Roland

Roland Deschain, Roland of Gilead, Roland Son of Steven

Fictional biography

Background

Roland becomes a gunslinger at the unheard-of age of 14 after being manipulated into taking the “trial of manhood” by Marten Broadcloak, his father’s adviser and an incarnation of Randall Flagg. Marten has an affair with Roland’s mother and makes sure Roland finds out about it, prompting Roland to request his trial in order to gain his guns and exact revenge on Marten. In the trial, Roland must defeat his teacher, Cort, using a weapon of his choosing. He chooses a hawk named David and defeats Cort. Despite Roland’s victory, Cort and Roland’s father convince Roland to bide his time before seeking retribution.

Not long after, Roland’s father sends him on a mission to the town of Hambry in the Outer Barony of Mejis with his friends Alain Johns and Cuthbert Allgood, who will form the basis of his first ka-tet. While there, he comes into the possession of a pink crystal ball, one of 13 magical artifacts referred to as “Maerlyn’s Rainbow.” It was while looking into this artifact that Roland first discovered his destiny to quest for the Dark Tower.

Roland is a 30th-generation descendant of his world’s version of King Arthur, referred to in the series as Arthur Eld. In Wizard and Glass, during a flashback to Roland’s time in the Barony of Mejis, a letter from his father identifies Steven Deschain as a 29th-generation descendant of Arthur Eld from a side lineage (that is to say, from one of Arthur’s many “gillies,” or concubines). Even his guns were originally made of the melted-down metal from the legendary Excalibur sword. It is hinted that one must possess this sword, or another sign of the Eld (the line of Arthur Eld) in order to open the door at the foot of the Tower. According to a supplemental prose story by Robin Furth included in The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born (issues #7 & #2, respectively), Roland’s ancestry traces back to Arthur Eld and Emmanuelle Deschain, the daughter of his seneschal, Kay Deschain, while the Crimson King’s ancestry traces back to an affair between Arthur and the Crimson Queen.

Quest for the Dark Tower

Roland is alone at the beginning of the series, following the way of ka, a variant of destiny that is similar in concept to other karmic ideologies. The term ka-tet is used for a group of people who are deeply bonded to one another through ka. The seven-book series is about Roland’s acquisition of a new ka-tet and the completion of his quest. Roland is the last surviving gunslinger and is possessed (or, as he describes it himself, “addicted”) by a quest to reach The Dark Tower, the axis upon which infinite numbers of parallel worlds rotate. (Eddie Dean, an ex-heroin addict and member of Roland’s ka-tet, calls Roland a “Tower junkie.”) The Dark Tower is under assault by the Crimson King, Lord of Discordia, a Satanic figure bent on destroying the Dark Tower by undermining the “Beams” that support it.

In the first novel, The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, Roland’s original desire is simply to climb to the Dark Tower’s top to question whatever god dwells there, but ka has greater plans for him. The ka-tet he acquires during the series bears many resemblances to his childhood ka-tet, who were all killed trying to help Roland on his quest. How he treats his new ka-tet when faced with decisions between their lives and his quest is a key component of the novels. Ultimately, his ka-tet represents a chance for redemption and a means by which he can ultimately change his own ka.

At the end of the seventh novel, it is revealed that he is trapped in a repetitive reincarnation, his “damnation” for his crimes and killings (similar to Stephen King’s short story “That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French”, in which he expresses that his idea of hell is repetition.) However, it is also suggested that this eternal repetition is not quite eternal; after his rebirth at the end of the novel, it is revealed that in this particular reiteration of his journey, he possesses the Horn of Eld which in his previous pilgrimages he had lost in the final stand at Jericho Hill, the one major element which was discrepant from his approach to the tower and Childe Roland’s approach in Robert Browning’s Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came (“Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set…”) In this way, it is suggested that Roland might yet find salvation from his personal hell.

Relations with other characters

Roland’s chief enemy is Randall Flagg, a villain who appears in many of King’s works. Flagg’s character appears in many different incarnations throughout the series. He is a minion of the Crimson King himself, though he is ultimately hoping to overthrow him. He is often at the heart of most conflicts with Roland throughout the Gunslinger’s lifetime.

His relationships with his ka-tet change greatly over the course of the story. When he first ‘draws’ Eddie from the human world, Roland dislikes him for being a drug addict and constantly complaining about his plight. After Eddie beats his addiction, however, he starts to care for him more and more and eventually Roland regards him as something between a son and a brother. His relationship with Susannah follows the same pattern: though he is initially wary of her second personality, Detta, after her personalities ‘merge’ into Susannah he gets to know her better and grows to care deeply for her. His relationship with Jake is perhaps the deepest, initially seeing the boy as a trustworthy and strong companion, but eventually regarding him as his true son. Roland, already scarred by the deaths of all his childhood friends — who all died helping him to get closer to the tower — he is shown to be emotionally devastated by Eddie’s and especially Jake’s death, weeping openly (something Eddie mentioned before did not happen often, if at all).

Roland cries out all their names — both his first and second Ka-Tet’s — when he reaches the door of the Dark Tower, along with other characters whom he cared for in some way or another: Susan Delgado, Roland’s first (and only true) love, who was killed while he was in Mejis; Father Callahan, who was also a member of Roland’s second Ka-Tet, albeit for a much shorter time; Hax the cook, whom Roland betrayed to the gunslingers because he was a traitor, something that deeply affected Roland; his teachers Cort and Vannay; his parents’ names; the name of David the Hawk, whom Roland used in the trial for his revolvers; and the name of Aunt Talitha of River Crossing, whose cross he lays at the base of the tower. He also cries the names of Ted Brautigan and Dinky Earnshaw, two ‘Breakers’ who helped him and his friends greatly; the name of Sheemie Ruiz, one of Roland’s longest-surviving friends; and that of Oy, the billy-bumbler, a ka-tet member who died saving Roland’s life from Mordred Deschain.

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Characteristics

Emotionally, Roland at times appears detached or unsympathetic, often reacting uncaring or angry at signs of cowardice or self-pity, yet he possess a strong sense of heroism, often attempting to help those in need. He is shown to be mentally scarred from the deaths of all his friends and family, often thinking about their words and actions, and he is said (on more than one occasion by himself) that he greatly lacks imagination. He also describes himself as “not very good in thinking around corners”, meaning he has a very practical character, never really seeking other meanings or intentions behind what he sees, although he is very perceptive and intelligent. Cuthbert, Roland’s best friend in his childhood, once said the gears in Roland’s head turn slow, but grind extremely well. Roland is not very patient, especially when he is under stress, and often makes a rotating gesture with his hand, which means ‘go on, hurry, move on’ in conversations. Similarly, he prefers not to over-plan his actions, trusting greatly in his instinct and skill at improvising according to the situation. He is also shown not to have a great sense of humor: though he knows a lot of riddles he rarely jokes and is visibly irritated at times when Eddie (and in the past, Cuthbert) joke around. Roland is not one for small talk.

In The Waste Lands, Susannah compares Roland first to Marshal Matt Dillon of Gunsmoke, but later comes to believe he is more like John F. Kennedy. While she acknowledges that Roland lacks the president’s imagination, both men have similar levels of charisma, cunning, and romance. King often notes Roland’s strong sense of romance in his narrations, but describes this aspect of the gunslinger’s character as being usually hidden by his more dominant sense of pragmatism.

Roland is also shown to care a great deal for his Ka-Tet, or “Companions in fate”, and often puts himself at risk to save or assist them – though when confronted with the choice between saving one of them or getting one step closer to the Tower, he would almost certainly choose the Tower. Roland’s silent desperation for the Tower is the driving rhythm of the series; it can be felt most powerfully in “The Gunslinger”, wherein Roland’s sole desire is the Tower and nothing below it.

Roland’s revolvers (sometimes referred to as “the big guns” by other characters) are described as long and heavy, with blued steel (originally from his world’s Excalibur) and sandalwood grips. These guns are a major sigil, as they are recognized throughout Mid-World and are used as an identifier of Roland. During the search for more ammunition in New York City in The Drawing of the Three, the guns are revealed to be chambered close enough to .45 or the .45 Long Colt to use manufactured ammo. An experienced gunslinger, Roland can reload the revolvers with blinding speed, both at the same time, using something King calls the “finger trick,” however, he lost this ability after the first book when he lost two of his fingers at the start of The Drawing of the Three. Throughout all the books, even after being crippled, he possesses almost superhuman accuracy and he can draw his guns faster than any other character. Roland is noted as being able to shoot equally well with both hands.

In addition to being a master gunslinger, Roland is an experienced traveler, able to hunt, make his own clothes from the skins of animals, and navigate via the stars. Roland can speak five languages, including the High Speech and the Low Speech. He also possess a great deal of knowledge about ka the nature of the world. Roland is also a skilled leader, diplomat, and teacher.

King physically compares Roland to a pair of living people: Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name in the Sergio Leone movies and, to a greater extent, Stephen King himself. There is a moment in the earlier books where Roland’s apprentice, Jake, sees Clint Eastwood on a movie poster and remarks how similar his eyes are to the gunslinger’s. There is a point during the second book at which Roland psychically bonds himself with a murderer named Jack Mort; the combination of the two personages is said to resemble the mannerisms of Arnold Schwarzenegger as he appeared in The Terminator. Eddie Dean sees Stephen King as a young man and recognizes that he and Roland share many of the same physical features, saying that Roland could be King’s father. Physical appearance aside, King has often remarked that Roland is one of the few characters with whom he could never really identify. In King’s own words, Roland “scared” him.

At the start of the story, Roland is in his 40s, but is physically in his 50s at the end of The Gunslinger, when his age is arrested as he slumbers for centuries. Most of his hair is gray or white, but some remains black. His facial features are described as rough (although Susannah once compared them to that of a tired poet), and he has light blue eyes, often referred to by characters and Stephen King as “bombardier’s eyes.” Roland lost his right big toe and his right index and middle fingers, which is problematic as he is right-handed in everything other than shooting. He is a strong and disciplined man, capable of working through injuries and illnesses that would have killed or incapacitated another man. Roland is also unusually tall; at 14, he stood taller than the 16-year-old Susan, and, as an adult, his height exceeds that of his father.

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