I guess I’m a sucker for book series and epics. If I was put on the spot to name some of my favorite books, I’d include J.R.R. Tolkein‘s Lord of the Rings, Frank Herbert‘s Dune books, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books and Robert E. Howard‘s Conan stories. It’s not like I don’t read other books and enjoy the work of many other authors, but these long tales seem to keep ending up on my night stand or playing on my iPod every few years… they are like visiting old friends or putting on a favorite pair of shoes. Arguably near the very top of my list would be Stephen King‘s The Dark Tower series.
I’ve been threatening for some time to blog about The Dark Tower books, which finally wrapped up in 2004 with the seventh and final book. It was a long ride… King started writing the first book, The Gunslinger, in 1970. It was first published in book form in 1982, but originally saw print in installment form in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction starting in 1978. The last book, The Dark Tower, was published in 2004. That’s over 20 years since readers first met Roland Deschain of Gilead and when they turned the final page to learn how his long journey ends. That’s a long time to keep the fires burning on a single story. Along the way, despite the time and inevitable changes in the story, the writer and the world (which all amount to the same), King kept the story on a basically coherent and straight path… no easy task.
Let me pause here to say that in this article I will be discussing and revealing major plot points and elements… in short: spoilers. If you have not read the Dark Tower book and have an interest in doing so, please stop right now and go get, rent or borrow them. If you are indeed about to open The Gunslinger for the first time and join Roland in his journey to the Tower… I envy you. Enjoy the ride.
The Dark Tower is a series of seven books that follow the adventures of Roland Deschain, the last of the gunslingers. Roland is a kind of knight, and his quest is to reach the Dark Tower, which lies at the nexus of all time, space and reality. The Dark Tower, which is the linchpin that holds all universes together, is weakening and beginning to fall. Roland’s world is showing the symptoms of the Tower’s decline… the inhabitants of his world say that it has “moved on”, but what is really happening is that it is dying as reality, including time, is unraveling and things begin to wind down as civilization decays. Roland lives not in our world but another dimension of sorts, but what’s happened to his world will shortly begin, or has begun, on our world as well as all worlds. Roland wants to stop this process, and perhaps reverse it if he can, but he is not sure any of that is possible. Because of the softening of time and his place in the plans of ka, a kind of grand design/fate, he has searched for the Dark Tower for a thousand years, and he may now just want to see it and climb to the top… all other original designs may or may not now be secondary to this. Along the way we learn about Roland, his past and who and what he is. He finds friends along the way who join his quest, against their will at first but eventually as willing participants. Their adventures and tales take many twists and turns, and more and more of the details of the nature of the Tower, Roland and the universe are revealed as the journey continues, until the last scene at the Dark Tower itself. It’s a very long journey, moving in and out of Roland’s world into our own, or worlds “just next door”, and filled with horror, action, laughter, heartache and love.
One of the principal successful elements of the Dark Tower books are the very original kind of world(s) and characters King creates. They combine elements of science fiction, mythology and history, particularly that of the United State’s “Old West” in a unique way. It isn’t easy to mix laser guns and six-shooter revolvers, time travel and magic crystal balls, multiple dimensions and King Arthur all onto one seamless (well, almost seamless) story, but King does so convincingly. Its the uniqueness and oddity of juxtaposition in King’s Dark Tower universe that make it seem so surreal and yet so dusty and solid to behold… and so sad and dying. Roland’s world is one that had once been more advanced than our own, but has “moved on” and forgotten most of it’s former splendor. The decaying hulks of the machines of “the old people” lay about, no longer understood and mostly unusable. There is a melancholy here reminiscent of Charlie in Flowers for Algernon… here is a world that tasted a higher existence and has receded back, but the memory of what once was haunts the remaining inhabitants with a sadness over forgotten joys and achievements. It makes the rust and peeling paint of this fading world that much sadder. Even more interesting is the fact that almost all of King’s other books end up touching in some manner on the Dark Tower… characters from some other books end up here in these books, and places, events and other elements from many of his stories show up in the Dark Tower books.
Here is a VERY brief run down of the books and their major themes. It is a cursory examination at best. Rather than getting into too many plot details, I’ll instead give my thoughts on each as an individual read and as a part of the whole.
Book 1: The Gunslinger– The first book is by far the shortest. In it we meet Roland of Gilead, an old west gunslinger of deadly skill and single minded determination. Roland is chasing “The Man in Black”, a semi-human sorcerer named Walter, through a vast desert. Along the way we learn abut his early test of manhood and his horror in a town called Tull, as well as his meeting with Jake, a young boy presumably from our world (1970’s New York, to be precise) who travels with him. Eventually Roland, who has begun to love Jake as a son, is forced to choose between Jake’s life and the continuation of his journey to the Dark Tower.
This book was written very early in King’s career and isn’t as polished or coherent as his later efforts, but there is a fascinating concept behind it. It foreshadows events to come very well, and gives us a taste of Roland’s world that leaves us wanting more. King revised the book in 2003 to fix certain problems and inconsistencies, which I regard with mixed reactions.
Book 2: The Drawing of the Three– At the end of The Gunslinger, Roland finally catches Walter and the resulting “palaver” (a long consultation) causes Roland to lose ten years of his life and invests him with the power of “drawing”, given presumably by Ka or the Gods or whatever higher power is trying to balance the forces assaulting the Tower with those that hold it up. In “drawing” Roland draws, like a card out of a deck, three different people from our world and different points in time, or “when”, through magic doors he finds on an endless beach on the western sea. Fighting for his life against an infection from the bite of a sea creature that took two fingers of his right hand, he draws Eddie Dean, a heroin addict from 1980’s New York; Odetta Holmes, a wealthy, young black heiress and activist from 1960’s New York who has lost her legs in an ‘accident’ and is also schizophrenic with a dangerous second personality in the form of Detta Walker; and Jack Mort, a psychopath also from New York who is connected to both Odetta and Jake… unbeknownst to them. At the end of the book, only two end up surviving the trip to “Mid-World” but Roland has the medicine to recover from his illness and Odetta/Detta merge to create a new persona, Susannah Dean, Eddie’s new love.
This book really shows King’s multiple world concepts and fills them out, bringing the mystical/sci-fi elements of the story to bear. Unlike book one, there is no where to go but onward at the end of the book. I think this is where King decided this would be a long epic.
Book 3: The Wastelands– Moving on into “End-World”, Roland and his friends discover more leavings of the old people, and we are first introduced to the concept of “The Beams”. We find out that all of existence is being held up by six beams of unimaginable force, that converge at a single point… the Dark Tower. This book is really an adventure in two acts. First, Roland and his companions draw the real third into their group, mending a time paradox that is slowing driving Roland and the other insane. The true third is Jake, the boy from the first book. His arrival and their being joined by a wild animal called a ‘billy bumbler’ Jake names Oy, a kind of cross between a dog, badger and fox with a rudimentary intelligence and a limited speaking ability, completes their group which in turn becomes “ka-tet”. Ka-tet is a kind of mystical group, created by Ka, whose sum is greater than it’s parts and which creates a sort of “power” when together. In the second part of the book, they come upon a ruined city the size of New York and deal with the decrepit and warring inhabitants who kidnap Jake. Eventually they find a high tech and self aware mono-rail called Blaine to take them out of the city. They discover Blaine is insane and they must engage him in a riddling contest in order to save their lives… with little hope of winning against the computer. This book ends in a true cliff hanger… Roland’s ka-tet speeding on the high tech train over a nuclear wasteland at 900 MPH trying to win their lives with riddles.
This book also introduces a plot element that bothers the hell out of me for the rest of the series, until the very end. That element is the proclivity for the characters to “just know” when something is right or what to do, even when there is no explanation for how they know or understand these things. Eddies whittles a key out of wood that ends up being crucial in releasing Jake from certain death in our world… Jake follows these feelings into a bookstore where he is compelled to buy two seemingly unrelated books that end up being crucial to later events. This isn’t like clairvoyance, it’s “just knowing”, and it seems way too convenient and lazy a plot device to me. Far too deus ex machina. This is a decent book but my least favorite of the series. Also introduced here is the concept of “the Rose”, a mysterious manifestation of some titanic power for good growing in the form of a wild rose in an abandoned lot in New York.
Book 4: Wizards and Glass– Beating Blaine via an unorthodox riddle, Roland’s ka-tet ends up in the world of The Stand after the Super-Flu has ravaged the planet. On the road, Roland tells them a tale of his youth shortly after his test of manhood. He and his companions are sent to a seaside town many long miles from Gilead and an escalating war with a rebel named John Farson to keep them safe. The town is called Barony in the land known as Mejis, and there Roland’s band discovers a plot against the Affiliation (Gilead and it’s allies) to supply oil from an ancient oil field to Farson’s forces to provide fuel to run old machines of destruction, assuring the rebellion it’s victory. Also in Mejis, in the keeping of a treacherous old witch named Rhea, is one of 13 magic balls called the Bend’s o’the Rainbow or the Wizard’s Glasses. This one is the Pink color, and it is a dangerous thing. Roland also falls in love with a local girl named Susan Delgado, and complications due to her being promised as a kind of concubine to the mayor of the town cause much grief. In the end, Roland and his friends break the plot and capture the pink glass, but Susan is burned at the stake and Roland is never the same after. After he tells his tale, there is another confrontation with Walter ending in his banishment and their finding the road to the Tower again.
At first I liked this book a lot, but now that series is done I find it my least favorite after The Wastelands. Much is made of playing the game “castles”, a kind of chess, constantly drawing parallels to the chess match that is Roland’s slow duel with Farson’s agents… each refusing to play their hand out but instead circling each other until the end. Unfortunately several parts of the book are about as exciting as watching a chess match, and more than once I wanted SOMETHING to happen to move it along. There is also a bit too much of one side knowing just what the other is up to, and countering, which leads to the same on the other side. That also seems a little lazy and easy to me… Still, it’s a good read with some great characters, and we see a bit more into Roland’s world. We are also introduced to the Wizard’s Glass, anther color of which becomes a big part of future events.
Book 5: Wolves of the Calla– Roland’s ka-tet end up in a village called Calla Bryn Sturgis, which is being terrorized every 20 years or so by a gang of wolf-like humanoids on horseback that sweep in and steal one of every set of twins in the Calla. In Calla Bryn Sturgis, almost all kids are twins, with only the rare exception. The twins come back months later and are mentally damaged to the point of retardation. They also painfully grow to be nearly giants before dying an early, painful death. Roland and his ka-tet seek to stop this fast approaching horror, meeting with both support and resistance in the small community. To further complicate matters, Susannah is secretly pregnant with what is believed the child of a demon she conceived during Jake’s violent entry into this world back in book 3. The ka-tet also meet and befriend an old man readers of King will recognize, Father Donald Callahan… last seen riding a bus out of Salem’s Lot after being made to drink the blood of the vampire Barlow and fleeing in disgrace. Callahan is now here in Roland’s world, and he has another of the Wizard’s glasses… this one the most dangerous of them all, Black Thirteen. Roland and his friends do some traveling between the worlds in an effort to protect the Rose, which is in danger of being destroyed by the forces of the Crimson King, who we learn is behind the fall of the tower by using powerful psychics to break the beams holding the tower up. He’s feeding the “breakers” something he takes from the kidnapped kids brains that boosts the breaker’s power while it reduces the kids to idiots. After rooting out some traitors in the Calla, Roland and his ka-tet defeat the wolves and save the town, but lose Susannah in the process. She does not die, but anther personality named Mia has surfaced within her, claiming to the the baby’s true mother and taking over as the birth nears, leaving for 1999 New York and taking Black Thirteen, their means to travel, with her.
Alert readers will recognize that this is a retelling of “The Seven Samurai” and “The Magnificent Seven“, both stories of seven warriors who defend a town of farmers from vicious raiders. King makes to secret of it… mentioning it in the book itself. Regardless, this is my favorite of the series. It’s a great tale with many converging plot elements, exciting action, intrigue and good pacing. The characters really come into their own here, and the evolving story of the Tower, it’s nature and what has been going on begins to be revealed and it’s both original in concept and narrative. All that aside, the story Callahan tells of his time from his leaving Salem’s Lot to his arrival in the Calla is my favorite part of the entire series, a long and excruciatingly lonely journey still in search of an end… and possible redemption. The one really bizarre thing is the unexpected addition of a new plot element… King has added himself into the story. The ka-tet discover an actual copy of ‘Salem’s Lot, much to the confusion of Callahan, and the name Stephen King takes on some significance.
Book 6: Song of Susannah– Things really get complicated in this book. Roland, Eddie, Jake and Pere Callahan set out to use the doorway cave via some help from local mystics called the Manni to both go after Susannah and to save the Rose, happening in two different “whens”, one in 1999 and one in the 1970’s. The door tricks them and sends the wrong two to each destination. Callahan, Jake and Oy end up in 1999 to go after Mia/Susannah, while Roland and Eddie end up in a small New England rural area to find the owner of the lot in which the Rose resides to finish a promise of purchase Eddie got from said owner in the last book. Meanwhile Susannah struggles against and to understand Mia and the nature of her pregnancy and baby. Roland and Eddie find aid in the form of an old man named John Cullum, who helps them to find the owner of the lot and fulfill that quest while also discovering that Stephen King is real and in this world. Furthermore we learn that King is like the Rose… the vessel of some kind of force connected to the beams that is also in danger of being destroyed by the Crimson King’s agents. Unlikely as it may seem, Roland and Eddie end up meeting King and convincing him that we has to finish writing the Dark Tower books, which it seems are not being written by him but more being channelled by him from the Beam. Meanwhile Susannah finds out that Mia is not another personality, but a demon who infested her after she’d been impregnated to act as the surrogate mother to the child. The baby was created from two fathers, one being the Crimson King and one being Roland himself through a bizarre set of circumstances dating back to book one. They go to have the baby at a place called “The Dixie Pig”, a lair for the Crimson King’s minions in this world. Jake, Oy and Pere Callahan trail Susannah to a hotel they holed up in, retrieve Black Thirteen and dispose of it, and then prepare to follow them into the Dixie Pig as the book comes to a close.
This book got off the track somewhat, in my opinion. While it explained a lot of things (including the beginnings of the universe of all things) it has several elements too ill fitting to be ignored… the chief of this being King’s inclusion of himself as a character. King is supposed to be this ordinary guy who is a writer early in his career, and somehow he’s been chosen as this vessel to channel and harbor the power of the beams on this plane, also the job of the Rose on the same world, which is different in some way. This world is ‘real’ in ways the others are not. King isn’t a god but just the imperfect radio receiver of one, and somehow his writing the story makes it real and/or protects/holds up the beam. He has stopped writing it and that makes him vulnerable to be killed by the Crimson King’s agents, and to ka itself. I understand the concept, but I can’t get past the ridiculous idea of King writing himself into the story. I can see the connection between the length of time it took to write the books and the fear his character had in doing the work… but seeing his name and reading himself having lines in the books is just too dumb. He should have invented a pseudonym to use or something… anything to avoid the distraction of himself as a major character. That may be the only major beef I have with this entire tale, but its a hard one to get over. Having the baby be partly Roland’s smacked of the Arthurian legend, which is eluded to many times in the books. Roland was to have descended directly from the “great king Arthur Eld”, and Excalibur is also mentioned as well as Merlin at times. Here is another illegitimate son, born under false pretense, destined to kill his father. As an extension of the Arthur legend, it makes perfect sense… and of course the baby’s name is Mordred. At the end we find that this entire story is an extension of the Aurthur legend, and Roland’s very guns were forged from the steel of Excalibur itself.
Book 7: The Dark Tower– In the final book Susannah, after being led through a door back into Roland’s world and a town called Fedic, physically splits from the pregnant Mia, who finally delivers Mordred. Coming after her in the Dixie Pig, Callahan dies but Jake and Oy pursue her and catch up, to find her alone. She has killed the Crimson King’s men but the baby is a true demon, turning into the giant spider and sucking Mia’s physical form dry before fleeing from Susannah’ guns. Roland and finally find them and they continue on their journey through a transporter door to the land of Thunderclap, where the breakers are at work against the beam. Mordred is stealthily pursuing them. In Thunderclap they meet allies in three breakers, Ted Brautigan (yes, the character from the short story Low Men in Yellow Coats in the compilation Hearts in Atlantis), Dinky Earnshaw and the slow witted Stanley Ruiz. Stanley turn out to be an old friend of Roland’s from Mejis, somehow come through the years to be here. He is also a powerful teleporter. With their help, they mount an attack on the working town/comfortable prison of Algul Siento where hundreds of breakers are on the verge of bringing down one of the last remaining two beams. They are successful in breaking the jailers and freeing the breakers (most do not want to be freed, and are resentful), but in the process see their ka-tet break when Eddie is killed from ambush. As Susannah mourns her dead man and stays to see to his burial, Roland, Jake and Oy have to go back to 1999 to save the life of Stephen King, who’s death will accomplish the same thing the breakers were trying to do. Jake sacrifices his own life to save King, leaving the writer broken from being hit by a van but alive and prepared to resume writing the Dark Tower again.
I have to interrupt the synopsis here to rant about this part. Most people know King was hit be a mini-van while walking on a rural road near his home many years ago and was hurt very badly… he could have been killed. That’s tough and I’m sure it was traumatic, but King manages to work the accident into two major works of his… this book and TV’s ill-fated Kingdom Hospital. Get over it, Mr. King. I know writers best write about what they know, but millions of people get hit by cars every year. As a plot device it’s limited and already overused. I hope he’s gotten that out of his system.
A heartbroken Roland and Oy return to to end-world and Fedic to meet up with Susannah, and begin the final road to the tower with a rapidly growing Mordred on their trail. After a stop at the Crimson King’s abandoned castle, Roland and Susannah save a young mute named Patrick Danville from the clutches of an emotion-vampire named Dandelo. Patrick is a talented artist who’s drawings are more than they seem. They discover whatever he draws manifests itself in reality. Further on the road, Susannah’s dreams of Eddie and Jake meeting her in Central Park come true as she has Patrick draw her a magic door back to her world, and she leaves Roland to his quest. Alone with just Patrick and Oy, Roland trusts the boy to stand watch while he gets a few hours of sleep his body is demanding. Patrick lets him down and a sick Mordred attacks in his spider form. Oy is killed protecting Roland, who in turn kills Mordred. Eventually Roland and Patrick arrive at the Dark Tower. They find, as expected, that the insane Crimson King is locked out on a balcony of the Tower but none the less holds it against them with seemingly unlimited weapons at his disposal. Roland uses Patrick’s power to dispose of the Crimson King, and leaves the boy behind as he enters the Tower. He hears the distant sound of his Horn of Eld, handed down to him through the generations but lost by him at a great battle years before. As he climbs, he sees his life in every detail in each open room. The room at the top has always been his destination. He arrives and opens the door to see….
Let’s stop there for now. Whew. That was a lot of work, and let me tell you I left out an unbelievable amount of plot, characters, detail and crucial points. The above in no way describes a fraction of the story and it’s intricacies. I could discuss those for the next month and not get it all said. For now, I’d like to talk about two specific points… King’s changes of books one and two for continuity’s sake and the ending.
Having read both the original and 2003 revised The Gunslinger, I have to say I think King went overboard in trying to tie in the book to the rest of the series. Yes, some changes needed to be made. Certainly the references added to Susan and the Mejis story were a nice touch… although making the piano player in the Tull saloon into Sheb from Mejis was a bit much. What I objected to were the additions that seemed to be there just to stick the lexicon of later books into the pages, or refer to places and creatures of later events for no reason that advanced the plot. For example, the desert farmer Brown who Roland meets mentioned seeing a taheen with the head of a bird wandering in the desert, looking for a place called Algul Siento, and he mentioned his dead wife was Manni. None of these insertions served any purpose except to shoehorn the references into the book. Surely it isn’t too much to ask the reader to understand in a world is so broken and spread about that things exist at one end unknown or undreamed of by folks at the other. References to the beams were logical, but some were frivolous. That said I prefer the rewriting even with the intelligence insulting insertions, as some of the other changes were welcome.
And now the end… many people were angry about the end of the book, but for me it was perfect. It could not have ended a better way. King himself implores the reader to stop at the point where Roland enters the Tower and the door clangs shut behind him, and we cut to Central Park where Susannah has arrived to find Eddie and Jake, but obviously ones from another world who don’t remember the events of the past but seem to think they know her anyway… they are looking at happily ever after. Asking us to stop must be a joke, though… we are now part of Roland’s ka-tet and cannot stop anymore than he can. Standing before the door to the room at the top of the Tower, Roland opens it to see bright sky, burning sun and endless desert. He has a moment to realize what had happened before he finds himself again standing in the desert on the trail of Walter… younger and whole and without memory of all that has been since the first page of book one. We realize he has come to the Tower without the Horn of Eld, which he needs to fulfill his purpose. He does not have it, so the Tower sends him back to the beginning again. This time, as he prepares to continue on the trail of Walter, he pats the Horn on his belt….
The perfect ending, you see. When Pere Callahan died I was sorry because I liked his character and I didn’t want him to die. But when Eddie died…. I was sad. Really sad. Not only because the character I has traveled so far with was gone, but because I knew this ruined the series for me. I could not now reread it knowing Eddie and god knows who else would die. The journey ended… and taking it again might now prove too long knowing what was to come. Then Jake died… it was falling apart. Susannah leaving and finding the other world Eddie and Jake was not enough. They were gone and the Tower never to be for them. I understood the story needed to be told the way it needed to be told, but this sucked. I was numb by the time Oy died. Then came the end…. and King saved the series for me. You see, the best part of any story is always the journey and not the destination. No matter what, the end never really can equal the process that brought you to it. Here King relieves us of an ending. Now I can reread the story knowing Eddie and Jake live again until Roland does it right! Then, who’s to say it doesn’t end up different the last time with the horn… we can imagine them all coming to the Tower at dusk. The best ending to a King story ever. Bravo, Stephen. It’s so good I can even forgive the obvious plot hole that unless Roland goes back to the point in which he lost the horn, he never has the chance, even unconsciously, to do the correct thing and take it with him from Jericho Hill. The best thing about the ending is… all that deus ex machina “I just know this is what I’m supposed to do” crap now makes sense! They know they have to do this or that because they’ve done it over and over ala Groundhog Day for who nows how many eons??? I loved that explanation… too bad it bothered me so long before being explained to masterfully in one fell swoop at the end.
Personally, I think King had no idea at all where the Dark Tower books were going until the third book, and didn’t get a real handle on the final concepts until he started Wolves of the Calla. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s the impression I get. Really, that makes it all the more impressive to me… having a nice, tidy outline for the series doesn’t have the artistic flair that writing by the seat of your pants has… and you can’t argue King’s skill at creating characters his readers can grow to care about. I’ve never felt sad about the death of a fictional character before Eddie died in the last book. Not even Old Yeller.
King is working on a comic book series that will tell some of the tales between the Tower books and the end of the Mejis adventure. The short story Little Sisters of Eluria is a Roland tale he wrote already in a compilation book. He eludes to a lot of other adventures of Roland’s in the Tower books, like the eventual fate of the witch Rhea, a mention of the only other woman besides Susan Delgado that was important in his life, the end of his first ka-mates and their adventures, etc. These should be fun stories with no need to tie in too deeply to the events in the books (I hope). I am sure I will enjoy them, but I hope King writes some plain old Roland stories as well someday.
It was a long and wonderful journey… say thankya, sai King.
755 My cover art for the next issue of MAD, exclusive sneak peek from @entertainmentweekly website
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