In the United States, in the state of California, in the Sierra Nevadas, east of Visalia city (itself in the San Joaquin Valley) there’s the Sequoia National Park named for its giant sequoia trees. (These are the famous giant Redwoods whose ages get into millennia) Imagine for a moment that about seventeen miles to the south of the Giant Forest is a singular unexceptional two-hundred-twelve-foot sequoia tree (It’s still there, regarded as protected old-growth). Attached to the base of this tree is a colony of the moss Takakia ceratophylla an uncommon but not unique patch. And amid this mossy mass, a handful of shoots have determined, in their simplistic mossy way, that they are the Earth’s chosen. These lucky few, they’ve decided, are the most important beings on the planet, because unlike their adjacent mossy brethren, they are gametophytes.
Those shoots have a better case than we humans do supposing we are significant in the universe.
I saw the Extra Credits bit on Cthulhu (and how games get Cthulhu wrong) which touches on some big philosophical topics that are worthy not only of a blog post (or an Extra Credits video) but volumes. Obviously that’s not going to happen right now, but I may come back to this.
The big Extra Credits point, was that Great Cthulhu is not a monster or a thing with which humans could interact, certainly not a thing players should be required to fight, or to be assigned a hit-point bar.* Rather Cthulhu, or any of the elder gods should serve only as an exemplar of how small and meaningless the human species is in contrast to the cosmological machination. This notion was similarly discussed in the first edition of the D&D sourcebook Deities and Demigods (which coincidentally featured a chapter on the Lovecraftian mythos which was removed at later publishings). The introduction talked about how the beings covered in the sourcebook were not monsters that could be fought by adventurers, even though the book provided them with game stats (a move which assuredly helped sell the volume). I don’t know if the forward was kept in later versions.
I can’t speak for Lovecraft’s intentions regarding the appearance of Great Cthulhu in The Call of Cthulhu. Lovecraft may well have been trying to create an exemplar of the smallness of humankind, and our species’ insignificance in the world. I’d argue that it wasn’t a good one. Johansen could ram Cthulhu’s head and cause it to burst (even if it would close again in moments), that demonstrates that it was possible to interact with Cthulhu, even if the effects were minimal. To be fair, this is probably a shoulders of giants situation given Lovecraft introduced into the public consciousness the notion of inconceivable magnitude as a horrific thing.
You know what terrifies me, and gives me a sense of being super tiny? The sun. That big hot scary ball in the sky.
It’s seven light-minutes away. We see the sun as it was seven minutes ago. It’s more massive than all the rest of solar system combined. And it serves as God better than any deity of human worship: The sun is literally the source of life on this world. In fact most terrestrial life is photosynthetic. They eat sunlight. The sun is ever present in our daily sky (and is too bright to comfortably gaze upon with our mortal eyes). Without the sun’s continual and unwavering energy, all life on our world would rapidly die. If the sun grew hotter or colder, or the Earth’s delicate orbit were altered, we would end. (And our heliologists note that the Sun has burped a few times hard enough to bake all the surface life to a crispy golden brown.) If any of these things were to happen nothing could be done. And the sun wouldn’t care or even notice. It shines the same on the just and the unjust, whether we pay it homage or not.
I think the horror of insignificance comes in how all of human affairs go unnoticed. I think the terror of sea monsters that swallow our vessels, of massive daikaiju that rampage our our cities, of Great Cthulhu, or any temperamental god turning a wrathful eye toward us are all easier thrills to swallow than the great dispassionate void.
Our fear of Hellfire and urge to escape it allow us to pretend our imminent doom is transitory. It’s a promise of something more than that nightly oblivion between our dreams. It’s the assurance that the person we are today is the same person that was in our flesh yesterday, that the two are linked by something more substantial than just our physiological memories that tell us that yesterday happened.
Yesterday did happen. Right?
* One of the questions that the Extra Credits video raises is if we actually have a surfeit of games in which one can fight Cthulhu. I never finished Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, but one never fights Cthulhu in that one. In Terraria one fights Cthulhu-named monsters, but they are clearly not directly related to the Lovecraftian deity. Cthulhu Saves The World is parody.
Addendum and Correction According to Wikipedia, the Moon Boss at the end of Terraria has been confirmed to be Cthulhu’s brother, even though no siblings of Great Cthulhu are mentioned in any of Lovecraft’s stories (or those of Robert Bloch, who has pretty much earned the right to canon).
Edits: Punctuation, grammar and style and because I just can’t leave well enough alone.
Eratum: This article first suggested that some of the giant redwoods in the Sequoia National Park are older than history, or even the dinosaurs, which is inaccurate to the point of absurdity (and demonstrates how hard it is for at least this human to retain a sense of scale regarding big things.) Fun notes for clarification:
~ The oldest Sequoia we’ve measured is CBR26, a giant redwood which lived to 3266 years before dying. It may be dead due to a typo, since it’s recorded as alive as of 2012 and there’s no indication of an official reclassification
~ The President Tree, another giant sequoia is 3200 years and has evaded the typographical error epidemic that might have killed CBR26, above.
~ The oldest clonal tree colony (they’re all connected like giant moss with tree-sized shoots) is Pando, a quaking aspen tree colony. None of the shoots are so old, but the massive underground root system is 80,000 to 100,000 years old, closing in on the approximate Homo Sapiens species. It is the oldest living thing we know of. It’s also the heaviest living thing at 6,000,000 kg.