Toward the Gleam
Reviewed by Douglas C. Kane
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 48:7 (#348) in July 2011.]
I was very interested to see Sarah Beach’s review of T.M. Doran’s Tolkien-related novel, Toward the Gleam, in the June issue of Mythprint, because I myself was just finishing reading the novel at the time that I read her review. In a strange coincidence, the same thing had happened when Sarah’s review of another Inklings novel, David Downing’s Looking for the King, appeared in the January issue of Mythprint. The difference is that her review of Downing’s book captured my own opinion of that book very closely. However, I had a distinctly different response to Doran’s book than she did.
Towards the Gleam is an unusual book in that I actually liked it a lot even though I did not find it especially well-written. It’s not surprising to me to learn that the author is a professor of engineering, not a professional author. The book has a very herky-jerky feel, jumping from place to place, with virtually non-existent transitions between the various scenes. But unlike Sarah, I thought it presented a very nuanced and compelling picture of Tolkien. And it is Tolkien; the “John Hill” that the book refers to is the alter-ego that he adapts in his quest to discover the source of the mysterious manuscript he has discovered (the author specifically states that this was inspired by the hero in the manuscript adopting the name “Underhill” when he left his home). At one point fairly early in the book a student representing an unidentified movement says to him (in the course of a discussion about a devotional picture which Tolkien makes clear he believes is more than just art), “You aren’t an easy man to label.” I think that is an apt description of both Tolkien and his art, both of which evade easy classification.
Sarah’s biggest complaint seems to be that he does not cite scripture in the course of the philosophical debates that form the core of the book. Nonetheless, it is quite clear to me what “side” he is on, and I found it refreshing to have that presented without scriptural citation — just as I find the religious connotations of Tolkien’s own work more compelling than Lewis’s, because they are presented in a much more subtle matter, without the heavy-handed allegory that weighs down much of Lewis’s work. I thought it was interesting that she dismisses the “deus ex machina in the defeat of the Bad Guy”; whereas I thought that that the denouement cleverly paralleled that of The Lord of the Rings, in which providence takes a hand in rescuing the situation from certain disaster. I also found it surprising that she did not understand why it was that “John” felt it so necessary to keep the information out of the hands of chief adversary of the book (the “Bad Guy” as she puts it, though Doran is never so unsubtle); whereas I thought it was crystal clear that the manuscript contained information that would allow this brilliant but morally bankrupt man to devise and wield an instrument of great power, the danger of which is self-evident (just as it is self-evident, for instance, why it would have been disastrous for Saruman to have obtained the Ring). In addition, I thought the subtle hints throughout the book connecting the lost manuscript to Tolkien’s legendarium that would only be obvious to someone very familiar with Tolkien’s work were a great touch. I found that to be much more effective than the very stilted devise that Downing used in Looking for the King of having the members of the Inklings that appear in that book speak with lines quoted from things that they themselves had written.
There are some biographical items in the book that are incorrect, although it is unclear whether that is due to willful obfuscation, or simple lack of knowledge. For instance, “E.M” (Edith), “Jack” (C.S. Lewis, of course) and “Owen” (Barfield) all address Tolkien as “John” even when he is not pretending to be John Hill, and as we all know, Tolkien’s intimates did not address him by that name, using instead his middle name Ronald (or the nickname Tollers, or his last name). Indeed, this Tolkien is much more willing to be addressed in a familiar way even by people that he has just met than the real-world Tolkien was. And he is reported as reading to the Inklings what is obviously the story of The Lord of the Rings — he reads “a part of the story where the Hero and his companions left their homes, pursued by a terrible menace and not knowing where their path would take them,” an obvious reference to Frodo and his companions being chased by the Black Riders — in 1931, considerably earlier than we know that he actually did so. But as this is not meant to be a biography, such details are not particularly bothersome, at least not to me.
One biographical area that he addresses in a surprisingly subtle way is Tolkien’s relationship with Edith (though I do agree with Sarah that it is odd and somewhat off-putting that Edith is referred to through out as “E.M.”). It is not unknown that there was some tension in Tolkien’s long marriage, although it is not something that biographers or scholars have focused on. Edith/E.M. is presented by Doran in a sympathetic and complimentary manner, but he also manages to effectively illuminate how Tolkien’s obsession with his legendarium (over and above his other professional duties), and his close friendships in the male-dominated world of Oxford in general and the Inklings in particular, caused tension in their relationship, without undermining the sense of their ultimate devotion to each other. I found the scene towards the end of the book of them together in their old age to be quite moving.
Most of all, I thought the book did a great job of addressing philosophical issues without using a sledgehammer (an often rare talent), in the context of an intriguing and fun mystery story, with plenty of colorful and interesting characters (including both well-known real people and fictional personages) throughout. Though flawed, I found it to be both enjoyable and thought-provoking in a positive way.