The Dark Tower (Series) | Study Guide

Stephen King

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The Dark Tower (Series) | The Gunslinger | Summary


About the Title

The Gunslinger refers to the main character, Roland Deschain. He is the last of the gunslingers of old, an order descended from Arthur Eld—Mid-World's version of the legendary medieval King Arthur. Gunslingers are born to their position and carefully trained before being sent out into the world to defend justice and right. Each volume in the series also includes a page within the front matter that shows a single word that serves as a subtitle. For The Gunslinger this word is "Resumption," which refers to the way Roland's journey picks up in midstream. He has clearly been following the "man in black" for some time, and his quest resumes after the events in Tull. Resumption also becomes a fitting term in context of the end of the series when Roland reaches the Tower and is pushed out a door to the start of the quest in the desert. It becomes clear that Roland has pursued the man in black across the desert many times before, as his quest has become an endless cycle and is resuming at this point.


The Desert

Roland, the last gunslinger, and his mule chase the unidentified "man in black" across the desert. Stopping at a small homestead, Roland passes the evening with a man named Brown and his pet raven, Zoltan. Brown previously hosted the man in black, and they talk briefly about him before Roland relates the story of his most recent adventure in the nearby town of Tull.

When Roland comes to Tull he begins an affair with a barmaid named Alice. She tells him how the man in black came to Tull some weeks before and resurrected a dead weed-eater named Nort, whose skeletal appearance Roland noticed in the bar earlier. The man in black leaves Alice a note telling her if she says the word nineteen to Nort he will tell her secrets about death that will drive her insane. She won't want to say the word, but she won't be able to help herself. The note is signed "Walter O'Dim." Alice struggles not to say the word to Nort, and Roland advises her to learn to resist the urge to say the word.

Days later when Roland is in bed with Alice, the bar's piano player Sheb bursts in and threatens them with a knife. Sheb recognizes Roland from another town called Mejis, and he reminds Roland of a girl named Susan and what happened there when Roland was a young man.

Tull is in thrall to a preacher named Sylvia Pittston, who warns her flock about an evil man she calls "The Interloper." She thinks Walter is "an angel of God" for healing Nort and that Roland is the Antichrist. She is pregnant with Walter's and the Crimson King's child, a demon. Roland uses his gun to terminate the pregnancy but leaves Sylvia alive.

As Roland prepares to leave Tull, Alice emerges in the street, driven mad after saying "nineteen" to Nort. She begs Roland to kill her. The rest of the townspeople come after Roland, spurred by Sylvia's claims that Roland is The Interloper. Roland kills them all.

After the story is done Roland and Brown fall asleep. When they wake Brown tells Roland the mule is dead and asks if he can eat it. Roland resumes his journey on foot.


At an abandoned way station, Roland meets Jake Chambers, a boy who saw the man in black—dressed like a priest—come through roughly a week before. Jake gives Roland food and water. Jake's memories are fuzzy. Roland hypnotizes Jake and learns the boy was hit by a car in New York City after a man dressed like a priest pushed him into the street. The priest blessed Jake as he lay dying, and Jake ended up at the way station. Roland alludes to his quest for the Tower when he tells Jake why he is looking for the man in black.

In the way station's cellar, a demon in the wall speaks to Roland using Alice's voice. Roland kills the demon and takes its jawbone. Roland and Jake set out across the desert toward the mountains. Roland remembers how he saw a cook named Hax hanged for treason, and at night he dreams about Susan Delgado. In a clearing in the woods near the mountains, Roland uses the jawbone to stop the Oracle of the clearing from taking Jake. Roland has sex with the Oracle so he can see his future and the path to the Dark Tower. The Oracle predicts a young man addicted to heroin and a woman on wheels in Roland's future.

The next day Roland and Jake continue, and Roland tells Jake about how he suspected his mother Gabrielle's affair with his father's advisor, Marten Broadcloak, when he watched them dance. He will later describe how he found Gabrielle in Marten's bed, and how this discovery pushed him to undertake his early initiation as a gunslinger. With assistance from his hawk, Roland beats his trainer Cort in a contest and wins Cort's guns.

They travel along rails through old mining tunnels under the mountains where they battle and defeat a group of Slow Mutants. Before Roland and Jake emerge from the tunnels, the man in black appears. Jake trips and falls from the rails. As he hangs over an abyss, the man in black tells Roland he will never catch him if he saves Jake. Roland lets Jake fall.

The Man in Black

Roland confronts the man in black on a grassy plain where Roland tries and fails to shoot him. The man in black leads Roland to a Golgotha where Roland recognizes him as Walter, Steven Deschain's former sorcerer. Walter reads tarot cards for Roland—each card relates to Roland in a specific way—and puts him into a trance where he shows him the steps of creation and his insignificant place in the universe. When Roland wakes Walter urges Roland to abandon his quest for the Tower. He reveals he seduced Gabrielle in the guise of Marten Broadcloak and that he is only a servant of "he who now rules the Dark Tower." Roland refuses to give up the quest, and Walter directs Roland west, to the sea.

Roland falls asleep by the campfire. When he awakes Roland has aged 10 years. He takes the jawbone from the skeleton next to him, even though he suspects the skeleton is not really Walter's. Roland reaches the sea and watches the sunset, thinking about his quest.


Genre Conventions

Roland is introduced in a scene straight from a classic Western film. In his introduction to The Gunslinger, King writes of a desire to convey the gigantic scope of these films, which comes through in the description of the desert as "the apotheosis of all deserts, huge, standing to the sky for what looked like eternity in all directions." He meets Brown, who serves him beans cooked over a campfire, classic cowboy fare. Roland's journey through Tull bears many of the hallmarks of classic Western films as well, including his affair with the toughened barmaid and an actual showdown with the townspeople in the main street.

Flashbacks to Roland's childhood call forth images of the Middle Ages. Roland grows up in a stone castle. Steven Deschain rules over a barony with the help of advisors, hosting balls and feasts. Roland is in training to be a gunslinger and has learned the medieval art of falconry.

Roland, an Introduction

Roland's brand of traditional masculinity—also characteristic of Western heroes—is on full display in Tull, where the reader first gets to know him. He is, foremost, a loner, a rugged individual who relies on no one. He exhibits sexual magnetism strong enough to overcome Alice's initial hostility toward him and induce her to lead him upstairs to her room within the span of a few hours. In Alice's bed he exhibits a detached sensitivity. He is sympathetic to her fear of Walter and attempts to comfort her, but his suggestions to her are decidedly rational. He believes resisting Walter's suggestion that she speak the word nineteen to Nort is purely a matter of will. Roland's will is strong, so he assumes others have similar strength.

After he meets Jake, Roland is haunted by memories. He thinks little of his own role in Hax's hanging and expresses little emotion. He is more concerned about the crowd's expressions of sympathy for the doomed cook. These flashbacks are detailed, but the flashback sequences remain in third-person perspective, separate from whatever Roland actually tells Jake, with the narrator making it clear, "The gunslinger didn't tell the boy all of this."

Villain and Hero

In the first line of The Gunslinger, Walter appears to be the object of Roland's quest, and Roland only later reveals that Walter is only a means to an end. Roland hopes by capturing Walter he can force Walter to show him the way to the Dark Tower. The opening line also places the two men on equal footing, and through most of The Gunslinger their relationship as hero and villain remains ambiguous.

Because the third-person narration in The Gunslinger is limited to Roland's perspective, Walter appears to be the villain. However, Roland commits some terrible acts, which calls the reliability of his assessment of Walter into question. In Tull, Sylvia Pittston attests to Roland's evil, and to her he must be. Roland removes her unborn child—the demon spawn of Walter and the Crimson King—by essentially raping her with the barrel of his gun. He goes on to kill a town full of people, including his own lover, Alice. Sylvia has no way of knowing Walter and the Crimson King—the fathers of her child—are forces of evil. At this point the reader has no clear knowledge of the Crimson King's identity either and must take Roland at his word when he says the child is a demon. Sylvia's only knowledge of Walter comes from her witnessing him performing a miracle and raising a man from the dead, the same sort of thing she knows her god, the Man Jesus, did. Again a reader with knowledge of the Christian tradition might interpret Walter's action as a good one. Only Alice's fear of Walter and his taunting her to madness provides an objective indication of what he is in these early chapters. Alice's madness and requests to be killed temper Roland's decision to kill her, but the act still appears coldblooded. His slaughter of the rest of the town raises the question: Might he have killed her anyway?

After the scene in Tull it might be reasonable to conclude that The Gunslinger centers around a conflict between two evil men. Roland builds some credibility as a hero when he defeats a demon at the way station and agrees to take the helpless boy Jake under his wing. When Roland opens up to Jake about his childhood and saves Jake from the Oracle by sacrificing his own body, he appears heroic. Jake's fear of Walter and Walter's resemblance to the man who pushed Jake in front of an oncoming car in New York also provide more objective evidence of Walter's evil. Roland, on the other hand, undoes much of the goodwill he has built by allowing Jake to fall to his death.

Only in the final conversation between Roland and Walter does the nature of each man become clear. Walter confesses to his role in the corruption of Steven Deschain's court. He has been an agent of chaos in Roland's life for years. Walter's resurrection of Nort in Tull speaks to his propensity to sow chaos wherever he goes. Nort is brought back from the dead but not cured of his addiction; he continues to chew the addictive weed in misery and despair. Walter gives Roland an impossible choice when he asks him to give up the quest for the Tower or let Jake die, creating more chaos for Roland. The fortune-telling by the fire and his attempts to manipulate Roland reveal Walter to be the greater of two potential evils, and Roland's essential goodness is confirmed as he moves west and declares, "I loved you, Jake."

Divining the Future

In the tarot reading Walter pulls seven cards, each of which represents an aspect of Roland's future. As Roland points out in Tull, Walter is a terrible man, but he doesn't lie. Roland's destiny is decided, his ka already in motion. The first card is the Hanged Man, who represents Roland. Metaphorically, Roland is hanged by his quest, unable to give it up even though it appears futile and is killing him. The second card is the Sailor, who represents Jake, a young boy traveling through time and space. The third card is the Prisoner, a man writhing in terror. In The Drawing of the Three it becomes clear this card represents Eddie, a man held prisoner by his addiction to heroin. The fourth card is the Lady of Shadows, depicted by two faces and a spinning wheel. In The Drawing of the Three the card represents Susannah, who has a split personality when she meets Roland and is confined to a wheelchair. The third and fourth cards also confirm the Oracle's prediction that Roland will meet a man addicted to heroin and a woman with wheels.

Walter giggles at the fifth card, Death, and says to Roland, "But not for you." He then places the Tower card in the center of the spread, which reflects the Tower's place at the center of creation and at the center of Roland's life. The final card, Life, is also not for Roland, and Walter burns it. The meaning of the Death card and the Life card, not for Roland, only becomes clear at the end of the series, in The Dark Tower. When Roland reaches the Tower he is pushed out, back into the desert and the beginning of his quest. Caught in the loop of his quest, he is unable to die, nor is he able to truly live as he is unable to make independent choices or find any kind of peace.

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