Mon
Jun 27 2011 11:16am
A Read of The Dark Tower: Constant Reader Tackles The Gunslinger, Chapter 3, Sections I-IV

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 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 and the boy Jake were camped near the onset of the mountains. They looked up and saw, high above them, the man in black, which brought Roland only a feeling of sorrow. In today’s entry, I’ll cover the first six sections of “The Oracle and the Mountains,” the third mega-chapter of The Gunslinger.

 

The Oracle and the Mountains: Section I

Roland and Jake have reached the grassy, cooler reaches of the foothills. Roland wakens during the night, and all we know at this stage is that Jake “found the oracle and it almost destroyed him.” Most of this section is filling in backstory on the day as they’d finally come upon vegetation and reacted like wild, starved things. Roland shot a rabbit for their dinner, and they camped near “a jungle of green willows.” Jake offers to gather wood, but Roland knows he’s tired. “Sit yourself, Jake,” he says, and remembers that it’s a phrase Susan used… maybe. Or maybe not, because “time’s the thief of memory,” as Vanny used to say. And poor old Roland—he laughs when he sees a praying mantis on Jake’s head, and he can’t remember the last time he laughed. Hm. praying mantis. Symbolic much?

What Constant Reader Learns: Well, not a helluva lot, frankly. The desert was brutal. They’re happy to see some greenery. Oh, but wait. Here’s a sentence for you, after Roland decides to make camp in the open rather than going into the trees:

The bats might break the boy’s sleep, no matter how deep it was, and if they were vampires, neither of them might awaken… at least, not in this world.

If this were another writer, I’d say Roland was just being a little melodramatic about a few bats. But this is Stephen King, and there could be vampires here. Are there vampires here?

The quote from Vanny, whoever that might be, “Time’s the thief of memory” is interesting in light of Roland’s memory failures. How old is this dude, anyway? Or is time even relevant any longer?

 

The Oracle and the Mountains: Section II

Roland is dreaming of Susan, and she’s dying, being held by villagers in a rusty iron collar, although in the dream Roland realizes that isn’t how she died. But he could smell her burning hair, and the villagers are crying “Charyou tree” while a witch named Rhea cackles. In the dream, Susan warns Roland that Jake is in danger and he turns to see the boy looking down at him through a window—one where Susan once sat and sang the old songs: “Hey Jude” and “Ease on Down the Road” and “Careless Love.” Jake looks like an “alabaster saint in a cathedral,” and a spike had been driven through his forehead. Finally, Roland wakes up as he gets too close to the fire and singes himself.

What Constant Reader Learns: I’m thinking a good iron spike through the forehead might make things clearer. This was one of those sections that made me want to bang my head against the wall (or bang Stephen King’s head against a wall). Things about which I’m clueless (okay, more than this, but bear with me): Charyou tree, the cackling witch, and how Roland seems like of a combination of Marshall Dillon from Gunsmoke and a knight errant. I don’t even want to talk about the “old” songs from relatively modern pop culture. It makes my brain hurt. But the religious symbolism continues unabated. I wish I’d started a list of religious symbols and references from the beginning.

 

The Oracle and the Mountains: Section III

Roland wakes up to the sound of Jake yelling in the willow jungle, and sets out to find him, guns drawn and scenting the wind because they both apparently smell pretty ripe. Guess when time moved on, it took personal hygiene along with it. Then again, water hasn’t been exactly plentiful. Roland comes to a clearing, where there’s a ring of black stones and, in the middle, a flat table of stone—an altar. Jake stands before it in some kind of sexual-fearful paralysis. As Roland nears the altar, he gets a taste of nirvana-gone-to-hell himself; he manages to keep it at bay with the jawbone he’d picked up in the cellar at the Way Station. He identifies the power of the altar as being a she-demon, a succubus. He holds the jawbone in front of Jake to free him from the power of the succubus, and when Jake collapses Roland lifts him and takes him outside the circle. The succubus isn’t happy. Back at camp, he hugs the now-sleeping boy and kisses his cheek and again realizes he loves him. And imagines he can hear the man in black up in the hills, laughing.

What Constant Reader Learns: I’m starting to feel sorry for old Ro now. He seems to know he’s falling into a trap by coming to care so much for this boy and yet he does anyway. So, I’m guessing the Oracle and the succubus are one and the same. Does she stay invisible? Her power seems to be locked into the stone circle, because as soon as Roland stepped outside the circle with Jake, his sense of her frustration and anger faded quickly. I hope there’s an explanation of why the jawbone acted like a cross in the face of a demon—it kept the power at bay. Roland doesn’t seem to know—he uses it on instinct.

 

The Oracle and the Mountains: Section IV

Roland wakes up again, this time because Jake is complaining. He’d tied the boy to a bush when he brought him back to camp so he wouldn’t wander back to the stone circle. Roland orders Jake to stay at camp all day—he’s going to be gone (uh-oh), and leaves the jawbone with him. If Jake starts to feel funny, he’s to hold the jawbone. Jake doesn’t want him to go, but accepts it eventually. Roland realizes the boy’s quiet strength reminds him of his friend Alain.

Roland recognizes that the spirit of the stone circle is both a demon and an oracle—“a demon with no shape, only a kind of unformed sexual glare with the eye of prophecy.” He wonders if it might be the soul of Sylvia Pittston, the preacher/demon from Tull, but decides it isn’t. (Thank goodness—tell me we don’t see Sylvia again, please.) Roland digs through his tobacco pouch and comes up with a tiny pill he says is mescaline. Jake realizes it’s like LSD, but Roland doesn’t know what that is. Roland pops the pill and cleans his guns, then mends Jake’s shirt while he waits for it to kick in. As soon as he feels the effects of the drugs, he gets up and walks into the willow jungle.

What Constant Reader Learns: This is a bad idea, gunboy. Roland says he has questions he wants to ask the oracle, but it seems to me he knows the answers—he’s been operating all along with a sense of the inevitable. I think he’s just hoping the oracle will tell him he’s wrong, especially about Jake. The strange push-pull of what Roland does/doesn’t know about our world continues. He has a hallucinogen in pill form—he’s not smoking cactus—so he comes from a world with pharmaceuticals. But he hasn’t heard of LSD. I mean, how do you know Beatles songs and not know your hallucinogens? And why does Jake know about LSD? It’s an old-fashioned kind of drug, but I have to keep remembering when this book was written, and his parents were players.

 

The Oracle and the Mountains: Section V

Stoned out of his gourd, Roland walks into the willow jungle and gets sidetracked briefly by looking at his own reflection in a stream. He’s no stranger to mescaline:

The drug had often disturbed him: his ego was too strong (or perhaps just too simple) to enjoy being eclipsed and peeled back, made a target for more sensitive emotions.

He walks into the stone circle and up to the altar, but nothing happens. So he climbs up on the altar and lies down. He sees faces in the branches of the trees above him. He’s struck by how far he’s come—from lying with Susan in sweet grass to this.

And here comes the oracle, bringing with her sexual arousal and the sound of weeping. He feels her like a physical presence above him, “a body made of the wind, a breast of fragrant jasmine, rose, and honeysuckle.” The succubus sends an image of Susan to him as it seduces him, but he refuses to give in to the deception. He tells the weeping succubus to give him prophecy and truth. She seems to want to bring him to orgasm but he holds onto his cold and unemotional resolve, withholding that final bit of himself until she talks to him about the boy.

At her urging, he agrees to half-sleep as she talks her truth. She gibbers a bit but the upshot is: three is the number of his fate and stands at the heart of his quest. Another number comes later, but now the number is three. The first is young, dark-haired, and stands on the brink of robbery and murder, possessed of a demon called heroin. There are other worlds and other demons. Watch for the doorways. Watch for the roses. The second comes on wheels. The third is death, but not for Roland. The man in black is near and Roland will speak to him soon of the tower. Jake is Roland’s gate to the man in black, and the man in black is Roland’s gate to the three, and the three are Roland’s way to the Dark Tower. Finally, Roland can save Jake if he turns around and returns to the northwest, where there is still a need for gunslingers. Roland says he can’t go back because he’s sworn by the treachery of Marten, to which the oracle replies that Marten is no more, for the man in black has eaten his soul. Thus ends the prophecy and now it’s Roland’s turn to pay for his truth: “Have your way with me, bitch.”

What Constant Reader Learns: Well, again, we’re pretty much told Jake is a sacrifice but we don’t know how or when or where he’ll meet his second death. Or I could be wrong. And I wonder if we ever learn who this oracle is? Roland indicates as one point that he’s the one she wants—and I mean “wants” in a very physical sense. What is invisible sex with Roland going to do for her? Why is she weeping? Oh God. I had a horrible thought. She’s not Roland’s dead mother, is she? Out, out, foul Oedipal thought. How does one become a demon in this world?

Don’t you just hate an obscure prophecy? I have to wonder if this prophecy, in some ways, is kind of an outline for the rest of the series—or am I trying to make too much sense of it? Jake gets Roland to the man in black. The man in black gets Roland to the three (heroin addict, something on wheels, and someone’s death). And the three get Roland to the Dark Tower, where maybe another number (nineteen?) becomes relevant. Well, that’s probably ridiculous, but that’s my interpretation of the prophecy from the creepy, invisible, sex demon. Okay, now, Roland, give it up and let her have her way with you.


That’s it for this week! Next week—same time, same place—we’ll pick up with the last five sections of The Gunslinger’s third chapter, titled “The Oracle and the Mountains.”

18 comments
trench
1. trench
It's Stephen King of course there are Vampires here. But they are not very important at this stage.

I always enjoyed the refrences to our worlds pop culture that have bled over into this world. For me it makes this strange world feel some what normal. I mean aside form the walking dead, Demons, Succubi, Wizards, and many other things I can't mention yet, but hey, they have beatles tunes.

I was suprised to hear The Prisoner and the Lady of Shadows mentioned in this book. I didn't think they got brought up yet, or is this some of King's back filling for the expanded edition. Either way I can't wait until we meet her. I have always found "Her" to be be King's greatest character IMO.

I can't wait for your next update. Were getting closer.
Marcus W
2. toryx
To tell the truth, these chapters have a ton of stuff going on in them but there's nothing you can really talk about because they're all seeds. Later on it'll make a lot more sense but for now, it's only the beginning of...well, almost everything that comes after.

I always kind of liked the way King adhered to the significance of numbers. I've always felt the numbers have their own power too. On the other hand, I grew up with King's books so that might be all his doing.

The succubus has so many things going on with it that are mish-mashes of mythology and culture that you can pretty much take whatever you want out of it. I'm pretty darned certain that the demon isn't actually anyone Roland knows, though. Roland just happens to be a man with power and that's what the succubus wants. A piece of his power.

Man, the relationship between Roland and Jake is a toughie.
trench
3. Lsana
The pop culture references seem to be polarizing aspect for a lot of people in these books: love them or hate them.

My own opinion is that I rather liked them in the (unrevised) first three books and in part of the forth, but after that, they started to get on my nerves. I think I know why and what changed, but I don't want to say too much for fear of being accused of spoilage.

In the unrevised version of the first book (I haven't read the revised), I thought they added to the atmosphere. The entire world of the Dark Tower is that of a surreal Western, and I thought it added to it to have the Gunslinger ride into town and have the piano playing Beatles songs. It just made the entire thing a little more like a Dali painting.
trench
4. mateomiguel
I should re-read these books myself. Or maybe this time listen to an audiobook. I'd love to hear some good exposition in a great voice.

Compared to the rest of the series, this book seems much more dark, bleak, fatalistic, and scary. There's a Man in Black, there's demons, there's a desert, there's a ton of unknown and unknowable surrounding Roland (the scariest kind of scary in my opinion). Later books try to stay within this theme but they don't capture it the way these did. I'm pretty amazed that King was able to write this when he was 19.
trench
5. trench
I think what I enjoyed about the pop culture refrences, was that they help make the Gunslinger's world less static. you can have both the old west and elements of Fantasy stories all wraped up nicely and tied with a bow of Beatles tunes. Roland's Out-world and Mid-world are both completely alien and have a sense of the familiararity to them.

I understand why it turns some people off, but for me it completely made the story.
trench
6. Improbable Joe
As I've mentioned before in an earlier comments section, King doesn't pull the sort of crap that other "long game" fiction like LOST did. These aren't random references to things that are never explained, in order to create mood or the illusion of deeper things going on. You'll get your answers, believe me. There are very few red herrings or dead-ends in these books... which is part of why there's a revised version of the first couple of books, to make continuity corrections so that the series is a more-cohesive whole.

Not that the prophesy is the whole truth about the future, or the flashbacks are the whole truth about the past. This world has moved on, time and memory and even prophesy are stretchy and fluid and unreliable.
Emmet O'Brien
7. EmmetAOBrien
ImprobableJoe@7: I think that crystallises one thing I dislike about the revised book 1 (is there a revised text of book 2 ?), because

random references to things that are never explained, in order to create mood

are to my mind essential for something to actually feel like a credible realistically complex and messy world, rather than a skilfully constructed puzzle-box where every element is guaranteed to have a purpose; the revised book 1 feels to me a lot closer to the latter than the original text, and to its detriment, because it harms my suspension of disbelief to be continually reminded of the fictional universe's artificiality at that scale. Vannay's not in the original text, nor is "charyou tree", and IIRC there's one mention of Susan's name and no context for it, and that way worked much better for me.
trench
8. Roger Simmons
Each Monday I look forward to this Dark Tower read/re-read and your review section by section. Each Monday morning I read the assigned sections so it is fresh in my mind and I still miss things. The review and comments help me understand some of my confusion. I have Ben Vincent's "The Road to the Dark Tower" but have been reluctant to read any of it because of spoilers. I think when we are done with 'The Gunslinger" I can read his chapter 2. Also have Robin Furth's "Steven King's The Dark Tower - Concordance Volume I & II".
Great reference material - timelines, glossary, maps, etc.
Suzanne Johnson
9. SuzanneJohnson
Great comments, guys! I actually like the pop culture references at this point, because it adds to the trippy feel of the whole story and they always take me by surprise.

@Roger. I have that concordance too (the combined edition) but am purposely not opening it. Once I finish the series, though, I sure want to go through it and see what I missed.

Interesting that The Gunslinger is in some ways darker than the other books. I usually think of a series starting light and growing darker. Maybe since this one begins with so many mysteries that one becomes more enlightened toward the end?

It's hard for me to read something this slowly--I normally devour. So that stack of Dark Tower books taunts me every time I walk past. :-)
Heather Olver
10. Arila
I was always a bit of a fence-sitter on whether or not I liked the pop culture references. Most books I read happen practically in a different universe, so maybe it was a case of being too close to home, I guess. As the series moved on, however, I began to like it. While I read the next couple of books, I liked thinking of the connections in a "this could happen" or "I could go in search of the Dark Tower too" kinds of day-dreams.

I guess it's tough to be an author with a setting which isn't the real world. Either people complain about info-dumping or they aren't happy when things are dropped in out of context. I think the latter might be a bit more "natural" if you're suddenly dropped into a character's conciousness mid story. Then if things come up later, at least you've got this tickle from previously that you should pay attention.

Is the prophecy an outline for the rest of the books? Well, given that the next book is "The Drawing of the Three".... ;) I really like the conversation with the Man in Black about the Tower. Its highlighted and underlined all over from my paper. I'm almost afraid to read it again - what if it's not nearly as good as I remember?

Speaking of outlines for the series, have you read the Robert Browning poem from which the series was inspired? If you're having trouble with wishing to read ahead, maybe read that instead - it doesn't contain any spoilers that I can think of, but sets out the same theme.
Sean Jones
11. PersonOfTheDragons
One of your questions popped out to me... how does Jake know about LSD? Schools include it in drug education, right along with mescaline as superbad scary hallucinogenic drugs.
Tricia Irish
12. Tektonica
Arila@10: I'm with you on the pop culture references...it almost makes this bizarre, Other World real and attainable....perhaps our own world in another plane. It certainly makes time go sideways, which is par for the course in The Dark Tower series.

This chapter was full of notes for the future books. I had totally forgotten all these references appeared so early! File.
Rereads are good.

Thanks Suzanne.
Katie McNeal
13. Katiya
@8, Roger, DON'T read chapter 2 even when we finish The Gunslinger! The Road to the Dark Tower contains spoilers throughout, and she directly mentions several very important things and how SK sets them up in The Gunslinger in that chapter.

Re: demons...yeah. Basically, normal people don't become demons, so no, you don't have to worry about something so extremely Oedipal.

@7, EmmetAOBrien-- agreed 100%. :)
Suzanne Johnson
14. SuzanneJohnson
@PersonoftheDragons...LOL. I guess I came from more of the generation who DID LSD rather than learned about it in class. Not me, of course. No, no, no.

@Katiya...Whew. Glad my stray thought about Roland and his mother was off-base.
Risha Jorgensen
15. RishaBree
Time matters, but there are a lot of things broken in this world.

I'm one of the people who loves the pop culture references.

Huh, I hadn't remembered that the prophecy was so... straightforward. I know that they're generally supposed to make sense after the fact, but this is kind of ridiculous. Don't worry, it doesn't outline the whole series, but it does cover an upcoming chunk of it.
trench
16. Trooth
S.J. - I was ecstatic when I discovered a ''Read'' being hosted here of a series I stumbled across as a wee lad and have been enchanted with ever since. I was even more ecstatic when reading your posts that you seem to be one sharp cookie - really in tune with this saga so far.

Book one really is mostly about a dreamy and surreal stretch of the gunslinger's trek and is also very much all about his tantalizing thoughts of friends and places long gone, foreboding, and his intuitions. What's amazing - and no spoilers here - is Book 2 is sooo different (but also wonderful). The first is focused on mystery and foreshadowing while the next does a 180, presents a very grounded and concrete feeling and features a LOT of action and good stuff!!!

Also - and again, no spoiling - most of the things and folks we only get frustrating references to in Book one get their just due later in the series. In other words: Keep reading, lol! It has its critics, but its a wonderful series. You're doing a terrific job.
trench
17. strongdreams
You should make time to read the original, un-expanded Gunslinger. In many ways, it is a different book. The story changed so much over 20 years that King significantly re-wrote it, and I find the first version to be much more poetic and epic in scale. For example, when Roland shoots his way out of Tull, he kills Allie because the other townsfolk have her hostage and they're in his way, so he shoots her with all the rest. It's very cold and mechanical, he almost can't help himself, his survival instinct and training are too strong. In the new version Kings gives her a reason to ask for death so Roland is made out to be less of a cold-blooded killer than he started out to be. Like the original better.
trench
18. Trooth
I really hope SJ is ok! Miss her DT Posts!

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