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“Paradox, Reconciliation, and Redemption in The Dark Tower Series”

March 17, 2013

Tags: Stephen King, Dark Tower, paradox, consciousness


The Dark Tower series is King’s magnum opus, a seven-book epic that chronicles the quest of Roland Deschain, the last living gunslinger (a combination of soldier, peacekeeper, spy, and diplomat) in a world that has “moved on.” As we learn bit by bit throughout the series, Roland’s world was once the apex of an advanced civilization. A hundred generations earlier, the ancient people of Mid-World (now referred to as “The Great Old Ones”) built great cities and developed astounding feats of technology and science, gaining enough knowledge to “chip a few splinters from the great stone pillar of reality,” (King, 2003a, p. 220) and yet, as one might guess, “despite a tremendous increase in available facts, there were remarkably few insights” (King, 2003a, p. 221). In their hubris, the Great Old Ones believed that they could understand and control the universe through rational means, and so they replaced the original (and therefore eternal) magic that held the world together with technology (which, being human-made, is impermanent). Of course, as it always does, their knowledge exceeded their wisdom, and the “Beams”—the magnetic forces created to bind existence together—began to disintegrate.

"Everything in the world is either coming to rest or falling to pieces," Roland explains. "At the same time, the forces which interlock and give the world its coherence—in time and size as well as in space—are weakening … breaking down" (King, 2003c, p. 75).

When we first meet Roland he is in relentless pursuit of “The Man in Black,” a sorcerer named Walter who has vital information regarding the achievement of Roland’s quest—to prevent the destruction of the legendary Dark Tower, the last remnant of the eternal magic. The Dark Tower is the axis mundi of existence, the cosmological lynchpin at which all worlds and their manifestations meet and merge into One. It either is or is located at the nexus of time and space, and, as such, is constant, binding, and omnipresent throughout all of reality. The Dark Tower is Roland’s Holy Grail; his quest an obsession to save the Tower from the dark forces of Discordia that wish to send his world (and all other worlds) into chaos, disorder, and darkness.

And yet, from the very beginning of the series, one gets the distinct impression that, for Roland, saving the Tower is not so much the end as the means to a more personal and enduring goal: to climb to the top of the Dark Tower and enter its topmost room. No one knows what is in this room, only that it represents the zenith of all existence within which God (or something like God) resides. To fulfill this mission, Roland believes, is his ka (“destiny” or “fate”). It is this seemingly less altruistic and more personal aspect of his obsession that makes Roland such a multi-dimensional protagonist, for, as we discover, in order to achieve this meta-goal, Roland is willing to sacrifice those he loves without question and with very little remorse.

And opportunities for sacrifice, there are aplenty. When DT1: The Gunslinger begins, Roland is alone on his quest. Over the course of the next two novels, Roland “draws” into his world the members of what will become his ka-tet (a group of people bound by fate or destiny). The first is the wisecracking Eddie Dean from New York City 1987, who Roland thinks of as ka-mai—destiny’s fool. There is Susannah Dean, a double amputee from New York City 1964, whose multiple personality disorder and subsequent integration resurfaces as a main plot point throughout the series. Finally, there is John “Jake” Chambers, an eleven-year-old boy from New York City 1977 who becomes both a son to Roland and his sacrificial lamb. In the language of Roland’s world, the word “ka-tet” literally translated means “One from many,” and although they are at first dragged more or less unwillingly into Mid-World from their respective “whens,” before too long, the band of travelers becomes almost as single-minded in their devotion to save the Tower as Roland himself.

It is not too much of a stretch to say that Roland’s quest can be viewed as an allegory for an individual’s journey to spiritual enlightenment, with the Tower itself representing the non-dual unity of Ultimate Reality that many mystical traditions believe exists beyond the illusion of the distinction and particularity of physical reality. After all, as the cosmological axis, it is at the Dark Tower that all things merge into a transcendent Oneness. This idea of the need for multiplicity to be reconciled within a greater unity in order for balance and health to be achieved is a reoccurring theme throughout the series. Whether he is ever conscious of it or not, from a spiritual point of view, coming into wholeness is Roland’s ultimate challenge, one that must be fulfilled if he is ever to reach the Tower and gain the “enlightenment” that he seeks.

In this essay, I will focus on three of these themes in particular (for, as the Demon of the Speaking Circle says to Roland in DT1, “Three stands at the heart of your quest. … [It is] your way to the Dark Tower” [King, 2003a, pp. 137-138]). They are: Paradox, Reconciliation, and Redemption. Each of the three human members of Roland’s ka-tet embodies one of these spiritual and philosophical goals that turn out to be essential components of the achievement of Roland’s quest.

Paradox: The Dialectic of Susannah

With the Beams breaking down, and all of existence becoming flaky around the edges, paradoxes—defined here as “logical contradictions that may nonetheless be true”—abound throughout The Dark Tower series. There are temporal paradoxes, such as in DT3: The Waste Lands, in which, through a series of circumstances too complex to be explained here, both Jake and Roland suffer a mental contradiction in which each remembers a past that both did and did not happen. There are spatial paradoxes too, for within the multiple worlds emanating from the Dark Tower, an individual can exist in several dimensions at once. And so on. If Roland’s goal of reaching The Dark Tower parallels that of an individual’s search for enlightenment—and if a prerequisite for achieving this unity state is the reconciliation of the One and the many as many mystical traditions insist—one by one, each of these “splits” must be healed in order for the ka-tet to take the next step towards their destination. Only by confronting these logical contradictions and then bringing them into reconciliation can Roland reach the state of illumination that he ultimately seeks.

In the context of the series, nowhere is the internal chaos and pain created by the seeming contradiction that paradox creates as strongly felt as in the character of Susannah Dean. Throughout the series, Susannah acts as the psycho-spiritual container within whom the dialectic of opposites coming into Oneness plays out over and over again. We meet Susannah—first known to us as “The Lady of the Shadows”—in DT2: The Drawing of the Three. This nickname, we come to find out, is chillingly appropriate, for within one psyche exist two very distinct personalities: that of Odetta Susannah Holmes, a sweet, naïve young civil rights activist who lost both her legs when she was pushed in front of a subway train as a young girl, and Odetta’s shadow side—the vengeful and murderous Detta Susannah Walker. Although the two personalities co-exist within the same psyche, neither is consciously aware of the other, though there are hints that each may suspect the presence of the other. Almost immediately after drawing Odetta/Detta into his world and onto his quest, Roland realizes that he must force the two warring, though largely unconscious, personalities to acknowledge one another and then unite them, for only a synthesis of the two together can heal the split between them and aid him in his quest for the Tower.

Much like Roland, 18th century Idealist philosopher G.W. Hegel believed that it was only through a confrontation between the opposing forces of existence that the Absolute (or “God”) becomes self-realized and whole. His method of charting the progress of this unfolding has been call the “Dialectic Method,” and it goes something like this:

In the beginning, a consciousness emerges. This is the original thesis—an undifferentiated singularity. But Life/The Absolute has an impulse for self-identity, which accounts for the differentiation and duality of the finite world. The thesis yearns to know itself, to become self-conscious, but it can only do so if it has a non-self “other” against which to compare itself. In other words, in order for the thesis to be what it is, it must develop a relationship to other things, necessitating something that is not. As Hegel wrote, "what is undifferentiated is lifeless" (Hegel, et al, 1974, p. 67). To put it another way, I can only be me if there is someone or something that is not me to compare myself to.

Eventually, this desire for self-knowledge gives rise to another consciousness, its antithesis. While the appearance of the antithesis fulfills the original consciousness’s yearning for self-awareness, at the same times it is threatened by it and struggles for autonomy. Through the via dolorosa or “The Way of Suffering,” each consciousness must undergo the agony of becoming self-consciousness, during which it finds itself to be strung up between two opposing desires—on the one hand, a desperate need for acknowledgement by another in order for self-awareness to occur and, on the other, an equally intense loathing of its antithesis, which it sees as a threat to its self-will and domination over the world. A kind of love-hate dynamic ensues, one that is equal parts attraction and repulsion.

This power-struggle eventually ends with one self-consciousness overcoming the other and forcing it to bend to its will. The self-consciousness that submits rather than be annihilated, becomes the Slave, while the victor becomes the Master. The Master sets the Slave to work, creating the world according to the Master’s vision. But as the dialectic shows us, a state of power in which there is unbalanced one-sidedness cannot last for long. Over time, a shift begins to occur, for despite the fact that the world the Slave created is of his Master’s bidding, the sweat that mixed with the mortar of the world is the Slave’s own, making the world a reflection of himself. As the Slave comes to realize this, he earns self-respect and identity. While the Slave is establishing self-identity, the Master—who is a passive consumer of the Slave’s creation—starts to lose his self-identity, for not only is the world is no longer a reflection of him, but because the Slave has been subjugated, the Slave is no longer a viable counterpart against which the Master can come to know himself. Because of this shift in identity, the two of them eventually trade positions: The Slave becomes the Master and the Master now the Slave. Hegel suggests that the only way to stop this dynamic from flip-flopping back and forth over and over again ad infinitum is for the Master and the Slave to recognize their interdependence and necessity to one another’s existence. Their equal participation in the world will then lead to a synthesis, in which a greater wholeness is achieved.

In the case of the Odetta/Detta dialectic, although the two remain more or less unconscious of the other until their final union, the two personalities continually alternate positions, with one acting as the “Master” and asserting control over the psyche, and the other becoming the “Slave” and being relegated into the shadows of the unconscious. Roland realizes from the get-go that he must force a confrontation between the thesis of Odetta and her antithesis of Detta in order to bring the two together into wholeness. This confrontation is described at the end of DT2, during which the two consciousnesses, having been forced to recognize the other, physically split apart into two distinct entities:

"Detta saw herself in the doorway, saw herself through her eyes, saw herself through the gunslinger’s eyes, and her sense of dislocation was as sudden as Eddie’s, but much more violent.
She was here.
She was there, in the gunslinger’s eyes.
She heard the oncoming train.
Odetta! she screamed, suddenly understanding everything: what she was and when it had happened.
Detta! she screamed, suddenly understanding everything: what she was and who had done it.
A brief sensation of being turned inside out … and then a much more agonizing one.
She was being torn apart. …
The two women lay face to face, bodies raised like snakes about to strike, fingers with identical prints locked around throats marked with identical lines. …
Kill her, Odetta thought, and she knew she could not.
She could no more kill the hag and survive than the hag could kill her and walk away. They could choke each other to death while Eddie and the
(Roland)/(Really Bad Man)
one who had called them were eaten alive down there by the edge of the water. That would finish all of them. Or she could
let go.
Odetta let go of Detta’s throat, ignored the fierce hands throttling her, crushing her windpipe. Instead of using her own hands to choke, she used them to embrace the other.
'No you bitch!' Detta screamed, but the scream was infinitely complex, both hateful and grateful. 'No, you leave me lone, you jes leave me—'
Odetta had no voice with which to reply. … [S]he could only whisper in the witch-woman’s ear: 'I love you.'
For a moment the hands tightened into a killing noose … and then loosened.
Were gone.
She was being turned inside out again … and then, suddenly, blessedly, she was whole. … She and Detta had merged. She had been one; she had been two; now the gunslinger had drawn a third from her (King, II, pp. 393-394).

In Hegel’s dialectic, in order to come into wholeness, thesis and antithesis must reconcile and unite in love; together creating a synthesis that all at once unites, contains, and transcends them both. Only through the conflict between the original two elements can this reconciling third be freed or born. In the case of the confrontation between Odetta and Detta, only through this painful struggle—this “duel of duality”—could the two personalities come together into a greater wholeness, one that retains and combines the best elements of each, and therefore reveals a higher form of consciousness than either of the original two created separately.

As Carl Jung once pointed out,

"If a union is to take place between opposites like spirit and matter, conscious and unconscious, bright and dark, and so on, it will happen in a third thing, which represents not a compromise but something new … a transcendental entity that could be described only in paradoxes" (Jung, 1970, p. 536).

In this case, the “transcendent third” takes the form of the fully integrated personality of Susannah Dean, who takes the middle name shared by each of her warring personalities as her first name and Eddie’s last name as her own.
Once there had been a woman named Odetta Susannah Holmes; later, there had been another named Detta Susannah Walker. Now there was a third: Susannah Dean (King, 2003b, p. 402).

Reconciliation: The Crazy Wisdom of Eddie Dean

“The universe is the Great All, and offers a paradox too great for the finite mind to grasp,” the man in black tells Roland at the end of DT1. “As the living brain cannot conceive of a nonliving brain—although it may think it can—the finite mind cannot grasp the infinite” (King, 2003a, p. 220).

What stands in the way of us grasping the Infinite? Paradoxes, as I mentioned earlier, are defined as “logical contradictions that may nonetheless be true.” Note: logical contradictions. Just about all non-dual wisdom traditions of this world (and, likely, those in “other worlds than these” as well) try to impress upon us that logical thought cannot reconcile the multiplicity of the finite with the unity of the Infinite. Logic and reason cannot comprehend wholeness, because the function of reason is to separate things into disparate and often antagonistic categories. In order to reach a non-dual enlightenment state, one must therefore find ways to escape the trap of dual thought. If logic brings the pain of contradiction, then only the illogical will bring unity. This, too, is an essential lesson that Roland must learn if he is to reach the Tower. He does so through Eddie, archetypal trickster and ka-mai.

As we have learned, Roland’s world has “moved on.” Once upon a time, magic was a valued epistemology, but magic was driven away by the Great Old One’s emphasis on reason. As the series continues, the reader comes to realize more and more that reason—even more so than any of the embodied agents of Discordia—is the true antagonist of the story, for even those malevolent characters that seek to thwart Roland’s quest are, in one way or another, emanations of a entity that in King’s apocalyptic novel (one of King’s many Dark Tower offshoots), The Stand, is referred to as “the last magician of rational thought” (King, 1990, p. 731). In The Stand, the survivors of a “superflu” called “Captain Trips” are pitted into warring camps, one half of which fall under the direction of a dark entity who goes by the name of Randall Flagg, a character who reprises his role using many guises throughout The Dark Tower series. Through Glenn Bateman, one of The Stand’s main characters, King posits that humankind’s reliance on “the rational” will eventually become our downfall. As Glenn says,

"The superflu we can charge off to the stupidity of the human race. It doesn’t matter if we did it or the Russians, or the Latvians. Who emptied the beaker loses importance beside the general truth: At the end of all rationalism, the mass grave. The laws of physics, the laws of biology, the axioms of mathematics, they’re all part of the deathtrip, because we are what we are. If it hadn’t been Captain Trips, it would have been something else. The fashion was to blame 'technology,' but 'technology' is the trunk of the tree, not the roots. The roots are rationalism, and I would define that word so: 'Rationalism is the idea we can ever understand anything about the state of being.' It’s a deathtrip. … And if rationalism is a deathtrip, then irrationalism might very well be a lifetrip" (King, 1990, p. 730).

In The Dark Tower multiverse, technology becomes an allegory for the “deathtrip” of rationalism. Throughout their journey through Mid-World, Roland and his ka-tet encounter various machines that are in one way or another aiding the destruction of the Dark Tower. One by one they must destroy these remnants of rationalism in order to find their way back to the original magic that the Dark Tower represents. One of the most climactic examples of this is the ka-tet’s encounter with “Blaine the Mono.” The ka-tet encounters the sadistic train on their way out of Lud—a city on the verge of destruction. If they are to continue following the path of the Beam that will lead them to the Dark Tower, they must travel through “the waste lands”—an area of Mid-world that was poisoned during the Old One’s wars. Blaine is the ka-tet’s only hope of making it across safely. However, as Jake correctly observes, “Blaine is a pain” (King, 2003c, p. 246) and, as such, Blaine can hardly make this a simple request. If they want to ride him, he tells them, the ka-tet must answer his riddle.

Well before they meet up with Blaine, riddles and riddling had been a topic of discussion for the ka-tet. In Mid-world, riddling is a highly valued art form, for, as Roland explains, the ability to solve riddles “indicates a sane and rational mind” (King, 2003c, p. 277). Roland himself knows hundreds of riddles, although he admits that he was never very good at solving them for, as he admits, “I’ve never been much good at thinking around corners” (King, 2003c, p. 276). Roland presents his friends with a few sample riddles that he remembers from Gilead’s yearly riddling competition. Eddie responds that he too knows a great many riddles, and begins to regale the group with a litany of dead baby and “why did the chicken cross the road” jokes. To Roland, Eddie’s jokes are a supreme insult to the fine art of riddling. He scolds Eddie harshly, telling him that his brand of humor is “senseless and unsolvable … a good riddle is neither” (King, 2003c, p. 277).

Once confronted with Blaine’s riddle, Susannah (tapping into the sly Detta-aspect of her personality) succeeds in solving it. Blaine allows them to board and they make their way across the terrifying wastelands. Unfortunately, it is out of the frying pan and into the fire for them all. Soon enough, the ka-tet discovers that, like most of the remnants of the Great Old Ones’ technology, Blaine is breaking down. As Blaine himself explains it, he is “suffering a degenerative disease which humans call going insane” (King, 2003c, p. 410), concluding that the only explanation for this breakdown is that it is “a spiritual malaise beyond my ability to repair”(King, 2003c, p. 410). One symptom of his breakdown, Blaine admits, is that he is no longer able to differentiate between fact and superstition. “In fact,” he says, “there seems to be very little difference between the two at the present time. It is very silly that it should be so—not to mention rude—and I am sure it has contributed to my own spiritual malaise” (King, 2003c, p. 412).

The almost hysterical contempt that Blaine has for this seemingly irresolvable contradiction between reality and fantasy—one that his impeccable faculties of reason cannot reconcile—gives us our first clue that Blaine’s intolerance of the illogical will be his ultimate downfall. In his role within the allegory of an individual’s search for enlightenment, Blaine represents the ego mind—the reason-oriented aspect of the psyche that splits the world up into categories and opposing distinctions. Because the ultimate aim is towards a state of wholeness, part of the mystic’s quest is to transcend this aspect of the psyche and achieve the unity that exists behind the illusion of dual forms and categories. But just as the ego mind does not relinquish its control over the psyche easily, Blaine would likewise rather destroy himself than succumb to this breakdown in logic. Not long after they begin their journey across the wastelands, Blaine announces that he intends to commit suicide at the end of the line … and take his passengers with him. In the meantime, Blaine demands, “Ask me a riddle” (King, 2003c, p. 413).

After some quick thinking, Roland challenges Blaine to a life-and-death riddling contest. If Blaine can answer all their riddles before they reach their destination, then he can carry on with his plans for self-destruction. However, if Blaine fails to answer any of their riddles, he must let them pass safely. Blaine agrees. The contest begins, with each of the four taking turns to try and come up with a riddle that Blaine cannot answer. But Blaine is unstumpable and soon enough they run out of riddles to ask. All seems to be lost until, in a moment of illumination, Eddie begins barraging Blaine with the same nonsensical and tasteless jokes for which Roland had chastised him. Like Roland, Blaine is infuriated by what he considers to be an insult to his sense of reason and order, and so he refuses to answer. But the rules are set, and Roland reminds him that silence will be taken as an admission of defeat. Blaine must answer or concede.

Eddie’s koan-like jokes become more and more inane. To Blaine—who is entirely reason-driven, they are the equivalent of verbal gunslinging. The more tasteless and ridiculous they become, the more Blaine’s internal sensors begins to lurch and smolder, until, finally, just as they reach the barricades at the end of the track, Blaine short circuits completely and goes up in a fiery blaze of contempt. The death of Blaine reminds us of the essential need for the collapse of the rational mind in order to reach enlightenment. Roland is deeply humbled and apologizes to Eddie for his short-sightedness, for he, just like Blaine, had become stuck in certain habits of mind that he had always used to order his world, but were, in fact, impeding his quest. Eddie’s use of the “crazy wisdom” of the illogical has taught Roland a second lesson: One cannot reach the Tower using an epistemology of reason and rationality. Only a mind that has transcended the limitations of the finite can ever hope to conceive of the Infinite.

Redemption: Jake Chambers and the Wheel of Ka

There are many doorways into Roland’s world. Even death itself is a means by which several Dark Tower characters who, having died in their worlds, are reborn into Roland’s own—instantaneously and with their original personalities and physical forms intact. Of all the characters, however, Jake Chambers holds the record for the number of deaths and rebirths within the series.

Roland first encounters Jake in DT1, finding him at an abandoned way station in the desert. Jake is confused and unsure of how he got there, but after hypnotizing him, the gunslinger discovers that Jake had been killed in his world, only to be reborn into Mid-world and placed onto Roland’s path. Although Roland suspects that Jake is a trap set by the man in black to slow him down—or perhaps to thwart him altogether—he brings the boy with him across the desert. During the remainder of the book, Roland comes to love Jake like a son, but nothing, not even love or friendship, is enough to distract Roland from reaching the Tower. He knowingly lies to Jake when Jake demands to know if Roland intends to sacrifice him to the man in black. Roland assures Jake that he will be safe, that everything will be all right, and once this lie is spoken, “[the gunslinger] felt something happen in his mind. An uncoupling. This was the moment at which the small figure before him ceased to be Jake and become only the boy, an impersonality to be moved and used” (King, 2003a, p. 153).

The two finally come face to face with the man in black as they are walking across a chasm on an old, rotting railway track. Jake falls from the track, clinging to it and dangling over the pit. The man in black gives Roland a choice: abandon the boy and learn the essential information needed to get to the Dark Tower, or save the boy’s life and continue the chase. Fearing that his chance to reach the Tower might get away from him, Roland abandons Jake, leaping across the chasm without him. Roland nearly falls himself, but at the last minute “his hand [found] the rocky, lighted lip of damnation” (King, I, p. 204) Unable to hold on any longer, Jake falls to his death. As he does, Roland has a glimmer of understanding about the consequences of the choice that he has just made:

"The gunslinger stood drunkenly, pallid as a ghost, eyes huge and swimming beneath his forehead, shirt smeared with the white dust of his final, lunging crawl. It came to him that there would be further degradations of the spirit ahead that might make this one seem infinitesimal, and yet he would still flee it, down corridors and through cities, from bed to bed; he would flee the boy’s face and try to bury it in cunts and killing, only to enter one final room and find it looking at him over a candle flame. He had become the boy; the boy had become him. He was a werewolf of his own making. In deep dreams he would become the boy and speak the boy’s strange city tongue. … He walked slowly, drunkenly down the rocky hill toward where the man in black waited. Here the tracks had been worn away, under the sun of reason, and it was as if they had never been" (King, 2003a, p. 205).

Even that early on in his journey and in the series, Roland recognizes that, by letting Jake fall, he has, on some level, chosen damnation over salvation. And yet in that moment, nothing is more important to him than reaching the Tower—not the lives of others; not even the fate of his own soul. Because of this decision, nothing the gunslinger does in the rest of the series—no act of atonement or purgation of sin—can change the final outcome of his journey.

Jake is not the first of Roland’s sacrifices. In DT4: The Wizard and the Glass, we learn that, as a young man, with his quest just beginning to grip him, Roland’s obsession with the Tower caused the death of his lover and their unborn child. And, soon after that, while in battle, Roland likewise abandoned his first ka-tet, and in doing so lost the “Horn of Eld”—a part of his family legacy that at first seems to have little importance to the story, but later turns out to a vital and missing piece of Roland’s ultimate salvation. The first few pages of DT1 foreshadow Roland’s ultimate downfall due to this loss. There in the desert he is without friends; alone, but confidently so, for, “He still had his guns—his father’s guns—and surely they were more important than horns … or even friends. Weren’t they?” (King, 2003a, p. 6).
No, Jake is hardly Roland’s first sacrifice. Nor is he his last. And yet, of all of those whose blood stains Roland’s path to the Dark Tower, Jake is the one who might actually help Roland to save his own soul. If Susannah represents the mystic’s quest for unification, and Eddie the need to circumvent the rational mind in order to achieve this transcendent wholeness, then Jake—who continually dies and is reborn throughout the series—is there to teach Roland the spiritual ideal that true enlightenment comes only to those who have released their personal desires and attachment to outcome. Roland is gripped by desire, and this, the Buddhists remind us, is the cause of all separation and suffering and thus keeps one trapped within the cycle of death and rebirth. It was desire for a certain end goal that caused Roland to abandon his friends and the Horn of Eld, and to sacrifice Jake for his obsession. What he must learn is that, as all aspects of existence are part of the Tower, they are therefore equally important. Unfortunately, as we all do, Roland remains largely blind to his own failings. As Father Callahan implies during DT5: The Wolves of the Calla, Roland’s obsession with the Tower leaves him at risk for confusing his own will with the will of ka. Such is the nature of addiction, in which one invariably trades faith (the essence of magic) for the will of the ego’s obsession. The addict, like Roland, seeks short term, quick-fix solutions instead of surrendering to the flow of higher meaning.

This is the lesson that Jake is called upon to teach Roland, for despite Jake’s own desire to see the Tower, he never sacrifices his own humanity to do so. We see evidence of this each time Jake puts himself at risk to save his friends, even when doing so results in his own death. Unlike the others, Jake refuses to kill the innocent, even those who have aligned themselves with the forces of Discordia. He says of his ka-tet, “I love them, but I hope I die before [the urge to kill] gets me so bad it stops making any difference if the ones against me deserve it or not.”

Jake’s compassion and unwavering humanity is the antithesis of Roland’s single-minded obsession. In a way, it is also almost its antidote. When Jake is reborn into Mid-world the second time, Roland—who had never gotten over the guilt of letting his surrogate son drop the first time— promises that he will never sacrifice Jake again, not even for the sake of the Tower. It is a promise that Roland does, in fact, manage to keep, for while Jake ends up dying a third and final time at the end of the series, unlike his previous two deaths, this time it is a conscious act of self-sacrifice on Jake’s part, done for the good of the whole, rather than being the result of the gunslinger’s will and obsession. Through Jake, the gunslinger learns to love, learns that perhaps friends are as important (although he never does quite decide that they are more important). Love for the members of his ka-tet—and for Jake in particular—has begun the job of repairing Roland’s fractured soul.

And yet, even that is not enough to prevent Roland’s crushing destiny. Once the remaining ka-tet members do indeed save the Tower from destruction, Roland has a new choice to make. He can be content with this outcome and turn away from his personal quest, or he can continue on to the Tower under the lure of his obsession. Roland chooses to continue, and in doing so more of his rapidly dwindling ka-tet fall by the wayside. When he does reach the Tower, he is alone once again. Climbing the stairs, he has the opportunity to go into various rooms; rooms that represent a different point in his life and which reflect all the decisions he has made throughout his journey to the Dark Tower, as well as their outcomes. But Roland only cares about what is at the Tower’s apex and passes each one by without much thought. He gets to the top and is faced with a closed door with the word ROLAND emblazoned upon it. He opens the door and is pushed through it by an unseen hand, only to find himself once again back in the same desert in which the story began. He experiences a sudden and fleeting moment of clarity in which he finally understands that by sacrificing his friends he has forfeited the very thing that he desires most—Truth and Transcendence. Ironically—paradoxically, even—his ego’s desire to attain Absolute Knowledge has prevented him from attaining it, for, spiritually speaking, desire is an act of will and therefore holds the seeds of its own destruction. In the moments before his memories are wiped clean, returning him to the exact point at which we first met him, Roland comes to understand that the decisions that he believed to be his means of salvation have, in fact, doomed him to an eternity within the wheel of ka.

“How we make large circles in the earth for ourselves,” Roland thinks to himself. “Around we go, back to the start and the start is there again” (King, 2003a, p. 161).

But there is hope, even for Roland, and his friends have taught him well. With the help of his ka-tet, Roland has learned how to love, which he himself once called “the Bright Tower of every human’s life and soul.” The optimistic reader cannot help but hope that by reminding him of the value of love and friendship, Jake and the rest of his ka-tet may have helped Roland come closer to freeing himself from the cycle of ka and his own closed-loop existence. As he begins his journey across the desert once again, Roland reaches down to find the Horn of Eld at his hip. Redemption may yet come, even for him.


Hegel, G.W.F. (1974). Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Vol. 2 (New York: Humanities Press).

Jung, C.G. (1970). Mysterium Coniunctionis: An Inquiry into the Separation and Synthesis of Psychic Opposites in Alchemy. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press)

King, S. (2003a). Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger. New York: Plume.

King, S. (2003b). Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three. New York: Plume.

King, S. (2003c). Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands. New York: Plume.

King, S. (1990), The Stand. (New York: Signet).

"Shamans and Smoke": A Poem by Edward Pacht

July 24, 2012

Tags: shaman, shamanism, poetry, author, reality, writing, Hillary S. Webb

July 23, 2012. Bookbumz in Rochester, authors’ night. My two friends, Steve Hartford and Mike Harmon, promoting their book, Pipedreams: A Freak Tale, and Hillary S. Webb, author of books about Peruvian shamanism were interviewed together, their thoughts blending surprisingly well. These are my notes in verse . . . ~e.p.

"Shamans and Smoke"

Shamans and smoke,
words working wonders,
writers looking sideways,
catching reality unawares,
finding hidden worlds
buried in the corners of the mind,
hidden behind reality
but real,
in words,
Pipedreams and other worlds
talking over,
writing the authors’ life,
changing how one thinks,
living through ones words,
bringing others in
and, as one would hope,
changing them.

--------------------ed pacht