Meditations on death

Spoiler Warning: some spoilers for The Dark Tower vols 1&2, Buffy, Season 6, and Fool’s Fate. I have tried to be restrained, but some things were unavoidable.

Good, all right, I’ll drown, he thought, listening to the roar of the sea. Let me drown.
– Roland in Stephen King (1989: 2), The Dark Tower, Volume 2: The Drawing of the Three

‘”Wherever I… was… I was happy. At peace. I knew that everyone I cared about was all right. […] And I was warm… and I was loved… and I was finished. Complete […] I think I was in heaven. And now I’m not. Everything here is… hard, and bright, and violent […] this is hell. Just getting through the next moment, and the one after that…”‘
– Buffy in ‘After Life’, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Espenson (2001)

‘”It was such a good dream. I dreamed that we both died here and it was all over. There was nothing more we could do, and everyone agreed that we had tried and it wasn’t really our fault. They spoke kindly of us.”‘
– The Fool in Robin Hobb (2003: 437), Fool’s Fate

‘O that this too too [solid] flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!’
– Hamlet in William Shakespeare (1996), Hamlet, Act I, Scene ii

‘The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.’
– King (1995), The Dark Tower, Volume 1: The Gunslinger

I went for a bath after my run today but was unable to find the book I had been reading. I searched half-heartedly for a bit, but my eye kept being drawn to my bookshelves – to books I had already read and reread. The favourite ones that spend their time waiting for me to decide that there has been just enough time passed that I might read them again without finding that I know every word by heart. And my gaze snagged on possibly my most dearly beloved of all the books – the one I ration to myself with the most treasured care: volume 2 of The Dark Tower, The Drawing of the Three.

Long-term readers of this blog will be aware of the deep and complex feelings I have for the Dark Tower series by Stephen King. Sometimes I feel like a small part of my mind will always be alternating between trying to puzzle out why it affected me so, or holding it at arm’s length, mentally swooning on a couch and crying with all melodrama: ‘It is too much! The wound is still too raw – ask me in another year!’ It’s a level of emotion that I feel uncomfortable expressing. Like someone who has left the ‘get a room’ line behind and is just full-out having sex on the couch whilst other people look on uncomfortably and wonder if it would be worse to say something now or let you get it out of your system and then pretend it never happened. But I’m kinda repressed in that stereotypically British way. I know other people feel fully confident and able to launch in unabashed squee about their most beloved artifacts of affection without fear that others will laugh in their faces. I want to be like that. But I’m not. So I end up putting these awkward caveats out there when I want to talk about The Dark Tower. It may seem to an outsider (i.e. one outside of my head) that I am being a bit over-zealous. If so, I apologise. I just don’t know how to talk about it in mixed company (i.e. Dark Tower converts and those who have yet to adore it/have never seen what all the fuss is about).

Anyway, as I was preparing for my bath my eye kept snagging on this particularly special book and I found myself thinking… ‘You know what? I think maybe it is time again’. And so I picked it up and I ran my bath and I settled down amongst the bubbles, and I read… Within a few short sentences I felt the old feelings beginning to stir again. I had recently finished The Wind Through the Key Hole – King’s supplementary volume ‘4.5’ of The Dark Tower, which I will review in full eventually, but for now will simply remark that it was not the equal of its litter-mates. Almost instantly my pulse quickened, the old excitement and recognition building, saying ‘Yes! Yes! It wasn’t mere hyperbole – this is a better book, the prose is as astonishingly tight and evocative as I remember – Oh! I have missed you!’ But more than this: I had not gone four paragraphs before I hit a sentence that opened up to me yet another layer of nuance, meaning, connections that I had not consciously seen before. For of anything, this is a book of connections, building meaning from references that pluck on our minds and our associations, our deep, shared, psychological rhythms and the cultural artifacts that draw the lines – the supporting beams of our psyches – between them.

Which is lovely, and all, but I’d just settled down for a bath with a favourite book, and now my mind was racing down the connections, seeing new webs and maps of shared themes, mentally composing a blog post I could not sit down to write until after I had washed my hair. I laid down the book, did what I needed to do as quickly as possible, and climbed out of the bath to beginning chasing down quotes.

The line that tripped off this frustrated wave of mental activity was this: ‘Good, all right, I’ll drown, he thought, listening to the roar of the sea. Let me drown.‘. It’s an odd line for the first page of your book – a melancholy line, a line of endings – and odder still for a force of nature like Roland of Gilead to think. Odd or masterful. Roland is dreaming as he lies on the beach at the ‘point of pointless ending’ (King, 1989: 2). He has just sacrificed his symbolic son and symbol of hope in quest of the Dark Tower, having passed through an underworld of tunnels under the mountains that might be likened to Hades, or Hell, or Moria*. A change of landscape can mark emotional transition, and he had come out on the other side of the mountain tunnels, following the night that lasts ten years, to lie here, as water (always symbolic of emotion) roils around him, washing ever closer towards his precious gunbelts – dealers of death, but also his way of life. And here he lies on the edge of consciousness, dreaming that it is not Jake who has ‘drowned’ (the man in black had read the gunslinger his fortune before apparently dying himself, and the card of the Sailor had symbolised Jake ‘He drowns, gunslinger… and no one throws him a line‘) but himself. And he thinks of this: ‘Good, all right, I’ll drown‘.

It’s an opening thick with death metaphor and potential of rebirth, but the rebirth is not presented as a gift. No, here, death is suggested as the release. It is seductive, appealing, absolving. Death is forgiveness from transgression and freedom from responsibility. In his dream, Roland can take the sacrifice upon himself and absolve himself of Jake’s death, but he can also shirk the responsibility of his all-consuming quest for the Tower. It’s a peculiarly selfish dream, given that he has already sacrificed Jake, and therefore the burden of responsibility has been added to by the price of making that death worth it.

So much great fiction – so many truly great moments in literature – has centred around this thought. It’s what makes Buffy’s description of what she calls heaven so achingly powerful: death to her was freedom from pain and responsibility. It was knowing that everyone else was alright, and she didn’t have to protect them anymore. So it is also conceived of in the Fool’s dream from Fool’s Fate. The Fool and Fitz are struggling to survive in the ice-tunnels in a glacier that once housed a city and now forms the living tomb to a dragon whose ‘rebirth’ would enable a whole species to be revived. The symbolism of location and themes is strikingly similar to the underground station in The Dark Tower, only here the metaphor is overladen with ice where the gunslinger’s world is one of dry, dusty, radioactive deserts and barren beaches. Ice is a killer, and it is killing the Fool, who is tempted by the lethargy induced by his slowing metabolism, but it is also a preserver, lowering the metabolism of the dragon so that it has survived in a fantasy equivalent of cryogenic stasis. Moreover, prophecy hangs over this scene, too: the ‘Fool’s Fate’ of the title is the Fool’s own prediction of his death in such a place. It is a death he thinks is necessary, but also fears. The death he dreams of is a different one – not the one he has predicted, one where he simply sits down and gives up; a kinder death, but one he knows he should fight against because he believes that dying in the correct way will bring about a better world. A terrible sort of responsibility, and in the face of that, it does seem like just sitting down and dying might be a good dream, if only: ‘There was nothing more we could do, and everyone agreed that we had tried and it wasn’t really our fault’.

This theme of death as a release from the anguish of responsibility is central to Hamlet, as well. Interestingly, the quotation as I have taken it above is disputed. Some argue that it should read ‘Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh should melt’ (Shakespeare, Act I, Scene ii). I have always held with ‘solid’ because it more accurately reflected the emotion of desiring to dissolve one’s physical self and melt away, emphasising the ‘solid’ implacable impossibility of such a wish, and thus how bitter the emotion is that such release is impossible. It also makes sense from the point of view that Hamlet has not really ‘sinned’ at this point. He might accuse Gertrude of being ‘sullied’ (whether you think he is right to do so or not, that emotion is clearly present) and when he speaks of ‘things rank and gross in nature'(ibid.) possessing the ‘garden’ in which he must persist, one feels he is accusing Claudius of corruption and a pollution of Denmark in contrast to the purity of Hamlet’s own father. But at this stage he has no cause to cast doubt upon his own actions. In fact, he is rather self-righteous in professing that he alone seems to be adequately grieving for his father. On the other hand, the wish to cleanse oneself with self-destruction certainly fits a theme. Tellingly, in his most famous soliloquy, which more consummately concerns suicide and the release of death he remarks:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep –
No more, and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to; ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep –
To sleep: perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause; there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life:
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make,
With a bare bodkin; who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards [of us all]
– Shakespeare (1997), Hamlet, Act III, Scene i

‘And thus conscience doth make cowards of us all’. It’s an odd twist on the emotion we’ve seen so strongly evinced in the other texts mentioned above: conscience is what makes Buffy continue to fight despite her despair at being torn from heaven; conscience is what makes the Fool and Fitz press on, even though the Fool believes he walks to a much more terrible death than what the ice alone could offer; conscience is what spurs the gunslinger to wakefulness to fight to save his life and his bullets from the waves and from the lobstrosity that is crawling up the beach towards him. Surely it is conscience that makes a man bear the whips and scorns of time, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? Ah, but, Hamlet speculates, would we not all give ourselves into that good night (as Dylan Thomas would say), that ‘sleep of death’ if we did not fear what might come after? If ‘the Everlasting [God] had not fixed/His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter’ (Shakespeare, Act I, Scene ii)?

The answer seems to be ‘no’ – or at least, many of us would not. Our heroes do not. Roland’s beliefs about the after life seem jaded at best. Buffy explicitly states that: ‘I don’t understand about theology or dimensions, or … any of it, really … but I think I was in heaven’. It is her friends’ fear that she might have gone to ‘an untold Hell dimension‘ (Xander in ‘Once More with Feeling’, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon 2001) that pulled her back to life. Buffy sacrificed herself not knowing what would come next, and it was that sacrifice that was honoured and rewarded with ‘heaven’. Truly, it is not death that she fears, she fears life. Her heroic act in Season 6 is to go on living. The Fool is not typically heroic. He fears death, but he would accept a good death, freed from responsibility.

One of the interesting things about science fiction and fantasy is that these genres allow us to explore our emotions on the other side of death – to attempt a mapping of the undiscovered country. Buffy comes back from a death knowing that death, for her, was easier than life. Roland and the Fool are provided with prophecies concerning death, and Fitz has experienced a sort of death and resurrection. The unique experiences of the Fool and Fitz allow Fitz to comment: ‘”See how pleasant it can be, to have died? Once you’ve died, no one expects you to be a king. Or a prophet.”‘ (Hobb, 2003: 647) and for the Fool to respond: ‘”Years later, when I came to see you at your cottage, I thought, ‘surely he will be healed by now. Surely he will have recovered.’ […] But you had not. You had just… stopped. In some ways. Oh, you were older and wiser, I suppose. But you had not made any move on your own to reach out to life again.”‘ Admittedly this latter is not literally a comment on Fitz’ death and ressurrection, but rather that his magic-enabled actions to remove the worst pains from his memories, and his willful turning away from the responsibilities of life, have been damaging.

There is a wrestling, here – in Hamlet, in Buffy, in Fool’s Fate, in The Dark Tower – with the death wish, and a sort of romance of death, as well as the fear of it. It is a consummation devoutly to be wished, but also to be fought against. There is honour in facing your struggles, but again and again the question is raised as to whether this ‘honour’ is worth the sacrifice of living the pains of life. There’s something darkly humourous in how The Gunslinger‘s famous first line encapsulates this:

‘The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.’
– King (1995: 1)

The man in black is frequently identified with death or presented as an omen of death. His attire resembles that of a priest, and Jake describes how the man in black was the last thing he saw before dying for the first time, and how Walter used Jake’s death as a gateway over to Roland’s world, like the ferryman over the river Styx, taking the dead to the underworld. Yet the gunslinger is himself a purveyor of death. This dealer of death actively pursues the personification of death across a dead landscape and death flees before him. It marks an ironic comment on how all of us are racing towards our graves in a battle we can never win. Every step taken in the struggle for survival brings us closer to the grave. Roland may (or may not) be fighting to save the world, but ultimately the tower that is his goal is dark in the same way that Walter, the man he pursues in the first volume, is darkly clothed. His quest to save the worlds leaves a wave of destruction in its wake. Roland suffers under the weight of the death he deals as well as his responsibility. They are intertwined. Every life he takes in the name of his goal is a promise that the goal will be worth it and it will be reached. And at the start of The Drawing of the Three, where my thoughts on this matter began, he has come to a point of pointless ending. The point where the world seems to drop away and you might step into the waves, you might lie back down and let the lobstrosity do its work, you might accept the sleep of death. And the story of this book is Roland’s tortured climb back out of the metaphorical Moria – the black chasm, or ‘black hole’ as depression is sometimes called for its apparent inescapability.

Roland is emotionally deadened at the start of The Gunslinger, but Jake reawakened a rusty paternal affection. In allowing him to die those flutters of emotions have been crushed. In order to return to his quest, Roland must find a way to revive these reawakened feelings without allowing them to destroy him. Within two pages his potency as a dealer of death, as a quester for The Dark Tower, is dramatically reduced. His bullets and guns are wetted – many of the bullets will never fire again. And, shockingly, he loses two fingers and most of a toe to a lobstrosity. When I first read this it was my first encounter with such shocking and permanent injury to a protagonist. I kept expecting him to get his fingers back. It’s powerful. Moreover, the lobstrosity is possessed of a powerful poison, which is already working in his blood stream by the time he reaches the first door to our world via which he will draw his ‘three’. The rest of the book is the story of an emotionally and physically damaged man learning to lean upon and help other people at least as emotionally and physically damaged as himself: Eddie, the heroin addict; Odetta Holmes/Detta Walker/Susannah Dean, the black lady in a wheelchair with multiple personality disorder; and even Jake himself, in a way.

Not that Roland ever becomes a ‘soft’ man. There’s a grim and delightful humour in one character’s likening him to the Terminator, as an unemotional dealer of death. But pulling yourself out of the mines of Moria doesn’t mean a complete personality overhaul. It’s a fascinating journey through different kinds of recovery, bringing drops of water to the stark desert of Roland’s life. Above all it underlines the difficulty and pain involved in turning away from death and ‘choosing life’ (the opening monologue from Trainspotting, ‘Choose Life’ (John Hodge, 1996), can be seen as setting a frame for exploring this, also).

There is a ‘romance’ of the western, and it is a romance of death. But this romance, this fascination, is not limited to any one genre. It has a strong and complex hold on all our lives. Which is why it can hit so deep when a truly powerful piece of art hits out with something that seems to encapsulate the complexities and contradictions of our emotions on the subject. Strange that I both saw, and didn’t see this in The Dark Tower before. But, for me, that is the mark of truly great art: its rich complexities work on your emotions to powerful effect without your even having to know how such feelings were brought about.


Footnotes:
*Random note prompted by the Wikipedia article on Moria linked to above, because it gave me chills. Wiki notes that: ‘Moria (Sindarin for “Black Chasm”) was the name given by the Eldar to an enormous underground complex in north-western Middle-earth, comprising a vast network of tunnels, chambers, mines and huge halls or ‘mansions’, that ran under and ultimately through the Misty Mountains… It has been suggested that Tolkien — an ardent Catholic — may have used this name as a reference to the mountains of Moriah, where (according to the book of Genesis) Abraham was to sacrifice his son, Isaac. However, Tolkien categorically denied such derivations.’ Anyway, ‘north-western’ initially caught my eye because I thought that the mega electronics and robotics coporation in The Dark Tower was called ‘North Western Positronics’ – it’s not, it’s called North Central Positronics; I am a bad fangirl. However, although no map ever appears in The Dark Tower books, there are indications that the great station and the tunnels than lead there are located in the north-west of Mid World. The second, and more interesting, thing that caught my attention was the biblical reference. Although Tolkein may have denied it, I don’t think King could have been unaware, given that this is the scene for Roland’s sacrifice of Jake. I have suggested elsewhere that these mountains referenced Moria; I think this evidence makes the reference pretty clear.


Espenson, Jane (2001) ‘After Life’, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3
Hobb, Robin (2003), Fool’s Fate, London: Harper Collins
Hodge, John (1996), Trainspotting
King, Stephen (1995), The Dark Tower, Volume 1: The Gunslinger, London: Warner Books
King, Stephen (1989), The Dark Tower, Volume 2: The Drawing of the Three, London: Sphere
Shakespeare, William, (1997) Hamlet, in The Riverside Shakespeare, Second Edition, G Blakemore Evans et al (eds), Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Company
Thomas, Dylan (1996), ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ (pp. 1465-6), The Norton Anthology of Poetry, Fourth Edition, Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, and Jon Stalwarthy (eds), London: W. W. Norton & Company

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5 Responses to Meditations on death

  1. sj says:

    Holy schnikes, I <3 this post.

    I think I need some time to re-read and try to come up with an appropriate response, but I will say that what you’ve written here has struck a chord – I’ve been thinking about DT a lot lately, and I’d like to do a re-read of all of them (but only skimming WaG). Next year maybe. I do have something coming up in September that’s DT related, but I’ll talk more about that when it’s actually here.

    Oh, and Season 6 of Buffy is probably my favourite. I know most people hate it, but I loved every episode.

    • Thanks so much! I have thougth *way* too much about The Dark Tower. But that’s partly just because I wanted to figure out why it had moved me so powerfully so I could explain to others why it wasn’t just another sci-fi/fantasy book about parallel worlds. I admit I have an affection for that sub-genre, but these books were special, and I wanted to know why.

      As for Season 6… I knew a lot of people who found it oddly dark at the time, but most everyone I know now holds it up as one of the best, if not the best seasons. Maybe it’s passage of time. Maybe I just know different people, now. I think it was a change of pace, but an interesting and very insightful one. ‘Once More With Feeling’ is a work of genius. In general, I’d say that Whedon is unusually knowing in his commentary on death and depression. The season 5 episode ‘The Body’ is probably the most powerful study of grieving I know of in film and TV. I considered mentioning it here, but apart from the fact that the post was already getting a bit long, I decided that there is a subtle difference in subject matter between grief and the death wish.

      Wee – long comment! Anyway: thank you for your kind words, and enjoy your reread when you find the time!

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