Saturday, March 21, 2009
The White Sybil
The white Sybil is one of Clark Ashton Smith's tales of the mythical land of Hyperborea, and it's one of the more haunting of Smith's stories that I've read.
A restless poet named Tortha has just returned from far wanderings to his home city of Cerngoth. One day he spies the supernatural creature known as the White Sybil walking through the city. No one knows exactly what the Sybil is, ghost, goddess, or demon, but like all Sybils she is a prophetess. Unlike most of the inhabitants of the land, who scatter at the sight of the strange apparition, Tortha is smitten by the Sybil's unearthly beauty. He develops a serious case of unrequited love which causes him to wander in the lonely mountains where the Sybil is thought to dwell. There he eventually finds her and...well. read it yourself. It's a wonderful story.
I think what impressed me the most about the tale was the way Smith handles Tortha's eventual meeting with the Sybil. The Sybil isn't human and Tortha's attempts to communicate with her have a feeling of utter unearthliness that's hard to explain. Her reactions to his declarations of love aren't anything you might expect.
In some ways this is almost CAS's take on Robert E. Howard's The Frost Giant's Daughter, though Smith hadn't read that story. It hadn't been written at the time that Smith wrote The White Sybil. It wasn't published in unaltered form until after Howard's death. And Sybil wasn't published except as a small private booklet until long after Frost Giant was written, so CAS didn't influence REH either. Just a similar idea taken in two vastly different directions by two talented writers.
The Hyperborea stories always strike me as sword and sorcery without swords. They have the same sort of exotic feel to them that some of the Conan yarns have, but they lack a stalwart hero and usually play out like horror stories or just weird tales. They seldom end well for the protagonists. As I've noted in previous posts I've recently really come to appreciate the works of Clark Ashton Smith. He is definitely the most under appreciated of the 'big three' from Weird Tales but lately he seems to be getting more exposure and more critical acclaim.