The word “circular” in the title accurately describes the form that Borges’s story takes. At the end of the story the pieces fall neatly into place: Remembering that the dreamer erased all memories of his beginning from his son’s mind, the reader recalls with new understanding the mysterious origin of the dreamer himself. The reader is never told where the dreamer comes from, except that it is upstream. His history is scanted, and the reader is never told how it is that he knows about the ritual of the fire god, or how he has acquired his magical powers. When the dreamer realizes that he is merely one revolution in a cycle, the reader realizes that the dreamer’s memory has been wiped clean by his “father,” just as the dreamer has done for his “son.”
Borges’s reliance on philosophical idealism in his fiction should not be taken as evidence that he seriously believed that human perception creates the universe. Rather, the philosophy is one that he could put to work in art; in “The Circular Ruins,” it allows an ending of great power and surprise. Borges had a thorough familiarity with English and American literature, even with what is sometimes called “popular” literature—the detective story, for example. He often expressed an admiration for the classic detective story, especially for its ending, in which all the pieces of the mystery must fall into place in a revelation that is both surprising and satisfying to the reader. Just such a story, transposed into fantasy, is “The Circular Ruins.”
Borges was a great admirer of Lewis Carroll’s comic fantasies, as seen in Borges’s neatly summarizing the theme of “The Circular Ruins” with a quotation that stands at the head of the story: “And if he left off dreaming about you . . . ” from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871). The reference is from a chapter of Carroll’s book in which Tweedledee shows Alice the sleeping Red King, tells her that the king is dreaming about her, and asks, “And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you’d be?” Alice says she would be where she is now, but Tweedledee disagrees “contemptuously.” He says, “You’d be nowhere. Why, you’re only a sort of thing in his dream!”
Borges puts this notion, used for comedy in Carroll’s book, to chilling effect in “The Circular Ruins” as the realization of the dreamer at the end of the story comes with enormous impact. Critics have called the story one of the most horrifying of Borges’s works, yet it is simply the logical extension of a philosophical notion that informs the majority of Borges’s fiction.
This notion, usually called “idealism” with various adjectives prefixed to it, can be traced to a number of philosophers whom Borges himself cites in various works. For example, the eighteenth century English philosopher George Berkeley developed a philosophy called “pluralistic idealism,” which holds that the so-called real world perceived as around one exists only in one’s consciousness. His German contemporary Immanuel Kant took this idea even further. Kant’s “critical idealism” holds that matter does not exist if it is not sensed by the individual. The often-quoted question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?” is a question to which the idealist answers “No.”