I find myself in the rather delicate position of critiquing the personal work of one with whom I’ve supped—ah, there it is, I’ve caught myself speaking in 1940s Oxford English again. It has been slipping out lately, I’m afraid. Given what I’ve been reading it isn’t a big surprise. While I’ve had a good literary spell of late, it has been of a very narrow genre. I’m reading Narnia to my son, I am working through C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, his short stories, his WWII essays, and The Screwtape Letters, and I’ve been reading short stories of Tolkien.
Even when not munching on Inklings fare, I have lingered near. I’ve been reading T.S. Elliot, George Orwell, bits of Jane Austen, H.G. Wells’ early science fiction, and John Connolly’s The Gates. Even on a Sunday drive I found myself listening to an hour-long CBC interview with Maggie O’Farrell, talking about her novel The Hand That First Held Mine—it is a London accent, not Oxford, but O’Farrell is an Irish-born English convert, like Lewis himself. I can’t help being swept up in her literary landscape, which was post-WWII SoHo.
Disconcertingly, this accent is slipping into my daily life. I’ve taken to commenting on football—not the Canadian or American kinds, I’m afraid—and I have a certain unexplained temptation to smoke a pipe. It has even affected my writing: I saw a British play recently, “Funny Money,” a Ray Cooney farce at Festival Antigonish, and a play I’m working on has taken a Cockney twist. It is quite a problem; very soon I shall be accused on the street of being an extra in a Harry Potter film—or Madonna in that strange English period. Actually, I suspect I’ll never be accused of being Madonna, but the accent lingers nonetheless.
Part of the fault of this literary British Invasion is David Downing’s. Downing is an American English professor and C.S. Lewis scholar. The accolades of his four nonfiction books on Lewis have been sung far and wide, and his 1992 literary study of Lewis’ Ransom Trilogy, Planets in Peril, is on my book hit list. He is well respected within his field, and his books are intelligent peaks into literary genius that draws the reader in on their own merits.
Recently, Downing has wandered into the realm of historical fiction with his novel, Looking for the King. At the urging of friends I slipped this new novel into my summer reading queue—that’s a British word for “line” if you are struggling with the accent. “Queue” is also the ninth word of C.S. Lewis’ dream novella, The Great Divorce—something a hardcore Lewis fan is likely to know. And Looking for the King is a novel for Lewis fans, and for fans of that Oxford-based Christian literary circle called the Inklings that birthed Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as well as Lewis’ Narniad. I suspect most fans will be taken in.
Looking for the King is about two American kids, Tom and Laura, who meet while on individual quests to England in 1940. Tom is a bright but relatively unfocussed Arthurian scholar-in-waiting hoping to write a break-out book that will make him a name in the field. Tom’s character is solid on the page, a confident American forging his path. Laura, though, is a much more enigmatic figure, an evangelical mystic drawn reluctantly to WWII-threatened Britain because of haunting dreams. It is these dreams—and the accidental brush of Laura’s fingers on his hand at a bookstore—that draws Tom in to her quest, and re-draws his own ambitions in the process as they roll through Oxford pubs and English hills on a whimsical mystery.
Part of the adventure—and the great fun of the book—is how Tom and Laura encounter various members of the Inklings. While we first meet C.S. Lewis, the staunch, jocular, shabbily-dressed Oxford pub-dweller, it is really Charles Williams who sets Laura’s dream-quest in startling new directions. The Inklings—Tolkien with recent literary success, Lewis rolling out his new path as a public intellectual, and Williams at the height of his career—are each generous with their time. Each of them offers clues to Laura’s dreams, connecting them to Arthurian legend. So we see Lewis on a joy-soaked walk, Williams at the lectern, Tolkien in his office writing “the new Hobbit,” and all of them in close conversations at the Bird and the Baby, the famed pub where the Inklings met to read their books. When a new direction is found, Tom is able to act as a guide—we can’t have a demure Christian young lady roaming unaccompanied through the 40s now, can we? Tom and Laura find themselves drawn in to the search for a legendary relic that gives great power to its holder—and great power is something everyone is seeking in wartime Europe.
I think that readers will be caught in the Arthurian mystery as Laura’s dreams recall poignant historical moments. She has an uncanny knack for details, leaving her rationalistic guide perplexed and laying out, brick-by-brick, the path ahead. It isn’t that the journey itself is slow. Very much the opposite: the plot rushes quickly ahead, leaving the reader breathless at times. Early on we discover that Tom and Laura are being followed, and as they move from one Arthurian site to another the danger of violence increases, much like the haunting threat of German invasion that is layered delicately within the plot. As readers, though, we share in the shrouded destiny of Tom and Laura and the head off on each uncharted adventure.
I very much enjoyed Looking for the King, devouring it in three sessions. Part of my ability to enjoy it is that I read books for what they are, rather than what I wish they were. I was, I must say, truly disappointed at the simplicity and brevity of Downing’s first novel. Were we supping again, I would have encouraged him to develop the dialogical landscape with more variety and add spice in the Tom and Laura conversations.
It is not just a matter of word preference, but I think the entire plotline is rushed. In particular, we needed more time to develop the love story, two or three more scenes to get Laura to the point where she can allow herself to fall for Tom. While I am not her (fictional) psychologist, I’m not certain Laura is ready for a relationship, or at least I wasn’t as a reader. More than anything, Tom is a fun, awkward character, so I expect the romance to be awkward and a little less synchronistic.
We see in the novel a spiritual conversion as Tom is drawn in to the Inklings circle. Overall, this delicate plotline is very well done, as Tom’s mental processes mimic the thought-lines of many who have read C.S. Lewis’ apologetic work and were drawn in to the Christ story. Still, I would have slowed it down, layered it more, and rolled it out on the other side in a more sophisticated way. I suspect that Laura would take longer to be drawn into a relationship, and I also suspect Tom would take longer to find voice for his shift in spiritual worldview. In both the romance of Laura and the romance of the gods, however, Downing successfully avoids anything that might be saccharine or proto-saintly. He has restored my confidence that the spiritual journey storyline can be recovered from American Christian pulp-fiction and poorly funded evangelistic films.
My critique, I think, is that Downing hasn’t thrown himself into a genre that would work well for a mysterious, mystical, WWII-era Arthurian thriller like this. While Dan Brown and Steve Berry have ostentatiously carved out this market, Manda Scott’s The Crystal Skull and Julia Navarro’s The Bible of Clay are both ideal templates for Downing’s intriguing story. With simple, clear, landscape-driven writing and characters that are a little too good or too bad but not farcical, it is a genre that allows for long discourses of history (often laced with magic or conspiracy theory), which is needed for a book like Downing’s.
Terry Pratchett says somewhere than whatever novel you bring on vacation it will turn into one of these Brown-Berry novels, but the genre really does give space to discussions of theology and philosophy without falling into apologue (like Bunyan or The Great Divorce). More than anything, this genre allows one to avoid the charge of being “overly-didactic”—something Downing is intentionally avoiding: Looking for the King is filled with sophisticated theology and clear Christian apologetics without being preachy. It gives Inklings biography, English history, literary criticism, and Arthurian lore without that long, stilted sermon-esque dialogue one often sees in historical fiction. Still, the novel could be far more sophisticated with greater intrigue and more effective mystery if he had thrown himself fully into the historical thriller pop fiction conspiracy theory genre. In this sense, the villainy-tinged first chapter—a free download from the publisher—leaves the reader a little confused as to what follows.
Genre critique aside, Lewis and Tolkien fans are sure to love the Inklings scenes. I was surprised by the sketch of Tolkien, and Downing’s Lewis was very much how I pictured him and helps cure me of that Anthony Hopkins figure that haunts my mental shadowlands. I was very much with the characters as we walked along an urban creek or crowded ourselves in the back of a pub. I caught the slightest hint of Lewis’ otherworldly vision, the great weight of Williams’ philosophy, and the impossible process of Tolkien’s writing life. The landscape was rich and the background authentic to my limited imagination of the Inklings’ world.
Overall, I very much liked the book and would recommend it to people looking for a taste of the Inklings’ world. Perhaps I’m easy to please, but I was drawn into the story, loved the lore, thought he captured the Inklings well, and felt scripted an interesting mystery. Anyone looking for an epic or high literary fiction is going to be disappointed, I think. It is a beach book, not a book to be read in a great ancient library surrounded by leather-bound tomes. I am reading Lewis’ That Hideous Strength and caught the influences of that novel in Downing’s work—they can be read together with ease. As such, I think that Lewis fans will be more likely to throw themselves into Looking for the King than either Williams scholars or Tolkien fans.
Now, it may be that I am biased in this particular review. As I suggested above, I have met the author and found David Downing to be intelligent, humorous, and extremely generous to a young upstart Lewis scholar like myself. So I found it difficult to give this critique publicly—a critique that is, in essence, saying that the novel is undeveloped, premature. But I think the very fact that it has helped lure me into that 1940s Oxford world I was complaining about demonstrates that Looking for the King works, at least on the level of “atmosphere”—an important Lewisian trait. I suspect fifteen minutes of American television will cure me of my fake British accent, but Downing leaves us with lovely little mystery that captures the essence of the Inklings’ Oxford. It is well worth a read, though I’d recommend a beach chair or a La-Z-Boy rather than a smoking chair.