GLOBALIZATION AND ISLAM IN SPY FICTION: JOHN BUCHAN’S 1916 BOOK “GREENMANTLE”

June 20, 2010 at 11:17 am | Posted in Books, Germany, Globalization, History, Islam, Middle East, Military, United Kingdom | Leave a comment

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Greenmantle

Author John Buchan

Country United Kingdom

Language English

Series Richard Hannay

Genre(s) Thriller

Publisher Hodder & Stoughton London

Publication date 1916

Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)

ISBN NA

Preceded by The Thirty-Nine Steps

Followed by Mr Standfast

Greenmantle is the second of five novels by John Buchan featuring the character of Richard Hannay, first published in 1916 by Hodder & Stoughton, London.

It is one of two Hannay novels set during the First World War, the other being Mr Standfast (1919); Hannay’s first and best-known adventure, The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), is set in the period immediately preceding the war.

Plot introduction

Hannay is called in to investigate rumours of an uprising in the Muslim world, and undertakes a perilous journey through enemy territory to meet up with his friend Sandy in Constantinople. Once there, he and his friends must thwart the Germans’ plans to use religion to help them win the war, climaxing at the battle of Erzurum.

Plot summary

The book opens in November 1915, with Hannay and his friend Sandy convalescing from wounds received at the Battle of Loos. Hannay is summoned to the Foreign Office by Sir Walter Bullivant, a senior intelligence man, who Hannay met and assisted in The Thirty-Nine Steps. Bullivant gives Hannay an outline of the political situation in the Middle East, and hints that the Germans and their Turkish allies are plotting to cause a great uprising throughout the Muslim world, that will throw the whole of the Middle East, India and North Africa into turmoil; Bullivant proposes that Hannay takes on the task of investigating rumours. The only clue he is given is a slip of paper left by a spy, Bullivant’s own son, recently killed in the region, bearing the words Kasredin, cancer and v.I.

Despite his misgivings and feelings of inadequacy for the task, Hannay accepts the challenge, and picks Sandy to help him. Bullivant tells him that an American, John Blenkiron, will also be useful to him. The three meet up, ponder their clues, and plan to head to Constantinople. They start on November 17, and plan to meet up in a rough hostelry there exactly two months later, going each by his own route – Blenkiron, as a neutral, travelling through Germany as an observer, Sandy using his contacts in the Arab world to make the journey through Asia Minor, and Hannay, taking on the identity of Boer “Cornelis Brandt”, entering enemy territory via Lisbon.

Arriving there, he meets by chance his old comrade from adventurous times in Africa, Boer Peter Pienaar, and together the two enter Germany via the Netherlands, posing as anti-British exiles itching to fight for the German side. They meet the powerful and sinister Colonel Ulric von Stumm, and persuade him they can help stir up the Muslim peoples to join the German side. The two are separated, and Hannay is introduced to a Herr Gaudian, famed mining engineer (who would later reappear after the war in The Three Hostages), hears of the mysterious Hilda von Einem, and has a brief meeting with the Kaiser.

Finding Stumm plans to send him to Egypt via London, Hannay flees into the snowbound countryside, tracked by the vengeful Colonel. He falls ill with malaria and is sheltered over Christmas by a poor woman in a lonely cottage. On his sickbed, he realises that the clue “v.I” on the piece of paper may refer to the name he overheard, von Einem.

Recuperated, he carries on, travelling by barge carrying armaments down the Danube, picking up with Peter Pienaar, who has escaped from a German prison, along the way. They pass through Vienna, Budapest and Belgrade, and as they travel, Hannay connects the phrase “grune Mantel” with something else he overheard earlier. They reach Rustchuk on January 10, with a week to go before the rendezvous in Constantinople.

On arrival there, Hannay has a run in with Rasta Bey, an important Young Turk, and intercepts a telegram showing his trail has been picked up. They carry on by train, fending off an attempt to stop them by the angry Rasta Bey, and reach Constantinople with half a day to spare.

They seek out the meeting place, and are attacked by Bey and an angry mob, but rescued by a band of mysterious, wild dancing men, who they then antagonise. Next day they return to the rendezvous, an illicit dance-room, where they find the main entertainment is none other than the wild men of the previous day. At the climax of the performance, Enver‘s soldiers arrive and drag Hannay and Peter away, apparently to prison, but they are instead delivered to a cosy room containing Blenkiron and the leader of the dancers – none other than the miraculous Sandy Arbuthnot.

They pool their news – Sandy has identified Kasredin from the their clue sheet, as the title of an ancient Turkish allegorical story, the hero of which is a religious leader called Greenmantle, and has also heard much of a prophet known as “the Emerald”, associated with the play. Blenkiron has met and been impressed by Hilda Von Einem, who is in Constantinople and owns the house in which they are staying.

Blenkiron provides Hannay with a new identity, an American engineer named Hannau, and they attend a dinner party where they meet Herr Gaudian again, and Enver himself. Lost out riding, Hannay encounters von Einem, and is fascinated by her; later, he is recognised by Rasta Bey, and has just knocked him out and hidden him in a cupboard when von Einem arrives. Hannay impresses her, and hears she plans to take him East with her. Sandy visits, agrees to deal with the captive Turk and provides news of his own – the clue Cancer means the prophet Greenmantle has the disease and is on his deathbed. Blenkiron joins them, and tells them that fighting has hotted up between the Russians and the Turks, and they deduce that they will be taken towards Erzerum to help with its defence.

On the long road to Erzerum, they crash their car, and spend the night in a barn, where Hannay has a vivid dream of a hill with a saucepan-like indent in the top. They carry on on worn-out horses, but seeing a new car by the roadside, they steal it, only to find it belongs to Rasta Bey. They make good speed onward, but on arrival in Erzerum, they are delivered straight to Stumm, who recognises Hannay and has them locked up. They are rescued by one of Sandy‘s men, steal some plans from Stumm, and escape across the rooftops.

With the battle of Erzurum booming in the background, they realise the importance of the stolen plans, and Peter Pienaar volunteers to sneak through the battle lines and deliver them to the Russians. Sandy appears, magnificently dressed, and reveals that Greenmantle is dead and that he himself has been chosen to impersonate him. They form a plan to flee around the side of the battle lines, and while Sandy‘s helper searches for horses, Pienaar sets off on his dangerous mission.

Pienaar has an eventful and terrifying journey across the battlefield, while Hannay and Blenkiron hide out in a cellar. On the third day, they break out, and make for safety in a wild horse ride, closely pursued by their enemies. On the verge of capture, they find the hill of Hannay’s dream, and entrench there, holding the enemy at bay. Hilda von Einem comes in, and appeals to them to give up, but they refuse; she is shocked to learn Sandy is a British officer, and as she leaves, she is slain by a stray Russian shell.

Stumm arrives with artillery, and the fortress looks sure to be destroyed, but he waits till dawn to savour his revenge. Just in time, the Russians, helped by the plans delivered by Pienaar, break through the defences and sweep towards the town. Stumm’s men flee, and Stumm is killed, and Hannay and Sandy meet up with Pienaar to ride into the city and victory.

Characters in Greenmantle

· Richard Hannay, stolid and resourceful soldier and occasional spy

· Sandy Arbuthnot, his multi-lingual friend and fellow soldier

· Peter Pienaar, a friend of Hannay’s from African days

· Sir Walter Bullivant, a senior intelligence man

· John Scantlebury Blenkiron, a dyspeptic American agent

· Colonel Ulrich von Stumm, a hard-headed German soldier

· Herr Gaudian, a thoughtful German engineer

· Rasta Bey, a quick-tempered Young Turk

· Hilda von Einem, a powerful German operative in Turkey

Literary significance and criticism

The book was very popular when published, and was read and enjoyed by Robert Baden-Powell and by the Russian imperial family as they awaited the outcome of the Revolution in 1917.

Just as the British and American characters are positive, slightly jingoistic clichés, many of the German characters are negative clichés; for example, Colonel von Stumm is an ox-necked, bull-like bully with secret effeminate (possibly homosexual) tastes. Buchan saw his novel-writing as part of the war effort. Stumm, the bully, is intended as a symbol of Britain’s war enemy of the time, Imperial Germany.[1] However, when Buchan writes of a meeting between Hannay and the Kaiser, he portrays the German leader very positively, as a sensitive man who is greatly troubled by the war. This is one of the most unusual and unexpected episodes in the novel. He makes similarly sympathetic characters of a poor forester’s wife who shelters Hannay when he has malaria, and of the captain of the Danube river steamer who takes Hannay on as engineer. Herr Gaudian, a renowned German engineer who Hannay meets briefly during his time with von Stumm, and who later returns in The Three Hostages, is respected by Hannay, who describes him as “a capital good fellow”.

All Turks, Greeks and Jews in Constantinople are racial stereotypes, as are the comic Afrikaners who appear in the periphery of the novel. Critics have claimed that the weakest elements in this book are the clunky narrative crutches Buchan uses, particularly the many unlikely coincidences and sit-down narratives with which subsidiary characters are brought in at predictable moments and made to tell their adventures.

The first chapter of Greenmantle, “A Mission is Proposed”, was chosen by Graham Greene for his 1957 anthology The Spy’s Bedside Book.

Allusions/references to actual history geography and current science

Many feel that the character of Sandy Arbuthnot, Hannay’s resourceful polyglot friend, was based on Buchan’s friend, Aubrey Herbert, and perhaps also Lawrence of Arabia, while the character of Hannay drew on the real life military officer, Field Marshal Lord Ironside.

Many of the novel’s references to political tensions in the Middle East seem strangely contemporary at the beginning of the 21st century. The potential of the tale to arouse controversy was again illustrated following the terrorist bombings in London on July 7, 2005, by the BBC’s decision to cancel its broadcast of Greenmantle as its Classic Serial on Radio 4 that week.

According to Patrick McGilligan’s 2003 biography, Alfred Hitchcock, who directed the 1935 film adaptation of The 39 Steps, preferred Greenmantle and considered filming it on more than one occasion. However no such project ever materialized in Hitchcock’s lifetime and Greenmantle itself has yet to be filmed.

Peter Hopkirk’s nonfiction work, Like Hidden Fire, published in 1997, follows actual German plots to destabilize the region during World War I. While Hopkirk draws various connections between Buchan’s work and the historical events, there is no indication that Buchan had knowledge of the actual events or used them as the basis for his story.

The subsequent Richard Hannay novels of John Buchan are:

· Mr Standfast (1919)

· The Three Hostages (1924)

· The Island of Sheep (1936)

Footnotes

1. Don’t mention the War, John Ramsden, p. 110.

References

· Slide, Anthony (2003). Lost Gay Novels: A Reference Guide to Fifty Works from the First Half of the Twentieth Century (1st ed.). Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park Press. ISBN 1-56023-413-X

A warning from history

· JDF Jones

· The Observer, Saturday 16 July 2005

· Article history

JDF Jones on a first world war spy thriller and a different chapter in the story of east and west

“There is a dry wind blowing through the East and the parched grasses await the spark …”

That was in 1916, and the head of the Foreign Office was warning that Britain and her western allies were in deadly peril from an Islamic “Jihad” masterminded by Germany.

“The fact is beyond dispute. I have reports from agents everywhere – peddlers in South Russia, Afghan horse-dealers, Turcoman merchants, pilgrims on the road to Mecca, sheikhs in North Africa, sailors on the Black Sea coasters, sheep-skinned Mongols, Hindu fakirs, Greek traders in the Gulf, as well as respectable Consuls who use ciphers. They tell the same story. The East is waiting for a revelation …”

This wonderful flurry gives the game away. It is, of course, from the opening chapter of John Buchan’s famous thriller, Greenmantle. It seems a long way, and not just in years, from the inspiration of four wretched suicide bombers in Britain.

I always argue that Greenmantle is the best of Buchan’s “shockers”, better by far than the even more famous The Thirty-Nine Steps, the predecessor in his quartet of “Richard Hannay” adventures. The plotting is complex, fast and fantastical, yet draws directly from the real events of the middle years of the first world war.

Far from the stalemate on the western front, Germany was trying to exploit its alliance with the “new” Turkey of Enver Pasha to recruit the Islamic millions of the Middle East in a Jihad against the infidel west (this is true, up to a point: the Grand Mufti declared a Holy War, and the word was spread that the Kaiser had converted to Islam).

Buchan dispatched his four favourite characters down the Danube and into Turkey, to Constantinople and eventually Erzerum, near the Russian frontier: Richard Hannay, soldier and spy; Pieter Pienaar, South African Boer hunter; John Scantlebury Blenkiron, dyspeptic American businessman; and, most important of all, Sandy Arbuthnot, traveller, linguist and romantic, modelled on Buchan’s friend Aubrey Herbert.

There is, of course, a great deal of hokum in this tale, far-fetched fantasy, yet it somehow remains favourable, engrossing, exciting, thanks to Buchan’s genius as a storyteller. Greenmantle is “the prophet of this great simplicity. He speaks straight to the heart of Islam, and it’s an honourable message. But for our sins it’s been twisted into part of that damned German propaganda …”

Sandy goes on, Greenmantle “is a dreamer and a prophet too – a genius if I can judge these things … the West knows nothing of the true Oriental . . . it is the austerity of the East that is its beauty and its terror … the Turk and the Arab came out of big spaces, and they have the desire of them in their bones … remember, it is always the empty desert and the empty sky that cast their spell over them …”

Sandy assumes Greenmantle’s identity, with his dancing Companions of the Rosy Hours, and will be smitten with the devilish German mastermind, Hilda von Einem, who will come to her just end (“Dick, we must bury her here … You see, she … liked me …”).

But all of this nonsense is lashed into the true-enough events of these precarious months in 1916, after the Gallipoli disaster. The Germans supplying munitions to their allies, the Young Turks; a brief glimpse of the Kaiser, astonishingly sympathetically drawn by Britain’s future Director of Information and, briefly, Director of Intelligence; the decisive fall of Erzerum, when the Russians exploited a weakness in that town’s mountain defences.

Buchan was writing at a dangerous point in the war, and aware that his readers would need a patriotic boost. The Germans and the Turks – enemy allies – are both given a largely negative portrait, none more so than in the villainous Colonel Stumm (“a man of remarkable qualities, which would have brought him to the highest distinction in the Stone Age”). Yet even here Buchan takes care to introduce sympathetic individuals, as though to warn against generalisation.

All of this is achieved with a remarkable combination of fine realistic detail (although Buchan never went east of Constantinople, and had visited that city only once six years before) with fantastical imagination. This is the unique flavor of the book: for example, Sandy explains “I went straight to Smyrna … I reached the town as a Greek money-lender from the Fayum, but I had friends there I could count on, and the same evening I was a Turkish gypsy, a member of the most famous fraternity in Western Asia. I had long been a member and I’m blood brother of the chief boss”.

Greenmantle has never been out of print, and I can think of no better choice for your holiday reading this summer. But can it help our understanding of today’s horrors? Surely not. Buchan makes nothing, and probably knew nothing, of the real Islam.

For an understanding of, say, Shia/Sunni theology we have to wait a little for his friends TE Lawrence or Gertrude Bell in Baghdad. Bell, the intrepid Arabian traveller and writer, was attached to the Arab Bureau in Cairo during the war and then moved to Baghdad as Oriental Secretary, where she helped to shape present-day Iraq. She and Buchan used to meet socially before the war. Lawrence, however, also at the Arab Bureau, would become a close friend of Buchan, who admired him greatly; some critics believe that Lawrence was another model for Sandy.

During his wartime years in Intelligence in London, Buchan would have been in touch with the Arab Bureau and known something of its work in analysing the Muslim world. Lawrence, for example, had been involved in planning the capture of Erzerum, which is the climax of Greenmantle. The German attempt to recruit the “dry wind” from the east failed in 1916, and the Turkish faithful are now the gasterbeiters of Frankfurt and Dusseldorf. I doubt whether the British SAS in Afghanistan today are passing as Turkish Gypsies in skin-cap and stained eyebrows.

· JDF Jones is author of The Buchan Papers (Harvill Press) and Storyteller: the many lives of Laurens van der Post (Simon & Schuster)

“A Warning from History” – overview article by JDF Jones, exploring the contemporary significance of the publication, 16 July 2005, UK Guardian Review – General Fiction

Greenmantle

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