“An impressive work of mythic magnitude that may turn out to be Stephen King’s greatest literary achievement” (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution), The Gunslinger is the first volume in the epic Dark Tower Series.
A #1 national bestseller, The Gunslinger introduces readers to one of Stephen King’s most powerful creations, Roland of Gilead: The Last Gunslinger. He is a haunting figure, a loner on a spellbinding journey into good and evil. In his desolate world, which mirrors our own in frightening ways, Roland tracks The Man in Black, encounters an enticing woman named Alice, and begins a friendship with the boy from New York named Jake.
Inspired in part by the Robert Browning narrative poem, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” The Gunslinger is “a compelling whirlpool of a story that draws one irretrievable to its center” (Milwaukee Sentinel). It is “brilliant and fresh…and will leave you panting for more” (Booklist).
Reading Group Guide
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The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger Reading Group Guide from The Dark Tower: The Complete Concordance
1. Who is Roland of Gilead? What is his ancestry? How does his personal history reflect the history of his land?
2. In many ways, Roland reminds us of the semimythical gunslingers of the late-nineteenth-century American West. Like them, he is simultaneously part lawman and part outlaw. Are there any figures from folklore, history, or film that remind you of Roland? How is he similar to them and how is he different? Would you call Roland a hero or an antihero?
3. Why does the term Man in Black have such emotional impact? What images do we automatically associate with such a figure? Do you believe that Walter is actually human? Is he demonic? What role does the demonic play in Roland’s world?
4. One of Roland’s favorite phrases is “the world has moved on.” What does this mean? What do you think Roland’s world was like before it moved on?
5. Throughout The Gunslinger, we are struck by the number of similarities between our world and Roland’s world. The townsfolk of Tull know the words to the Beatles’ song “Hey Jude,” and they use bocks (bucks, or dollars) as their currency. Jake’s description of New York (recounted while he is under hypnosis) reminds Roland of the mythical city of Lud, and the tunnels beneath the Cyclopean Mountains contain the ruins of a subway system that remind Jake of home. How do you explain these similarities? What is the relationship between Roland’s world and our world?
6. Although Sylvia Pittston claims to be a woman of God, she is actually one of the most actively destructive characters found in The Gunslinger. As Roland’s lover Allie says, Pittston’s religion is poison. What role does Pittston play in the novel? Have you come across Pittston-like characters in any of King’s other fiction? How do you explain the discrepancy between Pittston’s professed role as a preacher and her actual allegiance to the Man in Black and the Crimson King? What are the divisions between good and evil in Roland’s world?
7. Nort, the weed-eater Roland meets in Tull, suffers a terrible fate. After being poisoned by the addictive devil grass, he is resurrected by the sinister Man in Black, only to be later crucified by Sylvia Pittston and her followers. The terms resurrection and crucifixion automatically make us reflect upon the biblical account of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and the belief that, come Judgment Day, the dead will rise and be held accountable for the good and evil of their lives. Why do you think King includes these references? Why do you think Nort is crucified after being resurrected, a direct reversal of the biblical events?
8. Nort is not the only sacrificial figure found in The Gunslinger. Why does the Man in Black call Jake Roland’s “Isaac”? What does this tell us about Roland, about his relationship to the Man in Black, and his relationship to the Dark Tower?
9. When do the characters of The Gunslinger use High Speech? Would it be justified to call this a sacred language? What languages, in our world, are associated with religious ceremonies, ritual, and magic? What makes them special? Can these same attributes be said to belong to High Speech?
10. In literature, settings often serve a symbolic purpose. Throughout The Gunslinger, the landscapes Roland traverses are described as hostile, dry “purgatorial wastes.” Even relatively lush environments, such as the willow jungle, are full of dangerous forces, both mortal and demonic. In terms of its history, why is Roland’s land so dangerous and desolate? What is the symbolic significance of this harshness?
11. Although the setting of the Dark Tower series reminds us of a cowboy Western, King’s Tower novels draw from many other literary genres, including gothic fiction, science fiction, horror, and medieval Romance. Can you identify these elements in The Gunslinger?
12. One of Stephen King’s central inspirations for writing The Gunslinger was Robert Browning’s poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” The Victorians who first read “Childe Roland” saw it as a story of heroism and duty. For them, it was a Romance in which a brave knight attempted to make a pilgrimage even though all before him had failed. More recent critics, however, have read the poem in much more psychological terms. They interpret the landscape that Browning’s Roland traverses as a reflection of the character’s fears, terrors, and preoccupations—in other words, as a reflection of his internal state. In this interpretation, the knight’s search for the Dark Tower ultimately leads him to the center of himself, and to the truth of selfawareness. Do you think that either of these interpretations can be applied to The Gunslinger, in all or in part? Is Roland’s story a heroic tale of a knight on a quest, or can Roland’s travails be read as an allegory for the decisions, strivings, successes, failures, and personal betrayals we all face?
13. Ancient warrior cultures developed strict codes of honor and duty, which we now refer to as heroic codes. Great heroes were expected to be courageous, fearless, and headstrong. They had little or no regard for personal safety and in fact often acted rashly. What a warrior’s peers thought of him mattered above all else, and he thought little or nothing about personal conscience (in the modern sense) or the well-being of the soul. The warrior did not aim to enter Heaven, but to become legendary. Personal honor, family honor, and/or loyalty to the king or chieftain were what made a man worthwhile. Did the gunslingers of Gilead obey a Christian code or a heroic code? What about Roland? Is there a shift between these two codes as the novel progresses?
14. Judeo-Christian culture is primarily a guilt-based culture. In other words, people believe that God alone has the right to judge sins, and that He knows our guilt or our innocence, no matter what the world thinks of us. If an individual is innocent, he (in theory at least) can hold his head high, even though his reputation has been ruined. What matters is personal conscience. Hence, by the same token, if an individual believes he has committed a crime, he will be consumed by guilt, even if no one else ever discovers what has been done. Warrior cultures, on the other hand, were often shame-based cultures. In shame-based cultures, an individual must avoid “losing face,” since the disgrace he or she accrues reflects not only on the individual, but upon the family and the lineage. What a person thinks of himself matters less than what society thinks of him. Did Cort train apprentice gunslingers using guilt or shame? What does this tell us about gunslinger culture? At his hanging, does Hax show either guilt or shame? Why? What kind of culture does he seem to reflect? Does Roland primarily experience guilt or shame? Does this change over the course of the novel? Why, in terms of Roland’s personal development (or lack of it), might this happen?
15. Take a look at the tarot reading Walter does for Roland in the golgotha. How many of these cards are from the traditional tarot deck? Are there any others that seem to be versions of traditional cards? Which cards did King create anew? Which ones actually come from other sources? (Hint: Take a look at T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land.”) What is your interpretation of this reading? Why do you think Walter burns the card of Life?
16. At the front of the revised edition of The Gunslinger (2003), King adds a quote from Thomas Wolfe’s novel Look Homeward, Angel. (This quote did not appear at the front of the previous edition.) What emotions does this quote arouse in us? Why do you think King added it? Does it affect your interpretation of the novel?
Stephen King is the author of more than sixty books, all of them worldwide bestsellers. His recent work includes the short story collection You Like It Darker, Holly, Fairy Tale, Billy Summers, If It Bleeds, The Institute, Elevation, The Outsider, Sleeping Beauties (cowritten with his son Owen King), and the Bill Hodges trilogy: End of Watch, Finders Keepers, and Mr. Mercedes (an Edgar Award winner for Best Novel and a television series streaming on Peacock). His novel 11/22/63 was named a top ten book of 2011 by The New York Times Book Review and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Mystery/Thriller. His epic works The Dark Tower, It, Pet Sematary, Doctor Sleep, and Firestarter are the basis for major motion pictures, with It now the highest-grossing horror film of all time. He is the recipient of the 2020 Audio Publishers Association Lifetime Achievement Award, the 2018 PEN America Literary Service Award, the 2014 National Medal of Arts, and the 2003 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. He lives in Bangor, Maine, with his wife, novelist Tabitha King.