Haïta the Shepherd

 

Ambrose Bierce, "Haïta the Shepherd," in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (E. L. G. Steele: 1891).

In a previous murmur covering Ambrose Bierce’s short story “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” I argued that Robert W. Chambers takes more from that story than just the name “Carcosa.” Likewise, it is often claimed that while Chambers takes the name “Hastur” from Bierce’s “Haïta the Shepherd,” the influence of that story on Chambers’ work ends there.  I think there is a much deeper connection, and I will argue that important themes in Bierce’s “Haïta the Shepherd” carry over to The King in Yellow

Although a central theme in “Haïta the Shepherd” focuses on happiness being elusive and that the best way to attain happiness is by not purposely seeking it out, the story is also packed with other interesting themes relevant to certain readings of The King in Yellow.

The first line of Bierce's parable like tale: “[i]n the heart of Haïta, the illusions of youth had not been supplanted by those of age and experience.” We find our young shepherd, of pure heart and pure thought, as of yet, unexposed to truth. But later in the story, as innocence is lost and he comes to have knowledge, we see that his idyllic world becomes dark and full of terrors一that truth comes with unhappiness and doom. As Haïta begins to ponder questions like Who am I? Where did I come from? When will I die? the pursuit of this knowledge not only causes melancholy and hopelessness but distracts him from the prosaic and practical affairs of the world. (No wonder the play “The King in Yellow” was banned by the government and denounced by press and pulpit).

In The King in Yellow, the play “The King in Yellow” is described as “irresistible in its truth,” and in “The Repairer of Reputations” the play is claimed to be "... a book of great truths.” Furthermore, in “The Yellow Sign,” we see a copy of the play, bound in a snake-like mottled binding, offered up to Jack Scott by Tessie. Here, it is hard to deny that the book plays the role of fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

This theme of gaining forbidden moral knowledge is picked up in "In the Court of the Dragon" in an interesting way. The story opens with the following epigraph:

            “Oh, thou who burn’st in heart for those who burn
            In Hell, whose fires thyself shall feed in turn;
            How long be crying—‘Mercy on them.’ God!
            Why, who art thou to teach and He to learn?”

The final question of this quatrain poses an interesting question: on what grounds can we judge or question the actions of God? To do so, we need independent access to the knowledge of good and evil so that we can apply those standards to God’s actions. “The King in Yellow”, the play, offers up access to the truth that allows us to justifiably criticize, even if it does mean our doom. It is to eat the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.

Some of this plays out in a profound scene from “Haïta the Shepherd.” Haïta prays to Hastur for the well-being of his neighbors who are threatened by flood. In his prayer, Haïta takes the moral high ground and, in fact, threatens his God with the withholding of worship if Hastur doesn’t do the right thing. “’It is kind of thee, O Hastur’ so he prayed, 'to give me mountains so near to my dwelling and my fold that I and my sheep can escape the angry torrents; but the rest of the world thou must thyself deliver in some way that I know not of, or I will no longer worship thee.’”

With this prayer, Haïta places himself in the position that the final line of the epigraph is addressed. More than that, we have an answer to the challenge. By independently gaining access to the truth, by reading the play, we have the standard by which to judge the actions of God. 


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