The Dark Tower (Series) | Study Guide

Stephen King

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The Dark Tower (Series) | Context


In the introductory essay for the 2003 edition of the first book in The Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger, "On Being Nineteen (and a Few Other Things)," King talks about his late-teenage fascination with English writer J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings series and his desire to write an epic with a similar scope. At age 22 during a viewing of director Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, King felt inspired to meld the American conventions of the Western with Tolkien's medieval-style quest. He writes, "What I wanted even more than the setting was that feeling of epic, apocalyptic size." The result is a seven-volume series, plus a shorter novel addendum, that spans several worlds and time periods:

  • The Gunslinger (1982)
  • The Drawing of the Three (1987)
  • The Waste Lands (1991)
  • Wizard and Glass (1997)
  • Wolves of the Calla (2003)
  • Song of Susannah (2004)
  • The Dark Tower (2004)
  • The Wind Through the Keyhole (2012)

Inspiration and Influences

King pulls from the tradition of medieval quest literature by way of more modern influences. English writer J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings series (1954–55) inspires the ka-tet, a group of questing comrades resembling the Fellowship tasked to carry the ring to Mordor in Tolkien's work. The Dark Tower itself resembles the tower in the mountains of Mordor where Sauron lives and looks out onto the world with his single, lidless eye. The Crimson King in The Dark Tower series uses a single eye as his symbol or sigil. Even the name of Mid-World is a nod to Tolkien's Middle Earth.

The English medieval legends of King Arthur also play a prominent role in The Dark Tower series. Roland, like all gunslingers, is descended from Arthur Eld, the series's name for King Arthur. The man known as Walter claims to be Maerlyn—or Arthur's trusted wizard adviser Merlin in another of his forms—although this connection is called into question in The Wind Through the Keyhole. Whether or not Walter and Maerlyn are the same entity, Maerlyn's magic infuses Mid-World via the Wizard's Rainbow—13 magical glass orbs said to have originated with Maerlyn. These medieval influences derive from two sources for King. The first is the Arthurian-related English fairy tale "Childe Rowland," which, by way of Shakespeare's King Lear (1606), inspired English writer Robert Browning's epic poem "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" (1885), which in turn inspired Stephen King's epic. The second is British writer T.S. Eliot's adaptation of Arthurian legend The Waste Land (1922), paid homage to in King's title for his third volume in the series, The Waste Lands.

The Dark Tower series incorporates many other influences and allusions, ranging from English novelist Richard Adams's Watership Down (1972) to English novelist J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series (1997–2007). Much of Wizard and Glass is loosely based on American author L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). The ka-tet—like Dorothy's band composed of four characters and a dog—travels to an abandoned version of Topeka, Kansas, and moves along a deserted interstate highway to a glass palace meant to resemble the Emerald City. The newspapers they find in the city make overt references to Oz, and Walter presents himself as the Wizard. Wolves of the Calla draws heavily from director John Sturges's film The Magnificent Seven (1960), itself an adaptation of Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954). The text makes overt reference to these influences to suggest an overlap among the many worlds of The Dark Tower's universe.

Geography and Time

The universe of The Dark Tower series is made up of many worlds, which exist separately from one another but overlap. Roland's world, most commonly referred to as Mid-World, is best visualized as a giant wheel with the Dark Tower at the center where six supporting Beams intersect. These Beams are magnetically generated, and each is named after the animal that serves as its cyborg guardian. Roland's quest follows the Beam of the Bear, which connects with the Beam of the Turtle at the Tower; both animals are affiliated with Roland's quest. Destruction of a Beam leads to apocalyptic destruction along the path of that Beam and creates earthquakes along the other Beams. According to legend, the Tower and its wheel of Beams rest on the back of a giant turtle.

The text uses the term Mid-World both as a blanket reference to Roland's plane of existence and to the specific section of Roland's world where his quest takes place. The physical setting is an inhospitable region of deserts, forests, and harsh mountains dotted by human settlements, only some of which are inhabited. Roland hails from the city of Gilead, in the Barony of New Canaan. Residents refer to this region as In-World, but the term is primarily a reference to the area's level of civilization, not to its geographical location. By the same token, references to Out-World indicate an area's distance from civilization, not its physical location.

Unlike the metaphorical names of In-World and Out-World, End-World—the region surrounding the Dark Tower—is a physical location. The Crimson King has a mountainous stronghold called Thunderclap, beyond the farming community of the Calla, that represents the demarcation between Mid-World's borderlands and End-World. However, the name of End-World also includes a metaphorical component. End-World is not physically located at the outer reaches of Roland's world but around the center. The name End-World does not refer to its physical location, but rather the forbidding nature of the largely uninhabited reaches of the region. End-World is the end of civilization, and the Tower's precarious location there makes it the location where the world could come to an end.

In addition to Mid-World, the ka-tet accesses a few different versions of late 20th-century America. The text implies that there are many other versions of Earth that the ka-tet does not access. The ka-tet determines that one version of America is more definitive than the others; it most closely resembles the real-life version of America the ka-tet calls Keystone World. Differences between the varying versions of America lie in small details. For example, Eddie comes from a version of America in which New York's Co-Op City housing project is in Brooklyn. In Keystone World, and in real life, Co-Op City is in the Bronx. In Keystone World and those closest to it, the dominant soft drink brand is Coke, but in other worlds the dominant soft drink is Nozz-A-La.

Even Mid-World is characterized as a deteriorated version of America, most prominently visible in The Waste Lands, in which the city of Lud bears a strong resemblance to New York. In Wizard and Glass, the ka-tet travels to a deserted version of Topeka, Kansas, blighted by a plague that has decimated the population there and—it is implied—at least one other version of America.

The many worlds of The Dark Tower series are accessible to one another through doorways, such as those Roland encounters in The Drawing of the Three, and through "thinnies." Doorways tend to be safer and more reliable means of traveling between worlds, and some of them have been purpose-built to provide links between specific locations. As the name implies, a thinny is a thin place between different planes of reality, usually located near one of the Beams that support the Dark Tower. Should a person fall into a thinny, that person's destination and survival is questionable.

Each world in The Dark Tower's universe has its own timeline. In general, time runs more quickly in Mid-World. Over 300 years pass during Roland's quest in Mid-World, but only 32 pass in America. Because of the differences between worlds, Eddie and Jake are both present in different versions of New York City in 1977. For this reason, locations are described in terms of "the where" and "the when."

Mid-World Lore

Roland does not appear to be particularly religious, but he expresses constant belief in the concept of ka, loosely translated as "destiny." Ka also represents the connections between all events and implies the presence of greater forces at work in the universe.

Creation in Mid-World is thought to have originated from the chaotic Prim, also known as Discordia. From there the worlds emerged, and the Old Ones created technologies that were meant to improve upon the natural state. These technologies were an improvement for a time but caused great destruction as they began to deteriorate. One version of the creation story places the entire universe on the back of a giant turtle.

Magic also plays a substantial role in Mid-World lore, and the 13 glass orbs known as Maerlyn's Rainbow channel some of that magic. Demon creatures emerge from the Prim and create chaos, as in the case of Mia, the demon-turned-mother of Mordred in Song of Susannah and The Dark Tower. The Crimson King and his minion, known primarily as Walter but assuming other forms, also command powerful magic.

The Dark Tower universe has a version of the Judeo-Christian God known as Gan. Under hypnosis, the character Stephen King refers to Gan in Song of Susannah as the source of his stories. When Roland reaches the Tower in the final volume, he discovers it is the body of Gan. Gan then pushes Roland out a door to restart his quest. The people of Mid-World also appear to have connections to Christian theology, as multiple residents in different settlements refer to the Man Jesus. While Christianity in the Calla can be traced to Father Callahan's presence, in the other settlements it provides evidence of more overlap between worlds.

In Song of Susannah, Mia tells Susannah the Crimson King has been promised rule over the new existence that will emerge after the Tower's destruction. The series never clarifies who or what has made this promise, but this statement implies the existence of a great force of evil, possibly synonymous with the Christian concept of the devil.

Connections to King's Other Works

Connections to King's other works are numerous and appear in the text even before the presence of multiple realities is clarified and the character Stephen King emerges on scene to explain why these connections exist. The implication, of course, is that King's other novels represent alternate worlds contained within the universe of The Dark Tower. In The Gunslinger the "man in black," who is known to Roland as Walter, alludes to the many forms he has taken. One of these, the ka-tet discovers in Wizard and Glass, is Randall Flagg, whom avid King readers will recognize as the villain of The Stand and The Eyes of the Dragon.

The connections to King's other novels become a major plot point with the introduction of Father Callahan, the vampire-battling priest from King's second novel, Salem's Lot. The often referenced turtle that holds up the world of The Dark Tower appears as a force for good in the novel It. In The Dark Tower, King's novel Insomnia is mentioned as a key for Roland to understand his quest. While these are the most prominent examples of connections to King's other novels, the complete list of connections is so exhaustive it prompted a New York Times review to repeat King's own claim that the series is the "keystone to his other work."

Publication History and Cultural Impact

The first four volumes of The Dark Tower series were published with substantial gaps between installments, starting with The Gunslinger in 1982 and Wizard and Glass in 1997. In contrast the final three volumes were published in rapid succession in 2003 and 2004. King addresses these gaps in the plot of Song of Susannah and The Dark Tower when he inserts himself into the narrative as a character and has Roland press him to finish the series after a near-fatal accident in 1999. The author also republished revised versions of the first four novels in 2003 to improve continuity with the later texts.

In 2012 King published an eighth Dark Tower novel, The Wind Through the Keyhole, sometimes regarded as a novella because it is substantially shorter than the other volumes in the series. Even though this novel was published after the conclusion of the series, chronologically it takes place between the events of Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla. It is sometimes referred to as volume 4.5 in the series.

The Dark Tower series—like all King's novels—has sold millions of copies and supports a fervent fan base. However, by King's own admission, followers of The Dark Tower series are less numerous than followers of some of his other works, such as The Stand. The series took more 30 years for King to complete, so fans often expressed anxiety about the next volume or volumes in their letters to him. Some worried they might not get to see what would happen to Roland and his companions. After King was hit and nearly killed by a minivan in 1999, readers worried he might not live to finish the series.

Over the years, thousands of forums, fan sites, and wikis have cropped up online where fans share analyses and reviews, discuss theories, and share artwork. Discordia, an interactive 3-D app officially related to the series, was released through King's website in 2009. Since 2007 King's research assistant Robin Furth has supervised a popular comic book rendering of The Dark Tower. And finally, after years of negotiation, production for a much-anticipated film adaptation of The Dark Tower commenced for a 2017 release, with plans for sequels and a TV spin-off also in the works.

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