"Roland's story is my Jupiter, a planet that dwarfs all the others…"
A General Introduction to Stephen King's The Dark Tower Novels
The Dark Tower books have followed a publishing arc unique in modern literature. Beginning with a now-legendary series of five short stories published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction—five stories which now comprise the first volume of the novel cycle—Stephen King has spent thirty-three years writing The Dark Tower. It stands today as a singularly ambitious work of quest literature, matched only by J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings fantasy epic. A series that operates beautifully as a single, stand-alone saga, The Dark Tower series also ties into and informs many other novels in Stephen King's fictional universe. King's vast galaxy of overlapping realms and characters—a galaxy that has been exhaustively annotated and analyzed by the author's peerlessly avid fan-base—outstrips even Faulkner's fabled Yoknapatawpha County as a wonder of narrative interconnectedness.
Though inspired by a wide range of literary antecedents and cultural archetypes, The Dark Tower saga was initially sparked by a course on the romantic poets at the University of Maine. It was here, King has said, that he first encountered a deeply enigmatic, richly symbolic poem by Robert Browning called "Childe Roland to The Dark Tower Came" (1855). King's object, dating back to his sophomore year in college, was to fashion a long novel that played on the conceits and constructs of the romantic aesthetic—to attempt a work that echoed the epic tone and atmospherics of Browning's poem, if not its explicit narrative line. Volume I, The Gunslinger, first appeared in hardcover in a limited edition from Donald M. Grant in 1982. The Plume trade paperback edition was published five years later and became a #1 national bestseller.
With Scribner's 2003 release of the fifth volume, Wolves of the Calla, and the culminating sixth and seventh volumes both slated for publication in 2004, Stephen King nears completion of what many argue is the crowning masterwork of a matchlessly prolific career. Of the undertaking, King has reflected, "I have written enough novels and short stories to fill a solar system of the imagination, but Roland's story is my Jupiter—a planet that dwarfs all the others (at least from my own perspective), a place of strange atmosphere, crazy landscape, and savage gravitational pull. Dwarfs the others, did I say? I think there's more to it than that, actually. I am coming to understand that Roland's world (or worlds) actually contains all the others of my making."
"The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed…"
About The Gunslinger: The Dark Tower I
In The Gunslinger, Stephen King has crafted what seems, on the face of it, a simple chase narrative—an anachronistic "road novel" of sorts. The simplicity is deceptive, to put it mildly. Featuring the most starkly appointed prose of all The Dark Towernovels, King's writing voice here is lean and angular and penetrating, a style which neatly underscores the essential nature of the novel's eponymous protagonist: the physically gaunt and emotionally ravaged gunslinger. The Gunslinger has been revised and expanded throughout by King, with new story material, in addition to a new introduction and foreword.
In the context of all that comes after it, The Gunslinger is a bewitching and enigmatic work, alluring readers with its willful ambiguity. To read this first volume is to get the sense that we are glimpsing only the smallest fraction of a much larger story. And this is very much the case. The Gunslinger is the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
King illuminates a post-apocalyptic landscape through a deliberately opaque lens. "Time is funny out here," in the Mohaine, "the apotheosis of all deserts." Rendering a disorienting reality where people, objects, and events may or may not be what they seem, King drops us into the action of a story that is already in progress. The gunslinger, it is revealed deep into the novel, is Roland of Gilead, the last of his kind in a world which has "moved on." Mourning a bygone world "filled with love and light," Roland is a kind of knight in dogged pursuit of the man in black. This man, we discover in the novel's extraordinary climax, is a sorcerer named Walter, who falsely claimed the friendship of Roland's father in the days when the unity of Mid-World still held.
While myriad mysteries remain at the end of this first volume, certain realities and physical laws of the gunslinger's world are established. Most crucial is the fact that Roland's world is related to our own in some fundamental way—and passage between the two is possible. At an abandoned way station on an obsolete coach-road running through the desert, Roland meets Jake Chambers, a boy who died in what appears to be midtown Manhattan when he was pushed into the path of an oncoming car. Jake died with the man in black peering over him, then awoke in the gunslinger's world.
In a final confrontation with Walter, Roland glimpses the nature of his own future, as the man in black foretells the gunslinger's fate with a Tarot deck. Three cards in particular—the Prisoner, the Lady of the Shadows, and Death ("yet not for you, gunslinger")—feature prominently in Roland's fortune. As the two adversaries make palaver in a golgotha of decaying bones, Stephen King lays the foundation for all that is to come—in The Drawing of the Three: The Dark Tower II and beyond. Here, on the edge of the Western Sea, The Gunslinger comes to a close. But the story has by no means reached an end. "Not an end," the man in black suggests to Roland, "but the end of the beginning, eh?"
ABOUT STEPHEN KING
By any measure, Stephen King occupies a central position in the recent history of literature in English, having produced a body of work that is as artistically vital as it is commercially prominent. His primacy in the horror-fiction canon in particular bears comparison to that of J.R.R. Tolkien's station among modern fantasy writers. And like Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, and Sinclair Lewis before him, King has demonstrated over the course of his career a rare talent for limning the cultural zeitgeist and expressing the characteristic concerns of his era. The fact that he has worked largely within the parameters of the horror and fantasy genres in pursuing these ambitious ends makes his achievement all the more remarkable. Since his earliest works in the 1970s, King has been an author of matchless international reach, enjoying an enduring brand of popularity that transcends all presumed literary and commercial boundaries.
For all the darkness and terror with which King's narratives are generally associated, many critics and fans have argued that King's often brutal fictional universe belies a fundamental optimism about human nature. Richly populating his novels and stories with all manner of pop-cultural signifiers and pitch-perfect minutiae of American middle-class life, King's writing holds up a mirror of sorts and reflects that, even in a world of cynicism, despair, and seemingly infinite cruelty, it remains possible for individuals to find love, discover unexpected resources in themselves, and conquer their own problems, along with the malevolent powers that would suppress or destroy them.
Born in Portland, Maine in 1947, Stephen Edwin King is the second son of Donald and Nellie Ruth Pillsbury King. After his parents separated when he was a toddler, King and his older brother, David, were raised by his mother. He spent parts of his childhood in Fort Wayne, Indiana; Stratford, Connecticut; and Durham, Maine.
King graduated from the University of Maine at Orono in 1970, with a degree in English. In January of 1971, he married Tabitha Spruce, whom he met in the stacks of the university library. Shortly after graduation, he began selling his first short stories to mass-market men's magazines. Many of these stories later appeared in the Night Shift collection and elsewhere. In the spring of 1974, Doubleday published King's first novel, Carrie. He has since written more than thirty-five books, all international bestsellers. His recent works include Everything's Eventual, From a Buick 8, Dreamcatcher, Bag of Bones, The Green Mile, and the nonfiction work On Writing. He is also the coauthor, with Peter Straab, of Black House and The Talisman. Under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, King has published several more bestselling works, including The Regulators, Thinner, and The Running Man. Most of his books have been adapted for the screen, including: Dreamcatcher (2003), Hearts in Atlantis, The Green Mile, Misery, Stand by Me (from "The Body"), Thinner, The Shining, Carrie, Christine, The Stand, The Dead Zone, Pet Sematary, Cujo, and Firestarter. Among King's forthcoming books are Wolves of the Calla: The Dark Tower V; Song of Susannah: The Dark Tower VI; and The Dark Tower: The Dark Tower VII.
A celebrated philanthropist and the father of three children, King lives in Bangor, Maine and Florida, with his wife, novelist Tabitha King.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONSAs we come to know him in the opening pages, what initial impressions do we get of the gunslinger? What is the nature of Roland's quest?
Discuss Stephen King's writing style in The Gunslinger. To what degree is it a departure from the rest of his work? What are some of the stylistic patterns and thematic concerns that The Gunslinger shares with other Stephen King works?
At one point in Roland's recollections of his boyhood, his father saddles him with what seems on the surface a very troubling, even damning judgment. "It is not your place to be moral," his father says. "Morals may always be beyond you." Then he cryptically suggests that his son's amorality is what will make him " formidable." What does he mean? How does this characterization inform the novel's ensuing action—and the larger journey Roland takes over the course of the entire Dark Tower saga?
What sense, in the flashbacks that occur throughout the novel, does Stephen King provide of what Roland's world was like before it "moved on"?
What is the nature of honor, according to the gunslinger's moral code? What does it mean to remember—or, conversely, to forget—"the face of one's father"?
What kind of a man is Cort? Discuss Roland's ambivalent feelings about his boyhood teacher.
Over the course of this first novel, what do we discover about the gunslinger's value system? What is most important to him? What do you suppose it means, in Roland of Gilead's estimation, to be a "good" man?
What do we learn about the nature of khef in The Gunslinger? What bearing does it seem to have on the gunslinger's quest?
What is the High Speech? What is the gunslinger's reaction at Sheb's honky-tonk bar upon hearing Nort, the undead man, address him in the High Speech?
What does Roland learn from the demon in the cellar of the way station? "While you travel with the boy, the man in black travels with your soul in his pocket." What does this mean? And how does the pronouncement bear out, in light of the novel's climax at the edge of the desert?
Chart the evolution of the gunslinger's perceptions of and interactions with women—from his cryptic references to Susan from the old world, to his fevered coupling with Alice in the forsaken town of Tull, to his memories of his adulterous mother, and on through to his fierce standoff with the voracious and graphically feminized Oracle. What connects, and what distinguishes, each of these interactions?
What role, if any, does faith appear to play in shaping the life of the gunslinger? Is the gunslinger an ascetic? A sacred warrior of one kind or another?
What are the dynamics of power, or individual agency, in The Gunslinger? Discuss how King illustrates the undercurrents of power—whether benevolent, malevolent, or ambivalent—which pulse through every relationship and situation in this novel: the power which nature holds over man, the power the past exercises upon the present, the power of fate over free will, and so on.
Why does the man in black refer to Jake as the gunslinger's "Isaac"? What is he referencing here, and what are the implications of his insinuation?
How can we make the argument that Jake comes to represent to Roland a kind of symbolic son? Reread the passage following Roland's sacrifice of Jake. How does the episode affect the gunslinger?
Discuss the various allusions and images—whether biblical, mythological, medieval, Hollywood Western, or otherwise—that pepper the action in The Gunslinger. How do they contribute to the overall tone and style of King's narrative?
The image of the Tower actually does grace the sixteenth card of the Higher Arcana in a Tarot deck. The card portends an extremely painful experience, the end of which yields a liberation of sorts. In the aftermath of excruciating struggle comes redemption, emancipation, salvation. How does this inform the action of The Gunslinger, and The Dark Towercycle as a whole?
Who was the man in black before the world "moved on"? Can we be certain about his fate at the close of the novel? Explain.
Discuss the seven cards drawn by the man in black: the Hanged Man, the Sailor, the Prisoner, the Lady of the Shadows, Death, the Tower, and Life. What is the significance of each? Looking ahead to the subsequent volumes inThe Dark Tower, how do their prophecies bear out?
Unpack the loaded final section of The Gunslinger, where King performs a head-spinning metaphysical riff on the cosmos and the notion of "Size," and then reveals a range of vital information about the Beast guarding the Tower, the Ageless Stranger (Maerlyn), and other elements of the adventure that awaits the gunslinger.
Based on the words of the man in black, what do you expect from the The Drawing of the Three?
How do the two versions of The Gunslinger differ? Why might Stephen King have decided to go back and rework the first novel in the series? How does the new version alter our view of what might come in the final three books?