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The Gunslinger  - Stephen King

It makes sense that Stephen King would choose the trappings of a Western to put a unique spin on epic fantasy. The iconic image of a lone gunfighter riding on horseback, rescuing damsels, and facing off in single combat against the villain, are direct descendants of the tropes found in Arthurian and Carolingian Romances. Drawing explicitly from the imagery of both these traditions also gives King greater leverage in dealing with the religious themes of his story. Religion does not figure nearly as prominently or specifically in the westerns of Sergio Leone and John Ford as it does in the poems of Malory and Ariosto. Funnily enough the sense religion makes in the context of the genre conventions borrowed from chivalric romance appeal very readily to American readers, who are often either raised on Christian values or are at least aware of them through cultural osmosis.


The irony of the religious overtones of the quests undertaken by knights errant is of course that the namesake of their religion was non-violent, and the hypocrisy of the faith professed by the heroes and their violent way of life is always present, either to make a mockery of the story without the author’s knowledge, or in the best examples of the genre played upon with a knowing wink to the audience, which actually sparked some controversy when some of these poems were written, drawing condemnation from the clergy for its portrayal of courtly love, and other such secular concerns.


Likewise King uses a great deal of religious imagery only to show what a cruel farce it is to carry a religious code on the point of a sword or the barrel of a gun. King’s Gunslinger, Roland, takes part in a series of adventures in which Biblical stories illustrating a loving and omnipresent god are turned crudely on their ear. He makes his way through a hallucinogenic wasteland, a wild frontier where a tall stranger turns out to be as bad and ugly as he is good, a Palestine with no infidels to distract our paladin from the infidelity of his own nature. The setting is a purgatory in which no angels descend to take the knife from Abraham’s hand, and a man in black comes to show you that the devil is just the name you give to what was inside you all along.

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