Considering Roland's Quest
by Matthew Peckham

The Dark Tower: The Dark Tower Roland's entire quest exists in a kind of karmic loop, one he has traveled countless times, and may travel countless more. At the top of the tower, Roland finds a door with his name carved upon it; when he opens the door, he sees the Mohaine desert -- the same desert that begins The Gunslinger. The last lines of the book are the same as the first, "the man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." Thus the story ends where it began.

The overarching moral of the story -- if indeed "moral" is the correct word -- is a clean lift of Hindu mythology, in which humans are viewed as approaching (or retreating from) nirvana according to their actions and observation of present responsibilities. In Hindu tradition, nirvana (also called moksha) is reunification with Brahman, the universal God or oversoul (Stephen King's word for this is "Gan"). To reach this state, a soul must live many lives, practicing good karma and eliminating bad, and moving up through the varna or caste system. Escaping the karmic cycle is the end goal, and involves becoming one with Brahman on a higher plane of existence and reuniting with the cosmic energies of creation.

King's rendition of karma, fate, and destiny is embodied in his single word "ka" (also an Egyptian term meaning "life force"), which Roland invokes endlessly to justify whatever happens. Roland is accursed, wrapped in shackles of his own making (note his last name, Deschain, from the French des meaning "of" and chain meaning "chain," thus "Roland of/in chains"); his monomaniacal insistence on ka to eliminate responsibility and choice -- most of all his willingness to kill anyone and anything that stands between him and the Tower -- is what forces him to repeat his journey, perhaps endlessly if he is incapable of learning. The close of The Dark Tower, which places him back in the Mohaine Desert, but with the horn of Eld (Roland's sigil, abandoned carelessly by him before he was snared in the loop), and returned here as a sort of reward.

How does the ending rate? Of all the possible climaxes, ranging from gun-blazing blowouts to hyper-sophisticated post-structuralist, post-modern smarm, King's choice of endings is arguably the most mature as well as the most earned. It is also, in an elemental narrative sense, given the tremendous risks the story takes and in direct relation to the futility and misdirection of most story endings, the most honest.

Copyright © 2004 Matthew Peckham

Matt Peckham lives in Nebraska and Iowa. His first book, a guide to Mike's Carey's Lucifer, will be published by Wildside Press. For more about Matt, check out mattpeckham.com

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