To get into this poem, Browning requires that you use your imagination and provides just enough detail to stimulate your creation of the scene. This means that you have to read carefully and draw inferences as to what these details suggest.
"My first thought was, he lied in every word,/ That hoary cripple, with malicious eye,/ Askance to watch the working of his lie. . . ." This is a pretty odd way to start a poem. Who might this "hoary cripple" be? What is it he lies about, and is there any suggestion that the narrator ever decides he was telling the truth? Does this character suggest similarities with other poems, say Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner"?
We get no description of the narrator, except what is implied in his actions. What do you know about him by the end of the poem?
Look carefully at stanzas 3 - 8. If the old cripple lied, why does Childe Roland follow his directions? Is he courting death? failure? despair?
Stanza VII suggests to us that Roland and the other members of 'The Band' have been seeking the Dark Tower. This very name makes the search different than one for the Holy Grail. What symbolic value might the tower and the quest for it have? Why would Roland need any special fitness to fail?
Compare the landscape with that of other romantic quests, like that of Tennyson's Percival. How important is it that Roland loses the way back immediately after he turns off the road?
Several things indicate that this is all a nightmare: the landscape changes immediately after Roland turns off the road; Roland shuts his eyes in stanza XV; in stanza XVIII there is no sound or sight, but a little river suddenly appears immediately thereafter; the plain suddenly gives way to mountains (just as it happens "in a bad dream perhaps" (ll. 163-171); and Roland suddenly discovers that he has reached the Tower. Suggesting that the entire tale is nothing more than a bad dream undercuts our expectations about narrative. What does Browning gain from such a suggestion?
The poem ends very suddenly, just at the moment Childe Roland blows his challenge on the "slug-horn." If you are familiar with tales of knighthood and chivalry, you know that this is a standard moment, and that the defender of the Black Tower has hung the horn on the tree as a challenge to all comers. He will shortly come out and do battle with Childe Roland. Who will win?
One interpretation of this poem argues that it is an allegory about the ordinary believer's confrontation with mid-nineteenth century religious doubt, and that the evil which must be faced is Despair, which is traditionally the deadliest of the Seven Deadly Sins. Do you find this reading satisfying and compelling? What would Freud have made of this poem?
Modified 10 September 2004