Wednesday, June 11

Looking for the King: An Inklings Novel (2010)

By David C. Downing

I found this novel, also published by Ignatius Press, via Amazon's suggestions based on the fact that I'd read Toward the Gleam [LINK]. This is not Toward the Gleam. Although I found the description enticing – American graduate students in England in 1940, interacting with the Inklings, on a quest for an Arthurian relic – and was immediately hooked by the first chapter or so in the Kindle preview so that I immediately purchased it, I ended up being disappointed by it. There are elements of this novel I really liked. It opens at one of my favorite places in the world, the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey in southwestern England, the reputed resting place of King Arthur, and much of the story takes place at other significant medieval sites that I'm familiar with or are on my list of places I would like to get familiar with (two trips are not nearly enough!) As the narrative progressed it takes an unexpected turn in that the object of the quest becomes ultimately less King Arthur than one of my subjects of historical interest, King Athelstan (r. 924-939), probably the most important of the late Anglo-Saxon kings of England, a true “Christian King and Hero” [LINK] who may well have come into possession of one of the most powerful relics of the Crucifixion.  Frankly, for all his importance, Athelstan is largely forgotten in the memory of later ages, overshadowed by his grandfather Alfred the Great, and it is cool beyond words to find his legend at the heart of a modern novel.  Looking for the King is suffused with the early medieval England that I love, and seems well researched as evidenced by a good set of historical notes and a bibliography at the end. (The mistaken identification of the foes defeated by Otto of Saxony at the Battle of the Lechfeld in 955 as “Mongols” rather than Magyars I'm willing to dismiss as a literary slip of the tongue.)

Unfortunately it's not carried off very effectively. Looking for the King is billed as “An Inklings Novel,” but they are much less evident here than they were in Toward the Gleam – granted, that novel was a thinly veiled tale about one of the Inklings. Here they are an occasional presence, individually critical in moving parts of the story on (and from what I understand, their quirks and personalities, most notably C. S. Lewis, are maybe better conveyed here than in Toward the Gleam), but the focus is totally on the pair of American graduate students. Who I found pretty much uninteresting, bland characters. There purports to be a bit of a romance going on – more on the man's end than the woman's, who has “someone waiting” for her back in the States … until she gets a “Dear Jane” letter and is suddenly free to reciprocate his feelings. On the plus side (and maybe I have an overly romantic view of the mores of early-mid 20th-century male-female interaction), I did like the chaste depiction of their relationship. But there's really no chemistry between the two from beginning to end, and the romance is just not convincing. Moreover, the villain of the piece is obviously, transparently so from his first appearance. Finally, for a novel set against the background of early World War II in Britain – on the very eve of the Battle of Britain – there is beyond lip-service no real sense of the threat that looms. Perhaps that's realistic; after all, much of daily life does go on even during the darkening days of Britain's struggle for survival (Thanks be to God, I do not have first-hand experience of such dire straits) – but it did not feel right. Finally, although this novel published by a Catholic press does seem to sport a more overt religious theme than Toward the Gleam, in that the main male character does go from agnosticism to faith over the course of the tale, with some nudging by C. S. Lewis, even that ended up being superficial and not terribly convincing. It was certainly nothing like the war of ideas at the heart of Toward the Gleam, and was consequently less engaging – at least to me.

As to the plot … meh. It's basically a road show, bouncing from locale to locale here there and yonder across England – driven ultimately less by historical studies than by mysterious images that the woman experiences in dreams that she has had from childhood. Frankly, now a week or so after finishing reading it, I don't even remember if it was ever explained why this particular woman had those dreams. And I don't care enough to dig back into it to find out.

I'm probably not being entirely fair to this book, coming to it directly off Toward the Gleam, but that's how I experienced it, and in comparison it falls considerably short. Your mileage may vary. In all, however, I found it a rather bland historical … thriller? It wasn't very thrilling, really, maybe being of slightly more than passing interest to me because of its subject matter and setting.

Thanks for reading.

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