'The Grove of Ashtaroth' by John Buchan (1912?)

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'The Grove of Ashtaroth' by John Buchan (1912?)

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1alaudacorax
set. 19, 2013, 8:39am

This is from the collection The Moon Endureth: Tales and Fancies and can be read here (number VI in the list), or the whole collection can be dowloaded for Kindle here .

I should say first of all that I'm not absolutely sure this can be classed as a Gothic tale, but it does have a mysterious ruin and ancient secrets and questions of ancestry and identity.

I think this one of the more powerful short stories I've read for a while, but it's been - I'm a bit tentative on choice of word, here - challenging me for a couple of months. I've been trying to work up a piece on it for my blog but the piece kept ending up more a list of questions than any kind of proper essay. So I decided to start a thread here instead. There are all sorts of things in it that I can't make up my mind about, and I'll be fascinated to see how others react to it.

Um ... I was going to put a few of my 'puzzlements', here, but I think I'll leave any readers to be challenged in their own ways ...

2housefulofpaper
set. 19, 2013, 2:04pm

Let me see if I've got this on paper, I don't like reading on my MacBook. It might by in a Folio society volume of Buchan short stories, or a charity shop paperback. I'm decorating a room at the moment, and the rest of the house looks like one of those reality TV programmes about hoarders as a result, so it might take a while to check!

3housefulofpaper
set. 22, 2013, 7:25pm

This is just to say I've read this story now. I accidentally deleted my first attempt at putting my thoughts down in writing. I'll have something soon(ish).

4housefulofpaper
set. 23, 2013, 6:50pm

Here it is:

Superficially (actually, more than superficially) this story bears a resemblance to the work of Algernon Blackwood. It is about the effect of nature - or something beyond nature - on a particularly sensitive or susceptible person.

Unsurprisingly, it shows its age in some of the attitudes it expresses, as well as what can - in charity to Buchan - be taken as out-of-date beliefs about the non-African origins of the iron age antiquities of Great Zimbabwe. Unfortunately the whole rationale of the story depends on the tower at the centre of the titular grove (explicitly linked in the story to Great Zimbabwe) being of Phoenician or otherwise ancient Semitic origin.

That unfortunately opens Buchan to accusations of racism on two fronts at once; that is by denying that sub-Saharan civilization could have reached the degree of development indicated by the antiquities, while at the same time suggesting that “Jewish blood” leads to a falling away from monotheistic rectitude and into a sort of cruel voluptuousness. This second aspect of the story rather puts me in mind of public schoolboys having “unnatural vices” flogged out of them. Something that didn’t end until long after the time of this story, of course.

That’s the clue, perhaps, as to why this story maybe doesn’t sit right with us: it’s Late Victorian, Imperial, “Heartiness” masquerading as fin-de-siécle aestheticism.

Of course this is not a brand-new opinion of Buchan. On browsing the internet in preparation for this little essay (I was looking for a note of the contents of the Folio Society Short Stories, to see if it was worth hunting for my copy), I can across this quote from Betjeman’s imagining of Oscar Wilde’s arrest:

“So you’ve brought me the latest Yellow Book:

And Buchan has got in it now:

Approval of what is approved of

Is as false as a well-kept vow.

- The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel

5alaudacorax
set. 28, 2013, 10:44am

Sorry for absence, been walking the Gower coast for the last week.

6alaudacorax
Editat: set. 28, 2013, 11:50am

#4

You've neatly summed up why I called it 'challenging'.

In addition to the Great Zimbabwe thing, I was struck by the implication that the land travelled through and subsequently built on was uninhabited, virgin territory, just lying there waiting to be exploited.

I found, and still find, the narrative voice's and the author's attitudes to Lawson's Jewishness quite difficult to pin down. In particular, what were we supposed to read into Lawson's getting fat and pasty - is this to be seen as the natural result of Lawson's neglect of his 'manly', outdoor pursuits - or was Buchan here depicting some popular, Victorian/Edwardian stereotype of the Jew? Why is Lawson's collecting of 'Tintorets' and 'Ming pots' slightly suspect - which is, surely, implied? There's an obvious connection, there, with Lawson's grandfather's antique dealing - or is there - what does it mean if intentional?

However, what really fascinated me was the depiction of the destruction of the tower. It strikes a modern sensibility as a quite shocking piece of environmental and archaeological vandalism, but the story itself is almost symbolising this attitude in the narrator's distress at the proceedings. Allied to this, I'm not at all sure how we are to see the narrator's attitude to the stern, Old Testament prophets and their modern counterpart in Jobson.

I found equally difficult the attempt to make sense of the link between the gentle, feminine 'voice' pleading with the narrator (which might, of course, be a figment of his imagination) and the spectacle of Lawson, fat and naked, running around scarifying himself with a knife.

And why doves?

Lots of mixed messages. I tried to work up a blog post about it a week or two back, but it kept ending up as long lists of questions.

7housefulofpaper
set. 30, 2013, 7:14pm

It's tricky, isn't it. You assume you know how the Victorians/Edwardians thought - they're so close to us in time (when I was a child in the '70s there were still plenty of people around who had been born in Victoria's reign). But when you have to analyse the thinking behind a story like this, you realise how much of what you think is supposition, or based on 2nd- or 3rd- hand sources.

With that forewarning, then, I'd hazard some further guesses.

Yes it's a stereotype of the Jew as an "Oriental" prone to voluptuousness and worship of false Gods (or - in this story - being attracted to the "wrong" aspect of Nature?). So Lawson has inherited a character flaw that only comes to light at the grove/tower.

Who's the German who had a "blood and soil" philosophy? Herder? (I could check, I've got the internet, but it's late...) There's that going on too - the East for Lawson, Scotland breeding his opposite in Jobson (that's not an entirely admiring portrait of unbending - I was going to say Calvinism, but I don't know all the various differences and degrees of Scottish Protestantism, so that may be wrong - strict adherence to the word of the Lord, shall we say. The narrator, whom I suppose is the Golden Mean, character wise, I presume is English.

Is there something of "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do" in his destruction of the tower? Does the strong, silent (lone, and silently suffering in a manly way) Cowboy derive in part from earlier Sons of Empire - in the pages of Argosy, Blue Book and All-Story, perhaps, now long forgotten?

I mentioned the "aspect of Nature" - Lawson responds badly in a grossly physical way, Jobson with abhorrence, the narrator with a sort of spirituality. Like "right" and "wrong" ways to respond to a classical nude?

I don't know if a parallel with the grandfather's business was meant - from an antique shop to "Tintorets" (Tintoretto's, yes?) in three generations. Maybe a Brighton antique shop is considered rather low and mean. Maybe it's code for pawn shop.

8housefulofpaper
set. 30, 2013, 7:20pm

As for the doves, they are one of the animals connected with the Goddess (see Wikipedia but under the entry for "Astarte").

9alaudacorax
oct. 1, 2013, 12:27pm

#8 - This goes back to your point in #7 about how difficult it is to put ourselves in the Victorain/Edwardian mindset. Could Buchan have written the story while taking no account of the dove's association with peace? To be fair, these are green doves rather than the symbolic white ones. Of course, we have a bifurcated relationship with the family - we could be looking at them as symbols of peace or a main ingredient in pigeon pie.

#7 - I mentioned the "aspect of Nature" - Lawson responds badly in a grossly physical way, Jobson with abhorrence, the narrator with a sort of spirituality. Like "right" and "wrong" ways to respond to a classical nude?

That's a very interesting point. If the narrator is a 'Golden Mean' in his, albeit suppressed, reaction to the goddess's 'voice', then that makes his distress and despair in the closing pages all the more poignant in that the evil of the situation lies not so much with the grove and tower as with Lawson - the grove and tower (not forgetting the doves) become 'innocent' casualties in the narrator's battle with the evil part of Lawson's heritage. Uncomfortably, that makes the story more overtly anti-semitic, I think.

It can be a problematic business, this reading stories ...

10pgmcc
oct. 2, 2013, 6:16am

I have just discovered this thread and am ignoring the comments about the story until I get a chance to read it and establish my own views. I have an enormous number of Buchan's novels and a few collections of his short stories, so I need to check if it is in one of those.

Back soon...(which could be a few days.)

11frahealee
Editat: oct. 25, 2018, 7:30pm

Putting this on my list of upcoming Gothic projects hoping within the next six weeks. Half the effort is getting the story in my hands, and now that I do, excuses dissolve. Start the timer (while I have Buchan's other one still in my thoughts). Helps offset Faulkner.

12frahealee
feb. 8, 2019, 10:25am

This has been bumped up to my next top ten... don't forget this time!

13AndreasJ
feb. 8, 2019, 10:44am

You may be aware already, but this has also been discussed over at The Weird Tradition.

14frahealee
feb. 8, 2019, 11:11am

>13 AndreasJ: Thank you for the reminder! I had seen Buchan's name come up with the last of his stories discussed (my first), but had not yet found the thread for Ashtaroth. It happened to come in the ebook of 50 Hallowe'en stories which was purchased for $1 before joining TWT group. After the Threshold story studied, I read 39 Steps and loved it. Fast paced thorough romp through Scotland, etc. This one is bound to be great, if it made that cut of top 50 for the ebook!

15frahealee
març 4, 2019, 9:31am

This story has also been checked off of the TBR list, at long last. Enjoyable but not really my cup of tea. I enjoyed Buchan's other stories much more.