“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” So begins The Gunslinger, the first book in Stephen King’s Dark Tower western/fantasy series. This book takes place in a world that is an eerie blend of the strange and the familiar. A limitless desert stretches out under the sky. Nothing grows here but devilgrass, as the relentless wind scours the hardpan. In the tiny town the gunslinger enters, there is a blacksmith, and a saloon where the piano player rattles out “Hey, Jude.”
This is the gunslinger’s world, which has “moved on” — but from what? Atomic slugs tick their lives away; books and paper are unknown; danger and death lie at every hand. Along his way, urgently following the mysterious man in black, Roland must encounter demons, mutants, and a child, Jake, who may be from another world altogether.
Teresa: I’ve read this at least once, maybe twice, and I’ve listened to the audiobook, so I feel like I know the story well, but it was still great fun to revisit it. There’s so much mystery in this first book. Who is Roland the gunslinger? Why is he pursuing the man in black? What was his world like before it moved on? As a repeat reader, I already know the answer to a lot of these questions, but I enjoyed going back to see the setup. King does a marvelous job making those questions matter, even when we have no particular reason to care about the gunslinger. In this first book, especially, he’s not a likable guy—he shoots down a whole village!—but there’s something about him. I don’t know if it’s his drive, his commitment to his quest or what, but I want to know what makes him tick.
Jenny: I agree that this book makes you want to follow Roland, if not be his best friend. He’s far less sympathetic in this book than he will be in other chapters. I’m especially thinking of King’s insistence that Roland is a slow thinker, not any great shakes in the intellect department.
King does a surprising amount of worldbuilding in this book, for the start of a series he didn’t know the scope of at the time. I wondered, reading it, whether he later regretted some of the choices he made — felt stuck with them — or whether they seemed natural and right. All the background and mythology of Roland’s past, for instance, and the hints that he is somehow linked to Arthurian tales. Or the recurring imagery of the scar on the forehead (Allie, Roland, and Jake all have one. And so does Harry Potter. Hmmm.) And of course there’s the tarot that the man in black tells at the end: the Sailor, the Prisoner, the Lady of Shadows, and Death and Life, but neither for Roland.
Teresa: That’s a good question. It’s hard to believe he didn’t at least have some sense of what it all meant, despite his insistences to the contrary. Certainly he knew something of who the three from the tarot would be, even if he didn’t know them well yet. But yeah, some aspects of this world get more attention later than others. Then there’s the 2003 edition, which apparently resolves some inconsistencies, so he must have had some regrets or perhaps just felt a need to tidy things up.
It’s impressive, though, how much about this world is clear in his mind and how well he sustains it throughout the series. In fact, I think it’s the world-building as much as Roland himself that caught my interest when I first read The Gunslinger. For example, we know that somehow this world is linked to our own—“Hey Jude” on the piano—but it’s not a future version of our world, given Roland’s bewildered reaction to Jake’s description of New York skyscrapers. How could that be? The Beatles, but no Empire State Building?
Jenny: I love the mystery of that, and the way we get tiny pieces of information about what filters back and forth between the worlds. My mind kept ferreting away at what had, perhaps, happened to Roland’s world (nuclear war, because of all the mutants?) but never came up with a satisfying answer. Maybe that’s because it’s not really important to Roland himself. All that matters is the pursuit of the man in black, and ultimately the Tower.
And that’s another thing that really struck me this time around. Near the end of the book, there’s a huge wad of cosmic philosophy that I’d almost forgotten: what the Tower is, what it’s for, who’s in charge of it, why someone like Roland might be looking for it. The notion of the Tower as the nexus of all universes, of Time (which doesn’t work right in Roland’s world) and Size (that either) and God himself (Who appears to have disappeared), was pretty trippy.
Teresa: I had remembered a lot of the philosophy, but I had forgotten how early it appears in the series. So much about Roland’s world is revealed gradually that I was startled to see all this information on the Tower presented all at once. It does raise the stakes, knowing how important the Tower is, especially since we have no particular reason to be attached to Roland as a person yet.
As fans of the whole series, we’re going to naturally view this book as an exposition to a larger story, but there’s some darned impressive storytelling in this single volume. The flashback to Roland’s coming of age would just about work on its own as a short story, but in the context of the book it helps us to know him better. We see his capacity to friend the unfriendable, as well as his capacity to use his friends to his own advantage—his magnetism and his ruthlessness. This all feeds back into the relationship with Jake, which forms the heart of the book. I loved the dynamic between them.
Jenny: You’re right that this book works really well on its own. Some of the details are tantalizing, and point forward to future books, but others are so satisfying. And the journey with Jake, the love and the pain of that relationship, is wonderfully done. Roland doesn’t ever expect to see another gunslinger, since he’s the last of his kind; finding a kindred spirit in a child from another place and time is strange but somehow perfect for the story.
I do think, though, that the tone of the book — its style — is different from what I consider “normal” Stephen King. It’s not just the lack of typical horror elements (with a few notable exceptions), it’s the quieter, sterner voice. It fits with Roland’s stoic demeanor, but once we get other points of view, things change. I look forward to talking about the way this shifts as we go forward!
Teresa and I discussed The Gunslinger as part of our Dark Tower readalong. Please join us at any time! If you read The Gunslinger for May (or if you’re catching up later — we are glad to have you whenever you join the Ka-Tet), please leave the link to your post in the comments.