Tuesday, April 20, 2010

David Lindsay: A Voyage to Arcturus

Warning: I will be discussing significant plot elements and the ending.

David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus is probably one of those books that many more people have heard about than have read it, that many more people have started than have finished, and, of those who finished it, many more have disliked it than have liked the work. I'm in the minority here, as I've read it at least four times, and perhaps five, and will read it again.

On the other hand, there is contrary evidence from its publishing history. According to a book review by Paul M. Kieniewicz, published by the University of Nebraska, the novel "has been in print continuously since 1920." New editions have come out in every decade since 1960. I have a hardbound edition that was published in 2002. So, the demand must be great enough to encourage publishers to come out with a new edition every decade or so.

In addition, "[i]n 1985, a three-hour play by David Wolpe based on the novel was staged in Los Angeles." The novel has had its influence in the music field also. "Jazz composer Ron Thomas recorded a concept album inspired by the novel in 2001 entitled "Scenes from a Voyage to Arcturus".

I just finished reading it for an SF discussion group, and I was one of the few who actually finished it and the only one who liked it. And, as it happened with the previous reads of this work, I picked up on some things that I had missed earlier.

It isn't an easy read, and certainly not one that can be read in short snips of time--5 or 10 minutes. The novel is best read in substantial chunks, at least one or two chapters at a time.

The Wikipedia entry for the novel begins as follows:

A Voyage to Arcturus was first "published in 1920" and "it combines fantasy, philosophy and science fiction in an exploration of the nature of good and evil and their relationship with existence. It has been described by the critic and philosopher Colin Wilson as the 'greatest novel of the twentieth century' and was a central influence on C. S. Lewis's The Space Trilogy."

I was recently told that Lewis had been quoted as saying it was the "father" of that trilogy. I'm not certain that I can agree with Colin Wilson when he calls it "greatest novel of the twentieth century," but I will say it is one of the most unique novels that I have read.

The novel begins when Maskull, the main character, meets Nightspore, a friend of his, at a seance. Nightspore has brought Krag, a stranger to Maskull, with him. Eventually Krag asks the two of them if they want an adventure, a trip to Arcturus. To be brief, they enter a vehicle owned by Krag and take off. Maskull falls asleep on the journey and awakens to find himself alone, on the planet Tormance. Krag and Nightspore are nowhere to be seen.

The novel, from this point on until the last two chapters, is a recounting of Maskull's journey among the various cultures that are found on the planet. Lindsay doesn't make the same mistake that so many SF/Fantasy writers make when they create a planet--that of creating a monoculture for the entire planet.

Maskull searches for enlightenment and truths to bring back for the rest of humanity. He sees himself as one who will enlighten people. This is exemplified by his search for the Muspell light which will lead him to Surtur. In Norse mythology, Surtr is Lord of the land of Muspellheimr, which is the land of fire and light in the Norse creation myth.

Maskull travels though a number of lands but meets only two or three people from each place. Ironically, as he goes about on his search for enlightenment, he leaves a trail of death and destruction wherever he is. He either kills someone or is indirectly responsible for that person's death. It is the most unique search for enlightenment I've ever seen.

Along with the Norse references, there is a strong Hindu flavor to this work as the gods may all be the same god but under a different guises--Surtur, Crystalman, Shaper--I'm still not too clear as to how many gods are being referred to here. This may also be true of some of the characters for, at the end of the novel, Maskull, just before he dies, is told by Krag that he, Maskull, is really Nightspore. Krag himself says that he is best known on earth as Pain. Then, in the final chapter, we learn of Nightspore's struggles to join in the struggle against Chrystalman/Shaper, on Krag's side, who now says he is Surtur.

There is also a very strong Gnostic element here, if one sees Chrystalman/Shaping as the demiurge who appropriated part of the Spiritual Life Force of the Supreme Being to populate his creation--the universe. The Shaping (in our world the Creator in the Old Testament) prevents the sparks of the life force from returning to the Supreme Being. When Maskull comes across the Wombflash River, he sees the sparks of the life force attempting to escape Tormance and return to Surtur. Crystalman/Shaping, like the creator of our world, is therefore evil and the real devil. This is the equivalent of the situation in our world for, according to the Gnostics, our world is evil, and we must take no pleasure from it for that makes our task of escaping it that much harder.

Lindsay also has a unique way of creating names for his aliens. Instead of combining vowels and consonants randomly, he takes two words and jams them together. The result is a name that almost means something and might be significant in describing the person. Maskull is a combination of "mask" and "skull." Nightspore is "night" and spore." The first two people Maskull meets are Joiwind (joy and wind) and Panawe (Pan and awe), her husband. Pan could be the god of nature and awe the emotion (fear and adoration) one feels upon meeting a god.

Maskull encounters a variety of philosophies in each of the places he visits on his search for Muspell/Surtur-- from a belief that all life is sacred and the people live on a special water and air in Poolingdred to Ifdawn, a land where Will is dominant and the inhabitants think nothing of using their will to absorb any whose will is weaker, to Sant where all pleasure is evil and pain is good because it distracts them from pleasure .

The three most prominent deities are Crytalman, Shaping, and Surtur. However, Maskull soon learns that the people differ in their ideas about the three, some think all three are separate, others that all three are the same god under different names, and yet others that any two might be the same with the third one being the enemy. Still others believe in Thire, Faceny, and Amfuse who are the creators of the worlds of existence, relation, and feeling.

Overall Rating: One of the most intriguing and absorbing novels I have read and well-worth numerous readings.


  1. Interesting review, Fred. The beginning does sound remarkably similar to "Out of the Silent Planet" by C.S. Lewis (which I enjoyed when I first read it decades ago, but on a recent re-read had a far different opinion).

    And your introduction, explaining that few people can finish the book and that even fewer actually like it,... well, that doesn't exactly make me eager to read it. Heh, heh. But since it's available at Project Gutenberg, I might check it out.


  2. WCG,

    I had thought about the introduction, but I hoped I could provide sufficient information to intrigue some readers into reading it.

    Lewis' overall tone is much like Lindsay's, as well as the sometimes bizarre creatures Maskull and Ransom encounter.

    I had two pb copies because I was afraid it was going out of print and my first copy was in a bad way. Recently I found a hb copy, so I grabbed that immediately. This is one I want in my personal library.

  3. What do you think: Hannes Bok would've been a good choice to illustrate it?

  4. Extollager,

    I hadn't thought about it, but that would be an interesting idea. His use of color, I think, would be very right, at least it would in the way I see Tormance and its inhabitants.