Ka is a wheel, do ya not kennit?
***Spoilers contained below***
This is not so much a straight review as a rambling collection of thoughts.
I just finished the final Dark Tower book last night, having read the series on and off for years. As many have said before me, there are some good and some bad things about it, especially the final volume: aspects that make it masterful (and the series as a whole), and some that make it laughable.
Of course, the character moments are extraordinary. The ka-tet contains some of the most memorable characters I’ve ever read. I can only imagine during the reread that is sure to come how much more cemented they’ll become. I did absolutely no “fore-guessing” as to what might happen in this last book before starting; I just opened it. If I had, I would have of course foreseen huge characters deaths, but this didn’t make it any less heartbreaking.
THAT BEING SAID: Regarding Eddie’s death, something that struck me is that it required our main characters to be a little stupid in order for it to occur. I remember in the aftermath of the shooting, they’re all just kind of wandering around the street (from what I remember), but instead, in “real life,” they would’ve been sure to disarm every person lying on the street—dying or not—and ensure there was no more danger, before assuming the battle was over. Especially the big honcho Prentiss, etc. If Eddie had to die in that fight, there was a way to write it so that a different oversight or flaw was the cause.
Jake’s death is a lot more believable because Roland is incapacitated during the climactic moment when Jake jumps in front of the van and basically sacrifices himself.
Oy’s death, too, however, felt sad, yes, but contrived, because Roland would never have let any of his companions (then only Oy and Patrick) fall into danger, even with his exhaustion, knowing Mordred was bound to strike that night.
This brings me into another point that others have belabored to death: the character climaxes, or lack thereof. King has a bad habit (habit is a nice word for it) of setting up great antagonists, building tension around them, and then having some final showdown that amounts to almost nothing.
Mordred is the first example that comes to mind. There is an incredible amount of buildup (ever since Susannah got impregnated—was it way back in The Waste Lands, say true?) over how exactly it happened, whose child it was, the nature of the mother (Mia), and especially what would happen when and if the child was born. I have to admit that the scene of the birth was riveting; I remember reading it in horror, the baby seeming normal (but what baby could be okay with a name like “Mordred”?) and then transforming into a monster, killing Mia off. And I love the part where Susannah attacks him and shoots his leg off. But after this the story of Mordred fizzles. It almost would’ve been better (and cathartic) for Susannah to kill him in this part of the story, with immense struggle of course, perhaps even during a chase through Fedic.
Or—hear me out—imagine the story without the subplot of Mordred at all. It’s hard for me to envision fully, because it’s been years since I read some of the earlier books, but think: Susannah is never impregnated, there is no Mia, there is no showdown at the Dixie Pig (or maybe there is, but it serves a different plot purpose), there is no horrific birth, there is no subplot of Mordred following them over the course of the most of the book. Would the story be weakened? How would the overall plot be affected? I think it wouldn’t. I think there’s no point in him existing in the narrative, really. Of course, this takes out almost all of Song of Susannah, but that’s how it settles, and we all say thankya.
(That said, I don’t hate that entire subplot—of course not—I’m just thinking in terms of story structure and following a train of thought there.)
If Mordred did have to exist in the story, I feel there is one crucial aspect set up that should have been followed through: the fact that Mordred had two fathers, Roland and The Crimson King. Now, this was mentioned as something of a revelation to Susannah, but in the character of Mordred it creates no character shift. Imagine a Mordred riddled with duality, half monster and half man, half White and half Red! I think of him, since birth, struggling inside with his desires to both kill Roland, and to help him, with desires to obey The Crimson King, and desires to defy his evil father. God, my brain is going a mile a minute thinking of this. I imagine, as Mordred “follows” Roland and his companions on their way to the Tower, that it is only this duality, this inner conflict, that stays Mordred’s hand. And maybe, just maybe, The Crimson King has his own “plan,” and bids Mordred to wait until Roland "thinks he has succeeded, until he believes he has his victory." In other words, he convinces his werespider son to wait till Roland reaches the top of the tower (or maybe have The Crimson King not trapped on a balcony, but waiting for Roland before the Tower’s door), and this is where the showdown takes place. However, at this crucial moment, Mordred’s White side (Roland’s lineage) overwhelms the Red and he slays The Crimson King. Or at the very least tries to kill him, injures him, something. Is it just me or does that not have a more poetic feel to it! Yes, placing Mordred—if he is to exist as a major player—within the climax feels much better.
Speaking of The Crimson King, I think The Dark Tower series as a whole, at least from my scant recollection, suffers from a lack of a clearly defined antagonist. Of course, there is The Crimson King, whose sigul we see from early books. And of course there is Randall Flagg/Marten Broadcloak/Walter O’Dim, whose presence as a physical enemy exists from the very first installment. In my opinion, the story would have been much better served if Flagg had been and remained the “big bad,” perhaps even going by the name The Crimson King to some. Give Flagg a clear goal, a clear reason (maybe stemming from the past in Gilead and Roland’s childhood) to go after The Dark Tower (to bring it down, to rule it, to alter it), and make Roland’s goal to reach the Tower first and stop him. To me, this works much better than The Crimson King being this unknown person with mostly unknown past who is working (from unknown location and with mostly unknown means) to bring the Tower down (for vague reasons), and Flagg is one of his minions. I just don’t buy it. Flagg feels much more like a personal adversary to Roland and would’ve served the story better.
That said, I think my rambling about a showdown with Mordred killing The King (or Flagg if it were as the villain) works, but that’s not the only thing that would’ve worked. What doesn’t work is a climax where The Crimson King is imprisoned on a balcony (which is stupid to begin with and renders him less dangerous of a villain) and pelting sneetches at Roland, while Roland resists the Tower’s call only so he doesn’t get bombed to death, until Patrick (a character only introduced in the very end of the series) can draw and then erase the King from existence (except for his eyes of course). Now, if this was the climax that Stephen was absolutely set on, there were ways to change it to make it much more difficult to succeed or shock us and keep us on the edge of our seats. Namely, have the whole draw-and-erase-the-King thing be Roland’s “plan A,” but maybe mid-way (perhaps even right after finishing the drawing), a sneetch comes over and destroys either the drawing, or both the drawing and Patrick. Bing! Now Roland (and SK) have to come up with a different plan.
But if we backtrack (in our imagination of rewriting ) and remove the whole “Crimson King trapped on the balcony” idiocy, or even render it to have been a lie or a trick or a glammer, we can brainstorm and think of something else. Now, here, the way my brain works is to give Roland a serious “trial” before he can get to the Tower. And not a trial of “losing all his ka-tet and being stuck with only a magic artist,” but one of real spiritual fortitude, in which our hero Roland has to make one final, heart-wrenching decision.
To bring this entire hypothetical scene to life, we have to suppose one thing: his ka-tet—or least part of it—is still with him. In my mind, I like to think it was Jake who never died (or, if it does ya, that whole save-Stephen-King subplot is removed entirely). Now, once again in this hypothetical ending, imagine that it is Jake and Roland who arrive at The Dark Tower. Patrick isn’t here; maybe he did go with Susannah after all to New York, now wouldn’t that be nice? Anyway, it’s just them two, and as they approach, they see (or maybe only hear, at first) The Crimson King (who in this revision is a wizard, or at least displays some powers, by God!). And this King (who, remember, would be better replaced by Flagg), starts throwing illusions at our two heroes. The Tower jumps to different positions. First, Roland and Jake approach it, then the next moment they seem to be walking straight away from it. Then some manner of monsters leap out of the field of roses at them, which they fight off, but these, too, prove to be creatures of glammer. And The Crimson King (Flagg) jumps around as if teleporting, as if this field and the Tower are on a different plane of existence that only he can control. And that would make sense, wouldn’t it? We knew all along that End-World would be unknown territory. Regardless, Roland and Jake fight off the disorientation of these demonic/wizardry tricks, and at last make it to the space just before the Tower’s door. Now, imagine that Flagg, or whoever our antagonist is, has had somewhat of the same goal as Roland, at least insofar as this: first to reach the Tower, then to enter it. Now, also imagine that The Villain has reached it first, yet has been unable to enter it for reasons we don’t fully understand. The Villain goes on about some riddle on the door. Here a battle ensues, yet with more illusions and glammer, it is impossible to pin a bullet into our Villain. (I still enjoy the idea of Mordred intervening at this point, but let’s assume he doesn’t.)
Another huge plot point that should be paid off at this point is that of Maerlyn’s Rainbow, especially Black Thirteen. I remember the excitement of reading Wizard and Glass, learning of the Bends o’ the Bow, and relishing discovering what seemed a huge piece of the puzzle and the plot. Of course, Black Thirteen does serve as a huge MacGuffin regarding Callahan in Wolves of the Calla, and with Mia using it to escape to New York leading into Song of Susannah, but beyond that it becomes useless in the plot. It would have been at least somewhat better if the ka-tet had found more about the Wizard’s Rainbow, their individual powers, and how they might become advantageous in the quest. Maybe at some point they discover that Maerlyn’s Rainbow—when all thirteen are brought together, at least—are rumored to be in some way key to opening the door on The Dark Tower. Let’s further suppose our Antagonist has gathered all the other Bends except Black, which he is counting on Roland to bring to him (unwittingly, perhaps).
Yes, in this hypothetical, another thing happened behind the scenes: when Roland went back to New York, after visiting the Tet Corporation, he went to the storage locker under the World Trade Center and retrieved it, unbeknownst to us readers at the time. (In the real story, when Callahan and Jake put Black Thirteen there, I was expecting a huge payoff to come of it, but we get nothing except a sly implication that it gets destroyed on 9/11...maybe? hee!)
So Roland and Jake have Black Thirteen with them now. But even alone, they discover Black Thirteen can negate the powers of all the other Bends combined. But not without immeasurable pain in using it. It can “turn off” all the illusions and glammer and render our protagonist vulnerable—but only to one: Roland or Jake. Who will be the glass-bearer and who will be the shooter? Roland, I think, would volunteer to undergo the immense pain, if Jake promises to shoot true. And Jake does, killing the Antagonist (if a certain spiderboy doesn’t get him first).
It is at this point that the Tower is fully theirs. The Bends of the Rainbow are all theirs, all together, and they should be able to open the door with them in their possession. But inscribed on the door is some kind of riddle, some puzzle, and Roland works it out with dawning horror. The riddle doesn’t make complete sense to us, but the final lines do. “The door of that which, for years and years, delah, you sought till you were near / shall never open its mouth, save by the blood of him you hold dear” Or something like that, you get the gist! And it is then that Roland realizes to his dismay that the Rainbow—or at least Black Thirteen, curse the thing—requires a sacrifice. It requires blood upon it to open the door. And not just any sacrifice, but Jake. Roland has to kill Jake, again, just as before. For ka is a damned wheel, a wheel of damnation and pain.
But Jake is his son, not by blood but still his trueborn son, say thankya. Roland looks up at the Tower looming over him, and thinks of the years and years in which he has striven for it. But he thinks of what it has cost: he thinks of Susan, of Cuthbert and Alain, of Eddie and Susannah and Oy and maybe even of Patrick. Will he throw away Jake too, in the name of his quest? Will he cast Jake aside again?
No, he does not think so. And so Roland chooses Jake, turning from the Tower. He embraces the boy, sure as he does that he’s casting aside his life’s dream.
It is then that the door opens. For this was a test, you see, a true test of Roland’s character. He isn’t perfect, by the gods, but he has learned. At least a little, yes. And Roland, making what the Tower deems the right choice, is allowed entry. The open doorway to the Tower is nothing but a maw of blackness. Roland gives a final word, a final look to Jake, tells him to wait for him, and enters.
And it is here, within The Dark Tower, that Roland is finally permitted to die. The Tower’s majesty wraps around him and he is carried into the White, into the clearing at the end of the path, knowing that the Tower is safe, that Jake will protect it from now on.
Jake is left alone outside (perhaps with Oy in this reimagining), and the door has already closed. He has his own adventures to find now.
Now, damn, that’s not a perfect ending by any means—it has more holes than a slab of Swiss cheese and needs a hell of a lot more setup—but it feels good, it feels cathartic. And I was just spitballing!
Now, of course, that’s not the only ending to write, but in some ways it’s better! Because it feels like everything that was important before is important in the end too, or almost everything.
I’ll reiterate a point: Stephen King seems to struggle with endings. Not strictly with endings, per se, but with payoffs of conflicts. There are some books in which he wrote really fantastic endings, but I can’t remember them off the top of my head.
That being said, one thing he excels in, may even be the best at, is build-up. Rising action, rising tension. One example is how the entirety of Song of Susannah rises and rises toward this confrontation at The Dixie Pig (which is then cut into a cliffhanger, by God!). Another even better is the entirety of Wizard and Glass. I don’t remember specifics, but I DO remember a delirious rising tension throughout that magnificent tale. In this book, what I remember strongly is the long build-up to the attack on Algul Siento. I thought it was very well done, everything with ka-shume and all the intel and the different POVs, it’s all just enough to make you itch for that battle to come. On a smaller scale, there’s the chapter with Dandelo. I think King does a fantastic job with these small scale escalations. This is almost like a short story of a chapter, because you have the introduction with the inciting incident (old man Joe Collins invites them in), rising action in which you feel something is definitely not right here, and the climax where Susannah realizes what’s up (albeit via cheap deus ex machina) and shoots the damn thing. But it’s all the rising, ramping up of tension was great. Even the build-up to “saving Stephen King” was pretty great, in typical King fashion.
Here I’ll say a bit about this subplot. I didn’t know what to think of it at first, I truly didn’t. I’ve seen a lot of people decry this type of metafiction as narcissistic, and I can almost agree with you—almost. But it comes across as the opposite of that. King is painted very poorly, and is even hated by Roland. Yes, I think the real-life accident scarred King, scared him, made him see the writing on the wall, and face his own mortality, as others have said. I think this is just his way of dealing with the aftermath, because he DID see The Dark Tower as his greatest work, and I know as a writer the amount of intimidation a work can give you, great or small. The fear you have in trying to finish something, especially something so monumental, and to finish well. And in this subplot, I think King paints, and paints well, the fear that kept him from working on it, the cowardice. And he faces these feelings head-on and actually finishes the damn thing.
In addition, I found these parts, especially in Song of Susannah where Roland and Eddie first meet King, to be startingly well done. I could see them in my mind in vivid detail. I love the FEEL of these chapters, if that makes sense. However, I do think the story AS A WHOLE would have been served well to remove it completely, say sorry.
All that to say, I strongly advise—ESPECIALLY when writing something of this size—to PLOT IT OUT FIRST. Do not put out one book of a seven-book (or more, or a series of undetermined length) without knowing where it will go. It may seem fun, but in the end will create unending headaches for you, the writer, and disappointment at least to some degree by the readers. Some will disagree but I don’t care. SK said he had an "outline" for the story at one point but lost it. How extensive this outline was, I do not know. But I believe even those notes may have helped him some.
Now that’s said, I’ll say this too as a huge positive point: I LOVE the colloquialisms of the land. From the slang of Mejis and the idioms of Calla Bryn Sturgis, to how our characters pick up on it, to how King uses it in his narration (as well as some other inside-jokes from other parts in the story), say thankya. I also love so many of the other expressions that come up (“long days and pleasant nights”, “clearing at the end of the path”, “ka is a wheel”, “set my watch and warrant on it.” Some may think it’s cheesy, but they are one of the biggest charms of the series. In fact, I love all this stuff so much that I almost want to start talking like this. Even “Hile!” is so engrained in me that I forgot it was created for this story (wasn’t it?)
ALL THAT BEING SAID, these books will stay with me forever; some of the parts, such as Lud, the whole Mejis backstory, the Unfound Doors on the beach, probably Mordred’s birth, the battle of Algul Siento, and of course the ending, I saw with breathless clarity, and will never fade from my mind.
Despite its flaws (and what story DOESN’T have flaws), it is still a fantastic get-lost-in-the-story read, and one to revisit.