The Dark Tower
Wizard & Glass
Donald M. Grant • 1997 • 787 pages
A Novel Critique
Nearly three hundred pages longer than the prior installment of the Dark Tower series, Wizard & Glass aims to tell the story of Roland of Gilead - who he was before we meet him in The Gunslinger, and why. Framed by the continuing story of our ka-tet (in a structure similar to that of "The Breathing Method," from Different Seasons) this deep look into Roland's history is revealing, going a long way toward explaining Roland's actions in the previous three books, and serving as a basis for his evolving character in the latter three. The novel's placement in the series is important: the first three novels in the series read like a trilogy, and the last three - written one after another - function the same way. While its framing story is intimately tied to The Waste Lands, Wizard & Glass feels solitary, functioning as an axle upon which these two sets of books revolve, standing apart but ultimately intrinsic to each of their successes.
The opening chapters finally resolve the cliffhanger at the finale of The Waste Lands in a thoroughly ingenious showdown, opening Wizard & Glass in the midst of a tense action scene - a first for the series. Here as elsewhere, seemingly arbitrary information has provided clues and foreshadowing. A throwaway line from Charlie the Choo-Choo - "I won't play silly games" - is now reinforced when Blaine tells Eddie "[I am] in no mood for your frivolity…" That Eddie is the one to save them from Blaine the Mono initiates a shift in his character, and in Roland's respect for him. King's attention to careful character growth is rewarding; Eddie's battle of wills with Calvin Tower in Song of Susannah would not have been possible without these sequences.
Throughout his career, King has used epigrams to lead his works, short quotes or bits of dialogue from other sources that illuminate his text. Never before have they been more apt as here. The first, a quote from L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, sets up images borrowed so liberally that parts of Wizard & Glass read less homage and more a straightforward retelling. Only in later volumes do we learn the depth of influence by stories in "our" world on the realities of Roland's world; on re-reads, this reinterpretation of images seems less strangely plagiaristic. In Song of Susannah, Eddie states that the ka-tet has been "haunted by books"; while allusions to other stories (not to mention songs and films) have appeared in the previous three volumes, Wizard & Glass is where the interdependence of fiction and reality becomes extant.
Roland is manipulated into an early "trial of manhood" - recounted much earlier in The Gunslinger - by his father's advisor, Marten Broadcloak. (An alias of Randall Flagg, Marten also played the role of adviser in Eyes of the Dragon, tricking Prince Thomas into a role of responsibility too early; these echoes between the "major arcana" works of the Dark Tower series and the secondary volumes are intentional and fascinating.) Not long after, Roland is sent by his father to the town of Hambry in the barony of Mejis (Mid-World's equivalent to Mexico) for protection, along with his friends Alain and Cuthbert - Roland's first ka-tet. It is in Mejis that Roland meets Susan Delgado, promised to the mayor of Mejis as his "gilly"; his concubine.
King's second epigram, from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, anticipates the story of Roland's first love and first loss. A less direct homage than the Wizard of Oz references in the framing story, King's interpretation of the Shakespeare opens up a new genre to King readers. While King had dabbled in the historical romance genre before (most notably in the voice of Paul Sheldon in Misery), he has never written in it so broadly or extensively. King builds the passionate and ultimately doomed love between Susan and a young, more impulsive Roland Deschain (among many other revelations in Wizard and Glass, Roland's last name is finally revealed). In his early novels, King develops young romance in sketches. Andy McGee and Vicky Tomlinson in Firestarter, Johnny Smith and Sarah Bracknell in The Dead Zone, even Arnie Cunningham and Leigh Cabot in Christine: teenage and young adult romance in King's novels has always been realistic, but compact. As Roland and Susan's relationship forms the core of the Wizard & Glass, its construction unfolds carefully and deliberately, never quite giving in to melodrama while remaining thrilling to read. Because their love is forbidden, scenes involving Roland and Susan's clandestine meetings are among the novel's most exciting, written in bold, cinematic language usually reserved for more intense, action-oriented sequences in other books (such as Carrie White's telekinetic flexes in Carrie, or the automatic writing in The Dark Half).
Interpolated with this relationship is a tale of harriers, rebels, and a conspiracy revolving around oil reserves being used to fuel war machines. As this aspect of the book sets up Randall Flagg's involvement in the series and provides reasons for Susan's sacrifice and eventual death, it is important to Wizard & Glass and the series as a whole. However, as with the later battle with the Wolves in the streets of Calla Bryn Sturgis, these sequences seem to distract from the novel's actual purpose. Compelling in their own right, the political machinations of Mejis are simply not as compelling as Roland and Susan's relationship. Rather than introducing tension and excitement, most scenes exploring the conspiracy and the rebel factions halt the momentum of the book.
We also learn more of Roland's first ka-tet: the parallel of Alain and Cuthbert to Susannah and Eddie are some of the series' most tantalizing echoes. Eddie and Cuthbert have alarmingly similar personalities, while Alain and Susannah both possess "The Touch" (though this gift is shifted to Jake in the later books in the series). The construction of the novel allows readers to note the unmistakable comparisons, and also to warm more immediately to the story of Roland's past; the comparable feel of Roland's two ka-tets makes the look back less jarring.
The appearance of Randall Flagg, King's most persistent villain, near the end of Wizard & Glass is puzzling. While the Wizard of Oz overlay is interesting (and, as a story within a story, important to the larger theme of the Dark Tower novels), Flagg here merely plays a role. The confrontation between him and Roland is truncated and frustrating, even more so given the fact that Randall Flagg's eventual death - in The Dark Tower- is not by Roland's hands. Similarly, the death of the Tick Tock Man seems rushed. Meant as an analogue to The Stand's Trashcan Man (just as Roland's new ka-tet corresponds to his old), Tick Tock's burgeoning companionship with Flagg is intriguing. His lineage and fascination with clocks appeared initially important to the story, and to have him dispatched so quickly is unsatisfying.
These small flaws aside, Wizard & Glass is an absorbing and ultimately rewarding novel. Some sequences - the thrilling Mexican standoff scene in the middle of the novel and Susan Delgado's tragic death scene - rank among King's best in terms of sheer storytelling force and drive. Perhaps not the most accessible of the Dark Tower books (that distinction applies to The Drawing of the Three, with The Waste Lands and Song of Susannah not far behind), its occasional density is tempered by the absorbing dual narratives and the attention to character. Beyond all else, Wizard and Glass explicates Roland Deschain's nature, making his motives and actions throughout the series both more interesting, and more understandable.