Greenmantle by John Buchan

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Greenmantle by John Buchan

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Boys own adventure set in the First World War, that has eerie resonances today, but remains great escapist fun.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: June 2011
Publisher: Polygon
ISBN: 978-1846971976

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I'm told that Buchan is still widely read. Really? John Buchan? Oh yes, he wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps… and that's as far as most of us get. Let's be honest most of us only know that one from the many film versions, just about all of which take huge liberties with the original plot.

I put myself well into that ignorance camp. So ignorant in fact, that not only was I amazed to discover that he wrote over 30 novels, 60-odd non-fiction works (including biographies of Sir Walter Scott and Oliver Cromwell) and 7 collections of short stories, but even more fascinated to realise that he was writing much earlier than I thought – that The Thirty-Nine Steps and Greenmantle were published almost contemporaneously with the events they portray. That lifts them from being "classics of the genre" into something much more important. How come they are so overlooked?!

I can't answer that, except, I guess, to say that fashions change. Tastes in books are as fickle as they are in shoes. The good news is that that almost certainly guarantees another outing for Buchan's work – a chance for me to read more of it, and hopefully, a re-assessment of its value.

And so to Greenmantle.

Our hero, Major Richard Hannay, is convalescing in a Hampshire Country House "after Loos"… the so-called big push of September / October 1915. This was trench warfare at its most infamous, famed for being the first use of poison gas by the British which succeeded in killing as many of our own as it did the enemy, the campaign summed up at the beginning of Oh What A Lovely War by the scoreboard reading: British Losses: 60,000/ Total Allied Losses: 250,000/ Ground Gained: 0 Yards.

Hannay had been in the thick of it. Now, with his recuperation almost done, he receives a telegramme that raises hopes of being given a battalion to command. Obviously, it is nothing so simple. He's summoned not to the War Office, but to the Foreign Office and offered a different job altogether. He is not to return to the Western Front, but to the Eastern one… he is faced with the fears of Turkey being pulled into the war by Germany, but also that greater interests are at play, that there is a Jehad preparing.

It seems that a revelation has been promised. I've no idea whether Islam incorporates the idea of a second coming but that is more-or-less what has been promised and the Germans are manipulating the prophesy for their own ends. Hannay's job is to go and find out exactly what the prophesy says and just how the Germans believe they can play it. Of course, stopping it would be something of a bonus, but isn't actually part of the commission: just getting in and getting the knowledge out will be tricky enough.

The introduction to this edition is by Allan Massie, who states that while Thirty-Nine was a classic chase novel (one man against the world), and with Greenmantle we switch to The Quest. It is again an eons-old formula for story-telling and seldom is the questor alone. There must be doughty companions to provide the skills that he has not. There must be trials and separations and coming-togethers and skills shared and friendships forged. You know the drill.

Buchan plays by the rules. Companions there must be. Hannay chooses friend and fellow-soldier Sandy Arbuthnot, son of a Scottish peer, Arab speaker and Eastern scholar. The Foreign Office send him American Engineer, John S Blenkiron, an industrialist from a technically neutral power, with an eye for the main chance and a septic ulcer, but the best-polished BS in the business (I nominate Joe Don Baker for the part). He has the contacts, and the knowledge. The final member of the team is Peter Pienaar, a Boer hunter and tracker from Hannay's past who stumbles into the plot part way through and is the self-appointed fourth musketeer.

They each bring something to the party. Weaknesses as well as strengths.

The mission is accepted and a plan of campaign established. Hannay, Blenkiron and Arbuthnot agree their separate routes east to Constantinople and the adventure begins.

This is "boys-own" stuff. Narrow escapes, disguises, traitors and collaborators, helpful old women and beautiful young ones. The plot is, as Massie points out in the introduction, "preposterous". Buchan himself used the word "shocker" to describe his adventure stories and he wasn't talking about impact value. He does, however, keep all of the coincidences on the right side of possibility. Anyone who's ever unexpectedly met a family member or work colleague in a far-flung place will know that the weirdest things do happen. People escape death in the most unlikely ways every day. And for anyone who thinks it was never really like that all I can say is go read "Seven Pillars of Wisdom."

Buchan knew what he was talking about. He was writing a history of the war as it happened for Edinburgh publishers Nelson and was being serialised in the Times. Like everyone else he lost friends and family (including his younger brother) and he was keeping up with the news.

This hints at the combination of factors that might explain the popularity of the works. Greenmantle was written in 1916, the true horrors of the Somme were yet to come and fully impinge on human conscience, but already the author was showing warfare to be a comfortless, bloody, business, even if he was standing the party line by having his hero say he liked soldiering right enough.

There is optimism in the work. It is shot through with patriotism that stops short of propaganda, yet allows a generous even-handed assessment of the Germans, even of the Kaiser himself.

Having the hero narrate all the events does kind of give the game away that he must survive even when it looks so unlikely. Back then, people didn't kill off the story-teller and switch to another voice part-way through. That simplicity is something many readers seem to be (wrongly) jaded with.

The other point to note is that to fully understand the premise for the story, you do need the background to Turko-German relations at the time. A little knowledge of the African situation would help as well. These are things that you can pick up from the story itself, but at the time of publication it would all have been pretty-much front page news and your average reader would have the basic knowledge that most of your modern readers probably don't.

It is a straightforward narrative. No tricks, no gimmicks. It relies for suspense and drama on pace and action. Maybe from the modern perspective the intrigue is not whether the hero will survive but how, but that doesn't detract from the very real involvement with the story that's possible if you give yourself over to it.

Stylistically, it foreshadows the 1930s which is when I had assumed it had been written. It has that touch of interwar glamour about it that I wouldn't have associated with an earlier work. Being of the time, and of the politics of the time, there are sentiments expressed that will jar against modern sensibilities. The focus on the political power of Islam was sufficient to have the tale removed from Radio 4's schedule round about the time of the 7/7 bombings. And references to the situation in South Africa are crudely put in language we'd generally find offensive today. These should be taken for what they are: historical references and characterisations. They shouldn't be extrapolated into an author-intended world-view. Certainly, they shouldn't be taken as a reason not to read the work. The author meant the Hannay stories to be pure escapism. They still are.


I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag. We also have a review of Huntingtower and The Gap in the Curtain by John Buchan.

For more about soldiering in the First World War we can recommend The Reluctant Tommy: An Extraordinary Memoir of the First World War by Ronald Skirth and Duncan Barrett. Formore of John Hannay try The Island of Sheep.

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