Lost Lit: Stephen King’s The Gunslinger (Dark Tower Series, vol. 1)

“Go, then. There are other worlds than these.”

I promised you this review weeks ago. I have a billion excuses, but I think my delay boils down to this: it is one thing to review a book or series that you like or find amusing in a bizarre way (I’m looking at you, Fringe). It is another to review a book or series that you absolutely love. It’s even harder to review just the first part of a series—What should I include? What should I omit? Do I hint and spoil, or ignore and cause you to miss out?

I’m going to err on the side of hinting but not spoiling. Having read The Gunslinger four times, though, it’s not clear to me anymore what the first-time reader experience is like. In other words, some plot moves feel obvious the fourth time around. And it’s not like suspense is really Stephen King’s strongest strength—I’m not even sure it’s supposed to be, at that. But I’ll try.

There are two things you must know about The Gunslinger and the Dark Tower Series in general: They are not horror, and they are absolutely epic. Not a horror fan? I don’t care. Read them anyway. By epic I mean big but not overwhelming, universalizing yet personal, philosophical yet rarely dry. Epic like the Odyssey, the Divine Comedy, the Canterbury Tales, Dickens’ oeuvre, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and Lord of the Rings. Tolkien himself was a huge influence on the books, as King himself acknowledges in his introduction and prologue to the newly revised edition (more on that below).

But any of the texts I just mentioned—all of which, except the Comedy and Proust, are specifically referenced in the book—are about not just individual journeys, but also the styles of civilizations that make up the world. In the Odyssey, our hero “saw the townlands and learned the minds of many distant men” (that’s Fitzgerald’s translation). That is, Odysseus must travel and see the world before he can be fully prepared to return to Penelope; Homer obfuscates this highly personal narrative arc by mosaic-ing the plot. In the Comedy, Dante must see the sins, vices, and virtues of his friends, his enemies, his heroes, and his villains before he can put aside his primary sin (artistic pride) and attain truly enlightened caritas (divine love). In Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sam must see all of Middle Earth in order to come of age. The intimacy of the hobbits’ emotional growth against the large-scale backdrop of the war of Good versus Evil (or penis versus vagina, in the Freudian reading of the filmic representations) mirrors The Gunslinger’s emphasis both on the hero, Roland, and the stakes of his journey, which are no less than saving the world and reclaiming the penis, um, the Dark Tower, as his own.

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and Dickens’ final novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, are mentioned twice in King’s introductory material. The Canterbury Tales are an estates-satire, which is the medieval version of a class-satire: Chaucer’s pilgrims are from all walks of life, and they are poked fun at, and poke some fun themselves. But the Canterbury Tales are also unfinished, as is Drood, and for many years, King’s fear was that the Dark Tower would be relegated to the realm of great unfinished books (much as the Game of Thrones series seems to many of us now: sigh). The publication schedule is therefore more than a little lopsided: The Gunslinger was published in 1982, but the final three parts were not published until 2003, just months after each other.

The sudden rush to finish his magnum opus, spurred by his own brush with death, also led King to revise the first few books, especially The Gunslinger. He added and subtracted, and fixed a few bloopers. I’ve never read the original (it’s hard to come by), but the new result doesn’t feel patchy, and still retains the sense of being “a young man’s book” as King calls it.

Six paragraphs in, and I still haven’t given you a review! Drat, this is hard…

The Gunslinger is a tight novel. At only 231 pages, it’s one of King’s shortest. It’s also one of his most experimental, narrative-wise: as King himself notes (I won’t tell you where, yet), it’s a story told backwards. This is how it starts:

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

The gunslinger, Roland, is traveling across a desert reminiscent of the landscape of "The Hollow Men" (another text obliquely alluded to). He encounters a desert dweller, and describes where he’s been (the town of Tull), then moves on to encounter a boy named Jake, who appears to have slipped into this world from one that resembles our own—well, if we live in 1970s Manhattan, that is. After meeting and taking up with Jake, the back-story becomes a mixture of memories of Roland’s childhood and stories that he tells the boy. Which is which, and what Roland actually says, is left intentionally ambiguous.

Roland is a tough man (Clint Eastwood in those spaghetti westerns was a huge inspiration). He’s unimaginative, slow but not stupid, and almost entirely humorless. He has been nearly beaten down by his quest—but the true nature of that quest, and the entirety of what it has included, is given to us only in bits and pieces. The first sentence signals both this fragmentation and the questionable motives of our surly-but-loveable hero: the gunslinger is following. He’s not leading yet, and he’s not taking mastery of his situation. He’s only reacting. Indeed, the man in isn’t really fleeing, we soon realize: he’s leading Roland to a final showdown on the far edge of Mid-World.

This sense of needing to re-read, or at least to re-evaluate, the first words once we know what’s going to happen permeates the entire novel, even the entire series. The back of the book tells us the hero is named Roland Deschain, but the first time we hear his name it is presented through the mouth of another, and in the context of already having happened, even though we didn’t see it: “The man that Allie had called Roland…” Before that, he’s just the gunslinger.

The gunslinger/Roland dichotomy isn’t a false one, either. Roland’s fatal flaw (recalling Odysseus’s hubris, Dante’s pride in artistic creation, even Frodo’s nostalgia) is his loneliness. He connects with Allie, a woman in Tull, but that doesn’t end well. More poignantly, he connects with Jake, in whom he sees both himself and the son he might have had. But Roland must sacrifice these people, and his relationships to them, in order to pursue his quest and to live up to his duties as the last gunslinger.

The universe that Roland inhabits is unique and hard to determine in this first book. I remember the first time I read it, I assumed that Roland lived in the future—it would explain the snatches of “Hey Jude” that he hears at a roadhouse bar, the discarded and disintegrating machinery, the constant mention of the world having “passed on.” I’ve never seen Mad Max, but I think that’s much the same vibe.

It’s not spoiling anything to say that Roland is not in the future—although how his universe relates to our own is something I’ll get into in later reviews. But really, Roland is inhabiting a particularly literary universe: both one created out of other texts (there’s that intertextuality again) and one that takes place in the weird geographic distortions that are the occasional hallmark of fiction. I’ve not once been able to create a “mental map” of Roland’s journey, and it certainly can’t be mapped onto any existing geographical formations. But as King notes in his introduction, one character in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly seems to think that Chicago is somewhere near Phoenix—it’s the representational view of the American West through the eyes of an Italian director who isn’t looking for accuracy, but rather art. And symbolism.

I’ve mentioned the texts that The Gunslinger alludes to: the Odyssey, Canterbury Tales, Edwin Drood, "The Hollow Men." But The Gunslinger is also based on the mythic character of Roland, who first makes his appearance in the eleventh-century chanson de geste (song of deeds) The Song of Roland, and is a player in Italian and Spanish Renaissance romances, two Shakespeare plays, a novel by Virginia Woolf, and another novel by John Connelly (The Book of Lost Things: check it out; it’s good). Roland is also the main character in the poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” by Robert Browning (c. 1855). King claims that the Browning poem was the key reference in choosing the title and quest of his work, and even provides it in the appendix to the final book in the series. But I would argue that King is actually engaging the entire Roland tradition, particularly the themes of time, space, and lonely quests. (And if there seems to be demand, I will write up my theory later.)

The particularly literary quality of the landscape, the fragmented narration, and the isolation of the hero—as well as the simple fact that this is just the first entry in a gigantic series—mean that Roland’ past and future, and even his present goals, are a bit muddy. It’s on purpose, of course: if you look at an image with your nose pressed to the paper, you’ll only see colors and lines. Stand back, and you’ll get the full picture.

More philosophically, as humans we can only see bits and pieces—even Odysseus, who wanders the world, never leaves the Mediterranean. The God’s eye view, however, enables a being outside of the universe to see all moments and all places simultaneously, like that Watchmen character. Roland is given a chance to see the world from the God’s eye view (I’m using the term “God” for convenience, by the way) and it nearly killed him. In other worlds, we’re not supposed to get the full image in just this novel; rather, we’re supposed to get to know the world and the hero in bits and pieces.

If this is your first time reading The Dark Tower Series, this is what you would learn from this book once you’d read the entire series (I hope that makes sense):

• Roland is the last gunslinger, of the line of Arthur of Eld. Gunslingers appear to be knights crossed with 1970s Clint Eastwood.

• Roland is from In-World, on the far west of a geographically contiguous area that also contains a large desert and Mid-World.

• The society of In-World was one of chivalry, grace, beauty, and light. However, even if Roland’s youth, it had already been in long decline, and civil strife made the whole world unclean.

• Technology, broadly defined, has come and gone: paper is a rare commodity, and machines used to work, but have long become defunct.

• The Man in Black is Walter O’Dim (Irish bastard!). He was also known as Marten, back in Roland’s youth, and is some sort of sorcerer.

• Walter/Marten works for a real badass, and somehow that guy is related to the Dark Tower, which appears to be the navel of the universe.

I haven’t mentioned Lost yet, because I hope that some of the relevance is apparent. But in case you didn’t know, J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof, and Carlton Cuse bought the rights to the series for $19—a number that’s important for the Dark Tower.

So should you read it? Absolutely, yes. If you like any of the shows and movies that we review here, I think you’ll love it. If you like Stephen King, you’ll love it. If you don’t like Stephen King, but do like the Lord of the Rings, I think you’ll love it. C’mon. Just read it already.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)


Paul Kelly said...

Nice review Josie,

I just finished this book a month or so ago and I have to say, the revised/expanded version is so much better. I read the 1982 version back when it came out (which means I had to use a time machine because I'm so young and all). I still have a copy of the old version sat on my bookshelf. The changes, however, are numerous (even on just the first page). When I first read the old version it did feel like a young man's book and I struggled with it. With the revised version, however, the glitches didn't seem as apparent and I sailed through it.

I don't think the first volume is typically King-esque (unlike the second volume where he seems to find his feet). But it's a good read and introduces us nicely to the Gunslinger's world.

I'm currently half way through volume two and it feels much more like a King book. Not looking forwards to the last volume though. In the paperback version the text is tiny :-(


P.S. Do you know if he revised the second volume? Maybe I should get the more up to date version if he has.

Josie K said...

Hi Paul.

It doesn't look like he revised the 2nd - 7th ones: the front cover just says "with an intro by the author."

Harry said...

Thanks Josie! Nice meaty review :-) You've convinced me to add The Gunslinger to my high pile of summer reading threatening to topple of my bedside table. My own Dark Tower if you will. Going to reserve it from my library now :-)