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At the end of The Gunslinger, Stephen King notes that he was inspired to write the now-famous novel when he read Robert Browning's poem "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came." King reflects that he wanted to try to write a long romantic novel "embodying the feel, if not the exact sense" of the poem. He further admits that when he wrote the book, he really had no idea where he was going with it:

The best of my stuff has come more from the heart than from the head . . . or from the gut, which is the place from which the strongest emotional writing originates. (313)

King's novel is an experiment in exploring a gut sensation; it launches from an essential feeling (as many horror novels do), rather than extrapolating from the realm of cognitive ideas. This is appropriate on many levels, because Browning said the same thing about his original poem:

Childe Roland came upon me as a kind of dream. I had to write it, then and there, and I finished it the same day, I believe. But it was simply that I had to do it. I did not know then what I meant beyond that, and I'm sure I don't know now. But I am very fond of it. [1]

The Gunslinger is therefore a dream based on a dream; that's why it's both difficult to approach (from a critical standpoint) and powerful in its implications.

Browning's original poem is about a lone knight, the last of his order, who has been seeking the Dark Tower across a timeless and shifting landscape. A deceptive man with a staff tells him a lie that becomes the truth. He faces a journey across an unstable dream-world that changes unexpectedly, where nothing is solid—nothing, that is, except for the knight and his determination to reach the Dark Tower.

King's novel follows the same formula, except that the knight has become a cowboy gunslinger. Instead of being a dark romantic poem, the novel is a dark romantic Western. If a film like Unforgiven can be considered to mark the end of the traditional Western genre, a representative moment where the underlying themes of the Western are torn apart and many of its negative core ideals (including misogyny, racism, and violence) are exposed once and for all, then The Gunslinger is a Western that comes after the death of Westerns (a post-Western?); it exemplifies what happens when the Western continues, across the irrational landscape of dreams and emotional investments, long after the high ideals of the traditional Western have faded. [2]

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What unites "Childe Roland" and The Gunslinger? What experience lies at the core of Browning's dream that makes it so attractive for Stephen King? Why can this poem be translated into a Western so effortlessly?

My argument is that both Browning's original poem and King's novel are structured around a feeling of anxious meaninglessness coupled with a haunting sense that there is an ultimate unseen truth that is always one step away from revelation.

Let's break that down a bit, shall we?


The feeling that is central to both "Childe Roland" and The Gunslinger is a feeling that things are falling apart; it is a sense of utter meaninglessness coupled with an anxiety that nothing is stable or reliable.

In Browning's poem, the landscape itself shifts in a disorienting manner, and Childe Roland can only keep his bearing because of his relentless determination to seek the Dark Tower. In King's novel, we find a similar postapocalyptic world of waste, leftovers, and meaninglessness. "The world had moved on" (11-12). None of the characters that we meet, except for Roland and the man in black (and perhaps the dweller in the desert), have any purpose or reason to live. The characters the Gunslinger meets in the town of Tull are all empty people, people who are waiting for something, or people (like the weed-eater Nort) who are losing themselves in the ecstatic oblivion of drug addiction to escape the meaninglessness of their lives. Other people, like the stablekeeper, can find other perversions, like incest, to give them the escapes they crave.

Allie the barmaid tries to cling to Roland in order to escape this meaninglessness and senselessness. He seems to offer her something that she desperately needs, and this ache goes deeper than mere sexual frustration. King articulates her need perfectly when Allie watches the townspeople dancing around the burning corn in the middle of the street:

Allie watched them and felt a pang of fleeting despair for the sad times of the world. Things had stretched apart. There was no glue at the center of things anymore. (55)

This passage captures a feeling of absence and a sense of overwhelming meaninglessness. Nothing matters, nothing is sacred, nothing holds things together. The world has fallen into endless, irrevocable entropic decline, spiraling towards nothingness. Yet in the middle of this sinking void, there is one thing that continues to hold meaning, to remain hard, and stable, and real:

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed. (1)

In the middle of an empty landscape filled with empty people, the Gunslinger has a purpose. He has direction. He is the last of his kind (the last knight, the last of the Mohicans, the last gunslinger), and his mission gives him substance and holds his narrative world together. He is the glue at the center of things.

The irony of all this, of course, is that the mission that holds everything together is the emotionally charged absence at the center of a dream.

Browning had no idea what the Dark Tower was supposed to mean—it came to him in a dream, filled with emotional power, and he wrote it. It was the same with Stephen King; he knew that the Dark Tower meant something, and he wrote about it. And so it is with Roland—he has no idea what the Dark Tower is, or what it means, he simply knows that he must reach it.

What an amazing accomplishment of dream work!

What does the Dark Tower represent? It represents the ultimate absence of meaning that is located where the end goal or purpose for the hero once stood. It is a dream construct, an irrational feeling of complete meaningfulness located in the void where real meanings used to stand.

What does the Tower stand for? It stands for the emptiness where a real objective (a real heroic goal) once stood. It stands for ruin. This is what gives it such tremendous gothic power. Browning was a kind of romantic, but his romanticism was based on a nostalgia—there were no knights in his world, no great epic quests to offer meaning for the lives of men (and yes, we are talking about men). Yet in his dreams, the need for such an ultimate goal, for the end to an epic quest, still burned brightly. It was the same for Melville, when he wrote about Ahab's quest to seek the great white whale. But when we come to Stephen King, we're seeing more than just a nostalgia for chivalry or a quest for hidden truth. We're seeing a nostalgia for the Western, and for everything the Western once stood for, even if rationally we know that what the Western stood for wasn't really all that great in the first place.

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In a recent class I taught, my students watched the Western grow from its early origins into a solid and repetitive genre, embodied in such texts as Deadwood Dick and The Virginian. The Western was a particular way of looking at the world. It was a way of understanding American experiences of Westward expansion.

But when we look closer, we can see that this experience that we call "the Western" has always been incomplete. Caroline Kirkland shows us that women's experiences in the West were very different than the images we see in the dime novel. Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo and Zitkala Sa similarly show us, in their firsthand accounts, that the kind of Western we see in The Virginian erases the painful experiences of Mexicans and Native Americans who occupied the West before white settlement. Sui Sin Far's narrative exposes the fact that not all explorers who traveled into the West had equal access to the freedom and opportunity we associate with this bountiful landscape. In Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony and Ishmael Reed's Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, we see deliberate attempts to recover Native American and African-American experiences that have been "lost" in the sterile, white stories that we are accustomed to hearing in relation to the West.

Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven tries to acknowledge these problems, and for that reason it has been called the "last Western," the Western that exposes the misogyny, racism, and senseless violence of early Westerns. In many ways, Unforgiven should have been the Western's grand finale, the moment when white mainstream culture acknowledged that the way we have understood the West has been incomplete, and that the stories we have been telling about the West have shaped our lives and our perceptions in negative ways.

Yet, as Stephen King shows us, the Western does not end with Unforgiven.

King's Gunslinger is a Western in a post-Western era. King couldn't write a Western with the same tired tropes we see in Deadwood Dick and The Virginian, because in the modern world we have (hopefully) come to realize that these old genre Westerns were filled with problems (racism, sexism, class elitism, the list goes on and on). Yet as a culture we still have a form of nostalgia for this kind of Western that burns within us, just as Browning had a burning nostalgia for the age of chivalry.

The Western may have been dismantled by our understanding of its problems, but the desire for "something" we value about the Western still remains. The Dark Tower (at least in the first novel of the series) is powerful because it represents the empty space where the meaning of the Western once stood.

What is it exactly that has been lost with the dismantling of the Western? What is it that we, as a culture, long for so deeply that it calls to King like a siren in his dreams?

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One way to approach the study of Westerns is to assume that they reflect people's experiences in relation to the actual geographical landscape of the West. Jane Tompkins, however, has an alternative thesis. In her book West of Everything she says:

The Western doesn't have anything to do with the West as such. It isn't about the encounter between civilization and the frontier. It's about men's fear of losing their mastery, and hence their identity, both of which the Western tirelessly reinvents. (45)

The genre Western (represented by books like Deadwood Dick and The Virginian, and in films like Stagecoach) has always been as much about defining what it is to be a man as it has been about defining experiences of the West. Masculinity and the mainstream myth of the West are firmly linked in certain imaginative areas of American culture.

To consider this, let's look at Owen Wister's classic novel The Virginian for a moment in comparison to The Gunslinger.

At the end of The Virginian, the hero must decide between staying in town to have a shootout with his archenemy or leaving to be with his fiancée (whom he is supposed to marry the next day). Everyone tells him he should run, and that his life is worth more than getting killed just because some "varmint" is scandalizing his name. The Virginian, however, says that this whole issue is about more than just his life:

Yes; I have given [my life] to her. But my life's not the whole of me. I'd give her twice my life—fifty—a thousand of 'em. But I can't give her—her nor anybody in heaven or earth—my—we'll never get at it, seh! (384)

The Virginian has pledged his life to Molly, but there is something else that he's not willing to give up for her, and this is at the core of the fight that he cannot run from at the end of the book. But what is it? What won't he give her (or anyone else on heaven and earth), and why can't he speak this out loud?

The Virginian is willing to give up his own life, to die in the gunfight with Trampas, to preserve the integrity of something that goes without saying, something that would become less sacred and real the moment it is spoken aloud. When Molly presses him about this, he says that the fight is about his reputation: "What men say about my nature is not just merely an outside thing. For the fact that I let 'em keep on sayin' it is proof that I don't value my nature enough to shield it from their slander and give them their punishment" (387).

I'm suspicious of this answer, and I think it cleverly shifts the terms of the conflict away from what is really threatened here: the Virginian's masculinity. The fact of the matter is that what will really harm the Virginian's reputation is that people might see that he has chosen domesticity—life with a woman—rather than defend his threatened manhood. This is similar to the situation the Gunslinger finds himself in when he is almost "trapped" in the town of Tull; he spends a short time with Allie, living with her, fulfilling her sexual needs; he begins to grow comfortable, and his own comfort disturbs him:

He felt a growing (but strangely absent-minded) affection for her and thought this might be the trap the man in black had left behind. He read dry and tattered back issues of magazines with faded pictures. He thought very little about everything. He didn't hear the little piano player come up—his reflexes had sunk. That didn't seem to matter either, although it would have in a different time and place. Allie was naked, the sheet below her breasts, and they were preparing to make love. (62)

Distracted by sexual pleasures and domestic comfort, the Gunslinger begins to lose his sense of purpose, his forward drive, his mission. His thinking and his reflexes grow slower, and things that would normally be important (like a man sneaking up the stairs to try to kill him, and the fact that he is losing his supernatural skills) don't seem to matter to him. Domesticity threatens to turn him into an empty husk, a being only living for sensation, just like all the other empty people in the town of Tull.

The Gunslinger's life is not the whole of him, but his manhood is—a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, and therefore the Gunslinger must track down the man in black and find his way to the Dark Tower, just as the Virginian has to shoot and kill Trampas or die in the attempt. Why? Because each of these men's manhood would come into question if he didn't, and the unspoken anchor of his masculinity would become a public spectacle, with people arguing about it in the streets and contesting his virtues as a man.

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The difference is that The Virginian can pretend that he is fighting for something ideal—his reputation—but Roland is simply fighting for a distant, unrevealed illusion that neither he nor his author knows anything about: the Dark Tower.

If the Western is a dead genre, and the Western was the theatre where American models of masculinity were performed, then where can men in the modern day find something to fill the void, the absence left in the dust of this genre?

King suggests that a solution to this meaninglessness can be found in a nostalgic, romantic quest for the absence at the center of our desire for this meaning. This absence, this breakdown of meaning in the genre Western, the void left behind where the Western once stood, becomes the Dark Tower, a mysterious and unrevealed center of power that Roland quests for with unrelenting determination and an absolute absence of any moral or ethical value.

Roland does not seek the Dark Tower because it is the right thing to do. He seeks it because the Tower is the only thing that makes him real. And he is willing to sacrifice anyone—from a town full of people to an innocent boy—in order to continue his quest.

If this were the total substance of the novel, it would be a bleak picture indeed. Such a message would reduce the book to little more than a nostalgic dream of masculine wish-fulfillment for an era when "men could just be men" without having to worry about pesky details like treating women (or Mexicans, or Indians, or whomever else) like human beings. In short, it would represent a failure to grow up and learn the important lessons about the West offered by artists like Leslie Marmon Silko and Ishmael Reed.

But in the very end of the novel, Stephen King does something remarkable. He associates the Dark Tower not only with the end goal of Roland's quest in the Browning poem, but also with the Tarot symbolism of the Tower.

This is a brilliant move, because in Tarot symbolism, the Tower can represent a set of accumulated values (in this case the values of the traditional genre Western) that are crumbling because the values themselves are somehow flawed. The Tower represents destruction—a collapse of meanings and certainties. But in Tarot, this is a collapse of old values that can lead to a new beginning: something old and flawed must topple before something new and better can be reborn. What will Roland reach when he discovers the Dark Tower? King hints that Roland may never find out, and that he may die in his quest for the tower. He doesn't offer us an answer to this riddle in the beginning of the series, but by invoking the Tarot symbolism of the Tower, he at least acknowledges that the Western values Roland is questing for are flawed ones, and he offers hope that the series as a whole will grow beyond the limitations of its historical and thematic origins.


Works Cited

King, Stephen. The Gunslinger. New York: Signet Books, 1989. (Originally serialized in 1978-1981, first published in 1982.)

Tompkins, Jane. West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Wister, Owen. The Virginian. New York: Pocket Books, 2002. (Originally published in 1902.)


Footnotes

[1] Quoted in "The maze and pilgrimage of poetic creation in Browning's 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came'," by Jean-Charles Perquin.

[2] Time-sensitive readers will note that The Gunslinger (collected in 1982) was published before the release of Unforgiven (1992). How, then, can I suggest that The Gunslinger represents an era that comes after a film that is a decade younger? In truth, it is more accurate to say that both the film and the novel are responses to the shortcomings of the traditional "genre" Western—filmmakers like Sam Peckinpah had been dismantling the earlier "John Ford"-style Westerns since the late 1960s and early 1970s. It seems to me that Unforgiven suggests "the end of the Western as we know it" because it reverses and challenges the stereotypes that are most familiar within the genre. Even though it was first published a decade earlier, King's novel seems to be an "undead" successor because it celebrates many of the old familiar Western tropes while at the same time dressing them in a horrid gothic costume which reveals their essential ugliness. Unforgiven does not literally "lead" to The Gunslinger; the book and the film are different responses to the same "breakdown" in the coherence of the traditional Western genre. I take a deliberate—and I feel justifiable—poetic license with this chronology in order to suggest that if Unforgiven represents the "end" of the genre, King's Dark Tower books thematically represent something that comes after the end (a corpse that shambles, yet still lives).




David Higgins is a PhD graduate student working on a combined doctorate in American Literature and American Studies at Indiana University. He specializes in post-1945 American literature with an emphasis in speculative fiction.
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