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.”
“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?”
“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.”