“The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.” This story follows the hero, the gunslinger named Roland Deschain, as he follows the man in black for twelve years. His pursuit never wavers for any reason. He is willing to sacrifice all, even his own life. The novel was inspired by Robert Browning’s poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” (1855), which King read as a sophomore at the University of Maine. King explains that he, “…played with the idea of trying a long romantic novel embodying the feel, if not the exact sense, of the Browning poem.” King started writing this novel in 1970 on a ream of bright green paper that he found at the library. The Gunslinger also was recently produced as a movie in August 2017 with amazing reviews, attracting many people to Stephen King’s book series.
Violence: This book is very detailed with violence and gore. Some instances include Jake remembering a car running over him, mushing his guts and squashing his genitals. Blood spurts from every opening in his body. In a bloody scene, Roland’s bird violently tears Cort’s face apart. Blood and brains fly as the gunslinger kills a group of townspeople. Roland violently forces his gun between Sylvia’s legs to abort and remove the man in black’s child from her body. It is implied that a father of several daughters regularly beats his children.
Sexual Content: Like the violence, this book is also very detailed with sexual content. Several scenes include sex, molestation, rape, sexual assault, and masturbation. A woman has an affair with her husband’s adviser. There are descriptions of how the protagonist’s groin feels during some situations, descriptions of lewd gestures, euphemisms,and jokes about another character’s sexuality. Roland vows to forget Jake by sleeping with many women and killing people. Some editions of the book include artwork and some of these pictures will depict nudity, but usually in a non-sexual manner.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Many characters smoke marijuana to get high. People at the bar where Alice works are often drunk or high. Roland takes a pill before he faces a demon, and Jake likens it to LSD. The oracle warns Roland of a demon named Heroin.
Spiritual Content: A number of biblical references appear in the text. The narrator sometimes likens a situation to a story in the Bible. For example, he talks about zombie-like creatures in a cave looking for Jesus to heal them and raise them from the darkness, like Lazarus. He refers to Roland’s meeting place with the man in black as Golgotha, the place of the skull. The man in black says Roland must meet and slay an Ageless Stranger whose name is Legion.
The gunslinger attends the church in Tull, where they sing hymns. The preacher, Sylvia, mentions a number of Bible stories before warning of an Interloper who came to Eve in the form of a serpent. Congregants cry out to the Lord in response to her message.
Roland says he is not a holy man, like a Manni or the Man Jesus. He sometimes looks for ka, which is an Egyptian word for a spiritual entity living within an individual. He has encountered people who believe that devils live in fire.
Roland has the power to hypnotize people and control what they remember. He talks about God, as well as gods in the plural form. Brown says he once tried to teach his bird the Lord’s Prayer, but that this wasn’t really Lord’s Prayer country. When Roland asks Brown if he believes in the afterlife, Brown says he thinks this is it.
The man in black brings a man named Nort back from the dead. Nort believes God has touched him and that he won’t ever die again. A man in Tull named Kennerly says his daughter has a devil. He rambles on about the end times when there are plagues and children don’t obey their parents. The man in black tells the gunslinger’s future using Tarot-like cards. He tells Roland to allow this pointless ritual to calm him, like church might.
The man in black stands with Roland in a void universe. The man in black calls light, water, plants, dinosaurs and other creatures into being. He continues to command that there be light, until the light is so strong that it overwhelms the gunslinger. The man in black later ponders the nature of God, if one exists, and wonders if there could be a stairway leading to a tower in which He resides. If so, he says, would one dare climb it? The gunslinger suggests maybe God himself has climbed these stairs to a room above reality.
Language/Crude Humor: The Lord’s name is used in vain. H—, d–n, s—, a–, b–ch, whore, balls, cojones, p—, b–tard, c–t, and the f-word are used.
Other Negative Content: If the reader is sensitive to gore, sexual content, foul language, biblical heresy, or other such mediums, this book would best be avoided.
Positive Content: While The Gunslinger is very graphic, it is a symbolic story of altruism vs selfish pursuits. It’s not quite a story of good vs evil, but of a human hoping to avenge his home and people against an evil force that seeks to destroy the world. It’s a wonderful example of how even the most flawed of people can make a difference when they act for the greater good. This book compels the reader to contemplate life, death, and the purpose of it all. Is life really only about selfish ambition? Is death really the end? Is the purpose of it all just ambition? Or does it serve as a stepping stone for some greater plan?
“The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.” This line starts the story of the gunslinger and reveals the motivation of the main character and plot of the story. Roland Deschain, the gunslinger, pursues the man in black across a desert wasteland and into the mountains. The setting takes place in the Old West of what can be described as an alternate universe. Roland is willing to sacrifice all, even his own life, to find the man in black.
Roland meets many people along the way, including a young boy name Jake, who becomes his traveling companion. Several of the people Roland meets are used as human traps by the man in black to thwart Roland from capturing him. The man in black hopes to distract and eventually defeat the gunslinger by taking advantage of his selfless nature. He wants to see how far Roland is willing to go to do the right thing, even at the cost of losing the trail of his retreating quarry.
An interesting thing about this book is the lack of definite plot. The reader experiences the life of Roland Deschains in an organic way — by walking with him across the desert, seeing the world through his eyes, and learning more about the protagonist as he recounts his past to other people that he meets. It’s a very natural progression of the story. It does not so much build to a climax, but rather becomes more complex as more is revealed about the main characters. Stephen King is very descriptive of every element in the story, including sensations and emotions the protagonist sees or feels. The amount of detail fully immerses the reader in a way not many stories can.
The complexity of the story grows with the introduction of Jake, a young boy who had died in another parallel world, who now finds himself transported to this word with the gunslinger and man in black. Jake brings a surge of emotion to the tale. Despite his bitter and stubborn exterior, the gunslinger can’t help but become friends with the boy. Jake is so innocent and joyful that it awakens a selfless love in the gunslinger. The boy is like a symbol of the importance of friendship and love in life. It gives us renewed purpose and energy that we would not be able to create on our own.
With the introduction of Jake, the story takes a turn to a more philosophical viewpoint of life. The gunslinger learns he must make a terrible choice between avenging his people or saving that which is most important to him. The result turns out to be nothing like the reader would have expected, adding to the organic nature of the books and expanding the possibilities of how the story will end. The reader is left to ponder about the seemingly “black and white” choices we experience in life. It offers up the possibility that life’s experience is much more of a “gray area” when it comes to our choices and beliefs.
All these elements build up to when the gunslinger is finally able to speak to the man in black. The man in black reveals something to the gunslinger to show his insignificance in the gargantuan universe and the billions of lives and plans currently present. In the same way, we are left to ponder our place in the universe. Who are we — a small spec and flicker of life — compared to an ancient universe full of life and power? The Gunslinger shows us that we may be small compared to something so vast, but it doesn’t change the fact that we can still have a big impact.
If you enjoy books full of adventure that explore the meaning of life and the afterlife, I would recommend The Gunslinger. While the graphic nature and detailed descriptions may be off putting to some, Steven King’s book is worth looking into for the naturally unfolding writing style that fully immerses the reader.
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+ Naturally unfolding story + Immersive writing style + Encourages philosophical thinking + Fast-paced adventure story + References to Stephen King's other works
- Very graphic storytelling - Explanation of details can become dull - The lack of definite plot could be confusing - A few grammatical and spelling mistakes
The Bottom Line
The Gunslinger is a fast-paced adventure story full of complex story elements and thought-provoking questions about life and our purpose. I'd encourage anyone who loves immersive stories about the meaning of life to check this book out.