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.
LOPEZ: When did you get the idea that C. S. Lewis and his friends could help two Americans on their quest?
DOWNING: In 2005, my wife and I visited “King Arthur Country,” Somerset and Cornwall. We were fascinated by all the local tales that Joseph of Arimathea had traveled to England, bringing with him the Holy Grail and the Spear of Longinus. Around Glastonbury, we met people who talked 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 in 19th-century Boston. I enjoyed the unusual combination of mystery and literary biography. But I thought the Inklings would make an even more fascinating group to lend their knowledge and wisdom to two young seekers after a fabled relic.
LOPEZ: Why is the story Christ-centered in the way that it is — looking for the lance that pierced his side?
DOWNING: The spear of Longinus (the traditional name given to the soldier who thrust his lance into Christ’s side) is only one of many ancient artifacts associated with the Crucifixion. But it has a special aura about it because of its alleged powers. It is said that the Emperor Constantine claimed to have the spear, given to him by his mother Helena after her famous pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Legend has it that Constantine boasted he would never lose a battle so long as he possessed the spear. After that, all the conquerors seemed to lay claim to it.
Charlemagne said he had the spear, adding that it always brought him victory and even allowed him to read the thoughts of his enemies. As the fabled lance came to be known as the Spear of Destiny, it is said that both Napoleon and Hitler tried to lay their hands on it — though accounts differ widely about the veracity of these claims.
But if the Spear is seen as a talisman of power, that would make it almost the opposite of “Christ-centered.” Christ emptied himself of power on the cross, refusing to call down legions of angels to come to his aid. As Tolkien suggests in his Lord of the Rings epic, perhaps the truly Christ-like act is not to seek out such power, but to renounce it. That is a question I try to explore in Looking for the King.
LOPEZ: You have actual quotes from Lewis, Tolkien, and Williams throughout the novel. Is the book intended to be educational?
DOWNING: In writing the novel, I felt less like an educator than like a prospector. I dug deeply into the biographies and letters, the Inklings’ own books and the reminiscences of others, collecting many gems and bringing them to light.
Most readers may feel daunted by the inch-thick volume of Tolkien’s letters or by Lewis’s collected letters, which run to more than 3,000 pages. But I found so many sparkling jewels there, items to reshape into memorable lines of dialogue. For instance, when someone wrote to Lewis about moving to California for the climate, he replied that he wouldn’t think about moving somewhere for the climate — unless he were a vegetable. That’s a classic quip. But most readers would never discover it unless they slogged through thousands of pages of the Collected Letters until they came to Volume 3, page 405. For me half the fun of writing the novel was delving deeply into primary documents, looking for “collectibles” that I could recast as dialogue in the novel.
LOPEZ: Why isn’t Williams as well known as Lewis and Tolkien?
DOWNING: In a word: obscurity. Williams had an absolutely brilliant mind, and he dazzled other literary luminaries as diverse as T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Dorothy L. Sayers, not to mention his biggest fan of all, C. S. Lewis. But Williams had an agile, quicksilver genius, the kind that is best expressed in conversation, not in books. Williams composed in just about every genre — poetry, plays, novels, histories, biographies, and books of popular theology and church history. But he wrote rapidly, often publishing books to help pay the bills. Ultimately, his books are often more notable for their fecundity of ideas than their clarity of expression.
LOPEZ: Do you admire any of the three more than the others? As a writer? As a man?
DOWNING: I’m afraid that is like asking parents which is their favorite child!
I will say that what I admire most about Tolkien is his epic imagination and his exacting literary craft. I am impressed as well by his equal devotion to work and to family, as he was very much involved in raising his three sons and daughter.
What I admire about Lewis is his versatility — not just his classic Narnia stories, but also his renowned literary scholarship, his Christian apologetics, science fiction, and even poetry. Yet in Lewis all these diverse literary interests and talents are united in service to his Christian faith and values. Lewis also lived out his faith in practical terms, giving away two-thirds of his book royalties to charity.
For Williams, I am impressed by his intellectual energy and earnestness, his ability to combine intellect with spirit, so much so that some of his friends considered him to be almost a living saint.
Lewis said that Williams looked something like a monkey when you first met him; but when he began speaking, his face radiated so much joy and love, you felt as if you were listening to an angel.
LOPEZ: You have already published four books and dozens of articles about C. S. Lewis. Did you learn anything new in researching and composing this novel?
DOWNING: In my past work on Lewis and Tolkien, I usually focused on them as thinkers and writers, not simply as people. It was fascinating to reread all the primary materials looking for personal details. Who knew that Tolkien had been an expert horseman in his youth, breaking untamed mounts that no one else was willing to ride? (No wonder he portrays the Riders of Rohan so affectionately and persuasively!) And who remembers Lewis’s witty observations, such as that viewing the countryside from a speeding train is like reading the first page of a hundred books one after the other? Doing research for the novel helped me get reacquainted all over again with people whom I already thought I knew.
LOPEZ: Where do you get your humor from?
DOWNING: The Human Genome Project has not yet identified a particular humor gene. When they do, I will make an appointment to see if I can get mine fixed.
I grew up with four brothers and two sisters, all of whom have nimble tongues — what we used to call a “lightning lip.” Sometimes the raucous banter around the dinner table was our youthful version of Inklings conviviality — though with milk and Oreos, not beer and tobacco.
LOPEZ: How important is wit in a novel?
DOWNING: I suppose that depends on the novel. I stand in awe of The Brothers Karamazov, but I don’t recall too many chuckles while reading it. I tried to vary the moods in my novel, to balance out some more somber conversations about faith and doubt, hope and suffering, with lighter scenes of people just enjoying each other’s company.
LOPEZ: Looking for the King was published by a Catholic publisher, Ignatius Press. Do you consider it a Catholic novel?
DOWNING: The Inklings, a literary circle of over a dozen men, was about equally divided between Catholics and Anglicans, and they tended to stress the convictions that they shared, not their points of disagreement. There were some tensions occasionally, but I think these have often been overstated by those eager to find dissension among fellow Christians.
I would like to follow Lewis’s lead and consider this a “mere Christian” novel, not one that belongs on one side of the Reformation or the other. I do think that Charles Williams’s meditation on co-inherence, on the mystical meaning of the Eucharist, offers as high a view of that sacrament as one can find in any congregation of believers.
LOPEZ: Could Narnia’s Aslan be Mohammed, as Liam Neeson recently suggested?
DOWNING: Neeson is a fine actor, but he is not a theologian or a Lewis scholar.
Of course, Mohammed said he was a prophet of Allah; he did not claim to be divine himself. So the analogy doesn’t really work.
I suppose what was meant is that Aslan could represent the God of any religion. That is high-minded and well-intentioned, but it doesn’t do justice to the Chronicles. You can pick up just about any guide to the Narnia books to discover how deeply rooted they are in Lewis’s Christian faith. In my book Into the Wardrobe, I argue that the Chronicles constitute Lewis’s Summa Theologica, the fullest and most comprehensive expression of his Christian worldview.
I wouldn’t presume to give Mr. Neeson any tips about acting. And I think he would do well to avoid any politically correct but puzzling remarks about the spiritual foundations of the Chronicles.
LOPEZ: Have you ever been a part of an Inklings-like literary discussion group?
DOWNING: I have been blessed down the years with many friends and colleagues with whom I can exchange ideas and writing projects. But I would have to say my enduring “literary circle” has actually been a triangle: my wife Crystal, my twin brother Don, and me.
My wife currently belongs to a very lively group of female scholars and writers who meet regularly to discuss each other’s ongoing projects. Their name? The Pinklings.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is an editor-at-large of National Review Online.