“Plot summary of The Riddle of the Sands:
Carruthers, a minor official in the Foreign Office, is contacted by an acquaintance, Davies, asking him to join in a yachting holiday in the Baltic Sea. Carruthers agrees, as his other plans for a holiday have fallen through…
He arrives to find that Davies has a small sailing boat (the vessel is named Dulcibella, a reference to Childers’s own sister of that name), not the comfortable crewed yacht that he expected. However Carruthers agrees to go on the trip and joins Davies in Flensburg on the Baltic, whence they head for the Frisian Islands, off the coast of Germany. Carruthers has to learn quickly how to sail the small boat.
Davies gradually reveals that he suspects that the Germans are undertaking something sinister in the German Frisian islands…
There has been much speculation about which of Childers’s friends was the model for “Carruthers” in the novel and it seems that he is based not on Henry Childers but on yachting enthusiast Walter Runciman; “Davies”, of course, is Childers himself. Because of The Riddle, Childers was invited to join the Savile Club, then a literary centre in London. Widely popular, the book has never gone out of print and in 2003, several centenary editions were published. The Observer included the book on its list of “The 100 Greatest Novels of All Time”. The Telegraph listed it as the third best spy novel of all time. It has been called the first spy novel (a claim challenged by advocates of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, published two years earlier), and enjoyed immense popularity in the years before World War I. It was an extremely influential book: Winston Churchill later credited it as a major reason that the Admiralty decided to establish naval bases at Invergordon, Rosyth on the Firth of Forth and Scapa Flow in Orkney. It was also a notable influence on authors such as John Buchan and Eric Ambler.”
From: Paranoia, Power, and Male Identity in John Buchan’s Literary War (2007), by Nathan Joseph Waddell:
“…Carruthers, the decadent, effete English protagonist of Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands (1903), faces a game of sleuth-craft against German would-be invaders in which his growth from weakling to gentleman spy is manifested as the kindling of his chivalric spirit. As he says on the verge of his sea-bound adventures: ‘Romance … handed me the cup of sparkling wine and bade me drink and be merry’. As his journey more and more takes on the characteristics of the medieval quest – ‘Romance beckoned’ – so too do he and his companion Davies begin to encompass the temperament of medieval paladins: ‘if it imparted into our adventure a strain of crazy chivalry more suited to knights-errant of the middle ages than to sober modern youths – well, thank Heaven’. At the opening of the narrative Carruthers is weak- willed, solipsistic, bourgeois, cynical, dandified, and miserable. By its end, his travels with Davies along the Frisian coast and his pluck in single-handedly scuppering the Kaiser’s plans have regenerated him back into the ideal form of an aggressive, virile, phallic male. Those sections of the narrative in which Carruthers prepares himself for action by swimming and washing are telling in this sense.
‘I stumbled up the ladder’, he enunciates, ‘dived overboard, and buried bad dreams, stiffness, frowziness, and tormented nerves in the loveliest fiord of the lovely Baltic. A short and furious swim and I was back again. … As I plied the towel, I knew that I had left in those limpid depths yet another crust of discontent and self-conceit’.
In the same way as Rupert Brooke’s ‘swimmers into cleanness leaping’, Carruthers literally casts off his bodily enfeeblements into the sea. As the narrative returns again and again to this cleansing process, so too does Carruthers’s own power and knightly influence grow. What becomes apparent is that his regeneration is both a sanctioning of an imperial ideal of masculine physicality, and a banishment of unwanted elements. Through the revivifying practices of seawater bathing, espionage, and gallantry, utter catastrophe is averted by the re-masculinized desk jockey turned frontiersman and hero…”