H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu isn’t a villain in the traditional sense. Unlike the others in this miniseries, he (it?) doesn’t actively do anything to oppose his fellow characters. Instead, he is adversarial simply by existing for much of the plot, and the threat of him and what he represents carry enough evil consequences to contend with.
Cthulhu is mentioned in many of Lovecraft’s stories, but he figures most prominently in “The Call of Cthulhu,” which traces one man’s (the narrator’s) investigation to find the answers to the disturbing stories and information he discovers while executing his late granduncle’s estate. Within the story, multiple sub-stories weave together, guiding the narrator to the full and terrible knowledge of Cthulhu.
Cthulhu, however, is more than a character. The narrator calls it “The Thing [that] cannot be described.” He is one of Lovecraft’s infamous “elder gods,” evil beings from out of space and time whose eventual arrival on the material plane will cause the end of all existence. More importantly, he is a representation—both within the story and without—of unknown knowledge that we fear to find, yet earnestly seek, and often struggle to comprehend once we’ve found it.
That personification is underscored by Cthulhu’s chimeric appearance, which (despite defying description) can be pieced together from context clues and other parts of the mythos. He possesses a squid-like head, bat-like wings, a grotesque body combining both reptilian and elephantine features, and hands and feet that are somewhere between amphibian and avian. In short, he embodies a bit of everything, thus representing all sorts of the unknown, yet he is also no one true thing, making him nebulous like ungrasped knowledge.
The consequences of what Cthulhu represents profoundly reverberate through the story. For instance, we eventually learn that the narrator is at the brink of insanity and that his desire to understand Cthulhu (the unknown) has put him there. Critically, he never even encounters the monster, yet his life is forever disrupted nonetheless. He represents us in our desire to know that which we are better off not knowing: like him, we may be disrupted by our own “pursuits of Cthulhu” when, to ill effect, the unknowns we seek finally become known.
Engaging Cthulhu’s unknown drives others to ruin, as well. At one point in a sub-story, investigators discover a secret Cthulhu-worshipping cult full of devotees who fear and “serve” the creature. As part of their revelry, they murder random individuals from the surrounding area. Their terror of the unknown motivates them to kill, but they also hope to assuage that terror by doing so. While it’s a powerful section of the story, it’s also a potent reflection of reality, where so many people have committed acts of violence because they fear the unknown and hope to remove that fear.
Cthulhu’s eventual appearance in the story reinforces the difficult relationship between mankind and the unknown. He does physically antagonize some characters, killing many of the group who find him. However, his most effective weapon remains his very presence, which drives men mad—so much so that one character even dies because he is too insane to comprehend anything. This adds another layer to our search for and fear of the unknown. Despite all of our attempts, we may not understand it once we find it. We may even be terrified by that lack of understanding, and it may affect our lives so that we leave such experiences fundamentally changed—and not necessarily for the better.
Lovecraft’s Cthulhu possesses a remarkable brand of villainy because it shows that evil, in this case the forces arrayed against our well-being, does not always have to do—it can harm us by being and letting us do the work. Like the characters’ relationship to Cthulhu, our fear of the unknown can drive us to terrible deeds. At the same time, our separate desire to seek out the unknown can have harmful consequences if we’re not prepared for what we find. Perhaps we encounter Cthulhu when we learn something that shakes our faith on a cosmic level, or perhaps we encounter him when we learn unpleasant bits of information on a daily basis. Either way, the experience propels us into a struggle that can, if we’re not strong enough, bring us to our knees.
This is the final post in a miniseries on four great literary villains. The others can be found here.
Featured image: H. P. Lovecraft’s sketch of Cthulhu (May 11, 1934)