Randall Flagg

Randall Flagg made his first official appearance in the 1978 apocalyptic novel The Stand. In it, he is trying to build a civilization in his name in the United States after a plague has killed off most of the population. Flagg’s backstory is vague, unknown even to him — Flagg states that at some point he just “became” — although he has memories of being a Marine, a Klansman, and a Viet Cong member, as well as having a hand in the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. Stationed in Las Vegas, Flagg attracts people who are drawn to destruction, power and fascism. Flagg uses crucifixion, torture, and other torments as punishment for those who are disloyal. His followers reorganize the society, and rebuild the city. Flagg plans to attack and destroy the other emerging civilization—Mother Abigail’s “Free Zone” in Boulder, Colorado—to become the dominant society in the former United States.

After two of Flagg’s followers fail to kill the leaders of the “Free Zone,” the Boulder-based community sends a group of men to Las Vegas to stop Flagg. After being taken prisoner, the men are brought before the city for a public execution. Before Flagg can kill them, one of his most loyal and devoted followers, the Trashcan Man, arrives with a nuclear warhead. “The Hand of God” appears and reaches down, just as the Trashcan Man stops, and detonates the bomb, destroying Flagg’s followers and the two remaining prisoners. The novel was re-released in 1990, expanded to include the text that was cut during its original publication. Here, the novel explains that Flagg reappeared somewhere on a beach and gained a new group of individuals to control.

Flagg later appeared in The Eyes of the Dragon (1986), as an evil wizard causing havoc in the medieval country of Delain. His appearance is hidden under a dark cloak, and most of his magic comes from performing spells, and using potions and poisons. In this novel, Flagg schemes to throw the kingdom of Delain into chaos by poisoning the King and framing Prince Peter, the rightful heir to the throne, for the crime. When Thomas, Peter’s younger brother, becomes King, Flagg manipulates him into doing his bidding, as Flagg was the only person Thomas considered a friend during his childhood. Flagg essentially becomes ruler of Delain, and he plunges the kingdom into a Dark Age. Eventually, Thomas confronts Flagg over the murder of his father, something he witnessed as a child but was too frightened to prevent or admit to himself that he knew. Flagg is wounded by Thomas via an arrow to the eye, and vanishes from the kingdom. Peter is given the rightful throne, and Thomas leaves Delain with his butler Dennis to find Flagg. The book states that Thomas and Dennis find Flagg on their journey at some point in the future, but the exact nature of their encounter is never revealed and Flagg apparently survived to create chaos in later books.

In King’s book Hearts in Atlantis (1999), a character by the name of Raymond Fiegler is identified toward the end as the leader of an activist group, when he convinces a young girl to abandon her attempts to retrieve an unexploded bomb. King never explicitly identifies Fiegler as Flagg, but Christopher Golden and Hank Wagner, coauthors of The Complete Stephen King Universe, suggest that there is little doubt Fiegler is Flagg. They present evidence of Fiegler’s actions and persona, such as his ability to make himself appear “dim”, his control of Carol Gerber and her activist friends, as well as the fact that Flagg often uses many aliases, usually with the initials “R.F.”.

Randall Flagg would make the next six appearances as part of King’s Dark Tower series, which follows gunslinger Roland Deschain as he travels the world(s) in search of the Dark Tower. Flagg’s presence is felt at the very start of the series, with the opening sentence of the first book being “The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.” In this seven-novel series, Flagg takes on the guise of several individuals. He first appears as Walter o’Dim, being chased across the desert by Roland. Here, he identifies his true self to be the demon Legion, and states that Roland must defeat him if he is to enter the tower. In flashback sequences, Flagg assumes the identity of Marten Broadcloak, a wizard that conspired with the Crimson King to cause the fall of the Dark Tower. As Marten, Flagg has an affair with Roland’s mother, Gabrielle, in an attempt to provoke Roland into taking the gunslinger test early. His hope is for Roland to fail, so that he will be exiled, but Roland passes the test. Eventually, Roland catches Walter and they have a long discussion concerning Roland’s destiny and the Tower, which causes Roland to slip into deep delirium. He wakes later to find a pile of bones in Flagg’s place. In the original printing, Walter and Marten are separate characters, with Walter clearly dying at the end of the novel. When Stephen King published an expanded edition of the novel, Walter and Marten are portrayed as being one and the same, and Walter fakes his own death.

Randall Flagg makes his next appearance in the series’ third novel, The Waste Lands. Flagg appears in the city of Lud, where he saves the Tick-Tock Man Andrew Quick, an enemy of Roland’s ka-tet, who was left for dead in an earlier confrontation. Quick becomes Flagg’s devoted servant afterwards. In this guise, Flagg assumes the name of Richard Fannin. Flagg returns in the fourth book, Wizard and Glass, where he is officially revealed to be Marten Broadcloak. Here, he identifies himself as Flagg as well, and warns Roland and his ka-tet to abandon their quest for the Dark Tower. It is learned through flashbacks that Flagg, as Walter o’Dim, was the emissary for John Farson, one of the main individuals responsible for the destruction of Gilead, Roland’s home.

In the “Argument” (a recap of the series so far that precedes the story) of Wolves of the Calla, the fifth novel in the series, it is noted that Flagg is known as Broadcloak, Fannin, and also John Farson, depending on what world he is residing in. In Wolves of the Calla, Flagg would make a brief appearance as Walter o’Dim when Father Callahan first arrives into Roland’s world. Here, Flagg gives Father Callahan Black Thirteen, a dangerous crystal ball, in hopes that it will kill Roland on his journey to the tower. In this encounter, Callahan calls Flagg “cruel” and is surprised to see the wizard looking “deeply hurt” in response and thus having “complex emotions”. The character’s appearance in The Song of Susannah is set in a flashback, where it is revealed that Flagg made a bargain with the succubus Mia, which resulted in her giving birth to a son, Mordred Deschain, who was the child of both Roland and the Crimson King.

In the last novel, Flagg indicates that he is not John Farson, but merely served under him until Farson’s downfall. But it’s also mentioned by a ‘low man’ Flaherty that John Farson is the Marten Broadcloak(Flagg) who seduced Roland’s mother (“T’is the same as the mouth of your mother, who did suck John Farson with such glee …”). Flagg reveals his plans to climb the Dark Tower and see the room at the top and become the God of all. Flagg’s ultimate goal, however, is to kill Roland Deschain once and for all for all the trouble he’s caused him, but “most of all for the death of his mother, whom I once loved.” The character believes that the only way to achieve these goals is through Mordred, whom he sees as an opportunity to further his plans. Flagg attempts to befriend Mordred, pledging allegiance to him, but Mordred telepathically senses the wizard’s true motives and kills him.

The Dark Tower reveals more of Flagg’s backstory, stating that he was born at least 1500 years earlier in Delain to Sam the Miller of Eastar’d Barony, and named Walter Padick. At the age of 13, Walter set out for a life on the road, but was raped by a fellow wanderer on his journey. (Bev Vincent hypothesized in The Road to the Dark Tower that Flagg’s later actions towards Delain in The Eyes of the Dragon may have been revenge for his treatment as a child.) Resisting the temptation to crawl back home, Padick instead moved on towards his destiny learning various forms of magic and achieving a sort of quasi-immortality. After centuries of causing havoc, Flagg attracted the attention of the Crimson King, who took him as his emissary.

In comic books

Starting in 2007, Marvel Comics released a series of comics that served as a prequel to the Dark Tower novels. Randall Flagg, appearing as both Marten Broadcloak and Walter o’Dim, plays a significant role in the series.

In April 2009, Marvel released a single-issue comic, written by Robin Furth and illustrated by Richard Isanove, titled The Dark Tower: Sorcerer that focused on the character of Marten Broadcloak/Walter o’Dim. Sorcerer gives a different origin from the one that King initially wrote, stating that Walter was in fact the bastard son of Maerlyn who was left at the home of a mill owner “to learn the ways of men”; at the age of thirteen, Walter burns down his adoptive father’s mill before running away to find his true father. No mention of Walter’s rape is given. Furth wrote in the afterward that the revelation that Maerlyn was Walter’s father came from King himself. The comic also revealed that Marten had poisoned Roland’s younger brother as an infant. Furth introduced the idea that Walter (as Marten) had engaged in an incestuous relationship with his ‘sister’, the female personification of the Pink Grapefruit (being that both are born from Maerlyn). Thus, it is Marten’s romantic feelings for Roland’s mother that spurs the jealousy of the Grapefruit, who in turn influences Roland to unwittingly kill his mother. (In Wizard and Glass, the witch Rhea of the Cöos was behind Roland’s matricide as revenge for him killing her pet snake.) Enraged, Marten imprisons his ‘sister’ in the Grapefruit and vows revenge on Roland for his involvement for his love’s death.

On writing the character of Marten, Furth opined that “[he] is one of the scariest characters that Stephen King has ever created. He moves from book to book, bringing chaos and anarchy with him…He is quite a demonic figure, and as such he is one of the great anti-heroes of contemporary popular fiction” and that “[j]ourneying into Walter’s mind is a pretty wild experience and at times a little frightening. You have to travel to very dark places.”

Marvel later released an comic book adaptation of The Stand that began in September, 2008. It is set to run for thirty issues. Writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa described Flagg as “The man of nightmares. Or, put another way, our nightmares given human (more or less) form. The dark side of the American Dream…King’s ‘Walkin’ Dude’ may not be the Devil, himself, as Mother Abagail says, but he comes pretty damn close…” Initially, artist Mike Perkins said that he felt that “Flagg needed to be designed less as a man—more as a force of nature. His hair will obscure his features, his face will be almost always in heavy shadow. This is the creature lurking under your bed, in your wardrobe, in your nightmares. Slightly familiar but wholly terrifying.” Later on, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa commented on original idea to never show Flagg’s face: “…the further into the book and the adaptation you go, the less feasible that becomes. Stephen spends so much time describing Flagg’s features and smiles, you need to show those things.”

Concept and creation

Stephen King initially attributed Donald DeFreeze, the lead kidnapper in the Patty Hearst case, as his inspiration for Randall Flagg. According to King, he was remembering the Patty Hearst case when he began to write a description of DeFreeze. King started by writing, “Donald DeFreeze is a dark man.” He remembered through the photographs taken of the bank robbery that Patty Hearst took part in that DeFreeze was only partially visible, hidden under a large hat. What he looked like was based on guesses made by people who only saw a portion of him. This inspired King, who then wrote, “A dark man with no face.” After reading the motto, “Once in every generation the plague will fall among them,” King set to work writing The Stand, and developing the character of Randall Flagg.

In 2004, King stated that Flagg’s real inspiration just came to him “out of nowhere”, while he was attending college. According to King, he just had this image of a man in cowboy boots, denim jeans and jacket, who was always walking the roads. This character inspired King to write “The Dark Man”, a poem about a man who rides the rails and admits to murder and rape. To the author, what made Flagg interesting was the fact that he was a villain who was “always on the outside looking in”. King has stated that he believes that Flagg has been present since he first began his writing career.

Characterization

A common characteristic of Randall Flagg is his embodiment of evil. When Stephen King was first creating his vision of Flagg, he based him around what he believed evil to represent. To King, Flagg is “somebody who’s very charismatic, laughs a lot, [is] tremendously attractive to men and women both, and is somebody who just appeals to the worst in all of us.” This idea is carried into The Stand, Flagg’s first appearance in literature. Here, Flagg is characterized as the personification of evil set against Mother Abagail, the personification of good. The character of Tom Cullen describes Flagg as having the ability to kill animals and give men cancer simply by looking at them. Cullen goes on to refer to him as the demon Legion. According to Stephen King, he was not trying to say that Flagg was the Devil. He wanted Flagg to represent a “gigantic evil”, though the character was supposed to taper off by the end of The Stand. King stated, “I think the Devil is probably a pretty funny guy. Flagg is like the archetype of everything that I know about real evil, going back all the way to Charles Starkweather in the ’50s — he is somebody who is empty and who has to be filled with other people’s hates, fears, resentments, laughs. Flagg, Koresh, Jim Jones, Hitler — they’re all basically the same guy.” Though Flagg was never intended to represent Satan, that did not detract from what King sees as his ultimate goal. King notes that it does not matter who sees him, or how they see him — Flagg can appear differently to each individual — but that his message is always the same: “I know all the things that you want and I can give them to you and all you have to do is give me your soul.”

Apart from King’s interpretation, literary critics have noted Flagg’s penchant for evil. Tony Magistrale sees Flagg as a Shakespearian villain, comparing him to such Shakespeare villains as Iago, Edmund, and Richard III, even going so far as to say that Flagg is an antihero. Magistrale states that Flagg’s evil is based on his ability to cause conflict where it has never been before, and destroy things simply because they are united; though he seeks power, that power is just a resource for him to achieve a higher degree of destruction. Heidi Stringell finds that Flagg truly is “an embodiment of pure evil” and that King sees good and evil as “real forces”, and that Flagg’s representation of pure evil is validated by the fact that “he is a killer, a maker of mischief, a liar, and a tempter”. To Stringell, Flagg’s disappearance at the end of The Stand shows that “evil ultimately leads nowhere”. The author goes into further detail when she calls Flagg a “generic hybrid” of the character archetypes “the Dark Man and the Trickster”. To her, it is the combination of these two characteristics, both found in different cultural realms, that force people to face their own “flawed humanity” with the “amorality” Flagg represents.

Walter’s eyes widen, and for a moment he looks deeply hurt. This may be absurd, but Callahan is looking into the man’s deep eyes and feels sure that the emotion is nonetheless genuine. And the surety robs him of any last hope that all this might be a dream, or a final brilliant interval before true death. In dreams — his, at least — the bad guys, the scary guys, never have complex emotions.

Stephen King, Wolves of the Calla

Douglas Winter believes that Flagg actually epitomizes the Gothic villain — an “atavistic embodiment of evil” — as his appearance is indistinct, malleable and a “collection of masks”. Flagg symbolizes “the inexplicable fear of the return of bygone powers — both technological and, as his last name intimates, sociopolitical”. Like other Gothic villains, Flagg’s plans seem to fail at every turn, while seeming to need to convince others of his importance. Winter states that Flagg is a Miltonic superman who receives his strength from some dark, mysterious source. He compares Flagg to J. R. R. Tolkien’s Sauron, from The Lord of the Rings, in that both collapse when directly confronted. Alissa Stickler describes Flagg as a “contemporary medievalist interpretation on the themes of evil, magic and the devil figure”. Stickler likened Flagg’s presence to that of Merlin whispering in the ear of Arthur; she notes that Flagg is politically powerful in both The Stand and The Eyes of the Dragon, but that he uses his power differently in each novel and challenges the depictions of evil and witchcraft that was common in medieval times. First, she explains that there does not appear to be a higher power to which Flagg “must appeal to his abilities”, as there typically is with the traditional evil. Flagg appears more as a “humanesque evil”, which ultimately works against him as much as it does for him. Flagg’s supernatural knowledge is far from infallible, and that customary depiction of black and white is replaced with an “acceptance of a shadowy gray area”. She states that even though Flagg appears “terrifying and supernatural”, thanks to King’s narration, there are no absolutes. Stickler concluded that Flagg represents the medieval monster of both past and future, which challenges and at the same time supports the perception of the literary Middle Ages.

Flagg’s representation of evil has its detractors. In his essay “The Glass-Eyed Dragon”, author L. Sprague de Camp criticized Flagg’s appearance in Eyes of the Dragon, saying that Flagg was one of the least believable characters in the book and that he was too evil to be credible. According to de Camp, absolute evil is hard to believe in and, where men like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin believed that they were actually bettering the world by their actions, Flagg only enjoys causing destruction and chaos. The author goes on to say that Flagg fails to see that there are no advantages in his actions.

Representing evil is not the only characteristic seen by critics. Joseph Reino commented that Randall Flagg presence in The Stand was “Stephen King’s version of a pestilential Big Brother”. Tony Magistrale revisited the character in a second book, this time comparing him to Norman Mailer. Here, Magistrale states that in The Stand Flagg gives the reader an “illustration of King’s jaundiced perspective of modern America”, as he presents the natural consequence of worshipping technology and sacrificing “moral integrity to the quest for synthetic productivity”.

Flagg’s physical characterization changes with each novel. In The Eyes of the Dragon, Flagg is described as a “thin and stern faced man of about 50 years of age”. He is further described as a hooded figure, who stood in the dark and controlled the kings and queens of Delain; he is also described as a “sickness” that always seems to reappear whenever there is something worth destroying.