Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Riddle of the Sands

By Jove, I've been reading The Riddle of the Sands and realised it's a rather splendid landscape novel!
'For miles in every direction lay a desert of sand. To the north it touched the horizon, and was only broken by the blue dot of Neuerk Island and its lighthouse. To the east it seemed also to stretch to infinity, but the smoke of a steamer showed where it was pierced by the stream of the Elbe. To the south it ran up to the pencil-line of the Hanover shore. Only to the west was its outline broken by any vestiges of the sea it had risen from. There it was astir with crawling white filaments, knotted confusedly at one spot in the north-west, whence came a sibilant murmur like the hissing of many snakes. Desert as I call it, it was not entirely featureless. Its colour varied from light fawn, where the highest levels had dried in the wind, to brown or deep violet, where it was still wet, and slate-grey where patches of mud soiled its clean bosom. Here and there were pools of water, smitten into ripples by the impotent wind; here and there it was speckled by shells and seaweed...' 
These are the sands in which the riddle resides, a military secret that two young Englishmen, Carruthers and Davies, believe they will establish by navigating the labyrinth of partly hidden tidal channels on the Friesland coast.  Erskine Childers based The Riddle of Sands (1903) on his own experiences in 1897, sailing the Baltic and Friesian Islands.  His characters know that something is afoot and puzzle obsessively over maps like a pair of psychogeographers, attempting to read meaning into the configuration of sand banks, the width of canals, the depth of shoals and the location of coastal settlements.  Sometimes the landscape is rendered invisible by fog, and they must carefully find their way, guided only by buoys and booms, calculating how far they can get before the tide turns against them.  The map below, one of four Childers included, orientates the reader and pinpoints the sites of key incidents in the story.  But it also conveys the ambiguous nature of this zone where  sea and land are confused and a hidden topography is revealed at different times of the day.  There is even a place that could not be fixed by the Admiralty cartographers: the chart says simply 'Sands continually changing'.

'Mudscape with Figures' is the title of a review Ian Fleming wrote in The Spectator when The Riddle of the Sands was reprinted.  By this time he had published the first three James Bond novels and expresses impatience with his Edwardian predecessor's pacing and excessive attention to detail.  'The reader is quite happy to share the pillow-fantasies of the author so long as he is provided with sufficient landmarks to help him relate the author's world more or less to his own and a straining after verisimilitude with maps and diagrams should be avoided except in detective stories aimed at the off-beta mind.'  However, Fleming concludes that 'the reason why The Riddle of the Sands will always be read is due alone to its beautifully sustained atmosphere. This adds poetry, and the real mystery of wide, fog-girt silence and the lost-child crying of seagulls, to a finely written log-book of a small-boat holiday upon which the author has grafted a handful of 'extras' and two `messages'—the threat of Germany and the need for England to 'be prepared.''


Tim Holt-Wilson said...

Thanks - the North Sea landscapes are too easily ignored. This is an enduringly haunting book - deserves to be made into a drama series, if not a film. I got a whiff of this landscape when I visited Frisia and Sylt last winter - see Apparently W. Churchill read the book, and it changed his understanding of the threat Germany posed to British interests before WWI.

sargan said...

Are you making a joke ?
This was made into a film in 1979 .

Frequently on Television..just shown again over Xmas.
I'll watch anything with Jenny Agutter in it.

Plinius said...

Thanks - and as for your last point, I'm quite sure you're not alone in this. :-)