Second Guessing Stephen King: Getting To The Bottom Of Roland’s Grow-Bag

Wolves Of The Calla:
Part Two, 5.iv-8.v

Almost all of the Dark Tower books tell a story of forward progress, tracking Roland’s quest across a desert, up a beach, along the path of the beam. So when we reach Wolves of the Calla, in which Roland and his companions must put their journey to the side for almost a month making preparations instead of making progress, it can feel like not a whole lot is happening. Yet for all the nothing going on this week, I still found the chapters to be entertaining. We were introduced to the Sisters of Oriza and saw Margaret Eisenhart throw the plate, a new weapon that is objectively badass; Eddie heard Gran-Pere’s action-packed tale and we were given our first glimpse of the wolves and their weapons (also objectively badass); we got some nice father-son time between Roland and Jake. We even got to go on a quick shopping spree with the New Yorkers at Took’s General Store, where Susannah is given the chance to lay down the law. Even though the ka-tet didn’t get any closer to the Tower in these chapters, they still gave me all the things I want out of a Dark Tower story.

Roland felt a bright spark of excitement and appreciation. It had been long years since he’d seen a new weapon of worth, and never one like this.

Wolves of the Calla, p. 356

But there was also something in these week’s chapters that I don’t want in the story. Something that has always bothered me, something that I wish King had never included: the deus ex machina of Roland’s grow-bag. As far as I can tell, the bag is only referenced twice in the entire series: once in passing at the end of The Gunslinger when Roland considers that he might find some tobacco in it, and again in this week’s reading when he doles out coins and gemstones for the New Yorkers to spend at Took’s.

Can you imagine how pissed you would be if you were part of the ka-tet, and after all the miles you’ve travelled together, after all the danger you’ve faced, your Dinh reveals that he’s had a magic bag that can apparently provide (or maybe multiply?) whatever is needed? Where was it on the beach of the Western Sea when he and Eddie were so desperate for ammunition? Why didn’t Roland just put one of Balazar’s Keflex pills in the bag and grow more for himself? If there’s tobacco in there, then there could be food too, right?

We don’t even know if the grow-bag could or could not be used to do these things, because we have no information about it. The magic is vague, its capabilities and limits are never explored, and the New Yorkers don’t even ask Roland to explain it. Usually I don’t mind living with a little mystery; in fact, King’s liberal use of ambiguity is one of my favorite things about this series, especially when it comes to the lingering magic in Roland’s world. But for some reason, this particular piece of gunna always stuck out to me as half-baked and shoe-horned in.

They looked at the empty sack with silent wonder, and Roland smiled. “Most of the magic I once knew or had access to is gone, but you see a little lingers. Like soaked leaves in the bottom of a teapot.”

Wolves of the Calla, p. 431

King didn’t even mention the grow-bag in the original printing of The Gunslinger, which means he first thought up the idea while writing Wolves, and then added a reference to it when he went back to revise the first novel. Maybe he thought that way it wouldn’t come completely out of left field, but it still very much does. The convenience of Roland just pulling it out when they need money, and the retconning required to make it make sense, feels like the kind of narrative “cheating” that would earn you a hobbling from Annie Wilkes.

It’s especially frustrating because it’s completely unnecessary. If Roland had just happened to have a few gold coins with him, I never would have questioned it. He had money with him in Tull after all, and I certainly wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow if there was more where that came from. Even if he didn’t have any cash on him, I don’t really believe they would have needed it anyway. Of course Took tells them he won’t offer the gunslingers credit, but Overhoser or Eisenhart surely would have put whatever the ka-tet needed on their tab. The whole business of the grow-bag seems like a ham-fisted way to solve a problem that isn’t even a problem.

“Is there even more stuff inside?” Jake asked./“No. In time, there might be. It’s a grow-bag.” Roland returned the ancient leather sack to his purse…

Wolves of the Calla, p. 431

Well, so what? This is obviously nitpicking to the highest degree. The Dark Tower saga is 1,358,065 words long, which means that the term “grow-bag” only comprises 0.00000147% of the series. With all of the things I love in this week’s reading, do I really have a right to complain about a detail so small, so insignificant that I can’t even find an entry about it in The Dark Tower Concordance? After all, aren’t the strange idiosyncrasies and imperfections like this part of what makes these books so special in the first place? Maybe I should just trust that King knew what he was doing, and embrace it.

The Dark Tower series is a brilliant story, my favorite story, but it is not a perfect story and I don’t think it’s meant to be. No writer can write a perfect first draft; it takes revision after revision to get it right. Just as Roland has no horn on in the beginning, only to have it with him on his next trip through the desert, King doesn’t mention the grow-bag and then does when he revises The Gunslinger. Maybe one day King will spin the wheel again and we’ll get a re-revision that gets to the bottom of Roland’s magic bag.

Next Week’s Reading
Wolves Of The Calla:
Part Two,
& Part Three, 1.i-1.iii

Published by Joe Rechtman

Screenwriter/watcher. Constant Reader & Dark Tower Junkie.

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