(urth) Short Story 70: To the Dark Tower Came

Marc Aramini marcaramini at gmail.com
Fri Jul 25 18:21:51 PDT 2014

“To the Dark Tower Came” first appeared in Orbit in 1977 and is collected
in *Storeys from the Old Hotel.*


Gloucester and Kent, “who would die that day”, discuss the senility of
their ruler in a very cold tower. Gloucester provides a fake history for
the word senile, saying it comes from the verb sendan (Anglo Saxon for “to
transmit”) and Nilus, which he claims is a “mythical” river in Africa where
old ruins were scattered (we know the Nile is real though, right? And that
the real root of senile is the latin senex/senilis to connote “old”).

They peer out a small window through ivy, and Kent says he sees fog, but
Gloucester states they are clouds, but that they will still manage to get
down eventually. Kent believes if he jumps out and leaves the window
unguarded, a bear or jaguar might enter. Gloucester says, “poor creature”,
but his pity is a bit ambiguous in its placement – does he feel that way
regarding Kent or any beast entering the tower? They discuss their desire
to be gone and to courtier no more, and Kent reveals one of his ancestors
could fly (Clark Kent, of course). Gloucester gives his own take on
Superman (Nietzsche style), and then vast wings outside prompt Kent to put
his head and shoulders through the small window. Though the walls of the
tower appear flat, “Kent knew it to be round .. (Some indeed, said that
[the radius of the tower] was infinite).”

Kent climbs out onto the dark green foliage over an enormous void. A
vampire flies outside dislodging men and women climbing the ivy. Then it
catches them in their fall and does something uncertain to them, enfolding
them in wings “like a scud of sooty smoke” that makes them disappear.

Gloucester assumes the mass of the tower is so great that it has its own
atmosphere, with its center being the resultant of the attraction between
the tower, earth, and moon. He calls the tower the “Spire Sans Summit.”
They speculate that it connects the earth and the moon, and Gloucester
says, “There are footprints on the surface of the moon, you know. Even
though the king would have us believe all this is happening long before
that time.” They descend.

“The room below might have filled all the tower, from wall to wall, with a
domed ceiling higher in the center than the room was wide; so that it
seemed like a world unto itself.” Gloucester is thankful that it is an
orrery rather than a throne room, though Kent says it still might be one.

A sun burns with thermonuclear fire and the walls painted with the zodiac,
and a wounded bison says, “Long have I ruled – a hundred years and more” in
the king's voice. The voice says he has starved his enemies and built his

“In the dream of serving others, they have served me. Pisces the whale I
penned in a tank of glass, sheltering her from the waters I poisoned. Does
not that show the love I bore her? The poison was needed for the making:
scientist and sorcerer am I.” (The consonance begun by Gloucester continues

Gloucester here says that “The lower parts of the tower are worse than the
higher. Or the higher are worse than the lower, as may be,” as rats as
large as buckets gnaw through a hole near the bison's feet.

The king continues to talk, claiming that he can renew himself and that if
he dies the tower would fall with him, with rats at the foundation. Kent is
injured badly by the septic teeth of the rats, and then Gloucester “clove
its spine with a single stroke.” Gloucester promises to carry Kent wherever
he wants to go, and then the boy king comes, invisible at first because the
sun is at his back. “The boy wore a crown. He was about thirteen, but his
eyes were the cold, mad eyes of the king. Maidens followed him; these had
no eyes at all – only little flames, like candles burning, in the empty
sockets.” He claims he does not remember the names of Kent and Gloucester,
and Gloucester replies, “In the beginning you called us Youth and Learning,
sir; you promised us a great deal.” Clearly, Kent is supposed to be Youth.

The king says that if they behave themselves, he will fulfill his earlier
promises, but walks away when asked if he will heal Kent.

Kent says, “Call back the king, Gloucester, and carry me to the window.
With one single bound I will leap this tall building; and that is something
a boy should see.”


One of the themes of the story is certainly semiotic slippage (wait a
minute, said the skeptical scholar...) In this case, I feel that it is an
examination of the smallest unit of semiotics, called a sign – in this
case, S.

Gloucester speaks in consonant sibilance from the first page when he starts
in on senility, and it continues throughout: “So you say it’s fog. All
right, sir, climb out. So soon as your feet are on good, solid, ground … I
pride myself sir, on being a sound sullen scholar; and when there is
nothing more to be done, we triple ‘S’ men recast the data – integrate,
integrate, integrate, and three pump handles.”

I suppose the appearance of the integration symbol in math here serves as a
command that looks like an S but has a rigorous application, transforming
the letter s from an idealized unit or phoneme into a process command that
follows precise mathematical rules, and then finally into a symbolic near
representation that serves a less mental and more practical function in the
form of old “s” shaped pump handles. The S, placed on a man, obviously
summons images of the impervious Superman, who Kent will emulate (thus
being both Clark Kent and Shakespeare’s Earl of Kent from King Lear).
Gloucester’s take on Superman is closer to that of Nietzsche or George
Bernard Shaw than DC comics: Gloucester claims he was “A symbolic figure …
he represented the strong man who, ridding himself of the superstitions of
the past, devoted himself to improving his own powers and achieving mastery
of others. Actually there have been a number of people who’ve tried it, but
someone always shoots them.”

Fascinatingly, the idea of Nietsczhe’s Ubermensch posits an existence
devoid of spiritual or otherworldly aspirations, and the surrealistic
setting of “To The Dark Tower” belies and undercuts this possibility (note,
too, that Kent’s plunge off the Tower will kill him). However, it does set
up an interesting examination of something diseased and crazy ruling in the
orrery, set up to look like the solar system. Gloucester claims that the
Nile river is nothing but a fiction, and the orrery is an artificial but
enormous room in the tower with an artificial sun and planets and an insane
ruler, which seem to encompass the entire tower, which spans the moon and
earth. The gnostic, fake, highly engineered reality on display has little
behind it – the King is not actually hiding behind the wainscot, but when
he does appear, he cannot at first be seen because the sun is at his back
(note the light of the sun almost effacing the existence of the son, here).

What do particular images stand for? It seems that the bison which is shot
by an arrow and called the monarch of the plain, so important in American
History, also seems to grow from the wooden panels of the zodiac (of which
Wolfe is a Taurus born in May, the bull). The bison has been shot to the
heart (in addition to resonating with the hunting to extinction and the
loss of that innocent early America, also invokes Sagitarius the archer).

Since Wolfe admits that this story came almost fully grown from a dream,
with a bit of polishing, any interpretation has to question … how much
conscious polishing?

“Once in a rare while, I have a dream so vivid and organized that it can be
written with a minimum of polishing; these dreams are always like
nightmares, like 'To the Dark Tower Came.' I can't imagine why anyone would
want to psycholanalyze me, but if anybody does, that's the place to start.”

Is there enough polish to escape a surreal and imagistic impression with a
more concrete, scientific, and traditional narrative structure? Symbolism
(Wolfe's favorite S concept, no doubt) in Wolfe is always tricky because it
is surprisingly concrete – in New Sun, water somehow becomes healing,
death, and resurrection in almost every metaphor, and on a re-read it is no
surprise that healing will involve a deluge. The symbols somehow become
concrete within the plot (as, at least I believe, the Shadow Children
riding Marshmen in *Fifth Head of Cerberus* clues us into Shadow Children
infecting Marsch). This concrete and literal use of symbols sets Wolfe
apart from some other authors (Vronsky riding a horse to death is certainly
a symbol of how he will treat Anna Karenina, for example, but edit out that
scene and nothing will have changed in the plot – we will merely have less
insight into his character in advance).

Borski once posited that the tower represented higher education, and its
corruption of literary values and perhaps anti-religious stances shows the
academics being cast off the tower by a rather shadowy, winged, vampiric
influence. I am not willing to ascribe this reading to the text, but I do
feel that somehow there is a commentary on religion and learning and the
effects they have on youth. Why does Kent/Youth need to die to inspire the
boy-king of thirteen to regain sanity? Is it a symbol of sacrificial


The opening quote from King Lear, in which Edgar spouts nonsense, is
unfortunately potentially rife with allusive powers: “Child Rowland to the
dark tower came, His word was still, - Fire, foh, and fum, I smell the
blood of a British man.” While we know that *King Lear* is clearly
referenced here with Gloucester and Kent, it is conceivable that “The Song
of Roland”, Browning’s poem “Child Rowland to the Dark Tower Came”, and
Jack and the Beanstalk are all invoked. (Does Wolfe dream doggerel
Shakespeare quotations? ) Certainly the quote shows how even mad verse with
no meaning gains great significance culturally over time – we can read that
and are instantly reminded of a poem and the story of a Giant falling to
his death. Since Shakespeare begins with S, I think he should be the focus
of our analysis.

Quickly, Lear involves a possibly senile king allowing false words of love
from two insincere daughters to sunder his kingdom as he casts out a less
obsequious but more loving one. The Earl of Kent is banished for objecting
to the injustice of this decision, while Gloucester's legitimate and
illegitimate sons come into conflict, with the illegitimate one tricking
Gloucester into mistrusting his son Edgar (whose quote begins our Wolfe
story). Edgar disguises himself as a madman, and also Kent returns in
disguise to serve Lear. Gloucester is blinded and wants to jump to his
death, but is dissuaded by Edgar, who convinces Gloucester he has
miraculously survived a great fall. This plot element of King Lear
resonates most with the jump of Kent in the end of Wolfe's story as he
seeks to become Superman – and inspire the King, perhaps hoping to cure him
of his insanity in his renewed, impressionable young state. When Lear dies
in the Shakespearean play, he wants to leave the kingdom to Kent and Edgar,
but Kent refuses, saying that he must leave. Gloucester and the King die in
the play, but in Wolfe's story Kent is the only one to die (in a suicidal

Jack and the Bean Stock and the mighty foliage with the castle in the sky,
ending with a mighty fall, could also mimic that leap at the end of Wolfe's
story, but the *King Lear* analogies seem strongest.

Besides the tower of the Browning poem, there is little relationships
between Wolfe's story and the poem. In Browning's version, it seems that
Roland travels across a decimated and forlorn landscape, his fellow knights
ignominiously dead, guided by a mystic he mistrusts but follows anyway, to
almost pass by but finally see the dark tower and blow his horn, ending the
poem. The Song of Roland, a more heroic work, involves the conflict between
the Muslims and Charlemagne. Roland here is betrayed by his Uncle, and
refuses to blow his horn to call for reinforcements from Charlemagne until
his entire regiment perishes from his Uncle Ganelon's treachery. I have
always felt the blowing of the horn in the Browning poem acknowledged a
futile kind of death given symbolic form in the appearance of the dark
tower (a goal which is reached but never entered), but there are no horns
in Wolfe's story, so I see little reason to list either of these works as
intrinsic to the understanding of the story, as the tower is present in
Shakespeare's nonsense verse as well.


The treatment of S and Gloucester’s association with a mathematical command
and a physical tool shows the interesting take on letters as almost
hieroglyphic representations that Wolfe plays with in all manner of ways –
in describing the letters of the name Johann as character attributes in
“Silhouette”, in scenes in New Sun in which the word “last” contains a
serpent and a sword, in “Cues” where missing and misplaced letters are
indicative of a certain tarot deck, and in the short story “Alphabet” where
creation itself seems to be a written endeavor. Certainly the influence of
Borges and the theosophical musings that liken existence to a word from the
mouth of God, and even spirit as Logos, influence this presentation. In
many ways, “To the Dark Tower” is about this deep symbolic depth in our
systems of representation, and perhaps it shows a kind of almost rational
progression from dream images to ideal representations onward to the
creation of practical symbols and functions that are somehow all indirectly
related, but related nevertheless.

I feel that this is one of the more obvious forays into metafiction that
some of Wolfe's more postmodern work occasionally approaches, such as “The
Last Thrilling Wonder Story”, and as such it is difficult to pin down
exactly how concrete the conflict and symbols can actually be – ie, can we
tell what the penned Pisces is, or who the flame eyed attendants of the
king are?


Besides showing the vast connotations of the letter S (or things that look
like it), why should the story be so sibilant? Why are there no serpents?

 What do the Bison and the Pisces saved from poisoned waters really
symbolize? I have posited that the Bison is the demiurge through its ruling
of an unspoiled America (Land of the Free and what not) and through its
connection to the Bull/Taurus that is Gene Wolfe's Zodiac sign, speaking as
the “King” as demiurge and author and also assuming something of the
qualities of the Judeo Christian God, returning as boy, but that is mere

Who is the King? He says that he is “scientist” and “sorcerer”. The
statement “In the dream of serving others, they have served me” creates a
fairly Christian ideology (as well as reconstituting himself as a young
boy), but immediately mentioning the penned whale saved from poison creates
a slightly more negative impression. He seems to be able to transcend time
and his tower is possibly infinite, but is he truly omnipotent if the rats
can eat away his tower and existence fail? It seems that this reality is
meant to be “behind” ours and outside of time, because Gloucester knows
there are footprints on the moon even though his setting is supposedly the
past. What are the rats that eat the tower? Is the idea of the death of God
intrinsic to the concept of the Ubermensch poisoning the King, too? Instead
of the Superman killing God, the superman here, devoid of actual super
powers, sacrifices himself to perhaps help renew and inspire the King. Is
the story about the hubris of reaching for the heavens in a tower to the
sky, and is the final sacrifice Kent makes successful?
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