David Downing, an expert on C. S. Lewis, is the author of a new adventure novel involving the Inklings, those famous writers of more than children’s books, even! National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez talked to him about Looking for the King and the literary and cultural legacies of the Inklings.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Looking for the King reads as if it has been written by someone with a real fondness for the Inklings. Is that so?
DAVID DOWNING: Yes, I discovered C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams during my college years. Back then, I thought the world was divided into two groups: thinkers who were not believers and believers who were not thinkers. So it was a major intellectual and spiritual breakthrough for me to discover these three great-thinking believers and believing thinkers. LOPEZ
: What is your goal in Looking for the King
DOWNING: First and foremost, I just want to tell a good story.
Beyond that, I frequently speak at conferences on Tolkien and Lewis. Audiences often ask, “What were Tolkien and Lewis like in real life? Is it true they were best friends? What was this group they belonged to — the Inklings? Was it a religious movement or some sort of literary society? Wouldn’t you have loved to have been a ‘fly on the wall’ at an Inklings meeting?”
I have heard these questions so often that I decided I should try to answer them imaginatively, to take readers back in time to experience what it might be like to meet and get acquainted with the Inklings before they became famous.
Douglas Gresham, Lewis’s stepson, looked at one of the Lewis chapters in the novel and said it reads less like a work of fiction than an actual reminiscence by someone who shared a pub lunch with “Jack.” To me, that one remark repaid all my time and effort even before the book was published.
I also wanted to write a quest story that underscores the richness and beauty of the Christian worldview instead of undermining it. My protagonist, an ambitious but callow young American, discovers that his quest for a priceless, elusive relic is ultimately of less importance than his own spiritual journey.
LOPEZ: Who is your audience?
DOWNING: I think those who are most naturally drawn to the novel will be readers who already know and admire Lewis and Tolkien (and Williams) as thinkers and writers, but who want to know more about them as people. Of course, there are already helpful biographies of all three men. But a novel can portray them more vividly at a particular moment in time. It can distill their essence for readers without having to rehearse all the cradle-to-casket details of their lives.
I am hoping to reach a wider audience as well. The story of two young Americans trying to locate the Spear of Destiny somewhere in England, shadowed by mysterious and dangerous foes, makes for lively reading in itself, apart from getting to know the Inklings. So I am trying to interweave Inklings chapters with quest chapters.
Someone called this a cloak-and-dagger novel, but I see it as more of a “cloak and lager novel.” When my young adventurers are not on the road looking for the Spear, they do have several opportunities to sit down in a cozy pub with Tolkien or Lewis, to chat about stories and history, faith and fellowship — the things that separate mere living from a life well-lived.