This quest poem opens with narrator Childe Roland, a knight in search of the fabled Dark Tower, confronting a "hoary cripple" who he suspects is lying to him. The weird old man points Roland off the dusty road into an "ominous" plain, telling him that he will find the dark tower in that direction.
Despite his suspicions, Roland heads off into the plain, convincing himself that though the quest inevitably means failure and death, he has committed to it and is thus duty-bound to see it through. Part of his justification for persevering is a perverse pride to join "the Band" who have failed before him, other knights who died as he plans to do.
Soon after, Roland looks behind him to see the road and cripple have disappeared; he is surrounded solely by the "gray plain." As he progresses, he notes a succession of oppressive and horrific images that begin with deprived nature and ragged thistles, all of which he describes in extremely grotesque language. He comes across a half-dead emaciated horse that doesn't move and finds himself hating the beast for whatever transgression must have doomed it to live in such depravity.
Frightened, Roland tries to think on happier times, but the two friends whose memories he calls up – Cuthbert and Giles – were both disgraced for having betrayed their friends, and Roland quashes the memories since they cause him a pain equal in intensity to the grotesque present.
He continues to journey, coming across a river that swallows the alder trees that dip into it. As he crosses the river, he fears he might step upon a dead man's face. He finds himself reflecting on the punishments that men undergo, as he continues to confront examples of dead and painfully evocative nature. His journey sees little change until a great black bird glides over his head, and he looks up to see the plain suddenly surrounded by mountains.
Roland sees no way to approach the mountains, but suddenly has an intuitive realization that "this was the place!" He focuses on two bent mountains in the distance and recognizes between them the Dark Tower, made of brown stone and lacking any windows. He is overcome with both visual and auditory sensations even though he cannot recognize the source of either, and as he approaches, the names and lives of all the adventurers who failed in their attempt come to him.
As he arrives at the Tower, he looks to see these failed adventurers lined along the hill-sides, watching him. He raises his horn to his lips and blows what could be his final cry: "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came."
This poem, published in 1855 as part of Browning's collection Men and Women, was said by the poet to have come to him by dream and to have been written in a single day. This genesis helps to understand both the fact that it lacks the thematic cohesion of work like "My Last Duchess" and its impressively evocative and mystical nature. Of all of Browning's best-known work, "Childe Roland" is arguably the most resistant to easy meaning, even though the poem is not difficult to read. It offers itself to myriad interpretations.
No matter how one approaches the poem, however, it is best to first consider its place in the genre of heroic journey. The archetypes of a hero's journey, best articulated in the work of Joseph Campbell, are most simply explained as follows: a hero is led to a supernatural or extraordinary place via a guide; he learns lessons through his struggle there; and he brings those lessons back to mankind as a blessing. Understood through this lens, Browning's vision is revealed to be truly pessimistic.
In medieval terms, a "childe" describes a man who has yet to earn his knighthood and who is therefore likely to be in search of adventures to engender that end. So by title, Roland is on a quest for some sort of salvation and recognition, and yet perhaps the most resonant irony is that he does not seem interested in success. He is more than content to fail as those before him did and would consider such failure to be success enough. In many ways, it is tempting to interpret the journey as a journey towards death. For Roland, life is but a prolonged struggle towards inevitable demise. It is to the reader to determine whether Roland, who moves on not from fierce willpower but solely because "nought else remain'd to do," is driven by bravery, cowardice, or stupidity. However one answers, the fact is that Roland is uninterested in the distinction. All he knows is perseverance, and therefore he perseveres.
But Roland does achieve what "the Band" before him has failed to do: he reaches the Tower. As might be expected, though, the Tower promises nothing redeeming. Instead, it is closed off, windowless and recognized solely by its "turret" (a symbol of war). Roland stands atop it and surveys the ghostly figures of the knights who have died before him, but does not share whether he feels triumph or loss at the sight. Instead, he perseveres again, blowing his horn to signify the goal, perhaps unsure himself of what such an act should mean. Considered in terms of the hero's quest, there is something depressing about the idea that the goal promises no enlightenment; all that mattered was the quest itself, and the poem makes abundantly clear that the quest is quite terrible. It is also tempting here to consider that perhaps Roland has not achieved anything that others have not, and that reaching the Dark Tower is merely a symbol for having finally reached death. So instead of transcending the accomplishments of "the Band," he is merely joining them – as they traveled through a dry, empty life towards death, so has he until he has finally reached it.
What perhaps most confounds the traditional journey story, however, is the idea that this journey is not about the world at all, but rather about the individual. Browning's conception of an individual as necessarily cut off through his personality from the world around him manifests significantly here. The language of the poem makes clear that the true grotesqueness of the plain lies less in its details and more in Roland's effusive descriptions of it. Each element could easily be blown off by a traditionally stoic hero, but Roland insists on pontificating through multiple similes and metaphors on the dark significance of the dry landscape. Consider as one example the "palsied oak" he crosses at around line 155. Where some might see in its "cleft" merely a disfigured tree, Roland describes it as: "Like a distorted mouth that splits its rim/Gaping at death, and dies while it recoils." His journey is not solely through the landscape, but through himself. He does not confront the external, but is equally antagonized by his own inner fears and attacks. Most examples can be understood in this way. Again, this leads to an interpretation of the poem as a journey towards death.
Though Roland does not tell us much of his past, it is implied that he chastises himself, that this quest is a penance he has undertaken for his own failure. Consider the half-dead horse, who receives only hate and no pity from Roland. He thinks of it: "He must be wicked to deserve such pain," to be trapped near death in this grotesque landscape. However, the horse's fate is only slightly removed from that of Roland himself. If being led towards death in this landscape is to be seen as punishment, then Roland merely confesses through his hatred of the beast a hatred of himself.
This sense of an individual's separation is compounded by the themes of betrayal and suspicion that suggest the world does not invite an individual to join it. The poem begins with such a declaration of mistrust – "he lied at every word" – even as the speaker quickly takes this "lie" as truth and follows the cripple's directions. In that first stanza, we see that Roland himself is a liar – the cripple is "to watch the working of his lie/On mine," suggesting that Roland has lied in turn. And when, in the third stanza, Roland shares that "all agree" that the Dark Tower lies in the direction that the man pointed, a contradiction since he had believed the man to be a liar. Such a contradiction suggests that to be around others, in any sort of society, is to confront lies and misdirection.
Roland's thoughts of the past confirm such a worldview. His best friends, Cuthbert and Giles, were both shamed for unnamed betrayals. That Roland does not tell us much – he shares that Cuthbert was ruined by "one night's disgrace" and that Giles was deemed a "poor traitor" – does not remove the clarity of their failure to live up to social expectations. If we accept the idea that Roland's quest is itself a penance, then he is of their rank solely by having failed society in some way. All men are left to themselves and are failures both in the world outside and in their own estimations. Indeed, the only camaraderie Roland feels is with "the Band," whose legacy he wishes to honor by failing as they have. Ironically, he worries to himself that he is not "fit" to fail in their path. Again, what the Band shares is merely a dedication to having braved the journey alone and discovered the darkness at the heart of the world. Such a sense of betrayal can be found everywhere in the poem, in both the imagery that shows nature betraying itself and in Roland's understanding of such desolation.
Perhaps the bravest element of Roland and those that went before them is their willingness to confront the true grotesqueness of the world. Where many blind themselves to the truth of death and man's depravity with worldly pleasures, Roland answers nature's cry to "See/Or shut your eyes" by acknowledging the truth of a terrible world. Perhaps this is what makes Roland a hero: his insistence on declaring himself with his horn in the face of this ugliness. He does not aim to transcend the ugliness – that is clear from the poem's beginning – but instead finds heroic solace in declaring himself a part of it. Childe Roland has not only come to the Dark Tower, but he will proudly insist that he is a part of it. If the Dark Tower, situated deep in the removed mountains with no way to enter it, is to be understood as symbol, perhaps it should be seen as a symbol of every human, unable to let others in and always set far apart from others. Roland's final blast, which might call to mind the heroic death blast of Roland from the medieval poem Song of Roland, is both a recognition of the futility of an individual in an empty world and a celebration of the heroic attempt to declare individuality nevertheless. It thereby contains its own contradiction, since it represents glory and resignation in equal parts.
Finally, remember that attempts at interpreting this poem are necessarily limited. It exists as a nightmare, and though many people have dissected it as allegory, its imagery speaks less well to worldly counterparts than it does to other imagery in the poem. Like an evocative dream, the myriad details of the horrific landscapes are all part of a self-contained world that should bring to any reader's mind associations particular to him or her. The sole universal element is the journey through life, the movement towards death that we all of us brave even if we feel, as Roland does, that perhaps this will not be worth the effort.