Saturday, January 15, 2022

The Book of Other Worlds: Childe Rowland (1976).

For some strange reason, it's just been easy for me to compare the two.  For the longest time now, both J.R.R. Tolkien and Stephen King have occupied the same, easy shelf-space in my mind.  The main reason for this seems to be because of how similar they appear, at least as far as my own reading is concerned.  I'm not sure this is a common reaction for most fans of either writer.  However, I do wonder how often this might occur for those Tolkien geeks who are also fans of the Horror genre.  It's just that, for me, I've always been able to see the ways in which Tolkien has impacted King's work to the point where there can be times (especially in his best work) where King almost seems to be copying the old Oxford professor without even trying.  

It's a constant feature of his writing that is perhaps best on display in books like Salem's Lot, The Shining, and It.  When those books reach their peak moments, it's as if King has found a way to turn any given narrative passage of the typical American Gothic setting (such a dry and barren farmer's field, or the inside of a haunted dwelling, or even just a surveyors description of an entire town, or a single corner street in that same setting) into the kind of description that sometimes mirrors, or even rivals any possible segment of Middle Earth and its environs.  I  suppose a better way to put it would be that King has found a way of taking the usual description reserved for Tolkien's Blakean backdrop, and found a way to make it apply to the average, modern suburban American main street.  

Like I say, though, I'm probably going to have to always be in the minority on this reaction.  Even if that's the  case, then I can't say I mind all that much.  Nor do I care to retract that statement.  One of the main reasons why is because I'm sure those readers who do know at least something of what I'm talking about can go through their favorite books in the King canon, and point to any number of passages that would help support this idea.  In the second place, the real good news is that we don't have to just sit around, theorizing in a vacuum.  It turns out the author himself has managed to oblige us on this point.  He does so with the help of a simple essay entitled "On Being Nineteen: (And a Few Other Things)".  If you've never heard of, or even read the piece before, then it's not going to surprise me.  It only appeared in print once a long time ago, and hasn't really been seen since.  In fact, I don't think they include it anymore in the current reprints of the series in which it originally formed a (to me) vital part.

The "Nineteen" essay was originally published to serve as an author's introduction for a 2003 reissue of the first four books in The Dark Tower series.  That's the place where King described a great deal (if perhaps not all) of his relationship to the Bard of Middle Earth.  "Hobbits were big when I was nineteen", he tells us.  "There were probably half-a-dozen Merrys and Pippins slogging through the mud at Max Yasgur's farm during the Great Woodstock Music Festival, twice as many Frodos, and hippie Gandalfs without number.  J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Ring was madly popular in those days, and while I never made it to Woodstock (say sorry), I suppose I was at least a halfling-hippie.  Enough of one, at any rate, to have read the books and fallen in love with them.  The Dark Tower books, like most long fantasy tales written by men and women of my generation (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, by Stephen Donaldson, and The Sword of Shannara, by Terry Brooks, are just two of many), were born out of Tolkien's.

"But although I read the books in 1966 and 1967, I held off writing.  I responded (and with rather touching whole-heartedness) to the sweep of Tolkien's imagination - to the ambition of his story - but I wanted to write my own kind of story, and had I started then, I would have written his.  That, as the late Tricky Dick Nixon was fond of saying, would have been wrong.  Thanks to Mr. Tolkien, the twentieth century had all the elves and wizards it needed.  In 1967, I didn't have any idea what my kind of story might be, but that didn't matter; I felt positive I'd know it when it passed me on the street (ix-x)".   

If nothing else, the existence of these words can serve to establish a number of important facts.  (1) King has been familiar with the work of Tolkien for quite a long time now, even before the advent of the 21st century.  (2) He also acknowledges that the writings of Middle Earth have had quite an impact on his mind, in particular his imagination.  I don't think it's going too far to say that the reaction King got out of the books is pretty the same as that of the entire Woodstock generation of his era.  Besides, all he's doing in the paragraphs above is little more than highlighting a very important historical fact.  It really was during the 1960s that Tolkien's popularity began to take off in a big way.  A lot of it was down to being in the right place at the right time, and a sense of resonant values. The Flower Children of that decade found a sense of common cause with those books.  And I think the real curious part is that their sense of identification was never really misplaced.  What Tolkien and the 60s shared in common was an unapologetic Romantic streak, one that could probably trace its lineage all the way back to the poetry of William Blake, another scribe who found his popularity soaring during those heady years.

It was this shared sense of Romanticism that catapulted Tolkien and his books toward an international stardom that hasn't really gone away since then.  And King was right there when it first happened.  Much like his peers of that time, it's not too much of a leap to say that King found himself caught up in that Romantic ethos, along with everybody else.  He dug it enough, anyway, to get the notion into his head that he ought to try and match a story such as The Lord of the Rings, one that would be just as big, and yet in his own voice.  The question was just what that kind of story would be.  Tolkien supplied the first spark of inspiration, and yet something more was needed.  According to King, that something more came in the form of an old, semi-low-budget Italian film import. 

"Then, in an almost completely empty movie theater (the Bijou, in Bangor, Maine, if it matters), I saw a film directed by Sergio Leone.  It was called The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, and before the film was even half over, I realized that what I wanted to write was a novel that contained Tolkien's sense of quest and magic but set against Leone's almost absurdly majestic Western backdrop.  If you've only seen this gonzo Western on your television screen, you don't understand what I'm talking about - cry your pardon, but it's true.  On a movie screen, projected through the correct Panavision lenses, TG, TB, & TU is an epic to rival Ben-Hur.  Clint Eastwood appears roughly eighteen feet tall, with each wiry jut of stubble on his cheeks looking roughly the size of a young redwood tree.  The grooves bracketing Lee Van Cleef's mouth are as deep as canyons, and there could be a thinny (see Wizard and Glass) at the bottom of each one.  The desert settings appear to stretch at least out as far as the orbit of the planet Neptune.  And the barrel of each gun looks to be roughly as large as the Holland Tunnel.

"What I wanted even more than the setting was that feeling of epic, apocalyptic size.  The fact that Leone knew jack shit about American geography (according to one of the characters, Chicago is somewhere in the vicinity of Phoenix, Arizona) added to the film's sense of magnificent dislocation.  And in my enthusiasm - the sort only a young person can muster, I think - I wanted to write not just a long book, but the longest popular novel in history.  I didn't succeed in doing that, but I feel I had a decent trip (xiii)".  This is how we got the story known as the Dark Tower series.  The whole thing seems to have been one long strange trip for King.  He claims it all got started in 1966-67, and it didn't stop until roughly 2012.  At least that's as far as his memory could take him at the time he wrote those words.  The catch is that it's not the whole story.  There's still one element, or missing piece of the puzzle, that King has sort of unintentionally neglected.  That's the exact bit of reading he did that seems to have given him the final ingredient needed to set the gears of his imagination into full drive.

This final piece of the puzzle comes in the form of an old, forgotten poem, and it's author.  According to Bev Vincent's book, The Road to the Dark Tower, "Stephen King isn't the first person to write about a man named Roland whose goal was to find and perhaps conquer a mysterious Dark Tower.  He was inspired by the feel of Robert Browning's somewhat obtuse "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came", written in Paris on January 2, 1852, during the denouement of Napoleon's coup d'etat.  The poem, which King had been assigned in a class covering the earlier Romantic poets, combines romance and existentialism, atypical of Browning's other work and ahead of its time in its Weltschmerz (281)".

Vincent then goes on to make a very interesting observation.  "Browning, in turn, borrowed his title from a line in Shakespeare's King Lear uttered by Edgar during his mad ravings while disguised as Poor Tom: "Childe Rowland to the Dark Tower came, His word was so still - Fie, foh, and fom/I smell the blood of a British man"...Tom was likely referring to an old Scottish ballad titled "Childe Rowland and Burd Ellen (ibid)".  So what we've been describing and uncovering this whole time amounts to little more than a line of literary descent.  We've been following the circuitous paths and byways of the initial inspirations that King used in constructing the longest story out of his career.  It's the kind of exercise that won't matter to anyone else except English Majors, and King fans.  My only excuse for doing this is because I like stories, and I have a natural curiosity to know where they come from.  If there's a chance that it can help us learn a bit more about King, Browning, the history of the Dark Tower narrative, and what it all means, then it's just the kind of opportunity that I, as a book geek, just can't turn down.

With that said, even those who are be willing to follow me down this particular rabbit hole might look on the whole idea with a more than decent amount of skepticism.  Their question might be whether there is really anything left to know about King's infamous book series, even in terms of its sources?  My answer to this is that there could be at least one avenue that has been left unexplored, and Vincent just told us what it is.  In the passage quoted above, he makes mention of an old ballad known as Childe Rowland.  It's treated as something to be noted in passing, and not given any consideration beyond that point.  I'm starting to wonder if that might have been a mistake, however.  Part of the reason for saying this is because I had a chance to read the actual legend itself.  I came across it in a children's anthology of stories, known as The Hamish Hamilton Book of Other Worlds, edited by Roger Lancelyn Green.  

It's a collection whose purpose is to look at a very specific fictional trope.  A good term of description might be to call it the Other World narrative, or any work of fiction dealing with journeys through through a fantasy reality that is different from, yet somehow connected, or related to ours.  What's interesting is to discover that one of the entries in this collection happened to be the very same legend that Vincent believes might have acted as a direct source for Shakespeare, and later on as an indirect one for both Robert Browning, and Stephen King.  I guess this makes it something of a lucky find.  At least I found it interesting enough to crack open the spine of Green's ancient anthology (the copyright page lists its initial date of publication as 1976 in Great Britain) and see what it has to say.  Who knows?  We might just get lucky and learn a thing or two about, King, Browning, Roland, and the Tower that have often gone overlooked.  "All things serve the Beam", after all.

The Story.

Once upon a time, in the kingdom of Arthur and his Knights, there were three brothers, and their sister.  The sister's name was Burd Ellen.  Why this should be the case, and not something much simpler, and pleasing to modern ears, I'm sure I can't say.  Anyway, as subjects of the royal court of Camelot, Ellen's family was in something of a privileged position.  It's not every household that finds itself granted the honor of one day being able to find a seat at the prestigious Round Table.  All three of Ellen's brothers, however, were novice knights in training.  They were still at the point of "earning their spurs", as the saying is.  And yet it could be argued this wasn't what made them special as a family.

All of the brothers were kept busy as novices, each having to devote a great deal of time every day to being put through their paces.  If they had it in them to become a knight, then they had best be able to prove it.  And that is where the real challenge always lies.  In spite of these obvious demands, they were a close knit family.  Each of the brothers always made sure that one of them was always watching out for the other.  Indeed, it was argued in the court that it was this familial bond which helped the three siblings make their slow, yet steady advance closer their collective goal.  However, the soldiers and various denizens of the court had it just half right, at best.  They assumed the brothers' future potential was a result of their easy ability for teamwork.  There was some truth in that surmise, yet not the whole of it.  The whole fact that each brother knew, was none of them could have gotten even this far, if they hadn't learned long before that it's how much you're willing to give an actual tinker's damn about those who are closest to you, that counts the most.  Nor were they alone in this assessment.  

The soldiers and knights of the regiment all saw their prowess on the training field, and assumed that was most of all there was to it.  What no one except the brothers seemed to realize was just how much that shared sense of camaraderie was as dependent on their sister, as much as any of themselves.  An old cynic might look on Burd Ellen's place in the lives of her brothers, and declare she was little more than a glorified cheerleader.  The irony is that each of her siblings would have been happy to tell that person to go try and screw around with her to his heart's content, and then find out the difference, and invite a world of pain all to himself, besides.  They had each long since known that Burd Ellen was far from a pushover, and none of them could ever recall a time when she ever came close to being what's commonly referred to as "a slouch".  

Instead, she was more like the unacknowledged glue that both held each of them together, while also spurring them on to better themselves as best they could.  Because of this and more, the brothers doted on their older sister.  Even when their plates were full, they would still take the time to drop everything and devote themselves to each other as a family.  That's sort of how the whole problem got started, really.  Burd Ellen was out playing an ancient version of kickball with her brothers one day.  Then one of the poor, dumb saps decided to put the full force of his physical strength into the target, and sent the ball flying clear over the steeple of the nearby church.  Burd Ellen merely laughed, shook her head at the lot of them, and told them all to wait right there, she'd be right back with the ball in a minute.  She disappeared round the corner of the church and a minute went by.  After a second minute had passed, the brothers apprehension made them all decide to go and have a look for themselves.

On rounding the corner of the church, they found the red ball lying in a thatch of faded grass right next to one of the side entrances of the chapel.  It didn't look as if it had been touched.  Burd Ellen was nowhere in sight.  They noticed one of the stable-hands nearby, and asked if she'd seen their sister.  She allowed as how she'd heard them all playing together, on the other side.  Then she saw the ball come sailing clear over the steeple, and landed right in the middle of the same thatch, where it still was now.  The stable-hand was most emphatic, however, that the brothers were the first persons she'd seen after that.  The worker was certain, because she'd been keeping an eye on the ball, in case anyone should decide to retrieve it.  She never saw hide nor hair of Burd Ellen at any time since the arrival of the ball.

When this realization kicked in, the brothers discovered they had little choice in the matter, except to fear the worst.  After giving it some thought, they all decided there was just one person they could talk to, who might be able to help them.  That fellow would have to be none other than Camelot's very own grand court mage, and royal advisor to the king himself.  He was a mystery to most of the court, and was known under many names.  Some called him Maerlyn the Wise.  Although he was also known as Merwyn, or Mervyn.  However, this last name tag was never spoken aloud, except in whispers, as it was all too easy to see the humor in a name such as "Merv the Magician".  Not even the king dared use such a title to the wizard's face.  It wouldn't do to have that kind of a person get cross with you, after all.  Still, the king's advisor was respected, as much as he was feared.  And it was agreed throughout the kingdom that he was the man to consult in all matters that could be deemed "unusual".  And there was definitely something out of the ordinary about this business of the mysterious, vanishing sister.

"So at last her eldest brother went to the Warlock Merlin and told him all the case, and asked if he knew where Burd Ellen was.  "The fair Burd Ellen," said the Warlock Merlin, "must have been carried off by the fairies, because she went round the church 'widershins' - the opposite way to the sun.  She is now in the Dark Tower of the King of Elfland; it would take the boldest knight in Christendom to bring her back."  "If it is possible to bring her back," said her brother, "I'll do it, or perish in the attempt."  "Possible it is," said the Warlock Merlin, "but woe to the man or mother's son that attempts it, if he is not well taught beforehand what he is to do (4)".  Burd Ellen's eldest brother was not put off by these councils, however.  So, after properly arming himself, as he thought fit, the oldest brother set out to find the hiding place of the Fair Folk, and their King.  The trouble was that he kept on not being seen or heard from, ever again after that.  Once this bit of insanity kept going long enough, the second youngest brother took up arms, mounted his own steed, and likewise set off in search of his siblings.  He to never stuck his head into the kingdom after that.  And at last, one brother was left.

The youngest brother's name was Rowland (or Roland, if you prefer).  The fact that neither of his brothers, or his sister ever returned to the kingdom was perhaps more than enough to do a number on his piece of mind.  When this type of situation occurs, it is just possible for the person's psyche to become a kind of mental pressure cooker.  The psychological tension becomes just enough to make the sufferer decide to seek out some means of getting rid of the headache, and that was the situation Roland soon found himself in.  It wasn't long before he found himself making his own plans to seek out his missing family.  Like the others, he first paid a visit to the court magician for advice on what to do.

"Well, my son," said the Warlock Merlin, "there are but two things, simple they may seem, but hard they are to do.  One thing to do, and one thing not to do.  And the thing to do is this: after you have entered the land of Fairy, whoever speaks to you, till you meet the Burd Ellen, you must out with your father's brand and off with their head.  And what you've not to do is this: bite no bit, and drink no drop, however hungry or thirsty you be; drink a drop, or bite a bit, while in Elfland you be, and you will never see Middle Earth again."  So Childe Rowland said the two things over and over again, till he knew them by heart, and he thanked the Warlock Merlin and went on his way (6)".

There were those who were anxious not to see him go, of course.  His mother, for instance, begged Roland not to make the same mistake as his older brothers had made.  It was more or less a litany, or catechism of familiar complaints.  Who would she have left?  What would she do if he never came back?  He was all that she had left, etc.  Roland knew and understood everything his mother had to say on the matter.  It didn't change his mind on the subject, however.  That had been made up some time before this conversation, and Roland felt sure that he could make his mother acquiesce to his decision, provided he gave her one vital piece of information.  He told her as much, and she was very silent for a long time afterwards.  Finally, when she could look him in the eye once more, she gave him her permission.  

The young knight (or Childe as those of his novice rank were sometimes called) thought it might be an easy thing to accomplish.  And now, here he was, setting out on his journey, wherever it may take him, as final proof.  You see, Roland had another reason for wanting to find his missing siblings.  It was all a simple question of guilt.  He was the one who sent the red ball flying over the church steeple, and his family into the clutches of Nowhere in Particular.  So, with a heavy, yet determined heart, Childe Roland began his search for the path into that other world.  As he went, he made his way through tree, leaf, and other lands.  All the time his focus remained the same, to look for the lost pathways, or an maybe an unfound door, something, anything that would point the road to the Dark Tower.

Excavating the Story Fossil.

Here's how Roger Green explains it in his introduction.  "There is a dream - a waking dream or a sleeping dream - which we have all had at one time or another: a dream of finding a way out of this everyday world into some new, strange country that is charted on no map and listed in no gazetteer; a new world of the imagination that has become real...Like Robert Louis Stevenson we all have the power of looking over the wall, of finding the right pass-word, the "Open Sesame"...From the earliest times the dream of entering another world has been common to all races of mankind.  At its most serious it is the longing to find a way back into Paradise Lost - or into the Paradise Regained...Even stories of adventuring into the world of the dead and returning into the world while still alive have seemed possible: in ancient Greek legends Orpheus made his way down into the Land of the Dead and returned to the upper world still a living man - and on other occasions Heracles did the same, and also Psyche, and even Theseus in some stories.  And Virgil told how Aeneas found his way there and back also.  But usually any such journey was made by a god or a messenger of the gods, in mythologies as various as those of Babylon, the Norsemen and ancient Mexico.

"I  have included the tale of Orpheus as that of a purely mortal man visiting the Land of the Dead, while Heracles and Psyche ended among the Immortals of Olympus.  But most ancient tales of another world deal with one which is, we might say, halfway between Earth and Heaven (ix-x)" 

This is the context that helps explain the nature, origins, and type of legend that we're dealing with.  This is the ultimate identity of the legend of Roland (or Rowland) as it was originally told.  It might seem like a tangent from the main point.  However, the truth is more like one of those situations where two authors sound like they're discussing entirely different subjects, when in actual fact, they both are talking about the same thing.  It's just that they were approaching it from different angles, and that's what fools the eye into seeing double, when in reality, it's really all singular.  Because King is the premiere Horror author in America, he sort of doesn't have that many options open to him in the way he approaches a story.  He either has to look at it from the perspective of either the Gothic or Romantic genres, or else he can always pack up his corner magician's display case and get the hell out of dodge.  Roger Green, on the other hand, is afforded a wider scope in which to view things.  He approaches the story of Roland and the Tower from the general perspective of the Fantasy genre.  It's what allows him to view the archetype with a greater range, and a more encompassing vantage point.

The funny thing is how it looks as if both perspectives are needed to get a clearer idea of what's going on with the story, or myth of Roland and the Dark Tower.  Right now, the best place to start is probably with a close examination of the original legend itself, and then work our way back toward King's take on the material.  This approach has several advantages.  For one thing, it starts out simple, and is able to build on from there.  This allows the reader to see how an idea, even a mere literary concept, can start out small, and then sometimes just grow bigger over time.  It's an odd phenomenon, yet it does happen.  The best case in point would have to be that of Arthur and his Knights.  Everybody knows something about it, yet it had very humble beginnings.  The same looks to be true about Roland and the Tower, who appears to have begun life as a tangential branch broken off from the much larger family tree of Arthurian myth.  

A second value in starting with just the original folktale itself is that it allows a greater chance of understanding how this creative idea evolved and changed over the course of the history of literature itself.  It also enables us to see how later authors, such as Browning and King were inspired by this particular archetype, and how their own modes of artistic expression wound up helping to give the myth it's more familiar, modern shape that we know now.

So, to start out at the simplest level I could find, we have the myth known as "Childe Rowland and Burd Ellen".  I've already given as best of a plot synopsis for the story itself as I can.  At least that's about as far as I can go with it here.  Readers are welcome to consult other variant retellings available elsewhere on the net, or at your local bookstores.  The good news, however, is that the exact core of the myth has remained intact in the outline provided above.  That just leaves us with the question of context.  What kind of story are we talking about when we discuss the original story of Roland and the Tower?  I think Roger Green has given enough clues in the snippets of his introduction that were cited just now.  He included the story in a literary anthology dedicated to the exploration of fantastic other worlds.  That means Green must have thought it a worthy addition, because it's narrative fit in with the nature of his collection.  As far as Green was concerned, the story of Roland is of the same type as that outlined long ago in an essay by none other than our old friend, J.R.R. Tolkien.

This is the way the Bard of Middle Earth once opened with a famous, and somewhat influential essay on a subject that was of some importance to him as an author.  According to Tolkien, the folktale of Childe Rowland would have qualified as a decent enough example of what he referred to as a Fairy Story.  In a literary sense, Tolkien believed that "Faerie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold...The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there: shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords.  In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveler who would report them.  And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many question, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost (3)".

When we read those words, the first thing that strays through the reader's mind might be that of Tolkien's most famous sub-creation (as he preferred to term it).  The curious part, however, is just how much a lot of what he says seems to match up with the description of Roland, and his search for the Dark Tower.  Statements such as the warning that "it is ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost", sound very much like the sort of advice that Merlin gave to Roland before he started on his quest.  The similarities are enough to make me wonder if Tolkien might have been familiar with the legend himself in some capacity?  While I'm not sure anyone will be able to answer that question definitively, I do know there is at least one vital (and criminally overlooked) source from which Tolkien could have gained all the information he might have needed.  It's the same source that Green chose to include in his anthology.  He mentions that his text is a retelling from Joseph Jacobs.

What Green seems to have neglected to mention is that Jacobs' didn't just leave it at a mere retelling.  Instead, much like Tolkien himself, Jacobs devoted an entire essay to examining the myth of Childe Rowland, and which was published well before Tolkien's own work.  It was originally printed as an article in 1891, as part of the second volume of a quarterly, Victorian Era review known as Folk-Lore.  It can be viewed in it's entirety at this link.  So far as I can tell, not much thought has been given to Jacobs' commentary on the legend.  He's not mentioned in the writings of Vincent, Patrick McAleer, Alissa Burger, Anthony Magistrale, or any of the other students of King's work.  The closest any professional scholar has ever come to showing an awareness of it would have to be Prof. Hedi A. Jaouad, author of Browningmania, and Browning Upon Arabia: A Moveable East.  It's in the latter publication that Jaouad gives us a neat synopsis of this article.  Jaouad provides the critic with the following, helpful observations:

"Joseph Jacobs contends that it was from the line 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came' from King Lear that Browning drew his poem, for 'he little thought he was dealing with a fragment of a fairy tale' (p.188).  More important, Jacobs draws our attention to the form of the original tale 'Childe Rowland,' known as (a) cante-fable.  This form - which mixes poetry an prose - typically 'begins with verse, then turns to prose, and throughout drops again at intervals into poetry in a friendly way,' and was well known in the East: "The verses embedded in the Arabian Nights gives them something of the character of a cante-fable, and the same may be said of the Indian and Persian story-books (Jaouad, 78)". 

Prof. Jaouad has given us the basic essence of Jacobs' essay in that brief span of paragraph.  The only things left to add to it are a few further bits of excavation into the original make up of the Rowland legend.  For instance, there is Jacobs' gloss on the by now familiar fairy tale phrase, known as "Fee-Fie-Foh-Fum".  "The latter reference", Jacobs' tells us, is to the battle cry, given not by the Giant of Jack and the Beanstalk fame.  That was apparently a later addition.  Originally, it was a challenge issued by the Elven King who ruled the Dark Tower.  The line was uttered as the Erl King stalked and hunted Roland through the halls of the Tower itself.  That dramatic image, in itself, is at least suggestive of Jack Torrance stalking his son through the haunted chambers of the Overlook Hotel, if nothing else.  

Jacobs further notes how the presence of this line in the legend is a sure sign that the story of Rowland is probably far older than its original incarnation, and that it was in existence way before the days of Shakespeare.  Jacobs notes, however, that the trope seems to go even further than that.  He goes so far as to argue that the Bard of Avon wasn't just a one-off, in terms of borrowing the Tower legend as a source of inspiration.  Jacobs contends that there might been at least one other famous literary name out there who found ways of putting the underlying structure of Childe Rowland to surprising good use.  

A "still closer parallel is afforded by Milton's Comus. Here again we have two brothers in search of a sister, who has got into the power of an enchanter. But besides this, there is the refusal of the heroine to touch the enchanted food, just as Childe Rowland finally refuses. And ultimately the bespelled heroine is liberated by a liquid, which is applied to her lips and finger-tips, just as Childe Rowland's brothers are unspelled by applying a liquid to their eyelids, nostrils, lips, and finger-tips. Such a minute resemblance as this cannot be accidental, and it is therefore probable that Milton used the original form of "Childe Rowland", or some variant of it, as heard in his youth, and adapted it to the purposes of the masque at Ludlow Castle, and of his allegory. Certainly no other folk-tale in the world can claim so distinguished an offspring (web)".  Beyond that, there are a few technical details worth mentioning.

Jacobs notes for instance, the old folk belief that to travel counterclockwise around a church meant that one was  traveling "against the Church" (Jacobs' words).  This in itself, however, is part of a much older belief.  Boiled down to it's basics, it all seems to do with a common narrative situation.  The author (or authors) are saddled with having to figure out how to get the protagonist out of his world, and into the Perilous Realm.  The idea of traveling, or doing things in a way counter to normal use, i.e., by going about it all "backwards", seems to have evolved into its own trope out this simple question of narrative construction.  It all seems to have been caught up with the idea that the Fair Folk are both like, and unlike normal human beings.  Therefore, the narrative logic runs that since they sometimes do things "backwards" from how normal people conduct their lives, it only makes sense that one possible way of entering their realm is to mimic them by performing even the simplest of menial tasks "in the opposite direction".  There's no other explanation for this trope except the peculiarity of what is considered to be normal, or well within the norm, according to the lights of human nature (whatever that is).

Then there's the trope about the curious rules to be obeyed while in the Elvish lands.  "The taboo against taking food in the enemy's land has something savage and archaic about it, as is the case with all taboos. It is an incident tolerably frequent in folk-tales or fairy tales, and there is a classical example of it in the myth of Persephone. Mr. Hartland, who has recently studied the matter, comes to the conclusion that there is some relation between the taboo against taking food in Elfland and that against eating the food of the dead. If we carried out this explanation in the present instance, it would follow that the Dark Tower—if we may so call the hilly palace of the Erlkönig of our tale—is the Underworld peopled by the dead, and the King of Elfland is a variant of Pluto. Our story would thus be another instance of the well-known theme of the Descent to Hell. This involves, of course, that Fairies are Ghosts, which needs an explanation why people should believe both in fairies and ghosts (ibid)".

A lot of this is down to the way that theories and ideas about ghosts and elves tended to to get blurred and blended together in the mind of popular, folkloric belief.  This is something Tom Shippey talked about at length in works like The Road to Middle Earth.  It was there he noted the ambiguity in ancient people's beliefs about the nature of the elves.  Some felt them to be malicious, while others considered them friendly.  The final result was for the literary idea to wind up occupying a permanent middle ground, or moral gray zone.  It may be possible that some of the Folk can be helpful at times.  Yet even if this is the case, their assistance can sometimes be just as much trouble as the problem they are there to help solve.  In this notion, we see the development of a reaction to the more negative aspects of a debased form of literary Romanticism.  It's an idea that Tolkien was able to put to great use in all of the writings contained in his Legendarium.  One other aspect of the folk belief was that the elves might be the spirits of the departed.  As I've said, this is what happens when literary concepts start melding and blurring together.  They seem to wind up creating a rich brew from which the artist can draw on.

So far, we've been looking at all the bells and whistles of the story; all the ingredients which have gone together, or been added over the years in order to create the finished soup of the Childe Rowland legend as we now have it.  Or at least whatever is left of it.  If there's one thing that Jacobs' literary excavation helps make clear, it's that much like Beowulf, or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the legend of Rowland is a semi-patch-worked creation, one that has somehow managed to find all its disparate elements blended together into a more or less seamless looking whole.  It certainly comes off reading as its own, self-contained, little story, while all the time never giving so much as a hint as to the various strands of narrative threads and traditions that have been threaded together to make it what it is.  That counts as a definite feather in the cap, yet it also brings us now to the most important question.  How does the legend of Childe Rowland work as a story?  An even better question might go something like this.  How does Rowland and Burd Ellen stack up with Stephen King's later gloss on the material?

Conclusion: The Long, Strange Legacy of the Dark Tower.

So is the original Roland legend any good?  On the whole, I guess I'd have to say I enjoyed myself pretty well, yes.  In fact, if I may be permitted to commit a bit of blasphemy here, for a moment.  It just realized I kind of had more fun with this one single short story in an anthology collection for kids, than I was ultimately able to have with King's entire Dark Tower mythos as a whole.  That has got to be one of life's greatest ironies, right there.  There's also little that I can see to change my mind on the subject.  Does this mean I think the longest story King ever worked on is not all that good?  Well, let's put it this way.  What The Dark Tower novels amount to is a series of books that are more fascinating to think about, than they are to read, if that makes any sense.  It works less as a story, yet when you look at certain elements as an interconnected chain of thematic narrative glyphs, it can have its own quirky sort of charm, or fascination all its own.  I think most of this is down to the fact that a lot of the imagery King wound up drawing on to create his story is so well freighted with its own antiquity.

What I mean is that while I'm not sure King succeeded in the goals he may have had for the series, the broken fragments he leaves us with are still able to fascinate because of how well most of them point toward a sense of greater concepts and ideas that the writer seems to be struggling with.  When you hear a phrase like "The Tower in the Waste Land", your mind can sometimes be filled with an image that is able to create or generate all kinds of fantastic and Surrealistic associations in your imagination.  That's probably because it's not the same as an empty picture devoid of meaning.  A rose red city, half as old as time makes for an intriguing image.  It also stops at being just that.  The Tower concept, on the other hand, looks and acts like it wants to go farther.  It's a mystery that invites both artists and audiences to try and solve.  I'm not sure King ever got that far.  Robert Browning, on the other hand, seems to have gone quite a ways toward capturing the alluring, Gothic mystique of such an image, even if he could never get anywhere past the front door.  That's why I'm able to encourage readers to try and seek it out, if they're willing for a literary challenge.  That just leaves the anonymous tale of Rowland.

How does it fair in comparison with both of these more famous versions of the story?  Well, for starters, it's the easiest read out of the whole bunch.  The narrative fast paced.  The description is direct and to the point, with little in terms of stylistic frills or flourishes to get in the way of things.  Another thing the story's got going for it is the inherent simplicity of its setup.  Unlike a book such as The Gunslinger, Childe Rowland doesn't begin in any kind of suspended state of confusing delirium.  Whoever wrote or first told this legend doesn't spend the first half of the narrative having to cast about for where things are going.  Instead, we are treated to the setting of King Arthur's Court, and the characters who will serve as our main cast, and it's all laid out, right up front, just as you turn to the first page.  After the strange oddity of King's series, coming across a more straightforward version of the story feels like stumbling upon an unexpected luxury.  A lot of that seems down to the specific type of narrative the anonymous storyteller has left us with.  It's a proper fairy tale, first and foremost.

What that means, in practice, is a narrative that is all about bringing things to the main point.  This is not the same as saying that essentials like drama and characterization all have to be sacrificed in order to make the runtime.  There is no inherent reason why the old fairy tales can't have their own share of richness in terms of both thematics, and of characterization.  In fact, a lot of the overlooked charm of these old folk narratives is their interesting way of suggesting character and motivation with just a few simple brushstrokes within a compact number of sentences.  I think I recall the critic Harry Berger Jr. referring to this as an example of "the Economy of Style".  It's a phrase that is pretty apt for the technique of a fable like Childe Rowland.  Part of the reason for that economy, it seems, has to do with the limited means of style and formatting that would have been available to writers in the Middle and Classical Ages.  The one thing that the Rowland Author shares in common with the Beowulf and Gawain Poets (aside from all being anonymous) is that their artistic ranges were all constricted in a way that modern storytelling has long since outgrown.  There are centuries of difference between a fairy tale narrative in the Childe legend, and King's treatment of the same material in a modern format.

However, it needs to be stressed.  This is not the same as saying the more restrictive way that the Rowland Author tells his story is in any sense inferior to the updated tools and techniques used by sophisticated types such as James Michener or John Updike.  In fact, it is just possible to reach an understanding of why this older way of telling stories can be so appealing.  Part of it has to do with the necessity of both artist and audience needing to reach a mutual understanding of the story that's being told.  When that happens for real, when the artist and his or her audience have managed to become so much "on the same page" that there comes a point where one is doing the work of the other with a seamless looking ease, then that's got to be one of the high points in both the creation and taking in of a work of well done art.  One of the most trusted ways to accomplish this (even today, it seems) is to resort to this tried and true fairy tale mode of writing.  I do not say that this is the best or only way of telling a story.  Merely that this is what the Rowland Author had to work with, and that it was all put to good use.

It's this economy of style that also accounts for the way the main narrative unfolds.  I never get the sense that the Rowland Author was ever in any kind of a hurry to get things rolling.  Instead, it's more that the limitations he had to work under means the events of the story follow with a rapid succession that some might not expect.  How your react to this older sense of pacing will probably vary.  Those looking for a conventional approach will wish for more.  Others may wind up applauding the story for getting to the point so quickly.  I find I have no real problem with it at all.  It's just that this older formatting can sometimes leave the attentive reader aware of the unintentional quirky sounding nature of the story proper, or at least however much is left to us now.  What I'm saying here is not a slight against the story.  Nor am I suggesting that it is in anyway incomplete.  We are not dealing here with unfinished symphonies like The Faerie Queene, or The Canterbury Tales.  The legend is able to take its audience from start to finish in as complete a whole as it was possible to make out of it.

It's just that sometimes you'll be reading along, everything is going smoothly, and then it will all transition right into the next scene, with little or no preparation before hand.  There is nothing to warn or signal the reader that the usual expected narrative switches are coming.  There's no sense of a regular modern scene, where you can tell one passage is about to come to an end, before another begins.  We are given a description of Rowland making preparations for his journey, for instance.  In a modern novel, this scene would have probably have a page or two dedicated to it.  We'd get to see "Roland" packing his things, gearing up, and then maybe sharing or having a bit of dialogue with another significant character about what he expects to happen, versus the idea of expecting the unexpected. 

It's the type of bench-warming scene we've viewed or read before.  The brief rest spot before the narrative kicks into high gear.  In a modern telling, this would be the part were a bit of "Roland's" character is revealed.  We'd find out just how much of a novice he really is.  Maybe he's a bit of a hothead who needs to learn to control his temper in order to succeed, or else he really is still too green under the gills, and is fundamentally unprepared for the journey ahead, and the only reason he's going at all is because of the unspoken, yet hinted at sense of guilt he has for the disappearance of his siblings.

All of these scenarios can at least come off sounding like what you might expect to encounter in a story like this.  And to be fair, there is a sense in which the original legend itself is hinting at all or both of these ideas.  It's just like I said above, the Rowland Author was working in a format that meant the artistic compression of a great deal of story information, in the shortest amount of space possible.  The longest scene of dialogue we even have in the original narrative is the moment where Roland visits Merlin for advice, and even then it seems as if the legendary Magician is the one who does most of the talking.  That's because he's the one in this scene with the vital information that's necessary to make all the others come out right.  As a result, instead of the usual following moments of character building and drama that we might expect, the audience instead gets treated to this (italics mines): "So Childe Rowland...thanked the Warlock Merlin and went on his way.  And he went along, and along, and along, and still further along, till he came to the horse-herd of the King of Elfland feeding his horses.  These he knew by their fiery eyes, and knew that he was at last in the land of Faery (6)".  

Okay, now stop and ask yourself this very simple question.  How does all that sound for a dramatic transition, seriously?  The best answer I can arrive at is this.  On the one hand, for the relatively primitive level of an original folktale, it just might work.  It goes back to what I said about the story's anonymous author having to work within a constricted narrative format.  The curious part is how a case can be made that such an abrupt transition does little or no real harm to the story proper.  It might come off as a bit truncated, at worst.  However, the basic outline and overall point are left intact.  At the same time, it's possible to imagine a novice member of the audience looking at that same passage, and thinking: "Sounds interesting, but this guy's gonna have to work real hard if he wants to get a book deal out of all this".  And it' should be pretty easy to understand where a judgment call like that is coming from.  The simple fact is that what works for a simple, folkloric fairy tale might not go over quite so well in terms of the modern novelistic approach.  The transition between the normal world and an enchanted realm is so sudden and abrupt that it's impossible to tell when the switchover happened.

As far as a lot (if maybe not all) of modern audiences are concerned, a vital piece of narrative information has been left on the cutting room floor, and it might be more than just one piece of the puzzle.  It could be argued that the writer has deprived his audience of all the necessary build-up that's expected to happen between the sentence in which Rowland goes on his way, and the one where he realizes he's no longer in Middle Earth.  If this were an actual, modern novel, there would be at least two more sequences interspersed between those two sentences.  It would take up the space of at least a single chapter.  We would have a scene of Rowland out on the road, traveling through the familiar highways of Camelot.  Then something would have to happen.  Like he could reach some sort of borderland territory, were all the roads are unguarded, and all the rail service terminates.  This borderland setting could be represented by either a desert waste, or a forest, or perhaps it could be a mix of both.  You start out in a semi-blasted wasteland, maybe the scene of an old, forgotten battlefield, and from there Rowland makes his way into the kind of forest that you just know is enchanted.  

It is precisely here, among the trees, leaves, and stones, that the Gunslinger Young Knight should be permitted to finally stumble an unfound door, hidden among the thickets.  You can, if you want, add a further bit of business here about Roland trying to figure out how to make the door open (maybe have him trying out various "Open Sesames" on the damn thing), however this should be the real focus.  The whole point is what happens once that door finally swings open.  Even then, there's still much to be done from a narratological standpoint.  There should be just enough, or however much space is needed to immerse the reader in this new landscape.  You have to let everyone know we've gone from Mid-World to an Elvish World.  These, then, are the necessary steps in a chain of narrative reasoning that have to be filled in if you want a modern audience to get on your side.  The funny thing is how it is just possible to argue that there is one author who can help the reader to fill in at least some of the story gaps in the original legend.  I'm thinking, here, of none other than Robert Browning.  

As was demonstrated above, Browning based his whole poem around a line from Shakespeare.  Who, in turn, wrote it down based on a familiarity with the original Childe Rowland fable.  As a result, Browning's poem became this strange bit of additional description added on to the original narrative.  The Dark Tower poem itself is a first-person-limited description of the sights Roland is seeing as he makes his way to the titular black turreted edifice.  I've said before that the poem has been described as a sort of precursor to Eliot's The Waste Land, and once you read the poem itself, it's sort of easy to see why.  It's tone matches the sense of aimlessness that's found in its more famous, Modernist ancestor.  In that sense, it can be argued that Browning was creatively "Seeing Ahead" in this work.  He managed to embed the first hint of cultural ambiguity into his poem, and that note would grow until it became a main focus of a great deal of the most famous writings of the 20th century.

The point to remember, however, is that the Roland of Browning's metrical narrative isn't (or at was wasn't, initially) the same character of King's novels, but rather the figure at the heart of the original Childe folktale.  In the strictest sense, what this means in practice is that Browning (perhaps quite unintentionally) has done us modern readers a favor by coming as close to filling in the gaps of the initial, ancient legend itself.  This can be seen if we superimpose Browning's verses onto the original narrative.  A good example can go as follows:

"So Childe Rowland...thanked the Warlock Merlin and went on his way.  And he went along, and along, and along, and still further along.


"My first thought was, he lied in every word,
That hoary cripple, with malicious eye
Askance to watch the workings of his lie
On mine, and mouth scarce able to afford
Suppression of the glee, that pursed and scored
Its edge, at one more victim gained thereby.

"What else should he be set for, with his staff?
What, save to waylay with his lies, ensnare
All travelers who might find him posted there,
And ask the road? I guessed what skull-like laugh
Would break, what crutch ’gin write my epitaph
For pastime in the dusty thoroughfare.

"If at his counsel I should turn aside
Into that ominous tract which, all agree,
Hides the Dark Tower. Yet acquiescingly
I did turn as he pointed, neither pride
Nor hope rekindling at the end descried,
So much as gladness that some end might be. 

(Browning, web)". 

It might not amount to as much as most reader or viewers would probably ask for.  Though at least it's some kind of start.  We're no longer being sold a bare-faced myth, with all its rough edges still showing.  For better or worse, we have taken at least one step closer to the kind of narrative that many today would expect from this type of fantasy setup.  Indeed, it is possible for Browning's poem to take us a great deal of the way in presenting us with a smoother flowing sequence of imaginary events.  It sounds jarring for contemporary ears to go from straightforward prose to poetry.  However, the curious reply there is that the legend itself has come to down to us as just such a mixed brew.  It's a pointer to just how antique the original story is.  The fact that there are fragments of poetry mixed into the prose is a very probable sign that there was a point in time when the entirety of Childe Rowland really was nothing but poem, from start to finish.  It is just that the rest of the verses have been lost to the passage of years, the way it's been for a lot of these older folk accounts.  

Even Joseph Jacobs admitted that the version he set down was the survival as it was recalled by an old, Scots merchant.  Bear in mind, that all happened in the 1890s, on the cusp of a new century.  The legend itself was probably around long before a lot of more famous works.  Such as, to take for instance, The Song of Roland.  It seems as if the figures of various narratives have become entangled over the years, just a memories can often be confused and blurred by time.  It has to be one of the most fascinating chronicles of literary development out there.  And I'll have more to say on it, later.

Right now, there's still one more bit of a storytelling hurdle to examine.  While Browning's poem can help us fill in some of the gaps, it can still only take us part of the way.  The reason for that is because of the abrupt way it ends, with the protagonist finding himself confronted by the titular Tower itself.  Browning's poem more or less proceeds to end right then and there.  In his own defense, the Victorian poet claimed to be recalling these events as they were depicted in a dream he once had.  Browning apparently must have woken up just before things could proceed to get interesting.  At the same time, I can see how that type of setup might work for a poem like the one that he was writing.  The trouble is that the legend itself continues on for a great deal after that moment.  And even before we reach that point, it can be argued that Browning has sold us just a bit short.  The arrival at the main goal is still too abrupt.  One can't shake the sense that there was supposed to be one or two more bits of narrative business to attend to before we reach the end of the quest.  And it turns out that's all too true.

The trouble is that Browning also makes the same mistake as the legend, in that we are not told at what point the main character has stepped out of reality, and into the fantastic realm.  I mentioned earlier that a smoother sense of transition could be achieved by placing Roland first through a Waste Land, and then second through your stereotypical Enchanted Forest, where he finds an unfound door waiting for him in the middle of it all.  Browning does a pretty good job of illustrating the Waste Land, however he seems to have bypassed that necessary door in the process.  Though, as was observed, all he had to go on was a dream.  He can be excused here.  The truly interesting part is that even at this juncture, we're not left without the resources required to help fill in the final missing pieces of the narrative.  All we need to do is turn from the genre of literary poetry, to one of music.  Here is the most ironic part.  For it really does seem as if it is possible to turn to one of the other unremarked sources that Stephen King was able to draw on when it came time to write his own spin on the legend.  I'm talking here of the work of Robert Fripp and his band, King Crimson, with a specific emphasis on one particular song. 

Here is where it is possible to find inspiration from the title track of King Crimson's debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King.  If you'll recall , we have left Roland before an unfound door in the middle of an enchanted forest.  Sooner or later, that door has got to swing open.  Now what's the first thing he finds once he's on the other side of the door?  If we are willing to resort to Peter Sinfield's lyrics, then the next thing Roland sees might run something like this:

"The rusted chains of prison moons

Are shattered by the sun
I walk a road, horizons change
The tournament's begun
The purple piper plays his tune
The choir softly sing
Three lullabies in an ancient tongue
For the court of the crimson king
"The keeper of the city keys
Put shutters on the dreams
I wait outside the pilgrim's door
With insufficient schemes
The black queen chants
The funeral march
The cracked brass bells will ring
To summon back the fire witch
To the court of the crimson king (web)".

So, now we've made it past the door, and on into the land of eternal Summer.  Or call it whatever you like.  The point is, we've patched up another vital gap in the narrative.  From the contemporary standpoint, the whole thing is far from perfect.  The stitch work done to sew up the gaps is rough hewn, sketchy, and is probably not as comprehensive as most would like.  If anything, it is possible to claim that we're in danger of making the original fable come as more gnomic sounding than it has to be.  It is still possible to put any misapprehensions to rest, at least in this context.  As utilized here, the Crimson band lyrics mean little more than Roland having successfully made his way into the Elf King's realm, and is slowly making his way toward his main goal.  The existential doubt of Browning's journey has now been cast aside.  It is replaced, instead, with a kind of trippy, bemused, strain of romanticism.  We've left the mundane behind, and are now in a world of seeming wonders.  The curious part is that there is this one element of the story which bears a peculiar resemblance to the way King's Gunslinger has of dealing with a lot of the problems that come his way, at least to begin with (he does get better, sort of).

When first meet the title character of Stephen King's The Gunslinger, he is this odd, twisted loner, someone who is implied to have been driven half-crazy through a self-imposed isolation.  He's been traveling through one desert waste after another, and he's a bit more than rough around the edges.  King's Roland, in fact, always comes off, on first acquaintance, as if he was stuck in the middle of one the world's worst drug highs.  It's what accounts for the trippy nature of the whole first draft publication of the book, and it probably accounts for the equally surrealistic way he has of dispatching justice, and taking care of business.  Rather than settle for your regular action hero shenanigans, King's Roland dispenses Wild Western law in a way that manages to come off as strange as it is brutal.  Rather than give out any spoilers, I'll just note that it is all eerily similar to the way the original, folkloric Rowland has of dealing with all the obstacles he meets along the way.  A good snippet of description should be able to make clear just what I'm talking about, here.  It's the scene where we left the young Childe, about to approach that elvish horse-herder, the one with the glowing red eyes, remember?

"Canst thou tell me," said Childe Rowland to the horse-herd, "where the King of Elfland's Dark Tower is?"  "I cannot tell thee," said the horse herd, "but go on a little further and thou wilt come to the cow-herd, and he, maybe, can tell thee."
"Then, without a word more, Childe Rowland drew the good brand that never struck in vain, and off went the horse-herd's head, and Childe Rowland went on further, till he came to the cow-herd, and asked him the same question.  "I can't tell thee," said he, "but go on a little further, and thou wilt come to the hen-wife, and she is sure to know."  Then Childe Rowland out with his good brand, that never struck in vain, and off went the cow-herd's head.  And he went on a little further, till he came to an old woman in a grey cloak, and he asked her if she knew where the Dark Tower of the King of Elfland was.  "Go on a little further," said the hen-wife, "till you come to a round green hill, surrounded with terrace rings, from the bottom to the top: go round it three times, widershins, and each time say: Open,door!  Open, door!  And let me come in.  And the third time the door will open, and you may go in."  And Childe Rowland was just going on, when he remembered what he had to do; so he went out with the good brand, that never struck in vain, and off went the hen-wife's head.  
"Then he went on, and on, and on, till he came to the round green hill with the terrace rings from top to bottom...And the third time the door did open, and he went in, and it closed with a click, and Childe Rowland was left in the dark (6-9)". 

Now there are two more responses possible to old passages of folklore such as that.  There might even be a third, waiting in the wings, from more astute observes.  The most basic reaction to a piece of writing like that might best be exemplified by the old, familiar phrase known simply as: What the hell,man?!  I'll have to admit, it's not everyday you're treated to a fairy tale were the hero is allowed to get carried away in such a ruthless fashion.  By the standards of our time, such actions would have Rowland classified as an "ostensible" or "designated" hero.  That's because the 21st century is able to afford the luxury of being able to live in a time when very few people today are ever going to entertain a serious belief in creatures such as elves, nymphs in the trees, or sprites in the woods.  Those who do, meanwhile, tend to gravitate toward the more positive aspects of the original folklore, with a lot of the more negative traits, either eclipsed, or forgotten.  Even Steve King has followed this contemporary trend at one point during The Wastelands, where some of the characters hope that they'll find a city of wise, and noble elves, who can maybe help them out on their own journey.  That's how it is now.

This is the current trend for how to view any Fair Folk who happen to crop up in works of fantasy these days.  The original Dark Tower story, however, was written in a time when folk beliefs were just about all anyone had, or ever would have, for better or worse.  Then, as now, what such a theory meant in practice has more or less remained the same.  Ideas always have consequences, and sometimes that comes in the form of a price-tag.  The accumulated folklore of the elves and their various enchanted kind were of the mixed bag variety.  And the general consensus amounted to something along the lines of "better safe than sorry".  This is the folk practice that is on display in the initial run of the legend, for all to see, come what may.  It's very much in keeping with what Joseph Jacobs observed about the fairy tale a whole.  It has "something savage and archaic" about it.  It's the product of an era in which totems and taboos were taken with a degree of seriousness that is probably unrecoverable to modern ears, except through various trace elements of hints, along with the bare bones survivals of much older folk traditions that have nonetheless been modernized and updated with the passage of years.
Please note, in addition, that this is no excuse or defense of anything that can be logically classified as "savage".  It's merely an observation.  All I'm trying to do here is provide as decent an answer as possible to the obvious what the hell elements in the story.  The real funny thing about all those parts is how it can just be argued that this is also something that finds its modern parallel, or echo, through King's use of a similar series of behaviors and narrative patterns in his own construction of the Gunslinger, and his world.  As he's first encountered in the opening book of the saga, Roland is not just a cold, almost emotionless and robotic loner, he's also incredibly cold-blooded in his dealings with others.  That goes double for anyone dumb enough to get in his way.  The first book, in fact, has him perform the stunningly impossible feat of gunning down an entire town.  It's one of the big action set pieces of the series, and King manages to give the unbelievable its own, hallucinatory conviction.

What's interesting to note is the way he builds things up to that climactic moment.  The only reason Roland is able to get away with it is because the author has run once more into one of his prototypical "Bad Towns".  The settlement that this Roland finds himself stuck in at the beginning of things, is nothing less than a New England hellhole straight out of Hawthorne or Poe, and its made pretty clear that the place, and the people who live there are beyond redemption.  It is, in fact, a trap laid by one of the series' main antagonists.  It's by establishing all these rules that King is able to allow the reader to take in those final passages of blazing slaughter with a detached sense of catharsis.  The point, however, is that King has to find the right narrative direction that would allow his audience to be able to take it in without growing disgusted, and maybe putting the book down wondering if their favorite writer hasn't finally flipped.  It's to his credit that King is able to maintain the same fundamentally moral stance in these moments that he's carried over into all the rest of his other works.  The point, however, is that King is smart enough to realize that he has to go out of his way as a writer in order to justify the audience's being on the side of a hero who starts out as little more than a lethal killing machine.
Compare all that with the technique of the "Rowland" Author, and the contrast couldn't be more glaring.  What we're reading turns out to be the silent record of a time, place, and above all, a mindset where a storyteller could be allowed to let his narrative play out in such a fashion that has little choice except to come off as either gnomic, cryptic, or else sometimes just plain alarming to an outlook that has been brought on the almost encyclopedic style of exposition and explanation, such as those found in Tolkien or Ursula K. Le Guin.  The result left on the mind by this type of performance is interesting for its double-edged sword nature.  On the one hand, its obtuseness is all the explanation most of us will need for why it has fallen so way out of the public perception, amounting to an almost total loss of an awareness that it even exists.  At the same time, it seems like there's something about the legend which can only be described as an odd form of staying power.  It manages to linger in the collective memory as fragments of forgotten imagery, something that appears to be of great significance long after all knowledge of the tale itself has become buried under the years of history.  It seems as if the central topos of Childe Rowland are enough to act as a fascination on the minds of artists and audiences.

It's this lingering sense of curiosity about the unknown that almost makes me wonder how much of a let down the ending of the initial story might come off as?  Will it be one of those cases where whatever hints or tantalizations that our own imaginations can conjure up somehow prove to be grander, and more majestic than anything the actual finished account can provide?  Perhaps its best to let the denouement tell itself, and let the reader decide.  Here, for instance, is how the legend describes the inside of the Dark Tower.  "It was not exactly dark, but a kind of twilight or gloaming. There were neither windows nor candles and he could not make out where the twilight came from, if not through the walls and roof. These were rough arches made of a transparent rock, incrusted with sheepsilver and rock spar, and other bright stones. But though it was rock, the air was quite warm, as it always is in Elfland. So he went through this passage till at last he came to two wide and high folding-doors which stood ajar. And when he opened them, there he saw a most wonderful and glorious sight. 

"A large and spacious hall, so large that it seemed to be as long, and as broad, as the green hill itself. The roof was supported by fine pillars, so large and lofty, that the pillars of a cathedral were as nothing to them. They were all of gold and silver, with fretted work, and between them and around them wreaths of flowers, composed of what do you think? Why, of diamonds and emeralds, and all manner of precious stones. And the very key-stones of the arches had for ornaments clusters of diamonds and rubies, and pearls, and other precious stones. And all these arches met in the middle of the roof, and just there, hung by a gold chain, an immense lamp made out of one big pearl hollowed out and quite transparent. And in the middle of this was a big, huge carbuncle, which kept spinning round and round, and this was what gave light by its rays to the whole hall, which seemed as if the setting sun was shining on it.  The hall was furnished in a manner equally grand, and at one end of it was a glorious couch of velvet, silk and gold, and there sate Burd Ellen, combing her golden hair with a silver comb (9-10)".

So far, so elegant sounding.  Now what about the big finish?  Again, you be the judge.  "Just at that moment they heard the noise of some one approaching, and a loud voice was heard saying:
"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."  

And then the folding-doors of the hall were burst open, and the King of Elfland rushed in.  "Strike then. Bogle, if thou darest," shouted out Childe Rowland, and rushed to meet him with his good brand that never yet did fail. They fought and they fought, and they fought, till Childe Rowland beat the King of Elfland down on to his knees, and caused him to yield and beg for mercy. "I grant thee mercy," said Childe Rowland; "release my sister from thy spells and raise my brothers to life, and let us all go free, and thou shalt be spared." "I agree," said the Elfin King, and rising up he went to a chest from which he took a phial filled with a blood-red liquor. With this he anointed the ears, eyelids, nostrils, lips, and finger-tips of the two brothers, and they sprang at once into life, and declared that their souls had been away, but had now returned. The Elfin King then said some words to Burd Ellen, and she was disenchanted, and they all four passed out of the hall, through the long passage, and turned their back on the Dark Tower, never to return again. So they reached home, and the good queen their mother and Burd Ellen never went round a church "widershins" again (11-12)".  Annnnd, that's a wrap!  No, really.

I'm being dead serious here.  That's how it ends.  A bit a rushed, do you think?  I'm not passing a judgment now.  You tell me.  For my part, I can see how once more, this is the sort of thing that is going to split the audience down the middle.  Some will hate it, and think the story underdone, and ill-conceived, and should have had more time and effort devoted to it.  Those who like it will most likely do so on the correct observation that this is not a novel but a fairy tale we are dealing with.  It has its own curious laws and methods of storytelling.  Any reader who is able to recognize that fact will be more or less content to judge the work on its own merits.  It's this latter category that has my allegiance, I'm afraid.  There's just too much of an impressive feat going on for me to ever call it a failure.  Instead, it is what it set out to be.  A legend of heroic deeds and an exploration through a fantastical other world paralleling our own.  There's a rough hewn quality to the tale, overall.  It's one that might be a turn off, for some.  However, those readers who have managed to never outgrow that initial, childlike love of nursery tales will find a welcome.
Beyond all this, there remains the legend's unique and multi-storied connection with the work of Stephen King.  After all that's been said on the topic, it just comes off as one of the weirdest seeming odysseys (or maybe I'm thinking of "oddities", or is there a difference?) that a single literary trope, or archetype can ever take over the course of history.  It started out as its own, self-contained fairy story.  Then Shakespeare cribbed a line from the legend, and this got the attention of Robert Browning, who made an entire poem out of it, after experiencing the whole thing in a dream.  Then along comes King, who reads Browning's poem in college, and that in turn sets the gears of his own imagination spinning.  No offense, but when you put it that way, it's got to be one of the strangest routes in which to pass on a legacy.  The funny thing is how unintentional and haphazard it all seems.  And yet each time, all four of the writers who managed to get inspired by this archetype were at least able to try and elaborate upon it, each in their own unique way.  Some were hits, others fell somewhere in between, and yet each writer was able to leave his mark on the project.  
I don't claim to understand, or have all the answers as to why that should be the case.  It's more like just this curious quirk of a concept that no one has ever paid much attention to.  Then it turns right around and keeps on proving itself to be the little imaginative idea that could.  We seem to be dealing with nothing more than the crazy, unpredictable phenomenon known simply as Inspiration.  My guess is this is the sort of thing that can only happen with any creative idea that has at least the potential for some genuine artistic content tucked away somewhere in the basic folds of its own mental structure.  I tend to speak about it in terms of images for no other reason than that's just the way a lot of it seems to begin, with pictures in the head.  The funny thing is how these pictures tend to act like nesting dolls, containing more aspects than one might assume at first glance.
The point here is that we now have a more complete picture of where King got his idea from.  It really does seem as if a case can be made that he and Browning were working from, and riffing off of the same, ancient template.  It isn't too much out of the way to claim that both authors arrived at similar sounding results.  However, it should go without saying that it was King who wound up taking everything way far out into its own, peculiar stratosphere.  The Dark Tower story that King weaves seems to be as much a product of the acid influenced 60s, as well as owing perhaps a great deal to former underground magazines such as Heavy Metal, and artists like Moebius, which is a latter set of influences that I don't think has been given as much consideration as it probably should be, really.
The gist of it is that this is the one series of books in which King has at least tried to let his imagination go as far as it can.  I'm not so sure he ever really succeeded as much as he could have, and there may be numerous reasons for this.  That will all have to be discussed elsewhere.  Right now, it's enough to discover the hidden well (or door) from which King has been drawing inspiration from this whole time.  It's no big secret that King has taken things to a point beyond recognition from the original source material.  If I ever needed proof that America' Boogeyman probably hasn't got a clue about the legend from which all of Mid-World eventually sprang, then it this would have to be it.  That and the fact he admits on a cover blurb of Vincent's book that it taught him a few things about the Tower legend even he wasn't aware of.  Something tells me it's safe to conclude that the story of Childe Rowland happens to be one of them.  The curious part is how even this doesn't entirely obscure the original well spring.

Am I saying here that King's Roland and the Britannic-Celtic character are one and the same?  Well, let's put it this way.  He's one of the few characters in all of fiction who won't shut up, for some reason.  And so he keeps cropping up, every now and then.  It's always in a different time and place, and often with the help of differing authors, who are often ages and worlds apart from each other.  And yet still, Roland and the Tower persist.  If they didn't we wouldn't even have the Gunslinger saga that a lot of Tower Junkies know by heart.  So I guess this mean my answer is that what we're dealing with is the same archetype under a different looking mask.  The face may look different, but the essential nature remains just enough of the same so that you can tell who it really is under the accumulated years of history, if you squint hard enough.  The funny thing is the final question it sort of leaves me wanting to ask.
Is there any way the original legend could have helped inform King's story?  Could it even have helped determine which direction it should have gone in?  In some ways, that question is too much of a tall order to have any definite answer.  I mean, it's difficult to even know where to start, for one thing.  Another problem is that I tend to agree with something King said in the afterword to the final novel in the series.  He said he wasn't all that crazy about the ending, and yet even he had to admit it was also the right ending.  The funny thing is how I'm inclined to agree.  So how do you improve on artistic completion?  The answer is that you can't, no matter how much you try.  I'd even go so far as to lay down a rule about it.  The harder you try to perfect perfection, the greater the risk of effacing what made the initial artwork so unique and whole in the first place.  Keep it up long enough, and you run the risk of creating a Frankenstein Monster that is less its own thing, and more a testament to one's own individual hubris.  That's not art, I'm afraid.  At that point it's just a desperate cry for help.
That's a scenario I'd like to avoid at all costs, if you please.  Because of this, anything I have to say on the matter can only be treated as fanfic, at best.  Or maybe a humbler word for it should be fan theorizing.  What happens if we apply the Rowland legend to Roland's story?  The best answer I can offer goes as follows.  Fair warning, though.  There be spoilers ahead.  It takes into account the ending of King's books, and posits that what we're seeing is another repetition of the same journey he's made who knows how many times before.  The difference here would have to be that this time, what's waiting for him on the other side of the Tower door would all be different.  Maybe instead having to retrace his steps all over again, this time, what's waiting the Gunslinger is his own version of the legend from which he originally sprang.  Maybe it's a Tardis-like space, in the form of a castle's inner court building, and he finds Susan there, along with Cuthbert and Alain.  Maybe this is the sign that things have taken a turn for the better.  At some point along the way, Roland realizes that while he no longer has his guns, he has instead gained Arthur's sword, and it is this which he uses to slay the Crimson King.
After that business is over and done with, the four heroes make their way to the top of the Tower together, and when the topmost door opens for the final time, what's lying on the other side is...Well, the picture I see in my mind is the four of them all looking out into a scene of Gilead, the home place that all four characters knew about, or grew-up in.  The difference is this time, it's not a failing kingdom, or a blasted out waste.  Instead, it's something of an idyllic city, part medieval, part American West.  At first, the original Ka-Tet would look around in unsure confusion.  Then it would begin to dawn on them all just what they've got on their hands, and all the opportunities it means.  
For some reason, my imagination insists on framing the final action of this hypothetical scenario in terms of the closing shot of John Ford's The Searchers (which kind of makes sense if you've seen the film, and know that Ford is another source that King was drawing from).  We'd see Roland, Susan, Cuthbert, and Alain framed within the lighted doorway of the Tower.  After a final look around, the two lovers give each other the Happily Ever After stare, then link arms around one another.  Together, flanked by their two friends on either side, the Ka-Tet make their way into whatever future they may have together.  The of door the Tower slowly swings shut behind them all, leaving the audience in a fade to black darkness.
Yeah, if it sounds like I was rambling there, for a second.  Then that's probably because I was, in a sense.  Maybe you should just ignore the whole two last paragraphs, and take up from here, instead.  To end things back on track, all we're left with is the final judgement call.  I'd have to say that Childe Rowland really is a story worth checking out.  I said way near the start that it's just possible I enjoyed this simple fairy tale, warts and all, better than King's more detailed, multi-part series.  And, if I'm being honest, none of that assessment has changed.  I suppose this is a case of mileage having to vary.  However, there are objective shortcomings to King's take on the story that make it easy for me to say that I definitely had more fun going all the way back to the start, and letting the original tale tell itself.
There's a very discernible antique quality to the story of Roland and the Tower.  It's apparent just by the way the story is laid out.  The plotting and characterization looks basic.  The pacing is sometimes quicker than the eye.  And it often looks as if the writer of the piece had never even heard of the concept of a smooth narrative transition.  However, this in itself is not enough to qualify as a failing grade, in my opinion.  The main reason for that is precisely because it is a folktale, first and foremost.  What I'm starting to realize is just how skewed or off the mark our thoughts can be when it comes to this ancient format.  We live in an age in which the streamlining of this sort of material has become the norm.  A good example of this is the Disney version of Snow White.  It runs smoothly, and is easy enough to understand from start to finish.  It's also not the whole story.  I'm not talking about any so-called "Disnefication" here.  I mean the way we've allowed ourselves to forget the nature of fairy tales.

The fact is, a lot of the originals of your favorite nursery stories are just plain weird, when they're not coming across like rough sketches for unused episodes of Game of Thrones.  Once you go back and look at the actual, earliest myths that make up our idea of the fairy tale, it soon becomes pretty clear that we've entered a collective secondary world whose rules are more akin to the logic governing a Dali painting, than anything else.  An actual folktale contains more than just knights, princesses, and kingdoms far away.  We're now talking about places where humans can grow up being raised by wild animals.  Where a simple trumpet call can bring down an entire fortress.  Or else its a place where trolls must engage in a riddle competition if they wish to best their chosen targets.  It's also the kind of world in which the hero must forever lop off the head of the next person he encounters along the road, unless he wants to suffer a fate worse than death.  This is the kind of setting that the original Roland inhabits.

It's the same imaginative space as that of Gawain and his Green Man friend.  It wouldn't have surprised either knight to see a golem-like ogre walking around carrying its own head in its hands.  Nor would it come as much of a shock to realize you could still hold an actual conversation with that severed head.  If all of that sounds weird or barbaric, then while it is possible for the critic to apologize, I do know you'll never get such consideration from the world of fairy stories.  In essence, its useless to ask such myths to clean up their acts.  I'll allow as how it might be possible with some.  Others remain untranslatable.  When that happens, you've either got to learn how to go with their own, peculiar flow, or else you refund your money and take your business elsewhere.  It's what makes this older form of storytelling such a challenge.  Each of these tales exist in their own little world of proto-surrealism, and the Tower itself appears to be one of the most familiar landmarks of that enchanted realm.

It's a narrative glamour that enchants as much as it can sometimes repel.  Tolkien knew his way about those lands like an expert cartographer.  He was even able to make some of it his own.  Stephen King tried to do the same in his own way, and ultimately found himself defeated by the sheer strangeness of Roger Green's Other World.  At the same time, one thing that King got right on occasion was the ability to capture that note of exhilarating strangeness that marks out the deepest and darkest parts of the realm of literary enchantment.  It's a very specific, and almost forgotten charm that permeates a story like Childe Rowland from start to finish.  It's for all these reasons that I'd like to urge the reader to maybe one day see if they might give it a chance, and let the story tell itself on its own terms.  It might be a bit of a challenge getting used to this kind of storytelling, yet once you do manage to get the hang of it (you're either lucky, or just patient), you might discover the original world of the Dark Tower has its own rewards to offer those who can unlocks its doors.


  1. (1) "I've always been able to see the ways in which Tolkien has impacted King's work to the point where there can be times (especially in his best work) where King almost seems to be copying the old Oxford professor without even trying." -- I don't think Tolkien's influence on King can be disputed; it's impossible to discuss his work fully without "Rings" coming up eventually.

    That said, they're incredibly different writers from a process standpoint, and that's interesting to me. All things considered, I'm glad that Tolkien did as much planning as he did, and I'm glad King did as much intuitively as he has. I think it served them both well to just be who they wanted to be in that regard. It served us all pretty well in both cases!

    (2) "If you've only seen this gonzo Western on your television screen, you don't understand what I'm talking about - cry your pardon, but it's true." -- And it remains true even as big as tvs are nearly twenty years later. Any great-looking movie is going to look ten times better in a quality cinema.

    (3) "It's the kind of exercise that won't matter to anyone else except English Majors, and King fans." -- And maybe only to King-fan English majors!

    (4) "Some called him Maerlyn the Wise. Although he was also known as Merwyn, or Mervyn." -- Oh-ho, indeed? I'd been wondering whether it was at all likely that King would have ever encountered this pre-Browning Roland tale, but now...?

    (5) "What I mean is that while I'm not sure King succeeded in the goals he may have had for the series, the broken fragments he leaves us with are still able to fascinate because of how well most of them point toward a sense of greater concepts and ideas that the writer seems to be struggling with." -- I think that's a fair assessment. It wouldn't be mine, but it's very fair.

    (6) I've never read (nor know much of anything about) C.S. Lewis's "The Dark Tower," but its existence popped into my mind while reading this. Do you have any familiarity with it?

    (7) I don't how I feel about the ennd of ol' Burd Ellen's tale. On the one hand, there's not much to it. On the other hand, it doesn't involve a dude who looks like Santa Claus being drawn/erased out of existence by a tongueless dude who's tired of having grenades shucked at him, so there's that. Then, too, it sounds as if this version of the Childe Ro(w)land story plays as much like a moral for kids as anything else. Teaching them ... not to wun around a church in the wrong direction? Sure, why not? Can't hurt to do it correctly, I suppose.

    (8) If King's version is merely the newest in a lineage of Rolands and Towers, then it makes me wonder: what course should the next version take? The likeliest answer is that there won't be one anytime soon, simply because of the nature of media and storytelling consumption. But in a way, it almost becomes an argument for the story-changing weirdness of the movie being okay. Either way, I'd guess that it's King's version which will now be canonized as THE version of the Roland story for a long while. Adaptations might shift it a bit; but even those will be seen as being essentially beholden to King.

    Almost seems like a shame!

    (9) "The curious part is how even this doesn't entirely obscure the original well spring." -- If the issue at the heart of the matter really is Inspiration, then this absolutely tracks.

    (10) Great work here, Chris!

  2. (1) It's interesting about the process side of things. Tolkien once wrote a letter to his son, outlining a rough sketch for where the story of Lord of the Rings was going to go. Then he makes a very insightful bit of observation:

    "It will probably work out very differently from this plan when it really gets written, as the thing seems to write itself once I get going, as if the truth comes out then, only imperfectly glimpsed in the preliminary sketch ("Letters", 104)".

    So the picture the writer gives of his own process seems doubled-edged. He might like to rely on what King calls "plotting", yet his actual practice, by his own admission, seems to fall more in line with what King says in the rest of "On Writing".

    (3) More's the pity.

    (4) That one is really just the result a long, slow realization about the way certain words, or names can shift in spelling and pronunciation over time. Based on the original Olde English, or possibly Welsh, Merlin could have been an ealry variant on the name Mervyn, or Mervin to give the name its current modern spelling. It's just an insight that's too comedic to not mention.

    I mean imagine what it means to know the worlds most famous wizard can go by the name of Merv the Magician. It just casts him on a whole other light. Then again, it also probably doesn't help to realize you can also call him Merl.

    (5) It's the best assessment I can arrive at, I'm afraid.

    (6) Just barely, I'm told its about time travel (of a sorts?) to a pocket dimension containing an alternate version of an old university astronomy tower, which looks normal on the keystone world of the protagonist, but which takes on sinister associations in the alternate world. You know what, who knows. Maybe I just detailed another source of inspiration for King.

    (7) Well, I guess that's the one thing all the variants have in common. The ending are a bit less than satisfactory to most readers, and it probably needs more work than its ever likely to get. Add that up, and you get is irony.

    (8) Interesting question. I almost want to say the next person to try and tackle the concept should try and go back to the original folktale, and see if its possible to flesh it out into a more complete form. Like, I didn't notice any major retellings or fresh imaginings with this one, in the same way as we've been getting with other fairy tales such as "The Frog Prince", "Cinderella", and the like. Maybe it's time Roland and his brood had their turn. I guess the real question for such a hypothetical re-telling is this. Should the Tower be allowed to stand in this version, or just let it fall?

    (9) Something tells the idea will occur to someone else somewhere down the line.

    (10) Thanks. Believe it or not, I just finished using a work of King's to help explain another story by someone else. It's kind of whacked-out as well. Stay tuned, if you want.