Saturday, 15 January 2011

Looking for the King -An Inklings Novel By David Downing - A Review

Looking for the King - By David Downing

SPOILER ALERT - If you have not read this book this review may give away some key plot points! 

During the recent but now seemingly long past Christmas holidays as I scanned more books to download onto my IPAD and read with my trusty Kindle app, this title caught my attention and I became even more interested when I read that the book was about King Arthur, the holy spear of Longinus and included as characters Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis and Professor J.R.R Tolkien himself!!!  What a combination, I thought, a must read and onto the IPAD it went. 

Overall I enjoyed this book which towards the end does become a bit of a page, or screen, turner. I did get the feeling in the early parts that I was reading two books. One,  a rollicking good Dan Brownesqe (although much better written) thriller set in Britain in the 1940's with two Americans visting some of the key Arthurian sites in the U.K. in search of a lost relic of primeval power that others evil elements are looking for (shades of Indiana Jones).  The other, a "lets meet the Inklings" novel where we through the hero and heroine of the adventure meet Lewis, Williams, and Tolkien and the other Inklings usually in their favourite haunts -- a pub or restaurant. 

But the genius of this book is how Downing combines these two strands together by having the Inklings comment and indeed shape the search which is based in messages in dreams around King Arthur and "the spear of destiny"  Indeed in the first couple of chapters Lewis informs our hero that there is a recent theory " by Professor R.G. Colingwood backed up by a colleague of his named Tolkien" on the real Kng Arthur (referring to Collingwood's book Roman Britain and its English Settlements).

Also after reading Downing I feel I know Charles
Williams a bit better (an Inkling whose works have alluded me and need further exploration).   One moment of a slight chuckle comes towards the end of the book when some of the Inklings are musing on how they will be remembered in the future and C.S. Lewis says to Charles Wlliams we shall end up as footnotes in your biography - interesting that of the three major Inklings Charles Williams is the least well known (Tolkien says nothing in that scene) Also when the hero tells of the adventure, one of the Inklings exclaim "it sounds like the plot of one of your books Charles" perhaps referring to his holy grail mystery The War in Heaven 

Downing's description of Tolkien is an interesting one.  He clearly has done his research and very helpfully includes in the appendix a line by line reference to quoted remarks. I felt while he does capture some of the donish, elegiac and "I am in fact a Hobbit" character of Tolkien, what we get is very much a rehash of what we know of Tolkien through letters, interviews, etc. So we hear him describe how we know (or how he wanted us to know)how he started writing the Hobbit, we hear the recurring great Wave engulfing all nightmare, etc.  There is a wonderful scene when the two main characters go to visit Tolkien and are greeted at the door of 20 Northmoor Road by his young daughter Priscilla who escorts them into Tolkien's book lined study.  its 1940 and Tolkien is working on the "new Hobbit" and spends some time talking with them about the new darker adventure which has reached a crossroads tavern and met a "walker in the woods (is he Strider or Trotter?")  Also I thought it was interesting that Tolkien set an alarm clock so his visitors would not overstay their welcome (he had to get that writing done sometime!) But it was hard not to read that scene and think - yes you are talking about the new Hobbit, but in a file or drawer you have the notebooks of The Book of Lost Tales and the Quenta Sillmarillion and all that work on Elvish linguistics that you have stopped writing to work on this much desired sequel. 

For Tolkien and Lewis lovers this scene and an earlier one when our hero is invited to spend a morning at the Eagle and the Child (Bird and the Baby) pub with the Inklings are ones that as you read makes you think what would it have been like?  i think Downing captures the boisterous quick rapid banter of the Inklings (these were no bookish dons) and the welcoming nature they would have had for a colleague interested in their pursuits.

The actual thriller?? Fine, although the denouement is a bit obvious and the ending does have echoes of that final moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the source of all potential divine power is literally warehoused.  it is interesting when the hero decides not to take advantage of what he has uncovered for power or gain he says it is not for him to take such a thing on himself and leaves it for others to decide what to do with it (shades of the ring?).  Then Downing has Tolkien say  "We indeed endure things But the martyrs endured to the end." and the Tolkien comments to the puzzled Inklings "It is an elvish saying." 

I think what Downing does succeed at is bringing the Inklings to life not as active heroes out saving the world but as scholarly advisers in the background of the action.  Indeed, it is thanks to Tolkien's pursuits of the Northern Spirit and his focus on pre-Norman Saxon culture that a great part of the mystery is solved. 

Downing masterfully has Lewis recount his conversion by Tolkien and Dyson on that long evenings walk and he later weaves it into the story and character development of the hero. Downing also creates a real sense of the worry and stress in Britain in 1940 on the eve of Dunkirk and the movement of the war from the phoney phase towards the defeat of France (Lewis comments that they are taking all the signs down in the Southern part of England in case the Germans invade)and the looming Battle of Britain.  Downing has Tolkien talk about the "animal horror" of the last war and the fears and concerns he has for his two sons both currently in midst of battle (as well as C S Lewis for his brother Warnie). 

Of course there is room left for a sequel and the mind boggles on who would play the Inklings if this book were made into a movie (Sir Ian perhaps as J.R.R?). 

With another book with Tolkien as a character on the horizon it looks like this may be the start of a trend. I applaud these efforts if they are done with care and attention and understanding of the real lfe characters and their work.  I wonder what the Professor himself would have thought of being a character in some one elses sub-creation?? 

While a bit thin on plot I think Downing has succeeded in bringing the Inklings to life and I look forward to more of the adventures they become mixed up with.  

Who knows my idea for a series of mystery books with the composer Richard Wagner has a solver of murders may not be so far fetched!!! 

Posted from Andrew Higgins IPAD 

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