Thoughts on The Dark Tower

Sorry for the cliff-hanger post on Wednesday night, but the past few days have indeed been hectic around here and although I did finish the book, I not only didn't have the time to write about it, but I also wanted more time in order to determine what those thoughts would be.

Now, for the non-spoiler-filled portion of this post. Stephen King's The Dark Tower series is, in my opinion, an absolute must-read. Throw away any preconceived ideas or prejudices you have against King's storytelling, as this epic story is far different from the rest of his tales. And I say that both as someone who isn't that big of a fan of fiction (and especially not fantasy) and who also enjoyed many of King's earlier works -- the ones that no doubt formed those preconceptions you harbor. It's a tale that blends Old West aesthetics, time-travel, alternate worlds, robots, monsters, love, sorrow, vengeance, and a rag-tag bunch of characters not limited to an ex-junky, a teenage runaway, talking dog, and a double-amputee schizophrenic with a mouth that would make Richard Pryor blush, most of whom are plucked from New York City, albeit from different decades. Then, of course, there's Roland. The star of this epic story and a man unlike any other. If you haven't read it, do so. The story spans seven books, several of which are roughly 800 pages in length (don't worry, some are shorter) and although the story starts to putter a bit in the sixth book, hang in there because it really gets going again in the seventh (after the first 200 pages of tedium) and you will not regret finishing.

SPOILER WARNING: The rest of this post (and any comments people make) is for those of you who've already read the books.

I'm not about to recount the story or summarize all of my favorite parts, although I will say that I thought the fourth book, Wizard and Glass, was the best. I know it kind of goes against the idea behind the whole saga, but for me the best parts of the series were those when Susannah and Eddie weren't involved. I really enjoyed the first book, The Gunslinger, and the second The Drawing of the Three (because of how unique it was in spite of the characters), but I was already tiring of Odetta/Detta/Susana's histrionics and Eddie's annoying 70's New Yawker accent by the start of Wizard and Glass and was thrilled to hear what amounted to a lengthy flashback about Roland his friends and his first love in the town of Meijis. I'll probably read that volume several more times, as I think the whole flash-back made for a great story in its own right.

Anyway, as for the ending, my sister Jessica brought it to my attention that she and I both read the second edition of the book and that, perhaps, King's smarmy comments (he essentially yells at the readers for not being satisfied with the journey, but demanding our hands be held all the way to a happily-ever-after ending... or something) after the initial ending were in response to fans hating the initial ending(s). I don't know (and don't care to find out) whether the ending that was included in the epilogue of the 2nd edition was in the original, but honestly, I didn't mind either ending.

The first ending simply has Roland approach the tower, finally, and that's it. You're left to wonder if he goes inside, if he dies, if, if, if, if... Honestly, I always (and by always, I mean nearly 20 years) expected the story to end with him essentially taking his last breath outside the tower or, perhaps, resting his head against the door and starting to weep. So while I felt like King took a very lazy approach to wrapping it up, I wasn't surprised or all that disappointed. Well, maybe a little...

I walked away from the book at that point to let it sink in before reading the epilogues. I wanted to feel the true ending before I leapt into what I assumed was a lengthy discussion from King about the book and the jourey and, perhaps, the ending.

The first of the epilogues is about Susanna meeting Eddie and Jake (who both died, remember) in a New York City that wasn't quite Key World (aka our world) but was a close proximity. What was weird was that they were meeting for the first time. Since Eddie and Jake were both there, I interpreted this as meaning that the Crimson King's comment about Susana having died after going through the door that Patrick had drawn was true after all -- they're all dead and the clearing Roland always referred to, for them, was an alternate NYC.

So then I read King's tantrum essay (quickly) and settled in to read the extended ending. Again, I don't know if this was in the first printing of the book (Kristin listened to it on audiobook and says the audiobooks have the three epilogues as well), but it was in the second edition and presumably all the others.

Anyway, in the extended ending, Roland goes inside and finds a spiraling staircase -- every 19 steps is another floor. Every floor has a unique item or image of a person, as well as a scent, from an important part of his life. It's all the memories he has accumulated, some good, some not so good. Roland has a bad habit of watching everyone he loves die, so this can't be an enjoyable stroll down memory lane. It seems like it's one memory per year, but it's not specific. The staircase goes on forever it seems and, at times, it feels like it won't end. Then it does. The uppermost floor contains a door. A door marked "ROLAND" and he opens it. Through the other side he sees a desert -- it's the very same desert he is in during the opening of The Gunslinger, the very first page in the very first book of the series. Roland realizes what's about to happen. He realizes his curse -- that he's forced to endure this endless pursuit of the Dark Tower for all eternity and that when he reaches it, he's forced to begin anew. He can't help himself go through the door -- he's pulled through and the story ends with the opening two sentences from the way it began. Roland is again in pursuit of the Man in Black.

Okay, so that's how it ends. My first thought was one of wonder: Why didn't Roland just put a bullet in his head as soon as he saw the desert on the other side. There was a moment of realization before he was pulled through. I think he should have shot himself, right then and there.

But that's just a rather knee-jerk response. When I thought about it some more, some other things started to make sense. Of course it's all theory, but I can't help but feel like the story we read -- Roland's journey to the Dark Tower with Eddie and Susana and Jake and Oy -- wasn't Roland's first. He's been caught in this loop forever and, perhaps, each time is different. Perhaps that alternate world that Susana found Eddie and Jake in was actually completely comprised of people who had known Roland at one point. What if that's the reason nobody noticed her come through the door? Not because they were looking at the snow, but because there's always someone showing up out of the ether and they're just immune to noticing it now? Perhaps everyone in that world -- the entire population of Alt-NYC -- was filled with people who had once been ka-tet with Roland? Perhaps Roland has pulled countless people through the doors on the beach and no matter how they leave Mid-World, through a door or by death, they all end up here in this place? A NYC special for them.

My other thought was, thanks to the awesome flash-back about his time with Cuthbert and Alain in Meijis, we know Roland's life was progressing like normal for a while. Then something happened. A switch was flipped and the A-to-B progression of his life from birth to death became what hikers and mountain bikers call a "lollipop" route. Basically, it reached a point where instead of continuing on to death, he gets trapped in a neverending circle. So what flipped that switch? Was it coming in contact with the witch's orb (Black Thirteen?) in Meijis? Was it killing his mother? Was it the point when he learned about the Dark Tower? At some point in time, and I don't think it was ever revealed, something snapped inside Roland and he became obsessed with reaching the Dark Tower. The story begins with his pursuit of the Man in Black (aka Walter) and that's how the story ends -- him pursuing Walter again. But what put him in the desert? What set him off on this journey to reach the Dark Tower? And what cursed him to repeat it forever and ever? Or was none of this ever really hatched out and King just took a cue from Sisyphus and the Dark Tower is Roland's boulder.

Also, and this could be just account of fuzzy memory or misunderstanding, but it sounds like he comes through the door at the end of the story to find only one gun and a horn on his belt. I don't recall him having the horn in the first book. In fact, I know he started the first book with two guns. We know Susana took one of the guns through the door with her and ended up throwing it away in alt-NYC, so that must mean it was eliminated from Roland's world -- Mid-World -- forever. But does he experience slight changes each and every time he repeats the loop? Also, were his hands back to normal or was he still missing some fingers from the lobstrosities? He must heal back to the status he was at during the initial passage through this point of his life, else he'd surely be chewed to nothing after making the journey even just 2 or 3 times, let alone for all eternity which is what we're left to believe he has to endure. And why shouldn't he heal if his memory is erased?

As I sit here typing this, bouncing ideas off Kristin, and thinking back to my conversation with Jessica yesterday and the one she and Kristin had in December, I can't help but thinking that this is a great way to end the series. End it with questions. I've read a lot of books over the years and so few of them ever left anything to the imagination. So few warranted a conversation with other readers. And some of the ones that have, it was usually just a quick what-if moment and a brief shrug of the shoulders and that was that.

I know a lot of people weren't too happy with the way this story ended, but the more I think about it and the more questions I come up with, the more I realize that this was, for me, the perfect ending. I like being left to think about the ending on my own and theorizing about the details that were intentionally or accidentally left out. And I definitely enjoy the philosophical-esque discussions I've had with others about the books.

Too bad more books don't leave room for interpretation. Too bad more authors don't write stories we can age with.


Joe said...

King breaking the fourth wall with his "don't read the real ending" warning is intact in the first edition.

Also, the Horn of Eld was lost in the Battle of Jericho, where Cuthbert died. And in the closing of (I think) Drawing of the Three, Roland dreams of coming to the Dark Tower, announcing the arrival with his horn. There are references a few other places to the horn, the Battle of Jericho, and Roland's intention to blow his horn at the tower. He doesn't have it in this repetition of the loop, of course. That he has it in the -next- loop is then intended as a sign of hope.

I worried that the horn might be a detail that King forgot, so I was glad to see him bring it up (along with Aunt Talitha's cross, obtained during The Waste Lands).

You bring up a good point. While I finished DT7 relatively soon after its release, I still think about the conclusion from time to time. To a degree, it allows the adventure to continue in our minds. I'm not sure King could have wrapped it up with an all-conclusive bow that felt right anyway.

Finally, a different take from a friend of mine - he was -glad- that Roland has to suffer this fate. Note that essentially everyone he draws/befriends dies...I took this as a tragic twist of fate, and didn't hold it against Roland, but my friend did. Interesting.


Doug Walsh said...

Thanks for reminding me about this plan to blow the horn at the tower, I forgot about that. I remember reading about the horn, but couldn't remember whether or not he began with it.

As for punishing Roland due to everyone he draws dying, I'm like you in that I didn't hold it against him... I figured watching all those people die was punishment enough. After all, it's not like he doesn't grieve or show remorse.

Am I the only one who felt more sadness from Oy though? I thought King's portrayal of Oy's behavior at Jake's grave was very powerful. And even at the very end during the fight with Mordred (or during the Wastelands). The several times I got choked up during this tale were all concerning Oy.

Criscipline said...

Oy was awesome and by far my favorite character.

One question: If every loop Roland encounters brings in new people, then where does King himself fit into all this. Surely, he must have something to do with every loop - he wrote Roland. Then again, I was never certain I fully understood his role in the book.

Doug Walsh said...

Good question. I don't know.

I think King wrote himself into the book because, for those of us who started reading this in the 80's or 90's, King's absence between books 3 & 4 and then his accident and extended absence between books 4 & 5 were as much a part of the story as the actual characters. It got to the point where any discussion abou the Dark Tower series with another fan almost always ended up being a conversation about whether or not King would finish it. And then when the accident happened, the conversation was usually about that. Like Joe said in his other comment: I think we all had the brief moment where we were sad to hear King's life was in jeopardy but ultimately we were equally saddened (or perhaps even more sad) by the fact that the DT series may go unfinished.

I guess what I'm trying to say though is through King's inaction over the years, he became as much a part of the story as Roland.

As for Roland reentering Key World and saving King's life, perhaps, that happens on every loop too? Maybe Roland always enters at the same point in time? I dunno.