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 so my Dark Tower-virgin ears won’t hear anything before I read it, which might lure me into a false sense of security that I have at least a clue about what’s going on.
When we last saw Roland, he was heading into the mountains with the boy Jake, and I had a bad, bad feeling about it.
The Way Station: Section VII
It’s now three days since Roland and Jake left the Way Station, and the mountains are clearer. Roland is impressed with how Jake is handling life on the trail. At night, he is able to see what he assumes is the Man in Black’s campfire in the distance. On the fourth day, Jake stumbles and Roland says they will take an easier pace. They talk at night, and after the boy sleeps, Roland starts to think about his friend Cuthbert, his techer Cort, and a falcon named David, named after the biblical King David. As the section ends, Roland goes into a flashback.
What Constant Reader Learns: Yikes. This is a short, but packed, chapter, with nuance around every turn of phrase. In the mountains, Roland sees green vegetation for the first time “in months, or years.” Time is nebulous.
As he sits by the fire at night after Jake is asleep, Roland has time to ponder many things. He knows the boy Jake, was put “in his path” by the Man in Black and thinks the fact that Jake is not slowing him down brings up “more sinister possibilities.” Uh, like he’s going to have to kill the kid? Yes, I’m still doing that song and dance. Or maybe the Man in Black will use Jake in some other way. There’s a biblical verse, Isaiah 11:6, where the prophet is talking about the end times, the final days: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.” Maybe Jake brings Roland and the Man in Black together somehow.
Roland semi-hypnotizes Jake to help him relax and talks about his own childhood. We learn that he lived in a walled city, and there was an evil man there, a wizard named Marten. Jake asks if Marten was the Man in Black, and Roland says he’s wondered about that and thinks Marten and the Man in Black—if they are not the same person—must be brothers, even twins. But he’s never seen them together. He mentions Merlin, and is surprised Jake knows of Merlin and King Arthur. It sounds as if as a boy Roland was there during the time of Arthur, which gives me a headache so I’m going to ignore it for now.
The Way Station: Section VIII
Roland flahes back to his childhood, on a spring day outside with Cuthbert (whom he sometimes calls Bert) and Cort and the falcon, David. Cort is their instructor. Cort puts Cuthbert to a test at falconry, and he is slow to release the bird. Cort literally boxes his ear and says he’ll have no dinner or breakfast. Bert tries to apologize, but Cort wants his “Act of Contrition” in the High Speech. When David catches his dove, Roland runs to get him but gets pecked before he’s able to hood the bird. As Cort is lecturing Roland about the bird, Cuthbert stands behind him and sticks out his tongue. Cort sees Bert’s reflection in Roland’s eyes and clocks him hard. As the section ends, Roland is leading Bert toward the kitchens, where he has connections that will make sure they eat without telling Cort.
What Constant Reader Learns: [Okay, let me get this out of my system first. Dear Stephen King’s proofreader: The terms “falcon” and “hawk” are used interchangeably in this section. Much like “donkey” and “mule,” they aren’t the same thing. Just sayin’.]
So, Cort is sort of a stereotypical taskmaster. Judging by his clothing, he seems to be of a different class than the boys—maybe even resents them a bit. Good enough to teach them but once they’ve learned, they’ll move ahead of him on the social scale. We don’t know much about Cort’s background, but he’s clearly a tough old dude practicing some tough love on the baby wannabe gunslingers. In an interesting religious reference, he refers to Bert’s apology as an “Act of Contrition,” which sort of puts him in the priest position. Someone with more knowledge of Catholicism than me (which is to say, any at all) might read more into that.
A key thing in this chapter was Bert’s reaction to Cort’s punishments. He is angry after the first blow but willing to play the game. The second time, Roland sees hatred in his “scarifying” smile, and we get the idea this is the look of a gunslinger.
Roland’s self-assessment continues to focus on the things he is not: “He was not an imaginative boy.” What Roland does seem to be, which is unstated, is worthy of respect. Instead of slapping him around when he makes an error handling David, Cort tries to teach him. Roland also seems to have better social skills than Cuthbert—or at least he’s taken the time to befriend the kitchen staff.
The Way Station: Section IX
Roland and Cuthbert go to the west kitchen, where they find the cook, Hax, who has a way with kids. He feeds them, then tells them to go away. Something ominous is going to happen because there’s a bit of omniscient narrator intrusion here: “Later they would both remember he’d said ‘Don’t get me in trouble.’” The boys hide in a corner of a hallway to eat, and overhear Hax talking to a guard about “the good man, Farson,” a shipment, and poisoned meat. The boys realize they’re hearing a conspiracy being hatched.
What Constant Reader Learns: A bit more about the social classes in this place. Hax is clearly one of the servant class, and he likes children—even “the boys who had begun the way of the gun, although they were different from other children—undemonstrative and always slightly dangerous.” There’s also a sense of decay (world moving on) here, as we’re told Hax’s stove is one of only six working appliances left on the estate.
Again, the name “Farson” pops up, “the good man.” Apparently, Hax is loyal to Farson, whom he loves and “would foller into the sea if he asked.”
The striking thing about this section is a loss of innocence on Roland’s part. When Roland realizes what he needs to do, he looks down at his hands, which are stained with gravy and berries—as opposed to earlier, when he sees them covered in blood—and feels “a warm despair…a sort of death.” It’s your innocence taking a hike, kid.
Roland realizes fate has taken a twist: “Ka had worked as ka sometimes did, as suddenly as a big stone rolling down a hillside.” Too big for him to stop.
The Way Station: Section X
Steven Deschain, Roland’s father, has recently arrived home, only to be told of the brewing conspiracy by his son. He asks Roland why he exposed Hax. At first, Roland says it’s because of treason, which his father belittles as an excuse. Finally, Roland admits he’s angry at Hax and the conspirators because they hurt him by killing something inside him. In return, he wants to kill them. Steven agrees to let Roland see the hanging.
What Constant Reader Learns: Well, this is the first time we see Roland’s father, and the first time we know Roland’s surname. Dad appears to have traveled hard and is “desperately thin,” and we figure this is the way of the gunslinger.
Steven recognizes Roland’s limitations, which gives us the first look at Roland from someone else’s viewpoint. When the boy admits he ratted out the conspirators because they had hurt him, his father notes that Roland’s reasoning is crude and immoral, but that morality isn’t Roland’s job. “Morals may always be beyond you,” Steven tells his son. “You are not quick, like Cuthbert or Vannay’s boy. That’s all right, though. It will make you formidable.” Roland found this assessment pleasing, because his father approved and thought he’d be formidable, but also troubling because, let’s face it, being a bit slow and immoral is not high praise.
The “good man” makes another appearance. We’re toking up little bits of info about him: he’s also known as Farson and Marten; he’s going to be Important to our story; he’s related somehow to the Man in Black. Roland asks Steven if he knows who the good man is, and he does. But Roland doesn’t follow up by asking who he is, only why they didn’t go after him so that no one else had to be hanged. Steven responds with a bit of philosophical wisdom: “In the end, someone always has to have his or her neck popped… The people demand it. Sooner or later, if there isn’t a turncoat, the people make one.” Roland grasped the concept instantly and never forgot it, we’re told. So there’s a bit of foreshadowing here… My guess is that someone, perhaps someone innocent, is made a scapegoat or sacrifice for “the public good.” Maybe Roland himself?
The section ends with another little omniscient narrator bombshell: that some years later, the elusive Susan would tell Roland the story of Oedipus and he would think of the “odd and bloody triangle” of his father, his mother, and Marten (aka the good man, or Farson).” Or perhaps, he thinks, he’s part of it himself and it’s a quadrangle. Which begs the question: What’s the deal with Roland and his mom and her red lips?
Still in the flashback, Roland and Cuthbert are headed to Gallows Hill on Taunton Road to watch Hax’s hanging. Before they leave, Cort gives each a chunk of bread to put beneath Hax’s feet after the hanging, but doesn’t explain what it’s for. Roland wants to go and stand on the gallows, to Cuthbert’s horror. They approach the gallows, but Cuthbert can’t do it. He isn’t even sure he can watch the hanging. Roland realizes there’s a lesson for them here and that it’s important, but he allows Bert’s fear to change his mind. Roland pulls a splinter from the gallows and sticks it in his pocket so he’ll have it. As the townspeople begin to arrive, loaded down with picnic food as if to watch some bit of entertainment, Roland wonders where the honor and nobility are, and thinks that Hax in his clandestine hallway meeting, showed more of it than the people there to watch a man die.
What Constant Reader Learns: Again, we’re told Roland isn’t quite as bright as Cuthbert. I swear I’ve never read anything where I was told so many times that the protagonist wasn’t the sharpest pistol in the holster. Talk about your antihero. It’s sort of brilliant, really, Stephen King letting the nobility of a character have, through his actions, to overcome all the ignoble things we’re told about him.
We learn that this place is called “In-World.” Earlier, we know that the world moved on and In-World was gone, so is the desert and the tower in Out-world? Other-world? Middle Earth? Oh, wrong book.
Roland finds the actual hanging a bit of a letdown. A gunslinger (who drew the black stone) leads Hax to the gallows, loops the noose around his neck, and springs the trap door. Roland is disturbed at the expressions on the onlookers’ faces. As Hax falls through the trap and his neck snaps, he’s talking, and Roland wonders where that last sentence was finished—what place, in other words, one might go after death. Afterward, the boys break the bread beneath Hax’s feet to attract the birds, which will eat the body.
What Constant Reader Learns: Poor Roland. Humankind is letting him down.Last section, he was bothered by the crowd not showing proper respect for the act they were about to witness, or at least that was my reading of it. In this one, he’s disturbed because they’re maybe watching Hax—the traitor—a bit too sympathetically rather than the “good” guys—the Gunslinger, his father, Roland and his way of life. Roland can’t quite get his head around it (because he’s not an imaginative boy, as we’ve been told on numerous occasions), but wishes he could.
We see a little Gunslinger arrogance rear its head here, too, as Roland thinks of Cort and realizes one day Cort will serve him. Roland realizes he will be a Gunslinger, but has his doubts about Cuthbert. Even after Hax is dead, Bert doesn’t want to acknowledge that it’s him—says it doesn’t look like him. He is horrified and sickened by the death. Roland is able to look at the hanging and acknowledge it.
The religious symbolism is back! Not only do we have the wooden gallows and the idea of Hax as a sacrifice instead of a bad guy, but we have the breaking of bread as a ceremonial act, which even dull Roland recognizes as symbolic.
Finally, OMG. We end on a serious bit of bombshelliciousness. Oh, by the way, our omniscient narrator tells us, in five years the land will have fallen to the “good man” Farson, Roland will have become a gunslinger, his father Steven will be dead, Roland will have killed his mother, and the world will have moved on. Holy cow. Thanks for the sneak preview.
Roland and Jake have been in the foothills two days now, and they spot snow on the coming mountains—and the Man in Black like a black speck, moving upward. They’re able to watch his almost supernatural progress (ya think?).
What Constant Reader Learns: Roland seems to sense that something will end when he finally catches up to the Man in Black, and feels only sadness when he tells Jake they’ll be able to get him on the other side of the mountains. Which means there’s some harrowing mountain-crossing to be done, I’m guessing.
Roland, sitting beside the campfire while “the sacrifice,” Jake sleeps, thinks about the hanging, and Cuthbert, and the birds waiting to pick at the body of the dead man. He has another of those moments where he seems to hate what he is and where life takes him: “Again and again it ends this way. There are quests and roads that lead ever onward, and all of them end in the same place—upon the killing ground.”
Except, he thinks, maybe the road to the Tower might be different.
I’m still waiting for the “second death” to fall on poor little Jake. It’s coming. I know it.
That’s it for this week! Next week—same time, same place—we’ll pick up with the first five sections of The Gunslinger’s third chapter, titled “The Oracle and the Mountains.”