JOHN BUCHAN (1875-1940)
Plakos island in the Aegean sea was the home of the Arabin family. The Arabins, Greek owners in fee simple of most of the island, owned a manorial estate, several small villages, and ruled over a population of farmers and fisherfolk that numbered in the thousands. Kore Arabin was the only daughter of Shelley Arabin, “the worst man i’ve ever known” according one of his contemporaries. He was an associate of Percy Shelley and Lord Byron but was unpopular due to his rake-hellish practices, involving ancient Grecian rites and various sorts of dubious sacrificial sacraments.
Vernon Milburne was the scion of generations of evangelical cotton processing magnates, the noble residents of Severns Hall. Vernon’s parents died while he was still young, leaving him sole inheritor of vast estates and lots of money. Vernon suffered from a peculiar nightmare from an early age. The dream only occurred on April 1st, so there was one per year: asleep in his bedroom, he would suddenly awake and see a door where no door had been in reality. Through the door was another room and another door and another room: a chain of apartments, twenty in number, that decreased one by one as the years passed. The last room would be reached when Vernon was 27 years of age. He was somehow pre-selected by some mysterious power to participate in an island adventure taking place in the future in which he is pre-destined to meet his future bride at the moment of his final nightmarish vision.
Edward Leithen, the narrator, met Vernon through an introduction by his nephew Charles; the three men were present at an anniversary ball and became friendly. Later in the same year, while hiking in the Westmoreland Hills, Edward sprains an ankle and hobbles to nearby Severns Hall and gets to know Vernon well. They share histories and later both serve in the first World War, are wounded, but survive.
Early in the post-war period, the two men re-engage with the London social scene and come to be acquainted with Kore, who is in England to be educated and socialized. She is an outspoken and occasionally rude young lady who thoughtlessly antagonizes many of her friends by telling the truth about their foibles and habitual behaviors. However, Vernon is entranced, and so is Edward to a certain extent. After five years of off and on association between the three, Kore returns to Plakos because she is running short of money. She arrives and is confronted with hostile peasants who see her as the cause of various miseries such as declining fish stocks and poor harvests, mainly because she is the local authority and as such is held responsible for the general welfare. Also she seems to hold a sort of spiritual responsibility for the people’s well-being.
Vernon happens to be in the area, sailing around the Aegean in a small yacht, and hears about Kore’s troubles during a stopover in Athens. He hires a few henchmen and sails to the rescue. Edward Leithen is also nearby and stops in for a visit.
The natives are restless, partly because Spring has just arrived and partly because they are anxious and apprehensive about ancient mysteries centered on the Grecian harvest and generative gods, Demeter, Pan, the Irinyes, Persephone, and others. The local priest seems powerless to influence them, and the villagers become more and more possessed by ancient archetypes, to the point that they decide to sacrifice Kore to appease the gods.
The Dancing Floor is a flat valley located over a ridge from the town (Kynaetha by name) and is the site of age-old rites of renewal and sacrifice. The idea being that a King is appointed along with a virgin and a prince to represent the ceremonial avatars. A foot race around the Floor is held to determine who is King; the other two are selected by popular acclaim. Vernon, having infiltrated the peasant ranks, wins the foot race and is elected King. Kore, the subject of popular resentment, is naturally selected as virgin, and Marius, a friend of Vernon, is honored by becoming the Prince.
There’s an uprising, the peasants obtain rifles and organize themselves into groups in order to surround the mansion (with Kore inside) and deal with outsiders. Vernon, Leithen, and a few helpers creep around boulders and scale sea-cliffs in their attempts to rescue Kore. After numerous futile attempts to elude the ubiquitous villagers, Leithen manages to get into the house. He convinces Kore of the imminent dangers threatening her and they combine resources for the best defense they can manage.
Meanwhile, Vernon and Marius, under cover of night, succeed in sneaking into the besieged mansion. Shortly after, Kore convinces Leithen that the only recourse available to them is for herself and Marius to participate in the ritual. So they dress up, and walk down through the brilliant moonlight to the Dancing Floor.
The peasantry is overwhelmed by the beauty of the pair and spontaneously throw up their hands and bow to Kore and Marius and go back home. If this seems a bit peculiar and anti-climactic, it might have seemed that way to Buchan also… At any rate, he couldn’t think of any better ending, apparently, so the reader has to settle for Vernon and Kore falling in love and Edward Leithen cruising off into the sunset looking for consolation and further adventures.
This was a disappointing book in some ways. It was a bit like one of those signposts with fingerboards all pointing in different directions. Somewhat disjointed and vague. I’ve read quite a bit of Buchan’s work and this was not one of his best; compared to the Richard Hannay series, or the novels devoted to Edward Leithen himself, it appears weak. On the other hand, Buchan is such a powerful describer of landscapes and weather, that it’s a thrill to experience walking in his world. He’s a master of ambiance, able to drench his prose in auras from Imperial England, or from adventures and excursions into the earth’s remote areas: northern Canada, unknown Asia, or even unpopulated Scotland. Reading this book, i was reminded of other works i’ve read that were saturated with the ancient Greek mythos: “The Great God Pan” by Arthur Machen, and one of E.M. Forster’s short stories, which i can’t remember the name of. And others; “Pan” by Knut Hamsen which i haven’t yet read… for further study i’d recommend Robert Graves’ The White Goddess” in which he discusses early Greek matrilineal society and accounts for many of the seminal Greek myths.