Prester John by John Buchan (1910)

Review by Mary P:

As a boy the hero and narrator of the novel, David Crawfurd, sees a black man, the Reverend John Laputa, preach at his local kirk. When later David goes to South Africa to take up work as an  storekeeper he meets this same preacher on the boat, as well as a Portuguese man, Henriques, who seems to know the preacher. When David reaches his destination he learns rumours attached to the area. He hears of a holy place of pilgrimage, of a 200-year-old wizard, and of diamonds. Further rumours reach him of a local uprising, and a visit from Captain Arcoll tells him of the legend of Prester John, a 15th Century Ethiopian leader, and the ruby collar said to belong to him, and to be a symbol of his power.

The Captain has heard that Laputa is returning to claim the collar and to unite the local tribes in an uprising. Henriques buys diamonds from him in order to buy the weapons they need. The novel tells the story of this uprising, and the response from the white colonialists, and in particular the actions of David Crawfurd who is hell-bent on preventing its success.

In many ways this novel seems to be a gung-ho boy’s adventure story mixing together the world of the empire with that of myth, legend and lost treasure. A similar world to that of Henry Rider Haggard (1856 – 1925), an English writer of adventure novels set predominantly in Southern Africa: King Solomon’s Mines (1885) and She (1887).

It is firmly placed in a world ruled by white men, with no place in the novel for women (unless they are a servant), or for countries to be run by their indigenous population. This world and its attitudes would have been familiar to contemporary readers, and  the author would have known it at first hand in his role as the private secretary of colonial administrators of various colonies in Southern Africa.

It is a world of good and evil, with little opportunity for any ambiguities. The novel ends with a romantic picture of a settled land ruled by a benevolent white colonialism – clearly the author as well as the narrator’s ideal of colonialism.

Reading this novel in the 21st Century it is impossible not to be discomforted by the author’s attitudes to race and imperialism, and his use of the ‘n’ word. One of his characters uses the Bible to argue that ‘ the children of Ham were to be our servants’, and others speak of blacks having minds that are incapable of planning ahead, and having ‘skins that are insensible to pain’.

If one is able to set aside these attitudes Buchan does know how to tell a fast-paced action storyl. Although melodramatic, we the reader are drawn in at the start to solve the mystery of who the black preacher seen for the first time on a Scottish beach performing a strange ritual can be, and we follow him to the African mountains and plains in order to do so. Each chapter seems to end in a cliff-hanger – sometimes literally – and our hero David Crawfurd implausibly escapes certain death several times in order to save the day almost single-handed. A veritable Indiana Jones, and similarly a rather clichéd action hero with little attempt at character development. Action and progressing the story, however far fetched, is all.

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3 thoughts on “Prester John by John Buchan (1910)

  1. I loved this book as a child, especially the exciting episode when David is spying on Laputa in the massive cave, and even used a passage from it for an elocution exam! I agree about the political incorrectness of the language and attitudes but not that it shouldn’t be read now -it’s salutary to see what was acceptable at that time and how writers who in all other ways show themselves to be good people can absorb and project prejudice, probably without realising. It’s also encouraging to see how much we have improved since then [though perhaps in a hundred years future readers will be horrified at some of the common assumptions in fiction written now].

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