Sidonius in Clubland: John Buchan’s ‘The Wind in the Portico’

Sidonius Apollinaris makes an unexpected appearance in ‘The Wind in the Portico’, a story in John Buchan’s 1928 collection The Runagates Club, in which the members of a London dining club swap yarns. Henry Nightingale, a Cambridge don, visits the remote Shropshire estate of Vauncastle to view a rare manuscript for his critical edition of Theocritus. He learns that Dubellay, the owner, has recently discovered a shrine to the Celtic god Vaunus (associated by the Romans with Apollo) and has re-housed it in the portico of his manor. Nightingale humorously suggests that Dubellay re-dedicate it as a Christian altar and cites an entirely fictional passage in Sidonius, where ‘you begin by sacrificing a white cock or something suitable, and tell Apollo with all friendliness that the old dedication is off for the present’ (Buchan (1974) 32). Dubellay hurriedly rejects the suggestion as if Nightingale ‘had offended his ears by some horrid blasphemy’. When, however, Nightingale returns for a final look at the Theocritus manuscript in summer 1914, his host’s attitude is markedly different. He begs Nightingale to read him the relevant passage from the edition of Sidonius held in the manor’s splendid classical library. Realizing that Dubellay is in deadly earnest, Nightingale urges him to ‘let old Vaunus stick to his altar’ and reminds him that ‘we’re in the twentieth century and not in the third’ (137). Dubellay ignores Nightingale’s advice, performs the ritual, and is apparently slain by a vengeful Vaunus in the form of a scorching wind. His house and library are burnt to the ground and the invaluable Theocritus manuscript destroyed, but, as Nightingale remarks, ‘that didn’t worry me much’ for ‘six weeks later came the War, and I had other things to think about’ (147).

The mention of the Great War at the tale’s conclusion clearly situates ‘The Wind in the Portico’ among the many works in which Buchan treats the conflict as an unleashing of primal or barbaric forces. In his wartime production, whether literary or propagandistic, Buchan persistently presented Britain and her allies as engaged in a struggle to preserve civilization (see Strachan (2009) 87-88). While he recognized that the ideals of the nineteenth century were in decline, he argued that the fervently nationalistic militarism embodied by Germany — ‘the kind of crazy patriotism which becomes a religion’ (Buchan (1993) 67) —was no solution to contemporary spiritual malaise. In its desire to ‘cleanse and simplify life’ (83), it represented, conversely, a return to the pagan and atavistic.

Peace, paradoxically, brought a darkening of Buchan’s vision. In the words of Dr Greenslade in The Three Hostages (1924), war had produced ‘a dislocation of the mechanism of human reasoning’. Until recently ‘the barriers between the conscious and the subconscious’ had been ‘pretty stiff in the average man’, but now ‘they are growing shaky and the two worlds are getting mixed’. One can no longer ‘take the clear psychology of most civilised human beings for granted’ for ‘something is welling up from primeval deeps to muddy it’ (Buchan (1995) 12-14).

Buchan’s fiction of the 1920s insistently portrays the resurgence of the subconscious and the primeval, particularly in the form of revived pre-Christian rites. ‘Wind in the Portico’ particularly echoes two novels of this period: The Dancing Floor (1926), where the post-war ‘unsettlement of men’s minds’ leads modern-day Greek islanders to make a human sacrifice to Koré/Persephone (Buchan (1993) 70), and Witch Wood (1927), where Calvinist elders cavort before an altar to Apollo in a last surviving remnant of the ancient Caledonian Forest.

‘The Wind in the Portico’ is set in a liminal landscape: the Welsh Marches, which are likened to the ‘debatable lands’ of the Scottish Borders. The river Vaun, threading through a ‘fantastically un-English’ (119) country, reminds Nightingale of the ‘wan water’ (134) of the Border Ballads. This immediately recalls Witch Wood, with its Border setting and its heroine Katrine Yester’s love of balladry, and evokes a long folk and literary tradition of real and symbolic border-crossing.

Dubellay discovers the shrine to Vaunus in the ‘high woods’ (130) on the slopes of the ‘Welsh Mountains’. As in The Dancing Floor, the mountain country is figured as home to the ‘Outland Things’ (Buchan (1997) 106), where ‘wild men from the hills’ (85) and ‘dwellers in the stony mountains’ (99) preserve pre-Christian cults. Dubellay’s own estate is set in a clearing in ‘a very good imitation of a primeval forest’ 126). Both the shrine’s original location and its new setting are examples of temenos, Buchan’s term for enchanted places which ‘function as thresholds or portals between worlds’, where ancient mysteries were once celebrated and where pagan deities may still be evoked (see Grant (2009) 185). In Buchan’s 1920s fiction, such places are linked not only to supernatural manifestations but to the invasion of the conscious mind by the subconscious and to the conquest of the rational by the instinctual and animalistic. The ‘hierophants’ of Vaunus are portrayed with ‘only half-human faces’ in a frieze in Dubellay’s temple. Similarly the devotees of Persephone in The Dancing Floor are likened to centaurs, and in Witch Wood, the worshippers of Apollo don animal masks.

What is Sidonius doing, though, in this tale of a dangerous dalliance with the subconscious? Does Buchan cite him solely for the symbolic associations of his name, drawing on the tradition that temples to Apollo (like that discovered by Dubellay) were often re-dedicated as churches of St Apollinaris? The entirely spurious nature of the quotation from Sidonius, together with Nightingale’s erroneous belief that he lived in the third century, might encourage the suspicion that Buchan had little authentic knowledge of Sidonius.

There is much to suggest, though, that his use of Sidonius is altogether more informed and meaningful. Michael and Isobel Haslett have highlighted the influence of Helen Waddell’s The Wandering Scholars (1927) on Buchan’s post-war work. They briefly list a number of instances where Buchan cites authors or works treated by Waddell, including both Sidonius and Ausonius in ‘The Wind in the Portico’ (Haslett and Haslett (2009) 21). If we turn to the passage in which Waddell first cites Sidonius, we find that it alludes specifically to the revival of pagan elements in a Christian context:

The scholar’s education as one sees it in Ennodius’ college exercises was still purely pagan, and the battle between the Muses and Christ, even as it was for Anselm of Bisate long after, ‘either company so sweet, so fair, my heart cried out for both’. In its sharpness the gods who to the untroubled pagan, to Claudian for instance, are little but machines, recover something of their ‘faded splendour wan’. Sidonius Apollinaris saw Venus asleep with her cheek pillowed on her round arm, and violets withering in her hair [carm x, 47-49]. This is not the dignified figure of the Aeneid, ‘vera incessu patuit dea’, but Botticelli’s Venus, with the ‘roses browned a little at the stalk’ the tender dangerous goddess of the medieval legends. Ennodius, who ‘hates the very name of liberal studies’, saw her asleep by the sea, and Cupid coming to wake her, bitterly complaining,

Rare in the vast fields of the centuries,
Rare is love’s harvest:

The grey cult of virginity has taken the colour from the world. ‘Fear not’, says his mother, ‘the gods are never so dangerous as when they awake from sleep’. [Ennod. Carm i. iv.] (Waddell (1954) 43)

As a reader of Waddell, then, Buchan might perceive Sidonius as a ‘troubled’ Christian whose vivid evocations of ‘tender dangerous’ pagan deities risk awakening them from their sleep. It is highly plausible that this passage prompted Buchan to think of Sidonius when portraying the resuscitation of a woodland god in ‘The Wind in the Portico’ and the fatal attempt to Christianize his shrine. As the Hasletts note (21), though, Waddell’s work was by no means Buchan’s first encounter with Late Antique literature. He was introduced to many of the figures discussed by Waddell, doubtless including Sidonius, in the wide-ranging lectures of eccentric classicist and medievalist Frederick William Bussell at Brasenose College, Oxford, where Buchan studied from 1895 to 1899. His acquaintance with Sidonius might, though, go back to his earlier studies (1892-95) at Glasgow University, whose library contains a copy of the 1609 Plantin Sidonius, precisely the edition owned by Dubellay. It was at Glasgow too that Buchan first met Gilbert Murray, who held the Chair of Greek there from 1889 to 1899 and who would become a lifelong friend. Murray’s anthropological approach to classical studies would influence Buchan’s use of pagan themes in his 1920s fiction and, in particular, the evocation of Greek spring fertility rites in The Dancing Floor.

Perhaps, however, Buchan’s first encounter with Sidonius occurred in a very different setting. As a young man, Buchan was an admirer of Walter Pater and published three of his earliest fictions in The Yellow Book (see Holmes (2013) 2-3). However brief his infatuation with the Aesthetic Movement and Decadence, Buchan would surely have known the original ‘yellow book’, Joris-Karl Huysmans’s À rebours, where Sidonius figures among the literary enthusiasm of the protagonist Des Esseintes:

he enjoyed dipping into the works of Sidonius Apollinaris, whose correspondence, studded with witticisms, conceits, archaisms, and enigmas, he found intriguing. He was fond of rereading the panegyrics in which that Bishop invokes, in support of his self-satisfied encomia, the deities of the pagan world, and, in spite of everything, he had to admit to a weakness for the affectations and innuendos of these poems, constructed by an ingenious mechanic who takes good care of his machine, keeping its working parts well oiled, and who if required can devise new ones which are both complicated and useless. (Huysmans (1998) 30)

Like Waddell, Huysmans portrays Sidonius as a Christian poet bringing pagan gods back to live. Perhaps, then, The Wandering Scholars reminded Buchan of a youthful encounter with Sidonius in the pages of the Decadent Bible. Dubellay can certainly be read as a descendant of Des Esseintes. A neurotic Anglo-French aristocrat, he hermetically seals his ancestral pile against the modern world and ensconces himself in a library of Late Antique arcana, while the surrounding landscape has a perennial ‘autumn smell of decay’ (p. 134).

Is ‘The Wind in the Portico’ a cautionary tale then? Is the destruction of the Plantin Sidonius, blasted, along with Dubellay, by Vaunus’ scorching wind, a warning of the dangers of flirting with the pagan and barbaric? Is Nightingale’s reaction – unembarrassed flight – the only sane response to the reawakening of the atavistic? Sidonius, though, is not the only victim of Vaunus’ vengeful fury. The Idylls of Nightingale’s beloved Theocritus also perish in the flames. Here we must recall the dual nature of the temenos in near-contemporary works by Buchan. In both Witch Wood and The Dancing Floor, the glade or vale consecrated to pagan rites initially strikes the rational Christian onlooker as a place of primaveral innocence. In each novel the mission to cleanse such sites of barbaric rituals is paired with a desire to restore them to an original prelapsarian purity. Buchan’s heroes ultimately discover that such an ambition is both naïve and unrealizable. Innocence and barbarism are inseparable: the deities who inhabit the temenos are, in Waddell’s words, both ‘tender’ and ‘dangerous’. One cannot destroy part without destroying the whole.

Paul Barnaby (Edinburgh)

Buchan, J. (1974) The Runagates Club, Bath
Buchan, J. (1993) Greenmantle, ed. K. Macdonald, Oxford
Buchan, J. (1995) The Three Hostages, ed. K. Miller, Oxford
Buchan, J. (1997) The Dancing Floor, ed. M. Deegan, Oxford
Grant, P. B. (2009) ‘Buchan’s Supernatural Fiction’, in Macdonald (2009) 183-92
Haslett, M., and Haslett, I. (2009) ‘Buchan and the Classics’, in Macdonald (2009) 17-28
Holmes, M. (2013) ‘John Buchan (1875-1940)’, in The Yellow Nineties Online
Huysmans, J.-K. (1998) Against Nature, trans. M. Mauldon, Oxford
Macdonald, K (ed.) (2009) Reassessing John Buchan: Beyond ‘The Thirty Nine Steps’, London
Strachan, H. (2009) ‘John Buchan and the First World War: Fact into Fiction’, in Macdonald (2009) 77-90
Waddell, H. (1954) The Wandering Scholars, 2nd ed., Harmondsworth

I would like to thank Joop van Waarden for drawing my attention to Sidonius’ presence in ‘The Wind in the Portico’.

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