‘The Circular Ruins’, first published in 1940, is one of the most richly symbolic short stories by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. One of his most powerful and suggestive explorations of the nature of reality and dreams, ‘The Circular Ruins’ can variously be interpreted as a story about artistic creation or about the world, and our place in the world, as we perceive it.
You can read ‘The Circular Ruins’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis below.
‘The Circular Ruins’: plot summary
The epigraph to the story is taken from Chapter 4 of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, a novel we have analysed here. In that chapter, Tweedledee gestures to the sleeping Red King and tells Alice that she is merely a character created in the Red King’s dream: she would cease to exist if the sleeping king stopped dreaming of her.
A magician has travelled to a land where the circular ruins of an ancient temple are located. At the ruins of the temple, there is a stone statue commemorating some mysterious deity; the statue could be either of a horse or a tiger. The magician sleeps by the ruins, determined to dream a man into existence.
In his dreams, the magician is lecturing to a group of students about a range of topics, including anatomy. He gradually dismisses the students from his dreams until only one pupil (who resembles the magician himself) is left; but then he loses the ability to dream, and is afflicted with insomnia.
He eventually manages to sleep again, this time willing himself to dream a man one body part at a time. Although this gradual process starts well, the magician realises he may need divine assistance, and seeks this from the ambiguous tiger-horse deity commemorated at the temple’s ruins. In his dreams, he communicates with this deity, which is revealed to symbolise Fire. This deity tells the magician that he can help to ‘realise’ the man of the magician’s dream, but in return, he must hand over the man to him so that he can serve the Fire deity. This god also tells the magician that he, the magician, needs to educate and instruct the man first.
This takes two years, until the dreamed man is made real. The magician views him like a son. However, he had been told by the Fire deity to send the dreamed man to another temple, so he reluctantly lets him go, having erased the man’s memory first. This way, the man will never know that he is only the product of the magician’s dreams, but will believe himself to be a real person.
Later, the magician hears that the man he dreamed into existence has the ability to walk on fire without being burned. When a forest fire spreads and engulfs the temple, the magician stoically accepts death and walks into the flames – only to realise that he is unharmed and that he, like his ‘son’, was dreamed up by someone else and he is not a real person.
‘The Circular Ruins’: analysis
First and foremost, ‘The Circular Ruins’ is a story about the intersection between dreams and reality. The magician dreams a man into existence out of his own unconscious, but then – in an infinite regression which is a hallmark of Borges’ fiction – the magician finds out that he, too, is merely the figment of another person’s dream.
If The Matrix posits that we are all in some giant computer simulation, ‘The Circular Ruins’ raises the possibility that we may be phantoms of other people’s imagination, with our memories of our former existence wiped from our minds. A key theme of Borges’ work is immortality and infinity, but whereas ‘The Sect of the Phoenix’ focuses on physical copulation (the solution to its ‘riddle’) as the ‘mechanism’ for immortality, ‘The Circular Ruins’ explores the idea that it is the human imagination which perpetuates human existence, as one person dreams another into the world.
Indeed, among the many interpretations of ‘The Circular Ruins’ is the possibility that it is about literal fatherhood: a man creates another man whom he must instruct before sending away to make his own way in the world, while also being aware that he, too, was fathered by another man (something that he has to recall or remember, because we so often lose sight of the fact that, in order to be here, we had to be conceived and created by someone else, or rather two other people; although aware of this on one level, on another we push it to one side in our daily lives).
But the story is symbolic rather than narrowly allegorical, and invites numerous interpretations. All we can say is that the ruins are ‘circular’ in two senses: they are arranged in the shape of a physical circle, but the process of travelling from one set of ruins to another is endless and cyclical. The magician has arrived at these ruins, but he needs to send his ‘son’ to another set of ruins, and so on, ad infinitum.
These two key themes of ‘The Circular Ruins’, infinite regression and the intersection between dreams and reality, meet in the circular architecture mentioned in the story: while sleeping and dreaming among those circular ruins, Borges tells us, the magician dreams he is in the centre of an amphitheatre which ‘in some way’ was the burned temple in which he actually lies asleep; that ‘in some way’ (as it is rendered in James E. Irby’s translation) points up the simultaneous similarity and difference between the real and the dreamt. But of course the twist is that even the magician himself has been dreamed up by someone else, so we end up with an infinite Chinese-box or Russian-doll effect whereby the circular amphitheatre is merely a dream being dreamed by the magician, who is also merely a dream.
This raises the intriguing question: are the circular ruins in which he sleeps merely a dream, too? Note in this connection the preponderance of grey imagery in the story: the magician himself is described as a grey man, while the stone statue, which previously resembled flame (the tiger connection?), now resembles ashes (a grey horse, perhaps). Even the supposed ‘reality’ of the ruins the magician sleeps among is thus in doubt, especially since the appearance of the statue shifts from flame to ashes.
‘The Circular Ruins’ is, like another of his most celebrated and widely studied stories, ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’, about artistic creation. On one level at least, the magician in ‘The Circular Ruins’ is an artist (such as a writer) whose dreams help to create and ‘instruct’ another artist. Borges once famously observed that ‘every writer creates his own precursors’, but every writer helps to create his successors, too; writers also, of course, create fictions which are mere dreams and, at the same time, possessed of a vivid reality to us.
Image: by Adolf Hoffmeister, via Wikimedia Commons.