The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger

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The Dark Tower:
The Gunslinger
The Gunslinger.jpg
First edition cover
Author Stephen King
Cover artist Michael Whelan
Country United States
Language English
Series The Dark Tower
Genre Fantasy, western
Publisher Grant
Publication date
June 10, 1982
Media type Print (Hardcover)
Pages 224
ISBN 978-0-937986-50-9
Followed by The Drawing of the Three

The Gunslinger is a novel by American author Stephen King and is the first volume in the Dark Tower series, of which King wrote in 1982 that he considers it his magnum opus.[1] Initially a fix-up novel that strung together five short stories published between 1978 and 1981, it was first published in book form in 1982. King substantially revised the novel in 2003, which is the version in print today. The story centers upon Roland Deschain, the last gunslinger, who has been chasing after his adversary, "the man in black", for many years. The novel follows Roland's trek through a vast desert and beyond in search of the man in black. Roland meets several people along his journey, including a boy named Jake Chambers who travels with him part of the way.

Background and publication[edit]

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.[2]

The five stories that constitute the novel were originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction:

It took King twelve and a half years to finish the novel. The finished product was first published by Donald M. Grant, Publisher, Inc. as a limited edition in 1982. The following year, as the Pet Sematary cover noted The Gunslinger among King's previous works, many fans called the offices of King, Grant, and Doubleday wanting more information on the already out of print book. This led to another run of ten thousand copies.[3] In 1988, Plume released it in trade paperback form. Since then, the book has been re-issued in various formats and included in boxed sets with other volumes of the series.[citation needed]

In 2003, the novel was reissued in a revised and expanded version with modified language and added and changed scenes intended to resolve inconsistencies with the later books in the series. It is dedicated to Ed Ferman, long-time editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.[4]


The book tells the story of The Gunslinger, Roland of Gilead, and his quest to catch the man in black, the first of many steps towards Roland's ultimate destination: The Dark Tower.

The main story takes place in a world that is somewhat similar to the Old West but exists in an alternate (future) timeframe or parallel universe. Roland exists in a place where "the world has moved on". This world has a few things in common with our own, however, including memories of the old song "Hey Jude" and the child's rhyme that begins "Beans, Beans, the Musical Fruit". Vestiges of forgotten or skewed versions of real-world technology also appear, such as a reference to a gas pump that is worshipped as a god named "Amoco", and an abandoned weigh station with a water pump powered by an "atomic slug".

As Roland travels across the desert with his mule (which several times is mentioned as being "good threaded" and so considered valuable as opposed to being of mutated stock; most flora and fauna are mentioned as being mutated to some degree) in search of the man in black, he encounters farmer Brown and Zoltan, his black crow. Brown graciously offers to put Roland up for the night. While Roland is there, we learn of his time spent in Tull through a flashback. Tull was a small town which Roland came to not too long before the start of the novel. The man in black had passed through the town previously; he brought a dead man back to life and left a trap for Roland: the town itself. After Roland spends some time there, the leader of the local church reveals to him that the man in black has impregnated her and has turned her against Roland. She turns the entire town on Roland; men, women, and children. In order to escape with his life, Roland is forced to kill every resident of the town, including his lover, Allie. Telling this story seems cathartic for Roland. When he awakens the next day, his mule is dead, forcing him to proceed on foot. Before Roland leaves, Brown asks his permission to eat the mule.

At the way station Roland first encounters Jake Chambers, who died in his own universe (presumably our own) when pushed in front of a car, while walking to school in Manhattan. Roland is nearly dead when he makes it to the way station, and Jake brings him water and jerky while Roland is recovering. Jake does not know how long he has been at the way station, nor does he know exactly how he got there. He hid when the man in black passed by the way station. Roland hypnotizes Jake to determine the details of his death but makes him forget before he awakens (since Jake's death was extremely violent and painful). Before they leave the way station, Roland and Jake search for food in a cellar and encounter a demon. Roland uses the High Speech, a language understood by extremely few people to force the demon to talk. After their palaver, Roland snatches the jawbone from the skeleton in the hole from which the demon speaks.

After leaving the way station, Jake and Roland eventually make their way out of the desert into more welcoming lands. Roland rescues Jake from an encounter with a succubus and tells him to hold on to the jawbone as a protective charm. Roland couples with the succubus who is an oracle in order to learn more about his fate and path to the Dark Tower. After Roland returns, Jake discards the jawbone. As Jake and Roland make their way closer to the mountain, Jake begins to fear what will become of him.

In a flashback, we learn that Roland was the son of Steven Deschain, a respected Gunslinger and lord of Gilead; and of the physically brutal gunslinger training Roland received at the hand of his wise and harsh teacher Cort. He overhears revolutionary conspiracy by Hax, the cook in his father's house which leads to Hax being hanged. The apprentice gunslingers (Roland and his best friends, the wisecracking Cuthbert, and the thoughtful, intuitive Alain) are allowed to witness the hanging with their fathers' permission. Roland reveals how he was tricked into demanding to prematurely declare his manhood by duelling with Cort- Roland did this at age 14, earlier than any other apprentice, tricked by the treachery of Marten who cuckolded Roland's father by sleeping with Roland's mother, Gabrielle Deschain. (It is elsewhere mentioned in passing that a revolution took place, Roland's father died, and Roland committed matricide.) Roland succeeded in defeating Cort in battle through his ingenious weapon selection - sacrificing his hawk, David, to distract Cort.

Jake and Roland see the man in black at the mountain and he tells them he will meet just one of them on the other side which aggravates Jake's fears that Roland will either kill him or abandon him. They make their way into the twisting tunnels below the mountain, propelled along by an old railway handcar. During the journey, they are attacked by "Slow Mutants", monstrous subterranean creatures. Roland fights the Slow Mutants off and they proceed. Eventually they find the Man in Black, and as Jake dangles precariously from the tracks, Roland comes to a pivotal choice; with Jake dangling over an abyss, Roland must either save Jake or pursue the Man in Black. Jake tells Roland: "Go then. There are other worlds than these." Roland has chosen to complete his quest and let the boy die; Jake lets go of the edge and falls without screaming.

After sacrificing Jake in the mountain, Roland makes his way down to speak to the man in black. The man in black reads Roland's fate from a pack of cards, including "the sailor" (Jake), "the prisoner" (Eddie Dean), "the lady of shadows" (Odetta Holmes), "death" (but not for Roland), and the Tower itself, as the center of everything and "life" ("but not for you [Roland]"). The man in black states that he is merely a pawn of Roland's true enemy, the one who now controls the Dark Tower itself. The man in black also states he was Marten but that while he bent Roland's mother to his will, to her credit, she never broke.

The man in black sends to Roland a vision of the universe (zooming out past a red planet covered in canals, a ring of rocks, a large stormy planet, a ringed planet and then to galaxies etc.), attempting to frighten Roland by showing him how truly insignificant he is in the grand scheme of things, and asks him to give up his quest. Roland refuses, and the man in black makes him fall asleep, telling him to go west. When Roland awakens ten years have passed, and there is a skeleton next to him — what he assumes to be the man in black. Roland takes the jawbone from the skeleton. Roland travels a short way to the edge of the Western Sea where he contemplates the three people he now is charged with bringing into All-World - the Prisoner, the Lady of Shadows, and the Pusher.

Revised and Expanded edition[edit]

King revised The Gunslinger in 2003. In his introduction to the new edition, King stated that he felt the original version was "dry" and difficult for new readers to access. He also made the storytelling more linear and the book's plot more consistent with the series' ending. Other changes were made in order to resolve continuity errors introduced by later volumes. The added material was over 9000 words (35 pages) in length.[5]

Some changes include:

  • Removal of a reference to Roland reading a magazine in Tull. Later information presented in The Drawing of the Three suggests that paper is a scarcity in Roland's world.
  • Reference to 12 years having passed since the fall of Gilead, which happened when Roland was a teenager, is changed to "untold years". Otherwise it would be deduced that Roland is in his 30s, when later books imply that Roland is ancient.
  • Likewise The Man in Black originally says he is "nearly immortal", while in the revision he says this of both himself and Roland.
  • "[Roland] didn't know where Cort was[6]" is changed to "Cort was dead",[7] as the Fall of Gilead was not completely fleshed out until later books.
  • Roland's cold-hearted killing of Allie is changed to make him appear more humane. Originally, when the town of Tull turns on Roland, Allie is seized by a townsperson and used as a human shield. She begs Roland not to fire before he ruthlessly guns down both her and her captor.[8] In the revised version, she has been driven mad by Walter by the time she is seized and begs Roland to put her out of her misery.[9]
  • The town of Farson is changed to Taunton, as John Farson was a character in the later books in the series.
  • References to the Beast were changed to refer to the Crimson King, who otherwise is not mentioned in the series until The Waste Lands.
  • "Blue Heaven" and "Algul Siento", terms that are revealed in the final books, are mentioned.
  • A single Taheen appears early in the revised version. The Taheen are a race of creatures which wouldn't originally appear until the final three books.
  • A major textual change is the fate and identity of the Man in Black. In the original text, Walter's death at the end of the story is of no uncertainty to Roland. In the revised edition, Roland speculates if his discovery of Walter's bones is some trick or if he has truly died. The original text also kept Walter and Marten Broadcloak completely disambiguated. Even after the death of Walter, Broadcloak was still to be found and killed. Later in Wizard and Glass they, along with Flagg, are all revealed to be one-and-the-same person. Though no reference of the name "Flagg" is made in the revised edition of The Gunslinger, all references to Walter and Marten are altered so that it is plausible they are the same man.
  • Jake Chambers, originally nine years old, was made 10–11 years old in the revised edition.
  • In general, the world the gunslinger walked through in the original text was a run-down version of our own - the text mentions England, the star Polaris, Mars, Jesus and other biblical figures, Easter, All-Saint's Eve (Halloween), and Greek and Egyptian Gods. In the revision, most of these references were removed to make Roland's world only vaguely like our own.
  • In the early edition Roland's father is Roland the Elder, but in the later edition, it is changed to Steven.
  • In the expanded edition of the novel, on the last page before the text the single word RESUMPTION appears; in the "Argument" foreword of Wolves of the Calla, King explains that it is the subtitle of the novel.


  1. ^ King, Stephen (2002). Everything's Eventual. Toronto: Pocket Books. p. 167. ISBN 0-7434-5735-8. 
  2. ^ "Stephen King Biography". Retrieved 2008-06-23. 
  3. ^ Rojak, Lisa. Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King. p. 115. ISBN 1429987979. 
  4. ^ [1]
  5. ^ King, Stephen (2003). The Gunslinger: Revised and Expanded Edition. Toronto: Signet Fiction. xxii. ISBN 0-451-21084-0. 
  6. ^ King, Stephen (1982). The Gunslinger. New York: Plume. p. 66. ISBN 0-452-26134-1. 
  7. ^ King, Stephen (2003). The Gunslinger: Revised and Expanded Edition. Toronto: Signet Fiction. p. 69. ISBN 0-451-21084-0. 
  8. ^ King, Stephen (1982). The Gunslinger. New York: Plume. p. 59. ISBN 0-452-26134-1. 
  9. ^ King, Stephen (2003). The Gunslinger: Revised and Expanded Edition. Toronto: Signet Fiction. p. 62. ISBN 0-451-21084-0. 

Additional reading[edit]