Monday, September 20, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: Xeethra

I make no secret of the fact that, especially as I get older, Clark Ashton Smith is, hands-down, my favorite of Weird Tales's "Big Three" pulp fantasy writers. One of the reasons this is so is that Smith understands and weaves beautiful stories around the twin themes of memory and loss, as he does in his December 1934 tale, "Xeethra." Set, appropriately enough, in the dying future continent of Zothique, "Xeethra" is the story of a young goatherd of the same name, who, while "tending the black and piebald goats of his uncle Pornos," stumbles upon "the mysterious yawning of a cavern."
Hesitating, he tried to remember certain legends that Pornos had once told him: legends that concerned such hidden caverns as the one on which he had stumbled. But it seemed that the tales had faded now from his mind, leaving only a dim sense of things that were perilous, forbidden and magical. He thought that the cavern was the portal of some undiscovered world—and the portal had opened to permit his entrance. Being of a nature both venturesome and visionary, he was undeterred by the fears that others might have felt in his place. Overpowered by a great curiosity, he soon entered the cave, carrying for a torch a dry, resinous bough that had fallen from the tree in the cliff.
Within the cave was
a fertile plain that lapsed illimitably into golden distance under the measureless arch of a golden vault. Far off, through the misty radiance, there was a dim towering of unidentifiable masses that might have been spires and domes and ramparts. A level meadow lay at his feet, covered with close-grown curling sward that had the greenness of verdigris; and the sward, at intervals, was studded with strange blossoms appearing to turn and move like living eyes. Near at hand, beyond the meadow, was an orchard-like grove of tall, amply spreading trees amid whose lush leafage he descried the burning of numberless dark-red fruits. The plain, to all seeming, was empty of human life; and no birds flew in the fiery air or perched on the laden boughs. There was no sound other than the sighing of leaves: a sound like the hissing of many small hidden serpents.
Xeethra partakes of one of those dark red fruits and is overcome with strange feelings and memories, soon forgetting who he was, soon coming to believe that he was "King Amero, who had newly come to the throne, [and] would rule as his fathers had ruled over all the kingdom of Calyz by the orient sea." Xeethra's uncle soon discovers the youth's affliction and bemoans his fate:
"Ill was this day, for you have wandered among enchantments. Verily, there in no tarn such as you have described amid the hills; nor, at this season, has any herder found such pasturage. These things were illusions, designed to lead you astray; and the cave, I wot, was no honest cave but an entrance into hell. I have heard my fathers tell that the gardens of Thasaidon, king of the seven underworlds, lie near to the earth's surface in this region; and caves have opened ere this, like a portal, and the sons of men, trespassing unaware on the gardens, have been tempted by the fruit and eaten it. But madness comes thereof and much sorrow and long damnation: for the Demon, they say, forgetting not one stolen apple, will exact his price in the end. Woe! woe! the goat-milk will be soured for a whole moon by the grass of such wizard pasture; and, after all the food and care you have cost me, I must find another stripling to ward the flocks."
Of course, in his delusions, Xeethra pays no heed to any of this, denying that he knows the old man and desires nothing more than to return to Shathair, capital city of "his" kingdom of Calyz in the far east. Indeed, Xeethra/Amero sets off to do just that and the rest of the story tells of what he finds and the consequences for the young goatherd as he does so.

In "Xeethra," memory is literally a curse, a malediction inflicted by the dark god Thasaidon upon a young goatherd who trespassed on his sacred precincts. Yet, what makes this story so powerful and moving is that we all understand how memory can also metaphorically be a curse, something that prolongs pain and causes us to wallow in the past rather than moving forward into the future. It's something I understand much better now than I did as a younger man, which probably explains why I now rate "Xeethra" much higher as a story than I once did. Regardless, "Xeethra" is pleasure to read; it has the air of a fable or fairy tale, albeit a particularly melancholy one and is probably one of the best entries in the entire cycle of Zothique.

4 comments:

  1. I have got to steal "Uncle Pornos" as my username the next time I register to post on an internet forum...

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  2. This was the first CAS story I ever read and the one I recommend to my friends who've never read his work.

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  3. I wonder how much that issue of Weird Tales would go for today...

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  4. Wow, Howard's A Witch shall be Born and CAS -- that's quite an issue.

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