The Blanket of the Dark
In September 1931 an old school friend wrote to John Meade Falkner, author of that excellent adventure story Moonfleet, that he had just finished reading a story by John Buchan ‘which I am sure you will enjoy. The scene of the story is the country you know so well ¬– Oxford, Islip, Woodstock, Burford, Minster Lovell, Wychwood. The time is the early part of Henry VIII’s reign. It is a book you might have written yourself’. To one who is not only a member of the John Buchan Society, but the Founder of the John Meade Falkner Society, the accolade is apt and justifiable. The Blanket of the Dark is a thoroughly enjoyable book, because it not only expresses the deep love Buchan had for his adopted countryside but it conveys great empathy with the period in which it is set.
Buchan skilfully weaves the story of a young clerk, Peter Pentecost, who proves to be a descendent of Henry of Buckingham and, thus, with a claim to the throne, around a tale of intrigue against the king, where ‘under the blanket of the dark all men are alike and all are nameless’. Long, long ago, I too, like Peter, fell for Sabine Beauforest who danced on the Painted Floor near Wood Eaton, ‘slim and blanched, she flitted and spun like a leaf or a blown petal, but every line of her, every movement, spoke of youth and a rich, throbbing, exultant life’. I too, like Peter, got caught up in the narrative of events that he rarely controlled. After years of teaching A- Level Tudor history, I found Buchan’s description of that ogre monarch, Henry VIII, as compelling as any I have read: ‘the face was vast and red as a new ham, a sheer mountain of a face…this vast being had the greatness of some elemental force’. Peter ‘hated him, for he saw cunning behind the frank smile, the ruthlessness in the small eyes; but he could not blind himself to his power. Power of Mammon, power of Antichrist, power of the Devil, maybe, but something born to work mightily in the world’.
Peter is destined to disappear ‘into a world of which there has been no chronicle, the heaths and forests of old England’; but not until Buchan had spun a compelling tale of early 16th-century England, lived under perhaps the most repellant figure to sit on the English throne.
Kenneth Hillier, 2001
Available to read at http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks03/0301411h.html