(Ignatius Press, San Francisco: 2010)
Aided by three wise men, two young Americans go tearing around Britain in 1940 in search of a legendary Christian relic … That, in a nutshell, is the plot of Looking for the King.
The wise men are Charles Williams, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis, the most famous members of a scholarly group of friends who called themselves the Inklings. Williams is not as well-known as the other two, who became popular culture icons; but as a close friend of Lewis and Tolkien, and an acknowledged influence on their lives and works, he has been included in the story.
The relic is the Roman lance that pierced the side of Christ as He hung on the cross, confirming that He was dead and that the body could be taken down, as told in John 19:31–37. The king in question is King Arthur: the quest begins with Tom McCord’s research into the matter of King Arthur’s historicity. Apologizing in advance for what may be considered a “spoiler,” the king Tom eventually finds is not Arthur but Jesus Christ Himself.
This book matters not because it’s great literary art (which it isn’t), or an introduction to three fascinating Christian thinkers (which it is), but because in it we can begin to see how the realm of imaginative fiction might be reclaimed for Christ and put to the service of His Kingdom. Reading this novel might start other writers on that journey.
Who Were the Inklings?
Downing employs an unusual literary device to make the three Inklings speak, mining their writings and their recorded sayings. “When I have used exact phrases from Lewis, Tolkien, or Williams in the novel, I have supplied the source … paraphrasing comments from all the Inklings’ books as they might have been uttered in conversation in the first year of World War II,” he explains. “C. S. Lewis’ close friend Owen Barfield remarked that Lewis’ written words in his letters were remarkably similar in tone and cadence to his actual speaking voice in conversation. I think that is generally true of all the Inklings, and so I have freely adapted quips and opinions from their books and letters into spoken dialogue” (p. 267). The Notes at the end of the book tell us when and where the various quotations came from.
This is not as easy as it looks. Most people write much more carefully than they speak in conversation, and relying on their written words for dialogue could have made the whole production seem stiff and wooden. But here, for the most part, it works just fine. The fact that Professor Downing is a C. S. Lewis scholar, and intimately knows his subject, is a plus.
But there is one quibble: Downing doesn’t quite present the Inklings as eccentric as they really were. Charles Williams, in his youth, was involved in the occult, and occult themes crop up regularly in his novels. Tolkien, a devout Catholic, spent almost his entire life “researching” (he never described it as “making up”) and refining the fantasy world he wrote about. “Middle-earth” could not have come closer to being a real place to its creator. And behind C. S. Lewis’ “mere Christianity” lay a jumble of classical paganism and Platonism that he never entirely shed.
Downing’s three wise men were a bit more unusual than the reader might gather from this book. But aside from that, this introduction to the Inklings is authentic and reliable. If it makes the reader want to know them better, it will have served its purpose.
Meanwhile, the whole business about “the real King Arthur” doesn’t manage to be quite as intriguing as it ought to be. Downing’s literary art is not up to it. Many of us, once the Arthurian bug bites us, stay bitten. Others are immune. Charles Williams wished to be remembered chiefly for his Arthurian poems. Bits of Arthuriana keep popping up in Lewis’ writings, too, and Tolkien was famous (in the academic world) for his edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Why these three men should have been so passionately interested in Arthur, this book fails to explain. The protagonist’s search for Arthur takes him somewhere else entirely.
Maybe, after all, that’s the way it ought to be.
Tolkien once wrote, of his best-known work:
“The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion,’ to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”[i]
Maybe this explains how The Lord of the Rings—much to Tolkien’s dismay—wound up as a craze among the most emphatically non-Catholic hippy counterculture crowd in the 1960s. Perhaps he allowed the religious element to be “absorbed” to the point of being undetectable.
In Looking for the King, David Downing has done exactly the opposite. The “religious element” is an integral part of the story: indeed, without it, there is no story. Downing has not slapped it onto the story like a decal, either.
He has done something that Christian writers should be doing. I call it “re-normalizing religion” in the fiction landscape.[ii] It’s necessary because in the vast majority of fictional works of all kinds, we find “religion” left out, not even mentioned in passing. This is not an accurate picture of any civilization I ever heard of.
Downing uses Williams, Lewis, and Tolkien to guide his protagonist, Tom McCord, gently to a belief in God. In a conversation with C. S. Lewis, Tom describes himself as “…an ‘apatheist’… Someone who just hasn’t put much thought into religious questions. I’ve been too caught up in the here and now to be concerned with the not-here and the not-now” (p. 211). Lewis’ answer, as given by Downing, comes from various letters, essays, and books by Lewis (p. 277). So it’s fair for Downing to use Lewis to guide Tom McCord to Christianity by quoting words Lewis really wrote to guide others. One would imagine the Inklings themselves would approve.
We suspect there are many self-identified Christians who would qualify as “apatheists.” Given the enormous amount of time people in the Western world devote to the consumption of fiction—novels, movies, TV shows, games, music videos, and so on—and given the almost total omission of God from all of this, is it any wonder some of these consumers just don’t put much thought into religious questions?
So we salute David Downing from trying to write about Christianity as part of life. Tolkien was a tremendously better storyteller than Downing, but he erred in burying his “religious element” too deeply. No one can accuse Downing for doing that.
We recognize that Looking for the King can hardly be called a literary triumph. His depiction of the Inklings is real enough, largely because he lets them speak for themselves rather than trying to “re-imagine” them, as other authors might have been tempted to do. He makes us want to read their works and know them better, and that’s a good thing. But the two protagonists, Tom and his “assistant,” Laura Hartman, never do quite come to life. (I don’t blame Downing for whoever wrote the cover copy describing Laura as “perky and intuitive.” Ugh.) Tom’s conversion to belief in God is more real to the reader than Tom himself is. A more gifted writer would have made both the character and the conversion real to us.
Great art, no: but a good start on something that badly needs doing, and hence praiseworthy, yes—we must give Downing that much, at least.
Let’s see who takes the next step toward reclaiming fiction for Christ’s Kingdom.
[i] From a letter cited in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._R._R._Tolkien
[ii] See How to Write a Fantasy Novel in http://leeduigon.com/2010/11/03/how-to-write-a-fantasy-novel/