The fork in the gully July 13, 2009Posted by Jenny in hiking, literature, spy novels, travel.
Tags: Boer War, Department of Information, Greenmantle, John Buchan, Mr. Standfast, Scotland, The Three Hostages, Thirty-Nine Steps, World War I
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John Buchan, the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps, liked to set his characters desperately running across dangerous mountains. He was the best describer of mountain landscape of any novelist I have read. He understood about ridges and gullies, headwalls and scree slopes. And he seemed more interested in places like the boilerplate slabs of the Black Cuillen than, say, the north face of the Eiger or the heights of Everest, which have gotten very overexposed.
I was thinking about Buchan lately because I came across a negative description of him in a history of World War I, The Pity of War by Niall Ferguson. Buchan was apparently very active in churning out propaganda for Britain’s Department of Information. And I can hear a tinny sound in his voice, the note of the propagandist, when I read a work like Greenmantle, published in 1916. The worst problem with Greenmantle is not the references to battle or “looking forward to being in at the finish with Brother Boche.” It’s the characters made out of tinsel: “As she stood with heightened colour, her eyes like stars, her poise like a wild bird’s, I had to confess that she had her own loveliness. She might be a devil, but she was also a queen.” Oh, dear.
I kept myself amused while turning the pages of Greenmantle by testing myself on all the references to the Boer War and the 1914 Maritz Rebellion— for one of the leading characters, Peter Pienaar, is said to have been born in Burgersdorp in the Cape Colony. That’s a good choice—makes Pienaar a British citizen but from a pro-Boer town near the Free State border. Buchan, like many other British subjects who spent time in South Africa during or soon after the war, seems to have been divided between admiring the veldcraft of the Boers and insisting on the noble cause of the Empire. Pienaar is described as a consummate outdoorsman, but: “When the Boer War started, Peter, like many of the very great hunters, took the British side and did most of our intelligence work in the North Transvaal.” Well, yes, probably because all of the great hunters’ clients would have been wealthy Brits.
Actually, the best part of Greenmantle is the section where Peter Pienaar and Richard Hannay are pretending to be followers of Manie Maritz who are now selling their services to the Germans. And that’s not just because I’m interested in the South African references. It’s because the other thing that Buchan does really well, apart from writing about mountains, is convey the sound of a smart, world-weary traveler who’s been knocking around the globe, in much the same way you find in Somerset Maugham or Graham Greene: “His clothes were of the cut you might expect to get at Lobito Bay…. I talked Portuguese fairly well, and Peter spoke it like a Lourenco Marques bar-keeper, with a lot of Shangaan words to fill up. He started on curacoa, which I reckoned was a new drink to him…” And so on. This stuff is all good and durable, a picture of a long-gone world.
The mountains in Greenmantle are in the wilds of eastern Turkey near Erzerum. I don’t know if Buchan ever spent time there, but he seems to have been less than thoroughly familiar with that region, so he made the mountains look like South African ones, complete with precipitous krantzes. He does better with mountains in Mr. Standfast, where he visits the Black Cuillen of Skye, and in The Three Hostages, where his character Hannay fights it out with the villain in the Scottish highlands.
His place in the highlands is called Machray, and as far as I can figure out, it is a composite of some real places. He names the following mountains: Stob Ban, Stob Coire Easain, Sgurr Mor, and Sgurr Dearg. Two could be in the Mamores, one on Skye, and two elsewhere in western Scotland. (The names seem to be common ones that mean things like “white peak” and “big peak,” and are found more than one place in Scotland.) Sgurr Dearg is famous for the “Inaccessible Pinnacle” that rises from it. (All of the photos in this post are from Wikimedia Commons—places I’d love to go but haven’t been.)
At the end of The Three Hostages, Richard Hannay is climbing up a gully on the looming, precipiced mountain of “Sgurr Dearg” with the enemy, Medina, coming after him. One of the two, you can easily see, is not going to come out of this alive. Hannay scrambles up the gully, working around “a rather awkward chockstone,” and comes to a fork. The left branch looks hopelessly difficult, and the right seems to offer more handholds. But then Hannay recalls looking at the same gully from a higher ridge, on a previous trip:
I had come to the conclusion that, while the left fork might be climbed, the right was impossible or nearly so, for, modestly as it began, it ran out into a fearsome crack on the face of the cliff, and did not become a chimney again till after a hundred feet of unclimbable rotten granite.
So he goes up the left and manages to claw his way around some obstacles on “an extreme poverty of decent holds.” After various dramatic vicissitudes, Medina tries to follow, but he takes the wrong fork—he goes for the one that starts out looking more doable but that ends on the impossible face. And Medina falls to his death.
What I really like about this episode is that there is no moral symbolism in taking the wrong fork. Buchan is not saying, “Medina took the way that looked easier, and so naturally he ended up failing because it is morally superior to go the harder way.” He is just narrating the way a path in life can have an unpredictable fork. The slant of the propagandist is not evident here, in a place where it would have been easy to throw in some grandiose higher meaning. I don’t mean that the book could have been literal propaganda (The Three Hostages was published in 1924), just that the mindset is sometimes hard to get rid of.