(Michael Whelan’s The Dark Tower, from The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower – 2004)
I started re-reading Stephen King’s The Dark Tower again many moons ago. It took me longer than I anticipated – life has a funny way of doing that – but today I finished the final, eighth volume (yes, eight, for I read The Wind Through the Keyhole in its proper chronological placement between Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla), and I have some different opinions about the series as a whole now that I’ve finished it again, having known the end from having read it before.
Not a bad opinion, mind you, but different, because now there was a whole other level to the affair.
I started not with The Gunslinger, but with the Tower story “The Little Sisters of Eluria,” from King’s collection Everything’s Eventual because, technically, it was the first story chronologically in terms of how it fell in the story. Yes, The Gunslinger is the earliest novel in the series and covers events that occurred before “Eluria,” but only in flashback. I personally feel this story is a better introduction to the gunslinger than the original novel, because as cold as he is throughout the series, he is especially cold in the first Dark Tower novel and, therefore, harder to get close to than he is in the other installments. King drew a lot of inspiration for his characterization from Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, and it took time for Roland to become fully realized and less withdrawn, a process that did not truly begin until after the second novel, The Drawing of the Three, despite his relationship with the boy, Jake, in the original Gunslinger novel.
Should I have stated this review will have spoilers? Mayhap. But fuck, most of the series was completed by 2004. It’s 2013, going on ’14. Nearly a decade has passed since the series’ conclusion. (Let’s ignore The Wind through the Keyhole, for the time being; yes, it was only released last year, I know, but all the same it could be read almost as a stand-alone book should one choose to do so, despite its placement chronologically between books IV and V.)
For those of you who don’t know, The Dark Tower is King’s magnum opus. Almost every story of his is connected to his Tower tales in some fashion, even (I’d dare to say) his newer ones that have released since its conclusion. When the series begins to incorporate characters from other King tales, such as Father Callahan from ‘Salem’s Lot and Ted Brautigan from Hearts in Atlantis (specifically the section known as Low Men in Yellow Coats, which the film version bastardized, transforming the agents of the Crimson King into run-of-the-mill government spooks), these connections only become more obvious. No books require reading more than The Eyes of the Dragon, The Stand, and Insomnia, however, for there are no closer Tower tales than those to the central story. Randall Flagg, the antagonist of the former two tales, is a major adversary throughout the Dark Tower mythos, and Insomnia not only unveils the Crimson King as a major adversary – the BIG BAD of the entire series, as it turns out – but brings about the introduction of a character crucial to the final novel’s conclusion, for without him, the Dark Tower could not be obtained.
Grr. There’s much to say about The Dark Tower, let’s face it, and for the uninitiated, a lot of what I just said means little of nothing. It’s like someone who plays Magic: The Gathering telling me the intricacies of what creatures are involved and how their roles are interconnected without laying the groundwork first.
Alright: the cover synopsis version: Roland, the gunslinger, is on a quest to the Dark Tower, which he believes stands at the nexus of all existence. “The world has moved on,” as King says repeatedly throughout the series, and in order to slow, stop, or even reverse the damage done to the universe(s), Roland believes he must get to the Dark Tower and prevent it from falling.
With me? Good.
If you’re reading this though and have not read The Dark Tower, shame on you. I’ll ruin everything.
Let’s not talk about the end overly much. Let’s talk about the journey and how it foretold the end. So many people hated the true conclusion to the series, but ka is a wheel. SPOILER ALERT: The end of Book VII cycling back to the beginning of Book I… let’s face it: there was no other true ending. Nothing would have satisfied us. After all these years, it satisfies me more to know that, in a way, the quest continues, and who knows? Perhaps on a different level of the Tower, it ends differently. Maybe after the Breakers are stopped halfway through the final novel, Roland gets the point and doesn’t continue on, for as we found out, everything would eventually get back to how it should be now that the Beams are regenerating.
Think of the Beams like the ozone layer, only in this world, they can regenerate. (Who knows? Maybe our ozone layer can repair itself given enough time, but let’s not think about what it would take to allow that to happen!)
There were so many clues too throughout the series. Foreshadowing ran amok throughout the entire affair, in fact, forecasting specific events. King even points out that Wizard & Glass foreshadowed the events that occurred as a result of Oy and Mordred’s scuffle toward the end of The Dark Tower. (Who’s with me in thinking that Oy’s end was the saddest, more so than the others of Roland’s ka-tet?)
The biggest hint for me on the second reading regarding the nature of the final door at the top of the Tower, however, was what would happen to the watch that Moses Carver gave Roland America-side shortly after Roland and Jake saved the writer (and at great cost, I might add). The watch was meant to run true despite all the damage that had been done to the worlds, yet as it drew close to the Tower (as Roland was forewarned), the watch would slow, stop, and then begin running in reverse. The nature of the Tower was revealed by a fucking watch!
On another note, getting away from the ending, I have to say my favorite book in the series now is Wizard & Glass. When I was younger, reading it for the first time, I didn’t care for it much because it slowed the forward momentum of the series. However, I believe the heart and soul of Roland depends on Wizard & Glass more so than any other book. He is far more alive in Mejis with Susan Delgado than he ever is with his current ka-tet, despite how important they ultimately are to him and to us, the Constant Readers (as King calls us). I find it intriguing how my opinion of that particular installment has changed so radically since my younger years.
The Wind Through the Keyhole, however, is probably my least favorite installment. While the story within the story within the story about the boy and the tiger provides some interesting layers to the overall mythos of the Tower (as well as shows just how long there have been strange crossovers between Roland’s world and our own, the Keystone World), it took me the longest to read the newest installment to the series because I had little investment in that story or the characters. I cared a lot about the Skin Man tale from Roland’s youth and how his mother, Gabrielle, factored into it, giving resolution to a horrible truth about which we learned toward the end of Wizard & Glass, but the central story that comprised the largest section of that book, while intriguing, ultimately felt as if it had killed the pacing of the series for me. Others may disagree with me, but reading it in sequence threw me off for a bit. I almost would have preferred hearing about the Skin Man and introducing the idea of a starkblast in a totally other fashion, but alas, my opinion does not count.
I’m not saying the book is bad. Far from it. But looking at it as a part of the whole, it feels like a weak link, especially based on its placement in the series. After all, it’s one flashback-heavy book immediately following another flashback-heavy book. Very little forward progression is made between Wizard & Glass and The Wind Through the Keyhole. Hundreds of pages after the end of The Waste Lands finally brings us to a short time later at the beginning of Wolves of the Calla.
I love The Dark Tower as a saga, don’t misunderstand me, but that in itself slows the story down quite a bit. Therefore, the middle sags a little as a result now. Wizard & Glass worked perfectly fine, but adding The Wind Through the Keyhole, while it provided some adjustment to the all-out weirdness and sometimes downright absurdity of the final three novels, definitely bogged it down.
My final opinion of the series? It’s my favorite series. Period. Flaws and all.
If you read this entire review, spoilers and all, without having read the series first, go read it. It may take you some time to get through everything in its entirety, but believe me it’s one hell of a ride.
And don’t be too hard on the ending. Like I said, it’s not universally loved – hell, it’s downright divisive – but I feel it’s the only real ending that would have worked.
I got to thinking about it, and there are some additional things I’d like to note. Throughout the series, there are allusions to various religious beliefs, and while the series does not adhere to one particular set of beliefs, there are ideas from several different belief systems present.
First off, toward the end, Roland actually believes the Dark Tower itself is Gan, or God. That in itself reveals how narrow-minded and devout he has been in his quest. In a way, his journey for the Dark Tower has been a religious one, despite his determination to rectify the damage done to the universe(s).
(My girlfriend is going to love this part.) Reincarnation, while never spoken by name in the novels, is also a major theme, especially toward the end. Susannah’s final door out of End-World, not far from the scarlet field of Can’-Ka No Rey where the Dark Tower stands, back to a version of America, reveals this ideal, for Eddie and Jake are there waiting for her despite their deaths earlier in the final novel. It is even revealed in the Coda, shortly before Roland begins his ascent through the Tower, that a dog will eventually show up that will bear certain traits to a certain billy-bumbler named Oy. Jake has also died multiple times throughout the series, although his reintroduction in The Waste Lands ultimately has less to do with reincarnation than temporal paradox.
The Dark Tower ultimately stands for temptation itself, for it calls to Roland ceaselessly and would have drawn him to his death at the hands of the Crimson King and his sneetches (a not-so-subtle nod to J.K. Rowling’s snitches from the Harry Potter verse, although these particular golden, flying balls explode in spectacular fashion) had Patrick Danville (originally introduced as a small child in Insomnia) not helped eliminate the Crimson King from the equation. (I agree with many people that I had wanted a true battle to take place at the foot of the Tower against the Crimson King, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be. If a video game is ever made of this series, as I believe there should be, for no movie series would ever do this saga justice, there should be a final battle against the Crimson King. Let him have his sneetches, but let Roland deal in lead as he always has, say thankya.)
After his ka-tet stopped the Breakers, Roland could have ultimately called off his quest for the Tower. He had undone the damage done and the Beams would ultimately regenerate. However, he couldn’t resist the object of his quest. He meant to get there, one way or another. The Tower should never have been his goal to begin with, although if he truly wanted, he should have simply gone to take care of the Crimson King.
My idea? Mordred should have joined with the Crimson King in the end rather than dying on the way. Mordred and the Crimson King vs. Roland? That would have been a proper climax, and still could be on the next go-round, for although King’s telling of the series is over, we have seen Roland in possession of the Horn of Eld he had lost long ago at Jericho Hill at the beginning of his “renewal” in the final pages of the Coda.
Who is to say, in the Game Plus version of The Dark Tower (to borrow a gamer term), this isn’t how it would end?