Friday, February 7

No Dawn For Men: A Novel of Ian Fleming, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Nazi Germany (2013)

By James LePore and Carlos Davis

This book has a fascinating premise – two important writers of the 20th century meeting in October 1938 Germany under cover of a putative consultation between J. R. R. Tolkien and a prospective German publisher for his recent novel, The Hobbit, journalist Ian Fleming being there to document a meeting Tolkien would also make with an eminent medieval scholar. Of course, with the Shadow of Nazism about to descend across Europe, nothing is as it seems; Tolkien's meeting with his fellow academic has been arranged by British Intelligence – with Fleming as his MI-6 “minder” – to discover what historical secret the professor has uncovered to so embolden the Nazis. In the end, Fleming and Tolkien – with the help of a group of allies collected over the course of their adventure – thwart the unleashing of diabolical forces that would have otherwise assured Germany's quick victory in the imminent global conflagration. Moreover, having witnessed True Evil, Tolkien is wrenched from a state of depressed writer's block to a new determination to direct the clamored-for sequel to The Hobbit toward a similarly epic confrontation between Good and Evil.

J. R. R. Tolkien, perhaps in the 1930s
That transformation in Tolkien is, for me, the heart of this story, placed on the very eve of the climax:

The other five members of the fellowship, as Professor Tolkien had come to describe it to himself, were off on missions ….

What else but a fellowship? Tolkien said to himself. A fellowship whose oath had been sworn not with words, but with deeds ….

The English professor […] did not expect to survive the night, which was too bad. He had been feeling low of late for reasons he could not fathom, unable to write, at odds with his publisher, tired of lecturing to teenage boys who were passionate about all the wrong things, detached from life. Now all was clear, especially the confusion that had been dogging him about the novel he was writing. Good-evil, honor-desecration, base-noble – if he lived, he would write about these things, with no fear or reservation, no self-doubt. Not after what he had seen in the last two days” (pp. 226-7, emphasis in the original).

Ian Fleming,
perhaps in the 1930s-1940s
And yet, for all its promise, this book fell flat for me, on several levels. I wanted to like it more than I did. As it is, I enjoyed it well enough in the reading but ultimately came away from it disappointed that it's really without substance, a charge I have no idea how to substantiate. Part of it is a rather pedestrian writing style, made worse by innumerable typos and/or mis-usages of word. I didn't actually start noting these down until very late in the book when I came across a laughably consistent substitution of the word “alter” for “altar”! – at the very least, pp. 239-243, during which span we also get “waste” for “waist”.... About twenty pages on, the German city of “Magdeburg” becomes “Magdaburg.” – There are also instances of stray or misused punctuation here and there, which becomes maddening after a while if only from the sloppy, careless editing and production values to which it bears witness. Add to that a consistent mistake in the Latin prayer, “Vade retro Satana,” which is rendered throughout this book as Vedo retro Satana,” and you had this medievalist shaking his head.

Those are technical errors that could perhaps be forgiven and laid at the feet of an editor if the writing itself were better, but unfortunately it's typically not. I initially introduced the quotation above as “the heart of this story, [which] indeed (again, for me) gives birth to the best passage in an otherwise uneven book.” I think that judgment is based more on what is expressed than the way it is expressed. Overall, LePore and Davis undertake an almost impossible task if they are seeking to balance both great authors' – Tolkien's and Fleming's – styles, to capture their literary voices, and in my judgment do not come close. If I had to choose which they approach a bit less remotely, it would be Fleming's, which isn't surprising, given this story is meant to be a modern historical albeit semi-occult thriller rather than an epic fantasy set in a semi-mythological, quasi-medieval world. As I told my wife mid-reading, there's a lot more James Bond than there is Middle-earth in this book, including very un-Tolkienesque rough language and sex – on Fleming's part. Nor do the authors succeed in enabling the reader to suspend disbelief and imagine he is reading about the “real” J. R. R. Tolkien or Ian Fleming,* except in the first couple of scenes with Tolkien which did, at least to me, seem to ring true. They know and use the basic histories of the men – e.g., reference is made to Fleming's earlier abortive marriage to a Swiss woman (an incident providing a minor character point in Wednesday night's episode two of Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond on BBC America); Tolkien's rebuke to the German publisher's demand that he swear purity of “arisch” (Aryan) blood is made direct and personal rather than via a letter through his English publisher (indeed, some months earlier than “October 1938” [The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, nos. 29 and 30, dated 25 July 1938, including Humphrey's Carpenter's introductions to each; also (link)] – incidentally rendering a journey to Berlin in October unlikely, and in any case I find no evidence of such a trip in the limited resources I have at hand).

On a smaller scale than the transformation in Tolkien I highlight above, there are also other efforts to embed “inspiration” for his and Fleming's later writings in the events told here. There is a pretty explicitly described purported archetype for the torture scene in Casino Royale that is, to be fair, quite chilling. Members of the “fellowship” – Tolkien's use of that term obviously is meant to plant the seed for the first volume of The Lord of the Rings, although it is often overlooked that within that text he more often used the term “Company” than “Fellowship” to describe the group who set forth from Rivendell to bear the Ring to Mount Doom – include several “dwarves” of mysterious origin, and they are helped along their way at one point by a pair “elves” (although they are not called such), who give them temporary refuge in what reminds me very much of the Elvish city of Menegroth in The Silmarillion. I'm not certain if the Nazis are meant to be the prototypical Orcs, or (more likely, although maddeningly uncertain because it's never made clear exactly what the Nazis' end-game with Professor Schroeder and his Talisman is) perhaps Tolkien's, Fleming's, and Company's accomplishment is to pre-empt the creation of such demonic warriors in the service of the Reich. Of course, historically Tolkien had conceived of Dwarves, Elves, and Orcs long before 1938.

As is often the case, however, I don't consider my time spent reading this book wasted, for all its faults. Indeed, as usual, I came away from it having learned some interesting facts about both men and their lives and careers, and other matters, if only from the cursory research the book inevitably sent me off on, to confirm or disprove story points and details. One such "other matter" was the role that Metten Abbey in Bavaria played in the history of the Benedictine religious order that I am myself associated with as a lay-person (an “Oblate” [link]), specifically in the history of the Benedictine Medal [link] that I myself wear and that plays an important role in this story – even if LePore and Davis do mangle the Latin of the exorcism prayer that is represented by the letters encircling the cross on the back:
Front and Back
V R S N S M V – S M Q L I V B,” initials for “Vade retro Satana! Nunquam suade mihi vana! Sunt mala quae libas! Ipse venena bibas!” “Get back, Satan! Never tempt me with your vanities! What you offer me is evil! Drink the poison yourself!” (C S P B stand for “Crux Sancti Patri Benedicti” “The Cross of Holy Father Benedict”; C S S M L crossed with N D S M D represent “Crux Sacra sit mihi lux! Nunquam draco sit mihi dux!” “May the Holy Cross be my light! May the dragon never be my guide!”) [link][Wikipedia link].

Perhaps the ridiculously useless (except in clearing an unhistorical character from the tale of Fleming's life) and, as far as I could tell, absolutely unforeshadowed twist with which the book ends soured me so as I finished it; my enjoyment of the book had already been tarnished by its flaws long before that point, however. Trying to be objective, and recognizing all the faults I've enumerated, I sum up my recommendation much like this: Fans of both Tolkien and Fleming will probably enjoy it much as I have, while being frustrated by its faults; Fans of either but not the other, I'm not so sure about; Without the hook of the main characters, I'm not sure why someone would pick it up, and frankly I'm not sure they would miss much.

Thanks for reading!
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* NOTE: For superbly successful examples of such faux-historical adventures featuring mash-ups of famous writers of the early-mid 20th century, where the characters do ring true, I would point the reader toward Paul Malmont's The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril and The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown [link].

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