Whatever their creed, all artists of high caliber at one point or another dream themselves immortal. The reason for such ambition is not unlike the immortality we convey in the perpetuation of our species, in watching another life grow and blossom and in turn give life to yet a third generation. There are many among us whose greatest hopes rest in what they can offer their children in terms of a better world, and no "art-for-art's sake" pundit should ever dare to berate them for such selflessness. Nevertheless the artistic soul is necessarily a soul cloven in two equal parts. He wishes himself and his offspring – we must feel sad for those who believe that partaking in parenthood might rob him of artistic accomplishment – only the best and easiest life, and still knows that an existence without damage or dismay will likely yield a plain golden field no different from anyone else's. With such fears in mind, some artists seek out conflict or, in the very least, do not avoid it even from an early age because they believe these problems will ultimately resonate in greater accuracy as to the soul's agonies. How fruitful are these attempts? Judgment will be individual, but happy lives may produce wonders just as unhappy lives may spread their bitterness to every inch of their canvasses. Perhaps the best alternative is merely to allow your own soul in all its intricate contours to shade your page. A good introduction to this once-famous novel.
The war that Richard Hannay began in this novel has now spiraled towards its close, but his taste for danger has not ebbed. As he would confess towards the conclusion of his adventure, dodging bombs and wounded men felt very much like a homecoming, which should tell us that we are not dealing with an ordinary foot soldier:
I never could stand London during the war. It seemed to have lost its bearings and broken out into all manner of badges and uniforms which did not fit in with my notion of it. One felt the war more in its streets than in the field, or rather one felt the confusion of war without feeling the purpose.
There are few pithier commentaries about the miserable unknowability of wartime than this. In short order Hannay is accorded the unenviable mission of deciphering and halting one of the most preposterous schemes ever devised in early spy fiction (overtaken, I suspect, by some of our current potboilers, but here I profess my supreme ignorance). A scan of Greenmantle reviews will undoubtedly summon a handful that dub this plot – involving jihads, Moslem messiahs, and an unbelievable cast of polyglots – prescient given the battles currently being fought in certain parts of the globe. Such research betrays, however, a profound misunderstanding of what was then and what is now. While green might be the appropriate color for such a mutiny, the methods and principles that Buchan employs are the fanciful poppycock of the conspiracist. And indeed, by the time we actually get some return on our expectations of the figure whose advent shall change the course of a waning war, even Hannay admits that the whole thing could hardly have worked in the fashion the heroes had predicted.
Heroes? Quite a few, as it were. As opposed to his very solo adventure in The Thirty-Nine Steps, Hannay this time is leagued with a band of multinational allies: Peter Pienaar, the old veld-hunter who is extremely good at everything the citified could never imagine doing; Blenkiron, a massive American ostensibly modeled on this non-American author and imbued with the latter's serene confidence and faith; and Sandy, né The Honourable Ludovick Gustavus Arbuthnot, who despite being a skinny Scottish aristocrat, can pass on any given day for a native-born Turk. This fact merits a brief aside: while Blenkiron has some command of foreign languages but generally likes to prattle in his rather comically transliterated native tongue, Hannay and his cohorts, as well as a couple of their marplots, switch among languages with almost supernatural skill. One such person is the rather wicked German Colonel von Stumm. Graced with linguistic prowess and incomparable physical strength, Stumm's other interests dawn on Hannay when the Englishman is whisked off to the Colonel's private quarters:
That room took my breath away, it was so unexpected. In place of the grim bareness of downstairs here was a place all luxury and color and light. It was very large, but low in the ceiling, and the walls were full of little recesses with statues in them. A thick grey carpet of velvet pile covered the floor, and the chairs were low and soft and upholstered like a lady's boudoir. A pleasant fire burned on the hearth and there was a flavor of scent in the air, something like incense or burnt sandalwood. A French clock on the mantelpiece told me that it was ten minutes past eight. Everywhere on little tables and in cabinets was a profusion of knickknacks, and there was some beautiful embroidery framed on screens. At first sight you would have said it was a woman's drawing-room. But it wasn't. I soon saw the difference. There had never been a woman's hand in that place. It was the room of a man who had a fashion for frippery, who had a perverted taste for soft delicate things; it was the complement to his bluff brutality. I began to see the queer other side to my host, that evil side which gossip had spoken of as not unknown in the German army. The room seemed a horribly unwholesome place, and I was more than ever afraid of Stumm.
There are some unpleasant adjectives that would accompany this passage into contemporary print, and there is some irony in the fact that stumm is German for "mute" or "silent", but this is all quite beside the point. No one is spared in Buchan's nasty survey of oneupmanship, perhaps because he realizes that it is precisely these types of stakes that bring out the worst in every sort of man. Although the single soldier regardless of country is a titan among cowards, war is consistently depicted as evil and idiotic. Hannay assumes a series of identities and rambles through the last months of Kaiserist Germany at almost breakneck speed, all the while encountering beautiful patches of simple life that remind him that we are all subject to a mutual covenant. The finest scene enlists the kindness of an impoverished woman and her small children, for whom an almost deliriously feverish Hannay carves from wood "the first toys ... they ever possessed." And these breaks in the action are extremely effective in that we forget about the allegedly global implications of the Greenmantle conspiracy and enjoy the minutia of the daily existence we hope it never assails – even the "woman's drawing-room" that so happens to belong to a German colonel.
I suppose we don't read Buchan anymore because his world is no longer ours. Spies and secret wars have been replaced by unmanned technologies, as well as by a noble aversion to conflict that has thankfully resulted in no large-scale battles in recent memory (the local and civil wars, alas, have been accumulating). We may smile at some of the conclusions reached in Greenmantle, and shake our heads at the ethnic categorizations, but the violence of the language is undeniably crisp. Small observations such as "I put on my most Bible face," "narrow, twisted streets, choked with soldiers," and "Stumm and his doings seemed to have been shot back to a lumber-room of my brain and the door locked," mingle with passionate descriptions of prior years spent in Africa. This was a life Hannay wishes he had never abandoned because that world, despite its mesmerizing unfairness, still possessed the hope that soughs through so many underdeveloped areas, namely of beginning a new and grand existence far from the hum of men. Life among the wild of the veld may not appeal to all of us, although Hannay thinks that is only because of our own churlish disavowal of the distant and unexplored. "To be able to laugh and to be merciful," he says once, "are the only things that make man better than the beasts." Those, and one other thing which Hannay knows is the result of both mercy and laughter.