Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came by Robert Browning

Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came is one of the most archetypal of fantasy poems. The story it tells — of a lone knight, last of “the Band” who set out on a never-explained quest for the “Dark Tower” years ago, who’s now so ground down by failure and disappointment that he cannot accept he’ll ever achieve his quest, but who also, knowing nothing other than the quest, can’t do anything but pursue it, doggedly, seeing nothing but the promise of mockery and failure in everything around him — resonates with so many other narratives that it finds its echo throughout later fantasy literature (and film), while at the same time feeling very much like a predecessor to Eliot’s The Waste Land.

The poem was written in a single day in 1855. Browning later wrote of it:

“I was conscious of no allegorical intention of writing it… Childe Roland came upon me as a kind of dream. I had to write it then and there, and I finished it the same day, I believe. I do not know what I meant beyond that, and I do not know now. But I am very fond of it.” (Quoted in this Guardian article.)

It’s somewhat different to the poetry Browning was writing at the time. He was focusing on dramatic monologues, and although Childe Roland is told in the first person, it doesn’t have the same feeling of being an extract from a play, as so many of Browning’s dramatic monologues do (others, like “My Last Duchess”, imply a interlocutor, for instance). It also lacks the historical and biographical research that usually went into his poems, in part because he was away from his home library at the time. (It was written while he was staying in Paris.)

Nevertheless, a welter of influences and ideas went into it. The title comes from King Lear:

EDGAR: Child Rowland to the dark tower came;
His word was still,—Fie, foh, and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man. [Act III, Scene IV, 171-3]

In a 1924 essay, “Browning’s Childe Roland”, Harold Golder outlines the mishmash of folktalery that stands behind the poem’s central figure. There was a ballad called Child Rowland and Burd Ellen, whose Rowland was on a quest for the stronghold of the King of Elfland. (This was a tale Alan Garner also used in Elidor.) Golder also links the poem to the story of Jack the Giant-Killer, whose hero, like Browning’s at the start of the poem, is given directions in his quest (for a giant’s castle) by an old man, and when he arrives at the castle finds a golden trumpet he has to blow to defeat the giant.

Detail from Thomas Moran’s 1859 painting of Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came. (See Wikimedia for the full picture.)

Even more interesting is a 1925 essay by William C De Vane, Jr., “The Landscape of Browning’s Childe Roland”, which traces many of the details of the nightmarish landscape Roland passes through to a single chapter in a book Browning read many times as a child. In The Art of Painting in All its Branches by Gerard de Lairesse (Browning’s father owned a 1778 translation from the original Dutch), there’s a chapter called “Of Things Deformed and Broken, Falsely called Painter-like”, which guides the reader through an imaginary landscape filled with all the kind of details Lairesse thought bad painters put into paintings in an attempt to give them a touch of eerie grandeur — what would later, by the Romantics, be perhaps termed “the Sublime”. Although Browning didn’t have this book with him when he wrote Childe Roland, it seems he’d been on a mental journey through its landscape enough times that it came naturally, perhaps unconsciously, to him.

Reading the poem, I’m constantly reminded of other fantasy works. Roland’s fear, when crossing the stream, that he might “set my foot upon a dead man’s cheek” makes me think of the ghostly faces in the Dead Marshes in The Lord of the Rings; the arena-like circle of mountains that surround the Dark Tower make me think of the narrator of Hope Hodgson’s House on the Borderland’s vision of the titular house on a plain surrounded by mountains among which stand a host of ancient gods; and most of all, the section of the poem where Roland pauses to remind himself of his former comrades but can only recall how they met with their deaths, makes me think of a section from the quest segment of Boorman’s Excalibur, where we see various grail-quest knights’ ignominious ends. (This association is so strong, it was only while reading about the poem to write this entry that I realised it wasn’t about the grail quest.)

A knight finds one of his (failed) brother questers in Boorman’s Excalibur

The most powerful part of the poem, for me, has always been the moment Roland sees a half-starved horse in the wasteland he’s travelling through:

Alive? he might be dead for aught I know,
With that red gaunt and colloped neck a-strain,
And shut eyes underneath the rusty mane;
Seldom went such grotesqueness with such woe;
I never saw a brute I hated so;
He must be wicked to deserve such pain.

That line, “He must be wicked to deserve such pain”, is chilling, in part because it seems such a desperate clinging to the idea (having been on such a seemingly pointless quest for so long) that everything in life must happen for a reason — therefore, if something is suffering, it must deserve it, even if it’s just a poor horse — but mostly because it seems to me that, in that moment, Roland is really seeing himself. It’s not the horse’s suffering he feels must be deserved, but his own, this endless, futile quest through a landscape which the worn-down, despairing Roland sees as full of active, inimical forces mocking and threatening him at every step. Everything he sees offends him. The old man who points him on his way must, of course, be deceiving him, and laughing behind his back; the river he has to cross must have some nasty trick to it, like being full of dead people; a wheel he sees by the wayside must of course be not a wheel but part of some Piranesian “engine”, a “harrow fit to reel/Men’s bodies out like silk”.

The waste land from Excalibur

And then, suddenly, he realises that despite all this cynicism and defeat he’s there — he’s at the Dark Tower. He sees his dead colleagues “ranged along the hillsides” all around him (which could, I suppose, mean he’s actually died), then blows his slug-horn. (Golder gives an origin for the term “slug-horn”, which I thought I’d read somewhere that Browning had invented. But apparently it was used earlier by the poet Chatterton, and ultimately derives from a Scottish word, “slugorne”, meaning “war cry”, itself derived from the word “slogan”.)

And then the poem ends. Roland’s quest, obviously, is not over, because he’s presumably arrived at the Dark Tower to do something, but what it is, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that all that defeat and cynicism was a lie. The old man wasn’t deceiving him; the river wasn’t full of dead people; the wheel was probably just a wheel. (The horse, presumably, really was suffering, though.)

Childe Roland is the “Belly of the Whale” moment, the darkest hour, and Roland is through it. His story isn’t over. Really, it’s just about to begin — a “childe”, after all, is not a knight, but a knight-in-training, so Roland’s story is, perhaps, the story of his initiation into true knighthood, and this may be the point where the true test begins.

Perhaps it’s this feeling that the poem is an intense fragment of a larger story that gives it so much power, and makes it resonate with so many other fantasy stories. But certainly, for me, it’s one of the great fantasy poems. (See my entry on Clark Ashton Smith’s The Hashish Eater for another.)

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