by Gabrielle Brant Freeman
There must be something about a man in black that keeps us up at night. Robert Bly’s book The Man in the Black Coat Turns was published in 1981, and I can’t help but wonder if he and Stephen King weren’t drinking the same Kool-Aid, to put it crudely and in a very pop-culture, fascinated with mass-murderers sort of way. King’s first installment in the Dark Tower series was published shortly after Bly’s collection, and it involved its own “man in black.” Coincidence? Well…
SPOILER ALERT: I will discuss the ending of the Dark Tower series, which, if you haven’t read it yet, you’re not a real King fan anyway, so phooey on you. And no, that sentence wasn’t necessarily grammatically correct. Pffttt.
King’s series is based on Robert Browning’s poem, based on a dream, titled “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” Stephen King’s Roland is a tested knight of his own realm, which has…moved on…, but his true challenge comes at the end of his journey when he reaches the long sought after Dark Tower. There is no Answer; there is no God. There is only a repeat, only the wheel. Roland Deschain must repeat the life he has known until, seemingly, he gets it “right,” or until the final beam breaks and all is lost. King begins the series this way: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” Never has a first line enticed me to keep reading more than that.
Bly’s first poem in his book is titled “Snowbanks North of the House.” In it, there is a series of nots: a son does not read any more books after high school, the mother does not make any more bread, the husband does not sleep with his wife, and “the man in the black coat turns, and goes back / down the hill” (Bly 4). It is as ominous a line as King’s.
Perhaps the lesson is that we must follow the man in black, even if he turns away from our folly, even if he leads us to the beginning of the same old cycle, and perhaps especially if, on the turning away (oh yes, that’s a Pink Floyd reference, 1987), we recognize our shortcomings and accept that “ka is a wheel” (King). “And the sea lifts and falls all night, the moon goes on / through the unattached heavens alone” (Bly 3). Our lives move in a circle, and the hero’s journey often ends where it began. What we do with that realization, how we choose to address the man in black, that is what makes all the difference.
Bly, Robert. “Snowbanks North of the House.” The Man in the Black Coat Turns. New York: Harper Perennial, 1981.