One of the highlights of 2010 for me was corresponding with Prof. David Downing and finally interviewing him about his book, Looking for the King. If you remember our discussion then (or if you just follow that link to read it), you know it was always friendly but not a little combative, which is what I think words between reader and author with book should be — full-on engagement, not quite argument. One of the fruits of that edifying exchange was an invitation to read and review another book, Toward the Gleam, on a similar if wonderfully different subject.
King, you’ll recall, is the story of two Americans in England just before the second world war. They find themselves in a hunt for a sacred object and have the good fortune to have C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and J. R. R. Tolkien as advisers. Prof. Downing is an Inklings authority whose books on CSL’s Narniad and Space Trilogy are rightly esteemed as among the best so his foray into fiction this way had to be very good to meet what were high expectations from the Spare Oom reading set. And it was a grand read.
Toward the Gleam is by an author I had not read previously but the subject was so daring — a story re-telling how The Lord of the Rings was written, with a host of historical figures from Agatha Christie to Winston Churchill — that I confess I wondered if it was possible to pull it off credibly or as engrossing fiction. Despite being endorsed by Michael O’Brien, the planet’s most notable and risible Harry Hater still standing, Gleam hit on all cylinders. Below the jump you’ll find my 10 question interview with the author about the story’s genesis and peculiar choices. Enjoy!
Mr. Doran, thank you for agreeing to join me in Hogwarts Professor’s Ten questions interview format!
I was trying to describe Toward the Gleam to a friend and found myself stumbling over what kind of book it is. I think its core genre is ‘historical fiction or romance’ in the older sense of that word, but there’s a locked door mystery, a world-at-risk thriller, and a survey of 20th Century philosophical peaks and valleys. Am I right in thinking of Gleam as a genre mélange with a historical romance as its axis?
I agree that Toward the Gleam resists classification, and I recognize that this can be a disadvantage with some readers and reviewers. The story is indeed a “genre mélange”, but I would resist identifying one axis, unless that axis is the last word in the story.
Which is “mercy.” That will take some unpacking on my next trip through the book!
I’m way ahead of myself, as usual; forgive me for jumping right in with that genre question. For readers who have not read Toward the Gleam – and I encourage everyone to get a copy today, it is very good – Gleam is the re-telling of how J. R. R. Tolkien wrote his Lord of the Rings. The main premise is that he didn’t really write it, he found a record from a post Atlantean civilization recording the events of Middle Earth’s saga as we know them and translated the book. The drama? A bad guy cross between Lex Luthor and Moriarty is after him to steal the book. Mr. Doran, it’s a believable story very well told. Can you share with us how or when you thought to write it?
The core idea came suddenly, if such an idea can come “suddenly” after a 7th reading of the LOTR, along with many readings of The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and even The Children of Hurin. For several years, I explored the “science” of the story to determine if a plausible case could be made for the historical civilization. Only then did I begin to compose the story, drawing on the many biographies I had read about, and original works by, the historical counterparts of characters in the story. In The Silmarillion, it is clear that Tolkien’s Numenor is the Atlantis that has come down to us as myth, but he put metaphysical meat on the bones and artfully integrated it into his mythology. John Hill is not a pure translator of the manuscript. He is a co-creator by virtue of the significant gaps he fills in. Alembert’s connection to Moriarty is not only implied, it is enunciated by Gilbert in his meeting with Alembert in John’s office.
As I mentioned, Gleam is something of a survey course of Modern philosophy. John, the story hero, visits with a host of heroes and stand-ins who give voice to the worst of modern thinking or the traditional response to these errors. Two questions on this philosophy seminar told in story: you don’t give the full names of characters who are historical figures though they are familiar from their first names and ideas, i.e., Gilbert for Chesterton, Edith for Edith Stein, Jack for C. S. Lewis, etc. Why did you choose to leave the surnames out of this cavalcade of celebrities?
I elected to leave the surnames out to maintain a respectful “space” between these literary characters and their historical counterparts, and to emphasize that they were not one and the same. I also wanted to avoid the hyper-realism that would have constrained the story that I wanted to tell. Finally, I wanted the story to be layered with many mysteries, big ones and smaller ones, including the identities of the historically-based characters.
On a more substantial note, you seem to be less “smuggling the Gospel” here than “smuggling” a response from tradition to conventional philosophical errors. In this respect, the book is less about the ‘Inklings and Company’ than a story told to illustrate their core beliefs, a story only coincidentally (and conveniently) using them as characters. David Downing does something similar in his wonderful Looking for the King. I especially enjoyed the deft way you wove Edith Stein into the story and her ‘phenomenal’ argument with the positivist strawman ’Krieger’ in the Heidelberg café. Frankly, I loved seeing the thinking mistakes of our times embodied in the bad guys of adventure stories so reading about them acts as something like an immunization. I assume this was your tip of the hat to Tolkien, Lewis, and company and to their fictions, stories which work in much the same way?
I desired to expose these crooked ideas while, as Tolkien might have said, respecting the freedom of readers to reach their own conclusions. I wanted the malignant characters in the story to be more than one-dimensional, even if they were unattractive; in this mission, I struggled as Lewis described struggling with The Screwtape Letters. Like Tolkien, Lewis, and Chesterton, I wanted readers holding different beliefs to be able to ponder and reflect on the ideas in the story, while still enjoying a (hopefully) rousing story. I’ve studied Husserl and phenomenology, a challenging philosophical system, and I wanted to juxtapose Edith with a spokesman (Krieger) for the Nazi’s virulent strain of neo-paganism.
The story has four parts you have labeled with four Latin words: discooperire, idioma, contentio, and Illuminatio. Each of the words has a specific meaning – to lay bare, language, antithesis or antitheton, and enlightenment, respectively – and makes sense in terms of the chapters in each part. I’m curious, though, because of the third term being a term in rhetoric for a ‘play of contraries’ and the fourth being an Augustinian topos, if the four words weren’t a Medieval formula of sorts I’m unfamiliar with. Are they stand alone signifiers for the sections they describe or are the four an alchemical, logical, or rhetorical sequence?
They are stand-alone signifiers that captured the essence of what was going on, while also imparting a sense of age and mystery.
I received a letter yesterday from a reader who had just started the book. She wanted to know if it was alchemical because the box described in the first chapters was described in hues of black, white and red. She’ll be disappointed those chapter heads aren’t esoteric glyphs!
The Lord of the Rings famously has no explicit Catholicism but is laced with traditional Christian and conventional Catholic symbols and meaning; I think of the lembas wafers and the three symbols of Christ – Gandalf as priest-mage, Aragon as king, and Frodo as sacrifice – who all die figurative deaths and rise again. Gleam curiously, because it is so much about Tolkien, also omits his Catholicism. He doesn’t go to church, there are no priests, he even has something like a meeting with the temptress devil Greta without mention of his Catholic beliefs. I’m confident you didn’t cut these out because of Ignatius Press is anti-Papist; why did you choose to smuggle the philosophical and implicit theological arguments and leave the Catholicism to the vignettes in the monastery that are the book’s frame? Given Tolkien’s formation in the brotherhood started by Cardinal Newman, the foundation of his inclusive literary tastes and anti-ecumenical religious beliefs, I confess this was something of a head scratcher.
I wanted the story to appeal to a broad audience, while hoping that readers’ interest in the characters would lead them to their historical counterparts, the original sources so to speak, and to their profound beliefs. There are faith kernels in the story, including the unidentified book (small clues) that Agnes discovered in Argentina.
I loved this book – read it straight through the weekend of my daughter’s graduation with stops for sleep and ceremony. As I noted before, it’s believable because of the time frame in which it is set, pre-war England and Europe, and the character of Tolkien’s Rings epic. I have not charted the story’s chapters but couldn’t help noting the many references to the story’s beginnings at the story’s end; not only the frame elements in the monastery visit, but also his recollections of the trenches war in his office meeting with the student he met with at the story’s start were striking closings of the novel’s circle. Was this by any chance a traditional ring composition as well as a story about Tolkien’s Rings epic?
Indeed, the LOTR ended in Hobbiton, where it began, but a changed Hobbiton and world, as Toward the Gleam returns to a changed Charterhouse and world. These circles, or “returns”, in Toward the Gleam were intended to be expository, but also to produce a sense of amazement. “Aha” moments were a goal of the story, deriving from my affection for the puzzle-plot mystery stories of the 1920s-40s.
Some of the best parts of the book are Tolkien’s conversation with Jack Lewis and Owen Barfield, with whom he shares his secret in the hopes of helpful advice and sage counsel, all of which he gets (while the reader enjoys their wonderful exchanges in conversation). My only disappointment was that, unlike James Owen’s Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica which features Tolkien, Lewis, and Charles Williams in adventures from WWI onwards, you chose to leave out Charles Williams. I assume this was due more to historical reality – Williams wasn’t an Inkling per se until the OUP London offices moved to Oxford in 1939 – than to any concerns about Williams’ orthodoxy. If anything, Gleam reads much more like a Charles Williams novel than anything Lewis or Tolkien wrote, historical-spiritual artifact and all.
And on that note… There is no Williams but we do get Owen Barfield, which I thought was both a great highlight as well as one of the book’s few failings. Of the so-called ‘Seven,’ Barfield’s name is the one most people do not know and is certainly the least appreciated of the set, despite recent works like The Company They Keep that establish the several substantial contributions Barfield makes to Lewis’ and Tolkiens’ understanding of the world and of literature. Gleam brings this out their relationship and Barfield’s contributions wonderfully, I thought. Having said that, though, I confess to being taken aback that in their discussion of Atlantis and the book’s origins that Barfield does not mention Rudolf Steiner’s ideas about Atlantis and Lemuria. As Barfield was an Anthroposophist of no little sophistication, I have to doubt he’d miss the chance to confirm via Tolkien’s find one of Steiner’s more eclectic ideas. But perhaps this would have taken the story too far afield?
Several people have suggested that Williams would have been a worthy addition to the story. I am determined to learn more about him. Owen Barfield seemed to be a fitting 3rd Inkling in this story, given the philosophical underpinnings of Toward the Gleam and his intellectual areas of interest. Advancing the story and broadening the audience influenced the degree to which esoteric issues were explored. Several chapters (one featuring Barfield) didn’t make the published version for that very reason.
I hope you’ll share that on Kindle or your publisher’s website someday as a reader extra! The little bit about Barfield’s adventure meeting the story Moriarty was a favorite.
What next? You didn’t leave yourself any room for a Gleam, Part 2, or Son of Toward the Gleam but I have to hope you have plans for similar work. Are you thinking of something like Gleam, i.e., historical fiction featuring the Inkling writers, or perhaps a novel that is an attempt to write the sort of books the Seven wrote, one without the historical draping? If you aren’t thinking along either of these lines, please do!
I have a passion for story-writing and am attracted to the challenge of composing stand-alone stories, where one must craft anew and attract readers based on the strength of each story. The story I’m currently composing is different than Toward the Gleam in that the premise isn’t so fantastic, and it is more of a contemporary story. It is similar in that it is an intense mystery-suspense novel that explores the themes of faithfulness, virtue, choices, and the possibility of transformation. Transformation was a foundational theme in Toward the Gleam. There was the potential for both Alembert and Agnes to be transformed; in freedom, one rejected it and one accepted it…freedom, choices, consequences. Agnes CurLio (the lamb with the heart of a lion) had no distinct historical counterpart, but she became one of my favorite (and most vivid) characters.
I can tell you that the historical counterpart for Mitchie is resting on the floor beneath my table. No sardines, though… All of these questions were thought-provoking! Thank you for your very kind and humbling words about the story.
Thank you again for joining us for Ten Questions — and for the very challenging and enjoyable Toward the Gleam!