The Dark Tower’s Last Stand
(Stephen King and Epic Fantasy)
James D. Hahn
Part three of a three part series
We have begun to see elements of epic fantasy showing up in many different genres around the literary world. This series will take a look specifically at the elements of EF within the confines of Stephen King’s writing and his use of epic fantasy within his work.
We have looked at Randall Flagg and Roland the Gunslinger. Now let us take a look at the object of their quest, the reason and purpose that drove them on. As with Frodo and the One Ring, there is in all epic fantasy an object of the quest, something or someone, which needs to be destroyed, protected, or confronted. It is this object, no matter what form it may take, that speaks to the very nature of the quest, the reason and the why.
When, as writers, we are set upon with the idea of a story, one of the first matters we must deal with is the object of the quest, the reason, i.e. the motive which will drive and define the characters and cause them to do what they do. Only by fully understanding the object can we better understand the internal forces of our characters.
The object of these quests can take on a huge variety of forms and reasons that the quest must be attempted. The hero is sent because he has lost something or he must gain something. They are sent in the hope that the hero will die in the attempt, whatever the reason behind the need for the quest, the one thing that always stands out in the motive, the reason and the why of the quest, i.e. the object of the quest.
In The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub, we see that the talisman itself represents hundreds if not thousands of variations, one of them being a dark tower. Its changing nature shows clearly that as a part of the tower, it is perhaps the center to the strength of the tower or in the very least a key to access the tower. Here the object is the saving aspect of the quest, here also perhaps, is the object that by its removal from its place at the hub of existence causes, in some form, the greater quest which is Roland and Company. Please note: We do not even need to look at the chronological order if as stated in the DT series that the Tower is indeed beyond time.
The central aspect of both the DT series and the Talisman is this that the very nature of the world contains objects which can either heal or harm, and that these same objects must either be protected or destroyed, thus the very nature and reason for the quest. Roland saw the need for the quest while he gazed into one of the thirteen Wizard’s Rainbow, and saw the Dark Tower (it is these strange stones, some which allowed the gazer to see into the future, which were created by Maerlyn, who we now know is Randall Flagg.) If we carry this idea out to the elements of epic fantasy and with a broad canvas paint our story, we find that objects and motives are interchangeable to some large degree within the nature of Epic Fantasy.
The Tower becomes increasingly important as we examine how Stephen King went beyond simply mixing some genres together. We see the tower as pivotal in his greater work as the central point in which the struggle between Purpose and the Random, i.e. Good and Evil, turn. We see that beyond the clearly defined aspects of what is acceptable within the confines of a genre, we see that underlying scope which is part of storytelling, the struggle of good vs. evil, the rise of the warrior or the hero to meet the challenges that are laid before him due to the use or misuse of an object or even the motives behind that usage. While in no way can this statement be used in every situation, it is fundamental to the usage of the elements of the epic fantasy genre. It is from epic fantasy that many other genres either arise or borrow from. For example, “Star Wars” has sometimes been called a Western Soap Opera in space, but at its very heart is the telling of a story which is broad in scope with a clearly defined cast of heroes and villains, and an object to either control, use, or destroy, i.e. the Death Star. The journey of young Skywalker from an inexperienced boy to a learned warrior, i.e. Jedi Knight, is one of which the audience can relate and understand as being a journey of the heart as well as the mind.
Time and time again, throughout many of the ancient tomes which have been past down to us from our ancestors, it is the quest and various objects which become part of our everyday life and define to some degree how we see ourselves. Stephen King understands very well the use of objects and their shared importance to the story. King does not use an ancient knight upon a white horse as his central figure, but uses something that most Americans know and understand, an object from a period in time which has become romanticized by Hollywood and the retelling of those legends. King created the Gunslinger straight out of Americana and told it with enough strength that we easily believed, which of course is one of King’s gifts. His use of the Gunslinger as the wounded reluctant hero is a telling example of how an object can become something more to the reader then even the author can foresee. Roland is a strange mix of the ancient and the modern, a symbol of a time long past when the rest of the world has moved on. He is an arcane example of the importance of symbols in a quick, disposable world. King appears to knows this and this is his warning to us all. If we forget our past, we are doomed to repeat it. Roland begins all over again with a slight variation but his path back to the tower is one of self discovery and destiny. It is a fate that calls all of us to look deep within ourselves and see what Dark Towers await us. The object of the quest is often times, the object of what we desire most. The quest is our lives played out upon the journey to that object.
James D. Hahn
Seattle WA, 8-27-06