An unusual John Buchan over the weekend, The Path of the King, which is not a novel, but is certainly an extended piece of fiction. The idea is that a kingly characteristic is carried in the blood (or, as we would say nowadays, the genes) of men, though they know it not – and is expressed by the individual rising to the challenge of leadership at a moment of crisis. The original king in this book is a Norse chieftain, who goes on a raid into France, and is slain – and his young son Biorn is captured, wearing a gold armlet given him on the eve of the journey, his first essay into manhood.
What follows is a series of some 14 historical vignettes, in chronological order but not continuous, which trace his line through various historical dramas in Europe, England, back to Holland and France, then to England once more and finally the infant United States. His name changes, but can always be followed, and the armlet – quickly succeeded by a ring made from it – is always present; sometimes he is noble, sometimes humble, never a king, but always moving history along by his skill, or prowess, or cunning. Among other things, he is a French knight on Crusade – he is present at the slaughter of St Bartholomew in Paris – he advises Cromwell on whether to kill or spare King Charles – an Elizabethan adventurer in Spanish South America – and a tracker in the virgin lands of America.
There is little to this book, but it is always interesting and lightly written. I cannot imagine ever reading it again, but I enjoyed it, in the way I might enjoy a history book written for a lively thirteen year old – which might, I suppose, have been Buchan’s target.