Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Mirrors and Portals

Not to know the truth, at least not right away, is sometimes better, especially in regards to love and infatuation.  This seems to be the moral of Clark Ashton Smith’s, The Enchantress of Sylaire (1941), an item in his Averoigne cycle of stories.  This adults-only fable was published in Weird Tales, along side of a second installment of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, Manly Wade Wellman’s It All Came True in the Woods, and a novella by Ray Cummings, The Robot God.

(A great quote from Cummings:  "Time... is what keeps everything from happening at once.")

The Enchantress of Sylaire contains Smith’s characteristic ambivalence about absolute differences between good and evil, a division typically blurred by the self-interest of his characters.  The story also includes his clever symmetry and circularity in the plot:  many of his narratives seem to end in some sense where they began, but with a powerful resolution the second time around.

Though simple in form—a seemingly straightforward fairy tale—the author is attempting to say something subtle and profound about relationships between men and women, and the impact of time on perceptions of the beloved.  The naïve young Anselme has recently sworn off women after being rudely dismissed by the haughty demoiselle Dorothée.  But his commitment to this plan soon wavers.  Near his hermit’s camp in the woods he encounters the lovely Sephora as she is bathing in a woodland pool.  Sephora is the enchantress referred to in the title, and Anselme is immediately smitten by her intense physical beauty.

Unfortunately, Sephora is accompanied by a large, threatening wolf.  Sephora tells Anselme that the canine is harmless, and she should know:  the wolf is her previous lover and a sorcerer, whom she has changed into a wolf.  “The pool is cursed from old time with the infection of lycanthropy—and Sephora has added her spells to its power,” the wolf later explains to Anselme in private.  From the wolf, whose name is Malachie, Anselme learns that Sephora is an ancient lamia, “…who feeds on the vital forces of young men.”  Malachie provides Anselme a special mirror to see Sephora as she really is—a hideous and treacherous monster.  Will he use it?

In Greek mythology the Lamia was once a Libyan queen and mistress of Zeus.  When his wife Hera found out about the two of them, she killed all her children, and changed Lamia into a serpentine creature that hunted and fed on the children of others.  Later traditions combined her legend with that of local vampires and succubi, and she became a being that seduced and exsanguinated young men.

The poet John Keats described this mythological being in his poem The Lamia (1884):

“She was a Gordian shape of dazzling hue
Vermilion-spotted, golden, green, and blue;
Striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard,
Eyed like a peacock, and all crimson barr’d;
And full of silver moons, that, as she breathed,
Dissolv’d, or brighter shown, or interwreathed,
Their lustres with the gloomier tapestries—
So rainbow-sided, touch’d with miseries
She seem’d, at once, some penanced lady elf,
Some demon’s mistress, or the demon’s self.
Upon her crest she wore a wannish fire
Sprinkled with stars, like Ariadne’s fire
Her head was serpent, but ah, bittersweet
She had a woman’s mouth with all its pearls complete:
And for her eyes: what could such eyes do there
But weep, and weep, that they were born so fair…”

Exsanguination is certainly a risk Anselme is willing to take with Sephora, despite Malachie’s warnings.  Can her ex-lover really be trusted anyway?  In an amusing twist at the end of the story, Anselme uses the “Mirror of Reality” with good effect—but not on his beloved Sephora.  Doesn’t something like this happen among all lovers?

It is interesting to compare The Enchantress of Sylaire with a two part story Smith had published about a decade earlier, The City of Singing Flame/Beyond the Singing Flame (1931).  (See also An Early ‘Trans-Dimensional’ Portal and ‘Trans-Dimensional’ Portal Redux)  The earlier two stories strive for “scientifiction” and employ a “trans-dimensional portal”, the operation of which is explained in terms of a “spectral flaw..a sort of super-dimension, abridging the cosmic intervals and connecting universe with universe.”   Ten years later, Smith dispenses with this, and Sephora the Enchantress merely guides Anselme to a nearby huddle of Druidic monoliths, the portal to her domain.

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