The Riddle of the Sands & The 39 Steps

As Queen Victoria’s funeral cortège passed through Windsor in 1901, her grieving subjects could be forgiven for feeling secure. Since ascending to the British throne six decades before, the late monarch had seen her empire expand to cover a landmass exceeding 30 million square kilometres and to rule a population of half a billion people. No empire on Earth had ever grown so large, or so powerful. With an empire upon which the ‘sun never set’ it would be easy to feel invincible. But this feeling could not last for long. Before the Queen had even been laid to rest, the indomitable feeling was already starting to dissipate, and fears of new dangers were growing.

This sense of sudden and shocking exposure to danger runs through two of Penguin’s newly reissued ‘Great Books for Boys’. Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands (1903) and John Buchan’s The 39 Steps (1915), share several themes which illuminate British fears prior to the First World War, as well as providing insights which are just as relevant a century on.

Each novel involves ordinary men in extraordinary situations, with issues of national security at stake. Childers’s novel follows two youngish men out on a sailing holiday that turns into a hunt for spies and traitors, while Buchan’s story is of a man who gets involved in international intrigue after a chance encounter with a neighbour.

It is telling that both novels open with a genuine feeling of ennui. Buchan’s hero, Richard Hannay, newly transplanted from colonial Rhodesia, finds London oppressively dull and longs for some adventure to come and take him. Childers’s narrator, Carruthers, is so beset by boredom that he has descended into mawkish self pity. He spends the first few chapters in a self-induced sulk, which he only sheds once he finds something genuinely thrilling to do. Both men end their narratives much more at ease with themselves and their worlds. They are actually made more confident by the fact that the threat has become more tangible. Young men, full of life and health, they find a place only when there is a foe to be fought.

This was a common feeling in that era. Writing with the benefit of half a century’s hindsight, the poet Philip Larkin was dismissive of the lines of young men waiting to sign up to serve in the war, “grinning as if it were all an August Bank Holiday lark”. Following a century of relative peace and expanding empire, war was seen as a jolly old adventure, with victory coming easily. Hardly surprising then, that many people predicted that the war in Europe would be over by Christmas.

Unlike their characters, Childers and Buchan refused to indulge in such nonchalant optimism. Their books are fine examples of the ‘Invasion Novel’, a sub-genre of thriller which flourished in the early years of the 20th century. The genre played upon the growing fears that people were no longer safe in their homes, and that foreign enemies were massing in their ranks as we slept.

Such fears are commonplace. One only has to scan through a couple of TV news broadcasts to see that they are still current today. However there was far more to this sub-branch of literature than blind scaremongering. It’s most famous example, at least to modern readers, is HG Wells’s War of the Worlds, which drew some of its power form the sheer incongruity of astonishing events striking safe, suburban places such as Woking and Shepperton.

This clash of the mundane and the extraordinary is well used in The 39 Steps too. The plot sees Hannay flee to Scotland, on the run from German spies and the British police. However, amid the potboiler devices of malignant monoplanes and inventive disguises, there is some wonderful imagery of the Scottish landscape. The author’s deep love for the land of his birth echoes through every scene, but this is more than mere ornamentation — there is a hidden political and historical significance. Celtic words such as cairn and crag are used frequently, and do much more than just offer rich descriptions. They are loaded words, and their use over the more common Anglo Saxon terms such as stone and peak underscores how the ancient cultures of these islands have persisted through much earlier Germanic invasions. The words are as defiant as the characters that use them.

Rich descriptions are used in The Riddle of the Sands too, albeit with a more maritime flavour. The story is presented as an accurate account of a yachting trip around the Friesian coast of northern Denmark and Germany, and contains detailed descriptions of the business of yachting and of the treacherous tidal waters. Though the descriptions sometimes weigh heavily on the narrative, they were important to the author — Childers intended his novel to document how Britain was open to attack from German warships, and how its defenses could be improved. In this context, the sketches of Friesian islands, and the continual reference to the book’s maps and sea charts are as important as the plot itself.

In that respect, The Riddle of the Sands is a success. Although this was to be his only work of fiction, Childers possessed considerable skill in the art and reveals his plot with a careful and steady patience. The relationship between his two lead characters is handled very well indeed. Carruthers’s transformation from bored and irritable youth to confident and dedicated amateur spy is a real highlight of the book, subtle and rendered entirely plausible by the changing circumstances around him.

Richard Hannay is also transformed by his experiences. Again, this listless young man finds that he is able to overcome the odds against him, and develop a drive and focus that would be necessary to survive in those bloodthirsty times.

Buchan’s novel ends with the start of the First World War, and interestingly was a popular diversion for soldiers fighting in the trenches. It is easy to see why. Like Hannay, they were being asked to reach into previously untapped reserves of strength and resolve and to survive the very worst of circumstances.

During one memorable scene in the book, Richard Hannay is told that his escapade is “pure Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle”, writers of popular exotic adventures. It was worth the comment, but nevertheless, it doesn’t seem too fanciful a suggestion by 1915. Young men no longer needed to go to exotic, far-flung places to find enervating danger — the menace was now very real and very close.

RATING 7 / 10