From the outset, The Dark Tower series is a story about stories. Drawing on a tradition that includes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, King folds the narrative of the first book in The Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger, back over itself. This layers tension on the plot while simultaneously providing an introduction to a self-reflexive theme that will prove essential to the series as a whole. Spoilers for the majority of The Dark Tower series follow the jump.
The structure of The Gunslinger follows a narrative template employed by some of the most popular stories in the Western canon. The novel opens upon Roland, the eponymous gunslinger, as he pursues the villainous man in black through the desert. Roland’s pursuit leads him to a hut in the desert, where he meets a man named Brown and his pet raven, Zoltan. Brown shares a meal with Roland, and after eating, the two men hunker around a campfire, and Roland begins to tell Brown the story of Tull.
In the story, Roland arrives in the town of Tull, sort of the End-World version of Mos Eisley. Roland heads directly for the tavern, as you do in these sort of places, and ends up meeting Allie the bartender. Later, after Roland has bedded Allie, she agrees to tell him the story of Nort.
At this point, the narrative is three layers deep: you have Allie’s story, which Allie is telling to Roland; Allie’s story is actually part of Roland’s story, which Roland is telling to Brown; Roland’s story is actually part of the novel’s narrative.
In Allie’s story, the man in black affects a sardonic tone to say, “‘Mistah Norton, he daid.’” The line references Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where a character famously intones, “‘Mistah Kurtz— he dead.” However, its inclusion here provides a measure of narrative symmetry: just as The Gunslinger has taken a few steps down the narrative layers, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness relies upon a similar narrative frame.
Heart of Darkness opens in London, where Marlow is telling a story to his fellow sailors. The narrative quickly shifts from the boat anchored upon the Thames to the content of Marlow’s story, which takes place on a river in Africa. Conrad uses the story-within-a-story frame to great success, comparing and contrasting the two river voyages in order to reveal more about each of them.
Clearly, King’s story-within-a-story narrative reflects Conrad’s structure for Heart of Darkness, but the literary tradition extends beyond Marlow’s story. Another Victorian era author fond of the story-within-a-story structure was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who frequently utilized such narrative frames for his wildly popular Holmes stories.
Many of the Holmes short stories open upon Holmes and Watson enjoying one another’s company at home on Baker Street. Soon, a client will arrive, and immediately begin relating a story. It is not uncommon for these stories to themselves contain a character who begins telling yet another story, providing an instance of the story-within-a-story-within-a-story later used by King for The Gunslinger.
The story-within-a-story narrative framework can benefit a story immensely. For one, it provides the practical service of allowing a naturally way to dispense exposition for the narrative. In addition, a character telling a story to another can come across as more natural than an inexplicable flashback. Furthermore, by allowing an individual character to tell a story using their own voice, the reader learns more about the perspective of the storytelling. In addition, a character’s perspective on a story might be more interesting than an impartial narrator’s point of view, and a colorful voice can make the story more compelling than it might have been otherwise. On top of all this, having one of the stories imparted by an unreliable narrator can create additional levels of intrigue within a narrative. Finally, it seems impossible to deny that for some reason, a story being told to another person becomes instantly more engaging than a story being told to oneself.
Beyond reflecting backward on a literary tradition of stories-within-stories, the structure of the first part of The Gunslinger is also echoed through the duration of the The Dark Tower series. For one, there is the structure of The Wind Through the Keyhole, which follows the structure of the first part of The Gunslinger almost exactly: Roland tells a story to his Ka-Tet; within the story, Roland himself is told an additional story. In addition to this structural echo, the first part of The Gunslinger also reflects the structure of the narrative as a whole: the book at the center of the series, Wizard and Glass, is a novel about Roland telling the Ka-Tet a story of his past, a story which itself contains other stories within itself.
The Dark Tower series is a story that is deeply concerned with stories: what they mean to us, why we tell them, why we listen to them, and what they mean. Not only does King’s structure serve this thematic purpose, it also provides a tried and true framework for an engaging and interesting plot. By including the story-within-a-story narrative framework at the very outset of The Gunslinger, King introduces a fascinating concept that both pays homage to the popular fiction that inspired the series while paving the path for the remainder of the series still to come.