Thursday, January 29, 2009



While most mystery fans are familiar with John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, if only from the movie version, it is not my favorite book to feature Richard Hannay (that would be Greenmantle), nor is it my favorite Buchan book (that would be John McNab).

Still, even more obscure would be my favorite Buchan adventure novel, Prester John. Written in 1910, it was Buchan’s sixth book and made use of the popular African legend of Prester John – a mythical priest king – to supplement a plot about a Zulu uprising in South Africa. It was also Buchan’s first book to reach a wide readership across the world, establishing him as a writer of fast-paced adventures for which he became famous.

Throughout the Middle Ages it was rumored a priest named Prester (Father) John had traveled to Africa to convert the natives. Instead, however, he amassed a huge fortune and made himself king of this mysterious part of Africa.

Despite being written over a hundred years ago, it is still in print in England and Europe. The story is full of lost civilizations, hidden treasures, deepest-darkest Africa, great friendship, ruthless betrayal, explorers of spooky places, tigers and lions, witch doctors, and just plain good, old fashioned, late-Victorian adventures.

The book in reality is the great grandfather of today's thrillers. Perhaps due to Buchan's work, the character of Prester John became a reoccurring figure in pulp fiction and comics throughout the century –
With no less than Marvel Comics featuring Prester John in issues of The Fantastic Four and Thor.

The novel tells the story of young Scotsman David Crawfurd's adventures in South Africa, where a Zulu uprising is tied to the medieval legend of Prester John.

At 19, Crawfurd is a simple shop keeper, but when he becomes involved with John Laputa, a celebrated Zulu minister who has taken the title of the mythical priest-king Prester John, Crawfurd finds himself not only at the heart of a massive uprising of tribesmen – who wish to slaughter all the white settlers for a hundred miles around – but also holding the key to its secret.

In many ways, Crawfurd is similar to Buchan's later, better known, character, Richard Hannay – who first appeared in The 39 Steps.

Buchan was a strong supporter of the British Empire and the British Commonwealth, and this can be seen in this novel. It contains the racial stereotypes and caricatures of its day, for which Buchan can be forgiven as both black and white characters are compellingly and sympathetically drawn. Even though it is a novel of its time, much of its theme of cultural clash is still relevant. Furthermore, Buchan's rich, lively, descriptions of the South African landscape, which he knew well, are memorable.

This is good, old fashioned, adventure storytelling – comparable to King Solomon’s Mines, Allen Quartermain, Beau Gests, The Sea-Hawk, She, Scaramouche, The Scarlet Pimpernel, etc. Indian Jones owes far more to Buchan, and to Prester John, than most movie fans appreciate.



pattinase (abbott) said...

Only knew about 39 Steps. Thanks.

Lou Allin said...

Lover Prester John and read it every few years. Since Obama was elected, I thought about it again. Life imitates mythology sometimes.