Lord Dunsany's "Chu-Bu and Sheemish" tells the tale of two weak gods, both conceited and jealous. His words express nothing but grandeur and respect throughout the story, but as the plot develops the contrast between his words and the reality that they describe adds humor to the narration and allows the reader to understand that the two gods in reality possess no powers.
The story starts off with a description of the rituals used to show respect for Chu-bu, the more ancient of the two gods,
Now there were holy birds in the temple of Chu-bu, and when the third day was come and the night thereof, it was as it were revealed to the mind of Chu-bu, that there was dirt upon the head of Sheemish.
"And all the people rejoiced and cried out, 'There is none but Chu-bu.' And honey was offered to Chu-bu, and maize and fat. Thus was he magnified.
Chu-bu was an idol of some antiquity, as may be seen from the colour of the wood. He had been carved out of mahogany, and after he was carved he had been polished. Then they had set him up on the diorite pedestal with the brazier in front of it for burning spices and the flat gold plates for fat. Thus they worshipped Chu-bu."
In this passage, words like "magnified," "mahogany," "diorite pedestal," "gold," and "worshipped" connote a certain puissance befitting a god. However, words like "idol" already give the clue that this god may not possess as much power as one might expect. Furthermore, the fact that Dunsany acknowledges that humans created Chu-bu out of wood diminishes the god's credibility in the eyes of the reader. As the story continues, Sheemish enters the scene and the interaction between him and Chu-bu reveals the ineptitude of both gods at accomplishing divine acts.
Chu-bu willed it and willed it and still no earthquake came, when suddenly he was aware that the hated Sheemish was daring to attempt a miracle too. He ceased to busy himself about the earthquake and listened, or shall I say felt, for what Sheemish was thinking; for gods are aware of what passes in the mind by a sense that is other than any of our five. Sheemish was trying to make an earthquake too.
The new god's motive was probably to assert himself. I doubt if Chu-bu understood or cared for his motive; it was sufficient for an idol already aflame with jealousy that his detestable rival was on the verge of a miracle. All the power of Chu-bu veered round at once and set dead against an earthquake, even a little one. It was thus in the temple of Chu-bu for some time, and then no earthquake came.
As the story develops, the two gods become more child-like. Their bickering — "'Dirty Sheemish,' 'Dirty — shows the reader that these are not gods but mere idols, incapable of any divine action. All the while, the reader must recall that humans created the situation by carving out two deities, rather than one. At the very end of the story, Dunsany very clearly states the human power over the gods. Not only do men stop worshipping both Chu-bu and Sheemish because of the eventual earthquake, but the narrator takes home Chu-bu and treats him like something between a child and a decoration, putting him on display in his house and humoring his illusions of power:
Chu-bu cannot do much, though once I am sure that at a game of bridge he sent me the ace of trumps after I had not held a card worth having for the whole of the evening. And chance alone could have done as much as that for me. But I do not tell this to Chu-bu.
Men, then, having created the gods, have more power and astuteness than their idols, yet the gods need not know this, thus perpetuating religion.
1. While in school, Lord Dunsany often had to read from the Bible, which influenced his writing. How does this influence show itself in the style of this story? What effect does religion ultimately seem to have had on Dunsany?
2. Clearly, Dunsany's story criticizes religion. However, does Dunsany criticize all religions or some religions in particular? Which and what evidence supports this?
3. Dunsany's preface addresses itself to the "ladies and gentlemen" of London. Was Dunsany's intended audience adults or children? How might each audience see this story?
4. This story, unlike many others Dunsany wrote in The Book of Wonder does not end with an explicit death. Does, however, some sort of demise take place at the end?
5. The gods in this story come off as mythical characters, just like the sphinx from "The House of the Sphinx." In both stories, the mythological creature causes some negative event which brings about a form of judgment. How do the ways of behaving of the magical creatures in these two stories compare? Do they play active or passive roles? What is man's relationship to these creatures? Might one relate the stories thematically?
Last modified 3 March 2009