First Lines: The Dark Tower

TL;DR: I re-read Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series.

One. Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.

Once upon a bye, I must have been 13 or so, I read the Dutch translation of The Gunslinger, and wrote a book report about it. I don’t recall thinking much of it.

Some years later, I asked my mother to pick up any thickish Stephen King novel from the library, in order to have something to read after my summer job. She returned with (the Dutch translation of) Wizard and Glass, at that moment the most recently published episode in an ongoing series of which I had only read and could vaguely recall the first part. I read it anyway, and due to its tale-within-a-tale nature, I liked it a lot. Wizard and Glass has some framing story that does not really work without what came before, but like The Wind Through the Keyhole in a lesser degree, the largest chunk is a gripping tale that can stand on its own.

One June nineteen, in the year of nineteen and ninety-nine, The Writer got hit by a car. He recovered and wrote the conclusion to his Magnum Opus. Before the fifth novel came out, I made sure I had read the rest of the series, and read the remaining three books as soon as they came out. I even took an unwieldy hardcover of the final book with me on a trip to Barcelona.

Re-reading the series has been on my to-do list ever since I read the last line of the last book. So putting it on my list of 100 things to do was, well, duh. But, unlike the Harry Potter series, there is some ambiguity as to what “read all Dark Tower books back to back” actually means.

In the narrowest reading, The Dark Tower is a series of seven novels. But then there is the 1998 short story The Little Sisters of Eluria, which sits before The Gunslinger in the 2009 edition published by Grant. (This edition also includes the revised version of The Gunslinger, which lead to question if you should read both … but more on that later). The Wind Through the Keyhole, positions itself in the foreword as The Dark Tower 4.5, so that is pretty straightforward. It gets murky when you start to wonder if you need to include some of the more connected stories (warning: here be spoilers!), like Hearts in Atlantis or Black House. And then there are the comics and the movie…

In the end, I decided to keep it to the short story and eight novels. Otherwise I might just as well reread all of King’s oeuvre.

Two. The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

The Dark Tower, if you boil it down long enough, is about Roland Deschain (of Gilead that was), gunslinger, the last of his kind, and his quest to gain the Dark Tower that stands at the nexus of everything. Along the way, he makes friends and enemies, tries to do mostly good as is his duty as a gunslinger, but all that’s besides the point: Ka (destiny, if it does ya) pulls Roland to the Tower, and you should not stand is his way, or you will be cast aside.

While I am not going to even try to sum up over two thousand pages of story here, I do have some thoughts about reading The Dark Tower in order:

If you haven’t read the series before, do not start with The Little Sisters. It may be the first piece of the tale, but it is not the best place to start. There is just not enough in the story that makes it essential to understand what comes next. And starting with The Gunslinger means that you get to start with that glorious opening line, which is probably my favorite opening line, ever: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” That one line paints so many pictures and conjures so many images. If you wonder whether you should read the original or the revised edition: go with the revision, as I don’t think it really matters.

King’s real-world accident was a catalyst for completing the Dark Tower saga. In the four parts before that, Roland followed the man in black through the desert, met Jake, lost him (“Go, then. There are other worlds than these.”), found the man in black, drew his ka-tet (including Jake, again) from various New Yorks, got a ride on a demented train (“Blaine is a pain, and that’s the truth.”) and made it to the emerald palace in the road. The timeline was vague, the pace mild. The books didn’t feel tightly connected. As if King took his time to get to the tower.

After the accident, it got more focused. There’s a definite drive towards the tower: all things serve the beam. Behind everything, there’s the constant pull of the Tower. So there are wolves in the Calla? We’ll deal with them, as gunslingers must do, but we cannot tarry. The ka-tet is pulled apart and reunited, we get fewer digressions, as all things must serve the beam. I do not know for how long King has known how it all would end, but I suspect that if not for that accident, there might have been more books which took the story elsewhere first. I am not saying that he rushed the ending — which, for a change, I love — but it seemed to me that there was a shift of tone and focus.

Finally, as another fantasy epic would have it, all men must die, but man, The Dark Tower (Book VII) was hard. That the ka-tet would break was clear: Roland would always gain the Tower alone, and there call out the names of those who stood by him. But dammit, Stephen King, you broke my heart with what you did to Jake and Oy.

Three. Ka is a wheel.

I am totally going to talk about the ending here. Spoilers, do ya kennit? Skip to the next heading if you don’t want them.

In the end, Roland reaches the Dark Tower in the field of Can’ka No Rey at dusk, as he always dreamed he would. Calling out the names of those who have fallen along the way, the very last thing we see is how the door slams shut behind him, while he starts climbing the circular stairs to the top to see what is in the room at the top.

And then there is the coda. King advises us not to read it. Let Roland have his tower.

Of course, we press on. First, a warning: “There is no such thing as a happy ending. I never met a single one equal to ‘Once upon a time.’ Endings are heartless. Ending is just another word for goodbye.”

Hear me, and hear me very well, for I want you to see this very clear: I am going to spoil the ending here. Final warning.

We follow Roland up the stairs and slowly (he has never been a very fast thinker or imaginative person, or so he told us many times) he realizes that he has been there before. Over and over and over over again.

Sheer. Total. Fucking. Genius.

At first I found it infuriating, but upon some reflection, it makes perfect sense: when we see Roland standing before the final door at the top level of the tower, has has told us many times that Ka is wheel. It goes around and around, we cannot help but go where it leads us, and when it stops, no-one knows. There could be no other ending. So here we go: The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

Which brings me back to saying that it doesn’t seem to matter which version of The Gunslinger you read first. The revision fixes some continuity issues, changes a word here and there, and sets up some things that are to come, but you could also see it as another turn of Ka’s wheel where some things are different.

Likewise, the comics. There are three series, the first of which (The Dark Tower) starts with retelling Wizard and Glass and then goes into events the book only hints at. The second and third series (The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger and The Dark Tower: The Drawing of the Three) cover the same events as the books. While there is, of course, debate online about the status of the comics within the Dark Tower universe, they are canon: they’re just on another level of the tower.

The same can be said for the movie. We saw it on the big screen, and I thought it was a perfectly cromulent movie. Unless you see it as an direct adaptation of the books. That, that it is not. As the marketing fluff would have it, it might even be Roland’s final round.

Four. Long days and pleasant nights.

Re-reading the The Dark Tower series in order is something I should have done much earlier, as it is definitely worth it. Stephen King will test your patience, infuriate you, break your heart and heal it. If so inclined, one could make extract enough nuggets of wisdom from its pages to fill an inspirational sell-help guide (I am quite partial to “Control the things you can control, maggot. Let everything else take a flying fuck at you …” myself.) If you haven’t read it, do so. If you have, do it again.

King considers The Dark Tower his magnum opus. Rightly so. It is magical, and it will take you places. Again and again and again.

Book Read
Stephen King — The Little Sisters of Eluria
First Line
On a day in Full Earth so hot that it seemed to suck the breath from his chest before his body could use it, Roland of Gilead came to the gates of a village in the Desatoya Mountains.
Book Read
Stephen King — The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (revised edition)
First Line
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed. (Resumption)
Book Read
Stephen King — The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three
First Line
The gunslinger came awake from a confused dream which seemed to consist of a single image: that of the Sailor in the Tarot deck from which the man in black had dealt (or purported to deal) the gunslinger’s own moaning future. (Renewal)
Book Read
Stephen King — The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands
First Line
It was her third time with live ammunition … and her first time on the draw from the holster Roland had rigged for her. (Redemption)
Book Read
Stephen King — The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass
First Line
The town of Candleton was a poisoned and irradiated ruin, but not dead; after all the centuries it still twitched with tenebrous life—trundling beetles the size of turtles, birds that looked like small, misshapen dragonlets, a few stumbling robots that passed in and out of the rotten buildings like stainless steel zombies, their joints squalling, their nuclear eyes flickering. (Regard)
Book Read
Stephen King — The Dark Tower: The Wind Through the Keyhole
First Line
During the days after they left the Green Palace that wasn’t Oz after all—but which was now the tomb of the unpleasant fellow Roland’s ka-tet had known as the Tick-Tock Man—the boy Jake began to range farther and farther ahead of Roland, Eddie, and Susannah. (…)
Book Read
Stephen King — The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla
First Line
Tian was blessed (though few farmers would have used such a word) with three patches: River Field, where his family had grown rice since time out of mind; Roadside Field, where ka-Jaffords had grown sharproot, pumpkin, and corn for those same long years and generations; and Son of a Bitch, a thankless tract which mostly grew rocks, blisters, and busted hopes. (Resistance)
Book Read
Stephen King — The Dark Tower VI: Song of Susannah
First Line
“How long will the magic stay?” (Reproduction)
Book Read
Stephen King — The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower
First Line
Pere Don Callahan had once been the Catholic priest of a town, ‘Salem’s Lot had been its name, that no longer existed on any map. (Reproduction, Revelation, Redemption, Resumption)