Erskine Childers Essay - Critical Essays


For readers who are yachtsmen, sailors, or deep-sea fishermen, Erskine Childers’s depiction of the joys, hardships, and terrors of the sea and the skills needed to master the oceanic forces in his sole novel, The Riddle of the Sands, are stunningly vivid, authentic, and insightful. His tale is a classic depiction of the sport of yachting, and the novel continues to find an appreciative audience among its admirers. In an essay on Childers, E. F. Parker noted, “In Ireland he is a legendary hero—one of the founders of the nation—but outside Ireland in the rest of the English speaking world, it is as a yachtsman he is best remembered and as the author of the splendid yachting thriller The Riddle of the Sands.”

The Riddle of the Sands

Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands has been considered a masterpiece from three different perspectives. First, it is a remakable piece of political propaganda. Childers explicitly claimed that he had “edited” the manuscript for the general public to alert it to dangers to the English nation’s security posed by German naval maneuvers allegedly detected by two English amateur yachtsmen while sailing among the Frisian Islands off the northwestern coast of Imperial Germany. Childers had seen action as an ordinary soldier in the recent Boer Wars and had become very critical of Great Britain’s military inadequacies. He had written several historical accounts of the Boer Wars before publishing The Riddle of the Sands and subsequently wrote several other military treatises urging specific reforms in British tactics and weaponry.

In the preface to The Riddle of the Sands, Childers reported that he opposed “a bald exposition of the essential facts, stripped of their warm human envelope,” as proposed by the two young sailor adventurers. He argued thatin such a form the narrative would not carry conviction, and would defeat its own end. The persons and the events were indissolubly connected; to evade, abridge, suppress, would be to convey to the reader the idea of a concocted hoax. Indeed, I took bolder ground still, urging that the story should be made as explicit and circumstantial as possible, frankly and honestly for the purpose of entertaining and so of attracting a wide circle of readers.

Two points may be made about these remarks. First, the novel can be seen as a clever propaganda device to attract public attention to Great Britain’s...

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