The Riddle of the Sands

First and foremost, The Riddle of the Sands is an adventure book. You read it and it makes you want to get out there and experience the land and the sea for yourself. It’s incredibly atmospheric and feels very real – so much so, that you can’t help dreaming of heading straight off to the wilds of Schleswig Holstein, just as Carruthers does. This is not so much a novel as a manual for action.

This is a book that is particularly loved by pretty much all the small boat sailors who ever mucked about on the muddy waters of the British Coast, been blown around the North Sea or the Baltic, or nerdled their way through the low-slung Frisian Islands.

It’s loved mainly because its descriptions of sailing and sea-adventure are wonderfully realistic. The book in places is written like a log book and, exhilaratingly, it doesn’t try to ignore the bodgy, DIY, windy and wet side of sailing that all small boat sailors know and love. The voyage of the “ugly little 5-tonner” Dulcibella described here isn’t a romantic misty-eyed view of yachting. This is sea-spray in the face, cramped quarters, basic grub and oilskins .

Published in 1903, The Riddle of the Sands also happens to be the first spy novel, an early thriller that would go on to inspire the likes John Buchan, Eric Ambler and Ken Follett. Given that the book is actually written by a man well versed in spying , there’s plenty of interesting insights about the frankly rather amateur spirit and ‘gentlemanly’ nature of international espionage before the First World War. James Bond it ain’t, but the story rocks along nicely and the dastardly plot at the heart of the book is elegantly revealed.

It may sound odd to some to call Erskine Childers a rebel, but he certainly didn’t live a quiet life and he challenged the authorities in very direct and controversial circumstances.
Having worked for the British Empire loyally in his youth as a soldier in the Boer War and a secretary in the Houses of Parliament, he became deeply enmeshed in Irish politics in his later years. By 1914 he was using his yacht to run guns into Ireland that would end up being used in the Easter Rising. He attended the historic Anglo Irish Treaty meetings of 1921-22 as a member of the Irish Dail, but strongly opposed the final agreement and became a divisive figure in the ensuing civil war.

Mistrusted by his fellow Republican rebels because of his Englishness (some of them assumed he was a spy …), Childers ended up being arrested by the Free State government for possession of a handgun and shot by firing squad in Dublin as a traitor.

The gentlemanly spying of The Riddle of the Sands had less than ten years later led to something more divisive and deadly. The scent of freedom and independence that’s in this story of two men taking off in a little boat is a signal of a much large geopolitical game of independence the author ended up playing, and paying for with his life.

Talking of which, this book is also the template for the classic ‘invasion’ novel. The Riddle of the Sands was specifically designed by Erskine Childers, to alert readers to Germany’s supposed expansionist ambitions in 1903, and generally raise awareness among the British public about the UK’s lack of preparedness for a war against Germany.

The book is based on several voyages Childers made himself in the late 1800s to the Frisian Islands and it’s highly likely that he wasn’t just there to take in the fresh air and the duck shooting.

In effect, this is the first book to raise the spectre of what was to come – two prolonged and bloody wars with Germany within the next 50 years. Before ‘Riddle of the Sands’, you might even say that the British and the Germans were cultural soulmates. No jokes about clinical efficiency, towels on deckchairs or a lack of a sense of humour back then.

But it’s here that all that starts. After The Riddle of the Sands, the Brits and the Germans can’t be friends any more. Until now, of course.

So it’s a sailing manual, a spy thriller, a dossier on pre-WW1 imperial espionage, a snapshot of a young English gentleman’s Edwardian pursuits, a subtle intimation of the author’s own demise. It’s also a classic in the spirit of The 39 Steps – *and* it’s curiously date-specific and mappable.

What are we waiting for? Join the R.O.T.S Adventure Club today!

3 thoughts on “The Riddle of the Sands

  1. There is still considerable debate as to which book sparked the ‘spy genre’. Kipling’s ‘Kim’ predates The Riddle Of The Sands, but only by a year or so. That in and of itself is intriguing as we know that Kipling and Childers met and ate dinner in Capetown, South Africa during his Boer war service. As far as the family knows, they never met again, but within years rolled out books thematically similar.

    There’s an interesting Wiki called ‘ Invasion Literature ‘

    John Buchan and Childers were friends in London before and during WWI, and in the former’s memoir he professes his love for the book.


    1. Amazing – the idea of Childers and Kipling having dinner together in Capetown is one of the most resonant things I’ve ever read….


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