Say Thankya Big Big
At the end of my last post, I felt the need to apologize to Roland, to Sai King, and to my potential audience. Now, before I get to work on this new post, I don’t feel the need to cry anyone’s pardon, but I do feel the need to say ‘thankee.’ What can I say? My mother taught me my manners and I won’t be forgetting her face today.
So thankee to Sai King, as always, for the story. We are in your debt, Wordslinger.
But more importantly, thank you to anyone who’s reading this. This blog has received far more attention than I was expecting since I launched last week, and the response has been incredibly encouraging. Knowing I have a strong Ka-Tet of fellow fans at my back has truly energized me, and I’m excited to share my thoughts with you.
And an extra special thanks goes out to anyone who shared the link since launch, including two of my favorite podcasts: The Kingcast—on Twitter @Kingcast19—is a fantastic podcast about everything Stephen King, with Tons of really great content for any Constant Reader & Kingslingers—on Twitter @KingslingersPod—is completely Dark Tower-focused (it’s also spoiler free, so if you’re a first-time reader and you’re still here for some reason, you’re in the wrong class. Go listen to them).
Say thankya big big.
“She was afraid of her needs.”
— The Gunslinger (page 34)
Human Need In The Gunslinger
Now, in a clumsy attempt to segue into this week’s topic of discussion, I want to examine my need to apologize last week, and my need to say ‘thank you’. These are social needs that have nothing to do with my physical survival. The only reason my brain will even allow me to worry about such things is because I don’t have to worry about things like food, water, and shelter. This is the concept behind psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Need:
As you can see, Maslow illustrates his theory with a pyramid. On the ground floor are “physiological needs”: food, water, warmth, rest… The bare necessities, as Shardik’s distant cousin is fond of saying. With that foundation laid, the next level of the pyramid is “safety needs”. Then on top of that is “belongingness & love needs,” followed by “esteem needs” and finally—at the very top of the pyramid, is the need for achieving one’s full potential, “self-actualization”.
In the first ninety pages of The Gunslinger, King molds the structure of his narrative to Maslow’s Hierarchy, telling a deeply human story about a man—a real Sisyphusian cat—on a quest to reach the top of the pyramid (or in his case, the Tower).
The structure of the narrative even resembles a pyramid—stories built upon stories, stacked atop one another. And not only that, but the first chapter feels a scale model replica of the entire series, compressed into a few thousand words. Roland has nothing but his guns and a few swallows of water, he slowly fulfills his human needs one by one, convinced that his path to self-actualization leads to the top of the Dark Tower, and that satisfying that final need means he must sacrifice everything else he has built for himself. He reaches the top, but without the load-bearing lower levels of the tower in place, it all comes crashing down, and Roland finds himself back on the hardpan, with nothing but his guns and a few swallows of water…
In terms of his human needs being met, Roland starts the book at the very bottom of the Need Tower, using all of his energy to just survive the desert. He rations the last that water; he finds food (a scrap of bacon found in the carcass of the Man in Black’s campfire); he builds a fire to warm himself and settles down to get some rest. Then, and only then, with his base needs satisfied, he allows his mind to turn to the next level of need: safety and security. He recalls the last time he felt safe and secure, recalling the night he spent at Brown’s hut.
That night he reaches the second level of the tower, finding a nothing but hospitality and a home cooked meal in the border dwelling. He then has an opportunity to ascend to the next level of need—friendship—when he shares a smoke with Brown, but he can’t shake the paranoid idea that the corn farmer is another trap left by the Man in Black. Unable to fully trust Brown, Roland denies himself the need for relationships and belonging. Even though he and Brown seem well met along the path of the beam, Roland won’t let him be anything more than an acquaintance (who knows, along a different rotation of the wheel—one in which Roland has his horn—Mayhap Brown joins Roland and becomes a gunslinger himself).
The next level of the stacked stories reflects the next level of the Need Tower: the story of Tull. There Roland fulfills his need for belonging, having a drink in a bar, making a connection—emotionally and physically—with Allie, and lingering in town almost long enough to become part of a community (at least long enough to attend a church service and learn the names of the townsfolk).
Then, with the three bottom levels of the tower secure, Roland attempts to storm the final two. First he satisfies his “esteem needs” by accomplishing a goal: destroying the demon left inside Sylvia Pittston. At least, Roland views it as an accomplishment, an idea tied to his need for prestige, to feel special. Leaning on his identity as the last gunslinger, the last warrior fighting for good in a world filled with evil. In his mind, he has no choice but to do something reprehensible—perform a nonconsensual abortion with the barrel of his gun—because he’s the only one who can stop the Crimson King.
Then he plans to move on, planning to catch up with the Man in Black and finally reach the top of his Need Tower—“self-actualization”—by saving the Dark Tower. Unfortunately in order to do that, he must leave the town and by doing so, he destroys the relationships and sense of belonging he’s been building there for the past few days. No, the townsfolk were not friendly with him, but they managed to coexist with the gunslinger well enough; but as soon as he decides to leave (and assaults their preacher) he becomes persona non grata—The Interloper. He kills Allie—he kills everyone—and within minutes he’s all alone.
And just like that, his Need Tower topples like one of Balazar’s house of cards, and the tower of flashbacks we’ve been climbing topples along with it. Suddenly we are back in Brown’s hut, then back at the campfire. Back in the desert, with nothing but his guns and a few swallows of water. Right back where he started.
“You have to have it,
— Allie, The Gunslinger (page 31)
I Feel The Need… The Need For Narrative
This motif of need is not just limited to Roland’s character. It recurs throughout the beginning of this book, and it isn’t limited to just Roland. Nort needs the devil grass; Allie has a different sort of need, which Roland satisfies for her several times. And later, she succumbs to the overwhelming urge to say the forbidden word—’nineteen’—needing to know what Nort saw on the other side.
And in this respect, King puts his own spin on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Need. He has added a sixth level of need to the Need Tower, which he seems to value right alongside safety and security: the need for narrative. Everyone in these pages needs to swap stories. Roland needs to tell Brown his story, he needs to hear Allie’s story of the Man in Black, and he needs to force Sylvia Pittston’s story out of her, along with her unborn spawn. Nort’s story of the afterlife is so tempting that Allie needs to hear it, knowing full well it will cost her her sanity.
The characters need narrative the same way they need to eat or drink, seeking out stories and consuming any morsel they can find, like a scrap of bacon in a pile of cold ashes. To Sai King and the characters who populate this world he’s created, stories are just as crucial to survival as food, water, or shelter.
And you know what? They are.