The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger

Novel * Stephen King * The World Has Moved On * 1982

Synopsis

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed. That’s… a surprisingly thorough summary of the action in this book. The original Dark Tower novel begins an epic that spans seven increasingly long and detailed books, and yet it is by far the slimmest and the most esoteric of the lot. This is not a bad thing! However, anyone expecting this novel to be a crackling, action packed thriller should probably readjust their horizons. This is an introspective, flashback focused piece that centers on the central character of the Dark Tower series, Roland Deschain of Gilead. Fun fact: most of that information comes from later books. Here he’s just Roland. He has guns which are a pretty big deal in the world which he lives, as they mark him as a knight of an old, respected, and fallen order.

This world is a worn-out, ancient place, and in this volume encompasses four areas: The Desert, The Mountains, The Sea, and The Past. The key refrain of the entire series is that this world has moved on. Here and there we see evidence that civilization once reached great heights, but in the present the world is a clearly desolate, desperate place. Roland drifts through this world, steadfast in his pursuit. In the active part of the narrative (which is to say, not in flashback form) he meets and speaks with a total of three people. The rest of the story takes place within the Gunslinger’s head. As an introduction to a wide world and an epic narrative, this first novel is an intimate examination of the central figure which, while it serves to illuminate a few corners of a mysterious and intriguing character, does an even better job of asking questions that go unanswered. I mean that in the best way possible.

All that said, things do happen. Events that are detailed in this first book, whether they happen in a flashback or occur in, well, active time, echo throughout the rest of series and resonate throughout nearly the entirety of Stephen King’s fictional output. For what is essentially a series of short stories written over twelve years in King’s youth, that’s beyond impressive. Perhaps one of the best of these stories, that of Roland’s coming of age, is told here. It is a stark, concrete, and brutal episode that stands out in an otherwise hazy, dreamy novel.

The Gunslinger can be a hard sell, since it is so far outside of what people expect from a Stephen King novel. Perhaps that’s why King revised and expanded the book in 2003. The revision is… fine. I guess. Honestly, it wasn’t written for me. This book captured me at about the same age King was when he wrote it, which is to say in his early 20s. It doesn’t matter to me that the book doesn’t always quite jive in detail and tone to the rest of the series. In fact, I find that part of its lasting charm. However, as King writes in the forward to the revision, newcomers will likely have an easier time of getting into the series as a whole with the new version. And really, that’s the important thing.

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The cover of the revised edition in which Roland has a serious discussion about gun control with Zoltan.

Discussion

There is a moment toward the end of The Gunslinger when Roland indulges in a bit of wistful reminiscing about his past with the boy, Jake. This, of course, comes after Jake figures out that he’s pretty much fucked, so he tunes out the whole story because this is the guy who is going to kill him and even if that wasn’t on the table, old guy stories, right? Tell us about the onions you used to tie to your belt, grandpa. Roland doesn’t really notice anyway. He’s grappling with some heavy shit in his slow, plodding way, and this story that comes out of him illuminates some far, dim part of his character which is at least partly responsible for sending him on this epic journey. In this story, Roland recounts a moment in his youth where he and two of his chucklehead buddies sneak into a Grand Affair of State to spy upon the proceedings. There is dancing, and the social maneuvering attendant to positions of power since humans put themselves in charge of things. The whole point of the story is that Roland’s childhood took place in Camelot. His father was Arthur, his mother Gweneviere, and standing in for Lancelot was a dude named Marten (not Merlin, as Walter points out later). As the boys watch the proceedings there is an almost audible click when Roland understands that his father was a cuckold.

However, this anecdote is almost less about the dissolution of Roland’s household than it is a rumination on the inevitable fate of civilization. Roland invokes this concept almost immediately, and frames the (admittedly one-sided) conversation by contrasting civilization against “the old days,” and since we are told pretty much constantly that Roland is a hopeless romantic, we can infer that he feels that civilization, as such, compares poorly. The narrator helpfully steps in:

“He trailed off, unable to describe the change inherent in that mechanized noun, the death of the romantic and its sterile, carnal revenant, living a forced respiration of glitter and ceremony: the geometric steps of courtship during the Easter-night dance at the Great Hall which had replaced the mad scribble of love which he could only intuit dimly – hollow grandeur in a place of mean and sweeping passions which might once have erased souls.”

Okay, that’s not a great sentence, but it is a loaded one, so let’s attempt to break it down. Civilization, then, is the mechanized noun, which is actually a pretty cool way to refer to a series of systems and processes intended to instill order and regularity within a human society. The more sophisticated these systems and processes, the more abstract they become, to the point where the human aspect of such a society is in danger of becoming totally obscured. These processes are machine-like in that they become automated and without irrational human input. Roland sees this as a grievous loss, as the human aspect of irrational love has fallen away only to be replaced by a meaningless lust for power, which is itself diluted by the rote ceremony he is observing. That the Great Hall itself is a bastion of these lost days only serves to focus Roland’s discontent in watching the “hollow grandeur” below. In other words, this shit used to mean something, man.

What that something is, precisely, is totally subjective. Roland, as it is pointed out in the text over and over again, has a very limited imagination, so most of the insight we get into this overwhelming sense of loss comes from the narrator, as the passage above. However, the idea is woven throughout this stark opening tale that civilization itself is responsible for the loss. That these systems dampened what was once a network of lively human societies. As the series progresses, this theme is reiterated on and expanded, but here the narration skirts around the edges of this larger idea. Roland and Jake happen across the odd ancient artifact that hint at a much larger, much more technologically advanced civilization than the one Roland hails from, which of course begs the question “what happened?” The only answer the book has is “the world has moved on,” and guess how satisfying that is. Regardless, when Roland interacts with this technology, it is nearly always in a disinterested, uncurious, and in an entirely practical way. We are not given any insight into how much Roland’s people know of the ancient past, but we are at least given a vague sense that Roland doesn’t trust it as such things would only be an amplified version of the “mechanized noun.”

There is some mention of light during this episode of Roland’s past, which refers not only to the aforementioned technical artifacts but also in reference to light as goodness. Roland points out that “there were five crystal chandeliers, heavy glass with electric lights. It was all light, it was an island of light.” This light created an impression in young Roland, and although we don’t get any expositional screeds about the society of Gilead and its technological capabilities (like, are these lights running off an ancient generator, do they have a power grid, do they have poor people run in a wheel to generate current?), it seems that Roland is less interested in the civilized technology represented by these chandeliers and more taken with the idea of civilization itself as a bastion of light in a sea of unruly darkness. It’s an obvious symbol, but the way in which technology is regarded in this world makes it a bit more interesting than it otherwise might seem. Young Roland notices that his father and the other older gunslingers seemed “half embarrassed in all that light, that civilized light,” and of course they would, as they are tasked with the relentless, impossible work of keeping the center together in a world falling apart. Roland’s father, “the last lord of the light,” was not what Roland wanted to be, and this episode marks where Roland came to understand that his father, for all his grandeur and status, was a failed man, which is conflated with the civilized land he watched over, which inevitably failed as well. “The island of light hurt him bitterly,” we are told, “and he wished he had never held witness to it, or to his father’s cuckoldry.”  Not only is this every bit the coming-of-age scene as the more formal and violent affair of Roland’s battle with his teacher Cort, but this is also the more important in terms of setting Roland on his path. What is his quest for the Dark Tower other than a total rejection of the failure of his father and the civilization he represents? Roland seeks the Tower for reasons that are beyond him, and very much seems to be a romantic vision of a knight’s quest, and is thus freed from the responsibility of keeping the lights on. Perhaps the end goal is to save the world from “moving on,” perhaps the goal is to save all realities. It’s hard to say. What is clear, however, is that Roland has fully embraced his role as the last gunslinger. Only time will tell if his disdain for civilization figures into his actions.

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