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 for the spoiler discussion so my Dark Tower-virgin ears won’t hear anything before I read it.
When we last saw Roland, he had just let Jake drop to his death into the gorge and had joined the Man in Black for a “palaver.” In today’s entry, I’ll cover the first four sections of “The Gunslinger and the Man in Black,” the last chapter of The Gunslinger.
The Gunslinger and the Man in Black: Section I
The Man in Black leads Roland into the “place of counsel,” a golgotha or “place of the skull.” There’s something “indefinable” that lets Roland know the sea might be nearby. “I am in the West, Cuthbert,” he thinks. “If this is not Mid-World, it’s close by.”
Roland silently gathers wood “like a common cook’s boy” and brings it back to the Man in Black, who then ridicules him by telling him how methodical and “exceptional” and “resourceful” he is. Roland responds by dumping the big pile of wood at the Man’s feet hard enough to stir up dust. (Yeah, THAT will scare him, Ro. Good move.) Roland watches as the Man in Black uses the wood to create an ideogram of a “complex double chimney” two feet tall, then lights the fire with the sign of the University of Texas Hook ‘em Horns… er, I mean the sign of the evil eye. “I have matches, but I thought you might enjoy the magic,” the Man tells Roland. Then he pulls a rabbit out of his robe already gutted and ready for cooking. A trick we also heard about him using back at the desert dweller’s cabin. Roland is silent through all of this; he even spits the rabbit and roasts it.
Roland is hungry as he smells the rabbit cooking, but when it’s done he hands it all to the Man in Black and reaches into his own knapsack for his last bit of jerky, which was “salty, painful to his mouth, and tasted like tears.” The Man in Black points out that it was a useless gesture, but Roland admits he fears enchanted meat. (Don’t we all?)
We — and Roland — finally get a look at the Man in Black. He’s square-jawed and handsome, with shaggy black hair, full and sensual lips, and dark, brilliant eyes. Roland studies him for a time before saying “I expected an older man.” To this, the Man in Black points out that he is nearly immortal, as is Roland — for now at least.
What Constant Reader Learns: Well, of course, the palaver spot has to be a golgotha. “Golgotha,” an Aramaic word, was the hill outside Jerusalem where crucifixions were held, and where Jesus was crucified. And just in case that religious reference doesn’t do it for you, the Man in Black sends Roland shuffling off to gather wood to build a fire for a meal “to remember your Isaac.” Roland doesn’t get the reference to Abraham’s almost-sacrifice of his son Isaac yet, earlier, he made reference to “Man Jesus,” so what part of Judeo-Christian history and belief systems have survived in this world-run-off-the-tracks isn’t clear.
Roland’s in a bit of a childish sulk through most of this section. He pouts as he picks up wood, refuses to talk, doesn’t want the Man in Black’s food.
Back at the Way Station, I think, Roland was talking to Jake about the Man in Black, and he speculated that MiB might be Marten or Marten’s twin. Whatever happened with Marten (we don’t know it yet) would have been quite a bit in the past, so that could be why Roland expects the MiB to be older. “I could have taken a face with which you would have been more familiar, but I elected to show you the one I was — ah — born with,” the MiB says. And isn’t that “ah” interesting? Was the Man in Black, in fact, born? Or was he always? Although he says he’s “almost” immortal, which implies he can die or at least cease to exist.
One other odd references:
The MiB tells Roland to watch the sunset. “You won’t see another sunrise for what may seem a very long time.” Well, that doesn’t sound promising.
The Gunslinger and the Man in Black: Section II
The Man in Black brings out a huge deck of cards and begins shuffling them. He tells Roland they are Tarot cards, of a sort — a mixture of standard Tarot with “a selection of my own development.”
The Man in Black says he’ll tell Roland’s future. The first card is the Hanged Man, which MiB says signifies strength as Roland plods “ever onward toward your goal over the pits of Na’ar. You’ve already dropped one co-traveler into that pit.” (Bye, Jake.)
The second card is the Sailor. “He drowns, gunslinger, and no one throws out the line. The boy Jake.” Roland winces and doesn’t respond.
The third card is a baboon sitting on the shoulders of a young man, holding a whip. “The Prisoner,” the Man in Black says, but doesn’t explain what it means.
The fourth card is a woman at a spinning wheel, a shawl over her head. She seems to be both smiling and sobbing. “The Lady of the Shadows,” says the Man in Black. She is two-faced, he tells him. And “she broke the blue plate.” To which Roland and I both ask, “What do you mean?” The Man in Black responds, “I don’t know.” And Roland thinks he’s telling the truth.
The fifth card is Death. “Yet not for you,” the man says.
The sixth card sends horror and joy across Roland: The Tower. The Man in Black places the Tower card atop the Hanged Man. “What does that mean?” Roland asks twice, and the MiB doesn’t answer. Finally, Roland says, “Then be damned to you. What’s the seventh card?”
The seventh and final card is a sun rising in a blue sky, with cupids sporting around it and, beneath it, a field of red. The gunslinger can’t tell if the red is roses or blood. The seventh card is Life, the MiB says. “But not for you.” When Roland asks where in the placement of cards this one goes, the MiB says, “That is not for you to know now or for me to know.” Ah, so who’s pulling the strings here?
He tells Roland to “sleep, perchance to dream and that sort of thing,” but Roland charges at him instead, thinking to kill him. The “Man in Black, smiling, swelled in his vision and then retreated down a long and echoing corridor.” And Roland dreamed. Oh boy.
What Constant Reader Learns: The Man in Black says he hasn’t used the cards to see the future since the days when Gilead stood but, even then, he suspects he hasn’t read a tale such as Roland’s. “You are the world’s last adventurer. The last crusader… Yet you have no idea how close you stand to the Tower now, as you resume your quest. Worlds turn about your head.” Uh-oh. Why do I think we’re going to see some of those worlds?
I kind of know how the Lady in the Shadows feels, with the simultaneous smiling and sobbing.
The cards. Well, I don’t know how to read the cards. I do think it’s interesting that the Man in Black throws out the odd sentence about the blue plate yet doesn’t himself seem to know what it means. So something or someone — the Red King? The Tower? — is channeling information through the Man in Black? Later, after turning over the seventh and final card, the MiB says, “I’m not the great one you seek, Roland. I am merely his emissary.”
I’m kind of dreading this dream Roland’s just fallen into.
The Gunslinger and the Man in Black: Section III
In his dream/vision, Roland is drifting in the void until the godlike Man in Black creates the world in a bizarre mimickry of the opening verses of the Book of Genesis. We zip through history as some dinosaurs ramble around before man is created.
Next, Roland has the sensation of being in space and seeing the Earth from high above — the world’s atmosphere held the planet in a “placental sac.” An echoing, booming voice proclaims, “Let there be light.” And the sun shrinks as Roland flies into deep space, beyond our solar system, to see the planets lined up, though they aren’t named: Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto (back when Pluto was officially still a planet), then “one lonely ball of ice and rock... and, beyond this, darkness.”
Roland and I beg for it to stop — “no more,” we plead. But the Man in Black once again says “light,” and he moves Roland outside the universe.
Roland is seriously freaked by now (whatever for?), “terrified of an ultimate meaning rushing at him.” Yet when the Man in Black offers to let him turn back, he says, “never.”
The Man in Black utters a final, “Then let there be light,” and Roland loses consciousness. But before he does, he sees “something he believed to be of cosmic importance. He clutched it with agonized effort and then went deep, seeking refuge in himself before that light should blind his eyes and blast his sanity.” In the end, Roland “came back to himself. Even so do the rest of us; even so the best of us.”
What Constant Reader Learns: Uh, biblical creation story, much? Roland’s in the void. The Man in Black says “let’s have a little light,” and there was light. The gunslinger thinks “in a detached way” that the light is pretty good. “Now darkness overhead with stars in it. Water down below,” MiB says, and it happens. I feel like I’m reading the Stephen King version of The Book of Genesis, with Zombies, one of those mashups so popular these days.
As we’re flying through space, reaching the outer edges of our known universe, Roland begs for it to stop, and the Man in Black gives him a choice: “Then renege,” he says. “Cast away all thoughts of the Tower. Go your way, gunslinger, and begin the long job of saving your soul.” Dante might as well be standing there with a sign that says “Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here.” Go back and save your soul, or come on into hell, boys.
Finally, Roland sees “it,” whatever it might be. The ultimate truth of life and death, I suppose. I can’t help but think of someone earlier in the book (help me out here) who said Roland might be the only one who could go after the Man in Black and have his sanity survive because he isn’t a deep thinker. So, in the end, Roland is able to shut down whatever truth he has seen (unlike Alice in Tull, who says “nineteen” and learns a truth that drives her mad) and hold onto his sanity, we presume. Which is almost more than I can say for myself.
The final line in this section, “Even so do the rest of us; even so the best of us” seems worth pondering. I take it to mean we all turn a blind eye and block out the full meaning of our place in the universe else we would go mad?
The Gunslinger and the Man in Black: Section IV
Roland comes to and it’s still night — maybe the same night, or maybe not. The Man in Black, to whom Roland once again refers as Walter o’ Dim, is smacking over the remains of the rabbit. “You did fairly well,” he tells Roland. “I never could have sent that vision to your father. He would have come back drooling.”
“You want the Tower,” the Man in Black says, to which Roland answers yes. “Well, you shant have it. No one cares in the counsels of the great if you pawn your soul or sell it outright, Roland.” He tells Roland he can’t survive the Tower. Roland tries to argue, but the Man in Black says, “I made your father and I broke him. I came to your mother as Marten… and took her… I am the furthest minion of he who now rules the Dark Tower and Earth has been given into that king’s red hand.”
Finally, Roland wants to understand what he saw at the end, before he lost consciousness. The Man in Black asks what he remembers. Roland remembers a blade of grass. A purple blade of grass.
What Constant Reader Learns: Okay, so the Tower is under the control of Lord Sauron… I mean, the Red King, and so is the Man in Black. He’s a minion of the Red King, yes? So he’s far from the end game Roland thought he might be.
Roland asks him what it was he saw in the light just before passing out — he doesn’t understand it — and is surprised to find the Man in Black doesn’t know what to call it himself. He does know what it means, however. And next week, perhaps, so shall we as the Man in Black begins to speak.
That’s it for this week! Next week—same time, same place—we’ll pick up with the remaining five sections of The Gunslinger, and gird our loins (metaphorically speaking) for The Drawing of the Three. But for now I’m off to ponder my place in the universe without going mad, but fear it might be too late.