“Dreams either mean nothing or everything — and when they mean everything, they almost always come as messages from . . . well, from other levels of the Tower.” He gazed at Eddie shrewdly. “And not all messages are sent by friends.”
— from Wizard and Glass
Part IV is focused on my reread of book four, Wizard and Glass.
Fair warning: Spoilers ahead.
The third book ended on such a massive cliffhanger — with Roland and his ka-tet set to begin a battle of riddles with a homicidal AI train — that it was a great relief to finally get around to reading Wizard and Glass. This was even though I’ve read these books before and knew how the scene would play out.
Wizard and Glass opens right back with the start of the riddling competition between Blaine the Train and Roland, Eddie, Susannah, and Jake a scene I remember being delighted by when I first read it. And it was just as entertaining to read again, because of how King manages to create intensity in a game of wordplay. I also just really like the idea of riddling, even if I’m not particularly good at it myself. The game plays out, with the group growing more and more desperate each time Blaine smugly answers — with everything wrapping up in a maniacal and humorous form of heroism.
Our heroes all survive of course, arriving at the destination of Topeka, which turns out to be an alternate version of our Kansas — a Kansas emptied of life due to a plague that killed off the population (which I’ll come back to later). All of this is an introductory endcap to what is ultimately the heart of the novel, Roland opening up to the group with the tale of his first mission as a gunslinger and his first love.
In the first Dark Tower book, The Gunslinger, Roland tells Jake about passing the brutal test of manhood that garnered him the title of Gunslinger at the tender age of fourteen (the youngest to have ever done so). In Wizard and Glass he begins his story from there, telling the group about his father’s anger and decision to send Roland away for his own protection, with two of his friends (Cuthbert and Alain) along to protect him.
However, the distant Barony of Mejis is not as safe as believed. Roland and his friends immediately get a sense that something is wrong — not the least of which is the presence of the Coffin Hunters, a group of gunmen led by a man called Jonas. Conflict arises almost immediately between the men and the four gunslinger trained boys, leading an utterly epic standoff — which I remember being one of my favorite moments in the book. Although it’s superficially smoothed over, this standoff set the tone for every subtlety and slight that follows.
Although the boys note a number of things that don’t add up in the barony, they move slow, trying to build up knowledge and considering the best way to proceed. This period of subterfuge is described by the characters as a game of Castles (which sounds like a mix of chess and Risk to me, although its rules are never fully described).
It’s during this time that Roland and Susan begin to love each other, which is at the center of this story. Roland falls for her almost at first sight, having only seen her in person a time or two. This fits his personality and its unimaginative and uncompromising nature. As soon as he realizes that he’s fallen in love with her, he accepts it’s reality (“A dismaying idea, but not a dismissable one; he knew the landscape of his own heart too well”).
However, despite recognizing her attraction to this young man and his courtly manners, Susan is slower to give in to the idea of love, as she is burdened with a number of heavy problems. Following her father’s death, she has been convinced that the best way to secure a future for her and her aunt is to enter into an agreement to become the governor’s gilly (sort of a kept mistress). By the time Roland comes around, the deal had already been signed and locked, with only a few months of reprieve before she is to go to the old man’s bed. To invalidate that contract for the sake of young love would mean being cast out from her community.
Susan’s affection and love for Roland grows more slowly, more at the pace of a natural love — having to slowly reconsider what she’s willing to sacrifice in the name of loving this boy that’s blown into town. This consideration and careful thought, along with her hopes and desires for a future in which she can have back and care for the horses that were taken from her family, gives her more depth beyond being a simple love interest to Roland. She has her own strength and desires and acts on them, when she is not restricted from doing so by her aunt or the pressures of good conduct.
At first Roland only calls on her for advice and information about the region, information he needs to discover what sort of treason is going on under the smiling surface of the community. Although he confesses his love to her out of some personal sense of honor, he does not expect any reciprocation of emotion in return. “I said what I said so you’d understand,” he said. “That’s all. I feel how I feel, and you’re not responsible for that.”
Yet there’s his steadfast nature. Although he does not make demands and does not pressure her, time and circumstance continues to bring them together in hidden and secret ways. And Susan begins to push back more and more against the trap she’s landed herself into, pushing herself instead into the danger of loving Roland.
Stephen King was nervous about telling a love story. In his afterward to Wizard and Glass, he wrote, “I knew that Wizard and Glass meant doubling back to Roland’s young days, and to his first love affair, and I was scared to death of that story. Suspense is relatively easy, at least for me; love is hard.”
I did not entirely buy into this love story on my reread, it’s too all-consuming and dramatic. As an adult in my thirties, I am more interested in love with all its complexities, all its daily compromises and subtle slights, the way it nestles into a life full of the slog of work and obligations, how it can create comfort rather than passion.
And yet, I still enjoyed this love story, the way I still enjoy Romeo & Juliet despite all its foolishness. Roland and Susan are young (he’s is fourteen and she is only sixteen) and they love each other like they are all the world. Their lovemaking — by which I mean the old-fashioned definition of the term, meaning the act of courting (although there’s plenty of sex, too) — is overdramatic. These kids would do anything for each other, would die for each other. In their passion, they don’t understand the complexities of love beyond this initial rush and lust. I can accept this because it suits their young personalities and the story that’s being told, a story that can only lead to tragedy.
One of the interesting things about this storyline is the number of strong, if not altogether likeable female characters there are. Susan herself is an excellent horseback rider, as well as being strong willed, clever, and brave. But there’s also Olive Thorin, who is seen at first as a pitiable character (a scorned woman unable to stop her husband’s philandering) but turns out to be more intelligent and stallfast than she at first seems, and a maid in the household who is more neutral, but kind and helps when things go wrong.
There are also a number of female antagonists, Coral Thorin, who runs the the local saloon and whorehouse and turns out to have a surprising steel to her personality; Rhea of the Cöos, a witch who seems at the peripheral to the story, but wreaks a surprising amount of damage; and Cordelia Delgado, who is probably the weakest of these characters, because she’s driven by greed and fear to the point that she’s willing to sacrifice her niece in the name of her own comfort.
Returning to Topeka
As Roland wraps up his tale, the light returns to the sky — although the group is unsure whether only a single night or many have passed in the telling. For Roland, this tale has been a brutal confession, expressing the past traumas that began to shape the person he would become and the blame he has placed on himself regarding the loss of the people he loves in his pursuit of the Dark Tower. His grief is immense. He has learned to love again with Eddie, Susannah, and Jake. They have taught him to love (although he seems to be continually laced with loniness) and he asks for their forgiveness in dragging them into this, tells them they can call off the journey, return to their lives if they wish. However, the group reconfirm their commitment to Roland and the quest, expressing their one desires to see the Dark Tower for themselves.
The rest of the novel detours through a recreation of the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz where they meet a few old enemies. The Tick-Tock Man was a villain in book three, who was foreshadowed to be a returning threat, but his presence turned out to not be much of a threat (a bit of a let down). Another returning character was Walter, now known as Randall Flagg — which is a clear reference to King’s multiverse.*
Essentially, these encounters are points for the group to reconfirm their commitment to their journey, which puts the ka-tet back onto the path of the Beam — which I assume will be how they will continue their journey in the next book.
Out of all the Dark Tower books I’ve read, I remember Wizard and Glass the least. Maybe the love story didn’t grab me. Maybe I’ve just been more mentally attached to other aspects of the storyline. At any rate, although it’s a little disjointed feeling with its bookend format (that feel tacked on), this is a solid chapter in the Dark Tower saga.
Wizard and Glass was the last book of the series that I’ve read. From here on out, the Dark Tower books will be all new to me. I’m looking forward to seeing (at last) where the story will go from here.
* As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the group found themselves in a Kansas that had faced a devastating plague, which turns out to be a version of Kansas from The Stand. Further mentions of The Stand in addition to the plague and the presence Randall Flagg, who was the devil and main villain in that book, include a not mentioning the old woman Abigail and the dark man being in Vegas. We know that this is an alternate Kansas, because the superflu never happened in Eddie’s timeline, pointing to many versions of Earth.