Looking For An Inklings Adventure | An Interview with Dr. David C. Downing, author of Looking For The King: An Inklings Novel | Ignatius Insight | November 9, 2010
Ignatius Insight: How and when were you first introduced to writings and thought of C.S. Lewis and the Inklings? What did you find most interesting and attractive about their work?
Dr. Downing: I first read both Lewis and Tolkien during my college years. Someone recommended the Narnia Chronicles to me in high school, but I thought I was far too sophisticated and mature at the age of eighteen to be reading "kid stuff"! When I finally dipped into The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe one summer, I was so enthralled I read all seven Chronicles in a month. Then I sat down and re-read all seven of them again the next month.
Reading The Lord of the Rings was all the fad when I was in high school, but, contrarian that I am, I resisted reading this fantasty epic simply because everyone else was doing so! But I started reading one evening in college, when I had classes the next day, forgetting all my homework because I couldn't put it down. I recall that it was about 2:00 in the morning when Gandalf was pulled into the abyss by the Balrog. I almost had an anxiety attack, thinking, "Now we'll never get out of the mines of Moria without Gandalf to lead us!" Later in the story, when Gandalf reappears, I had a sense of relief and elation that seemed some small tincture of the joy of that first Easter morning.
I'm sure that part of my attraction to both Lewis and Tolkien is simply that both are master story-tellers. But there is also a power of Goodness in their work. As an English major in college, I spent much of my time reading contemporary novelists who are experts at portraying troubled people--selfish, neurotic. brutish, and downright evil. But very few twentieth century novelists besides Lewis and Tolkien (and Chesterton) have the power to show us what good people look like--characters with integrity, compassion, courage, and a willingness to sacrifice for others. I'm sure this ability to portray good characters convincingly is derived from their Christian world-view, a sense that ultimately, it is not evil or chaos, but Goodness that reigns in the universe.
Ignatius Insight: Prior to your novel, what scholarly and non-fiction books did you write about Lewis and Company?
Dr. Downing: I've written four books on C. S. Lewis and about a dozen articles on Lewis and Tolkien. My Lewis books are:
Planets in Peril: A Critical Study of C. S. Lewis's Ransom Trilogy (University of Massachusetts Press, 1992)
The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis's Journey to Faith (InterVarsity, 2002)
Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C. S. Lewis (InterVarsity, 2005)
Into the Wardrobe: C. S. Lewis and the Narnia Chronicles (Jossey-Bass, 2005)
Ignatius Insight: What was the inspiration or genesis for your novel, Looking for the King?
Dr. Downing: My wife and I visited Somerset and Cornwall in 2005, and we were fascinated by all the Arthurian sites, the stories that Joseph of Arimathea came to England, perhaps bringing with him the Holy Grail and the Spear of Longinus. Around Glastonbury, one meets people who talk about "Old Joe" or "Big Joe" as if they just spoken with Joseph of Arimathea in a pub last week!
The following year I read Matthew Pearl's literary detective novel, The Dante Club, in which a circle of American poets and scholars (Longfellow, Holmes, and Lowell) help the local police solve a series of Dante-esque murders occurring in 19th century Boston. I enjoyed the unusual combination of suspense and literary biography, and I thought the Inklings would make an even livelier group to help some young adventurers on their quest.
Ignatius Insight: How much did you draw upon research for previous books, and how much of your research was specifically for the novel?
Dr. Downing: I was already well acquainted with the biographies, letters, and primary works of Lewis, Tolkien, and Williams. But when you are writing a novel, you have to go back and look at all your sources in new way. I had always focused on the Inklings' stories and their shared ideas. But writing an imaginative work raises a whole new set of questions: "What would Lewis wear on an afternoon hike?"; "What did Tolkien's study at home actually look like?" "Did Charles Williams have a distinctive lecturing style?" So I had to go back and re-read all my source materials in a new way. It was truly a delight and an adventure to research the Inklings as actual people, not just as creators of stories!
Ignatius Insight: What were some of the literary challenges involved in incorporating actual quotes and material from the Inklings into a work of fiction?
Dr. Downing: The main challenge is converting the written word into what sounds like plausible conversation. Lewis's friend Owen Barfield said that Lewis's letters were remarkably similar in tone and cadence to his actual conversation. So he was the easiest one to "translate" into dialog.
Actually, that challenge was also one of the delights of this project. Lewis and Tolkien both wrote fascinating letters. But many readers might be daunted by Tolkien's inch-thick volume of letters or the more than 3000 pages of letters by Lewis that have been preserved. So I felt like a prospector, collecting precious nuggets of humor and insight from Lewis's and Tolkien's letters and reshaping them as thoughtful and witty dialog in the novel.
Ignatius Insight: There have been a number of best-selling novels in recent years which feature searches for ancient relics and revisionist takes on Church history, usually with a clear bias against orthodox Christianity. Was Looking for the King meant in some way to be an antidote to those novels?
Dr. Downing: I had resisted reading Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, because I knew of its misguided and blasphemous thesis. But people kept telling me that he had really "done his homework" and that he was "a fine writer," so I picked it up a few years ago, expecting something of at least the quality of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. But after reading only a dozen chapters, I was appalled both by Brown's shoddy scholarship and by his clumsy prose style. (For all the millions he has made, I wish Brown would invest in desk dictionary so he can at least look up the correct meanings of words!) As you know, there are entire books on all the historical and theological errors in The Da Vinci Code, not to mention a very long entry in Wikipedia on the subject.
In my novel, I did include a few brief examples of common misconceptions about the Holy Grail that were picked up in Brown's books. Like the works of Lewis, Tolkien, and Williams, Looking For The King is built upon assumptions that are Christian, not anti-Christian. But my main purpose is not polemics, but rather just to tell a good story!
Ignatius Insight: Any plans for another Inklings novel?
Dr. Downing: Yes, I did leave room for a sequel. If you look at the end of Looking For The King, you will notice that Tom McCord thinks he might be returning to England in uniform. And Laura Hartman wishes she could enroll in one of the women's colleges at Oxford. So, yes, Tom and Laura might be reunited in a sequel, facing new dangers and again needing to call upon Lewis, Tolkien, and Williams for assistance!
I just discovered recently that female students were sometimes allowed to attend Thursday evening Inklings meetings to hear Tolkien read his unfolding Lord of the Rings epic. I am very optimistic that Laura may be granted that privilege!
Visit www.LookingForTheKing.com for more information about the novel!
Looking For The King: An Inklings Novel
By Dr. David C. Downing
Looking For The King (Downloadable Audio) -- Downloadable Audio File
Looking For The King (E-Book) -- Electronic Book Download
It is 1940, and American Tom McCord, a 23-year-old aspiring doctoral candidate, is in England researching the historical evidence for the legendary King Arthur. There he meets perky and intuitive Laura Hartman, a fellow American staying with her aunt in Oxford, and the two of them team up for an even more ambitious and dangerous quest. Aided by the Inklings-that illustrious circle of scholars and writers made famous by its two most prolific members, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien-Tom and Laura begin to suspect that the fabled Spear of Destiny, the lance that pierced the side of Christ on the cross, is hidden somewhere in England.
Tom discovers that Laura has been having mysterious dreams, which seem to be related to the subject of his research, and, though doubtful of her visions, he hires her as an assistant. Heeding the insights and advice of the Inklings, while becoming aware of being shadowed by powerful and secretive foes who would claim the spear as their own, Tom and Laura end up on a thrilling treasure hunt that crisscrosses the English countryside and leads beyond a search for the elusive relics of Camelot into the depths of the human heart and soul.
Weaving his fast-paced narrative with actual quotes from the works of the Inklings, author David Downing offers a vivid portrait of Oxford and draws a welcome glimpse into the personalities and ideas of Lewis and Tolkien, while never losing sight of his action-packed adventure story and its two very appealing main characters.
"This superbly gripping novel about dreams coming true is itself a dream come true. Lewis and Tolkien come alive as real-life characters, playing their sagacious parts to realistic perfection as the protagonists follow their Arthurian quest pursued by deadly enemies. For lovers of Arthurian romance and for admirers of Tolkien and Lewis, this is indeed a dream come true!" -- Joseph Pearce, Author, Tolkien: Man and Myth
"The subtitle of this book is 'An Inklings Novel. That claim might seem presumptuous at first. But lo--it is an Inklings novel. My own guess is that Lewis, Tolkien, and Williams would all be mightily pleased with it. All three of them, as it happens, figure as characters in the story, which is Arthurian, but set in the contemporary world--very much in the vein of That Hideous Strength and War in Heaven. The Inklings themselves are flawlessly depicted, as are the two protagonists, a very appealing young man and woman. All Inklings lovers will be highly delighted." -- Thomas Howard, Author, Narnia and Beyond
"A highly engaging historical mystery adventure that brings C. S. Lewis and his friends and ideas to life. Fans of Lewis and Tolkien will love it. I couldn't put it down!" -- Peter J. Schakel, Author, The Way into Narnia and Imagination and the Arts in C. S. Lewis
"Steeped in Arthurian lore, the mystery of the grail legends, and World War II intrigue, this engaging tale of a young man's search for a hidden relic ultimately uncovers treasure of a far different kind. David Downing's homage to C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams succeeds masterfully in bringing these historical figures to life in the midst of an unfolding spiritual thriller. This is a beguiling and enjoyable read--laced throughout with romance, wry humor and questions of eternal consequence." -- Marjorie Lamp Mead, Associate Director, The Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College
Related Ignatius Insight Articles:
C.S. Lewiss Case for Christianity | An Interview with Richard Purtill
The Presence of Christ in The Lord of the Rings Peter J. Kreeft
An Hour and a Lifetime with C.S. Lewis | An Interview with Thomas Howard
The Relevance and Challenge of C. S. Lewis | Mark Brumley
The Thought and Work of C. S. Lewis | Carl E. Olson
Paganism and the Conversion of C.S. Lewis | Clotilde Morhan
Evangelizing With Love, Beauty and Reason | An Interview with Joseph Pearce
C.S. Lewis and the Inklings | Various Articles and Columns
The Powers of Fantastic Fiction | An Interview with Tim Powers
Catholics & Science Fiction | An Interview with Sandra Miesel
Fairy Tales Retold | An Interview with Regina Doman
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