The Waste Lands (Revised Edition)
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"Roland's story is my Jupiter, a planet that dwarfs all the others…"
A General Introduction to Stephen King's The Dark Tower Novels
The Dark Tower books have followed a publishing arc unique in modern literature. Beginning with a now-legendary series of five short stories published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fictionfive stories which now comprise the first volume of the novel cycleStephen King has spent thirty-three years writing The Dark Tower. It stands today as a singularly ambitious work of quest literature, matched only by J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings fantasy epic. A series that operates beautifully as a single, stand-alone saga, The Dark Tower series also ties into and informs many other novels in Stephen King's fictional universe. King's vast galaxy of overlapping realms and charactersa galaxy that has been exhaustively annotated and analyzed by the author's peerlessly avid fan-baseoutstrips even Faulkner's fabled Yoknapatawpha County as a wonder of narrative interconnectedness.
Though inspired by a wide range of literary antecedents and cultural archetypes, The Dark Tower saga was initially sparked by a course on the romantic poets at the University of Maine. It was here, King has said, that he first encountered a deeply enigmatic, richly symbolic poem by Robert Browning called "Childe Roland to The Dark Tower Came" (1855). King's object, dating back to his sophomore year in college, was to fashion a long novel that played on the conceits and constructs of the romantic aestheticto attempt a work that echoed the epic tone and atmospherics of Browning's poem, if not its explicit narrative line. Volume I, The Gunslinger, first appeared in hardcover in a limited edition from Donald M. Grant in 1982. The Plume trade paperback edition was published five years later and became a #1 national bestseller.
With Scribner's 2003 release of the fifth volume, Wolves of the Calla, and the culminating sixth and seventh volumes both slated for publication in 2004, Stephen King nears completion of what many argue is the crowning masterwork of a matchlessly prolific career. Of the undertaking, King has reflected, "I have written enough novels and short stories to fill a solar system of the imagination, but Roland's story is my Jupitera planet that dwarfs all the others (at least from my own perspective), a place of strange atmosphere, crazy landscape, and savage gravitational pull. Dwarfs the others, did I say? I think there's more to it than that, actually. I am coming to understand that Roland's world (or worlds) actually contains all the others of my making."
In which the Pilgrims commence their Way
About The Waste Lands: The Dark Tower III
Stephen King's third foray into Mid-World raises the stakes on all the mystery and quasi-Gothic romanticism established in The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger. At the same time, Stephen King continues and enhances here the artful fusion of gritty realism and extravagant fantasy that powered the action in The Drawing of the Three. Beginning with its title and its shades of Eliot at his most darkly portentous, The Waste Lands is perhaps the most ambitious work to date in the Dark Tower cycle, full of incisive psychological explorations and fast-paced, seamlessly episodic storytelling. And, despite its highly unresolved cliffhanger of an endingor because of itThe Waste Lands is arguably the most popular and widely discussed volume in the series.
As he did with the Loser's Club in It and the Ad Hoc Committee in The Stand, Stephen King dramatizes the forging of an unlikely community and highlights the deeply complex bonds that develop among the ostensibly dissimilar figures who are united under the ka-tet: Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake, and even Oy the billy-bumbler. The Waste Lands also establishes the physics by which Roland's universe operates. Six beams run between twelve portals which mark the edges of Mid-World. Standing at the point where the beams cross at the center of the worldor the center of all worldsis the Dark Tower.
Book One, subtitled "Fear in a Handful of Dust," chronicles the drawing of the real thirdJake Chambers. To effect this drawing, Roland and Jake must battle their own fraying psyches and achieve a reconciliation between their doubled memories regarding the paradoxical events (or nonevents) surrounding Jake's death(s). Book Two, subtitled "A Heap of Broken Images," takes readers to the city of Lud and finds the pilgrims again waylaid and separated from each other. All are tested on their gunslinging abilities before they ultimately find themselves en route to Topeka, where Mid-World ends and End-World begins, borne along at 800 miles per hour, in helpless thrall to the madly rambling riddle-lover called Blaine the Mono.
The Waste Lands ends here, with an eerie "moment of silence" in the wake of Roland's desperate final bargain with Blaine. "Try me with your questions," the mono taunts, "and let the contest begin."
By any measure, Stephen King occupies a central position in the recent history of literature in English, having produced a body of work that is as artistically vital as it is commercially prominent. His primacy in the horror-fiction canon in particular bears comparison to that of J.R.R. Tolkien's station among modern fantasy writers. And like Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, and Sinclair Lewis before him, King has demonstrated over the course of his career a rare talent for limning the cultural zeitgeist and expressing the characteristic concerns of his era. The fact that he has worked largely within the parameters of the horror and fantasy genres in pursuing these ambitious ends makes his achievement all the more remarkable. Since his earliest works in the 1970s, King has been an author of matchless international reach, enjoying an enduring brand of popularity that transcends all presumed literary and commercial boundaries.
For all the darkness and terror with which King's narratives are generally associated, many critics and fans have argued that King's often brutal fictional universe belies a fundamental optimism about human nature. Richly populating his novels and stories with all manner of pop-cultural signifiers and pitch-perfect minutiae of American middle-class life, King's writing holds up a mirror of sorts and reflects that, even in a world of cynicism, despair, and seemingly infinite cruelty, it remains possible for individuals to find love, discover unexpected resources in themselves, and conquer their own problems, along with the malevolent powers that would suppress or destroy them.
Born in Portland, Maine in 1947, Stephen Edwin King is the second son of Donald and Nellie Ruth Pillsbury King. After his parents separated when he was a toddler, King and his older brother, David, were raised by his mother. He spent parts of his childhood in Fort Wayne, Indiana; Stratford, Connecticut; and Durham, Maine.
King graduated from the University of Maine at Orono in 1970, with a degree in English. In January of 1971, he married Tabitha Spruce, whom he met in the stacks of the university library. Shortly after graduation, he began selling his first short stories to mass-market men's magazines. Many of these stories later appeared in the Night Shift collection and elsewhere. In the spring of 1974, Doubleday published King's first novel, Carrie. He has since written more than thirty-five books, all international bestsellers. His recent works include Everything's Eventual, From a Buick 8, Dreamcatcher, Bag of Bones, The Green Mile, and the nonfiction work On Writing. He is also the coauthor, with Peter Straab, of Black House and The Talisman. Under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, King has published several more bestselling works, including The Regulators, Thinner, and The Running Man. Most of his books have been adapted for the screen, including: Dreamcatcher (2003), Hearts in Atlantis, The Green Mile, Misery, Stand by Me (from "The Body"), Thinner, The Shining, Carrie, Christine, The Stand, The Dead Zone, Pet Sematary, Cujo, and Firestarter. Among King's forthcoming books are Wolves of the Calla: The Dark Tower V; Song of Susannah: The Dark Tower VI; and The Dark Tower: The Dark Tower VII.
A celebrated philanthropist and the father of three children, King lives in Bangor, Maine and Florida, with his wife, novelist Tabitha King.
- The Waste Lands is loaded with widely disparate cultural signifiers, from early-career Paul Newman to speed-metal bands to Frodo Baggins to Germany's Weimar Republic to Sugary Ray Leonard to King Arthur's Court. What is the effect of this kind of "kitchen-sink" referencing? Describe the tone of Stephen King's novel.
- How would you characterize Eddie Dean's emotional health in this third novel? What is the nature and provenance of his mysterious connection with Jake Chambers? How does their wordless affinity play out over the course of this novel?
- What is the nature of morality in Mid-World? Does King encourage a traditional good-and-evil reading of his novel? Explain. What fates and fortunes ultimately meet the novel's "evil" or immoral characters? What of the benevolent characters?
- Upon finding the metal ID tag and learning that the giant bear was called Shardik, Eddie is struck by a faint twinge of recognition. The name Shardik triggers in Eddie a seemingly inexplicable association "with rabbits." What is Stephen King's sly joke here?
- How might the work of Richard Adams, both his classic Watership Down as well as the lesser-known novel Shardik, relate to some of the larger themesof cultural decay, of societal conflict, of nature versus civilizationthat run through The Waste Lands?
- In his bizarre dreamscape early in the novel, what book is Eddie holding in his hand as he walks along Second Avenue? What is King up to here?
- Explain the elements of the great paradoxrooted in the events of The Gunslinger and The Drawing of the Threeunderlying Roland and Jake's "doubled" memories and burgeoning madness.
- Recount what happens at the campsite in the "Bear and Bone" section after Roland tosses the jawbone of the man in black into the flames. What do the three pilgrims see in the fire? How does this episode spark the events by which Roland and Jake finally reconcile the paradox that is driving them mad? How do the images of the key and the rose come to inform the ka-tet's quest?
- Who are the Grays and the Pubes? What is the nature of their war?
- Discuss the notion of the purple blade of grass. What role does this image play in the climax of The Gunslinger, and how does it reassert itself more expansively in book three?
- Consider the novel's title and its direct evocation of T. S. Eliot's acclaimed poem. "The Waste Land" met with more than a little controversy when it was published in 1922, because it marked such a radical and wholly unprecedented departure from traditional poetic style and structure. What is "The Waste Land" about? How do its themes and images echo throughout King's third volume?
- In what ways does Eliot's revolutionary stylehis virtuosic layerings of literary and historical allusions, his unconventional language and meter, his lyrical fluidity, and his haunting preoccupation with decayspeak to King's own style in The Dark Tower?
- Eliot's poem has been called a dark riff on the quest tradition in Western literature. Where does King's novel fit in this tradition? In detailing the journey of the human soul searching for redemption, Eliot's poem largely established the concerns of literature's modernist movement with its exploration of classical literary conceits and concerns through the lens of an unmistakably twentieth-century conditionexistential dread. What bearing does this have on Roland's own search for redemption?
- What does the future hold for the Tick-Tock Man? Recount the scenes between Tick-Tock and Jake. Under what circumstances do you expect to encounter Andrew Quick again in future Dark Tower novels?
- What are the circumstances prompting the appearance of Richard Fannin? Who is he? When, both in The Dark Tower series and elsewhere in King's fiction, have we encountered or heard of a stranger such as Fannin? Is he linked to Flagg? Is he Flagg himself?
- In connection with the previous question, discuss the innumerable character connections and thematic overlaps which exist among and between the Dark Tower novels and other King worksThe Stand, The Eyes of the Dragon, Black House, Insomnia, Hearts in Atlantis, and many others.
- Three novels into The Dark Tower cycle, what are some of the thematic and tonal connections have been established between Browning's "Childe Roland" and King's Roland? Reread Browning's poem. How does it conclude? Is Browning's Roland finished with his quest by the final line? What clues might the poem give us about what may be coming in the four remaining Dark Tower volumes?
- Discuss the way King's novels have come to occupy their own private universe, one that operates according to the truism that everything serves the Beam. For example, where do we see such prominent Waste Lands motifs as the rose, the key, the tower, the door, and the turtle in other King works?
- Discuss the final two sections of The Waste Lands, "Bridge and City" and "Riddle and Waste Lands." In classic adventure-serial style, Volume III ends with the mother of all cliffhangers. What was your reaction to King's decision to close his novel without providing any sort of resolution to the Blaine the Mono situation? What do you expect will be the outcome of Roland's dangerous bargain?
- In his concluding "Author's Note," King indicates that Wizard and Glass, the fourth volume, will be primarily concerned with Roland's life as a young man. What are you most curious to learn about the gunslinger's history and his quest for the Dark Tower?