Wednesday, July 17, 2013

"Polaris" (1920) by H. P. Lovecraft, with Commentary


(c) 1920 

H. P. Lovecraft  

Into the North Window of my chamber glows the Pole Star with uncanny light. All through the long hellish hours of blackness it shines there. And in the autumn of the year, when the winds from the north curse and whine, and the red-leaved trees of the swamp mutter things to one another in the small hours of the morning under the horned waning moon, I sit by the casement and watch that star. Down from the heights reels the glittering Cassiopeia as the hours wear on, while Charles' Wain lumbers up from behind the vapour-soaked swamp trees that sway in the night wind. Just before dawn Arcturus winks ruddily from above the cemetary on the low hillock, and Coma Berenices shimmers weirdly afar off in the mysterious east; but still the Pole Star leers down from the same place in the black vault, winking hideously like an insane watching eye which strives to convey some strange message, yet recalls nothing save that it once had a message to convey. Sometimes, when it is cloudy, I can sleep. 

Well do I remember the night of the great Aurora, when over the swamp played the shocking corruscations of the demon light. After the beam came clouds, and then I slept.

And it was under a horned waning moon that I saw the city for the first time. Still and somnolent did it lie, on a strange plateau in a hollow between strange peaks. Of ghastly marble were its walls and its towers, its columns, domes, and pavements. In the marble streets were marble pillars, the upper parts of which were carven into the images of grave bearded men. The air was warm and stirred not. And overhead, scarce ten degrees from the zenith, glowed that watching Pole Star. Long did I gaze on the city, but the day came not. When the red Aldebaran, which blinked low in the sky but never set, had crawled a quarter of the way around the horizon, I saw light and motion in the houses and the streets. Forms strangely robed, but at once noble and familiar, walked abroad and under the horned waning moon men talked wisdom in a tongue which I understood, though it was unlike any language which I had ever known. And when the red Aldebaran had crawled more than half-way around the horizon, there were again darkness and silence.

When I awaked, I was not as I had been. Upon my memory was graven the vision of the city, and within my soul had arisen another and vaguer recollection, of whose nature I was not then certain. Thereafter, on the cloudy nights when I could not sleep, I saw the city often; sometimes under the hot, yellow rays of a sun which did not set, but which wheeled low in the horizon. And on the clear nights the Pole Star leered as never before.

Gradually I came to wonder what might be my place in that city on the strange plateau betwixt strange peaks. At first content to view the scene as an all-observant uncorporeal presence, I now desired to define my relation to it, and to speak my mind amongst the grave men who conversed each day in the public squares. I said to myself, "This is no dream, for by what means can I prove the greater reality of that other life in the house of stone and brick south of the sinister swamp and the cemetery on the low hillock, where the Pole Star peeps into my north window each night?"

One night as I listened to the discourses in the large square containing many statues, I felt a change; and perceived that I had at last a bodily form. Nor was I a stranger in the streets of Olathoe, which lies on the plateau of Sarkia, betwixt the peaks of Noton and Kadiphonek. It was my friend Alos who spoke, and his speech was one that pleased my soul, for it was the speech of a true man and patriot. That night had the news come of Daikos' fall, and of the advance of the Inutos; squat, hellish yellow fiends who five years ago had appeared out of the unknown west to ravage the confines of our kingdom, and to besiege many of our towns. Having taken the fortified places at the foot of the mountains, their way now lay open to the plateau, unless every citizen could resist with the strength of ten men. For the squat creatures were mighty in the arts of war, and knew not the scruples of honour which held back our tall, grey-eyed men of Lomar from ruthless conquest.

Alos, my friend, was commander of all the forces on the plateau, and in him lay the last hope of our country. On this occasion he spoke of the perils to be faced and exhorted the men of Olathoe, bravest of the Lomarians, to sustain the traditions of their ancestors, who when forced to move southward from Zobna before the advance of the great ice sheet (even as our descendents must some day flee from the land of Lomar) valiently and victoriously swept aside the hairy, long-armed, cannibal Gnophkehs that stood in their way. To me Alos denied the warriors part, for I was feeble and given to strange faintings when subjected to stress and hardships. But my eyes were the keenest in the city, despite the long hours I gave each day to the study of the Pnakotic manuscripts and the wisdom of the Zobnarian Fathers; so my friend, desiring not to doom me to inaction, rewarded me with that duty which was second to nothing in importance. To the watchtower of Thapnen he sent me, there to serve as the eyes of our army. Should the Inutos attempt to gain the citadel by the narrow pass behind the peak Noton and thereby surprise the garrison, I was to give the signal of fire which would warn the waiting soldiers and save the town from immediate disaster.

Alone I mounted the tower, for every man of stout body was needed in the passes below. My brain was sore dazed with excitement and fatigue, for I had not slept in many days; yet was my purpose firm, for I loved my native land of Lomar, and the marble city Olathoe that lies betwixt the peaks Noton and Kadiphonek.
But as I stood in the tower's topmost chamber, I beheld the horned waning moon, red and sinister, quivering through the vapours that hovered over the distant valley of Banof. And through an opening in the roof glittered the pale Pole Star, fluttering as if alive, and leering like a fiend and tempter. Methought its spirit whispered evil counsel, soothing me to traitorous somnolence with a damnable rhythmical promise which it repeated over and over: 
Slumber, watcher, till the spheres,
Six and twenty thousand years
Have revolv'd, and I return
To the spot where now I burn.
Other stars anon shall rise
To the axis of the skies;
Stars that soothe and stars that bless
With a sweet forgetfulness:
Only when my round is o'er
Shall the past disturb thy door.

Vainly did I struggle with my drowsiness, seeking to connect these strange words with some lore of the skies which I had learnt from the Pnakotic manuscripts. My head, heavy and reeling, drooped to my breast, and when next I looked up it was in a dream, with the Pole Star grinning at me through a window from over the horrible and swaying trees of a dream swamp. And I am still dreaming.

In my shame and despair I sometimes scream frantically, begging the dream-creatures around me to waken me ere the Inutos steal up the pass behind the peak Noton and take the citadel by surprise; but these creatures are demons, for they laugh at me and tell me I am not dreaming. They mock me whilst I sleep, and whilst the squat yellow foe may be creeping silently upon us. I have failed in my duties and betrayed the marble city of Olathoe; I have proven false to Alos, my friend and commander. But still these shadows of my dreams deride me. They say there is no land of Lomar, save in my nocturnal imaginings; that in these realms where the Pole Star shines high, and red Aldebaran crawls low around the horizon, there has been naught save ice and snow for thousands of years of years, and never a man save squat, yellow creatures, blighted by the cold, called "Esquimaux."

And as I writhe in my guilty agony, frantic to save the city whose peril every moment grows, and vainly striving to shake off this unnatural dream of a house of stone and brick south of a sinister swamp and a cemetery on a low hillock, the Pole Star, evil and monstrous, leers down from the black vault, winking hideously like an insane watching eye which strives to convey some message, yet recalls nothing save that it once had a message to convey. 




This story was written by H. P. Lovecraft in 1918, and first published in The Philosopher in 1920.  It thus antedates Clark Ashton Smith's Hyperborean cycle, which it clearly anticipates, and of which the first story is "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros" (1931).  Though it looks like a quick throwaway, Lovecraft was to refer again and again to his land of Lomar, in such diverse works as The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and "At the Mountains of Madness."  Strangely, he did not as far as I know ever set any other stories in this realm.

The first thing that strikes me is that this was clearly inspired by a dream, and from the narrator's POV has the frustratingly-compelling logic of the sort of dream in which one absolutely must do something of vital purpose but is mysteriously-unable to complete the task (which is usually because one's subconscious mind is urging one to wake up).  Lovecraft described the dream in which he first imagined Lomar, in one of his letters:

Several nights ago I had a strange dream of a strange city--a city of many palaces and gilded domes, lying in a hollow betwixt ranges of grey, horrible hills.... I was, as I said, aware of this city visually. I was in it and around it. But certainly I had no corporeal existence.
(from Joshi's collection)

The second thing is that this is about one of Lovecraft's lifelong obsessions, which is the fear that high and noble civilization is doomed to be crushed by low and ignoble barbarism, a theme which he would repeat in many of his more famous stories.  For example, in "At the Mountains of Madness," the admirable Elder Things, who have a high civilization practicing fine arts and a culture based on what amounts to hobby groups, are destroyed by the rebellion of the brutish, almost-brainless Shoggoths, who seem incapable of accomplishing anything other than murder, mockery and desecration; and the brilliant Great Race of Yith from "The Shadow Over Time," who have psychic time travel, atomic energy and an advanced architecture are destroyed by the Flying Polyps, who apparently are unable to do anything comprehensible to Man save build windowless basalt towers.  (Interestingly, the two named races were enemies of one another, though not particularly inimical toward Mankind). 

This is exactly what happens in this story:  the last remnants of the high civilization of Lomar, which is itself a survival of the earlier high civilization of Zobma, is overrun by the Inutos, described as "squat, hellish yellow fiends" in the text.  What is worse, and what makes the story psychologically-horrific, is that this happens because the narrator himself fails to keep his vigil, for reasons which appear somewhat sorcerous in nature.

This tale takes place around 24,000 BCE, if the included poem is read literally, and this creates certain chronological problems if we are to identify the "Inutos" with the modern Inuit or Eskimos (as Lovecraft suggests in-story).  In particular, as we know now but did not know in the 1910's, the earliest Eskimos did not enter Alaska until around 6000 BCE, at the earliest around 10,000 BCE, though ancestral cultures were resident  in Siberia as far as 16,000 BCE.  (Of course, we do not know the exact location of Lomar, nor all the details of the wanderings of every single Eskimo or Inuit cultural grouping, particularly in the world of the Mythos).

In Dream-Quest, Lovecraft identifies the destroyers of Lomar as the Gnophkeh, rather than the Inutos.  This is not necessarily a contradiction, as it is quite possible that Lomar fell to waves of barbarian invasion, much as did its obvious analogy the Roman Empire.  Perhaps the Inuto attack was ultimately beaten off, or the Inutos incorporated into the kingdom of Lomar as foederati, or the Inutos conquered -- but ruled rather than destroyed the Lomarian civilizations (all things which resulted from various barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire).  The Gnophkeh then could have been the last and most destructive barbarian invasion, the one that finally smashed the high civilization.  

Note that the Gnophkeh are mentioned in this story, and in terms ("... hairy, long-armed, cannibal ...") which imply them to be far less civilized than the Inutos.  Also note that the Gnophkeh are referred to as the aboriginal inhabitants of Lomar, which means that it is quite possible that Lomar finally fell to a native uprising or a reconquista rather than some random movement of barbarian peoples.

Might Lovecraft have considered all this?  Quite possible:  he was very erudite, and his fascination with Classical culture, history and mythology is very obvious from all of his early writings.  Surely he would have known the (complex) story of the fall of the Western Roman Empire, he includes references to Classical culture in many of his tales, and he explicitly makes analogies between the Elder Things and the Romans in "At the Mountains of Madness," to name one example.

An interesting reference in "Polaris" is to the Pnakotic Manuscripts, which are apparently an important classical text to the Lomarians.  This is the first reference by Lovecraft to any of the imaginary books of the Mythos.  The authorship of this text is in other works variously attributed to the Elder Things and to the Great Race of Yith:  "Pnakotus" refers to the Australian city of the Great Race of Yith.  What this implies is that the Lomarians knew much of the prehuman inhabitants of the Earth, and for this reason if none other the fall of their civilization would have been a great loss for learning.

Trivially, I might point out that this story also demonstrates Lovecraft's lifelong xenophobia, which was based on the fear that what he saw as an Anglo-American great civilization would be overrun and destroyed by crass ignorant semi-barbaric foreigners.  While he doesn't actually identify the Lomarians as in any meaningful sense of the word Northwestern Europeans they are "tall and grey-eyed," while their Inuto foes are squat and yellow.  In fact, the obvious associations to any reader of 1920 would be with the Yellow Peril, which would be truer than Lovecraft might have known (in 1920) given that the real Eskimos came from Northeastern Asia and did displace previous inhabitants of the lands they entered -- both Amerindian and Norse!


This is a short but stirring story, which introduced themes central to the Cthulhu Mythos, and which deserves a read both for its inherent excellence and for its historical significance, both fictional and literary.


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