The Dark Tower’s Beginnings

Steven King’s “Dark Tower” saga is everywhere these days. He’s published eight books in the series, and the latest figure I’ve seen is that they’ve sold some 30 million copies combined. It has spawned a comic book series and an “online interactive experience” called Discordia. (The quotes are because I haven’t devoted time to this site myself, so I’m quoting their official description here.) King has said that Roland’s story dominated his life’s work.

The most interesting aspect of the series, to me, though, is the inspiration. King read a poem and was seized with the need to write this story. He said everything sprang so clearly to his mind that as soon as he sat at the typewriter, the opening line “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed,” came to him and he jumped into the story.

As most people know, the poem that inspired this epic work of fan fiction (let’s call it what it is!) was Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.”  Fewer people know that Browning was just a link in the chain. Browning heard a snippet of song and claimed to have had the entire story come to him in a dream and was driven to write the entire poem in one sitting.

Browning’s inspiration was a line in Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” which simply says:

Childe Rowland to the Dark Tower came
His word was still, Fie Foe and Fum
I smell the blood of a British man

Wow, that doesn’t seem worthy of inspiring Browning and King’s works, does it? Luckily, the chain didn’t begin there. Shakespeare, famous for riffing on pop culture of his time, was quoting a well-known fairy tale (the text of which can be read here.) about a young boy whose ballgame is interrupted by a quest, which becomes a murderous rampage through fairy-land.

It’s worth noting that the Fairy King’s version of this line later morphed into the Giant’s chant in “Jack and the Beanstalk.” In this version, he sings:

“Fee, fi, fo, fum,
I smell the blood of a Christian man,
Be he dead, be he living, with my brand,
I’ll dash his brains from his brain-pan.”

Pretty graphic, huh? You’d never guess that what led to this threatened punishment was Roland’s crime of walking around a church counter-clockwise!

Ah, but the story goes back further still.

In volume 2 of his “Folk-Lore” (read full text here) Joseph Jacobs traces roots of Roland’s story through the Middle Ages, most notably the early “fairie tales” where fairies famously stole children and only the bravest heroes dared steal them back. Jacobs uses a translation of this story that speaks of “the good claymore which never struck in vain,” which he says should be interpreted as the sword Excalibur. That’s not as much of a stretch as it might seem. In both versions of this fairy tale, Roland seeks guidance from the Warlock Merlin and becomes invincible after wielding the infallible sword.

So what have we learned?

Roland Deschain the Gunslinger is in fact the literary doppelganger of King Arthur!

(And may have reached The Dark Tower by way of a  giant beanstalk.)

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Why Doc Brown killed Jennifer

Before I start ranting, let me say that I consider “Back to the Future” a nearly perfect movie, and the entire series gets an “A” from me. But then, I’m a sucker for time-travel stories.

I don’t even mind the number of times that Doc killed Jennifer.

The crux of a good time-travel piece is generating clear and consistent logic, and the first movie did that well. In that world, anything one does in the past will have ramifications in the future and they show us this again and again, from the Lone Pine tree to Doc’s bullet-proof vest.

In the second film, they elaborate on this by explaining that each change is creating an entirely new world. You remember the scene where Doc draws this out on a chalkboard.
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Line A shows the original timeline. Line B shows the new universe created when the inciting event happened in the past. Generating the new timeline means the original universe was “erased from existence.”  (I love that line!)

Their logic up to this point is fine. Nevermind the whole “a person can’t erase himself” hullaballoo — if you’re going to suspend disbelief for any time-travel story, you have to be willing to let the story set its own rules.

No, the problem is that Jennifer was such a boring character (even after the addition of the sweet Elizabeth Shue) and since the first movie ended with her hopping a ride with Marty & Doc into the future, the writers of movies 2 and 3 were faced with the prospect of having her hanging out in the DeLorean while the guys did all the fun saving-the-world business … or (Heaven forbid) actually creating a personality for her. They chose option C, dumping her at the first available moment and leaving her out of most of the third film.

They leave Jennifer, of course, in alternate 1985, then decide to journey to the past to right Biff’s wrongs. Marty is hesitant about ditching his girl, but Doc assures him that she’ll be fine, because when they straighten things out, she’ll be dropped in the real 1985 as though nothing had ever happened.

But wait. That is contrary to everything else they’ve ever shown us.

When Biff took the Sports Almanac to 1955, he changed everything, right? Original Doc was replaced by Declared-Insane Doc. Original Marty lost his spot to Fatherless-Dropout Marty. And Original Jennifer presumably became an even more boring Jennifer because she wouldn’t have been hanging around with too-cool Marty anymore.

(Side note: there would have actually been two Jennifers in alt. 1985 – the version who rode in the DeLorean and the alt version who grew up in that universe. But since that leads us to mundanity squared, we can feel free to forget all about it.)

Marty and Doc up in 2015 were not immediately effected because the time-space continuum sometimes has a delayed ripple effect as it regenerates, as shown by the disappearing kids in the photo in the first movie. This inexplicable (yet essential, if Marty was going to restore his existence) phenomenon is, again, consistent throughout the movies.

Except for Jennifer.

The DeLorean Duo gave the world plenty of time to redraw itself between the time they regained the Sports Almanac and when, after a full movie spent hanging out in the Old West, they finally returned to 1985. So would anything from the alt. timeline have survived? Of course not. And Original Jennifer? She’d been dumped in the alt-verse. She, and that entire world, were erased.

The only way for our Jenny to be alive and well in Hill Valley 1985 is if she had never hopped that fateful ride in the DeLorean. But not only did she remember visiting the future, she still had the fax in her pocket.

(Side note: in-home faxes in 2015? Does anyone else suspect that Doc funded his Mr. Fusion by stealing all the patents that led to the invention of e-mail?)

There’s only one logical conclusion. For the greater good, Doc Brown lied to Marty when he explained that Jennifer would be fine if left alone in alt 1985. He was well aware that he had killed her off. Then, stricken with guilt, he and his space-locomotive time-hopped to 2015 once more, snatching Jenny in the last few moments that she continued to exist in our timeline. He then planted her in our 1985, a few days before Marty arrived (to give the ripple effect enough time to do its thing), and gullible Marty believed she had always been there.

As did we. Well played, Doc.

Smells Like Synonyms

If you read how-to books on improving your writing, one trendy idea you’ll encounter again and again is to “engage all 5 senses,” meaning that you should include details in your descriptions for: looks, sounds, touch, taste, and smell.

Smell is the killer. It’s so hard to work in descriptions of smells. Jasper Fforde, in his Thursday Next series, pokes fun at this by insisting that most of the items inside the world of books do not, in fact, have a smell. On the other end of the spectrum is Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, the protagonist of which sniffs more objects than a bloodhound (Claire often stops to analyze scents of things even when someone is holding a gun on her.).

Here’s the problem: we think of scents as something precise, which in turn makes them hard to describe in ways other than mentioning the thing they smell like. So if you’re describing a banana, it smells like … a banana and nothing else.

This is a theory I’ve been working on for a while. Stay with me here.

Anything that you see can be described in a number of ways, by selecting which elements to focus on. A person is comprised of so many blended features that you can’t take it all in at once. When you are introducing a character, you pick the things that mark them as different – hair is common, eyes, stature, build, how they hold themselves, perhaps an odd mannerism. There is a lot to work with. And describing how that person smells can involve a mixture of things they’ve been into .. but often it isn’t appropriate to the image you’re setting up to mention the smell of sweat/body odor that modern society tries to mask.

But when you’re talking about something simpler like an apple, it smells like a dang apple. Nothing else. And the smell has no components to break apart, because we take it in all at once.

And metaphors are a mess.

Let’s say you’re describing the color of a tomato. It’s red, sure, but you want to take it further. There are a million things in the red spectrum that you can compare it to: a rotten apple, the blush of a young maiden, the sunset, Rudolph’s nose. These things all work to not only evoke the color but also set the tone of how you want the reader to view the object.

Now let’s try that with the scent. Try saying that a tomato smells like “apples pickled in vinegar.” Well, first of all, they don’t. But just reading that sentence is apt to jumble your brain a bit because you’re asking people to summon two distinct smells and then try to merge them. That’s not something we do naturally. The mind rejects it and it crashes the story.

No, the only good way to describe a smell is simply to say what the smell is and let the reader take it from there. For example, go ahead and say it smells like a tomato. It gets right to the point and there’s nothing in the world that smells like a ripe tomato.

My point here is not that you should ignore the advice of using the “5 senses” in your writing. I just wish more people would take the next step in dispensing advice and warn against trying to handle scents the way you do other descriptions. All you really need to do to pull the reader in is mention the ambient aromas in the scene.

The Lost Colony of Roanoke

When I was young, the legend of Roanoke captured my imagination. They spoke about it in school, in kids’ history books, on shows like “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.” And there was such an air of mystery!

If you need a refresher, Roanoke was Sir Walter Raleigh’s first attempt to colonize the New World, and it failed miserably. The colonists were sent over, reported to be doing well and making great friends with the natives, and left alone for the winter. When the next supply boat came around, however, there was no sign of the colony. It was as though the entire endeavor had never happened.

Say it with me now: SPOOOOOOKY!

Of course, the most prevalent refrain – the one that was never missing from any retelling of the story – is that “we will never know what happened.”

And this is why historians are so wonderful.

If you have any interest in early colonists, I urge you to read “Big Chief Elizabeth” by Giles Milton. (Ten second review: his writing style is so engaging you can easily forget it’s a history lesson. Why can’t people like this write textbooks?)  Milton details over a century of England’s colonization efforts, but at the heart of his story are the tragedies at Roanoke.

Ready for this? There really is no mystery. Oh, sure, there was at the time, largely due to people not wanting to disclose their own less-than-heroic acts. But journals from that time period spell out the story and … sadly, there is little mystique remaining.

Among the many things they didn’t bother to tell us in school is that the colony named Roanoke was founded several times, always in roughly the same area of Virginia, as their noble experiment failed. Once, it was simply poor planning and too late of a start to the year. Then there were the famines, as they were unable to grow enough crops in one year to get them through the long winters. The Indians went from being happy to help out to understandably miffed that the English kept begging for food with little in return. And it couldn’t have helped that on the first few missions they neglected to send any women.

The first few exoduses involved the entire colony retreating to England. Then, after the famine that led to people eating the leather of their own shoes (You’ve seen the cartoons. The image of a dude with a knife and fork against his shoelaces is much funnier than the cannibalism that they tried to conceal), every able-bodied colonist hitch-hiked a ride home with Sir Francis Drake.

Unfortunately, Drake had recently liberated half a shipful of slaves when he raided the Spanish settlements in the Caribbean, so to fit the English aboard, they ousted the slaves and a handful of the English. Did they leave them at the colony with the housing they’d built? Heavens, no! They were trying to outrun a hurricane, so they dumped the 100+ men on an outlying island with no protection at all against the coming winds.

Nobody survived. This, of course, is not the mystery. This is the shake-your-head-at story that polite society does not mention.

Back to the mystery, then. The English sent settlers once more, again with mixed results. And again the leaders of the expedition abandoned their charges in America so they could spend a warm winter at home. They intended to send supplies in early Spring, not anticipating that the war with Spain would keep all English ships close to home for several years. When new colonists finally arrived at Roanoke once more, it was deserted.

Was it “as though they had never existed”?  Not in the least. Their structures remained – all the items they could not carry with them when they moved.

Was it a surprise to find them gone? Not at all. They had announced their intention to move further inland before the ships left. They even carved some instructions in the trees to lead the new colonists to their new location. If the ship had returned a few months later as planned, there would likely have been a happy reunion.

Milton’s book contends (backed up with great proofs, mind you) that the colonists made a happy new life for themselves North of the Roanoke site … until they were wiped out by an Indian raid. This is not at all unexpected in those times, but a sad ending to our first real colony.

Ah, but it’s not at all mystical, is it?