Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” read by George Guidall

Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, Thomas Moran (1859)

There are few short pieces in literature that have generated as many new stories as Robert Browning’s 1855 poem, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” The story itself comes from an old folktale that inspired a moment in Shakespeare‘s King Lear:

Child Rowland to the dark tower came,
His word was still ‘Fie, foh, and fum
I smell the blood of a British man.
— King Lear, III.4

As it was inspired by Child Rowland before it, Browning’s poem has inspired authors such as A.S. Byatt, John Connolly, Gordon R. Dickson, Neil Gaiman, Harper Lee, Alexander Theroux, P.G. Wodehouse, and Roger Zelazny. I don’t know if C.S. Lewis had Browning in mind as he sketched out the first few chapters of a Ransom transdimensional travel story, but his editor, Walter Hooper, no doubt did in naming it “The Dark Tower.” It inspired the Dr. Who 20th anniversary episode, “Five Doctors,” and a 1946 BBC radio play (see below). And, perhaps most famously, it inspired Stephen King‘s magnum opus, The Dark Tower cycle. King’s varied and sophisticated use of the poem makes his complex Dark Tower cycle a 5,000-page exegesis of the original poem. Indeed, the ending of The Dark Tower suggests that Margaret Atwood’s reading of the Browning’s “Childe Roland” as autobiographical could be a clue to reading King’s series.

What about J.R.R. Tolkien? Certainly, his Lord of the Rings is behind King’s Dark Tower, from mythic conception to the critical appearance of a Gollum-figure at the satisfying close of the cycle. But as we go back and back and back we find the tower and we find the quest. Sometimes that’s with Child Rolands of various shades, and sometimes not. It isn’t clear to me that Browning is behind either Lewis or Tolkien, but there is so much unknown in “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” that the poem simply seems to invite response. We are meant, I think, to fill it out, to turn it around, to reshape it and reform it in other worlds.

And it is meant to be read, for it is a good poem. I have attached the poem, in case you have never taken ten minutes to read it all the way through. But I have also found a version read by George Guidall, who narrates a number of the audiobooks in the Dark Tower cycle. I hope you enjoy–and perhaps you, too, are meant to retell this story.

 

 

“Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”

Robert Browning (1812–89)

My first thought was, he lied in every word,
That hoary cripple, with malicious eye
Askance to watch the working of his lie
On mine, and mouth scarce able to afford
Suppression of the glee, that purs’d and scor’d 5
Its edge, at one more victim gain’d thereby.

What else should he be set for, with his staff?
What, save to waylay with his lies, ensnare
All travellers who might find him posted there,
And ask the road? I guess’d what skull-like laugh 10
Would break, what crutch ’gin write my epitaph
For pastime in the dusty thoroughfare,

If at his counsel I should turn aside
Into that ominous tract which, all agree,
Hides the Dark Tower. Yet acquiescingly 15
I did turn as he pointed: neither pride
Nor hope rekindling at the end descried,
So much as gladness that some end might be.

For, what with my whole world-wide wandering,
What with my search drawn out thro’ years, my hope 20
Dwindled into a ghost not fit to cope
With that obstreperous joy success would bring,—
I hardly tried now to rebuke the spring
My heart made, finding failure in its scope.

As when a sick man very near to death 25
Seems dead indeed, and feels begin and end
The tears and takes the farewell of each friend,
And hears one bid the other go, draw breath
Freelier outside, (“since all is o’er,” he saith,
“And the blow fallen no grieving can amend;”) 30

While some discuss if near the other graves
Be room enough for this, and when a day
Suits best for carrying the corpse away,
With care about the banners, scarves and staves,
And still the man hears all, and only craves 35
He may not shame such tender love and stay.

Thus, I had so long suffer’d, in this quest,
Heard failure prophesied so oft, been writ
So many times among “The Band”—to wit,
The knights who to the Dark Tower’s search address’d 40
Their steps—that just to fail as they, seem’d best.
And all the doubt was now—should I be fit?

So, quiet as despair, I turn’d from him,
That hateful cripple, out of his highway
Into the path the pointed. All the day 45
Had been a dreary one at best, and dim
Was settling to its close, yet shot one grim
Red leer to see the plain catch its estray.

For mark! no sooner was I fairly found
Pledged to the plain, after a pace or two, 50
Than, pausing to throw backward a last view
O’er the safe road, ’t was gone; gray plain all round:
Nothing but plain to the horizon’s bound.
I might go on; nought else remain’d to do.

So, on I went. I think I never saw 55
Such starv’d ignoble nature; nothing throve:
For flowers—as well expect a cedar grove!
But cockle, spurge, according to their law
Might propagate their kind, with none to awe,
You ’d think; a burr had been a treasure trove. 60

No! penury, inertness and grimace,
In the strange sort, were the land’s portion. “See
Or shut your eyes,” said Nature peevishly,
“It nothing skills: I cannot help my case:
’T is the Last Judgment’s fire must cure this place, 65
Calcine its clods and set my prisoners free.”

If there push’d any ragged thistle=stalk
Above its mates, the head was chopp’d; the bents
Were jealous else. What made those holes and rents
In the dock’s harsh swarth leaves, bruis’d as to baulk 70
All hope of greenness? ’T is a brute must walk
Pashing their life out, with a brute’s intents.

As for the grass, it grew as scant as hair
In leprosy; thin dry blades prick’d the mud
Which underneath look’d kneaded up with blood. 75
One stiff blind horse, his every bone a-stare,
Stood stupefied, however he came there:
Thrust out past service from the devil’s stud!

Alive? he might be dead for aught I know,
With that red, gaunt and collop’d neck a-strain, 80
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.

I shut my eyes and turn’d them on my heart. 85
As a man calls for wine before he fights,
I ask’d one draught of earlier, happier sights,
Ere fitly I could hope to play my part.
Think first, fight afterwards—the soldier’s art:
One taste of the old time sets all to rights. 90

Not it! I fancied Cuthbert’s reddening face
Beneath its garniture of curly gold,
Dear fellow, till I almost felt him fold
An arm in mine to fix me to the place,
That way he us’d. Alas, one night’s disgrace! 95
Out went my heart’s new fire and left it cold.

Giles then, the soul of honor—there he stands
Frank as ten years ago when knighted first.
What honest man should dare (he said) he durst.
Good—but the scene shifts—faugh! what hangman hands 100
Pin to his breast a parchment? His own bands
Read it. Poor traitor, spit upon and curst!

Better this present than a past like that;
Back therefore to my darkening path again!
No sound, no sight as far as eye could strain. 105
Will the night send a howlet of a bat?
I asked: when something on the dismal flat
Came to arrest my thoughts and change their train.

A sudden little river cross’d my path
As unexpected as a serpent comes. 110
No sluggish tide congenial to the glooms;
This, as it froth’d by, might have been a bath
For the fiend’s glowing hoof—to see the wrath
Of its black eddy bespate with flakes and spumes.

So petty yet so spiteful All along, 115
Low scrubby alders kneel’d down over it;
Drench’d willows flung them headlong in a fit
Of mute despair, a suicidal throng:
The river which had done them all the wrong,
Whate’er that was, roll’d by, deterr’d no whit. 120

Which, while I forded,—good saints, how I fear’d
To set my foot upon a dead man’s cheek,
Each step, or feel the spear I thrust to seek
For hollows, tangled in his hair or beard!
—It may have been a water-rat I spear’d, 125
But, ugh! it sounded like a baby’s shriek.

Glad was I when I reach’d the other bank.
Now for a better country. Vain presage!
Who were the strugglers, what war did they wage
Whose savage trample thus could pad the dank 130
Soil to a plash? Toads in a poison’d tank,
Or wild cats in a red-hot iron cage—

The fight must so have seem’d in that fell cirque.
What penn’d them there, with all the plain to choose?
No foot-print leading to that horrid mews, 135
None out of it. Mad brewage set to work
Their brains, no doubt, like galley-slaves the Turk
Pits for his pastime, Christians against Jews.

And more than that—a furlong on—why, there!
What bad use was that engine for, that wheel, 140
Or brake, not wheel—that harrow fit to reel
Men’s bodies out like silk? with all the air
Of Tophet’s tool, on earth left unaware,
Or brought to sharpen its rusty teeth of steel.

Then came a bit of stubb’d ground, once a wood, 145
Next a marsh, it would seem, and now mere earth
Desperate and done with; (so a fool finds mirth,
Makes a thing and then mars it, till his mood
Changes and off he goes!) within a rood—
Bog, clay, and rubble, sand and stark black dearth. 150

Now blotches rankling, color’d gay and grim,
Now patches where some leanness of the soil’s
Broke into moss or substances like thus;
Then came some palsied oak, a cleft in him
Like a distorted mouth that splits its rim 155
Gaping at death, and dies while it recoils.

And just as far as ever from the end,
Nought in the distance but the evening, nought
To point my footstep further! At the thought,
A great black bird, Apollyon’s bosom-friend, 160
Sail’d past, nor beat his wide wing dragon-penn’d
That brush’d my cap—perchance the guide I sought.

For, looking up, aware I somehow grew,
Spite of the dusk, the plain had given place
All round to mountains—with such name to grace 165
Mere ugly heights and heaps now stolen in view.
How thus they had surpris’d me,—solve it, you!
How to get from them was no clearer case.

Yet half I seem’d to recognize some trick
Of mischief happen’d to me, God knows when— 170
In a bad perhaps. Here ended, then,
Progress this way. When, in the very nick
Of giving up, one time more, came a click
As when a trap shuts—you ’re inside the den.

Burningly it came on me all at once, 175
This was the place! those two hills on the right,
Couch’d like two bulls lock’d horn in horn in fight,
While, to the left, a tall scalp’d mountain … Dunce,
Dotard, a-dozing at the very nonce,
After a life spent training for the sight! 180

What in the midst lay but the Tower itself?
The round squat turret, blind as the fool’s heart,
Built of brown stone, without a counter-part
In the whole world. The tempest’s mocking elf
Points to the shipman thus the unseen shelf 185
He strikes on, only when the timbers start.

Not see? because of night perhaps?—Why, day
Came back again for that! before it left,
The dying sunset kindled through a cleft:
The hills, like giants at a hunting, lay, 190
Chin upon hand, to see the game at bay,—
“Now stab and end the creature—to the heft!”

Not hear? when noise was everywhere! it toll’d
Increasing like a bell. Names in my ears
Of all the lost adventurers my peers,— 195
How such a one was strong, and such was bold,
And such was fortunate, yet each of old
Lost, lost! one moment knell’d the woe of years.

There they stood, ranged along the hill-sides, met
To view the last of me, a living frame 200
For one more picture! in a sheet of flame
I saw them and I knew them all. And yet
Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set,
And blew “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.”

Note: With thanks to the WordPress editors of the article on this poem for the factoids and the photo. 

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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11 Responses to Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” read by George Guidall

  1. Laura Selinsky says:

    Thanks for sharing your insights into the Browning. I love teaching the poem. My students do wonderful work with it, too. I’ve always thought that there were hints of Tolkien’s Dead Marshes in the 21st verse, i.e.when Rolland crosses the water sounding the bottom with his spear.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    It is fascinating – taking (as I suppose) an elusive allusion by Shakespeare to make something so fragmentary and suggestive – sort of like the way Tolkien takes up fascinating incomplete things and supplies fuller stories – probably starting with that name ‘Earendel’ as first instance – yet so unlike, in supplying a bigger tantalizing fragment! (I love that word, ‘slughorn’, with which, presumably, J.K. Rowling is playing in her Potter books!)

    Like

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Graham Greene is interesting in his autobiography about Browning’s poetry, in ways that never struck me – or, apparently his Browning-loving headmaster father…

      Like

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Williams retold Browning’s The Ring and the Book in prose to help readers ‘get into it’ – and his early Arthurian poetry includes Browningesque poems…

      Like

      • “fragmentary and suggestive” is exactly it! Williams as the poetic heir to Browning is interesting. True, Williams was not nearly as popular as Browning, and not all poems are like this one. But if Browning was writing in the 30s and 40s would he himself been as popular? I’m not so sure. Perhaps I’m being too nice to Williams, though, as I am one of the few who love his Arthurian poems and the Thorn poem.

        Like

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Hmm… how would we have reached the 30s and 40s as they were, without Browning publishing in the 1840s and 50s… an impossible, but fascinating question? I wonder how much Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning got a pop-cultural boost in the 1930s from The Barretts of Wimpole Street by Rudolf Besier, staged in 1930 – in Malvern! – and on to Cleveland, Ohio, and then, Broadway, in 1931, and a film version in 1934? I think either the 1934 or the 1957 one, on television, must have been the biggest chunk of my first sense of either poet… And, I wonder how steadily down the decades he has been part of school reading lists, around the world…? I feel like I only read a lot as an Eng Lit major in college, but have vivid recollections of (at least) one of my favorite high school teachers giving dramatic readings of one thing and another…

          Williams’s Arthurian popularity was just getting booming when he died… how that might have gone, if he had kept writing his retelling is another fascinating, but impossible question…

          It is striking that the late Roma King was both a Browning and a Williams scholar.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Great questions and comments! Alternative universes collide and break.
    It seems Roma King was wise.

    Like

  4. ChrisC says:

    When it comes to King’;s Dark Tower series, my ultimate conclusion is that the ambition was there, but the inspiration was a bit lacking.

    A great deal of it has to do, I think, with the simple question of where King’s strengths lie as a writer. When it comes to DT or works like “The Stand”, I often find there is a distanced quality to the prose and narrative events. It’s like King is seeing what’s happening, yet he can’t inhabit the action, and hence there no way for him to draw the audience into the narrative.

    As a result, works like “Drawing of the Three”, or “Wolves of the Calla” somehow feel less epic than they are perhaps meant to. This is a shame because King is one of a handful of writers whose works often put me in mind of Tolkien. It’s true the subject matter can sometimes veer off into avenues that JRRT would never go. However even at his goriest (which is a lot less than people may think) King manages can often manage to capture the same sense of epic wonder as the old Oxford Don was able to achieve.

    The reason this same sense of the epic is missing from the Tower I think comes down to the fact that King can write certain styles of genre better than others. At his heart, King is a regional New England Gothic author. If you can give him a scenario set out somewhere in the wilderness of his native birthplace, odds are the story will carry at least a certain amount of dramatic power because the writer will be playing to all his major strengths. This is most evident with a work like “The Body”, or “Stand By Me”, as it is now known. The entire narrative is circumscribed within a single, small-town setting, and yet it manages to pull off that Tolkien like scope and feel that’s missing from Mid-World.

    The trick seems to be that King can channel either the same or similar creative springs as Tolkien when he’s being himself. However, when he actively tries to mimic the Professor, such as with the Gunslinger saga, he inadvertently turns himself into a kind of hollow parody.

    As a result, I’d have to say it’s not his best work, not by a long shot. Still, I can at least admire he ambition and desire to see if he could find something else to say.

    Like

    • I like the idea of King as a regional New England Gothic author, but I can’t be any more on the other side of your comment! I completely disagree! Though “The Body” is quite fine (the movie about as good), and there are lovely moments like The Green Mile and Shawshank, I think the Dark Tower Cycle is a height, expert in atmosphere, complex in discovery, and engaging in character and plot. There are stronger and weaker points in prose, but I think that King is strong in “supernatural” fiction than horror (though the Shining and Salem’s Lot are pretty effective)–and both are stronger than his SciFi.
      So yes, we disagree!

      Like

      • ChrisC says:

        Prof. Dickieson,

        Believe it or not, this might be one of those instances where a literary-critical disagreement can actually be something of a benefit.

        The reason why is because I’ve realized the importance of the reader or audience response to any possible work of art, regardless of medium. For some time now, say about since 2013, I’ve had a growing awareness of the role the audience plays in the reception and dissemination of fiction.

        While it probably stands as a maxim that no two people will respond to a work of art in exactly the same way, what I don’t think has been noticed, or taken into account, is the fact of what I’m forced to think of as an individual’s “aesthetic upbringing”. The idea is simple enough. Just as the mind of a child will undergo some form of inevitable development in the course of growing up, so can that person’s imagination.

        In addition, I’d argue it helps to keep in mind the specific genres of art that were instrumental in grabbing the reader’s or viewer’s attention, and thus planting an all-important seed of interest in the individual’s mind. It seems to be that certain types of narrative, such as Science Fiction, Fantasy, Comedy, or Horror play an important part in how one views storytelling as a whole.

        Any reader should be aware that it was the Fantasy genre that proved a formative influence in your “aesthetic upbringing”. For me, it was the genre of Horror in the form of a children’s book by John Bellairs. It was this particular text that served as a gateway to literature as a whole. On subconscious level it seems to have planted the understanding that there was something valuable to look for in a certain type book. From there it was on to Alvin Schwartz’s “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark”, followed by Edgar Allen Poe, then R.L. Stine, then Arthur Conan Doyle.

        The trick to remember is this is just one type of literary response that was slowly developed as the years went by. It stands to reason there would have to be others whose development went in a different direction.

        My biggest concern in this regard at the moment is how this form of imaginative development, regardless of genre, seems to be more of a rarity in an age obsessed with everything digital. On the one hand, it does seem like we are entering a post-industrial age. The problem is all it amounts to is exchanging a fascination with one gadget for another, the computer. It’s starting to grow on me that we need to learn how to tear ourselves away from a machine on concentrate more on texts.

        It is possible that drawing attention to the question of “aesthetic upbringing” can be a good way to start. At least it’s an idea, anyway.

        Like

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