Book Review: Witch Wood by John Buchan

Posted by David McGuire on February 18, 2023
Book Review: Witch Wood by John Buchan

First, the elephant. Why is an obscure, witchcraft-featuring piece of historical fiction on our church’s website?

Paul writes in Philippians 4 that we are to meditate on things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy, with a goal of worshipping God. By that standard, this story is worth recommending.

Witch Wood, by John Buchan, starts in the 1640s as a young man named David arrives fresh from seminary to pastor a remote village in the Scottish Highlands. David discovers that among his quiet, pious little flock lurks a pagan coven. Buchan’s novel follows David as he wages energetic war for his congregation’s soul.

What is noble

David is devout, so his flock’s blasphemy and hypocrisy appall him. But several times in the book, he restrains his own wrath and acts compassionately instead. David’s joyful submission to God isn’t usually pointed out, but it becomes central to the story. In one particularly heart-wrenching scene, David listens submissively to false accusations, and waits on God for justification. Rarely have I read a tale that colors the call of the cross more nobly.

What is right

Buchan makes good use of the book’s historical setting to explore a timeless theme. At the time of the story, the Scottish Covenanters had broken from England and the Anglican church, and were governing Scotland as a loose theocracy. As David considers the proper use of force in combatting sin, the Earl of Montrose claims the Covenanters are less faithful to God than rebellious to the Crown, and he invades with an army.

This is not some obscure historical point. As our own country grows more hostile to Christ, when will we need to say, “I will obey God rather than man”? And shouldn’t we be using more force in rooting out our own sin? Sin is vile and hateful in God’s eyes, and destructive to the sinner and all around him. Have we “yet resisted to the point of shedding blood” (Hebrews 12:4)? This story suggests some sympathetic, Christ-centered answers.

What is true

Buchan also takes great care in dealing with evil. He writes of it with a clear-eyed repulsion that avoids both vague relativism and obsessive fear, even as David dives deeper into the dark. Nor does Buchan overlook the dangers of legalism.

Yet even in the thickest gloom, the novel is shot through with rays of glorious hope. At one point, David is offered a tantalizing escape route. David refuses, preferring an eternal reward to an earthly one. I cannot read that scene without pumping my fist in the air or feeling my chest expand. I hope my answer will be as truth-filled one day.

Many authors truthfully depict the corruption of the world. Some fiction explores noble themes. Some stories are excellently written. A few treat God with right affection and respect. But Witch Wood, doing all these well, is a rare gem.

David McGuire

David is a musician and graphic designer, and seeks to worship God by appreciating beauty in all its forms. He regularly plays clarinet, folk flute, and Irish whistles in the worship ministry at Faith.

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