|Some Mysteries of
the Biggles Saga
Articles by: James Mackenzie
Finalised 9th October, 2010.
In All Directions - Biggles! Look again at Biggles Flies East, Biggles Flies South, Biggles Flies West and Biggles Flies North.
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By the time that he had composed the foreword to The First Biggles Omnibus in 1953, Captain W.E.Johns claimed that he had written more than three million words to set down what he knew about Biggles. As we know now, there were more than forty books to go in the remaining sixteen years of his life ! It is hardly surprising that in a saga of more than ninety books he should leave his readers with some puzzles, anomalies and mysteries that are unlikely ever to be solved. This article is your opportunity to examine the evidence and come up with some of your own solutions.
Strangely enough most of the possible problems seem to concern the devoted members of his team: Algy, Ginger and Bertie. Of course, most dedicated readers will already have done some wondering about situations that were never satisfactorily resolved. Biggles "Fails to Return" sets up one of the most intriguing. In this superb story, set in Monaco, Ginger manages to get himself wounded in two places. First of all a bullet hits him in the thigh and then, more dangerously, Cupid shoots him in the heart. Jeanette Ducoste, the sister of the pilot who had flown them into southern France, looks after him when he is recovering. Very soon Ginger is describing her as wizard to Bertie, who looks on askance. As he sets out on the perilous mission of rescuing her brother, Ginger even manages a brief kiss on her forehead. Madame . Ducoste suggests that Jeanette, who runs away in embarrassment, is behaving just as she did to her husband before they were married. The book ends with Biggles and the rest safely in Algiers, and Ginger and Jeannette spending most of their time swimming and walking together. And then .. And then nothing.
It is generally agreed that the next in the reading order is Biggles Sweeps the Desert. Not a mention is made of Jeanette in this book or any of the others. The explanation is simple enough Captain Johns knew that his juvenile readers didnt want his characters going soft. Biggles and Algy were growing old and Ginger, as the young persons viewpoint in the books, was essential to the success of further stories. Case closed.
Perhaps the deeper question to ask is why did W.E.Johns allow this affair in the first place ? Why start something that he knew that he couldnt allow Ginger to finish ? Could it be the answer lies in his often-expressed admiration for the French (and in this case the Monagasque) people, particularly those who put up a spirited resistance to the Germans and the Vichy government ? After all, a perfect reflection of this attitude is revealed in King of the Commandos where Gimlet and his team are impressed by the courage and resourcefulness not just of the juvenile urchins of the Grey Fleas of the North but of Marcelle, the girl who lives on the barge, and who keeps her nerve even when cornered by German soldiers and the Gestapo. The usually phlegmatic Trapper Troublay, in particular, is strongly drawn to this spirited female. Gimlets endorsement of the bravery of the French takes the form of forcing a member of the Vichy French army to take off his uniform before he shoots him. Too many brave Frenchmen had died honorably in that uniform for Gimlet to allow a collaborator to share their fate. And as for love ? How natural that Captain Johns, writing in wartime England in 1943, should celebrate the spirit of the Resistance by allowing Ginger to fall in love with Jeanette.
However, this rather simple mystery which everyone can ponder over tends to obscure an even more puzzling enigma that emerges earlier in Biggles Fails to Return. In Chapter 2 of this book it is made absolutely clear that the only one of Biggles comrades that knows anything about pre- war Monaco is Bertie. He had taken part in the world-famous Monte Carlo rally and he had his own special speedboat moored at the harbour. In fact he had behaved exactly as we would expect an English milord to do. His local knowledge is essential to the success of the mission. Adding this colourful character to the tightly-knit team of friends was obviously in the authors mind, and Bertie soon qualifies as a comrade to be trusted and respected. So far, so good - but this special knowledge of Monaco , so exclusive to Bertie in this adventure, suddenly becomes undermined by what we learn in Biggles Takes Charge some 10 years later.
Here, for a change, Algy
dominates the first part of the book until, as the title
suggests, Biggles takes over. The premise of the story is
that Algy knows a man called Boris Zarrill whom he met in
1939. In reality the man was the Grand Duke Boris
Nicholas Zarrill Detziner-Romanov and his country of
origin is, by the end of the Second World War, well
behind the Iron Curtain. However, it turns out that Algy
first met Boris when they were drawn as partners in a
tennis tournament in Monte Carlo ! Later it emerges that
Algy knows both the head waiter at the Monte Carlo
Country Club and Joseph of the famous Victors Bar
in the Hotel de Paris in the centre of the Principality.
Joseph in fact greets him with the statement that
everyone returns to Monte Carlo. Now there is nothing
unusual about the Honourable Algernon Montgomery Lacey
being a member of the playboy set on the Riviera in the
nineteen thirties but it is strange that only Bertie
could claim to have local knowledge when it is needed in
the 1940s ! Yes , if we look closely, we can
see that in Biggles "Fails
to Return" it clearly states
Whilst we are on the subject of Bertie, let us consider one of the later stories. One of the most remarkable books that Bertie appears in is Biggles Sets a Trap. Here Biggles investigations as a member of the Air Police are concerned with the family curse and threat that hangs over Sir Leofric Landeville. Bertie is the assistant selected by Biggles to accompany him to Ringlesby Hall and to watch whilst the case unfolds and finally resolves itself. In view of his own aristocratic background the reader might expect that the Lord Lissie side of Berties personality might emerge. However, at no point during the story does Bertie show any acquaintance with the sort of traditions that surround Leofric, the interpretation of heraldry or even any understanding of what it must be like for an aristocrat to live in straitened circumstances.
It really is like the peculiar behaviour of the dog that does nothing in the night, so beloved of Sherlock Holmes devotees. In this case why W.E.Johns chose Bertie to be in the story and did not exploit his special social background is highly odd. He was not afraid to do so in Biggles Scores a Bull where his family connections prove very useful. In fact you could substitute Ginger for Bertie in Biggles Sets a Trap and, apart from one old boy and another blow me down of surprise, the reader would not notice. Without a shadow of doubt the story would have been stronger if it had been Ginger for then Biggles explanation of the ideas and history associated with nobility would not strike such a false note when addressed to Bertie, the very epitome of an upper-class, titled Englishman.
Now lets turn to something even more fundamental.
Have you ever thought about where Ginger actually comes from ? Yorkshire, you will say. Everyone knows that Ginger is a Yorkshireman. He says so himself and he should know. In the very last Biggles completed book of all (Biggles Sees Too Much) he says that he is from Yorkshire originally, although he now lives in London. Look in Chapter 7 and you will see it. Mind you, perhaps we should take into account the fact that he is talking to one of the villains and has no reason to tell the truth. You will also find that the fact that he is a Yorkshireman published on most Websites.
However, in The Black Peril, (or even Biggles and the Black Peril in later editions) a close study of the storyline reveals an extraordinary confusion of geography. When answering a series of questions from Biggles, Ginger declares that he comes from Smettleworth. In response to Biggles next question he says that he does not know where that is. Two things, however, are clear : he is heading for London to join the Royal Air Force and he passed through Newcastle some two days before. Its all there in Chapter 2.
Now, to those of you unacquainted with British geography, Newcastle upon Tyne is to the north of Yorkshire. It is not even just to the north. County Durham lies in between. There is no way that Ginger, travelling on foot from Yorkshire, would ever pass through Newcastle on his way to London. And, by the way, its definitely not Newcastle Under Lyme that is being mentioned as the rest of the geography of the book and the references to Cramlington aerodrome and Gingers visit to Newcastle to get a suit make clear. The most likely place, therefore, for Ginger to have set off from is Northumberland, which, like Yorkshire, was also riddled with mining villages.
Why all this fuss ? A simple mistake by W.E. Johns, you might think, a result of being unacquainted with the area. However, in The Life of Captain W.E.Johns by Peter Berresford Ellis and Piers Williams, it becomes clear that in December 1924 W.E.Johns was a recruiting officer in Newcastle and lived for a time at Whitley Bay some eight miles away on the coast of Northumberland. It is hardly likely that he would get Northumberland mixed up with Yorkshire. Following the logic of The Black Peril, however, he does seem to get County Durham the most likely venue for Biggles first encounter with Ginger (i.e. between 10-20 miles south of Newcastle) confused with Northumberland for, later in Chapter 6, he talks about the place in Northumberland that the enemy were using. So, is Ginger mistaken and hes really a Geordie and not a Tyke, as he seems to think ? After all, the people of both areas of England are renowned for their practical skills and inventiveness as well as for a certain irreverence towards authority.
Now lets check out the main enemy and see if we can find out the truth about him. Erich von Stalhein first appears in Biggles Flies East. The details of his military career are hazy. In the original story we are told that he had been wounded early in the war, and walked with a permanent limp and with the aid of two sticks. Biggles repeats this information to his friends over forty years later in Biggles Buries a Hatchet where he describes him as a soldier who required the assistance of two sticks in order to get around.
It would be a shame to give away the plot of a brilliantly exciting book so let us just say that in Biggles Flies East von Stalhein is more than just the intelligence officer on the German air base he is a formidable spy. Moreover, it appears that the limp is just a part of his cover for we are told that Biggles notices that, when unobserved, von Stalhein is far from restricted in his physical activities. His movements are described as lithe and that it would be miraculous for even an athlete to move like he did. He even compares him to a greyhound and suggests that he has the agility of an eel ! Later in the story the whole matter of von Stalheins wound and incapacity is cleared up in quite a conclusive fashion. The limp is described as feigned and we are told that it was a clever pose and that he played the part of a lame man. Not much doubt about that, then !
Again and again in later books, however, von Stalheins involvement in a particular piece of skullduggery is revealed by the figure of a limping man. Thus in Biggles Works it Out the Australian trackers know that one of the men who stole the Barula Creek Gold was a tall man with a slight limp in his right leg. However, for definite confirmation, when we move forward to Biggles Buries a Hatchet, Ginger, lying concealed watching the prisoners of Onor prison on the remote island of Sakhalin, suddenly notices that one of them limps slightly. He is reminded that the German limped slightly from an old wound.
So, there we have it; this wound is clearly no fake.
The solution to this apparent contradiction is never given overtly during the saga of Biggles and his chief opponent. However, the supposedly cataclysmic crash at the end of Biggles Flies East supplies the best opportunity for von Stalhein to acquire the real wound that ironically replaces the feigned one he had adopted with so much skill. In Biggles and Co he tells Algy that the members of the German Secret Service do not die so easily and that like cats he has nine lives. Are we meant to realise that, though he survived the sands of Palestine, he has not come through with his paws intact ?
There are other problems about von Stalhein that need to be taken up but there are already enough items here to give pause for thought. W.E. Johns himself admitted that his young fans used to catch him out, especially over the endurance ranges of some of the aircraft he flew into his adventures. He wanted to shoot straight and play fair with all his readers. The occasional puzzle he may have accidentally left in the vast body of his work can only add to the pleasure of generations of readers who love tracking every movement of their hero and every twist and turn in the mind of the master storyteller. So, good hunting for further mysteries.
By the way, whatever happened to Berties hay-coloured moustache ?
At first sight you would think that it was merely a series of stories where Biggles flies to different parts of the world. Some might even suggest that W.E.Johns chose points of the compass for his titles out of sheer idleness. A severe critic might perhaps say that he was lacking in imagination. They are wrong ! This article sets out to prove that not only are the stories exciting and suspenseful and amongst the best he ever wrote, but also that they are all uniquely different from each other not just in their settings but, more importantly, in the whole atmosphere that each one creates.
Biggles Flies East is the first in chronological order and already it is possible to see the special place it holds in the long list of Biggles adventures for it is, in effect, the only full-length First World War Biggles adventure. Some might mention The Rescue Flight or Biggles and the Rescue Flight but that book only involves Biggles as a bit-player in the adventures of Thirty and Rip. No it is in Biggles Flies East that Captain Johns uses all his own personal experience of air combat in the RFC, already brought to a fine art in the short stories of Biggles and the Camel Squadron and The Camels are Coming, and marries that knowledge with an ingeniously invented spy story.
Both Biggles and Algy are snatched from the relatively straightforward tussle for supremacy in the skies over the trenches in France and plunged into the murky world of espionage. Only the fact that it is his duty to serve Britain in any way he can could force Biggles into the web of deceit and lies that follow him to Palestine and to an enemy aerodrome. From the moment he touches down at Zabala, (not only the Headquarters of the German Intelligence Staff but also the base for two squadrons of Pfalz Scout planes) the reader is kept on tenterhooks wondering when Biggles cover will be blown and he will be taken out and shot.
Each new day brings a new risk. The pleasure of the book comes from the brilliant resourcefulness he shows each time he comes near exposure. A ring is found in an incriminating place (you draw your breath in), Biggles explains it away (you let your breath go in relief). Time and again he does it. Thus it isnt just W.E.Johns brilliant descriptions of combat that stay in your mind from this story. There is also the strange turmoil of feelings that Biggles experiences as he sits and watches a squadron of enemy bombers take off for a raid. As a decent man and as a fellow flier, he sympathises with these brave pilots and yet they are the enemy. It is the same spirit of the air he shows when he refuses to abandon the injured German pilot in the desert. He drags him across the burning sands even though it reduces his own chances of survival. He just couldnt do anything else.
There are two other ingredients that make this book so special. Firstly it is one of the few in which the depth of Biggles affection for Algy comes to the surface. Secondly it is the very first of the von Stalhein adventures the first round in a contest that it to stretch for nearly another fifty years.
In contrast Biggles Flies South appears to have its roots in the comic book adventure stories about lost cities, strange civilisations and archeological discoveries that were so popular in the 1930s. It has more in common with some of the Tarzan series of books and films. It is also one of the few books where W.E.Johns strays from the unlikely but possible to the highly implausible or downright fantastical. Yet it doesnt cross the line as much as Biggles Hits the Trail where Chinese people have discovered the power of invisibility and special rays control the movement of man-eating insects.
In Biggles Flies
South the realism of a forced
landing in the desert is put in vivid contrast to the
sacrifice to a sacred crocodile. If we leave aside the
fantasy elements, then it is possible to see that the
narrative has been constructed as two journeys. First
there is the physical journey, full of perils, hardships
and attacks by both unpleasant creatures and dangerous
people. Next there is the historical journey as the world
of ancient Egypt, described in the prologue, is gradually
uncovered by Biggles, Algy and Ginger as they approach
the Lost Oasis. When Algy grasps the lost spear of the
ancient warrior,Mazeus, the two journeys fuse and
connect, and the reader
Biggles is directly and indirectly involved in other archeological treasure hunts much later in his career. In Biggles Forms a Syndicate and Biggles and the Plan that Failed a much more down to earth and level-headed approach is taken and the author copes well with anti-climax and stunning success. However, for a narrative packed with incident and references that has you reaching for the history text-books to find out more, you cant beat Biggles Flies South.
The same device of the prologue is employed in Biggles Flies West but this time the action has switched to another one of W.E.Johns favourite subjects pirates and the Spanish Main. Pirates treasure and the curse of a dying man have been part of the literary consciousness of young readers since Robert Lewis Stevenson. Many writers have tried their best to repeat the success of Treasure Island. Into the usual buccaneer mixture of betrayal, sword fights, storms at sea and horrible death W.E.Johns throws an aeroplane and three accomplished pilots. Modern thugs and gangsters echo the deeds of their ancient predecessors and even the Royal Navy, though somewhat belatedly, takes a hand.
The story of blood-thirsty piracy in the prologue is riveting enough to capture your attention. This is then followed by another clever device the introduction of a young persons viewpoint. Dick Denver, a vulnerable fifteen year old, possesses a clue to the treasure, but immediately falls foul of the dangerous villain and is rescued by Biggles and Co. A lot of the story is told from Dicks point of view and this includes a brilliant account of a plane crash during a hurricane and the sensation of nearly being drowned. Above all the climax of the book is superbly engineered so that Biggles, Algy, Ginger and Dick end up using ancient weapons against modern enemies. (For those of you that like this confrontation of the modern and the ancient in warfare technology try the adult thriller High Citadel by Desmond Bagley).
The rivalry and comradeship that Biggles had with Wilkinson in the First World War is at the core of Biggles Flies North. What else would make one man travel half way across the world to help another but the bonds forged in wartime that bind them together ? Algy knows why Biggles must go to his friends aid and Ginger soon learns. It is a story of the wide open spaces of Northern Canada where men must be self-reliant and, to a certain extent, ruthless.
Yet despite this apparent disregard for normal human values, a certain rugged code of behaviour is shown to underlie the actions of the decent characters. Old Moses death means that his partner will be left without food for the coming winter. Biggles wins the approval of everyone when he undertakes to carry the supplies to the old man. The reader then marvels at the spirit and independence of the old prospector who chooses to stay with his remote claim rather than take the easy option of a flight back to civilisation. Delaney, the Mountie, shows this same grit and determination when he fights off a lynch-mob, even though he too believes his prisoners are guilty. Of course there is lots of exciting action with both verbal duels, aerial combats (and a very unusual way of knocking down the enemy aircraft), and encounters with wolves and a bear. The villains are really villainous and the terrain is really rough. Biggles, Algy and Ginger all stare death in the face more than once and the issue is in doubt right to the end.
To return to the original theme of this article it is clear that in these four compass point stories Captain W.E.Johns showed a versatility that he equalled at other points in his career but never really surpassed.He gives us the mystery and intrigue of the East, the parching torment of the Southern heat, the wild hurricanes of the West and the ruggedness of the frozen North. Which other childrens writer could successfully mix a spy story with convincing first-hand accounts of shooting down a sadistic German air ace, a history story with a gruelling desert journey, a pirate adventure with aeroplanes and modern thugs, and a tale of desperate men and dangerous animals with a gold robbery in the wilds of Canada ? If you can think of another writer, please publish his name for we would all like to read him (or her !) . Meanwhile we will make do with all those other Biggles adventures.