Roland Deschain: PTSD and Redemption

I am a fan of the Dark Tower series by Stephen King (clearly it’s a love or hate relationship with sci-fi and fantasy fans.) I thought this video was an excellent analysis of the character of Roland Deschain, the Gunslinger, an unforgettable character that, love or hate the series, lingers in one’s mind. But I thought there were elements it didn’t address. First, I’ll leave it for your consideration and perusal:

I see much of what the uploader of the video sees here. But I think there’s a powerful driving aspect to Roland’s character that is overlooked in this analysis, and that is PTSD.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a term now in broad use, and most people associate it with war veterans. The disorder results from experiencing tremendous trauma and the brain has trouble moving it from short-term to long-term memory because the emotions of it are so overwhelming. This is why episodes are triggered and they feel as though they are happening all over again. Effectively, a person who is suffering from it experiences the very same emotional immediacy. Once the brain successfully processes into long-term memory, it becomes a difficult but manageable experience. However, most treatments to encourage that are ineffective. There has been some promise from cognitive therapy and a variety of unorthodox treatments, such as transcendental meditation, eye movement, touch therapy, and the targeted use of hallucinogens. Mostly, however, the symptoms are treated, not the cause, through the use of a variety of medications.

Roland, like many people with PTSD, is primed for experiencing it through difficult experiences in his early life, before his brain has finished developing. His reporting of the treason of Hax the Cook, a friend to the gunslinger boys, results in the man being hung for his crimes. He is subjected to the brutal training of gunslinger youths, which would be considered abuse by our standards. He takes his trial of manhood at the age of fourteen, spurred by the affair and possible treason of his mother, which results in permanent brain damage and maiming to his childhood instructor, a pseudo-paternal figure. He also experiences the horrific execution of his first (and only) love, who is burned at the stake, a few months afterwards.

Roland then survives the death of his family and friends, a war, and a horrific battle. And of course, one of the primary drivers of PTSD is Roland’s stock in trade; he has taken many lives by his own hand.

Roland is presented as a morally grey character who makes some dark choices to pursue his obsession.  But much of his “darkness” are typical symptoms of PTSD.  He suffers from depression, keeps people at a distance, is hyperalert, and occasionally lashes out at the people closest to him.  He suffers from disconnection and depersonalization; he feels he is apart from the world around him.  He feels that the world has moved on.

Much of Roland’s journey is to break through these things and rejoin the world.  Over the course of the narrative, aided by his companions and their love, which is returned, he eventually transforms post-traumatic stress into post-traumatic growth; a positive adaptation to trauma which results in “greater appreciation of life; changed sense of priorities; warmer, more intimate relationships; greater sense of personal strength; and recognition of new possibilities or paths for one’s life and spiritual development.”

I think this journey is personally moving, and is perhaps the most compelling element of the Dark Tower story.  And just like in most genre fiction, often both readers and reviewers overlook it.

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