Thursday, March 31, 2005

The Dark Tower

A couple of days ago I finished reading the last book of Stephen King's The Dark Tower series. This is a 3500 page, seven book tale, one that he began in 1970 and finished in September of last year. I read the first book around 2000, and over the past few years have gradually read the rest. It was a great series of books. one that was consistently entertaining and had some really interesting ideas throughout. The series was always at least partially about the nature of storytelling, making it fitting that the ending of the series should be a meta-comment on the nature of the text itself, an ending that I found really fulfilling. Spoilers are obviously below.

In the thirty years and seven books, Roland's world has changed dramatically, but the one thing that has always remained constant is his desire to get to the tower. That is the thing that drives him, the thing that keeps him going after losing his old friends, losing Jake, losing Eddie, losing Jake again and even losing Susannah, he has one thing driving him forward and that is his need to make it to the dark tower. Throughout the book, we have the vague idea tha the tower is the nexus of all realities, and therefore plays a crucial role in preventing the world from collapsing. However, we never learn exactly what its purpose is, and what it is that makes Roland so drawn to it. After they fix the beam midway through book VII, they've essentially accomplished their task, the world is saved, and there's no reason to go on anymore, except Roland's need to see the tower for himself, to accomplish his goal, the one thing that has driven him above all others.

One thing I found interesting was the way the ending was structured. The main book ends with Roland walking into the dark tower, and I was like, did I miss something, where's my resolution with what the tower is? And then there's the piece about Susannah which was good, and then there's a little note from Stephen King about the fact that it's the journey that matters, what happens on the way to the tower, not the tower itself, and that ultimately every ending is something of a let down. But, thankfully after that, we go back to Roland his ascent up the tower.

So, when he finally does reach the tower, he finds that is sort of a summation of his life, each level corresponds to events that occurred to him, and in ascending it, he views the entirety of his life. Then at the top of the tower he is sucked through time and returns to the beginning of his journey, right before the first sentence of The Gunslinger. I love this ending because it follows up on what King was talking about with the journey being the point of things. Nothing he finds at the top of the tower could satisfy the reader, and I think this is the best way to the end the book.

A lot of people have been knocking the idea of the loop, but I think to do that is to ignore one crucial thing, the presence of the horn when he begins his next journey. What this implies is that with each journey he's doing things better, and it's implied that his one failure this time is the fact that he didn't pick up the horn at the end of the battle in Wizard and the Glass, so now he has it, and I get the feeling that this next journey will be his last time, and then he will find peace at the top of the tower.

I love the quasi-dreamlike memories Roland has of things when he is spit out the end of the loop. All throughout the book you get the feeling he's been on this quest forever, and his past is so distant from who he is now. That's something that's reaffirmed by this ending. He has been on this quest forever, and he's become ageless, moving through an infernal hell.

If I had to guess, I would say that when Roland finally does reach the top of the tower, and do things right, it will be something like what happens to Susannah at the end of her journey. I get the feeling that Susannah got everything right this time, and even if she was consigned to a loop before, she won't be now. She got her happy ending, reuinted with everyone in the clearing at the end of the path. When Roland completes his mission, he will probably find the same happiness, but until then, it is his burden to forever be seeking the tower.

The ending also brilliantly plays off the fact that the universe didn't really end, you can pick up the first book and start all over again. Throughout all the books, the series has flirted with meta-fiction and this ending references that without being excessively gimmicky or self reflexive. If the horn wasn't there, it might seem like too much of a downer, but this way you still have hope. I like the symmetry of placing the 'Childe Roland' poem at the end of the book, with the implication that this poem depicts Roland's final journey to the tower, because it was also the impetus for the creation of the entire world. So, it both opens and closes the series.

I'm really satisfied with the ending and I think it stands as one of the great stories ever told, full of so many memorable characters and events. The books frequently refer to the fact that they aren't so much being written, it's more King tapping into another universe and bringing the story back from there. That's what it's like to write, and thus, both the writer and the reader are like Eddie or Susannah, taken from our world to Roland's world for an adventure outside of the everyday.


Mar said...

I agree with most of what you said. But if Roland had stopped after they fixed the beams, then King wouldn't have been saved from getting hit by a car. Would it have been sufficient to just fix the beams?

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

"I like the symmetry of placing the 'Childe Roland' poem at the end of the book, with the implication that this poem depicts Roland's final journey to the tower"

This was my thought, too. By placing the poem at the end, King's showing us Roland's next time through his journey, ending with him blowing the horn and announcing "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came."

Fitting in with his metatextual theme (though he says he doesn't like the term), it's also neat that you can just turn to the front of The Gunslinger, start over, and read the whole quest again, except this time I'll be different *for you*, the reader, because you'll notice different things, so your experience, like Roland's, will be different.

Don said...

There is a good moral to this story in that in Roland's quest for the tower and the so called rule of the "White" he has forgotten all about what is worthwhile about "White". He has sacrificed all whom loved him in the quest of the tower and the sin of his pride has now cost him an eternity of walking the earth in search for the intangible. Steven King's version of his hell to be continually reborn into a world that he watches loved ones die in his endless quest, for those that do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.

Patrick said...

Exactly, quite literally in this case. I do like that spark of hope at the end of the narrative, that he has the horn this time and on some level, remembers what has to be done. It also fits nicely with the end of The Stand, which poses a similar endless looping battle against evil.

Anonymous said...

Now my first thought after getting through seven extremely long-winded books, whose small print surely have contributed to my rapidly deteriorating glasses script, and finding out that Roland was going to do it all again just broke my heart. I felt his pain. But upon thinking about it, i like this ending. Because i cried when Jake died (both times), when Eddie died and when Oy died and I like to think that this time round, Childe Roland will realise that the path of the white won't necessarily be served by achieving the dark tower merely for the sake of achieving it

@ Mar - they only saved one beam by stopping the breakers, the other beam had to be saved by saving sai King.

VinceLHarts said...

The point of the ending was to show how he had changed from the inward and lonely wanderer to a caring individual. He will never finish his quest until he learns to open up his heart.If Roland has the horn then it maybe that he learns to love Jake more easily because the horn reminds him of Cuthbert and therefore friendship. If Roland saves Jake from falling then they both would have found the doors at the end of the beach and Susannah would not have been raped when trying to help Jake into the world and Mordred would not be born. After Patrick draws the door into existence then Roland could actually go with Susannah because the Tower had been saved and he could save his soul....... ........Just a thought or maybe he gets to the top and finds a door like Susannah's and they all live, mostly, happily ever after. He must learn to love in order to finally finish his quest for good. Throughout his journey he finds that there are things more important than the Tower: love, friendship, etc. Great series, been reading King since I was the boy Jake's age.

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Anonymous said...

Only problem I have is that finally, toward the end, just before Eddie dies, I can see the ka-tet with my minds eye.... only to have them fall away, one by one. Not a very nice feeling, that.

Anonymous said...

I hate the ending. I read all 6 books, and just before I read part 7, I found out the ending. I will never read book 7. It's a total let down to the readers who supported King's series all these years.

CleverJason said...

Is it possible that the Dark Tower represents addiction? If Roland had stopped after saving the Beam, his ka-tet would have still been whole. But he persisted, losing them one by one until he was alone with nothing but his addiction, which essentially ripped his life away. I mean, King makes several references to Eddie's drug addiction as being his "Dark Tower" in the Calling of the Three. Perhaps the story continues, over and over again, until Roland can finally let the Dark Tower go and make a life for himself.