Monday, May 30, 2011

Robin Furth's "The Little Sisters of Eluria and the Language of the Unformed"

Howdy, folks.  Apologies for the delay in posting.  I took a slight break from The Truth Inside The Lie to do my latest entry over at my other blog, the James Bond-centric You Only Blog Twice.  Over there, I've been slowly working my way through the Bond films again and trying to rank them according to this nutso grading scheme I came up with.  It's grand fun, for me if for nobody else, and I spent the better part of the day writing about Goldfinger, which, of course, is one of the better entries in the series.

But you didn't come here to read about that, now didja?  No!  You came here to read some more about Marvel's "The Little Sisters of Eluria."  Specifically, today, I'm going to talk for a bit about Robin Furth's prose contributions to the issues, which are even better than usual this time out.

For the back of issue #1, Furth contributed an essay entitled (somewhat misleadingly) "My Most Memorable Dark Tower Moments," and for the back of issue #2, another essay; that one is called "The Little Sisters of Eluria and the Language of the Unformed."

I don't have a huge amount to say about either of these essays (apart from suggesting that you read them because they are very, very good) ... but both contain some nuggets that help to illustrate some interesting things, about both this arc of the comics and about the larger tale -- in both its prose and graphic iterations -- of the Dark Tower.  What I'm going to do is just present my thoughts on various matters in the essays, in roughly the same order they would spring up as I was reading them, with quotations from Furth's essays to help give my own comments the proper context.

So, why not let's us get into it.  Whattaya say?

Notes for Robin Furth's "My Most Memorable Dark Tower Moments":
  • "In his brief introduction to the original novella, Stephen King tells us that The Little Sisters of Eluria began with a single image that came to him upon waking."  (Furth)  This introduction appears before the novella's appearance in King's collection Everything's Eventual, and as both Furth in this essay and King in that introduction make evident, this image harkens back to King/Straub's The Talisman.  That novel was already tied to the Dark Tower universe by virtue, if nothing else, of its sequel, Black House ... but this makes it plain that the healing tent in which Queen Laura is withering away is run by another, presumably more virtuous, group of Little Sisters.
  • "In some of the Dark Tower novels, Roland is the king of the wasteland who must bring redemption and life to his destroyed kingdom.  Yet in others, he is the everyman who must face those hardships and losses which we all encounter over the course of a life.  In The Little Sisters of Eluria, Roland is the mortal man forced to enter the gates of the Underworld."  (Furth)  I found this to be particularly fascinating.  Even though it is fairly obvious, it had never consciously occurred to me that Roland, in different sections of the larger Dark Tower tale, is representative of different mythical/legendary tropes.  But he is; of course he is.  It would take a more learned blogger than I to really delve into that topic -- which I greatly encourage such a blogger to do, stat -- but I'd like to point out that in Wizard and Glass Roland takes on somewhat tones of the tragic Shakespearean figure, most notably (if not precisely) Romeo.  He also -- and this is amplified in the comics -- has elements of Hamlet about him.
  • "In his introduction, Steve King tells us that The Little Sisters takes place after Roland has lost his companions but before he has stumbled upon the trail of the Man In Black.  In other words, Roland travels through the Desatoya mountains while the horrors of Jericho Hill are still fresh in his mind."  (Furth)  One of the problems I have with the "Eluria" comics is that Roland is depicted as being a bit younger than I imagine him being based on the novella.  In the novella, it is evident that he is substantially older -- though it is unclear how much older -- than John Norman, but in the comics, there does not appear to be a huge difference in their ages.  That said, obviously Furth is a far superior interpreter of the Dark Tower stories than I am, so I am forced to yield to her expertise.  And that bit of insight about Roland still being haunted, in an immediate sense, by the events of Jericho Hill do indeed add a considerable, and beneficial, amount of subtext to "Eluria."
  • "Unlike the Roland we meet in The Gunslinger, a man whose trigger-fingers work faster than his conscience, this younger version of our hero still has qualms about killing those armed with clubs rather than six-shooters."  (Furth)  In the case of both the novella and the comics, I am not entirely persuaded by this version of Roland, and the consideration of him as being a post-Jericho Hill shell-shocked survivor actually makes me more skeptical.  Additionally, it is worth wondering: if Roland is not yet that figure of terror who lays waste to the inhabitants of Tull, then how does he become that figure?  Surely I am not expected to believe that it is the events of this novella alone which accomplish that?  And yet, since "The Battle of Tull" is the next arc in the comics ... that does seem to perhaps be what Furth, if not King, is suggesting.
  • There are some valuable insights in this essay, but perhaps a bit too much of it is spent simply recapping the events of issue #1 ... which, if we read the issue front to back, we have just finished reading immediately prior to reading this essay.  However, Furth's justifications for the overtly Christian symbology present in the dream sequence that ends the issue are interesting, and while I still believe that that sequence would have been better served as the opening to issue #2, Furth's explanations of it are a valuable insight into her process in plotting the comics.
 Notes for Robin Furth's "The Little Sisters of Eluria and the Language of the Unformed":
  • "What kind of creatures were these vampiric healers?  Were they otherworldly?  Had they been stranded on the shores of existence along with Mid-World's other demons when the magical Prim receded?  Or had they originally been human?  If the Sisters had always been evil, then why did their little doctors cure the sick?  And how could any beings that were by nature evil bear the symbol of the rose, sigul of the Dark Tower?  Was it possible that the Little Sisters had originally been servants of the White?  And if that was so, had Jenna's dark bells originated in the Dark Tower?"  (Furth)  What an excellent series of questions!  I know that I've read the novella three times (and possibly four), and I don't recall that any of these questions nagged at me.  Are they flaws in the story's conceptualization?Or does King's command of the form render these types of issues as intentional mystery, and therefore part of the story despite the fact that they are unresolved?  I think I lean toward the latter; since Roland would have no access to the answers to most of these questions, it seems fair -- given that the novella is told entirely from his viewpoint -- that we wouldn't have access to them, either.
  • "When Steve King wrote back to me, he assured me that once, in the long ago, the Little Sisters had been human.  They had been hospitalers that served the White, but they had been turned to the dark side.  As I suspected, Jenna's bells had come from the Tower."  (Furth)  Well, here is some specific proof that demonstrates the extent to which King is helping to write the new material the Dark Tower comics is presenting.  It will be interesting to see if King ever co-opts any of that material for his own writing; in The Wind Through the Keyhole, for example, or in the extensively revised versions of the novels he has occasionally mentioned wanting to write.
  • "There had to be other novels that told related tales, and from which I could learn whether the Sisters' fate was voluntary or involuntary.  The novel I finally settled upon was Desperation."  (Furth)  The "related tales" Furth refers to here are tales of transformation from good to evil.  What other King novels might she have considered examining?  Offhand, I can think of The Shining (Jack's slow transformation), The Stand (the willing transformation of Harold Lauder into a servant of Flagg), Christine (Arnie's transformation into a sort of reincarnation of Roland LeBay), and The Tommyknockers (in which the citizens of Haven literally transform into alien beings).
  • "Both stories" [Desperation and The Little Sisters of Eluria] "take place in deserted, demon-haunted mining towns located in the Desatoya Mountains.  In both tales, the demons desire bloodshed and death.  But most remarkable of all, despite the differences between the demons of each story, both speak the same language."  (Furth)  Since Desperation was only about two years old at the time of Eluria's release, and therefore relatively fresh in my mind, I did make the connection between Tak and the Sisters, in terms of the language associated with them.  However, I did not make the connection that both were set in the Desatoya Mountains, and in fact, until reading this very essay, I had no idea that that was a real mountain range!  So much for my knowledge of American geography.  Between that and the brief mention -- in both the novella and the comics -- of "Tejuas" being some 200 miles away, it seems that The Little Sisters of Eluria has major hints about how connected Roland's world is to our own.  At the very least, it seems it must be some alternate-universe version of it, probably one in the future.
  • "Can de lach, mi him en tow, Sister Mary says in a harsh, powerful voice.  And then, Ras me!  On!  On!"  (Furth)  This reminds me of Lovecraft's language in his Cthulhu mythos: "Ph-nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyen wgah'nagl fhtagn," and the like, but with more vowels.  Given that King is a Lovecraft fan, and that he, too, is creating a mythos, it seems entirely likely that King would have been aware of the connection.
  • "What is Tak?  In Desperation, we are told that Tak is the ancient one, the unformed heart.  He is the big god, a demon, a dangerous nothing.  He is a complete outsider -- one so ancient that he predates the gods of the Native Americans."  (Furth)  Tak is somewhat similar to the creature whom we finally learn to be the true form of Pennywise in It, in that both live underground, come from outside our existence, and have been here for an almost unfathomably long time.  For that matter, much the same can be said of the alien vessel in The Tommyknockers, and the idea of evil power lurking beneath the earth is also touched on in Pet Sematary (which is very much linked to The Tommyknockers).  What should the avid Towerphile make of these connections?  Well, we know thanks to the previous Furth essay that The Talisman is directly linked to The Little Sisters of Eluria, and we know from the brief appearance of Jack Sawyer in The Tommyknockers that that novel is directly linked to The Talisman (along with Pet Sematary, which is directly linked to The Tommyknockers).  We also know that It takes place in a different universe altogether, but since these godlike demon creatures seem to exist in multiple universes within King's mythos, and some -- such as Randall Flagg  -- seem to either be able to cross from one to the other or (perhaps more likely) have Twinners in multiple universes, we can possibly begin to look at Tak, "Pennywise," and the "Tommyknockers" as being something akin to Twinners of each other.  This is a fascinating concept, and is worthy of greater consideration.
  • "As we know, Mid-World is not our world, and the world of Desperation -- similar as it is -- is not our world either.  There is no town called Desperation along our Nevada's Route 50, though there are other ghost towns.  But still, all three realities are linked through the Tower, and what poisons the ground in one where and when could easily leak through to another, and the evil god of one world could easily take a parallel, though outwardly different, form in a second reality."  (Furth)  Given that the Dark Tower exists -- or the force of Gan that the Tower represents on Roland's plane of existence -- somewhat outside of time and space, is it possible to assume that the only way such malignant entities as Tak and "Pennywise" were able to gain entry into the universes depicted in King's novels would be due to the Crimson King's nearly-successful efforts to destroy the Tower?  This idea has enormous implications for virtually the entire body of King's work.
  • "According" [in Desperation] "to the Shoshone Indians, the China Pit was located on sour ground.  They knew, without digging, that the soil there should remain undisturbed because something evil lay sleeping beneath it."  (Furth)  This obviously makes the thematic connection to Pet Sematary (and The Tommyknockers) even stronger.
Obviously, in this essay, Robin Furth has, pardon the pun, furthered the notion of the Dark Tower universe in a fairly monumental way.  In rereading my way through King's canon in chronological order, one of the things I am most enjoying is finding the instances of interconnectedness in his works.  The last novel I reread was 1987's The Tommyknockers, which has a fierce amount of those connections.  It seems to have been roughly around this time that King truly began, consciously or unconsciously, to lace his works together.  It will be a massive undertaking to do a thorough examination of how it all fits together; it seems like it's well worth doing, too, for if it turns out that King has genuinely been telling one large story that encompasses that many novels and actually manages to hang together with no major discontinuities, then can there be any doubt that it is one of the major achievements in all of fantasy literature?
I very much look forward to seeing what else Furth might have to contribute in terms of analyzing these connections.

In my next post -- the final one I'll be undertaking about Marvel's "The Little Sisters of Eluria" -- I'll be analyzing Furth's short story "The Dark Bells," which seeks to provide an origin story for the Little Sisters' corruption.  How successful is it on those grounds?  You'll have to tune in to find out.


  1. A wealth of info here - many thanks! Getting together my blog for Little Sisters at present - seems I did myself a disservice by "skipping" Desperation. (I have every intention to read it, of course, and looking forward to it, just not sure when that will be.)

    I'm getting cross-eyed trying to keep up with the spider-web of connections between works/ Dark Tower stuff... that Bev Vincent book cannot arrive fast enough. (If my mail-tracker is to be believed, it's "out for delivery," but in Chicago, that can mean it'll arrive anywhere from this afternoon to next month. I have never lived anywhere with as dysfunctional a postal matrix as the Windy City.)

    1. I was doing some blog-archiving tonight and noticed that I'd never responded to this comment. How rude of me! I apologize in much-belated fashion.

  2. "I took a slight break from The Truth Inside The Lie to do my latest entry over at my other blog, the James Bond-centric You Only Blog Twice."
    Strange to read that at a time when exactly the same happens again...
    I must say that I haven't read the comic, so I'm just commenting here from the perpective of the book(s).

    - I didn't see the connection to the women taking care of the queen in The Talisman. I can't say it's impossible, but what exactly is indicating that these women might be similar sisters?? Or will this only be clear once I reach Black House?

    - Like I mentioned before in the DT topic, I also had my problems with this Roland being the same guy we meet shortly later in The Gunslinger. And I don't see why these particular events should have changed Roland that much, if the events at his former home and the battle of Jericho Hill hadn't. The latter should have a muuuch bigger impact on his character imo.

    - Really interesting to read that insight in the sister's past directly from King.

    - I prefer seeing It\Tak\Tommyknockers as different Unformed* rather than twinners of each other. After all Desperation indicates that the unformed ones are a whole race, not just one being. But both could be possible.
    *(I guess that's correct translation then, "Formless" was re-translated by me from the German version)

    - Jack Sawyer appears in Tommyknockers? So yet another reason the include it in my re-reading!

    - Ah yes, the Native Americans calling the ground sour in Desperation, I remember. I even thought of Pet Semetary and The Shining (seemingly missing in the list above) at that time, but forgot to point it out in my comments.

    - Aside from that, many points there that I also pointed out in the DT topic. :-D

    And looks like I have another blog article to check, but that has to wait for now.

    1. Ah, I forgot to add my name. But you can probably guess who I am, right? :-)


    2. Yep, I think I'd've gotten that one on context. Still, names are nice.

      On the subject of Jack Sawyer -- to be clear, his "appearance" in Tommyknockers is a matter of some debate. It's merely one chapter, and Peter Straub says it ain't him. I'm not sure I've ever heard King say for sure. But for me, it's 99.9% unquestionable -- it IS him. I won't say the context under which he appears.

      I can't remember exactly what makes it clear that these are the same as the nurses in "The Talisman." I think the big tent may be the primary thing. But they really aren't; these are monstrous and perverted versions of those "real" Sisters. At least, that seems to be the idea.

      Yeah, sorry about the too-frequent breaks from blogging. Right now, I don't even have time for You Only Blog Twice. Too much going on at work! And it's looking like it may be a few months before it settles down enough for me to really concentrate on blogging again.

      This does not please me.

    3. Dan here again.
      I'll probably come back to the Jack topic in the DT entry, I'll start Tommyknockers soon.

      I can't remember how the premises were described in The Talisman, maybe that's why I didn't get that feeling.
      No, not the same sisters, that's why I wrote "similar". Maybe really twinners in this case. Unless it's an earlier version of the sisters, considering King's feedback.

      I barely find time either. For example I couldn't find the time to read and comment the follow-up blog entry to this one yet...

    4. Well, to be honest, you're not missing all that much...