Category Archives: Book Reviews: Mythology

Book Review: Looking for the King, An Inklings Novel

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.

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Book Review: Lost Lore: A Celebration of Traditional Wisdom

Read Lost Lore: A Celebration of Traditional Wisdom

Just last night, my wife Carol and I discovered something nifty that we didn’t know we could do with our iPhones. That wasn’t the first time that’s happened — almost every week, we’re learning something new about our latest gadgets and toys. Er, I mean tools of our trade. That’s it.

But it seems like for everything that’s learned, something is lost. It makes me a little sad to think of the gems of knowledge, once deemed critical, that are now relegated to the dusty attics of our brains reserved for trivia until, at last, they vanish forever.

That’s why I was delighted to discover Lost Lore: A Celebration of Traditional Wisdom at my beloved Blue Elephant Book Shop in Decatur. Want to know how to send or read smoke signals? Looking for the Christmas traditions our ancestors enjoyed? Or maybe how to navigate with old-school maritime instruments? Well, likely not, I suppose. But anyway, you’ll find all that, and more, in this treasure chest assembled by authors Una McGovern and Paul Jenner. You’ll even find a section on letter writing, another gentle art vanishing in the age of instant communication. I found the letter writing section especially fascinating. I now want to go out and buy sealing wax with a custom seal, fine paper, and scented ink. If I can’t find the scented ink, no worries. Lost Lore tells me how to make it.

The book is divided into sections like Health and Wellbeing, where you will find everything from time-honored cures for drunkness (plunge the whole body into cold water, the excitement of a git of anger, terror, or even a “good whippping.” Frankly, I’d rather stay drunk.) or headaches to tips on natural first aid and long life (eat sage in May and have a gentle temper). Other sections include Household (for example: soap making, laying a fire, dyeing, living thriftly), Outdoor Life (Working With the Moon and Tides, Seafaring, Foraging for Wild Food), Education and Knowledge (Using an Abacus, Using a Slide Rule, Using Mnemonics), and Socializing and Celebration (Celebrating the Seasons, Wooing and Courting, Making and Taking Tea, Predicting the Sex of a Baby, and Writing by hand).

Granted, you’ll probably never need to know most—or, franky, any, of this stuff. But it’s a delight to know that you can. And besides, life is uncertain. You never know.

In any case, the text is an absolute joy to read. The entries are consise but wonderful, offering brief but absolutely fascinating peaks into the past—not at its great events, but at its minutiae, the tiny details that made life rich. More, the book is beautifully illustrated, designed, and bound. It’s as much a pleasure to hold as it is to browse.

There is a wealth of knowledge that my great-grandparents never passed down to me. There is little need now to properly stack wood in the fire chamber of my kitchen range, alas. What they knew is all but lost. Nonetheless, I find it oddly comforting to know that the subtle and delicious details of their everyday lives are preserved, especially in so handsome an edition. I’ll browse through it often, I’m sure, during the winter months when the holidays seem to turn one’s mind to the past.

Co-author Una McGovern has put together a companion volume as well: Lost Crafts. I look forward to picking up a copy soon. Another volume, Lost Wisdom, is forthcoming.

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“Dreaming With Open Eyes: The Shamanic Spirit in Twentieth Century Art and Culture” by Michael Tucker

Read Dreaming With Open Eyes: The Shamanic Spirit in Twentieth Century Art and Culture

Normally, I wouldn’t recommend a book that’s out of print. After all, saying, “this is great, but you can’t read it, so nah nah nah!” is just kind of mean. But since you can still find a used copy for around ten bucks, and since it’s an amazing read, I’m going for it. This review is a little brief, but largely that’s because, despite the fact that I first read it four or five years ago, I’m still not sure exactly what to say about it, save that’s an amazing and thought-provoking read. I find that, years later, I’m still thinking about it. Frankly, that’s a pretty good recommendation in my book.

In Dreaming With Open Eyes: The Shamanic Spirit in Twentieth Century Art and Culture, Tucker looks at a broad sweep of modern art and finds, rather than the nihilistic cynicism, overt commercialization, and shallow objectification one might expect, a sort of hopeful ecstasy. Tucker makes a compelling argument that, at their best and most unfiltered, modern artists are the heirs to their ancient ancestors that painted on caves. They’re reaching into (forgive the pretentious cliché) an altered state of consciousness. As a result, they tap into something primal in the collective mythoconsciousness of humanity, something complex, symbolic, and profound.

In this book, Tucker has compiled a veritable encyclopedia of the literature of shamanism: literal (historic and anthropologic) and metaphorical, and draws compelling connections between the ancient and the bleeding edge. Modern artists working on the fringe of creative boundaries, Tucker argues, strip away some of the filters of contemporary experience and perceive the world in a metaphoric, archetypal way, as Aboriginal dream painters do. The result is art that reaches past the the filters of the consciousness mind to challenge the unconscious mind directly in its native grammar: the language of dreams and poetic inspiration, the language symbol. As a result, I’ve found that my own ability to understand and appreciate visual art as something more than mere illustration has grown deeper. I am beginning, at least, to appreciate that something profound happens in the communication between artist and audience, something that requires more than a casual read or glance.

Tucker argues that shamans, the first artists, have since ancient times been bridge-builders between worlds, visionaries whose journeys within the psyche bring insight, inspiration, and healing. Modern art is remarkable chiefly for what it reveals about the loss of meaning and spirituality in the modern world—and by what, at its best, it struggles to bring back. Modern art is trembling with shamanistic vision.

The language of the soul is metaphor and symbol. It’s no coincidence that, according to the Bible, God talks to us in “parable and dark passages.” The same applies, of course, to our own lives, both inner and outer. We’re not meant to understand at the most obvious, literal level, and to attempt to do so trivializes the messages of existence itself. The deepest communication, heart to heart or soul to soul, happens in a language that’s deeper. Most of the keys to that kind of understanding come from within, of course, but Tucker’s book offers some keys. He writes about visual art, but I find myself applying his ideas to music, mythology, and literature, and they work there just as well.

Dreaming With Open Eyes is a fascinating read, one that’s sure to make you question and perhaps even enrich and expand your own appreciation of the arts, and our own, truest desire to communicate and share on the deepest and most intimate levels. I urge you to pick one up while copies are still available and affordable. Check Amazon at the link above, or try abe.com. It’s worth the effort.

“The Genealogy of Greek Myth: An Illustrated Family Tree Greek Myth” by Vanessa James

Read The Genealogy of Greek Mythology: An Illustrated Family Tree Greek Myth from the First Gods to the Founders of Rome

The Genealogy of Greek Myth: An Illustrated Family Tree Greek Myth from the First Gods to the Founders of Rome is a handy resource. Packed with well-researched information, this book provides “at a glance” charts and surprisingly detailed information about the complex and often confusing relationships of the immortal Olympians and the mortal heroes they interact with.

The author, Vanessa James, spent eighteen years putting the Genealogy of Greek Myth together, and it shows. The data is more than complete, it is exhaustive. More, it provides a truly elegant and genuinely useful way to trace the dynasties and major events of Greek and Roman myth.

The information, which includes more than 3,000 entries for gods, goddess, heroes, monsters, and mortals and 125 biographies of key characters, is nicely indexed, complete, and easy to access and grasp quickly. The family-tree style arrangement makes it intuitive to explore. It’s also fun to read.

Nonetheless, what really sets this book apart is the fact that it is just plain beautiful. It is lavishly illustrated with photographs, a mythological star chart, classical art (reproductions of paintings, sculptures, mosaics, pottery, etc.), maps, and the previouslty mentioned charts, all in lush and vibrant color.

The uniquely designed book slides out of a slip case and unfolds to become a 17-foot long poster, making the information accessible literally at a glance. The result is an excellent reference that’s also a treasure to own.