Erskine Childers Childers, Erskine - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Erskine Childers 1870-1922

(Full name Robert Erskine Childers) English novelist and nonfiction writer.

Childers is the author of The Riddle of the Sands, a novel which is widely recognized as inaugurating the literary genre of English spy fiction. Published in 1903, Childers's novel was intended to be a warning, in the guise of a light adventure story, about England's vulnerability to invasion by sea. The steady popularity of The Riddle of the Sands is reflected in numerous reprintings throughout the decades following its initial publication and its adaptation as a film in 1979.

Biographical Information

Childers was born in London, the son of Anna Mary Henrietta Barton Childers and Robert Caesar Childers, a renowned Orientalist. Educated at Haileybury and Trinity College, Cambridge, Childers became a clerk in the House of Commons and spent weekends indulging his craving for adventure and love of the sea with solitary sails in the Thames estuary. In 1897 he made the first of six cruises along the Dutch, German, and Danish coasts and in the North Sea that provided intimate knowledge of the Frisian Islands, the setting of The Riddle of the Sands. Childers was among the first to join the City Imperial Volunteers for the Boer War. In the Ranks of the C.I. V, his first published book, was the personal record of his experiences. He coauthored, with Basil Williams, the official history of his company, The H.A. C. in South Africa, and edited volume five of "The Times" History of the War in South Africa He also wrote War and the Arme Blanche and German Influence on British Cavalry, two books arguing for modern weapons and training. Although of a unionist family, Childers came back from the Boer War with inclinations toward home rule for Ireland, a position which he argued in The Framework of Home Rule. After distinguished service in the British Army in World War I, Childers became immersed in the cause of Irish independence. A member of the Irish Treaty delegation to London in 1921, he renounced the treaty establishing the separation of Ireland into north and south and sided with Eamon de Valera in the civil war. He was captured by Free State soldiers and condemned to death. He was executed on November 24, 1922, before a Free State firing squad in Dublin.

Major Works

The main characters of The Riddle of the Sands are Carruthers and Davies, two young Englishmen who, while on a sailing holiday in the Baltic, North Sea, and Frisian Sands, discover a plot on the part of Germany to invade England by sea. During the course of the narrative they struggle to solve the "riddle" of the title in order to forestall the Germans' scheme. In a long epilogue to the novel, Childers presents skeptical readers, who may fear that "a baseless romance has been foisted on them," with a half-burned "memorandum" in cipher that contains details of the German invasion plan described in the novel. "Perfect organization and perfect secrecy" underlie the riddle of the sands, writes Childers, "and no one should doubt the German capacity for executing the plan at the critical moment when Germany might have little to lose and much to gain."

Critical Reception

To its author's surprise The Riddle of the Sands met with immediate public and critical approval. Convinced of England's vulnerability to an invasion launched by Germany from a desolate stretch of coastline that had seemingly no strategic importance, Childers had registered his concern in an adventure story based on firsthand observations set down in logbooks in the years he had cruised those shoals. For a decade The Riddle of the Sands helped fuel a national debate on England's supposed state of military unreadiness. For yachtsman it remained an excellent tale of men against the sea, and in its many republications the book has continued to attract readers who admire a good spy story.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

In the Ranks of the C.L V (memoir) 1900

The H.A.C in South Africa [with Basil Williams] (nonfiction) 1903

The Riddle of the Sands (novel) 1903

War and the Arme Blanche (nonfiction) 1910

The Framework of Home Rule (nonfiction) 1911

German Influence on British Cavalry (nonfiction) 1911

Ian Fleming (essay date 1955)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mudscape with Figures," in The Specator, Vol. 195, No. 6632, August 5, 1955, pp. 199-200.

[In the following essay, Fleming faults the spy novel The Riddle of the Sands for its weak thrills and lack of convincing villains.]

Some people are frightened by silence and some by noise. To some people the anonymous bulge at the hip is more frightening than the gun in the hand, and all one can say is that different people thrill to different stimuli, and that those who like The Turn of the Screw may not be worried by, for instance, The Cat and the Canary.

Only the greatest authors make the pulses of all of us beat faster, and they do this by marrying the atmosphere of suspense into horrible acts. Poe, Stevenson and M. R. James used to frighten me most, and now Maugham, Ambler, Simenon, Chandler and Graham Greene can still raise the fur on my back when they want to. Their heroes are credible and their villains terrify with a real 'blackness.' Their situations are fraught with doom, and the threat of doom, and, above all, they have pace. When one chapter is done, we reach out for the next. Each chapter is a wave to be jumped as we race with exhilaration behind the hero like a water-skier behind a fast motor-boat.

Too many writers in this genre (and I think Erskine Childers, on whose The Riddle of the Sands these remarks are hinged, was one of them) forget that, although this may sound a contradiction in terms, speed is essential to a novel of suspense, and that while detail is important to create an atmosphere of reality, it can be laid on so thick as to become a Sargasso Sea in which the motor-boat bogs down and the skier founders.

The reader is quite happy to share the pillow-fantasies of the author so long as he is provided with sufficient landmarks to help him relate the author's world more or less to his own, and a straining after verisimilitude with maps and diagrams should be avoided except in detective stories aimed at the off-beta mind.

Even more wearying are 'recaps,' and those leaden passages where the hero reviews what he has achieved or ploddingly surveys what remains to be done. These exasperate the reader who, if there is to be any rumination, is quite happy to do it himself. When the author drags his feet with this space-filling device he is sacrificing momentum which it will take him much brisk writing to recapture.

These reflections, stale news though they may be to the mainliner in thrillers, come to me after rereading The Riddle of the Sands after an absence of very many years, and they force me to the conclusion that doom-laden silence and long-drawn-out suspense are not enough to confirm the tradition that Erskine Childers, romantic and remarkable man that he must have been, is also one of the father-figures of the thriller.

The opening of the story—the factual documentation in the preface and the splendid Lady Windermere's Fan atmosphere of the first chapters—is superb.

At once you are ensconced in bachelor chambers off St. James's at the beginning of the century. All the trappings of the Age of Certainty gather around you as you read. Although the author does not say so, a coal fire seems to roar in the brass grate; there is a glass of whisky beside your chair and, remembering Mr. Cecil Beaton's Edwardian decors, you notice that the soda-water syphon beside it is...

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Benny Green (essay date 1972)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Brittania's Man," in The Specator, Vol. 229, No. 7526, September 23, 1972, pp. 472-73.

[Green is an English jazz musician, novelist, and critic. In the following essay, Green classifies The Riddle of the Sands as a "call-to-arms" warning to the pre-World War British Empire.]

The reappearance, in paperback form, of Erskine Childers's The Riddle of the Sands draws attention to a book which would read strangely at any time, but doubly so now that the world for which it was written has been whisked by events into the remotest past. The Riddle of the Sands was among the earliest, and was perhaps the best, of those Edwardian call-to-arms...

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Anthony Masters (essay date 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Erskine Childers: The Intrepid Spy," in Literary Agents: The Novelist as Spy, Basil Blackwell, 1987, pp. 4-14.

[In the following essay, Masters observes how Childers's background as a yachtsman as well as his military and political experience contributed to the composition of The Riddle of the Sands.]

'One of those romantic gentlemen that one reads of in sixpenny magazines, with a Kodak in his tie-pin, a sketch-book in the lining of his coat, and a selection of disguises in his hand luggage.'

An early twentieth-century Englishman's idea of a spy, from Erskine Childers' The Riddle of the Sands


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Roy Foster (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Patriot for Whom? Erskine Childers, a Very English Irishman," in History Today, Vol. 38, October, 1988, pp. 27-32.

[In the following essay, Foster discusses Childers's tragic involvement in the Irish struggle for independence.]

At least two books have been published called The Riddle of Erskine Childers and there will no doubt be more. Superficially, it is an inevitable title: the gung-ho junior imperialist from the heart of the English establishment, who published The Riddle of the Sands in 1903 to warn Britain of the strategic threat to her supremacy from Germany, ended his life in 1922 as an irreconcilable Irish republican, doing his best to...

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David Seed (essay date 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Erskine Childers and the German Peril," in German Life & Letters, Vol. XLV, No. 1, January, 1992, pp. 66-73.

[In the following essay, Seed notes that Childers's suggestion of German aggression in The Riddle of the Sands, published in 1903, was particularly insightful.]

In 1871 Blackwood's Magazine published the anonymous story 'The Battle of Dorking' purporting to describe a German invasion of Britain. Subtitled 'Reminiscences of a Volunteer', this work was intended as a warning against British complacency in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War which established Germany as Britain's main military rival in Europe. Its realism, prophetic...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Boyle, Andrew. The Riddle of Erskine Childers. London: Hutchinson, 1977, 351 p.

Focuses on the seeming contradiction between Childers's service to England as a volunteer in two wars and his opposition to English rule of Northern Ireland.

Wilkinson, Burke. The Zeal of the Convert. Washington, D.C.: Luce, 1976, 256 p.

First book-length biography of Childers.

Additional coverage of Childers's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 113; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 70.

(The entire section is 78 words.)