Literature Study GuidesFiccionesPart 1 The Circular Ruins Summary

Ficciones | Study Guide

Jorge Luis Borges

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Ficciones | Part 1, The Circular Ruins : The Garden of Forking Paths | Summary



At night a lone man arrives at his destination, a temple in a jungle. The circular temple contains a statue of something like a tiger. The man sleeps until the next day. He knows downstream lie the circular ruins of another temple, dedicated "to gods now burned and dead." The man has a goal, and he must dream as part of accomplishing that goal. Near midnight he awakens and realizes some men have been "spying respectfully on his sleep." The man's goal is to create a man by dreaming of him.

After some chaotic dreams, he dreams of an amphitheater full of students where he lectures on "anatomy, cosmography, and magic." Realizing he can "expect nothing from those pupils who accept his doctrine passively," he has higher hopes for students who sometimes disagree with him. One day he dismisses all the students but one, "a taciturn, sallow boy" who resembles him. The boy makes progress, but then "catastrophe" strikes: the man sleeps dreamlessly and then suffers insomnia.

He considers the difficulty of making the material of dreams into something. It is harder than "weaving a rope out of sand or coining the faceless wind." Then one day, after a month's hiatus, he utters a spell, some "prescribed syllables" and goes to sleep. He dreams of something "warm, secret, about the size of a human fist." It is the heart of the man he is dreaming. He continues to dream. "Within a year he had come to the skeleton and the eyelids." Finally he dreams "an entire man," a young man, but unable to sit, talk, or open his eyes.

The narrator compares the dreaming man's work to a story from "the Gnostic cosmogonies" with Demiurges, or lesser gods, creating "a red Adam," a failed, feeble Adam that cannot do anything. The dreamed-up man is like the failed Adam. The man prays to the tiger statue and that night dreams the statue comes to life as a fiery tiger and a fiery colt and "a bull, a rose, and a storm." This "multiple god" is named Fire and is worshipped. The god says he will animate the dreamed-of man. Thus only the element of fire and the man himself will know the dreamed-of man is a phantom. The god says the dreamer should instruct the dreamed-of man and then send him to the other temple to perform rites. Then the man dreams his dreamed-of man wakes up.

Now the narrator calls the dreaming man "the wizard." Attached to his creation the wizard spends two years teaching the dreamed-of man how to perform the rites to the god Fire and delays by spending more time dreaming.

He starts to think of the dreamed-of man as his son, setting tasks for his son to do in the real world. Then the wizard kisses his son and sends him off to the circular ruins. But first he destroys his son's memory of his apprenticeship. He does not want his son to know "he was a phantom." With his son gone the wizard gets bored. He bows to the tiger statue and wonders if "his unreal son" is doing the same at his circular ruins. The wizard's perceptions begin to diminish. He hears and sees less because "his absent son is being nourished by the diminutions of his soul."

Years later two oarsmen waken the wizard and tell him about "a charmed man in a temple of the North," who can "walk on fire without burning himself." The wizard remembers the god Fire said only fire would know his son was a phantom. Now the wizard worries his son will find out he is a phantom. The wizard thinks this knowledge would be humiliating.

Then his worries end. He sees certain natural signs, such as the sky taking on "the rose color of a leopard's gums" and a flight of birds suddenly taking off. He understands something that happened centuries ago is repeating itself: the ruins of the sanctuary of the god Fire have burned, and "death was coming to crown his old age and absolve him from his labors." He walks into the fire, which does not burn him. "With relief, with humiliation, with terror," he realizes "he also was an illusion, that someone else was dreaming him."


The title "The Circular Ruins" refers both to the ruined temple to which the dreamed-of man is sent and to the circular structure of the story. The wizard who set out to dream a man—to create him in dreams—turns out to be the product of someone else's dream. Thus the end foretold for the wizard's creation turns out to be the wizard's own end: immolation by the god Fire. Similarly the dreaming man has always protected his creation from the knowledge he is a creation: "to a projection of another man's dreams—what an incomparable humiliation, what madness!" Therefore, humiliation is one of his feelings when he realizes he too is a dream: "With relief, with humiliation, with terror," he understands someone else has dreamed him.

Borges neatly achieves the circularity of "The Circular Ruins." He has the wizard worry about his creation, the man now in the distant temple. Thus when the wizard looks at the sky—"the sky took on [a]rose color"—the smoke referred to next seems to be the smoke of the distant temple, "the other ruined temple ... downstream." Logically this is the order in which events are presented: color of fire in the distance, then smoke, then flames. But the flames engulf the wizard himself, although they do not burn him. At nearly the same moment the wizard realizes he is an illusion, subject to the one weakness of his creation—fire—the reader, too, realizes the wizard is an illusion. The creator, like the dreamed-of man, is invulnerable to fire. Fire is both men's "weakness" in that the fire god knows they are figments. "The Circular Ruins" is also circular in that the wizard realizes "what had happened many centuries before was repeating itself."

The story also can be read in terms of artistic creation. Through great mental effort the wizard creates a man. But the created man is only half alive; he cannot move or open his eyes. Only the intervention of a god animates the wizard's creation. This process might be considered similar to the creation of literary characters in the writer's imagination. Effort might dream them up, but only inspiration makes them come alive. A fictional character is a fragile entity, initially existing only in the writer's mind. Thus in the story's epigraph from Through the Looking Glass, Tweedledee has just told Alice the Red King is dreaming about her. He then asks the question that forms the story's epigraph. "And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you'd be?" Alice believes she would be unchanged, for like the wizard and the dreamed-of man in "The Circular Ruins," she does not think she is someone else's creation. But Tweedledee answers she would be "nowhere" if the dream ended; in other words, she would no longer exist. "The Circular Ruins" also provides an answer to this question, a more complicated answer. Writers create other writers, just as the wizard, created by someone, is also a creator. And writers, it turns out, are themselves creations, like the wizard. Creation does not proceed out of nothing. Borges too might be someone else's dream, since he is able to dream up characters. Or the sense of "dream" could be understood more prosaically, in that Borges's writing is in a dialogue with the work of other writers.

Further, the dream of dreaming a man through nothing more than ideas is also to dream without women, or physical birth. More than an allegory of ideally immaterial birth, the story is an account of literary heritage as patrilineal. Each (male) writer turns out to have been engendered in dreams by another male writer.

The story also reflects Borges's emphasis on idealism. The events are mystical, not realistic. However, the wizard's process of dreaming causes the products of his mind to exist in the real world. No action better exemplifies idealism than the creation of a real human being through nothing but thoughts. As is typical for Borges, the procedure becomes circular. The man who thought his thoughts could become real things turns out also to be "an illusion ... someone else was dreaming him."

The narrator of "The Circular Ruins" says the Gnostics tell of Demiurges creating "a red Adam," a failed Adam who cannot move or think. At first the dreamed-of young man is like this failed Adam who cannot move until he is infused with an animating spirit from the god Fire. The dreaming man who creates him is, therefore, something of a Gnostic Demiurge. The story is also an allegory in which a Demiurgic creation stands for the perils and joys of artistic creation. These perils and joys are emotionally intense. The wizard seeks to prevent his son from the "humiliating" knowledge he is a creation. This humiliation is the negative mode of a writerly exaltation, the sense the writer has succeeded in "dreaming a man" (or a character). In a typical Borgesian twist the creator in "The Circular Ruins" discovers he himself is the dream of another creator. Rather than just being a puzzle, however, this moment of discovery has an emotional resonance. Now the "humiliating" knowledge he wanted to protect his son from has been visited upon the writer himself. Thus the writer realizes "with humiliation, with terror... that someone else was dreaming him." But surrendering to this knowledge is also ecstatic. Therefore, the writer accepts this truth, not only "with humiliation, with terror," but also "with relief."

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