What do you get when you combine Tolkien and the Western? Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.
Meet Roland, the last gunslinger. He’s Aragorn meets John Wayne. A solitary man “wandering but not lost,” he carries two six-shooters that were once his father’s pistols. His single quest, which he pursues with an instinctual audacity, is summarized in the iconic first line of the novel. The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
Every single sentence seeps with the brooding, gritty mood of the Western genre and with the unforgiving cadence of a landscape that has, we are continually reminded, “moved on.” The desert is the “apotheosis of all deserts,” a world reminiscent of the American Southwest. In fact, it takes place in the future, a post-apocalyptic world that shares certain features with King’s other epics, such as The Stand, Salem’s Lot, and It.
We follow Roland as he runs among the ruins of a technologically advanced civilization identical to the twentieth-century USA. Most gadgets have ceased to work and people have fallen into a semi-feudal, semi-frontier society of small settlements. Petroleum, for example, is so valuable that one man becomes a Delphic oracle by inhaling fumes at a gas station.
The story follows Roland as he encounters a dweller in the wilderness named Brown and his talking raven Zoltan. Forming a brief but tense friendship, he tells them both the story of his journey to Tull, where he falls in love with a woman named Allie and has an adventure with the fire-and-brimstone preacher Sylvia Pittson. But the man in black has passed through town and his spells have laid a trap. As Roland tells his story, you find out that he is an ambiguous figure with a capacity for both heroism and merciless violence.
His real challenge comes later, when he meets Jake, a boy from New York. He takes Jake as his own ward as he pursues the man in black over the mountains at the end of the desert. In the end, however, his bond with the boy will come in conflict with his destiny, pushing Roland’s moral endurance to the limit.
This novel has entranced me ever since I read a Gunslinger novella years ago “The Little Sisters of Eluria.” I had no context to the narrative, but I immediately took to the crazy, gritty story of zombies and cannibal nuns. It further drew me on after I learned where King got the title for his series: a song from Shakespeare’s King Lear sung by Edgar, who is posing as a madman at the time.
“Child Rowland to the dark tower came,
His word was still ‘Fie, foh, and fum
I smell the blood of a British man.”
Just as the “child” Rowland (“child” or “childe” refers to a squire who has yet to be knighted) pursues the Dark Tower, so does the last gunslinger. But he isn’t British: he’s definitely American. And he is no longer a “child,” but a man. In fact, Roland at one point recalls his own rite of passage ceremony, in which he duels Cort, his training master in Gilead, Roland’s now-vanished hometown. Another work of literature featuring Roland is Robert Browning’s poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” Stephen King’s series, however, remains the longest sustained treatment of Roland’s quest. (Of course, he is not a gunslinger in Browning, but a knight errant.)
A third factor that drew me to read The Gunslinger was how it was inspired by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Sergio Leone’s movie The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. In his understated introduction to the expanded edition, Stephen King describes how he knew he was going to get Norse mythology wrong if he wrote an epic too similar to Tolkien. So he borrowed from a genre with similar epic potential, a genre that forms the central mythos of American identity: the Western.
I would have to agree that King wrote a more honest Tolkienesque epic fantasy novel using the Western. Books like The Sword of Shannara slave too closely to the plots of the “father of modern fantasy” so as to seem derivative or worse: a simple copy. Tolkien borrowed from Norse and Celtic mythology because that was the mythology of his homeland, Great Britain. King borrowed from the Western mythology of his own country, the United States.
I once wrote a website (with bad links) that presented an academic argument proposing that the genre of modern fantasy was born of an Americanization of British myths into the framework of the “American monomyth.” Essentially, this monomyth is like the stereotypical Western plot: an paradisaical community is threatened by an outside force, the ordinary law can do nothing to stop it, then a hero emerges from within the community, or occasionally from the outside, and stops evil in a final battle or shootout. The story ends with him riding into the sunset. I would not say that King follows this formula precisely, but the way in which The Gunslinger was conceived reminded me of my old observations of the fantasy genre.
Shining through the baggage I brought to it, The Gunslinger left me thirsty for more. The most powerful, resonating aspect of this story is how the mood almost seems to dictate the plot. The world has moved on is the novel’s refrain and the story moves on too. Things are always going to get worse, but Roland’s resolve to encounter the man in black remains a force of constant momentum. A fair word of warning: this novel ends only at the beginning of the series, with a revelation as to the true shape of Roland’s quest, which he at first pursues rather blindly. These facts about the Dark Tower he discovers only at a terrible cost to himself and those few whom he loves.