Preliminary: Why A Voyage to Arcturus?

The limits of the literary genre Science Fiction (‘sci-fi’) have stretched ever since, according to C.S. Lewis, its works rose sharply in production in the 1930s and 40s.[1] An example is that even stories such as Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy — which are more like fantasy — are acceptably labeled sci-fi.[2] When Lewis divided sci-fi into five species in his essay, “On Science Fiction,” he placed within his preferred category a 1920 novel that greatly influenced how he wrote his Trilogy: “that shattering, intolerable, and irresistible work, David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus.”[3] Like the Trilogy, Arcturus presses the boundaries of sci-fi, incorporating many fantastical and spiritual elements. Rightly, Lewis scholars mention it as influential on the Ransom Trilogy; Lewis scholar David Downing reminds us that Lewis’s “method for writing what he called ‘theologised science fiction’ came from David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus.”[4] What about Arcturus made it so alluring to Lewis so as to provide the Trilogy’s ‘method’? There is scholarly commentary on this topic, but zooming up on this beautiful, unique, and often violent and disturbing tale will further illuminate Lewis’s debt to it.

Arcturus did something rare and important toward the purpose of filling a particular literary gap in the early twentieth century. Lewis and Tolkien lamented, “There is too little of what we really like in stories. I am afraid we shall have to try and write some ourselves.”[5] Thus they agreed to ameliorate the problem by taking matters into their own hands. Tolkien was to contribute by crafting a time-story, and Lewis, a space-story.[6] But how to proceed? Was there worthy precedent for their vision? Lewis believed Arcturus was unique among its peers, being the best use of the cosmic adventure tale. He liked “the whole interplanetary idea as a mythology.”[7] The word ‘mythology’ today is often thought of as make-believe, containing little or no truth. However, it should be considered in light of how Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is, in a sense, a mythology. Its world generally, like that of Arcturus and any world possibly embodying ‘Faerie’, has at its core “the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder.”[8] The charming aura of Tormance (the planet orbiting the star, Arcturus) becomes a mystical avenue with a privileged view of the transcendent. Maskull, the protagonist, has this view as he experiences, enjoys, and grapples with various philosophies. Each fantastic, exciting terrain of Tormance provides a place into which the soul can naturally fit and expand. “Tormance is a region of the spirit,”[9] Lewis says; and each of its territories represents a worldview with which the spirit can interact. By entering the Arcturian system, one can wed his analysis of these worldviews to an enriching, unforgettable experience.

Arcturus is a stunning literary laboratory for exploring and experiencing the joys, terrors, thrills, and threats of a created world. Even so, the metaphysical fabric of Arcturus’s world is remote from that of Narnia or Middle-earth. Lewis commented that its “philosophy expressed is so Manichaean as to be almost satanic.”[10] Downing relates Harold Bloom’s assessment that Arcturus “inflicts such spiritual violence”[11] on its readers, that they would do well not to take Lewis’s praise of the book for praise of its moral message. Despite its dualist and gnostic metaphysical underpinnings, there are noble elements of Arcturus which would lead Lewis to call it “the real father of my planet books.”[12] He approved mostly of Lindsay’s ability to keep Tormance from being another mere drama or adventure in space that could just as well have occurred on Earth. (This species of sci-fi is the lowest quality listed in “On Science Fiction.”) Therefore, Maskull encounters startling foreign beings and undergoes stirring emotional and physical transformations that could only occur on Tormance, imbuing relevance and significance to the alien setting.

Typical of sci-fi, Arcturus includes space travel. The protagonists embark on a 40-foot, “torpedo of crystal,” requiring only a test tube of “Arcturian Back Rays” to speed it through space.[13] This mode of transport would fail the test of Lewis’s second species, “the fiction of Engineers,” since it is more fantastic than scientifically probable in the real world.[14] Like H.G. Wells’s travellers in The First Men in the Moon, a fragment of scientific realism exists to latch onto. Wells’s Cavor utilizes the moderately plausible method of anti-gravity matter (his ‘cavorite’), and in Arcturus the Back Rays operate because “Unless light pulled as well as pushed, how would flowers contrive to twist their heads around after the sun?”[15] To be good sci-fi, the science need not be exact. After all, an angel transports Ransom to Venus supernaturally in Perelandra. “The most superficial appearance of plausibility — the merest sop to our critical intellect — will do. . . . Nor need the strange worlds, when we get there, be at all strictly tied to scientific probabilities. It is their wonder, or beauty, or suggestiveness that matter,” Lewis remarks.[16] The rare splendour of Lindsay’s imagination overrides and compensates for the diehard scientific literalist’s possible frustrations.

An Arcturian Tour

Visiting each Tormantic territory is well beyond our present scope, but even an arbitrary handful of Maskull’s spellbinding sojourns would serve as a fascinating slice of the ‘region of the spirit’. Lindsay scholar Bernard Sellin relates an appeal of Arcturus: “There scarcely exists any region of Arcturus which, to make clearer the details of its ideology and morality, is not distinguishable by its topography.”[17] Lindsay can more seamlessly convey a worldview’s essence through a landscape and its inhabitants since these can bring abstractions down to the concrete. Maskull traverses one of the most varied topographies known to fantasy or sci-fi, and each terrain is embedded with significance. A striking example is the Ifdawn Marest mountain range, which Maskull espies as “a line of dark mountains, of strange shapes. Instead of being rounded, conical, or hogbacked, these heights were carved by nature into the semblance of castle battlements, but with extremely deep indentations.”[18] These pinnacles and precipices randomly rise and fall, creating unexpectedly dangerous earthquakes for the inhabitants. The first Ifdawn resident Maskull encounters, Oceaxe, is a woman who exudes an egoistic, insolent, Nietzschean disposition. Reflecting her homeland, she is wild, prideful, and callous toward others’ interests. Mainly, she is concerned with survival by lording her will over lesser life forms. She is “perfectly and utterly indifferent”[19] to Maskull’s wellbeing. As three dragon-like ‘shrouks’ approach, she unsympathetically kills two with her will and imperiously controls the third as transport into Ifdawn. In Oceaxe, Maskull encounters the Will to Power ideology in a concrete, tangible manner. One could brave the paradoxical abstractions of Nietzsche, or he could plunge into the Ifdawn Marest; it is the latter that provides more imaginative and emotional sap for his soul to absorb.

Again, any assortment of Tormantic terrains would exhibit sufficiently Lindsay’s talent for crafting magical, otherworldly realms. For this tour’s next stop, we will consult a short list where Lewis calls a few Arcturian names “superb.”[20] He names “Wombflash” — the forest Maskull visits on his third day on Tormance. Amid trees with trunks “as broad as houses” and an atmosphere like “a gigantic, supernatural hall in a life after death,” Maskull receives deeper, dream-like insights into his peculiar quest.[21] Wombflash’s resident, appropriately named Dreamsinter, possesses as his specialized organ a third eye (commonly associated with clairvoyant vision). At this point, Maskull finally receives clues regarding his original traveling companions. He witnesses a phantasmal vision of the three, proceeding through the forest. This sight turns nightmare as Krag, the character exemplifying pain, kills Maskull and leaves Nightspore. This is a plot hint, but our present concern is that in this visionary, dream-drenched wood, Maskul encounters grand, esoteric sight hitherto unseen. A forest is often a place where one loses his bearings and must rely on an unusual mode for guidance. Perhaps he prays or looks for signs of intelligent life; he might consult the stars, or even seek and await inward, psychic revelation. Whatever the route, the outcome depends on something other than clear ratiocination.

Our short excursion’s last stop is Threal. It is not Maskull’s final destination, but it is an interesting allegorical representation of a curious modern misinterpretation of religion. As Maskull enters, he experiences a vast, cathedral-esque valley with massive pillars of rock and craggy cliff sides extending up into blackness. Unlike most cathedrals, though, this land is grey, “unnatural and sepulchral.”[22] By appearances it probably represents Christianity, albeit a severely austere version of it. Jane Studdock from That Hideous Strength illustrates this perception of Christianity as she imagines the contrast between her stimulating secular world and the “grey formalised one” of religion.[23] Threal’s accuracy is not in how it portrays true Christianity, but in how it is a model of a typical misinformed critic. Unless someone has entered wholeheartedly into the majestic mysteries of, say, the church’s sacraments, he will probably view them as boring, empty, dead rituals. Corpang lives in Threal, and his name even suggests one who inflicts pain (-pang) on his flesh (corp-), as one would during mortification. What Lindsay excludes is the spiritual ecstasy and joy possible for a saint who has taught his flesh to obey his spirit. Even though Lindsay inevitably denounces this worldview like the rest, the stupendous nature of the place remains easily in memory.

Spiritual Borders

Lewis states Lindsay constructs each Tormantic philosophy only to “pour scorn” on it eventually.[24] Maskull’s endeavor is filled with peaks and troughs: he visits a locale, embraces its view, then rejects or transcends it (symbolized usually by the death of that territory’s native). Krag, the embodiment of worldly pain, summarily flouts any progress Maskull may claim: “You think you are thoroughly disillusioned, don’t you? Well, that may prove to be the last and strongest illusion of all.”[25] Maskull is not even able to quit inquiring until the end, when he glimpses a vision of what’s behind all of reality’s phenomena.[26] As he peers out of successive tower embrasures, he sees a changing spectacle of innumerable small, greenish corpuscles (spirit) mostly failing in attempts to escape white whirls (matter). Lindsay paints this vivid picture to show his underlying Manichaean worldview of spirit imprisoned in matter — a prison from which only precious few escape after much spiritual sacrifice and willful effort.

The sight revealed to Maskull in Arcturus’s climactic scene serves as another point of literary convergence between Lindsay and Lewis. At the end of Perelandra is the Great Dance imagery, encapsulating reality in elaborate images (even the term ‘corpuscles’ is used).[27] Ransom sees “wherever the ribbons or serpents of light intersected, minute corpuscles of momentary brightness: and he knew somehow that these particles were the secular generalities of which history tells — peoples, institutions, climates of opinion, civilizations, arts, sciences, and the like.”[28] Likewise, as Maskull peers from the next window in the mystical tower, his view becomes what the green corpuscles he saw earlier represent: “a world of rocks, minerals, water, plants, animals, and men.”[29] The visions are distinct in their own ways, but it seems probable that Lewis drew from Lindsay for his Great Dance picture — nonetheless a brilliant way (being multilayered imagery) to represent visually the world’s myriad complexities.

Lewis’s The Pilgrim’s Regress demonstrates his love for representing philosophies allegorically. The protagonist, John, comes full circle in his beliefs; he goes around the world, then back to his starting place. We also see Lewis using North versus South to juxtapose two major metaphysical thought-streams. Seeing as how Regress is so like Arcturus in effect, one should not be surprised that Lewis enjoyed Lindsay’s work. The same type of allegorical enjoyment of John’s encounters can be had of Maskull’s. In fact, it is difficult for someone not interested in philosophy to enjoy Arcturus since the story’s mere plot lacks the interesting complexities of most novels of even intermediate skill.

Nevertheless, Arcturus ushers readers to the borders of the world of sense-data, providing a peek into the eternal. It even has a certain symbolic quality. The land of Barey — glowing in its calm pools and in the earnest, pleasing tranquility of Gangnet  — are the palpable objects symbolizing the impalpable idea of mysticism.[30] Barey represents mysticism. Although Lindsay’s “style is crude,”[31] he knows his worldviews and shines at translating them into vivid imaginative experiences. Michael Ward explains in Planet Narnia how Lewis viewed “a symbolist . . . a ‘pupil,’ inspecting the data — the world with its visible gardens and invisible passions — in order ‘to find that which is more real’.”[32] In a sense, Maskull studies symbols of Nature: he feels the tectonic volatility of Nietzschean Ifdawn, sees prophetic inklings from the abyss of the unconscious in Wombflash; and smells the dust of moribund, archaic religion in Threal. Lindsay is the magistral allegorist at work, plumbing the light and dark depths of the human soul, and finding ways to convey them creatively.

Alongside Lindsay’s ability to provide an experience of the unseen is the captivating strength of his faculty for stretching and bending the imagination. Maskull observes Tormance’s two unearthly primary colors which can only be described by analogy: “as blue is delicate and mysterious, yellow clear and unsubtle, and red sanguine and passionate, so he felt ulfire to be wild and painful and jale dreamlike, feverish, and voluptuous.”[33] Lucy experiences something similar in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by “a dim, purple kind of smell” emanating from Ramandu’s Island.[34] In That Hideous Strength, Viritrilbia (Mercury’s angelic intelligence) has “a colour no man can name or picture.”[35] Additionally, Lindsay outfits many of his characters with alien sense organs. Maskull’s first close encounter is Joiwind — a gentle, kind woman who stands for simple sacrifice for other beings. One of her organs is a ‘magn’ — an arm-length tentacle extending from the chest: “By means of it what we love already we love more, and what we don’t love at all we begin to love.”[36] Lewis maintains a special correlation between sense-configurations and types of Natures: “give us new senses and we should find a new Nature.”[37] Lindsay displays exactly this in Tormance. Its scarlet sands and towering precipices are a stage for a novel Nature, giving the mind new vistas to expand into. Maskull sprouts knobs on the sides of his neck (‘poigns’) with which he senses the inner nature of objects. To step imaginatively into characters’ shoes is one of the chief purposes of good sci-fi. It should be an imaginative exercise that urges readers not only into new rooms in the familiar houses of their minds, but outside into odd landscapes that are different in kind to previous experiences.

Lindsay’s method can be a key to clearer comprehension of uncommon or (supposedly) outmoded concepts. Unfamiliar to moderns is how people in the middle ages viewed heaven. Following Aristotle, medieval theologians posited that the Empyrean was beyond the sphere of the fixed stars and the Primum Mobile. It lacked ‘spatiality’ and was filled not with physical light, but ‘intellectual light’.[38] Undoubtedly, ‘intellectual light’ will perplex present preconceptions. Again, Arcturus is handy in building the muscle necessary for the imagination to probe such concepts. Consider the travelers’ intersideral trip, which possessed a “velocity more nearly approaching that of thought, than of light.”[39] The imagination’s role cannot be understated in conceiving parts like this in Arcturus. Neither photons nor velocity are often associated with thought, but combining them in a fictional context helps toward penetrating the mystery behind the idea. Successfully combining paradoxical ideas resembles a mental birth of sorts — mixing thoughts of dissimilar natures, like blending the DNA of two parents, and mingling them to make a surprisingly coherent equilibrium.

The inventive nature of Lindsay’s technique among his contemporary sci-fi writers attracted Lewis’s attention because it withdrew the curtain of the natural, revealing the transnatural. Lindsay succeeded in using a strange planet to convey, convincingly, an “idea of otherness.”[40]  He transports his readers “into another dimension,” to “the only real ‘other world’ we know, that of the spirit.”[41] What better way to contribute to the vast and fascinating arena of sci-fi than to grow its limits toward and into the fantastic. Instead of settling for a tale of simple space travel, A Voyage to Arcturus is a guide through perilous and beautiful deserts, mountains, and seas of the soul.

[1] C.S. Lewis, “On Science Fiction,” in Of Other Worlds (Orlando: Harcourt, 1994), 59.

[2] Doris T. Myers, C.S. Lewis in Context (Kent: Kent State University Press, 1994), 36.

[3] Lewis, “On Science Fiction,” in Of Other Worlds, 71.

[4] David Downing, Planets in Peril (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992), 101.

[5] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), 378.

[6] Ibid., 342, 347.

[7] C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. 2: Books, Broadcasts, and the War 1931-1949, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 236-237.

[8] J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-stories, eds. Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson (London: HarperCollins, 2014), 35.

[9] Lewis, “On Stories,” in Of Other Worlds, 12.

[10] Lewis, Collected Letters, 753.

[11] Downing, Planets in Peril, 125.

[12] Lewis, Collected Letters, 630.

[13] David Lindsay, A Voyage to Arcturus (Project Gutenberg, 2008) chap. 5, accessed April 3, 2020,

[14] Lewis, “On Science Fiction,” in Of Other Worlds, 62.

[15] Lindsay, A Voyage to Arcturus, chap. 3.

[16] Lewis, “On Science Fiction,” in Of Other Worlds, 68-69.

[17] Bernard Sellin, The Life and Works of David Lindsay (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 153.

[18] Lindsay, A Voyage to Arcturus, chap. 7.

[19] Ibid., chap. 8.

[20] Lewis, Collected Letters, 753.

[21] Lindsay, A Voyage to Arcturus, chap. 13.

[22] Ibid., chap. 17.

[23] C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (New York: Scribner, 2003), 313.

[24] Lewis, “On Stories,” in Of Other Worlds, 12

[25] Lindsay, A Voyage to Arcturus, chap. 20.

[26] Sellin, The Life and Works of David Lindsay, 167.

[27] C.S. Lewis, Perelandra, in The Essential C.S. Lewis, ed. Lyle W. Dorsett (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 293.

[28] Ibid., 293.

[29] Lindsay, A Voyage to Arcturus, chap. 21.

[30] Lindsay, A Voyage to Arcturus, chap. 20.

[31] Lewis, Collected Letters, 753.

[32] Michael Ward, Planet Narnia (New York: OUP, 2010), 30.

[33] Lindsay, A Voyage to Arcturus, chap. 6.

[34] C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in The Chronicles of Narnia (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 513.

[35] Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 319.

[36] Lindsay, A Voyage to Arcturus, chap. 6.

[37] C.S. Lewis, “Miracles,” in God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 35.

[38] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 97.

[39] Lindsay, A Voyage to Arcturus, chap. 5.

[40] Lewis, “On Stories,” in Of Other Worlds, bid., 12.

[41] Ibid.

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