<<"Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" is a narrative poem by English author Robert Browning, written on January 2, 1852. The poem is often noted for its dark and atmospheric imagery, inversion of classical tropes, and use of unreliable narration. Childe Roland, the only speaker in the poem, describes his journey towards "the Dark Tower," and his horror at what he sees on his quest. The poem ends when Roland finally reaches the tower, leaving his ultimate fate ambiguous. The title, "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came", which forms the last words of the poem, is a line from William Shakespeare's play King Lear (ca. 1607). In the play, Gloucester's son, Edgar, lends credence to his disguise as Tom o' Bedlam by talking nonsense, of which this is a part:
- Child Rowland to the dark tower came.
His word was still "Fie, foh, and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man."
— King Lear, Act 3, scene 4
A "Childe" in this context is the eldest son of a nobleman who has not yet attained knighthood, or who has not yet "won his spurs." It has been proposed that Browning also took inspiration from the 11th-century epic poem The Song of Roland, which features Roland, Charlemagne's loyal paladin, blowing his hunting horn (as Childe Roland also does at the end of the poem) to call for help before he dies. Browning claimed that the poem came to him in a dream, saying "I was conscious of no allegorical intention of writing it ... Childe Roland came upon me as a kind of dream. I had to write it then and there, and I finished it the same day, I believe. I do not know what I meant beyond that, and I do not know now. But I am very fond of it."
The poem opens with Roland's suspicion about the truthfulness of a "hoary" crippled man with "malicious eye", whose advice he nevertheless follows by choosing a fork in the road that leads to the Dark Tower. The gloomy, cynical Roland describes how he had been searching for the tower for so long that he could barely feel any joy at finally finding the road to it, just a grim hope "that some end might be". Roland describes himself as being like "a sick man very near to death" whose friends have all abandoned him, as Roland had always been dismissed as a member of "The Band"—a group of knights searching for the Dark Tower, all of whom had failed in their quest. Despite that, all Roland wants is to join The Band, whatever the cost.
As soon as he steps into the path towards the Dark Tower, the landscape around him shifts, and Roland finds himself completely alone in a featureless wasteland. Wandering onwards, he describes the desolate conditions with increasing despair, until he finds the emaciated body of a horse. Roland is disgusted by its appearance, saying "I never saw a brute I hated so; / He must be wicked to deserve such pain."
In an attempt to regain some semblance of strength after the trauma of his surroundings, Roland tries to remember happier times, and thinks back on his old friends. The memory of his friends and fellow knights Cuthbert and Giles bring him comfort, but he then remembers the downfall of each of them (Cuthbert by "one night's disgrace," and Giles by being hanged and declared a traitor by his friends), and his heart is shattered all over again. Declaring "better this present than a past like that," Roland finds the energy to keep on moving. He reaches a river which he fords with trepidation, half-convinced that he's stepping on dead bodies floating under the water. Reaching the other bank, Roland is disturbed once more by the apocalyptic landscape, envisioning some dreadful battle that must have happened to create the scene of devastation he observes. Eventually the plain gives way to mountains, and Roland finds himself stuck, unable to find a clear path forward.
Suddenly, Roland realizes that the mountain he's been looking at is the very one that hides the Dark Tower. The sunset sets the scene ablaze at that very moment, and a strange sound fills the air. "n a sheet of flame" Roland sees the faces of his dead friends, and hears their names whispered in his ears. Remembering their lives, Roland finds himself surrounded by a "living frame" of old friends. Filled with inspiration, he pulls out his "slug-horn", and blows, shouting "Childe Roland to the dark tower came". At this, the poem ends, leaving what lies inside of the Dark Tower a mystery.>>