A hero is usually thought of as somebody who demonstrates courageousness or altruism in the face of danger. They show bravery during other’s moments of weakness. In literature, a hero is most often constituted as a hero through the journey in which he embarks on and the trials and tribulations experienced during it. In Robert Browning’s poem, many of the aspects that declare an individual a hero can be seen, but at the same time, the hero we see seems in an almost defeated state or weary of the path before him. The aim of this post will be to complicate Robert Browning’s poem, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” by looking at the role of the narrator as being either a hero or a victim.
The poem begins with our protagonist, Childe Roland, who has been stopped in the way of his path by a “hoary cripple” who we could consider the first obstacle faced in this heroic journey, but not much of an obstacle at that. Roland asks the old man for directions to the “Dark Tower” and the old man points Roland in the direction in which he seeks, but Roland is skeptical of the path he has been instructed to take. He thinks that the old man isn’t being entirely truthful and instead is trying to lead Roland on the wrong path. But with some thought, Roland again initiates his journey on the mentioned road and ignores his uncertainty. Here Roland can be thought of as somewhat courageous to take an uncertain path that could possibly get him killed, but perhaps courageousness isn’t the right word. Roland tells us that he “had so long suffered in this quest,” (37) and that there is “naught else remained to do” (54). He would just like it to be over with even if it is going to end in failure or death. It is almost like he is numbed or lacking any feeling and has a desire to die. Is there a sense of bravery in that?
As Roland moves on, the landscape brings to mind Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Like Frodo Baggins, Roland’s quest is to reach a dark tower, but to reach it, he must cross a barren land full of evil and death and look upon many disturbing sights.
Just like Frodo, Roland’s journey lasts for many years and throughout it, much hope is lost as well as many friends along the way. But both these characters know that they must move on and not abandon their duties. And so Roland crosses a river full of lifeless human bodies and comes across a horse that looks to be dead from starvation, and yet it is somehow still alive. Out of fear towards these images, Roland closes his eyes and tries to imagine the good-old-days, but these thoughts only lead to miserable ends. These thoughts could be considered as another obstacle and so to get past them, Roland comes back to reality and keeps moving forward. His determination in reaching the tower is somewhat daring and heroic in its own sense and after years of that determination, it finally pays off… Or does it? He may have reached the tower, but it looks as if finally reaching the intended destination serves no purpose. There are no rewards… It was merely a destination to be reached. All Roland does is fearlessly announce that he has completed his journey by saying, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came,” (204) which is also the title and then the poem ends.
Since its end is quite abrupt, we can assume that the journey is the more important aspect than that of the arrival to the destination. It also ends without a resolution. We don’t know if Childe Roland lives or dies. We also notice that this journey seems to only matter to Roland. No one around him seems to care whether or not he makes it, so it is definitely not focused on the world surrounding the individual but solely on the individual himself. And if it is a journey prized more within himself than that outside of himself, what purpose does it serve?
In the beginning and throughout much of the poem we see him talk of death. It looks to be a common theme for him. What if the journey was a journey towards death? Could that be what the dark tower symbolizes? The dark tower of death.
When Roland finally reaches the tower, he tells us he has paid for this journey with “a life spent training for the sight” (180). Could this mean that he has spent his whole life moving towards death? That would make sense. Never have I heard of a hero whose goal is to die, but in a world like this or at least the way the narrator makes this world sound, it does not sound like a word desirable to be lived in. If this is the case, then Childe Roland makes quite the sacrifice. His loyalty towards this course of action was also very surprising. Not once did we hear him speak of abandoning course and turning back, although it doesn’t seem that there is anything to turn back to.
Whatever the case may be, Roland ceases to show fear throughout his journey and as odd as this journey may be, that in itself is somewhat heroic. But if the journey’s intention is to end in death, then perhaps it’s less heroic than was thought. Every human who has ever lived has died or will die. Therefore all lives are a one way ticket to the inevitable destination of death. Could this poem be a representation of an individual’s lifetime? Either way, Roland did complete his journey with much determination, but is he a hero? For his journey gave nothing positive to the world and perhaps nothing positive to himself either other than the feelings of accomplishment and closure.
Browning, Robert. "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2013. 2131-2137. Print.