Ka Like a Wheel, Time Like a Circle
by Kevin Quigley
The notion of circular time is ancient. Hebrew interpretation of the Bible forwards the concept of “cycles,” of time moving in a loop like the orbits of the planets or the sweep of the hands of a clock. The Rolling Stones mention the concept in their song “Sway,” from the album Sticky Fingers: “Did you ever wake up to find / A day that broke up your mind / Destroyed your notion of circular time / It’s just that demon life has got you in its sway.”
This lyric could fairly accurately describe the plot of The Waste Lands, the first of the Dark Tower novels to mention ka. “Ka was like a wheel,” Stephen King writes, “its one purpose to turn, and in the end it always came back to the place where it had started.” One wonders how much of the nature of ka—and how literal this quote would become—occurred to King when he first wrote these words. So much of what happens in the Dark Tower is circular, and so much is happening in the middle of things, that it seems impossible to believe that King set this sentence down without having a grasp of the ramifications. He is the gan, after all, and in the metafiction of the series, he knows everything … albeit incrementally.
We know when we start the series, we’re in medias res, in the midst of things. Roland’s life and quest for the Dark Tower (some might argue these are one and the same) are already ongoing; there’s adventure afoot, and King rams us right into the action with what might be his best opening sentence ever: The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed. By the end of The Dark Tower, King makes the middle thing explicit: that sentence marks the start and finish to the entire series, creating a perpetual middle. King’s mid-2000s work was characterized by a defiance against ending stories traditionally, leaving many (From a Buick 8, Cell, and The Colorado Kid being the most prominent examples) open-ended. For those books, the journey really is the destination. By stapling the end of The Dark Tower to the start of The Gunslinger, King both reinforces and subverts that adage: the journey is the destination because the destination is the journey. The books become a Möbius strip of ongoing quests, changing only slightly from iteration to iteration. Who plays those changes? Gan? Roland? We’re not really sure.
Some were shocked when the series became circular and the end became the beginning, but King had been playing with the trope all along. His confrontation with the man in black at the end of the Gunslinger becomes the real start of his journey. With the lobstrosity attack at the start of Drawing of the Three, Roland is waylaid in his quest and must draw companions; only at the end of Drawing is Roland actually ready to begin. Note that the novel with the most forward motion in the series, The Waste Lands, ends in the middle of a scene, resulting in a six-year cliffhanger finally ending in Wizard & Glass … which essentially puts the series in pause function again while we peel back the layers of Roland Deschain to see what makes him tick.
None of these delaying tactics are for naught, because the quest for the Tower—while not quite a Macguffin—frequently comes second to these characters, our ka-tet, understanding one another and becoming a family. Because the journey is endless, at least in our estimation, backtracking to better understand our friends, the world, and the journey is necessary. Setting this motif in motion, The Gunslinger offers extended glimpses into Roland’s past; Wizard & Glass doubles down with its doomed tale of nascent love. The late-series Song of Susannah finds new ways to explore Susannah’s past via both halves of her merged personality, Odetta Holmes and Detta Walker. To make it fit more closely tonally with the later books, King did a light refurbishment of The Gunslinger; this gave him the added freedom to insert plot elements—such as the occurrence of the number 19—much earlier in the storyline. And years after the final book in the series was released, and King realized that he wanted to share more Mid-World fables, offer more details about Roland’s checkered past, and to create a better bridge between Wizard & Glass and Wolves of the Calla, he invented The Wind Through the Keyhole, an interstitial novel that fits neatly into the thrust of the series while also providing another pause.
Beyond these textual interruptions and corrections, King frequently finds his characters unstuck in time, moving back and forth through decades with some regularity. Roland’s decision to let Jake fall in The Gunslinger forwards his quest to the Tower, but only in The Drawing of the Three can he recover his soul by rescuing Jake in the past. This creates rippling paradoxes and fractures in both Jake’s and Roland’s minds, cured (as was Susannah’s mind) via a door between worlds. In Song of Susannah, Eddie and Roland are thrust into a shootout in 1977 Maine, where they are forced to kill men they’ve already killed in the early ’80s in The Drawing of the Three. No paradoxes or mental breaks over the likes of them. The very intrusion of a young Stephen King into his own work proves that changing the course of history—and even the narrative of time itself—is possible.
This brings us to the question at the center of Roland’s repetition. How much of Roland’s story is dictated by fate, and how much can he make manifest through his own will and evolving nature? Heading into this new iteration, Roland has in his possession the Horn of Eld, which he’d neglected to retrieve from the Battle of Jericho during “our” timeline. Now might he satisfy all the Tower’s requirements for him to finally end his long, long journey? Will this end things? We have only speculation. We also, at long last, have a movie—one that might seek to answer these questions.
Adaptation is a tricky beast. Hew too closely to the source material, you might get bogged down in dialogue meant for prose rather than film (Firestarter comes to mind). Move too far away, and you end up with stuff like The Lawnmower Man or Children of the Corn: work barely recognizable as inspired by Stephen King’s original. The Dark Tower is in kind of an enviable position here; it doesn’t actually have to adapt the books as they are. The fact that The Dixie Pig is going to feature in the film baffled a lot of readers; this was a place we first encountered in Song of Susannah. Why are we seeing it in Roland’s origin story? The answer is simple: The Dark Tower, the film, is technically a sequel. The movie functions in the same way as the new subtitle of The Gunslinger: RESUMPTION. With every iteration of Roland’s story, we start anew, with changes both subtle and major. We’ve seen one variation in the books. If the movie is done well (and is a hit), we might see an altogether different journey in a series of films. It’s exciting to think ahead to an all-new take on this amazing, sprawling story.
Who knows: he has the Horn of Eld in his new odyseey…but maybe there’s another crucial piece of the final puzzle we won’t know about until we reach the end of the film series. Ka is a wheel, time is a circle, and maybe this demon life will forever hold Roland the gunslinger in its sway.
Kevin Quigley is a novelist and short story writer whose books, I’m On Fire, This Terrestrial Hell, and Roller Disco Saturday Night, are all available as ebooks from Amazon and other fine retailers. In addition, he’s written several books for Cemetery Dance on Stephen King, including Chart of Darkness and the upcoming A Good Story and Good Words. Quigley has also contributed essays to The Stephen King Companion and Reading Stephen King. Additionally, he is the webmaster of Charnel House, one of the longest-running Stephen King websites online. He lives in Boston with his fiancé, Shawn.