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 had just awoken from his mind-blowing trip into Wonderland courtesy of the Man in Black and had asked what was meant by his last vision: a purple blade of grass. In today’s entry, I’ll cover the final five sections of The Gunslinger.
The Gunslinger and the Man in Black: Section V
In which the Man in Black is going to presumably tell Roland the Meaning of the Universe, or something equally huge. He starts out by saying, “The universe is the Great All, and offers a paradox too great for the finite mind to grasp.” So, of course, we must attempt to grasp it.
There was a time, he says, “a hundred generations before the world moved on,” when human kind had gotten advanced enough to think we knew a few things by the “false light of science.” A company (“or cabal,” he says, speaking like a true hippie child of the Sixties) called North Central Positronics led the way. Didn’t we see that name on the pump at the Way Station, grasshopper? Despite having a lot more facts, humans had remarkably little insight and hadn’t realized the “truest principle of reality” — that new knowledge always leads to greater mystery.
The greatest mystery, he says as Roland’s head spins almost as fast as mine, is not life, but size. “Size encompasses life, and the Tower encompasses size.” In its infinity, size defeats us.
And suppose all the universes met in a single nexus: the Tower. And within the tower, a stairway rising to the Godhead. Yeah, what he said.
What Constant Reader Learns: I’m having horrific flashbacks to Philosophy 101, when I was still trying to wrap my mind around the complexities of philosophical thought and before I realized that all I needed was a few pages of well-worded B.S. to get an easy A on discussion questions.
So the “many-times-great grandfathers” for Roland and the Man in Black are, essentially, us a few years down the road, at which point we’ll have cured cancer, conquered aging, and can say we walked on the moon (guess no one shared the memo about manned space flight being too expensive to continue) — although, funnily enough, Roland doesn’t believe that man actually walked on the moon but doesn’t have too much trouble with the cancer and aging thing.
I’m imagining Ro sitting there in his dirty, desert-stained clothes with his mouth hanging open, catching crickets, as the Man in Black holds forth about the world in a blade of grass, that nothing “real” is solid, and that the universe is infinite. Beyond the world of the fish is our world, and beyond our worlds, as Jake noted, are other worlds. And beyond all those worlds, were we able to look there, we might discover our “infinite” universe was only a blade of grass in something even larger, and so on and so forth. Feeling insignificant enough yet?
And then we come back, as we have over and over, to religion. “Think how small such a concept of things makes us, gunslinger,” the Man in Black says. “If a God watches over it all, does He actually mete out justice for a race of gnats among an infinitude of races of gnats? Does His eye see the sparrow fall when the sparrow is less than a speck of hydrogen floating disconnected in the depth of space?” Roland doesn’t answer this, wisely. Actually, Roland’s keeping his mouth shut and his ears open.
Finally, we have the Tower — the nexus of all universes. And if time has moved on, I can only assume something is slipping or going awry within the Tower? At the end of this section the Man in Black issues a bit of a challenge to Roland. Suppose within the Tower, he says, there is a “stairway, perhaps rising to the Godhead itself. Would you dare climb to the top, gunslinger? Could it be that somewhere above all of endless reality, there exists a Room…? You dare not.”
And, I figure, Roland will, indeed, dare.
The Gunslinger and the Man in Black: Section VI
“Someone has dared,” Roland says. “God has dared…or the king you spoke of…or is the room empty, seer?” The Man in Black’s answer: “I don’t know,” and he looks fearful, saying it might not be wise to ask.
“Afraid of being struck dead?” Roland asks.
“Perhaps afraid of… an accounting.”
What Constant Reader Learns: It’s really interesting that after villifying and chasing and dreading and shooting at the Man in Black, Ro now addresses him as “seer.” Roland seems clearly in awe of all he has seen, and like the purple blade of grass (is the color purple significant? Is Whoopi Goldberg involved?), his past tales and his sacrifices seem miniscule compared to the Room at the top of infinity.
The Man in Black’s fear at the idea of an “accounting” is interesting — apparently being accountable is much worse than being struck dead. Which makes sense, given that Judgment Day in biblical terms is not going to be a barn dance. An accounting can be painful, can last forever. It’s classic reality TV gamesmanship — the best way to get along is to lay low and not draw attention to yourself. If you go off climbing up Towers in search of God and king, you might find Him. Be careful what you ask for, Roland, old boy.
The end of this section is classic King. After all the pontificating and grandiose pronouncements, Roland points out that the fire has gone out and he’s cold. “Build it up yourself,” the Man in Black says. “It’s the butler’s night off.”
The Gunslinger and the Man in Black: Section VII
Roland sleeps awhile, then wakes to find the Man in Black watching him “avidly, unhealthily.” They bicker a few moments like an old married couple, then the man decides he’s ready to talk some more. “For so has it been told to me by my king and master.”
So we get some more of what I assume is foreshadowing of events to come. Roland must meet — and slay — the Ageless Stranger before he can meet the king, who comes to the Man in Black in dreams. The Man in Black has served the king for a “sheaf of centuries” until he could reach his apotheosis or climax: Roland. The Ageless Stranger, Roland surmises, is a minion of the Tower, much like the Man in Black. “He darkles,” the Man concurs. “He tincts. Yet there is one greater than he.”
At which point, the Man in Black gets agitated and doesn’t want to talk more: “To speak of the things in End-World is to speak of the ruination of one’s own soul.” Which points again to an “accounting,” or a “Day of Reckoning,” in biblical-speak — and an accounting during which one will be found wanting.
Finally, Roland asks the question he really wants the answer to: “Will I succeed?” To which the Man in Black replies, “If I answered that, you’d kill me.” No, really, I’m thinking he probably wouldn’t.
The Man in Black turns an eye toward the past, telling Roland that Cort’s advice to wait was bad because “even then my plans against your father had proceeded.” Roland doesn’t want to talk about his past and what happened after he tried the line — we haven’t heard that story yet, but apparently Steven sends his son away for a while. When he returned home, Marten had joined the rebels, and Marten and a “certain witch” had left a trap into which Roland fell. Even though Marten had gone, there was another man, a monk, who reminded Roland of Marten. Finally, Roland knows for certain what he has suspected. Marten, and Walter O’Dim, and the Man in Black are all of one cloth.
The Man/Marten/Walter says it’s the time of histories and he has many stories to tell Roland — after he shakes out some fine tobacco, the likes of which Ro hasn’t seen in a decade. He begins to talk of the Tower, which has always been, and the boys who’ve lusted for it, and the boys who look for doors that lead to it. They smoke and talk.
What Constant Reader Learns: So why is the MiB looking at Roland “avidly” and “unhealthily”? I can’t come up with an explanation for that, unless he wants Ro to wake up so he can continue pontificating.
I have nothing to say about “darkling” and “tincking” except they sound somewhat like bodily functions.
Interesting that Roland is looking for sunrise in this endless night of talk — but clearly the Man in Black can make the night of palaver last as long as he has something to say. And the first question asked by Roland, who has remained quiet throughout most of this big chapter, is “Start by telling me what exactly you mean by glammer.” Meaning, of course, “glamour” or enchantment. But Roland’s spelling ain’t so good because he’s a man of action with his plodding, methodical mind.
The Man in Black tells Roland he deserves some answers since he caught him, and the Man didn’t expect that to happen. I’m having a hard time buying that one, even though Roland said in an earlier chapter that the Man in Black does not lie. I mean, he practically waited on Roland to catch him. Or had he expected Roland to cave in and turn back when it came time to sacrifice Jake?
When Roland asks the name of the Ageless Stranger, the Man in Black answers, “Legion.” Cue a rockslide and a screaming puma call at the mere word. The biblical reference here is from Luke 8:30. Cue Sunday School lesson music. Jesus and the disciples have sailed across the lake to an area called Gerasenes, where he’s met by a demon-possessed man who’s been living naked in the tombs. The possessed dude keeps escaping even though the townspeople have tried chaining him up. He falls at Jesus’ feet screaming, not to be tortured. When Jesus asks his name, the man says, “Legion,” because many demons had gone into him. The demons begged Jesus not to order them into the Abyss. Instead, they said, send us into the herd of pigs. Nasty things, pigs. Be careful what you wish for. As soon as the demons enter the pigs, the pigs go nuts and run off a cliff, and the man is cured and demon-free.
(Of course do the townspeople thank Jesus for healing their possessed crazy man? Of course not. They’re pissed because their pigs are floating like so many lost pork chops in the water below. Money talks, man.)
So we have the Ageless Stranger as the Big Nasty, the demon of all demons, the Legion of evil, and he is one who Roland, eventually, must face. That should be some fun.
When Roland asks the MiB if he’ll succeed in his quest, the man says he won’t answer lest Roland kill him. CAN Roland kill him? One would assume so, but he has been reluctant to really give it more than a half-baked effort. His hands go to his guns, but the Man in Black points out that “those do not open doors, gunslinger; those only close them forever.”
Roland seems stunned to learn that Marten never left Gilead as he thought, but simply changed to Walter and now to the Man in Black. Yet we’ve been given hints at that all along, and Roland had suspected as much. Makes me wonder if those hints were part of the revised version?
So there are doors through which Roland must go to reach the Tower. I’d like to say I’m just that perceptive, but I have looked at the cover of The Drawing of the Three, which features three doors on a beach. That’s not technically a cheat. Really.
The Gunslinger and the Man in Black: Section VIII
Roland and the man in black talk through the night. We’re spared the gory details because there are six other books in this series through which to reveal the stories they shared, and, oddly, Roland remembers little of it afterward anyway. Only that the Man in Black told him he must go to the sea, which is only twenty miles west, where he will be invested with the power of drawing. Roland will draw three, which even Roland and I perk up at, because Three was the number of power the Oracle She-Demon nattered on about. “And then the fun begins!” the Man in Black says, adding that he’ll be long gone by then.
Finally, the Man in Black has one more Godlike thing to say: “Let there be light.”
“And there was light, and this time the light was good.”
What Constant Reader Learns: Roland has his marching orders, and he’ll draw three. I assume that’s a drawing as in poker. He will draw three cards, or it will be the first three cards that were drawn by the Man in Black when he pulled out his customized tarot deck? I’ll know soon enough.
Interesting that the Man in Black ends his massive opus with the words of creation: Let there be light. Because I have a feeling Roland’s about to enter a whole new world he didn’t know existed.
The Gunslinger and the Man in Black: Section IX
Roland awakens by the ruins of the campfire to find he’s ten years older. His hair has thinned and grayed. The lines in his face are deeper, his skin rougher. The remains of the wood he’d carried has petrified, and the Man in Black is a “laughing skeleton in a rotting black robe.” He breaks off the skeleton’s jawbone and sets out, heading west.
Roland comes to the ocean and sits on the deserted beach, watching the sunset and waiting.
What Constant Reader Learns: Constant Reader finds omniscient narration extremely annoying. How did Roland know he was ten years older since to him it had been a single night? He doesn’t have a compact with a mirror in his pocket — how does he know he has deeper lines in his face? Okay, I just had to get that out of my system.
Is the skeleton really the Man in Black? Or will we see him again in another time and place? I suspect the latter, and so does Roland, who thinks, “Is it really you? I have my doubts, Walter o’Dim..I have my doubts, Marten-that-was.” I have my doubts, too, Roland-that-will-be.
Like he did with the skeleton/demon at the Way Station, Roland breaks off the Man in Black’s jawbone and jams it into his pocket. He also wonders how many lies the man told him. (Although earlier in the book he said he couldn’t lie, didn’t he? Am I mis-remembering that?)
As Roland heads west, he says, “I loved you, Jake,” a final bit of homage to his sacrifice and to the kid. And ahead of him lies the Tower — “the nexus of Time, the nexus of Size.” He ends this part of his journey watching the sunset, the dark coming down, and the world moving on. And he dreams of the Dark Tower, “to which he would someday come at dusk and approach, winding his horn, to do some unimaginable final battle.”
I feel as if I should make some grand, final pronouncements upon the finish of The Gunslinger, but I find myself exhausted, as if in some sense I’ve completed the world’s longest prologue.
Some final impressions:
- Roland is a fascinating anti-hero/ hero. His “plodding, methodical” mind, as we’re so often reminded about, makes him an odd duck to be the one headed into some final, epic battle to determine the fate of, well, everything. Yet if he thought more deeply, or loved harder, or understood more of the complex implications of what he was doing, maybe he couldn’t put one foot in front of the other and continue on in what even he realizes is going to be a huge journey. In some ways, he’s Frodo with a holster.
- I’m still not sure why Roland is the one to go on this journey. He’s the last of his kind — the last Knight, if you will, going on the last Crusade. Maybe because he’s the last one, there simply is no one else to do what must be done. I’m hoping the “why” of Roland will become clearer as we progress.
- As I read the final sections, with the view of the infinite universe, I had to do a bow-down to Stephen King. To imagine devising such a worldview at the age he first wrote this thing, and to build a prolific writing career while remaining within this infinite world… well, it’s mind-boggling and makes me want to stop writing and take up quilting or baking or mowing lawns or something. But I still don’t know why the blade of grass was purple.
- I’m kind of glad I didn’t read this back in the day. I can pick up The Drawing of the Three right now and continue with the story. To have read The Gunslinger, and then waited five freakin’ years to continue it? Yikes.
That’s it for this week! Next week — same time (-ish), same place — we’ll start The Drawing of the Three with “Prologue: The Sailor” and “The Door,” the first section of the chapter entitled “The Prisoner.”