Review: The Dark Tower

“Like it or hate it, the story of Roland is now done.”

Stephen King


A proposition: The Dark Tower, and the eponymous septet it concludes, is fundamentally a story about art.

The Dark Tower itself, after all, literally is art (if I’ve understood King’s mythology correctly); it is Gan, the creative spirit, and it’s not a coincidence that it is Gan who, as the Tower, holds the worlds together.

The Dark Tower is littered with creators. Patrick Danville, an artist so talented that he can draw things into being that weren’t there before. Dandelo, who uses comedy to feed off his victims’ laughter. The Breakers, whose Beam-destroying telepathic talent can, I think, be read as art of a sort – to Break is divine. And, of course, Stephen King, he of Maine, who insists on cropping up over and over again in his own damn story. (King has some snotty words in his Afterword for the word “metafiction”, which makes me more angry than probably it deserves to.)

King’s world, then – or his multiverse – is very aware of itself as fictional and as created. It is made up of dregs of story and of song: Shardik, the bear-Guardian, in the woods of Mid-World; the Emerald City, haunted by Randall Flagg; ghosts of C-3PO, bearing food or ill news to humanity. King’s ever-constant (and ever-irritating) Forewords, Arguments and Afterwords frame the tale with references to its antecedents and its peers: The Lord of the Rings, the spaghetti Western, Matthew Lewis’ heinous Gothic novel The Monk. It’s easy to forget, too, that the septet is actually an Arthurian tale: Roland is the last of the line of Arthur Eld, and his demon-begotten son is all too aptly named Mordred. All novels, of course, are woven from the threads of what came before them; but the tale of the Tower is more aware of this than most.

(By the way, Stephen King: this is metafiction, no matter how much you hate the word. And, yes, it is pretentious.)

And the story is fictional in a much deeper way. It knows that it is a Quest Narrative. It knows that it is a story about a Hero. It knows how we will read it. But it is also a fiction that insists on reality. Its main antagonist, as the story itself points out, is dying of food poisoning by the time he reaches the clearing at the end of the path. And Stephen King’s own car accident forms a key plot point – arguably, in fact, the key plot point:

He [Stephen King] begins to walk toward the sound of the oncoming Dodge Caravan, which is also the sound of his oncoming death. The ka of the rational world wants him dead; that of the Prim wants him alive, and singing his song. So it is that on this sunny afternoon in western Maine, the irresistible force rushes toward the immovable object, and for the first time since the Prim receded, all worlds and all existence turn toward the Dark Tower which stands at the far end of Can’-Ka No Rey, which is to say the Red Fields of None. Even the Crimson King ceases his angry screaming. For it is the Dark Tower that will decide.

The pivotal event of Stephen King’s actual real life, then, becomes the pivotal event for his entire fictional multiverse (which deliberately includes everything he has ever written ever). If he dies, the Tower will fall – both in the real world (he won’t finish the tale) and in the fictional one (the Beams will break and the world will end).
Given that, as we’ve established, the Tower literally is art, and the Dark Tower septet which bears its name is self-consciously a world made up of all stories that have ever been written, what I think sai King is saying here is that he is literally the person keeping art safe in this terrible world of ours and that when he dies the artistic world will fall.

That’s some hubris right there.

The series, then, retrospectively becomes a tale of artistic reconstitution – a fantastic autobiography of sorts. Through Roland and his friends – through writing Roland and his friends, through writing a Fellowship, a Magnificent Seven, a King Arthur and his Knights – King progresses from the broken  and empty deserts of youth (King wrote The Gunslinger, the very first book in the series, in his late 20s, according to Wikipedia the Fount of all Knowledge), through vague fragments of story (The Waste Lands, littered with half-understood glimpses of Culture) to a partially healed world where stories mostly proceed as you’d expect.

It’s ironic that The Gunslinger is actually better than The Dark Tower.

This explains as well why the series is circular. King’s writing saves his writing; his fundamentally fictional characters save his fiction. The process of writing is always a process of rewriting, and closure is only ever possible in the future. Jam tomorrow; never, ever jam today.

It also explains why great swathes of it are so irremediably dull. I can only imagine that every single word is, in fact, important to King himself, because that’s how autobiography works; but he’s failed to distinguish “interesting to him” from “interesting to practically everyone else on the planet”.

Not all of The Dark Tower, it has to be said, is dull. There’s a big chunk of the first half that regularly made me want to hurl the book against the wall, because King just can’t shut up about any of his characters. But the second half is often genuinely gripping: the Lovecraftian tunnels beneath the Dogan are a supreme creation of horror; the final stand-off with Mordred almost drew tears from me; and the final pages of the book are full of mythic resonance. But, on the whole, this isn’t worth wading through 300 pages of somebody else’s life.

I have not come across all the miles and all the years to listen to your childish prating!

It’s perhaps ironic that Roland’s own words in The Waste Lands stand so appositely for my final impression of the series.

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