Grade school, middle school, high school.
That’s exactly how it broke down for me.
NARNIA was the first book series I ever knew and dominated my grade school years. Today the series may not have aged that well, but it blew my mind as a kid to have a fantasy series that spanned more than one story, to deal with such major ideas as the entire creation and destruction of a parallel world, and for seven books to be a single work of art! Next I tackled the writings of Tolkein, and while those books started simple enough, I can honestly say that it took the whole of my middle school years to finally finish them. They were darker and denser.
As mentioned in my previous article, I was seriously getting into Stephen King by the time I started my freshman year of high school and so, now in need of a new fantasy series, I started King’s THE DARK TOWER. It’s hard to articulate the affect that THE GUNSLINGER, the first, and in my humble opinion, still best book of the series, had on me. Coming immediately after LORD OF THE RINGS, which was so dense in exposition and backstory, here was a saga that just started with: “Bang! You’re in a strange world with a strange protagonist, obscure quest, and no backstory. Now take it in.” THE GUNSLINGER is such a hauntingly beautiful book because it’s shrouded in mystery with a hypnotic atmosphere that seems foreign to even the narrator. We follow our hero, a combination of medieval knight and western outlaw, initially unnamed, through a barren wasteland, on a quest to find a strange man, and eventually to reach the Dark Tower. I later learned that King was heavily influenced by Sergio Leone‘s “Man With No Name” films, and indeed, the same way Leone’s bleak and gritty westerns clashed with their Hollywood counterparts, so did THE GUNSLINGER clash with Tolkein’s vision of fantasy storytelling. Imagine a combination of the Arthurian legend, cowboys and spaghetti westerns, and Robert Browning’s poem CHILDE ROLAND TO THE DARK TOWER CAME, and you’ll have some notion of what THE DARK TOWER feels like.
Before the end of that school year, I had devoured the three other books in the series written at that time. THE DRAWING OF THE THREE continued the gunslinger’s quest and gave him several companions. It was great fantasy, more of a conventional action/adventure story after its dream-like predecessor. THE WASTE LANDS added a lot more mythology to this expanding world and was THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK of this series; a sequel with larger scope and better defined where the series was going, and is many readers’ favorite. Finally WIZARD AND GLASS gave the gunslinger the most backstory he had had at this point, focusing on an epic love story. It divided a lot of readers, but I personally loved it. I think a large part of the appeal of the series was how heavily improvised it felt, as if the focus was the storytelling more than the tale itself. It was also my first encounter with a series still in-progress, leaving us readers waiting, wondering if we ever would reach the Dark Tower itself.
I look at these three fantasy series as a trilogy of my youth. NARNIA got this grade school student into fantasy, LORD OF THE RINGS took this middle school student to the next level, THE DARK TOWER brought this high school student into adulthood.
[Of course I’m being overly-dramatic, and I should mention there were other fantasy series I read along the way, though they had less impact on me. I also read Lloyd Alexander‘s THE CHRONICLES OF PRYDAIN in grade school, but barely remember them. And the HARRY POTTER series invaded popular culture towards the end of my high school years. I love POTTER, but somehow, the fact it was so mainstream took away from the experience. DARK TOWER was a more intimate experience. It was my world as far as I knew]
Finally, in college, the final three DARK TOWER books were published and so I finally finished the series, six years after having begun it. I realize that six years may not sound like much; some readers had followed the series for twenty years, and A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE fans have been following that series for seventeen years with still no ending in sight. But you change quite a bit between age 14 and age 20, and those six years had been a lifetime to me. The common opinion among many King fans is that the final three books were not as strong as their predecessors, and I do sadly agree. I do NOT think they’re terrible by any means at all, but I think the heavily-improvised nature of the storytelling, which I mentioned before, took their toll as the final parts of the story clearly had not been planned out. However, this article isn’t the right place to get into a detailed review. I’ll do that next week. Yet, I still must profess my extreme admiration for Stephen King and what he created over a span of decades. Just those final three books alone, though flawed, contain a myriad of plotlines, and the thought that he was pounding them all out one right after the other blows my mind with awesomeness. To continue the STAR WARS metaphor I made earlier, the final three books are kind of like RETURN OF THE JEDI: they may be the weakest chapter in the saga, but they do satisfactorily complete the tale.
[In addition to the seven core books, King has completed a few spinoffs. The prequel short story THE LITTLE SISTERS OF ELURIA gives us an earlier adventure in the saga, while the novel THE WIND THROUGH THE KEYHOLE is a midquel containing two more stories, sort of a SILMARILLION for this series. I found both these works to be unnecessary. Finally, in 2007 Marvel Comics launched THE DARK TOWER, a line of comics expanding on the series, with Stephen King serving as Creative and Executive Director. From what I’ve seen of the comics, they do a fine job both adapting King’s existing story and providing original material set in that same world. And since all of King’s work is interconnected, pretty much all his novels relate to the series in some way, most notably INSOMNIA, HEARTS IN ATLANTIS, and ‘SALEM’S LOT.]
THE DARK TOWER series is quite an achievement and is often cited as King’s magnum opus, which I feel is both true and false. It’s true in the sense that it is epic in scope and a lynchpin for King’s entire mythos of interconnected tales. Anyone who decides to tackle the work of Stephen King will find THE DARK TOWER a major part of the canon. And because it played such a major part in my adolescence, completing the series represented a milestone in my life. I will always be grateful to have accompanied the gunslinger on his quest for the Dark Tower. But with that said, I don’t think the series is his best work by a longshot. Tune in next time as we deconstruct those final three books a little further. Diehard King fans, prepare to start hating me…