I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 54
The clear implication of the tale is that Musides, for all his supposed devotion to his friend, has poisoned Kalos and suffers supernatural revenge. Lovecraft says as much when discussing the story with the Transatlantic Circulator the following year:
Regarding “The Tree”—Mr. Brown finds the climax insufficient, but I doubt if a tale of that type could possess a more obvious denouement. The climactic effect sought, is merely an emphasis—amounting to the first direct intimation—of the fact that there is something hidden behind the simple events of the tale; that the growing suspicion of Musides’ crime and recognition of Kalos’ posthumous vengeance is well founded. It is to proclaim what has hitherto been doubtful—to shew that the things of Nature see behind human hypocrisy and perceive the baseness at the heart of outward virtue. All the world deems Musides a model of fraternal piety and devotion although in truth he poisoned Kalos when he saw his laurels in peril. Did not the Tegeans build to Musides a temple? But against all these illusions the trees whisper—the wise trees sacred to the gods—and reveal the truth to the midnight searcher as they chaunt knowingly over and over again “Oida! Oida!” This, then, is all the climax so nebulous a legend can possess. (“The Defence Remains Open!”)
Lovecraft is, aware that this sort of supernatural justice is not even metaphorically true to life:
About the plot of “The Tree”—it was the result of some rather cynical reflection on the possible real motives which may underlie even the most splendid appearing acts of mankind. With this nucleus I developed a tale based on the Greek idea of divine justice and retribution, (a very pretty though sadly mythical idea!) with the added Oriental notion of the soul of a man passing into something else.
The story’s relative lack of vital connexion to Dunsany’s work can be gauged by the fact that the basic plot was evolved more than a year before Lovecraft ever read Dunsany. In an August 1918 letter to Alfred Galpin, Lovecraft outlined the plot of “The Tree,” saying that it had already by that time been “long conceived but never elaborated into literary form”; he postponed writing the story because he evidently felt that Galpin’s own tale “Marsh-Mad” had pre-empted him by utilising the “living tree” idea. The plot as recorded here is identical in all essential features to the story as we have it, save that at the end “the tree was found uprooted—as if the roots had voluntarily relinquished their hold upon the ground—and beneath the massive trunk lay the body of the faithful mourner—crushed to death, & with an expression of the most unutterable fear upon his countenance.”
What was not included in this plot synopsis was the setting of the tale in ancient Greece; but even this feature is not likely to have been derived from Dunsany, save perhaps indirectly in the sense that many of Dunsany’s early works have a vaguely Grecian or archaic air to them. Dunsany actually used the ancient world as a setting not in any tales but in two plays: Alexander (a play about Alexander the Great written in 1912, but not published until Alexander and Three Small Plays , hence not read by Lovecraft until after he had written “The Tree”) and The Queen’s Enemies (published separately in 1916 and included the next year in Plays of Gods and Men), a delightful and celebrated play about Queen Nitokris of Egypt and the hideous (but not supernatural) vengeance she carries out upon her enemies. This was, let us recall, one of the works Dunsany read during his Boston appearance.
Wherever he derived the Grecian setting and atmosphere, Lovecraft pulls it off ably; his lifelong study of ancient history paid dividends in this satisfying and elegantly written little story. The names of the artists—Kalos (“handsome” or “fair”) and Musides (“son of the Muse(s)”)—are both apt, although they are not actual Greek names. Tyché means “chance” (or sometimes “fate”), and actual cults of Tyché were established in Greece sometime after 371 B.C.E. This helps to date the tale fairly precisely: there were tyrants of Syracuse (in Sicily) from c. 485 to c. 467 and again from c. 406 to 344, but the cult of Tyché clearly establishes the latter period as the temporal setting for the story. One other detail helps to establish an even more precise date: mention of a tomb for Kalos “more lovely than the tomb of Mausolus” refers to the tomb built for Mausolus, the satrap of Caria, in 353, so that “The Tree” must take place in the period 353–344, when Dionysius II was Tyrant of Syracuse.
“The Tree” was first published, pitiably misprinted, in the Tryout for October 1921. Lovecraft later came to despise the story, maintaining that it, along with several other tales, “might—if typed on good stock—make excellent shelf-paper but little else.” The tale may be a trifle obvious, but it is an effective display of Lovecraft’s skill in handling an historical setting.
“The Cats of Ulthar” (June 15, 1920), conversely, always remained one of Lovecraft’s favourites, probably because cats are the central focus of the tale. This tale owes more to Dunsany than many of his other “Dunsanian” fantasies. The narrator proposes to explain how the town of Ulthar passed its “remarkable law” that no man may kill a cat. There was once a very evil couple who hated cats and who brutally murdered any that strayed on their property. One day a caravan of “dark wanderers” comes to Ulthar, among which is the little boy Menes, owner of a tiny black kitten. When the kitten disappears, the heartbroken boy, learning of the propensities of the cat-hating couple, “prayed in a tongue no villager could understand.” That night all the cats in the town vanish, and when they return in the morning they refuse for two entire days to touch any food or drink. Later it is noticed that the couple has not been seen for days; when at last the villagers enter their house, they find two clean-picked skeletons.
Here too some of the borrowings from Dunsany may be only superficial: the name of the boy Menes may be derived from King Argimenes of the play, King Argimenes and the Unknown Warrior (in Five Plays); the “dark wanderers” seem an echo of the “Wanderers . . . a weird, dark tribe” mentioned toward the end of “Idle Days on the Yann.” But the entire scenario—once again a consciously elementary tale of vengeance—is likely inspired by the many similar tales in The Book of Wonder.
One wonders whether Lovecraft was thinking of himself when he wrote, with unexpected poignancy, of the orphan Menes, “when one is very young, one can find great relief in the lively antics of a black kitten.” Is this a remembrance of Nigger-Man and all that that lone pet meant to Lovecraft? He had outlined the plot of the story to Kleiner as early as May 21, but it would be another three weeks before he actually set it down. It first appeared in the Tryout for November 1920.
It would be some months before Lovecraft produced another Dunsanian tale, but it would be both one of his best and most significant in terms of his later work. “Celephaïs” (the dieresis over the i is frequently omitted) was written in early November 1920, although it did not appear in print until Sonia Greene published it in her Rainbow for May 1922. Kuranes (who has a different name in waking life) escapes the prosy world of London by dream and drugs. In this state he comes upon the city of Celephaïs, in the Valley of Ooth-Nargai. It is a city of which he had dreamed as a child, and there “his spirit had dwelt all the eternity of an hour one summer afternoon very long ago, when he had slipt away from his nurse and let the warm sea-breeze lull him to sleep as he watched the clouds from the cliff near the village.” It is a realm of pure beauty:
When he entered the city, past the bronze gates and over the onyx pavements, the merchants and camel-drivers greeted him as if he had never been away; and it was the same at the turquoise temple of Nath-Horthath, where the orchid-wreathed priests told him that there is no time in Ooth-Nargai, but only perpetual youth. Then Kuranes walked through the Street of Pillars to the seaward wall, where gathered the traders and sailors, and strange men from the regions where the sea meets the sky.
But Kuranes awakes in his London garret and finds that he can return to Celephaïs no more. He dreams of other wondrous lands, but his sought-for city continues to elude him. He increases his intake of drugs, runs out of money, and
Lovecraft indicates that the story was ultimately based upon an entry in his commonplace book (for which see below) reading simply: “Dream of flying over city.” Note that this is a pure image, and that none of the philosophical or aesthetic conceptions actually imbedded in the story are at all suggested by it. We will come upon this phenomenon repeatedly: tales are triggered by some innocuous, fragmentary image that comes to occupy a very small place—or indeed no place—in the finished tale. Another entry in the commonplace book was perhaps also an inspiration: “Man journeys into the past—or imaginative realm—leaving bodily shell behind.”
But if we are to find the inspiration for “Celephaïs,” we shall not have to look far; for the tale is embarrassingly similar in conception to Dunsany’s “The Coronation of Mr. Thomas Shap” (in The Book of Wonder). There a small businessman imagines himself the King of Larkar, and as he continues to dwell obsessively on (and in) this imaginary realm his work in the real world suffers, until finally he is placed in the madhouse of Hanwell. Other, less significant details also derive from Dunsany: the oft-repeated phrase “where the sea meets the sky” echoes “where sky meets ocean” from “When the Gods Slept” (in Time and the Gods) and analogous phrases in other tales. Even the small detail whereby Kuranes floats down “past dark, shapeless, undreamed dreams, faintly glowing spheres that may have been partly dreamed dreams” is clearly derived from the opening pages of The Gods of Pegana, where all the gods and the separate worlds are seen to be merely the dreams of Mana-Yood-Sushai. And yet, it is also possible that this image of horses drifting dreamily over a cliff is an echo of a fantastic-seeming but very realistic story by Ambrose Bierce, “A Horseman in the Sky” (in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians), where a man seems to see such a sight after he has shot the rider—who proves to be his own father.
Nevertheless, “Celephaïs” enunciates issues of great importance to Lovecraft. It is difficult to resist an autobiographical interpretation of Kuranes at he appears at the outset:
. . . he was the last of his family, and alone among the indifferent millions of London . . . His money and lands were gone, and he did not care for the ways of people about him, but preferred to dream and write of his dreams. What he wrote was laughed at by those to whom he shewed it, so that after a time he kept his writings to himself . . . Kuranes was not modern, and did not think like others who wrote. Whilst they strove to strip from life its embroidered robes of myth, and to shew in naked ugliness the foul thing that is reality, Kuranes sought for beauty alone.
This is a trifle maudlin and self-pitying, but we are clearly meant to empathise with Kuranes’ psychological dissociation from his environment. That final sentence, perfectly encapsulating Lovecraft’s aesthetic at this stage of his career, is worth studying in detail later. But “Celephaïs” seeks to do more than merely create beauty; the thrust of the story is nothing less than an escape from the “groans and grating / Of abhorrent life” (as he put it in “Despair”) into a realm of pure imagination—one which, nevertheless, is derived from “the nebulous memories of childhood tales and dreams.” The man who in January 1920 wrote “Adulthood is hell” had found in Lord Dunsany a model for the glorious re-creation of those memories of youth for which he would yearn his entire life.
“Celephaïs” is a gorgeously evocative prose-poem that ranks close to the pinnacle of Lovecraft’s Dunsanian tales. But it will gain added importance for the contrast it provides to a much later work superficially (and only superficially) in the Dunsanian vein, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. This novel, written after Lovecraft’s New York experience, exhibits a marked, almost antipodal, alteration in Lovecraft’s aesthetic of beauty, and when Kuranes reappears in it he and his imagined realm will take on a very different cast.
“The Quest of Iranon” (February 28, 1921) may be the most beautiful of all Lovecraft’s Dunsanian fantasies, although in later years he savagely condemned it as mawkish. A comment made shortly after the tale was written may be more on target: “I am picking up a new style lately—running to pathos as well as horror. The best thing I have yet done is ‘The Quest of Iranon’, whose English Loveman calls the most musical and flowing I have yet written, and whose sad plot made one prominent poet actually weep—not at the crudity of the story, but at the sadness.” The note about the “new style” presumably refers to “Celephaïs,” the only other tale of this period that could be said to mix horror and pathos. “The Quest of Iranon” is really all pathos. A youthful singer named Iranon comes to the granite city of Teloth, saying that he is seeking his far-off home of Aira, where he was a prince. The men of Teloth, who have no beauty in their lives, do not look kindly on Iranon, and force him to work with a cobbler. He meets a boy named Romnod, who similarly yearns for “the warm groves and the distant lands of beauty and song.” Romnod thinks that nearby Oonai, the city of lutes and dancing, might be Iranon’s Aira. Iranon doubts it, but goes there with Romnod. It is indeed not Aira, but the two of them find welcome there for a time. Iranon wins praises for his singing and lyre-playing, and Romnod learns the coarser pleasures of wine. Years pass; Iranon seems to grow no older, as he continues to hope one day to find Aira. Romnod eventually dies of drink, and Iranon leaves the town and continues his quest. He comes to “the squalid cot of an antique shepherd” and asks him about Aira. The shepherd looks at Iranon curiously and says:
“O stranger, I have indeed heard the name of Aira, and the other names thou hast spoken, but they come to me from afar down the waste of long years. I heard them in my youth from the lips of a playmate, a beggar’s boy given to strange dreams, who would weave long tales about the moon and the flowers and the west wind. We used to laugh at him, for we knew him from his birth though he thought himself a King’s son.”
At twilight an old, old man is seen walking calmly into the quicksand. “That night something of youth and beauty died in the elder world.”
There is perhaps a certain sentimentality in this story—as well as the suggestion of social snobbery, since Iranon cannot bear the revelation that he is not a prince but only a beggar’s boy—but the fundamental message of the shattering of hope is etched with great poignancy and delicacy. In a sense, “The Quest of Iranon” is a mirror-image of “Celephaïs”: whereas Kuranes dies in the real world only to escape into the world of his childhood imaginings, Iranon dies because he is unable to preserve the illusion of the reality of those imaginings.
In the city of Teloth Lovecraft has devised a pungent satire of Christianity, specifically of the Protestant work ethic. When Iranon asks why he must work as a cobbler, the archon tells him: “All in Teloth must toil, . . . for that is the law.” Iranon responds: “Wherefore do ye toil; is it not that ye may live and be happy? And if ye toil only that ye may toil more, when shall happiness find you?” To this the archon states: “‘The words thou speakest are blasphemy, for the gods of Teloth have said that toil is good. Our gods have promised us a haven of light beyond death, where there shall be rest without end, and crystal coldness amidst which none shall vex his mind with thought or his eyes with beauty. . . . All here must serve, and song is folly.’”
Aside from its musical language, “The Quest of Iranon” bears no influence of any specific work by Dunsany, and may be the most original of Lovecraft’s Dunsanian imitations. It was a long time appearing in print. Lovecraft wished to use it in his own Conservative (whose last issue had appeared in July 1919), but the next issue did not appear until March 1923,
Lovecraft’s final explicitly Dunsanian story is “The Other Gods” (August 14, 1921). The “gods of earth” have forsaken their beloved mountain Ngranek and have betaken themselves to “unknown Kadath in the cold waste where no man treads”; they have done this ever since a human being from Ulthar, Barzai the Wise, attempted to scale Mt. Ngranek and catch a glimpse of them. Barzai was much learned in the “seven cryptical books of Hsan” and the “Pnakotic Manuscripts of distant and frozen Lomar,” and knew so much of the gods that he wished to see them dancing on Mt. Ngranek. He undertakes this bold journey with his friend, Atal the priest. For days they climb the rugged mountain, and as they approach the cloud-hung summit Barzai thinks he hears the gods; he redoubles his efforts, leaving Atal far behind. He cries out:
“The mists are very thin, and the moon casts shadows on the slope; the voices of earth’s gods are high and wild, and they fear the coming of Barzai the Wise, who is greater than they. . . . The moon’s light flickers, as earth’s gods dance against it; I shall see the dancing forms of the gods that leap and howl in the moonlight. . . . The light is dimmer and the gods are afraid. . . .”
But his eagerness turns to horror. He thinks he actually sees the gods of earth, but instead they are “‘The other gods! The other gods! The gods of the outer hells that guard the feeble gods of earth!’” Barzai is swept up (“‘Merciful gods of earth, I am falling into the sky! ’”) and is never seen again.
“The Other Gods” is a textbook example of hubris, and not an especially interesting one. Dunsany had already treated the matter several times in his own work; in “The Revolt of the Home Gods” (in The Gods of Pegana) the humble home gods Eimes, Zanes, and Segastrion declare: “We now play the game of the gods and slay men for our pleasure, and we be greater than the gods of Pegana.” But, even though they be gods, they suffer a dismal fate at the hands of the gods of Pegana.