The Dark Tower:
& Part Four,
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about my poor ability to focus and retain what I’m reading every time I reach the back half of this book. That’s been frustrating at times, but there’s an upside, too: Because there are so many gaps in my memory, every time I reach the endgame the text feels new.
I remember that Roland, Susannah, and Oy are chased under Le Casse Roi Russe by some kind of monster, but the details and suspense of the “The Thing Under The Castle” always feel fresh. I recalled that they encounter three twinners of Stephen King with weird names, who offer some kind of play on the two doors riddle, and I was genuinely surprised this week when it was revealed the three twinners were actually just a glam created by one guy named Rando Thoughtful, and that I was actually way off about the riddle.
This fresh perspective helped me find new meaning in these chapters. Roland’s breakneck run through the pure-dark tunnel under the castle seemed to reflect my life in ways I was never able to appreciate on previous trips to the Tower. Between the chaos of the Pandemic, the learn-as-you-go thrill of becoming a father, and the untethered lifestyle my family has embraced this past year, the future has never been more difficult to see. Like Roland, we can’t be sure that each next step in life won’t send us careening down a staircase or into the open jaws of some awful creature. All we can do is keep moving and trust our instincts.
So now she knew he was capable of negotiating stairs even in the dark, even at a dead run. Only what if he stuck his foot in a hole? God knew it was possible, given the way the flooring had rotted. Or suppose they came to a stacked bone-barrier of skeletons? In the flat passageway, at the speed he was now running, that would mean a nasty tumble at the very least. Or suppose they ran into a jumble of bones at the head of one of the little stairways?– The Dark Tower, p. 461
Meanwhile, the monster coming for us—a hideous worm in Roland and Susannah’s case, mortality in our own—isn’t exactly nipping at our heels. We can’t feel its breath sucking us in the way that Susannah feels the thing under the castle inhaling. But then again, we can’t see what’s coming up behind us in the dark any more than we can see what’s ahead.
For King, writing that chapter only three years after his near-fatal accident, I’m sure it felt like his brush with death had been just as close as Roland and Susannah’s escape from the giant worm. For him, the sheer act of writing this book was his run through the tunnel, trying to finish the story before the thing under the castle finally caught up to him. At times I’m sure he felt just as blind as Roland, only barely able to see the pinprick of daylight at the end.
Well, he made it. He did what he had to do to reach that final line, cranking out the last three books in less time than went by between any of the other installments. There are many readers who feel that was a mistake, that King got scared of leaving the work unfinished and rushed his way to the ending. I think that very well may be true, but I don’t think it was to the series’ detriment. If anyone could pull off the literary equivalent of running full speed down a pitch-black tunnel, it would be King.
The author’s speed aside, there are many people who wish the series had ended differently. Last week, I wrote about how the White and the Red represent good and bad fans respectively, and I think that metaphor continues here. The bad fans, the entitled fans, believe they are owed a particular ending. There are also plenty of “good” fans, who are happy to see the Tower saved, but can’t bear the pain of what happens to the characters they love, and they hate the ending for it. Remember, the executives at the Tet corporation mistake Roland’s mission for saving existence, and he has to harshly remind them that his journey is actually rooted in personal obsession.
King doesn’t allow his writing to be dictated by what his readers want, but he does think about it. We know from the little interlude in the beginning of this week’s reading: a scene of him in his office writing the very book we’re reading, anticipating the audiences’ reaction to Jake’s death. “He guesses that when this last book is published, the readers are going to be just wild…He thinks of Misery—Annie Wilkes calling Paul Sheldon a cockadoodie brat for trying to get rid of silly, bubbleheaded Misery Chastain.” (p. 440). He is well aware of how his readers think and what they want, and he worries about their reaction when he doesn’t give it to them.
Enter Feemalo, Fumalo, and Fimalo, a.k.a. Rando Thoughtful. When Roland and Susannah are finally through the tunnels, the Crimson King’s Minister of State tries to manipulate them into crying off. He tries to convince the gunslingers that they already succeeded in saving the Dark Tower when they freed the Breakers in Algul Siento. With that done, Rando Thoughtful implores Roland to cry off, let the beams regenerate themselves and live happily ever after.
“We’re just asking, not trying to convince you,” Fimalo said. “But the truth is bald: now this is only your quest, gunslinger. That’s all it is. Nothing sends you further.– The Dark Tower, p. 494
This also mirrors King’s struggle to finish the series. He is closer to the end than ever before, and just as the gunslingers are tempted to cry off, King must have been tempted to simply wrap things up. Why put your own characters, your own creations, through such pain when you could easily just explain that the tower is no longer in danger and let Roland live out the rest of his life in peace? Who knows, maybe the average reader would have liked that ending more; I don’t think it’s a mistake that Rando Thoughtful, the man trying to steer Roland toward a more commercial ending, is actually a man named Austin Cornwell who used to work in advertising.
Luckily, King is as much a word-slinger as Roland is a gunslinger, and he sees through this temptation just as easily. He knows that this series is not about Roland saving the Tower, but about Roland reaching the tower. He knows that he can’t please every fan, and that there is no easy ending. Just like Roland, King made a promise to himself to reach the tower, and just like Roland, he keeps it.