Despite what C.S. Lewis Says, David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus is the Worst Book Ever

This may very well be the worst book I have ever read.

According to my Goodreads ratings, I have only four other one-star reviews. I can’t remember why I so disliked Chrétien de Troyes’ Erec & Enide, but I remember the other three distinctly. It was not just the tang of the world in William Morris’ utopian News from Nowhere that I disliked, but his jagged style and his hope that the sexism of his age would be idealized. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged was 1,500 pages of preaching, where the philosopher Rand beat her audience with a railway tie until we were well into submission. My lack of sympathy for Sidney’s Arcadia is, I’m sure, my own weakness. But the Arcadia tasted to me like sucralose drinks: artificial, and so sickly sweet that it threatens to overwhelm the artificiality.

Note that these are four of the more memorable and canonical authors of Western history. Chrétien de Troyes helps create our English Arthurian tradition, Sir. Phillip Sydney is one of the great poets of the period, William Morris inaugurated 20th century fantasy (until Tolkien), and Ayn Rand’s philosophy still salinates certain streams of American politics—including an intriguing influence on conservative Christians in the US, despite Rand’s open anti-Christianity and Christ’s clear rejection of the principles behind Atlas Shrugged. Even David Lyndsay himself is influential. Michael Moorcock has called A Voyage to Arcturus a Nietzschean Pilgrim’s Progress with a struggle that becomes “the antithesis of the visionary brutalism embraced by Adolf Hitler.”

And C.S. Lewis loved this book. Lewis called A Voyage to Arcturus “that shattering, intolerable, and irresistible work” (“On Science Fiction”). “Intolerable” is a well-chosen adjective, I think, but I find it less than shattering and entirely resistible. Rather than have to suffer through the last pages of Arcturus, I would have paid William Shatner to come to my bedroom and read the book Shatneresquely while I slept. Because of intellectual honesty, I resisted the temptation. Besides, my wife vetoed the idea. She said it was because of money, but she might have found Shatner’s approach a bit off-putting at night.

Still, I am committed to trying to understand what Lewis saw in this work. So I felt duty bound to discover what was it that caught his imagination. His Oct 29, 1944 letter to Prof. Charles Brady, Lewis admitted that,

“The real father of my planet books is David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus, which you also will revel in if you don’t know it. I had grown up on Well’s stories of that kind: it was Lindsay who first gave me the idea that the ‘scientifiction’ appeal could be combined with the ‘supernatural’ appeal–suggested the ‘Cross’ (in biological sense). His own spiritual outlook is detestable, almost diabolist I think, and his style crude: but he showed me what a bang you cd. get from mixing these two elements.”

(note: Can any reader help me with the syntax of Lewis’ “cross” comment? There is a lot about sacrifice in the book, but I don’t think that’s what Lewis meant here)

Despite the notes of Schopenhauer or the Manichaean dualism of A Voyage to Arcturus, Lewis consciously used it to shape his works. In a Jan 4, 1947 letter to poet Ruth Pitter, Lewis responded to her vision of the connection between the two pieces:

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 second hand copy before anyone had heard of it. From Lyndsay 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 putting it another way, in him I first saw the terrific results produced by the union of two kinds of fiction hitherto kept apart: the Novalis, G. Macdonald, James Stephens sort and the H. G. Wells, Jules Verne sort. My debt to him is very great: tho’ I’m a little alarmed to find it so obvious that the affinity came through to you even from a talk about Lyndsay!

“For 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. 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.”

The band of brothers Lewis’ places Lindsay within is a strong one, though enigmatic, leaving out as much as it takes in. Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra are patterned after A Voyage to Arcturus in at least three distinct ways.

First, they are all books of Platonic dialogue in space fiction. Second, they include stunning descriptions of landscape that are designed to de-Earth the reader, alienating them for the sake of recovery of something else. Third, in Arcturus and Perelandra especially, there is significant fluidity and play around the idea of gender. The foundation for this gender play is different in each: Lindsay entrenches himself in post-Victorian ideas of masculinity and femininity, while Lewis is playing with classical and medieval images of symbolized gender and sex. While I have argued that The Place of the Lion was one of the triggers of Lewis’ turn to SF, there is no doubt that when Lewis encountered Arcturus in the mid-30s, a vision for theological planetary science fiction began to grow in his mind.

What Lewis learned best from David Lindsay—what he said that planetary romances were good for—is that in taking the reader to an alien world, the return to Earth makes our own reading chairs and family rooms and studies look a little alien. To the degree that Lindsay influenced Lewis in this project of what Darko Suvin would later call “cognitive estrangement,” we should be grateful.

Still, there is the writing itself. Unlike Lewis, I was not impressed by the names, finding them clumsy and random, but I may well be wrong. Lindsay is also fairly good at painting a landscape, though he overplays his hand, pressing for some intricate symbolism that often escaped me. Despite some skill with a paintbrush, Lindsay creates monotonous dialogue from hateful characters who bark back and forth to each other like bad middle school actors reading recipes to one another as if it was romantic poetry. Though Lindsay can create a scene in landscape, in dialogue he a “tell” instead of “show” author, using adverbs to do the work instead of descriptive prose. Here are some examples of adverbial leaning when the nearby prose could have carried the moment or when description would have been better:

  • he tranquilly studied him through half closed lids and the smoke of a cigar
  • He spoke rather dryly
  • “I will be delighted,” said Backhouse coldly
  • She smiled rather absently
  • his eyes were still disconcertingly bright
  • She has decorated the old lounge hall upstairs most beautifully
  • Backhouse was slightly acquainted with the latter
  • their meeting had immediately acquired additional solemnity
  • was most expensively attired
  • The room was brilliantly lighted
  • A fantastically carved wooden couch
  • obliquely placed to the auditorium
  • Jameson … watched them as only a deeply interested woman knows how to watch
  • “you will immediately see for yourselves”
  • It was evident that aesthetically she was by far the most important person present
  • Through the gaps in his mind the inhabitants of the invisible, when he summoned them, passed for a moment timidly and awfully into the solid, coloured universe
  • It hovered lightly in the air
  • the pedestal of the statue was seen to become slightly blurred…. This slowly developed into a visible cloud, coiling hither and thither, and constantly changing shape
  • Jameson quietly fainted in her chair, but she was unnoticed, and presently revived
  • The figure was by this time unmistakably that of a man lying down
  • “Aha-i, gentlemen!” he called out loudly. His voice was piercing, and oddly disagreeable to the ear
  • asked Faull sullenly
  • said Backhouse quickly
  • The guests were unutterably shocked
  • demanded Nightspore disdainfully

And so on. That’s just the more obvious ones in the opening scene. There are 300 pages of this. I have no way of counting, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there were 1000 unnecessary adverbs in 300 pages of text. There is some nice potential there for good prose, punctuated by the lazy turn to an adverb. Some of this is the overwrought prose of fantasy-writing in the 1920s–as imaginative as H.P. Lovecraft is, I wish he would describe the evil rather than telling my something is evil–but Lindsay is particularly good at bad prose.

And Lindsay’s fascination with people sitting in certain ways! There are dozens and dozens of references to sitting down—this in a book about walking. Here are some of them:

  • he immediately settled himself in the most comfortable of many comfortable chairs
  • they retained their seats with difficulty
  • Her voice was retarded, scornful, viola-like. She sat down on the trunk of a fallen tree, and looked away
  • she sat down on the ground, her legs gracefully thrust under her body, and pulled down the skirt of her robe. Maskull remained standing just behind her, with crossed arms.
  • Oceaxe sat down carelessly
  • He laughed again, but nevertheless sat down on the ground beside her
  • Tydomin suggested to him to set down the corpse, and both sat down to rest in the shade
  • He sat up and began to smile, without any especial reason; and then stood upright
  • He sat up, blinking
  • When I sat up, it was night and the others had vanished
  • He sat up, but the fisherman did not stir
  • He … strolled on to the sands, and sat down in the full sunlight
  • The woman sat cross-legged in the stern, and seized the pole
  • Without appearing to care about an answer, he sat up
  • Then he sat down by the side of the lake, and, leaning on his side, placed his right hand, open palm downward, on the ground, at the same time stretching out his right leg, so that the foot was in contact with the water
  • Maskull sat down by its edge, in imitation of Earthrid’s attitude
  • And he sat down passively to rest
  • While Maskull sat, Corpang walked restlessly to and fro, swinging his arms
  • Going to the meat line, he took down a large double handful, and sat down on a pile of skins to eat at his ease
  • Then he sat down, crossed his legs, and turned to Maskull
  • Corpang now sat up suddenly
  • He sat down moodily, but the next minute was up again
  • When they had covered about half a mile, Maskull, who went second of the party, staggered, caught the cliff, and finally sat down
  • She sat erect, on crossed legs, asleep
  • He paced up and down, while the others sat
  • Maskull and Sullenbode sat down on a boulder
  • When he had reached the boulder overlooking the landslip, on which they had sat together, he lowered his burden, and, placing the dead girl on the stone, seated himself beside her for a time, gazing over toward Barey
  • He sat up and yawned feebly
  • From where he sat he was unable to see the pool
  • Maskull sat down near the edge, and periodically splashed water over his head. Gangnet sat on his haunches next to him. Krag paced up and down with short, quick steps, like an animal in a cage

See my note above about middle school stage direction. Honestly, how do you sit down passively?  or moodily? That is something I’d like to have described to me so I can practice. And where I have been all this time that people have been yawning in a way that wasn’t feeble?

And, believe it or not, this codpiece prose is not the worst part of Arcturus. If you have been paying attention there is a lot of carrying around of corpses. This is because the characters are absolutely despicable. The hero of the tale lands in a beautiful other-world, and despite mentoring by a peace-loving couple, invests his life there in slaughtering the people of Tormance, taking their lives one by one because they are hideous or annoying or they make him feel sad. Honestly, the best part of the book was when the prophecy arrived that Maskill would die. His four days in Tormance are a millennium of drudgery. He doesn’t even like it, so why should the reader?

All of this, I know, is to tell us something of Lindsay’s philosophical approach. The worldview that Lewis called “diabolical” is a strange kind of dualism. God and Satan, pain and pleasure, self and other, male and female, lover and enemy, near and far, good and evil, death and life—these are all binaries that serve to illustrate a complex philosophical dualism. Lindsay’s skepticism—what Moorcock calls his “God-questioning genius”—is one of the more interesting parts of the book, especially when combined with passages that describe religious experience.

All of this rich questioning, however, is described in philosophical conversation that sounds like a dot matrix printer, spoken by characters who are like squeaky hinges to the reader’s spirit, all set against a backdrop of imaginative genius so mishandled that, in the end, would make Justin Bieber look like a lyrical savant.

So, perhaps I am wrong about this book. People have committed their lives to preserving this book. Colin Wilson called Arcturus “the greatest novel of the 20th century.” (see here). Philip Pullman thought it was a severely underrated book—and we know how good of a reader he is.

As painful as this book was to read, it was important to C.S. Lewis. In “Two Ways with the Self,” Lewis was concerned with the tendency to worship suffering in Lindsay’s novel, and he warned that “I shd. think twice before introducing it to the young” unless they are in “perfect psychological health” (Jan 31, 1960 letter to Alan Hindle). My psychological health was better before I picked it up–but then I’m not a child.

And though he never loved the writing, he held the opinion throughout his life that it was an important book. In a discussion with leading SF writers of the period, Lewis floated Lindsay’s masterpiece:

C.S. LEWIS: Well, the one you probably disapprove of because he’s so very unscientific is David Lindsay, in Voyage to Arcturus. It’s a remarkable thing, because scientifically it’s nonsense, the style is appalling, and yet this ghastly vision comes through.

BRIAN ALDISS: It didn’t come through to me.

KINGSLEY AMIS: Nor me. Still … Victor Gollancz told me a very interesting remark of Lindsay’s about Arcturus; he said, ‘I shall never appeal to a large public at all, but I think that as long as our civilisation lasts one person a year will read me.’ I respect that attitude.

C.S. LEWIS: Quite so. Modest and becoming (“Unreal Estates”).

Unfortunately, I was the one person to read Arcturus this year. The only thing that depresses me more than the idea of me having to read this book is that with more than 10 months left in the year there could be countless others who stumble upon it.

We will turn below to a passage that has some of the least worst prose in the book, but captures some of the hateful quality of the characters and the worldview. But before that, let’s look at Lewis’ published literary criticism of A Voyage to Arcturus with a few of my comments interspersed. In “On Stories,” Lewis is concerned with developing atmosphere, rather than stories driven by suspenseful plot devices:

“But perhaps the most remarkable achievement in this kind is that of Mr David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus. The experienced reader, noting the threats and promises of the opening chapter, even while he gratefully enjoys them, feels sure that they cannot be carried out. He reflects that in stories of this kind the first chapter is nearly always the best and reconciles himself to disappointment; Tormance, when we reach it, he forbodes, will be less interesting than Tormance seen from the Earth. But never will he have been more mistaken.”

I am clearly not an experienced reader.

“Unaided by any special skill or even any sound taste in language, the author leads us up a stair of unpredictables.”

This is a precisely accurate statement. The book goes on and on through those winding, crumbling, meaningless stairways.

“In each chapter we think we have found his final position; each time we are utterly mistaken. He builds whole worlds of imagery and passion, any one of which would have served another writer for a whole book, only to pull each of them to pieces and pour scorn on it. The physical dangers, which are plentiful, here count for nothing; it is we ourselves and the author who walk through a world of spiritual dangers which makes them seem trivial. There is no recipe for writing of this kind.

That there is no recipe for this kind of writing is its own blessing.

“But part of the secret is that the author (like Kafka) is recording a lived dialectic. His Tormance is a region of the spirit. He is the first writer to discover what ‘other planets’ are really good for in fiction. No merely physical strangeness or merely spatial distance will realise that idea of otherness which is what we are always trying to grasp in a story about voyaging through space: you must go into another dimension. To construct plausible and moving ‘other worlds’ you must draw on the only real ‘other world’ we know, that of the spirit” (“On Stories”).

I don’t know that Lewis is right that the realm of the spirit is the only Adventureland left to us–and he may have considered the “heavens” a spiritual region–but that vision of transdimensional distance really does create marvellous opportunities for philosophical exploration—what other planets are really good for.

I have complained enough, and am very aware that I may have missed something entirely. If forced to choose from my one-star books for a reread, I would choose Chrétien and Sydney and learn to like them. Morris’ utopia I only found horrifying, so I could read that again. And pressed to the wall, I would rather reread the 561,996 pork-barrel words of Atlas Shrugged rather than return to a single chapter of dialogue in Arcturus. At least Ayn Rand can present her despicable characters with moral courage. And there are lots of pretty trains.

Now to one of the better scenes, this one with that elegant rhythm of a ceiling fan missing a blade.

From Chapter 19, Sullenbode

Corpang, who had been staring steadily along the ridge, here abruptly broke in. “The road is plain now, Maskull. If you wish it, I’ll go on alone.”

“No, we’ll go on together. Sullenbode will accompany us.”

“A little way,” said the woman, “but not to Adage, to pit my strength against unseen powers. That light is not for me. I know how to renounce love, but I will never be a traitor to it.”

“Who knows what we shall find on Adage, or what will happen? Corpang is as ignorant as myself.”

Corpang looked him full in the face. “Maskull, you are quite well aware that you never dare approach that awful fire in the society of a beautiful woman.”

Maskull gave an uneasy laugh. “What Corpang doesn’t tell you, Sullenbode, is that I am far better acquainted with Muspel-light than he, and that, but for a chance meeting with me, he would still be saying his prayers in Threal.”

“Still, what he says must be true,” she replied, looking from one to the other.

“And so I am not to be allowed to — ”

“So long as I am with you, I shall urge you onward, and not backward, Maskull.”

“We need not quarrel yet,” he remarked, with a forced smile. “No doubt things will straighten themselves out.”

Sullenbode began kicking the snow about with her foot. “I picked up another piece of wisdom in my sleep, Corpang.”

“Tell it to me, then.”

“Men who live by laws and rules are parasites. Others shed their strength to bring these laws out of nothing into the light of day, but the law-abiders live at their ease — they have conquered nothing for themselves.”

“It is given to some to discover, and to others to preserve and perfect. You cannot condemn me for wishing Maskull well.”

“No, but a child cannot lead a thunderstorm.”

They started walking again along the centre of the ridge. All three were abreast, Sullenbode in the middle.

The road descended by an easy gradient, and was for a long distance comparatively smooth. The freezing point seemed higher than on Earth, for the few inches of snow through which they trudged felt almost warm to their naked feet. Maskull’s soles were by now like tough hides. The moonlit snow was green and dazzling. Their slanting, abbreviated shadows were sharply defined, and red-black in colour. Maskull, who walked on Sullenbode’s right hand, looked constantly to the left, toward the galaxy of glorious distant peaks.

“You cannot belong to this world,” said the woman. “Men of your stamp are not to be looked for here.”

“No, I have come here from Earth.”

“Is that larger than our world?”

“Smaller, I think. Small, and overcrowded with men and women. With all those people, confusion would result but for orderly laws, and therefore the laws are of iron. As adventure would be impossible without encroaching on these laws, there is no longer any spirit of adventure among the Earthmen. Everything is safe, vulgar, and completed.”

“Do men hate women there, and women men?”

“No, the meeting of the sexes is sweet, though shameful. So poignant is the sweetness that the accompanying shame is ignored, with open eyes. There is no hatred, or only among a few eccentric persons.”

“That shame surely must be the rudiment of our Lichstorm passion. But now say — why did you come here?”

“To meet with new experiences, perhaps. The old ones no longer interested me.”

“How long have you been in this world?”

“This is the end of my fourth day.”

“Then tell me what you have seen and done during those four days. You cannot have been inactive.”

“Great misfortunes have happened to me.”

He proceeded briefly to relate everything that had taken place from the moment of his first awakening in the scarlet desert. Sullenbode listened, with half-closed eyes, nodding her head from time to time. only twice did she interrupt him. After his description of Tydomin’s death, she said, speaking in a low voice — “None of us women ought by right of nature to fall short of Tydomin in sacrifice. For that one act of hers, I almost love her, although she brought evil to your door.” Again, speaking of Gleameil, she remarked, “That grand-souled girl I admire the most of all. She listened to her inner voice, and to nothing else besides. Which of us others is strong enough for that?”

When his tale was quite over, Sullenbode said, “Does it not strike you, Maskull, that these women you have met have been far nobler than the men?”

“I recognise that. We men often sacrifice ourselves, but only for a substantial cause. For you women almost any cause will serve. You love the sacrifice for its own sake, and that is because you are naturally noble.”

Turning her head a little, she threw him a smile so proud, yet so sweet, that he was struck into silence.

They tramped on quietly for some distance, and then he said, “Now you understand the sort of man I am. Much brutality, more weakness, scant pity for anyone — Oh, it has been a bloody journey!”

She laid her hand on his arm. “I, for one, would not have it less rugged.”

“Nothing good can be said of my crimes.”

“To me you seem like a lonely giant, searching for you know not what. . . . The grandest that life holds. . . . You at least have no cause to look up to women.”

“Thanks, Sullenbode!” he responded, with a troubled smile.

“When Maskull passes, let people watch. Everyone is thrown out of your road. You go on, looking neither to right nor left.”

“Take care that you are not thrown as well,” said Corpang gravely.

“Maskull shall do with me whatever he pleases, old skull! And for whatever he does, I will thank him. . . . In place of a heart you have a bag of loose dust. Someone has described love to you. You have had it described to you. You have heard that it is a small, fearful, selfish joy. It is not that — it is wild, and scornful, and sportive, and bloody. . . . How should you know.”

“Selfishness has far too many disguises.”

“If a woman wills to give up all, what can there be selfish in that?”

“Only do not deceive yourself. Act decisively, or fate will be too swift for you both.”

Sullenbode studied him through her lashes. “Do you mean death — his death as well as mine?”

“You go too far, Corpang,” said Maskull, turning a shade darker. “I don’t accept you as the arbiter of our fortunes.”

“If honest counsel is disagreeable to you, let me go on ahead.”

The woman detained him with her slow, light fingers. “I wish you to stay with us.”


“I think you may know what you are talking about. I don’t wish to bring harm to Maskull. Presently I’ll leave you.”

“That will be best,” said Corpang.

Maskull looked angry. “I shall decide — Sullenbode, whether you go on, or back, I stay with you. My mind is made up.”

An expression of joyousness overspread her face, in spite of her efforts to conceal it. “Why do you scowl at me, Maskull?”

He returned no answer, but continued walking onward with puckered brows. After a dozen paces or so, he halted abruptly. “Wait, Sullenbode!”

The others came to a standstill. Corpang looked puzzled, but the woman smiled. Maskull, without a word, bent over and kissed her lips. Then he relinquished her body, and turned around to Corpang.

“How do you, in your great wisdom, interpret that kiss?”

“It requires no great wisdom to interpret kisses, Maskull.”

“Hereafter, never dare to come between us. Sullenbode belongs to me.”

“Then I say no more; but you are a fated man.”

From that time forward he spoke not another word to either of the others.

A heavy gleam appeared in the woman’s eyes. “Now things are changed, Maskull. Where are you taking me?”

“Choose, you.”

“The man I love must complete his journey. I won’t have it otherwise. You shall not stand lower than Corpang.”

“Where you go, I will go.”

“And I— as long as your love endures, I will accompany you even to Adage.”

“Do you doubt its lasting?”

“I wish not to. . . . Now I will tell you what I refused to tell you before. The term of your love is the term of my life. When you love me no longer, I must die.”

“And why?” asked Maskull slowly.

“Yes, that’s the responsibility you incurred when you kissed me for the first time. I never meant to tell you.”

“Do you mean that if I had gone on alone, you would have died?”

“I have no other life but what you give me.”

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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59 Responses to Despite what C.S. Lewis Says, David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus is the Worst Book Ever

  1. salooper57 says:

    Thank you. I thought it was just me.


  2. joviator says:

    I’m pretty sure “cross” should be read as “breeding two animals together to get a hybrid”. I infer from CSL’s clarifying parenthesis that he knew you were going to be reading his mail some day.


  3. I read Voyage to Arcturus in my teens. It was a mostly unpleasant experience, from what I recall, though a few images have lingered with strange potency, like the sight of another’s face in the face of a character who dies.

    I do, though, find your comments on News from Nowhere a bit funny–in my experience (in an academic context), many find Morris’s dated socialist utopianism quaint and enjoyable, if a bit ludicrous.


    • Yes, Morris is quaint. I am probably overly sensitive to sexism. I forgive it in almost any well-written book, from the hierarchical/objectivised middle ages to the misogynistic Renaissance men to the comfortable moderns to second wave feminists. But when we seal in the future “best of all worlds” with the sexism of the moment, I find it hard to read as quaint.
      I’m also not a very good socialist!


  4. robstroud says:

    I’ve had a copy of the book for some years and never gotten around to reading it. Now I’m glad to have saved the time…


  5. frank4man says:

    You made my morning.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Jonathan Himes says:

    Thank you for writing this review. I wish more reviews would describe the badness of something disliked as thoroughly as you did here. I enjoyed your lists of bad adverbials and sit-downs scenes. I remember liking parts of Lindsay’s book — the landscape descriptions and inventiveness of new alien lives and idea — but being confused a lot of the time, but kind of enjoying the confusion. Even in this final excerpt you included, I am reminded of the moral inversions that Lewis does so much more clearly in Screwtape. In Lindsay’s book, you are constantly trying to check yourself to see who is at fault in the dialogues, but of course you can simply say it is the author at fault; still, if you give in to its mood, I think it offers the imagination a teasing sense that there is an alien logic just beyond reach (maybe Lewis partly enjoyed these slippery dialogues for something like that). By the way, do you know Geoffrey Reiter? He recently posted on Facebook how much he enjoyed re-reading this book while teaching it in a college class!


    • The sit down thing is a bit ridiculous, isn’t it?
      Yes, there are parts I did like. I don’t love Lovecraft’s prose (from the same period), but love the creation he gives us. With Lindsay, I struggle with where the moral voice is coming from, but that can be done well (i.e., Octavia Butler–whereas with people like L’Engle, Lewis, Joan Slonczewski, and Margaret Atwood it is pretty obvious).
      I don’t know Geoffrey Reiter, but this blog space is open for people to take me on!
      By the way, Jonathan, I appreciate your work on C.S. Lewis (in particular, the Dark Tower stuff).


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I have trouble visualizing the intention of “she sat down on the ground, her legs gracefully thrust under her body”.

        But it’s fun to try to visualize, while pondering, “He sat up and yawned feebly” – one of those yawns where your mouth is scarcely open and your lips tremble?

        I have a soft spot for those adverbs, which seem Late Victorian-Edwardian-Georgian as well as Lovecraftian and Charles Williamsy – and shudder to think how much description might go to replace them!


  7. dalejamesnelson says:

    One may read a contemporary review here, with comments on it by Douglas Anderson, author of The Annotated Hobbit and numerous other scholarly works relating to fantastic literature.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Interesting! Makes me want to try A.M. Champneys – and read in full all those reviews from which positive blurb quotations were selected for the various book covers in Brenton’s characteristically dazzling selection, above. Curious is “a large number of minor characters of whom unsympathetic would be a mild description” in the 1914 TLS review of her own The Recoiling Force – the more interesting taken in context of her evaluation the month before the Lindsay review of Queen Lucia by E.F. Benson as “an altogether satisfying entertainment” and what seems some sort of appreciation of “Poe in his most grisly vein” and of Baudelaire. In lots of ways I would agree in describing Queen Lucia as a “satisfying entertainment”, but does it ever have characters unsympathetic in various ways! How much of her criticism of Lindsay, then, is stylistic? How high does she rank style as a feature? Interesting to read Douglas Anderson saying, “if you read other Lindsay (Devil’s Tor, The Witch, his “Christmas Play”) you’ll find an author skilled in adapting his prose style.”

      For I have to agree with Lewis’s line of stylistic comments on VtA quoted above – it is impressive despite much, very much of its style. And I agree with Lewis’s positive evaluation of VtA and with his attention to how appalling it is (whether that is due to perspectives of Lindsay’s characters, Lindsay’s own thought, or a mixture of both of those).

      This would be an interesting thread to follow and ponder in Lewis – notable examples with reference to MacDonald spring to mind, but I remember it as a feature of the conversation with Aldiss and Amis more generally, too – and then there’s An Experiment in Criticism. Mythopoeic and what Tolkien calls ‘storial’ qualities, and atmosphere, in relation to and distinction from style – not unrelated to his observations on story apart from any (re)telling. But also appreciation of style apart from, and contrary to, ‘content’ (e.g., about Ovid’s pornographic qualities).


      • dalejamesnelson says:

        Well said, David, about Lewis and Tolkien valuing the mythopoeic even where the story is conveyed to us by means of prose of poor quality. I’ve read Arcturus twice, but the most recent completed reading seems to have been all the way back in 1981. My impression is that the book does work for me.

        Lindsay’s The Haunted Woman shouldn’t be overlooked by people who might be interested in a story with something of the quality of a Charles Williams novel but with the great difference of a non-Christian mysticism being substituted for the Faith.


        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Idiotically, I’ve never gone looking to try his other work – but I see I can listen to The Haunted Woman in six-and-a-half hours at (and VtA in a little over 11 hours, come to that)!

          Even though he’s out of copyright, I do not find other of his books scanned or transcribed online.

          But revisiting his Wikipedia article in aid of such searching, I see “In 1971, A Voyage to Arcturus was produced as a 35mm feature film by William J. Holloway. It was the first film to be funded by a National Endowment for the Arts grant and has recently been re-released.” And, lo – someone has posted it on YouTube!


          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Whether William Holloway has rendered the dialogues better than barking “back and forth to each other like bad middle school actors reading recipes to one another as if it was romantic poetry”, I have not paused to discover before sharing the news!


          • I’ve listened to part of this, actually, not knowing that it was a video, and not remembering where I had found it. Pretty peculiar.


          • Thanks for the link to this super weird movie. I have watched it and actually did an update post for Monday with comments from Harold Bloom and other links.


  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Checking Wikipedia for the date of VtA (before coming to the Anderson link), I saw a Tolkien ref. Following it is well worth while – Letter 26 to Stanley Unwin (4 March 1938) reacting to his sending an extract from a report by one of his publisher’s readers about Out of the Silent Planet (including, “This one isn’t good enough – quite.”). In replying with his own strongly favourable “opinion” of Lewis’s novel, he mentions VtA – in these terms: “I at any rate should have bought this story at almost any price if I had found it in print […]. But I know only too sadly […] that my taste is not normal. I read ‘Voyage to Arcturus’ with avidity – the most comparable work, though it is both more powerful and more mythical (and less rational, and also less of a story – no one could read it merely as a thriller and without interest in philosophy religion and morals). I wonder what your reader thinks of it?”

    Liked by 1 person

    • dalejamesnelson says:

      In a couple of ways, A Voyage to Arcturus might be like Haggard’s She — another romance relished by Lewis and Tolkien, and denounced for its style. First, it too seems to have been read avidly for its mythopoeic imagination, and, second, enjoyed thus despite its non-Christian values (in Haggard’s tale’s case, these include reincarnation steered by an erotic bond superior to time, etc.).

      Liked by 1 person

  9. megmoseman says:

    I quite liked VtA (CSL turned me onto it, naturally). I’ve only read the book twice, because it’s challenging and only rarely beautiful or appealing in any conventional way. Still (perhaps this shows my lack of intellectual sophistication) I loved wrestling with the ideas Lindsay’s characters put forth and trying to identify the different philosophies they represent and the significance of the progression from each to the next and the colors and the suns, etc., etc., etc..

    I agree that Lindsay’s take on gender is sexist (and bizarre). I guess I’m far enough removed from that particular flavor of sexism that my reaction is more “I want to write an essay tracing all the different things the different characters say about women and gender and the formation of gender and figure out what precise weird and unlikely thing Lindsay thinks” than “ew.”

    That said, I do think an “ew” about Lindsay’s apparent attitude toward women factored into my finding the atmosphere ugly and brutal (not to mention descriptions of Krag as ugly and brutal). This atmosphere accords with the book’s intention, though; Lindsay seems in favor of ugliness and brutality, because (I don’t remember the exact formulation, but) that makes a crack in Crystalman’s facade and helps to free the Muspel-light. I did find the ending starkly lovely, but this made me suspect that I was coming to the book as Gleameil went to Earthrid’s music–seeking (and, in my case, finding) beauty and pleasure, which are presented as shallow and contemptible things to seek, in writing that wants precisely to prove those things contemptible.


    • Sorry I missed this thoughtful post. I honestly don’t know what to think about Lindsay’s views of women from this book (or men). He has that gender fluidity that Lewis plays with in his SF–and there is a whole tradition of gender or sex play in SF books. The first couple that Lindsay’s protagonist meets is some sort of prototype of the good, I think–and perhaps that is the woman that is the canon of his possibilities.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I too read Arcturus because of my love for Lewis’s Ransom trilogy, and I agreed with Lewis’s assessment that it was an ‘unhallowed’ and badly written book, but full of invention. I found it less unreadable than Phillip Pullman’s Dark Materials.


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  13. John Cowan says:

    What adverbs would you consider necessary? Describing how things are done is a standard part of the English-language tradition right up until Hemingway, whose prose I find flat, boring, and risible.


    • Stephen King is my guide:
      “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day … fifty the day after that … and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s—GASP!!—too late.
      I can be a good sport about adverbs, though. Yes I can. With one exception: dialogue attribution. I insist that you use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of occasions … and not even then, if you can avoid it. ….
      Is this a case of “Do as I say, not as I do?” The reader has a perfect right to ask the question, and I have a duty to provide an honest answer. Yes. It is. You need only look back through some of my own fiction to know that I’m just another ordinary sinner. I’ve been pretty good about avoiding the passive tense, but I’ve spilled out my share of adverbs in my time, including some (it shames me to say it) in dialogue attribution. (I have never fallen so low as “he grated” or “Bill jerked out,” though.) When I do it, it’s usually for the same reason any writer does it: because I am afraid the reader won’t understand me if I don’t.
      I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing….
      No writer is entirely without sin in these matters. Although William Strunk got E. B. White in his clutches when White was but a naive undergraduate at Cornell (give them to me when they’re young and they’re mine forever, heh-heh-heh), and although White both understood and shared Strunk’s prejudice against loose writing and the loose thinking which prompts it, he admits, “I suppose I have written the fact that a thousand times in the heat of composition, revised it out maybe five hundred times in the cool aftermath. To be batting only .500 this late in the season, to fail half the time to connect with this fat pitch, saddens me …” Yet E. B. White went on to write for a good many years following his initial revisions of Strunk’s “little book” in 1957. I will go on writing in spite of such stupid lapses as “You can’t be serious,” Bill said unbelievingly. I expect you to do the same thing. There is a core simplicity to the English language and its American variant, but it’s a slippery core. All I ask is that you do as well as you can, and remember that, while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.


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  16. Thomas Little says:

    Somehow it is easy to hate works that notable authors found useful and somewhat profound. Hate Lindsay, hate Henry Thoreau, as writers like the libertarian Gary North has done as a crusade–there are quite a few easy targets in cumbersome writing out there in great works. Why not take on Homer, Aristotle or the Bible for questionable writing? That would be a challenge. This target is too easy, but Lindsay’s overall work is better than a lot of the pulp writers in the same genre like Heinlein and Asimov that I found nauseating.


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  19. frank4man says:

    cross = mashup, for example Jane Ayre and Zombies, Schrodinger’s Gat, Cowboys and Aliens.


  20. Mark Dowsett says:

    Before I knew what anyone else thought about Lindsay and Arcturus, I read the book. I was probably about 16. I read my first copy so many times it fell apart. I had to buy another which, now I’m 70, will need replacing soon. I also love the mannered Violet Apple, The Haunted Woman, and Sphinx. You either fall in with an author’s prose style, or you don’t. As with Lewis himself (whom I found sacrilegious at first) and particularly E. R. Eddison, and even Hal Clement, synchronicity takes me a page or two, then I’m in. It’s not just the descriptiveness of Arcturus which is so appealing, the book is full of technological and biological invention. “Back rays”, if only. The ending was shattering to a 16 year old who expected things to turn out well as they do in all Lewis’s Ransom books (at least for Ransom). No return to Avalon for Maskull. No return at all.


    • Thanks so much for telling your story, Mark. I’m glad to hear about your reading of a courageous ending. I’d also agree that it is an inventive book, and certainly one of our more creative early SF writers–C.S. Lewis–found it immensely helpful.


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  23. Erik Graff says:

    A Voyage to Arcturus is the only novel which I reread immediately upon finishing it for the first time, so startling was its conclusion. Since then I’ve read all of Lindsay’s other books except the historical one set in France, finding The Haunted Woman to be most intriguing–and again for one transformative aspect, that of the other world up the stair and the enigmatic vision through the window. However poor a stylist, however racist and misogynistic, Lindsay had a truly gnostic vision.


  24. Paul Kieniewicz says:

    I think you did miss something important. Despite all the wooden and uninspiring prose, this is a great book. If you want great prose, there are many masters out there, but there aren’t many that have something important to say. See my review
    Paul Kieniewicz


  25. I kinda side with Lewis on this one. I hated the philosophy of “Voyage,” but loved being exposed to the way Lindsay used fantasy to convey his philosophy (a philosophy I find deplorable, by the way). Here’s my review of the book:

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

    He also wrote “The Haunted Woman,” which is earth-bound and much more grounded than “Voyage,” but still leaves you feeling like a piece of your soul died at the end. The man was in a dark, dark place.


  26. georgemci says:

    Well there’s no accounting for taste I suppose but I think that A Voyage to Arcturus may be the most astonishing book I ever read.

    Although I didn’t always agree with Colin Wilson, I think he had it right here. He mentioned the appalling prose but said that after a few pages you are so gripped by the story and the sheer power of the imagination behind it all that you don’t notice the verbal stodginess.

    As far as I can recall, Wilson also called it the most imaginative work of the 20th century – possibly in all literature. Well that’s a hyperbolic claim but I can see why. As for the “nastiness” of the characters, well I don’t think they are true characters at all but mouthpieces for various ways of looking at the world and that’s where the imagination comes in. Every good fantasy writer creates an impressive landscape but Lindsay creates a new landscape with every chapter – after destroying the previous one and killing off the previous inhabitants. Brutal yes – but when you consider that he is “trying out” different philosophies, it makes sense. And this links Lindsay with Nietzsche who also had this ruthless way of trying out thought experiments and pushing them to the extreme.

    And behind it all is this deadly serious quest for some absolute truth. And the accompanying sense of a deadly adversary conceived as some kind of all-pervasive Satan figure. This leads in the final pages to what may be the most chilling passage I’ve ever read. And the bleakest possible vision.
    I consider the book to be a masterpiece.


    • georgemci says:

      On further thought, it may be that it’s a question of character. GK Chesterton said somewhere that reasoning is always secondary because it always has to have a starting point that comes before reason. Therefore if others doesn’t shares your particular basic world view then no amount of argument will impress them.

      In his preface to the third edition of The Pilgrims Regress, CS Lewis mentioned various types of romanticism and rated them according to his own preference. I recall one of the categories he detested was described thus:

      “‘Romanticism’ can also mean the indulgence in abnormal, and finally in anti-natural, moods. The macabre is ‘romantic’, and so is an interest in torture, and a love of death. This, if I understand them, is what M. Mario Praz and M. D. de Rougemont would mean by the word. In this sense Tristan is Wagner’s most ‘romantic’ opera; Poe, Baudelaire, and Flaubert, are ‘romantic’ authors; Surrealism is ‘romantic’.”

      Now I love Poe and various “morbid” writers who may be linked to him – Arthur Machen, M R James, Ambrose Bierce, all the way to the seemingly ubiquitous HP Lovecraft. But I wouldn’t have claimed for them “an interest in torture, and a love of death” exactly which suggests that my entire outlook is alien to that of CSL.

      It may speak volumes that the only work of fiction from CSL that I have read is Perelandra and that was due to references to it in Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings. On the other hand I have read several Lewis essays which I have appreciated. Perhaps Screwtape and the aforementioned Pilgrim’s Regress count as fiction – but they seem to me to be more like collections of philosophical observations. I think Screwtape is quite brilliant in this regard. (I love the observation about the corrupting effect of feeling without action.)

      Anyway – I suppose the upshot to all this is that my perhaps “dark” view and liking for spookery may have been antipathetic to Lewis whose general cheerfulness is something I may have found irritating. But then we do seem to meet on Arcturus!


  27. I have been haunted by the book ever since reading it in youth, and, upon puzzling out its meaning, am disgusted by the haughty Gnostic message. Nonetheless, this cryptical little book is as imaginative, or more so, than any I have ever read.

    As for the prose style, I thought it suited the book, being direct, plain, and forceful. Your distaste for adverbs is a peculiar quirk of your own: they are a normal part of speak, and only journalists avoid them.

    Having said that, I would not recommend this poisonous little novel to the unwary, for it casts a shadow of moral nastiness over every character and scene, like the grinning of a skull. The author is filled with hate for all good and godly things, and it shows.

    I wrote an entire book on the topic of Lindsay’s book:


    • Hi John, thanks for this remarkable note. You are a remarkably productive author, and still I am amazed that you took so much time for this book. And I think you largely share Lewis’ view: a demonic message, a transcendent sense of world-building or otherness. The three of us feel somewhat differently about the style, I see. What I dislike is not their use, normal and useful, but their use as a substitute for descriptive prose. I don’t know what Strunk & White would say in their Saxon, anti-romantic sensibility, but when I write fiction, one of my editorial sweeps is the adverb, asking whether I have truly drawn the reader into the scene or simply referenced the moment. In this book, it just bugged me that Lindsay had the ability to do better, but didn’t.


    • Paul Kieniewicz says:

      I never cease to be amazed by the pejorative power of the word “Gnostic”. For two thousand years it has been used to take down one’s theological opponents, without having to explain what was wrong with them. Even today, you can finish off a theological argument quickly by calling your opponent a Gnostic – a label many used to take down Dr. C.G. Jung. The author, in his A Lament of Prometheus further defines Gnosticism as “… that most ancient and esoteric of heresies that rejects the cosmos and everything in it, body and spirit, and heaps up all the philosophies of the world and calls them all rubbish…” While that view was certainly espoused by Ireneus of Lyons and some Church Fathers, a study of the so-called Gnostic texts found at Nag Hammadi would question it. Gnosticism is primarily about redemption, redemption of those lost sparks of light that are so well described by Lindsay in the final pages of Arcturus. Without our conscious participating in the world, there really would be no hope. I question Mr. Wright’s assertion that Arcturus is a work of “irrational and intellectual nihilism”. If that were the case, I doubt that the work would have such a pull on some many people even today. A work of intellectual nihilism destroys and deconstructs everything, leaving nothing but wreckage. Arcturus actually provides an answer to the most fundamental questions of existence, it’s just that the answer is for most people not one that they like. To let go of our human constructs, recognize that the world we inhabit (that we’ve actually built ourselves) is an illusion, is not a lot of fun. However, there are answers, something not found in a nihilist work. It’s just that, as Krag tells Nightspore, nothing will be done without the bloodiest blows.


      • georgemci says:

        Thanks for that breath of fresh air, Paul.

        As for Mr Wright, “this poisonous little novel”? Oh dear! Crucifix held high!

        And “a shadow of moral nastiness over every character and scene, like the grinning of a skull. The author is filled with hate for all good and godly things, and it shows.” No, it doesn’t. But I have long suspected this blanket term “hate” and that equally blanket notion of “all good and godly things”. Sounds like the purest rabble rousing propaganda.


      • Thanks for this note, Paul. If you look above, you can see that “gnosticism” is one of the first responding reader’s comment, and I asked to clarify what that meant. My BA and MA were in biblical studies, particularly the Christian emergence in Greco-Roman Judaism. I cold never get people to clarify what they meant by “gnostic.” For some it was dualism (or even Manichaean dualism), for others an occult movement or secret society, for others it is the secret way that others must find through learning or mysticism, for others just a name for those that reject spirit-embodied flesh or a rejection of the natural as good, for others a word for the various intellectual and spiritual temptations of Christians for the first few centuries. And so on.
        It seems “gnostic” works as a mirror for reading the text. I don’t know what it means, usually. I don’t know what Harold Bloom meant by it when he spoke of this text he loved.
        I don’t know if Lindsay is haughty or angry or hateful. I honestly could not get inside the text enough to know. But I would leave you folks to think it through. It seems to be a book that is generative enough to reproduce discussion.


  28. Kenny says:

    I have undertaken a project to read every science fiction story with the word Arcturus in the title, so I’m the poor fool who read A Voyage to Arcturus this year. It is dreadful. Thank you for your detailed commentary on it. I laughed out loud several times. Your commentary is the only part of reading A Voyage to Arcturus that I have enjoyed.


    • That’s cool, Kenny. It is dreadful … and yet I admit a certain kind of attraction to it. I enjoyed writing this and I’m glad you connected. I hope some of the other Arcturus fiction is a little stronger!


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