God’s Gunslingers: the Birds of the Dark Tower

The Gunslinger:
Chapters 4.iii-5.ix
The Drawing
Of The Three:

This Blog Is For The Birds

Last week, while debating what to write about, I considered exploring the similarities between David the hawk and the Gunslinger. I ended up deciding that, in addition to being a little obvious—Sai King literally writes “the hawk is God’s gunslinger” at the bottom of page 112—it also seemed a little shallow. It’s not really revolutionary to compare a badass anti-hero with a cool apex predator. Not exactly what you’d call a hot take.

So I decided to write about something else, and after following Roland through the rest of The Gunslinger to the beach of the Western Sea, I’m glad I kept that idea holstered. The end of the first book allowed me to see the true depth of this ornithological metaphor. Roland isn’t the only character in the series represented by a bird, and I’m not just talking about the Taheen.

But let us start with Roland, who is—just like his sacrificial friend, David—a dangerous weapon, unhooded by an unknown hand and thrown at the face of an unknown enemy. And like Roland, “You cannot friend a hawk, unless you are half a hawk yourself, alone and only. Sojourner in the land, without friends or the need of them. The hawk pays no coinage to love or morals” (p.190, and there’s that word need again). Truly, has there ever been a more succinct description of Arthur Eld’s last living descendant?

Roland and David are both trained killers, who fight dirty and won’t stop until their very last breath is forced from their lungs. Roland even compares his own emotions to David after telling his father about Hax the cook.

“Like the hawk… It preys on you.”- Roland, The Gunslinger, P. 119

But while Sai King draws Roland as a hawk, he also repeatedly notes that Roland is unique among his peers. While the other gunslingers’ sons are watching him come of age, they “sighed flutteringly, like birds” (p. 194). Still very avian language, but not very hawk-like behavior. Like squares and rectangles, it seems that while hawks are gunslingers, not all gunslingers are hawks. Cuthbert for instance, wears a rook’s skull around his neck in Wizard & Glass, while Alain is responsible for the pigeons.

Jake, who we come to learn is a gunslinger himself, is none of the above. He is a dove, pure, innocent, and peaceful. After all, this is the boy who wants to stay in River Crossing and help old folks with chores in The Wastelands. Eventually Roland will teach him (or corrupt him, depending on how you look at it) to be more hawk-like, a killer, a sacrificial weapon. But for now, in this first book, he is just a dove, the very image of the White. When Roland finds Jake at the Waystation he suspects it might be a trap, and in a way that’s exactly what it is. But it’s not a booby-trap like Tull, it’s the kind of trap from which Cort releases a dove in Chapter 2.viii, using it as bait to train David.

Even the Man in Black is like a crow, unnaturally clever and mischievous; the same type of bird that swarms the gallows after Hax’s hanging, swooping in after the violence to feast on the aftermath. In The Stand, under his Flagg alias, he actually takes the form of a crow.

Gan’s Gunslinger

The bird motif is strong throughout the books, but what I’m discovering on this trip to the Tower is that it’s only a small part of a more expansive metaphor. Like Roland’s vision of the universe, the end of this book gave me a more meta-textual view of the landscape. Thinking about the Man in Black’s speech about size, I found myself wondering: if Roland is the hawk, then who keeps taking his hood off and putting it back on again. Who is sending him after the dove? Who is using him as a weapon?

In the context of the palaver at the Golgotha, the answer seems clear. We won’t meet this character for quite some time, and yet his is the voice with whom we’re most familiar. The hand that sent Roland flying toward his doom belongs to none other than Stephen King himself, the very author of the metaphor in question.

“You see? Size defeats us. For the fish, the lake in which he lives is the universe. What does the fish thinks hen he is jerked up by the mouth through the silver limits of existence and into a new universe where the air drowns him and the light is blue madness?”

– The Man in Black, The Gunslinger, p. 241

Sai King wields the Gunslinger the same way the Gunslinger wields David when he tests the line. For telling a good story is testing the line. It’s a fight for the attention of your audience, and if you lose it, you’re done. You’ll be exiled, shunned, forgotten. There’s a reason that Sai King is the only other character who’s craft is given the respect of the -slinger suffix (you don’t see anyone calling Brown a corn-slinger, or referring to Allie as a Beer-slinger, do you?).

As a young man, Sai King trains his dangerous bird-of-prey protagonist on doves like Allie and Jake (their impaled heads interchangeable in his dreams). Then, when he’s older, a better writer, he decides to test the line, hoping to join the ranks of the Wordslingers who inspired him (Tolkien, Browning, Léone, etc.). But just like the Gunslinger surprising Cort with his use of David, Sai King throws his own emotionless killing-machine hero in the faces of those he learned from (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Cort’s stick resembles Gandalf’s staff). Roland is a risky choice of weapon to tell a story with—a hero who kills children and performs a forced abortion with a pistol in the first chapter, and “pays no coinage to love or morals”—but the maneuver works. He is able to make his readers invest in Roland, and even love him. He is a bastard, and yet it breaks our hearts each time he is crushed under the wheel of Ka.

King sacrifices Roland in service of his epic tale, and just like David, Roland can’t even conceive of the context in which he’s being used. Just like a hawk, Sai King is able to pull off the hood—sending Roland after the Man in Black. Then he puts the hood back on again (the endless night in the Golgotha) and takes it off years later, when he’s finally ready to take on the full story, and send Gan’s Gunslinger off toward the tower.

The Man in Black, clever crow that he is, is aware of what’s happening. He has figured out how the hood works and uses it against the hawk. First he blinds Roland with the darkness of the mountains, then uses the promise of daylight to trick Roland into rushing forward, leaving Jake behind to die.

“What do you mean, resume? I never left off.”
At this the man in black laughed heartily but would not say what he found so funny.

The Gunslinger, p. 231

The crow is also being used of course, but unlike the hawk he’s smart enough to know it. Based on their palaver, the Man in Black is clearly aware of the larger universe(s), and their place in it. He knows this isn’t Roland’s first time around the wheel of Ka, and he knows he’s being used by a larger force who he refuses to name, but who supposedly “imbued him with [his] duty and promised [him his] reward” (p. 245). This force is the other King—the Crimson King—but that’s a subject that deserves its very own blog post.

For now, let’s take a moment to shoot the sky in memory of the birds sacrificed for the Tower this week. For David, God’s gunslinger; for Jake the dove; for Roland the hawk. We shoot the sky in your names.

Next Week’s Reading
The Drawing Of The Three: Chapters 1.i-4.iii

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Published by Joe Rechtman

Screenwriter/watcher. Constant Reader & Dark Tower Junkie.

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