The Island of Sheep / The Man from the Norlands

First published in 1936, The Island of Sheep (or The Man from the Norlands as it is known in the USA) was the fifth and last of John Buchan’s ‘shockers’ featuring Richard Hannay. It was indeed the author’s second-last work of fiction, and the last to be published during his lifetime. Like Hannay’s previous outing, The Three Hostages (1924), the action of the novel takes place mainly in Britain, but its climax takes us to the Island of Sheep of the title, situated in the Norlands, the author’s fictional equivalent of the Faeroes (Buchan had spent a fortnight there with his son Johnnie the summer before writing the book). As was his wont, Buchan drew freely on the dramatis personae of his previous novels: the Hannay thrillers give us, among others, Sir Richard himself, his wife Mary and son Peter John, Lord Clanroyden (aka Sandy Arbuthnot of Greenmantle fame), Peter Pienaar and Geordie Hamilton; while the revolutionary events of the fictional South American republic of Olifa, recounted in The Courts of the Morning (1929), provide the criminal mastermind of the affair, Jacques D’Ingraville.
The story revolves around a long-forgotten promise made by Hannay in his days as a mining engineer in South Africa. He had sworn to defend the interests of Marius Haraldsen, a wealthy Danish gold-prospector and expert in Norse lore, against a group of unscrupulous former business associates and assorted desperados. Hannay, Pienaar and fellow Englishman Lombard join Haraldsen at his camp on a Rhodesian plateau, and in a scene worthy of Rider Haggard, they beat off an attack on their hill-top redoubt with timely help from local tribesmen. However, that is not the end of the matter. Some 30 years later, with Haraldsen now dead, Albinus, the surviving member of the original gang and Troth, the son of one of the others, decide to take the vendetta to the next generation. Gathering around them a new group of ne’er-do-wells, including Barralty, a rootless and highly ambitious intellectual (a sketchy re-working of Dominick Medina from The Three Hostages), together with D’Ingraville and two of his Olifa henchmen, they seek to extort Haraldsen’s son Valdemar out of his substantial fortune. Haraldsen junior, a bookish young widower, leaves the baronial house built by his father on the Island of Sheep, puts his 13-year-old daughter Anna in a boarding school, and goes to ground in England. Fearful for his own and his daughter’s safety, he decides to turn for help to his father’s old comrades from his Africa days, Lombard and Hannay.
Hannay, although initially disinclined to believe Haraldsen’s tale of conspiracy and extortion, ends up agreeing to honour his promise and with Lombard’s help, commits himself to the young Norlander’s protection, as does Sandy, who knows d’Ingraville from his Olifa days. Haraldsen is spirited away to Hannay’s Oxfordshire home at Fosse, and then to the more easily-defendable bolt-hole of Laverlaw, Clanroyden’s seat in the Scottish borders. Lombard, meanwhile, in a passage of vintage Buchan, snatches Anna Haraldsen from under the noses of her enemies and drives north with those same enemies in hot pursuit. Lombard and his charge escape their pursuers by a whisker, and arrive safely at Laverlaw, but even the remoteness of this Scottish retreat proves ill-suited for the purpose of defending the Haraldsens. As Sandy puts it, ‘We must fight them, and choose our own ground for it, and since they are outside civilisation, we must be outside it too.’ The stage is thus set for the final dénouement on the Island of Sheep.
When John Buchan began work on The Island of Sheep in February 1934, a full ten years had passed since the publication of his last Hannay adventure. In some respects, the new book had more in common with the author’s other fiction of the late 1920s and early ’30s than with earlier works like The Thirty-Nine Steps or Greenmantle. Although Buchan includes some fine pieces of pure adventure writing in the tradition of his hero Robert Louis Stevenson – the car chase up the Great North Road, the capture and escape of Anna and Peter John – the book as a whole lacks something of the high-octane excitement of earlier works. Perhaps Buchan’s lack of interest in Jacques d’Ingraville, the ostensible villain of the piece, has something to do with this. The latter only makes his appearance late in the novel, and apart from passing references to his utter wickedness and his drug-addled past in Olifa, we learn little about him, save that ‘his pale eyes glittered like ice’, ‘his smile had as much warmth in it as the arctic sun’ and that he was ‘magnificent, wonderful, terrible, inhuman, like some devastating force of nature.’
In fact, much of the book is devoted to the exploration of a theme far from the usual preoccupations of the thriller writer, but one which recurs in other Buchan works of the period like The Courts of the Morning, A Prince of the Captivity (1933) and above all his last novel, Sick Heart River, published posthumously in 1941. All concern the search for a sanctuary, an earthly paradise where man is safe, and crucially, where he feels he belongs. As Lombard puts it, ‘The Norlands are a spiritual place which you won’t find on any map. Every man must discover his own Island of Sheep’. As Professor Ian Duncan has written1, it is ‘not the flight but the sanctuary [which] commands our interest’ in The Island of Sheep. There are thus evocative descriptions of Buchan’s beloved Borders, as represented by Laverlaw, a ‘place so perfect that the first sight of it catches the breath’:
The light wind had dropped, and the honey-coloured bent and blue of the sky were melting into the amethyst of twilight. In that cool, mellow, scented dusk, where the only sounds were the drift of distant human speech, and the tinkle of the burn, and the calling of wild birds, and the drowsy bleat of an old ewe, I seemed to have struck something as changeless as the hills.
Then there is the Island of Sheep itself. While still at Fosse, Haraldsen recalls
… the delight of its greenery and peace, the summer days when it was never dark, the fresh, changing seas, the tardy, delicate springs, the roaring, windy autumns, the long, snug, firelit winters.
When the company finally arrives on the island, Hannay describes
… a low green place cradled deep in the sea, where one would live as in a ship with the sound of waves always in the ear. … As long as I live I shall remember my first step on land – the whiff of drying stockfish from the shore, the black basalt rocks, the clumps of broad-leaved arch-angelica, and the oystercatchers piping along the shore.
Perhaps Buchan saw this intimate association of man and landscape as an antidote to what he considered the dangerously shifting and rootless political and intellectual climate of the 1920s and ’30s (though the latter is only evoked fleetingly here). In any case, The Island of Sheep remains something of a curious hybrid; part thriller ¬– though with the villain of the piece only sketchily-drawn and a largely passive role for Richard Hannay – and part literary meditation on Nature and the power of local attachments. In The Island Of Sheep, the whole may be less than the sum of its parts, but in those parts we see examples of John Buchan’s writing at its finest.
Neil Davie, 2003

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