The Lewis Legacy-Issue 84, Spring 2000
The Dark Tower: A Challenge to Lewis Scholars
The C.S. Lewis Foundation for Truth in Publishing
March 1, 2000
by Larry Gilman
Larry Gilman has a doctorate in electrical engineering and a recent Master of Fine Arts degree. He says "I love Lewis, of course--he has always been a reliable spring of clean water, and when I was a teen he taught me almost single handedly what the words 'intellectual honesty' count for. I now re-read 4 or 5 Lewis books every year for refreshment and re-sharpening."
When The Dark Tower first came out in 1977 I was 15 years old and short on cash, so I waited a year for it to come out in paperback. When I finally read it I was disappointed; the title piece neither shocked nor pleased me. I found it mildly boring, and that was all.
I was not to learn of the Tower provenance tussle for over twenty years, and took no notice of the cover illustration. This featured a bell Tower of exaggerated height, tipped by a gigantic Stingingman head resembling Marlon Brando with Spock ears. The whole assembly was topped off by a thorn-like "sting" protruding from the upturned head. I now perceive that the tower, head, and sting stack up to a phallic symbol too blatant to be accidental; yet I doubt that the publisher, Harvest/HBJ, intended sly obscenity. Maybe science fiction artist Paul Gamarello was having his own little joke. If so, it went over my head in 1978 but strikes me as weirdly apropos today.
Though usually a devout re-reader of Lewis's fiction, I did not read Tower again for about ten years. When I did, I was again bored. This state of reluctant indifference lasted over twenty years, until I read Kathryn Lindskoog's Light in the Shadowlands in 1999. (Lindskoog argues that Tower is not by Lewis at all.)
I was impressed by Lindskoog's book, if not absolutely convinced, and soon became embroiled in friendly e-mail discussion with an acquaintance who had also read both Tower and Light in the Shadowlands (1994). One of his most interesting claims was that Tower is in fact a superb book. He had read it many times, he told me, always with delight, and was sorry that Lewis never finished it.
Clearly it was time to read Tower again, closely. I did--and found it something of a strange brew.
Its parallel-worlds theories were vaguely intriguing, the story was intermittently interesting, and the piece was clearly Lewisian in much of its content and style (specifics to follow). Yet it also seemed riddled with odd flaws. Overall, I thought it bad enough to be by a clever imitator and good enough to be by C. S. Lewis in a severe funk. The only view of Tower that struck me as completely implausible was my correspondent's claim that it is a very good book.
Less subjective issues were also raised by a close reading. I noticed that Tower contains scraps of dialogue, character interaction, and philosophy that recall portions of Lewis's later books very closely--at times, almost word for word. If Tower is by Lewis, it seems to often anticipate his later writings with wonderful particularity; if not, it bears the fingerprints of a forger who seems to have written with Lewis's books spread open before him, sampling them as a rap artist might sample James Brown for the right flavor.
I also noticed a number of stylistic and logical lapses that have not all, I think, been remarked on before. (Again, specifics to follow.)
Below, I list first some Lewisian features of Tower, in approximate order of interest, then some un-Lewisian ones. For brevity's sake I assume that readers know Tower well, and pass over all Tower's most obvious Lewisisms, such as the appearance of characters named "Ransom," "MacPhee" and "Lewis," and all points made by Walter Hooper in his "Preface" and "Note on The Dark Tower " (1977). All page references are to the first American edition of Tower unless noted otherwise. Both lists are suggestive, not exhaustive.
Some Lewisian Features of The Dark Tower
* Lewis declared that his stories began with "seeing pictures in my head" (Of This and Other Worlds, 1982, p. 79): Tower features a series of vivid pictures, actually seen by the narrator "Lewis" as images on a screen.
* Tower features a small, obscure "secret society" that conducts business of cosmic importance (17), recalling Logres in That Hideous Strength (1946).
* The shift in Tower from first-person "Lewis" to Scudamour's narrative as-mediated-by-"Lewis" (61) recalls Perelandra's shift from first-person "Lewis" to Ransom's narrative as-mediated-by-"Lewis" (end of ch. 2).
* The terms "Stingingman" (Tower) and "Un-man" (Perelandra, 1944) are much alike, as are the two utterly de-humanized characters they name.
* The Stingingman's performance of a series of obscene acts for no apparent purpose other than to disconcert Ransom and the other chronoscope watchers (39) closely resembles the Un-man's performance of a "whole repertory of obscenities" to weaken Ransom's mind (Perelandra', ch. 10).
* Orfieu's argument against the feasibility of time travel (18) –that one's past (or future) material ingredients wouldn't be available to comprise one's body when one arrived in the future (or past), being employed in different roles--resembles Lewis's argument in Miracles (1947) that it is "presumably a foolish fancy ... that [after the Resurrection] each spirit should recover those particular units of matter which he ruled before. For one thing, they would not be enough to go round: we all live in secondhand suits and there are doubtless atoms in my chin which have served many another man, many a dog, many an eel, many a dinosaur" (ch. XVI). In Miracles, the chin comes in for special mention; in Tower, the nose (18).
* The poet Browning and "the whole time-process" are linked in That
Hideous Strength (ch. 13); Browning is also cited on p. 27 of Tower, where the book's title phrase is attributed to him. Both Tower and Strength attribute their title phrases to poems mentioning towers. (Lewis titled Strength; Walter Hooper titled Tower [7-8].)
* A corrupt intellectual "Cyril Knellie" is featured in Tower: a corrupt intellectual "Cyril Blellew" is mentioned in The Great Divorce (1946, ch. 1).
* Lines of dialogue between Knellie and Scudamour in Tower echo lines
exchanged in The Great Divorce by the Episcopal Ghost and a glorified
saint: From The Dark Tower, p. 52: "...Who is it by?"
"It's by the Devil, if you want to know," shouted Scudamour.
"Ah--," said Knellie very slowly, "I see what you mean. Perhaps in a certain sense that is true of all art at its supreme moments. Didn't poor Oscar say something like that--?" From The Great Divorce (Macmillan, 1946, 31-32, 36. NB: material in < > brackets is out of original order):
"...What do you call it?"
"We call it Hell."
<"Ah, I see. You mean that the grey town with its continual hope of morning (we must all live by hope, must we not?), with its field for indefinite progress, is, in a sense, Heaven, if only we have eyes to see it?> ... to travel hopefully is better than to arrive."
In the above dialogues, both Knellie and the Episcopal Ghost are too spiritually degraded to understand their own situations. Both ask point-blank to be enlightened--one concerning a "dark tower ," the other about a "grey town"--and both are told bluntly that the reality is diabolical. Both misconstrue in a positive way what they are told, responding with vague inspirational rhetoric. Both make replies that begin with "Ah, I see," state that what the person speaking to them has said is true "in a sense" or "in a certain sense," ask rhetorical questions, and make vague literary allusions to late-nineteenth-century authors ("Oscar" is a reference to Oscar Wilde: the phrase about "to travel hopefully" is from Robert Louis Stevenson.)
* Knellie closely recalls Uncle Andrew of The Magician's Nephew (1955). Both have backwards reactions to beauty and horror (Tower 52, Nephew 100); are white-moustached (Tower 28) or gray-haired (Nephew 11); are "vain," "terribly anxious to be regarded as a man of the world," dandies in matters of dress (Tower 28-29, Nephew 76); believe in the "complete moral freedom of the artist" or magician (Tower 52, Nephew 18); seek a tot of liquor in their rooms when "a good deal shaken" (Tower 53) or "terribly shaken" (Nephew 75); and, most strikingly of all, beg for brandy in a suddenly-fallen total darkness in which they are present as unwanted stowaways (Tower 53, Nephew 97).
Some un-Lewisian Features of The Dark Tower
Under this heading I include both thematic oddities and lapses of logic or storytelling skill. Again, I have put the slighter items first.
* "Everything was dark but by the light of a single taper I could see..." (41). A clumsy way of saying that everything was NOT dark.
* "I heard the deafening noise of a broken electric light bulb" (53).
Breaking light bulbs do not make a "deafening noise."
* Poor storytelling: It strains my powers of visualization to be told that even a "close-fitting" set of curtains hung on rods can so darken a room, in daytime, as to render its inhabitants utterly invisible to each other (25). I also find the sudden appearance of Cyril Knellie in Orfieu's room, completely unobserved and unannounced (51), implausible. Knellie begs for brandy on 53 but is then heard "beginning to murmur something about brandy" on 54 (emphasis added). On 55-56 he is still "murmuring," and now also "nursing his bruise" (the first and last mention of this injury).
* Tower 's portrayal of Cyril Knellie as a flaming, contemptible ponce is embarrassingly mean-spirited. If Lewis did write this material, I am very glad that he never again floated such lead balloons as the imaginary Knellie works listed on p. 28 (Lesbos: A Masque, etc.) or the "Lu-Lu" business (29). The worst thing about Knellie, in fiction terms, is that he appears to serve no plot function, unlike the formidable lesbian gangster Fairy Hardcastle in That Hideous Strength. Knellie's presence is gratuitous; he is a mere butt for unfunny pouf bashing. Such meanness strikes me as atypical of Lewis.
* Not only does the general style of Tower limp, but Tower contains none of those moments of prose brilliance that fill the other Space Trilogy books. Also, the lengthy philosophical debate at the beginning (over eight pages long) is a strangely draggy way to begin a tale. All the other volumes of the Space Trilogy begin briskly, in medias res.
* The debate at the start of Tower is not only a weak beginning, but (along with Tower 's last seven pages) violates Lewis's own 1955 dictum regarding "pseudo-scientific apparatus" in science fiction: "The most superficial appearance of plausibility--the merest sop to our critical intellect--will do. I am inclined to think that frankly supernatural methods are best. I took a hero to Mars once in a space-ship, but when I knew better I had angels convey him to Venus" ("On Science Fiction," in Of This and Other Worlds, 1982). Yet Tower is heavily loaded with pseudoscientific discussion--about 19 pages out of 75, or a fourth of the manuscript. Tower thus contains far more pseudoscience than Out of the Silent Planet (1938), though it was supposedly written after it, in the period when Lewis later said he was realizing that a "sop," or a miracle, was the right approach. It is, of course, possible to imagine a sequence of events that reconciles these facts: Lewis might not have discovered his "merest sop" principle by writing Out of the Silent Planet (though this seems to be the gist of his 1955 remarks), but had to fall into the explanatory tangles of Tower and abandon them in despair before gaining his later clarity. But this hypothesis requires us to postulate a sudden, severe, and short-lived lapse of Lewis's storytelling skill from the level manifested in Out of the Silent Planet.
* The opening discussion in Tower, besides dragging, is pointless. Why open with a prolonged argument against time travel's literal feasibility when the action of Tower turns out not to involve time-travel at all, but parallel worlds? Why begin a popular tale by clearing away an irrelevant point of philosophy? Not only that, Orfieu's arguments against time-travel are extremely poor; if Lewis did pen them, he was right to abandon them. Orfieu's contention that "the same piece of matter can't be in two different places at the same time" (18) is unconvincing because time travel would seem to only require the co-existence of two versions of one's particles, one older and one younger; from the point of view of each particle's time-line, they would not be anywhere "at the same time." In any case, the point is rather an odd one for Lewis to make, even through a fictional character, for he seems to have had no quarrel at all with the time travels postulated by H. G. Wells and Charles Williams (see "On Science Fiction"). Note: The argument against particle-sharing in Miracles, though superficially akin to Orfieu's against time travel, is not likewise silly. Miracles argues the impossibility of recycling or reclaiming one's particles after a period of time, not of shifting of one's particles back and forth in time.
* The Othertime textbook excerpts on 84-91 of Tower are bulky and turgid; the explanation of the figure on 87, in particular, is both confused and confusing. (1) In the figure (which the reader should consult, to really enjoy the ride), there seems no reason why both the XY and OP time-lines are given (OP is not discussed in the text); nor is there any clear difference between the four horizontal time-lines AB, XY, OP, and DC, except that the middle two are drawn as wavy lines. (2) AB, DC, BC and AD seem in the text on 87 to be implicitly treated as boundaries to the "Time Square." Yet they are not identified as such, and the idea of boundaries contradicts what we are told on 86: that the time-plane, according to the concept under discussion, is "of infinite extension." (3) The text on 87 incorrectly states that XY and OP are "two time-lines traversing [the figure] in the eckward-andward direction." Actually, they traverse it in the "backward-forward" direction (that is, left to right, as per the definitions of terms given on 86). Is all this un-Lewisian? I think so: at least, I do not know where else he makes such a hash of any topic.
* The author of Tower emphasizes that it takes place at Cambridge; jokes turn on this fact on 19, 22, and 28. Tower also mentions twice that it occurs in 1938 (19, 59). Such passages are unLewisian in that no other published fiction of his locates itself in a specific year or place (besides "London").
* The boat-racing joke on 22 stands out, given that Lewis cared nothing about games and never made another sports joke (or Oxbridge rivalry joke) in writing, to my knowledge. Tony Marchington, however, colleague and roommate of Walter Hooper, appears to have been an Oxford rowing enthusiast (Light in the Shadowlands, 157). That he enjoyed writing pseudoscience, too, with which Tower is stuffed, is demonstrated by his 1979 hoax letter to Christianity and Literature (Light, 44-48). (Lindskoog has speculated that Marchington may have written, or helped write, The Dark Tower.)
* The "obvious tie-up" between the last sentence of Out of the Silent
Planet and the opening sentence of Tower --as Walter Hooper terms it
(8)--is really quite un-obvious. Out of the Silent Planet does not, in fact, promise a time-traveling sequel: it observes on its last page that Weston's space-ship, having been destroyed, now exists only in the past, so to use it to travel to "the planets" one would have to do some "time-travelling" to get at it. (That Weston might simply build another of his ships is the obvious rejoinder--which of course he does, triggering the whole action of Perelandra.) Out of the Silent Planet does tease the reader with a sequel, but one about the planets, that is, interplanetary affairs, not time-travel: "the rapid march of events which was to render [Out of the Silent Planet] out of date before it was published" is said to have scotched Ransom and Lewis's plan to educate "the wider public" about the nature of "Space" (ch. 22). Yet Tower is not only not a planetary tale, it makes no mention whatever of Malacandra, Oyarsa, space (or Deep Heaven), the Silent Planet, or any of Ransom's previous adventures whatsoever: there is only the oblique hint on 17, where it is said that "Ransom had actually experienced ... how thin is the crust which protects 'real life' from the fantastic." In all the Tower group's efforts to make sense of what the chronoscope reveals, its members never once discuss the astonishing realities they must have heard about from Ransom. Tower's Ransom appears not as one who has spoken with the gods, but as a fairly vanilla academic who has an annoying (to me) habit of correcting his non-Christian colleagues' remarks on such matters as sainthood (20) and
Hell (49). Hooper's statement on p. 96 that "we learn [in Tower ] ... that [Ransom] ... has travelled in Deep Heaven" is, by the way, inaccurate: we learn no such thing. There is not a syllable in Tower to indicate that Ransom has visited outer space, or ever strayed beyond the shores of England for that matter. Nor does the phrase "Deep Heaven" appear even once.
* The sexual aspect of Tower have been discussed often, but I cannot resist answering my correspondent--the man who finds Tower delightful. He does not admit that Tower contains any sexual connotations at all; or at least, no more than could easily be read into Lewis's other works. Yet even a cursory reading confirms that overt sexual themes run through Tower, themes not paralleled in Lewis's other writings. From its description of the Stingingman's horn and that organ's thrusting application (33-35) to its crowds of ineffably lovable young men in red miniskirts (wearing "no clothing but a short kilt of some red material") who labor ceaselessly to erect a tower (39), The Dark Tower strikes a loud note of homoerotic bondage. Furthermore, Tower 's author was well aware of the most glaring of his sexual symbols; Tower itself points to the sexual obviousness of the "sting" (63). (That Scudamour's need to "sting" is described by the narrator as non-genital  does not alter the symbolic quality of that purely fictitious need.) I do not mean to say, of course, that Lewis could not possibly have felt homoerotic urges (I don't know whether he did or not): only that nowhere else in his writings, to my knowledge, do such urges appear, much less in such vivid symbolic form. Even in Lewis's adolescent letters to Arthur Greeves (They Stand Together, 1979), several of which feature whipping and other unsavory sexual fantasies, the bent seems purely heterosexual.
All in all, I feel that both the Lewisian and the un-Lewisian features of The Dark Tower are more suggestive of inauthenticity than otherwise.
So, damned if it reads like Lewis and damned if it doesn't? No; I mean that the pattern of Tower's Lewisian and un-Lewisian features seems to me more compatible with the hypothesis of fraud than otherwise. As shown above, Tower is studded with bits of theology and storytelling that closely parallel specific passages from Perelandra, The Great Divorce, Miracles, and The Magician's Nephew. Sometimes these bits even flirt with verbatim identity. If they were word-for-word identical we could conclude at once that Tower is probably a fraudulent pastiche, this being a priori more likely than the idea of Lewis mining a failed 1938 manuscript for scraps to insert unaltered into books published in 1944, 1946, 1947, and 1955. Verbatim identity would thus be a decisive extreme. Tower approaches that extreme at moments; and the more closely numerous bits of Tower match fragments of Lewis's later writings, the more Tower may strike the ear as a pastiche rather than an original work. It would be an important next step to see if a habit of self-anticipation can be detected in Lewis's published works. Or is Tower unique in this respect?
Then there is the matter of Tower 's overall literary style. It is poorly plotted, wordy, and badly reasoned at many points. Yet Tower echoes material from many other Lewis books. It is the least Lewisian of works; it is the most Lewisian of works. How to account for this?
First of all, Tower might really be by Lewis. In that case, it would have to be true that for some reason he was writing rather badly in 1938, banging his gears style-wise and spilling homoerotic urges into his fiction in a way that he had never done before and never would again -- yet in this process discovering valuable characters, scenes, and ideas that he was to recall years later (perhaps unconsciously), at times almost verbatim.
On the other hand, what might an imitation of a very good writer by a merely clever writer look like? We would expect the clever imitator to replicate the most obvious surface aspects of the target author's style; to stir in tell-tale bits of that author's philosophy; to scan his works for distinctive character interaction and dialogue moments that might be altered and utilized; and so forth. Yet we would not expect such an imitator to achieve anything truly excellent in the signature style of the target author. His end-product would probably resemble that cheap kind of pancake syrup that contains 2% real maple sap: superficially like (but deeply unlike) the real thing. This, I think, is a pretty fair description of The Dark Tower.
Yet I recommend regular rinsing with the following rules: (1) Any gaffe that an imitator might commit, other than a tell-tale anachronism, an original author might also commit, especially in a first draft. (2) Any apparent sampling of later works might be explained as self-anticipation.
Still, there is a problem with explaining Tower's mawkishness by the clumsy-first-draft theory. Walter Hooper says: "Except for his academic works, Lewis never wrote more than a single draft of his novels, which indeed suggests that the stories were worked out in his head before he put pen to paper" (Of This and Other Worlds, 19). (This remark occurs in a discussion of the Space Trilogy, so should also apply to The Dark Tower, putatively written after Out of the Silent Planet and before Perelandra.) If Tower 's flaws are to be accounted for on clumsy-first-draft grounds, then Hooper must be either misinformed or exaggerating to the point of nonsense regarding Lewis's writing process. In either case, Hooper is not a consistent authority on the matter of how Lewis wrote fiction, for on p. 96 of Tower he talks as if Lewis most certainly did not have Tower "worked out in his head before he put pen to paper." There he says: "Certainly
Lewis does not seem to have known exactly what to do with Ransom... he may have been unable to imagine a convincing method of extricating Scudamour from the tight place we find him in at the conclusion of the fragment." This vision of Lewis as writing in a fumbling, tentative way may be more plausible than the perfect-first-draft account that Hooper presents in Of This and Other Worlds--but both cannot be true. (The lapse may reveal nothing worse than poor scholarship; Hooper seems to have a fondness for hyperbole.) Is The Dark Tower a fake? I don't know. There is circumstantial evidence to that effect, but no proof. Perhaps there are other Lewis readers who feel the same way; persons for whom Lindskoog has raised reasonable doubt, but who wish they had more evidence, one way or the other.
Fortunately, fresh evidence still lurks in the text itself, as my first crude cut at a close reading shows -- still circumstantial, still open to conflicting interpretations, but evidence. More facts of this sort, and others kinds of evidence too, are surely waiting to yield themselves up to the determined efforts of Lewis scholars. Quantitative authorship analysis, for example (so far applied to only a handful of Tower text samples) should be pursued with skeptical rigor and searching thoroughness. Why not? What have we got to lose?
The Dark Tower question is too important to either ignore or treat as a matter of personal loyalty. There is work to do. Let's do it.