A Read of The Dark Tower

A Read of the Dark Tower: Constant Reader Tackles The Waste Lands, “Argument” and “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”—Bear and Bone, Sections 6-14

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,

And the dry stone no sound of water.

— From T.S. Eliot’s “The Wastelands”

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.

We last left Eddie swinging atop a pine tree, being violently shaken by a 70-foot-tall Demon Bear with something atop his head. Roland is sprinting to the rescue with Susannah perched on his shoulders, holding a gun. This week, we continue with the next sections of the first big division of The Waste Lands, called “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust” — Bear and Bone.

The Waste Lands — “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Bear and Bone, Section 6

Finally, Roland and Susannah have arrived at the camp. Demon Bear is so huge, Susannah can only see parts of him through the branches of the trees. She freaks and asks Roland what to do.

Ro is having a mental meltdown — like there are two men inside his head, each with his own memories. This condition is getting worse, although this is the first we’ve heard of it. Eventually, he pulls it together long enough to shout that Demon Bear is “one of the Twelve. One of the Guardians.” Then he goes off in a mental tug-of-war about whether the boy Jake ever really existed. Apparently, Roland says he does and his alter-ego, whom we’ll call Rodetta, says he didn’t.

Finally, Ro tells Susannah to shoot the Demon Bear in the thing on its head that looks like a “little steel hat.”

Susannah thinks this is not a good idea and wants Roland to do it, but he tells her this is her true test, and she better pass it. So she raises the revolver and fires twice, hitting the bear in the butt.

Demon Bear, not liking this development, charges at Roland and Susannah, as Ro knew it would, giving Susannah a good shot at its steel cap.

What Constant Reader Learns: The bear, we’re told is “screaming like a distraught woman.” Sexist much? *screams like an annoyed woman*

Strangely (to me at least), Susannah is yelling, “It’s goan shake him loose!” at Roland — that’s Detta’s patois, which she seems to slip into every once in a while. Then she switches back to the more refined language of Odetta. Kind of odd — just to remind us she used to be two people, I guess, so their speech patterns were combined.

Uh…Roland is developing his own dual personality? Please say it ain’t so. Will he start talking in Mid-World gutter language when Rodetta comes forward?

Demon Bear is one of the twelve Guardians…okay, now we’re getting somewhere! Not sure where yet, but I sense the stirrings of a direction for the book.

 

The Waste Lands — “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Bear and Bone, Section 7

Old Demon Bear seems to charge in slow-mo, giving Susannah time to sight on the little steel hat, which she thinks looks more like a radar-dish, while reciting Roland’s “I do not shoot with my hand” speech.

At the last moment, she finally understands what Roland’s been trying to teach her. Her fear disappears and leaves only a feeling of coldness. “This is what he (Roland) feels,” she thinks. “My God — how does he stand it?” Then with a paraphrases Cort’s immortal lines: “I kill with my heart, motherf**er,” and fires.

What Constant Reader Learns: Guess the Odetta part is the stone-cold killer, since she used proper King’s English instead of Detta’s “mafah.”

Seriously, though, I really love that speech of Cort’s that Roland taught her, and it’s cool that she is able to repeat it to herself as she sights on Demon Bear. Whether the speech itself holds some kind of power or just helps her focus, I’m not sure.

“Radar dish” on Bear’s head…does not compute yet.

 

The Waste Lands — “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Bear and Bone, Section 8

Susannah’s bullet hits the little radar-dish thingie, which apparently is sitting atop a steel rod planted in Demon Bear’s skull. The rod is engulfed in blue fire, and instead of roaring when it’s hit, the bear — which obviously isn’t a bear at all — emits a “weird warbling sound like an air-raid siren.” Later, when it’s further along in the dying process, Eddie likens its groans to the sound of “some huge truck engine stripping its gears.”

As the bear lumbers around in a Camille-worthy death scene, Eddie climbs down the tree and Roland sets Susannah on the ground. She’s amazed at the size of it, and the amount of damage it caused to their camp — which is pretty much wrecked.

Finally, after much carrying on, “after all its strange centuries, the bear the Old People had called Mir — the world beneath the world — was dead.”

What Constant Reader Learns: Guess this really wasn’t your average demon bear.

So, if the bear is a “demon,” as we’ve been told, but the bear is also obviously a technological creation, then what is the relationship between technology and evil/demons? Is technology a tool by which evil half-human/half-demon Walter and others of his ilk create destruction? Or am I trying to read too much into it?

Demon Bear has quite the death scene. He moans and circles and shakes the tree and falls to his knees and convulses…and finally dies. It’s another one of those scenes that works in print but could be so very, very bad on film…or pretty awesome.

So if Demon Bear is part animal and part machine, or at least it’s seeming that way, what are the “parasites?”

 

The Waste Lands — “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Bear and Bone, Section 9

Eddie and Susannah have a little tender reunion, where — interesting — Susannah says she hopes she never has to do that again, all the while thinking she’d very much like to do it again. She’s channeling her inner Roland.

Roland, meanwhile, has gone over to look at the bear “with an expression of pity and wonder.”

“Hello, stranger. Hello, old friend. I never believed in you,” he thinks. The Guardians were legends even in Roland’s childhood, and although Alain and Cuthbert believed in them (“Cuthbert believed in everything”), Roland thought they were only children’s stories. “But you were here all along,” he thinks, “another refugee of the old times, like the pump at the way station and the old machines under the mountains.” Roland wonders if the Slow Mutants in the mountains were the descendants of the Old People from this forest, and thinks probably so.

Eddie brings Susannah to look at the dead bear and the hordes of parasites leaving his mouth and nostrils. They’re shocked when Roland tells them the creature’s been alive two or three thousand years.

There’s a metal tag set on the bear’s rear legs. On it is etched

North Central Positronics Ltd.

Granite City

Northeast Corridor

Design 4 GUARDIAN

Type/Species BEAR

SHARDIK

SUBNUCLEAR CELLS MUST NOT BE REPLACED

Eddie and Susannah are trying to decide if the bear is a robot that somehow still bleeds when they notice Roland using his knife to gouge out one of the bear’s eyeballs (something, as I recall, he threatened to do to Jack Mort). He leans over the body of Shardik the Guardian Bear, and tells his companions to come and look at “a wonder of the latter days.” They see what sounds like a computer motherboard, to which Eddie responds: “It isn’t a bear, it’s a f**ing Sony Walkman.” (Speaking of a world moved on.)

Roland stands up and is trying to tell them they need to move camp…and then collapses, clutching his head.

What Constant Reader Learns: Uh, Susannah, babe? Here’s the deal. I know Eddie’s the love of your life, but that big honkin’ bear sneezed worms and snot all over him, and do you want to be kissing on that? How do you think that hair you’re running your hands through got wet? Huh? Demon Bear Mucus, that’s how.

As Roland’s watching the bear die, he thinks about his “deadly new friends, who are becoming so much like my deadly old friends. We came, weaving our magic circle around everything we touch, strand by poisonous strand, and now here you lie, at our feet. The world has moved on again, and this time, old friend, it’s you who have been left behind.”

I love that passage — it speaks to the passing of long eras, of whole worlds gone before, and I can’t help but wonder if, by the time all this is done, the world will have moved on again, leaving Roland behind after he’s set things to right.

Okay, we saw the Positronics name either back at the Way Station, I think (or was it in the mountains?). And, uh, Shardik’s electronic innards smell like bananas? What’s up with that? And Eddie thinks he recognizes that name from somewhere, and says he associates it with rabbits. Okay, I’m officially befuddled.

 

The Waste Lands — “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Bear and Bone, Section 10

Eddie and Susannah and Suzanne are appropriately alarmed when Roland collapses. He’s still obsessing over whether or not Jake really existed as Roland and Rodetta argue the point. “The boy,” Roland says to Susannah. “It’s always the boy.” Then, with the immortal words “Go then, there are other worlds than theses,” Roland faints.

What Constant Reader learns: Roland’s in big trouble. If he’s unsure what is real and what is not, will that make him question the Tower itself, or is it just the Jake issue?

 

The Waste Lands — “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Bear and Bone, Section 11

The trio makes its way to the clearing where Ro has been giving Susannah shooting lessons. They’re gathered around a fire, and Eddie’s looking at the stars and worrying about Roland. Ro is huddled under three skins, despite the warm weather. He isn’t eating — what he is doing is cradling the jawbone.

Eddie and Susannah decide they have to make Roland tell them what’s wrong, so they go to the campfire. Eddie puts Susannah on Roland’s right, and he sits at the gunslinger’s left. “How close you both sit to me,” Ro says. “Like lovers…or warders in a gaol.” Roland says it’s been so long since he’s had companions, he doesn’t know where to start. “Start with the bear,” Eddie says, and Susannah points to the jawbone: “And finish with this.”

What Constant Reader learns: Eddie figures it’s late summer in Roland’s world. I hadn’t really thought about the time of year also being relative between worlds, but makes sense. He’s also watching Old Mother rising above the horizon, and Old Star. Interesting that Eddie is beginning to think in RolandSpeak. Eddie recalls a lengthy story from Roland’s reminiscences that is a variation on the Greek constellation myth of Cassiopeia, who was hung upside down in a rocking chair in the stars.

 

The Waste Lands — “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Bear and Bone, Section 12

Roland says his story is one he was told as a child: that in the early days, the Great Old Ones (who weren’t gods but almost had the knowledge of gods) created Twelve Guardians to guard the portals that lead in and out of the world. The portals, he says, might be something natural like a constellation or a geyser, although other people — such as Hax, the cook hanged for treason — said they weren’t natural but had been created by the Great Old Ones.

Eddie notes that the whole notion of “portals” brings them back to doors again and wonders if, like the doors on the beach, the portals lead to other versions of the world where he and Susannah came from — a big part of him still holds out hope he can one day go home. Roland doesn’t know but he guesses the answer is no — that the portals probably go to a “where” or “when” that they don’t recognize. That the doors on the beach were like the center of a seesaw — on one end is Roland’s ka, on the other, Walter’s ka. But the portals guarded by the Guardians “are things far greater than Walter, or me, or the little fellowship we three have made.” The portals are outside ka — beyond ka.

Roland draws a large circle with twelve Xs around the outside, with lines coming from each and intersecting in the center. The Xs are the portals; the center where they all connect are the Tower — the Great Portal, the so-called Thirteenth Gate which rules not just this world but all worlds.”

What Constant Reader learns: Roland admits — and it’s probably a warning for us Constant Readers — that for every thing he knows, there are a hundred things he doesn’t. “You will have to reconcile yourselves to that fact,” he says. “The world has moved on…When it did, it went like a great receding wave, leaving only wreckage behind…wreckage that sometimes looks like a map.”

Here we have the best explanation yet — with diagrams, even — of what the Tower is, and I have to wonder if Roland will have to find all twelve portals in order to get to the Tower. Hm….

 

The Waste Lands — “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Bear and Bone, Section 13

Roland continues his story about the Great Old Ones. The Guardians included the Bear, the Fish, the Lion, the Bat. The Turtle was an important one — and he recites a childhood poem about the kind, slow Turtle that has kind of a “Jesus Loves Me” vibe to it. Hax taught the poem to him, Roland says, laughing, amazed that he remembers it.

As he grew older, he no longer believed in the Guardians — that they were symbolic rather than real.

Eddie theorizes that the Bear, the Guardians, are what in his world were called cyborgs — a creature part flesh, part machine. He talks about the movie “Robocop.” He wonders how Roland knew it needed to be shot in its satellite dish, and Roland says the phrase “put on your thinking cap” came from the story of the Guardians — it’s like an extra brain out the outside the head.

And here we have it, folks: “When we find the portal this Shardik guarded — and that should only be a matter of following its backtrail — we will finally have a course to follow. We must set the portal to our backs and then simply move straight ahead. At the center of the circle…the Tower.” Sounds like marching orders to me.

That story told, Roland tries to move on to talking about Jake — that losing his sanity is his punishment for letting Jake — “a boy who never existed” — fall to his death. Apparently, when Roland was sick, he ranted about Jake a lot (as well as lots of other people from his past) — he remembers Eddie saying he’d gag him if he didn’t stop talking about the kid. Eddie doesn’t remember this.

Finally, Roland says he thinks he understands what is happening. (Glad somebody does!) So he settles back to tell them about a story that’s true, and one that isn’t true — but should be.)

What Constant Reader Learns: We’re going back to some religious and social symbolism here, I think, not only the childhood poem, but the transition from childhood faith to adult doubt, from belief in the unseen to adult literalism….and that, in Roland’s case, those normal life transitions proved wrong. Wonder if that’s why Roland thinks he’s losing his sanity — too many things he believes in are proving unreliable. Or maybe it’s just guilt over Jake.

Roland’s recollections clash with Eddie’s, making Roland doubt his sanity even more. He remembers Eddie threatening to gag him if he didn’t stop ranting about Jake when he was feverish; Eddie doesn’t remember it. Roland remembers telling Eddie about sacrificing Jake under the mountain in order to reach the man in black; Eddie says Roland told him he went alone into the mountain. Ro and Rodetta have a major conflict here.

 

The Waste Lands — “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Bear and Bone, Section 14

Roland tells Eddie and Susannah about his trip to Tull, about Sheb and Allie and Nort. He talks about Sylvia Pittston, and the “final apocalyptic slaughter.” He talks about the desert dweller and the bird Zoltan that ate the mule’s eyeballs. And he talks about finding the way station. “It was empty. It had been empty, I think, since the days when yonder great bear was still a newly made thing.”

Then he tells the Jake version of the story — “the one that isn’t true, but should be.”

He jumps back to the “real” version — where he finds the pump, drinks some water, sleeps, and then moves on, taking nothing from the place with him except water.

Then he tells “our” version, where he finds Jake, hypnotizes him, goes into the cellar, finds the Speaking Demon, and takes the jawbone. The demon said, “go slow past the Drawers, gunslinger.”

Susannah recognizes the Drawers, or what they stand for — a place Detta Walker thought about, a slang term meaning a place that’s spoiled. Detta’s version of the Drawers was a gravel-pit filled with trash, but more than that it was a mental space where she went to shoplift or pick up white boys at roadhouses. Not always bad places, but powerful places where she could reinvent herself. In Roland’s world, he says Drawers could mean a trash-midden, or a whorehouse, or a place to gamble or chew devil-weed.

“But the most common meaning that I know is also the simplest,“ Roland says. ”The Drawers are places of desolation. The Drawers are the waste lands.”

What Constant Reader Learns: Oh lord, I’m so confused.


That’s it for this week! Next week — same time, same place — we’ll read the next sections of Bear and Bone, the first chapter in “Book One Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust.”

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