The Theology (or Towerology?) of Stephen King
‘The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed’
This is the opening line of the mammoth literary series, The Dark Tower, written by popular and acclaimed author Stephen King.
The Dark Tower series is a remarkable literary achievement. It’s a long and complex tale told in seven parts involving fascinatingly complex characters through an intricate but gripping plot. The whole saga traverses multiple genres and is crafted with incredible imagination and skill.
King admits that he desired The Dark Tower to be a saga like The Lord of the Rings. Whilst The Dark Tower is raunchier and at times more graphic than Tolkien’s masterpiece, the sheer scale and depth of King’s project (the series amounts to over 1.6 million words) counts it among one of literature's great fantasy series’.
The story is inspired by Robert Browning’s poem, ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came’ and describes the quest of the main character, Roland Deschain, for the enigmatic Dark Tower. The Dark Tower is the mysterious force which holds the universe together. Whilst the true nature, power and influence of the Dark Tower is revealed as the story unfolds, Roland is aware that the Tower is unstable and if the Tower falls, then all of existence is threatened.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading the entire series and as I journeyed with Roland to the Dark Tower, I was fascinated that to properly understand this work required some understanding of Christian theology because biblical images, ideas, characters and themes are sprinkled throughout the work. Moreover King’s work also raises some of life’s ultimate questions - is there meaning to our life? Are we governed by something bigger? Why do bad things happen? Is there a point to it all?
Perhaps these questions are raised as a result of writing in the fantasy genre and the challenge (and responsibility) of ‘playing God’ by creating a new world. Yet nonetheless, King’s work offers some fascinating insight into these ultimate questions and this article is but the beginning of a reflection on some of the profound theological positions of the universe of the Dark Tower.
NB - THESE REFLECTIONS DO INCLUDE SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS. This article is designed as a discussion starter for those who have read the books or interested in King's works.
We want a unifying principle
King wrote the Dark Tower series because in a way he wanted to create a summation of his literary canon. He says he wanted to create ‘a way of unifying as many of my previous stories as possible beneath the arch of some uber-tale.’
This is a fascinating impulse and coheres with a common human desire for a unifying principle of not just our works of literature, but of the world itself. Humans resist nihilism, because to lose meaning also means the loss of hope and as Victor Frakl the Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning observed, when a loss of hope came, so did death.
Hence King’s desire to make all things cohere is consistent with this human impulse to see order and meaning in the world. We want to be a part of a story, not just random, disconnected events.
Yet this impulse simultaneously offers a challenge to atheists who assert that the universe is meaningless and without purpose.
American historian of science William Provine once boldly stated, ‘Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear … There are no gods, no purposes, no goal-directed forces of any kind.’ In a similar vein, popular science writer Neil deGrasse Tyson once tweeted, The Universe is blind to our sorrows and indifferent to our pains. Have a nice day!
These atheists assert that the universe is a meaningless, indifferent, purposeless place - a place without any coherent or unifying story. It just is.
What then, do we make of King’s impulse and the human desire for meaning? Why do we seek unifying principles, even if it is merely for our own literary works? If the universe is really blind, indifferent and purposeless, then any human attempt at creating order, coherence and meaning seems doomed to inconsistency at best, and irrationality and futility at worst.
This accords precisely with CS Lewis’ shrewd observation, “Atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning...”
Thus King’s impulse, shared by many, gives a glimpse that perhaps these atheists assertions of the meaningless, purposelessness of the atheistic universe is indeed too simple.
You believe in predestination, but can you trust Ka?
King’s “theology” is consistent with his literary goal. For within his corpus, he does create a method of drawing the threads of the universe together in some grand plan or story. Stephen King uses an impersonal force called, ‘Ka’ which guides and affects all occurrences in the universe. Thus things don’t just ‘happen’, they occur because ka wills it. As Roland says, ‘“If ka will say so, let it be so” (The Dark Tower, p.368). Similarly, Roland writes at the grave of Jake, “This is Jake who lived well, loved his own and died as ka would have it.” (The Dark Tower, p.386)
Ka brings a form of meaning, direction and coherence to the universe and to the characters - indeed the key characters form a Ka-Tet. Yet Ka is impersonal, immoral and essentially fatalistic. It is impossible to detect the whims of ka. It is also brutal and unforgiving. For example, in The Wolves of the Calla, the character of Benny Slightman the Elder was a traitor to his people. Roland figured out his treachery and threatened Slightman the Elder and then Benny’s son was likely to be taken by the Wolves. Slightman then says,
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘sorry for what I’ve done’.
“Balls to your sorry’, Roland said, ‘Ka works and the world moves on’
Thus in King’s theology - in the universe of the Dark Tower - there is a coherent force unifying all things, however it is impersonal, amoral and unforgiving. There is no redemption, things happen, Ka works, the world moves on and that’s just how it is.
Hence whilst things seem in some way predestined by ka, a coherent force affecting the world, ka is fickle and fatalistic and hardly seems to be working towards the good of those who follow it. There seems little difference to the world of Ka and the atheistic world.
Is there a moral heart to the Dark Tower?
Which then leads to the moral heart of King’s theology - or perhaps more correctly his Towerology? Is there a vision for the good in the theological world of the Dark Tower? Is there ultimate good and evil in this universe? Can the Dark Tower be called good?
The ways of Ka suggest the answer to this question is no - King’s universe appears ultimately indifferent to suffering or virtue.
Yet truly understanding the moral heart of King’s universe requires reflection on the nature of the Tower itself, for The Tower takes on the role of God creating and sustaining all things. For example,
“For every brick that that landed on the ground instead of some little kids head, for every tornado that missed the trailer park, for every missile that didn’t fly, for every hand stayed from violence, there was the Tower” (The Wolves of the Calla p,206-7)
I was puzzled as I considered King’s Towerology/Theology throughout his book on the relationship between ‘God’ and The Dark Tower. This is resolved later in the saga with the discovery that a creative overforce known as Gan is the God of Stephen King’s universe and the Dark Tower itself is a living creature and the physical embodiment of Gan.
Hence The Dark Tower forms a sort of impersonal incarnation - God/Gan appearing as a Tower - creating and sustaining all things.
Yet whilst The Dark Tower is a form of incarnation of Gan, the Tower appears to offer no moral vision, no hope, no redemption, no resurrection, instead it functions very much like an impersonal deistic universe, much like the idea of God functioning as a watch-maker; a distant Creator and First Mover who wound up the universe, set it in motion, and then stepped away, “Gan bore the world and moved on” (Song of Susannah p.311).
After Jake’s death Susannah gets a sense that something is wrong prays that nothing bad has happened...
‘For God remained deaf to her prayer. Jake remained dead, the Dark Tower remained standing at the end of Can’-Ka No Rey, casting its shadow over a million shouting roses, and in New York the hot summer sun shone down on the just and the unjust alike’. (The Dark Tower p.394)
King here alludes to Matthew 5:45 and the rain falling on the just and unjust and opens up the significant challenges of suffering unanswered prayers and why bad things happen to those who trust in God. These are difficult theological questions for the Christian God, but King’s Towerology the impersonal and amoral nature of Gan and Ka offer no other solution. In the world of the Dark Tower, suffering happens and The Dark Tower remains standing aloof and indifferent.
Gan, The Dark Tower, a deistic impersonal force God reflects a deistic impersonal fatalistic world. This unfortunately makes life in King’s universe harsh, tough and without redemption, justice or ultimate hope.
Will the ending be disappointing?
So what happens when Roland finally reaches the Tower? After over 1.6 million words - what is the experience of finally meeting the Tower, reaching God incarnate, the source of all power and purpose, the thing to which all must bend?
Well, it’s a cycle. Roland ascends to the top of the Tower and enters the final door when after passing through he feels the heat of a desert and Roland ends up where he started, as a gunslinger pursuing the man in black across the desert. The story ends the way it started, ‘The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed’.
Unfortunately, I must confess, I found the end disappointing. Even Stephen King himself admits to not really loving it. Yet he claimed that it was the ‘right ending’ and ‘the only ending’ because he “only writes what he sees” (because he claimed to write only wrote what Gan told him to write).
King is astute enough to acknowledge that the ending of his work leaves no real change. Roland reaching the goal of his quest ponders,
‘Yonder it is, he thought, ‘Yonder Is my destiny the end of my life's road and yet my heart still beats my blood still courses and no doubt when I bend over to grasp the handles of this beurst cart my back will groan and I may pass a little gas. Nothing at all has changed. (The Dark Tower, p.630).
Nothing has changed.
Yet this is consistent with King’s Towerology and the character and nature of Ka, Gan and The Dark Tower - which is perhaps why King considers it the right ending. But it’s an unsatisfying and anticlimactic ending which I think compromises the innate human ‘sense of an ending’ which scholar Frank Kermode proposes is part of the human psyche and found in works of fiction. This idea is explored more in a Bigger Questions show on stories)
Overall, I enjoyed reading The Dark Tower series and I’m glad for the journey. It was an entertaining, stimulating and page-turning series with many profound and fascinating insights. Yet it does demonstrate the shortcomings of an impersonal, fatalistic hopeless cyclical view of the world. I think that the Biblical story, the impulses which King plays with and alludes to, offers something even better and ultimately more satisfying.
It’s a story which ends in meeting the creator of the universe, but instead of an impersonal, non-relational, fatalistic God, at the conclusion of this quest we meet a God who creates, sustains, knows and loves his people. He has a purpose for them, despite some of the sufferings and difficulties they face, yet at the end there is redemption, hope and rest - at the end of a massive journey, one does not just go back to the start again. Instead once arriving at the goal of the quest, it satisfies the human yearning for a proper ending and the traveller can genuinely enjoy long days and pleasant nights.
Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling-place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death” or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’ 5 He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’ (Revelation 21:1-5a)