THE THREE HOSTAGES


The Three Hostages, first published in 1924, is the fourth of John Buchan's five 'shockers' featuring Richard Hannay, and is a personal favourite of mine. The book tends to be overshadowed by the wartime trio of The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle and Mr Standfast, but this is a shame. Although the hero is joined by some familiar faces, notably his feisty wife Mary, and Scottish laird, adventurer and master of disguise, Sandy Arbuthnot, the book represents a change of pace compared with the previous novels in the series. Set seven years after The Thirty-Nine Steps, it pits Hannay against a charismatic rising star of the political firmament, Dominick Medina. Medina is a complex character, and perhaps Buchan's most memorable villain. On the face of it, he has it all: he is a gifted scholar, a first-rate sportsman, and handsome, witty and charming to boot. Everyone agrees, including Hannay to begin with, that here is a man who will go on to do great things. Behind this veneer, however, Medina is 'utterly and consumedly wicked', with a burning passion to bend men's minds to his own will. The three hostages of the title are the victims of an international conspiracy, with Medina at its centre, to hypnotise members of the families of important public figures and then manipulate them for criminal ends.

When Hannay is first asked to help find the hostages, the only clue as to their whereabouts lies in some cryptic lines of verse which the malefactors have left dangling tantalisingly in front of their pursuers. Hannay is forced to wrestle with obscure classical and literary references in order to track them down and the recollection of an equally arcane Latin quotation overheard by Sandy finally leads to Medina.

The atmosphere of The Three Hostages may lack the derring-do of some of Hannay's previous adventures, but the suspense is no less effective for all that. We have the satisfaction of seeing Medina's intellectual puzzle unravelled, and subsequently Hannay is locked in a desperate battle of wills with this latter-day practitioner of the black arts, as the hero is forced into feigning submission in order to gain Medina's confidence. This part of the story is played out, not against the familiar Buchan backdrops of European capitals, battlefields or the wide-open spaces of the Scottish countryside, but in claustrophobic dimly-lit libraries and sinister doctors' surgeries. Once Hannay's cover is blown, however, the action shifts to the outdoors and the nail-biting dénouement sees the two men meet for a literally cliff-hanging final scene in the Scottish highlands.

The Three Hostages is a haunting novel, given added poignancy by the subsequent history of the twentieth century. Buchan believed that the post-1918 world was morally adrift, that its 'screws were loosening' as one of the characters in the book puts it. His experiences in the Great War had taught him, as so many others, that there was but a thin and all too fragile barrier between civilisation and barbarism. His fears would receive grim confirmation in the events of the twenty years following the book's publication.

Neil Davie February 2001


In The Three Hostages Buchan made use of a recondite bit of classical learning. Sandy Arbuthnot first suspects the villain, Dominick Medina, when he unwisely quotes in Sandy's presence a Latin sentence, 'Sit vini abstemius qui hermeneuma tentat aut hominum petit dominatum'. In his introduction in the Oxford University Press World Classics edition Professor Miller translated this as follows: 'whoever seeks to interpret the world or seeks to exercise power over men should be an abstemious drinker of wine'. A more succinct version might be: 'He who tries to interpret or seeks to dominate men should not drink wine'. Sandy's attention is at once caught by the rare word 'hermeneuma', and he traces the quotation to an imaginary work about spiritual control by the mediaeval scholar Michael Scott. Professor Miller shows that Buchan invented the imaginary work and therefore wrote the Latin sentence himself.

Hermeneuma is the Latinized version of the same Greek word which is both rare and has an interesting origin and history. It is derived from the Greek god Hermes who, having begun as a phallic god, later became, among other things, the messenger of the Olympians and therefore the god of interpretation. It is only found three times in classical Greek literature, all three occasions being in plays by Euripides, which Buchan could have read in Glasgow under Gilbert Murray and in which it means 'interpretation' or 'symbol'. Buchan, however, used the Latinized form, which occurs once in the whole of classical Latin literature in the Elder Seneca's Controversiae (9, 3, 14; not 9, 3, 4, as given in Lewis and Short 1922, 849), where it means interpretation in the sense of translation of a foreign language. Lewis and Short also give a separate reference for 'hermeneuma' written in Greek in the Controversiae, but the authors were unable to find it and would welcome help in their search. The likelihood is that Buchan read the relevant part of the Controversiae, saw the Latin form, remembered its uniqueness and used it twenty five years later himself.

Michael & Isobel Haslett 2001

(taken from their article 'Buchan and the Classics: Part 2: The Classics in Buchan's work', published in The John Buchan Journal, issue 25, Autumn 2001, available through Journal Orders.)


This website is © The John Buchan Society 2005. Permission must be asked before using any material from this site, but no fee will be charged.