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 was hopped up on mescaline and had just gotten a prophecy from the oracle that seems to lay out the whole journey ahead of him. In return, he’s told the oracle-demoness-succubus to go ahead and have invisible demon sex with him.
The Oracle and the Mountains: Section VI
After growling “Have your way with me, bitch,” Roland has a romping bad time with the she-demon, as “faces came to him unbidden at the climax of their coupling: Sylvia Pittston; Alice, the woman from Tull; Susan; a dozen others.” Then, he’s pretty well disgusted with the whole thing, and manages to stagger off the altar. The demoness tries to hang onto him, but he’s having none of it, making his way out of the stone circle, leaving the demoness to weep behind him. Roland wonders if he’s learned enough from her to justify allowing her to defile him, and leaves her “dwarfed by the possibilities of time.”
What Constant Reader learns: Well, wasn’t that some fun? It was interesting that the image of Sylvia Pittston came to him first, before Alice, a woman he cared about, and Susan, the woman he loved. I really hope Sylvia’s out of the picture because she creeps me out. Which is probably a guarantee we’ll see her again. As for this demoness, do we ever find out who she is and how she got trapped in the stone circle? And did she want Roland specifically, or any guy who happened to wander by and he drew the lucky number? Not much seems to happen by chance in this world (not ka, right?), so my guess is she specifically wanted Roland in the unbiblical sense for some nefarious reason.
The Oracle and the Mountains: Section VII
Roland shambles back to camp and finds Jake huddled by the fire, clutching the jawbone. Roland tells Jake he can let go of the jawbone, and again Jake has an unconscious, almost feral, reaction to it as he drops it. Jake fears that Roland is sick, but he assures the boy he’s just tired, with a mescaline headache and an aching crotch. After a nap, Roland tells Jake to start a fire while he goes rabbit-hunting. As he walks away, he hears Jake murmuring a rhyme that he learned from Roland—except Roland doesn’t remember ever saying it. After the gunslinger catches some rabbits and they eat, Jake sleeps while Roland goes back into the willow jungle and pulls vines that he plaits into ropes they might need in crossing the mountains, even though he intuits that the climb will not be hard. Ka will make the crossing easy.
What Constant Reader learns: The sections where Roland spent time with the oracle seemed fast, but it’s dark when he gets back to camp so at least several hours have passed. Roland is worrying about his sanity—he’s tempted to tell Jake all he learned from the oracle, then is horrified that he might even consider opening his “mind and heart to the command of a child.” It’s as if he thinks if he opens up to Jake, he’ll be weakened in his ability to see this play through until its predestined end?
Roland’s reaction when Jake chants the old rhyme is interesting—he doesn’t remember saying it for Jake to hear and pick up, and gets the willies wondering what else he’s said without realizing it. He has one of those Mike Tyson refer-to-myself-in-the-third-person moments: “Ah, Roland,” he thinks to himself, “will thee betray such true thread as this in a sad unthreaded world? Could anything justify it?” I assume Jake is the “true thread” that he’s going to have to eventually betray or sacrifice.
If the sex demon is to be believed, “three” is an important number to Roland’s quest now, so it’s interesting that he plaits vines into three ropes, and when he kills rabbits for their dinner, he kills three of them.
I’m finding the growing affection between Jake and Roland both sweet and depressing, because it just can’t end well, can it? It’s a clever literary device on SK’s part. By having Jake come to care for Jake, we care about him too, even though we know it isn’t going to end well.
The Oracle and the Mountains: Section VIII
As Roland and Jake continue to climb, the sun seems to hang overhead a shorter time during the day, but as both Roland and Jake anticipated, the climb so far is not difficult. For the second time, Roland hears the faint sound of thunder from the other side of the mountains. They make camp beneath an overhanging rock and watch the sunset.
They have time to talk about difficult things. Jake asks some tough questions: “Why am I here? Why did I forget everything from before?” Roland tells him the man in black drew him here because of the Tower, which stands at a kind of power-nexus. Jake says he doesn’t understand, and neither does Roland — he only knows that time is “softening,” and it’s moving progressively faster. When Jake asks where Roland is from, he says from a place that no longer exists, a place called New Canaan, named after the place in the Bible. He also tells Jake a bit of what his life was like there. Finally, after indulging in a few more thoughts of how he might save Jake, Roland accepts that there is nothing he can do to stop the inevitability of what’s about to happen so there’s no point in seeing tragedy in the situation.
What Constant Reader learns: Are the days shortening with the season, or is time messing up the length of time the midday sun stays overhead? The foundations of a story, I’m finding, get very shaky when you can’t depend on the passage of time to be a constant.
A bittersweet moment: Roland is teasing Jake about how high up they are and tells him not to roll over in his sleep or he might tumble off the ledge of rock and end up in hell. Jake replies, “My mother says that I sleep like a dead man.” And they both find that statement painful. Jake fights back tears and Roland feels an icepick stab of mental anguish, and wonders why this boy should be chosen for such a role.
We learn that Roland’s land was called New Canaan (and I assume he doesn’t mean Connecticut), that it was a beautiful land. He differentiates between pretty (landscape) and beauty (order and love and light), something Roland learned from his mother.
We get another glimpse into Roland’s past — of going to balls and dancing with a girl named Aileen Ritter, the one his parents had chosen for him. The “Central Place” of his land had nearly a hundred stone castles. Roland doesn’t know how long it’s been since he left it, but even then it was rotting and overgrown, and Slow Mutants had nested in the huge kitchen. Do I want to know what Slow Mutants are? I have a feeling I’ll find out since the next chapter is called “The Slow Mutants.” Finally, Jake asks Roland if there was a war that ended his land, and Roland replies that it was even better than a war—it was a revolution. Was this the same revolution that Hax was helping to plot, engineered by Marten? Not enough info yet.
This is a slow section with a lot of setting and backstory, but it reminds me how lyrically Stephen King writes. His descriptions of the landscape and the fading light and the desert stretching out behind Roland are beautiful and evocative.
The Oracle and the Mountains: Section IX
The climb becomes more difficult, but Roland and Jake push slowly ahead “with no sense of hurry.” He can smell the man in black on the air, “an oily, sardonic odor.” They cross the snow line, and finally find a single footprint in a patch of snow. Jake is frightened, but Roland pushes him onward. Later, they make camp on a ledge to the sound of thunder, even as they watch the colors of sunset. Roland expects Jake to ask more questions about his past, but the boy simply goes to sleep. Roland dreams of Jake again as an alabaster saint with a nail driven through his forehead.
What Constant Reader learns: This is a short little section that’s probably leading up to something awful. Jake is leading Roland to the man in black in more than just a psychic way — he literally goes ahead of him into small crevices Roland wouldn’t fit into and throws back the rope. I just realized that even though we have learned Roland’s name, Stephen King does not call him by that name, only calling him “the gunslinger.” Roland refers to himself by name a few times. Not that this has any significance, except to reinforce that Roland is more than just a man — he’s trained to the gun and maybe a symbol of a way of life. Just sayin’.
The Oracle and the Mountains: Section X
A week has passed since Jake saw the footprint in the last section, and finally they see the man in black, at least briefly — although, to Roland, the moment seemed to last forever and Roland “felt he could almost understand the implication of the Tower itself.” They head toward the mountain’s zenith, a great granite face of rock, and Jake stops suddenly at a stream zigzagging through a canyon. The boy’s face grows pale and frightened, and he begs Roland to go back. “No,” Roland says, and Jake looks at him in wonderment — “You’re going to kill me,” he tells the gunslinger. “He killed me the first time and you’re going to kill me this time. And I think you know it.” Roland lies and tells the boy he’ll be all right. Resigned, Jake reaches for Roland’s hand, and they go around the bend in the stream where they come face to face with the man in black atop the big wall of granite, wearing his hooded robe and holding a staff. Without thinking, Roland pulls his pistols and fires — and misses.
The man in black is his old jolly self, welcoming Roland and making fun of his attempts to find answers with bullets. Roland tells him to come down to where he and Jake are. “It’s not your bullets I fear, Roland. It’s your idea of answers that scares me.” He says they’ll speak on the other side of the mountains, where “we will hold much council and long palaver.” He looks at Jake and continues, “Just the two of us.” Then the man in black disappears in a cleft in the rock. Jake knows his death (well, his second death) is coming soon.
Roland gives Jake the option of staying behind or going with him, following the man in black. Jake insists he could make it on his own, and that someone would find and save him — someone with cake and sandwiches and coffee in a Thermos. Stay or go, Roland tells him again. And they both follow the man in black into the mountains.
What Constant Reader learns: Oh Jake, Jake, Jake. Run, boy! Take Roland’s gun and shoot him with it. But of course, he doesn’t. He “flinches away with a small, whining cry.” And Roland looks down on him and see’s Allie’s face, not the first time we’ve seen regret at some of the deeds he’s felt forced to do. He feels “a great and unholy thirst in some deep unknown pit of his body” — maybe a thirst for the man he might have been had not his sense of predestiny interfered?
Roland seems to know he’s about to cross an irrevocable line in this situation with Jake. He looks up, “letting the cloudy, unsettled daylight shine for the last time on the all-too-vulnerable sun of his own righteousness.” He likens himself to Judas—“no one ever really pays for betrayal in silver. The price of any betrayal always comes due in flesh.”
And then Roland mentally takes that last step across the line. He impassively tells Jake to stay or go, and in his mind Jake stops being an individual Roland loves and once again becomes a chess piece in the game, much as a soldier has to divorce himself from the humanity of his opponent in order to kill without regret.
We have another use of the number three, as Roland fires three times at the man in black before he gets control of his hands. Again, we have him thinking of his hands as separate entities. There’s also an enigmatic reference to the past: “Twelve years after his last glimpse, Roland had seen him close-up again.”
So, what happened between Roland and the man in black twelve years ago? It’s a specific chunk of time in a story that, to date, has been very vague about passing time once it gets beyond a week or two.
That’s it for this week! Next week—same time, same place—we’ll pick up with the first six sections of The Gunslinger’s fourth chapter, titled “The Slow Mutants.”