King's Highway pt. 29: The Gunslinger (Dark Tower pt. 1)

Welcome to Dark Tower National Park and Wildlife Reserve! Easily accessible from all points of the King's Highway and strewn over many miles of primary and secondary texts, the DTNPWR offers visitors a truly unique hiking experience. We hope you enjoy your visit. Follow all trail markers and do not stray from the path. Beware the Lobstrosities; beware the Taheen. For a free road map or to follow along at home, see here.

For the duration of our stay in the Dark Tower mythos, we will observe the following trail-guide format: Overview / What You'll See/ Whom You'll Meet / Trail Difficulty / Scenic View / Trail Notes.


Lao-Tzu famously said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with one single step. My journey through the Dark Tower verse begins with the first sentence of The Gunslinger, which is "The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." Stephen King wrote that line in 1970 while a student at the University of Maine; although technically still in progress (a Dark Tower prequel - well, one that takes place between the fourth and fifth book of the series - was published this very year, and we have the final part of the Talisman trilogy to look forward to, as well) that sentence received its true ending-punctuation thirty-four years later with the publication of The Dark Tower in 2004, book seven of the saga that begins with this, The Gunslinger.

Originally appearing as five short stories that were collected and published as a limited-edition novel by Donald M. Grant, Rhode Island book publisher extraordinaire in 1982, this was significantly expanded and revised in 2003. (King discusses the reasons for both the expansion and his drive to finish the story in his excellent introduction to the revised edition. For a list of differences between the original and revised edition, click here.)

King refers to Clint Eastwood's iconic The Man With No Name for his inspiration for Roland, and a mix of the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns and Tolkien's Middle Earth fantasies as his inspiration for Mid-World et al.
Myself, I saw a bit of The Rifleman in it, as well, although he has never acknowledged this to be the case.
And who knows if he even read these (I assume he has - King seems to have read everything, God bless him), but there are more than a few parallels to Michael Moorcock's Elric books, as well. Particularly Gilead to Melnibone.
"As a review should open with a synopsis of the plot of the book, I must use this time to alert you to the strange lack of plot of this book. It is simply a book in which one man follows another, throughout which flash backs and contemplations are our only distraction from the endless and parched desert of the gunslinger’s world... It begins with a lone ranger style character crossing a seemingly endless desert in pursuit of a mysterious “Man in Black”. It is followed with a traditional old west style account of the gunslingers time in Tull, a small tumble-weed town fit with saloon and shoot out. It is here where we see the first glimpses of religious mysticism and intrigue which follow into the intellectual scientific mystery of the Dark Tower, time and the universe itself."

The Battle of Tull, where Roland kills every last man, woman, and child. As I read this part, I visualized the action as it would appear in a "very special episode" of The Rifleman. I hope on some alternate world, Chuck Connors got to play Roland Deschain; hell, I hope on some alternate world Russell Crowe - slated to portray Roland in the still-coming-together film adaptation - is starring in a remake of The Rifleman.
"The mystery of the book can also be overshadowing at times, rather than simply clouding perception the reader’s understanding is completely blocked for certain aspects of the narrative; which, at the closing point of The Gunslinger, can be overlooked, provided that they are explained later on in the series, otherwise this will be a serious flaw in this single book, let alone the series as a whole... I would not say this was an enjoyable read, but an intriguing and exciting one that has left me both frustrated and enthralled. The promise of the books that follow make the first book worth the reading as, when it boils down to it, the first book did nothing more than introduce the myths and imagery of the series, which themselves are a truly refreshing take on fantasy fiction."

I would say this is fair. (For the full review, see here.) The ending tête-à-tête between Roland and The Man in Black is heady stuff, but it does do a nice job of contextualizing the metaphysical conceits of the story to follow. The "reveals" of the tarot reading, though, make no independent sense; it takes the next volume to give them meaning.


The landscape of The Gunslinger is primarily that of the Old West, granted one that has more than its share of mystery, both mystical (just how is the Man in Black bringing people back from the dead and such?) and sci-fi (abandoned remnants of a civilization gone to seed, which we'll see even more of as we go along). We pass through the desert, a small desert-town, an abandoned way station, under a mountain where Roland and Jake do battle with "the slow mutants," that staple of all post-apocalyptic fiction, and end at the edge of the Western Sea.


The Gunslinger himself, of course, and The Man in Black. And Jake. Those are the major characters. We also meet some other characters (particularly in Roland's flashbacks to his youth in Gilead) who will play a role in the stories to come. Does this do the best job introducing them? I'm going to say... yes and no. On one hand, we are dropped right into the mystery, which is sometimes the best way to get to know someone. On the other, I think Jake, particularly, comes across as a bit more knowable in the books to come.

The Man in Black. Not, of course, to be confused with...
A gunslinger of a different sort.

It's written by Stephen King, arguably one of the most accessible authors this planet has ever produced, so even at its most opaque, I didn't find it to be all that hard to follow. Maybe you need a taste for the abstract to make it more palatable? I can see someone getting frustrated. It's a logical enough beginning to the story/ this Dark Tower National Park, and perhaps this is the steepest incline the reader will face. The next few books are undoubtedly both easier to follow and more traditionally plotted.

It's a quick read, which helps. A couple of train rides, at most. (I measure reading spans in train rides, which for me are about 45 minutes, so make your adjustments accordingly.)


I imagine doing this blog before Marvel started adapting this would make for a lot fewer images.
Good timing, I guess, although I haven't read any of Marvel's adaptations.


Will we find out more about the slow mutants? Intriguing snapshots of Gilead before whatever-fall occurred that drove Roland out.  

'The mystery of the universe is not time but size.'

'Suppose that all worlds, all universes, met at a single nexus, a single pylon, a Tower. And within it, a stairway, perhaps rising to the Godhead itself. Would you dare climb to the top?'

'The wind moaned, a witch with cancer in her belly.'

'Friends and lovers lie endlessly, caught in the web of regard.'

I like the little poem this guy made for this page, here.
The Drawing of the Three!


  1. More than once, I've seen people recommend simply skipping this novel and starting the series by reading "The Drawing of the Three." That always makes me do a mental facepalm. I just don't get it. It's a consistently entertaining novel for its entire length: people get massacred, fat women get gun-rape abortions, there are mutants, a guy gets his eye put out by a hawk, another guy gets hanged, so forth and so on.

    All in less than two hundred pages.

    What's not to love?

    1. I think my favorite sequence was that Tull flashback. Creepy, mysterious, and disturbing. (As you say, it features, after all, a gun-rape abortion; this ain't your grandmother's Gunslinger, folks...)

    2. That's a pretty great sequence, all right. My personal favorite is the final section, the palaver between Roland and Marten. Some of King's absolute finest writing.

      This is still my favorite novel of the series. I love all of them, and several (II, III, IV, VII) I would say are books I love only a hair less, but the first one has a special place in my heart.

      Then again, I'm one of the weirdos whose favorite "Star Trek" movie is "Star Trek: The Motion Picture," so I'm not always in the majority in situations like this.

    3. I have literally never met anyone whose favorite Trek movie is the first! Nice. It seems people are a bit kinder to The Motion Picture these days than they were when we were growing up. (A friend of mine refers to it as the "Heaven's Gate" of the Trek franchise. I disagree, but it's a funny description.)

      Yeah, that palaver scene is great. It's a bit like their (Roland's and Walter's) Ritual of Chud, isn't it? (Kind of - not entirely.)

    4. Well, kind of, but with less sloppy-seconds action. Yuck.

      I could wax long and poetical about how I think ST:TMP is a misunderstood near-masterpiece on account of the ways in which the V'Ger concept serves as a mirror for the character arcs of Kirk and Spock individually, and how that serves as a mirror for the arc of their friendship, and how THAT serves as a mirror for the ways in which Trek overall reflects various human needs.

      And someday, when I get around to working on one of my many as-yet-unwritten blogs (this one is called Where No Blog Has Gone Before -- an inaccurate, yet amusing title), I will do just that!

    5. Sign me up when you get there.

      Interesting re: V'Ger. I kept wondering why no one brought up Nomad/ The Changeling, but one gets the impression the Enterprise crew more or less flushes what happened in previous adventures. Hell, Kirk didn't even remember his actual brother existed/ died at the end of STV, when he has his little moment with Spock. But... where to begin with that one.

      Anyway! Good blog name.