or, what Tolkien was doing when you weren’t paying attention.
I’ve been keeping an annotated bibliography of the Inklings in fiction, that is, their appearances as characters in stories by other writers. Many of these novels and stories I’ve read. For some of those I had not, the descriptions were sketchy and uninformed. I decided to correct this and read three of those I could easily get. I put succinct summaries in my annotations, but now I’m going to describe them in more detail here. I read these so you don’t have to, though one I’d recommend anyway. Call that one the good; the others are the bad and the ugly. Let’s start with those and end with the palate-cleanser.
The bad: Toward the Gleam by T.M. Doran (Ignatius Press, 2011). A long (467-page) “secret history” thriller novel from a Catholic press, it makes exciting reading despite its wordiness, but as a novel about Tolkien it’s a load of old bosh.
A man named only as John (his surname, Hill, is a pseudonym he uses to hide what he’s doing), but whose biography and circumstances are transparently Tolkien’s, is recuperating from his WW1 battle experiences by taking a hike through northern England when he takes refuge from a storm in a cave and finds a mysterious box. It’s made of an unknown metal (mithril?) and contains a book in an unknown script and tongue. John devotes the next dozen years to deciphering and translating it.
From the vague descriptions given in the story – vagueness is Doran’s modus operandi – the story in the book contains the entire legendarium, but almost all the references to its content allude to The Lord of the Rings, although its centerpiece is the fall of an Atlantis-like land, which could be either Beleriand or Númenor for all it says.
In an effort to deduce whether his book is historically accurate, John consults a number of professors of paleo-history and allied subjects to ask them questions that even then he probably could have gotten answered by a good encyclopedia. On advice, John disguises his name and profession, and does not tell them what he has, but describes himself as a fiction author in search of artistic verisimilitude.
Unfortunately, one of these professors turns out to be a cross between Saruman and Professor Moriarty. He figures out John’s identity and that John has some genuine artifact, and he wants it to help him take over the world, heh heh. Once John refuses to come clean, the narrative rapidly devolves into a spy game between John and the evil professor, and touch with Tolkien’s creativity is pretty much lost. Much of the story takes place in tense meetings in John’s office. Yes, John, though an Oxford professor, has an office. In a corridor with other offices, in an office building with a basement.
Still, John does have the wife and children that Tolkien had (though he and his wife reminisce about their courtship in London, not Birmingham), and he has two friends named Jack and Owen whom he meets in the Bird and Baby. This part all takes place in 1931-32, rather early for Inklings pub meetings and unlikely for Barfield, who was working in London. Each chapter is given an exact date, one of them the day before the “Mythopoeia” conversation with Lewis and Dyson; but no allusion is made to this. The only touch to Tolkien’s biography in this part is when John rids his office of poisonous spiders that the villain had planted there, doing so with the help of his son Michael.
In the course of this spy game, John receives cameo visits and advice from people never openly identified, but transparently recognizable as G.K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie, and Winston Churchill. The monstrously powerful evil prof is finally defeated in a ridiculously deflating anti-climax. In a prefatory epilogue set 40 years later, the aged John secretly deposits his box and its contents in a monastery.
The ugly: Inklings by Melanie M. Jeschke (Harvest House, 2004). A Christian romance novel featuring Lewis fans in Oxford in the mid-1960s, just after Lewis’s death, possibly to avoid having to depict him onstage, as whenever a character who knew Lewis is asked to describe him, what comes out are little canned lectures obviously based on Lewis biographies.
The male lead is a young, handsome university English tutor named David, a former pupil of Lewis’s. He’s recently “converted” (more accurately, in American terms, “born again”) as a result of attending Lewis’s funeral, but what he’s really converted to is not Christianity but sanctimoniousness. Most Christians I know understand the difference; I’m not sure if Jeschke does. The female lead is Kate, his attractive American tutorial pupil whose personality characteristic is to gush adolescently at being in the places and among the people who knew C.S. Lewis. David keeps assuring Kate she’s intelligent; he needs to, because she shows little evidence of it on the page.
The two rapidly fall in love. However, showing a patience greater than the reader’s, David is so simon-pure that he refuses even to kiss Kate until marriage. Why? Because he’s a man, with male hormones, and he’s so besotted with her that one step and he won’t be able to help himself.
The novel’s low point comes when David sanctimoniously demands that Kate stop wearing such short skirts to tutorials, again because he’s a man and can’t help himself. At this point I hoped that Kate would show up to her next tutorial wearing a burqa, because that’s the logical end point of his argument. No luck, though.
Where does Tolkien come in? Our heroes are running an Inklings discussion group that meets in the B&B, and Tolkien comes as an invited guest to one meeting to read from the Silmarillion and answer questions about his work. As if. It’s the brief appearance of a holy icon. In the sequel, Expectations, another courting couple visit Prof. and Mrs. Tolkien at home for tea. It’s excruciating.
There’s little about Tolkien, or even Lewis, in the second half of Inklings. To keep the plot rolling, both lovers have to fight off non-Christian, and hence untrustworthy and malevolent, alternative suitors. Jeschke’s prose is competent. That’s about the only favorable remark I can think of about this book.
The good: Where the Shadows Lie by Michael Ridpath (Corvus [UK]/Minotaur [US], 2010). Police procedural murder mystery novel, contemporary setting, Icelandic locale. Tolkien is not an onstage character, but he’s vital to the background. Without getting into the contemporary murder mystery plot, the background goes like this:
There is a lost Icelandic saga called Gaukur’s Saga. (So much is actually true: it’s referred to in one of the manuscript saga collections, but there is no text.) In the novel, it’s been kept a secret for centuries in the family that it was originally about, largely because it features a valuable ring that seems to bring misfortune and dissension to any who possess it, and which (if the story is true) is still hidden somewhere out in the volcanic wastelands of Iceland.
In the 1920s, a scion of this family studied English at Leeds under Tolkien and told him about the saga. Now the man is long dead, but his grandchildren have a stash of letters to him from Tolkien, including one from 1938 thanking his former student for lending him a copy of the saga, which he’s returning under separate cover, and asking permission to borrow plot elements from it for a novel he’s writing …
The victim whose murder kicks off the story had been translating the saga at the behest of its current owner, and at one point the detectives read the saga. A lengthy summary is given in the text. I thought it a fine pastiche of Icelandic family saga plot style, laced with elements that could easily be borrowed and transmuted into The Lord of the Rings (including a couple of character names, Gandalf and Isildur – the latter of which is, the novel says, a genuine albeit rare Icelandic personal name).
It’s cleverly done, as the saga is depicted as an obvious source but – unlike in the Doran – demonstrated rather than just declared and leaving plenty of room for Tolkien’s own imagination. Neither Gandalf nor Isildur, for instance, quite match up with what Tolkien did with the people to whom he gave those names.
Tolkien fandom comes into the story when the detectives find e-mails from people using Tolkien character names. The detectives track the fans down via an online Tolkien forum where they’d been arguing over whether Tolkien took the idea of the Ring from Wagner or from common Norse and Germanic sources. That struck home for me as I’ve been involved in that very argument myself. The one who, as we find, had learned about the saga from the translator is very sure of himself in denying the Wagner.
These Tolkien fans, when they come onstage, are not very flattering portraits. They’re slightly sinister collectors faunching for the saga and (if it does exist and can be found) the saga’s ring. One is a Silicon Valley millionaire who, improbably, had never left the U.S. before he flies to Iceland halfway through the story to find out what’s going on.
Some of the e-mails are in an unknown language which one detective, to the others’ initial mockery, guesses might be Quenya. They consult an Elvish linguist to translate them. I showed the translations to some Elvish linguists of my own, whose offhand opinion was that it was probably feasible to say these things in Quenya. Interestingly, where no Quenya word exists, the e-mails substitute Finnish. Less plausibly, the translator doesn’t recognize the word as Finnish (it’s given: the Quenya isn’t), though I did and I don’t even read Finnish.
Usually when I read a genre murder mystery, I like the detective characters but find the mystery plot dull and uninvolvingly convoluted. This was the opposite. I found the detectives rather dull – the lead is an American cop of Icelandic birth who’s hiding out here on the run from the mob; I just skimmed through those parts – but the plot was gripping and clear as a story, while the Tolkien references were dignified, mostly accurate, well-integrated into the plot, and about as plausible as a fictional story involving Tolkien could be. This one I recommend for a fast-paced light reading.
David Bratman is co-editor of Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review, and former editor of Mythprint, the bulletin of The Mythopoeic Society. He likes to write about Tolkienian biography and bibliography.