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After more than five years, with more interruptions than I care to mention, I have finally followed Roland Deschaine of Gilead into the room at the top of the Dark Tower. I have to admit that I was surprised at how moved I was when he paused at the entrance and recited the names of all of his friends and ka-mates. It’s odd. Stephen King was never a favorite author of mine. Of all the many books he’s written, the only other one I’ve ever read was 11-22-63, his romance about the man who went back in time to stop the assassination of President Kennedy. I didn’t care for it. The only other book of his I want to read is The Stand. People who have read a lot of Mr. King’s books say it is his best, but after slogging through 4250 pages in eight volumes (I read Wind Through The Keyhole chronologically, between Wizard And Glass and Wolves Of The Calla), I am a bit reluctant to give Mr. King another 1100 pages of my attention. Interestingly, the reviewer who listed The Stand as King’s best book rated the seven canonical Dark Tower volumes roughly as I would have ranked them, so I have reason to trust his judgement.
Roland’s story is a compelling one. Like The Lord Of The Rings, which is just about the only other work I have read to which I can compare it, The Dark Tower series is both interminable and strangely, over far too soon. Both of these works create a desire to explore more fully the world the author has created; to know more about its inhabitants, its history, and its geography. Mr. King includes no maps. There are no sprawling appendices such as Prof. Tolkien included in The Lord Of The Rings to give you the backstory of Mid-World. Another characteristic that Mid-World shares with Middle-Earth is that it seems strangely depopulated. Either that, or the protagonists of both works spent the majority of their time in the parts of their imaginary worlds where the people didn’t live. This seems to be a common flaw with fantasy. Narnia was claustrophobic as well, having only three “countries” that really counted. Earthsea was a collection of islands with, I assume, nothing much larger than fishing villages to house its inhabitants.
The Dark Tower series took Stephen King almost 35 years to write, and it shows. The biggest divide is between Wizard And Glass, which was published in 1997, and The Wolves Of The Calla, which was published in 2003. In the intervening years, Stephen King was almost killed in a near-fatal auto accident, and it shows up in the writing. King himself seems to have felt some pressure to complete the series after his accident. The last three books, despite their more than 2000 pages, have a rushed feeling that is missing from the parts of the series that he wrote prior to the accident. By the time he published his Mid-World “inter-quel”, Mr. King had found his rhythm again. Certainly, even though there are weak parts in the first four books and excellent parts in the last three, I found I preferred the first four to the latter three.
My favorite five scenes from the Dark Tower series were;
1) Roland and his companions in Meijis – I haven’t read enough King to know how much material he recycled from other his other books in order to tell the tragic tale of young Roland Deschaine and the tragic Susan Delgado, but I suspect it was a lot. I detected some of The Children Of The Corn, at least. Nevertheless, as far as raw storytelling is measured, King never approached this level again for the whole 4,000-plus pages of the series. Even the characters seemed fully-fleshed, and I warmed to Alain Johns and Cuthbert Allgood in a way that I never did to wisecracking Eddie Dean. The bad guys Eldred Jonas and Roy Depape are more richly drawn than either the Crimson King or Mordred, and even minor characters like Cordelia Delgado and Hart Thorin are alive with life. Rhea of the Cöos is beyond creepy, and one of the better villains I’ve encountered in any fiction. Other reviewers gush about the love affair between Susan Delgado and Roland Deschaine, but I found it kind of off-putting. I know Roland is supposed to be knowing beyond his years, but a 14 year old boy in love with a 16 year old girl does not act the way Roland acts here.
2. The Drawing Of Eddie Dean – I don’t know if I’m the only one, but I kinda liked Eddie better as a junkie than as the wise-cracking comic-relief he became by the end of the series. The story of how Roland ended up behind his eyes and managed to extricate him from his tangled web of obligation and addiction in 1980s New York was absorbing. It was a shame that Eddie very seldom was allowed to rise to the nobility of character he displayed during the gunfight in Balazar’s gin joint. His “trail marriage” to Susannah was often distracting as well, but in his coming and going, I have to admit that I came to love Eddie Dean.
3. The Massacre At Tull – It has been a long time since I read The Gunslinger, the first volume of the Dark Tower series, Roland’s methodical massacre of all the inhabitants of Tull, including the idiot child Soobie and his paramour Allie, opened my eyes to just how hard-bitten the series could get at a moment’s notice. It also presaged just who Roland would sacrifice in order to attain the Tower. There was a high body count in the Dark Tower series , but this action set the stage for all of the rest.
4. The Manni In the Cave Of The Winds – I enjoyed Wolves Of The Calla far more than I thought I would. After having Roland and the gang meander around blank open country for more than four volumes, actually, since River Crossing, or maybe even Tull, it was good to get back to settled lands and farmsteads. Pere Callahan’s negligent Catholic mission made a good counterpoint to the Manni, who i thought were one of King’s better inventions in the series. It seems kind of a shame that he used them basically as a key to open the door between worlds. They would have benefited from greater exposition.
5. Jake and Pere Callahan in the Dixie Pig – I really warmed to Pere Callahan and was sorry to see him depart so early in the seventh book, but boy! did he go out with a flair. I hadn’t read Salem’s Lot, so I only knew as much of the Pere’s backstory as King revealed in Wolves Of the Calla and Susannah’s Song. There were a lot of nice touches in the Dixie Pig segment; the Mid-World kitchen boy serving under the taheen cook, Jake switching bodies with Oy to get past the guardians in the passage to Fedic. There were also some typical King gross-outs as well, but hey, I could almost smell the meat roasting on the spit behind the curtain. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, though.
My five least favorite parts were 1) the lobstrosities – i was so glad when the story moved passed them. 2) the Emerald City sequence with Martin Broadcloak/Randall Flagg. 3) the demon sex that brought Jake into Mid-World, although the bifurcation of Jake and Roland was handled very well. 4) Susannah/Mia “dining” in the swamp. I nearly lost lunch. 5) basically everything that took place from the Castle of the Crimson King until Roland reached the Tower. The Dandelo/Patrick Danville episode was pretty anticlimactic after the chiaroscuro of Algul Siento, and the removal of the Crimson King was very cheesy. I suspect King just wanted to finish by this time.
Something has to be said about how American the Dark Tower series is. Any American mythopoesis is going to have a lot of the Western in it, because the Western, with the free man remaking himself on the Frontier, is our great myth. Stephen King took it and ran it out farther than I would have thought possible. Maybe this isn;t, yet, the Great American Novel, but it is without any doubt the Great American Fantasy series. I’m glad I went on this journey. Thou hast spoken well, may it do ya, gunslinger. Long days and pleasant nights to you.
Thankee sai, Mr. King
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.
4. Hearts In Atlantis (2001) For a “fantastic” film, this adaptation of the Stephen King novella “Low Men in Yellow Coats”, is unusually quotidian. It is like Stand By Me without the body or like Children On Their Birthdays with a psychic neighbor. Bobby Garfield lives with his widowed (?) mother and times are tight, even in the prosperous, confident early 60s. His mother takes in a boarder, Ted Brautigan, played by Anthony Hopkins as yet another instantiation of the Elder Gentleman With Impeccable Manners And A Secret (The Mask Of Zorro, Shadowlands, The Wolfman).
Bobby and Ted form a bond. It turns out that Ted can see the future, read people’s minds, and move objects around with his will. These abilities rub off on Bobby, allowing him to impress a neighborhood girl. Unfortunately, Ted is being pursued by the government (?), and Bobby’s mother betrays him. When Bobby has to choose between protecting Ted or the girl, he chooses the girl. Ted is apprehended, Bobby regrets it, and the movie ends.
There isn’t much more to the movie than that. No beasties, no locusts coming out of a man’s mouth, no bloodbaths. What there is is sentiment, not something often associated with Stephen King, but I maintain that Mr. King is one of the few writers writing today who has what CS Lewis would call a functioning chest. There is clear good and clear evil in the movie, and the line is drawn where an American of King’s (and my) generation should draw it; for the particular against the general, for the individual against the collective, for honesty and genuine affection against ambition and realpolitik.
Although the movie didn’t contain the references to King’s Dark Tower myth that the novella did, perceptive viewers would see how well it fits. If you want to see Sir Anthony out of character, watch The World’s Fastest Indian.
I have a love-hate relationship with fantasy films. Ralph Bakshi’s 1980 attempt at animating The Lord Of The Rings was deeply disappointing to me, so much so that I didn’t even bother to see the first film of Peter Jackson’s trilogy when it came out in 2001. Despite my love of the genre, there have been fantasy films which have been so awful as to be unwatchable. Eragon, for example.
I haven’t finished The Dark Tower series yet. Even though the pace is slow and some of the episodes are gruesome, I am very, very impressed by it so far. So impressed that I am ready to consider it the quintessential piece of American mythopoeia. The Dark Tower is American in a way that reworks our history. For this reason it is violent and virginal at the same time. There is a lot more I would like to say about King and The Dark Tower, but not now.
I hope Ron Howard is up to the task. He is not the first director that springs to mind in adapting Steven King to the silver screen. He is somewhat sentimental, but in this, he matches King himself. The Dark Tower is awash with sentiment, despite its darkness. Brian De Palma didn’t capture it in Carrie and Stanley Kubrick certainly didn’t capture it in his emotionally frigid The Shining. Both of those films are technically superior to Hearts In Atlantis or The Green Mile, but these two imperfect films capture King in a way that Carrie or The Shining do not. I have to keep telling myself that Howard has some fantasy rep; Splash, Cocoon, and Willow were all good films.
It remains to be seen if the rest of the series is as well-casted. May I suggest Ryan Gosling as Eddie Dean, and Isaac Hempstead-Wright (Bran Stark from A Game Of Thrones) as Jake Chambers? I know Isaac is British, but isn’t Jake upper-crust New York? It shouldn’t be too much of a stretch.
In one sense, its a little misleading to speak about “successors” to the Inklings. The Inklings were not a self-conscious literary movement, and as far as I know, l there are no little coteries of academics gathering in a tavern on Saturday nights to drink and read excerpts from their works-in-progress. Would that it were so. Also, I think it is hard for us to appreciate how counter-cultural Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams were, writing and publishing tales of the fantastic when the literary world was dominated by modern realists, by the likes of Lawrence, Hemingway, and Joyce.
These days, though, writing fantastic literature appears to be a lucrative pursuit., and the bastard children of the Inklings appear to have swept the field. “Fantasy and Science Fiction” occupies a healthy percentage of my local Barnes and Nobel bookshop, even more if you add the two or three shelves of “graphic novels”/manga with which it is customarily bundled.
What hath Tolkien wrought? There is so much fantasy on the shelves that I wouldn’t know where to begin. Trilogies abound, of course, and a lot of them take place in a pre-Modern setting where the red iron of brutish trolls and tragic High Elves clash on darkening plains. There is so much of this that I haven’t read because I don’t know where to start. In the ‘seventies I read the Earthsea books by Ursula Le Guin and found them engaging. I yawned my way through the first Shanarra book by Terry Brooks and the first Thomas Covenant trilogy and found both of them tedious and uninteresting.
Nor do I think that the self-consciously Christian fantasy works that have belatedly crawled out of the Evangelical presses in Wheaton or Grand Rapids to sulk on the shelves next to Janette Oke’s prairie romances or the horrid Left Behind series will beget much in the way of mythopoeia. Sure, there are plenty of brutish Shadowghouls clashing with High Lightbearers on the Iron Plains of Bethania, but there is always a Lost Book of Hidden Wisdom that restores the Balance, or even worse, smites the agents of Darkness with the light that pours off its pages.
I think the problem with “Christian” fantasy is that Williams, Lewis, and Tolkien operated in the jagged edges of Christendom, whereas the modern Evangelical lacks that framework. “Christendom” as a political and geographical substance is great mythopoeia in its own right, and the fantastic works of Williams, Lewis, and Tolkien don’t make much sense apart from it.
There are three series I feel bad about not reading. The first is the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. I have heard much good about this series, but also I have heard that it rambles badly. If I read something that requires that much patience and effort, I’d prefer to start with the Gormenghast series by Melvyn Peake.
The Harry Potter books I haven’t gotten around to yet either, although I did read the first volume in His Dark Materials. From a philosophical point of view, Christians should be far more concerned about Pullman, who definitely has a bitter axe to grind, than they are about Rowland, who just wants to tell a good story.
Finally, I think Steven King as a mythopetic writer has been woefully underappreciated. I haven’t yet read his Dark Tower series but I believe I shall have to. I believe King, along with such writers as William Vollman, Walker Percy, Philip K. Dick, Cormac McCarthy, and even William Burroughs are participating in a project of which the Inklings would be proud; the mythopoesis of America.
Neil Gaiman, in American Gods, stumbled upon the main theme of this project; America is poor breeding ground for the supernatural. We have no myths. Our country is an abstraction, based not on blood or belief, but on a sort of least-common-denominator secular frame of exchange, and we don’t know our hills and our rivers from the inside yet like the Germans know the Rhine, the British the Thames, or the Central Europeans the Danube. The strength of the hills is not yet in us.