Once again, blogging day has rolled around and I find myself trying to justify skipping a post. I don’t mean to complain, I’m just trying to be honest about how burnt out I am on this project. As I wrote last week, I’m currently distracted by another piece of writing, and today my friend is flying in to visit us. And yet, I have forced myself to sit down and write this. Why? Because I made a commitment, not only to all of you fantastic folken who read these posts, but to myself. I made a promise to write fifty-two posts over fifty-two weeks and if I skip even one, I feel I’ve broken that promise.
But, so what if I do? Who cares? In the grand scheme of things, we’re talking about an extremely low-stakes promise here. Is anyone going to miss a meal if I don’t post today? Is anyone going to be hurt? Will I get messages from disappointed readers, clamoring for my take on Song of Susannah Stanzas 5-8? No. Nobody will care.
Except I will.
So I made myself do the reading, and wasn’t at all surprised to find that the theme of promises—those kept and unkept—featured heavily in this week’s chapters. Susannah promises Mia she’ll help her with her labor; Mia promises Susannah they’ll palaver, and promises Sayre she won’t interrupt him.
Now we palaver, Susannah said. You promised, and it’s a promise you’re going to keep.– Song of Susannah, p. 99
In fact, people are making promises all over the place in this book. Henchick commits to bringing a certain number of Manni folk to help Roland open the Unfound Door, and when he falls short of that number, he compulsively tugs on his beard out of embarrassment. Calvin Tower has given his word that he will sell the vacant lot to the ka-tet (which he will try to renege on but will ultimately make good) and soon John Cullum will agree to go on the lam at his friend’s house (which he fails to do, but to their benefit). At the end of last week’s reading there was even a brief moment in which Susannah realizes Mia has tricked her into giving up information by implying a promise without ever explicitly stating it.
This week, Mia and Susannah even talk of the promise that the Crimson King has based his entire tower-toppling plan around. “He has been promised his own kingdom, where he’ll rule forever, tasting his own special pleasures,” Mia tells Susannah while they’re on the parapets of Castle Discordia, and when Susannah asks who had made such a promise, Mia shrugs. “Lady, I know not. Perhaps this is only what he has promised himself.” (p. 111).
Thinking about it further, I realized this theme spans across the entire series. The promise Roland makes to never let Jake fall again in The Waste Lands; the contract Susan agrees to and then breaches in Wizard & Glass; Eddie assuring Roland he won’t give Odetta a gun in The Drawing of the Three, only to do just that and quickly come to regret it; Roland promises to lay Aunt Talitha’s cross at the base of the Tower in the third book, and keeps his word at the very end of the series.
The point is, across the several thousand pages of this story, we are given examples of different kinds of promises. Those we keep no matter what, and those we immediately ignore or forget; the deals people strike, only to resist and begrudge any effort to hold them to it; the vows we make, but fear we can’t keep; oaths we swear in bad faith, or break in good. Trivial promises and incredibly important ones; the kind we make to ourselves, and the kind we delude ourselves into thinking others have made to us.
“I’d no more lie to you than break a promise to my own mother,” said the voice on the phone.– Song of Susannah, p. 120
But what does this motif actually mean? To me, the lesson here is that no promise is a sure thing. There are countless reasons that promises are broken. Sometimes it’s purposeful, sometimes it’s out of anyone’s control. Either way, the fact is that promises are not magic spells. They are easy to break, and that means there’s nothing special about making a promise after all.
Except… Here I am, writing this post to keep a promise I made to myself and to all of you.
Thinking back on the promises made over the course of the series, it occurs to me that there is no clean moral division between who keeps their promises and who doesn’t. It’s not as if those that serve the White always keep their word and the agents of the Red never do. It’s not that simple. But I do think the good guys try harder to keep their promises. Roland might end up letting Jake fall again, but he’s going to do everything in his power to prevent it, and he might not make it to the Tower, but if he does he sure isn’t going to forget to speak the name of Talitha Unwyn. Promises might be cheap, but maybe the difference between the Red and the White is that the White doesn’t treat them that way, and maybe that’s what makes them valuable.