Dec 12 2011 12:00pm

A Read of the Dark Tower: Constant Reader Tackles The Waste Lands, “Argument” and “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust,” Bear and Bone, Sections 1-5

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.

We last left Roland, Eddie, and Susannah (the “gunslinger" formerly known as Odetta Holmes and Detta Walker) recuperating at the end of book two, The Drawing of the Three. This week, we begin with the introductory pages of book three, The Waste Lands, and start the first chapter, “Bear and Bone,” of the section of the book entitled “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust.”

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
— From T.S. Eliot’s “The Wastelands”

The Waste Lands — “Argument”

The Waste Lands was published in 1991, four years after The Drawing of the Three. As is often the case, Stephen King begins his story with some author’s notes, in this case titled “Argument,” in which he gives some thoughts about the story that has gone on before. His own summaries are usually illuminating.

The Gunslinger, he reminds us, tells how Roland, the last gunslinger in a world that has moved on, seeks to catch the man in black, “a sorcerer named Walter who falsely claimed the friendship of Roland’s father in the days when the unity of Mid-World still held.” King describes Walter as a “half-human spell-caster,” which is not something I’m sure was ever made quite so clear in the reading (the half-human part), although it was certainly hinted at.

King describes Roland as “a kind of knight, one of those charged with holding (or possibly redeeming) a world Roland remembers as being ‘filled with love and light,’” but we’re reminded that Roland’s memories might not be reliable.

In summarizing the events of Jake’s death at Roland’s hands, King describes Roland’s choice “the second most agonizing of his life,” sacrificing “this symbolic son,” which certainly is in keeping with the religious symbolism that ran through the first book.

In describing the events of The Drawing of the Three,” King describes Detta Walker as a “brutally direct intellect,” which is an apt description.

Though we’re never overtly told this in the events that drew Roland to Jack Mort — the same madman who’d twice injured Odetta during her life — here Stephen King tells us what was referenced obliquely: “To Roland’s eye, these interrelationships suggest a power greater than mere coincidence; he believes the titanic forces which surround the Dark Tower have begun to gather once again.”

We’re reminded that when Roland first encounters Jack Mort through the third door, Mort is getting ready to push Jake Chambers in front of an oncoming car — the way Jake died his first death, we’d previously thought at the hands of Walter. This leads Roland “to a confusing and possibly dangerous development,” we’re told. While Walter was definitely there at Jake’s first death, what if it had been Jack Mort and not Walter who pushed him?

If that’s the case, Roland — by killing Jack Mort — has changed history. And if Jake didn’t die at Jack Mort’s hand, where is he now? If he’s still alive in his own 1970s Manhattan, how is it that Roland remembers him?

What a tangled web Roland and his Constant Reader find themselves in….

And now, The Waste Lands takes up the story of Roland and his two companions, Eddie and Susannah: “For the first time in untold years, Roland of Gilead is no longer alone in his quest for the Dark Tower…but the gunslinger has a way of being bad medicine for his friends. Very bad medicine, indeed…Susannah is learning to shoot, Eddie is learning to carve, and the gunslinger is learning how it feels to lose one’s mind, a piece at a time.”

And so, ominously, it begins.


The Waste Lands — “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Bear and Bone, Section 1

We pick up several months after the final events of The Drawing of the Three, and our trio has moved inland to more hospitable surroundings, or so it seems. Roland has rigged one of his holsters for Susannah to use in her wheelchair.

Roland and Susannah are at a clearing about a mile from the camp where they’d been living for two months while Ro healed and Eddie and Susannah learned new skills. Today, Eddie has stayed behind. It’s a pretty land, full of forest, with a clear stream running to a steep drop-off.

Ro and Susannah engage in some banter about the differences in their worlds regarding the discipline of wayward children. Roland has come to respect both Susannah and Eddie after their ordeals — their own period of testing — and has come to accept that he’s never going to be able to draw with his right hand again. So he’s spent a lot of time getting Susannah set up with the holster and teaching her to shoot. He’s also learned that he enjoys teaching, and might even have a talent for it.

Roland pauses during their lesson and presses his fingers to his temple — Susannah sees that his hands are trembling. She asks him what’s wrong, and says both she had Eddie have noticed it. “It’s something wrong, and it’s getting worse.” He denies it, but inside he knows she’s right.

He’s getting ready to tell her “I’m going insane” but just as he opens his mouth, they hear a tree fall in the forest (which does make a sound since they’re there to hear it) — it’s the second one that’s fallen, and it’s close to their camp. Then there’s a bellow of rage.

In a Superman-like feat, Roland, using “uncanny, ruthless speed,” picks Susannah up from her chair, hoists her to his shoulders “like a cheerleader,” and sprints toward camp.

What Constant Reader Learns: Both Eddie and Susannah have learned their self-defense and survival skills quickly, confirming Roland’s belief they were both “born gunslingers.”

It makes me nervous that they’re staying in a camp near a steep drop-off. The fact that Stephen King describes this setting in such detail, and that Roland knows there were people who lived in the forest in some distant time, makes me wonder a) why the people are no longer there and b) who’s going to plunge off that cliff? We’re also told that Roland considers fire “evil stuff that delighted in escaping the hands which created it.”

The crows are restless. This is probably a bad sign.

Roland is teaching Susannah the philosophy Cort taught him: I do not aim with my hand; she who aims with her hand has forgotten the face of her father. I aim with my eye. I do not shoot with my hand; she who shoots with her hand has forgotten the face of her father. I shoot with my mind. I do not kill with my gun; she who kills with her gun has forgotten the face of her father. I kill with my heart.

Susannah’s not getting it until Roland reminds her of the wrongs done to her in her life, trying to teach her to channel her anger and hate into a cold ability to kill. She resents his words, and tells him so. He says he needed to bring up that anger to make her a gunslinger. “Damn it, I’m not a gunslinger,” she argues. But he knows better.

Okay, so what’s this “I’m going insane” business? All of a sudden Roland just knows he’s going insane? What if Constant Reader goes insane first?


The Waste Lands — “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Bear and Bone, Section 2

“He was the largest creature in the forest which had once been known as the Great West Woods, and he was the oldest.” He is a bear. Let me repeat that. He is a bear, one who “came out of the dim unknown reaches of Out-World like a brutal, wandering king.” He’s also a demon. A demon bear.

So our big mean demon bear is the reason the Old People who used to live in the Great West Woods aren’t there anymore. Their arrows didn’t do much besides annoy him. For every arrow that hit him, he’d kill some of the people’s women and children — leaving their warriors alone to feel impotent and humiliated. So Demon Bear is not just a bear.

The Old People called him Mir, and he’s been ignoring our happy trio until now, when the parasites eating his brain made him think they were poisoning him and thus need to be wiped out. The bear, “whose real name was not Mir but something else entirely,” rampages through the woods, following his smell toward the camp, knocking down trees as he goes.

What Constant Reader Learns: So…it’s been a long time since I read it, but wasn’t there a big extra-sentient bear in “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon?”

Holy crap. So…we have a demon bear, Mir, who stands 70 feet tall and is about 1,800 years old. And he’s full of parasites which have eaten his brain and he’s now mad, partly from brain-eating parasites and partly from age. Parallel much with the last gunslinger/knight who’s going insane? Parallel much with the former Detta Walker who thought Ro and Eddie were poisoning her? Does this mean Roland (who’s also of some unknown old vintage) also has parasites eating his brain? And what’s with the thing on top of the bear’s head?


The Waste Lands — “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Bear and Bone, Section 3

Two days before Demon Bear began his rampage, Eddie Dean had taken up carving for the first time since he was a kid — it had been something he was good at, and something Henry hated and made fun of him for. Eddie simply wasn’t allowed to be better at anything than Henry (who wasn’t really good at anything), so Henry had driven Eddie away from everything he’d been good at — basketball, reading, math, even jumping rope.

What Constant Reader Learns: Eddie’s doing some reflecting on Henry — how carving was something Henry hated because Eddie was good at it and Henry wasn’t. And Henry got what Henry wanted, mostly by manipulation.

We learn there were eight years’ difference in age between the two boys, and that there had been a sister (Gloria) in between them who’d been killed at age six by a drunk driver. To make sure nothing happened to Eddie, Mrs. Dean told Henry he had to Watch Out for Eddie — something they both laid a guilt trip on Eddie about. But Eddie had let himself be manipulated because he idolized Henry. Now that Henry’s dead and Eddie is gaining some self-confidence, maybe he’s able to see this more clearly.


The Waste Lands — “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Bear and Bone, Section 4

Two days earlier, while Susannah was skinning a rabbit and Ro was cooking, Eddie had seen a funny spur of wood sticking out of a stump and he had a feeling of déjà vu. He realizes he’d been thinking about the courtyard behind the building where he and Henry had lived. It  reminded him of how he’d loved to carve. How he loved the ability to look at a piece of wood and “see” what it could become — to see how much of that thing you could get out of the wood without breaking it. (Maybe much as Roland’s going to do to him?)

He borrowed Roland’s knife and brings the wood back to camp.

What Constant Reader Learns: Eddie looks at the stump of wood and the urge to whittle comes to him. He resists at first because he hears Henry in his head, making fun of him. Then he remembers Henry is dead and he, Eddie, is free: a realization that fills him with “soaring joy.”

So even though we know Demon Bear is going to come charging out of the woods and do horrible things, it’s nice to see this moment of healing for Eddie. He is carving is a slingshot. Too bad it isn’t finished or we could have a David-and-Goliath kind of throw-down between Eddie and the Demon Bear.


The Waste Lands — “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Bear and Bone, Section 5

Eddie doesn’t get much advance warning about Demon Bear’s approach because he’s so wrapped up in his carving. He’s brought out of his creative trance not by the falling trees but the “thunder of a .45 from the south.” Eddie looks up and sees Roland’s gun hanging by its belt from a nearby branch, and wonders exactly how old Roland is and what is wrong with him — he still doesn’t realize he’s in danger.

Finally, with the falling of another tree nearby, Eddie finally gets that something is wrong. He jumps up, his half-carved slingshot in one hand and Roland’s knife in the other. He tosses the knife into a tree and grabs Roland’s other gun as a huge shape becomes visible through the trees — towering over the trees, its footfalls making the ground shake.

In his head, Eddie hears Roland’s voice, telling him to think. He doesn’t believe Ro’s gun will kill it. He doesn’t think he can outrun it. His only other option is to climb. Luckily, the tree he’s standing beside is a “huge, hoary pine,” the tallest in this part of the woods. So he starts climbing.

Demon Bear is slowed down, conveniently (my new word for “ka”), by a sneezing fit — something that has been plaguing it. Bear keeps sneezing out clouds of parasites. He begins batting at Eddie, then sneezes on him, which Eddie finds revolting. (No kidding!)

Eddie climbs as high as he can, out of the bear’s reach, looks down, and realizes there’s something growing out of the bear’s skull that looks like a radar dish. He also realizes the bear is crazy.

Finally, the bear circles the tree with his paws and begins to shake it. Eddie hangs on as the tree sways like a pendulum.

What Constant Reader Learns: Eddie’s sitting leaned up against a tree, looking handsome — “a young man with unruly dark hair which constantly tried to spill across his high forehead, a young man with a strong, mobile mouth and hazel eyes.”

Roland left one of his guns at camp with Eddie and Susannah has the other — before the bear comes out, Eddie wonders how long it’s been since the gunslinger went anywhere without at least one of his guns? So, has Roland become complacent? Or is he more trusting of his companions?

Eddie and Susannah have apparently discussed the fact that something is wrong with Roland, and had agreed that Susannah would try and bring up the subject: “It was time to let old long tall and ugly know that they knew something was wrong.”

Eddie’s reaction at seeing Demon Bear for the first time: “Oh man, I’m f**ked.” Uh, yeah. You better hope Roland’s running really fast.

So, if Demon Bear keeps sneezing out “clouds of parasites,” isn’t that kind of, like, unhealthy for our heroes — especiallly after he sneezes all over Eddie, “hot snot filled with thousands of small white worms”? GROSS OUT. This is so much worse than the hairy spiders with eyes on stalks. “Yellowish foam, thick with worms, squeezed between its paws in curdled gobbets.” OMG. Is there more Keflex? Doesn’t the word “gobbets” just imply grossness? Sorry. Having a girly moment here.

Woo-hoo! Eddie has come up with a new version of the lobstrosities: Bearzilla. Heh.

Dear Stephen King: You really should have had a different kind of tree for Eddie to climb. A hardwood, perhaps, because they’re, like, hard. If you’d lived much of your life in tornado alley like your Constant Reader, you’d realize that if Bearzilla had taken a swipe at a pine tree — even a big pine tree — its soft wood would have snapped like a matchstick and Eddie Dean would be on the ground. Just for future reference. Although yeah, yeah, I know. This is a different world. Maybe pines are tougher in this world.

Uh… I hate to seem dense (well, more so than usual), but WTH is up with the radar dish growing out of Bearzilla’s head?

That’s it for this week! Next week — same time, same place — we’ll read the next ten sections of Bear and Bone, the first chapter in “Book One Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust.”

Kate Nepveu
1. katenepveu
I doubt the radar dish is sensible/guessable before the reveal.

No comment on the title of book one?
2. Lsana
"Convenient" is an excellent word for "ka."

I also found the scene with the bear sneezing out parasites to be one of the grossest in the series (the only reason I'm not saying THE grossest is because I don't remember the later books that well, and I'm never going to underestimate SK's ability at the gross-out). Fortunately, I don't have a visual imagination, which is the only thing that allowed me to read this scene.

Hi,, "Mir"! I found this particular critter probably the second-most intriguing thing that Roland and co. encounter on their journey. There's a part of me that wishes it weren't dying when they met it, but again it is probably best to get just some small hints about the bear and its story and be allowed to imagine the rest.
Jack Flynn
3. JackofMidworld
I remember when I first read this part & being terrified for Eddie when the bear showed up & then totally grossed out by the whole 'sneezing on Eddie' bit.

This book was my favorite of the entire series & I've been looking forward to you getting here!
Francesco Paonessa
4. ErrantKnave
Oh, gross. I forgot all about the parasites and gobbets. And Eddie's whittling. And the little cap.

I just wanted to leave a comment saying I love this re-read, and I'm glad we're going right through The Waste Lands so soon after The Drawing of the Three.
5. Elissa Mac
This is the point in the series for me where it went from absolutely awesome to blowing my freaking mind. A giant bear with a radar dish on his head and a nose teeming with worms!!! And good luck trying to explain that little plot detail to someone who hasn't read the books. Talk about blank stares. :)
6. Improbable Joe
Let us not skip past the most important point brought up in this section:

How old is Roland, anyways?

I love the way Stephen King drops that in there as an aside and then quickly yanks you away from the question. Maybe he didn't himself know that he was asking a pivotal question that the whole story balances on, at least not consciously. It becomes more of a concern as the story unfolds, and we become more familiar with Roland's backstory, and the wider world beyond the woods where they are camping.

As you read on, that's something to sort of keep in the back of your head: how old is Roland? How many years ago did he start his quest?
Eigor Maldonado
7. e-mann
This may be spoiler-ish but I think that it is important to the series. That strange “dish” on top the Bear, remember that it is a clue. Its association with a certain something will be prevalent. That’s all I will say and that may have been too much.

On to other things, I didn’t have a problem with Ro’s sudden “I’m going insane” thought. Screwing with the whole time continuum should do that to a person. On one hand, we have Ro and Jake meeting at the Waystation and traveling together w/ Ro ending up dropping Jake to his second death. On the other hand, we have Ro saving Jake from his first death. Thus, Jake never showed up at the Waystation and the other stuff never happened. Both are true in Ro’s mind, both contradict each other and Ro’s mind can’t handle both being true. I think anybody with this in their head would start bouncing off the white, soft walls of their little room, while wearing a fully enveloping, extra long sleeved shirt, tied off in the back conveniently, all the while saying “yes it did; no wait it didn’t”
Suzanne Johnson
8. SuzanneJohnson
@katenepveu...Not sure what to make of the section title yet. "Fear in a handful of dust" is the line from Eliot's The Wasteland. The dust we've seen so far is crumbled bones. I'm lost where Jake is concerned at this point! we're not done with "Mir" yet? I thought that was entirely too easy, although I was hoping for a ginormous King Kong with a radar dish on his head.

@Elissa...LOL. I know. Does not translate outside the SK Universe :-)

@Jack and ErrantKnave. I think the "gobbets" might have been even worse than the worm-mucus. "gobbets" is just an evocative a bad way.

@Joe...Ah, yes, that's the question. I had resigned myself to ignoring Roland's age and just thinking "really, really old but not immortal," but now that we're coming across references to time--some conflicting--that question weighs on me again. He had a ten-year palaver with the man in black, but Walter's skeleton had been there a hundred years. And how reliable is Roland's accounting of time? I think not very. So this is something to keep watching.
Suzanne Johnson
9. SuzanneJohnson
@e-mann...yes, as I've read a bit further doing the holiday postings, I have a better grasp of the "boy/no boy" circle Roland's doing inside his head, and how it's driving crazy and making him question everything.
10. Improbable Joe

Roland's ability to accurately tell and keep time isn't the only or even main problem. Or, a question: how do you count the time that Roland spent inside Mort's head? Is it a direct one-for-one relation, or was it faster on one side or the other, or did the relation between the duration on one side or the other slip like a chain on a sprocket that's got missing and worn-down teeth? A sprocket that's moved on?
Benji Cat
11. benjicat
Giant rampaging sneezy bear is one of my favorite parts of the series!

Side note -- any reason why the cover art didn't change to the new book?
Matthew Hunter
12. matthew1215
One note on the "I'm going insane" bit that I thought was relevant. There's an excellent offhand sentence or two, I think in the first book, where Roland is comparing himself to some of his past companions (gunslingers) and notes that (paraphrasing VERY roughly, from memory) he wasn't the smartest, nor the friendliest, nor the strongest, nor the best shot, but he had a kind of dull, plodding lack of imagination that failed to even conceive of giving up.

It doesn't seem like much, but the simple ability to keep going, one step in front of the other, without even enough imagination to go insane... well, I will stop there.
Suzanne Johnson
13. SuzanneJohnson
@Joe...Good point. Yes, it was pretty clear toward the middle and end of Roland's time with Jack Mort that he was trying to factor where things might be with Eddie and Detta on the beach, and realized that his time might not quite be keeping the same pace as theirs.

@benjicat...I wondered about that too. It's an issue up at North Tor Positronics...perhaps we're on different times now and our world has moved on :-)

@matthew...Very good points. There were quite a lot of those comments in the first book, about how Roland has survived where smarter and more imaginative companions have not simply because of that plodding nature not given to speculation. So...has he changed his ways, or was Jake/Not Jake the breaking point?
14. CallahanOTheRoads
@ Suzanne- Remember the words of the border dweller, Brown: "Time is funny out here...Distance and direction, too."
I'm enjoying following your read-through. Dark Tower is one of my all-time favorites. Wonders await you further down the path!
Jack Flynn
15. JackofMidworld
When I read it, I just assumed that time had moved on, just like everything else, but now, after reading the posts about his age, I am now adding to my Christmas wish list: a RoLex watch.
Suzanne Johnson
16. SuzanneJohnson
@Callahan...Glad you're onboard! I can't even imagine what might lie ahead.

@JackofMidworld...Man oh man, I wish I'd thought of that! Too funny.
Risha Jorgensen
17. RishaBree
Things like the radar dish are what I was referring to in the last post, where in Waste Lands King starts to flesh out the underlying cosmology of his universe. (And also where I implied that it wouldn't make a bloody bit of sense for a few books yet!) But more, this is where he starts to fill in its history, albeit through puzzling artifacts, children's songs, and garbled folk sayings.

It's questionable, of course, just how much of this weirdness King had actually planned in advance, but he does eventually manage to tie it all in.
Suzanne Johnson
18. SuzanneJohnson
@RishaBree...Yes, as bizarre as it was, I was happy to see the radar dish and the mechanical weirdness because it feels like we're back on the road again after a novel (which I loved) that was sort of a side-trip to pick up Eddie and Susannah. It was more of the world-winding-down-and-coming-unraveled stuff we saw in the last half of The Gunslinger.
19. atlantisflygirl
This book is definitely where we get a sense, really, of what Roland's world was, how much they've lost, and an inkling of how they lost it.

And I truly love the insanity plot. I love Roland and there's not much I like better than my heros being tortured!
20. Jenny C
Have the Beams been brought up yet? There's a big clue there to make sense of the ancient giant radar dish-equipped bear. But anyway, yeah, everything's going to make sense eventually, that's the best I can say.

I wouldn't worry about the parasites infecting our heroes, either. Those worms are probably way too big to parasite on human brains. Unless maybe they can just lay eggs in your ear. . .oh boy, I just managed to take one of Stephen King's most grotastic squicks and make it even grosser.
Suzanne Johnson
21. SuzanneJohnson
@Jenny...Ick. Yes, you did! I have now encountered the beams and, yes, that does make more sense now.

@atlantisflygirl...Roland is really endearing himself to me with his pending insanity because he's just so...NOBLE...about it. At least so far :-)
22. hohmeisw
@JennyC I can't say everything will make sense. Particularly the beams.

Roland's progression from the Gunslinger to this book is awesome. He starts out a hard, heartless philosopher-killer in the desert, turns kidnapper and redeemer (for Eddie and Detta) and now is, as the Man in Black put it, beginning "the long job of saving (his) soul". Roland teaching Susannah in the forest is one of my favorite parts in Waste Lands, and the other contender is coming up soon.
Suzanne Johnson
23. SuzanneJohnson
@hohmeisw...I liken the beams to the geomantic lines used in a number of urban fantasy--magnetic lines that "hold together" the world, or worlds. Kim Harrison uses a version of them in her Hollows series, and I've played around with them as a time/space travel means in my own writing. Of course I've just seen them for the first time here, so I'm not yet sure what use Roland and Co. will put them to other than paths/direction.
Terry Bragg
24. TeriCalling
I loved the description of Roland as "old long tall and ugly" I laugh everytime I read it.
Steven Halter
25. stevenhalter
So, I am now reading this the first time. King's descriptive abilities seem to have taken another upturn. There seems to be more scenic detail here. Or, maybe he is just emphasizing that we aren't in a desert or on a beach anymore.
The first thing that came into my mind when I saw the giant bear named Mir with some sort of mechanical thing on its head was that maybe this was like the Saberhagen "Empire of the East" scenario where the bear really is the Russian space station MIR translated into fantasy terms. No evidence for that or expectation, but that popped in.
It does seem like quite the pickle they've got themselves into. What to do with a crazed 70 foot bear? Cool.
Suzanne Johnson
26. SuzanneJohnson
@shalter...a 70-foot bear spewing white worms and "gobbets"...sorry, still haven't quite recovered from that!
Steven Halter
27. stevenhalter
Yeah, being coated in gobbets of worm filled slime would just be nasty.

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