I borrowed Bev Vincent's The Road to the Dark Tower: Exploring Stephen King's Magnum Opus from the library. It's due back Sunday, and I'm not planning to buy a copy, but I thought I would make notes from it (now completed) for things to keep in mind when I re-read the series.
There will be ULTIMATE SPOILERS for the series underneath the cut.
Page numbers are in parentheses and refer to the October 2004 trade paperback.
1. The Gunslinger
Even this book is ambivalent about the result, quest-wise, of sacrificing Jake. First, it says,
Walter tells Roland, without explaining why, that this sacrifice was necessary to allow the creation of the doorways from which he will draw his ka-tet. (41)
But then it says,
Roland is right in thinking that little of what Walter tells him is important to his quest. The oracle had already told him about the three people he will draw. Knowing the number is vital to his future survival because he and Eddie will push Odetta farther north along the beach, reasonably confident that they will find another door. Beyond the meta-physics lesson, the sum total of Walter's useful information is this: Go west. For this he sacrificed Jake? (45)
According to TheDarkTower.net's booksearch, the relevant quote is
The man in black told him again that he must go to the sea, which lay no more than twenty easy miles to the west, and there he would be invested with the power of drawing. "But that's not exactly right, either," the man in black said, pitching his cigarette into the remains of the campfire. "No one wants to invest you with a power of any kind, gunslinger; it is simply in you, and I am compelled to tell you, partly because of the sacrifice of the boy, and partly because it is the law; the natural law of things."
I think that grammatically, since "and I am compelled to tell you" is a removable clause, this is saying that the sacrifice is part of the reason that Roland has the power of drawing. Alas, I don't think there's going to be a clear answer as to whether the sacrifice was required, or whether the natural law would have sufficed.
2. The Drawing of the Three
Vincent speculates that Mia enters Susannah through a door like the ones on the beach, as the effects seem to be similar (57). (Addiction and division, the twin themes of the series.)
Vincent quotes a line that says "the rejection of brutish destiny had been the gunslinger's work all his life" (67) (talking of Roland's decision to distract Jack Mort the first time he comes through). I don't think I can adequately convey how hard my eyes rolled at that.
3. The Waste Lands
Vincent points out that Eddie's dream of the Tower includes the sound of a horn (77).
Vincent also traces Roland's decisions regarding risking bystanders and his ka-tet; I'm not going to type that all in here.
4. Wizard and Glass
Vincent quotes Roland as saying "in my world even the past is in motion, rearranging itself in many vital ways" (96).
[ No notes for book 5 ]
6. Song of Susannah
About the character of King and the van accident (155):
Kng remarked in 1994 that he knew the general layout of the rest of the series; he said in a personal communication that he had an accident in mind for his fictional counterpart, but nothing as dramatic as what would befall him five years later.
(The fictional King doesn't actually bother me, because it makes a kind of mythic sense that the Beams' existence in readers' imaginations can substitute for the magic that they sprang from. A co-worker has said that the ending didn't bother her for a reason that I think is related; she said that she couldn't bear for the story to be over, and now she doesn't have to.)
7. The Dark Tower
I'd forgotten that Roland gives his last gun to Patrick, leaving him without a symbol of Eld (186-87) (unless he's birthmarked as well? I don't recall learning that). The Crimson King is also of the line of Eld (186). One needs a symbol of Eld to enter, not just to be of the line of Eld, since the Crimson King is trapped outside the Tower because he removed the red mark from his heel, but could enter with Roland's guns (177). How, then, does Roland enter the Tower? Has he not entered the real Tower, with neither guns nor horn? If he hadn't given Patrick his last gun to protect himself, could he have won through? It's not a morally intuitive answer, to say the least. I think this just shows that this whole idea about needing the horn was deeply half-baked.
Here's what Vincent has to say about the ending (188-191):
As soon as the door opens and he see what lies beyond its threshold, Roland realizes that his existence has been an uncounted series of loops. He isn't sent back to the beginning "when things must have been changed and time's curse lifted," but to a time in the desert when he has at last found the man in black's trail and "finally understood that his thoughtless, questionless quest would ultimately succeed." The same point where Walter O'Dim started to believe the prophecy that Roland would "begin the end of matters and ultimately cause the tumble of that which he wished to save."
[Apparently a reference to the possibility that the Crimson King would take Roland's guns.]
Roland tries to pull back, but the hands of Gan pull him through the last door, "the one he always sought, the one he always found." Does this wording imply that not seeking the door is the change he needs to make? . . .
Once back in the desert, . . . A voice whispers, "Perhaps this time when you get there it will be different." The voice seems to be encouraging him to return to the Tower. . . . Roland's moment of desolation is tempered with hope. He may get it right someday.
During his previous iteration—perhaps during countless previous iterations—Roland learned that though his quest's objective was honorable, even pure goals must be tempered by consideration for those he meets along the way. . . . He was frequently reminded that he killed anyone he loved, so for many long years he withdrew emotionally, focusing on the Tower with single-minded determination.
By the end of his quest, he knows how to love again.
. . . letting Jake fall beneath the mountains is the last conscious sacrifice Roland makes. . . .
He has also learned the blessing of mercy. . . .
[Which, apparently, is insufficient.]
This time, perhaps it will be different. His bag now contains the ancient brass horn that legend claimed had once been blown by Arthur Eld, lost at Jericho Hill in his previous life. Roland has a strange awareness of the horn, as if he'd never touched it before. The voice of the Tower tells him it is a sigul of hope, that some day he may find rest, perhaps even salvation. . . .
Though each member of his ka-tet discovers a new—and arguably better—life with the gunslinger, they, like Roland, are condemned to re-live Roland's closed-loop existence. Each time he returns to the desert, his trajectory will take him to the doorways that briing Jake, Eddie and Susannah from their former existences. Even if he takes a different course—if he refuses to sacrifice Jake, for example, or finds a way to the Tower without catching the man in black— there seems little chance that he could succeed in attaining the Tower without help.
[Q: is this reading from knowledge of authorial intent? I don't see any private communication footnotes in this or any of the other sections asserting that the others are bound to the same loop as Roland. Not that authorial intent is the be-all and end-all, of course. Later, Vincent says that the other members of the ka-tet are "likely" repeating their lives. (293)]
It's a double-edged sword, though. If Roland were able to achieve his life's goal—or somehow modify it—without needing to draw the three, he would be damning them to their former existences and depriving them of the life-altering opportunities they experienced with him. Their sole consolation would be that they only have to live their lives once. . . .
The version of Roland's personal quest—reaching and claiming the Tower—told in these seven books was doomed to failure before the opening pages.The missing horn of Eld, an item he needed to have in his possession when he reached the Tower, symbolizes a character flaw that he has not yet overcome—focusing on his purpose without considering the short-term consequences of his actions on himself and others. What does it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world but lose his own soul?
[WHICH IS THE PROBLEM. Ahem. Sorry.]
Interestingly, the herald of change comes from outside his closed loop. That he now has Eld's horn means that his personal evolution somehow extended its tentacles back into time and made him a slightly different person. Is this a gift from ka, a deus ex machina reward for the lessons he learned with his ka-tet? Perhaps Roland hasn't truly looped back to a place in his past but has been elevated to a different level of the Tower, a version of reality where he made different—hopefully better—decisions along the way, improving his chances at success.
[Note to self: pay more attention to the metaphysics next read, now that you know what happens to the characters. It would be nice to think that this was the case, though I'm not sure that the apocalyptic language of the Coda supports it.]
* * *
Where does perfection lie in Roland's existence? Since the Tower still stands, even at his worst Roland has never made a serious enough mistake that he failed his primary quest and existence came to an end. Of course, he has ka on his side, pointing the way when he is at risk of going astray. Ka and Stephen King's little gifts.
What will he have to learn to break the cycle of reptition? To find a different path to the Tower that doesn't involve sacrificing others? To abandon the quest after saving the Tower? That it is the height of hubris for a mortal to presume to understand God and the nature of existence? Maybe he will come to realize that the only way he will ever be free is to let the Tower fall, and then he will have to decide between the good of the one—himself—and the good of the many.
Or perhaps the final door at the top of the Tower will lead him to a different fate should he ever reach nirvana. Perhaps he will someday find his way to the clearing at the end of the path, along with all of those who have gone on before, and learn whatever there is to be known of existence by those who reach this state.
It's a question with no easy answers that will surely engender discussion among readers for years to come.
It may take him several more tries, but King leaves hope that eventually Roland will find what he seeks—his own humanity and the meaning of his existence—at the end of the road to the Dark Tower.
(Pretty much most of the stuff I was going to look for already: the metaphysics, Roland's choices, the horn, suggestions that the other characters are also looping.)
From a Buick 8 and "The Mist" are part of the DT universe.
Insomnia, which I've read a while ago,
lays out the structure of the multiverse, symbolized by the levels of the Tower. The nature of the Tower is dual, both personal and universal. It represents individual lives but also all the different planes of existence.
Short-Time creatures like Ralph and Lois occupy the first two floors of the Tower. Clotho [a Long-Timer who serves Purpose] tells them there are elevators that Short-Timers are not ordinarily allowed to use. Ralph tells him that he has seen a vision of the Tower, and it doen't have an elevator but rather "a narrow staircase festooned with cobwebs and doorways leading to God knows what." (205)
Black House is explicitly a DT book, unlike The Talisman. In it, a character claims that gunslingers "possess a powerful pyschic force . . . once fully capable of countering the Crimson King's Breakers." The book takes place after Jake is drawn for the second time, because "If Roland were still alone, the Breakers would have toppled the Tower long since." (218)
According to a private communication, Roland had a brother and a sister. (224)
Epics, Influences, and Ka
The "slug-horn" of Browning's poem was a mistake. "Though intended to refer to a trumpet, the word is actually the etymological root of "slogan," or battle cry." (282, 295)
Argument: Magnum Opus?
"King also says that, eventually, all the Dark Tower books will be rewritten." (314)
Note to self: hang on to your un-revised copies like anything.