David C. Downing is a Professor of English at Elizabethtown College and one of the handful of C. S. Lewis scholars whose books reward reading and re-reading. Downing’s Planets in Peril is the accepted gold standard for understanding Lewis’ Space Trilogy, for example, and his guide to Narnia, Into the Wardrobe, though pre Planet Narnia, is the best of its generation.
Now Prof. Downing has taken up his pen, not to write about one Inkling or to analyze his work, but to write a story involving them all. His novel, Looking for the King (Ignatius, 2010), is subtitled An Inklings Novel and features extended cameo appearances by Charles Williams, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis. I read King in one sitting — it’s that good and, to an Inklings junkie at least, something like Turkish Delight — and wrote Prof. Downing some questions. It turned into an interview that he agreed to let me share with you, though it is more of a debate than the usual back and forth between author and reporter. His frankness, good humor, and insights, not to mention his willingness to punch back, made the experience a highlight of my writing for this weBlog.
After the jump, then, the publisher’s fly-leaf summary of the story and the HogPro interview with David C. Downing, author of Looking for the King:
The story line of Looking for the King:
It is 1940, and American Tom McCord, a 23-year-old aspiring doctoral candidate, is in England researching the historical evidence for the legendary King Arthur. There he meets perky and intuitive Laura Hartman, a fellow American staying with her aunt in Oxford, and the two of them team up for an even more ambitious and dangerous quest.
Aided by the Inklings-that illustrious circle of scholars and writers made famous by its two most prolific members, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien-Tom and Laura begin to suspect that the fabled Spear of Destiny, the lance that pierced the side of Christ on the cross, is hidden somewhere in England.
Tom discovers that Laura has been having mysterious dreams, which seem to be related to the subject of his research, and, though doubtful of her visions, he hires her as an assistant. Heeding the insights and advice of the Inklings, while becoming aware of being shadowed by powerful and secretive foes who would claim the spear as their own, Tom and Laura end up on a thrilling treasure hunt that crisscrosses the English countryside and leads beyond a search for the elusive relics of Camelot into the depths of the human heart and soul.
Weaving his fast-paced narrative with conversation based on the works of the Inklings, author David Downing offers a vivid portrait of Oxford and draws a welcome glimpse into the personalities and ideas of Lewis and Tolkien, while never losing sight of his action-packed adventure story and its two very appealing main characters.
Sound good? It is good. But every serious reader has their ideas about what makes a book work, and, as you know, I am no exception to this rule. I tried to press Prof. Downing, then, on points of implicit, embedded criticism his book seemed to me to be making of Ward’s Planet Narnia. I also asked him more than once about whether his story was An Inklings Novel in the sense of just being about that group of writers or also in the sense that it was written in the spirit and with many of the same elements as a Lewis, Williams, or Tolkien piece. I look forward to reading your comments about the give and take of our Q&A.
Thank you, Prof. Downing, for joining us at HogwartsProfessor for an e-interview about your new book, Looking for the King. I loved it, frankly, and recommend it to anyone who has read any Inkling fiction more than once and thought about the community of writers those books sprung from. I confess, though, to being a little worried that King won’t take off or be enjoyed much outside the community of CSL scholars and devotees, legion though we are. I don’t think we’re going to see Looking for the King Mania…
Yes, I would say that my basic fan-base for the novel is Lewis and Tolkien devotees. Of course, I don’t expect J. K. Rowling or Dan Brown types of sales, because the novel is built around the idea of getting to know several authors whom the reader may already admire—Lewis and Tolkien especially, but also readers of the less well-known Charles Williams. I’ve already had different readers and reviewers single out a Lewis chapter, a Tolkien chapter, or the Williams chapter as their favorite, so I my sense so far is that the novel has appeal to all three communities of readers.
I don’t see any signs of a “Looking for the King Mania” yet. But the novel has almost gone through its first printing in six weeks, and has accumulated over 1700 followers on Facebook in just three weeks. So I would have to say it is running a bit of a fever . . .
I enjoyed the story and want to hear your understanding of it, but, forgive me for straining against the restraints of hospitality, I want to jump right into what interested me most about the book, namely, what I think you were ‘after’ in writing it.
Twice in King, Tolkien reproves Tom McCord, the central character, for his speculations about the origins of books and says his friend Jack is on board with this sentiment. The big push, if you will, in Inkling criticism today, though, is just this sort of criticism; it’s the air we’re breathing on the Planet Narnia.
But you don’t include this criticism, any of it – I think of Sanford Schwartz’ book on the Ransom Trilogy, Michael Ward’s book Planet Narnia, or Gavin Ashenden’s Alchemy and Integration — in your bibliography. My assumption, because the Tollers quotations are repeated and they are the exact ones used by Ward critics like Brown (‘Planet Narnia Spin, Spun Out’) and Vaus (Blog Book review), is that your novel is an implicit criticism of the revisionist, esoteric critics’ challenging interpretations of Inkling work.
Yes, I realize I’m committing the crime in asking this question that I suggest you are prosecuting in your book, but I’d still like to hear from you just how far off I am in this.
I portray Tolkien dismissing source criticism to Tom twice for the simple reason that both Lewis and Tolkien had an aversion to source criticism. They both claimed that overly-ingenious theories as to an author’s sources were nearly always mistaken. Tolkien, for example, got tired of hearing that LOTR was an allegory of World War 2, and that the One Ring symbolized an atomic bomb. He pointed out that the basic outline of the story was in place long before that war or the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan. Lewis and Tolkien also complained that source criticism too often undermines a close reading of the text by almost making a game of discovering what lies behind the text. This reduces the literary artist to a mere redactor of literary motifs rather than a creative synthesizer. (See Tolkien’s letters and Lewis’s “Fernseeds and Elephants” and “The Anthropological Approach.”)
I tried to keep my bibliography short, focusing on books that would help readers understand Lewis and Tolkien as we meet them in 1940. I didn’t leave out any contemporary critics as an ideological statement, but rather because their work focuses mainly on work that hadn’t been written at the time of the novel. (I myself have written a book on Lewis’s Ransom trilogy and one on the Narnia Chronicles, both of which discuss his creative sources. And I certainly didn’t leave out my own books as an implied criticism of my own scholarship!)
I think you are assuming I used Tolkien as a mouthpiece for my own opinions, when actually I was just portraying Tolkien’s own convictions–ones that I don’t wholly agree with, as seen in my other books.
That is good to hear – and you’re right that this was my assumption!
Your point, too, is certainly well taken that you’re not criticizing your own work by leaving them out of the bibliography. Before I let you off the hook on that one, though, I’m obliged to note you’re ducking my point. You aren’t writing as a revisionist critic. And I know you don’t think of Michael Ward’s CSL studies and Gavin Aschenden’s Williams work as anything like tit-for-tat allegorical interpretations like “Tolkien’s book is a World War II transparency.” Let me put my King “smuggled message” question a different way.
The recent cadre of Inkling scholars argue – and I’d say they argue cogently – that the accepted view of these men as essentially evangelical writers, “dinosaurs,” to risk Lewis’ self-description, advancing a devotional piety and Victorian morality, is too restrictive if not just wrong. They offer the Inklings as esoteric Christians with unconventional religious ideas and whose artistry and meaning is more nuanced and profound than the usual “Aslan is Jesus” exegesis allows.
Reading King in the context of this new and challenging critical perspective, I found your novel something of a counter-argument – and a compelling one — in defense of the misrepresented “old view.” King, in brief, seems both an explicit exposition and example of what you believe Inkling fictions were designed to do, in the same modes and on the scaffolding those authors used. It is an evangelical novel, it has Christian occult elements, and it offers three dimensional pictures of these scholars and friends writing books to be understood without decoder rings.
How far off am I in thinking Looking for the King is your non-discursive retort to Ward and Company on the subject of how the Inklings’ books are best understood?
I believe you are conjecturing about attitudes or motives that simply weren’t present in my (conscious) mind while I was writing the novel. (I’m beginning to see why Lewis was so concerned about what he called the “Personal Heresy”!)
I have to confess, I am not naturally drawn to mystagogic interpretations, secret meanings and patterns, what Lewis called “seeing figures in the fire.” I find that most such interpretations are usually derived from the ingenuity of the interpreter, not the ingenuity of the original author.
Let’s talk about King, which, again, I want HogPro readers to know, is simultaneously a lot of fun and carries a lot of Inkling freight. Readers, if you’ve read Lewis, Tolkien, or Williams, or all three, you’ll love this book.
I want to try some “source criticism” again, believe it or not: your story models. We have, as Thomas Howard writes in his book blurb, pointers both to Williams’ War in Heaven and to Lewis’ That Hideous Strength in your lead couple. My guess is that you modeled the young unmarried American couple, believer and “apathist,” on the married Studdocks of Strength (if only because of the depth and quality of your understanding of the Ransom finale).
Laura Hartman, with her visionary dreams, is an “homage” (a fancy word for ‘rip off’) to Pauline Anstruther in Williams’ DESCENT INTO HELL and Jane Studdock in THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH. But there is not too much resemblance beyond their power of “dreaming realities.” The young female characters in the Williams and Lewis novels are troubled and neurotic at the beginning of their spiritual journeys. Laura Hartman is more mature, spiritually settled, and sure of her convictions. She doesn’t change much as the novel progresses, except that she is more open to a relationship with Tom as the story progresses, once she sees that he is beginning to mature emotionally and spiritually.
Mark and Jane Studdock begin THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH as a pair of anchorless modern intellectuals whose marriage is in serious jeopardy. They both undergo spiritual transformation as the novel unfolds–Jane through her association with the community at St. Anne’s and Mark by the via negativa of undergoing (and recovering from) a Dante-esque descent into ever deepening circles of depravity at NICE. My characters in LOOKING FOR THE KING are at the tentative beginnings of a relationship, whereas the Studdocks are very near the end of one, unless they change directions—which they both do. So I don’t think the analogy with BOTH Studdocks and the “quarreling couple” archetype is very strong. Also, the banter between my two characters is often more light-hearted and flirtatious, whereas Mark and Jane can barely stand each other’s company for most of the novel.
I think, as I said above, that King is sub-titled “An Inklings Novel” not only because it features the Inklings and their students but also in its being written like an Inklings novel. Even on a first read, I was struck by the many front to back parallels, verbal direct echoes, story set-up and pay-offs — with the central story turn echoing and pointing to the story conjunction of beginning and ending – a macro-structure very much like Lewis’ Ransom Novels.
Yes, I do have the usual echoes and call-backs to provide an underlying, symphonic structure to the novel. The main action of the quest story begins and ends in Glastonbury, Tom’s suffers from physical vertigo in one scene, spiritual vertigo in a later one, etc.
Am I right, then, in thinking there is a two-fold meaning to “An Inklings Novel”?
Yes, I wrote a novel which featured several key Inklings as characters, but it is always written somewhat in the spirit of the Inklings, in that it is founded on a Christian understanding of the cosmos and of human nature.
But, as you have pointed out, the Inklings were by no means a monolithic group with common subjects for their stories or similar narrative styles. It is almost be easier to say why Looking for the King isn’t an Inklings novel in the second sense. It isn’t like Tolkien, since it takes place in a historical time and place on Earth, not in a sub-created world like Middle Earth. (The closest analogy to Tolkien would be his “Notion Club Papers,” his unfinished carnival-mirror portrait of the Inklings published posthumously.) And my novel isn’t very similar to Williams, because there are only passing references to the occult, and the book doesn’t delve into obscure symbolic paradigms to convey its meanings. (For the record, I have never belonged to the Order of the Rosy Cross!) And it’s not like the first two books of the Ransom trilogy because it takes place on our own world. By default, that would make this novel most similar to That Hideous Strength, especially the first half of the book, before more and more fantasy elements begin creeping into the storyline.
You cite Glyer’s The Company They Keep in your bibliography and I heard echoes from it in reading your portrayal of the Inklings as a writer’s group and one in which the individuals all touched and shaped the others’ work.
To anticipate a criticism others may have, because this disconnect struck me, what I didn’t find in King was any sense of this group’s diversity and creative friction that Glyer details in Company. Barfield and the repercussions of the Great War on Lewis’ thinking are all but absent — and along with it the group’s consequent pre-occupation in this time period with discussions regarding the relation of subject and object. There’s none of the Catholic-Anglican-Anthroposophist-Occultist tension or any hint that these men aren’t sitting in the same congregational pews each week. And, as you know, they weren’t a happy, ecumenical bunch.
Actually, I didn’t read Diana Pavlac Glyer’s book until most of the novel typescript was finished. My most direct source was Humphrey Carpenter’s THE INKLINGS, plus the biographies of Lewis, Tolkien, and Williams listed in the bibliography. In the novel, I am portraying the Inklings in the spring and summer of 1940, which one might consider their “golden age,” as the tensions between Tolkien and Williams were not yet too apparent. Obviously, a novel portrays a slice in time, so it would be anachronistic to bring in Lewis’s “Great War” with Barfield from several years earlier or to dwell on tensions that emerged between Tolkien and Williams in the next few years.
In Looking for the King, I am introducing the Inklings as individuals to readers who may not know what they were like in real life. I am planning to write a sequel, set in 1942, in which the differences and tensions you describe will start to become more apparent. Tolkien will be more open about his disappointment that Lewis stopped his pilgrimage at Canterbury and did not continue on to Rome. He will also become increasingly annoyed with Williams and his interest in the occult, calling Williams “an old witch doctor” at one point (something Tolkien actually did say). The differences are there in Looking for the King, but they are latent. When Lewis talks about writing more popular theology, Tolkien replies that that sort of thing ought to be left to trained clergy. Tolkien shows no enthusiasm or support when Lewis floats the idea of writing his own children’s stories, and he clears his throat in rumbling disapproval when Williams assumes that the Spear of Longinus is the same as the bleeding lance of Arthurian romance. Note also that Williams, Tolkien, and Lewis have three different ideas about where Tom and Laura should look for the spear of destiny, each a product of their own values and interests. As I say, these differences will become more pronounced in the sequel–though it can be argued that tensions among the Inklings can be overstated, especially in those “golden years” of the late 30s and early 40s.
You are saying, then, that you are presenting the group historically, that is, with realist motives rather than as symbols or transparencies with spiritual referents. I jumped to that latter sort of reading because the Inklings you represent in the story didn’t seem realistic to me. The three principals are only superficially like, or, better, only essentially like the real-life because, as I said, they have none of their faults or misgivings about their friends (especially Tolkien-Williams). It’s border-line iconography, I thought, so a symbolist reading seemed appropriate.
Williams, Lewis, and Tolkien are given the most page space, the only personal interactions with our Jane and Mark, so I assumed – along the lines of this being “An Inklings Novel” doing what those novels do rather than just a novel featuring Inklings — that you wanted us to experience them imaginatively, say, as the perfected faculties of soul we know from Lewis’ ‘Men Without Chests’, that we see in the three hobbits on Mt. Doom or the Frodo-Strider-Gandalf triptych.
That’s not what you were after?
I can’t decide if you are giving me too much credit in my portrayal of the Inklings or too little credit! I intended these to be essentially realistic portrayals of Lewis, Tolkien, and Williams–admittedly idealized—even to the point of accurately portraying their appearance, style of dress, mannerisms, and habits of speech. As you can see from my endnotes (is that a first for a novel?), I tried to stay very close to the actual opinions and speech patterns of my principal characters. I don’t see any of the characters as “types” or ‘archetypes,” but simply as themselves, in so far as I can convey them in a relatively slim novel.
I suspect that, as a reader, you have a fondness for multi-layered novels with intricate arabesques of structure and symbol. I’m flattered that you suspect there may be Williams-esque “wheels within wheels” in this novel, but basically I just tried to give the plot enough wheels to carry it from the first chapter to the last.
Are you concerned that readers will find the implicit altar call for the True King at story’s end a little too heavy handed and easy? I do think Tom’s conversion makes my case, at least in part, that you’re writing “an Inklings novel” as you understand it rather than a book about Inklings.
The novel was published by a Christian press, Ignatius, so its underlying worldview may not appeal to those with a more open-ended and provisional approaches to spirituality.
I intended for Tom’s “epiphany,” I would call it (a more erudite and complimentary term than “altar call”!), to mirror Lewis’s own spiritual journey. Lewis spent most of his teens and twenties as a “foul-mouthed atheist,” as one acquaintance called him. But after a few years associating with Tolkien, Dyson, Coghill, et al, he underwent a major paradigm shift, feeling that his world was being turned upside down, as he said in Surprised by Joy. Lewis called himself “the most reluctant convert” (hence the title of my earlier book about Lewis’s spiritual pilgrimage), because he didn’t like the idea of submitting his will to Another.
Tom’s three months interacting with the Inklings is intended to be a telescoped version of Lewis’s own experience from about a decade earlier. That may be too “easy” for the reader, but it was apparently not at all easy for Lewis–or for Tom!
In my sequel, I will introduce Tom as having backslidden almost to the point of unbelief. He is like those old phosphorescent watch faces. If you held them close to a light, they would glow themselves for quite a while. But after too long in the dark, the light dims, the glory departs. At the end of this novel, Tom thinks he has reached a sort of spiritual summit. But later on, from back down below, the mountaintop will be shrouded in mists.
At HogwartsProfessor, readers have noted that the best-selling books of our time – Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games – as well as many older books – Anne of Green Gables, Jane Eyre, Tale of Two Cities – have as their main character a story transparency for what Jesus calls the “heart,” Coleridge “Imagination,” and Lewis “conscience.” These novels work, the theory goes, because the reader’s heart recognizes and identifies with its story reflection.
King doesn’t have one of these. You didn’t include the ‘heart’ character, the Reepicheep, or the Christ, say, Aslan; no human seeker or Divine Mind, nor their conjunction. Lewis made this mistake in the Ransom books but corrected it in the Narniad. Because Voyage of the Dawn Treader is on our minds, Eustace Scrubb must be redeemed, but until he is, the reader needs a hero to identify, even elide with imaginatively. King lacks the Reepicheep equivalent, the cardiac mouse figure by which to gauge our right relation with Eustace/Tom in his changes.
Again, I’m not quite sure what you mean by a “heart character,” unless that is the character we are most emotionally involved with, rooting for. Tom McCord is the main character whose spiritual journey we are following. He starts out somewhat callow and ambitious, interested mainly in making a name for himself—by getting an Arthurian book published at the very least, but perhaps to become the one who proves that Arthur was indeed a historical figure. Notice how quickly he changes his quest, from a search for the historical Arthur to the quest for the spear. This is partly because he wants to be wherever Laura is. But ambition can be flexible and mercurial. So if he can make his name by locating the Spear, that will serve his ego-needs just as well, or better, than finding evidence for an actual King Arthur.
As the novel progresses, Tom’s straightforward quest to become “somebody” gets more complicated—first by attraction to Laura and seeing her other-centered personality, then by getting to know the Inklings as individuals. Far from being hungry for fame, Tolkien is writing his Rings epic mainly for his own amusement and in reverent practice of “Sub-creation,” creating imagined secondary worlds as an expression of the imago dei in him. (Lewis had to encourage and cajole Tolkien for years to get him to finish the Rings epic and submit it for publication.) The things the Inklings find so important—camaraderie, faith, story-telling—reveal to Tom sources of identity and fulfillment he hadn’t been considering.
That works. To push the Eustace analogue, I didn’t like Tom at the start but I enjoyed very much the deft way you presented his redemption. The conversations with the Inklings were perhaps too ideal for his transformation not to invite a symbolist reading, but as a depiction of a thoughtful man’s conversion, it delivers wonderfully.
Let me toss out another criticism of the book before I reveal too openly my admiration for it.
Looking for the King could have used more tension between boy and girl or sense of danger or urgency in their being followed. Tom’s concern about the barn doors at story’s climax seems like too much and too late. He hasn’t been afraid or even alarmed the whole book; why start now? For the union at end to have any sense of conjunctio oppositorum, too, you need to separate the pair in question (think the Green Lady and the King or Mark and Jane…). Was there anything in King but their occasional disagreement or misunderstanding to suggest how different and contrary they were? I missed that part.
Yes, I agree there isn’t too much sense of danger or jeopardy in the novel, at least until later chapters. I didn’t really conceive of the novel as a “thriller,” with gunfights, car chases, corpses in the closet. I think of it as more of a mystery; in many detective stories, the investigators are not themselves in jeopardy; they are simply trying to figure out what is going on. I conceived of the storyline somewhat in the vein of a Dorothy Sayers mystery of the BBC series “Foyle’s War.” Instead of starting with a murder, though, my starting point is the two ruffians who try to discourage Tom, but who only pique his interest in discovering some mysterious, priceless relic that they obviously don’t want him to find.
The Inklings were mainly writers, thinkers (and talkers!), not soldiers, spies, or smugglers. So any attempt to portray them as real-life characters is going to be a novel of ideas and conversation, more than one of pitched drama and overflowing passions. One radio interviewer referred to Looking for the King as a “cloak and dagger novel,” and I replied that I thought of it as “a cloak-and-lager novel.” After all, there are several scenes set in pubs in which the characters sit around with pints of ale discussing history and story, faith and doubt, the texture and meaning of ordinary events as well as extraordinary ones.
As I said, I am currently beginning work on a sequel, again set mainly in Oxford. At the end of Looking for the King, Tom says he may well return to England in uniform, and Laura longs to study at one of the women’s colleges. I plan for the two of the them to be re-united in Oxford in 1942, this time with more palpable danger and a blossoming of their budding romance. Once again, they are going to face some secretive but menacing foes, and will need to call upon the help and advice of the Inklings. (In this novel you will see the divergence between the three more clearly.) I just learned recently that women were sometimes invited to attend social gatherings in Lewis’s rooms with several members of the group that later became famous as the Inklings. I am very optimistic that Laura will be granted this privilege.
We have a resident Dorothy Sayers reader at Hogwarts Professor; I know he’ll be distressed that his favorite doesn’t even stroll through a scene in King. Any chance of a Sayers cameo at one of these sequel open meetings or in a pub, with or without secret love-child? What a story that could be…
Sayers doesn’t come into the novel because she was never an Inkling; she was a personal friend to Williams and Lewis, but she never attended any Inklings meetings nor identified herself with this literary circle.
Back to why a book I like a lot probably won’t be more than an Inklings Society cult book: I think King may have tried to be too much — spiritual thriller, Arthurian ‘romance,’ and apologetic allegory, all at once. That is one of the reasons I really enjoyed it, though, and look forward to multiple readings of it; it’s a simple book but it is courageous in its reach and in standing against the current tide of criticism. Your implicit denial of hermetic, anagogical artistry and meaning a la Coleridge, Barfield, and Williams that revisionist critics are bringing to the fore, in what struck me as your defense-delivered-by-story of Old School Inkling reading, while I disagree with it, struck me as perhaps the best and most effective counter to Planet Narnia excesses.
Again you lost me in the passage about “implicit denial of hermetic, anagogical artistry.” I would assume that works of fiction should be judged on their own terms, not according to some a priori assumptions about how successful stories should be structured. I think of storytelling as more of an organic process that does not lend itself to preordained “rules.” Interestingly, none of the theorists you name—Coleridge, Barfield, or Williams—produced any enduring fiction of the sort that may well have readers still poring over The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia Chronicles a hundred years from now. As the old saying goes, “There are three rules for writing successful fiction. But unfortunately no one agrees on what they are.”
I will leave off with that wonderful saying and by saying, “Thank you, Prof. Downing,” for your time today and especially for your novel, Looking for the King . I’m looking forward to discussing it with the serious readers at HogwartsProfessor and to reading the sequel you’ve mentioned.
[Readers interested in Prof. Downing's insights into the Dawn Treader film and about the Narnia franchise in Hollywood can find his review at IgnatiusInsight.com.]