Prester John is the first book of 2019 in my John Buchan reading project, Buchan of the Month. You can find out more about the project and a list of the books I read in 2018 here and view my reading list for 2019 here.
What follows is an introduction to Prester John. It is also an excuse to show off a few pictures of my first edition of the book, sadly without dust jacket and a little sun-damaged. I will be posting my review of the book later in the month.
Described as a boys’ story, Prester John is Buchan’s sixth novel and first appeared in serial form in The Captain magazine between April and September 1910, under the title The Black General. Kate Macdonald comments that this version of Buchan’s story was ‘comprehensively mutilated’. She also notes the origins of the story go back even further than this. The name Prester John was first mentioned in a Buchan short story published in 1897 in Chamber’s Magazine (subsequently included in Buchan’s short story collection, Grey Weather, published in 1899). It also appears in a short story from 1905, ‘The Kings of Orion’ (included in a later Buchan short story collection, The Moon Endureth, published in 1912) and features in A Lodge in the Wilderness (1906).
Prester John was published in book form by Nelson on 17th August 1910. (In the United States it was published under the title, The Great Diamond Pipe.) Buchan’s first biographer, Janet Adam Smith, notes Prester John ‘opens in true Stevensonian vein with a mysterious stranger irrupting into the boy-hero’s homely world’. She finds numerous parallels with Stevenson’s Treasure Island, such as the fact that David Crawfurd, the aforementioned boy-hero of Prester John, eavesdrops on John Laputa (whom Janet Adam Smith describes as ‘the real hero of the book’) and an accomplice, much as Jim Hawkins does on the plotters on the Hispaniola in Treasure Island.
Janet Adam Smith sees in Prester John evidence of John Buchan’s experiences in South Africa as one of Lord Alfred Milner’s ‘Young Men’, with locations used similar to those described in Buchan’s earlier book, The African Colony (1903). In Prester John, she argues, ‘Buchan’s reading and experience blend to produce a tale whose wilder moments have a backing of credible fact’ resulting in him delivering a ‘novel of action…showing a greater pace and ability to create tension, a more assured handling of plot’. She concludes: ‘For the first time Buchan is showing his true paces as a born story-teller’.
Writing in 1965, Janet Adam Smith argues that Buchan’s portrayal of African leader, John Laputa, exhibits humanity and, that in Prester John, he is depicting a battle not so much between black and white but between civilization and savagery. However, she concedes the references to ‘blacks’ and ‘n******’ in Prester John will be found offensive by modern readers. David Daniell points out the terms are used only twice and three times respectively however, understandably, once may be more than enough for today’s readers. He goes on to say, ‘It may well be that much damage has been done not by the text but by the illustrations’, noting that early editions contain badly drawn, rather lurid illustrations that contradict the text. I’m afraid my own edition is guilty of this. David Daniell also dismisses Janet Adam Smith’s comment that Prester John ‘contains many slighting references to Jews’, observing there are only two occasions in which they are mentioned. Daniell also reminds readers that Buchan dedicated Prester John to Lionel Phillips who was Jewish.
Janet Adam Smith notes that up to 1915, John Buchan had not sold more than 2,000 copies of any of his books. The probable exception is Prester John although sales figures from his publisher, Nelson, are not available. The publication of The Thirty-Nine Steps changed all that and Nelson reissued Prester John in 1919 off the back of its success. Prester John was published in paperback by Pan in 1952 and by Penguin in 1956. Combined sales of these editions totalled 220,000 copies by 1965.
A final nugget of Buchan trivia… Kate Macdonald reports that Prester John was the first John Buchan novel adapted for film. According to the BFI database, the film was made by African Film Productions in 1920 but it is not known if any copies survive.
David Daniell, The Interpreter’s House: A Critical Assessment of the Work of John Buchan (Nelson, 1975)
Kate Macdonald, John Buchan: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction (McFarland, 2009)
Janet Adam Smith, John Buchan: A Biography (OUP, 1985 )