REVIEW: “A Voyage to Arcturus” by David Lindsay (1920)

 

MASKULL: “You talk about a certain journey. Well, if that journey were a possible one, and I were given the chance of making it, I would be willing never to come back. For 24 hours on that Arcturian planet, I would give my life. That is my attitude toward that journey…Now prove to me that you’re not talking nonsense. Produce your credentials.”

KRAG: “Oh, you will get your 24 hours, and perhaps longer, but not much longer. You’re an audacious fellow, Maskull, but this trip will prove a little strenuous, even for you.”

BY: TRAVIS K. KIRCHER

Christian writer C.S. Lewis cited it as the book that inspired him to write his celebrated “Space Trilogy.” But there is something about reading “A Voyage to Arcturus” that just makes you want to curl up and die.

The title of the space fantasy, which was published by David Lindsay in 1920 and then quickly forgotten, is a bit inaccurate. It tells the story of a journey, not to Arcturus — a star — but to a planet in the Arcturian system: Tormance. (The name, I assume, is intended to be a mashup of the words “torment” and “romance.” Unfortunately, we get quite a lot of the former.)

This space odyssey begins, oddly enough, with a séance. We are introduced to three characters: Montague Faull and Mrs. Trent (who as far as I can tell, share the distinction of being the only two characters in the entire book with last names) as well as Backhouse, the medium. All three of them seem like normal, regular people (with normal, regular names), though Backhouse is a little eccentric. (“I dream with open eyes, and others see my dreams,” he cryptically says. “That is all.”)

But don’t get attached to any of them. Because in less than 25 pages, there’s a mysterious apparition, a violent murder, and the trio are quickly forgotten, jarringly replaced by three new characters: Nightspore, Krag, and Maskull (the main character of the book) who are all inexplicably summoned to travel from the cliffs of Starkness to the aforementioned planet, “Tormance.”

And uninteresting characters they are. Nightspore has all the charm and ambition of a bag of wet sawdust, taking stoicism to stratospheric levels, spending most of his time in the novel pacing up and down, looking bored, and giving us such verbal gems as, “The journey has to be made. Though I don’t see what will come of it,” and my favorite: “I must be…I forget.”

Krag, on the other hand, reeks of arrogance and menace, but only of the ridiculous sort, hopping and cackling about, reminding me at times of the Gremlin in that Steven Spielberg movie with the white stripe on his back.

And then there’s Maskull – our point-of-view character – who is only slightly more interesting than Nightspore. He is described as, “a kind of giant, but of broader and more robust physique than most giants,” (aren’t most giants already broad and robust?) with a “full beard” and eyes that are “small and black” that sparkle, “with the fires of intelligence and audacity.”

And frankly that’s all we get in way of background or explanation for this, our “everyman” protagonist. Less than 50 pages into the book, he arrives on Tormance – but don’t expect Lindsay to tell you anything about the voyage. Apparently he decided the event was either too metaphysical – or too boring – to describe. Instead, the trio simply sets out on the trip, and Maskull awakens alone on Tormance some time later, his two compatriots mysteriously gone.

For the rest of the novel, we follow Maskull on his bleak, four-day excursion on Tormance, during which he encounters a number of bizarre individuals with a number of bizarre names, all of whom engage him in deep philosophical discussions that feel strangely out of place.

(About names: I don’t know what kind of demon-possessed parent would name their kid “Nightspore,” but if you haven’t noticed yet, Lindsay really has a thing with proper nouns. And it gets worse. Much worse. Lindsay peoples his Tormantic landscape with characters such as Broodviol, Slofork, Digrung, Spadevil, Hator and Polecrab, just to name a few. By the time you’re halfway through the book, you’re just hoping for a Robert, or Sally or Sue to step onto the stage, but no such luck. Granted, it is an alien landscape after all, but one would hope the aliens would develop their own sense of aestheticism, with less crude – if not vulgar – surnames.)

venus
No, it’s not Tormance. It’s NASA imagery of the planet Venus. Which would probably be more fun to visit than Tormance anyway, even without a spacesuit.

 

Maskull’s travels are episodic, almost forming themselves into a series of short stories (virtually all of them tragedies) as he meets the various inhabitants of Tormance. His body changes: he gains and loses limbs and organs that grant him different senses and perceptions about his environment. He follows the sound of mysterious drums, and cringes as the faces of the dead bodies he encounters throughout his travels inexplicably distort into bizarre, vulgar grins – one of the guarded mysteries in the book.

He wonders about the nature of God, who the apparently pagan inhabitants call by different names: Suture, Crystalman, Shaping. But they all agree on the name of the devil.

His name is Krag.

As a traveling companion, Maskull leaves something to be desired. I was ambivalent about his character at the beginning, but I loathed him by the end of the book. Throughout the novel, he behaves in some of the most self-centered ways imaginable, and he leaves behind him a string of bodies on Tormance – some of who were flat-out murdered by him, others of whom died due to his negligence or extreme selfishness.

Now to be fair to Lindsay, some critics argue that Voyage is really a type of morality play, and that Maskull isn’t so much murdering literal “people,” as he is extinguishing philosophies, the way a man named “Generosity” might snuff out the goblin “Greed” in a medieval skit. The problem with this theory is that very few of these characters have solid philosophies that are in any way identifiable. Their worldviews lack constancy. It’s as though Lindsay is trying to make them say deep, hyper-intelligent things, but lacks the ability to construct them as believable people. Characters are completely random: their motivations and personalities shift abruptly without explanation.

One character, for example, enters the story as an overbearing, no-nonsense, take-charge warrior-woman obsessed with avenging her dead husband. Within pages, she forgets her husband, loses all her courage and morphs into a weak, fearful victim, resigned to her own death. Later, she does an about-face again and becomes a philosopher — a sophisticated intellectual arguing for a religious cause. By the time she dies, her character is so random – her motivations so convoluted – that we have no idea what her death represents, if anything at all. If Voyage is a morality play, it’s an incredibly bad one.

But make no mistake: Lindsay’s characters may be sloppy with their motivations, but by the end of the book, we certainly know Lindsay’s. It can be summed up in one word:

Gnosticism.

Gnosticism is an ancient Greek philosophy that argued that there was another world – one more real than the material world – and that one could, in a sense, “transcend” this world and “ascend” into that one both by denying one’s own material desires and by obtaining “secret” spiritual knowledge. Adherents also believed that God the Creator was actually an “inferior” God, and that God and the Devil were indeed at odds, but they were not so much locked in a battle between “good and evil” as they were between “order and chaos,” or “pleasure and pain,” with we mere mortals picking sides and ducking for cover in the crossfire.

If you’re a Christian, you see Gnosticism as a heresy. It plagued the first century Christian church during the time of the Apostle Paul. In fact, some (though not all) believe the “secret knowledge” of gnosticism is what Paul is warning the church against in I Timothy:

“O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called ‘knowledge,’ for by professing it, some have swerved from the faith.” – I Timothy 6:20 (ESV)

You would think adherents to gnosticism would be rare in the 20th century – perhaps as rare as worshippers of Apollo or Zeus. Yet as far as I can tell, gnosticism is exactly what Lindsay is advocating. A brief vignette from his novel may serve as an example of his proselytizing.

The setup: Maskull has learned of an artist living on a distant island. His name is Earthrid (of course it is) and he plays beautiful, enchanting music that has one downside: it (literally) rips the guts out of its listeners, killing them. Yet Maskull has decided to board a raft to go to the island and listen to this music. At the same time Gleameil, a woman with a husband and several children, decides to leave her family behind to travel with Maskull and hear the music for herself.

On their journey there, Maskull asks her why she reached this decision.

“I also am conscious of two worlds,” she replies. “My husband and boys are real to me, and I love them fondly. But there is another world for me, as there is for you, Maskull, and it makes my real world appear all false and vulgar.”

Maskull counters that it may not be morally right for her to leave her family behind in order to satisfy her own selfish curiosity. And she replies with chilling words:

“No, it’s not right. It is wrong, and base. But in that other world, these words have no meaning.”

Her response isn’t particularly disturbing in the context of the story itself. What’s frightening about the statement is the fact that men like the author, David Lindsay, likely believe it is true: that morality is something spiritual elites should “transcend” as they access higher “worlds,” or planes of being.

The conversation continues, and the pair begin to speak of beauty, particularly the beauty they hope to experience when they hear the music. Gleameil points out that beauty cannot be experienced without pain, and Maskull asks her about the Creator of the universe, as well as Krag.

“The lovers of the world call him ‘devil.’ They don’t understand, Maskull, that without him the world would lose its beauty,” she replies, adding that the devil causes pain – a purifying action, and “to see beauty in its terrible purity, you must tear away the pleasure from it.”

“Did you imagine beauty to be pleasant?” she asks.

Lindsay seems to be echoing a constant refrain we hear throughout literature: that light cannot thrive without darkness, and that conversely, darkness needs light. The idea is that the sun wouldn’t be beautiful at all, if you didn’t know about night; pleasure wouldn’t be fun without pain; life only has meaning because there is death; God’s glory would pale without Satan’s evil.

All of that is rot.

According to Christian Scripture, God is glorious. His creativity is boundless. When He loves, He loves unconditionally. When he does good, he does good with the purest of motives. His goodness doesn’t derive from exterior sources: He emanates it from Himself. His glory doesn’t originate from contrast – as with an average singer who only sounds good when compared to a horrible one. His glory comes from Himself. It is self-sufficient. It is not co-dependent.

And as Scripture tells us, there was once a time when beauty indeed existed apart from pain – and that time will come again.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’ And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new…'” – Rev. 21:1-4 (ESV)

Pleasure will be ripped from pain – and the former will exist for eternity, while the other is quickly forgotten. In that moment, try telling the awe-struck inhabitants of that city – those constantly bathing in the wonder of God’s glory – that their lives would have far more meaning if only death had lingered. There will be no bored, dejected Nightspores pacing the floors in heaven with their hands shoved in their pockets, mumbling about the futility of it all. Life – true life – will have finally begun.

I won’t give the ending of A Voyage to Arcturus away, but I should warn you (if you haven’t discovered already) that there’s a slight undercurrent of the occult throughout the book. As I noted, the story begins with a séance, but there are other hints as well: when Maskull voices reservations about going on the trip, Krag grabs Maskull’s arm and, “a sharp, chilling pain immediately passed through the latter’s body – and at the same moment, his brain caught fire.” From that moment on, Maskull’s will changes (apparently not of his own accord) and he is wildly enthusiastic about going (see quote above).

Also, Maskull and Nightspore can’t make the space voyage until Krag stabs them in the arms, drawing blood. His only explanation for doing so is that, “you are unfit to stand the gravitation of Tormance” – a flimsy, half-hearted attempt to mask an apparent pagan act behind a pretense of science (and bad science at that).

Lastly, note that in the final chapter, a character sees a vision of the universe that is likely how author David Lindsay imagines it to be. Though not vulgar or pornographic, it is blasphemous – and appears to be an attempt to bring the One True God – or at least a being similar to Him – down to a moral, psychological and hierarchical level similar to that of us mere mortals.

Why read this book?

I wouldn’t have learned of its existence at all, had I not been reading “The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. 2.” In his letters, Lewis credits Voyage for providing him with the inspiration to write his own space fantasies, including “Out of the Silent Planet” and “Perelandra” – two of my favorite novels of all time. Lewis discovered that, if Lindsay could use space fantasy as a means of conveying his own gnosticism, that Lewis himself could use the same genre to communicate his Christianity.

“Can you bear the truth?” Lewis wrote to Ruth Pitter, a poet, in a letter dated Jan. 4, 1947. “Voyage to Arcturus is not the parody of Perelandra, but its father. It was published, a dead failure, about 25 years ago. Now that the author is dead, it is suddenly leaping into fame: but I’m one of the old guard who had a treasured secondhand copy before anyone had heard of it. From Lyndsay [misspelled] I first learned what other planets in fiction are really good for: for spiritual adventures. Only they can satisfy the craving which sends our imaginations off the earth.”

“or the rest, Voyage to A is on the borderline of the diabolical: i.e., the philosophy expressed is so Manichaean as to be almost Satanic,” Lewis said. “Secondly, the style is often laughably crude. Thirdly, the proper names (Polecrab, Blodsombre, Wombflash, Tydomin, Sullenbode) are superb and perhaps Screwtape owes something to them. Fourthly, you must read it. You will have a disquieting, but not-to-be-missed experience.”

In truth, Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus and Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet bear some

out of the silent planet

similarities – but only on the surface. Planet is a book that both captures the fear and dangers inherent of being on another world, but also the wonder and excitement that comes with it. When you finally leave Lewis’ planet of Malecandra, you’re left with a bittersweet longing to return.

There is no such longing to revisit Lindsay’s Tormance – and Voyage seems to go through great pains to suck all the wonder out of space exploration, replacing it a sort of brooding dread.

Seriously. You’ll feel like a part of your soul died. It’s that depressing.

What I suspect Lewis meant was that A Voyage to Arcturus taught him that science fiction could be used to express a worldview. As Voyage was a vehicle for Lindsay’s gnosticism, so Planet could be used to show Lewis’ Christianity.

And what a contrast they are.

It’s true that many of the mysteries posed in Voyage remained unsolved and critics still puzzle over its meaning – but don’t hold your breath for answers, as the mind that posed those mysteries turned to dust long ago. Whatever answers Lindsay had, he took with him to the grave.

Frankly, I think we can do without them.

To purchase David Lindsay’s “A Voyage to Arcturus,” CLICK HERE.

To purchase the (much better) “Out of the Silent Planet” by C.S. Lewis, CLICK HERE.

voyage to arcturus

Travis K. Kircher is a freelance writer based in Louisville, Kentucky. He can be reached at tkircher@integrity.com.

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