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.)

The Morrow Books by H M Hoover

Cover to 1987 Puffin UK version, art by Michael Heslop

Tia and Rabbit are a little bit different from the other children at the Base, a primitive hunting and farming culture lorded over by the Major and the other Fathers (any man who sires a child is admitted to the upper ranks), who worship the relics of the ancient past, chief among which is a missile in a silo under their “church”. It’s an utterly repressive society, and a life of endless toil and constant fear of punishment for any transgression against the Major’s whims. Tia, though still a child, is taller than most of the other women and men at the base, though she gets breathless more easily; Rabbit, a younger boy, stammers. The two have shared a connection ever since Rabbit fell down a hole in the woods outside the Base’s grounds, and Tia, somehow hearing his cries for help, knew exactly where to find him. Ever since, she’s been branded a witch by the superstitious-minded people of the Base.

And, it turns out, she sort of is. She and Rabbit share dreams in which they talk to Ashira and Varas, a man and woman living in a far different community called Morrow. The Morrowans are telepathic, and survived the ecological “Destruction” of the past (which began with the “Death of the Seas”, during which 93% of all living creatures died of suffocation) thanks to the foresight of Simon Asher Morrow, who created a subterranean complex into which he and his chosen few could retreat while the Earth recovered. Tia and Rabbit can communicate with Ashira and Varas because they too are telepathic, and when Rabbit’s nascent mind-powers result in him killing one of the more abusive Fathers in Tia’s defence, the two children flee the Base and, guided by Ashira and Varas but pursued by the Major and a handful of hunters, make their way down a hundred miles of river to meet the Morrowans on the coast of what was, many years ago, San Francisco.

(The writing really comes alive, I think, when the children encounter things on this journey they at first can’t understand — a ruined and overgrown city, for instance, or the sea, whose strange, distant noise and smell puzzle them at first.)

Beaver Books, cover by John Raynes

Helen Mary Hoover’s Children of Morrow was first published in 1973, and has much the same scenario as John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, though the emphasis is less on that book’s struggle to keep its child protagonists’ telepathic powers secret, and more on the post-discovery chase and rescue. Unlike Wyndham, though, Hoover returned to the world she’d created with Treasures of Morrow (1976), a book that starts right where Children of Morrow ends, meaning the two can be read quite satisfyingly as a single story.

In Treasures of Morrow we get to see Tia and Rabbit’s journey to Morrow and their assimilation into a culture completely alien to them because of its technological advancement and its capacity for kindness. After this, Tia, Rabbit, Ashira, Varas and some other Morrowans go on an expedition back to the Base, and Tia and Rabbit get to look at the grim, unforgiving and brutal culture in which they were raised with fresh eyes:

“Did I ever look like that?” Tia wondered as she stared at them. At this distance, in their still pose, the women’s faces were blurs, one indistinguishable from the other. All had the same wild, tangled hair. All wore the same sacklike brown leather dress. Their feet and arms were bare and muddy. But it wasn’t their bedraggledness that bothered her so much as their hangdog air of subjugation. She had not been so aware of it before, and seeing it now, and remembering, disturbed her.

Although there’s less plot and less urgency to Treasures of Morrow (there’s still a tense, action-filled ending, but it feels a little less desperate than the first book’s, thanks to the comforting presence of the technologically-advanced and cool-thinking Morrowans), to me the second book feels a bit more emotionally satisfying. Revisiting their abusive childhood world, Tia and Rabbit get to see it for the sad, demeaning tragedy it is. They can even feel pity for their abusers, seeing many of them as doing the best they could in pitiless circumstances, or simply acting out of unthinking ignorance. Ultimately, they have to turn their back on the Base, but seeing it again, now they know a better alternative, allows them to properly leave it in the past.

Although it might sound like Morrow and the Base are being presented as moral opposites, Hoover makes it clear that Morrow isn’t entirely a utopia. It was founded by one of the very industrialists whose greed caused the ecological Destruction in the first place, and who did so out of the desire for personal survival rather than an ideological investment in humanity’s future. And a potted history of Morrow in the aftermath of that mass extinction makes it clear how close it came to falling apart, with a slow deterioration of its power structures, and the enforced inbreeding of its limited population. A contamination of its main protein supply led to a chance evolutionary leap, killing some, but resulting in a few children being born with telepathic powers, after which a strict programme (still adhered to) of controlled breeding led to their present state of all being telepaths. There’s still a hint, in Treasures of Morrow, that Morrow is in danger of cultural sterility, due to there being no other equivalent civilisations to interact with:

“I mean, we’re smarter than any of the old civilisations. But there’s no one else to care what we are—or do. For example, my sister, Elizabeth, says the neutron star in the Crab Nebula is winking out. Once that news would have excited astronomers all over the world. Now it excited about six people.”

Helen Mary Hoover

It would be interesting to read a third book on how Morrow deals with this situation — something Tia and Rabbit, raised in a different culture, might have a vital perspective on. It also seemed, in Treasures of Morrow, that one of the Morrowans, Senior Geneticist Elaine, was being set up to act as a Morrowan villain, with her coldly scientific attitude towards the people of the Base, and her disapproval of Tia and Rabbit. She accompanies the expedition to the Base, but pretty much fades from the narrative, except to make the occasional offensive comment, but I felt she had the potential to underline the sort of extreme Morrow might go to, if it ever lost touch with its humanity.

There’s also the question of Tia and Rabbit’s origins. In Children of Morrow, we learn they’re the result of an unauthorised experiment in artificial insemination by a Morrowan who happened on the Base, though even the Morrowans who discover the diary describing this incident agree it sounds unlikely. It sounds as though the Morrowans have a dark side to their nature they’re perhaps not confronting. So, plenty of potential for a third book, but as it is, the two we have feel complete, so far as telling of Tia and Rabbit’s escape from an unpleasant childhood goes.

I bought the first book because of the UK edition’s Michael Heslop cover. Treasures of Morrow doesn’t seem to have been published in the UK in paperback, so perhaps the first wasn’t as successful over here as the publishers were hoping. They’re both now available for Kindle.

You’re All Alone/The Sinful Ones by Fritz Leiber

The Sinful Ones, Pocket Books, cover by Michael Whelan

What if the universe was one big machine, and human beings merely parts of it, unconsciously playing their roles, day in, day out? And what if, one day, you stepped out of the machine? This is the idea behind what Fritz Leiber called “the unluckiest, the most ill-starred and dogged by misfortune” of his novels, which he began, as You’re All Alone, in 1943.

The story starts with Carr Mackay, working in the General Employment office in Chicago, matching interviewees with likely jobs. One day, he notices a frightened-looking young woman sit down in the waiting area, followed shortly by an impressive-looking blonde (“If ever there was a woman who gave the impression of simply using people, of using the world, this was she.”). The blonde stands in front of the young woman, staring at her, but the young woman does her best to pretend she can’t see her. Eventually, the young woman walks over and sits the other side of Carr’s desk, but when he starts to talk to her, she at first ignores him. When she realises he is actually talking to her, she’s at first even more frightened, saying to him, “Don’t you know what you are?” Refusing to explain, she leaves, but, as she’s on the way out, the blonde comes over and slaps her in the face, so loud that everyone in the office would surely have heard. But nobody reacts, and the girl simply leaves the office as though nothing has happened.

What’s happened, though, is that Carr has just had the first hint that he’s “awakened” — that he’s stepped out of the big machine. Both the blonde (Miss Hackman) and the frightened young woman (Jane Gregg) are awakened, and because they’ve left their usual places in the machine, nobody else can see them — unawakened people continue to react to where the person would have been if they’d kept playing their part — which is why Jane is surprised when Carr speaks to her, and also why she pretended not to see the blonde, or react when she slapped her. Miss Hackman is part of a small gang of individuals who go around taking advantage of their awakened state, having cruel fun with the helpless unawakened, and occasionally, even more cruelly, forcing awake a chosen victim to really get down to some torture and domination. But the awakened gang are also scared of other awakened people, who might spoil their fun, so they have to be sure who’s awakened and who’s not. Hence Miss Hackman’s testing of Jane by slapping her in the face — an unawakened person wouldn’t react, so Jane does her best not to. It’s her only way to stay safe.

Universal Publishers and Distributors’s version, two great new books under one cover

Leiber’s idea was perfect for the sort of high-concept playful fantasy published by Unknown magazine — which was the only market he thought would take it. So, when he wrote the first four chapters and sent them to Unknown’s editor, John Campbell, hoping for an okay to continue, he was crushed to find that, because of wartime paper shortages, the magazine was to cease publication. With no other possible market, he put the unfinished novel aside. He took it up again at the end of World War II, having heard of a firm that — uniquely, for the time — were interested in publishing fantasy fiction in hardcover. But, after a couple of failures, the publisher gave up on the idea, so Leiber just had his agent (fellow author Frederick Pohl) hawk the book around, and went through the usual business of collecting rejections. Pohl suggested Leiber try it with Fantastic Adventures magazine, who accepted it, provided he cut the 75,000 word novel to 40,000. Instead of cutting it, though, Leiber took the bold step of going back to his initial four chapters and rewriting the story from there, as he would have, had Unknown been interested in taking it, back in 1943. The result was published as a novella, You’re All Alone, in July 1950. But the novel-length version was still being sent around, and that, too, found a publisher. It was bought by Universal Publishers and Distributors, who retitled it (The Sinful Ones), spiced up the love scenes, added lurid chapter titles (like “The Shimmering Garment”, “Bleached Prostitute”, and “Gigolo’s Home” — Gigolo, in the book, is a cat) and issued it twinned with a novel about a female bullfighter, called Blood, Bulls, and Passion.

Things got more complicated still when, in the 1970s, Leiber was approached by Ace Books, who wanted to reprint You’re All Alone. Leiber felt he ought to get the permission of his Sinful Ones publisher, and found he could buy the rights back. So he did, and You’re All Alone was published, along with a couple of other stories, to make it a reasonable length book, in 1972. Then Pocket Books got interested in reprinting The Sinful Ones, so Leiber, finding the previous publisher’s spicy bits pretty dated, went through the book and rewrote them. The Sinful Ones came out in this version in 1980, meaning there were now two versions of the same-but-differently-written Leiber story on the market.

So, knowing this and wanting to read it, what did I do? I read them both.

Fantastic Adventures, July 1950, art by Robert Gibson Jones. The dog becomes a black cheetah in The Sinful Ones.

Of the two, I preferred the shorter version, You’re All Alone. I can’t help feeling Leiber was a bit freer when writing for a pulp magazine than for hardcover publication. The novella has more linguistic playfulness and flights of fancy, of the sort I associate with Leiber’s better writing, including a dream in which Carr sees himself as a puppet freeing itself from its strings, and a brief daydream in which he thinks of himself and Jane as a prince and princess escaping the clutches of an evil archduke — neither being essential to the plot, but certainly giving it some imaginative spice. Oddly, for a shorter version, You’re All Alone actually contains more information about the characters and their backgrounds and world, perhaps because Leiber felt that, with fewer words available, he ought to be more direct. And so it’s made pretty clear early on exactly what sort of nastiness Miss Hackman and company are up to, and how it is, basically, sexually motivated. (The luridly named Sinful Ones, on the other hand, despite having “spicier” scenes — of which the main one felt pretty much shoehorned in, to me — doesn’t make it as clear what the gang is doing and why.) Also, one key character gets to tell his story in You’re All Alone, but is left a mystery in The Sinful Ones, to the latter novel’s detriment. Overall, The Sinful Ones (which I read first) feels a bit more poetic, having more passages about Carr’s horror at the idea of the universe being just one giant machine, but the plot lacks pace, and the poetry doesn’t quite make up for the lack of plot. The Sinful Ones adds a mysterious character at the end, Old Jules, who hints at a change taking place in the world, so perhaps Leiber was hoping he’d be asked to write a sequel, but, read as it is, I preferred You’re All Alone.

Leiber’s novel could be seen as addressing the same sort of ideas as the likes of Camus and Sartre, in their early works written around the same time. When Carr thinks of what he now knows about the universe and feels a “formless dread that kept surging through you until you almost wanted to retch”, he could be talking about Sartre’s term for existential dread, “nausea”, particularly as this dread is associated with the idea of the universe being “a place of mystification and death, with no more feeling than a sausage grinder for the life oozing through it”, and Carr’s fellow humans as being little more than automatons:

“Couldn’t robots perform the much over-rated ‘business of living’ just as well?”

At other times, it feels like the sort of cosmicism Lovecraft (with whom Leiber corresponded, briefly) wrote about:

The universe was a machine. The people in it, save for a very few, were mindless mechanisms, clockwork things of flesh and bone. So long as you made the proper clockwork motions, they seemed to react intelligently. But when you stopped, they went on just the same.”

And I’m sure that lover/hater of dark cities Lovecraft would have responded well to Leiber’s description of Carr’s Chicago as a “Dead city in a dead universe”:

“Teeming Chicago was a city of the dead, the mindless, the inanimate, in which you were more alone than in the most desolate wilderness.”

Which also reminds me a bit of Eliot’s “Unreal city” of post-war London in The Waste Land, with its “I had not thought death had undone so many”.

But Leiber’s take on the idea is, ultimately, very un-Lovecraftian. Lovecraft, for instance, surely couldn’t have let the “big machine” idea go without at least some dark hints as to what sort of inhuman entity was behind it all, and for what dark purposes human beings were employed as its parts. Leiber has one brief passage in which Carr wonders about the philosophical implications:

“Have machines infected men, turning them into things like themselves? Or has man’s belief in a completely materialistic universe made it just that? Or… has the world always been this way — just a meaningless mechanical toy?”

But mostly he’s dealing with another aspect of the idea, and a far more human one. Jane, at one point, sums up both her and Carr’s experience when she says:

“Other people weren’t alive, really alive, like you were. You were all alone.”

You’re All Alone, Ace Books, cover art by Victoria Poyser. Here we see the black cheetah from The Sinful Ones, even though it’s a hound in You’re All Alone

“Awakening” isn’t about becoming aware of the true nature of the universe, but looking around at one’s fellow human beings and realising there’s a uncrossable gulf between you and them. They might as well be dead to you, or be unfeeling robots. So what do you do? Retreat back into the machine and pretend to go along, eking out your life in fear of discovery while always being alone? Or do what Miss Hackman’s gang do, abandon human feeling altogether and get your kicks in as cruel a way as possible, while you can? (Or even what Carr’s “unawakened” girlfriend, Marcia, does, who likes to “agonize” her men — i.e., play power games with them.) Carr finally finds his answer in Jane, a person who’s had the same experience as him, and so who lives in the same emotional world as him. Leiber’s answer — not a solution to the universe-as-machine, but a way to stay human and live through it — is love. As he says in one of the little teaser passages he adds at the start of the chapters of the novella version:

“Love doesn’t make the world go round, but it sure puts a spark of life in the big engine.”

Leiber used the same basic idea of the world as a machine in much shorter form in the story “The Big Engine”, which was published in Galaxy magazine in February 1962, and which can be read at Project Gutenberg. (And he seems to have incorporated that story, in part, into The Sinful Ones, as Old Jules’s speech near the end of the book, which perhaps means Leiber did more than just a few edits to the book before its republication.)

In all, a book with a complex publishing history and several finished versions. Not Leiber’s best, but an interesting read all the same. (And an early version of the same sort of idea behind 1999’s — coincidentally, the number of words in this blog post — The Matrix.) There are reviews of The Sinful Ones and You’re All Alone at the Lankhmar Fritz Leiber site.