Mythos: The White Ship

I keep finding myself writing so late in the night that I discover I have no time left for a blog post before I need to sleep, so then I shuffle the blog post somewhere else and it ends up on the wrong day or at a weird time. I’m not even writing especially quickly, only about 1,000 to 1,500 words a day, which is good but not great and definitely not indicative of spending 3-4 hours a day on the work. I only hope that the extra time is coming through in the quality of the writing.

That has more connection than today’s story than just an explanation for why it’s being posted alongside a Tuesday article instead of on Monday where it belongs. The White Ship was written by HP Lovecraft after being inspired by Lord Dunsany, whose work he had recently been reading (we don’t even have to resort to guesswork on this one, as we often do, because Lovecraft conveniently says as much in one of his letters – that, or Barnes and Noble is lying to me). My current writing distraction was inspired by my recent study of Lovecraft.

Our hero today is Basil Elton, the latest in a long line of lighthouse keepers, because all lighthouse keepers without exception are grizzled old men in sailor’s coats with salty white beards whose father kept the same lighthouse, and his father’s father before that. Hereafter referred to as Lighthouse Guy, because this story is like five pages long and no way is that enough time to lodge the protagonist’s name in my head.

Past that beacon for a century have swept the majestic barques of the seven seas. In the days of my grandfather there were many; in the days of my father not so many; and now there are so few that I sometimes feel strangely alone, as though I were the last man on our planet.

As my past and current literary investigations suggest, I tend to wander back through the history of media, paying relatively little attention to the big new thing and instead examining the past to see what has not crumbled. It’s an easy way to make sure I read mostly good literature. In fact, if you dig through my readings more randomly selected, like from the LitRPG genre where people largely directed me to whatever was popular right now or when I selected short stories almost at random from a Humble Bundle by a specific publisher, you’ll notice that I tend to be surprised and alarmed at how common certain shitty tropes or hacks are, because I’m used to reading the greatest fiction of any given decade, and that’s obviously a Hell of a yardstick to be measured against (I like to imagine that my focus on the greatest books improves my writing, but there’s no way it’s been improved to that level).

All this being a long walk towards saying that I feel a kinship with Lighthouse Guy here, whenever I wander into a multiplayer game whose time has come and gone. Like Lighthouse Guy, I didn’t personally see the golden age. I just hear about it from the greybeards left behind. Once, they say, there were so many players here that every town and quest hub, no matter how obscure, had at least a half-dozen other people visiting. Now? Now you see fellow travelers in the newbie zones leveling their latest alt, and you’ll see the main toons gathering in the designated last bastion of player interaction, but the rest of the game may as well be single player.

I feel for you, Lighthouse Guy. We did not see the golden age. We just live in its aftermath. Not ruined, but empty.

Anyway, Lighthouse Guy is beckoned aboard some mystical white ship, which he boards by crossing a bridge of moonlight. A white bird guides the ship on a tour of the fantastical. First stop, “Zar”:

As we drew nearer the green shore the bearded man told me of that land, the Land of Zar, where dwell all the dreams and thoughts of beauty that come to men once and then are forgotten. And when I looked upon the terraces again I saw that what he said was true, for among the sights before me were many things I had once seen through the mists beyond the horizon and in the phosphorescent depths of ocean. There too were forms and fantasies more splendid than any I had ever known; the visions of young poets who died in want before the world could learn of what they had seen and dreamed. But we did not set foot upon the sloping meadows of Zar, for it is told that he who treads them may nevermore return to his native shore.

I mean, okay, but if you came from Maine originally, can you still move to, like, Massachusetts or something? What about a nearby but landlocked area, like Vermont?  What qualifies as a “shore” exactly?

Next up, Thalarion:

As the White Ship sailed silently away from the templed terraces of Zar, we beheld on the distant horizon ahead the spires of a mighty city; and the bearded man said to me: “This is Thalarion, the City of a Thousand Wonders, wherein reside all those mysteries that man has striven in vain to fathom.” And I looked again, at closer range, and saw that the city was greater than any city I had known or dreamed of before.

So does a mystery have to move out when someone finally cracks it? Like, sure, there might be a permanent population of infathomable mysteries, but there’s also mysteries that people have tried and failed to fathom, but which will nevertheless be fathomed at some point in the future. Also, how strict are we with the definition of “man?” We’re presumably using the old-timey definition that includes women as well, but I mean from a transhuman perspective, if we end up fathoming a mystery with the help of supercomputers plugged into our brains that would be inaccessible without that mechanical boost, does the mystery have to leave Thalarion?

I yearned mightily to enter this fascinating yet repellent city, and besought the bearded man to land me at the stone pier by the huge carven gate Akariel; but he gently denied my wish, saying: “Into Thalarion, the City of a Thousand Wonders, many have passed but none returned. Therein walk only daemons and mad things that are no longer men, and the streets are white with the unburied bones of those who have looked upon the eidolon Lathi, that reigns over the city.”

I’ve never read Dunsany. Is this whole “things man was not meant to know” bit a Dunsany thing as well, or is it Lovecraft’s contribution?

Third stop:

Then came we to a pleasant coast gay with blossoms of every hue, where as far inland as we could see basked lovely groves and radiant arbours beneath a meridian sun. From bowers beyond our view came bursts of song and snatches of lyric harmony, interspersed with faint laughter so delicious that I urged the rowers onward in my eagerness to reach the scene. And the bearded man spoke no word, but watched me as we approached the lily-lined shore. Suddenly a wind blowing from over the flowery meadows and leafy woods brought a scent at which I trembled. The wind grew stronger, and the air was filled with the lethal, charnel odour of plague-stricken towns and uncovered cemeteries. And as we sailed madly away from that damnable coast the bearded man spoke at last, saying: “This is Xura, the Land of Pleasures Unattained.”

I dunno about you, but the thing that prevents me from taking pleasure in plague-stricken towns and uncovered cemeteries is not logistical difficulties. I get that this is supposed to be a metaphor for how unattained desires are a plague on the mind, but the metaphor isn’t working for me.

After the tour, they disembark in dream Heaven:

In the Land of Sona-Nyl there is neither time nor space, neither suffering nor death; and there I dwelt for many aeons. Green are the groves and pastures, bright and fragrant the flowers, blue and musical the streams, clear and cool the fountains, and stately and gorgeous the temples, castles, and cities of Sona-Nyl. Of that land there is no bound, for beyond each vista of beauty rises another more beautiful. Over the countryside and amidst the splendour of cities rove at will the happy folk, of whom all are gifted with unmarred grace and unalloyed happiness.

Hedonic adaptation is a bitch, though, so eventually Lighthouse Guy gets bored of constant, pure bliss and desires greater coasts still.

It was against the full moon one night in the immemorial year of Tharp that I saw outlined the beckoning form of the celestial bird, and felt the first stirrings of unrest. Then I spoke with the bearded man, and told him of my new yearnings to depart for remote Cathuria, which no man hath seen, but which all believe to lie beyond the basalt pillars of the West. It is the Land of Hope, and in it shine the perfect ideals of all that we know elsewhere; or at least so men relate.

Bearded Guy is against this, but it wouldn’t be much of a story if Lighthouse Guy shrugged and said “yeah, you’re probably right” and want back to perfect bliss in dream heaven forever. Instead, he sets out on the white ship for Cathuria, telling himself all kinds of stories about how awesome it probably is, despite having not a single report to go off of.

But of course, past the great basalt pillars that mark the edge of known waters, the white ship is quickly swallowed up by rushing waters that carry it off the edge of the world. They never catch so much of a glimpse of Cathuria, and as the ship wrecks, Lighthouse Guy finds himself washing up on the platform of his lighthouse. The sea claims the wreckage utterly, and come morning he can find no trace of the white ship. He does find the bird that guided him on the tour dead on the shore, however (because it was all just a dream, OR WAS IT?!), and the white ship never sails past again.

The moral of the story is that if you ever find yourself getting bored of dream heaven, just walk over the horizon to one of the more beautiful vistas waiting there rather than throwing it all away trying to reach a destination that literally no one has ever reached in all of history. That’s not a metaphor for anything, I mean literally, if you end up physically transported to the land of Sona-Nyl, don’t leave.

1 thought on “Mythos: The White Ship”

  1. > The moral of the story is that if you ever find yourself getting bored of dream heaven, just walk over the horizon to one of the more beautiful vistas waiting there rather than throwing it all away trying to reach a destination that literally no one has ever reached in all of history. That’s not a metaphor for anything, I mean literally, if you end up physically transported to the land of Sona-Nyl, don’t leave.

    That is pretty much Lovecraft’s message as well – that if you’ve reached the state of blissful tranquility, then you should hold on to it by all means and not throw it away in hopes of finding something better. And in case of the Lighthouse Guy – also avoid being a self-important egotist that thinks he’ll show up everyone by achieving this super dream and starts praising himself before he did so.

    For context, Dunsany’s story is an allegory for his upcoming boat voyage down Nile. In it, an Irish sailor dreams of sailing on a magic ship through fantastic lands, until his imagination tires out and he wakes up.


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