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C. S. Lewis on the Final FrontierScience and the Supernatural in the Space Trilogy$

Sanford Schwartz

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780195374728

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2009

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195374728.001.0001

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(p.151) Appendix A “The Dark Tower”

(p.151) Appendix A “The Dark Tower”

C. S. Lewis on the Final Frontier
Oxford University Press

(p.151) Appendix A

“The Dark Tower”


Much confusion surrounds the posthumous appearance of this unfinished tale. According to Lewis’s literary executor, Walter Hooper, the untitled sixty-two-page manuscript was salvaged from a fire to which Warren Lewis had consigned his brother’s papers soon after his death. Since its publication in The Dark Tower and Other Stories (1977), scholars have debated not only the merits of the story but also its date(s) of composition, and in the case of one outspoken critic, the authenticity of the manuscript itself. On the basis of internal and external evidence, Hooper speculates that it was composed in 1938–39 and designed as a sequel to Out of the Silent Planet (DT 8, 92). John Rateliff, citing references in J. R. R. Tolkien’s letters and Notion Club Papers, offers a measured argument for redating the manuscript to 1944–45; but he agrees that if the novel had been completed it would have followed Out of the Silent Planet in the final sequence. Jared Lobdell (2004) splits the difference by suggesting that Lewis composed the opening chapters in 1938–1939, and then resumed work in 1944–1945 and perhaps again around 1956 before putting it aside entirely. In The C. S. Lewis Hoax (1988), Kathryn Lindskoog doubts whether Lewis ever wrote the manuscript. Her impassioned argument, which openly casts suspicion on Hooper himself, is based on several factors: the absence of any explicit reference to this work by Lewis or his acquaintances during his lifetime; the inferiority of the writing and the departures in style and content from the rest of the Ransom series; and in her view most tellingly, some striking resemblances to passages in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (1962), implying that the story must have been composed by someone other than the ailing Lewis, who died in the following year. Lindskoog’s case was compelling enough to have kept the controversy alive, but most scholars who have seen the manuscript regard it as genuine, and after the recent (p.152) testimony of Lewis’s student, Alistair Fowler (2003), the burden of proof is increasingly on those who question its authenticity. Critical reception of “The Dark Tower” has been mixed: many of its first readers, eagerly awaiting the release of a lost novel by C. S. Lewis, were sadly disappointed. Others have found it an interesting experiment that sheds light on Lewis’s more successful ventures into other-dimensional travel. Some have speculated on the outcome of the story—we have enough to justify some fruitful extrapolation (see especially Lobdell 2000)—but few doubt the wisdom of the author’s decision to scuttle it.

In its fragmentary form, “The Dark Tower” may be divided roughly into two sections. The first four chapters, which take place at Cambridge, allow us to peer through a newly devised “chronoscope” into a “dark tower” (hence Hooper’s title) of a mysterious “Othertime,” and they culminate in an equally mystifying “exchange” between the inventor’s assistant (Scudamour, out of Spenser’s Faerie Queene) and his Othertime double. In chapter 5, the scene shifts to Scudamour’s adventures in the “alien” world, where we remain until the manuscript breaks off abruptly in the midst of chapter 7. As in Out of the Silent Planet, Lewis’s point of departure is the trail-blazing fiction of H. G. Wells. Echoing the opening scene of Wells’s The Time Machine, the story begins with a discussion of time travel that includes the inventor Orfieu, Scudamour, and three guests from the Space Trilogy—Ransom, MacPhee (not yet the official skeptic), and the narrator identified as Lewis. Orfieu dismisses the Wellsian premise of a “time flying-machine” (DT 19): it is illogical to assume that the human body can transport itself to a past or future state in which its own matter would be distributed elsewhere. He then shifts to the faculty of recollection and reveals that as a result of his isolation of “the Z substance” (23)—a reference to recent excitement over the neurotransmitter “substance P”—he has designed a “chronoscope” that enhances “time-perception” just as the telescope extends the natural apparatus of sight. But the fact that Orfieu’s contraption has a material basis in human physiology is less significant than his attempt to reorient time travel from physical to mental processes—memory, cognition, and imagination—while eschewing any affiliation with the “mystical” (20).

Orfieu’s discussion of memory is informed by two early twentieth-century books that had caused quite a stir in intellectual circles. The first, entitled An Adventure (1911) by C. A. E. Moberly and E. F. Jourdain, is the documentary account of an excursion to Versailles by a pair of respected Oxford educators, who were walking through the gardens behind the palace when they suddenly beheld “a whole scene from a part of the past long before their birth” (21). The second, (p.153) J. W. Dunne’s An Experiment with Time (1927), demonstrates our capacity to “remember” not only past but also future events. Dunne uses his own dreams as the main source of evidence, but assuming the stance of a strictly objective investigator, he lays out an experimental procedure for testing his claims, and as a military officer, engineer, and innovative aeronautical designer, he possessed a level of credibility that tended to put the skeptics on the defensive. Dunne’s attempt to couch his hypothesis in a theory that employs the fourth, fifth, and higher dimensions—so that successive moments in a lower dimension appear as simultaneous to an observer in a higher dimension—seemed only to heighten his authority, at least among those who were ready to believe. This remarkably influential book, which provided an ostensibly scientific explanation of occult phenomena, encouraged various kinds of literary experimentation with narratives that transcended the common-sense image of time. It influenced many writers of the period, including E. R. Eddison, James Hilton, J. B. Priestley, and J. R. R. Tolkien (see Flieger [1997] and the review of Dunne by J. L. Borges [1940]). For Lewis, who was also experimenting with nonlinear notions of time, Dunne’s book offered a means of replacing Wells’s purely mechanical “time flying-machine” with a device more closely related to the operations of the mind and a conception of time travel that strikes a better balance between physical and psychological processes. Or as the reflective Ransom observes, it is “the fact of having minds” that function in a certain way which “puts us into time” (DT 23).

In the next few chapters (2–4), we are introduced to Othertime and follow Orfieu and his colleagues as they try to comprehend the whereabouts (or whenabouts) of this strange new world. The chronoscope lights on an eerie chamber decorated throughout with images composed of swarms of identical sub-images, such as the floral pattern made up of individual flowers “repeated till the mind reeled” (30). The import of these designs is evident in the “idol” consisting of innumerable human bodies and culminating in “a single large head … the communal head of all those figures” (31). Sitting in this chamber of the “dark tower” is a corpse-like “Stingingman” who transforms what appear to be ordinary human beings into goose-stepping automatons, reminiscent of the silent drones that populate the totalitarian dystopia of Joseph O’Neill’s Land under England (1935). Our five observers are appropriately repulsed by this scene; the one exception is the new arrival Knellie, an aging aesthete whose attraction to Othertime speaks to the paradoxical kinship, explored by Thomas Mann and other writers of the time, between the “complete moral freedom” (52) of a detached and decadent aestheticism and the contemptuous violation (p.154) of time-honored ethical standards in modern totalitarian regimes. In this sense the alien world seems to represent what our own world is in danger of becoming.

As Orfieu and his colleagues behold the spectacle of human degradation, they remain perplexed over the relationship between Othertime and our own time. The narrator wonders whether it is past or future, while Ransom seems convinced that the chronoscope is peering into Hell. But when Scudamour sees his own “double” replacing the Stingingman, the group begins to suspect that they have opened a door to “something going on alongside the ordinary world and all mixed up with it” (48). It now becomes clear that we are not witnessing a form of linear time travel in the manner of Wells’s The Time Machine; nor are we peering into the transcendent spiritual or higher dimensional world that appears in Wells’s earlier novel, The Wonderful Visit (1895). Instead, we are making contact with what appears to be a parallel or alternative universe that bears an as-yet undetermined connection to our own. Wells himself had broached this idea in The Wonderful Visit, where the descent of an Angel from the Fourth Dimension prompts his terrestrial host to speculate that “there may be any number of three-dimensional universes packed side by side, and all dimly dreaming of one another. There may be world upon world, universe upon universe” (26). It took several decades, but stories of this sort began to appear in the 1930s, when British authors such as Stapledon were considering the proliferation of simultaneous universes, and various American pulp writers—Murray Leinster, David R. Daniels, C. L. Moore, W. Sell, and Jack Williamson among others—were expanding beyond the linear conception of time travel to tales that involve alternate time-tracks and parallel worlds (see Nahin 1993, Time Machines, for a comprehensive survey).

Wells’s seminal short story, “The Crystal Egg” (1897), anticipates yet another aspect of “The Dark Tower.” Early in the story, Orfieu and his associates begin to suspect that crossworld surveillance is running in both directions, and gradually it becomes evident that the Othertimers are not only examining us but constructing replicas of artifacts in our world, including the “dark tower” itself, which is identified as a copy of the new Cambridge library. The interaction between the two worlds takes a giant step forward when Scudamour, seeing his Othertime “double” prepare to sting the likeness of his own fiancée, Camilla Bembridge, somehow manages to leap through the chronoscope while his sinister counterpart ends up on the loose in our own world. As contrived as this “exchange” may seem, the existence of Othertime doubles indicates that these parallel worlds are intimately if inexplicably tied to each other. Moreover, the introduction of a love motif explicitly echoing the confusions (p.155) of identity in Spenser’s epic—Hooper tells us that Camilla’s surname was originally Ammeret, recalling Scudamour’s lover in The Faerie Queene—adds emotional weight to what might otherwise be a merely mechanical exchange between worlds.

In the second section of the fragment (chapters 5–7), we fast forward to Scudamour’s return and the account of his Othertime exploits. As a result of his intervention, Scudamour rescues the Othertime Camilla from his own Stingingman, whom he replaces as Lord of the Dark Tower. In his new role, Scudamour retains his terrestrial mind and character but feels the same impulses, including the urge to sting, as his Othertime “double.” He also receives updates on the movements of an enemy force, the “White Riders,” whom he regards as the potential salvation of this dreary and oppressive world. But the principal disclosures of this section take place in the Tower library, where Scudamour becomes acquainted with a world that has “specialized in the knowledge of time” (84) to the same degree that ours has been based on the “knowledge of space.” There are hints of Bergson in this distinction, but Lewis cuts some new ground (more akin to Dunne than to Bergson) as his Othertimers begin to speculate on the possibility of multi-dimensional time. Just as our geometers progress from one spatial dimension to the next by constructing a new axis perpendicular to the existing one, so the Othertime chronometers have extrapolated from a one-dimensional time line to a two-dimensional square in which time may flow not only “backwards-forwards” along a horizontal axis but also “andwards and eckwards” along a vertical axis (86). Proceeding from Lewis’s pet idea that images in myths and dreams may be glimpses of “realities which exist in a time closely adjacent” to one’s own (88), Othertime researchers have begun to construct artifacts designed to replicate and thereby “attract” their other-dimensional counterparts. Reminiscent of Weston and his kind, they have also “sacrificed” children and prisoners in an attempt to produce “exchanges” between their world and ours. We are led to wonder if the Camilla whom Scudamour rescues in Othertime has been the victim of such an exchange, since she is far more appealing and humane than her disagreeable double in our own world. But the narrative breaks off before our suspicions can be confirmed.

The manuscript terminates in mid-sentence, but assuming that the disclosures in the library are reasonably accurate, we have sufficient information to construct a cogent explanation of the commerce between Othertime and our time. We may never know Lewis’s plans for completing the story, but the plot has proceeded far enough to raise questions that we expect to have answered by the end. What happens to Scudamour between his lessons in the library and his return to our world? Will he (p.156) join the White Riders and redeem this shabby totalitarian domain, which seems at once a “downwards” transposition of our own world and an ominous sign of what it might become? Will Orfieu or Ransom (as their names imply) enter into Othertime and participate in Scudamour’s rescue or other events in the alien world? What sort of trouble will Scudamour’s double stir up before he is returned to his own time, and how will the author resolve the issue of the two seemingly misplaced Camillas? In addition to questions of plot, we are still left wondering about the character of this multiverse and the relations between its different time-tracks. Are these two (or more) worlds entirely separate until they develop technologies of contact? If so, how do we explain the connection between the myths and dreams of one universe and the realities of another, or the uncanny presence of our own doubles, which suggests a bond between worlds more intimate than the apparatus of replica-construction and the body-swapping of lookalikes seem to indicate? Do these alternative worlds issue from a single transcendent source, or as Charles Williams’s Lord Arglay speculates in Many Dimensions, do they arise from our own actions, so that “whenever a man made a choice, a real choice—whenever he definitely did one of two things he also did at the same moment the other and brought an entire new universe into being that he might do so” (53)? The reason our questions are never answered may lie in the conceptual uncertainties of the project itself. It may have been launched as an exercise in time travel, but like the five protagonists who leap from one hypothesis to the next, Lewis ends up experimenting with various ways of imagining the relations between alternative or parallel universes. As an exploration of temporal processes, Perelandra has far more to recommend it, and as a study of parallel worlds the result is often unsatisfying or confusing, especially in the conflation of temporal and spatial orientations and in the use of crudely mechanical means to represent a considerably more complex relationship between the disparate worlds. If Lewis has not yet arrived at the elegant cosmic design of The Chronicles of Narnia, this discarded fragment reveals some of the other possibilities he might have pursued, and it throws into relief the distinctive benefits of the road he later chose to take.