The Riddle of the Sands_Book Image
What I think
  • Plot
  • Settings
  • Characters
  • Writing

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The Riddle of the Sands was rather a prescient novel – written in 1903 it foreshadowed German martial ambitions 11 years ahead of the Great War. Apparently, along with other ‘invasion novels’, the book motivated the Admiralty to build naval bases on the North Sea coast. Moreover, in 1910, two English gentlemen were inspired by the novel to spy on German military instalations off the East Frisia coast by sailing their yacht in exactly the same fashion as the protagonists of The Riddle of the Sands. This interplay of fiction and reality is incredible – more so as to the modern reader, the plot seems quite implausible. The prissy socialite civil servant Carruthers accepts the invitation of his university acquaintance, Davies, to join him on his yacht sailing the Baltic Sea. The comedy of Carruthers coming to terms with his less-than-luxurious accommodation accelerates into drama – Davies reveals that whilst sailing around on the Frisian seaboard he somehow stumbled on an English traitor and a German military plot. The intrepid amateur spies then set about discovering the details. Were this novel not subsequently replicated by reality, one would find the plot infeasible – perhaps this is a reflection of a different, more innocent world.

I enjoyed the narrative tone of this novel a lot; Carruthers sets himself up well as a dislikeable and jaded city-type who’s gradually converted into a hero by the manly and straightforward Davies. The little sub-plot of Davies’ love-interest is really secondary to the story, but it works quite well in forcing the heroes to interact with their antagonists, which is the element which for me gives the best dramatic tension. The other element of the novel that stands out is the descriptions of sailing in the Baltic and East Frisia – Childers beautifully communicates the affinity a real yachtsman feels for his boat, and paints the mutable worlds of the sea and the sands with adroit and poetic prose.