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 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 four sections of “The Slow Mutants,” the fourth mega-chapter of The Gunslinger.
The Slow Mutants: Section I
After their brief encounter with the Man in Black, and his ominous words to Jake that let us know the boy’s time is almost over, Roland and Jake climb into the steepest part of the mountains. Roland notes that Jake doesn’t have much to say (well, jeez, Ro — he knows he’s about to die yet again) but the gunslinger feels the need to talk. He begins to tell the boy about his youth.
He and Alain and Cuthbert had sneaked into the Sowing Night Cotillion, or the Commala, a sort of festival to celebrate the rice harvest. It was held in the Hall of Grandfathers. The boys, who are about eleven, hide in an old balcony that’s been roped off because it’s unsafe, and they look down on the festivities. Gunslingers and their women sit at a table eating food from four rotating circular tables; some of the younger ones danced.
Roland watches as Marten, who is sitting next to his mother, takes her to the dance floor. They dance, and then Ro’s father takes her hand as she returns to the table. And while it all looks pretty on the surface, Roland watches the way Marten and his mother dance, and it’s clear from his tone as he tells the story that there is more than a dance going on.
Jake’s only response to this story is to say he’s tired, and he pretends to go to sleep. Roland’s recognition of his father’s cuckoldry remains a bitter memory for him, and he reflects that he wishes he’d never seen it, or remembered that memory of light in a land “that even then stood hopeless against the gray ocean of time.” He reflects that life is a circle, and we go round and round it, only to end up at the beginning again. Hm. This seems like a time-related observation worth remembering.
What Constant Reader Learns: Roland’s a little annoyed that Jake doesn’t seem interested in his story but, hey, what does he expect? Yet he seems to need to tell it. Maybe he thinks he won’t get a sympathetic ear again for a while (ya think?).
Interesting to read Roland’s reflections on the era when the Cotillion was held in his youth — he realizes that romance had died and in its place there was already a “carnal revenant” of going through the motions, “hollow grandeur in place of true passions.” He’s scornful that the people, even those of his time, took something grand and made a mockery of it. Of course, he’s also reeling at the realization that mom is bonking the “counselor” Marten under dad’s nose.
In the blend of old and new that’s so mind-boggling I enjoy it, there are electric chandeliers in the great hall, but the building’s in decay.
We learn a bit about Roland’s parents. His father Steven has taken control of his “ka-tet — the Tet of the Gun.” So that’s like a company of men or a military unit maybe? Soldiers in arms? Blood brothers? Something like that. And he is on the verge of becoming “Dinh of Gilead, if not all In-World.” Ro describes him as “the last lord of light.” So dad’s some hot stuff. We learn that mom, she of the red lips, is Gabrielle-of-the-Waters, daughter of Alan, wife of Steven, mother of Roland. A very biblical genealogy. Of course, just when it seems pretty clear that Marten’s doing the horizontal with Ro’s mom, Roland says in his reminiscence: “What hand could have held the knife that did my father to his death?” And we know nothing more, because Jake’s only response is “I’m tired.” In other words, shut up, old man.
Okay. In one of those rambling self-convos Roland is prone to, he speaks of the Eld, a king whose blood still flows in his veins, although “the kings are done in the world of light.” In an earlier chapter, Roland spoke of King Arthur as “Arthur Eld.” Does this mean Roland is the last descendant of King Arthur? Am I off my rocker? I can’t decide if I’m really smart or a bloody idiot. Probably the latter. Just sayin’.
This section ends on a heartbreaker, as Roland goes to sleep and Jake opens his eyes and looks at the gunslinger “with an expression of sickness and love.” Man. Going off to sob now.
The Slow Mutants: Section II
In the dark pass under the mountains, Roland has lost sense of time (what a shocker). Their days become robotic, driven only by the upward-moving path and the thunder of water. As they follow it, Ro and Jake occasionally come upon stone pylons where oxen or stagecoach horses might have been tethered at one time. During their third day/stop/rest, Jake wanders off and finds a railway track.
Roland is perplexed by it, as it seems tied to electricity. He imagines an electric bullet shooting through the night, taking people God only knows where — but he’d never heard of such a thing. He recognizes there are many things from the past he has come across, like a hermit who’d become a kind of priest over a miserable “flock of kine-keepers” because he possessed their “god,” an Amoco gas pump. (Oh, Stephen King, could you foresee the God of Big Oil even back in the day?)
Nonetheless, Roland says, they’ll follow the track. As usual these days, Jake says nothing.
Four days into their journey through the mountain (or so it seems) they stumble on a handcar. Once Jake shows him how it works, Roland has mixed feelings about it. On the good side, it will speed up their journey to the Man in Black. On the bad side, it will speed up their journey to the Man in Black.
What Constant Reader Learns: What Roland recognizes and what he doesn’t remains fascinating. He knows electricity and gas pumps, but not an electric train. Nor does he have a clue what a handcar is or how to use it — Jake has to show him (thus fulfilling his prophecy of leading Roland to the Man in Black, I guess).
In a bizarre, King-esque twist, the handcar has a mechanized voice that praises them when they push down or pull up on the handcar lever. Roland’s kind of thrilled with it, too — although he hopes the voice doesn’t last too long because it’s kind of annoying. “Other than the pump at the way station, this was the first machine he’d seen in years that still worked well.”
As they get going, Roland has a mental image of the Great Hall a year after the Sowing Night Cotillion — “by then it had been nothing but shattered shards in the wake of revolt, civil strife, and invasion.” Then he thinks of Allie, killed for no reason, and Cuthbert, “laughing as he went downhill to his death, and — finally — Susan’s face, made ugly with weeping. Once he kills Jake, who’s Ro going to reminisce with about all those deaths?
The Slow Mutants: Section III
Roland and Jake continue to roll on through the dark tunnel through the mountain, picking up speed. The mechanical voice on the handcar urges them to eat Crisp-A-La and Larchies, and then falls silent. Roland estimates they’re traveling at from ten to fifteen miles per hour.
“One sleep-period not long before they were attacked by the Slow Mutants” (oh boy), Jake asks Roland about his coming of age — something we know Jake won’t have. “I always wondered about growing up,” Jake says. “I bet it’s mostly lies.” He wants to hear about when Roland fought his teacher, Cort, but Roland rambles around a while before realizing he’s avoiding the story.
“It was necessary to prove oneself in battle,” he finally begins.
What Constant Reader Learns: Well, miles-per-hour is a very American way of measuring speed, so maybe this is indeed in an altered or parallel reality of the U.S.?
Both Jake and Roland are nervous about what’s to come — Roland compares it to being a performer going onstage, waiting for the curtain to rise and hearing the audience rattling programs and settling in their seats. This isn’t the first time he’s compared his coming showdown with the Man in Black to a play, and his part in it a role he didn’t want.
Oh, boy, we’re gonna see some Slow Mutants! But not before Roland rattles on about an invisible man he hanged for rape, and what that has to do with muties and coming of age, I haven’t a clue. And then two years after he hanged the man he left a girl in a place called King’s Town, although he didn’t want to. Jake scoffs at that. “Sure you did,” he said. “Got to catch up with that Tower.” Smart kid. Roland’s kind of embarrassed.
So, Jake wants to hear about how Roland fought Cort, which makes me wonder if the boy is going to make a stab at fighting Roland for his own chance at manhood? Somehow, I don’t think that’s going to work.
The Slow Mutants: Section IV
Roland begins the memory of his coming-of-age. It was summer and “Full Earth” had come to Gilead, turning the fields white and sterile. To the west “near the borders that were the end of the civilized word,” fighting had begun. People and animals alike went through the motions of living, but there was an apathy beneath. The center had frayed, and the “thread that held the last jewel at the breast of the world was unraveling. The earth drew in its breath in the summer of the coming eclipse.”
Roland’s wandering around and is passing his mother’s apartment when a voice calls him from inside. It’s Marten, “the counselor.” Roland is upset at the way Marten looks — he’s tousled and his shirt is unbuttoned and looks like he just rolled out of bed. He tells Ro his mother wants to see him. Roland both fears and hates Marten.
Mom is sitting in the parlor dressed in a “loose, informal gown that kept slipping from one white shoulder, and just to rub salt in the wound, Marten comes in and rests a hand on her neck.” She only makes eye contact with Roland briefly and asks if he is well, how his studies are going, and how David the hawk is. “Past his prime,” Ro says, looking at Marten. The “counselor” parries by pointing to a bruise on Roland’s head and asking if he’s going to be a fighter like his father or if he’s just slow. “Both,” Roland answers.
When Marten dismisses him, Roland finally snaps and calls Marten a bondsman. His mother gasps, and Roland pushes it further. “Will you give me a sign of fealty, bondsman?” he asks. “In the name of my father whom you serve?” Shocked, Marten recognizes the challenge, and tells Roland to “go and find your hand.” Roland hears his mother’s wail as he leaves and, in a classic Stephen King moment, Marten tells her to “shut her quack” and hits her. Roland smiles as he goes to his test.
What Constant Reader Learns: So, now we have what sounds like some kind of environmental catastrophe that’s hitting “Full Earth.” Global warming? Something. Had global warming even been invented when this book was written? Did an environmental catastrophe in Full Earth set off the unraveling of the center, or did the unraveling of the center set off the catastrophe? I’m wondering if this bit was in the original version or was added to the revised version.
Three years have passed since Hax the cook was hanged, and Roland has gotten taller and filled out. At fourteen, he looks like he will as an adult: “lean and lank and quick on his feet.” He’s still a virgin but he’s getting interested in some of the “slatterns” about town. Obviously, he’s still stewing about his mother’s ongoing affair with Marten, which they don’t seem too bent on keeping a secret.
Ro doesn’t see his mother much anymore and, while it doesn’t say so, I wonder if it’s because of what he saw at the Cotillion—seeing her dance with Marten and knowing, at least on some level, that she’s having an affair. He throws a lot of anger at Marten, but how much does he feel toward his mother? It’s still unclear whether mom is with Marten by choice, or if she is compelled to be there by some power Marten has over her.
We have another narrator intrusion to remind us Ro’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer: “They (mom and Marten) both knew he was not flashingly intelligent like Cuthbert, or even quick like Jamie. He was a plodder and a bludgeoner.”
Interesting that mom asks about David the hawk. And interesting that Ro looks at Marten when he answers, “Past his prime.” Both mom and Marten don’t react well to this answer, and Roland realizes this whole scene is a charade. When he snaps, he threatens Marten not with guns but with the thing that seems to enrage the man (is he a man?) most — he attacks him with the class system. They both know that Roland’s station in life is higher than Marten’s.
So, seems to me, Roland is going to take on Cort in order to attain his station as a gunslinger and avenge his father’s humiliation. And Marten’s pushing him to take on Cort maybe a lot earlier than he normally might, figuring Ro’s going to be unprepared (being slow and not too bright) and die.
That’s it for this week! Next week—same time, same place—we’ll pick up with the next four sections of The Gunslinger’s fourth chapter, titled “The Slow Mutants.”