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Anachronistic Slang in The Dark Tower

The Lewis Legacy-Issue 78, Autumn 1998 The C.S. Lewis Foundation for Truth in Publishing

by James Robinson of Belfast

You have observed that the name of the character “Knellie” in The Dark Tower may have been a pun on a slang word for a homosexual. The Oxford English Dictionary provides a definition of nelly as “a weak-spirited or silly person; a homosexual.”

The earliest citation is in the Sunday Times of 17 September 1961, where a play opening at the Oxford Playhouse called “Sacred Nit” is “now called ‘Big Soft Nellie’.” A number of other citations are given until the most recent in 1973 “There is a tendency among homophile’ groups to deplore gays who play visible roles — the queens and the nellies.” Of course, it is possible that the word “nelly” was being used as a cant word in Oxford/Cambridge circles before its first recorded written use.

In a 1972 dictionary of slang (Queen’s Vernacular by B Rodgers) “nelly” is defined as “outrageously effeminate; coy, silly.” Turning to The Dark Tower itself, you have already observed that old Knellie is described as the “almost forgotten author of Erotici Graeci Minimi. Table-talk of a Famous Florentine Courtesan and Lesbos: A Masque.” The book goes on to state that “Oxford had produced Knellie and indeed nurtured him till his fortieth year. He was now a shrunk, pale man with a white moustache and a skin like satin that had been badly creased; very carefully dressed: nice in his eating; a little exotic in gesture: and very anxious to be regarded as a man of the world.” He was an “affectionate type of bore and I [Lewis] was his selected victim.” The description continues:

On the strength of having been at my old college — some time in the nineties — he addressed me as Lu-Lu, a soubriquet I particularly dislike. When dinner was over and Orfieu was just beginning to make his apologies to the old man for withdrawing us on the ground of urgent work, he held up his forefinger as prettily as if he had newly learned the trick. ‘No, Orfieu.’ he said. ‘No. I’ve promised poor Lu-Lu some of the real claret, and I’m not going to let you take him away now.’ ‘Oh, don’t bother about me,’ said I hastily.

Clearly, this is a characterisation of some homosexual academic colleague of the author. Later in the story, Knellie reappears arguing that the spectacle of the “stinging” act was a work of artistic genius of which he clearly approved (pp. 51 52). Even when this is challenged by Scudamour as being the work of the Devil, Knellie replies: “Ah … 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?”

The reference to Oscar Wilde here should leave no-one in any illusion about the sexual orientation of Knellie.