In Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of J. R. R. Tolkien, we learn that Tolkien was fond of the novels of John Buchan. Like Tolkien, Buchan had formative experiences in South Africa. Tolkien was born there, and Buchan briefly served there as private secretary to Lord Milner, High Commissioner for overseeing reconstruction after the Boer War. Buchan’s most famous character, Richard Hannay, was a mining engineer in South Africa before settling back in England and getting entangled in such adventures as recounted in The Thirty-nine Steps. One of Buchan’s novels, Prester John, deals almost exclusively with South Africa, and it bears re-reading alongside The Hobbit.
First published in 1910, Prester John is a fast-paced boy’s adventure story. As such, it shares elements with H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1886) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883): After a frightening encounter with a mysterious stranger, a boy must leave his widowed mother and their home in the British Isles, and he ends up in South Africa on a trek into dangerous mountains in search of fabulous ancient jewels. The intrepid youth finds himself caught up in a savage battle over a rightful inheritance, and against all odds, he lives to return to the familiar routine of tea and scones, his thoughts often going back to his harrowing escapes.
In Buchan’s novel, the similarities are clear with stories about Allan Quatermain and Jim Hawkins, but equally clear are parallels found in Tolkien’s “there and back again” tale of Bilbo Baggins. A major difference is Buchan’s hero, David Crawfurd, being in his late teens when he has to leave Scotland for South Africa, whereas Tolkien’s most famous hobbit is fifty when he leaves the Shire for Wilderland.
Also, just as critics of Tolkien’s The Hobbit see it in the context of ancient myth, they see Buchan’s Prester John in the context of British imperialism. Mythic heroes leave home on a quest to recover invaluable treasure and return home victorious and transformed. For a Christian, the ultimate fulfillment of this primeval epic is Christ, journeying from His heavenly home with God the Father to Earth and into Hell, conquering death and ascending into Heaven and His seat at the right hand of God. In His divinity, Christ cannot change; in His fully human incarnation, He grew and matured. His victorious quest for lost sheep, for sinful humans, has transformed multitudes. Archetypes aside, modern critics read Buchan’s swashbuckling narrative as another overly masculine example of the sun never setting on a chance for British exploitation of native peoples.
Although Buchan set Prester John in the early twentieth century, he drew upon a medieval legend. According to that story, believed by medieval Christians in the very marrow of their bones, somewhere beyond the eastern limits of Christian civilization lived a valiant Christian king, some said also a priest, hence his name of Prester John. Since that legend’s origins in the twelfth century, Christians in Europe believed that they were obligated to go find and defend Prester John, harried as he was by Muslims. Buchan’s version makes Prester John a charismatic African warlord named Laputa posing as a Protestant minister, waiting his chance to rally his people and lead them back to their historical greatness. Into that geopolitical drama David Crawfurd stumbles.
How wide of the author’s mark a book can be read finds a supreme example in an ardent admirer of Buchan and his books, Wilfred Thesiger. Thesiger (1910-2003) was born to wealthy, well-connected British parents stationed in Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia), and as a boy he loved its dusty and rugged terrain and thrilled to its claim to having the Ark of the Covenant. When Thesiger was sent to Eton and Oxford, he regarded England, with its greenery and pavements, as an alien world. Prester John in particular he re-read as a reminder of the wild Africa he longed with aching homesickness to explore.
In his autobiography, The Life of My Choice (1987), Thesiger recalled his boyhood love of Prester John. Yet, for him it was not a portal for identifying with and joining vicariously in the cliff-hanging adventures of young David Crawfurd. “This story of Laputa,” Thesiger wrote, “the Zulu leader who died tragically and dramatically while attempting to free his people, made an indelible impression on me.”
At Oxford, where he studied history and distinguished himself in boxing, Thesiger mulled over a plan to return to Abyssinia. He joined the Oxford Exploration Club, whose president was John Buchan. Thesiger wrote to Buchan, who lived outside Oxford at an estate called Elsfield Manor, and Buchan had Thesiger to his house several times for tea and talk about Thesiger’s developing proposal for exploring hitherto uncharted regions of eastern Africa.
More than fifty years later, Thesiger vividly recollected Buchan, “his sensitive, ascetic face etched with lines of pain but lit by his innate kindness, his lean body in comfortable country tweeds.” Buchan ensconced in his Oxfordshire manor house with his books and his pipes evoked Tolkien’s own cozy home life in suburban Oxford, as well as that of Bilbo Baggins in his hobbit hole. Yet tea and tobacco, not to mention potatoes and port, were British staples because Britain held, in Rudyard Kipling’s phrase in his poem “Recessional” (1897), “Dominion over palm and pine.”
It was a pervasive British tension. While some people were content never to stray too far from the safety of hearth and home, others believed that Britain had a duty to peoples beyond the blighted cliffs. The former attitude was dubbed being a Little Englander, and the latter was seen as championing Greater Britain. In Empire (2003), Niall Ferguson noted, “The idea of Greater Britain is nowhere more appealingly expressed than in [John Buchan’s] novels.”
A recurring British yearning for exotic shores finds voice in Kipling’s poem, “Mandalay” (1892). There a young British soldier has come back to London from the Far East, and he laments the drab constraints of his new civilian life: “Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst/Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments and a man can raise a thirst.” Both David Crawfurd and Bilbo Baggins were eager to get home, but in time word from the faraway lands where they had risked their lives broke their peace and quiet. Like Kipling’s young soldier, they heard again the call of distant bells and remembered distant dawns.
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B., is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.