The Dark Tower series, as Stephen King explained in his introduction to its first book, The Gunslinger, is essentially his Lord of the Rings—an epic fantasy tale stretching over several volumes to decide the fate of the world (or, in this case, worlds).
There are differences, of course: New Yorkers instead of hobbits; lobstrosities instead of orcs; western/horror/science fiction instead of medieval fantasy; the Dark Tower instead of the One Ring.
But there are also plenty of parallels: Roland, King’s protagonist, has a bit of Aragorn in him. Maybe some Gandalf, too. Riddles figure prominently, a tribute to the most famous scene in Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
And there’s a quest.
Except that in The Lord of the Rings, the terms of that quest are clear a third of the way through the first book, The Fellowship of the Ring—during the Council of Elrond, Frodo accepts the task of destroying the One Ring. There’s also a principal adversary: Sauron.
In sharp contrast, Roland’s mission still isn’t entirely apparent by the end of The Waste Lands, the third book in King’s opus. We know Roland has been seeking the Tower for years, and that he believes it holds the key to keeping his world (and maybe others) from “moving on,” or falling apart at the seams. But what exactly he’ll do once he reaches the Tower remains a mystery, as does how he’ll get there and who will try to stop him. (Although a late scene with the “Ageless Stranger” might have marked the entrance of a key opponent.)
None of this is to say epic fantasies should always follow Tolkien’s lead—please, by all means, break the mold. But I think the initial directional haziness in The Dark Tower is why I struggled with its first two books. That, and King’s long-winded style.
Thankfully, after spending the first part of The Waste Lands dragging out the formation of his fellowship—Roland, having already gathered Eddie and Susannah, corrects a sin from the first book and rescues a fourth companion—the series finally gets underway. Roland’s “ka-tet” of burgeoning gunslingers makes its way to Lud, a once-wondrous city now descended into chaos and decay. After tangling with its surviving inhabitants, the ka-tet boards Blaine, a monorail with unraveling artificial intelligence, and strikes a (dangerous) deal with him to carry them close to the Tower.
It sounds nuts—and it is—but it’s also fun, and the series finally makes some forward progress. I’d still like a few more details about the Tower, though. Even something as cliché as a prophecy: they’re generally lame, but they at least serve the purpose of giving the reader signposts to navigate by.
But that’s not King’s way. For better or worse, he’s an author you just have to surrender to and trust he knows where he’s going—never more so than in The Dark Tower. And after finishing The Waste Lands, I’m more confident in doing so.
Because the train has finally left the station.
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