A Look at David C. Downing’s New Novel "Looking for the King"

Anglophiles, mystery lovers (particularly those who prefer the brainy rather than the bloody type), and Inkling fans everywhere are sure to find something to truly enjoy in Looking for the King, the recent novel written by Lewis scholar David Downing.

Here’s how the description on the jacket flap begins:

“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.”

Downing weaves a romance (of sorts), a mystery, and a quest with a series of conversations with Lewis, Tolkien, and Charles Williams and throws in a spiritual journey along with the mix.  For anyone who ever wished they could have been a fly on the wall of the Eagle and Child during a meeting of the Inklings, Downing masterfully recreates what one of their gathering must have been like by using real quotes from their letters and essays as the basis for his dialogue.

I recently and had the chance to ask David a few questions about his delightful “Inklings novel.”

Brown: It’s probably safe to assume that most readers of Looking for the King will be Inklings fans.  Still, there may be some for whom your book serves as their first introduction to this distinguished group of friends and writers.  How did you first encounter these figures, and what was your own reaction?

Downing:
I first read both Lewis and Tolkien during my college years. Someone recommended the Narnia Chronicles to me in high school, but I thought I was far too sophisticated and mature at the age of eighteen to be reading “kid stuff”! When I finally dipped into The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe one summer, I was so captivated that I read all seven Chronicles in a month. Then I sat down and re-read all seven of them again the next month.

I casually picked The Lord of the Rings one afternoon during my junior year of college. I must confess, I neglected my homework for at least a week or ten days, because I couldn’t put it down. I recall reading in bed one night about 2 a.m. when Gandalf was pulled into the abyss by the Balrog. I almost had an anxiety attack, thinking, “Now we’ll never find our way out of the mines of Moria!” Later in the story, when Gandalf reappears, I had a sense of relief and elation that seemed some small tincture of the joy of that first Easter morning.

Lewis said that Charles Williams had a special gift for portraying good characters. But I think that is equally true of Lewis himself and also of Tolkien. So many contemporary novelists excel in their portrayals of troubled people—selfish, neurotic, brutish, and downright depraved. But only a handful of twentieth century novelists, including the Inklings, have the power to show us what good people look like—characters with integrity, compassion, courage, and a willingness to sacrifice for others. I’m sure this ability to portray good characters convincingly is derived from their Christian worldview, a sense that ultimately, it is not evil or chaos, but Goodness that reigns in the universe.

Brown: Your cover tells us this is “an Inklings novel.”  We quickly discover that (1) the Inklings themselves appear as characters, and (2) you drew upon their actual words in shaping their dialogue.  Your character Laura Hartman, while not sharing the developmental arc we see in Jane Studdock or Pauline Anstruther, does have the visionary dreams they do.  Are there other aspects of your novel which show this homage to the Inklings?

Downing: I think those are the most important dimensions of the story which make it “an Inklings novel.” Of course, the notion that the Spear of Destiny might be hidden somewhere in England calls to mind Williams’ War in Heaven, in which the Holy Grail turns up in an obscure country church north of London.

The character of Tom McCord suggests Mark Studdock somewhat, in that his worldly ambitions lead him to embark on a spiritual journey which he had not anticipated.  Tom’s movement from spiritual lethargy to an awakening of faith is also intended to echo Lewis’s own pilgrimage in his teens and twenties.  No one has commented on it yet, but I also embedded a hidden pattern in the names of several key characters in the story.  That may or may not be in the style of an Inklings story, depending upon which critics you read!

Brown: How did you first come up with the overall concept for Looking for the King?

Downing: My wife and I visited Somerset and Cornwall in 2005, and we were fascinated by all the legends that Joseph of Arimathea (the rich merchant mentioned in the Gospels) had traveled all the way to England in the first century, perhaps bringing with him the Holy Grail and the Spear of Longinus (the traditional name of the Roman soldier who thrust his lance into Christ’s side). Around Glastonbury, one meets people who talk about “Old Joe” or “Big Joe” as if they just spoken with Joseph of Arimathea in a pub last week!

That same summer I was re-reading the letters of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, and thinking how often their perceptive observations and witty remarks in their correspondence would make for great dialog in a novel.  Soon afterwords, I read Matthew Pearl’s literary detective novel, The Dante Club, in which a circle of American poets and scholars (Longfellow, Holmes, and Lowell) help the local police solve a series of Dante-esque murders occurring in 19th century Boston.  I enjoyed the unusual combination of mystery and literary biography, and I thought the Inklings would make an even livelier group to help some young adventurers on their quest. So my interest in the Spear and my interest in the Inklings merged into one storyline.

Brown: You have stated that half the fun of writing this novel was looking through the primary documents for elements to use in creating the dialogue.  What did you learn in your research that was new to you?

Downing: I had read all the standard biographies and collections of letters before.  But my earlier readings had focused on the Inklings as thinkers and writers more than as people.  Instead of looking this time at Charles Williams as an author, I began to pick up on details such as that he lectured so energetically you could hear the coins clinking in his pocket as he paced back and forth.  And that when he waxed philosophical, he would look off into space, as if gazing at something beyond the screen of the physical world.

For Tolkien, I had forgotten that he was an expert horseman in his youth, breaking untamed beasts that no one else was willing to mount.  (No wonder his portrait of the Riders of Rohan is so sympathetic and so convincing!)

For Lewis, the main thing I noticed this time around was his robust sense of humor.  Lewis’s lifelong friend Owen Barfield says that too many critics overlook Lewis’s ever-present sense of fun, his ready wit and love of hearty laughter.  I think it is easier to bring out that side of Lewis in a novel than in studying him as a “literary artist” or as a “man of ideas.”  Lewis’s letters are full of one-liners that you could almost turn into a stand-up comedy routine if you had a mind to.  (Though I don’t have a mind to! Lewis’s humor usually bubbled over during serious discussions, not simply to provoke a guffaw for its own sake.)

Brown: As the author of a number of scholarly books about Lewis, you have had to deal with the problem of including extensive quotations from his original works.  Were there any permissions issues with using so many actual words of the Inklings, and, if not, how do you get around them?

Downing: Just to be on the safe side, I did vet this project with both the C. S. Lewis Company and the Tolkien estate.  My actual quotations from Lewis, Tolkien, and others fall well within the limits of “fair use,” borrowing only a small fraction of quoted material from any one book.  Both of these authors’ representatives are very concerned about novelizations that might invent new details or episodes far beyond the known facts as set down in their biographies.  So I portray the Inklings mainly as consultants and mentors to my young adventurers.  You won’t find Tolkien or Lewis themselves out hunting for lost relics or trying to elude Nazi spies.

Brown: You have said elsewhere that tensions among the Inklings are often overstated.  This is a position which Douglas Gresham has also repeatedly taken.  To what extent does your novel help set the record straight on this issue?

Downing: My novel is set in the spring and summer of 1940, which I believe was the beginning of the “golden age” for the Inklings.  A few years later, Tolkien began to feel that he was being overshadowed somewhat by Charles Williams, whose encyclopedic knowledge, quicksilver mind, and saintly demeanor clearly made a deep impression on Lewis.  But Williams was always a great supporter of Tolkien’s unfolding Rings epic, and Tolkien sometimes consulted with Williams on his own, apart from meetings when Lewis was present. So I wanted to portray the prevailing good will among these men, not to magnify this issue or that one.

In sensationalized journalism, the saying is, “If it bleeds, it leads.”  That is, anything to do with controversy or conflict takes precedence over dull stories about friendship, lively conversation, or a community of shared faith and values.  I think an imaginary scene, such as may be found in a novel, can sometimes offer a more authentic picture of a historical moment than the “factual” reconstructions of a biography or article that was written by someone with a tabloid mentality.

Brown: Finally, can you say something about the critical and commercial reception your novel has received; about what, if anything, you have been surprised by; and about your plans for a sequel or other future book projects?

Downing: Both my publisher, Ignatius, and I have been very pleased with the response to Looking for the King.  The novel has received generous reviews, and it has nearly gone through its first printing in less than three months. Its Facebook site attracted over 2000 followers in just a few weeks.  I think readers must enjoy imaginatively climbing into a time machine and getting a sense of what it might have been like to meet Lewis and Tolkien back in the early 1940s or to be a “fly on the wall” at an Inklings meeting.

As I was writing this novel, I began to get ideas for a follow-up story, so I made sure to leave room for a sequel.  Near the end of the story, Tom McCord says that if he returns to England, he will probably be in uniform.  And Laura Hartman says she hopes to pursue at masters degree, perhaps at one of the women’s colleges in Oxford.

I have already started working on a sequel, a tale in which Tom and Laura are reunited in Oxford, but are again menaced by sinister and secretive foes.  Once again they must enlist the aid and counsel of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams.  I just discovered recently that Lewis sometimes sponsored informal discussion groups in his rooms at Magdalen College, occasionally inviting both men and women to attend. I am very optimistic that Laura Hartman will be granted that privilege!

I also have in mind a rousing debate between C. S. Lewis and a acid-tongued atheist at a meeting of the Socratic Club. But as Treebeard might say, “There, there. Let us not be hasty . . .”

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Devin Brown is a Lilly Scholar and a Professor of English at Asbury University where he teaches a class on Lewis.  He is the author of Inside Narnia (2005), Inside Prince Caspian (2008), and Inside the Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010).

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David C. Downing is the R. W. Schlosser Professor of English at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. Downing has written four books on C. S. Lewis: Planets in Peril, The Most Reluctant Convert, Into the Wardrobe, and Into the Region of Awe. He serves as a consulting editor on Lewis for Christian Scholars Review, Christianity and Literature, and Seven: An Anglo-American Literary Review. Downing’s most recent book is Looking for the King, a historical quest novel in which Lewis, Tolkien, and Charles Williams figure prominently as characters. Visit Downing’s college website.

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