“There they stood, ranged along the hillsides, met
To view the last of me, a living frame
For one more picture! In a sheet of flame
I saw them and I knew them all.”
—Robert Browning, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”
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 or preceding sections, join me by commenting here.
Last time out, Roland, Susannah and Oy made their way through the cold lands on their way to the Crimson King’s deserted (or so we’re led to believe) castle, with Mordred (who’s-a’hungry) following somewhere behind.
The Dark Tower, Part Four: The White Lands of Empathica; Chapter 3: The Castle of the Crimson King, Section 1
About a mile from the castle, our trio begins to see political posters for the likes of Richard Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge, JFK and LBJ. Susannah and Roland carry on a normal conversation but under his breath he tells her to have her gun handy. They both feel they’re being watched.
What Constant Reader Learns: Since JFK is the last modern gunslinger, after all, Susannah and Roland have a talk about him. Roland found it interesting that he was shot, and that the people of Susannah’s country choose their own dinh by election. Susannah is surprised to hear Roland say he thinks democracy is “pretty swell” (quoting Blaine the Mono). And they have a moment of reflection that JFK’s assassin was named “Oz-walt,” as in Oz.
The Dark Tower, Part Four: The White Lands of Empathica; Chapter 3: The Castle of the Crimson King, Section 2
They finally reach the castle, whose entrances are painted with the eye of the Crimson King. It appears deserted at first, but there’s a freshly painted banner across the front: WELCOME, ROLAND AND SUSANNAH! (OY TOO!) KEEP ON ROCKIN’ IN THE FREE WORLD!
The doors and windows of the castle, as was true of the houses, are extremely narrow. The rooks are sitting everywhere, and Susannah sees a humped bridge spanning a river, and an open moat.
They’re met by a trio of identical Stephen Kings (pause for a moment of incredulity), two of them carrying large wicker baskets and the third following slightly behind. Roland warns Susannah that before victory comes temptation.
What Constant Reader Learns: Whoa, I’m having a serious Randall Flagg flashback with that banner. The man in black would be proud.
So….does the narrowness of the houses, doors and windows have any significance, I wonder. It has been mentioned twice now.
Hahaha. I’m really amused by the three Stephen Kings coming out to meet them. I wonder if he laughed as he wrote it.
I’m also having a flashback of the story of Man Jesus on the cliff overlooking Israel, when Satan comes to tempt him. I have no doubt Roland and Suse will prove equally stalwart.
The Dark Tower, Part Four: The White Lands of Empathica; Chapter 3: The Castle of the Crimson King, Section 3
The three wise guys, I mean Stephen Kings, stop in the middle of the bridge and the two put down their wicket baskets. Susannah can smell roasted meat, which reminds her how long it’s been since they had fresh food.
The trio begin a running standup comic routine, with the guy in back playing the straight man. They claim to be uffis, which Roland knows are shape-changers. He whispers to Susannah that he doubts it’s true. They insist it is, and that their orders were to tassume the shape of someone Roland would recognize and trust.
There’s much banter as to whether they can each take different shapes (no), and they refer to the Crimson King as ‘Los’. They claim to be the id, the ego, and the superego—Feemalo, Fumalo, and Fimalo. Fimalo says he has no sympathy with their cause but that the Crimson King treated him badly, so he also won’t go out of his way to stop them. They share how abusive the king was toward his staff, that in a fit of pique when Roland and his group won in the Calla and then at Algul Siento, he broke the six wizard’s glasses he still possessed. He was angry because now he knew the Beams were not only safe, but the broken Beams would regenerate. “Then eventually what has moved on might return again,” Roland says. “Perhaps Mid-World and In-World…Perhaps even Gilead. The light. The White.”
Unless, Fimalo says, the Crimson King can become Lord of the Tower or destroy it. And the king’s crazy.
What drove the king mad, they said, was that he wanted two things. He wanted to bring the Tower down, and he wanted to get there before Roland. He wasn’t sure he wanted to destroy the Tower or to rule it. And then, when he was mad, he killed himself with a spoon, after which he rode off for the Tower in his undead form, which no longer needs sustenance. Now, it appears, he’s immortal and even though he’s locked on a balcony outside the Tower, he can pick them off as they enter and still win.
What Constant Reader Learns: The three Kings are getting a little annoying, but I do love Roland’s response to being told they took Stephen King’s shape so he would trust them: “I’d not trust sai King much further than I could throw his heaviest grandfather. As troublesome as a trousers-eating goat, that one.” Okay, that made me laugh again. Roland plays a pretty good straight man.
This was a very big infodump. A creative one, admittedly, but an infodump nonetheless. Gotta get that backstory in there somewhere, right?
The Dark Tower, Part Four: The White Lands of Empathica; Chapter 3: The Castle of the Crimson King, Section 4
They all pause to consider the idea that the King can’t be killed, which makes their chances of removing him and gaining the Tower much more complicated. Feemalo notes that it wouldn’t be so tragic if it only impacted this world—Tower Keystone—where the Tower exists as a Tower rather than a rose or another form. But the other worlds “touched by sai King” would be destroyed as well. “For it was not [King] that created them…To peek in Gan’s navel does not make one Gan, although many creative people seem to think so.” They point out that this business now is simply Roland’s quest—nothing rests on its success, because the Crimson King can’t destroy the Tower while he’s locked outside it and will be trapped there forever. He can only do that with Roland’s guns.
After much, much, much bantering, it’s finally established that they aren’t going to talk Roland out of seeing his quest through until the end, so the two wisecracking Stephen Kings open up their goodies—one appears to be filled with roasted meat and the other with warm sweaters and other clothing. Susannah is very tempted, but she knows that one little step forward and she’d be plowing through those boxes “like a predatory housewife at the annual Filene’s white sale.” She’d lose her dignity, in other words. And she also realizes that the whole thing is likely a ruse and that what she thinks she’s seeing and smelling is not real.
So she and Roland decline their hospitality and bid the dumbfounded trio of Stephen Kings goodbye. When they turned, Feemalo and Fumalo reached inside their baskets, and before they can pull out their guns, Roland and Susannah kill them.
What Constant Reader Learns: The annoying trio of Stephen Kings make a good point about Roland and the Tower. I had a momentary flash of wonderment that wouldn’t everybody reading this series be really ticked off if Roland said, “Hey, you’re right. The best way for me to protect the Tower—and all the worlds—is to forget it all and go home. I can ride on back to Gilead with my woman and my doglike creature, and wait for the White to regenerate and it’ll all be rosy.” The End.
But of course Roland, being Roland, says even if what they tell him is the truth, he’s going anyway because he promised himself he would. And if that’s not a good reason to jeopardize the universe, what is?
Hey, I think we too would be destroyed, mayhap, if readers of sai-King’s universe become de facto members of the universe by their act of reading. Or perhaps we’d go on with our lives, but everything touching on King’s worlds would disappear from our data banks.
And if the Tower falls and the worlds collapse, are those only the worlds touched by sai King? What about the worlds touched by the mind of Harper Lee, for example. Would they still exist? Because I’m about forty miles from To Kill a Mockingbird country. I’d be fine. (Hey, it’s midnight. I’m tired and loopy.)
The Dark Tower, Part Four: The White Lands of Empathica; Chapter 3: The Castle of the Crimson King, Section 5
Fimalo is all alone now, and he’s no longer Stephen King. Instead, he’s an old man with dirty gray hair, a “garden of eczema” on his face, and yellow skin. He’s dying slowly.
He tells Roland he’s just a human, and that in his former life in another world (but not Keystone World), he was Austin Cornwell from upstate New York. He says all he told them was true except the part about the Crimson King beheading his minister—which is him—and the contents of the baskets: body parts and snakes.
Roland says he isn’t going to kill him; he wants Austin Cornwell to deliver a message to Mordred: “Tell him that I’m old and crafty, while he’s but young. Tell him that if he lies back, he may live awhile yet with his dreams of revenge…although what I’ve done to him requiring his vengeance, I know not. And tell him that if he comes forward, I’ll kill him as I intend to kill his Red Father.”
What Constant Reader Learns: Thank goodness. Those two Stephen Kings were working on my last nerve. And what’s the significance of Los’…Dandelos….I have no idea.
The Dark Tower, Part Four: The White Lands of Empathica; Chapter 3: The Castle of the Crimson King, Section 6
Their message delivered and all the info dumped, Roland and Susannah continue on their way. The “glammer” has faded, and now the political posters are old and faded. Susannah asks Roland what he’s going to do with or to the King when they reach the Tower, and he says he doesn’t know.
Their chat about Mordred and what’s to come is interrupted by a shriek of horror and fear back at the castle, and Roland says, “The Crimson King’s Minister of State has entered the clearing.” Or, as Susannah thinks, “Mordred’s a-hungry.”
What Constant Reader Learns: Roland’s super watch has begun losing time: “Let Mordred do as he will,” he says. “The Dark Tower lies close beyond the white lands, and I mean to reach it.” Susannah hopes his eagerness and ambition will not make him careless.
The Dark Tower, Part Four: The White Lands of Empathica; Chapter 3: The Castle of the Crimson King, Section 7
Rando Thoughtful, the former Austin Cornwell, waits for Mordred at the bridge but falls asleep. Mordred is now a baby no longer but a boy of about nine, and he’s gaunt with starvation. It hadn’t occurred to him to stock up on canned goods like his White Daddy and his half-mother have done.
He can control the rooks with his thoughts and a few hand gestures, so he’s been forcing enough to come to him that he’s been able to stay alive by eating them, along with some bugs he was also able to summon. He also caught a weasel and ate it.
Mordred wakes the old man up and tosses out some insults about his failure to capture or kill Roland and Susannah. He’s angry that the former Austin Cornwell isn’t more regretful about it. As for Austin, he’s praying that he not “die screaming in the arms of yonder monstrosity.”
Rando/Austin finally delivers Roland’s message, embellishing it a bit by saying Roland would cut off Mordred’s head and hold it up so the Crimson King could see it. He’s trying to push Mordred into killing him quickly, but Mordred’s learned a little patience. So instead, he orders his rooks to attack. He tells them not to mess with his skin, but they can have his eyeballs. So they have a nice little treat, Mordred morphs into his spidery self, and the rooks pick the blind old man up and carry him to the dinner table, so to speak.
What Constant Reader Learns: Hm. I wonder what else our boy Mordred can summon besides blackbirds and bugs?
This time I’m seeing a reenactment of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, only instead of Tippi Hedren with gulls poking at her hair, it’s an old dude with blackbirds.
The Dark Tower, Part Four: The White Lands of Empathica; Chapter 3: The Castle of the Crimson King, Section 8
That night, Roland and Susannah stop beyond the edge of the houses surrounding the castle lands and he can smell wood that isn’t petrified. So for the first time in a long time, they have a fire—a big one. Roland asks Susannah if she can stand two more nights of cold—really cold. But after that it will be easier to find game for food and wood for fire.
As she’s going to sleep, letting Roland take the first watch of the night, Susannah tells him the sore beside her mouth isn’t a pimple. She’s seen such sores before and it’s cancer—a “blood tumor,” she calls it. She makes Roland promise that when the time comes, he will cut it off. He promises he will. And out in the darkness, Mordred falls asleep in one of the empty houses, an “unwanted, lonely child…with his wreck of a coat pulled around him and his head in his arms.” Roland can see him in his mind.
What Constant Reader Learns: Susannah asks how he knows it’ll be two days and Roland says he just does. When she asks how they’ll stop Mordred from sending his rooks against them, he says the boy’s reach won’t extend that far—and again doesn’t say how he knows this. But to himself, he acknowledges that he’s getting answers from the Tower.
When Susannah asks Roland about cutting off the sore, it’s actually Detta who pops out and asks it (well, demands it, more like). Roland is chill enough after their day that he doesn’t react to her.
And…that’s it for this week! Next week—same time, same place—we’ll continue our read of the final book of the Dark Tower saga.