Witch Wood is the tenth book in my John Buchan reading project – Buchan of the Month. To find out more about the project and my reading list for 2018, click here. If you would like to read along with me you will be very welcome – leave a comment on this post or on my original challenge post. Witch Wood is also a book on my Classics Club list.
According to his first biographer, Janet Adam Smith, Buchan seldom read reviews of his novels. She reports him telling his wife, “If writers mind bad reviews, they shouldn’t write books.” I’ll be sharing my review later this month. What follows is an introduction to the book (no spoilers!). However, Witch Wood was reputedly John Buchan’s own favourite of his many novels. It is dedicated to his brother, Walter Buchan.
Witch Wood was published in the UK in July 1927 by Hodder & Stoughton and in the US in August 1927 by The Riverside Press imprint of Houghton Mifflin. Like many of Buchan’s earlier novels, Witch Wood first appeared in serial form in the British Weekly magazine between 20th January and 27th July 1927, although under the title ‘The High Places’.
According to his first biographer, Janet Adam Smith, Buchan used much of the reading he did whilst researching his biography of Montrose (published the following year) for Witch Wood. David Daniell, author of The Interpreter’s House: A Critical Assessment of the Work of John Buchan, describes Witch Wood as ‘the greatest by-product’ of Buchan’s research for Montrose. Montrose does in fact make a brief appearance in Witch Wood.
Adam Smith sees in the book’s exploration of the survival of pagan rites in a supposedly Christian society echoes of earlier works by Buchan such as the story ‘The Outgoing of the Tide’, the short story collection The Watcher by the Threshold and his novel The Dancing Floor (1926). She records one appreciative reader of Witch Wood was author C.S. Lewis who remarked: ‘For Witch Wood specially I am always grateful; all that devilment sprouting up out of a beginning like Galt’s Annals of the Parish. That’s the way to do it.’
David Daniell speculates about what a modern reader’s view of Buchan might be if only exposed to his historical fiction and not his thrillers. Daniell’s own view is robustly stated: ‘All the modern impositions on to Buchan of perverted attitudes of mind would shrivel for lack of sustenance, and we would be left looking clearly at a writer of great gifts.’ He describes Witch Wood as ‘tightly enclosed’, because of its setting in the Black Wood and the parish of Woodilee, observing that there are ‘no great distances, wild escapades, miracles of chance’.
Although Buchan’s historical novels tended to sell less well than his thrillers, Witch Wood at 28,000 copies sold outstandingly well in its first year. Having said that, Janet Adam Smith reports that by 1960 combined sales of Witch Wood were only 98,000 (compared with 355,000 for The Thirty-Nine Steps).
David Daniell, The Interpreter’s House: A Critical Assessment of the Work of John Buchan (Nelson, 1975)
Janet Adam Smith, John Buchan: A Biography (OUP, 1985 )