Wednesday, January 16, 2019

David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus, a philosophical war fantasy stained with ulfire

David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) is some kind of “good bad book,” I suppose, in the ambitious rather than escapist category.  It is an exploration of modern philosophical ideas by means of a fantastic journey on another planet.  Characters have names like Maskull and Nightspore and grow and lose third arms and eighth eyes as they move around.  They debate the meaning of all things, often with paradoxes:

“You think you are thoroughly disillusioned, don’t you?  Well, that may prove to be the last and strongest illusion of all.”  (Ch. 20, “Barey”)

That line is said to Maskull, near the end of the novel, by Krag, who is the devil, or god, or, given the gnosticism of the novel, both.

If this sort of thing sounds too awful to read, then it will be.  I like it pretty well.  I understand the philosophy a lot better than when I read it twenty-five years ago.  I had thought of the ethos of the novel as generally gnostic, which it is, but now I saw more specific investigations of specific philosophical ideas.

There is the Nietzschean side.  Maskull, as he moves from one nearly uninhabited landscape to another, has trouble not murdering almost everyone he meets.  “’So you’ve been trying to find Surtur [god, maybe] on your own account, during the intervals between killing and fondling?’”  That’s Krag, again, on the same page, one of the few lines that suggests Lindsay has a sense of humor, or at least a sense of how ludicrous his story is.

Then there is Schopenhauer, lots of Schopenhauer.  The real story, roughly, is that Maskull is, like David Lindsay, a disillusioned war veteran who believes his, our, world is merely a representation of some more “real” world.  By means of Will, I guess, he penetrates the veil and travels to Arcturus, only to discover that there is likely an even more “real” world behind this one.  “’Side by side with it [this world] another world exists, and that other world is the true one, and this one is all false and deceitful, to the very core’” (Ch. 14, “Polecrab”).  The novel describes his search for the real real world, which involves walking, climbing, and sailing due north, and murdering people.

Myself, I value the novel for its invention.  It is a fantasy of the purest quality, freed from almost all constraints of sense.  Arcturus has five primary colors, ours plus jale and ulfire, and this is not a throwaway gag, but used throughout the book (“It was an intense jale-blue. The whole northern atmosphere was stained with ulfire,” Ch. 20).  There is a mountain range that is in constant upheaval, with mountains rising and sinking with no warning.  There is a lake that can be played like a musical instrument, except the “music” is – this is the craziest thing in the book – an artillery attack:

When he came to his senses again, he saw everything.  Teargeld was gleaming brilliantly.  He was lying by the side of the old lake, but it was now a crater, to the bottom of which his eyes could not penetrate.  The hills encircling it were torn, as if by heavy gunfire.  A few thunderclouds were floating in the air at no great height, from which branched lightning descended to the earth incessantly, accompanied by alarming and singular crashes.  (Ch. 15, “Swaylone’s Island”)

I do not think that Lindsay is inventing here.  I will omit the description, a couple of paragraphs later, of a mangled corpse, a victim of the “music.”  For at least this one scene, A Voyage to Arcturus is a novel about the war.


  1. I read A Voyage to Arcturus last year and was kept reading by his inventiveness although I thought the power of the book came from the allegories and underlying ideas. The hero was a little quick to bump people off, and I’m intrigued to learn of the WWI connection. Somehow I’d thought Lindsay would be too old to serve, but I guess many older folks volunteered (as Saki did.) I just finished Regeneration by Pat Barker with its descriptions of men haunted by what they have experienced on the battlefields, so the idea of another world as an escape makes sense, even though that prior experience colors the new one.

  2. I should read those Barker novels. They sound good.

    The last time I read the novel, I knew a little bit about its influence, C. S. Lewis and so on, but I did not have any context. It opened up a lot this time. Still, it is a unique book, an oddball. Context can only do so much with it.

  3. I read it a couple of years ago and wow, what a weird book. I should probably tackle it again someday...