Robert Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" resembles that of MacDonald's Phantastes, since in both the protagonists make a journey through a fantastic landscape, slowly developing an opinion, which they only clearly formulate at the end of the story. Childe Roland, while travelling, meets a cripple, who points out the path to the famed Dark Tower; although suspicious, he, believes the him and follows the path. This quest, to attack and defeat the Dark Tower and its evil, has been the purpose of Childe Roland's training. However, because it remains undefeated, even by knights far more accomplished than he, it seems to serve only as an end to his life. As a result, with his whole life focused towards this eventual defeat, he has tired of the knowledge that he lives only in preparation to ultimately fail. With this attitude, he looks forward to this event somewhat, if only because then he will have ended the anticipation of failure. While he travels, in an attempt to lift his spirits, he thinks of old friends who originally had honor and goodness. However, in both cases, each ruins his honor through acts of weakness and selfishness. This contemplation becomes important when Childe Roland eventually reaches the crucial moment, in which he must choose whether to turn away from almost certain defeat or to face it and live up to the purpose of his life and honor.
The protagonist makes his way through a landscape surreal in its conceptions of time and distance. The journey never ends until it ends too soon: "For, looking up, aware I somehow grew,/ 'Spite of the dusk, the plain had given place/ All round to mountains-with such name to grace.../ How thus they had surprised me,-solve it, you!" (lines 163-167) In much the same way, he abruptly finds himself in a valley, and while surprised he traveled so far so quickly, he becomes doubly so when he realizes that he has arrived at the Dark Tower:
Burningly it came on me all at once,
This was the place! those two hills on the right,
Crouched like two bulls locked horn in horn in fight;
Wile to the left, a tall scalped mountain...Dunce,
Dotard, a dozing at the very nonce,
After a life spent training for the sight! [lines 175-180]
This fantastic aspect of the story, which shows the difficulty of the challenge posed by the Dark Towe, also makes the reader empathize with the adventurer. Because his journey does not lead through ordinary land, the reader pays attention to the events as they occur and understand the motivation for the protagonist's thoughts and attitudes.
On the way, Childe Roland indirectly contemplates the worthiness of the endeavor, when weighed against his survival. In his friends, he finds those who succumbed to the temptation of immediate gratification. He decides that the choice has already been made as to his fate, and that he must not turn away from it. Thus, as the poem concludes, despite the ghosts of all of those that he has known who have fought and lost that he can see, Childe Roland calls out the phrase which defines the purpose of his life: "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came." (line 204) Whether he dies or not has no relevance, and fittingly, that information remains omitted. However, the important message remains. Browning stresses in this poem that one should face danger and accept difficulty in the name of duty. The theme of the self versus the other appears again, with duty to society as the other. The fantastic aspects of the poem heighten the importance of this idea, by setting the tone of that decision more effectively than would a realistic depiction. Instead of exploring the effects of a decision to sacrifice oneself for another, the poem looks at the way one formulates the decision to make that sacrifice.
Modified 10 September 2004