Thursday, May 21, 2009

Danger in a Well

Roland comes upon a saner-than-most border dweller named Brown who lives alone except for his pet raven, Zoltan.

The gunslinger is thirsty, lonely, and his mule is nearly dead. Brown (who I always find myself suspicious of because of his red hair--when that color comes up in King's books, I steel myself ... even if I've read it a ridiculous number of times) explains that he's happy to share his corn, but Roland will have to contribute something for the beans, which are rarer as Brown has to get them from someone else. When Brown goes off to prepare dinner, he suggests that Roland fill his waterskins from his well.

As Roland is in the process of replenishing his water supply, he is shocked when Zoltan squawks, "Screw you and the horse you rode in on." At the sound of the raven's voice, Roland is suddenly aware of how easy it would be for Brown to throw a rock down the well, killing or seriously injuring the gunslinger.

Death in a well is a revisit of sorts. King used this image effectively in his novel Dolores Claiborne, where a woman backed into a corner by her manipulative child-molester of a husband gives him the only justice she can--a rock to the head.

Although this is momentarily reminiscent of a very different novel, Brown does not attack Roland as he's filling his waterskins, and the gunslinger pushes the idea out of his mind with the old adage, "There will be water if God wills it."

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Lepers and Madmen

As Roland moves along, he encounters many among the border dwellers. An increasing number of them live alone and fall into two categories--lepers or madmen. Roland claims to find the madmen better company.

One, for example, gave him a Silva compass and asked him to pass it along to the Man Jesus. Although Roland doesn't expect to see the Man Jesus, either in his travels or anywhere, he takes the compass fully intending to do as the madman requested should the opportunity present itself. The fact that our gunslinger is given a compass is an interesting irony, of course, and I'm insanely curious as to whether or not the compass even works.

I'm even more intrigued by the presence of lepers.

Leprosy is part of recorded history since 600 BC. It's a progressive disease where skin lesions cause serious damage to a person's body. Leprosy was treatable on a limited basis as early as the 1930s and has been effectively curable since the early eighties. That leprosy still exists in Roland's world demonstrates that either his location mirrors that of a third world country, where a disease like leprosy is still a problem more than twenty years after it ceased to be an issue in "civilized" nations, or that the disease was never cured in Roland's when.

It's impossible not to notice the Biblical allusions that show up throughout The Dark Tower. The idea of lepers living alone and forgotten is more than reminiscent of the Bible. It's more than a coincidence. It's yet another hint that this tremendous work is more Biblical in nature than most people would believe.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Remnants of Childhood

There is a curious duplicity to Roland.

On the one hand, he is a gunslinger, a trained killer, a man in every sense of the word. On the other, he is reminded of (or perhaps even haunted by) memories of his childhood. There is a little boy inside of Roland, a child that the reader is reminded of most often through snippets of rhyme.

For example, "Spark-a-dark, where's my sire? Will I lay me? Will I stay me? Bless this camp with fire" is spoken over a spark that will hopefully lead to an efficient campfire.

Even as he speaks this little blessing, Roland muses on how odd it is that some of childhood's traditions and memories fall by the wayside, yet others remain a steadfast part of the adult a child becomes. He further notes that these carryovers from childhood grow "the heavier to carry" as time goes on.

Roland's childhood (and coming-of-age, so to speak) is obviously a major part of his character and of the series in general. What happens between the days when he could still be considered a boy and the current events in The Gunslinger is a growing chasm. I understand it now, of course, but I never noticed before how many little clues about Roland's childhood are interspersed throughout.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Devil Grass Campfires

Since devil grass--that addictive weed that gives off a greasy, smoky light when used to make a fire--was all there was to burn, both Roland and the Man in Black used it to start their campfires in the desert.

The Man in Black's campfires were set up in a definite pattern, one described as "ideographic" (clearly symbolic). Even the unimaginative Roland ponders the remains of the Man in Black's fires, whether for example they are spelling out a warning such as "Keep your distance, partner", "The end draweth nigh", or "Come and get me."

Roland's own campfires send a rather telling message about their creator. Described as a "straightforward crisscross" that is "vaguely frightening in its no-nonsense surety", Roland's method of setting up the devil grass to burn is a strong indicator of his simple, workmanlike approach to life.

Although border dwellers were frightened of devil grass fires, perhaps with good reason (there was an overwhelming belief that demons danced within the flames and would draw you in if you looked too closely ... or too long ... or at all), neither the gunslinger nor the Man in Black had any choice in what to make his fire with.

To me, the most telling message sent forth to the reader by contemplating the devil grass campfires is that, when coming upon the remains of one abandoned by the Man in Black, Roland eats a piece of charred bacon left behind amidst the pattern of symbols.

This tells me two things:
First, the Man in Black has no intention of harming the gunslinger ... and they both know this (or else the Man in Black might have poisoned the bacon ... or Roland would never have eaten it).
Second, it's possible (even probable) that the Man in Black is taking steps to keep Roland alive. Throwing the gunslinger scraps like a starving dog must give him some sort of perverse pleasure.

A Momentary Dizziness

As The Gunslinger begins and Roland is in hot pursuit of the Man in Black across the desert, he feels what is described as a "momentary dizziness" from which he quickly recovers and moves on ("like the world upon whose hide he walked").

As he takes stock of himself, he realizes that some things are gone. His hat, for example, and the horn that had been dropped by his old friend Cuthbert Allgood as he headed into battle on Jericho Hill. The blue of his jeans has been worn down, and he has far fewer bullets. Although he knows all too well the fate of poor Cuthbert, it seems strange to me that Roland seems less concerned with his stock of supplies and how it came to be (or not to be). But of course, going with the flow (leaving it up to ka) is the essence of Roland's nature, so perhaps it's not all that strange.

In his methodical way, Roland recognizes the association between the period of dizziness he experienced and the loss of his friends (and his horn) at Jericho Hill. Only on this most recent reading of The Gunslinger have I realized the portent of this, both the stranger-in-a-strange-land vertigo Roland experiences and the first whiffs of memories he starts to recall.

Guns of his Father

Roland's guns are described as "carefully weighted to his hands." Although they once belonged to his father, the guns were adapted to fit Roland's specific needs. When the guns came into his hands, "a plate had been added to each."

Roland's father, Steven Deschain, "had been lighter and not so tall" as our gunslinger. This is interesting because Roland is depicted as physically lean, so his father must have been a fairly small man (although, to be fair, Roland is also considered to be a pretty tall guy, so Steven was probably not what one would call small ... although bearing in mind the relationship between his wife Gabrielle and Marten, it's kind of impossible not to think in a certain direction here).

It's impossible to ignore the fact that, in terms of physical stature, Roland is superior to his father. Steven Deschain, once ruler of Gilead-that-was, is not able to effectively shoulder his burden. Interesting that Roland's very height and weight give the reader early (very early ... we're talking page four) indications that he is able to carry a much heavier load.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Roland the Pilgrim

Geoffrey Chaucer made the concept of the religious pilgrimage identifiable to scores of high school English students through The Canterbury Tales, a work written in the fourteenth century and somehow still read today (in Middle English, no less). John Bunyan took it perhaps a step further in 1678 with his religious allegory The Pilgrim's Progress.

My theory is that, whether intentionally or not, Stephen King set Roland up as much the same sort of character, even describing him in the early pages of The Gunslinger as "an ordinary pilgrim" (4).

Even early in the book, there are many religious references. King writes of the Manni, a holy group that supposedly are able to actually detach from their own bodies and travel between worlds, as well as followers of "the Man Jesus", a reference which is obviously intended to carry a certain connotation with it.

Roland is not portrayed as a holy man. In point of fact, he is an avowed killer. That said, however, it is impossible not to contemplate that he is on a quest to save his world (and ours ... but that comes later, of course) that bears many similarities to the journey of Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

"The Man in Black Fled Across the Desert and the Gunslinger Followed"

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

This sentence is a hook to end all hooks. After all, the questions are endless. Who is the man in black? Who is the gunslinger? What is a gunslinger, anyway? Why a desert? Why is the man in black fleeing? What does the gunslinger want from him? Have the two met before? Is this just a game? What the heck genre does this book fit into, anyway?

Having read the line (and the book and the series) probably at least a hundred times, I know the answers to most of those questions (well, I know my answers ... whether or not those are correct ... who am I to judge?).

If you have read the book before, what stood out to you the most about it? What made you decide to keep reading?

If you have never read the book, does it make you want to head to the library or bookstore and pick up a copy?

Introduction to the New Version of "The Gunslinger"

My newfound interest in philosophy (particularly in discovering my own brand of thought and whys and hows and all that stuff) made me realize that this rereading of The Gunslinger, the first book in Stephen King's epic masterpiece The Dark Tower, is going to be somehow different. I was going to write a post devoted to each of the seven DT books, but I didn't get past the four page introduction before I realized this would not be possible.

Ah, the author's introduction. Who even reads them, anyway? Well, if they're written by Stephen King, I can assure you that I do. I'd even argue that some of King's best works are introductions to other pieces. He just gets this voice ... it's like he's talking directly to you, and it seems like everyone, no matter who you are, can relate. Uncanny, really.

King reworked the first DT book, The Gunslinger, because there were things that came up as the epic progressed that he felt needed to be addressed. One of the strongest themes/symbols/whatever you want to call it is the recurrence throughout the saga of the number nineteen. I did a quick search on the historical context of the number nineteen and found that it is
* The atomic number for Potassium
* A prevalent number in the Koran
* The number of months in the Bahai calendar (a group focused on uniting all religions in the world)
* A prime number
* A 1985 anti-war song by one-hit wonder Paul Hardcastle
* The number of years between the major events and the epilogue of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
* The number of minutes given to a school shooting in Jodi Picoult's Nineteen Minutes
* the name of the first Soviet nuclear ballistic submarine (K-19)
* the year (BC) that the Roman poet Virgil died
* The year (BC) that Herod the King began rebuilding the Temple of Jerusalem (Herod played a role in both the birth and death of Jesus Christ ... the death place of Christ was also known as Golgotha, a name familiar to DT aficionados)
* the year (1855--1+8+5+5=19) that Robert Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came", the poem King used as a jumping off point, was published
* the year (well, 1919) that Mussolini created the Fascist Party
* the year (1919) that the Red Cross was founded in France ("Little Sisters of Eluria", anyone?)
* the year (1919) Einstein's Theory of Relativity is confirmed
* the year (1919) Congress approves the 19th Amendment to the Constitution (Women's Suffrage, in case you're interested)
* the year (1919) the Treaty of Versailles is signed, basically ending World War I
* the year (1919) J.D. Salinger, Jackie Robinson, and a crapload of other noteworthies were born
* the year (1919) L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz, died (Baum's story plays a major role in DT-IV)
* the main part of every year in the twentieth century (1900s). According to Wikipedia (not the most reliable of sources, says the English teacher, but I found this interesting), "The century saw a remarkable shift in the way that vast numbers of people lived, as a result of technological, medical, social, ideological, and political innovation. Terms like ideology, world war, genocide, and nuclear war entered common usage."

But back to King. In typical self-deprecatory fashion, he begins by talking about the impact of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings on his own potential epic, what he believed would be the magnum opus he was one day known for. Tolkien's creatures came to life for him, so to speak, when he heard about the number of hippies at Woodstock dressed up as hobbits, Frodo in particular of course, but even more those that took on the likeness of the wizard Gandalf. Known as Gandalf the Grey in the early part of Tolkien's work, Gandalf embodies one with great power, great wisdom, great knowledge of when sacrifice is necessary. Gandalf sent these little barefooted creatures on a seemingly impossible quest, and he did so with a heavy heart. He was always on the edge of what Tolkien called "The Fellowship of the Ring" but which King would undoubtedly call "The Ka-Tet of the Ring" because the prospect of getting close to the others, of being part of a betrayal as he so easily could have been, was too overwhelming.

The hippies got Gandalf, man. They totally got him. And Stephen King was a hippie.

The greatest message I got from this introduction, though, was King's constant reference to "Patrol Boy", something sent out by the world to "slow your progress." According to King, it's a good thing that nineteen is an age of arrogance and a feeling that you're bigger than life. You need to dream big; after all, "if you start out small, the mean Patrol Boy" will leave you with pretty much nothing--he'll essentially eat you alive. King's advice? "Let it rip, regardless of what anybody tells you."

The Patrol Boy came for King in various ways--through drug and alcohol addiction and, even more dire, a life-threatening accident involving an automobile. King gave the Patrol Boy the proverbial bird when he wrote his accident into his DT epic, making the questions of who or what or why in terms of power completely wide open. The accident gave King the jump start he needed to finish the series, started when he was a boy of nineteen. His part in saving the tower was to finish Roland's story, to use his art as a means of removing "the threat to the Beams that hold the Tower up."

It's easy to dismiss The Dark Tower as the work of an immensely popular author who, it has been accused, could publish his laundry list and make it a bestseller. The thing is, though, whatever level (pun definitely intended) you read it on, these books will change your mindset. They will open up a whole new world to you, or at least make you view the one you inhabit differently.

I wish that I was nineteen again. On a personal level, I met someone when I was nineteen that I believe was my "Patrol Boy" (to use King's terminology). He shaped who I am, in many ways, and he opened up the door for me to look at things in a different way. My eyes were opened (and blinded for many years), my heart was opened (and shattered), but I see things so much more clearly now.

Of course, now I wish I possessed the courage to think big, to live what is in my heart and dreams, but I exist in a society with social norms and a hundred different roadblocks ("Patrol Boys" in their own right, I suppose) to my own deepest desires.

Still, being there with King--no, with Roland and his comrades, his ka-tet--has made it bearable. I can live vicariously through them in a world (well, worlds) where anything can happen. And, as King put it with regard to writing DT, "As for me, I had the time of my life."

The Dark Tower and Me

I have traveled to the tower with Roland and his ka-tet time without number. In other words, I've read Stephen King's brilliant epic work The Dark Tower (The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, The Waste Lands, Wizard and Glass, Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah, and The Dark Tower) numerous times.

Strange as this may sound, King's magnum opus has impacted and in some cases completely changed the way I look at many things. My world has, in a sense, been shaken by a beamquake through my experience with these books. You may think that I'm an obsessed fan, and you'd be right ... but I'm also an obsessed fan with a degree an English, a passion for writing, a knack for literary analysis, and a new love of blogging.

I recently started rereading the books. I've taken many notes and have sort of planned out a bit of how I want this blog to look and operate. Basically, as I read each DT book, I'll post on a certain area. It is my hope that the battalions following this blog will leave comments, converse, and we can all go even deeper into this unbelievable journey Stephen King has sent us on ... again and again.

Looking forward to your thoughts, ideas, input, and ... whatever else : )

Thankee sai.