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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