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  • Buchan the Orientalist:Greenmantle and Western Views of the East
  • Ahmed Al-Rawi


Many critical works were written in the last few decades tackling John Buchan's treatment of Africa, Africans, and his colonial attitudes. As part of the author's experience as secretary to the high commissioner for South Africa, Lord Milner, between 1901 and 1903, Buchan was acquainted with the African customs which did not only add to his experience as a writer but also made him a 'fanatical imperialist'.1 However, few critics pointed out the continuation of his imperialist conviction of the East that was mostly represented in Greenmantle (1916). Buchan changed his focus of attention during the First World War when he worked for the British Intelligence. During that period, he retained the dream of the ever expanding British Empire but shifted his idea toward Islam and the decaying Ottoman Empire so as to address wider problems that destabilized the status quo like the rise of radical Islamic movements. This paper argues that Buchan's Greenmantle falls into Edward Said's hypothesis of Orientalism since it expresses elitist ideas about the East and Muslims; also, the study investigates Buchan's historical background of Greenmantle in order to understand his overwhelming preoccupation with propaganda, his use of contemporary political events, and the influence of the Dutch orientalist, C. Snouck Hurgronje (1857-1936), on his view of Islamic movements. Buchan's novels are, in fact, twofold: they are used as tools to influence the beliefs of a whole generation, and they echo the prevalent cultural and political views of Britain at that time.

Buchan's Greenmantle

Since the 'historical context' of Greenmantle is 'vividly portrayed,'2 the novel is analyzed as a historical document relative to the events that occurred before and during the First World War. Indeed, the historical details in the novel are consciously used to propagate positive ideas of the British Empire and present negative stereotypes of the German and Turkish powers.

James Buchan, the writer's grandson, said that his grandfather started working on Greenmantle in France 'after the battle of Loos in October 1915'. He resumed writing it 'between trips to view the fleet at Scapa Flow with Russian parliamentary delegates in February 1916, and came back to France in March and June'.3 In June 1916, Buchan officially joined the intelligence staff at the Foreign Office and in July the novel first appeared in Land and Water, a magazine installment, and was then published in a book in November of the same year.4 As a member of the British Intelligence Corps stationed in France, he greatly depended on the news he heard from colleagues who were in the East besides the information he gathered by researching for the Nelson History of the War project that started on February 1915. In his Greenmantle's 'Preface', Buchan mentioned that the events taking place were not far from happening:

Let no man or woman call its events improbable. The war has driven that word from our vocabulary, and melodrama has become the prosiest realism. Things unimagined before happen daily to our friends by sea and land. The one chance in a thousand is habitually taken, and as often as not succeeds.


The writer admitted that the incidents narrated in the novel were actually happening in real life or at least not far from happening. In addition to the historical details, many characters in the novel were taken from real persons like Major Richard Hannay, Sandy Arbuthnot, and Enver Bey.

Richard Hannay, a character first introduced in The Thirty-Nine Steps, was presented as a man whose 'father had brought…[him] out from Scotland at the age of six'.5 Hannay represented the Scottish officer, Edmund Ironside (1880–1959), whom Buchan met in France. Ironside actually 'protected British interests from German spies in the months preceding the outbreak of the war',6 but he used to believe in the Darwinian classification of human races that suggested the superiority of the British, for 'he professed special dislike of the Irish, Jews, Latins, and "lesser races", that is, most of mankind'.7 Being a Scottish chauvinist, Buchan was influenced by Ironside especially by his...

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