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How Did Stephen King to the Dark Tower Come? Through Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland.”

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Robert Browning [between 1880 and 1910]
Robert Browning [between 1880 and 1910]
Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, adapted and released as a feature film earlier this month, is the latest in a long line of fantasy fiction to receive the big screen treatment.  While, like many works in its genre, The Dark Tower was partly influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, the work that inspired the original idea for the series is one that may be lesser-known to readers today—English poet Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.”

Browning’s 34-stanza narrative poem takes its title from part of a song by Edgar in Shakespeare’s King Lear (Act III, Scene 4). In the poem, the narrator, presumably Childe Roland himself (a “childe” is an untested knight), approaches the end of a years-long quest in search of the Dark Tower. Traversing a grotesque, nightmarish landscape, and remembering knights who had gone before him and failed in their quest, the narrator finally arrives at the “round, squat turret” that is the Dark Tower and blows his horn, bringing the poem to a close on an ambiguous note.

In a March 1989 interview published in the Stephen King newsletter Castle Rock, King recounts the role played by “Childe Roland” (which he first read in 1967 or 1968 for a class assignment while at the University of Maine) in formulating the central imagery and concept of the Dark Tower books:

The idea of writing this dark fantasy series came from a favorite poem, Robert Browning’s “Child [sic] Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” King quickly warms to his story: “Browning never says what that tower is, but it’s based on an even older tradition about Childe Roland that’s lost in antiquity. Nobody knows who wrote it, and nobody knows what the Dark Tower is.

“So I started off wondering: What is this tower? What does it mean? And I decided that everybody keeps a Dark Tower in their heart that they want to find.

“They know it’s destructive and it will probably mean the end of them, but there’s that urge to make it your own or to destroy it, one or the other. So I thought: Maybe it’s different things to different people, and as I write along I’ll find out what it is to Roland. And I found that out, but I’m not going to tell you!”

While not as influential to the development of the fantasy genre as Tolkien’s work, Browning’s poem, first published in his 1855 collection Men and Women, has influenced or been referenced in a number of fantasy novels and other literary works. These include Alan Garner’s Elidor (1965), whose main character Roland engages in a quest to retrieve ancient treasures; Roger Zelazny’s Sign of the Unicorn (1975), part of the Chronicles of Amber series, which includes a sentence beginning “So Childe Random to the dark tower came….“; Philip Jose Farmer’s The Dark Design (1977), part of the Riverworld series, whose character Alice quotes from the poem; John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things, whose main character David reads the poem in a collection of poetry on his bookshelves; and Alastair Reynolds’ novella Diamond Dogs, which features a character named “Roland Childe” who is obsessed with an alien structure called the “Blood Spire.”

Readers’ and scholars’ fascination with “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” extends back to Browning’s lifetime when, as Hédi A. Jaouad notes in his book Browningmania: America’s Love for Robert Browning (Cambria Press, 2014), Browning’s poetry was celebrated and passionately scrutinized across the land, more intensely in America, in fact, than in his native England. Jaouad coins the term “Browningmania” to describe “the intense fan frenzy directed toward Browning, especially in America,” which “held sway in the United States well after the poet’s death in 1889 and continued unabated past the 1912 centennial of his birth, an event celebrated with ceremonial pomp across the country” (p. 3).

One of the symptoms of Browningmania was the proliferation of “Browning Societies” in cities and town across the U.S. dedicated to the reading, study, and performance of Browning’s poetry, and marked by a general admiration of Browning’s life (and that of his wife, poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who died in 1861). Jaouad writers that “practically any American town with an aspiration to high culture had its own Browning society. . . . By the 1900s the number of such societies across the nation exceeded nine hundred by some counts” (pp. 2-3, 7).

While Browning’s poetry was regularly studied and discussed by members of Browning societies, poems such as “Childe Roland” that were perceived to have an allegorical meaning—Browning himself said that he “was conscious of no allegorical intention in writing it“—were particularly susceptible to detailed interpretations.

For example, a search of our historic newspapers database Chronicling America, reveals a number of instances in which Browning societies and enthusiasts held events in which “Childe Roland” was discussed, interpreted, and performed. To give just one example, I came across an announcement in the November 12, 1908, issue of The Pensacola Journal for a November 21 meeting of the Browning Club focusing on “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” which is described as “probably the most talked of work of the poet”:

"The Browning Club has Interesting Subject." The Pensacola Journal, November 12, 1908, page 5.
“The Browning Club has Interesting Subject.” The Pensacola Journal, November 12, 1908, page 5.

A month later, H.C. Edgar, an “Instructor” at the Browning Club, published a detailed interpretation of the poem in the December 20, 1908, issue of The Pensacola Journal. Edgar’s analysis, which may well have emerged out of discussions of the poem held at the previous month’s meeting of the Browning Club, proffers a rather confident assessment that Childe Roland “achieves a moral victory” at the end of the poem, despite acknowledging in the article’s opening sentence that “the great disparity between the many interpretations offered for this poem would seem to indicate that it does not furnish enough data to form an adequate basis for any very definite specific interpretation.”

"Childe Roland." The Pensacola Journal, December 20, 1908, page 30.
“Childe Roland” [excerpt]. The Pensacola Journal, December 20, 1908, page 30.
Browning himself, in addition to stating the poem had no allegorical meaning, shied away from offering readers his own interpretation of the poem. The closest he came to offering or confirming a specific reading of the poem occurred when fielding a question from a visitor. As recounted in The Browning Cyclopaedia (1892)

Indeed, when the Rev. John W. Chadwick visited the poet, and asked him if constancy to an ideal—”He that endureth to the end shall be saved”—was not a sufficient understanding of the central purpose of the poem, he said, “Yes, just about that” (p. 104)

While analyzing “Childe Roland” for its allegorical or hidden meaning could be a favorite activity of Browning society, some pooh-poohers dismissed Browning societies as being little more than incubators for members’ excessive exegetical activities, as conveyed by the following anecdote of the March 28, 1891, issue of The Salt Lake Herald:

"What, Indeed?" The Salt Lake Herald. March 28, 1891.
“What, Indeed?” The Salt Lake Herald, March 28, 1891, p. 6.

Not every Browning fan before the mid-20th century felt the need to parse his poetry. In a September 6, 1902, laudatory letter to Martha Baker Dunn, who the previous month had written an article on Browning for The Atlantic Monthly, President Theodore Roosevelt describes his reasons for liking the poem:

I don’t care a rap what the inner meaning of “Childe Roland” is; What I care for is the lift, the thrill the poem gives; the look of the desolate country, the dauntless bearing of the Knight, and the strange thoughts and sights, and the squat blind tower itself.

Regardless of one’s reason for liking the poem, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” has been an object of fascination for generations of Browning fans and a source of inspiration to Stephen King and other writers. The poem, no doubt, will continue to surface in literary texts and popular culture, and if you encounter any recent references to the poem beyond the new Dark Tower film (and the upcoming Dark Tower TV series), let us know in the comments below.

Now that I’ve arrived, after an arduous trek, at the conclusion of this post, I feel it’s only appropriate to blow my slug-horn and proclaim:

“Childe Peter to the Post’s End came.”

Comments (4)

  1. I love all these connections, from Stephen King back to the Browning societies. And I’m delighted by the varying interpretations, and Mr. Browning’s response “I could certainly explain the passage, but then what would be the use of the Browning society?” which invites discussion – maybe even demands it!

  2. Very interesting – thanks for sharing!

    Cary Michael Cox

  3. A very nice and thoughtful article! I read the original poem today. Even though is challenging for a non -native (and I’m sure it’ll be hard for a native speaker also as the language is purposefully archaic) it’s amazing to see all the connections to Mr. King´s work: From names, to the mood of the place, to the implied ending.
    Thank you for sharing this.

  4. Dear Peter,
    I’ve just discovered your essay on Browning by chance, browsing on the internet. I love the various and unexpected connections you’ve made and the press tidbits. I particularly savored the one featuring Teddy Roosevelt’s reasons for liking the poem.
    Thank you so much for mentioning my book “Browningmania.” For another, this time oriental, connection to the poem, allow me to quote from my recent book, Browning Upon Arabia: A Moveable East, (Palgrave 2018):
    “The editors of the Longman edition suggest, without much evidence, that Through the Metidja “has affinities (partly reversed) with ‘Childe Roland’” (Woolford and Karlin 1991, Vol. 2, p. 155). It may indeed have ‘affinities,’ but, I suggest, only when considered through the Eastern mystical lens of the original fable ‘Childe Rowland.’ In a stimulating article in the journal Folk-Lore, titled ‘Childe Rowland,’ Joseph Jacobs contends that it was from the line ‘Childe Rowland to the dark Tower came’ from King Lear that Browning drew his poem for ‘he little thought he was dealing with a fragment of a fairy tale’ (p. 188).
    More important, Jacobs draws our attention to the form of the original tale ‘Childe Rowland,’ known as cante-fable. This form—which mixes poetry and prose—typically ‘begins with verse, then turns to prose, and throughout drops again at intervals into poetry in a friendly way,’ and was well-known in the East:
    The verses imbedded in the Arabian Nights give them something of the character of a cante-fable, and the same may be said of the Indian and Persian story-books. (p. 196)
    Only when seen as a heroic poem with a mystical bent could Through the Metidja be said to share with ‘Childe Roland’ mystical ‘affinities.’ “
    With best wishes.

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