John Buchan Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

John Buchan is best known for The Thirty-nine Steps (1915), an espionage tale that succeeds through the author’s trademarks: splendid writing, a truly heroic hero, and a sense of mission. Buchan eschews intricate plotting and realistic details of the spy or detective’s world; his heroes are ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary situations. Buchan’s classic tales are closer to the adventure stories of writers such as H. Rider Haggard or P. C. Wren than to true detective or espionage fiction. Like Graham Greene, who cites him as an influence, Buchan writes “entertainments” with a moral purpose; less ambiguous than Greene, Buchan offers the readers versions of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come (1678), with the moral testing framed as espionage adventures.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Although John Buchan (BEH-kahn) is remembered chiefly for his novels, more than half of his published work is in the form of nonfiction prose. He wrote numerous biographies and works of history, and he published speeches and lectures, educational books for children, and countless articles, essays, pamphlets, notes, and reviews. Late in his life, he produced an autobiographical work, and after his death his widow edited and published two collections of selections from his works.

Buchan’s fictional works include not only novels but also a story for children, The Magic Walking-Stick (1932), and several collections of short stories. Some of the settings and situations in these stories later appeared in slightly altered form in Buchan’s novels, and several of the stories in the later collections make use of characters from the novels, including Richard Hannay, Sandy Arbuthnot, and Sir Edward Leithen. Two of Buchan’s volumes of short stories, The Path of the King (1921) and The Gap in the Curtain (1932), connect independent episodes and are bound together by a narrative frame; as a result, these works are sometimes listed as novels, although the individual episodes are actually quite distinct from one another.

In addition to his prose works, Buchan published a number of poems and edited three volumes of verse. He also edited several works of nonfiction, including Francis Bacon’s Essays and Apothegms of Francis Lord Bacon (1597, edited in 1894) and Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler: Or, The Contemplative Man’s Recreation (1653, edited in 1901).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

While he was still an undergraduate at Oxford University, John Buchan received two major prizes for writing: the Stanhope Historical Essay Prize for an essay on Sir Walter Raleigh (1897) and the Newdigate Prize for Poetry for The Pilgrim Fathers (1898). He graduated in 1899 with a first-class honors degree, and shortly thereafter he was appointed private secretary to the high commissioner for South Africa (1901-1903). This was the first of many prestigious posts that Buchan filled: He was a conservative member of Parliament for the Scottish universities (1927-1935), president of the Scottish History Society (1929-1933), lord high commissioner to the general assembly of the Church of Scotland (1933, 1934), chancellor of the University of Edinburgh (1937-1940), and governor-general of Canada (1935-1940). In 1935, in recognition of his accomplishments and of his new post as governor-general, he was created Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield.

In part because of his political prominence and his reputation as a historian and in part because of his achievements as a novelist, Buchan received honorary doctorates from Oxford, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, McGill, and McMaster universities and from the Universities of Glasgow, St. Andrews, Edinburgh, Toronto, Manitoba, and British Columbia. He also became an honorary fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford.

Although Buchan was clearly not a full-time writer of fiction, his achievements as a novelist include some degree of critical success and a great deal of commercial popularity, particularly during the period between World War I and the 1960’s. His novels appealed to a wide and varied audience, including students, laborers, clergy, academics, members of various professions, and such celebrities as A. J. Balfour, Stanley Baldwin, Clement Atlee, Ezra Pound, C. S. Lewis, J. B. Priestley, King George V, and Czar Nicholas II. Although they have declined in popularity in the United States since the early 1960’s, Buchan’s novels continue to sell moderately well in Great Britain, and they have been translated into a number of foreign languages, including French, German, Spanish, Dutch, Danish, Czech, Swedish, and Arabic.


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Buchan, Anna. Unforgettable, Unforgotten. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1945. This memoir by one of Buchan’s sisters provides a personal look at the author. Indexed and illustrated, it is especially good for his early life.

“Buchan, John.” In Mystery and Suspense Writers: The Literature of Crime, Detection, and Espionage, edited by Robin W. Winks and Maureen Corrigan. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1998. Essay in a collection of articles on sixty-eight mystery authors from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries provides an overview of Buchan’s life, an analysis of his work, and a bibliography.

Buchan, William. John Buchan: A Memoir. Toronto, Ont.: Griffen House, 1982. Written by John Buchan’s son, this very readable biography humanizes Buchan by concentrating on his personal, rather than public, life. Based on William’s childhood memories, as well as his own expertise as a novelist, poet, and literary critic. Well indexed and contains a good bibliography.

Butts, Dennis. “The Hunter and the Hunted: The Suspense Novels of John Buchan.” In Spy Thrillers: From Buchan to Le Carré, edited by Clive Bloom. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. Butts’s analysis of Buchan’s work appears in one of thirteen essays examining books by twentieth century suspense novelists. Includes an introductory...

(The entire section is 584 words.)