"Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,"a work quite different from "Fra Lippo Lippi," evokes, not a potentially realistic moment from the past, but the legends of the Middle Ages. But unlike Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott," which explores Romantic tensions between the artist and society, Browning incorporates the ethic of social responsibility into his version of the heroic epic tradition. The description of his journey to the Dark Tower does not at all resemble the Lady of Shalottıs resplendent river journey, for Childe Roland wanders through a wasteland filled with barren natural images and memories of once-heroic, now-fallen friends. The stark, barren terrain offers no sensual or imaginative delight.
The opening lines of the poem are more shocking than the grimness of the detail because they provide information about the bleak mood of the hero. We learn that for Childe Roland the impetus for confronting the threat of the Dark Tower comes from the despairing condition of his own mind. Thus, he follows the bidding of the keeper of the Dark Tower,
I did turn as he pointed: neither pride
Nor hope rekindling at the end descried,
So much as gladness that some end might be. [ll. 15-8]
Fearing he has traveled too far to return from his journey, Childe Roland seems to long primarily for resolution rather than for victory. This poem, then, has many of the components of a heroic epic, yet rends asunder its emotive impact. Browning even subverts the heroic subject matter of this poem by transforming the requisite trusty steed into a grotesque image of decay. True to the structure of the heroic epic, however, Childe Roland does arrive at the Dark Tower and make his stand in the end.
Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set,
And blew. "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came." [ll. 203-4]
Because we do not know if Childe Roland lives or dies, the conclusion to this poem avoids completely debunking the notion of the heroic epic. While Browning does not destroy this type of epic legend per se, he brings social realism to the heroic journey as a means of demythifying the heroic ideal.
Modified 10 September 2004