Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Two "Inklings" Novels: A Twosday Twofer

It was perhaps inevitable with the growing awareness of the Inklings in the early twenty-first century (due largely in part to the popular films made from the works of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis) that this circle of friends and writers would begin to appear in works of fiction themselves. An early effort I remember reading was Here, There Be Dragons (2006) by James A. Owen, published by Simon and Schuster. This was the first volume in his fantasy series The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica, which has since swollen to at least four other titles. These books take the facts of the names and simple existence of Tolkien, Lewis, and Charles Williams and use them as a springboard for meandering imaginary adventures, revealing very little knowledge or insight into the actual lives or personalities of the people thus utilized. Creative use of the Inklings "mythos" has entered a new stage, however, with the publication of two novels by Ignatius Press.
Looking For The King (2010) by David C. Downing, takes place in Great Britain early in World War Two, before the United States has joined the conflict. Two Americans (James McCord, a doctoral student researching Arthurian sites, and Laura Hartman, a young woman ostensibly visiting her aunt but actually investigating a series of disturbing recurring dreams) cross paths and join forces when it seems that their goals have become one: to recover a mystical item from Arthurian legend before hostile forces can sieze it and use its power for evil. Aided by the scholarly and spiritual insights of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams, the pair follow the clues, uncovering the neglected history and forgotten stories of "Logres," the other side of England. But greedy and powerful men haunt the quest, making it ever more urgent for James and Laura to unravel the riddle and find the sleeping king of Laura's dream.

Dr. Downing's novel is a "romance thriller," something in the same nature, in fact, of Charles Williams' novels, with hints of Lewis' own most Williamsian novel, That Hideous Strength: James and Laura are rather like Lewis' couple Mark and Jane Studdock, with the men being skeptical and the women intuitive. The reproduction of the Inklings' persons and opinions in this novel are accurate; indeed, they can be, if anything, too painstakingly reproduced, with their conversations sometimes reading (to a person familiar with the source materials) like a Favorite Quotations Page. Downing, a Professor of English, even goes so far as to have an appendix citing where and from which works he acquired them. But this does not greatly detract from the tale, which is exciting and full of physical (and metaphysical) menace: a quest that ultimately culminates in discovery, enlightenment, and love.
Toward The Gleam (2011) by T. M. Doran is a different type of story altogether. Instead of a re-creation of an actual milieu, it is rather like one of Lewis' "supposals": suppose that Tolkien's literary device of translating and publishing a lost work from an ancient world were literally real. Suppose that Tolkien adopted the pseudonym "John Hill" to investigate the legitimacy of this "Atlantean" tale. Suppose his investigations drew the attentions of Adler Alembert, an international Napoleon of Crime who believes the ancient but advanced knowledge of "Atlantis" will grant him incredible power. Can "John Hill" translate the unknown runes, keep Alembert and his agents at bay, protect his family, and come to terms with his obsession with his own "precious" object?

This book owes much to the detective mystery, but it is so much more. "John Hill" is confronted with the prevailing philosophies of nihilism and utilitarianism that grind away at the soul, often in the persons of Adler and his agents who seek to woo "John" (with his valuable knowledge) into their cause. It is the love of his wife "E.M.", his faith, and the help of his friends Jack and Owen (C. S. Lewis and Owen Barfield, "the forgotten Inkling"; being pre-WWII there is no Charles Williams yet) that keep him on track. There is also the example of the mysterious story he is translating, which seems to be a spiritual tonic and an aid against precisely the moral temptations he faces. This tale is referred to only in tantalizing allusions (some characters mentioned are the Hero, the Necromancer, the Burglar, the Grey Pilgrim), and part of the fun is identifying elements from Tolkien's work. Is the box the book is kept in made of mithril? Was a pteranodon recreated by the Necromancer with Jurassic-Park-like engineering? In the end "John Hill" experiences a strange saving grace that would not be unfamiliar to readers of Tolkien's published story.

I was hesitant for a while about reading these books, wondering (in light of past experience) whether they would be true to their origins. But I found them to be engaging entertainments, and indeed read both in three days. If I had to recommend you read only one, I would say try Toward The Gleam first; I deem it the more creative and exciting work. But I couldn't advise a better follow up than Looking For The King, if that left you hungry for more in the genre.

1 comment:

Theodric Ælfwinesson said...

You've got me really curious.