Review by Helen C:
An ingenious and unusual book by a master storyteller, based on the suggestion, made to the author in a discussion with friends, that great leaders or creative geniuses may seem to arise from humble backgrounds, but who knows whether they have descended from great men or rulers in the distant past, maybe from a line of younger sons who have had to fight for success? “We none of us know our ancestors beyond a little way. We all of us may have kings’ blood in our veins …The spark once transmitted may smoulder for generations under ashes, but the appointed time will come, and it will flare up to warm the world.”
John Buchan creates from this idea 14 self-sufficient short stories, spanning about 1000 years, each successive one several generations, or even centuries, further forward in time. At first, they seem unrelated, but subtle connections soon appear – a gold ring, handed down through the generations, often at a death bed; and a family surname, ranging from, “de Laval” in the “Maid of Orleans” (Chapter 5) and the two following stories, to “Lauval” in the Walter Raleigh tale (8) to “Lovel” and then “Lovelle” in later stories. And you gradually realise that each tale ends with the survival of one person – often insignificant – who carries the line into the future.
Each story immediately plunges you into the era in which it is set, sometimes specified (1249 in chapter 4, 1678 in chapter 10) but more often not, so that you have to guess from clues and descriptions: such as the use of unfamiliar words – the earliest tale, of King Thor Thorwaldson and his small son Biorn, from the era of Norse legend, talks of “franklins, bearsarks, thralls, firths and wicks, Norland, Snowland, tronds, skvidfinns, byrnies” whose meaning you have to work out from the context; or vivid descriptions of the accoutrements of the period – the Wife of Flanders (chapter 3, Middle Ages) is brought to life by the furnishings, hangings, floor-coverings, apparel, lighting and odours in the bedroom where she lies dying, her pet monkey in her bed; and the list of horrid potions prescribed: “broth of human skulls …ants’ eggs and crabs’ claws …. and innumerable plaisters and electuaries” as well as the description of the exotic food provided for the Cluniac monk praying (and hoping for a bequest) at her deathbed.
The historical context is set cleverly and subtly, too, by the way Buchan weaves into his stories the beliefs, customs, aspirations and behaviours which immediately bring alive a particular period – religious beliefs (as in Ch. 4, set in the Crusades), honour, military prowess, attitudes towards women, the assumptions and ‘manners’ which each age takes for granted but which change over the centuries. Sometimes his characters speak with authentic accents or dialect where appropriate – the “celebrated Salamanca doctor” in Ch. 10, and the three trappers in “Kaintuckee” in Ch. 12, whose speech sets them so clearly in the New World.
The variety in the tales shows the range of Buchan’s imagination and feeling for history: Chapter 2’s hero is a Norman knight, after the Battle of Hastings, who fights with and eventually makes friends with an English squire, marries his sister, falls in love with England and is mourned as an Englishman on his death. Ch. 3, set in 1249, describes the fearful journey of the French king’s envoy to the land of the Tartars – and his gold ring is found much later on his severed arm, and returned to his wife. Ch. 6 features an aristocrat from Picardy, who joins a wandering explorer, inspired by Christopher Columbus, and sails to America, in the 1500’s. Ch. 10 is about a vagabond spy/hitman, swinging in allegiance between Catholics and Protestants in London in 1678, who ends up murdered himself. Ch. 11 is set in the Scottish Borders, during the Jacobite rebellions, with evocative pictures of a horseman riding to an unexpected end, through filthy Scottish weather.
Only three of the tales have women as main characters – The Wife of Flanders (Ch. 3), The Maid (Ch. 5 about Joan of Arc, and the aristocratic beauty she befriends) and The Last Stage (Ch. 13) where a young mother, married to a ‘Tom Linkhorn’ is dying in the Indiana wilderness; she is in agony over her debilitation and her lost ambition for a life of public service for her young son – but in her dying hallucinations, she sees a long line of youthful seekers, ending with her own son, and she knows that she has “given the world a master”. And the fact that the boy has used as fish-bait the precious gold ring which “had been her grandmother’s, and long ago had come from Europe” is of no account, because she realises that the ring “ain’t needed no more”, because she has a premonition of the outcome of the final story (Chapter 14, The End of the Road) which takes us to the adulthood of this son – who turns out to be Abraham Lincoln, described at his funeral as ‘the first American’ and also ‘the last of the Kings’. A fitting end to such a saga.
Any adverse comments? Some initial disappointment when you realise, after Chapter 1, that you will never find out what happened to the brave little prince Biorn (the only survivor when the King’s fleet is destroyed by fire in Frankland, and his warriors slaughtered) because Chapter 2 jumps to the Norman conquest! The plots of one or two stories, and their historical context, are sometimes hard to disentangle, if you are not well- versed in history. And many of the tales are bloodthirsty, full of fighting and murder, which may appeal to some readers more than others. But the vividness of the writing, the strong evocation of the different historical periods and the individuality of the characters make the book both worth re-reading, and memorable, as much, I feel, to the modern reader as to the original one.