Jun 20 2011 11:33am

A Read of The Dark Tower: Constant Reader Tackles The Gunslinger, Chapter 2: “The Way Station,” Sections 7-13

A Read of The Dark Tower by Suzanne JohnsonThe 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 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?


Section XI:

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.


Section XII:

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.


Section XIII:

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.”

Emmet O'Brien
1. EmmetAOBrien
Farson, Marten and the Man in Black being the same person is one of the things I like least about the revised text compared to the original; it makes the scale of the world seem oddly cramped.
Marcus W
2. toryx

I seem to remember noticing this before too, and I was wondering if it was less an accident and more intentional? It's always possible that the shift of terms occurs because things are breaking down around Roland, the world moving on and all that jazz. Or it could just be a really lazy mistake. I prefer to think there's meaning behind it, though.

I really enjoy the flashbacks about Roland's past. It's interesting to see how things were before the world moved on, the way Roland has changed (and not changed) and especially such a flat, unemotional awareness of his own limitations. He doesn't seem quite human in a way, and it's chilling to see that this was true of him as a child as well.
Barbara J Webb
3. Barbara J Webb
On the falcon/hawk thing, I assumed one of those was just a colloquial term -- like calling a Merlin (a falcon) a Pidgeon Hawk.
Suzanne Johnson
4. SuzanneJohnson
@toryx and Barbara...I was surprised at it too, although the mule/donkey inconsistency in the early chapters threw me as well. Kind of mind-boggling to think it might be intentional, but maybe that's better than sloppy! And I assume since David was important enough to be named (unlike the mule), we're going to see him again.
Barbara J Webb
5. Lsana

It could be intentional, but my guess is that it isn't, just based on how many King books I read with stupid little errors like this, things that I would assume any proofreader would catch on the first glance. I think it is simply that King has a high enough "Protection from Editors" that they don't give his manuscripts much more than a glance at this point.

I definitely agree with you on the joys of seeing Roland's world as it was, and I wish there were much more of that in these books. (Yes, I know about the graphic novels, but given that I can't really read graphic novels, I find their existance more of an annoyance than anything else).
Suzanne Johnson
6. SuzanneJohnson
@Emmet...So in the original of The Gunslinger, the dots between Marten and Farson and the Man in Black weren't connected? That's really interesting. I have mixed feelings about whether I should have dug up a copy of the original instead of reading the revised version first. Seems like there really are significant differences, at least in nuance if not in plot.
Emmet O'Brien
7. EmmetAOBrien
Suzanne@6; if I recall correctly, the Man in Black is explicitly Marten's apprentice in the original text of book 1. Not so much not joining dots as making an entirely different picture.
Kristoff Bergenholm
8. Magentawolf
As I recall, the ties between Marten and the Man in Black were pretty well spelled out in the original version. As for Farson getting involved, I know I always believed that they were one and the same.

It doesn't appear to have been explicitly stated here, yet, in any case.
Barbara J Webb
9. Foxed
Don't be too excited of the graphic novels. The first one just rehashed the Gilead portion of Wizards and Glass.
Barbara J Webb
10. Rachel D Thompson
I've picked up the first two graphic novels and while the first one does retell parts of the fourth Dark Tower novel: Wizard and Glass, the ones following delve more into Roland's past, following that trajectory rather than returning to Roland's present day quest for the Tower, so they do provide fresh content for people looking for something different in the Dark Tower universe. I found the first two somewhat enjoyable, but I like graphic novels.
Katie McNeal
11. Katiya
Bah, the continuity issues have always bothered me. It's obvious that SK didn't have all of this hammered out too well, and the retconning later just makes things more confusing. I believe in the original that Marten and Farson were the same person (the scene where Roland asks his father if he knows who the good man is, Steven actually looks at Marten, I think, and says "I think maybe I do"), but the MiB was NOT him, and now, Farson and Marten are DIFFERENT people...except in one instance where they're not. The aforementioned graphic novels certainly come down on the side of Marten and Farson as different folken. But either way, as The Road to the Dark Tower by Bev Vincent points out, one of the main changes to the original was making the MiB and Marten the same person.

And as for the geography, it's rather fuzzy as well. In-World is sometimes All-World, and the Tower stands either within All-World, or outside of it. Roland either lives in In-World, All-World or Mid-World, or has never heard of Mid-World before. I just smile and nod and try hard to ignore all that.
Suzanne Johnson
12. SuzanneJohnson
@Katiya...LoL. I've been nodding and smiling a lot myself (well, okay, nodding and frowning).

Here's something else I'd like to hear you DT folks' opinions on...Javier Bardem as Roland for the upcoming movie series. Do you like that casting? I think that's the only cast member named so far. I am not too familiar with his work as an actor, but he has a look I like for Roland. Not too pretty to pull off the rugged, scrungy look, but pretty enough for the camera to like him. Thoughts?
Tricia Irish
13. Tektonica
They're making a movie series of the Dark Tower????!!! I guess I've been under a rock with the Malazans.

Javier Bardem is an awesome actor! A bit beefy for Roland tho, inmo. I wish Clint Eastwood was younger....I always pictured Roland as The Man with No Name. But if anyone can pull Roland off, Bardem will.
Oh this could be good.

I just can't believe how much press "genre" literature is getting now. Probably thanks to the vampire glut, but even the Wall Street Journal had a big article in the weekend edition a week or two ago about how mainstream authors are attempting to go "genre" because it's so hot. They even had statistics stating it's the largest segment of book buyers! Who'd a thunk it!

Stephen King was there years before the others and got much success but little critical love. Well, raspberries to you, snooty reviewers!
Suzanne Johnson
14. SuzanneJohnson
@Tektonica...I'll have to look for some links. It's going to be a big-budget series of movies a la Lord of the Rings. Ron Howard is producing, and seems like I heard there would be a short-run TV series to tie in with the films. Stephen King is one of the producers. There have been rumors around for quite a while that Javier Bardem would play in both the movies and the TV series, and that has now been confirmed.
Barbara J Webb
15. Radioaktivitat
Actually, now I come to think of it, the symbolism of Hax's sacrifice is followed with a lot more concrete sacrifices later on.

I won't "prefigure" anything for you; just keep in mind that sacrifice of one sort or another is one of the constants of this series.
craig thrift
16. gagecreedlives
Here you go. Although things arent looking good at the moment. Or looking very good I guess depending on your point of view. Personally think the first 3 books would make good movies after that though I think it would be to hard to do without looking silly.

I think overall I would of prefered it if Farson and Hax had no connection to other gentlemen and just been a symptom of the world moving on. Or to quote King quoting Yeats they could the example of "Things fall apart;the centre cannot hold"
Marcus W
17. toryx
I could see Javier Bardem in the role of Roland. I suspect he'd be rather good at it. Like Tektonica, I always imagined Roland as Clint Eastwood (and I believe King has said the same) but since it's way too late for that, we'll have to settle for something else entirely.

I'm not sure how I feel about the movies in general. I think I'd rather they were making it a TV show on HBO. Ron Howard taking charge is encouraging, even though I didn't care for what he did with The DaVinci Code and never bothered to see the sequel to that.
Suzanne Johnson
18. SuzanneJohnson
Of course I'm still very, very early in the series but I'm already wondering how the movies (three of them) will tag with the 'limited-run" TV series. Seems odd to me.
Katie McNeal
19. Katiya
They've actually talked about using material from the graphic novels to "fill-in" Roland's timeline, making me wonder what they're going to put where. The planned schedule is movie-TV-movie-TV-movie, but as gagecreedlives pointed out, there have been budget concerns. Howard swears it's "moving forward"; we'll know more by summer's end, he says.

Totally happy with Bardem-- he'll do well.
Suzanne Johnson
20. SuzanneJohnson
I hope the budget issues don't make them scrimp too much. The story so far (admittedly I've barely begun) is so intricately woven with flashbacks-within-flashbacks, my concern is that they'll try to "straighten out" the chronology so much that the story loses its magic. There has been such a dismal track record of adapting Stephen King to film, that even with a good director and the man himself producing...well, let's just say I will watch it with some trepidation. There's also supposed to be a theatrical film of "The Stand" in the works.
Marcus W
21. toryx
I so don't want a theatrical version of The Stand. They need to just make it on HBO and do it right. And make sure that Molly Ringwald isn't involved. Or not do it at all.

Seriously, HBO ought to be renamed the Novel-To-TV Show network. I can't believe anyone seriously considers taking a novel anywhere else.
Suzanne Johnson
22. SuzanneJohnson
@toryx--totally agree! About HBO and DEFINITELY about Molly Ringwald. *shudders* I know a lot of people liked that miniseries but I wasn't among them.
craig thrift
23. gagecreedlives
Yeah I cant say Im overly fond of the idea of a theatrical release of the Stand either but what really throws shivers up my spine is talk about trying to do a theatrical release for IT. Now thats just not on

To do that book justice you would need a television series with a hard R rating
Marcus W
24. toryx
SuzanneJohnson @ 22: The only thing I liked about The Stand miniseries was Gary Sinise and the guy they picked for Glen. Well okay, Tom Cullen was pretty good too. But that's it.

I think both The Stand and It as a television series on HBO would be pretty great. Both of the mini-series were pretty disappointing when they first aired in the 90's, however.
Suzanne Johnson
25. SuzanneJohnson
@gagecreedlives...Oh no. I hadn't heard about a theatrical release for IT. That has such potential for mishandling.

@toryx...You mean you didn't like Rob Lowe with his spanky haircut playing Nick Andros? *shudders*
Heather Olver
26. Arila
I can't wait to get home and find out if my book is the revised version or the original. I haven't read the Gunslinger since high school. I did a report on it! Student selects the work, and I was always looking for a way to make leisure look like homework! Looking back on this summary, I don't remember a lot of these things, or perhaps my mind sort of slipped over some of the details. 10 years on, I'm sure more maturity in the reader would reveal a different story.

Hey, regarding all of these mule/donkey hawk/falcon things. Do you suppose the fact that this is in a world where time is wonky maybe other "facts" are as well? Is it cool or cheating to put potential mistakes down to this aspect? Also, what if there are only mules (hawks) left, could the word donkey (falcon) has evolved into a synonym? Maybe when I get home and check my revision I'll catch up to you. Not having read the books in a while, maybe it's obvious they are mistakes, and I'm being too hopeful and seeing intention that isn't there.

I checked out the spoiler thread, but since there's only one post in a month and my regular Tor login doesn't carry over to the forums, it's not really conveneint to post there. I hope I remember my question about the end of the 7th book and the revision when the time comes.

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