A Novel by T. M. Doran
I have a fondness for novels featuring historical characters experiencing fantastic but fictional adventures. By this I mean not “historical novels” retelling historical events in the form of a novel, where the author strives to adhere as closely as possible to events as they actually happened while necessarily supplying dialogue, minor incidents, and even peripheral characters as necessary to create a dramatic narrative out of the facts as we know them (examples abound, but springing first to mind are Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series), or even fundamentally fictional stories featuring a fictional character set firmly within a historical context and events, interacting with historical persons (e.g., Max Allan Collins' Nathan Heller Mysteries [LINK]). No, I mean something more akin to Paul Malmont's novels, The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril and The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown [LINK], the former placing the 1930s writers of hero pulps in their own hair-raisingly pulpish adventures complete with reanimated corpses and the Yellow Peril, the latter similarly focusing on the 1940s pioneers of science fiction in a fantastic war-time plot to recover a Death Ray defense against the Axis. In fact, as I write this I realize that those latter two novels exemplify what I really find compelling, imagining the writers of fantastic fiction plunged into the midst of their own fantastic adventures.
A couple of months ago, I read (and reviewed) No Dawn For Men: A Novel of Ian Fleming, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Nazi Germany [LINK]. My assessment of it was somewhat mixed, both because of a rather pedestrian writing style that did not successfully emulate that of either author and because it did not succeed in imparting a necessary suspension of disbelief that these could indeed be “the real story” behind the authors and the creation of the the literary monuments for which they are known. Neither of those criticisms apply to this book, however, which was recommended to me by our parish priest, with whom I share a love for all things Tolkien, around the same time I had heard of and already ordered No Dawn For Men. The intriguing prospect of a mash-up of Tolkien and Fleming in a spy adventure on the eve of World War II had me read that book first, inadvertently saving the better for later. If No Dawn For Men is a simple pot-boiler thriller, Toward the Gleam rises to the level of literature – while remaining an edge-of-your seat thriller. Which is no mean accomplishment given how much discourse and dialogue is contained in these pages, working in a great deal of the changing philosophy and world-view of the early twentieth century. That latter feature, as well as the characters and literary connections posited, make it obvious why Ignatius Press, a relatively small Catholic publishing house specializing in orthodox theology and philosophy as well as fiction picked up this book [LINK]. (As with many other of its books, Ignatius' page for this book [LINK] site hosts a reading guide [LINK] as well as a great embedded Youtube “book trailer” [LINK].)
Before I get to a more spoiler-filled discussion of some particular elements of this book that struck me as noteworthy, here's a general overview of the plot: A young English scholar, recuperating from injuries suffered on the front-lines of the World War I, discovers a mysterious box containing an ancient manuscript bound in red, written in an unknown language. His linguistics training allows him to laboriously decipher over a decade and a half or so the lost tales of a long-departed age – but his obsessive quest to understand the historical context whence came the book brings him to the attention of a great enemy who demands the knowledge contained within the book for himself, toward the end of world domination. Much of this tale is a tense cat-and-mouse game in which we experience along with the scholar the dread of an approaching doom that seems almost a force of nature, tempered with the support of a close fellowship of academic colleagues as well as a loving family and clear-headed, eminently practical and down-to-earth wife, climaxing in a one-on-one confrontation within the hallowed halls of Oxford University itself.
The rest of this review contains spoilers which, while not giving away the overall story itself beyond the brief summary above, may well ruin a lot of the reading experience; if you've not yet read the book for yourself, I would suggest you do so before going any further....
In virtually every review and mention of this book that I have seen, the implicit name of the protagonist is given as “John Hill” – along with the obvious identification of “John Hill” with J. R. R. Tolkien, with the conceit of this book being that the Red Book of Westmarch mentioned in the preface of The Lord of the Rings as being the source for Tolkien's tales of Middle-earth was real, but that there was a hitherto unknown story about its discovery and the dark events that ensued. For much of this book I accepted that I was reading about some weird alternate-universe version of Tolkien whose name was indeed John Hill, which puzzled me a bit when all kinds of other easily recognizable persons from Tolkien's circle as well as other contemporaries with whom we do not know him to have interacted but whose appearance in this story is not implausible appeared under only their first names or nicknames – or explicitly admitted aliases. Indeed, very early I intuited a rule of thumb that if a character was given a full name – Christian and surname – then they must be a fictional character … except for John Hill, which I thought was a bit of a cheat. The source of the surname is obvious to anyone familiar with The Lord of the Rings and Frodo Baggins' alias when first leaving the Shire to meet up with Gandalf at The Prancing Pony. But here Doran has masterfully pulled off a bit of narrative sleight-of-hand in that the omniscient third-person “narrator” never actually gives the main character that name except in contexts where he's already been introduced as such – usually by himself – and where the narrative can be said to be taking the viewpoint of another character in the scene. And the name “John Hill” is explicitly admitted as an alias inspired by “Mister Underhill” in the ancient book on page 343 in conversation with his academic colleagues. Well played, sir, well played!
Just to briefly run down the various real people populating this adventure, in general but not strict order of appearance, with a few impressions:
- John's family: wife E. M. (standing for Edith Mary [nee Bratt]) and children John, Michael, Christopher, and Priscilla [Tolkien] [LINK]. After the important role Edith played in the late adolescence and early adulthood of J. R. R. Tolkien, she seems to have receded into the background of what accounts of his life which I have read, which largely focus on his literary and academic careers, but here she is the major character after John himself. What was a great and enduring love (she was, of course, the Lúthien to his Beren as ultimately inscribed on their tombstone) that nonetheless had rough patches born of her non-academic bent and virtual jealousy of his close relationships in academia comes through very accurately here, only heightened by the peril John's secret ultimately brings them. Although rather early in the story, this is brought most heartrendingly close to home for me in the chapter entitled “August 3, 1927: London” with its portrayal of an absent-minded, obsessive academic facing an eminently practical, clear-headed wife and the emotional consequences of his obsession. Son Michael plays a critical role late in the story in a sort of coming-of-age scene that changes his father's perception of him from boy to man.
- G. K., also here called Gilbert, [Chesterton] [LINK]. Given my current “mini-obsession” with Gilbert Keith Chesterton this could not have come at a more serendipitous time, and although I am only a little ways into studying this great man his characterization here – the wit and paradox – seem spot on.
- Jack – which was really the nickname of C. S. Lewis [LINK], with reference made to his brother Warnie, as well as other Inklings (who are never called such here) meeting at the “Bird and Baby,” i.e., the Eagle and Child Pub (“Bird and Baby” was really what the Inklings called it) in Oxford [LINK]. The main other Inkling appearing here is Owen [Barfield] [LINK].
- Edith [Stein] [LINK], a rather poignant passage given her fate as a victim of the Holocaust less than a dozen years later than the time of this scene, 1931. Perhaps it was inadvertent, but I thought she was introduced in an especially clever manner – John is in Heidelberg, having consulted with a geologist in his quest to confirm or deny the plausibility of a civilization during the age he speculates the box and manuscript to have originated. Jostled by arguing passersby in an outdoor cafe, he spills a lady's coffee. He gallantly orders her another, learns her name is Edith – and orders himself a Stein of beer (p. 223).
- Drake – explicitly an alias for a man who is almost certainly Winston Churchill, during what are called his “Wilderness Years,” out of political favor [LINK] but still with plenty of well-connected friends and here posited acting as a sort of government agent-at-large attempting to avert a second world war which he foresees in the resurgence of Germany.
- Agatha [Christie] [LINK]. Having little to do with her role in this story, Agatha makes an insightful comment: “So often, one meets a writer or a musician or an artist whose work one admires, and the person turns out to be a disappointment” (p. 325) – I know from experience that to be true. (She is speaking specifically of E. M. as a semiprofessional artist – a side of Edith Tolkien that I did not know, but assume is accurate – and continues, “As for your wife, John, I esteem her work even more highly for having met her.” Incidentally, that I know can well be true as well – I've been both underwhelmed and intensely gratified upon meeting various artists and writers.)
… and I may be missing some.
The villains as well as other incidental characters, as far as I can tell, are fictional, but the diabolical mastermind who harasses and threatens John has some fascinating connections. His name is Adler Alembert, the current ruler of a shadowy international criminal empire created by his grandfather but which his own genius has raised to ever-greater heights. Given that his book opens in a monastery, I initially connected the name “Alembert” with the Count de Montalembert [LINK], 19th-century French writer of The Monks of the West. I don't think that's the connection that Doran was meaning, however – Alembert attributes his first name “Adler” to his father's admiration for an Austrian mathematician of that name, August Adler [LINK]. Interestingly, “Alembert” is also the name of a famous mathematician and polymath [LINK]. But the character here is, according to Drake in his initial meeting with John, the grandson of the man upon whom “Arthur” [Conan Doyle] based his fictional detective Sherlock Holmes' arch-enemy, the “Napoleon of Crime” Professor James Moriarty. Which immediately made me think of another, perhaps inadvertent, Holmesian connection, the fact that “Adler” is the surname of The Woman – the only character in the Sherlock Holmes canon to have outsmarted the Great Detective.
I focus on these things because considering just who the various characters are meant to portray was, for me, a significant part of the fun. There are other “Easter Eggs” as well – mostly enchanting, a couple merely contrived with no real significance that I can discover, e.g. the fact that a couple of characters flee Alembert's malevolence to a village named “Olorin.”
I am edified that Doran rationalises both by and in the context of this story the idea that a scholar would have kept such an important discovery as proof for the existence of a prehistoric civilization hitherto unknown, including the holy grail of Atlantis, to himself – and furthermore plundered that proof ultimately to his own gain by publishing parts of the Book under the guise of fiction. That always seems to me a weak element in these such stories. At first thought, in this case, why would John publish anything at all if the information contained in the Book might lead to such horrific consequences as seem implied? But here the idea is to throw John's opponents off the trail – by seeming to fulfill his stated reason for seeking such odd information about the past from a variety of sources; by, in a sense, fictionalising the tales so that other such information would also be considered merely figments of the imagination; by, in another sense, hiding the information “in plain sight” much as he hid the Book and its box for years in plain sight, secreted inside a larger, nondescript, wooden crate of his own making amongst the clutter of books, papers, and artifacts of his Oxford office. (I could easily hide such an item in my own office, which is currently, at the end of another semester, badly in need of excavation; similarly, I often hide gifts for my wife or son at home by the simple expedient of placing them on the cluttered shelves of my home office.) John's purpose would be enhanced by his admission to his colleagues at the Bird and Baby that his translation of a hitherto unknown language resulted in the addition of “quite a bit of his own material, even if it was suggested by the [original] work itself,” as Owen put it (p. 239) – or, as the third-person narrative puts it much earlier, “There were still many gaps in the text he had already decoded, and he found himself filling them in with his own informed and fruitful imagination” (p. 83). Such a fog would appear in the published product that the “dangerous” elements would be effectively hidden.
I was initially taken a bit aback at Doran's placing the putative historical context for Middle-earth – and Atlantis – much further back in time than I would for the former, and than Plato did for the latter. As for the latter, Plato specifies nine thousand years “ago” (from ca. 600 BC, the time of Solon); as for the former, accepting that Numenor (which the Elves of Middle-earth also called Atalantë, “The Downfallen”) as the source for the Atlantis legend I was perfectly fine with the era of The Lord of the Rings about three thousand years later, i.e., about 6500 BC. (Yes, I know it's really fiction, but let me have my fun; more seriously, I also believe the real source of the Atlantis legend is the downfall of the Minoan civilization about 1500 BC, i.e. on the order of nine hundred years before Plato's alleged source – but let me have my fun!) The rather broad and much more remote range suggested here – sometime between thirty and sixty thousand years ago – does, however, make a great deal of sense, giving much more time for such factors as the Ice Ages' glacial movements and geological changes to have literally ground down and obscured any archaeological evidence – the great, shining cities and monuments (Minas Tirith and the Argonath – other examples abound) – as well as the very geography, transforming Middle-earth into Europe. I'm not a prehistorian or geologist, but it seems much more reasonable for the map to have changed so radically from something approximating this:
or more likely this:
|Peter Bird's reconciliation of Middle-earth with Europe|
[LINK to Strange Maps blog]
(Note the tilt such that the Greenwich meridian is almost precisely
north-south in contrast to the map below.)
over the course of tens of thousands of years rather than thousands of years.
No book is perfect – there are of course little things that I caught that didn't ring true. It's my understanding that J. R. R. Tolkien was almost universally known as “Ronald” by family, friends, and colleagues – not “John” – but that would have been much more difficult to pull off in this novel. Ironically, when writing about J. R. R. Tolkien who was meticulously accurate in keeping chronology, the seasons, even the phases of the moon in his own writings, Doran seems to slip up in this area on at least one occasion: 1 May 1932 was a Sunday – so why would John have been in his Oxford office with work left over from the night before, and why would his children be in school? Saint Hugh's Charterhouse in Sussex, where the narrative begins and ends, has not been there “for centuries” (p. 461 ff.), since at least the Age of the Reformation, but rather only from 1873 [LINK]. That a ubiquitous box of chocolates could go unsampled in John's office literally for years, despite his offering it to just about every visitor (and taking it to the pub where his friends similarly decline it), just beggars belief while making its true nature obvious – but does succeed in heightening the suspense and imparts a sense of dread every time attention was called to it, unfortunately to the point I guessed what was going to happen in the end.
Those things being said, I found this book nonetheless wonderful. Seldom am I so distressed as I near the end of a book as I was with this one, realising that the tale has to come to its end. It left me eager for more – more Middle-earth; more J. R. R. Tolkien; more Inklings; more T. M. Doran … I will be seeking out more of his writing! My only (minor) problem with it is that in a book that should have, given its subject matter, been thoroughly early-mid 20th-century British, a number of clearly more modern and American turns of phrases and vocabulary stopped me cold upon encountering them – weight would have been given in “stones” rather than “pounds,” the side of the road is a “kerb” rather than a “curb,” and so forth. They're minor in the bigger scheme of things, but a bit annoying. Doran's more recent novel, Terrapin: A Mystery, appears to be set in his own neck of the woods, Michigan, and I anticipate the literary ambiance to be more appropriate to the subject and setting.
In seeking out other reviewers' assessments of Toward the Gleam, I was mildly surprised to see that praise is not universal, garnering mainly four out of five stars on Amazon.com, for instance. Were I inclined to give such a rating, it would be a full five stars. Dare I seem arrogant and suppose that this book is too smart for some readers? A common criticism is the amount of discourse and philosophising – which I found central to the heart of the story and enjoyed very much. Different strokes, I guess…. But to me the central conflict of the tale – as in The Lord of the Rings itself despite Tolkien's oft-noticed aversion to allegory – is in truth a war between ideologies. Despite its publication by a Catholic press, this book is not an overtly Christian novel, and yet every bit as much as is Middle-earth – on the surface a tale of a pre-Christian world – it is suffused with a Christian, Catholic, world-view. In the final confrontation between John and Alembert, once the latter has discovered and devoured the contents of the Book, the latter's characterization of events and characters, specifically the contending spiritual powers at the beginning of The Silmarillian, embodies a modern sceptic's interpretation of myths and miracles, devoid of the spiritual and supernatural, admitting only reason and materialism, scoffing at the very notions of Good and Evil beyond utility and self-interest. John, on the other hand, long-burdened as a latter-day Frodo Baggins with the weight of knowledge that could prove a terrible weapon in the hands of one such as Alembert, is determined to hold to the Good and endure virtually any sacrifice to thwart his foe. I finally developed a theory as to the meaning of the title, Toward the Gleam, as I finished the book. It stretches, and may be totally off from Doran's intent, but my feeling is this: “Gleam” can be likened to “glitter,” e.g. the poem in The Lord of the Rings, “All that is gold does not glitter . . . ,” Tolkien's variation of Shakespeare's “All that glisters is not gold . . . ”; Like the One Ring of purest gold, infused with the power of Sauron, the Book exerts a mystical draw on certain individuals, a point driven home by the last chapter, long after John's death. The attraction “toward the gleam” of power – of Evil – that not everyone can withstand.... [EDIT: There is now a short write-up by the author on the Ignatius Press website regarding the writing of this book, including a short enunciation of the title's meaning ... LINK]
I recommend this book to every fan of Tolkien and student of the Inklings.
Cheers! – and Thanks for reading!