Studying Storytelling: The Dark Tower by Stephen King
This post is Volume 5 in an ongoing series called “Studying Storytelling" in which I review aspects of HOW stories are told, not the stories themselves. Read here for more on this series.
Thus far, my focus in the Studying Storytelling series has been exclusively on film and television. It was The Sopranos that inspired the concept, after all, and so I've continued to look in that direction for inspiration. Every storytelling format has something to offer, and I think there's a lot to be learned from looking at them.
Today we swing over to literature for the first time, my summary of the novel Blackbirds notwithstanding.
The Dark Tower is a series of epic fantasy novels by Stephen King, probably the most well-known writer alive today in terms of pure name recognition. I mean who else? Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling is the only one that might come close. King's Wikipedia bio says he's sold over 350 million books, but that estimate comes from 2006 and is almost certainly many millions short by now.
For all his success, The Dark Tower books occupy a strange place in King's career. For one, there's a decent chance you've never heard of them. Compared to the litany of blockbusters he's had in his career, The Dark Tower series barely registered a blip in terms of sales when he finished the seventh one. King himself said the following in the foreword to a revised version of the first book in the series:
Although I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time writing these books in the thirty-three years between 1970 and 2003, comparatively few people have read them.
And yet, he also considers them his magnum opus, his masterpiece, a unifying force in the worlds of his stories. Let's take a look at why that's the case and three storytelling elements that made me enjoy the series so much.
Here's the bare minimum background to get us started. The inspiration for the title and the main character of the series come from the Robert Browning poem, "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" which itself was related to a line from Shakespeare's King Lear, which in turn drew the name from a Scottish fairytale. The roots of this thing go deep.
The Dark Tower tells us of the odyssey of Roland Deschain and his "ka-tet," a word meant to describe a group of people who are bound together by fate. Roland's quest involves reaching the titular Dark Tower in an effort to stave off a disaster that could destroy creation.
There is, of course, much more going on, but I'm paying the plot short shrift because I don't want to inadvertently give anything away in case anyone who reads this eventually decides to tackle the series. If what follows whets your whistle at all, there are plenty of other places to learn more about the stories and characters. Having the world hang in the balance is sort of familiar territory for epics like these, but there's much to set The Dark Tower apart from its brethren without having to discuss much of the plot directly.*
To Infinity and Beyond
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
So simple, but it says so much. In a twelve word paragraph, we've been introduced to two characters (gunslinger, man in black), a setting (desert), and some stakes (one man chasing the other).
From that humble beginning, the The Dark Tower series sprawls to reveal an interconnectedness between the world in which Roland exists, our own, and every other conceivable "world" in all the universe. At the center of these worlds is the Dark Tower itself, and it's in serious trouble. If the tower falls, creation itself is at risk. Getting to it in time is Roland's aim, and he'll do anything to succeed. To do that, he'll have to travel between his version earth, Mid-World and various points in history within our world.
Stephen King is nothing if not ambitious. The scope of what he creates in the Dark Tower books is staggering in its reach while also presenting a clever context for almost the entirety of his writing career. Because the Dark Tower serves as the center of creation around which every world revolves, all the other novels King has written also exist within the universe of The Dark Tower series.
This isn't just an observation of what The Dark Tower could mean. The author makes it explicit. Protagonists and antagonists of many of King's other novels have roles to play in the The Dark Tower world. There's a whole page on his website enumerating these connections, and they include some of his most famous stories such as The Stand, 'Salem's Lot, IT, and Insomnia.
The cleverness of creating this connection between all the worlds of his writing means that, in a sense, King isn't just telling a series of independent stories. He's chronicling the history of a universe -- the one that exists in his mind. Audacious, but very cool.
Knights and Wizards but with Guns!
I like fantasy worlds. I like big, crazy stories where you get to follow not just a small tale of a few people but the arc of conflict and politics across whole civilizations. I like hearing about different cities and continents, entire races and populations. This kind of immersive storytelling usually takes several lengthy books to unfold. It's no wonder these types of series garner such loyal and passionate followings. We, as readers, quite literally spend years getting to know the characters.
The catch with epic fantasy is the tropes. They can hem in the story and make them seem to follow a sort of pre-ordained path. We're so familiar with the structure of certain story types that they can sometimes seem like paint-by-numbers, and fantasy is one of the most susceptible to this.
Think about this. If you tell someone to picture a fantasy novel, what are they most likely to imagine? Probably sword-wielding knights in armor, elves and dwarves, kings and queens fighting for power, and wizards shooting magic from their fingers. Basically they picture The Lord of the Rings even if they haven't read the books or seen the movies. That's a testament to Tolkien's great success, not a putdown.
I have no problem with these attributes of fantasy stories. They're part of why I like them, and The Dark Tower has a lot of these things in various forms. What sets this series apart is that it subverts and/or changes them in fun ways.** The simplest way it does this is in the title of this section. Roland Deschain is fundamentally a knight, but he's a also a quick-draw, cowboy, gunslinger. Cool!
Much of The Dark Tower stories unfold like a western laid on top of classic adventure fantasy. Roland himself is a descendant of Arthur Eld, his world's parallel of our own legendary King Arthur. The fourth book, Wizard and Glass, is almost entirely an "old west" kind of story with a little magic thrown in. It's also the best book in the series as far as I'm concerned.
Yet other parts of the stories take place in a very realistic and modern America, mostly New York, through the convenient placement of portals between the worlds. What's more, these portals have "scientific" explanations for existing as much as they have magical ones. So on top of all that epic fantasy, we even get a touch of something like science fiction.***
The mashup of genres could have been a total mess. Think about how it sounds? Here's a bad version of a pitch just for Wizard and Glass: "Alright, so we've got cowboys, but they're actually sort of knights. It's like the old west, but really it's a whole other world. Also, there's a witch, a wizard and a crystal ball."
It could be terrible, but King balances these elements deftly. He picks the best parts of each type of story and blends them together in a way that honors their classic elements without being cliched. It's clear this is a labor of love. He's pulling inspiration from his own favorite stories and genres to make something wholly his own.
Do It Please Ya
So The Dark Tower is a unifying force across the entire spectrum of Stephen King's fiction, pulling every story he's told into a single continuity (more or less). But most of King's other works exist in a world we recognize as very much like our own whereas The Dark Tower novels are largely set in a place known as Mid-World. It's like our world in some respects, meant to be sort of a cousin to it, but also very different in many other ways.
This presents an interesting challenge. How do you make this world feel familiar but distinct? What connects Roland's world to our own and what sets it apart? I see this as different from, say, the Harry Potter books which fundamentally exist within our world. And I see it as different from A Song of Ice and Fire, the books on which Game of Thrones is based, which is a completely different planet even as it shares attributes of medieval earth.
The Dark Tower stories are more of a melding of those two extremes, and the way King makes us feel that as readers is through touch points in culture and language. Certain elements of our pop culture -- songs, books, historical figures, etc -- are also present in Roland's. The song "Hey Jude," for example, appears early in the The Gunslinger and starts the reader on a guessing game on what the relationship is between where Roland is and our world.
And where there are eerie commonalities like "Hey Jude" and "Velcro Fly" by ZZ Top, Mid-World very much has its own culture, too. King gives the residents of that version of earth a vernacular all their own, but it feels so natural I began to wonder if some of the things people say in the stories were actual expressions that I should recognize. Greetings like, "long days and pleasant nights," or statements like "I'll set my watch and warrant on it" are easy to understand in context while making Mid-World more real. That second statement means "you can bet on it," by the way, and "do it please ya," as seen in the heading of this section, means "if you don't mind." There's a glossary of many of the terms King uses throughout The Dark Tower, but if you read the books you probably won't even need it.
Giving characters tics and habits, little distinct traits that make them who they are, that's the kind of thing every writer tries to do. It's how we make them more real, more relatable and more memorable. What stands out in The Dark Tower is how cleverly King builds entire cultures with these sorts of details. Again, his ambition is unmatched.
I mentioned above that The Dark Tower hasn't enjoyed the same level of success as many of King's other books. While that was likely true in 2003 when King finished the main series, it's changed as time marched on. King's legion of fans, perhaps driven to better understand his works collectively, have gone back to discover the series from the beginning.
There is a reverse effect as well. The Dark Tower books were the first King books I've read, though I've seen a bunch of the movies made based on his stories.**** After reading The Dark Tower, I immediately bought several of his other novels, focusing particularly on those that tie in most closely with his epic.
It also seems probable that an increased interest in massive fantasy series helps drive new interest. By way of example, if someone told me they really enjoyed the books from A Song of Ice and Fire, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend The Dark Tower even though they're quite different.
The Dark Tower was a huge undertaking for King, and it's a pretty big undertaking for a reader as well. It's not perfect by any means (what is?), but I have immense admiration for what he accomplished in just completing it. I've said almost nothing about the characters here, but Roland and the four other members of his ka-tet are among my absolute favorites in any series I've read.
The slow burn of growing interest in King's epic tale and the success of shows like Game of Thrones have fueled speculation that The Dark Tower will be made into either a television show or a movie series. I hope it happens in one form or another, and like any good fan who read the books first, I look forward to complaining about every casting choice and change to the source material.
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*There are seven books in the main series, but the author considers them one long story broken up out of necessity. There aren't many 4,500 page books out there, after all. An eighth novel, The Wind Through the Keyhole, came out years later and is set within the main tale but is not necessary for understanding it. I haven't read that eighth book (yet), so we won't be discussing it here.
**I acknowledge there are plenty of other series that probably change a lot of these tropes as well. I'm nowhere near as well-read in fantasy as the truly passionate fans of the genre, and I'm just fine with that. I enjoy it all the same.
***Technology factors heavily into these stories, and it's in that way that I consider parts of the series to have some light moments of science fiction. It ain't Star Trek, but it's there.
****I read a couple of short stories from Everything's Eventual, but that's it.