There is a picture of him, by Edward Burne-Jones, in which he is encased in armour and defiantly holding his horn. He appears for the briefest of moments in King Lear; Robert Browning wrote a whole poem about him, which ends with the stirring lines: “And yet / Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set, / And blew “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.” There is a folk story, in which Roland’s sister, Burd Ellen, gets snatched away by the King of Elfland after going round a church backwards; Roland follows his brothers to that strange, other place, and manages to get her back.
He is a character made from many things: shifting, and yet dauntless. When Childe Roland comes to the Dark Tower, in Browning’s poem, what is it that he finds there? When Edgar, disguised as the madman Poor Tom, sings his snatch of a song, he takes Lear off the heath, off stage, into the darkness. Roland is always on a journey, into the unknown. For a character that’s so elusive, he has a great deal of power.
Whoever he is, whatever his origins, and wherever he’s going, he is the direct inspiration for my new book, The Broken King. Roland was a paladin of Charlemagne, historically speaking (though barely attested), who fought bravely for his king. He becomes transformed into a figure of fantasy in the Chanson de Roland, where he is given a horn with which to summon the emperor, and a sword that was brought by an angel.
Thus he pops up in Ariosto’s romantic epic, Orlando Furioso, which is about him, or an idea of him. Here his sword once belonged to Hector of Troy (and perhaps the process he is undergoing, from knight to legend, is the same that Hector, Achilles, Aeneas and Odysseus underwent.) In this long poem he falls in love with Angelica and loses his wits – only to have them restored to him by a knight who’s found them on the moon.
He passes on through the centuries. Surely it is he who is the subject of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, ageless, vital, still on his (and then her) quest for meaning? His journey has in the twentieth century sparked many other works: Alan Garner’s Elidor; Stephen King’s Dark Tower series; Francis King used it for the title of a 1946 novel, To the Dark Tower. Roland’s is a quest that seems to have at the same time both no meaning, and all the meaning in the universe.
When I was smaller, I imagined that “Childe” Roland was a child. Having heard snatches of his story, or stories, I pictured myself as Roland, embarking upon endless strange and terrible quests. Much later I learned that “Childe” was in fact another word for “Knight”; and so it struck me, still later on, that there is no reason why a child could not be a knight.
Children’s books are about becoming an adult, and facing up to strange and terrible things: why couldn’t my new hero be a version of Roland, setting out on a journey which threatened more dangers than he could ever imagine? What lurks in the Dark Tower is endlessly fascinating: not least because it stands for so much of our own dark imaginings; and, perhaps more importantly, it prefigures all our deaths. In Browning, it’s possible that that is what the Dark Tower is: the end of a struggle; the acceptance of the end. And yet Roland is strong in the face of it.
My hero, in twenty-first century Britain, couldn’t actually be called Roland – he’s Simon, though Roland is his middle name. The folk story was the germ of the book’s plot: I changed it so that Simon becomes the cause of his sister’s disappearance. Along the way he picks up a horn and a sword, both of which have magical properties. Having been an ordinary boy, he becomes, in effect, a knight.
His quest is to save his sister from the Broken King. But it’s also the quest that Roland performs, to the dark tower, into nothingness, into the depths of meaning and reality and existence themselves. It’s the journey that children make when they struggle from childhood into adulthood; and one that takes place, always, onwards and onwards, at the steady pace of Childe Roland’s very name, in the backs of our adult minds.
One day we will face the dark tower, if it is death. And who knows what we will find when we put the horn to our lips, and blow?