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 Quest of Iranon,” written in February 1921 and first published in the July/August 1935 issue of Galleon.
“I remember the twilight, the moon, and soft songs, and the window where I was rocked to sleep. And through the window was the street where the golden lights came, and where the shadows danced on houses of marble. I remember the square of moonlight on the floor, that was not like any other light, and the visions that danced in the moonbeams when my mother sang to me.”
Iranon is a golden-haired youth, vine-crowned and purple-robed, who wanders in search of his birth city Aira, where his father was king. Long have been his years of exile, but he walks unaging and sings of the marble and beryl city with its fragrant groves, its verdant valley, its many-colored hills and the river Nithra that flows at night like a ribbon of stars.
He comes to the granite city of Teloth, where grim-faced men yawn or laugh or doze through his songs of memories, dreams and hope. The gods of Teloth demand that all men toil ceaselessly, and so an archon of the city tells Iranon he must apprentice to a cobbler or leave. To all hells with that, Iranon is on the road again, taking with him the small boy Romnod, who seems sympathetic to all the song-and-dream stuff and who suggests that they head for Oonai, a city of lutes and dancing. Maybe it’s the Aira Iranon seeks, or if not, at least the people there will appreciate his talents.
Iranon has been around the Dreamlands block a few times, and so he doubts that Oonai can be Aira, or that the music lovers there will be refined enough to really understand his oeuvre. Nevertheless, he takes Romnod with him and goes looking for Oonai.
After years of wandering, Romnod has grown but Iranon has not aged a day. At last they reach the party town of Oonai, where people wear rose wreaths and drink a lot of wine. The revelers applaud Iranon, and the King of Oonai makes him a court fixture, bestowing on him all the luxuries of a luxurious land. Poor Romnod succumbs to the lure of revelry, becomes a fat drunk, and eventually dies of sleep apnea. And now wild whirling dancers and dusky flute players are the new rage, so Iranon has no reason to stay in Oonai and recommences his wandering.
His last stop is a squalid cot wherein dwells an ancient shepherd, keeper of skinny sheep—skinny, no doubt, because they graze a stony slope over a quicksand marsh. The shepherd seems to recognize him. At least Iranon greatly resembles this beggar’s boy who used to sing of strange dreams and moons and flowers and all that. This kid thought he was the son of a king of Aira, but everyone knew him from birth as a beggar’s boy, albeit weird, so they weren’t buying that. And one day the shepherd’s childhood playmate Iranon just up and run off in search of auditors who’d appreciate his art.
That night, a very old man dressed in tattered purple and crowned with withered vines walks off into the quicksand. And so. something of youth and beauty dies in the elder world.
What’s Cyclopean: Everything.
The Degenerate Dutch: Real cities can never live up to the fair visions in your mind—being full of real people either working hard, or not working hard and getting hangovers for it. These real people cannot possibly be worth your time.
Mythos Making: Aira may be imaginary, but all these other places can be found on any map of the Dreamlands. Sarnath gets a shout-out, as does Lomar.
Libronomicon: Iranon doesn’t so much as consult an atlas.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Delusion’s a fine thing, as long as you never notice. Iranon has a lot in common with Wile E. Coyote.
It’s the old sad story. Most people just don’t have the capacity to understand and enjoy TRUE ART. They may run the gamut from Puritanical workaholics to drunken libertines, but the end result is always the same: TRUE ART goes unappreciated.
It’s also the old sad story about people of stunted imagination or faux-elite tastes who eschew as beneath them such genres as fantasy and science fiction. Or who, accepting them as a fad, don’t have a gut-deep geek’s comprehension and appreciation for SFF. When something’s big-big-big, like Harry Potter, they’ll applaud with the rest, oooh, look, wizards. But then something with fifty shades will come along, or with devious psycho disappeared wives who may have been killed by their husbands, and off the herd goes to applaud the new “it” author.
God, it sucks to be Iranon. He’s got all the makings of a superstar: real talent, good looks, eternal youth, writes his own material, has great taste in clothes. Oh, and he also has great backstory, either way you go with it. Exiled prince or beggar’s boy who makes it out of the hood. You know what Iranon needed? Not some brown-noser of a groupie like Romnod but a really sharp manager. A really, REALLY sharp manager could even have cashed in on Iranon’s delusions by turning them into the basis for a cult, or when it got big and mainstream enough, a legit religion.
But Iranon is an independent kind of artist. He thinks all he has to do is show up and gigs will be arranged, critics will be wowed, record deals will be signed and documentaries about his hard-knock struggle and triumph will be produced. Or rather, he might have thought this once upon a time, but experience has kicked the naivete right of him by the time he cruises into Teloth. Another set of dead-souled Philistines unable to chill out.
Iranon’s pretty brave, though. He may no longer be innocent but he’s not disillusioned, he’s not hopeless or bitter. He can continue his quest essentially untouched while others (Romnod) fall to drug and rose wreath addiction. Oh, and did I mention he’s a natural blond? Because he is. Alas, even blondness isn’t a guarantee, not when these “dusky” people start getting all the gold and platinum and rose-peltings. Iranon gets stuck playing for tips in third-rate dives where the kids jeer at him.
It’s not right. It’s just not right.
Inevitable, I guess, that when Iranon loses his core delusion of being Prince of Aira, he should walk off into the quicksand like James Mason in A Star is Born. Except James Mason actually walked off into the Pacific Ocean, leaving his bathrobe to wash up on shore so Judy Garland could feel all guilty about driving him to suicide with her sheer superior shininess. Quicksand is worse. Also Judy Garland really was shiny, whereas I think Lovecraft means us to have doubts about the “dusky” flute players.
There’s some nice imagery in this story, and it abounds in fine Dunsanian cadences. My very favorite bit is such fine and evocative observation: Iranon remembers how his mother used to rock him to sleep before a window through which he could see the lights and shadows of Aira, but most important, most poignant, is the square of moonlight that rests on the marble floor, unlike any other light. This killer image is reprised in the last paragraph: moonlight on the quicksand marsh is like that which a child sees “quivering” on the floor while he’s rocked to sleep. Prose like music, complete with leitmotifs.
Finally, “Iranon” confirms what we’ve already suspected about the significance of architectural choices in the Dreamlands. Granite cities are likely to house unpleasant people. Marble and any sort of semi-precious mineral (like beryl) equals people of true refinement. Golden domes are great, as long as they’re really golden, not just sordid gray painted gold by the sunset. Gaudiness isn’t a good sign either, as in Sarnath and here in Oonai with its frescoed walls and tapestried chambers and roses constantly being chucked. Then there’s the King’s mirrored floor. How tacky is that? Worse than a mirrored ceiling, because with the floor you can always be looking up ladies’ gowns and gentlemen’s kilts. Dirty old king. You need a spanking with some very thorny roses, although, on second thought, you’d probably like that.
Do pass me that good Oonaian wine, though.
In my favorite scene from C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair, our noble adventurers have traveled deep underground and been captured by the Lady in the Green Kirtle. Seeking to suborn them, she demands to know why they follow the laws and morals of Narnia—a distant land that here, far from the sun and the wild forests, they cannot even prove exists. She builds doubt in their minds: What evidence do they have for this supposedly beautiful land with its unrealistically wondrous people? This glorious place is merely the product of their imaginations, a shallow dream that can never sustain them once the illusion is revealed.
Only Puddleglum, up to this point the Eeyore of the party and kind of annoying, has an answer. It doesn’t matter, he says, if Narnia is real. Even if they’re delusional, the place they’ve imagined is wonderful enough, inspiring enough, that it’s best to act like a Narnian even if there is no Narnia.
Aira is no Narnia, and Iranon, sir, is no Puddleglum.
I actually like “The Quest of Iranon” better than I like a lot of the other Dreamlands stories about pining poetically for a lost childhood. The wandering, ageless singer is a good trope, even if this isn’t the best instantiation ever; the sub-par Dunsanian dialogue isn’t quite as exasperating as in Sarnath. On the other hand, there’s no porphyry. And I’m still trying to figure out whether it’s a clever indication of Iranon’s power, or just lazy writing, when the toiling Telothians laugh at our bard only two paragraphs after we learn that there’s no joy in Mudville laughter in Teloth.
But yeah, as Aesops go, “Delusion is endlessly powerful until confronted with reality” seems pretty weak. On the flip side of the Mythos, “Delusion is all that stands between us and being devoured by dark uncaring gods” carries a lot more of a punch. The suspicion that the world, as we thought we understood it, never really existed, is pretty scary stuff—done right. Here, it comes across more as childish distress over everything being imperfect. There’s not actually any place that will perfectly cater to your needs and desires. Gasp.
That’s fine for my 11-month-old, who wails desperately when the universe doesn’t produce food, physical comfort, and adult attention immediately on demand. It looks less good on immortal bards.
Color this Narnian unimpressed. Perhaps Y’ha-nthlei and R’lyeh can better inspire real-world action—of some sort—even in the face of doubt.
Ruthanna Emrys’s 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.” Winter Tide, a novel continuing Aphra Marsh’s story from “Litany,” will be available from the Tor.com imprint in Spring 2017. Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and LiveJournal, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with the recently released sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.