Sunday, March 8, 2009

Philosophical Obession Dovetailing with Re-reading of Stephen King's "Dark Tower" Books

My newfound interest in philosophy (particularly in discovering my own brand of thought and whys and hows and all that stuff) made me realize that this rereading (following in the footsteps of my best friend because he's a free thinker in a way I'm not) of The Gunslinger, the first book in Stephen King's epic masterpiece The Dark Tower, is going to be somehow different. I was going to write a post devoted to each of the seven DT books, but I didn't get past the four page introduction before I realized this would not be possible.

Ah, the author's introduction. Who even reads them, anyway? Well, if they're written by Stephen King, I can assure you that I do. I'd even argue that some of King's best works are introductions to other pieces. He just gets this voice ... it's like he's talking directly to you, and it seems like everyone, no matter who you are, can relate. Uncanny, really.

King reworked the first DT book, The Gunslinger, because there were things that came up as the epic progressed that he felt needed to be addressed. One of the strongest themes/symbols/whatever you want to call it is the recurrence throughout the saga of the number nineteen. I did a quick search on the historical context of the number nineteen and found that it is
* The atomic number for Potassium
* A prevalent number in the Koran
* The number of months in the Bahai calendar (a group focused on uniting all religions in the world)
* A prime number
* A 1985 anti-war song by one-hit wonder Paul Hardcastle
* The number of years between the major events and the epilogue of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
* The number of minutes given to a school shooting in Jodi Picoult's Nineteen Minutes
* the name of the first Soviet nuclear ballistic submarine (K-19)
* the year (BC) that the Roman poet Virgil died
* The year (BC) that Herod the King began rebuilding the Temple of Jerusalem (Herod played a role in both the birth and death of Jesus Christ ... the death place of Christ was also known as Golgotha, a name familiar to DT aficionados)
* the year (1855--1+8+5+5=19) that Robert Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came", the poem King used as a jumping off point, was published
* the year (well, 1919) that Mussolini created the Fascist Party
* the year (1919) that the Red Cross was founded in France ("Little Sisters of Eluria", anyone?)
* the year (1919) Einstein's Theory of Relativity is confirmed
* the year (1919) Congress approves the 19th Amendment to the Constitution (Women's Suffrage, in case you're interested)
* the year (1919) the Treaty of Versailles is signed, basically ending World War I
* the year (1919) J.D. Salinger, Jackie Robinson, and a crapload of other noteworthies were born
* the year (1919) L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz, died (Baum's story plays a major role in DT-IV)
* the main part of every year in the twentieth century (1900s). According to Wikipedia (not the most reliable of sources, says the English teacher, but I found this interesting), "The century saw a remarkable shift in the way that vast numbers of people lived, as a result of technological, medical, social, ideological, and political innovation. Terms like ideology, world war, genocide, and nuclear war entered common usage."

But back to King. In typical self-deprecatory fashion, he begins by talking about the impact of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings on his own potential epic, what he believed would be the magnum opus he was one day known for. Tolkien's creatures came to life for him, so to speak, when he heard about the number of hippies at Woodstock dressed up as hobbits, Frodo in particular of course, but even more those that took on the likeness of the wizard Gandalf. Known as Gandalf the Grey in the early part of Tolkien's work, Gandalf embodies one with great power, great wisdom, great knowledge of when sacrifice is necessary. Gandalf sent these little barefooted creatures on a seemingly impossible quest, and he did so with a heavy heart. He was always on the edge of what Tolkien called "The Fellowship of the Ring" but which King would undoubtedly call "The Ka-Tet of the Ring" because the prospect of getting close to the others, of being part of a betryal as he so easily could have been, was too overwhelming.

The hippies got Gandalf, man. They totally got him. And Stephen King was a hippie.

The greatest message I got from this introduction, though, was King's constant reference to "Patrol Boy", something sent out by the world to "slow your progress." According to King, it's a good thing that nineteen is a time of arrogance and a feeling that you're bigger than life. You need to dream big; after all, "if you start out small, the mean Patrol Boy" will leave you with pretty much nothing--he'll essentially eat you alive. King's advice? "Let it rip, regardless of what anybody tells you."

The Patrol Boy came for King in various ways--through drug and alcohol addiction and, even more dire, a life-threatening accident involving an automobile. King gave the Patrol Boy the proverbial bird when he wrote his accident in to his DT epic, making the questions of who or what or why in terms of power completely wide open. The accident gave King the jump start he needed to finish the series, started when he was a boy of nineteen. His part in saving the tower was to finish Roland's story, to use his art as a means of removing "the threat to the Beams that hold the Tower up."

It's easy to dismiss The Dark Tower as the work of an immensely popular author who, it has been accused, could publish his laundry list and make it a bestseller. The thing is, though, whatever level (pun definitely intended) you read it on, these books will change your mindset. They will open up a whole new world to you, or at least make you view the one you inhabit differently.

I wish that I was nineteen again. On a personal level, I met someone when I was nineteen that I believe was my "Patrol Boy" (to use King's terminology). He shaped who I am, in many ways, and he opened up the door for me to look at things in a different way. My eyes were opened (and blinded for many years), my heart was opened (and shattered), but I see things so much more clearly now.

Of course, now I wish I possessed the courage to think big, to live what is in my heart and dreams, but I exist in a society with social norms and a hundred different roadblocks ("Patrol Boys" in their own right, I suppose) to my own deepest desire.

Still, being there with King--no, with Roland and his comrades, his ka-tet--has made it bearable. I can live vicariously through them in a world (well, worlds) where anything can happen. And, as King put it with regard to writing DT, "As for me, I had the time of my life."