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Notes on ''The Tree''


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#1 Dabbler

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Posted 22 September 2017 - 10:03 PM

1. ''Fata viam invenient'' – ''the Fates will find a way'', from the Aeneid of Virgil, Book 10, Line 105. It is rather a curious quotation, being the reason given by Jupiter for his refusing to intervene in the quarrel of the gods, and the consequent strife of Trojans and Latins, while mandating that the gods remain neutral in the decisive battle being fought.
 
It can have a simple and rather inane meaning -- things will work out as they work out -- but the story admits of at least two others: that, as the Greeks believed, evil will be cruelly avenged, and that the world is senseless, hypocritical and stupidly base.
 
2. ''Pentelic marble'' – the flawless golden-white marble of the quarries of Mount Pentelicus, used to build the Acropolis.
 
3. ''Mt Maenalus'' – the tallest peak in Arcadia, some six-thousand four-hundred and ninety-nine feet high.
 
4. ''Arcadia'' – a rustic pastoral region of the Pelopponese, haunt of Pan.
 
5. ''dreaded Pan'' – Pan, the tutelary god of shepherds, wooded groves and fields, was a sinister goatish god, associated with fertility and lust, with the phallus,  the solitary vice, sodomy, bestiality and lechery. Note also his cry on waking, the ''panikon'' of sudden fear.
 
See Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan – associated with a hideous cosmic power  (''seeing the Great God Pan''), the fathering by unnatural means of a half-human child who has a hideous death, part human and part beast, the sinister ''man in the wood'', orgiasm and insanity.
 
6. ''Panisci'' – literally ''little Pans'', fauns, satyrs and other lesser deities of like type.
 
7. ''Kalos'' – from the Greek ''καλός'', good, noble, handsome, here applied as a noun ''the good one''.
 
8. ''Musides'' – [son] of the Muses, the goddesses of art and science.
 
9. ''Tegea'' – a settlement of Arcadia, site of the chief temple of Athena Alea.
 
10. ''Lydia'' – a district of Asia Minor, presently in Turkey – the entire coast of Asia Minor being Hellenic in civilisation at this time.
 
11. ''Neapolis'' – There were at least two cities bearing this name, rendered as ''the new city'', e.g. one in Thrace, but Lovecraft's intention is evidently to bracket the Hellenic world of the story's date, from Lydia in the East to ''Neapolis'' in the West. This points to another Neapolis, the name given to the Greek colony of Parthenope, modern Naples, when refounded in the sixth century B.C. (this is our first piece of evidence for the date, it must be later than 599 B.C.)
 
12. ''Hermes of Kalos stood in a marble shrine in Corinth'' – there is a Temple of Hermes in the ruins of Corinth but I cannot presently date it.
 
13. ''Pallas of Musides'' – Pallas is a title of the virgin goddess Athena, patroness of Athens. The derivation of Pallas is a fascinating example of religious development, from Greek pallakis, concubine, Proto-Indo-European parikeh, wanton woman – originally a fertility-goddess transferred to virginity.
 
14. '' a pillar in Athens, near the Parthenon'' – the Parthenon (''maiden-chambers'') was the great temple of Athena on the Athenian Acropolis, completed in 438 B.C., decoration completed  432 B.C. (this is our second piece of evidence for the date).
 
15. ''Tyrant of Syracuse... Tyche'' – The tyrants (a word without necessarily negative connotations in the early Classical period) were three dynasties and several other absolute rulers who ruled over the city of Syracuse in Sicily, with three intermissions of democracy, from 485-214 B.C.
 
16. Tyche was a comparatively late Greek goddess, literally ''Luck'', cf Latin fortuna, the personification of the destiny of a particular city.
 
There is reference in ''late sources'' to a Tychaion in Syracuse, the most likely date being in the early fourth century (after 399). This allows us to date ''The Tree'' with some certainty to the reign of the tyrant Dionysius the Elder (405-367).
 
17. ''tomb of Mausolus'' – a reference to the great tomb of Mausolus, a satrap of Persia, at Helicarnassus. It was reckoned one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient Word, so much that its name, the ''Mausoleum'', has been applied to any tomb built above ground.
 
18. ''the splendours of Elysium'' – Elysium, or the Elysian Fields, the Fields of the Blessed, was the place unto which the souls of certain heroes were conveyed after death (see the fourth book of the Odyssey, as opposed to the Asphodel Meadows to which the ''powerless'' souls of the common sort are confined, which Tiresias describes as a ''joyless place'' (see the eleventh book of the Odyssey).
 
19. ''proxenoi'' – citizens of one state appointed by the government of another state to receive its ambassadors and represent its interest – from the Greek for ''in the place of a foreigner''.
 
20. ''Aiolos'' – the god of the winds.
 
21. ''greater peristyle'' – a peristyle is a continuous columned porch surrounding the perimeter of a building.
 
General Notes: This is, perhaps, Lovecraft's most subtle, and in my opinion one of his very finest stories. A possible reading is that Musides genuinely did love and mourn for his friend, and that his death rejoined him to his old friend, but this is rather unsatisfactory and does not account for many details. Attention should be paid to the initial quotation (''the Fates will find a way'', and from this a subtly sinister – and bitterly ironic – tale can be read. Musides' ''want of gaiety'', his ''sour face'' , his ''eagerness to feed'' Kalos and his baffling decline, all admit of poison through envy. The first tears might well be crocodile-tears, and his fascination and repulsion with the hideous corpse-tree perhaps traces of remorse or a supernatural drawing to the body of his friend by some strange and unknown thing – perhaps the fauns and dryads or tree-spirits, malevolent to those who wrong them, whom he loved.
 
This, too, is suggested by the details – the wind whistling strange words through the olive-grove, his dread of being alone, the shrieking wind and destruction of Musides and his statue on the very night of his honour.
 
A further detail is suggestive – Tyche, goddess of fortune, was often associated with Nemesis, the goddess of revenge.
 
Assuming the second reason to be true, there is a bitter irony in the temple built to the piety of Musides if he be a  murderer, and a true sense of horror in the gentle whisper – I know! I know!  But nevertheless ''The Fates find a way'', the world, as it were, moves carelessly on, finding a perfectly satisfactory statue in Athens. Thus both a lurking supernatural world and a vainly commercial one seem to abide together.
 
The tree suggests faintly the hollow into which the barber of Midas breathed his secret (that the king was cursed by Apollo to bear donkey's ears –Hyginus, Fabulae 191) and which sprouted reeds which ever after whispered that Midas had the ears of an ass (see the Metamorphoses of Ovid, amongst many others, Book XI, Lines 172-193) .
 
It may be pure coincidence, but in Paradin's Devises heroiques  there is an engraving illustrating the quotation ''fata viam invenient'' in its puerile, blandly optimistic sense (keep on going and you will triumph) with a tree sprouting through ruined stone.
 
If I could confirm Lovecraft had read the book it would be most interesting. There is at least one early English translation, ''The heriocall devises of M. Claudius Paradin'', kept at the Pennsylvania State University, so it is current in America and Lovecraft as a greater antiquarian than I by many orders of magnitude may have struck upon a copy.

Edited by Dabbler, 23 September 2017 - 11:48 AM.

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#2 TMS

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Posted 23 September 2017 - 05:35 PM

Somewhere in Lovecraft's correspondence (or it may have been an essay) he confirms that Musides poisoned Kalos. I'm sorry to say that until I happened across that I'd had no clue what the story was actually about. I hadn't given it much thought, since I was mostly focused on the "Cthulhu Mythos" aspect of Lovecraft's work when I first read him.



#3 Dabbler

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Posted 23 September 2017 - 06:19 PM

Once again, an extremely useful contribution. I have read somewhere that it is considered by an eminent expert on the works of H.P.L. to be excessively subtle, or rather unclear, so you were in good company nonetheless.

 

Many thanks for your replies, I am always glad to have proof I am not simply tolerated as a gas-bag! 


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#4 Nescio

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Posted 26 September 2017 - 01:03 PM

4. ''Arcadia'' – a rustic pastoral region of the Pelopponese, haunt of Pan.

 

Also the conventional setting for bucolic poetry, and hence a byword for pastoral bliss and unspoilt nature. I cannot but assume that Lovecraft knew exactly what he was doing when setting a story of murder in a locale with such associations.



#5 yockenthwaite

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Posted 26 September 2017 - 02:46 PM

This was one of those stories where I wasn't sure what happened at the end. As I say in my blog post review:

Was Musides captured by the tree, or does it represent Kalos, or both of them?


But whatever the case I liked it a lot. It's very different from Lovecraft's usual writings.

#6 Dabbler

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Posted 26 September 2017 - 05:27 PM

Also the conventional setting for bucolic poetry, and hence a byword for pastoral bliss and unspoilt nature. I cannot but assume that Lovecraft knew exactly what he was doing when setting a story of murder in a locale with such associations.

 

Yes - I was aware of the association, but overlooked to mention it. This excellent definition is reflected in e.g. the phrase ''Et in Arcadia ego''  ''Even in Arcady I [am here] on the omnipresence of death. There is a painting of that title, Poussin, I think.

 

Most deeply in your debt.  The irony certainly would not have escaped him in what is a many-layered story full of bitter ironies and double-meanings.

 

From the dim memories of my lessons in modern English literature, Thomas used the villanelle-form to parallel effect in his ''Do not go gentle''. I escaped as fast as I could into older writers.

 

Yes -- it reflects Lovecraft's classicism. We share the childhood idiosyncracy of half-believing in Graeco-Roman paganism.

 

He was quite a prodigious scholar, certainly of sufficient quality to not merely rely upon as a guide in stiff passages, but to actually criticise, translations of e.g. the Aeneid. 


''In theory, I am an agnostic, but pending the appearance of radical evidence I must be classed, practically and provisionally, as an atheist.''