Roland the Gunslinger’s journey to the Dark Tower has been a long and difficult one, and it has been long for his readers as well. I read the original novel “The Gunslinger” the first time because I loved Stephen King and I read everything he wrote.
I didn’t care much for the novel at the time, and I still don’t. I find it bleak and arid, much like the desert the gunslinger crosses – much like his soul during this opening chapter. King gives us some interesting glimpses of the world he is creating, but his characters are the real heart of his stories, and this one seems to be missing its.
The second novel, “The Drawing of the Three,” is much better. King introduces us to other characters which will help Roland on his quest, and they begin to revive his ability to care for other people. I think, however, the jump in quality between the first and second novels is due largely to King’s growth as a writer and his confidence in the story. From the very beginning of the second book, Roland seems more alive and more thought-out as a character than he does in the first one.
By the time Stephen King got to book 7, The Dark Tower had become his magnum opus. He had begun tying all his books and stories into Roland’s universe, and King seemed to invest a lot of his own energy and emotions into it as well. He himself appears as a character in this series, and his presence in it is a meditation on the artist’s part in the creative process. King seems to come from the musomania school of creativity, in that the “Gods” literally inspire him (“sh*t on his head” is how he puts it), and even if he is the physical creator of the stories, he is somehow channeling a higher energy, being or force when he is writing.
Here is where King addresses the automobile accident that nearly killed him and indirectly, the suffering he enduring during rehab, which is alluded to in his descriptions of Roland’s painful ailment, the “dry twist,” which I think of as arthritis. In coming to the end of this story, King ponders his own mortality as he examines the completion of Roland’s quest, and one individual’s small place in the universe, which will go on without him after his death.
The ending could be considered bleak. I absolutely hated it the first time I read it. It grew on me a little as time went by and I considered the mythic nature of the story, and how King draws from different mythologies in writing his conclusion. There are happy endings for some characters, which in a way feels like a cheat, even as I am happy to have them. They feel almost “tacked on,” like the 2nd ending of “Dirty Dancing,” with the big musical number, after the first, grittier, more realistic ending where Baby is left in the corner with her memories and her family. The characters in The Dark Tower series have earned their happy endings, but I’m not completely sure the story has. However, I might have found the series unbearable to read if they had not been given their due, so I understand why they were left in, even if they are not perfectly in alignment with the rest of the universe King has created.
I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, but I do want to say that – in the end – the Gunslinger realizes that in some ways, the very approach that allows him to finish his quest, the violence and disregard for human life, has tainted it and his soul. I want to believe that the experiences he has had with his friends have given him a depth of self-understanding that will ultimately lead him to a more satisfying resolution.
If anyone else wants to discuss the story – especially the ending and what happens to the characters – I’d love to hear from you, so please send me an email, here or at firstname.lastname@example.org.