Most fantasy novels are terrible. I say this as someone who’s read countless examples of the genre (and written a dozen high-fantasy novels that’ll never see the light of day). The great majority of post-“Lord of the Rings” fantasy books (especially in the young-adult realm) are jammed with stock characters, hackneyed plot structures, and endless wish-fulfillment sequences. If you’ve read one, you’ve pretty much read them all.
I don’t read much fantasy anymore—there’s simply too much good nonfiction in the world, and I’ve finally built up a sufficient base of knowledge to understand how complex concepts intersect. But I’ll admit it: there’s a part of me that still loves the genre for what it can be. Fantasy fiction is one of the world’s last irony-free domains: a space where good and evil, virtue and vice, and heroism and villainy still mean something real. (That’s why, in a cynicism-drenched age, it’s so easy to mock it.)
I’m told that heroin addicts, after their first exposure, find themselves perpetually “chasing the dragon”—desperately trying to experience anew their first incredible “high.” That’s how I feel about the experience of reading certain books. Some have been good enough to send me ranging hither and yon across the genre in search of a similar experience…even if it means having to wade through a lot of dreck.
To be more specific, only three fantasy sagas—Terry Brooks’ “Heritage of Shannara” quartet, Tad Williams’ “Otherland” series, and now “The Dark Tower”—have ever left me with an overwhelming sense of transcendent awe (Dan Simmons’ “Hyperion” comes closest in the sci-fi realm). This sense is deeper than simply the feeling of “having read a good book.” Even years later, thinking about these books’ imagery and themes stirs within me the sense that this story channels something that is true, good, and beautiful. Brooks taps into the theme of duty to family and to heritage, a duty that transcends personal desire (Russell Kirk would be proud); Williams chronicles the desperate search for meaning within an age fragmented by technology and deconstruction; King recounts humanity’s obsessive desire to know the deepest truths of reality, at any cost.
I didn’t initially think I’d find myself writing this review, but something about Stephen King’s seven-volume opus (which I finally finished last month after reading it off-and-on for years) struck a chord within me. It’s not often that I find myself once again experiencing the beautiful, terrible awe that my heart craves, but “The Dark Tower” delivered…and I’ve only appreciated it fully in hindsight.
“The Dark Tower” is a sprawling epic that weaves together Arthurian legend, Western cinema, postapocalyptic horror, and Tolkienesque mythology. Our hero is Roland Deschain of Gilead, an Old West-style gunslinger and last scion of a vanished kingdom (think Aragorn meets Clint Eastwood). His quest: to reach the mysterious “Dark Tower,” a sort of central fixed point at the heart of all existence, and defend it against the legions of chaos seeking to destroy it and end the world. Alongside a band of companions—Susannah, an apprentice gunslinger with multiple personalities, Eddie Dean, a reformed drug addict, and Jake Chambers, a boy with psychic sensitivities—Roland ventures across the varied planes of existence (yes, this is a dimension-hopping, reality-bending series) while uncovering the secrets of his own past.
The saga rests on a complex metaphysical architecture that explores questions of free will, determinism, and divine providence. The prime mover in King’s “Dark Tower” universe is ka, a mysterious force that blends ideas of Greek hamartia and Calvinistic predestination. Ka brings Roland and his companions together, and pushes them toward their respective destinies, but at the same time this ka is deeply bound up with the choices made in Roland’s past. King captures, better than any other genre writer I’ve encountered, the complex ebb and flow of choice and inevitability.
The Dark Tower itself—or rather, what it represents—is the fundamental linchpin upon which the novels turn. Roland’s quest for the Tower is a search for God, a search for himself, a search for home, and a search for truth all bound up into one odyssey. What price would you pay to achieve this goal? King asks his reader. Is life about the journey more than the destination…or is the destination worth any cost? Without ever explicitly saying so, King confronts the philosophical dilemmas of modernity head-on.
That’s not to say this is a perfect book series. Like most King works, the Dark Tower series is wildly uneven, and frequently finds itself weighed down by odd tangents, overdeveloped backstories, and unnecessary secondary characters (for that matter, all of King’s books probably could lose a full 30% of their page count with no harm to the story). Book five—“Wolves of the Calla”—is particularly bad (and it’s worth pointing out that since each book averages around 500-600 pages, this series requires a substantial time investment).
The dull parts aren’t what I remember most about “The Dark Tower,” though. What I remember are the breathtaking, evocative images King conjures forth—a standoff between good and evil in a bone-riddled desert, a lonely beach between worlds, a possessed train, a fallen Emerald City, and the cloud-shrouded Dark Tower looming over a field of blood-red roses. All these and more blend together into a single haunting experience of grandeur.
Perhaps most contemporary fantasy is terrible because it is deeply narcissistic, filled with super-powered protagonists blasting through anything and everything in their paths. What inspires real awe isn’t the actualization of our own desires, but rather an overwhelming sense of smallness in the face of true ultimacy. Only in experiencing powerlessness can we feel wonder—but “powerlessness” isn’t a sentiment that sells lots of books. So at the end of the day, perhaps I’m destined to keep chasing the awe-dragon.
But if “The Dark Tower” demonstrates nothing else, it proves that beauty in prose is out there, for those with the wherewithal to seek it.
Upon lingering reflection, “The Dark Tower” genuinely becomes more than the sum of its parts.