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The Unwoke Prester John

The Unwoke Prester John

     John Buchan was not one of our greatest writers, but he was a wonderful teller of adventure stories. I was reminded of this when I recently saw again the stage performance of the comedy version of The Thirty-nine Steps. I  had originally seen this earlier in the Millennium. It was just as funny in 2024.

     For those who are aghast at the very idea of a comedy version of what is today seen as a masterpiece of escapist storytelling (known mainly through the three film versions rather than Buchan’s novel), let me say I was too, the first time around. Anyway, there is no need to be. Seeing the stage play is an entirely distinct experience from reading the book or watching any of the films. Much of the comedy – and it is truly hilarious comedy – comes from telling a story with many large outside scenes, using a tiny cast on a tiny stage.


     The films, too, differ significantly from each other, and from Buchan’s novel, not least in the time of their setting.


     The 1935 version, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, is regarded by most as ‘the classic’, although the storyline was adapted considerably from Buchan’s novel. For example, the well-known and highly entertaining ‘Forth Bridge’ and ‘Mr Memory’ scenes were invented for the film. There is nothing like them in the novel.


     Why am I saying all this when the title alludes to another novel of Buchan’s, Prester John? And what on Earth does ‘Unwoke’ mean, or have to do with a writer of adventure stories who was born a century and a half ago? Bear with me.


      In my own opinion (and it is only an opinion), Prester John, written in 1910, is a far more interesting novel than The Thirty-nine Steps, written five years later. I don’t believe that it has somehow been eclipsed by the novel of five years later, even with the improving additions made to the story by the 1935 film. The reason Prester John has dipped below the horizon is, I am convinced, far more to do with the odd word I have used, ‘unwoke’.

     If you have even heard of Prester John or most of John Buchan’s other novels, you are probably in the minority. The first time I came across the book was in 1960, at the tender age of 12. It was one of our ‘set books’ in my first year at senior school. At that time, the novel was still highly regarded.

     This, not The Thirty-nine Steps, was the novel that gave Buchan his big breakthrough as a writer. Born in 1875, the son of a Free Church of Scotland Minister, he was later made the First Baron Tweedsmuir by King George, and was in adult life to combine prolific authorship with high profile jobs in public life. These culminated in his appointment as Governor General of Canada in 1935, which happens to be the same year Hitchcock’s memorable film version was made.


     In my own case it was in fact through Prester John that I first became aware of The Thirty-nine Steps. The only film version of Prester John had been made as far back as 1920 (I think I’m safe in saying there won’t ever be another) so as a substitute in 1960 we were shown on the school cine projector the then very new, but now regarded as much inferior, Kenneth More version of The Thirty-nine Steps.


     Prester John is essentially a straightforward adventure story, in which an uprising is foiled by a nineteen-year-old Scots boy, Davie Crawfurd, who was following his first job as a storekeeper in the delightfully named Blauwildebeestefontein, located in the remote north of Transvaal. This was the northernmost province of what in 1910 had just become the Union of South Africa.

The no-nonsense action starts with the opening chapter, where Davie and his friends have a perilously close encounter with the  Reverend John Laputa. This was on what Buchan names in the novel as ‘The Kircaple Shore’. Buchan was himself brought up in Kirkcaldy, Fife and a small part of the town is actually named Chapel.

     His suspicion, put initially in the mouth of one of his friends, Tam Dyke, that the minister cannot not really be a Christian is thus dramatically confirmed. Years later, Davie sees Laputa during his journey to Blauwildebeestefontein. It is there he discovers that ‘the Black Minister’ is plotting to invoke and lead a bloody uprising as the inheritor of the mantle of the legendary African emperor, ‘Prester John.’ Davie, despite his modest position, the teenager plays key role in foiling that uprising. The story unfolds rapidly and in a gripping way, until the last few chapters, when Buchan seems to be more intent on tying up any loose ends in his story than maintaining its pace.

     True, it was written well over a century ago, and Buchan can hardly be expected to follow all the modern conventions of adventure storytelling but, unless the modern reader is prepared for it, he or she will be left more open-mouthed at the thread of casual racism that runs through the story.


     Even as an innocent twelve-year-old as far back as 1960, I couldn’t help but notice both things about the book: what a fantastic piece of storytelling it was, and how shocking was the overt element of racism that ran all the way through it. These conclusions were repeated more strongly in my recent re-reading. If you ever read it yourself, you may or may not agree with my first impression, but you will surely agree with the second.


      To give just a few examples of what I mean, In Scotland Davie believes that the Reverend John Laputa cannot really be a Christian because he is African. In South Africa, Buchan has his young hero noting that ‘he [Laputa] had none of the squat and preposterous negro lineaments,  but a hawk nose like an Arab, dark flashing eyes, and a cruel and resolute mouth’.


     As the story goes on, it is clear that Davie/Buchan has developed some grudging respect for Laputa’s nobility, and his strongest invective is vented upon Davie’s arch-enemy Henriques, the ‘yellow Portugoose miscreant’ whom Buchan actually describes as having ‘a touch of the tar brush’.

So, on balance, am I saying that the novel, for all its merits, should be left severely alone these days? Is it too ‘unwoke’ for the modern reader? No, I am most certainly not, unless you are one of those people who insists on judging the past from a modern perspective. There is a now little-used word to describe this sort of thinking: ‘Whiggishness’.

     LP Hartley put it more memorably, when he wrote in the opening to his novel, The Go-Between: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’. Today, John Buchan is most certainly a man of the past and should be viewed in this way. His ideas may seem shocking to us now, but they were not untypical in 1910, or even later. There are real dangers in trying to airbrush things out of history. This is one of the central themes of Orwell’s great novel, Nineteen Eighty-four.


      Exactly what do I mean by the word I have freely used in this piece, ‘unwoke’? You won’t find it in any respectable dictionary, but I mean it as the opposite of ‘woke’. This word is itself now used in two new senses.


     The first, as everyone will know, was originally something like ‘being alert to racial injustice and indiscrimination’. I think, even on the basis of the few examples I have used in this short piece, nobody will have difficulty in agreeing that Prester John qualifies as ‘unwoke’ in this way. As time progressed, ‘woke’ came to be associated with positive attitudes on other liberal causes, like opposition to sexism.


     In more recent years, ‘woke’ has taken on a more negative meaning. It has become associated with paying lip-service to progressive views, of becoming not much more than a fashion statement. Worse, the term ‘woke-capitalism’ arose as commercial organisations started use progressive messaging as a substitute for genuine reform. One of the most cynical examples must be the use of what have been called ‘mascots’ in advertising, the representation of disadvantaged minorities of various kinds enjoying ‘the good life’ as portrayed by the brand concerned.


     Obviously, when talking about Buchan’s novel, I have been using ‘unwoke’ as the opposite of the first, more innocent kind of ‘woke’. At any rate, I do hope that my own views are more genuinely egalitarian than the second! Reading Prester John won’t do a thing to improve your own progressive status, genuine or fashionable but, more than a century after it was written, it remains a highly entertaining story.

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