Tory M.P—rather late in life. Since he was not a “Party man,” he never achieved office. He identified himself as a moderate conservative; writing to the left-wing author J.B. Priestley, Buchan insisted that, while he “believed in the progressive socialization of the state,” it was vital to insist upon “the spiritual integrity of the individual.” Buchan never had to square this particular circle in a secular age, as we are now being forced to attempt: By spiritual he meant spiritual; freedom, in other words, was rooted firmly in a conception of man as a divine being.
Without this assurance, man was in danger of falling for the blandishments of such men as Andrew Lumley, the mastermind behind The Power-House. Lumley denies that he is entirely hollow: “I have my own worship. I venerate the intellect of man. I believe in its undreamed-of possibilities, when it grows free like an oak in the forest and is not dwarfed in a flower-pot. From that allegiance I have never wavered. That is the God I have never foresworn.” Edward Leithen, the hero and a much better candidate than Hannay for Buchan’s literary ego, calls Lumley “a brain stripped of every shred of humanity.” The dominant theme of Buchan’s fiction is the fragility of civilisation. Those with power are not necessarily to be trusted more than anyone else; they may be weak or evil, and the Luciferian villain looms large. Civilization was contingent on sinful humanity, and could be nothing less than insecure.
Although Buchan feared the possibility that the strong would choose evil, his belief in the spiritual integrity of the individual ensured that his greatest wrath was turned against those who attempted to enforce uniformity of conscience. One of the few bodies he ever excoriated was the Scottish Kirk—at least, the seventeenth-century version. In his novel Witch Wood and his biography of Montrose, Buchan lambasted the Presbyterian Kirk for its tyranny and assertion of mastery over men’s souls. It is a Catholic priest in The Blanket of the Dark who speaks with Buchan’s voice:
I incline to the belief that in the light of eternity all our truths are shadows, and that the very truth we shall only know hereafter. Yet I think that every truth in its own place is a substance, though it may be a shadow in another place. And I think that all such shadows have value for our souls, for each is a true shadow, as the substance is a true substance.
The Christian nature of Buchan’s writing is largely expressed through a theological reading of his thrillers, in which the lone hero is placed in a position vis-a-vis the universe akin to that of the Christian existentialist. By contrast, with the cousin-genre of the whodunit, the thriller places its protagonist in radical uncertainty, in which the mystery is not so much what happened as what is happening? The thriller is filled with moments of crisis. The hero must act in order to understand his situation; must make a decision and, by so doing, create authenticity. Where the whodunit is concerned with a community, the thriller is concerned with the individual; a genre of Protestant inclination, and one of Christian existentialism. Buchan is profitably read in the light of Kierkegaard (as is the more theologically troubling Graham Greene).
For present purposes, however, it is enough to discuss two of Buchan’s novels. His clearest expression of affinity with Catholicism appears in The Blanket of the Dark, a historical novel set in Tudor England. The background is one of religious ferment, and the earthly quest of the hero, an act of de facto rebellion against Henry VIII, is thrown into doubt by a vision of the Virgin Mary. ”She was the hope of the world, for she made even mortality divine; she was the Power above the Law, who brought mercy into justice and tenderness into the sublimities of Son and Father.” Buchan offers no “rational explanation” for the vision, which is presented as coolly and veridically as any merely descriptive passage.
En route to execution, the hero feels he was fortunate indeed to have been deflected from his mundane plans: “He had had glory within his grasp, and had brought it as an offering to the feet of her whose glory was beyond sun, moon and stars. The blanket of the dark covered the earth, but it made only the brighter that heavenly radiance which burned for him and made a path of light to immortality.” Buchan well understood the transcendent element within Calvinism, strongly proclaimed by his great contemporary Karl Barth. But his romanticism, which occasionally bordered on mysticism, drew him into a relationship with the created world best described as sacramental.
Buchan’s final novel, Sick Heart River, was completed in the final year of his life and published posthumously; although his death came as the result of an accident, the novel was a fitting final testament. Edward Leithen, facing death, agrees to search for a missing friend in the Canadian Arctic (appointed Governor-General of Canada in 1935, Buchan died in office in 1940). Leithen intends to find the missing man and, quite possibly, to die in the attempt, having “made his soul.” A worldly success, Leithen responds to the deeper need for meaning in an insecure universe.
Leithen’s progress is one of spiritual awakening. His first step, although ostensibly one of altruism, is marked by a pride in suffering, a Stoic resolve to bear whatever burden the wilderness may enforce. Here Leithen is alone with the immensity of God, among the stillness and silence of the frozen wasteland. Identifying himself with Job, Leithen believes that his soul is to be made through a determination to finish the course at whatever the cost; not in itself misguided, but incomplete.
The second step is the realization of God’s infinite mercy; Leithen’s awareness not simply of his insignificance in the face of the Omnipotent, but of his eternal significance. The world is not to be borne, but to be loved; submission not to God as judge, but as father. The first step was to accept the divine purpose; the second was to participate. When he finds his quarry, Leithen finds also the Sick Heart River, a metaphorical stream of humiliation and reconciliation.
Yet there is a third act, in which Leithen commits himself to a community of Hare Indians, stricken with tuberculosis and enervated beyond self-help. Having passed through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, Leithen embraces life, in the great Christian paradox, by embracing death. Leithen finally “gains his soul” by offering himself as a free gift to others.
The final section of Sick Heart River is narrated by Fr Duplessis, a Picardy priest whose service has been in the Arctic. “Though not of the Church,” Duplessis notes of Leithen, “I do not hesitate to say that he was of the Faith,” although his natural stoicism was more Roman than Christian. “He discovered that tenderness and compassion which Our Lord came into the world to preach, and, in sympathy with others, he lost all care for himself. His noble, frosty egoism was merged in something nobler. He had meant to die in the cold cathedral of the North, ceasing to love in a world which had no care for life. Now he welcomed the humblest human environment, for he had come to love his kind, indeed, to love everything that God had made.”
The final pages of Buchan’s memoir reflect this mature Christianity. “As we grow older,” he wrote, we “come more and more to acclaim absolute things-goodness, truth, beauty,” and “with the recognition of our limitations comes a glimpse of the majesty of the ‘Power not ourselves.’ Religion is born when we accept the ultimate frustration of mere human effort, and at the same time realize the strength which comes from union with superhuman reality.”
Nick Baldock recently graduated with a PhD in History from Yale University.