The Dark Tower
Donald M. Grant • 1982/2003 (Revision) • 224/231 pages
A Novel Critique
Stephen King begins his career-spanning Dark Tower series with what is perhaps his best opening line ever: The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed. In a single sentence, King lays the groundwork not only for the slim volume that follows, but also for the series as a whole: eight primary novels and one short story, "The Little Sisters of Eluria" (the "Major Arcana" of the series), major connections to other novels and stories (the "Minor Arcana," including The Eyes of the Dragon, The Stand, Hearts in Atlantis, Insomnia, The Talisman, and Black House, along with the story "Everything's Eventual") and lesser, more ephemeral connections to many other stories in King's canon (It, Rose Madder, and "Ur" among them).
As King explains in his foreword to the "revised and expanded" edition of the novel, while The Gunslinger was written in the shadow of the Lord of the Rings series (King was twenty-two when he began The Gunslinger), he purposefully avoided working in Tolkien's world. A viewing of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly convinced King of the sort of story he wanted to write. The Gunslinger, then, is a curious hybrid of spaghetti Western movies and dark fantasy, with elements of horror folded in. Seamlessly blending genres would become a staple of the Dark Tower series, incorporating dystopian science fiction, romance, psychological suspense, Lovecraftian horror, even a healthy dose of metafiction before its conclusion.
The Gunslinger as its own volume follows a fairly simple narrative: Roland, the last gunslinger in "a world that has moved on" is on the trail of the elusive man in black, who, in turn, holds some of the answers to finding the Dark Tower - Roland's ultimate goal. These are mythic elements, each with histories and questions behind them. What does it mean that the world has moved on, and why has it done so? What is the Dark Tower, and why is Roland searching for it? Who, exactly, is the man in black? For that matter, who is Roland the gunslinger?
Though we spend the whole book following his quest, Roland remains nearly as elusive as the man he chases. Some flashbacks to Roland's boyhood shed a little light on his character, and we come to understand his drive to succeed at any cost. This is underscored by a violent confrontation in a town called Tull, in which cowardice and religious mania ignite a bloody showdown. Reminiscent of King's short story "Children of the Corn," this sequence exemplifies King's early fascination with women who twist religion into lunacy; Sylvia Pittson is the predecessor of Carrie's Margaret White and The Dead Zone's Vera Smith. Only when he encounters a young boy named Jake at a way station do we get the sense that Roland has interests and emotions beyond his quest, hinting at the more rounded character that will emerge over the course of the later books.
Jake himself holds the key to understanding the greater implications of Roland's journey. As he explains, he died in one world and woke up in Roland's alive. The concept of parallel worlds puts Roland's journey into a larger context, much as Jack Sawyer's would be in King's later novel with Peter Straub, The Talisman. Roland comes to love Jake as a son, even as Jake understands that he is no more than a tool in Roland's single-minded obsession with the Tower. Late in the book, as Roland must choose between symbolically sacrificing the boy or lose the man in black forever, Jake tells him, "Go, then. There are other worlds than these." This begins a cycle of circumstance and paradox that will carry through to the third book in the series, The Waste Lands.
When Roland finally reaches the man in black, he is offered a vision that almost - but not quite - explains the cosmos. In his elaborations, the man in black again presages The Talisman, explaining that the Dark Tower is the nexus of all worlds and universes. We hear echoes of this discussion in the later novel Insomnia, when Clotho and Lachesis reveal the order and disorder of the universe(s) to Ralph Roberts and Lois Chasse. Before allowing Roland some answers, the man in black then offers prophecy in the form of a tarot reading, drawing cards that anticipate his further journeys. Of particular interest are that of The Prisoner and The Lady of Shadows, who arrive in the form of Eddie Dean and Odetta Holmes in the second book of the series, The Drawing of the Three. The man in black also draws cards for death and life, offering the same caveat for both: "Not for you." By the end of the seventh volume - published twenty-four years after The Gunslinger was begun - we eventually understand what these prophecies mean.
The Gunslinger ends with Roland on the shore of an immense beach, looking out over the ocean and dreaming of the Dark Tower. It is a logical stopping point: having crossed through desert, the gunslinger finally reaches water. This change in landscape is important, signifying that a portion of the quest for the Tower has concluded. (Later, The Drawing of the Three moves from the beach to the forest; The Waste Lands, in turn, moves from the forest to a city.) Like most of the Dark Tower novels (with the possible exception of Song of Susannah), The Gunslinger functions both as a segment of a larger whole and as its own entity, with a defined beginning, middle, and end.
Readers approaching The Gunslinger as it stands today will find a fundamentally different version of the story as those who read it when it was first released. Though The Gunslinger had a rabid following, there were many readers who had attempted the work and put it aside, finding it too wildly different from King's other novels. This might not have been an issue had The Gunslinger been a stand-alone book, but because it functioned as the opening to King's vast Dark Tower epic, the fact that it didn't seem to fit in tonally with the other books in the series bothered King. "It was," King stated in his foreword to the revised edition, "frankly, difficult to read." In anticipation of the release of the final three books in the series, King revised the text and republished The Gunslinger in 2003. While the changes are not as extensive as those King brought to The Stand in 1990, The Gunslinger is vitally changed.
The Gunslinger was initially published serially in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction over a period of four years before being collected in a single, limited-edition volume by the publisher Donald M. Grant. In this mass-market revision, King made a concerted effort to make these individual pieces feel more like chapters of a novel than stories. Following his own On Writing advice, he excised many unnecessary adverbs, and changed sentences around to make them flow more easily. Subplots that ended up going nowhere in the series are eliminated. Certain scenes offer more clarity: the showdown in Tull is changed somewhat to paint Roland in a slightly more sympathetic light, allowing readers to identify with him earlier, and more easily. Several portions are added to flesh out characters and foreshadow the later books. Jake, who has always functioned in The Gunslinger as little more than a plot device Roland must sacrifice in order to complete his task, is given a more rounded personality here, with specific background details that link this version of Jake more readily with the one we meet in The Waste Lands. It is with this revision that King also introduces the recurring symbol of the number nineteen, which gains importance in the last three volumes of the series.
In his introduction to the "revised and expanded" edition, King laments that it was only in The Drawing of the Three that the series really found its voice. King's revision, however, elevates The Gunslinger's accessibility. Without sacrificing the novel's inherent uniqueness among King's work in general and the series specifically, this updated version allows new readers to find the true voice of Dark Tower books at once. Only seven hours separates the end of The Gunslinger and the beginning of The Drawing of the Three, which will immediately and vitally change Roland of Gilead's character forever.