The Dark Tower – Part I

February 3, 2011 at 10:09 pm (Dark Tower, Literature, Stephen King)

It’s done. After about four months of more or less constant reading, I have finished the Dark Tower series by Stephen King. I still have rather mixed feelings about it, and I will explain why. Before, let me warn you: First of all, this is going to be a very long entry so I’ll split it up in at least two parts. Secondly, there are huge spoilers ahead – spoilers that include the ending, for instance, or crucial moments in some of the books. So if you haven’t read the books yet and plan to do so or if you haven’t finished the series, you should stop reading now. If you don’t, prepare for massive spoilers. Should you decide to read the books or are in the middle of reading them – well, don’t blame me if you rob yourselves of some surprises. I warned you.

The Dark Tower surely is a great achievement by a very talented writer who has written some of the finest horror literature ever. It’s more or less Kings “Lord of the Rings”, though not as perfect and much longer. While it took Tolkien “only” about 1200 pages to tell his tale, King needs – brace yourselves – 4032 pages to tell the tale of Roland and his quest for the Dark Tower. Just looking at this number is stunning, especially since most of the time, you just don’t realise how thick these books are because you’re simply hooked. Most of the time, anyway. There are also chapters that drag along, some are downright boring, and some – from Volume VI onward – are plain annoying.

We first meet Roland Deschain of Gilead in Volume I, The Gunslinger, originally published in 1982, re-published in 2003 (revised and extended edition). Writing commenced even earlier – in 1970, to be exact. The last Volume, The Dark Tower, was published in 2003. It took Stephen King 33 years to finish his epic – and it shows. The Gunslinger clearly is the work of a very young author, full of interesting and fresh ideas, set in a post-apocalyptic, western-type world that has moved on. The main story of Volume I consists of Roland’s pursuit of the Man in Black who he thinks holds valuable information as how to reach the Dark Tower. Also, there are flashbacks to Roland’s youth and his training as a gunslinger, and while chasing the Man in Black, he meets a number of people. The story seems a little jumbled and more than once I wondered where this might go – and, more so, if Stephen King himself had an idea where the story might actually lead. It’s not an easy book to read, not very accessible but nevertheless a masterpiece and definitely one of the best books in the whole series.

Now, if you pick up the revised edition (as I did) and read it very carefully, you will, when reaching the end of Volume VII, notice that the ending has been foreshadowed in The Gunslinger. I admit I had to go back to the ending of The Gunslinger because it had been a while since I had read it and simply couldn’t remember all that had been said during the palaver between Roland and the Man in Black. I’m referring to p. 225. Here the Man in Black tells Roland this: “What hurt you once will hurt you twice. This is not the beginning but the beginning’s end. You’d do well to remember that… but you never do.” Now, I haven’t read the original book so I cannot say for sure whether this dialogue has been inserted later or was part of the book from the beginning. However, it foreshadows the ending; those of you who have read all seven books will know what I mean, and I’ll get back to that later. For now, let’s just say that if the Man in Black had been more direct, he would have spoiled the ending.

One crucial encounter in The Gunslinger involves Jake, a boy killed in New York and transported to Mid-World. Roland meets the boy at the Way Station; he becomes his surrogate father and takes the boy with him. And then he makes a crucial mistake – one that could be among the reasons why the finale of the series is what it is. Desperate to catch up with the Man in Black, Roland lets Jake die a second time. He’s faced with the choice of saving the boy who is struggling not to plummet down into the darkness after old rusted crossties have given in and broken beneath his feet. Roland could save the boy or he could leave the mines to palaver with the Man in Black. He decides to sacrifice Jake – for a hero, this is a very cruel thing to do, isn’t it? I was shocked. This guy actually put the Tower above a human life, and even though he seems a bit shocked himself, catching up with the Man in Black is still the most important thing. It was daring of King to let his hero do this – very daring because up to this point, we don’t know much about Roland. We know he’s a gunslinger (some kind of knight only that instead of a sword, he has guns), we know he’s lost all people he ever cared about including his closest friends and his beloved Susan, and we know he searches for the Dark Tower. We know he can kill 30 people single-handed if he must, we know he has great knowledge. But we don’t know why he searches for the Tower, we don’t know what kind of person he really is. In Volume I, he’s presented as a very enigmatic yet at the same time very lonesome guy who is strictly focused on his goal. Nothing will come between him and his goal, not even a 10-year-old boy who has died before. This isn’t necessarily the stuff likeable characters are made of, is it? But over the course of the series, Roland progresses. I actually liked him a lot even though at times he made decisions that weren’t very humane, to say the least.

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