The Dark Tower (Series) | Study Guide

Stephen King

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The Dark Tower (Series) | The Waste Lands | Summary


About the Title

The Waste Lands refers to the barren countryside Roland and his ka-tet traverse on their quest toward the Tower in this volume. It also references T.S. Eliot's epic poem The Waste Land, which is a retelling of the legend of King Arthur, the ancestor of all gunslingers and the inspiration for Roland's quest. 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 Waste Lands this word is "Redemption," which refers to how Roland redeems himself by rescuing Jake and returning him to the ka-tet—and both of them to sanity. Eddie and Susannah have also found redemption through their love for one another and devotion to becoming true gunslingers.



Five months after Roland draws Eddie and Susannah into Mid-World, he is training them as gunslingers, and Eddie and Susannah are deeply in love. Roland has fully recovered from his encounter with the lobstrosities, but he has a new problem. The time paradox he created when he saved Jake from Jack Mort is slowly driving him mad. He only half-remembers Jake in Mid-World, which is simultaneously real and not real. Roland becomes so concerned about his stability that he gives Eddie and Susannah his guns for safekeeping.

Despite this setback the quest progresses. The ka-tet confronts a cyborg bear called Shardik, guardian of one of the 12 Beams that intersect with the Tower. Roland believes Beams may hold up the Tower, or the Tower generates the Beams, possibly both. The ka-tet kills Shardik by severing the electronic "thinking cap" on its head. Concerned about Roland's deterioration, the ka-tet performs a ritual with Walter's jawbone. Eddie has a vision of a wooden key; he must remember the shape and carve it so they can open a door to 1977 New York.

In 1977 New York, Jake is no better off than Roland. He is having problems at school and at home because he has strange visions of Mid-World that he doesn't understand. Jake writes a final essay for school that references T.S. Eliot and Robert Browning, and describes Roland the gunslinger and other elements of Mid-World. He skips school and goes to The Manhattan Restaurant of the Mind, a bookstore owned by Calvin Tower. He buys a book about a sentient train called Charlie the Choo-Choo and a book of riddles. Following his intuition Jake wanders to a vacant lot on the former site of a deli. In the debris he finds a rose and a key. The voices and visions go away when Jake holds the key, and he feels fiercely protective of the rose.

When Jake comes home his father is angry with him for skipping school. Jake stands up to his father and goes to his room to read Charlie the Choo-Choo, not understanding why the story of a sentient train with the Mid-World Railway Company, called out of retirement for a trip to Topeka, Kansas, resonates so much with him.

Jake's Return

Eddie partially carves the wooden key and gives it to Roland for safekeeping. When Roland has the key the voices in his head disappear. Roland, Eddie, and Susannah encounter a ring of standing stones along the Beam, and Eddie recognizes it as the place where Jake will come through. Roland talks Eddie through a crisis of confidence, and Eddie finishes the key.

In New York Jake dreams of Mid-World, then he packs a backpack and travels to Brooklyn for a meeting. In front of a movie theater displaying a Clint Eastwood poster, Jake sees two boys, one of whom he recognizes from his dream. The two boys are young Eddie and his brother, Henry. Jake follows them to a creepy abandoned house known as The Mansion.

Back in the circle Eddie can smell The Mansion from his childhood. Jake goes into The Mansion and finds a door, where he uses the key from the abandoned lot. In the circle Eddie works to open the other side of the door. Susannah calls forth Detta Walker to have sex with the demon that lives in the circle, distracting it from Eddie and Roland's task. Using the wooden key Eddie connects the Mansion and the circle. Roland pulls Jake through and they are both whole again.

On the Path of the Beam

The ka-tet, now made up of four members, moves along the path of the Beam. They meet a billy-bumbler, a creature that resembles both a dog and a raccoon but with the power of rudimentary speech. Jake names the animal Oy, because that's how it responds when Jake speaks to it. The group finds the wreckage of a 1930s German fighter plane formerly piloted by someone named David Quick. They also come through a town called River Crossing, where they receive a warm welcome that includes food and drink. The town matriarch, Aunt Talitha, gives Roland a silver cross.

The group approaches the city of Lud, where two groups, the Pubes and the Grays, wage war against each other to the rhythm of ZZ Top's "Velcro Fly." The bridge into Lud over the River Send resembles New York's George Washington Bridge, and Jake and Oy are nearly lost while crossing the rickety structure. As Roland, Eddie, and Susannah are distracted by the near-miss, an outlaw named Gasher kidnaps Jake, taking him into the tunnels under the city.

The Tick-Tock Man

Roland and Oy pursue Gasher and Jake into the tunnels. Gasher takes Jake to the Tick-Tock Man, who believes Jake may be able to understand the deteriorating machines that run Lud and help repair them. The Tick-Tock man is the ruler of the Grays, and his men play the ZZ Top song to drive the Pubes into a frenzy of human sacrifice. He believes mastery of the technology around him will assure his power over Lud. The Tick-Tock Man and his minions may also have sexual interest in Jake.

Jake uses the Tick-Tock Man's desire to master the failing technology around him to pick a fight between the Tick-Tock Man and Gasher. Chaos ensues, which enables Roland and Oy to rescue Jake. Roland beats the Tick-Tock man severely and leaves him for dead. After Roland, Jake, and Oy depart, Walter—in the form of Richard Fannin—rescues the Tick-Tock Man.

Blaine the Mono

While Roland and Oy pursue Jake and Gasher, Eddie and Susannah make their way to the Cradle of Lud, a white stone building similar to Grand Central Station, where they find Blaine the Mono, a disused monorail train that does celebrity impressions and enjoys riddles. Blaine plans to release nerve gas and wipe out Lud's warring population. He agrees to allow the ka-tet to board if they can answer a riddle involving prime numbers. Susannah brings Detta Walker forward and solves the riddle. Once aboard and moving, Blaine tells the ka-tet he plans to commit suicide by derailing with them on board. Roland makes a deal with Blaine by telling him about riddling traditions in Gilead. Blaine agrees if the ka-tet can beat him in a riddling contest he will take them safely to the end of the line, Topeka.


Technology and Evil

A common thread through The Waste Lands is the way unchecked technological advancement can become destructive, especially when that technology is abandoned and left to decay. The Old Ones sought to improve the world with their creations, but they have left behind an infrastructure that threatens the fabric of existence. Roland's explanation of this infrastructure at the start of the novel reframes his quest in coldly practical terms. While the Tower does carry symbolic meaning for Roland, this is not just some mystical journey. Roland does not fully understand the specifics of the Tower and Beam structure, but he understands enough to know that the Tower and the Beams rely upon each other for stability. Existence, in turn, relies on the Tower and Beam structure's continued function in all its many worlds and planes of reality. Whether the Tower generates the Beams or whether the Beams are generated elsewhere and support the Tower is beyond Roland's knowledge and is ultimately immaterial. The material issue is preserving this structure that maintains life as he knows it.

In a twist that illustrates the Old Ones' intentions, each Beam is named for an animal and guarded by a cyborg incarnation of that animal. The Old Ones sought to improve upon nature, but they also used nature as the basis for their improvements. Shardik, the bear guardian, is larger than natural bears, stronger, and presumably more intelligent with its thinking cap in place. The technological advancements of the Old Ones are not limited to gadgets and machines designed to make life easier—although those exist. These advancements were meant to reshape the world. The Old Ones gave little thought to what might happen when their machines started to fail until it was too late. They disappeared and left an unstable wasteland behind. While their actions are not manifestly or intentionally evil, their irresponsible use of technology has created chaos and instability that gives rise to evil.

The environment the Old Ones left behind is ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous characters such as the Tick-Tock Man. Born Andrew Quick, the Tick-Tock Man has inherited leadership of the hostile Grays from his father, David. He has adopted a name that embraces the technology over which he craves mastery. He uses the machines and computers at his disposal to create chaos and havoc in Lud, and his hunger for more technology is an offshoot of his hunger for power. He is as corrupt as the machines he commands and is greedy and perverted, as are his followers.

Even though artificial intelligence was the stuff of science fiction when The Waste Lands was published, Blaine the Mono provides a strong caution against giving machines sentience. It is difficult to consider Blaine good or evil in any traditional sense because he is a machine—a malfunctioning machine. Yet he has a sense of right and wrong. The "Little Blaine" voice that cautions the ka-tet against boarding the train understands Blaine has gone mad from the decades, perhaps centuries, of boredom sitting in a station. Little Blaine knows Blaine is dangerous and functions as much as a conscience, sentient machine can have. Whether out of boredom or insanity, Blaine wants to do evil things. His desire to wipe out Lud and kill his passengers speaks to a desire to punish humanity for leaving him to his own boredom and suffering for so long. These same factors often drive people to do evil things as well.

Redeeming the Past

Even though it almost drives him to madness, Roland redeems one of his past regrets by bringing Jake back into Mid-World to join the ka-tet. He has carried guilt about letting Jake fall into the abyss in the mountain tunnel for all the time he has been conscious since his talk with Walter by the fire. Even though he saves Jake from being killed by an oncoming car when he occupies Jack Mort's body, this action does not help. It is no good to save someone's life and condemn them to madness, and Roland has also condemned himself to madness. By saving Jake's life and making him whole again, Roland atones for this one mistake.

Eddie also finds the seeds of redemption in drawing Jake into Mid-World. His vision tells him to carve a key to open the door for Jake, and woodcarving was a hobby Eddie enjoyed before heroin consumed his entire existence. By sending him this vision, ka is actually instructing Eddie to get in touch with his former self, to take the first steps to becoming what he was so he can become what he will be. Eddie works on the key in fits and starts, finishing it at the last minute because he fears he will get the carving wrong and the key won't work. He hears Henry's voice in his head telling him he is worthless and will never be more than a junkie. Eddie's real fear is that he cannot become the man he was and cannot fully recover from his life of addiction. The process is difficult and frightening, which makes Eddie's triumph even greater.

Susannah's alternate personality Detta Walker also finds redemption in The Waste Lands. In The Drawing of the Three Detta was a force of pure malice, even though that malice was driven by justifiable anger. Susannah can now channel Detta's malice into a productive purpose to bring Jake to Mid-World and save him. She uses Detta's vengeful sexuality to seduce the demon in the stone circle and keep it occupied. It is a profound sacrifice of her own body—and Eddie feels the sacrifice as well because he loves Susannah. But by using Detta as the dominant persona in this interlude, Susannah distances herself from the violation, and Detta's anger makes Susannah the more powerful player in the encounter with the demon.

Reading Materials

In school Jake writes a poem about the things he knows to be true that alludes to Roland as the gunslinger as well as two texts Stephen King uses as the basis for The Dark Tower series: Robert Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" and T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. These references fit with the pattern that emerges in the last volumes of the series, when King becomes a character in his own work. Jake's poems create a self-referential loop in the text that is only explained when the reader learns that King is the conduit for the Dark Tower's story. In composing his poem for class, Jake appears to be a similar conduit. He thinks his poem is inspired by the madness he feels from voices and half-memories cluttering his head, but everything stems from the greater influence of King and ka.

In a similar way Jake's choice to read Charlie the Choo-Choo foreshadows the existence of Blaine the Mono in weirdly specific ways. Jake's affinity for the book is more evidence of ka connecting all things, and evidence of the possibility that the author of this children's book is another conduit for ka and the Tower's story. In Wolves of the Calla when Jake and Eddie visit New York, they find the author of Charlie the Choo-Choo is Claudia Inez Bachman, the widow of Richard Bachman, who began life as a pseudonym for Stephen King, which extends his role as ka's pipeline even further than he realizes.

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