In "Childe Roland" descriptions of bizarre and wasted landscapes tell us more about the mind of Roland himself than they do about the real appearance of the countryside. But in contrast to Tennyson's "Mariana," in which physical externals reflect the emotions of the narrator, the material reality of this fantastic netherworld does not just reflect, but is, the internal state of Childe Roland. In brief, this poem is allegory. It functions as both an imaginative journey and a journey through the imagination.
In the tenth stanza, Roland describes a landscape of "grey plain all around:/ Nothing but plain to the horizon's bound" (52-53). This countryside appears as a vast wasteland, a desolate place of deformity and ugliness that offers nothing aesthetically pleasing. Roland adds later that it is lifeless, "bruised as to baulk all hope of greenness" (70-71). As a matter of fact, when a living being does appear, it comes in the shape of a horse, but a horse "stiff blind" and "stupefied" (76-77). And aside from just being barren and grotesque, this awful place Childe Roland has sunk into is also diseased. The narrator uses "leprosy" (74) and "boils" (153) to describe the grass and soil.
One must take extreme caution when reading Childe Roland's portrait of the territory, since we do not know how far we can trust our narrator. First of all, he attempts to make this place look evil and threatening — a hard task when the place is virtually devoid of life. The little rivulet in the fourteenth stanza surprises him "as unexpected as a serpent comes" (110). And that same horrifying horse, which seems all too frail to cause any harm, must have come from hell itself, working as it did as the "devil's stud" (78).
But when Roland tries to attribute sinister and fiendish qualities to his landscape, only his own anger and despair come out. The rivulet — "so pretty yet so spiteful" (115). The horse — "I never saw a brute I hated so" (83). What really lies beneath the vileness of Roland's landscape is the disappointment of its author. Here this knight has trained all his life to approach the Dark Tower, and now in the last leg of his crusade he wants to do nothing but just finish his task. He does not care whether he succeeds or fails, lives or dies: "neither pride/ Nor hope rekindling at the end descried,/ So much as gladness that some end might be" (17-18). His search has been long and his training arduous, we suppose, but they have cost Roland his happiness. They have broken and embittered him. Now he only seeks to join "The Band," the knights who have already died in their mad quest for the Dark Tower (39). Really, entering into their ranks is all Roland hopes to accomplish: "just to fail as they seemed best,/ And all the doubt was now — should I be fit" (42).
However, Roland's acquiescence to death, his frustration over his journey, and his own disappointment in himself, all combine to weaken Roland's imaginative powers. On the allegorical level, the landscape the narrator depicts represents his own imagination which has fallen victim to all of these forces. Roland's anger and disappointment temporarily suspend his ability to find beauty in the natural setting. His own imagination shrivels up to a "stark black dearth," just like that of the soil of his landscape (150). It is just as empty and lifeless as the territory he describes, for in a sense it is that very territory. Browning's most compelling analogy between Roland and his art (if one wishes to call it that) comes at the beginning of the poem in the form of the "hoary cripple" (2). The cripple is an object of Roland's hate, but at the same time he is Roland himself in a different form. He has a "malicious eye," for instance, the very same kind of instrument Roland uses when looking upon the land he describes. This deformed man also lies "in every word," as Roland explains, but such a statement makes one wonder what the narrator himself does throughout most of his tale (1). And lastly, both men are crippled; the old man physically and Roland imaginatively. When Roland scorns his guide, he really express anger at himself, for he knows that he will inevitably fail to conquer whatever lurks at the Dark Tower. But such spite also clues the reader into Roland's relative lack of trustworthiness. If Roland cannot see himself in the cripple, he can very well not find any beauty in nature. The reader must question if the knight's fantasy land is truly as grotesque as Roland says or if the narrator's own anger and despair prevent him from seeing the beauties of such a place — even the beauty of a quaint little rivulet.
The reader's conception of Childe Roland drastically changes, however, when the knight at last discovers the Dark Tower; or when perhaps the Dark Tower discovers him. Here lies Roland's epiphany. "Burningly it came on me all at once," Roland says, and the particular way in which the Dark Tower appears to the narrator — "burningly" — suggests to us that the sight of this awe-inspiring object has a purifying effect (175). It purges Roland of his malaise and hatred, essentially ridding him of his ego. This, now, is the self-sacrifice Roland makes. He gives up his life, as he must do, to join his comrades, to take his rightful place in the Tower. Admittedly, we do not think of this sort of wild abandon as self-sacrifice; it looks more like suicide. But Browning — never one to sugar-coat the grotesque — intimates that the extremity of Roland's fate is precisely what is required. When Roland recognizes his duty, the surrounding land suddenly opens up with new sights and sounds. Mountains rise, and bells chime, leaving Roland to wonder how he never saw or heard these things before. The reader, of course, wonders the same. But we do not begrudge Roland of any respect here. In spite of his persistent grumbling and in spite of the skewed portraits he has presented, Roland now has his imaginative powers awakened. In this way, he achieves an even greater success than he expected. Before he does join the rest of the Tower knights, another triumph occurs on the allegorical level, with Roland's imagination blossoming into liveliness.
But Browning, of course, does more here than present a simple, moralistic fantasy with a common-place lesson like "those who persevere succeed." He even does more than create an allegory. On a deeper and more elusive level, Browning uses this story to make a statement about poetry; particularly about recent English poetry and even more particularly, about his own.
Modified 10 September 2004