Mankind seeks utopia, or arguably it should, it often seeks its own destruction instead, and when it finds utopia, it fails to recognise it for what it is and seeks something else. This is the core idea behind H.P.Lovecrafts ‘The White Ship‘. The story is presented as an allegory for the human condition, or at least Lovecraft’s rather damning view of it. That may not have been his intent when it was written and published in 1919. Indeed I have both read and been told (presumably by people who have read the same commentaries) that Lovecraft succeeds in taking the humanity out of everything. It a common complaint about his fiction, which I suspect is often as not reiterated rather than actually believed. Usually, it seems to be repeated by people who admit to haveing read little actual Lovecraft. In my own view, if this lack of humanity were true ‘The White Ship‘ would never have been written by him, as it is the most human of stories.
Basil Eaton, our narrator, is a lighthouse keeper, stands vidual on a lonely shore, year in year out, watching the ships sail past, and dreaming of the exotic distant shores they visit. He is, oddly enough, a third generation lighthouse keeper, which suggests that at least sometimes the shore is not as lonely as he would have us believe. But still, he stands his lonely vidual watching the tall ships pass by in declining numbers each year. It’s small surprise he dreams of something more, and that those distant shores speak to him, offering him their wonders.
Then one night ‘The White Ship‘ comes, and its master, a bearded man, beacons the lighthouse keeper to join him aboard his craft. So he does just that as the ship sails off to other lands, Lands that do not exist in any real world, lands with strange names and their stranger in habitats.
Lovecraft’s choice of his vessels name may be inspired by the infamous real ship of the same. ‘The White Ship‘ having the distinction of causing more death, destruction and war than any other vessel in history, when it sunk with all hands bar one while crossing the English Channel, taking with it the heir apparent to the English throne in 1120. Its fate brought about a period of civil war in England known as ‘The Anarchy’, and British folklore would have it that seeing ‘The White Ship‘ abroad in the channel at night is an ill-omen of the worst kind. Which is a nice thought in its own way, though it’s more likely he just thought the name sounded eerie and fitted into the supernatural nature of his tale.
Upon ‘The White Ship’ Eaton sails past many lands, strange places with names like Zar, a green and remarkable pleasant seeming land where ‘“dwell all the dreams and thoughts of beauty that come to men once and then are forgotten’, Thalarion, a city of a thousand wonders, and an unfortunate number of demons. Xura, the land of ‘Pleasures Unattained‘ which view from a distance seems nice enough, but reeks of death and plague as they sail close to its shores. Each of these places Eaton is warned by the bearded captain, as being lands that ‘those that enter them, never return.‘Each of them could be translated to some portion of the human ide. Which I would posit is the writers intent, though they seem as much to be ideas of different dooms that could befall a man, as states of mind themselves.
‘The White Ships’ course follows the flight of a blue ‘celestial bird’ which adds to the eerieness and dreamlike quality of the journey. Then finally, as they travel westward they come upon Sona-Nyl, the ‘Land of Fancy’. Sona-Nyl is also a perfect society, a utopia of sorts where ‘The White Ship’ and its passengers stay for ‘many aeons’. Living lives that are full of joy and wonderment. ‘Land of Fancy’ may seem an odd name for a Utopia, but what I take from this is that it is a land where you have what you need. Rather than what you lust for in Xura, grasp for in Zar, or search for in Thalarion or any of the other cities ‘the White Ship’ has passed by. In the ‘Land of Fancy’, you can be whimsical for you have all you truly need…
But, and here is the human failing behind this tale, what you truly need is never truly enough. In time, in this happy utopia, Eaton learns of Cathuria, the ‘Land of Hope’. A land that is more perfect still. Where the grass is no doubt greener. Which I believe is Lovecraft’s true message. No matter how perfect things may become, man will always long for more. Even there in his utopia, Eaton is haunted with his desires. Eventually, he convinces the bearded captain to take to ‘The White Ship’ once more and sail on westward, following the celestial bird. They sail on through storm dashed seas till the ages spent in utopia are a distant memory till the ship takes them to the edge of the world, and plummets to its doom. As it was always apt to do, chasing the ego of men.
Of course, this is a Dreamlands tale, and like all such tales, the twist is Basil Elton wakes at the end. Yet, as is also often the way of such tales, he finds himself not in his bed but on storm-lashed rocks next to his lighthouse. A lighthouse with no light, as its keeper has forgotten it. Though it seems to be only moments after he first embarked the white ship. There is a great wreck, caused by the light going out, yet in the morning nothing remains.Except, as again is the way of such stories, the corpse of the celestial bird ‘The White Ship followed ever westward, and a single broken wooden spar. White, of course.
To sum up, ‘The White Ship‘ ends with a typical, it was all a dream or was it, ending. Yet the tale is better than that. It is the journey, the imagery and the analogy behind it that make this such an interesting part of Lovecraft’s work. It has something of a parable to it, and for me is one of his most human stories, as it is a tale about humanities soul in many ways, the quest for utopia that can never be satisfied, even when it is achieved.
As such I give it 5 out of 6 of the old Kraken suckers. But then I am a bit of a sucker for this kind of tale…