September 24, 2008


John Buchan


(September 24, 2008)

At ReaderCon, I wandered into a masterful lecture by John Clute:

“The Cossacks are Coming!”: Defining the Fantastic by Coherence of Story.
John Clute.

We normally define the fantastic by the presence of non-mimetic content. In this talk, Clute proposes that the “undue coherence” of Story, when wrought past a certain point, becomes inherently fantastical, regardless of content. The talk takes its title from the climaxes of John Buchan’s Greenmantle (1916) and The Lord of the Rings; Clute argues that the shout of the beleaguered heroes of the first tale as their saviors come from the north and fall upon their foes — “The Cossacks! The Cossacks!!” — is not just superficially similar to Gandalf’s cry — “The Eagles are coming!” — but that both cries have the same function, a function inherent to the experience of reading the fantastic. In other words, any story sufficiently advanced to have become entirely visible is indistinguishable from magic.

This is quite wonderful, of course, but so is Buchan’s book — of which I had never heard. Buchan, once a household name, has been forgotten, but here in 1916 we have the roots of the great travel books of the 20's and 30's and the birth of the thriller. Scene after scene seems at once fresh and shockingly familiar: the border crossing into hostile Germany prefigures “Julia”, the arrival at the dark German schloss inhabited by a shabby, untrustworthy servants and a frightening host, prefigures Bond and Indiana Jones and much else. A few false notes are inserted as propaganda, and the horror of the trenches is played down; this was 1916, there were still some fields in Flanders that were not forever England and we wouldn’t want to hurt recruiting. The exotic American sidekick is a hoot, and the Honorable Arbuthnot is everything you could want in a colonial old hand. There’s even a memorable female villain.