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Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 930 words.)