Scott Lazerus is a Professor of Economics at Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, Colorado, and has been a science fiction fan since the 1970s. The Forays into Fantasy series is an exploration of the various threads of fantastic literature that have led to the wide variety of fantasy found today, from the perspective of an SF fan newly exploring the fantasy landscape. FiF examines some of the most interesting landmark books of the past, along with a few of today’s most acclaimed fantasies, building an understanding of the connections between fantasy’s origins, its touchstones, and its many strands of influence.
David Lindsay (1876-1945), born in Scotland and relocated to London, was successful in the insurance industry prior to World War I, in which he served, despite being forty years old upon enlistment. The effect of the unprecedented suffering and destruction of the Great War on those who served in it, and on European society, was profound. Whether or not his wartime experience was the impetus, Lindsay decided after the war, despite his age and previous business success, to attempt a full-time writing career, publishing his first novel, A Voyage to Arcturus, in 1920, at which time it was nearly ignored, selling a grand total of 596 copies before slipping into obscurity. His subsequent novels also sold poorly, and he was unable to publish anything after 1932, dying in 1945 as the result of an abscess related to dental neglect.
A Voyage to Arcturus, however, was not entirely forgotten, and the novel gained influential proponents, especially C. S. Lewis, who credited the novel as a major inspiration for Out of the Silent Planet (1938) and its two sequels, which picked up on Lindsay’s use of a foreign planet as a setting for metaphysical speculation. It was reprinted in the United Kingdom in 1946, finally receiving a U.S. publication in 1963, followed by a Ballantine paperback reissue in 1968 as part of that publisher’s effort to capitalize on the huge success of the paperback publication of The Lord of the Rings by reprinting other older fantasy works. It has remained in print ever since, being chosen by James Cawthorn and Michael Moorcock as one of the hundred best fantasy novels for their 1991 book, and entering the Fantasy Masterworks collection in 2003. In fact, it shows up on just about every critical list of important fantasy novels. It is now in the public domain, and so easily available, including by way of free electronic editions, a good example of which can be found here.
The ability of the book to remain in print also indicates a certain popular appeal, though it has always been limited. As Cawthorn and Moorcock put it: “Arcturus itself is not an ingratiating work; the shelf it occupies is a short one, reserved for titles more often to be found in lists than in readers’ pockets. The message it spells out is no comforting one.” Further distancing readers, this implication that the message is even accessible is itself questionable. The novel is a quest for elusive philosophical meaning (not generally a formula for commercial popularity) and, as I read it, part of Lindsay’s point is that the truth that Maskull, the protagonist, is seeking, may never be entirely graspable. The reader’s discomfort arises from this obscurity, as well as from the fact that Maskull’s journey consists of one possibility for happiness and transcendence after another, each of which ultimately must be rejected, or ends in death.
This journey takes place on Tormance, a planet found in the binary system of Arcturus. One of Tormance’s suns, Branchspell, is similar to Earth’s, while the other, only visible in the north of Tormance, toward which Maskull travels, is Alppain, whose distant light, containing colors unknown on Earth, promises to reveal the truth that underlies the superficiality of our lives (and whose second syllable is a hint of Lindsay’s final revelation). Maskull’s voyage begins at a séance to which he and his friend Nightspore have been invited. When a medium succeeds in conjuring a spirit, a man called Krag bursts in and strangles it, then invites Maskull and Nightspore (who seems to know Krag) to accompany him on a voyage to Arcturus, to which he conveys them in a “torpedo of crystal” from a platform atop an observatory in the English countryside. Maskull, whose background is never revealed, is eager for adventure, seeming dissatisfied with life on Earth. Upon arrival eighteen hours later on Tormance, Nightspore and Krag have disappeared, and Maskull embraces his destiny as a seeker, both physically, by way of exploring Tormance, and philosophically. The fact that his death on Tormance is prophesied and foreshadowed from the beginning of his journey does not dissuade him.
The séance represents the first of a series of events, locations, and characters that can be seen to represent different philosophies or sources of meaning experienced on Maskull’s journey, each of which is rejected as false or incomplete, often accompanied by the death of the world-view’s representative (in some cases, at the hands of Maskull). This pattern begins with the spirit conjured in the séance, whose face upon dying exhibits a “vulgar, sordid, bestial grin,” known on Tormance as the “Crystalman grin,” which seems to indicate the philosophical bankruptcy of the dead character’s representative philosophy—in this case, the shallow mysticism of those who would look for meaning in a séance. On Tormance, Cyrstalman is one aspect of God, known alternately as Surtur or Shaping, these different aspects having varying significance to the different characters met by Maskull. Krag’s appearance and strangling of the spirit foreshadows his role toward the end of the novel as the determined revealer of the inadequacy of the many philosophical approaches to understanding life’s purpose—a role that casts him in the role of devil for those who resist his attempts to force them to look behind the obscuring veil of their limited thinking.
This idea that there is an unperceived or hidden spiritual world behind or beyond the world we can perceive, and the way in which our usual ways of seeing the world keep us from this higher understanding, pervades the novel with gnosticism. The fantasy of Arcturus, then, becomes a method for Lindsay to explore this. (Philip K. Dick would also explore a gnostic world view in his novels, in more science fictional terms.) As Maskull reaches each new land in Tormance, he encounters one or two new characters who explain their way of living and the source of their philosophy, while Maskull himself develops entirely new sensory organs, equivalent to those of the inhabitants of each region, which allow him to perceive the world as they do.
“He felt something hard on his forehead. Putting his hand up, he discovered there a fleshy protuberance the size of a small plum, having a cavity in the middle, of which he could not feel the bottom. Then he also became aware of a large knob on each side of his neck, an inch below the ear. From the region of his heart, a tentacle had budded. It was as long as his arm, but thin, like whipcord, and soft and flexible. A soon as he thoroughly realized the significance of these new organs, his heart began to pump. Whatever might, or might not, be their use, they proved on thing—that he was in a new world.”
Maskull is met by a woman named Joiwind, who has the same sense organs, and who represents a pure and self-sacrificing love. Her dedication to life outside herself is so great that she refuses to eat animals or plants, subsisting on “gnawl-water.” She explains the use of the tentacle: “By means of it what we love already we love more, and what we don’t love at all we begin to love.” Joiwind provides a blood transfusion that helps Maskull adapt to Tormance, but weakens her, and takes him to her husband Panawe. As they travel, they encounter bizarre creatures and landscapes, emphasizing the strangeness of the environment. For example, “a fantastic little creature . . . waltzing along on three legs. Each leg in turn moved to the front, and so the little monstrosity proceeded by means of a series of completed rotations. It was vividly coloured, as though it had been dipped into pots of bright blue and yellow paint.” Joiwind and Panawe want him to accept their way of life, but Maskull, despite his admiration, cannot quite bring himself to do so, and feels himself drawn on by the light of Alppain, Arcturus’s second sun. The philosophy of Joiwind and Panawe, at first seeming entirely admirable, is revealed as passive and not entirely fulfilling, and is the first of several philosophies that Maskull will interrogate and, at least partially, reject.
He next encounters Oceaxe who, in contrast to Joiwind, represents aggressive power over nature and other people. She wears animal skins and harnesses a “shrowk,” on whose back they travel: “They were . . . creatures with long, snakelike bodies, and ten reptilian legs apiece, terminating in fins which acted as wings. The bodies were bright blue, the legs and fins were yellow . . . . He could make out a long, thin spike projecting from each of the heads.” Oceaxe goads Maskull into killing her husband, and replacing him. The man, who had been malignantly forcing another man to turn into a tree, seems to Maskull to deserve death, but he becomes remorseful upon the appearance of the man’s second wife Tydomin, and he submits himself to her punishment. Maskull seems to be killed by Krag, who suddenly appears along with the spirit previously seen at the séance, but he returns to life, still more determined to pursue his journey.
Moving on from the selfish aggression of Oceaxe, Maskull will encounter characters who represent dedication to blind duty in the land of Sant, the beauty of art and music on Swaylone Island, religion in the underworld of Threal, and romantic sexuality personified in the person of Sullenbode. But ultimately, while each provides a temporary fulfillment, all of them can be seen as mere distractions that keep him from perceiving the underlying meaning he seeks, and thus each must be dispatched. He continues on, drawn by the “Muspel-light” of Alppain to a sort of reunion with Nightspore and Krag, and a final revelation in a tower similar to that from which the crystal ship embarked from Earth.
As to where it fits into the fantasy landscape of its time, 1920 was still the pre-“scientifiction” era, which would begin with Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories in 1926. Lindsay’s philosophical/fantasy use of planetary exploration, with its “mash-up” of weird fiction, fantasy, and science fictional ideas, fits in with the sort of fantasy that could be found in the pulps of the time, even though Lindsay’s version is much more literary and serious, and a direct pulp influence seems unlikely. Its visionary approach is similar to that of William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, though Hodgson’s novel veers a little further toward the weird tale and takes a much more limited approach to the main character’s philosophical journey. (In fact, Hodgson’s protagonist’s single-minded devotion to romantic love, which vainly tries to sustain a 500-page novel, would be tested and rejected by Lindsay in a single chapter.)
By way of this description, I’ve tried to indicate that A Voyage to Arcturus is not only a philosophical allegory (though it is that). For those readers not entirely engaged by the allegorical spiritual journey—The Pilgrim’s Progess . . . in space!—the actual journey across Tormance, with its strange creatures, names, and characters, weird transformations, shifting landscapes, and startling perceptions, may be enough. The book is yet another story from a time when fantasy had not yet produced the sub-genres we are accustomed to today, and each author’s vision seems unique. As I read more of the acclaimed fantasy works from this period, it becomes clearer that, while threads of influence can be seen, the genre was still wide-open, a situation that would soon change. The categorization and ghettoization of fantastic literature was not far off.
Up Next: Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife