Category Archives: Book Reviews: Religion and Philosophy

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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“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 Gnostic Bible” Edited by Willis Barnstone and Marvin Meyer

Read The Gnostic Bible

The Gnostics were mystics, mostly Christian, who believed that direct, personal experience of the divine, or knowledge, was the way to salvation. The early church, who regarded it’s own intervention and hierarchy as the means to salvation, viewed the freedom and independence of the Gnostics as a threat. In a relatively short time, the Gnostics disappeared. However, with the discovery of the “lost” texts in the Nag Hammadi library and the publication of Elaine Pagels’ definitive works, Gnosticism is currently enjoying a renaissance.

For those interested in the Gnostics and their actual beliefs and mysteries, as well as the early history of Christianity, The Gnostic Bible is a welcome resource. As a matter of fact, The Gnostic Bible is quite possibly the most comprehensive collection of Gnostic materials ever gathered in one volume.

The Gnostic Bible collects a wealth of primary sources, Gnostic texts from a wide variety of sources, including three continents and spanning more than 1300 years. The expected texts are present, of course, including the famous Gospel of Thomas, along with some unexpected resources. Making the volume especially useful to students of Gnosticwisdom traditions, the texts are well-organized into distinct movements of Gnostic tradition: Sethian, Valentinian, Syrian, Hermetic, Mandaean, Manichaean, and even, surprisingly, later Islamic and even Cathar texts.

I was especially surprised to find the Cathar material. Despite an amateur enthusiast’s fascination with the Cathars, I had no idea that such material existed. Until a “Nag Hammadi” or Dead Sea scroll” find of Cathar material is discovered, this is the best insight into their mysteries we are likely to find. Each section of texts is preceded by a brief but insightful introduction to that particular section’s brand of Gnosticism.

One thing The Gnostic Bible makes clear is that encapsulating Gnostic belief is a lot like summarizing Native American belief. Some themes and motifs seem to be consistent, but sweeping generalizations simply don’t do justice to the diversity of thought. The Gnostic Bible does an admirable job of expressing the surprising scope and breadth of Gnosticism, and the diverse traditions upon which it drew. The Gnostic Bible makes apparent the tremendous diversity of thought that exists under the broad category of Gnosticism, including Christian, Jewish, Muslim, pagan, Zoroastrian and Greco-Roman influences.

Most of the translations are newer (and presumably more accurate and complete) than those in earlier collections, such as The Other Bible (itself edited by Willis Barnstone, one of the editors of The Gnostic Bible) and The Nag Hammadi Library. I am not qualified to judge the authenticity or accuracy of the translations, when the collection has earned praise from such luminaries as Elaine Pagels and Richard Smoley, it’s hard not to take their word.

In addition to the original sources themselves, The Gnostic Bible contains an introduction summarizing current debates about gnosticism (by Meyer) and a truly fascinating overview of the issues of translation (by Barnstone). But perhaps the best editorial feature are the extensive notes that illuminate each text, enriching the experience by defining terms, providing historical and cultural context, and comparing especially puzzling passages to others for clarification. Many of the texts are being published here in English for the first time, making this a valuable resource for students, scholars, and anyone interested to one of Christianity’s most fascinating mystery traditions.