The White Ship is not a story meant to tie in with Lovecraft’s most famous Cthulhu Mythos, yet is not wholly remote from it as it makes vague reference to preternatural godlike beings. Its style makes it more due in part to the Dream Cycle structure that Lovecraft would use in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and The Cats of Ulthar.
A man by the name of Basil Elton, a keeper of a northern lighthouse, begins the short story by contemplating his relationship with the sea in all its fluctuating forms of color, stillness and unrest. Finding it in himself, that all his days passed having watched it, he knows it well. Water is a very old symbol. For Thales, the Ancient Greek philosopher and the first in a line of natural philosophers, it was the one essential primordial substance of the universe of which all things were born of and would eventually decay back into once the ordered universe was at its end. In the modern world, we equate to “liquid” money or information, affluent commodities. It is also an unclear reference to a collective unconscious, or nous, as the later Anaxagoras might put it. Often times when looking out into the ocean, one might contemplate the temporality of their own select Ego and wonder about questions of dissolution and viscosity, when all minds are redeemed by a higher Logos. Elton’s inkling of hearing the ocean speak to him is more than likely Lovecraft’s craftsmanship of presenting a microcosmic phenomenon to stand in the place of what Lovecraft means to impart. Elton, protecting a light wherein shipmen might find a temporary solace, finds himself listening to the waters and listening to the vagaries of cosmic history, of individual flavor and of rest and turbulence. At first, he attests, it had told tales of calm beaches and nearby ports, but as the years passed it grew more fond of him and spoke to him of higher things, strange and distant in their relative occupation of space and of time. He mentions that within the twilight those grey vapours of the horizon did part to grant glimpses of the “ways beyond” (which will describe the greatest length of Elton’s journey with the archetypal Sage) and that at the deep of night the water of the sea have grown clear and phosphorescent to grant glimpses of the “ways beneath” (which will later describe the terror of fancy which will lead Elton to his journey’s end and restoration to his tranquil station in the universe). The glimpses have shown ways that were, ways that might be and the ways that are in their Ancient quality that transcends mountains and freighted in the dreams of Time.
One night of a kind with a high and full moon, a White Ship comes from the south, smoothly and silently, irregardless to the quality of the ocean’s listlessness on that night. He sees on the deck a bearded robed man, quite a clear reference to the Jungian Sage archetype, a common device in mind walk type fiction, who seems to beckon him onboard the White Ship. The two seafarers journey to several different cultural niche islands, the first being the Land of Zar, where dwell all the dreams and thoughts of beauty that come to men and are at once forgotten. Elton is reminded of the things he might have glimpsed in the ways beyond and in the phosphorescence before the ways below. He catches the dreams of poets who died in desire before their visions were made flesh to the world. They do not disembark for the Sage tells Elton that he who wanders upon the shores of Zar has never yet returned home.
They next come upon the City of a Thousand Wonders, Thalarion, where reside all those mysteries that men hath striven in vain to fathom. The Sage repeats to him again that none have left the fascinating yet repelling city for there roam only daemons and mad things that are no longer men. Again, for Lovecraft, his demons are far less hedonistic and forces of temptation and evil and revenge than might be of many more contemporary forms of entertainment. His demons are those that have gone mad from the contemplation of paradox and riddle and parable, therein they derive their divinity but seldom to they have a station in the universe. Their happening upon, tends to be, relative to humankind, a “glitch” or anomaly in Time. Some form of unenlightened deva, in regards to being an ambassador of holism and good will, from the further reaches of Time meeting upon the human being in his or her cosmic innocence. Usually we are left to fathom that these were once men who nobly coveted wisdom and knowledge but for whom Time caused a fixation of unresolved nature. This much paves a premonition to the “ways below” that Elton once peacefully contemplated.
The pair next come upon Xura, the Land of Pleasures Unattained, peppered by delirious melodies and delicious laughter. I am reminded at this point in the narrative of one of Stapledon’s past cosmoi, the world of music, where each select mind translates itself in an infantile space as a tune over Time. I have to assume that Lovecraft may have been familiar with Olaf Stapledon, as a contemporary visionary. Perhaps this speaks of an island seeking after lost pleasures that are not to be again.
They next sail to the Land of Fancy, Sona-Nyl, where there is neither time nor space, neither suffering nor death and where Elton says he dwelt for aeons. The parameters of time are beginning to blur, we are perhaps led to believe that Elton is paying witness to the trajectory of his infinite renditions in the forms of Principles ilicited by the Sage to Elton in his innocence. Then again, there is “no death” in Sona-Nyl. There he wanders through gardens paying heed to a quaint polytheistic world.
On another night of the full moon, Elton finds a celestial bird (a Hermes/trickster of sorts likely) beckoning him to follow. It is now that Elton feels the first stirrings of unrest after aeons of fancy. Elton is suddenly met with a new longing to visit Cathuria, which no man has seen, The Land of Hope, where all shines in the perfection of the Ideal that all have known elsewhere or at least that mankind can relate. The Sage pleads with Elton for them to remain in the Land of Fancy. When they set sail in what should be Cathuria, they are not met with a city but rather a swift restless sea which carries their vessel along to some “unknown goal”, where lightning strikes the sea and there appeared on the horizon a monstrous cataract wherein all the oceans of the universe drop off into abysmal nothingness. The bird flaps its wings mockingly as Elton cries over having lost Sona-Nyl as the ship sails over the torrent into the cataract. I have to say at this point in the narrative, I get this sense far too often reading Lovecraft not to mention the subtle sensation. Elton leads an existence where he is subliminally presented with several answers to the primordial existential question, for beauty, for a wealth of riddle, for memory, for pleasure and for fancy, but throughout Time the haunting beauty, riddle and memory of the primordial existential question lays fundamentally unresolved. The yearning for the answer which goes beyond accidental worldly essence or alphanumerical, logical or mechanical answers, bring Elton into the “abyss”, where all waters eventually run and stagnate. In the abyss, where all rivers run and the collective mind dwells, he hears the shrieking of men and of things which are no longer men. He finds himself in shock and suddenly his feet well sedimented on a slab of stone arising from the waters. Elton might now subliminally realize the reason for creation in the calmness he gains with having feet and a ground on which to walk. And he finds himself back at the Lighthouse, from where he originally sailed off from aeons ago, and sees a wrecked ship far out into the ocean. Possibly that channel of the Sage is forever lost. There is a theory, of which I cannot remember its source or origins, being that if chaos is an ‘infinite grounds” perhaps we have lived each moment an infinite amount of times. I believe I read it for a possible account of déjà vue… borderlining on mysticism rather than a brain shutting down and booting up within a split second. Lovecraft does like to play around with a linear conception of Time.