by John Buchan. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1927. 12mo. xii+352 pp. $2.50.
THE old name of the wood was Melanudrigill, when Merlin harped there; a part of the ancient Wood of Caledon it was. The Black Wood they called it afterward, but the last of it was burned on the cottage hearths ‘ in the winter of the Sixteen Drifty Days.’ The heathen altar in the wicked heart of the wood is Mary Cross to-day, ‘a shapeless stone in a field of bracken,’ and the fairy well where Katrine Tester sang to the Minister of Woodilee is a spring in a field of turnips; Katie Thirsty the children call it.
With suchlike magic of old place-names John Buchan bespells his readers. Scott and Stevenson, his forerunners in the great tradition, never told a better tale than this one. To the historian’s sifted knowledge he brings the novelist’s flair. He touches stark reality with glamour, and lo, Romance, the creature of faërie!
By the method of realism we should have here a sordid huddle of ignorant, unsanitary Scottish peasants, besotted in vicious practices and shepherded by a cold-blooded, fanatical, selfdeceived crew of Covenanting dominies, perverting religion and patriotism alike to base uses. The romantic method is as relentless, every whit; we are spared nothing of the unlovely life of the village, the horrible devastations of the plague, the indecencies of the hell-ridden wood, the callous details of the witch hunt; but they come to us with a difference, these ‘old, unhappy, faroff things.’ Who shall venture to dissect glamour? What is there to dissect? The magic of strange and lovely words; Nature in her visionary moods; a ladylove in a green gown who sits by the side of a well and sings the heart out of her jo; a delicate whimsy of humor that will insist upon making a twinkle in the blackest pit of human destiny; a discreet use of mystery. And always the something over, undefined, escaping the critic’s scalpel. Certain figures of history cannot be separated from this glamour, and of these the Marquis of Montrose is one. Any page through which he may choose to wander is a page of high romance. John Buchan admit him but sparingly; he is here, and away again; once, twice; but the lure of him calls, to the end of the story.
Yet, within this eerie, moonlit device of warlocks and portents, the historian has wrought a substantial image of the times as he sees them: of a Scottish Church corrupted through alliance with the State; of a personal religion tainted with perfectionism and the near-madness of Calvinistic logic. The struggle of the young minister of Woodilee against these sinister forces is the romantic theme of the book, a struggle not without suggestion for a later day. The twentieth-century romanticist is more alive to the subtleties of success and failure than his predecessors have always been, but David Semphill is a true hero of romance; we believe in him as we do in all those others of his ilk whose end is veiled in mystery.