(Wizard and Glass: The Dark Tower IV)
On a Reddit thread, I recently described Wizard and Glass as a book that I thought was “unfairly controversial”. And on re-read, I think I stand by that.
This is a book I love. This is a book that quite a lot of Stephen King fans and Dark Tower junkies also love, so I can’t say that it’s underrated or wrongly panned or anything like that. However, it’s also a book that a lot of Stephen King fans and Dark Tower junkies really dislike, either by itself or as a start of future Dark Tower books not being as good as the original three. And those people feel very strongly about their dislike, just as I feel very strongly about my liking for it, which is the “controversial” part. The “unfair” part is just my opinion — I fall on the side of loving this book and probably will never quite understand — and certainly will never agree with — all the reasons why it’s not liked, so I think the controversy about whether it’s good or not is unfair. Your mileage may vary, but my opinion is probably not going to change at this point.
As I’ve noted before, this book was my entry into the Dark Tower series, which was a mistake (the person who bought it for me didn’t know it was part of a series and neither did I until I started reading it — and of course by then, I couldn’t stop.) That probably contributes to my love for it and makes it my most-read book in the series, which is why I’m pretty sure that I’m not going to change my opinion about it anytime soon. I’ve read it by itself, with no knowledge of the rest of the series (more than once) I’ve read it in its proper place as a part of reading the series in order (more than once) and now I’ve read it in the process of reading things in order of publication (so with all the non-dark tower books in-between each new dark tower installment) and I continue to feel the same way about it.
The book starts off with our ka-tet inside of Blaine and trying to riddle for their lives. And let me tell you, even if you’ve never read another dark tower book, you absolutely can start here. You will be missing some context for what they’re doing on this train (and a lot of backstory) but you’ll like the characters, you’ll care about the outcome, and you’ll pick up on what’s going on.
When the confrontation ends, they exit Blaine and enter into the world of The Stand, which is evidently not our world, even if it looks like our world. Which, let me tell you, is kind of a relief. That’s funny, because by the time I first read this, it was 1997ish, and I’d already lived through the years depicted in The Stand, so I knew that King hadn’t predicted a manmade flu plague that would be unleashed on us in 1980-whatever, but it still made me feel better to know that the events of The Stand weren’t happening in our where and when, and probably won’t as long as his ka-tet kept the tower from collapsing. Does that sound stupid? I’m pretty sure it should sound stupid, but somehow the superflu in The Stand impressed me as almost an inevitability — a sort of history of the future (even though it was set in the past?) so having the same author basically say, “oops, sorry, not your dimension” kind of eased my mind. Or, well, did until the last few years of COVID, at least. I don’t know, I may not be describing this well. But I liked this scene because, at this point, I have faith that the ka-tet will stop the tower from falling and keep the superflu away from me.
The next big thing we get — the thing that occupies most of the book — is a big chunk of Roland’s backstory and romantic history. This is the thing that I think a lot of people don’t like, honestly — they’re mad that the current adventure took a backseat for some history. I do sort of get that, but I think that this section is here because understanding that backstory helps us understand Roland in a way that is useful for the rest of the story. I mean, The Gunslinger is also full of Roland remembering things for the same reason. I have seen people say they would have liked Susan Delgado’s story if it were a flashback in the style of The Wind Through the Keyhole, which can be read after getting through the series, as a flashback, without a problem (although you can also plug it in in-between books in the series so that it falls where the events would have fallen) but I think Susan Delgado’s story is meant to be different because it has more bearing on the adventures at hand.
Even if it were a flashback that didn’t contain anything immediately useful for our ka-tet, though, this bit of backstory is also beautiful and absorbing. I find that it fits a lot of tropes of this kind of story, then subverts many of them. I will say that if you were someone who liked The Eyes of The Dragon, you will probably like Susan Delgado’s story. If you hated The Eyes of The Dragon, Susan’s story might drag or hold less interest for you. One concerns royalty in a castle and one takes place in a town of peasants and peasantier-peasants, but I feel like they’re still similar in a lot of ways. I love them both. And I think Susan is a great example, for those who may have missed it, of just how far King has come in writing female characters over the years.
Once Roland tells his story, the ka-tet is off again, and we have a little Wizard of Oz interlude. I will admit that this felt a little bizarre to me the first time I read it. But these books — and to some extent or another, all of King’s books — are full of references to literature and movies (this is both.) He’s never hidden his influences — on the contrary, I think he wants to share them. And the dark tower books in particular are kind of a culmination of references to both the King-verse and the wider world of media. I think he may be making kind of a point about the things that influence him and the things that influence our culture as much as he is making a point about anything having to do with character or motivations or philosophies. And with that in mind, The Wizard of Oz totally belongs here.
With that said, this book is a shining example of why there’s so much difficulty surrounding making a good movie out of this series. There’s very little actual movement of the main plot. Most of it would make a great backstory movie. Or if you were making a series based on the books, there are ways that you could work it in — maybe padding out the actual action on either side and including flashback scenes to each episode that season. But you probably couldn’t just make a Wizard and Glass movie in-between a Wastelands and Wolves of the Calla movie that was faithful to the book. It’s just not set up that way. (Personally, my dream is to see a high-concept television series made out of this, a la Game of Thrones. I’ve kind of given up the idea that we’re ever going to have a great dark tower movie or movie series, and I like episodic TV better for this kind of story anyway. But that’s just me.)
Anyway, I still love this book. It may be my favorite of the series. Because of it, I’m excited to move on to the next one — however, because of the way I’m doing this project, I have about 6 years and 10 books/collections/works to get through between now and then. So, onward.