The Worlds of The Dark Tower and The Stand
The Dark Tower series is the core of the Stephen King Universe, and the axis upon which our entire thesis for this book rotates. Though the majority of the author's work takes place in the parallel reality dimension that contains King's fictional towns Castle Rock, Derry, and others, the parallel reality of Roland the Gunslinger--and by extension that of The Stand--is much more fundamental.
Just as, in the series itself, The Dark Tower is the point of time, space, and reality where all dimensions meet, the spindle of creation, so are most of King's works then an outcropping of the Dark Tower series, which was conceived as early as 1970. Nearly all of King's heroes and all of his villains, scattered across the various parallel realities, are involved in a single cosmic conflict, with the Tower as the ultimate prize.
Although Stephen King worked on the Dark Tower series for three decades, consciously and unconsciously weaving it in and out of his other writings, a great many of his readers are likely to have missed its prominence. Just as the Tower itself binds all realities together, this series of stories and concepts is the center of the Stephen King Universe, the many fictional worlds he has created.
And it all started with a poem.
King read Robert Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" (1855) for a class assignment in his sophomore year (1967/68) at the University of Maine at Orono. In March of 1970, the year he graduated, he began the first novel in the series, The Gunslinger. He continued to work onthat novel over the course of the next twelve years, even while he was writing some of his best-loved works, including 'Salem's Lot (1975), The Shining (1977), and The Stand (1978).
Did he realize, then, at the start of the process, that it would be all of a piece, all bits of a single story? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
But it is. In the fourth volume, Wizard and Glass (1997), he at last came to that conclusion. In the afterword, he states:
I have written enough novels and short stories to fill a solar system of the imagination, but Roland's story is my Jupiter--a planet that dwarfs all the others ... I am coming to understand that Roland's world (or worlds) actually contains all the others of my making; there is a place in Mid-World for Randall Flagg, Ralph Roberts, the wandering boys from The Eyes of the Dragon, even Father Callahan, the damned priest from 'Salem's Lot.
In the latter volumes, the truth of this collision of worlds becomes incarnate, as characters from 'Salem's Lot, Hearts in Atlantis, and others all enter into the saga as significant characters, all from different worlds, and as Stephen King himself is drawn into the series as a character, the author a part of his own magnum opus. It is all of a piece.
Herein, we shall discuss the books in this series and those related to it, how they are interrelated and interconnected, and how they touch upon and are likewise touched upon by other of the author's works.
The history of the Dark Tower series is this:
In a place called Mid-World--which might be the future of a world much like our own, or a separate reality entirely--the land is divided into Baronies, some ruled by an honorable rank of men called gunslingers, much like knights. One of the jewels of Mid-world is Gilead, whose lord is Steven Deschain, a gunslinger descended from the bloodline of Arthur Eld, who had united much of Mid-world in ancient times (King Arthur, of course).
But during Steven's time, a new threat arises. John Farson, called "the good man," has begun to incite a rebellion among the peasantry and even some nobility against the Affiliation, the governments of the various Baronies that have banded together. Traitors and spies abound. Marten, a wizard advisor of Steven's, seduces the lord's wife and flaunts that intimacy in front of Steven's son, Roland, a gunslinger-in-training. (In order to become gunslingers, the young students have to best their teacher in battle.) Marten hopes to force Roland to an early test against his teacher so that he will fail, and be killed or banished from Gilead.
Marten's scheme works, but only partially, for Roland does best his instructor in single combat.
Roland is shocked to find that his father is aware of Marten's machinations, and Steven prevents him from going after Marten. He tells his son that Marten is working with Farson (though in fact Marten will eventually be revealed to BE Farson), and in order for him to be certain Roland is safe, Steven sends his offspring incognito to a seaside Barony called Mejis, along with his two best friends--Cuthbert and Alain--neither of whom are full gunslingers yet.
In Mejis, however, they find that Farson's plans have stretched even further, and the local authorities are in league with the rebellion. It is evident that Farson, though pretending to be the hero of the people, has had sinister intentions all along. Soon enough, a dark magician called Walter shows up in Mejis; the mage apparently works for both Farson and Marten. Once again, however, it seems this creature has many faces, and is in fact yet another facet of the same man. Walter is Farson and Farson is Marten, all one and the same. There are many other faces to this being, whom we may alternately refer to as "Flagg" or "Legion."
Roland falls in love with Susan Delgado in Mejis, and though their love is doomed (as is Susan), it will be the one real love of his life. During his time by the sea, Roland comes into possession of a glass ball, a powerful magical tool that is part of Maerlyn's Rainbow. In it, he sees a vision of the future, much of which he cannot remember later. One thing remains clear to him: the Dark Tower at the center of all things, the spindle upon which reality turns, has been somehow tainted. It is being corrupted, and Roland decides instantly that he must devote his life to a quest to save the Tower.
Before he may do that, however, he returns to Gilead, where he is tricked by a witch into killing his own mother. The time subsequent to that is shrouded in mystery. All that is known is this: Farson's efforts cause the destruction of the Affiliation and the devastation of Gilead, which only hastens the changes that are coming to the entire world. The world, as Roland says so often, is moving on. It is ending, growing barren and empty. The only way to stop that is to save the Tower, and so Roland and his friends set off on a quest to find it. During that mission, all of his associates, his ka-tet, die, until only he remains.
Many years later, he catches up with Walter, the man in black, and learns a little about the true nature of the Tower. Thereafter, he begins gathering a new ka-tet from various worlds connected to his own: Eddie and Susannah Dean and Jake Chambers become gunslingers in their own right over the course of the quest.
The new ka-tet faces many adventures and hardships during their time together. They cross over from one world to another and then back, through thin places between those worlds. In the New York City that Jake is from there is a rose that is the physical embodiment of the Tower before it became tainted. The agents of chaos, or of the Beast that now guards the Tower, the Crimson King, want it destroyed; Roland and the others will have to save it.
They meet Flagg on their journey, and it is revealed that he is also Marten (Walter/Farson/Legion), who serves the Crimson King. As noted, the specific chronicle of Roland is the centerpiece, but a great many of King's other works have direct or indirect ties to it. Flagg originally appeared in King's landmark novel The Stand, still widely considered to be among his best. In that book, a U.S. military research facility investigating biowarfare accidentally unleashes a virus that kills 99.4% of the population of the Earth. In America, the survivors are plagued with dreams of a kindly old woman serving the side of light, and a dark man with blazing red eyes who serves the cause of darkness. This is Flagg. Over the course of the novel, the survivors join one side or the other, and eventually those serving light must make a final stand against those serving darkness. Flagg is defeated, and society and civilization begin again.
At the time of The Stand's publication, Flagg's part in Roland's story was unclear. In fact, the next time Flagg appeared as a major figure was in The Eyes of the Dragon (1987). In that fairy-tale-like story, Flagg is a wizard serving a king in a medieval landscape filled with magick, a land that seems somewhat similar to but not necessarily the same as that of Roland the Gunslinger. (Flagg was noted to have returned to that particular city many times over the ages.) The heroes of that tale eventually defeat Flagg but he escapes, prompting two of them, Thomas and Dennis, to go on a hero's quest to destroy the wizard. That is a story as yet untold.
In the novella "The Little Sisters of Eluria," King clearly connects Roland's world with that of The Eyes of the Dragon, unmistakably making them one and the same. In The Dark Tower IV, Roland and his ka-tet pass through a parallel dimension that is clearly that of The Stand, just before they finally meet Flagg face to face.
A major theme of the Dark Tower series is that due to the machinations of The Crimson King, the "beams" of power that emanate from the Tower and hold all time, space, and reality together are being broken down and corrupted. This phenomenon has affected all of those realities, causing the barriers between them to begin breaking down and allowing for some travel from one to the next.
Consider these few examples:
• In Insomnia (1994), a young boy has a vision of Roland, and the main characters find themselves up against the Crimson King. They save the life of that boy, who is going to be vital to Roland's battle against the Crimson King. If Patrick Danville dies, the Tower will fall. Thus, Ralph and Lois and Patrick Danville are allied with Roland against the forces of chaos represented by the Crimson King and Flagg, among many others.
• Roland recalls having met Dennis and Thomas, from The Eyes of the Dragon, who are on a mission to destroy Flagg.
• Father Callahan, of 'Salem's Lot, plays a major role in the final three volumes of the Dark Tower series, though Callahan is from a world that is clearly not that of the series.
• In It (1986), there is a great deal of discussion about the Turtle (a benevolent being in opposition to the Crimson King), a clear reference to Roland's saga.
• In Hearts in Atlantis, it is revealed that the Crimson King employs humans with psychic abilities as "breakers," forcing them to use their mental powers to aid in the shattering of the Beams that bind the worlds together, the center of which is the Dark Tower. Once the Beams are shattered, the Tower would come completely into the Crimson King's control and he would then be able to manipulate all realities to his liking.
• Also in Hearts in Atlantis, there is a very oblique reference (see "Hearts in Atlantis") that indicates that Randall Flagg himself is interfering in the lives of the characters in the book. His purpose is unclear, but is likely related to their relationship to the "Breaker" they meet early in the story. It seems likely that the protagonists of the book may also find themselves allied with Roland and his comrades in the final battle.
• In Rose Madder (1995), the world that exists inside the painting seems likely to be Roland's world, as there are references to the City of Lud.
• In Black House (2001), the sequel to 1983's The Talisman (both coauthored with Peter Straub), Jack Sawyer runs afoul of Breakers and the Crimson King.
All of this reinforces the idea that all beings in the various parallel realities of the Stephen King Universe--his main protagonists and antagonists in particular--are involved in one enormous struggle for the fate of the Dark Tower. Within the Dark Tower series, King introduces the idea that the Beams have cosmic guardians whose avatars are animal in nature, including "the Turtle," a cosmic being who actually plays a part in It. In another form, the lingering power of the Turtle plays a vital role in the final arc of the series.
With all of the connections above in place, one might then move further out into King's works, making the links to the various stories set in Castle Rock, Derry, and Haven. Take, for instance, The Tommyknockers (1987). With references to John Smith of The Dead Zone (1979), it is tied to all of the Castle Rock books and stories. With mentions of Derry, it is linked to It and Insomnia, and therefore to the Dark Tower saga. There are more associations, but the foregoing simply serves to illustrate that all of King's stories are indeed of a piece, and that the Dark Tower series, as noted, is the center. These heroes and villains--almost all of King's central characters--are merely soldiers and pawns, or at the very least innocent bystanders, in the grand battle to determine the ultimate fate of the Tower.
What follows is a guide to each individual work in the corner of the Stephen King Universe that contains the parallel realities of the Dark Tower series and The Stand. Each segment includes a discussion of the work in question and a guide to the key characters, as well as places or items, where appropriate.
THE DARK TOWER: THE GUNSLINGER
**revised edition (2003)
"The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."
So begins Stephen King's longest work. Not The Gunslinger itself, but The Dark Tower, the series of which this novel is merely the first installment.
It is within the pages of this first installment, however, that the many threads of the Stephen King Universe begin to be drawn together. The quest of Roland--whose journey and epic significance to his world give him numerous opportunities to explore other parallel universes, traveling through space and time--mirrors our own quest to understand the Stephen King Universe as a whole.
As the story goes--becoming its own sort of myth, in a way--King began the saga of Roland the gunslinger in March 1970, and continued to return to it when the tale called to him over the course of the ensuing twelve years. It was inspired by Robert Browning's epic romantic poem, "Childe Roland" (1855), which was in itself inspired by the legends surrounding the August 15, 778, death of the real-life Count Roland, nephew of Charlemagne.
The Gunslinger is comprised of five long chapters, all of which were published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction between 1978 and 1981. The story defies genre classification, melding horror, fantasy, sciencefiction and mystery together into what King designed to be a sort of romantic epic, but which became far more.
Roland's world may once have been similar to our own, but what civilization there once was has been all but forgotten. The old society, crumbled so long ago that it is little more than myth, was then replaced by a feudal system reminiscent of mythical England before Arthur brought unity to that land. The equivalent of the King Arthur myth in our world is the tale of a man called Arthur Eld in Roland's. Roland is the last surviving descendant of Arthur Eld.
In the time of Roland's youth, the land of Mid-World was organized into a collection of Baronies called the Affiliation, but we learn that all of that has passed on; the world is deteriorating rapidly, and much of what remains is barren wasteland. Time and space have little meaning, making compasses useless. Roland has lived for an indeterminate period of time, and while not immortal, it seems now that with the slippage of time, age means little.
As a hero, Roland is perhaps King's most single-minded, implacable creation. When we first meet him, he has long since lost everything that ever meant anything to him. The world, as we are reminded time and again, has moved on (though it will be some time in the series before King begins to explain precisely what that means). Roland pursues the sinister man in black, a wizard called Walter, not merely to punish him for his offenses, but to discover more about the Tower itself. The Tower is revealed to be the cornerstone of all existence, holding the meaning to life and the universe (or the multiverse). Roland hopes that at the Tower, he will find ... what, exactly? Answers? Enlightenment? An odd thing, really, for such a single-minded hero to seek enlightenment, for one so stolid and hardened to search for the secrets of the universe.
Yet that is what we have here. King doesn't let Roland dwell too much on the metaphysical nature of his quest, but it's there just the same.
And Roland is effective. It is only logical to extrapolate from the dialogue between Roland and Walter at the end of The Gunslinger that a powerful entity has recognized in Roland the potential to do precisely what he plans. Interestingly enough, however, the force does not appear determined to stop him. And why should it? Nothing can interfere with ka, the word, in Roland's world, for destiny.
There is more to Roland than even he knows.
As the narrative evolves, Roland must struggle with the focus and callousness he was taught as a gunslinger, as well as his great capacity for love, a part of him that he regularly denies. Still, he places his quest above all else, even at the cost of the life of the boy, Jake Chambers.
But Roland is a product of his world, a place that had already "moved on" (begun to deteriorate, suffering greatly from natural--or perhaps forced--entropy) when he was a boy, but now has broken down even further. It seems that all that is good and noble has gone out of the world. Just as another modern version of the romantic epic hero, Luke Skywalker of Star Wars, is the last of the Jedi Knights, so is Roland the last of the gunslingers, until, like Skywalker, he himself searches out, discovers, and begins to train more.
King's boyhood home, Durham DAVID LOWELL
But while George Lucas's creations take the stage a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, King's characters feel much closer to home. There are startling similarities between Roland's world and what we'll call the Prime Reality, in which novels such as The Shining (1977) and 'Salem's Lot (1975) take place. Some time in the past--as evidenced by old songs and artifacts and the words of Walter--Roland's world was almost identical to the Prime Reality of the Stephen King Universe, the one that includes Castle Rock and Derry.
ROLAND: A member of the warrior caste called gunslingers, Roland is the son of Gabrielle and Steven, the rulers of Gilead, the Barony where Roland grew up. Gilead was the shining star in the Affiliation, a group of baronies that made up the core of Mid-World civilization. Thanks to the machinations of the sorcerer Marten (a.k.a. Walter, a.k.a. the man in black), the Affiliation was shattered and civilization crumbled. The world moved on, suffering the predations and deterioration of entropy. The gunslingers died off or were killed. Roland is the last of them.
Roland's quest, at first, is twofold: first, to find the man in black and have vengeance upon him for his evil doings, and second, to journey to the Dark Tower, and there find the answers to the questions of the universe, including the very nature of reality itself. His quest to find the Tower is not merely for curiosity's sake, however. He believes it to be his destiny--his ka--and also believes that the universe is unraveling because of some malevolent force gnawing at the Tower and at the Beams that bind all of reality together, and that this must be stopped.
During this journey, Roland meets Jake Chambers for the first time. Jake is one key to the evolution Roland must undergo on his journey, but when he is faced with the choice of letting the boy die or losing the trail of the man in black, he chooses to pursue his quarry, and Jake dies. For now.
Later, Roland spends ten years entranced by the man in black on a mountaintop, after Walter has told his fortune. Roland's quest, though he has already been at it for a very long time, is merely beginning.
WALTER/MARTEN/FLAGG: Also known as Walter O'Dim and the man in black. Though we are not yet aware of it, Walter is merely one face for a being we refer to (as King has referred to him) as Legion. He is also Marten Broadcloak and Randall Flagg, among others.
Walter is a powerful sorcerer who manipulates and topples rulers, spreads his influence, and perpetuates evil in the service of a Master we are not yet familiar with. Walter manipulates Roland's life and leads him on a chase across the desert and to the mountains, where he reads Roland's fortune and gives him a psychic vision revealing the true nature of the secrets within the Tower, before apparently dying himself, having served his purpose.
As Marten, he was a sorcerer and enchanter who manipulated Roland's father, Steven, and seduced the man's wife, a series of events that led to theruin of Gilead. As Flagg, he has performed many heinous deeds throughout the multiverse.
THE CRIMSON KING: Though we see very little of the Crimson King at the outset of Roland's tale, it is implied that he is the gunslinger's true enemy, and all others merely his servants.
JAKE CHAMBERS: Jake is not from Roland's reality, but rather, some other dimension. After he is murdered by being pushed in front of a car in his own reality, he is somehow transported to Roland's world, where he briefly joins Roland on his quest. When Roland is forced to choose between catching the man in black or letting Jake fall to his death, however, Roland lets the boy die.
Jake will return, though, for he has a continuing role to play in the journey of the gunslinger.
STEVEN DESCHAIN: Father to Roland, husband to Gabrielle, lord of Gilead, he is betrayed by his wife and his confidant, Marten. It costs him his life.
CORT: Cort is the instructor who teaches the boys of Gilead everything they need to know to become gunslingers. He teaches them how to use their weapons, as well as hand-to-hand combat and strategy. In order to "graduate," a gunslinger must defeat Cort in brutal single combat. If the young man cannot defeat his teacher, he is banished from Gilead. Roland becomes the youngest gunslinger ever to defeat his teacher.
CUTHBERT: During their youth, Cuthbert was Roland's best friend. In time, he became a gunslinger. Cuthbert was part of Roland's original ka-tet and would one day become a casualty of his quest for the Tower.
DAVID: In order to defeat Cort and take his place among the ranks of gunslingers, Roland must choose a single weapon. He selects his falcon, David.
GABRIELLE: Roland's mother, Gabrielle, is wife to the ruler of Gilead.
She betrays her husband by sleeping with Marten, the enchanter. She is later accidentally killed by her own son.
HAX: A cook in the service of Roland's father, he turns out to be a traitor, and is hanged by the Gilead authorities. Roland attends the execution.
SUSAN: The one girl Roland ever loved, Susan was a part of his life many years ago. She was burned to death in Mejis, a tragedy of which we shall learn more in subsequent volumes.
THE TOWER: The Tower is the axis upon which all time and space, all of reality, spins, and from which the Beams that bind reality together, just like spokes from a wheel, emanate. It is Order placed upon the necessary and infinite Chaos of the multiverse. Within the physical existence of the Tower lies all the knowledge, magickal and otherwise, in existence. Roland is determined to find it.
THE DARK TOWER: THE GUNSLINGER: TRIVIA
• The Gunslinger was originally published in a limited hardcover edition of ten thousand copies. Perhaps because King deemed it so very different from his other work, years passed before it became available to the general public in any other edition.
• The revised edition of The Gunslinger was published in 2003. In addition to adding length and texture to the original, King altered and clarified certain story elements, providing fresh hints regarding the overall mythology of the series.
Photographs copyright © 2000 by Beth Gwinn, Susanne Mass, David Cowell, and others.