Series Review: The Dark Tower Series by Stephen King (spoiler warning)
This is a feature I’ve started doing after completing reading an entire series of books. It gives me a chance to reflect on and analyze the series as a whole without dumping it all into my review of the final book. Needless to say, this type of reflection is only possible with spoilers so consider yourself warned!
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” This famous opening line begins the distinctly American fantasy epic tale of Roland the gunslinger’s quest for the Dark Tower. In this fantasy, there are multiple parallel universes, referred to as whens and wheres. The one Roland inhabits that is home to the Dark Tower and beams that keep all the worlds together and operating functionally just so happens to distinctly resemble the old American wild west. Gunslingers in this world are like the knights of the round table in old England, and Roland is the last of his kind. He’s on a quest both to reach the Dark Tower and save it and the beams, as they seem to be breaking. Through the course of his quest, Roland draws three new gunslingers and a billy-bumbler to become his ka-tet–his family bound by ka (fate) not blood. These new gunslingers all come from America, but from different whens and versions of America. Eddie is a heroin addict. Susannah is an African-American woman from the 1960s who is missing both of her legs from the knees down and has Dissociative Identity Disorder (more commonly known as multiple personality disorder). Jake is a boy from a wealthy family in NYC that hardly pays attention to him. Oy is a billy-bumbler; a creature from Roland’s world that looks a bit like a dog with a long snout and a curly tail but is able to talk. After training and bonding together, they continue on their quest for the Dark Tower. A quest that leads them through old ruined cities in Roland’s world, gangster territory and rural Maine in America, a countryside farming community where almost all births are twins, and much much more. The ultimate questions of ka, how the worlds are bound together, and just what role this gunslinger has to play in all of it loom at the center of this epic tale.
The interesting thing about the Dark Tower series is that each book has its own unique vibe, feel, and style to it, yet they together work to make up a complete whole that has its own unique feel to it too. Because of this, certain entries in the series may appeal less to some people than others. For instance, I did not enjoy Wizard and Glass, because it was essentially a slow-paced wild west romance story, yet I know some readers enjoy that entry immensely. Similarly, I love Song of Susannah for both its horror and the way King structured it using song stanzas to correlate with the sections of the book, yet I know some people who found it too dense for one entry in the series. The thing is though, to me, the Dark Tower is more about the experience of reading the series as a whole than the individual books. I’m perfectly willing to work through a book or a few chapters that aren’t quite the genre I prefer, because I know that will change up later on and whatever is being discussed is important to the story as a whole. It frankly is interesting to read a series that explores so many different genres within itself. It makes the whole concept of parallel worlds more believable as each area they go through feels different.
The characterization at first seems simplistic. There’s Roland the gunslinger. He’s got a one-track mind in pursuit of the tower. He’ll do anything to reach it, even if it’s questionable. Is he justified in his vehemence? It’s hard to tell at first. Similarly, the man in black who he is originally pursuing is extraordinarily one-dimensional. He is just an evil magician, and that is all. Similarly, when Eddie, Susannah, and Jake are first drawn into Roland’s world, they are also one-dimensional. Eddie is just the junky. Susannah is the crazy woman with multiple personalities. Jake is a lonely, frightened little boy. Yet as the series progresses, King gradually develops the characters to be rich and multi-dimensional. Their characters are so intensely vivid, including even Oy, that I actually found myself crying as bad things happened to various members of the ka-tet. Eddie overcomes his addiction, as well as the emotional wounds inflicted on him by his older brother to grow up and become a true man. Susannah does not lose her multiple personalities, but she learns to work with them. They are a part of her, and she grows to accept that. She stops being bitter about her accident and her lot in life and comes to be self-sufficient and caring of those around her. Jake quickly grows to become a confident young man who cares for his ka-tet, but especially Oy and Roland. Finally, Roland gradually learns to open himself up to relationships. Although the tower still calls to him, he finds himself questioning if maybe the ka-tet is better than the tower.
The horror elements in the series definitely live up to what one would expect from King. There are disgusting moments, such as a man sick from the weed drug in Roland’s world that makes users go insane. There are also truly terrifying moments such as when a baby boy turns into a spider and eats his own mother via her breast. Then there are mentally disturbing themes such as the children who get stolen by the wolves and are returned with their brains completely ruined. It is later discovered that their brain power was fed to telepaths in service of the Crimson King who is seeking to destroy all the worlds. Whatever flavor of horror suits you best, you will find it in the series.
The themes of love and building your own family and being at the hands of fate are what truly carry the series, though. These themes are what make the reader care about the horrors that are happening to Roland and his ka-tet. They’re what makes it possible to suspend disbelief about multiple worlds being held together by a tower, a rose, and beams. The ideas of self-sacrifice, serving your purpose, and caring for others who ka has brought into your life are powerful and subtly expressed. To me the whole concept of making your own family is the most endearing part of the series, and I loved seeing it portrayed in such a subtle, tender manner.
Of course what really brought the series to a whole new level for me is the ending. It blew me away. It was completely unexpected. Roland reaches the tower after having lost his ka-tet. He goes in and climbs with each floor displaying items and smells to represent each year of his life. He reaches the top door and pulls it open only to realize, horrified at the last moment, that he is being pulled through back to the desert where the series began. The voice of the tower speaks to him about his journey. That he’s done it before. That he’s learning a little each time. It points out that Roland realized his mistake in not taking a few moments to pick up the horn of Eld, so this time, it is strapped to Roland’s side, where it wasn’t originally. For a moment Roland remembers what has just occurred, but soon he just feels it was all a mirage. A heat-induced daydream of finally reaching the dark tower. He continues on, ending the series with the same sentence it began with.
Personally, I feel that this puts the series in a whole new light. Who exactly is this Roland that he is so important that he has to redo this quest until, presumably, he gets it right? Why did King choose to tell us about one of the times he didn’t get it right? What did he get wrong? What lessons is Roland supposed to be learning? Will Roland ever escape the cycle or is it some sort of hell punishment he’s doomed to repeat forever? Of course, it all reads a bit like the belief in reincarnation and learning something each life cycle. In any case, it made me personally want to immediately start rereading the series, searching for clues about the repetition of the journey. It brings the series to a whole new philosophical level that truly elevated it in my mind from a fun fantasy to an epic.
Overall, there are parts of the series I didn’t enjoy, and due to the vast variety of genres represented in the series, most people will probably dislike or struggle with at least bits of it. However, when the series is put together and all the pieces click together in your mind, it becomes an unforgettable, completely American epic. A wild west fantasy is unique, and the themes and philosophical questions explored underneath the entertaining prose make for something even deeper than that. I am incredibly glad I took the time to read this series, and I would recommend it to anyone. It is well worth the time invested.
5 out of 5 stars
Source: borrowed, Harvard Book Store
Books in Series:
The Gunslinger, review, buy it
The Drawing of the Three, review, buy it
The Waste Lands, review, buy it
Wizard and Glass, review, buy it
Wolves of the Calla, review, buy it
Song of Susannah, review, buy it
The Dark Tower, review , buy it