Book #14: The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger.
First published June 10, 1982
The opening line of what stretched to be seven volumes in The Dark Tower series is one that is still a favourite of all Stephen King fans. That one simple line opens up “The Gunslinger” and sends us on an adventure that none of us, probably including the author, knew how far it was going to take us.
There are two versions of this book, much like there are two versions of “The Stand” – the originally published story, and then an updated and slightly padded version that came out in 2003 before the final three works in the series were released. As King himself says, the original story was written without the complete fabric of what was to come had taken shape, and in places it is cobwebby and lacking in ‘authenticity’ in regards to the story that had come after it. As a result, King went back and changed a few things, as well as adding in fresh material that allowed it to tie in better with the story that was yet to come, and in this instance it most definitely improves the story and makes it much more readable. I know that when I first read “The Gunslinger” it was that original manuscript, and while I felt it was okay, it didn’t hold my interest as well. That had as much to do with me not really understanding what the story was about, and how I was supposed to accept it. I knew there were books to follow (only two others at the time I first read this), but I had a difficult time getting through it, or buying in to the characters. I’m pretty sure I left Roland out there in the desert the first time I picked this up, thinking that I would return to his story sometime when I had nothing else to read.
When King announced that he was going to finish The Dark Tower series in a rush in those opening years of the 2000’s, I knew I had to get back to the wheel and get reading, and be sure I was ready for what was coming. It was at this time that I found the updated revised edition of “The Gunslinger”, and this time it sang to me, and I found the journey very easy indeed. In fact, I was hooked. Was it because it was updated, or just because I was now ready to embark on the journey? I don’t know. Probably more the second than the first.
The passage of time is the one thing in this book that is difficult to comprehend. Given that we are led to believe Roland has been chasing the Man in Black for a lengthy period of time, and we are often told that “time has softened” and “the world had moved on”, everything is relative. We have no real idea how old Roland is, or how long ago the events he recalls from Gilead have taken place, or how long it has been since Gilead’s fall. Obviously this is part of the story, to be vague about how much time has passed between any of the events of the past. It can still be frustrating despite that.
The back and forwards nature of the story is necessary to ensure the reader gets to know Roland – past and present – before we reach the climax of the story. The town of Tull, where the Man in Black lays his trap for Roland and who only survives by his natural talents. The discovery of the Way Station in the middle of the desert, where the Man in Black lays his next trap by the drawing of Jake Chambers from his own world into Roland’s world. The meeting of the Oracle at the foot of the mountains, and the information which Roland is able to glean about what he must do in the future, and the future of Jake in his travels. The journey through the mountain, in the dark, and the meeting of the Slow Mutants within. The story told within Roland’s memory and outwardly to Jake about his ‘coming of age’ and his besting of Cort with his choice of weapon, his hawk David. All of it is documented in order that we get to know parts of this mysterious Gunslinger who seems timeless, and who is on what is surely an obsessive quest for the fabled Dark Tower.
Even with everything that has gone before, it is still a shock when Roland finally comes to the choice he has known was coming – sacrifice the life of Jake in order to catch up with the Man in Black, or rescind his quest to save the boy – that he does indeed allow Jake to fall to his death in order for him to sell his soul to catch his tormentor. It is perhaps the most telling moment of Roland’s psyche in the whole book, one that gives you a whole new perspective on his obsession. He knew he had to make this sacrifice to get to the next level of his journey, and he did it with almost no outward remorse. Even at this point the reader has to wonder what this would lead to in the future, and whether Roland would eventually be held to account for his actions.
The final palaver between the Man in Black (or Marten Broadcloak or Walter o’Dim… whichever name you want to use) and Roland probably leaves a lot to be desired. Though the Crimson King is touched upon, and it is revealed that the Man in Black is more or less just a messenger, with not as much information as he would like to have himself, the prophecies of the Oracle more or less line up with what he says here, and gives us an indication of what lies ahead in the immediate future for Roland, however his is meant to achieve it. When he awakens from his slumber he is older, and his adversary is gone, with only a skeleton remaining. Neither Roland nor the reader is fooled into believing he won’t be seen again somewhere down the track.
“The Gunslinger” is not a pleasant tale, filled as it is with multiple deaths, all more or less at Roland’s hands, some necessary and some perhaps avoidable. It introduces us to Roland as the last knight in a dying world, on his final quest to find the Dark Tower and climb its stairs to the top. For what purpose? Alas for the moment we are not aware. It is but the start of the tale, and leaves more questions than it actually answers. And while I enjoy the book, it is what follows that brings the excitement into the story. But it was five years before the tale was resumed in “The Drawing of the Three”.
Rating: T'is but the start of a long and fantastic adventure. 4/5