The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
Welcome to A Read of the Dark Tower series. Join me each week as I, Constant Reader, tackle the magnum opus of Stephen King’s career for the first time. If you want to discuss in general terms or talk about these first sections, join me by commenting here. If you want to talk spoilers, please head over to the Tor.com forums for the spoiler discussion for the spoiler discussion so my Dark Tower-virgin ears won’t hear anything before I read it.
When we last saw Roland, he and the boy Jake were camped near the onset of the mountains. They looked up and saw, high above them, the man in black, which brought Roland only a feeling of sorrow. In today’s entry, I’ll cover the first six sections of “The Oracle and the Mountains,” the third mega-chapter of The Gunslinger.
The Oracle and the Mountains: Section I
Roland and Jake have reached the grassy, cooler reaches of the foothills. Roland wakens during the night, and all we know at this stage is that Jake “found the oracle and it almost destroyed him.” Most of this section is filling in backstory on the day as they’d finally come upon vegetation and reacted like wild, starved things. Roland shot a rabbit for their dinner, and they camped near “a jungle of green willows.” Jake offers to gather wood, but Roland knows he’s tired. “Sit yourself, Jake,” he says, and remembers that it’s a phrase Susan used… maybe. Or maybe not, because “time’s the thief of memory,” as Vanny used to say. And poor old Roland—he laughs when he sees a praying mantis on Jake’s head, and he can’t remember the last time he laughed. Hm. praying mantis. Symbolic much?
What Constant Reader Learns: Well, not a helluva lot, frankly. The desert was brutal. They’re happy to see some greenery. Oh, but wait. Here’s a sentence for you, after Roland decides to make camp in the open rather than going into the trees:
The bats might break the boy’s sleep, no matter how deep it was, and if they were vampires, neither of them might awaken… at least, not in this world.
If this were another writer, I’d say Roland was just being a little melodramatic about a few bats. But this is Stephen King, and there could be vampires here. Are there vampires here?
The quote from Vanny, whoever that might be, “Time’s the thief of memory” is interesting in light of Roland’s memory failures. How old is this dude, anyway? Or is time even relevant any longer?
The Oracle and the Mountains: Section II
Roland is dreaming of Susan, and she’s dying, being held by villagers in a rusty iron collar, although in the dream Roland realizes that isn’t how she died. But he could smell her burning hair, and the villagers are crying “Charyou tree” while a witch named Rhea cackles. In the dream, Susan warns Roland that Jake is in danger and he turns to see the boy looking down at him through a window—one where Susan once sat and sang the old songs: “Hey Jude” and “Ease on Down the Road” and “Careless Love.” Jake looks like an “alabaster saint in a cathedral,” and a spike had been driven through his forehead. Finally, Roland wakes up as he gets too close to the fire and singes himself.
What Constant Reader Learns: I’m thinking a good iron spike through the forehead might make things clearer. This was one of those sections that made me want to bang my head against the wall (or bang Stephen King’s head against a wall). Things about which I’m clueless (okay, more than this, but bear with me): Charyou tree, the cackling witch, and how Roland seems like of a combination of Marshall Dillon from Gunsmoke and a knight errant. I don’t even want to talk about the “old” songs from relatively modern pop culture. It makes my brain hurt. But the religious symbolism continues unabated. I wish I’d started a list of religious symbols and references from the beginning.
The Oracle and the Mountains: Section III
Roland wakes up to the sound of Jake yelling in the willow jungle, and sets out to find him, guns drawn and scenting the wind because they both apparently smell pretty ripe. Guess when time moved on, it took personal hygiene along with it. Then again, water hasn’t been exactly plentiful. Roland comes to a clearing, where there’s a ring of black stones and, in the middle, a flat table of stone—an altar. Jake stands before it in some kind of sexual-fearful paralysis. As Roland nears the altar, he gets a taste of nirvana-gone-to-hell himself; he manages to keep it at bay with the jawbone he’d picked up in the cellar at the Way Station. He identifies the power of the altar as being a she-demon, a succubus. He holds the jawbone in front of Jake to free him from the power of the succubus, and when Jake collapses Roland lifts him and takes him outside the circle. The succubus isn’t happy. Back at camp, he hugs the now-sleeping boy and kisses his cheek and again realizes he loves him. And imagines he can hear the man in black up in the hills, laughing.
What Constant Reader Learns: I’m starting to feel sorry for old Ro now. He seems to know he’s falling into a trap by coming to care so much for this boy and yet he does anyway. So, I’m guessing the Oracle and the succubus are one and the same. Does she stay invisible? Her power seems to be locked into the stone circle, because as soon as Roland stepped outside the circle with Jake, his sense of her frustration and anger faded quickly. I hope there’s an explanation of why the jawbone acted like a cross in the face of a demon—it kept the power at bay. Roland doesn’t seem to know—he uses it on instinct.
The Oracle and the Mountains: Section IV
Roland wakes up again, this time because Jake is complaining. He’d tied the boy to a bush when he brought him back to camp so he wouldn’t wander back to the stone circle. Roland orders Jake to stay at camp all day—he’s going to be gone (uh-oh), and leaves the jawbone with him. If Jake starts to feel funny, he’s to hold the jawbone. Jake doesn’t want him to go, but accepts it eventually. Roland realizes the boy’s quiet strength reminds him of his friend Alain.
Roland recognizes that the spirit of the stone circle is both a demon and an oracle—“a demon with no shape, only a kind of unformed sexual glare with the eye of prophecy.” He wonders if it might be the soul of Sylvia Pittston, the preacher/demon from Tull, but decides it isn’t. (Thank goodness—tell me we don’t see Sylvia again, please.) Roland digs through his tobacco pouch and comes up with a tiny pill he says is mescaline. Jake realizes it’s like LSD, but Roland doesn’t know what that is. Roland pops the pill and cleans his guns, then mends Jake’s shirt while he waits for it to kick in. As soon as he feels the effects of the drugs, he gets up and walks into the willow jungle.
What Constant Reader Learns: This is a bad idea, gunboy. Roland says he has questions he wants to ask the oracle, but it seems to me he knows the answers—he’s been operating all along with a sense of the inevitable. I think he’s just hoping the oracle will tell him he’s wrong, especially about Jake. The strange push-pull of what Roland does/doesn’t know about our world continues. He has a hallucinogen in pill form—he’s not smoking cactus—so he comes from a world with pharmaceuticals. But he hasn’t heard of LSD. I mean, how do you know Beatles songs and not know your hallucinogens? And why does Jake know about LSD? It’s an old-fashioned kind of drug, but I have to keep remembering when this book was written, and his parents were players.
The Oracle and the Mountains: Section V
Stoned out of his gourd, Roland walks into the willow jungle and gets sidetracked briefly by looking at his own reflection in a stream. He’s no stranger to mescaline:
The drug had often disturbed him: his ego was too strong (or perhaps just too simple) to enjoy being eclipsed and peeled back, made a target for more sensitive emotions.
He walks into the stone circle and up to the altar, but nothing happens. So he climbs up on the altar and lies down. He sees faces in the branches of the trees above him. He’s struck by how far he’s come—from lying with Susan in sweet grass to this.
And here comes the oracle, bringing with her sexual arousal and the sound of weeping. He feels her like a physical presence above him, “a body made of the wind, a breast of fragrant jasmine, rose, and honeysuckle.” The succubus sends an image of Susan to him as it seduces him, but he refuses to give in to the deception. He tells the weeping succubus to give him prophecy and truth. She seems to want to bring him to orgasm but he holds onto his cold and unemotional resolve, withholding that final bit of himself until she talks to him about the boy.
At her urging, he agrees to half-sleep as she talks her truth. She gibbers a bit but the upshot is: three is the number of his fate and stands at the heart of his quest. Another number comes later, but now the number is three. The first is young, dark-haired, and stands on the brink of robbery and murder, possessed of a demon called heroin. There are other worlds and other demons. Watch for the doorways. Watch for the roses. The second comes on wheels. The third is death, but not for Roland. The man in black is near and Roland will speak to him soon of the tower. Jake is Roland’s gate to the man in black, and the man in black is Roland’s gate to the three, and the three are Roland’s way to the Dark Tower. Finally, Roland can save Jake if he turns around and returns to the northwest, where there is still a need for gunslingers. Roland says he can’t go back because he’s sworn by the treachery of Marten, to which the oracle replies that Marten is no more, for the man in black has eaten his soul. Thus ends the prophecy and now it’s Roland’s turn to pay for his truth: “Have your way with me, bitch.”
What Constant Reader Learns: Well, again, we’re pretty much told Jake is a sacrifice but we don’t know how or when or where he’ll meet his second death. Or I could be wrong. And I wonder if we ever learn who this oracle is? Roland indicates as one point that he’s the one she wants—and I mean “wants” in a very physical sense. What is invisible sex with Roland going to do for her? Why is she weeping? Oh God. I had a horrible thought. She’s not Roland’s dead mother, is she? Out, out, foul Oedipal thought. How does one become a demon in this world?
Don’t you just hate an obscure prophecy? I have to wonder if this prophecy, in some ways, is kind of an outline for the rest of the series—or am I trying to make too much sense of it? Jake gets Roland to the man in black. The man in black gets Roland to the three (heroin addict, something on wheels, and someone’s death). And the three get Roland to the Dark Tower, where maybe another number (nineteen?) becomes relevant. Well, that’s probably ridiculous, but that’s my interpretation of the prophecy from the creepy, invisible, sex demon. Okay, now, Roland, give it up and let her have her way with you.
That’s it for this week! Next week—same time, same place—we’ll pick up with the last five sections of The Gunslinger’s third chapter, titled “The Oracle and the Mountains.”