A Voyage to Arcturus

Monday, February 6th, 2012

John Rateliff describes an obscure fantasy classic, A Voyage to Arcturus:

Not every classic is immediately recognized as such upon publication. Some find great success from the very start, like Richard Adam’s Watership Down (1972), Hughart’s The Bridge of Birds (1984), and Cabell’s Jurgen (1919). Others meet with a small but enthusiastic reception that steadily grows, such as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1954-55) or Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros (1922). Still others make little impact on their debut and languish in obscurity; awaiting their time, known to only a few: Wm. Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land (1912), Hope Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), and David Lindsay’s masterpiece, A Voyage to Arcturus (1920).

Few great works of fantasy can have been so initially unsuccessful as A Voyage to Arcturus. Published in 1920, it sold only about five hundred copies in its author’s lifetime. [1] But lack of sales does not equal lack of influence, especially among a genre as dependant upon word of mouth recommendations as fantasy. Those few surviving copies of Lindsay’s book were passed around from reader to reader among aficionados of fantasy and science fiction in England. C. S. Lewis, for example, spent a long time looking for the book before he finally found a copy, which he promptly loaned to his friend Tolkien. Lewis credited Lindsay with “first suggest[ing] to me that the form of ‘science fiction’ could be filled by spiritual experiences” — that is, that a pulp genre could be co-opted as the vehicle for presenting a sophisticated philosophical message. The example of Lindsay and Charles Williams together directly inspired Lewis to write his own science fiction trilogy, the first two books of which-Out of the Silent Planet (1938) and Perelandra (1943) borrow heavily from Lindsay’s work (although Lewis prettified what he borrowed in Christianizing it).

Science Fiction or Fantasy?

But Lewis’s work, though heavily influenced by A Voyage to Arcturus, is tame and conventional in comparison with the original. In a time when most science fiction had hardly moved beyond Verne and Wells, Lindsay broke the mold, moving so far beyond what most people thought of as the new genre of “scientifiction” (the conventions of which gelled a few years later in Hugo Gernsback’s not very deft hands) that the result is really not science fiction at all but fantasy. At the time it was first published, A Voyage to Arcturus would probably have been classified as “planetary romance,” a now extinct genre that included works such as Burroughs’ Barsoom series (1912ff), where John Carter falls asleep in a cave and thereby travels to a Mars that is a pure fantasy world. In such stories, the “science” is only a device to get to the adventure and is paid no more than lip service if that. [2] Thus C.S. Lewis’s Ransom travels to Mars in a sphere that works “by exploiting the less observed properties of solar radiation” and is carried to Venus in a crystal coffin by an angel. Lindsay, typically, had already gone this one better: Maskull, Nightspore, and Krag travel to Arcturus via “backlight” — the theory being that, since every action has an equal and opposite reaction, then light must have a complementary negative light, or backlight, that makes the return journey at the same speed.

“[Lindsay] is the first writer to discover what ‘other planets’ are
really good for in fiction. No merely physical strangeness or
merely spatial distance will realize that idea of otherness
which is what we are always trying to grasp in a story about
voyaging through space… To construct plausible and
moving ‘other worlds’ you must draw on the only real
‘other world’ we know, that of the spirit.”

— C. S. Lewis

This confusion over exactly what category the book belongs in is neatly reflected in its first paperback publication: Ballantine originally issued the book as “A Ballantine Science Fiction Classic” (first printing, 1968); a few years later, the book was incorporated into their Adult Fantasy Series line and reprinted with the “unicorn head” sign that marked the series (second & third printings, 1973). For my part, I suggest ignoring the pseudo-science fiction trappings of the frame story, which Lindsay himself swiftly discards, and concentrating on the main tale: not a voyage to a distant star (which is covered in less than a single page of the book) but the epic fantasy of one man’s journey through Tormance, to which are devoted fourteen of its twenty-one chapters.

“You are looking for mysteries,” said Krag, “so naturally you
are finding them. Try and simplify your ideas, my friend.
The affair is plain and serious.”

— Krag to Maskull, before the departure

Stranger in a Strange, Strange Land

There are two ways to read A Voyage to Arcturus: as a simple if rather baffling adventure story, brutal and bloody-handed enough to satisfy even a Robert Howard fan, and as the purest Gnostic tract ever embodied in a fantasy novel between Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger (1919) and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (three volumes: 1995, 1997, 2000). Perhaps the best method, as with Spenser’s Faerie Queene, is to read through first for the sheer exuberance of the story, ignoring any allegorical or symbolic implications, then re-reading it again looking for the deeper meanings. It is, at any rate, impossible to discuss the book in any meaningful way without including spoilers, so anyone wishing to experience the story unguided should stop now and resume this piece after reading the novel.

“You will go, but he will return.”

On the surface, A Voyage to Arcturus is the story of Maskull’s quest. The story opens with a séance in London attended by shallow, uninteresting people and crashed by three strangers: Maskull, his friend Nightspore, and Krag, who is known to Nightspore but not Maskull. The medium summons a protoplasmic spirit, whom Krag throttles and kills; after the break-up of the séance, Maskull and Nightspore decide to accept Krag’s invitation to accompany him to Arcturus. But once there, Maskull wakes to find himself alone, wandering through a strange landscape and meeting stranger people; much the best way to read the book is to simply skim through the first five chapters and start reading in earnest with chapter six, when Maskull wakes to find himself on Tormance, as the planet circling Arcturus’s two suns is called. Once there, he makes up his mind to seek Surtur, the god of harsh reality, no matter what the cost or what obstructions Crystalman, the god of pleasant illusions, may put in his way.

“Am I a secondary character?… I must make up my mind that this is
a strange journey, and that the strangest things will happen in it. It’s no use
making plans… everything is unknown… nothing but the wildest audacity
will carry me through, and I must sacrifice everything else to that… . And
therefore if Surtur shows himself again, I shall go forward to meet him,
even if it means death.”

Maskull’s journey across Tormance, seeking to learn how to distinguish between what is real and what is not, takes him through a riot of experience. He grows new sense-organs as he makes his grim pilgrimage from land to land: a poign or heart-tentacle that later turns into a third arm and still later withers and falls off; a breve with which he can telepathically communicate but which he later can transform into a sorb or third eye. He meets natives of various lands, from the gentle Joiwind (so sensitive that she lives on water so as to not harm any other living creature) to the dangerously persuasive Tydomin (who tries to take his body for herself so she can live as a man; his projected spirit becomes the “ghost” at the opening séance before it is sent back by Krag’s killing its spirit-body) to the passionate Sullenbode (who exists in potential and is only called into individual life and personality by his attention, dying when he is temporarily distracted; she literally cannot live without his devotion). He briefly becomes a disciple of the prophet Spadevil, only to stone him to death shortly thereafter. He meets both of Tormance’s gods, and distrusts them both; each seeks to claim him as his own. He encounters a plenitude of new creatures (an arg or seal-dog, a shrawk or predatory giant flying reptile, a cuttlefish tree, a flock of floating blue jellies), bizarre landscapes and natural features (fountains where the water goes up but never falls back down, evaporating from the top; male and female stones that act as a charm against the opposite sex; a sea made up of a swirl of waters of varying densities; a lake with a solid surface that can be played like a drum by jumping up and down on it), new kinds of weather never experienced on earth (including green snow-shades of Dr. Seuss’s oobleck?). He even, in one of Lindsay’s tour de forces, encounters new primary colors cast by the smaller and fiercer of Tormance’s two suns, Alppain: jale and ulfire.

“I am wading through too much blood,” said Maskull.
“Nothing good can come of it.”

In all Maskull’s quest, although crammed full of incidents, lasts only for a total of four and a half days (with a break at mid-day due to the twin suns’ heat), or the equivalent of about nine Earth days, instead of the weeks or months spent on a typical fantasy quest (Tormance being three times the size of our planet). He throws himself into each new viewpoint he comes across, committing crimes in the process that even Vance’s Cugel the Clever might blanch at — for example, he murders Joiwind’s brother so that the latter will not distress his sister with a report of Maskull’s recent activities. He vows to execute Tydomin, then changes his mind and spares her, then winds up killing her after all. He embraces hedonism, then asceticism, then a life of simple pleasures, all in quick succession. Through it all, though, he never forgets his quest: to find Surtur and reach Muspel[3]; twice he is compared to Prometheus, seeking to find and bring back divine fire whatever torments await him personally. Gradually both Maskull and the reader come to understand that both our world and Tormance are somehow tainted: reality itself is false, and the world we see and touch and smell is a prison, corrupt to its roots. It is Crystalman’s world: like that of Wm. Blake’s Urizen, something forced into being that prevents us from connecting with the cleaner, purer underlying existence. For this reason, the corpse of everyone who dies (and they are many — for example, four of the five women Maskull encounters die, though he only actually deliberately kills one of them himself) takes on a mocking grin, the sign of Crystalman: the flesh is his, though the departed spirit is not. Only pain has the redemptive power to break this world’s grip on us and help us see through its illusions. Hence Krag’s seemingly motiveless brutality on each of his brief appearances; he is Surtur himself, inflicting desperate remedies to free likely allies from Crystalman’s lures. In the end Maskull himself dies and, in a scene that has baffled readers for decades, Nightspore at last appears, having in some sense been Maskull’s other self who could only appear when his primary died. Gazing upon Maskull’s body, he asks Krag/Surtur:

“Why was all this necessary?”
“Ask Crystalman,” replied Krag sternly. “His world is no joke.
He has a strong clutch… but I have a stronger…
Maskull was his, but Nightspore is mine.”

The final chapter of the book, and the most apocalyptic, consists of Nightspore undertaking the last stage of Maskull’s quest. With Krag’s help he reaches a tower and climbs it to look out over Muspel, the only land opposed to Crystalman’s domination:

He pulled his body up, and stood expectantly on the stone-floored
roof, looking round for his first glimpse of Muspel.
There was nothing.
He was standing upon the top of a tower… Darkness was all around him… .
Suddenly… he had the distinct impression that the darkness around him, on
all four sides, was grinning… [H]e understood that he was wholly surrounded
by Crystalman’s world, and that Muspel consisted of himself
and the stone tower on which he was sitting.

And, with that revelation, Nightspore descends the tower, rejoins Krag, and alone but indomitably the two sally forth to resume their struggle against the foe.

Lindsay’s Legacy

For all its bizarre detail and cosmic underlying plot, the greatest legacy from Lindsay’s book is as an example of sheer audacity. Most writers are content to shuffle around a few conventions of whatever genre they work in, rarely daring anything really new. Lindsay shows just how far a writer can go if he or she abolishes all self-limits. A single example will suffice: late in the story, Maskull meets Leehallfae, the last surviving phaen — “though clearly a human being… neither man nor woman, nor anything between the two, but… unmistakably of a third positive sex.” Since the phaens are neither male nor female, Lindsay promptly makes up a new set of pronouns to refer to the character: ae (=he/she), aer (=his/her), aerself (=himself/herself), using them so naturally that within a paragraph or two the reader completely accepts them. Compare, by contrast, the difficulties a gifted but conventional author like Le Guin runs into trying to apply pronouns to the hermaphrodites of The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) with the ease with which Lindsay resolved the same issue fifty years earlier. Nor are the phaens included simply as an exercise in experimental grammar: like Tolkien’s elves, they are immortal but can be killed, which combined with their unique physiology gives them an interesting outlook on life (and death) — and all this vivid, indelible impression within the space of roughly half a chapter from the time Maskull meets Leehallfae to when ae dies:

“I am not frightened,” said Leehallfae quietly… “but when one has
lived as long as I have done, it is a serious matter to die. Every year
on earth one puts out new roots.”

In short, Lindsay’s example invites readers, writers, and gamemasters to become more daring, more iconoclast, and this is where A Voyage to Arcturus really stands out. There has always been a small, appreciative audience for the truly weird, whether Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, Barker’s Tekumel (Empire of the Petal Throne), or Jorune. Some may applaud and others cringe at his bizarre nomenclature, but even here he is utterly distinctive — in addition to those characters already mentioned in passing above might be added Panawe, Oceaxe, Crimtyphon, Catice, Dreamsinter, Polecrab the fisherman (one of the few genuinely likeable characters in the whole book), Gleameil, Earthrid, Haunte, Corpang, and so on; not to mention places (Poolingdred, the Lusion Plain, the Ifdawn mountains, Sant, the Wombflash Forest, Swaylone’s Island, Matterplay, Threal, Barey, and of course Muspel), and things (the two suns, Branchspell and Alppain; Teargild, the single moon; the Sinking Sea; Irontick; Blodsombre, the midday heat; and so on). The literary critic Harold Bloom, a great admirer of Lindsay’s, produced an overtly Gnostic fantasy novel called The Flight to Lucifer (1979) that recreates the events of A Voyage to Arcturus as Bloom understands them on a one-to-one basis, but a truer tribute would have been to create something wholly new with its own apocalyptic plot, personalized nomenclature, and unblinking commitment to its own vision, whatever it might be — and the same uncompromising willingness to accept the marketplace obscurity that is likely to result.

A Voyage to Arcturus and Your Game

Lindsay’s entire thrust is to reject the generic in favor of your own unique personal vision. As such, his book is packed full of ideas that can be adapted into an ongoing fantasy, science fiction, or horror game. They have the added feature that relatively few have read Lindsay’s book and thus the average gamer will have no clue what some new thing inspired by Lindsay’s work might be when he or she encounters it; it’s far enough outside the normal gaming experience to be virtually impossible to second-guess. Be warned, however, that Lindsay is best administered in small doses, lest it completely weird out your gamers.


[1] Lindsay (1878-1945) was already in his forties when A Voyage to Arcturus, his first book, was published, having quit his job at Lloyd’s of London to devote himself full time to authorship. The book’s failure, and the similar failure of his later books (the best two of which remained unpublished at his death and for thirty years thereafter from his inability to find any publisher willing to issue them), embittered his life — according to one legend, he died from blood poisoning from a rotten tooth, having become so pessimistic and fatalistic that he refused to see a dentist. Of his seven books, The Haunted Woman (1921) centers around a strange room in an old house that only sometimes exists; Devil’s Tor (1932) relates the consequences of re-uniting two parts of an ancient amulet; The Violet Apple (1976) tells what happens when a modern-day man and woman eat the fruit grown from seeds said to be from one of the trees in the Garden of Eden; The Witch (1976) is difficult to describe, since the only edition available omits the ending that explains the whole, but definitely worth reading.

[2] The tradition of inserting fantasy worlds into science fiction settings is still alive and well today, with Darkover and Pern being only two of many examples. Although notable exceptions exist, most science fiction stories do not bother themselves about the “science” and its plausibility or otherwise. This has, in fact, been a feature of science fiction since its inception: Verne complained bitterly at being grouped with Wells, since Verne considered his own pseudo-science superior to Wells airy inventions (Wells never bothers to explain how Cavorite repeals gravity or just how the Time Machine works). Unfortunately for purists, those very works which are least faithful to science — e.g. Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who — also tend to be the most popular of all science fiction.

[3] The names Surtur and Muspel both come from Norse myth (as readers of the old Deities & Demigods will be well aware). According to the Eddas, Surtur is the king of the fire-giants, who live in the land of Muspel, the first world ever created. During Ragnarok, Surtur leads the fire-giants against the gods; after the Midgard Serpent, the Fenris Wolf, Loki, Thor, Odin, and Tyr are all dead and after Surtur himself has killed Frey, Surtur will burn up the entire world. This ancient prophecy makes Surtur an apt harbinger of destruction for Lindsay, one who will sweep away the false worlds created by Crystalman the demiurge and leave only the first world, Muspel, behind.

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