The American Tolkien isn’t George R.R. Martin – it’s Stephen King
Time Magazine called George R. R. Martin “The American Tolkien” back in 2005. Since then, it’s been plastered all over his books. And why not? It explains, to a point, what A Song of Ice and Fire is about. It’s Lord of the Rings in reverse, in a lot of ways, a world where long-last magic is slowly returning. It’s about, in Martin’s own words, Aragorn’s tax policies.
But the quote isn’t ‘Westeros is the American response to Middle Earth.” It was “The American Tolkien.” And that’s a different matter.
When I think of Tolkien, I think that, to him, Middle Earth was a mythology for England. Westeros doesn’t have that for America. It’s a well-detailed world with lots of lore and history both ancient and recent for readers to fall into, but it’s not a myth for America the way Middle Earth is for England.
For that, we need The Dark Tower.
The Face of Your Father
In the introduction to his Dark Tower series, King mentions that the two key texts that brought The Dark Tower to his mind were The Lord of the Rings (his setting is called Mid-World, a pretty clear tip of the hat to Middle-Earth) and Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.
When we’re dealing with American myth, the western is one of the key genres. Despite the fact that the world has moved on, there’s still a lot of that frontier concept in Americana. While other countries can have their frontier narratives, the history being focused on in a western story is generally American.
The Gunslinger shows us Roland of Gilead, a lone gunslinger following a man in black across a desert. This has become one of the most famous first lines in literature. Much of the first novel in particular is striking in the way King describes the desert—the apotheosis of all deserts. King wrote The Gunslinger significantly before even Carrie, and his style is drastically different from subsequent installments. The prose makes the setting feel even more alien.
The Gunslinger remains very much a western with horror and fantasy elements coming in at the edges. That changes as the series progresses, but The Gunslinger set a mood for those installments.
The second book, The Drawing of the Three, takes place in various points in American (specifically New York) history. Roland helps out a junkie named Eddie Dean in 1987, a civil rights leader in 1964 unaware she has multiple personalities, and then takes over the body of a sociopath in 1977, using his body and then abandoning it once he has what he needs.
Throughout the series, the heroes keep returning to some form of America—whether it’s a far-future New York City, the disease-ravaged, empty plains of The Stand, or even Stephen King’s home itself.
While The Lord of the Rings feels like a guided tour through an exceptionally detailed world, The Dark Tower feels like stumbling in the dark through an abandoned house and hoping the stairs don’t give out.
On a setting level, The Dark Tower doesn’t come close to Tolkien’s methodical world-building. That’s not its aim. We hear hints of days long past regarding Roland’s childhood and the machinations of Randall Flagg and his agent, and Wizard and Glass is almost entirely a flashback, but that sense that these are all places with histories isn’t something King is interested in the way Tolkien was.
Places like Lud, a post-apocalyptic city visited near the end of The Waste Lands, or Thunderclap, are well-described, fascinating places, but they lack the small but vital blocks of its history that Tolkien excelled at. Whether that works is dependent on how much the reader accepts that the multiverse is strange and unknowable.
On an obsessive level, however, it certainly compares. King started writing The Dark Tower in 1970. There was a long gap between books 4 and 5, but his near-death experience spurred him into working on finishing the series, putting the last three books out from 2003-2005. And in 2012, he put out another novel, The Wind Through the Keyhole, detailing the events between books 4 and 5.
42 years writing in the world. That’s almost identical to Tolkien, who started the Hobbit in the early 1930s and worked on the setting until his death in 1973. And I would not be shocked to hear that King had another book in mind.
My Own True Son
Tolkien was a devout Catholic, who used his faith to underpin the cosmology of Middle-Earth. “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”
Stephen King is religious as well, but his is a much more individualist kind of religion. He dislikes organized religion but consistently talks about God, and the strength he finds there. Perhaps fittingly, the religious themes that come out of The Dark Tower are far less subtle.
Jake Chambers is perhaps the single best-named character in all of King’s work. Much like the other main Jesus figure in King’s work, John Coffey of The Green Mile, he has the initials J.C. His last name refers to both bullets and rooms—both of great import in the quest to the tower. Also, Jake Chambers definitely has an old west feel to the name.
He is the sacrificed son of the series. He is simultaneously dead and alive because of decisions early on by Roland. Roland let Jake die because he was forced to choose between catching the man in black or saving the child, and Roland of The Gunslinger had little interest in saving anyone. Later Roland, with Eddie Dean, brought Jake into Mid-World, and the two developed a father-son bond.
On top of that, Jake Chambers dies a second time in the final book of the series. In the sixth book, Roland visits Stephen King, the author, who has his part in the tale as the wordslinger. In the final book, Jake Chambers, J.C., dies saving Stephen King from the car accident that nearly killed him. That’s extremely heavy-handed, but it works and it fits perfectly with King’s Christianity.
At the end of the saga Roland’s call to the tower on behalf of Jake has strong Biblical resonance: “I come in the name of Jake Chambers, he of New York, whom I call my own true son.”
The World Has Moved On
The ending of The Lord of the Rings feels like a funeral hymn to Middle Earth. Even though the heroes won, the world will move on. The time of elves is passed, magic will fade, and the time of Men will come.
The Dark Tower starts in a passed-on world. We get hints of Roland’s childhood in Gilead, a place ruled by the descendants of Arthur Eld, the Dark Tower’s name for King Arthur. We get a few scenes of his training, his battle to gain his guns, and the signs of his mother’s dalliance with Marten. Later, through magic, we see more, but Gilead, his home, is long-vanished. Roland is the last of that line.
The world has moved on, and sometimes it has renewed and sometimes it has not, and all of these are true at the same time. If The Lord of the Rings is an elegy, The Dark Tower is a fugue.
The Return of A King
In addition to some of the metafictional conceits that appeared later in the series’ run King used it as a lynchpin for several other books. As mentioned, there’s a section that takes place in the same America as The Stand, and several characters from other books have roles in the series, including Patrick Danville of Insomnia and Ted Brautigan of Hearts in Atlantis. Father Callahan from Salem’s Lot in particular has a large arc.
The America of The Dark Tower series is far from the real one, populated as it is by monsters and miracles. But King, from the western of The Gunslinger to the contemporary America of The Drawing of the Three to the science fictional destroyed USA of The Waste Lands, is clearly interested in tying these disparate threads of history together before the world moves on.