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  • Stealing Victory?: The Strange Case of Conrad and Buchan
  • Douglas Kerr (bio)

A reclusive and unworldly Scandinavian, the self-doubting son of a domineering father who was a writer, is content to live a life of obscurity on his remote island. But his sanctuary on the margins of civilization is invaded by a piratical gang led by a gentlemanly and murderous villain, bent on getting their hands on what they believe is a great treasure in his possession. There ensues a desperate struggle, reaching a bloody conclusion in which the invaders are finally destroyed, by the defense mounted by the islander and those who are pledged to help him.

Conradians will have no trouble in recognizing this as an account of the main plot of John Buchan’s novel, The Island of Sheep, which was published in 1936, a dozen years after Conrad’s death, and twenty-one years after the publication of Conrad’s novel Victory (1915), whose plot it so strangely echoes. The congruence of these two novels, hitherto unremarked as far as I know, is the starting point for this investigation. It is the scene of the crime, if you will, though as with other more famous investigations it is not clear from the outset at least just what crime—or whether a crime—has actually been committed.

In many respects The Island of Sheep could hardly be further removed from Conrad’s Victory. The story of Victory unfolds in Eastern waters, and it plays to its climax on Samburan, the “Round Island” where the Swede Axel Heyst has taken refuge from a disappointing world. There he brings the bedraggled Lena, whom he has chivalrously rescued from service in Zangiacomo’s traveling orchestra, and probably a worse fate, [End Page 147] and when the island is invaded by the villainous Mr. Jones and his two henchmen, it is Lena who brings about their defeat, though at the cost of her own life; Heyst, having lost her, dies in a fire at the end of the story, presumably by his own hand. None of these elements of Conrad’s story are taken up in The Island of Sheep. Buchan’s novel is as Northern a tale as Victory was Eastern. Buchan’s embattled islander, Valdemar Haraldsen, is a Dane, but his island refuge is in the Norlands, an archipelago very like the Faroes to the north of the British Isles. Much of the story takes place in England and Scotland and recounts the persecution of Haraldsen and his daughter by a gang consisting of his father’s enemies as well as more opportunistic and sinister villains, but Haraldsen is lucky in his allies, who include the resourceful Richard Hannay and Sandy Arbuthnot (Lord Clanroyden), veterans of earlier Buchan adventures, including The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) and Greenmantle (1916). With the help of these people Haraldsen defeats his enemies in a showdown on his island in the Norlands, and may be supposed to live happily ever after.

In spite of these manifold differences, however, it is difficult to dismiss the similarities between the stories as simply coincidental. Nor can it be sufficient to put them down to the undoubted fact that both writers were engaged in producing the kind of adventure story that provided them with a common box of stage properties to dip into, including a wicked and piratical gang of villains, siege, kidnap, deception, and desperate defense against the odds. These are generic elements in Treasure Island and Peter Pan, as well as in Lord Jim and The Three Hostages, and they reappear serviceably in Victory and The Island of Sheep. But other properties which the Buchan story shares with its Conradian predecessor cannot really be explained as being drawn from the common stock. The Scandinavian provenance of the islander, the unworldly diffidence and antisociability that isolate him and make him vulnerable, so carefully mapped to his relationship with a difficult father, departed but still felt to be exigent in his demands—the psychological center of Heyst’s story as it interested Conrad—is reproduced in Buchan’s Haraldsen with a completeness that goes beyond coincidence.

Then there are the invading villains, both gangs under the leadership...


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pp. 147-163
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