The Ebony Tower

by John Fowles

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Ebony Tower is a 1974 collection of four fictional short stories and one novella written by famed English novelist John Fowles. In fact, there are three short stories: “Poor Koko,” “The Enigma” and “The Cloud”; one translation of the old French romantic tale “Breton lai” by French poet Marie de France—“Eliduc;” and one novella—The Ebony Tower. The collection received positive-to-mixed reviews, and British film and television director Robert Knights directed the 1984 TV film The Ebony Tower starring Laurence Olivier and the 1980 TV adaption of The Enigma starring Nigel Hawthorne.

The title novella, The Ebony Tower, tells the story of Henry Breasley, an elderly celebrated British painter who lives on an isolated island in France with two young women, Diana and Anne (nicknamed the Mouse and the Freak). It also tells the story of David Williams, a young artist, art critic, and writer who arrives on the island in order to write Breasley’s biography.

Fowles incorporates several socially relevant themes such as art, the clash between realism and abstractionism, human nature, mystery, creativity, existentialism, love and sex, emotionality, rationality, freedom, and individuality.

He manages to create strong, realistic, and well-developed characters who are practically polar opposites, both in physical appearance and in personality. Interestingly enough, some analysts believe that Fowles’s characterization is, in fact, the best element of the novella. Thus, Breasley represents carelessness and passion while David represents carefulness and controlled emotionality. However, both David and the readers learn that Brealsey’s life is only attractive, fun, and exciting on the surface.

The Ebony Tower is usually the most liked story out of the collection. Fowles was praised for his thought-provoking and somewhat philosophical narrative, his clever dialogues, the vivid landscapes, and, of course, his multidimensional characters. However, some readers did criticize him, mainly for the novella’s anticlimactic ending. In addition, the five stories are basically interconnected in different ways.

“Eliduic” is, essentially, a medieval romance. It tells the story of a knight who goes to England and leaves his wife behind. He falls in love with a beautiful princess whom he marries in the end, while his ex-wife, realizing that her husband will never return, decides to become a nun. Fowles translated the tale because its plot inspired the other stories of the collection.

“Poor Koko” describes the interesting encounter between an older scholar and a thief who broke into his country cottage; “The Enigma” describes the mysterious disappearance of a British politician named John Fielding; and the final story, “The Cloud,” describes the eventful day of a group of English friends who decide to go on a picnic in a small village in Southern France. An interesting element of all three stories is the fact that they all share the theme of mystery.

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