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 so my Dark Tower-virgin ears won’t hear anything before I read it.
When we last saw Roland, Jake had asked him to share the story of his coming of age (since poor Jake won’t have one of his own). In today’s entry, I’ll cover the next four sections of “The Slow Mutants,” the fourth mega-chapter of The Gunslinger.
The Slow Mutants: Section V
When we last left Roland in the retelling of his coming-of-age to Jake, he has called out Marten and is headed to find Cort so he can take the “test” of his manhood. He runs into Jamie, who knows him well enough to realize what Roland is about to do and is torn between staying with Ro and running to find the other boys. He finally goes in search of Alain, Cuthbert, and Thomas. They have all known “intuitively” that Roland would be the first of them to “try the line,” but believe it is too soon.
Since he left Marten, Roland has worn a “hideous grin” (which brings to mind the same grin Cuthbert wore on his face the time he butted heads with Cort during training). Roland walks to Cort’s cottage, where the old guy’s taking a siesta, and kicks in the door. Cort lives in very modest surroundings, we learn, “the faded refuge of a violent midnight carouser who had loved the boys of three generations roughly, and made some of them into gunslingers.”
Cort shambles from the back, but Ro knows he’s only pretending to be half asleep. Roland and Cort insult each other in the High Speech. Cort might not believe Roland’s words, but he recognizes the “hideous, painful smile.” (Where can I get one of those smiles? I have people I want to scare.) Cort tries to talk Roland out of it, reminding him that losing means either death or exile, but Ro isn’t budging. Finally, Cort tells him to come back in an hour and they’ll square off with Roland’s choice of weapon.
What Constant Reader Learns:Well, obviously, it’s no surprise that Roland’s first among the boys in his “class” to try the line, and even though we are told again and again that Roland’s too young, we know he’ll prevail because this is his story, after all. But Cort still tries to talk him out of it, which prompts Ro to calls Cort a “bondsman,” which is apparently like calling someone from my home state of Alabama a redneck. In other words, it might well be true, but we don’t much like it.
It’s kind of a sweet scene—well, before it gets all bloody—as we see that in his own crude way Cort really cares about Roland. “It will be sad to see you broken and set upon a blind path,” he tells him, and just in case we missed the memo, adds, “But the world has moved on.” He refers to “revolt and witchcraft” to the west, but then kneels and says, “I recognize your command and bow to it now—if never again—with all my heart.’ Ro answers: “Rise, bondsman. In love.” Aww….
Well, that won’t last.
The Slow Mutants: Section VI
Roland heads to the cellar, where he keeps the aging David, and even their relationship is telling: “You cannot friend a hawk…unless you are half a hawk yourself, alone and only a sojourner in the land, without friends or the need of them. The hawk pays no coinage to love or morals.” And that’s a pretty good summary of the gunslinger we meet in the Mohaine Desert. Still, he’s gentle with the bird as he hoods him and tells David that he’s about to die (David, not Roland).
What Constant Reader Learns: This short section provides a poignant parallel between David and Jake, to whom Roland is telling this story. I’m not sure yet what Roland has planned, but clearly David—who he loves—is going to be a sacrifice for what Roland sees as his fate and his duty, much as is Jake.
The Slow Mutants: Section VII
The coming-of-age ritual takes place in a long, rectangular space 50 yards long, with a patch of bare dirt in the middle that serves “the line.” Boys who pass their test exit the east end as men, “facing all the civilization and intrigue of the lighted world,” while boys who fail but remain alive limp out the west end, which “faced the farms and, beyond that, the tangled barbarian forests; beyond that, Garlan; and beyond Garlan, the Mohaine Desert.” Sort of a map of the journey Roland will take in the future?
Roland wonders if his mother and Marten have heard yet, and he reflects that his father, who’s away on a hunt, would understand and maybe approve of what he’s doing. (I’m thinking Dad would want to kick Ro’s 14-year-old butt and be responsible for avenging his own cuckoldry but, hey, it’s Roland’s story.)
Cort arrives with his ironwood stick and questions Roland according to ritual, asking if his purpose is serious and, assured it is, what Roland’s weapon is. Roland answers that his weapon is David. This confuses Cort, which is what Roland hoped, although Ro gets ticked when Cort mutters that he’s a fool. Ro also confirms that he’s there in the name of his father, Steven Deschain, of the line of Eld. (*Constant Reader is grumbling about her Eld vs “Arthur Eld” suspicions.*)
Cort realizes too late how Roland plans to use the hawk, as David draws first blood. Cort, in a manly-man gesture, beats himself in the face with his own stick in order to fend off the bird, but he’s still lost an eye to David’s talons. Roland has the upper hand until Cort reaches for him, and Roland backs up and trips over his own feet—something 14-year-old boys are prone to do, even if they are baby gunslingers.
Both Roland and Cort realize the advantage has shifted, so in desperation, Roland picks up the pecking, dying David and throws him in Cort’s face.
What Constant Reader Learns: “The line” brings up images of the Alamo and the line in the sand. The commitment to action. And I guess that’s what Roland is doing here.
I can’t help but think a bit about the biblical David, he of Goliath giant-slaying fame. David was very young when he faced Goliath—maybe fifteen or sixteen. But he had a mission, a calling, and it gave him an ability beyond his years. Sort of the situation Roland is in (well, okay, it’s a stretch but bear with me). The biblical David, of course, was, like the hawk David, used as a weapon against Israel’s enemies throughout much of his life. He had a role to play and when he strayed off course (think Bathsheba), the results were disastrous. Clearly, I’m missing my overt religious references in this section so I’m devising my own.
For the first time we see the last names of Roland’s circle of friends (ka-babbies, as Cort calls them): Jamie DeCurry, Alain Johns, Thomas Whitman, Cuthbert Allgood. Don’t know if they have any significance.
*Jumps up and down* So is the “line of eld” to which Steven and Roland belong also the line of King Arthur the Eld? Grrr. Really want to know this.
The Slow Mutants: Section VIII
David, Cort, and Roland continue to struggle on the ground. David rips off Cort’s ear with a talon, and Cort breaks the hawk’s neck. Finally, it’s just Cort and Roland, face to face above the line—only now Ro is on the east side and he has Cort’s ironwood stick, which he puts to good use. “Yield or die,” he tells Cort, to which Cort, realizing he’s done for, responds, “I yield, gunslinger.”
Roland asks for the key to his birthright—his apprentice guns. Cort seems to think Roland needs to chat, and tries to tell him to wait before trotting off to be a gunslinger—to grow up a little. But Roland’s pretty focused on avenging his father’s honor by offing Marten, so he repeats his request for the key. Finally, Cort passes into a coma and Roland gets the key off his belt. Roland slips automatically into a leadership role, and asks his friends to take Cort to his cottage and get a couple of nurses.
Roland rides into town and finds a willing woman—his first—and afterward, as he’s lying in bed, he hears people downstairs in the barroom singing a ragtime version of “Hey Jude.” (Tull flashback!) Just before he falls asleep, as Roland is thinking about how he’s the first of his little gang to make gunslinger, he also thinks, for the first time, that he also might be the last. (Cue insightful music.)
What Constant Reader Learns: Interesting reaction from Roland’s buddies. They rush around him after the fight is over, and want to clap him on the back and celebrate. But there’s an awkwardness—one that shouldn’t surprise us, our Constant Narrator tells us, because “there had always been a gulf between this one and the rest.”
So, Ro’s going to take those apprentice guns and try to shoot Marten, I’m assuming. Mom probably bites it as well, since we’ve already been told she dies at Roland’s hand.
There’s an interesting exchange between Cort and Roland that tells us much about Roland’s character. Cort asks the boy how he trained David, to which Roland replies, “I didn’t train him. I friended him.” Hm. Friend ’em and use ’em. That seems to be the pattern.
Roland has a bit of insight at the end of this section as he and Bert are testing out their new roles. Ro recognizes his friend is also thinking about trying the line, and he wants to tell him to wait a few years, until he’s ready. Then Ro realizes how arrogant he’ll sound if he says that, so he bites his tongue. “I’ve begun to scheme,” he thinks with some horror.
Finally, just to make his rite of manhood complete, Roland rides into town and finds his first woman. His first sexual experience is “quick and good” (yeah, for you, Ro, but it’s always all about 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 fourth chapter, titled “The Slow Mutants,” in which we can only assume we will finally see some slow mutants.