The Lovecraft Reread

The Bert and Ernie of the Mythos: “The Tree”

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Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s original stories.

Today we’re looking at “The Tree,” written in 1920 and first published in the October 1921 issue of The Tryout. You can read it here.

Spoilers ahead.

“On a verdant slope of Mount Maenalus, in Arcadia, there stands an olive grove about the ruins of a villa. Close by is a tomb, once beautiful with the sublimest sculptures, but now fallen into as great decay as the house. At one end of that tomb, its curious roots displacing the time-stained blocks of Pentelic marble, grows an unnaturally large olive tree of oddly repellent shape; so like to some grotesque man, or death-distorted body of a man, that the country folk fear to pass it at night when the moon shines faintly through the crooked boughs.”

Summary

On Mt. Maenalus, a favorite haunt of Pan, stand the ruins of an ancient villa and tomb. From the tomb grows an equally ancient olive tree of enormous size. Its eerily humaniform shape makes people fear passing it in the moonlight. An old beekeeper tells our narrator its true story.

Sculptors Kalos and Musides once lived and worked in the villa. Each was revered for his skill, and no artistic jealousy marred their brotherly love. Musides was the more worldly, reveling by night in nearby Tegea. Kalos preferred the dreamy solitude of a mountainside olive grove, where he was supposed to converse with dryads and fauns. Some also supposed he sculpted his figures after these spirits, for he had no living models.

The sculptors’ fame spread to Syracuse, and its Tyrant proposed that they compete against each other to fashion a statue of Tyche for the city. At first the two fell to work with joy and vigor, hiding their sculptures-in-progress from all but each other. Gradually men noticed that Musides grew grave and sour. Some months later they learned that Kalos was ill, and that Musides was his devoted nurse, even pushing aside slaves to minister to his friend himself. Still Kalos grew weaker. He spent much time alone in the olive grove. Though Musides promised him a marble tomb of great splendor, all Kalos demanded was that twigs from certain olive trees should be buried with him, near his head.

After Kalos died, the grieving Musides complied with his friend’s wishes. He also supplied the magnificent tomb before returning to work on the statue for Syracuse. Shunning former gaieties, he spent much time by the tomb, from which a young olive tree had sprung. The tree grew with prodigious speed, but its form, so like the distorted body of a dead man, at once fascinated and repelled Musides. Before long as many visitors came to see the tree as the artist’s sculptures. Musides welcomed their company, for the mountain wind sighing through grove and tomb-olive waxed uncannily articulate.

Three years after Kalos’s death, Musides finished his masterwork. Emissaries from Syracuse arrived on the eve of a great windstorm. They spent the night in Tegea, glad to be safe inside. The next morning they climbed to the villa, but found it collapsed under a huge bough dropped by the tomb-olive. No trace could they find of Musides or his statue of Tyche.

In Tegea, the people erected a temple commemorating the genius and brotherly piety of Musides. But the grove and the tomb-olive still reign over his former home, and the old beekeeper claims that the boughs whisper in the night wind, saying over and over, “I know, I know.”

What’s Cyclopean: The language in “Tree” isn’t Lovecraft’s usual, over the top more through ornate phrasing than energetic adjectivizing. “Lone and shaken mourned the humble courts and lower walls…” and narrated by Yoda just might be this piece.

The Degenerate Dutch: Musides and Kalos’s slaves putter around in the background throughout the story, never gaining names or descriptions or even numbers.

Mythos Making: Lovecraft will play around with Machen again, to considerably better effect, in “The Dunwich Horror.”

Libronomicon: No books, only sculptures.

Madness Takes Its Toll: No obvious madness today, sorry.

 

Anne’s Commentary

So, was this going to be another story of two guys living together long-term, and maybe they’re gay, but we’ll never know because Howard will only hint (wink, wink, nudge, nudge)? Actually he winks and nudges a lot more about the pair in “The Hound” and about Edward Derby in “The Thing on the Doorstep.” I guess the biggest reason to think Kalos and Musides are gay is because ancient Greece. Even then, they come across as similar in age, which would make their relationship less than the Grecian “ideal.” Also the stress on “brotherly friendship” and “brotherly love” and “brotherly piety.” Wait, are they really brothers? Nope, because elsewhere they’re referred to as friends. Just friends, however “beloved.” Like Bert and Ernie. I guess Musides would be Bert, Kalos Ernie. Yes, I would pay to see a movie of “The Tree” starring B & E, with Miss Piggy as the Tyrant of Syracuse.

Whatever may be the exact relationship between our heroes — this is a decent short-short, told by Magisterial Unnamed Narrator, reporting the tale of a simple Greek beekeeper. Perhaps the bees buzzed it in his ears, having imbibed the truth from the nectar of the tomb-olive. It’s the old tale of envy between brothers, whether literal or figurative. Cain and Abel are the primal types. Old Hamlet and Claudius. The Mozart and Salieri of Shaffer’s Amadeus, which is one of the most brilliant examples of the archetypal conflict and quite like “The Tree” in its basic storyline. “Kalos” has complex meaning in Greek, but it basically covers all the inner ideals of beauty, goodness, nobility and honor. A quick search of “Musides” brings up top references to “The Tree” itself. Did Lovecraft make it up, with “muse” as the base? Anyway, Kalos is the “brother” divinely favored, like Wolfgang Amadeus (Theophilus), literally “beloved of God.” It sounds like both friends are technically proficient, but it’s the poet-dreamer Kalos who breathes immortal beauty into his figures. Like Jervas Dudley, he hangs out in woods and communes with sylvan spirits. Like Erich Zann, he must thrill to uncanny music, here played on uncanny pan pipes. Like Pickman, he has unusual models, though Pickman’s are far from ethereal. Whereas Musides? He goes out partying in the city at night! As much as Lovecraft liked to scoff at the Puritans, he seems to have had as low a moral estimation of worldly revelers as they did.

The “crafty” Tyrant is evidently right that the two sculptors would undertake his commission in tandem, not hiding their work from each other, but he overestimates their brotherly love. How glorious must be Kalos’s figure of Tyche, goddess of the prosperity and fortune of cities, that it should sour Musides with envy, with rage that the divine spark kindled in his friend rather than in himself. From Lovecraft’s winks and nudges about Musides pushing slaves aside to feed and nurse sick Kalos, we must suppose he’s slowly poisoning his friend, as Shaffer’s Salieri poisons Mozart, and with the same deep ambivalence. Are all Musides’s tears crocodilian in nature? Would he waste good Tyche-sculpting time on Kalos’s tomb if he doesn’t at heart revere the greater artist?

Yeah, well, sorry’s not good enough. Chatting with dryads and fauns, Kalos has learned some serious magic — another form of immortality, through transmutation of his essence into a tree. Trees can be scary, all right, especially the gnarly old ones that invite anthropomorphizing. Lovecraft was fond of “peopling” his woods with overgrown and overfed and reaching and murmuring trees, like those in “The Lurking Fear,” “The Color Out of Space,” and “The Dunwich Horror.” Then there was that grasping “tree” we read about a couple weeks ago. While Musides is being simultaneously fascinated and repelled by the tomb-olive (the classic Lovecraft emotional duo!), he ought to notice that one branch hanging over his house and call a tree surgeon.

And Musides doesn’t just get squished. He vanishes without a trace, along with his Tyche. Kalos’s unfinished Tyche vanishes also. I like to think that Pan and his buddies turned Musides into moss to cool Kalos’s roots, while they spirited away the two Tyches to grace the dread lord’s subterranean hall.

The sad thing about transmutation into vegetable form is that trees aren’t too hot at sculpting. So all immortal Kalos can do after his revenge is to whisper “I know! I know!” to the night wind. That’s very poetic and all, but did anyone listen back in the day? No, they raised a monument to Musides and his brotherly piety. Makes you want to drop your leaves and bitter your fruit, that does.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

“Fata Viam Invenient” is from the Aeneid; it means “Fate will show the way” or “Fate will find a way.” Judging from the results of my Google search, it’s been taken on as a bit of a mantra by the “everything will be okay, trust the universe” crowd. Meditative plaques and tattoos abound. Virgil wasn’t nearly so trusting: in the original, it’s something Jupiter says while claiming to be neutral in the Trojan War.

Lovecraft doesn’t trust the universe, either, any farther than he can throw it.

This is an early story and not one of the better of those. The style isn’t recognizably Lovecraft’s at all, and shares with “The Doom that Came to Sarnath” an unfortunate premonition of Yoda—not quite as bad in this case, but the attempt at archaic language still feels forced, occasionally to the point of rolling eyes. The plot itself is a little too lightly sketched. One imagines that some unpleasant power is behind Kalos’s death-sculpted tree, but we aren’t given any reason to care which power or why it does this.

Best guesses for those answers are “Pan” and “because.” Machen’s Great God Pan is reported to be a strong inspiration—though not so directly as it is in “The Dunwich Horror.” I’ve never read Machen myself, and just went to look at the synopsis of the book, and can report with confidence that I will continue to not read Machen, and also, wow, the thing I said in the comments last week about how Lovecraft’s iffy treatment of sex is nothing compared to the iffy treatment by male writers who actually wrote about sex. That is a thing I feel even more strongly now.

Though there are hints of it in this story that are actually rather sweet. Kalos and Musides, whether they are engaged in eros or agape, are kind of adorable. Many of the deep male-male relationships in Lovecraft’s stories are bad for everyone involved: the couple in “The Hound” daring each other to greater depths of depravity, Harley Warren’s dismissive dominance over Randolph Carter, the eternal question of why anyone would hang out with Herbert West for six whole segments of a serial. But these two admire each other’s work without jealousy, supporting each other’s artistic growth—perhaps the perfect relationship as imagined by a solitary artist connected with distant soulmates only through correspondence. (Unless Anne’s right, of course. Anne, you are a more cynical reader than I. Which probably does mean you’re right, given the whole “lack of faith in the universe” thing.)

Well, perfect as long as they’re both alive. What the heck is Kalos up to here? Did he know what he was doing when he insisted on those olive sticks? Were they the price paid for whatever inspiration he got from the grove? Divine artistic critique? Punishment for some price not paid? Was the grove even more jealous of Musides than Musides was of the grove? (Or as Anne suggests, was Musides the jealous one, perhaps even to the point of murder, and Kalos merely poshumously vengeful?)

Pan. Because.

In addition to the connection with the later, and better, “Dunwich Horror,” I also see a link here with “Pickman’s Model.” As with Kalos, people model at how Pickman’s pictures seem drawn from life; Kalos’s ancient Greek admirers are more willing than staid Bostonians to assume this is the case. And yet, Pickman’s where we’ll see it confirmed, while Kalos’s relationship with the fauns and dryads remains obscure. Again given the Machen connection, one wonders if Kalos, like Pickman, didn’t already have a bit of his subjects within him.

 

Next week we continue reading stories that Dunwich Horror made us think of, this time E.F. Benson’s “Negotium Perambulans.” Just about the perfect title for any Lovecraftian story—there’s always something walking in the shadows.

Ruthanna Emrys’s non-Hugo-nominated neo-Lovecraftian novelette “The Litany of Earth” is available on Tor.com, along with the more recent but distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Her work has also appeared at Strange Horizons and Analog. She can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal. She lives in a large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.

Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story.The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com, and her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen. The second in the Redemption’s Heir series, Fathomless, will be published in October 2015. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.

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