The Path of the King
This is a book for young and old and especially for the historically minded to dwell on and even drool over. (G M Trevelyan the historian was a case in point!) The First World War had reinforced Buchan’s knowledge of France and interest in the New World, and especially in Abraham Lincoln. Buchan had been fascinated from early days with ‘The road the King of Errin goes’ in foklore, and used the idea of the ‘King’s path’ in an earlier work on Sir Walter Raleigh. In this post-First World War novel Buchan presents Lincoln’s courageous Presidency in the American Civil War (he was a minority Republican President in his first term and was assassinated in his second) as nothing less than kingly, at first sight a paradox in a non-monarchical country like the USA.
The Path of the King offers a tapestry of historical episodes, from the Vikings through centuries of Norman and French, Flemish, English, Scottish and American social, economic and political life. Famous events such as the massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve, the adventures of Daniel Boone and much else provide the backcloth for the men and women who successively have, however diluted, the blood of kingliness in them (we might now say they had the right genes). The subtly-linked individual stories are used to suggest that kingliness may be dormant or fitful over several generations, but will finally reappear in someone, like Lincoln.
All the leading characters are presented as descended from a young Viking prince whose death among the Franks as a defeated Northman is implied in the first episode. That princeling’s golden torque is the symbol of his royal status, but we find it remodelled as a ring, ultimately resurfacing in America only to be lost by young Abe Lincoln when he uses it to catch a fish in a ‘crick’ (creek or stream). But its loss is of no account, for when kingliness in fact reappears in Lincoln the man, there is no need for it.
The fascination of this unusual book grows on the reader gradually. Little clues should be looked for constantly, in order to grasp the consistency of the tale. And the choice of Lincoln, very much the offspring of ordinary folks, proclaims for those with eyes to see that kingliness is not dependent on outward trappings but on inward riches. ‘Though nature is wasteful of material things, there is no waste of spirit’, as the Prologue suggests.
J C G Greig
Available to read at https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/1966/pg1966-images.html