How to describe the ineffable? Is it possible to iron the crinkles from the crumple? Can the pieces of a Faberge egg be put back together? Do the glass beads form some pattern? These are the daunting questions I face setting out to review David Lindsay’s 1920 A Voyage to Arcturus. Thus I’m going to do something I’ve never done before: review a book through the lenses of its descendants. In this way I might be able to approximate—and approximate, only—the ideas possibly going through Lindsay’s mind as he penned the story of Maskull, his strange visit to the planet Tormance, and the myriad fantastyka there encountered.
Jack Vance’s The Green Pearl, the middle work of his Lyonesse trilogy, is a book set in a rustic land reminiscent of Medieval England. But not all of it. One sequence of events taking characters on a trip through a dimensional portal to an alternate world, all manner of the bizarre is encountered in the aptly named Tanjecterly. From animals shaped like houses to strangely colored flora and fauna, the land bears little in common with Earth. Tormance, the planet Maskull finds himself traversing in A Voyage to Arcturus, is much the same. Green skies, multiple suns, blue plants and trees, and creatures that can only be pictured in the mind’s eye, Maskull’s journey is as psychedelic as a Jimi Hendrix song. The fact that chaos rules the geological formations—where a mountain exists one moment a lake may the next—only heightens the alien feel, and leads one to wonder: why has Lindsay taken Maskull, and by default, the reader to such a strange land?
Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun is the story of Severin, an executioner in training. Severin’s coming of age taking him from the lonely halls of the executioner’s guild to the wilds of the lands beyond, his quest for purpose in life leads him to all variety of encounters with the fantastic and mundane. People appearing he may or may not have already met under different guises, and yet still, who may or may not be corporeal, his conversations cover all fashion of the indirectly profound. Deeper meaning always seems to hover just below the surface—often maddeningly close. A Voyage to Arcturus plot arc is no different. Likewise the story of a man seeking the meaning of life and existence, Maskull meets with a wide variety of people and strange customs traversing Tormance. Dialogue obviously written with purpose but appearing party only to the participants upon first blush, the reader must peer into the depths beyond and make ideological connections between the words spoken and events which befall Maskull. And there are innumerable dichotomies bouncing back and forth between: god/devil, male/female, stability/instability, heaven/hell, beautiful/ugly, right/wrong, guilt/innocence, and so on. What is readily accessible only half of the story, the allusions and metaphors, and how they are interlaced with plot, are the ideological heart of the story and where one must search to piece together the sub-text.
And the third and final lens I will use is Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Though best known for its high fantasy heroism, few are aware of a deeper sub-text to the story. Partially an act of catharsis for Tokien, he poured a lot of the melancholy and disappointment he felt at having seen England go from being a quaint, innocent country to one involved in two world-enveloping wars into Middle Earth. Though taking its conception of the fantastic in a different direction, A Voyage to Arcturus nevertheless also has the same feel of a person feeling out and coming to terms with a crisis of cultural conscience of what world war meant to him and his country. In a few of the scenes Maskull is forced to kill based on the situation, while in others there is talk of duty to one’s country to kill. Moreover, many of the characters Maskull meets end up dead in some fashion, whether by his own hand or by others around him. In this, he and Tolkien both echo their returns to England as survivors of war on a scale like the world had never seen. If there is a difference I would note, however, it’s that Lindsay adds a strong dimension of spiritual questing. Where Tolkien was a Catholic and only indirectly included the doctrine in his stories, Lindsay imbues Maskull’s quest with a wide variety of beliefs and philosophies, the emphasis on ideology as much as story in trying to define what place the war (in the larger terms of existence) held for him, and seems far less certain than Tolkien.
And still there are other books which popped into my head. Nietszche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra (for the esoteric conversation and bizarre moralizing), M. John Harrison’s Viriconium and Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris (both for the Weird inherent to the atmosphere and mode of storytelling), Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series (for the noun-noun formula often used in forming names and places, e.g. Poolingdread, Nightspore, Joiwind, Polecrab, and Maskull himself), and of course the oft-mentioned comparison to John Bunyun’s Pilgrim’s Progress (for the spiritually episodic nature of Maskull’s quest). To be fair, however, I think Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun forms the better analog.
But in the end, the offshoots and elements of A Voyage to Arcturus are so diverse that I don’t know if it’s possible to reclaim the smorgasbord of ideas and visuals from the diners’ bellies to see how they looked on the plate. One can gather from the three lenses I have chosen that A Voyage to Arcturus is a work of fantasy that entails a journey of philosophical proportions. But that’s about the limits of the overview. Any deeper perspective or understanding requires a reading of the text.
(For an amateur but nevertheless interesting attempt at capturing the novel on film, see here.)