Monthly Archives: March 2012

Inspiration: Sunken Cities

I’ve been working my way through Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and came across a very nice bit of description:

The ship was about to pass over the weedy walls and broken columns of a sunken city too old for memory.

It made me think of all the sunken cities in literature and myth. In addition to the sunken city Randolf Carter sails over in Unknown Kadath, Lovecraft also created R’lyeh, an alien city submerged in the South Pacific, which is home of an ancient malevolent being. R’lyeh will someday rise to the surface and humanity will be doomed. Tolkien, inspired by the story of Atlantis, created the story of Numenor. The Numenorians were not satisfied with what they had; they wanted immortality too. The Valar punished them by drowning the island.

Recently, I stumbled across another sunken city story: The Legend of Ys. It is a part of Breton folklore, and tells the tale of a sinful city swallowed by the sea. The king’s daughter, Dahut, had engaged in orgies and murder. Lucifer appeared in the guise of a Red Knight and tricked Dahut into opening the dikes that held back the sea. Doesn’t make much sense to me. Wouldn’t Lucifer want the orgies and murder to continue? The legend we have today is probably a jumble of a pagan myth that was rewritten with an added Christian moral by some medieval monk. Since Ys is below sea level, Dahut may represents a chthonic goddess. I think the story needs a retelling to sort things out.

Indeed, while I haven’t read any of them, the legend has inspired stories by Robert W. Chambers, Poul Anderson, and Jack Vance. It even inspired Claude Debussy to write some music for piano (listen below).

If you were to rewrite the Legend of Ys (or a new sunken city story), why did Ys really fall? Perhaps Dahut was really a hero. Would you write it from the perspective of someone who witnessed the city’s fall, or would you write it from the perspective of someone finding the ruins years or ages after the fall?

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John Carter and Literary Archeology

Penguin Classic Ed.

UPDATE: I wrote this post before the movie John Carter came out. In retrospect, it has more meaning now since many movie-goers complained that John Carter was just a re-hash of other sci-fi movies – especially Avitar. It a way, it’s the other way around.

I love to practice “literary archeology.” That is, I love to dig down to find out who inspired and influenced the writers I like. For example, one of my favorite writers is H. P. Lovecraft. A friend of mine introduced me to Lovecraft’s storis when I was a teenager and I’ve been hooked ever since (I’ll save the full story of my introduction to Lovecraft for a separate post). As I got older, I started to explore the authors that Lovecraft grew up reading and those that influenced him: Edgar A. Poe, Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, and Algernon Blackwood. By doing this, I’ve discovered some wonderful stories, and, in the case of Poe, I’ve read an author with fresh eyes.

Recently, I’ve started reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’ planetary romance A Princess of Mars (which incidentally was the last book I bought from Borders). I read that it was a model for Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, as well as countless other science fiction/fantasy stories, so I put it on my “to read” list.

I’ve only read the first couple chapters, but from what I’ve read, it seems that Princess was also very influential on the work of Robert E. Howard, in particular his Conan stories. Both have a “barbarian” warrior coming into contact with an ancient and dying civilization, which itself is built on the ruins of an even more ancient civilization. It’s wonderful to find these “hidden” gems.

Have you read the works that have influenced your favorite author? Did you like them? Did reading them add to your appreciation of your favorite writer?

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