Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Dark Tower Re-Read, Book 4.5: The Wind Through the Keyhole

The Wind Through the Keyhole on my porch with a beverage

At the end of my review of The Wind Through the Keyhole the first time through, I wondered if we might get another one of these latter day Dark Tower books in 2019 given the importance of the number 19 in the series. (Quick note: The Wind Through the Keyhole was published in 2012 while the core books of the series finished in 2004, but in terms of the story it fits in between books 4 and 5... hence, 4.5).

Well, we didn't get another Dark Tower book in 2019, but I am re-reading the whole series in 2020, a year that has given us... lots of stuff, I guess.

For this trip to the Tower, I decided to read 4.5 in its story order, that is, between books 4 and 5. While I'm glad I dove right into books 5-7 the first time and came back to 4.5 later as a nice dessert, for my re-read I think 4.5 serves as a nice palate-cleanser between books 4 and 5 (to continue with my gustatory metaphors). Book 5 is where things start to take a certain turn in the series toward what I love about the later books, and it's nice to get a little more background about Roland before diving in to the home stretch ("home stretch" being three books totaling almost 2,000 pages).

The first time around I said The Wind Through the Keyhole would be appropriate for first time Dark Tower readers. I suppose I still think this is technically true, but without the background of the series, this would be an enjoyable collection of fantasy tales, but you'd be missing the context. It's also not really a good introduction to the main Dark Tower series. But far be it from me to stop someone from reading Stephen King, so go right ahead if you want to read this as a standalone.

So what about the book itself? Like the rest of the Dark Tower books on this re-read, I enjoyed it more the second time. It does add some background for Roland's character, that while maybe not absolutely essential, fills out some of his earlier relationships rather well (especially with his mother... and what a complicated relationship that is...).

But of course there's a reason this isn't considered a main part of the series. King had already wrapped up the story in 2004 when 4.5 was released in 2012. You can read the main seven books perfectly fine without 4.5.

But it does add a little something nice. You can sense a slight shift in style, which is to be expected when an author returns to a series years later. And of course a chance to spend a little more time in these worlds that King built (or discovered, do it please ya) is a beautiful thing. I love the idea of a sarkblast (a huge storm that causes quick and deadly temperature drops), which causes Roland, Susannah, Eddie, Jake, and Oy to take shelter. The story (and story within that story) that Roland tells to pass the time is filled with more weird, wonderful, terrible things of Mid-World: billy bumblers, were-creatures, tigers, fairies, nuns, sheriffs, miners, swamp people, wizards, and dragons... oh, my!

I discussed the points about stories the first time. That's all still there, and few authors tell a story as well as Stephen King. Everybody (including Roland) points out that humans are story-telling creatures. But what does this mean? Why is this the case?

I'm still thinking about these questions, but one possible answer might be that stories give us concrete ways to think about the big, abstract questions that matter to us. I've been thinking about this a lot in my job as a teacher of philosophy: often ideas are easier for students to grapple with if the ideas are embedded in stories (but not just students; I think this is true for me, too).

Think about the ideas Roland the ka-tet learn about from the central story within a story "The Wind Through the Keyhole": ideas about ka, trust/betrayal, courage, relationships, etc. Roland could have regaled the ka-tet with a lengthy philosophical treatise on such topics. This works for that rare subset of the population who are inclined toward pure abstract philosophy (and I think most of my fellow philosophers ought to admit that we're a pretty rare breed). But most human beings need the handholds of narrative to navigate the sheer cliffs of ideas.

To be clear, I don't think philosophers are better than other people or that there isn't a place for pure abstract philosophy (I teach and write that stuff!). I also think almost everybody has the capacity to do philosophy. Most of us already do philosophy in some sense. And narrative can help. 

Of course, putting ideas in narratives often muddies the waters with the ambiguities of human situations. But I'm not sure that's always a problem. After all, reality itself has a tendency to muddy the pristine waters of grand philosophical systems. Why not be honest about it?

Another thing I noticed in this re-read of The Wind Through the Keyhole: it's a beautiful, but melancholy book. I noticed this the first time, but I felt it more this time, especially when Susannah says, "Mid-World's a sad place, although it can be very beautiful" (p. 13). Part of this may be that King knew the series was complete (to the extent that this series can be!). Maybe it's a reflection of the fact that we are all--through age, through the march of time toward death--moving on.

On that note, I'll quote my favorite line again:
"... the wind that blows through time's keyhole, ye ken. In the end, the wind takes everything, doesn't it? And why not? Why other? If the sweetness of our lives did not depart, there would be no sweetness at all" (p. 300).

Lastly, I don't imagine this is anybody's favorite Dark Tower book. It's definitely not mine. But I found myself really enjoying it as a palate-cleanser, deep breath, calm before the storm, pick your metaphor... before diving into the sublime weirdness of books 5-7. I'm ready. Let's continue the ride.

See my Goodreads review.

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