The Dark Tower and Other Stories
Reviewed by Nancy-Lou Patterson
[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 6.]
“How Thin is the Crust.” Mythlore 6.1 (#19) (1979): 32-33.
C.S. Lewis was an extremely prolific writer, and fourteen of his sixty-odd books have appeared since his death (one may still hope for the publication of a facsimile “Boxenland”). Among these is the present volume, which adds a large fragment on the Dark Tower of the title and a short story which has received occasional mention, to the canon of Lewis’s fiction. Some observers have suggested that Lewis was a little too prolific, with the implication, perhaps, that he published willy-nilly whatever came from his hand. The fact that all but two of the works in The Dark Tower were in fact either incomplete or withheld from publication by Lewis, suggests otherwise. That materials gleaned, as those printed here have been, from the pages of science-fiction magazines, from old notebooks, and even from a bonfire can have so similar a tone is highly suggestive. The works include “The Dark Tower” (c. 1938/1939), “The Man Born Blind” (late 1920′s), “The Shoddy Lands” (published 1956 and 1966), “Ministering Angels” (published 1958 and 1966), “Forms of Things Unknown” (published posthumously 1966), and “After Ten Years” (1959/1960, published posthumously 1966). The mood of all of them has exactly that darkened quality which for many readers mars the second Curdie book of George MacDonald.
A soured, shadowed mood pervades these stories: in them those streaks of misogyny, violence, snobbery, and other human failings which are merely strata on the splendid mountain side of Narnia, Malacandra, Perelandra, and Thulcandra form the full terrain. One suspects that Lewis knew it, and withheld these dystopic works precisely because they lacked (at the least) Christian joy––and (at the most)––the numinous wonder of his published masterpieces. Not that these works are not far beyond the reach of the rest of us. To be able to write a review of a newly-published work by C.S. Lewis is an overwhelming privilege, quite unlooked for and profoundly humbling. “The Dark Tower” contains so many of his special qualities: his “attack,” by which one is swept into the story irresistibly, completely; his ability to create, in a few words, images of intense, supernatural malignity (as elsewhere an equally intense supernal sublimity); his evocations of masculine camaraderie and the interplay of adult male minds. That his chief (and most concomitant) weaknesses appear simultaneously cannot come as a surprise.
I cannot altogether agree with Fr. Hooper’s puzzlement “not to find in the fragment a high theological theme.” Is not the Dark Tower an indictment (albeit in miniature) of the collective state and its destruction of personality? The idol in the Dark Tower, with its many bodies and one head seems an apt image of a dictatorship like those infesting Europe in the period when the fragment was read aloud to the Inklings. Nor can I quite agree that there is no phallic significance to the Stingingman’s sting: “It was hard and horny, but not like bone. It was red, like most of the things in a man …” (33). And it is used for a mindrape: the victims become “Jerkies,” automata or zombies who, promised bliss and union with the Divine, have instead been deprived of selfhood and consciousness, rather like the cultists of our own day.
The story of “The Dark Tower” is based upon the question of time travel and of alternative or coincident universes. It begins on the hook of the Trianon visions which have been able discussed by Gracia Fay Ellwood in Psychic Visits to the Past (New York: New America Library, 1971). Several commentators have called attention to elements in it which were to be repeated and expanded elsewhere, notably in That Hideous Strength. The motif of a traveler rapt into another world through a picture or screen Lewis used repeatedly in the Narnian Chronicles, along with the parallel world with its similar but variant time-stream. The assembly of men in a drawing room for an experiment which leads to strange travel resembles Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus which begins with a séance and leads to Tormance. I was struck by the parallels to Charles Williams: the carvings in the Tower include the backs of an assembly of beetles, surely the same ones gathered to worship in All Hallows’ Eve one whose multiple image (a trinity, as befits an AntiChrist) is finally coalesced as the single Simon Magus.
Most of the other stories are reprinted from Of Other Worlds, which also contained a number of significant essays. J.R. Christopher and J.K. Ostling’s indispensable C.S. Lewis: An Annotated Checklist (Kent State UP, nd) records the somewhat tepid critical response to these stories and “The Man Born Blind” would probably elicit the same reaction. These are rather minor works and I think I know why. A story which depends upon its “point” (as Fr. Hooper calls it)––its surprise ending, or twist, which cannot be given away––is not a myth. We are never surprised by myths. Though they can be told in a sentence they contain power even in the most compressed form. Obeying the rule established by Fr. Hooper, not to reveal these “points” (which are admittedly a common feature in popular writing, and well used in Lewis’s stories here), I suggest that the reader try to turn the stories into sentences and see which ones survive the test. Fr. Hooper quotes one such summary from Professor Kilby’s account of a conversation with Tolkien of “The Man Born Blind.” Finally, “After Ten Years,” at least in its fragmentary form, is a tale demythologized.
“Ministering Angels,” probably the liveliest and most substantial of the stories, has a moral core and an overt religious component, though its sexist elements are rather strong. It has the jocular tone which I least like in Lewis, but it is a successful and ultimately touching work of professional science fiction. None of the stories, however, has the compelling quality which “The Dark Tower,” unfinished though it is, unquestionably has. I don’t regret its incompletion––it cannot, as Fr. Hooper knows, compare with Perelandra and That Hideous Strength which replaced it as the sequels to Out of the Silent Planet––but I am grateful that it has been preserved for us. It contains new examples of that unforgettable and absolutely original imagery which is the well spring of Lewis’s genius, and has furnished us with a new, superbly Lewisian, and eminently quotable aphorism: “All three of us knew, and Ransom had actually experienced, how thin is the crust which protects ‘real life’ from the fantastic” (17).