Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Buchan, John

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(1875-1940) UK writer, barrister and politician, Governor General of Canada from 1935 – when he was created 1st Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield – until his death. His over 80 books include histories, biographies, belles lettres and considerable fiction, some of it Supernatural Fiction. He began to publish work of genre interest with "The Keeper of Cademuir" for the Glasgow University Magazine in 1894, and fantasy stories – often featuring an incursion of the past (or other form of Haunting) imperilling the well-being of an outwardly successful contemporary man – appeared in various collections, including Grey Weather: Moorland Tales of My Own People (coll 1899), The Watcher by the Threshold (coll 1902; exp 1916 US), The Moon Endureth: Tales and Fancies (coll 1912; cut 1912 US) and The Runagates Club (coll 1928), the last being a volume of Club Stories typical of that subgenre. Throughout his career, tales like "The Watcher by the Threshold" (1900 Blackwood's Magazine), "The Grove of Ashtoreth" (1910 Blackwood's Magazine) and "The Wind in the Portico" (1928 Pall Mall Magazine) tended to reiterate a sense of the fragility of modern people when confronted with the inchoate past – with the uncontrollable pagan allure of old Gods.

Prester John (1910), a lost-world (> Lost Races) tale, is JB's first novel of genre interest. Within a specious Eden hidden deep in Ethiopia, the White protagonist finds a Black religious leader, Laputa, acting out a threatening (and potentially revolutionary) revival of the life of the 15th-century African monarch Prester John; all ends safely in Laputa's defeat and death – but not before the narrator recognizes that Laputa is a finer man than himself, and than most White men: a daring observation in its day. The latent unease expressed in Prester John about the security of White civilization was fully justified by the outbreak of World War I, which affected JB profoundly. In his long and informative introduction to the 1987 reprint of These for Remembrance: Memoirs of 6 Friends Killed in the Great War (1919 chap), Peter Vansittart suggests that what JB most "loathed and feared was 'de-civilization': civilized people losing their way and returning to barbarism". For JB, WWI opened an abyss into "a great emptiness", a sickness of spirit his fiction tends to reflect through protagonists who mask their despair with a forced stoicism, and who behave heroically according to precepts which have become hollow.

This thinness of being is most evident in JB's many nonfantastic novels, but it also marks his supernatural work. In The Dancing Floor (1926) a nightmare-ridden young man must protect an English girl from Greeks who wish to sacrifice her to ancient gods of pillage and dread; the minister protagonist of Witch Wood (1927), set in 17th-century Scotland, must attempt to confront the destabilizing Evil inherent in the ancient forest which surrounds his village, but discovers that no one can go Into the Woods without suffering some form of transformation; The Gap in the Curtain (1932) deploys the Time theories of J W Dunne (1875-1949) to fix its protagonists' lives within an ominously pre-told future; and in The Long Traverse (1941; vt The Lake of Gold 1941 US) an Indian inflicts occult visions of Canada's history on a young lad.

JB's short fiction of genre interest has been assembled in The Far Islands, and Other Tales of Fantasy (coll 1982 US) ed John Bell and The Best Supernatural Stories of John Buchan (coll 1991) ed Peter Haining. The Magic Walking-Stick (1932) is a Children's Fantasy. The Watcher by the Threshold and The Moon Endureth, plus The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) and The Power-House (1916), are to be found in the paradoxically titled Four Tales (omni 1936). [JC]

other works: The Courts of the Morning (1929); The Causal and the Casual in History (1929 chap) discusses Alternate Worlds, giving five theoretical examples; The Blanket of the Dark (1931).

further reading: Memory Hold-The-Door (1940), autobiography.

John Buchan


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.