Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Alchemical Captains: Andrew Lytle's Tales of the Conquistadors

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Alchemical Captains: Andrew Lytle's Tales of the Conquistadors

Article excerpt

Andrew Lytle's tales of the Spanish conquistadors, composed forty years ago, express a theme which has continued to be central to his work, whether fiction or non-fiction--our confused notion of who we are, our loss of teleology. "The confusion derives," Lytle has written, "from that historic moment when the profane arm of God's kingdom became the only arm.... When princes learned they could rule by private will and not as interpreters of the divine will, the old order was disrupted and the modern world begun." (1) The novella "Alchemy," originally intended to be a prologue to At the Moon's Inn, (2) offers in its very title the central image which controls both works, for both deal with the profound change, the metamorphosis, in the mind and heart of western civilization which resulted from the Renaissance and the disruption of the Christian polity. Specifically, both deal with what Lytle perceives to be an unmistakable sign of that disruption--the Spanish incursion into the Americas.

"Alchemy" recounts Pizarro's despoiling of the Inca civilization in 1532, a remarkably successful venture if we may put aside Lytle's basic premise that to search for gold in the new world is in its very nature wrong, sinful. But Lytle would remind us that such a quest degrades man to the level of appetite, sets material ends above spiritual ones, and therefore can end only in corruption. His narrative intimates this truth in several ways. When Pizarro and his men first land upon the shores of the new world, for example, they find not the abundant treasure nor the "house full of virgins" described by a veteran of a former expedition; they find instead affliction, "a new and strange disease {which} consumed us like rotten sheep," and which to Tovar, the officer who narrates the story, is "like the wrath of God." (3) And, too, the land itself is forbidding, the wilderness of the new world signifying separation from God, spiritual vacuity: "The waste of the sea, the waste of the sands, the mountains, the great waste of the unknown--into these we had gone" (p. 112). Tovar soon discovers, however, that the new world attracts even as it repels, that it acts as a snare which holds the Spaniards fast in its coils. When after much searching the company comes upon the great highway that leads to their destination, Tovar's anticipation is mixed with dread. As soon as he saw the flat stone surface, he records, "I knew that we stood upon the borders of that which we desired, feared, and from which we could never be freed, whether it brought our most extravagant hopes or our ruin. The road seemed to have no end" (p. 125).

The road does lead to their most extravagant hopes, though, or at least appears to; once the battle is joined, the Spaniards rout the Inca from the field: "The mighty host of the heathen lord was broken and scattered. Akingdom of riches such as we had never imagined lay to our hands and we, a few poor companies of horse and foot, had done this thing without the loss of a single life" (p. 163). As darkness descends after the battle, Tovar hears de Soto whisper, "God's miracle," and he answers, "Amen." But Tovar has thought about this day during the years since, and as he reflects in the story's concluding passage,

   Now I am unsure. Now that de Soto, Pizarro, all who took part in that
   conquest are dead, either dead or scattered, or like me fit only to speak
   of the things they did when their strength was in them, now the word sounds
   across the long past like the sign of an alchemical charm. That day a kind
   of alchemy was done. So it seems to me, now that I can see better the end.
   Most men are hastening to meet some disaster. Yet whatever it was which on
   that day of triumph filled the eyes of those two captains, it seemed to
   them a thing of radiance, in white robes and most beautiful. But beside
   them there was in attendance a companion clad in very different guise. As
   they reached out their hands to clasp their desires, that other--the dark
   thing--stepped forward to receive them. … 
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