“As the sun slanted toward the west, the cries of plovers and curlews echoed off the hills
and the breeze carried a tang of burning peat from the hearth of a far-off cottage.”
Robert Harris (1955-)
The Thirty-one Kings
Richard Hannay was the creation of John Buchan, Lord Tweedsmuir (1875-1940) as he became known. Buchan was born in Scotland in 1875. He was a product of a time when chivalry was a powerful force, when war was viewed heroically, before the slaughter at the Somme, Verdun, Passchendaele and Meuse Argonne. Buchan was a novelist, historian and politician who was serving as Governor General of Canada at the time of his death in 1940. Hannay, his character, is a Scotsman who bears the traits of a Victorian gentleman. During the Great War, Mr. Buchan wrote three novels in which Richard Hannay appeared: The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), Greenmantle (1916), and Mr. Standfast (1918). Two more Hannay novels were published after the War: The Three Hostages (1924) and The Island of Sheep (1936). In a posthumously published novel, Sick Heart River (1941), Buchan predicted that Hannay and his friends would be going back into action, as clouds of war descended over Europe. Mr. Harris has provided that opportunity. Readers of a certain age will recall those novels, along with the Alfred Hitchcock 1935 movie, “The Thirty-Nine Steps” starring Robert Donat. The book has never been out of print.
Robert Harris was asked by Polygon, which currently publishes Buchan’s books, to create a new series. The Thirty-one Kings is the first. Like Buchan, Harris is a Scotsman, a graduate of St. Andrews, a classicist, historian, popular author and designer of the fantasy board and digital game “Talisman.” The rubric at the top of the page indicates how closely he mimics John Buchan.
The story begins in the Scottish Lowlands, where Hannay is on a walking trip with his wife Mary. It has been twenty-two years since the Great War ended. But, once again, the forces of evil are on the march. Hannay, now a retired general but itching to return to action, turns to his wife, “I ask you, do I look like man who’s so far gone that he’s ready to take up golf?” Within moments, he is summoned to London in a scene right out of Buchan – a cryptic message from a dying pilot. The time is late spring 1940; most of the British army has escaped from Dunkirk back to England. The Germans are marching on Paris. A prisoner held there, a man with vital information, must be re-captured by the British before the Nazis enter the city. That is Hannay’s mission.
Harris takes us from the Scottish Lowlands to London and thence to Paris. Along the way, familiar faces return – John Blenkiron, Archie Roylance, Sandy Arbuthnot, the Marquis de la Tour du Pin and the daughter of an old nemesis, Beata van Dieman. We also meet new friends, like John “Jaike” Galt (an interesting choice of names), Douglas Crombie, Peter “Doc” Paterson and Thomas Yowney. After many adventures, the mission, of course, is successful. Not everyone survives, however. Returning to London, saddened by the loss of a good friend, Hannay recalls the copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress he carries in his pocket and Mary’s words to him from years ago: “Before the pilgrimage can be completed the best of Pilgrims has to die.” The book ends with the last few paragraphs of Churchill’s speech to the House of Commons, the day after the French surrender: “…that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say: This was their finest hour.”
Buchan died before the fall of France and the Battle of Britain, unaware of the horrors that would follow. Hannay, in this novel by Harris, retains a sense of honor, untainted by a War that would see the bombing of civilians and the Holocaust. When a pursuing German plane crashes and the pilot dies, Hannay reflects: “Sometimes even the worst of causes can be served by the very best of men.”
Even if you are not familiar with John Buchan, this is a good read. The language is fittingly dated and the characters distinctly different from the coarse, narcissistic fictional heroes of our time. But its understated-humor and civility are appealing. The Thirty-One Kings might even tempt you to pick up a copy of The Thirty-Nine Steps!
This article was first published on Thoughts of the Day.