Excerpt from Looking For the King
The third week of May
Tom felt a tightness in his stomach as he walked up St. Giles Street, looking for a pub called the Eagle and Child. He was trying to remember why he had agreed to carve out a few hours on a Tuesday to meet with this group who whimsically called themselves the Inklings. Back in college, he had always felt nervous talking to his professors one on one in their offices. And here he was going to share a pint of cider with a whole roomful of distinguished teachers and scholars.
The “Bird and Baby”, as they called it, wasn’t hard to find. Just beyond the Ashmolean Museum there was a hanging pub sign, an eagle flying through a golden sky, carrying a young boy on its back. This must be Ganymede, Tom thought, the beautiful boy carried off to Olympus by one of Jove’s eagles to serve as cupbearer to the gods. Tom studied the pub sign closely. He couldn’t tell if the little boy was enjoying the ride or if he was being carried off somewhere he didn’t want to go. The child was looking back over his shoulder. Was he enjoying the view or wishing he could find a way back home? As he pushed open the heavy wooden door of the pub, Tom thought he knew exactly how Ganymede must feel.
The room was dimly lit inside, with dark oak paneling, so it took a few moments for Tom’s eyes to adjust. As he stood near the entrance, he couldn’t help but overhear nearby conversations, as the pub was long and narrow, hardly wider than a railway car. To his left, he heard three young men talking in hushed voices about the “Royal Fusiliers” and the “Durham Light Infantry”. Apparently, they were discussing which regiments they were planning to join or had already joined. On the other side was a flabby-faced man with a walrus mustache poking his finger at a copy of the London Times and complaining to his friend about “these bloody generals who are always fighting the last war”.
Tom looked past the bar to one side and spotted Charles Williams in the back room, wearing a well-tailored, if well-worn, blue suit and setting down pint glasses on a table. Mr. Williams saw him and motioned for him to come on back, a graceful sweep of the arm that reminded Tom of a stage actor’s gesture. Tom threaded his way down the aisle and found a long table in the back room, where C. S. Lewis and two other men were already seated.
“Gentlemen, Mr. McCord is here”, said Williams, patting Tom on the shoulder. “Welcome to the rabbit room!” said Lewis in a hearty manner, setting his cigarette down in an ashtray. “This is our own little warren on Tuesday mornings”, he added. “May I introduce you to Professor Tolkien and Dr. Humphrey Havard?” Tolkien rose as far as he could from behind the table and reached out to shake Tom’s hand. He looked the part of the Oxford don more than Lewis, with his pipe and tweed jacket, as well as a stylish burgundy vest and carefully pressed trousers. Dr. Havard also shook Tom’s hand. He had wavy white hair, black glasses, and loose jowls, giving him the wise but careworn look of a veteran physician.
“May I get you some refreshment?” asked Williams. Tom would have preferred a cup of coffee, as it wasn’t quite noon yet. And he had expected to order a drink himself from the bar. But he sensed a certain ritual etiquette being enacted, so he asked for a pint of cider. “I’m afraid ‘we few’ are indeed few this morning”, said Lewis. “Coghill is busy putting up a play for the Oxford University Dramatic Society. And my brother, Warren, has pressing business on the Continent.”
“His brother is a major in the army”, explained Dr. Havard. “Called up for active duty last autumn. He’s with the BEF in France.”
Williams returned, placed a glass in front of Tom, and took a seat next to him. Nodding thanks, Tom turned to Lewis again. “I trust your brother will be all right”, he said.
“We were just talking about that”, said Lewis. “I don’t think he is in imminent danger. He’s not on the firing line. He’s been assigned to a supply depot in Le Havre, on the coast. We’re more concerned about Tollers’ two sons.”
Tolkien leaned toward Tom, speaking softly but in a rapid onrush of words: “My son Michael is an antiaircraft gunner. And Christopher is planning to be an RAF pilot.” Tolkien’s tone was serious, but Tom thought he detected a hint of pride mixed in with apprehension.
“May they all be under the Mercy”, said Williams gently. “Not just for their safety. I pray they won’t have to endure what our boys went through the last time.”
“Yes, do pray for that”, said Lewis emphatically, gripping his glass. “Memories of the Great War haunted my dreams for years.” He paused, as if he didn’t want to speak of it anymore. But the words seemed almost to force themselves out: “Trenches knee-deep with water. Cratered landscapes of mud where not even a blade of grass had survived. Wounded soldiers in no-man’s-land still moving like half-crushed beetles.”
Tolkien fiddled with his pipe but didn’t actually light it. Not looking up, almost as if speaking to his pipe, he nodded in agreement. “There was a sheer animal horror to the trenches that you could never imagine unless you’d been there.” Finally striking a match and holding it to his pipe, Tolkien looked up and tried to lighten the mood. “And yet there are unexpected compensations, aren’t there? It wasn’t till I served in the army that I discovered the excellence of the sturdy English yeomanry. Those lads from the country were so brave, so resolutely cheerful. They always kept their wits about them, and they always knew their duty.”
“Yes, it’s quite true”, said Lewis, his mood brightening. “I wonder if I detect something of the yeomanry in our friend Sam Gamgee. He’s a simple, uncomplicated soul, but you wouldn’t want anyone else at your side in the middle of a battle or on a desperate adventure.”
Tolkien smiled and nodded his head. “I met a host of Sam Gamgees during the war, the privates and the noncoms. I always preferred them to my fellow officers.” Tolkien raised his glass and said somberly, “To those who did not come through.”
The others raised their glasses in the air and touched them lightly. Then there was a long stillness at the table, as each man seemed lost in his own thoughts.
The silence was broken by an ebullient voice. “I thought I’d come to the Bird and Baby for an Inklings meeting. But I seem to have stumbled upon a Quaker meeting.”
Tom turned to see a cheerful-looking man with broad shoulders and curly hair dressed in a casual suit, carrying a glass of lager in his hand.
“Hugo!” said Tolkien with a broad grin. Everyone smiled, and the atmosphere in the room immediately lightened.
The man sat down and took a sip of his lager. “McCord,” said Lewis, “this is Hugo Dyson, a lecturer down at Reading. Hugo, this is the young American writing a book about King Arthur.” Dyson reached out and shook hands. “Good to meet you, Percival”, he said.
“You’re tardy this morning”, said Havard.
“Couldn’t be helped”, explained Dyson. “Some are born late, some achieve lateness, some have lateness thrust upon ’em. The trains are all running behind schedule. They’re giving priority to military traffic. I could have gotten here faster if I’d pedaled over.”
“Perhaps you should get a car”, suggested Havard. “The old Morris Minors are quite affordable now that the new Eights are on the street.”
“I don’t think so”, said Dyson. “This is no time to be buying a car, with all the petrol rationing.”
“Too true”, said Tolkien, knocking out his pipe in an ashtray. “I just got rid of mine. A handsome Morris Cowley, vintage ’32.”
“Not that I wouldn’t like to own a car”, said Dyson wistfully. “A Morris, a Morris, my kingdom for a Morris.”
Everyone at the table groaned, though there was a certain lightheartedness and buoyancy in the room that arrived the same time Dyson did.
“Get thee to a punnery!” commanded Lewis jovially, waving his arm as if banishing Dyson from the table.
“Alas, poor Hugo”, added Tolkien with gusto. “A fellow of infantile jests.”
Dyson leaned over to Tom and explained with a grin, “Pots calling the kettle black.”
“And yet,” interjected Williams, “to quote from your own book: Whatever color the pots, the kettle may indeed be black.”
Again, everyone at the table laughed, a complete change of mood from just a few minutes before. Finally, Dyson gestured toward Tom and asked the others: “And what about young Percival here? Has he been regaling you with tales of his knight-errantry?”
“Not really”, said Williams. “We’ve barely allowed him to get in a word. We were talking about the trenches.”
“Grim-visaged war”, said Dyson. “That’s all I’ve been hearing about this morning. Let’s talk about something else.” The others all nodded that they were ready for a change. Dyson turned to Tom again and said, “What about this glorious son of Yanks? Tell us, Mr. McCord. Have you spoken to Merlin lately?”
Tom swallowed hard and looked around at several expectant faces. He had been fascinated by the conversation as a spectator, both the somber moments and the light banter. But he hadn’t expected to participate much. Suddenly, he felt as if this were an oral examination back in college. He took a sip of cider and replied in the spirit of the moment, “No, I was told that Merlin was sleeping and didn’t want to be disturbed.” Tom saw several grins around the table and felt encouraged to continue. “Last week I was up in Gosforth, in the Lake District.”
There were several puzzled expressions around the table, until Tolkien took his pipe out of his mouth and spoke up. “Gosforth. The high cross in the churchyard left there by the Danes?”
Tom nodded. “Exactly. I realize it’s not an Arthurian site. But I had a friend who very much wanted to see it.”
“Ah, Miss Hartman”, said Williams. “One of her dreams. The Celtic cross as tall as a lamppost. And did she find what she was looking for?”
“Yes and no”, said Tom. Turning to the others, he explained, “I met another American over here several weeks ago. Laura Hartman. She has these compelling dreams that seem to her like visions of something real.”
“Oh yes”, said Lewis. “Williams told us about her. Like Pauline Anstruther in his novel. But she didn’t find what she was looking for?”
“The cross is the one from her dream”, said Tom. “It’s about fifteen feet high, standing right in front of the church. On three sides, it’s engraved with scenes from Norse mythology—Fenris Wolf, Loki bound, the Twilight of the Gods. But the fourth side seems to depict the crucifixion of Christ. There’s a man with his arms outstretched and blood spurting from his side. And a soldier thrusting a spear.”
“I would think Miss Hartman would be delighted to find another of her dreams in the real world”, said Williams.
“She was at first”, said Tom. “But now she feels that questions are multiplying faster than the answers.”
“Gosforth and multiply”, interjected Dyson. The others ignored him this time, and Tom continued. “Besides, she almost got into an argument with the local curate up there. He said the man with his arms outstretched might not be Christ at all. It might be another scene from mythology, perhaps the mortal wounding of Balder.”
“That seems plausible”, said Havard. “One wouldn’t expect Norse mythology on three sides of a cross and Gospel narrative on the fourth.”
“That’s not what upset her”, answered Tom. “The curate said it didn’t matter if the scene depicted Christ or Balder. He said they were both just examples of the universal dying god myth.”
Lewis, Tolkien, and Dyson began exchanging glances, all three with knowing smiles on their faces.
“Am I missing something?” said Tom, looking around the table.
“The dying god myth”, explained Lewis. “That’s how these two apostles helped drag me into the Kingdom, kicking and screaming, almost ten years ago.” Lewis grinned at Tolkien and Dyson, and they smiled back. Tom sensed a shared memory that they all treasured, and he waited for some further explanation.
“I had a stern old tutor growing up,” said Lewis, “a strict logician who doted on The Golden Bough. He thought that Frazer’s research had proven, once and for all, that every culture has its myth of the god who must die for the people. Osiris in Egyptian myth. Balder in the Norse epics. So he dismissed the story of Christ’s death and Resurrection as just one more version of a universal myth—just an expression of our culture, not a bedrock reality.”
Tolkien took up the story: “Hugo and I had supper one night with this poor old sinner and got to talking about myths and fairy tales. Lewis took the Frazer line, that Christianity was just one dying god myth among many. We tried to reframe the issue”, he said, looking over at Lewis and placing his hand on his shoulder. “We argued that myths are not just well-wrought lies; they are actually real, though dappled, shafts of the divine light falling on human imagination. We believe that the great and universal myth, the dying god who sacrifices himself for the people, shows everyone’s inborn awareness of the need for redemption. As we understand it, the Incarnation was the pivotal point at which myth became history.”
“What a night that was,” said Lewis, looking at Tolkien and Dyson, “and what a new dawn the next day!” Turning to Tom, Lewis added, “You can’t imagine the liberation! In this view, Christianity becomes the True Myth to which all the others are pointing. It is a faith grounded in fact, the myth that unfolds itself in history.”
Tom was impressed, but still skeptical. He couldn’t help but enjoy the zest with which these three men recalled a night that changed one of their lives—perhaps all of their lives—forever. But Tom still had plenty of questions. He felt himself outnumbered, a whole tableful of believers, and every one of them a formidable intellect. Yet, in all honesty, he couldn’t pretend to be won over to a whole new way of looking at things from ten or fifteen minutes of conversation. “That’s a wonderful story”, said Tom, “and such a beautiful, hopeful way of looking at things.” He wished someone else would take up the conversation, but apparently he still had the floor, whether he wanted it or not.
“Of course, there are still some tough questions”, he said, trying to sound as offhand as possible. “You all were talking a few minutes ago about the horrors of the last war. And now, here we are twenty years later, and it looks like we may have to go through the whole thing all over again. Don’t you think an all-good, all-powerful God could fashion a world where humans don’t inflict so much pain and suffering on each other?”
Tom expected a barrage of caustic rebuttals, but everyone around the table nodded that this was indeed a question worthy of careful thought. “It’s true”, said Lewis at last. “With the Apostle Paul, we see in a glass darkly and only in part.” He paused and then asked Tom a series of questions. “Suppose God did decide to intervene whenever he saw suffering or injustice here on earth. What would that look like?” He gave Tom a moment to think about this, then offered some specifics: “We believe that the world was once a paradise and that the scales will again be balanced on the Last Day. But what about this blighted earth of ours now? What should God do about our wars and our pain? What if he turned every bullet into a puff of air and every bayonet into a flower?”
“That would be a start, I suppose”, answered Tom, not sure he wanted to travel down this road.
“Yes, but only a start”, continued Lewis. “Why would a good God even allow things to get as far as bullets and bayonets? Shouldn’t he go back a step? Perhaps every time people get ready to tell a lie or utter a hateful word, God could paralyze their tongues or disturb the air in front of them so their words wouldn’t carry.”
“Better still”, said Tom weakly, feeling that he was headed into deep water.
“But not the best”, said Lewis. “Why not go back another step? Don’t stop with harmful deeds or hateful words. Why not erase bad thoughts from people’s minds, so that neither their words nor their deeds can hurt anyone else?”
Checkmate, thought Tom. “Because then they would cease to be people”, he answered. “That would cancel out their free will.” Tom still wasn’t convinced, but he was disappointed in himself for not putting up a better fight. Lewis reached over and patted him on the arm. “I’m not fool enough to think that settles it all”, Lewis said. “‘Great we confess is the mystery of our faith.’ It’s a vast topic. We should talk about it more sometime”, he added in a friendly tone.
“Yes, it is a vast topic,” said Dyson, “a subject for endless argument, if you’re not careful. I agree with the old wisdom: ‘When pain is to be borne, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all.’”
“Well said”, boomed Lewis. “That cuts right to the heart of the matter. Who wrote that?”
Tom saw several smiles around the table, though he couldn’t for the life of him see anything humorous in the quotation.
“Really, Dyson”, continued Lewis. “It sounds so familiar. Is it Augustine? Boethius?”
“That is Mr. C. S. Lewis”, Williams explained with a grin. “A forthcoming book of his called The Problem of Pain. He’s been reading it to us on Thursday nights.”
Everyone around the table laughed—even Lewis, who, already ruddy, actually blushed a shade redder.
“How is it”, asked Tolkien, “that you can remember everyone’s writings verbatim except your own?”
Everyone laughed again and then paused to catch their breath. “Really, though,” whispered Lewis slyly, “it was well said, wasn’t it?”
Everyone laughed again, an unexpected mood for a group discussing the problem of evil.
“And what can we expect from you next”, asked Williams, looking over the rims of his glasses and adopting a tone of mock severity, “after you’ve solved the problem of pain in a hundred pages or so?”
“This indefatigable man!” interjected Tolkien. “He’s probably got three half-finished projects sitting on his desk right now!”
“Since you asked,” said Lewis, “what would you think about this? I was sitting in church last week and an idea popped into my mind. It would be a series of letters between two devils, one a senior tempter and the other an apprentice, trying to practice his infernal trade on an unsuspecting human subject.”
“Brilliant!” said Williams enthusiastically, raising his glass.
Tolkien had a more doubtful look. “I don’t know”, he said. “More popular theology. I sometimes wonder if these questions are not best left to those with formal training—a clergyman, I should think.”
“Or regulars in pubs, perhaps”, added Dyson whimsically. “Recall your A. E. Housman: ‘Malt does more than Milton can /To justify God’s ways to man.’”
“Perhaps it’s not one or the other”, said Lewis, taking up Dyson’s quip as if it were a matter for serious reflection. “Perhaps both malt and Milton have their place in justifying God’s ways.”
Lewis looked around the table to see if anyone wanted to develop his theme, but the others waited to hear him amplify his own thoughts.
“I wonder if I should write a companion book”, continued Lewis. “The Problem of Pleasure, it might be called. I have an intuition that all earthly pleasures are just foretastes of the gladness that awaits all those who choose to walk with God.” Lifting his glass, Lewis went on. “We enjoy our malt in the here and now. But we always thirst again—for the living water. And the great pleasure I take in reading Milton—is it only an echo of all the songs and hymns to be sung in heaven? This very fellowship—this Company, as Charles would call it—couldn’t it be just a glimpse, a reminder of something else? Think of all the images of heaven our Lord gave us—banquets and wedding feasts, ‘pleasures forever more’. I suspect that all earthly pleasures, when rightly practiced and rightly understood, are whispers of a wind from beyond this world, the fragrance of a flower we’ve never seen. Recall a verse from the Book of Revelation: ‘And I shall give you the morning star.’ The Bible talks about ‘the beauty of holiness’. But let’s not forget about the joy of holiness.”
Everyone around the table nodded, each one seeming lost for a moment in his own glad reverie. But no single mood prevailed for very long in a gathering like this. So it wasn’t long before Dyson said, “Speaking of pleasures, when shall we Inklings meet again? In thunder, in lightning, or in rain?”
“This Thursday evening in my rooms, as usual”, answered Lewis. “We’re hoping that Tollers will favor us with the latest installment of his ‘new Hobbit’.” He looked at Tolkien, who nodded with a modest smile that he did indeed have some new chapters to read. The conversation turned to Tolkien’s dwarves, in contrast to the banal dwarfs in the Disney film Snow White. From there, the talk raced on to any and all topics—mechanized warfare, country pubs, the fiction of James Joyce, the thorny West Midland dialect, the indomitable Winston Churchill, and the question of whether a noble Roman such as Virgil might be received into heaven.
Tom gave up trying to follow the rapid-fire conversation and just sat back to enjoy the camaraderie around the table—the witty banter and hearty laughter, the prevailing winds of agreement with occasional gusts of disagreement. The tilting of glasses and the curling plumes of tobacco smoke. What a gift of friendship these men have, Tom thought to himself. He heard Tolkien utter the phrase “a feast of reason and a flow of soul”, and he thought that described perfectly this band of brothers in the back parlor of a cozy pub.
The meeting began to break up a little after one, with men rising and shaking hands. There was an elevation of spirit among them all that Tom hadn’t felt when he first joined them an hour earlier. Each one shook Tom’s hand and thanked him for joining them, as if the privilege were theirs.
As he took his leave, Tolkien added an intriguing word of parting. “It was good of you to join us”, he said. Then he added as an afterthought: “I’ve been pondering your friend’s dreams. I think I might see a scarlet thread that knits them together.” Tom was eager to hear more, but Tolkien took out his watch and glanced at it. “I’m sorry, but I’m already late for a meeting at Pembroke”, he said. He thought a moment and then had an idea. “I have pupils come to my study at home for tutorials. Perhaps you could come for a visit some morning next week? It’s a topic that merits more than a sentence or two.”
“I’d happy to come see you next week”, said Tom. “Would it be all right if I brought my friend Laura along? I’m sure she will want to hear about this firsthand.”
“Yes, that would be fine”, answered Tolkien. He gave Tom a kind of salute, holding his pipe to his brow and drawing a J in the air, then hurried out the front door.
Tom wished he could continue the conversation one on one with either Lewis or Williams, the last two to leave, but both were gathering up their things. And there seemed to be an unspoken rule that once an Inklings meeting was over, it was over for everyone. So he contented himself with a last sip of his glass and a last round of handshakes, thanking Lewis for asking him to join in. Then he headed for the door, noticing how quiet and glum the other tables seemed compared to the lively and learned repartee he had been enjoying the past hour.
As he pushed opened the front door, Tom had one last look at the Eagle and Child pub sign over the sidewalk. He decided that Ganymede’s wide-eyed expression was one of delight, not fear. After all, he thought, how often does a young man get carried aloft on the wings of eagles?
David C. Downing, PhD, is the R.W. Schlosser Professor of English at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. He is the author of four award-winning books on C.S. Lewis: Planets in Peril, The Most Reluctant Convert, Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C.S. Lewis, and Into the Wardrobe: C.S. Lewis and the Narnia Chronicles. Downing has also written short fiction for Christianity Today and other periodicals. Read more