Today I finished reading David C. Downing’s Looking for the King: An Inklings Novel and I gave it a 5-star review at goodreads.com. This is the synopsis of the novel:
“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 actual quotes from 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.”–synopsis at goodreads.com
I enjoyed this book for many reasons: the Spear of Destiny plot was intriguing, the original main characters (Tom and Laura) are likeable and interesting, and the most importantly, the Inklings dialogue was based on quotations from their published works, letters, and biographies. When reading this book I felt that I had actually met C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams. Hugo Dyson’s appearance in the novel is brief, but nearly all of his lines were really hilarious. I also enjoyed the cameo appearance by Tolkien’s daughter Priscilla. Downing’s detailed descriptions effectively captured the atmosphere of wartime England in 1940. He made so many references to places of interest to seekers of the “historical” Grail Hallows that I was compelled to search online for photos of the places he described in such fascinating detail. One such location, for example, is the cave of the Knights Templar at Royston. I was also very interested by the Celtic Cross at Gosforth and it’s link to the Spear of Destiny legend.
Look at the bottom of the fourth drawing for the figures of a crucified man, a figure holding a spear, and a figure collecting the blood. Is this ancient stone carving a link to the Spear of Destiny legend? Another interesting place that we visit in this novel is the Abbey of Malmesbury which has a stained glass window designed by Edward Burne-Jones that is described in detail.
The first figure is of St. George, and the second is of the devout king, St. Ethelbert. The third figure is supposed to be St. Longinus the Ceturion with the Spear of Destiny. Downing gives his readers a convincing story of how the legendary spear may have been hidden in England and how the lance that Hitler obtained from Austria’s Hofburg Museum in the Second World War was probably not the true Spear of Destiny.
There are many wonderful Inklings moments in this novel. At the suggestion of C. S. Lewis, Tom McCord attends a lecture on the Holy Grail legends given by Charles Williams at Oxford. After the brilliant lecture, Tom has a conversation with Williams:
“I can’t say I’m a believer,” said Tom. “It all seems like wish-fulfillment and hocus-pocus to me.”
Laura winced, but Williams didn’t seem to mind the comment at all. “Fair enough,” he said. “It is only the arrogant or the insecure who claim to know about such things, unless perhaps you are a genuine mystic. For the rest of us, all we can do is choose what to believe.” (page 58)
The line “all we can do is choose what to believe” really stood out for me. I recently blogged here about how “making the choice to believe” is a theme in Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and C. S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair. This line introduces the reader one of the story’s most important character arcs: Tom McCord’s journey from agnosticism to faith.
Another favorite moment of mine is when Tom is allowed to attend an Inklings meeting at the famous pub, The Eagle and Child (a. k. a. the “Bird and Baby”). The conversation turns to the “dying god” story of various mythologies–the Egyptian Osiris and the Norse Balder to name two examples– and the role of such mythologies in C. S. Lewis’s conversion to Christianity. Tolkien explains, “We believe that the great and universal myth, the dying god who sacrifices himself for the people, shows everyone’s inborn awareness of the need for redemption. As we understand it, the Incarnation was the pivotal point in which myth became history.” (page 144) During this conversation Tom “felt himself outnumbered, a whole tableful of believers, and every one of them a formidable intellect.” (page 145) Tom’s main obstacle in making the “choice to believe” at this point in the story seems to be the problem of evil. If God is all-good and all-powerful, why does so much pain and suffering exist? Lewis helps Tom to understand that if God intervened every time someone did an evil act or had an evil thought, God would be taking away the Free Will of humanity.
There are also numerous references to the published works of the Inklings authors as well as hints of “future” publications. An example is when Lewis says, “We’re hoping that Tollers will favor us with the latest installment of his ‘new Hobbit’.” (page 150) The new Hobbit of course, would be published about 15 years later as The Lord of the Rings. I loved that the characters of Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, and Strider are all mentioned in the novel. Lewis also alludes to the series of novels that he is about to write when he says that he has been sheltering war evacuee children at his home: “They’re charming creatures, though they don’t know how to entertain themselves. I was thinking that there might be a story in that–children sent away from London who have a series of adventures in the country. I started something a few months ago.” (page 251) The story that Lewis was referring to, of course, would be the first book of The Chronicles of Narnia. 🙂
Another part of the story that I loved was Tom and Laura’s visit to Tolkien’s house. Apparently “Tolkien” (the fictional character in the novel) is quite the expert on the various legends of the Spear of Destiny, and his vast knowledge helps Tom and Laura to understand all of the unsolved mysteries of their quest. (pages 163-170) I loved this part because Professor Tolkien recounts the history of the Holy Lance in great detail, and I could definitely identify with the good professor in this scene. Much of what he says in this chapter I had discovered myself from researching the history of Spear of Destiny for my book, The Lord of the Hallows. (Visit www.outskirtspress.com/thelordofthehallows for more information.)
I won’t spoil the climax of the novel’s main action, but the climax of the story’s spiritual dimension is Tom’s conversation with Lewis, in which they return to their discussion of the problem of evil. Lewis says, “If some amoral brute created the world, he also created our minds. And how can we trust moral judgments given to us by this same amoral brute? If you reject God because there is so much evil in the universe, you need to explain where you obtained your standard for discerning good and evil.” (pages 211-212) Lewis offers further proof of God’s existence in humanity’s “homesickness for heaven,” and then he quotes St. Augustine: Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee. “If the Christian view is right, we are all exiles from paradise.” (page 214) Tom then realizes that his entire quest may not have been his own, but the will of Another. He prays for the first time in the novel and by doing so, Tom makes his choice to believe. Initially, Tom went on a quest for the historical King Arthur, but did not find him. He found faith in the King of Kings instead.
This novel is a must-read for Inklings fans and is available from the publisher, Ignatius Press, at http://www.ignatius.com/Products/LFK-H/looking-for-the-king.aspx?src=iinsight. You can also find a listing of Dr. David Downing’s scholarly books on C. S. Lewis and a few short, but very positive reviews of Looking for the King at the publisher’s site. This novel was truly a delight. Please let me know if this review was helpful to you in the comments section. Thanks!
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