Stephen King's “The Dark Tower” series is known to be his magnum opus and one of the writer's most ambitious projects. Motivated by the “Lord of the Rings” and inspired by Sergio Leone's western “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly,” King's tale of gunslinger Roland Deschain spans seven novels and took over 30 years to complete.
In today’s pop culture, “The Dark Tower” series has become an established and well-known tale, garnering its own movie adaptation “The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger” in 2017. In the wake of the failed box-office adaption which I didn't see (but read many of the critical reviews), I decided to sit down and read King’s masterpiece for the first time, starting with “The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger,” the first book of the series.
“The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger” is both a complex and straightforward tale, beginning with one of the most iconic and memorable opening lines of a novel: "The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."
When we first meet the gunslinger, Roland, he is on an extended chase to find the Man in Black. We know he is violent. We know he is dangerous. We know what he’s looking for. But we never truly discover why -- and that, for me, is where problems arise.
The world Roland and the Man in Black occupy is both foreign and familiar. It is clear that it is a dried, dystopian reflection of reality and yet King doesn't offer us much explanation as to how this alternative world operates. Throughout the story, readers are given glimpses of a societal structure and a coming of age tradition that helps illustrate where Roland came from. Yet his journey’s motivation and the world in which he lives seem ambiguous, almost hallucinogenic, throughout the entire novel, leading to more questions for every answer provided.
Part of this is obviously by design and is a direct nod to King’s major influences in writing the saga. In the middle of “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,” Clint Eastwood’s character is captured by his scorned former accomplice Tuco (Eli Wallach) and forced to walk through the desert while Tuco rides on horseback taunting him along the way. That portion of the journey is almost like a mirage for Eastwood’s character, transcending time and reality. Each step is harder than the last and death never releases him.
The gunslinger's journey at times is similar to Eastwood’s character in “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” as Roland must constantly press forward under a scorching sun with an increasing need for sustenance and no end in sight. In those moments, like in Eastwood’s film, King disorients the reader to experience Roland's dizziness by providing a fragmented look at his past.
These passages describing Roland’s journey are helpful, albeit confusing, in learning about Roland as a character, but I still found myself wanting more information to properly establish the world the protagonist operates within. Throughout the book, I never really understood the societal rules or how people relate to one another. I acknowledge that this is the first of seven books and answers may come later (and I will say that I intend to continue to get these answers), but for some, this journey may come off as slow, even meandering, forcing readers forward with no end in sight.
Despite these challenges, I’ll admit, Roland's journey in “The Gunslinger” is a vivid, exhilarating journey, and when he finally meets the Man In Black, the confrontation does not disappoint. Plus, you're left with an invitation to continue and read more of the series, and I'm hard-pressed to imagine many people won't take King up on his offer.
Ultimately though, “The Gunslinger” feels more like a prologue that simply makes me wonder why this is all happening. In many ways, I feel more like a participant in an exhausting journey rather than an observer of a story. But I'm not concerned that there won't be answers – after all, there are six other books in this series for me to read.