Read Looking for the King: An Inklings Novel by David C. Downing
A very special Christmas gift brightened this past gloomy December: a chance to spend some remarkable evenings in conversation with the Inklings, that famous band of readers and writers that counted among its members C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and Hugo Dyson. This remarkable experience came in the form of a new book, Looking for the King: An Inklings Novel by David C. Downing. It’s a somewhat flawed but overall delightful read.
The story tells of a young American, Tom, who has come to England in the months just before World War II to research a book on the historical King Arthur. Along the way, he encounters a lovely young woman, Laura, who is haunted by dreams that seem to be leading her to specific historical sites, all of which are connected to a famous lost artifact—the Spear of Destiny that pierced the side of Christ as he hung on the cross. Along the way, our heroes are fortunate enough to receive some help from the Inklings themselves, especially Williams, Tolkien, and Lewis.
From a pure storytelling point of view, the Looking for the King: An Inklings Novel could have used, uh, well, another draft. We never get a feel for why Laura is apparently led to discover the Spear of Destiny, or what might happen if she doesn’t. There are sinister “others” after the spear, and we know they are following our heroes closely. But we never really get a feeling of danger from them. Even the ultimate end of the quest seems a little too easy, and there’s little to suggest that the world would have been significantly different had Tom and Laura simply stayed at home. More, there is a significant obstacle in the way of Tom and Laura’s chaste and charming budding romance that simply disappears, in a rather offhanded way midway through the novel, without apparent consequence, emotional or otherwise. All of those are fairly significant and rather obvious storytelling flaws.
And, frankly, none of them matter a bit.
While Looking for the King: An Inklings Novel doesn’t quite work as a supernatural mystery thriller, it does work as mythopoeia, as myth making—it is a reflection of the true light, like a shaft of dappled sunlight reaching through the thick, green canopy of a dense forest. For better or for worse, David Downing isn’t Dan Brown. The thriller aspects of this novel are lacking, the character arcs, especially for Tom, are profound and significant.
Unlike Brown’s shallow Langdon, who is basically the same smug man book after book, Tom changes profoundly as the book progresses. He is changed by the events of his quest, by his growing feelings for Laura, and, most of all, by his conversations with the Inklings. Those conversations alone are worth the price of the book. I’ll be thinking about the ideas, philosophical, theological, and mythic, long after I’ve forgotten the details of the story.
Downing has done a remarkable job researching the Inklings … plowing through volumes of biographies, first person accounts, essays, and, most of all, letters to capture the essence of their personalities, their speech patterns, their humor, their relationships, and even their thoughts. In many cases, Downing has used their own words (carefully annotated at the end of the book) to recreate the wisdom they might have bestowed upon a bewildered, seeking American. In some cases, I felt like they were talking to me.
The Inklings, Lewis and Tolkien especially, are a part of a very special personal pantheon for me: they number, along with Ray Bradbury, Lloyd Alexander, Dr. Seuss, Walt Disney, Hank Aaron, Joseph Campbell, and the crews of the Apollo flights, as my personal heroes. My journey to the Eagle and Child, the Oxford pub where the Inklings met, was a kind of personal pilgrimage for me. Reading Looking for the King: An Inklings Novel is as close as I’ll ever come to joining them for a pint and a night of conversation. For one night, at least, I felt like I was right there with them. I’m grateful for that experience.
Also, kudos to Ignatius Press for crafting a lovely edition, with quality paper, stamped spine, and, so help me, stitched binding. While I sincerely applaud print on demand for making far more titles available to hungry readers like me, and for making the publishing industry (at least potentially) more efficient overall, I am delighted to still run across fine craftsmanship from a smaller press now and again. Although come to think of it, some of the finest print craftsmanship around these days comes from small publishing houses like Small Beer Press and Subterranean Press.