Jorge Luis Borges is a writer of short stories that combine horror and insight, terror and epiphany. His macabre story "The Circular Ruins," owes much to H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe. In this story, a traveler finds a place in a circular ruin in which to embark in a grand attempt to imagine and create a living person, a son. When he finally succeeds, he still needs the God of Fire to embue the manikin with life. Now the wizard's son is a figment of the wizard's imagination, and the God of Fire warns the wizard that fire will reveal the simulacrum's unreality. Well, in a great fire that the wizard cannot escape, the wizard himself discovers that he is, in fact, the work of imagination.
This short story is replete with multiple readings, and every symbol has a multiplicity of meanings possible, but here are a few that are apparent to me.
The wizard is the archetype of the artist. He is both Borges and any artist who wishes to create something of meaning. "In the Gnostic cosmosgonies, demiurges fashion a red Adam who cannot stand; as a clumsy, crude and elemental as this Adam of dust was the Adam of dreams forged by the wizard's nights." As the author or painter is a creator, a god who creates something from the void, this wizard is a creator who attempts to fashion something important. His work is informed by his dreams, just as the artist seeks within for inspiration.
THE GOD OF FIRE
The God of Fire symbolizes that source of inspiration that allows the artist to create.
That evening, at twilight, he dreamt of the statue. He dreamt it was alive, tremulous: it was not an atrocious bastard of a tiger and a colt, but at the same time these two firey creatures and also a bull, a rose, and a storm. This multiple god revealed to him that his earthly name was Fire, and that in this circular temple (and in others like it) people had once made sacrifices to him and worshiped him, and that he would magically animate the dreamed phantom, in such a way that all creatures, except Fire itself and the dreamer, would believe to be a man of flesh and blood. He commanded that once this man had been instructed in all the rites, he should be sent to the other ruined temple whose pyramids were still standing downstream, so that some voice would glorify him in that deserted edifice. In the dream of the man that dreamed, the dreamed one awoke.
We can see here that artistic inspiration requires sacrifice, but the sacrifice, like the sacrifices of the apprentice in Lord Dunsany's The Charwoman's Shadow, are different for each person, particular. Inspiration animates the dreamed phantom, the way inspiration turns mere words and grammatical constructs into images, memes, tropes and epiphanies. And only the writer sees beyond the illusion, to see the construct.
Beginning with the third paragraph of the story, the wizard moves into a dream world. If you read closely, you may notice that the story never specifically tells us that the wizard ever awakes from this first dream. All the other dreams may be recursive dreams within a dream, which apes the dream in which the wizard himself is trapped.
Every important event in the story, including especially the animation of the manikin is born in a dream. The end of the story suggests that the wizard himself is a figment of the dreams of someone outside the story, the writer of the story. Borges, in that sense is the dreamer. But as we read, we become the dreamers inventing Borges. As in One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the book that the character is reading in the story is actually the book we are reading. As in Italo Calvino's novel If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, we are reading the novel in which we are living. This kind of self-referential recursive thinking is as dizzying and unbalancing as a funhouse mirror maze, but it is an integral part of Borges' mythic landscape.
THE CIRCULAR RUINS
The Circular Ruins of the title may remind many readers of Borges' infinite library, or even the hronir of Tln, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, or even "The Garden of Forking Paths." This circular ruins is the place in which the dreams are dreamt, and where the dreams become animated. In oned sense, these ruins are the library of all works in which every book has already been written, the place of inspiration where the writer discovers the stories that have already been written. Within these ruins, the God of Fire, animates the wizard's books. In these ruins, Borges discovers his story and his inspiration allows it to come to life for us to enjoy.