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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 930

In “The Circular Ruins,” from a nameless home in a time not marked on calendars, a figure known only as “the taciturn man” or “the gray man” beaches a bamboo canoe on the bank of a jungle river. When he lands, he kisses the mud and heads inland to the circular ruins: the ruins of an abandoned temple to a god no longer worshiped. He sleeps there in the ruins, and when he awakes, he will begin a task of creation.

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He awakes in the morning and sees tracks around him, which inform him that the local residents of the area have observed him during the night. Those visitors suit his purpose: He has come to this region, as Jorge Luis Borges says, “to dream a man.” He wants to dream this creation in every detail—every hair, every pore—and through the intensity and thoroughness of his dreaming, make it real. He has come to the ruins seeking their aid in the accomplishment of his task, seeking their loneliness and their barrenness. There will be less to distract him from his work. The local people will not intrude on him during the day but, filled with superstition, will supply his bodily needs with their offerings each night.

He begins by dreaming of an enormous lecture hall filled with students, candidates for the honor of being dreamed into reality. He considers all of them until he selects one, the likeliest, on whom to concentrate. After a few private lessons in his dreams, however, what he calls a catastrophe takes place. The dreamer is unable to sleep. After the dreamer begins to appreciate the difficulty of his task, he gives up conscious intention and no longer tries to direct his dreams. He abandons premeditation and lets the dreams come when they will.

On the night of the full moon, he falls asleep “with his heart throbbing”; it is of a heart that he dreams, a beating heart within a body whose form he cannot yet see. For two weeks he concentrates on that heart in his dreams, merely observing, not interfering. There is a hint that the dreamer is a magician: He lectures on magic to the imaginary students; he calls on the names of gods and planets. He works this sort of spell before dreaming of the next organ of his creation. When that one is finished, he goes on to another. A year passes before he comes to the skeleton. The “innumerable hair” is the hardest of all, but eventually he dreams an entire sleeping young man.

When the dreamer finally awakens his creation, it is crude and clumsy, like Frankenstein’s monster, and the dreamer almost despairs. In his exhaustion, he throws himself before the strangely shaped statue of the god of the ruins and pleads with it to help him. Then, the fire god appears before the dreamer in his sleep and agrees to bring his creation to life in a special way: To all but the fire god and the dreamer, the creation will seem to be a normal man. However, there is a price for this gift. The dreamer must educate his creation in the ritual of the fire god, and when this child of his mind has learned the mysteries of that worship, he must be sent downstream to the next ruined temple to reestablish the worship of the fire god.

The dreamer agrees and, in the months that follow, instructs the created being whom he is now beginning to think of as his son. He cuts his waking hours down to an irreducible minimum, looking forward to sleep and the company of his creation.

He starts to introduce his son to “reality.” For example, as always in a dream, he instructs the young man to place a flag on a mountaintop. When the dreamer awakes, he finds the flag where it was planted, flying in place in the waking world. After other such trials, he believes that his son is ready to be “born,” to enter the waking world of the dreamer. In his dream that night, he kisses his son and sends him to the temple ruins downstream to take up his duties. He gives the youth one last gift, however: So that his creation will not think himself different from any other man, the dreamer erases from his mind the memory of his years of instruction.

Having achieved his greatest desire, the dreamer’s life begins to interest him less and less. One night he is awakened by two local men who tell him of a man of strange powers in a nearby temple, a man who is able to walk on fire without being burned. He at once realizes that this man is his son, and he worries that his son’s peculiar power might cause him to doubt his own reality. He imagines how humiliating it would be for one to realize that one is merely the creation of another’s mind.

Eventually, these doubts of the dreamer pass. A night comes, however, on which the circular ruins, ages ago destroyed by fire, catch fire again. As the flames rise around him, the dreamer is not alarmed; his life’s work is done and he is ready to die. Rather than try to escape, he walks toward the flames. When he enters them, however, they do not burn him. In a flash he realizes that this immunity to fire is the same as his son’s, and he understands that he too is an illusion, the dream-child of another.

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