The Path Back to Aira: H.P. Lovecraft’s Quest of Iranon

It always comes back to Lovecraft, for me.

When I peel back the opaque shroud of time from my mind, I remember that H.P. Lovecraft was pretty much another writer like Edgar Allan Poe to me, before I actually read his work. Certainly, when I read “The Tomb” in those early days, it didn’t disabuse me of that notion, though I had no idea of the depth of his terrifying vision and how it fit into — and beyond — the evolution of humanity until I read “The Rats in the Walls”: problematic elements, and all.

Then, one day, after getting and reading The Dream Cycle of H.P. Lovecraft with Neil Gaiman’s introduction telling us how extremely racist he was, as if it hadn’t already been clear, and my own head being filled with Lovecraft’s epistolary first-person scholarly tales of meeting horrific things that have always lived side by side with what we think is normal, though devoid of sex beyond anything squeamish and disgusting, and certainly far from intimacy tat was anything other than camaraderie I found “The Quest of Iranon.”

I remember reading it that first time. It was evening, I think, and I was sitting on the bench at Vanier College at York University. This was my Undergrad year after all my carefully laid plans fell apart, and I was tired of being so structured: and I just wanted to take the courses that interested me and — for the first time — genuinely explore my surroundings. I was pretty young then, about twenty-four or so, and between the end of my first relationship, quitting my Creative Writing Program, and not taking a full course load anymore I guess I was in the place where these stories would affect me.

They spoke to me then, with grandiose language — heightened diction, my teachers called it — but also about dreams, and nostalgia, and loss. “The Quest of Iranon” has gotten some flak over the years. Some have said it is heavily derivative of Lovecraft’s favourite writer and once of his influences, Lord Dunsany. I imagine others have seen it as a lot of navel-gazing on the part of the protagonist, and melodramatic self-pity. I know at least one person who has no patience for this story, and saw it as tremendously self-indulgent and perhaps even a little preachy. When I was reading Leslie S. Klinger’s The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft: Arkham and Beyond, he referenced Brian Humphreys in his “Who Is Iranon?” who read the ending of the story to mean that Iranon’s physical translation is literal and entails that he is related to the Gods, or the Great Old Ones in some way before stepping into a space that changes him. It is the closest horror interpretation, or Mythos one, I’d seen at that point.

For me, aside from some Cthulhu Mythos or Dream Cycle references — world-building crossover — the horror of the narrative is entirely different. I read the story as as a parable or a metaphor. Iranon is an artist. He fuels himself on his passion and his dreams. He goes to one place that wants him to get a “proper job” in order to survive, only mildly tolerating his natural abilities, and completely ignoring the fact that they just toil for the sake of work, and forgetting the finer things with which they could strive. It’s the dreamer verses the cold, grim real world trope, which I’m sure has felt trite to people who have actually worked at manifesting their dreams, but it’s also an observation about how fickle fame or respect for someone’s art can be as Iranon goes to another city and eventually, for all his initial favour, is replaced by the new. A lot of these ideas and themes are refined in Lovecraft’s later works “The Silver Key” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.”

But Iranon’s goal, to return to Aira — this beautiful land where he is a Prince — is the one thing that keeps him going. He travels the world, telling stories about this place where he feels like he belongs, and he understands things, and it allows him to remain vital. This impulse maintains his sense of youth. I imagine that others can’t even believe it, like his friend Romnod who follows him as a young boy, his constant companion for a time, only to settle in a city and die an old drunkard.

People laugh at Iranon. Or they ignore him. Or they simply don’t see him at all. And yet he continues traveling, and playing, and making his songs, still seeking his lost home. He still wants to return to Aira.

It’s only at the end, when he encounters an old shepherd at the edges of a desert, that he realizes the terrible truth of the matter.

There is no Aira.

The implication is that the shepherd and Iranon were friends years ago, beggar’s children. Iranon himself had been an orphan telling everyone about the magical city of Aira where he said he was a Prince. When Iranon remembers this truth, his self-delusion is gone. His dream is dead. He withers away, looking and feeling every bit his age. And realizing that his whole life was basically a lie, he goes to die in the quicksand rather than continue on with the rest of his miserable existence.

It’s that whole trope of “Forbidden Knowledge” or “You can’t handle the truth” that leads this formulaic story — with Iranon constantly asking every stranger he meets if they know where Aira in an almost poetic verse — to that predictable place. It’s so easy to scoff at that, or say it isn’t scary, or look down your nose and have no patience for dreamers that aren’t professional and don’t see their passion as actual work. You can even argue that it’s something of a maudlin tragedy, and you can see it in Lovecraft’s other stories: in “The Outsider” whose protagonist realizes he is an abomination and tries to forget, and some of his more racist works like “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” or even “The Shadows Over Innsmouth” where the protagonists realize they have inhuman ancestry in their blood, and either flee from their fraying humanity, or kill themselves.

Lovecraft has always stated that humanity’s greatest fear is that of the unknown, while at the same time positing that if people realized the ultimate truth, it would destroy their sanity.

I think “The Quest of Iranon” works for me because it makes me think of another interpretation of horror. Imagine you have this idea of who you are, and where you come from in relation to that. Consider that you are constantly having that sense of self challenged, and struggling to undertake the actions that make you happy. You go through all of that, and you keep that certainty alive and it strengthens you. Perhaps it is challenged, and you learn, but that core of you is still there, and it inspires you to go onward, and keep living.

And then imagine, one day, you find out that everything that you thought — that you genuinely wanted to be be true — is not only false, it never happened. You were never going to find your home. You were never going to find that peace. You were never who you thought you were.

The horror in “The Quest of Iranon” is more than just coming to the discovery that you are the alien, the monster, or the Other. It’s that you just aren’t that important. You’re not that special. And some people might cynically acknowledge that and think you were foolish for ever thinking otherwise, that this what adolescents and young adults have to accept in order to grow up, but consider what happens to someone when they believe they can never be happy unless they find the thing that, in reality, doesn’t exist. And everyone else is fine with that, or they can move on, or settle down, but you just … can’t.

I think that everyone has had a moment like this. Obviously, we don’t all go into quicksand and die, but sometimes we want to forget this disappointment. Sometimes you just want to forget those dreams that you thought were so important and now they just embarrass you, or anger you, or merely make you terribly sad in that they are not reality, and they will never be.

I’ve thought about Iranon from time to time, and Aira, and the place of youth that we all cobble together from our better memories as some kind of idyllic past that didn’t happen, but you wish it had. Or maybe it did happen in a different form. Even Iranon thought, despite knowing better, that some cities might have been his Aira and enjoyed them for whatever time they were worth.

To this very day, I don’t know the way back to a place that probably never happened, or didn’t the way I thought or wished it would. But there is nothing to laugh about that, or turn your nose up from. It doesn’t make you superior to believe that you are beyond this yearning, or nostalgia, and especially not if you look down at others for feeling this way. Maybe the horror is when you’ve felt like you lost something you never had, and everyone else just doesn’t — or doesn’t want to — understand you. Or see you.

It’s a haunting story, “The Quest of Iranon” especially during a time when dreams are important to take our minds off of a terrifying reality, or to add meaningful flavour to it. Art has kept us going through seclusion, and united us. Maybe Aira doesn’t exist, but perhaps something imaginary needs to have been, and to be.

I haven’t been in Undergrad in years. I’ve met and lost friends along the way. I’ve been in different places. I’ve still dreamed. Perhaps, one day, I will rediscover my Aira, or the very least find the strength and will within myself to let it go.

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