Catholic Novels: Looking for the King
Joseph Pearce describes it as a “superbly gripping novel”. This is blatant hyperbole from a fellow Ignatius Press author, but the rest of his cover blurb is more accurate: “Lewis and Tolkien come alive.” So too says Thomas Howard: “All Inklings lovers will be highly delighted!” And Peter J. Shakel: “Fans of Lewis and Tolkien will love it.” All of this is praise for David C. Downing’s new novel, Looking for the King.
But why all this talk of Lewis and Tolkien and their informal club of literary giants, the Inklings? It turns out that Downing has given us “An Inklings Novel”, a story in which the hero and heroine discuss their mid-twentieth century quest for the relics of kings Arthur and Alfred with C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and other Inklings, and so come away with a deeper understanding not only of history and myth, but of religion and life.
The action revolves around two Americans, Tom McCord, a doctoral candidate looking for evidence to prove King Arthur was a real historic figure, and Laura Hartman, a recent college graduate visiting England to figure out a series of strange, repetitive dreams. The dreams revolve around King Alfred (he of Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse) and the Lance of Longinus which pierced the side of Christ. Inevitably, the two team up (both archeologically and romantically) in a quest to unravel Laura’s dreams and Tom’s motives in attempting to build his academic reputation.
Almost immediately, Tom finds that there are mysterious adversaries who don’t want him searching for history-changing artifacts. Meanwhile, in the normal course of his studies, Tom consults C. S. Lewis, who arranges a meeting with the Inklings generally. So here we have a classic mystery involving history, myth, archeology and contemporary thugs; and a classic romance in the midst of adventure; and it is all interwoven with the wisdom of the giants of twentieth-century Anglo-Catholic literature: Lewis, Tolkien and Williams.
Given this mix, it takes no imagination to see how this book could have been a colossal flop. The key to such an effort is that the author must not take himself too seriously. The plot is frankly constructed of stock elements, from its storied artifacts to its German villains. Overplaying the plot would have resulted in a very bad Indiana Jones story. Moreover, the injection of a Christian point of view through the Inklings must not be self-conscious or forced. Any overplaying here would have produced a sermon with very poor subject matter. No, everything must unfold naturally, with just a touch of authorial self-deprecation, and without controlling or contriving the story to fit things in.
Fortunately, Downing is very capable of keeping things light. The reader is aware of the standard plot elements, just as he is aware of the author’s purpose in making the mystery “an Inklings novel”. But the bar is not set too high, the main characters are well-drawn and engaging, and the Inklings themselves are as quirky in print as they must have been in life. Throughout the course of the novel, they even speak, effortlessly and in context, using words they actually wrote. On the whole, this is a deft package which successfully avoids the one thing most calculated to ruin it: pretension.
I don’t want to make out Looking for the King to be more than it is. It is not great literature, but it doesn’t try to be. The book succeeds because it unfolds very comfortably within its own constraints, relying on attractive characters, English history, and the fondness of its intended Catholic readers for the Inklings to move things along in a warm and congenial way. Perhaps the biggest weakness is that the recurring dreams of the heroine are critical to the plot; here the author succumbs a bit to the contemporary temptation to inject fantastic elements into an otherwise real-world setting. But Downing does put a possible explanation for the dreams on the lips of Charles Williams and, after all, these are dreams. We’ve all had them, and explaining them however one wants does not require a novel-wrecking suspension of disbelief.
David Downing is an English professor who has written several award-winning books on C. S. Lewis, but he has kept this first novel blessedly free of academic clutter. At the same time, he has perhaps failed to make the dangers of the quest quite as intense as one might like. But here again the book is simply comfortable with itself. From the almost comic villainy of the German agent-turned-treasure-hunter to the subtle but significant transformation of the hero from agnosticism to faith, Downing lets his characters rule the story. The results are best described as natural, unaffected and endearing.
In the end, Looking for the King works. If the author has exposed some deficiencies of craftsmanship, I would like to suggest that he remedy them through practice. Let him write a sequel.
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Dec. 09, 2010 11:40 PM ET USA
Good series, Jeff. May I also add that one does not have to be a very good Catholic to write a Catholic novel? I think Graham Greene was a good writer who certainly taught a lot about sin from a Catholic perspective (recall "The Heart of the Matter" "The End of the Affair," or "A Burnt Out Case"). Nor could Evelyn Waugh be considered a charitable man, but some of his novels, in my opinion, were very Catholic (the "Sword of Honor" trilogy, Brideshead, of course).