The Circular Ruins  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

"The Circular Ruins" (original Spanish title: "Las ruinas circulares") is a fantasy short story by Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges. Published in el Sur in December 1940, it was included in the 1941 collection The Garden of Forking Paths (El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan) and then in part one of the 1944 collection Ficciones. It was first translated into English in New Directions 11 (1949).

It has an epigraph from Chapter 4 of Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll reading "And if he let off dreaming about you..." which refers to the passage in which Tweedledee points out the sleeping Red King to Alice, and claims she is simply a character in his dream. The short story deals with themes recurring in Borges's work: idealism, the manifestation of thoughts in the "real world", meaningful dreams, and immortality. The manifestation of thoughts as objects in the real world was a theme in Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius but here Borges takes it to another level: the manifestation of human beings rather than simple objects.

The story also seems to symbolize writers as creators who engender one another and whose existence and originality would be impossible without their predecessors, a theme he wrote about in other works such as Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, another short story from the Ficciones collection.

Plot summary

An experienced wizard retreats from the world to a location that possesses strong mystical powers: the circular ruins. There, the wizard tries to create another human being from his own dreams. Sleeping and dreaming longer and longer each day, the magician dreams of his young man becoming educated, and wiser. After time, though, the wizard can no longer find sleep, and he deems his first attempt an inevitable failure. After many sleepless nights, the wizard dreams of a heart; vaguely at first, but more and more clearly each night. Years pass and the wizard creates the boy piece by piece, in agonizing detail. The wizard calls upon the god Fire to bring his creation to life. Fire agrees, as long as the wizard accustoms his creation to the real world, and that only Fire and the wizard will be able to tell the creation from a real human. His creation is sent to a distant temple of the god Fire, and becomes famous as, because it is not real, it can walk through fire unharmed. The wizard hears of this, but at length he awakes to find the ruins ablaze. As he ultimately walks into the flaming house of Fire, the wizard notices that his skin does not burn. "With relief, with humiliation, with terror, he understood that he too was a mere appearance, dreamt by another."

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