‘Polaris‘ takes it name from the north star, that single static point in the ballet of the night sky around which all else appears to revolve. The star so beloved of sailor and navigators in general due to its constancy. It is always there on a clear night, hanging over roughly above the north pole.
For Lovecraftian’s, ‘Polaris‘ is also the first of his Dreamlands stories, a sequence all of their own in Lovecraft’s mythos. This one written in late 1918 it was first published in 1920 in ‘The Philosopher’.
The story was itself alleged to be inspired by a dream, though this could have been part of the pitch from Lovecraft, who was no more above cheap theatrics than any other aspiring author. The claim’s of its dream inspired genesis, however, do play into the story itself. It is effectively a dream inspired tale about a dream, so where then does the dreamer end and the writer begin…
More academic credence among Lovecraftian’s can be placed on the claim it was inspired in part by Lovecraft’s frustration and guilt over not been selected to fight in world war one. H. P. was rejected for service as a combatant for much the same reasons as the character of Olathoe, who the natator of the story dreams himself to be. A point which others have made much of over the years.
It is also doubtless Lovecraft was inspired by his keen interest in astronomy. Choosing ‘Polaris‘ as the object of his narrator’s obsession and dreams, has much to do with both the stars fixed nature in the sky and the period of precession (more of which in s moment).
The tale opens with the narrator laying awake, staring at ‘Polaris‘ through his bedroom window, feeling at once uneasy and mocked by the ever-present star blinking at him in the sky. It is not until he falls into the grasp of sleep we discover why.
The narrator’s dreams are taking him to another time and place, one before the dawn of recorded history. A city at the heart of a fading Empire that existed, at least in the narrator’s dreamings, 26000 years ago. He knows this because of the star, hanging in its normal place above the horizon, that same ever present blinking north star ‘Polaris‘. 26000 years is, without coincidence, the period of precession. The strange wobble that the Earth had upon its axis that takes 26000 years to complete a rotation.
The ‘period of precession’ can be measured (see the link to Wikipedia here if you want the science), but to measure its requires a lot of complicated maths of the kind Lovecraft himself never mastered and was thus denied his childhood ambition to become a professional astronomer. However, astronomy’s loss is literature’s gain. However, it must be said not poetries.
The poem above is spoken by the star itself to the narrator, or at least, it is imagined in his dream. The reference to precession is apparent. The subtext is also clear in its intention, which suggests that the narrator dreams of his own past life, and revisits in his dreams the actions of that life, and the shame his soul feels because of them.
In his dream the narrator does not only dream of the inhabitants of the city, but that he knows them, with a feeling of familiarity that is almost sublime, and as each night passes that feeling becomes stronger. Until he does not merely observe the city but inhabits it himself in his dreams and becomes Olathoe. A weakling, feeble and given to strange faintings, cursing himself that he is left behind while his fellow citizens go off to war. (sounds familiar doesn’t it). Desperate to serve his city he takes a post as a guard, watching the high passes and poised to light the beacon that will summon the warriors should the invaders arrive. Wherein lays the shame he feels, for in the last he fails in this duty too.
As a tale, it is original in the form of a dreamers dream, yet leans towards myth. But there are issues with it that must be looked at with some context.
Of all the tales so far it is the first that has an unsettling feel to it in the wrong way. The invaders of the ancient city are named as Inutos, a name derived from the modern Inuit. They are described as small, yellow and barbaric, and as being a lesser race than the proud and seemingly caucasian people of the land of Lomar, of which the narrator dreams himself to be. The racism inherent in this description, is unfortunate, at the very least. Lovecraft, like many other writers of the period, chose to use Asiatic people as a threatening presence.
The context, which is perhaps forgiving here, is that his imagined city is placed by his tale in North America, and the migration of the Inuit people from Asia to North America happened somewhere within his timeline. To the people of that lost empire, they would be a barbarous invader. As the narrator identifies with the empire citizens his view holds some water, but not the description as it is given by Lovecraft, or indeed the lack of the narrators real-self seeing an issue with the way his dream-self feels and describes the foe.
It is, I will grant, a harsh criticism of the story. Some would see it as picking at a small scab in the context of the time it was written. It also has no impact on my score of 4 tentacles out of 6. (Unlike the poem). But while it is the first of the stories I have reviewed to raise my liberal eyebrows a little, it will I am aware not be the last. Regardless, however, it is a solid well-crafted tale and the first of the Dreamlands is a story I enjoy despite its issues.