In "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," Browning fails to make it clear whether the narrator is Childe Roland — legendary knight of Charlemagne — one of his contemporaries, or just someone who plays a song about him when he (the narrator) finally reaches the tower. Is he a knight on a quest? Does he only imagine the entire expedition? Browning does not say. He speaks in the adventurer's voice, producing another dramatic monologue. The narrative takes the form of rhyming (abbaab) stanzas, resembling a ballad. Through the plaintive song of the knight, Browning paints the picture of a deeply depressed personality. According to the speaker, he will not reach his goal, the man who gave him directions deceived him, and traps lie in his way. His fears, however, fail to materialize. He does reach the tower, evidently the hermit did give accurate instructions, and nothing deters him from his quest. His morbid mind runs wild, imaging a stiff old horse as one of the "devil's stud" (l.78), and picturing dead bodies choking the river as he wades across (l. 121-7). Instead he only encounters a water-rat that shrieks as he spears it. Everything he sees or thinks upon fills him with loathing or sorrow.
Despair and uncertainty play a major role in "Childe Roland." The knight does not know where to turn. He travels alone, for his companions have all failed in their quest. He cannot bear to look to the future because he believes that he will never reach his destination. The bleakness of his present surroundings horrifies him, so he tries to find refuge in happier past:
I shut my eyes and turned them on my heart.
As a man calls for wine before fights,
I asked for one draught of earlier, happier sights,
Ere fitly I could play my part.
Think first, fight afterwards — the soldier's art:
One taste of the old time sets all to rights. (ll.85-90)
Trying desperately to escape the present that threatens him from without, he seeks to look into himself and remember brighter times. Perhaps some pleasant memories, sipped and tasted like wine, can bring him a few drops of solace and numb his anxiety. Then he can "play [his] part" and move onward. His recollections of his former companions, however, rapidly turn bitter:
Giles then, the soul of honour — there he stands
Frank as ten years ago when knighted first.
What honest man should dare (he said) he durst.
Good — but the scene shifts — faugh! what hangman-hands
Pin to his breast a parchment? His own bands
Read it. Poor traitor, spit upon and curst! [ll. 97-102]
Looking back does not help; it only serves to remind him how the past became the terrible and lonely present. His old companions failed in one way or the other, only he remains. Severed from his past, afraid of the future, the bleakness consumes him from without and within. He can only continue. Upon reaching his destination, the phantom memories of his comrades surround him and "one moment knell[s] the woe of years" (l.198). They view him for the last time, but he cannot go back. He must release the past and move on, into the unknown future. Bringing his horn to his lips he blows his slogan, announcing his intention to charge. The knight's plight reflects the attitudes of many Victorian authors, such as Dickens or Trollope. Society moves forward into an uncertain future through a shifting present, cut lose from the structure and values that once held it together. Like the knight, they can only move forward, for the past offers little solace.
Modified 10 September 2004