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A Study In Comparative Fantasy
I’m halfway to the Dark Tower, at the hub of all possible worlds. If you look at the architecture of Stephen King’s epic series, I am almost exactly halfway, having just now started the fifth volume in the series, The Wolves Of The Calla. Two volumes I have read deal in backstory; Wizard And Glass was almost entirely the story of Roland Deschain’s first years as a Gunslinger in the outer barony of Meijis and of his first love affair with the tragic Susan Delgado. The other volume was The Wind Through The Keyhole, a volume written by Mr. King and published last year, which was meant to “fill a gap” between the ending of Wizard And Glass and the beginning of The Wolves Of The Calla. The Wind Through The Keyhole is actually two stories nested inside each other like a wooden Russian babushka doll, which Roland tells as a single tale on the grandfather of all dark and stormy nights. Since Keyhole doesn’t advance the narrative of Roland’s ka-tet at all, I feel justified in saying I am still halfway to the Tower, despite having read more than 2/3 of the material in the series.
Comparing Stephen King’s Dark Tower series to another modern fantasy which I re-read before taking up the thread of Roland’s story again, I find that the Dark Tower series compares very favorably to The Lord Of The Rings. There are some superficial similarities. Both series deal with an epic Quest; that of Frodo to dispose of the Ring Of Power and that of Roland to reach the Dark Tower. Both series introduce a sworn brotherhood; The Fellowship of the Ring and Roland’s Ka-Tet. Finally, although I seldom see this commented on, invented language plays an important role in both series. Tolkien’s Elvish languages, of course, form the backbone of his mythopoetic work. Indeed, Tolkien himself claimed that he invented the elves and Middle Earth so that he would have speakers for his invented languages and a place for them to be spoken. Stephen King, being a professional writer instead of a professor of Anglo-Saxon, uses a subtler device. The High Speech hasn’t greatly factored into the first four books, but it appears to have an ancient Egyptian/Phoenician flavor to it. The Low Speech, the Westron of Mid-World, is English, but with very subtle differences. Listening to The Waste Land and Wizard And Glass after having read them in book form, you get something of the flavor of the Low Speech. There are words that you have to learn by context, such as “cullie“, “jilly” and “roont“. There are repeated tag-sentences, “so I do”, “ken thee?”. There is the non-grammatical use of the pre-Caroline English pronoun thee, differing from the customary King James usage. All of these, and the use of stock phrases such as “set your watch and warrant by it”, or, “forget the face of your father”, set a linguistic tone for the series and with great economy underscore the alienness of Mid World.
For Mid-World is not a nice place. Indeed, throughout the whole of the Tower books so far, I can almost hear Gollum hissing in the background – “We’re not in decent places”. Mid-world has “moved on”. Things have changed. The relationship between men and Creation has altered deeply, and the change has not been for the better. Time has, in the opinion of Eddie Dean, one of Roland’s companions, “gone on vacation”. A day may be fifty hours long, or it may stop altogether, or it may fly at a furious pace. Indeed, all of Roland’s companions have been gathered from New York, our New York, the New York of Robert Wagner, of Abraham Beame, and of Edward Koch respectively, but they are contemporaries in Mid-World. Causality is iffy. Things that produced a particular effect at one time may not at another time, for no apparent reason. Directions have become unhinged, and a moon that rises in the east one night may wobble over to the southeast the next. We are told that the Gunslinger’s world has “moved on”, but the direction it has taken is not an improvement.
Middle Earth, by comparison, is a stable place. Even though its wars and rebellions have altered the coastlines and the continents, the fabric of space and time remains the same. Actually, that isn’t entirely true. The Valar and their charges removed themselves entirely from Arda (the created universe in which Middle-Earth exists), and hence are no longer directly accessible to the inhabitants, be they Men or Dwarves or stubborn Elves who continue to refuse the summons back to Aman. Since there is a renegade Maia loose in Middle-Earth, this absence of the Valar forces the inhabitants thereof back onto their own resources. Sauron, the antagonist of The Lord Of The Rings, never appears directly in the narrative, and indeed is seldom referred to by name. He has slaves to do his bidding, and his bidding appears to be entirely ruin and blasting.
The central metaphor for evil in The Lord Of The Rings is that of barrenness. Mordor is a dead land. Nothing grows there, or at least in the ash-choked Plain of Gorgoroth surrounding both the Dark Tower and Mount Doom, although we are assured that to the south, around the sad shores of Lake Nurnen, there are immense farms tended to by slaves, a prophecy of the industrial agriculture that “feeds” (or fattens) our nation. Samwise, under the influence of the Ring, faces this temptation and masters it:
“The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.”
There is a sense in which there are two antagonists in The Lord Of The Rings, Sauron and the Ring. Sauron represents the Manichean, external aspect of Evil, the kind of evil you can, and must, resist with swords, bows, and valor. The evil of Sauron is something that would destroy everything “that you hold dear on this green earth”, but unaided, it cannot destroy the soul. It is the resistance, finally, of Aragorn and what remains of the West that allows Frodo and Sam to triumph, albeit imperfectly, over the Augustininan, internal aspect of Evil, represented by the Ring. The Ring speaks to that inner voice inside all of us that if only we could have things Our Own Way, whether by persuasion or coercion, that we could put Things to Right. Alas, it would begin that way, as Galadriel said, but in the end, the corruption of the Ring, which is the corruption of our own hearts, must be overcome by a different, but no less necessary, kind of valor; that of renunciation, self-denial, and voluntary suffering on behalf of others.
I believe that it is because we lost the struggle outlined in the Lord Of The Rings that we find ourselves, a generation and change later, in the situation of the Dark Tower books. Evil in King’s created universe is much more consistent than that in Tolkien’s world. The Crimson King, the antagonist of the Dark Tower books and the Sauron of Mid-World (he even has the sigil of a single red eye) goes beyond the Maia’s hatred of the organic, yearning for the predictability and order of the mineral. The Crimson King hates the very idea of order and predictability, or reason and morality. Significantly, he is represented as the offspring of Arthur Eld and a demoness of the primordial Chaos, out of which Gan (God) erected the Dark Tower and the beams of the multiverse, and which Arthur Eld and his descendants the Gunslingers swore to uphold. The Crimson King, like the Joker in the film The Dark Knight, just wants to see Creation burn. Inevitably, he hates himself as well, since he reflects the order of Creation within himself. His desire for destruction includes a desire for self-destruction. The Crimson King is, of course, barking mad.
One of the criticisms I have of modern horror fiction is that is hard for moderns to grasp the essence of evil. When you have no absolute values, nothing is ultimately at risk. Most threats in film or literature deal with the loss of Stuff or of social standing, which is scarifying enough for fragile egos in an increasingly turbulent world. Failing this, one of the most time honored ploys in horror literature is to put either children or the virginal Good Girl at risk. But the threat is always either death or dismemberment, bad enough in itself but not ontologically threatening. However, there is a disturbing undercurrent that one of the worst things that can happen to you is to be Found Out. Fear not him who can kill the body and all that. The scariest movie of all the time, The Exorcist, came close by showing its viewers a universe where good was evil, order was chaos, white was black, and worse, by telling its viewers that this is what they secretly wished for as well.
To me, true Evil is a mystery. It is a no-thing, even less than the vacuums between stars that nevertheless pulses with energies. I guess the closest metaphor I could invoke would be that of the Singularity, the Black Hole, a metaphor that could not have been available to Dante or Bram Stoker. Something that wants to draw all creation to itself and to unite all distinctions, isolate all similarities, reducing all things to the primeaval chaos; confusing, changing, dividing, and separating all things in an infinite falling from which no escape is possible.
Stand true. All things serve the Beam.