Lost Lit: Stephen King’s Wizard and Glass (Dark Tower IV)

“I will show you something different from either/ Your shadow at morning striding behind you/ Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;/ I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

Book III of the Dark Tower was called The Waste Lands, in an obvious homage to T.S. Eliot’s famous poem. A slightly less-obvious in-joke comes in the name of the city through which the ka-tet must quest: Lud, first mentioned, as far as I know, in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1130). Geoffrey’s History is the chronicle that brings King Arthur to the masses, and we can’t forget that Roland is descended on the sinister side from Arthur of Eld.

But in Geoffrey, Lud becomes London (no, this is not historically or etymologically accurate). In Stephen King’s version, Lud is New York: Eddie recognizes the George Washington Bridge, and Blaine’s ‘cradle’ is like an evil Grand Central. But Lud isn’t a simple New York—it’s got Gasher, the villain who speaks like the convict in Great Expectations, not to mention two warring tribes, the Pubes and the Greys. Plus, ritual sacrifice set to ZZ Top.

The Waste Lands also has one of King’s postmodern joke: Jake’s poem, written in a hazy craziness, is considered a masterwork by his English teacher: ‘Blaine is a train. Blain is a pain.’ Postmodern despair, indeed. I doubt King is making some sort of politico-artistic statement, but he’s certainly willing to poke fun at late 20th century literary moodiness and the lack of traditional narrative in high-concept literature.

In Wizard and Glass, we get a different type of postmodern joke: when Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake, and little Oy finally get past the Waste Lands and off the evil train, they wind up in Kansas. Specifically, the Kansas of The Stand: this America has been decimated by a plague called Captain Tripps. Eddie is from an America in which this didn’t happen, so he’s at least able to assure his compatriots that this is not the definite end for America. In other words, our heroes are inhabiting a world created specifically by King, but it’s not their world.

In this Stand-Kansas, the ka-tet also encounter a thinny, a place where reality gets thin. Thinnies don’t take you to another dimension—it’s not the boundaries between realities that are thin, but reality itself. While wading through this thinny, Roland takes some time to tell his companions about his own first love.

If The Waste Lands spent a lot of time dissing pomo literature, Wizard and Glass is all about traditional forms of language play: riddles save the day on Blaine, and Roland’s oral storytelling makes time nearly stop. The contents of Roland’s story are nothing particularly amazing: he comes of age due to a trick of Walter/The Man in Black; is pseudo-exiled to Mejis, which is sort of like north-eastern Mexico; discovers a plot to end the world; tries and partially fails to stop it. In other words, Roland’s story is a flashback that reveals a lot about his current state of mind and his relationships to the new people around him. It should be accompanied by a big whooshing noise.

While the flashback isn’t the greatest story ever told, it does reveal a lot about how Roland became the man he is. His young friends, Cuthbert and Alain, as well as his lover Susan, all have character traits that Roland sees scattered among his new ka-tet. The flashback also helps us understand the world that Roland came from, the world that has moved on. He came of age in a world of decline, and while to his young self, it seemed that his mother’s infidelity caused everything to collapse, his older self seems to ruefully acknowledge that one person cannot end the world—the world ends itself. Despite that, it is still the goal of the White to fight against that end.

Roland’s flashback also gives us his first glimpse of the Dark Tower, espied in a magical ball of glass that seems a lot like that magical ball of glass in The Lord of the Rings. This glass ball can suck you in, and Roland sees things that have been and things that will be (one of which is a scene that does come in Book VII, and which always make me cry). It shows Roland the Dark Tower, and his future without Susan, which he explains to his friends:

‘The Tower is our ka; mine especially…’ He raised his hands, then dropped them again, as if to say, What more do you need me to tell you?

‘There is no Tower, Roland,’ Cuthbert said patiently. ‘I don’t know what you saw in that glass ball, but there is no Tower. Well, as a symbol, I suppose—like Arthur’s Cup, or the Cross of the Man-Jesus—but not as a real thing, a real building—‘

‘Yes,’ said Roland. ‘It’s real…It’s real, and our fathers know. Beyond the dark land—I can’t remember its name now, it’s one of the things I’ve lost—is End-World, and in End-World stands the Dark Tower. Its existence is the great secret our fathers keep; it’s what has held them together as ka-tet across all the years of the world’s decline…I choose the Tower. I must. Let [Susan] live a good life and long with someone else—she will, in time. As for me, I choose the Tower.’

I can’t think of a more damning explanation of the perils of postmodernism that Roland’s strident defense of the existence of the Dark Tower. It’s not a symbol; it’s not an imaginary concept. It’s a real building, and the world depends on it—and on the gunslingers who have sworn to protect it above all else. When Roland went through is coming-of-age ceremony back home, he felt like he wasn’t quite ready to be an adult. But this moment, in which he sacrifices his own happiness for the pursuit of a very real, and highly symbolic (but not a symbol!) objective, is when he truly becomes a man.

When Roland finishes his recitation, he and his ka-tet continue to walk through desolate Kansas. Soon enough, they come across the Emerald City, complete with wizard—who is, of course, Walter. Oy pulls a Toto, and Roland nearly kills Walter, but not before it becomes incredibly clear that Walter is also Randall Flagg, the ‘Walkin’ Dude’ of The Stand. That man has more lives than a vampire cat.

King’s reference to the Wizard of Oz is definitely a postmodern joke just as much as all the others mentioned at the beginning of this review. But in Wizard and Glass, a distinction seems to emerge: there’s postmodern despair and ironic in-jokes (which King doesn’t seem to like) and postmodern meta-fictional references, which King uses to show two things: how even the most ‘symbolic’ fiction can become real if we allow ourselves to see it that way, and how he’s not creating a multiverse, but merely explaining the multiverse that is literature—the mini-worlds created one book, one chapter, one word at a time.

Missives from the Tower:

• When I was re-reading the series for these reviews, I dog-eared pages that had quotes or situations that I wanted to address. In this entire book, all 672 pages, I only dog-eared one page. It’s not a bad book, it’s just not the best in the series. It drags. And Blaine is so annoying that I can’t bring myself to say much more about it.

The Waste Lands was published in 1991; Wizard and Glass in 1997. The last three books of the series are when things really start to come to a head: the next book, Wolves of the Calla, was published in 2003. So Wizard and Glass (and maybe The Waste Lands, too) feels like a one-off, different in tone and message from the rest of the series and not part of any huge narrative arc. It’s an in-between book.

• More about the events of Roland’s childhood can be found in the Dark Tower comics. From what I understand, the first comic re-tells the events of Wizard and Glass.

• The quote at the top of this review is from Eliot’s 'The Wasteland.'

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

7 comments:

CesarGM said...

Great review, Josie!

After a long hiatus I finally finished this book, and though I thought the flashback part of it should have been compressed (a lot), the 'stand/oz' part was very good. (I actually laughed out loud when they had to click Oy's heels to enter the castle.. :p)

I was told the Dark Tower comics follow the story of the flashback in this book and some of what happened shortly after. Also, each edition has a text about Roland's world (the origin of the glass balls, for example). Has anyone read it? Should I finish all the books before getting to it? (I'm reading the 5th)

Josie K said...

Hi Cesar,

I would finish all the books before reading the comics. Just because the next three books are So. Incredibly. Good.

Also, while I'm sure the comics are spoiler-free, I don't think we can be sure about the other stuff, like the summaries on the back or any prefatory material. I've noticed that publishers are a lot less careful about spoilers than authors are.

Ophelie said...

Dear Josie,

I just wanted to thank you for your reviews of The Dark Tower series, it’s been a real pleasure reading you! I started reading these books when I saw they were going to be reviewed as part of the “Lost” literature. I read all 7 books in just under a month over the summer, not because I wanted to know how it ended but because I was enjoying the ride so much! (In fact I almost didn’t want it to end!) They have become some of my favourite books ever and once I turned the very last page it kept me thinking (and dreaming!) about it for weeks. So thank you very much for taking the time and effort to review them, I’ve (and my husband as well!) really enjoyed your reviews of the first four books, and I can’t wait for the last three! Thank you!

Josie K said...

Hi Ophelie!

Thank you for your kind words. I'm so happy that people are reading these awesome books!

I know I've been lagging on the next review(s), but I promise, they're forthcoming! It turns out that it takes much, much longer to review a novel than a TV show (at least for me)...

rantonater said...

were we reading the same book? check out my video blog, see what i thought. leave me some feedback, would love to have a discussion about the books with you

Mark Greig said...

I think the phase ‘be careful what you wish for’ is appropriate in this case. When I first got into this series I hopped that later books would delve more into Roland’s elusive backstory in much the same way The Gunslinger had done. I wanted to know more about the war with ‘the Good Man’ John Farson that lead to the fall of Gilead and how Roland’s search for the Tower began.

We kinda got that with this book and it almost put me off finishing the remaining books. To say it drags is something of an understatement. Near the end I was struggling to get from one chapter to the next. There’s a good story in here but King stretched it out too much.

After reading the first three books I was really excited about reading the rest of the series. Wizard and Glass has almost, but not entirely, killed my enthusiasm for the series. I am hoping to get started on Wolves of the Calla at some point but I’m gonna take a break from The Dark Tower books for a bit. Just started reading A Game of Thrones so I probably start reading them again once I’m finished with that.

I’ve really enjoyed your reviews for these books, Josie. Out of curiosity what do you think of Richie Cunningham’s plan to adapt the books (along with the prequel comics) into a movie trilogy and TV series?

Josie Kafka said...

Yeah, I kinda stalled out on the reviewing after this one, too. I recently checked out the first of the comic books, which re-tell the story of Roland's youth. I'm not entirely sure, but I think the comics continue on with more of the story of Farson--I just didn't get that far, as comics do not satisfy me.

Wolves of the Calla is a great book. It's almost a standalone, and you can tell that King is enjoying playing with the western genre. After Wizard and Glass, too, you might be surprised by how much you've missed Roland, Susannah, Eddie, Jake, and Oy. It also shows a few different sides of Roland. I will say no more.

I'm horrified by the idea of Opie adapting these books. Horrified.

For anyone wondering what we're talking about: Stephen King sold the rights to The Dark Tower series to Damon Lindelof (and maybe Bad Robot/J.J. Abrams, I forget) for $19. King loves Lost, and it seemed like the perfect partnership. The deal fell through in spring of 2010, and the rights got picked up by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer. They've made some good movies together, but I just can't imagine that they have the world-building skills to pull this off.