The Dark Tower Review (Part 1)
The following covers the first half of The Gunslinger (1982) by Stephen King, and serves as an introduction to the Gunslinger Roland Deschain of Gilead & the Man in Black.
Black & White
The best part about the entire saga is the first sentence in the first book. Not to say that the rest of the story is anything short of absolutely amazing. But even in the later books, a character named Stephen King says it might be the best sentence he’s ever written. The character, a 29 year old writer in Maine during the summer of 1977, is under hypnosis when he admits his ultimate achievement, and since the character is written by the real world Stephen King himself, it has to be the truth:
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
Even when the sentence is eventually shoehorned into the film adaptation as some wispy, noncommittal narration, it gave me chills as goosebumps rippled down the theater.
And the first novel fulfills this promise. It is a simple enough story about a hardened cowboy chasing a mysterious villain through an empty-yet-treacherous land.
A Gunslinger is a sort of western white knight. It is even suggested that this Gunslinger, Roland Deschain, is descended from this world’s King Arthur (his guns are made out of the sword Excalibur). Along his journey, he encounters a handful of random people, creatures, and towns. He meets a farmer who gives him food & a place to stay the night, which allows the Gunslinger to tell tales of childhood trials & tribulations, as well as reveal the violence & mayhem he’s encountered in his most recent leg of the journey.
As the Gunslinger gains on the Man in Black, he passes through the town of Tull. The Man in Black has left his mark on the town, infecting the townsfolk with a diseased type of magic, and forcing the Gunslinger to do what he does best: gun down every last man, woman, & child in Tull. We learn that the Gunslinger wants companionship, but the Man in Black has forced the Gunslinger to live a very lonely existence.
The Man in Black is an enigma wrapped in a mystery, especially to 1977 Stephen King. Clearly an embodiment of evil, he has strange abilities & magic powers that are never clearly defined. He is said to have many names & many faces, the most well known being the Walkin’ Dude, Randall Flagg, from The Stand. In a lot of Stephen King’s work, a mysterious evil man dressed in black appears in order to cause chaos & inspire terror. His backstory will eventually be told in The Eyes of the Dragon, where he is given the name Walter Paddock or Walter O’Dim. Eventually it seems like King is giving the Man in Black so many different names to make the character grand & expansive, like how Gandolf has many names throughout the realms in Middle-earth. The comparison doesn’t stop there, the Man in Black is referred to as a wizard & sorcerer.
It is important to understand as much as possible about the Man in Black because he plays a prominent role in the Gunslinger’s childhood, albeit under a different name & face. This revelation doesn’t come until later in the books, mainly because the idea was still amorphous in the author’s head. But it is not a big reveal, just something that slowly takes shape every time a character meets another variation of the Man in Black. Most of the explanation is actually given in the “Argument” prologues to the sequel books, a sort of “previously on” as narrated by an omnipotent writer. Certain concepts are only made clear to the reader once the author realizes them, and some will forever remain unknown. There are many other aliases for the Man in Black, but aside from Randall Flagg & Walter O’Dim, the only other important name for him in this story is Martin Broadcloak.
When the Gunslinger was a boy, still a couple years from the cusp of manhood, the Man in Black (as Martin) serves as his father’s magician. Sort of a Merlin to the father’s King Arthur. The world has “moved on” but the Gunslinger & his father live in a western cowboy style version of Camelot called Gillead. Martin has been sleeping with the Gunslinger’s mother, cuckolding the father. The secret affair tricks the boy-Gunslinger into taking his test of manhood to become an official Gunslinger, and Martin believes this will result in either the boy’s death or banishment. But, of course, the Gunslinger is successful and has been perusing the Man in Black ever since, in one way or another.
By the end of this first book, the white knight, Roland the Gunslinger, will finally catch up with Martin/Walter/Randall, the Man in Black. But what answers will he find? And what of the allusive Dark Tower?
To Be Continued in Part 2…