Looking for the King - A Review

A classic tale of how not to amalgamate two books. The first a thriller set in 1940s England, visiting some of the key Authurian sites searching for a lost relic. The second… and no doubt the reason for the sub-title ‘An Inklings Novel’… introduces us to Lewis, Tolkien and Williams. I enjoyed the second book, although all the time I kept asking myself why it was part of the first.

The ‘Inklings’ passages are interesting, and the Williams’ lecture (described at length and drawing closely from Lewis description of Charles Williams’ famous Divinity School lecture, really captures the spirit of that ‘difficult’ writer (I write as a long-term member of the Charles Williams Society). BUT, in a novel?

As I started to read I really wanted to be impressed and enthralled by this book. David Downing is obviously a gifted scholar, especially in Inklings studies. But as another reviewer has put it, “If we wanted presentations of the Inklings, there are biographies and letters, and Warnie Lewis’ diary in which he very vividly describes his friends.” I know, several of Warnie’s books are in my personal ‘Inklings’ library.

Certainly ‘Looking for the King’ is a nice concept, and blends supposed historical fact with some nice geographical and cultural background into a story that draws the reader along. But the ‘Inklings’ passages seem somehow to intrude on the thrust of the plot. All in all, I think it was a good try, but it just fell too short of the mark for me, maybe another 100 pages would have allowed the author to really do his interesting concept justice.

There are some questions about the language that I have written about in my ‘first view’ below in this weblog, and the ‘villains’ turn out to be rather weak and hardly terrifying either.

One question that really bothered me: how did Tom and Laura manage to get the petrol coupons to travel just so far on a motorcycle and sidecar. In early 1940s England, immersed as it was in a draconian rationing regime, how did visiting Americans manage quite to travel quite so easily?

A final point. Any plot that turns on the dreams of the one of the protagonists has simply got to be risible. The dénouement was unsatisfactory and left me wishing Downing had found a way to play the plot line out into a farther reaching story with more at stake.

Did I enjoy it? The Williams passages, yes. The rest, well I have read worse.

‘Looking for the King’ is published in the United States by Ignatius Press, San Francisco.

'Looking for the King' - first thoughts

Ignatius Press is based in California, David C. Downing is an English professor in Pennsylvania, and the English used in ‘Looking for the King’ certainly betrays the book’s origins. To an English, Oxford University Alumni (i.e. me), the language used throughout the book is very much ‘American English’. We simply do not talk (or write) like that. Page after page was spoiled for me by language that simply will not do in the pages of a novel set in 1940 war-time England.

It is unlikely however that its intended American readership would not even notice the incongruities… but for an international market, the book needs rewriting.

Some examples? We do not ‘write’ people, we write to them... a ‘sedan’ would not be seen outside Blackwells, a car might... Blackwells is not a ‘bookstore’ it is a bookshop... we do not have a ‘clerk’ at a shop’s till, we have a shop assistant. I could go on and on and on. I laughed at the scene in the Eagle and Child where JRRT’s waistcoat is described as a 'vest', and again later where Tom tore his 'pants'. Without doubt Tollers, Charles and most particularly Jack Lewis, would have roared with laughter. Why? Vest and pants are shall we say, are more intimate parts of the male apparel outside North America.

As another reviewer has succinctly put it, but in a different context: "I wish someone had challenged the author to do at least one more rewrite on the manuscript, to improve everything. I have no problem with the plot outline, but the author doesn't deliver on it."

I hope that "Looking for the King" reaches a wide audience, not the least as its portrayal of Charles Williams (in particular) is excellent. But is that what the book is actually seeks to achieve?

But read Sheldon Vanauken’s “A Severe Mercy” – albeit not a novel – if you really want to be introduced to the ‘real’ C.S. Lewis, and be immersed in the Oxford of 60 years ago.

I'll seek to comment on the plot in my next posting...

Looking for the King

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.

Looking for the King
(David C Downing) Ignatius Press (2010)

(from the Amazon.com review)

In future postings I will post both extracts and my own review of the novel.

'What the Bird Said Early in the Year'

I heard in Addison’s Walk a bird sing clear:
This year the summer will come true. This year. This year.

Winds will not strip the blossom from the apple trees
This year nor want of rain destroy the peas.

This year time’s nature will no more defeat you.
Nor all the promised moments in their passing cheat you.

This time they will not lead you round and back
To Autumn, one year older, by the well worn track.

This year, this year, as all these flowers foretell,
We shall escape the circle and undo the spell.

Often deceived, yet open once again your heart,
Quick, quick, quick, quick! – the gates are drawn apart.

Did the ‘powers that be’ in Magdalen College at the time of the memorial stone, not know the original – and to many eyes – superior version of the poem? Seems very odd to this Oxford University Alumni, particularly the clumsy final line when line 10 of the original is so much more satisfying?

There has, of course, been much controversy over the years since the stone was unveiled, but no answers.

An Addison's controversy?

The monument described below by Rev. Dr. Michael Ward might make "What the Bird Said Early in the Year" Lewis's most famous poem. Mr. Ward did not mention the fact that this 12-line version of Lewis's 14-line poem was never published until after Lewis's death. Lewis titled his original poem "Chanson D'Aventure" and published it in The Oxford Magazine on 10 February 1938:

Chanson D'Adventure

I heard in Addison's Walk a bird sing clear
'This year the summer will come true. This year. This year.

'Winds will not strip the blossom from the apple trees
This year, nor want of rain destroy the peas.

'This year time's nature will no more defeat you,
Nor all the promised moments in their passing cheat you.

'This summer will not lead you round and back
To autumn, one year older, by the well-worn track.

'Often deceived, yet open once again your heart,
The gates of good adventure swing apart.

'This time, this time, as all these flowers foretell,
We shall escape the circle and undo the spell.'

I said, 'This might prove truer than a bird can know;
And yet your singing will not make it so.'

(Next post... the poem recorded on the monument)

Why is Addison's Walk so famous?

Just before 3 am on the Sunday morning of the 20th September, 1931 J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and another friend, Hugo Dyson, took a stroll along the Cherwell in the grounds of Magdalen College. All the previous evening the three of them had been discussing their lifelong fascination with myths. It was sad, Lewis declared, to think that classic tales of courage, beauty, sacrifice and virtue are all untrue and ultimately worthless.

Tolkien stopped his sceptical friend cold by forcefully arguing: No, they are not lies. Myths contain great spiritual truths.

This is how Lewis remembered it two days later in his letter to Arthur Greeves:

He (Dyson) stayed the night with me in College -I sleeping in in order to be able to talk far into the night as one cd… Tolkien came too, and did not leave till 3 in the morning: and after seeing him out by the little postern on Magdalen bridge Dyson and I found still more to say to one another, strolling up and down the cloister of New Building, so that we did not get to bed till 4, It was really a memorable talk. We began (in Addison's walk just after dinner) on metaphor and myth --interrupted by a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining. We all held our breath, the other two appreciating the ecstasy of such a thing almost as you would. We continued (in my room) on Christianity: a good long satisfying talk in which I learned a lot: then discussed the difference between love and friendship - then finally drifted back to poetry and books.

On Sunday he came out here for lunch and Maureen and Minto and I (and Tykes) all motored him (Dyson –taught English at Reading University) to Reading - a very delightful drive with some lovely villages, and the autumn colours are here now.

I am so glad you have really enjoyed a Morris again. I had the same feeling about it as you, in a way, with this proviso - that I don't think Morris was conscious of the meaning either here or in any of his works, except ‘Love is Enough’ where the flame actually breaks through the smoke so to speak. I feel more and more that Morris has taught me things he did not understand himself. These hauntingly beautiful lands which somehow never satisfy, - this passion to escape from death plus the certainty that life owes all its charm to mortality ~ these push you on to the real thing because they fill you with desire and yet prove absolutely clearly that in Morris's world that desire cannot be satisfied.

The Macdonald conception of death - or, to speak more correctly, St Paul's - is really the answer to Morris: but I don't think I should have understood it without going through Morris. He is an unwilling witness to the truth. He shows you just how far you can go without knowing God, and that is far enough to force you… to go further.

(Lewis’ letter to Greeves dated Sept 22nd 1931)

A note on Addison's Walk

Addison's Walk (originally called Water Walk) is a picturesque footpath around a small island in the River Cherwell in the grounds of Magdalen College, Oxford, England. There are good views of Magdalen Tower and Magdalen Bridge from along the walk.

The Walk is named after Joseph Addison (1672–1719), a Fellow of the College from 1698 to 1711, who enjoyed walking there and wrote articles in The Spectator about landscape gardening. The path most likely dates from the 16th century, although the name "Addison's Walk" has only been in use since the 19th century. Addison's Walk originally finished at Dover Pier, an old Civil War gun position on the River Cherwell. It was made into a circular walk in the 19th century.

The Lewis Stone

'Magdalen College Chapel was packed to overflowing for a special Evensong on May 13th 1998, prior to the unveiling of the Lewis stone in Addison's Walk. The Magdalen Choir sang as an introit 'Veni Sancte Spiritus', the opening music of Richard Attenborough's 'Shadowlands'. (The composer, George Fenton, happened, by a fortunate coincidence, to be present to hear it. He was at Magdalen to supervise the Choir's recording of some new music for his most recent soundtrack.) During the service, lessons were read by Lewis's godson, Laurence Harwood, and by Lady Freud, who was an evacuee at The Kilns during the war. The Dean of Divinity, the Revd. Dr. Michael Piret, in his prayers quoted from Lewis's works and gave thanks for Lewis's life. He also prayed for peace in Lewis's native Northern Ireland. (Dr Piret is a former President of the Oxford Lewis Society.) After the service was over, the congregation adjourned to Addison's Walk, which was looking especially beautiful in the evening sunlight, - though only a few weeks previously it had been completely under water in the April floods.

The commemorative tablet is a circle of Westmorland green slate about three feet in diameter, designed by stonemason Alec Peever, and erected a stone's throw from Lewis's rooms in the New Building. Michael Ward, the Centenary Secretary of the Oxford Lewis Society, welcomed everyone and spoke for a few minutes about the place Addison's Walk held in Lewis's life and about the poem, 'What the Bird Said Early in the Year', which has been inscribed on the tablet.

The President of Magdalen, Mr Anthony Smith, then unveiled the stone, and Walter Hooper, Lewis's biographer, recited the poem to the gathering. Among the eighty or so invited guests were former pupils of Lewis such as Francis Warner (now a don at St Peter's College, Oxford) and Martin Moynihan (editor of Lewis's Latin letters). A drinks reception in the President's Lodgings brought the evening's events to their conclusion.'

Michael Ward (Now best knwn as the author of 'Planet Narnia')