Monday, November 7, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: The White Sybil

I am regularly struck by the industry demonstrated by the writers of the Golden Age of the Pulps. The sheer number of stories they collectively produced during the period between the two world wars is simply staggering. Despite the large number of professional, paying magazines actively soliciting submissions at the time, there was no way these periodicals could keep pace with the torrent of fiction being penned. For that reason, even established wordsmiths of the caliber of Clark Ashton Smith sometimes had to turn to amateur fanzines or limited run anthologies if they hoped to see some of their works to see print.

Such was the case with Smith's "The White Sybil," completed in mid-1932 and reluctantly rejected by Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales, who considered it more a prose poem than a story proper. This was a common – and I daresay fair – criticism of many of Smith's submissions. He was by training and temperament a poet and even his best works of "pure" fiction nevertheless evince the incantatory rhythms of verse. For this reason, "The White Sybil" only saw print in 1935 as part of a limited (500-copy) anthology produced by William L. Crawford, the young science fiction fan behind Marvel Tales and Unusual Stories, two short-lived but important semi-pro periodicals.

"The White Sybil" tells of Tortha, himself a poet, who after having "wandered in the quest of that alien beauty which had always fled before him like the horizon," returns to his native city of Cerngoth in Hyperborea. During his travels, Tortha had "beheld many marvels," which is why he was surprised to behold an even stranger marvel while he wandered the streets of Cerngoth, namely, the fabled White Sybil of Polarion. 

He knew not whence she had come, but suddenly she was before him in the throng. Amid the tawny girls of Cerngoth with their russet hair and blue-black eyes, she was like an apparition descended from the moon. Goddess, ghost or woman, he knew not which, she passed fleetly and was gone: a creature of snow and norland light, with eyes like moon-pervaded pools, and lips that were smitten with the same pallor as the brow and bosom. Her gown was of some filmy white fabric, pure and ethereal as her person.

In wonder that turned to startled rapture, Tortha gazed at the miraculous being, and sustained for a moment the strangely thrilling light of her chill eyes, in which he seemed to find an obscure recognition, such as a long-veiled divinity, appearing at last, would vouchsafe to her worshipper.

The White Sybil was a " mysterious being who was rumored to come and go as if by some preterhuman agency in the cities of Hyperborea." None knew her name or her origins, only that she often "utter[ed] cryptic prophecies and tidings of doom." Indeed, she had long ago pronounced the destruction of Hyperborea and its civilization and, for that reason, men feared her – except for Tortha.

In that single glimpse, he had found the personification of all the vague ideals and unfixed longings that had drawn him from land to land. Here was the eluding strangeness he had sought on alien breasts and waters, and beyond horizons of fire-vomiting mountains. Here was the veiled Star, whose name and luster he had never known. The moon-cold eyes of the Sybil had kindled a strange love in Tortha, to whom love had been, at most, no more than a passing agitation of the senses.

 Overcome by "wild Uranian ecstasy," the poet determines to seek out the White Sybil by ascending a snow-capped mountain where he believed she could be found. The ascent was both physically and mentally arduous, yet he never once considered turning back, so great was the "unearthly fervor and exaltation" that she engendered in him. Eventually, he succeeds in finding the object of his quest.

With timid steps, with eyes that faltered before her mystic beauty, and a flaming as of blown torches in his heart, he entered the arbor. From the bank of blossoms on which she reclined, the Sybil rose to receive her worshipper. . . .

Of all that followed, much was forgotten afterwards by Tortha. It was like a light too radiant to be endured, a thought that eluded conception through surpassing strangeness. It was real beyond all that men deem reality: and yet it seemed to Tortha that he, the Sybil, and all that surrounded them, were part of an after-mirage on the deserts of time; that he was poised insecurely above life and death in some bright, fragile bower of dreams.

He thought that the Sybil greeted him in thrilling, mellifluous words of a tongue that he knew well, but had never heard. Her tones filled him with an ecstasy near to pain. He sat beside her on the faery bank, and she told him many things: divine, stupendous, perilous things; dire as the secret of life; sweet as the lore of oblivion; strange and immemorable as the lost knowledge of sleep. But she did not tell him her name, nor the secret of her essence; and still he knew not if she were ghost or woman, goddess or spirit.

The last paragraph is, I think, quite effective in the way it struggles to describe the painful, delightful, and contradictory human experience of beauty and the desire to somehow possess it, not to mention the equally human experience of being unable to do so, no matter how much we might wish it.

There are two endings to "The White Sibyl," the one published in Crawford's 1935 anthology and Smith's original ending, the former of which can be found via the link above and which offers a somewhat more hopeful conclusion to Tortha's sojourn. Much as I like the tale, neither version strikes me as the kind of thing that would likely have appealed to the typical reader of the Unique Magazine and I can hardly blame Wright for having rejected it. "The White Sybil" is not a weird tale as generally understood, but rather an extended meditation on longing and the futile lengths to which we will sometimes go in an attempt to sate it – hardly the stuff of rousing adventure but a worthy topic for introspection and one especially well suited to the talents of Clark Ashton Smith.


  1. I've always thought of "The White Sibyl" as quintessential CAS. Not the only one, of course.

  2. The excerpts read a bit like a romance novel, the sort my Gran used to read (Mills & Boon). I wonder if he was writing about the effect a beautiful yet unapproachable woman had on him, and playing out his day dreams in his head? In that sense it is a fantasy tale, one that we've all probably had one way or another. I certainly have had some 30-odd years ago.

  3. A bit of a request. I enjoy the pulp library posts, but would maybe like to know if there are any Jack Vance or Lord Dunsany ones in you collection.

    1. I have done several posts on Vance and Dunsany in the past, but I can certainly add more to the queue for the future. Thanks for the suggestion.

  4. I consider "The White Sybil" to have the most beautiful language of any story that CAS ever wrote.