Toward the Gleam
Reviewed by Sarah Beach
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 48:6 (#347) in June 2011.]
A glance at the cover design for Toward the Gleam will hint to those familiar with the Inklings that the book is likely to have something to do with J.R.R. Tolkien. The top image is very similar to one of JRRT’s own drawings, and the corner designs and borders are also similar to the emblems and runes that Tolkien designed. Although none of the real personages in the book are directly identified, it is clear who they are intended to be, so I’m not going to bother with coy circumlocutions.
The premise of the book is basically, “What if JRRT’s legendarium was not a massive work of original fiction, but rather the vague fictionalization of actual documents of the remnants of an Atlantean culture from 30,000 years ago?” Doran is not the first to pull the “What if X were the real inspiration of the works of the Inklings?” But Doran’s approach seems weighed down with heavy issues.
In Doran’s book, “John”, recently home from the front of World War I, goes on a walking tour after recovering from trench fever. While taking shelter in a cave, he finds a strange metallic box, which contains a fabulous book in an unknown language. John sets himself to translate the book, and he grows fascinated by the revelations he finds behind the strange runes. He becomes obsessed with verifying scientific data as to whether this amazing culture he is reading of could possibly have existed in the pre-historic past.
I don’t mind a fiction that wants to explore this sort of “what if” — so long as the fictional Tolkien resembles in attitude and outlook the author whose works I love to read. The problem I found here in Doran’s book is that this John seems quite secularized. In Toward the Gleam, there are many debates about Progress (and Practicality) that will be familiar to those who have read C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man. Most who know anything of the Inklings will know on which side of the argument Tolkien resides. But this fictional John does not answer these arguments from his grounding in scripture or faith. Although he speculates on the arguments the Bad Guys present even as he resists them, there is actually very little indication of what grounds his resistance.
Doran keeps the reader at arm’s length by never flat-out identifying any of the “real” characters in the book. The prose is mostly solid, if a bit distant. But the distance from the characters is disengaging. The first half of the book includes long conversations that circle round a point without ever declaring it. Characters do things they would not actually do “realistically”, but then you later on find out that it is an authorial contrivance, because it was the only way the Main Character could learn certain details.
There are some very good passages in the book: when John goes to visit the fiancée of a soldier who died in the trenches, the writing is effective emotionally. Also, the “Battle of the Spiders” late in the book is wonderfully written and suspenseful. Doran is capable of quite good writing.
I’m left very ambivalent about this book. There is some good writing in it. But it keeps me at a distance from what should engage me the most. Because we are not really told it is Tolkien, we are cut off from an emotional engagement with the building of his legendarium, and the work that will become The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. The big conflict of the story is keeping detailed knowledge of the Atlantean culture from the Bad Guy, in this case the “knowledge” meaning things the Atlanteans actually knew, not the proof that they actually existed (the Bad Guy is certain of that). But we have very little idea of what piece of knowledge in this Book is so wonderful and extraordinary that it must be kept from the hands of this evil man. We are just told that it must be done so, but we have no sense of imperative about it. We don’t know what the stakes really are.
I reached the end of the book with a crucial question: why would John be willing to give up his life to protect this book, to keep it from an evil man? It would seem that Doran does have some reason for this, but for the reader it is a gleaming object seen at a distance, always out of reach, undefined and in the end never touched (and that is about the only sense I can make of the book’s title!).
The early part of the book moves slowly, circuitously. About halfway in, the plot picks up and starts moving more quickly. Some good drama shows up, but there’s a little bit of deus ex machine in the defeat of the Bad Guy.
I am left in a position of not being able to entirely dismiss this book. I imagine there will be some who are not bothered by what disturbed me, and will just read it as is and be satisfied. But I expected more, and I feel it was not an unreasonable expectation. So I cannot call this book a full success.