156. A Prince of the Captivity

John Buchan is a late-blooming inheritor of the literature of Kipling and Scott. He is best known for a minor thriller, the Thirty-nine Steps, and for its four sequels featuring Richard Hannay. He also wrote A Prince of the Captivity which, for my money, is the apotheosis of the Hannay books.

Buchan was the son of a Free Church of Scotland minister. He had a traditional education, culminating is studying the Classics at Oxford, where he won the Newdigate Prize for his poem The Pilgrim Fathers. His background suggests a man heavily influenced by conservative Scottish religion – which is about as conservative as religion gets.

His books bear out that suggestion, and none more so than this one.

A Prince of the Captivity

As the story begins, Adam Melfort is on trial for forgery. His friends, and there are many, do not believe his confession, and we quickly learn that they are right. His empty-headed wife has forged the check which he admits to. He goes to prison. She goes free, flittering on through her empty life, divorces Adam, and disappears out of the story.

Prison is barely described. A Prince of the Captivity is not a story about external events, but about what happens in Adam’s mind and soul.

In a typical novel, the previous sentence would be a reviewer’s signal to avoid it at all costs. Not here; the external events that forge Melfort’s soul are drawn from the toolbox of a skillful writer of thrillers. This story moves rapidly, with a few tedious exceptions, but when each part of the story comes to a close, the result, win or lose, means less than the changes it brings to Melfort.

Melfort is on a mission. His time in prison has pulled him out of normal society, and he now feels that whatever remains for him to do must be done from the shadows. He was an officer in the British Army, with a brilliant career before him. That is gone now. He passes World War I posing as a simple-minded peasant on a Dutch farm where the occupying German troops laugh at him, play cruel tricks on him, and otherwise ignore him. They do not know that he is running a ring of spies, made up of others as unprepossessing as he.

After the war, Melfort must find his life’s mission on his own. He leads an expedition to Greenland to find and save a missing explorer, then sets out to find leaders of quality to whom he can lend support. All those he chooses fail him, but he only moves on and continues his quest.

All this sounds vague and tedious, but it isn’t. This is still the Buchan of the Hannay books. The external events that make up the book are sharp, dangerous, decisive, and exciting. You could ignore the sub-text and read it as a thriller. The cover blurb on my copy calls it, “A thunderingly good read,” and it is. But it is also much more than that.

The Hannay books begin with England in danger, move to England at war, and end with England after the war, supposedly at peace, but not at peace with herself. World War I tore English society apart, and shook her certainty. The depression which followed made things worse.

A Prince of the Captivity, published in 1933, moves beyond the Hannay books. It reeks of discontent and hidden in the background is the sound of boots marching and armies mobilizing. Adam Melfort sacrificed his future to save his wife, and now he has to sacrifice anew. England sacrificed to win the Great War, and now it will have to sacrifice again.

Most critics were not kind to A Prince of the Captivity. I’m not surprised. Melding a thriller, an apotheosis of a personal moral code, and a vague prophesy of coming disaster is not easy. Perhaps it is not possible. Buchan didn’t do a perfect job of it, but he did write a fine novel. A Prince of the Captivity is my favorite of the dozen or so Buchan’s I have read.


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