Looking for the King: An Inklings Novel
Looking for the King: An Inklings Novel. David C. Downing. Ignatius Press, 2010. 250 pp. $19.95 (hc). ISBN 978-1586175146.
Reviewed by Sarah Beach
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 48:1 (#342) in January 2011.]
I wanted to give this book every chance to engage and enchant me, because I felt the author was earnest in his desire to do justice to his inspirations. But by the time I finished it, I felt the title ought to have been Looking for the Story. On several levels it is “almost there.” As a writer who takes part in a couple of critique groups, I kept whishing the story had gone through a few more polishes. It isn’t that the book is bad, it is that it could and should have been much better. That said, I am sure that some readers will enjoy it as it is, in its mildly adequate form.
The premise of the story is that in 1940s England, a young man, an American academic (Tom), is researching Arthurian sites. He encounters another American, the young woman Laura, who has been having odd visionary dreams. The pair set off, vaguely searching for the locations of her visions. In the background, there are supposedly sinister figures, possibly trying to thwart the questing adventurers. And along the way, our Americans meet the Inklings.
It’s a very promising premise. But it is presented in such a disjointed and reserved fashion that it loses all the excitement of its premise.
My first question was “Why are the Inklings in this story?” Yes, they provide some key information to the Americans about the nature of Laura’s dreams and possible locations for the pair to visit. But there is nothing in those bits of information that would require it be the Inklings and not some other equally educated folk who might have provided the knowledge. Most of the passages with the Inklings felt to me as if they were present more because these conversations were ones the author wished he could have with the Inklings than because they actually advanced the plot.
My second question was “What is the quest here?” Tom is merely researching Arthurian sites. Laura wants explanations for her dreams. These two very mild motivations cross with references to the spear of Longinus, but even then our “heroes” are not actively seeking the spear itself for any reason. Their drives are very tame emotionally and are too easily satisfied. There is no sense of what a “failure” of their quest would entail. There seem to be no drastic consequences either way.
What is the threat? Our sinister figure is indirectly connected to the Nazis and Hitler’s quest for the Spear of Destiny and its guarantee of victory. But there is no sense of hazard or impending disaster about that possibility. It is mentioned but not really felt.
There is also a thread in the story about Tom’s status as a not-quite-believer. But again, it is not presented very effectively. There does not seem to be much manifestation of it in the story until the end. Perhaps the author intended that Tom’s obliviousness to actual sinister events would be indicative of his spiritual blindness, but it actually only makes Tom seem inordinately dense about the fact that they are being followed by flesh-and-blood hostiles.
It frustrates me as a reader and writer to encounter a book like this that ought to be better, and (with a bit more work) could have been better. As I said before, there are bound to be some who are content with it as is. But I think that the Inklings themselves would have pushed for more work on it, for more polishing that would bring the various elements into better focus.