With The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) and Greenmantle (1916) this novel makes the third of a trilogy on aspects of the First World War. Buchan's History of the War afforded him inside knowledge that fed his novels with realism even to which he added the spice of imagination. (In 1917 he was Director of the Department of Information, in 1918 Director of Intelligence in the Ministry of Information.)
His tale moves swiftly. The scene changes purposefully through London, a fictional Home Counties location, Glasgow, the Highlands and Islands, and Switzerland prepare the way for a climax in the great German offensive of March 1918, Ludendorff's last, almost successful gambler's throw.
Buchan's description of the accompanying artillery barrage is ominously and compellingly realistic: you hear the low thunder of the encroaching guns. And the allied trenches provide a dramatic setting for the death of the spy hunted by Richard Hannay and his little team of counterspies.
The threat from pacifism which was as genuine feature of the war years gives the spy his cover; there is a space for Red Clydeside; the submarine menace is used in an unexpected way; some Highland local colour is apt for the period but also for the people described; and generally the characters present a wide spectrum of wartime life.
Hannay has something of the now conventional amateur who beats the professionals at their own game. The spy's identity may well be based on someone involved in a scandal that affected the Kaiser's entourage. There is a sympathetic portrait of a conscientious objector. An American already in Greenmantle is perhaps the author's way of saying 'Come over and help us' - which had to wait for the sinking of the Lusitania and the Zimmermann telegram for its realisation. The young, clever and effective woman agent makes up for the (sometimes needlessly lamented) virtual womanlessness of The Thirty-Nine Steps. Not least we have the war in the air: a newcomer, Archie Roylance, will reappear in Buchan's later novels. South Africa, recalling Buchan's spell there at the beginning of the century, is represented by Peter Pienaar, who already figured in Greenmantle and much more briefly in The Thirty-Nine Steps.
Two idealistic themes inform the story: Peter Pienaar's call for fortitude, and The Pilgim's Progress. The allied triumph through faith and persistence, against heavy odds, is also the recipe for the individual's triumph against despair.
J C G Greig
This is a book for young and old and especially for the historically minded to dwell on and even drool over. (G M Trevelyan the historian was a case in point!) The First World War had reinforced Buchan's knowledge of France and interest in the New World, and especially in Abraham Lincoln. Buchan had been fascinated from early days with 'The road the King of Errin goes' in foklore, and used the idea of the 'King's path' in an earlier work on Sir Walter Raleigh. In this post- First World War novel Buchan presents Lincoln's courageous Presidency in the American Civil War (he was a minority Republican President in his first term and was assassinated in his second) as nothing less than kingly, at first sight a paradox in a non-monarchical country like the USA.
The Path of the King offers a tapestry of historical episodes, from the Vikings through centuries of Norman and French, Flemish, English, Scottish and American social, economic and political life. Famous events such as the massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve, the adventures of Daniel Boone and much else provide the backcloth for the men and women who successively have, however diluted, the blood of kingliness in them (we might now say they had the right genes). The subtly-linked individual stories are used to suggest that kingliness may be dormant or fitful over several generations, but will finally reappear in someone, like Lincoln.
All the leading characters are presented as descended from a young Viking prince whose death among the Franks as a defeated Northman is implied in the first episode. That princeling's golden torque is the symbol of his royal status, but we find it remodelled as a ring, ultimately resurfacing in America only to be lost by young Abe Lincoln when he uses it to catch a fish in a 'crick' (creek or stream). But its loss is of no account, for when kingliness in fact reappears in Lincoln the man there is no need for it.
The fascination of this unusual book grows on the reader gradually. Little clues should be looked for constantly, in order to grasp the consistency of the tale. And the choice of Lincoln, very much the offspring of ordinary folks, proclaims for those with eyes to see that kingliness is not dependent on outward trappings but on inward riches. 'Though nature is wasteful of material things, there is no waste of spirit, as the Prologue suggests.
J C G Greig