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CLASSIC HORROR BLOG

 

Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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H. P. Lovecraft's Polaris: A Detailed Summary and Literary Analysis

Like so many of his shorter stories, “Polaris” was inspired by one of Lovecraft’s dreams. In a letter to a friend, he claimed:

 

“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. There was not a soul in this vast region of stone-paved streets and marble walls and columns, and the numerous statues in the public places were of strange bearded men in robes the like whereof I have never seen before or since.”

 

Shortly after – in 1918, two years before it was published – he wrote “Polaris” based on these vivid memories, and with it the Dream Cycle, (a surreal, fantasy universe ranging from “The Cats of Ulthar” to “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”) was born. He would pen three more Dream Cycle tales before “Polaris” saw publication, but its visceral if brief content would prepare the way for many of his great, recurring themes – vanished civilizations, mass degeneration, malevolent invaders from other worlds, sadistic fate, the futility of idealism, and the blurred lines between dimensions, experiences, dreams, and reality – and it would specifically serve as a blueprint for one of his great, later stories: “The Shadow Out of Time,” in which he matures and actualizes these themes.

 

The final product has been met with decidedly mixed reviews but it has an undeniable philosophical gravitas that likely stemmed from the fact that he and his correspondent frequently debated theology, relativism, and the nature of reality. Despite its inexcusable and pathetic racism, it is a haunting narrative that calls reality into question and begins to lay down the pipeline of what would become his cosmic thesis: that mankind is destined to failure, that our achievements are ephemeral, and that our evolutionary trajectory is not upward, but bowed: destined for a great and final plummet into oblivion.

 

SUMMARY



The tale is narrated to us by a nondescript loner who lives, seemingly, by himself in a cabin located somewhere in a North American swamp. He details how he spends his lonely, often sleepless nights staring at the vast sky over the wetlands – particularly the North Star, which he loathes, describing (with Poe-like mania) how it seems to be watching him back, “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."


One autumn night, not long ago, the pale green fire of the Northern Lights burned over his cabin, and when he fell asleep, he was startled to find himself lost in a lucid dream of a domed, foreign city located in a plateau between two tall mountains. Barely ten degrees over the horizon, he recognizes Polaris burning, suggesting that he must be at the North Pole, or near to it. Although he doesn’t recognize the strange, marble architecture or the language of the grave, grey-eyed people who populate it, he is deeply drawn to the city, and is disappointed upon waking up, with the Pole Star leering (once more overhead) “as never before.”

 

But the dreams continued – nightly – and he walks alongside the inhabitants, learning their ways and reveling in their culture. He is, however, still invisible to them, and wishes to be able to fully manifest among them. As this continues, he begins to lose his grip on reality, wondering which world is more real: the one where his body is sleeping, or the one where his mind roams among the strange marble buildings.

 

Finally, he wills himself into existence: he finds himself inhabiting the body of one of the residents, automatically understanding the language, history, and culture of the city between the mountains, which he now knows to be called Olathoë, “which lies on the plateau of Sarkia, betwixt the peaks of Noton and Kadiphonek.” But all is not well in Olathoë: he now realizes that the city is in a state of war and is preparing for an imminent attack from a people group called 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 many to besiege our towns.”

 

The narrator’s friends are all warriors – men of action, virtue, and strength – who are readying themselves for the upcoming siege, but he is widely known for his physical frailty and must stay behind with the elders, women, and children. However, he can serve them in one capacity: he has excellent, almost telescopic vision, and is enlisted as the observer in the watchtower of Thapnen.

 

On the critical night, with the attack expected at any moment, he stares up at the North Star from his place in the watchtower. As he makes eye contact with Polaris, he senses it speaking to him telepathically, in the form of a hypnotic curse:

 

"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."

 

The narrator is disturbed by these sneering words, but they are repeated over and over and over again, “soothing [him] to a traitorous” weariness, and he falls asleep before he can be relieved…

 

He wakes up in the cabin in the swamp (“with the Pole Star grinning at me through a window from over the horrible swaying trees of a dream swamp. And I am still dreaming”). Although he cannot be sure of anything, he is certain that he – the man in the cabin – is the reincarnated soul of the watchman who fell asleep while on guard duty, and that the Inutos must have swarmed Olathoë and massacred the residents in their sleep. He is particularly disturbed by realization that, although there is no “Land of Lomar” near the Polar Circle, it is inhabited by Inuit tribes who resemble his impression of the Inutos.

 

He never returns again to his polar dream world, and his nights are haunted by the memories of his failure:

 

“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.” 

 

ANALYSIS

 


“Polaris” has always haunted me. It is so short but hints at so much, and – like any good story inspired by a dream – creates a surreal vertigo which casts doubt on all of the experiences described. The state in which the narrator finds themselves – living in a featureless hovel in a formless woods at the foot of a shapeless swamp in some nameless country, with an uncertain age, marital status, living arrangement, race, background, or even gender – makes their waking life far less detailed and realistic than their vivid dream-world. It causes us to question which one is more real, more worth experiencing.

 

And of course, this is the very point. In his debates with his friend, Maurice W. Moe (a Wisconsin high school teacher, poet, and, notably, a devout Christian) Lovecraft argued that reality itself is relative and that he could find more joy and delight in his dreams than in a waking life spent pursuing the ethos of a religion which promised an afterlife that was, after all, a matter of faith. While his friend might find comfort in his faith in eternal belonging with God, Lovecraft argued that his dreams were far more real than even reality, offering him the chance to experience the pleasures of immortality while less creative types merely hoped for it. Rather than dream of paradise – which he found himself unable to do, besides – he chose to find paradise in his dreams.

 

II.

The point of the story, though – one which is hardly uplifting or inspiring – is that the narrator of “Polaris” is lost between worlds because neither is profoundly real enough for him to fully commit to one. His waking life (or what we assume to be his waking life) is dull, featureless, and lonely, without purpose or mission, while his dream life offers him drama, vibrancy, and belonging – and has plenty of purpose and mission (a whole civilization hangs in the balance!). But even this obvious choice has its serious detraction: he has already failed there, 26 millennial ago, and for all of its vitality, it couldn’t be less materially significant. The question, then, is to which reality should he commit: one with no life or color, but a chance to live in the present, or one filled with significance and purpose, but without any opportunity to impact the future. The final lines – repeated from the opening section – underscore the main message of this story: what is our barely evolved human intellect after all, save an “insane watching eye which strives to convey some strange message, yet recalls nothing save that it once had a message to convey”? Severed from the opportunity to fix his mistake, he – like the Pole Star – is left madly repeating the same life (and the same dismal failures) over and over – and over and over – again, ad infinitum.

 

III.

As with “Dagon,” there is an obvious autobiographical parallel to Lovecraft’s experiences during World War One: a longing to participate made all the more burning by his feelings of physical impotence and personal incompetence. Like the narrator’s past-life self, Lovecraft felt useless during the Great War: as we mentioned in the notes to “Dagon,” his mother sabotaged his plans to enlist twice, pulling strings with her social connections and publicly denouncing her son as physically unfit to serve. This humiliation crushed him and reinforced his searing self-loathing – a potent emotion which would be projected onto minorities, immigrants, and lower-class whites in the form of his notorious racism and elitism (more on that below).

 

Also, like the Lomarian sentinel, Lovecraft felt that his one skill – the sole credit to his character which he could enlist in the service of Western Civilization – was his vision; not his eyesight, however, but his cosmic perspective. Lovecraft fancied that he could foresee the arch of history and divine the looming degeneration of humanity, but – like a Progressive Era Casandra – he also felt incapable of persuading his countrymen to take his warning seriously, and – caught up as he was in his own reveries, fantasy worlds, and lucid dreaming – he lacked the energy or charisma to make his case. In this sense, he too had fallen asleep on guard duty, and although he was still a young man at the time he wrote “Polaris,” he had already assumed that he will not be industrious enough to stop what he foresees approaching in the distance: everything is futile, reality is relative, and all individual efforts, no matter how noble, count for nothing. Kenneth Hite points out that futility is at the root of this story:

 

“the story strongly implies that the ‘dream world’ of Lomar is our own world 26,000 years … ago, and hence that time and consciousness and history are cyclic, that the soul is not individual or even time-bound, and that even today the intellectuals are nodding off on the peaks while our civilization enters its terminal state… if somebody … wanted to recast the entire Mythos as a Spenglerian, neo-Platonist, Gnostic myth-cycle [they] could do worse than build on the frozen foundations of Lomar.”

 

IV.

To that point, I would be remiss if I didn’t note one more significant – and unfortunate – milestone of “Polaris.” Not only is it the first instance of a mystical grimoire (the Pnakotic Manuscripts), a long-dead civilization, or an invading alien race hellbent on propagating their gospel of degeneration, but it is one of the earliest examples of Lovecraft taking an unnecessarily low blow at a non-Anglo-Saxon, non-elite culture for “horror effect.” The “staggering reveal” that the cannibalistic Inuto – squat, yellow-skinned, and savage – are in reality the modern day Innuit is both unworthy and embarrassing. But his prejudices won’t end here, nor will they be limited to people of color: lower-class whites (“white trash”), rural, uneducated whites (“decadent mountain folk”), Germans (“the Hun”), and even the Dutch (“the degenerate Dutch” – italics mine) will all fall prey to his prejudices.

 

Yet for all this idiocy, there has always been something haunting and eerie about his selection of the bleak polar wastes as being the forgotten location of his noble society – eradicated and erased from earth – a theme which he will famously revisit in “The Mountains of Madness” to great effect. Vilifying the Innuit people is unforgivable – and there is something genuinely chilling about imagining a flourishing, urban society buried under the snow of the Arctic Circle. While the Innuit are a beautiful culture replete with their own folklore, fashion, music, spirituality, cuisine, and art, they do live in an undeniably spartan and unforgiving climate where it is difficult to imagine a prosperous metropolis.

 

Weather aside, similar things could be said about finding a sunken capital abandoned for centuries under the endless beanfields of Kansas, or swept under the broken boulders of the Scottish Highlands: it simply seems so strikingly out of place that it offends our expectations. That a mighty empire might have been obliterated from the historical record, and that its site might be hidden in such an unassuming, uninhabitable region – lost forever under the snow and glaciers – is a truly unnerving thought. What else, it seems to question, have we as a species forgotten? What other “strange messages” – long lost to time and stripped of their once-vital importance – are now being overlooked because of our patterns of assumption and our lack of imagination? And what neglected prophets are we writing off as cranks because their words make no sense to us, based only on the context of our limited snapshot of reality.

 

 

 

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