The Watcher by the Threshold, Part 2: Africa

Low Res Scan: The Watcher by the Threshold, ed. Christopher Roden and Barbara Roden, 2005, 2012.

I’m continuing with my multipart look at this collection. This post is on its stories set in Africa.

In 1901, Buchan accepted a job as the private secretary to the High Commissioner for Southern Africa. It was a country he came to love and began to show up in his stories.

The Groves of Ashtaroth” (1910) tells of a man visiting an old friend in Africa. The latter has built his dream home in a beautiful location. But he doesn’t seem very happy or healthy, and a servant begs the narrator to intervene.

Why? Because the man goes out at night, almost sleep walking, to a grove on the property with an old altar. There he dances and lets out some of his blood.

The servant, a dour Scotsman (probably a Presbyterian though his faith is unspecified), compares whatever cult left the altar to one of the pagan religions that led Solomon astray. (1 Kings 11). The narrator agrees to destroy the grove and altar with the servant performing the role of Josiah from 2 Kings 23. He specifically compares it to one of the cults listed in 1 Kings 11, one of the pagan religions that led Solomon astray. 

The narrator, as he goes about his destruction, has some qualms, but his will is bolstered by the servant. Afterwards, he feels he’s killed some old, delicate beauty in the world.

There’s a racial aspect to the story, a call of the blood, because, while the man who built the home puts on Scottish airs and even memorizes border ballads, he’s actually part Semitic. That’s why he felt the draw of the old religion from the Levant which, it turns out, had an outpost in Africa.

I liked this tale ambiguously toned story

Surprisingly, Buchan’s most famous character, Richard Hannay, was first introduced by Buchan not in a spy thriller but in a weird story, “The Green Wildebeest”. However, though written in 1912, it was not published until 1927. Told by Hannay, it’s the tale of how Andrew Du Preeze, a very smart 22-year old man from a Free State family meets his doom.

Hannay and Du Preeze are prospecting in the Transvaal for copper. There are lots of nice descriptions of the land and the details of setting up camp near a berg by a massif. At the berg’s feet is a native village that takes advantage of a water supply. The villagers give the two men water without price, but they are told it comes from a sacred place no one can visit.

Staying for a few days in the area, Hannay goes off hunting. Du Preeze wants to talk to the local chief-priest. Hannay warns him to be polite and respect “the gods of the heathen”. Du Preeze is dismissive of this. Unlike his fellow Boers, the British “make such a damned mess of handling Kaffirs”.

Hannay returns from hunting and finds that Du Preeze has made a mess of things. He barged his way into the chief’s enclosure to get water after hitting the priest. Du Preeze claims to have seen in the enclosure a green wildebeest of all things. He also shot it.

From there things go downhill for Du Preeze. Hannay tries to make apologies. The chief accepts Hannay’s apology, but he also tells him that there is no mercy he can extend to Du Preeze. The chief sorrowfully tells Hannay that Du Preeze committed sacrilege and will pay the price.

Hannay senses the village’s water comes from a sacred place, “swaying to some magic impulse from the heart of the earth”. The stonework around the village does not seem carved by “Kaffir hands”.

The rest of the story is Du Preeze’s degeneration, his life ends by being executed for murder. In a final letter to Hannay, Du Preeze thinks, in shooting the green wildebeest, he has committed a “great sin” and let something into the world of “infinite power for evil”. The green wildebeest has appeared to him several times. Hannay speculates that in Du Preeze, who has “a touch of Mongol in his face” and, perhaps like other Boers, a “dash of the tar-brush” in his family’s past, mixed native superstition with a “frontier Boer’s cast-iron courage”. It is, perhaps, this that led to his fate in a tale ambiguous in its sympathies in regards to the colonized and colonist. Buchan, though an imperialist, exhibits an empathy for the Africans here. After all, the priest’s contentions and faith seem supported by events, and he is not portrayed as an evil, cartoonish figure.

In the next post, I’ll be looking at Buchan’s fantastic fiction set in the mountains.

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