The Dark Tower’s Last Stand
(Stephen King and Epic Fantasy)
James D. Hahn
Part two 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 Kings’ writing and his use of epic fantasy within his work.
Roland is the last of the Gunslingers, the last hope not only for his world but for the whole of the multiverse which is tied to his quest for the Tower. Roland in the beginning was the hero, an anti-hero, or the villain of this work. Stephen King, himself has said that in the beginning that he was not sure which role Roland would play in the story. In the very first story about this unique character, he did wipe out an entire town and let his companion (Jake) fall to his second death. Not really the actions of the knight in shining armor, not typical action for the hero of the story.
Yet this was one of the main points within the Dark Tower stories that makes it
unique in the use of elements from Epic Fantasy. Within the confines of the Lord of the Rings, Frodo was a unique hero, an unlikely selection to rise up and face the greatest evil in the land. Frodo was just an everyday man, a commoner who was thrust upon the center stage in Middle Earth’s great struggle to finally escape the evil known as Sauron. None, save perhaps Gandalf, suspected the great inner strength within the race of the hobbits.
In time, Roland himself would show his great inner strength and come to love and care for his new companions even though he would once again have to make hard choices over the course of the DT series.
Roland begins as the last gunslinger, but creates companions who in time become gunslingers themselves and if he should fall in the course of his quest for the Dark Tower, they would press on to complete that quest.
Roland is a hero and an anti-hero. These labels make him much more of a
character that we can reach, understand, and either love or hate; it is what makes him one of the most vivid characters in the multitude of persons that Stephen King has created in his career.
The Gunslinger starts out with a single passage, perhaps one of the most interesting lines that King has ever written (spoiler alert); it is right and just that he use almost the same line to bring the epic to a close. The journey continues, the quest goes on, the horizon that we once thought we knew and understood, simply gave way to yet another vista, another distant horizon.
It is the object of the quest which forces Roland to go on that it is at the very center of his being, and he is forced by ‘Ka, fate, in other words. Much like Frodo and the ring he bears, the object must be destroyed or protected. This is the object of the quest and the reason that the story is being told. The hero must have a reason to rise up and to take a stand. This is one of the basic elements of epic fantasy. King does that very well in this story. He understands that nothing, friendship, loss, pain, suffering, nothing must stand in the way of the quest and Roland is a perfect example of all of this. He is not the perfect hero, he is flawed, much like Randall Flagg, it is these inherent flaws that makes us, the Constant Reader, come to understand him, relate to him, cheer for him, or dislike him as the central player in the Epic Fantasy. This is at the very heart of the story.
Roland is a perfect character because he is flawed. His manner is hardened by the past but there is always a glint of hope in him and the three that are drawn into his quest, come to understand the hardened person of the Gunslinger. They see the great love and passion that lies so deep within the cold steel shell of Roland; they understand that he does what he does not because he wants to but because he needs to. He must continue on the course that has been laid out before him because there is no other choice. If he does not, if they do not, then all will come to an end.
This brings us to the cause of the quest. For Roland and company, they understand that all things are tied to the Dark Tower and it must not fall. For Frodo and company, the ring must be destroyed or all will fall under the power of darkness. The choice is simple; it is the doing which is hard. The quest is the saga and the journey is what defines and redefines the characters, time and again.
Epic Fantasy is often thought of as a simple telling of a grand story. Epic Fantasy is really the telling of the human condition on a cosmic scale, even if the central character is not quite human. King’s ability of taking a simple scene and creating either the wonderful or horrific is due much to his understanding of the human condition and his natural storytelling ability. He does not try to work in the genre of epic fantasy, he works in the art of story telling and uses whatever devise that will tell his tale.
Roland begins and ends the saga alone, following a man in black across a barren wasteland in pursuit of a distant goal. The quest goes on. Frodo and Bilbo set sail across the Western Sea on another quest, seeking a place to rest at the end of their quests and wandering. There is a certain quality when the elements of epic fantasy are used. They bring out the noble and profane, the good and the bad, the sacrifice and the selfishness, all the parts of our human heart that we know but rarely speak about. They are close to who we believe we are as a person and as a people, and King understands this very well. Throughout the 90’s, King wrote about very human monsters. These themes, can in some degree, be found throughout most of his writings. King understands that we are both good and evil, that we all have the potential of being monsters or beings of mercy. King relates the human condition and the cosmic struggle with great ease because they are very close to one another. King and many who write in the genre of epic fantasy know that we are all on a journey of some kind, to some place other then here.
The journey for the reader ends with the last chapters of the saga but always there is that next horizon, that next dawning age will bring its own peace, its own war, its own quest. We journeyed with Frodo to the Crack of Doom; we walked with the Gunslinger on his way to the Dark Tower. We journey to work, school, home, and in our dreams. We are nomads of the heart and all have our Dark Tower, our Ring, our something which drives us onward.
Roland’s Dark Tower is about a flawed, wounded man seeking something that
will make him whole in a world that has moved on, a world not caring about those that it left behind. Roland makes his way in this strange shell of a world and because of that journey he has scars and wounds that might never heal. Roland is a pillar of strength at times and is also afraid to simply love because he knows the great price it is to love. Yet, without love or at least the hope of love, Roland knows that he could well become like Randall Flagg. Roland knows that like the quest for the Dark Tower, love is a journey of the heart and there are no easy choices in the matters of the heart.
The quest for anything is about the journey, which is a symbol for the journey
which all of us are on, this thing called life. The object of the quest is where the heart of the hero and the villain conflict and wars arise. It is the conflicts, which arises and calls all of us to pick a side and to take a stand, even if it is our final stand.
James D. Hahn
Seattle WA 8-2-06