C.S. Lewis’s “The Dark Tower” and the Appeal of Unfinished Works

There is something exciting about reading an unfinished work; a certain charm in observing the fledgling thought of a writer, even if we are destined to never see the full thought in flight. The story may be coarse, or perhaps simply cut short, but whatever the case, the unfinished manuscript is a glimpse into the mind of its creator. In the word clay, we see traces of the writer’s process. We are made privy to the unpolished version of a voice we’ve usually only heard only at its best. Though it frustrates me that I will never know how the story ends, I enjoyed reading the fragment of C.S. Lewis’s “The Dark Tower,” because in it, I see further evidence of the kind of writer he was.

The work is a fascinating exploration of the concept of time and memory. Lewis’s characters build a device which they hope will allow them to see into the future or the past, but they end up observing a timeline outside of the realm of our history. The world looks familiar in some ways, bearing strong resemblance to the spot in England where the characters reside, but in other ways, the land on the screen seems far more sinister.  As the characters watch the scenes of this strange place play out, questions are raised about the nature of the universe. Is time truly a single line, stretching forward and back in finite proportions? Or, is it entangled, woven with other times similar to our own, which reach in other directions and pull at the space around us? Is our memory our own, or are the dreams and legends of our world mingled with the awareness of a people far from us?

Unfortunately, the questions raised in the story are never fully answered, not even in a fictional, hypothetical way. The story ends at what I presume to be the inciting event; Lewis could not have been more than halfway through the tale, perhaps even only a third of the way through. The manuscript which is published ends mid-sentence, mid-scene, in the middle of a moment of answers. Though we get to see an outline of Lewis’s fictional proposition of time, much of the action is left without even a hint of resolution. The stage is set with all the conflict and stakes in place, but then the stage goes dark.

What I can’t help but wonder is why Lewis never finished it. Perhaps he had created a problem he couldn’t quite figure out how to solve. If you read the story, you’ll see that he set up a very complex idea of time, and a conflict with very complex challenges the characters would need to overcome. As I writer myself, I wouldn’t blame him for abandoning the idea as impossible to resolve. Perhaps he grew bored with the idea, and simply decided to move on to something else. Perhaps he always intended to go back to it and just never had a chance.

Whatever his reason for not finishing, I think it is interesting to note how Lewis has started the manuscript. The story is a display of the way Lewis’s mind worked–always questioning possibilities and exploring what-ifs. We see Lewis take a possibility and use it to create a plausible yet incredible world. Logical and scientific explanations are given for what seems magical and impossible, as with all good science fiction, and there is a carefulness in the narration to avoid misinterpretation. What is clear is that Lewis was a thinker; a writer who’s material came as a result of deep thought on concepts which could then feed into his plots.

What are some of your favorite, unfinished works? Would you recommend them to others, despite their incompleteness?


*Note: after publishing this article, a professor I know messaged me. He once had the opportunity once to speak with Douglas Gresham (C.S. Lewis’ stepson) about this story. Gresham said that Lewis decided to leave the work unfinished because the direction the story was heading in was too dark. As the story grew, Lewis realized he didn’t want to go down the route the story was taking. So for other curious souls like me, it wasn’t that he wasn’t sure what to do or abandoned it, Lewis just decided that the story was darker than he wanted to write.

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