Chances are a good percentage of those reading this review have not heard of British writer David Lindsay, much less have read his most famous work, A Voyage to Arcturus (1920). Unlike several of the authors on the Fantasy Masterworks list who either made a career for themselves writing in the old pulp magazines of the 1920s-1950s or who garnered critical and/or popular acclaim in the past half-century, Lindsay, to my knowledge, never really wrote anything for the old pulps and his novels certainly did not sell well, as the first edition of A Voyage to Arcturus sold only 600 copies. Yet A Voyage to Arcturus is often praised by genre critics as being one of the best fantasy novels of the 20th century, if not the best overall. Is this a case where the novel has a strong, "cult" appeal and yet is not something that could be easily categorized (and thus marketed) to the masses? After reading A Voyage to Arcturus, this would certainly seem to be the case, but a lack of easy categorization does not equate to novels being poor and in the case of Lindsay's book, it is one of the better "weird fiction" novels published in the first half of the 20th century.
A Voyage to Arcturus is, at least to me, a sort of a bridge between the sort of late Victorian fantasies of a George McDonald and William Morris and the later fantasies by E.R. Eddison, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien. It, like its predecessors, does not differentiate between the "real" and the "irreal"; each commingle, establishing a sort of ethereal, dream-like feel to the prose and to the situations presented within. If anything, Lindsay's book is both ahead of its time in terms of its use of haunting, atmospheric prose to convey a sense of metamorphic wonder, and a last straggler from the Victorian era in terms of dialogue and some of the social situations presented within the text. This in turn creates a narrative tension that can either suck the reader into parsing the narrative closely or rejecting the novel as being archaic. For myself, the former is certainly the case, as it is a mind trip that is all the more intriguing precisely because the narrative differs significantly from more recent fantasy releases.
A Voyage to Arcturus opens with a seance that resembles in form and description the sensationalist novels of the late 19th century, especially J.K. Huysmans' The Damned. Maskull, whose story we follow via limited third-person PoV, sees a mysterious apparition at this seance, and in trying to puzzle it out, he is introduced to Krag, who seems to possess hidden knowledge. Krag and his associate Nightspore inform Maskull that the source of this weirdness originates from a planet, Tormance, circling the distant star Arcturus and that there is a way to travel there. Soon after, Krag and Nightspore take Maskull to a mysterious tower that Maskull finds he can pass unaided. After a ritual bleeding, the three are then able to ascend the tower:
The climb continued, and at the second and third windows he again mounted and stared out, but still the common sights presented themselves. After that, he gave it up and looked through no more windows.
Krag and Nightspore meanwhile that got on ahead with the light, so that he had to complete the ascent in darkness. When he was near the top, he saw yellow light shining through the crack of a half-opened door. His companions were standing just inside a small room, shut off from the staircase by rough wooden planking; it was rudely furnished and contained nothing of astronomical interest. The lantern was resting on a table.
Maskull walked in, and looked around him with curiosity.
'Are we at the top?'
'Except for the platform over our heads,' replied Krag.
'Why didn't that lowest window magnify, as it did earlier in the evening?'
'Oh, you missed your opportunity,' said Krag, grinning. 'If you had finished your climb then, you would have seen heart-expanding sights. From the fifth window, for example, you would have seen Tormance like a continent in relief; from the sixth you would have seen it like a landscape...But now there is no need.'
'Why not - and what has need got to do with it?'
'Things have changed, my friend, since that wound of yours. For the same reason that you have now been able to mount the stairs, there was no necessity to stop and gape at illusions en route.' (pp. 33-34)
In many ways, this little scene of their travel from Earth to Tormance presages the tone that follows for the rest of the novel. There is a mixture of matter-of-fact exposition with some truly odd and unexplained occurrences. In some scenes, such as an early one between Maskull and the feminine Oceaxe, some of the "weirdness" presented can easily be seen as a metaphor for male-female interactions:
Maskull gazed at her in perplexity. The old paradox came back - the contrasting sexual characteristics in her person. Her bold, masterful, masculine egotism of manner seemed quite incongruous with the fascinating and disturbing femininity of her voice. A startling idea flashed into his mind.
'In your country I'm told there is an act of will called "absorbing." What is that?'
She held her red, dripping hands away from her draperies, and uttered a delicious, clashing laugh.
'You think I am half a man?'
'Answer my question.'
'I'm a woman through and through, Maskull...to the marrow bone. But that's not to say I have never absorbed males.'
'And that means...?'
'New strings for my harp, Maskull...A wider range of passions, a stormier heart...'
'For you, yes...but for them...?'
'I don't know. The victims don't describe their experiences. Probably unhappiness of some sort...if they still know anything.'
'This is a fearful business!' he exclaimed, regarding her gloomily. 'One would think Ifdawn a land of devils.'
Oceaxe gave a beautiful sneer, as she took a step towards the river. 'Better men than you - better in every sense of the word - are walking about with foreign wills inside them. You may be as moral as you like, Maskull, but the fact remains, animals were made to be eaten, and simple natures were made to be absorbed.'
'And human rights count for nothing!'
She had bent over the river's edge, to wash her arms and hands, but glanced up over her shoulder to answer his remark.
'They do count. But we only regard a man as human for just as long as he's able to hold his own with others.' (pp. 80-81)
There are plenty of other metaphors embedded within the text, as Maskull wanders the land, growing and losing new appendages, finding his very thoughts and the way he views life to shift and change in a fashion similar to how scenes and people melt and flow in some dreams. One way, but certainly not the only way, to read A Voyage to Arcturus is as both a dream and a narrative that uses dream imagery to explore questions of what it means to be human, the nature(s) of reality (-ies), and how mutable our views of what constitutes "good" and "evil" just might be. Maskull is a purposely "hollow" character - he is puzzled, confused, and may stick stubbornly to antiquated beliefs, but he is also represents a quest to discover more, to "fill" one's self up with knowledge and understanding. His character, depending on how one approaches the novel, is either a very flat one, or it is a perfect vehicle for us to have our own thoughts and concerns transported into this story.
Is A Voyage to Arcturus a "Masterwork?" I would argue that some of the better literary works do not fit into any pre-defined "slots" or "genres." Works that bend and twist narrative and character expectations can often be wonderful reads, especially if they reach an audience that does not want "more of the same, please." For those readers who want to read something that is "weird," something that may feel fleeting and ephemeral, A Voyage to Arcturus may be exactly the sort of read you might desire. This is not to say that reading it is an "easy" matter. Those who approach the novel expecting a certain narrative progression may be disappointed that this is not the sort of story where the reader can "predict" the order of events and piece the puzzle together readily. No, A Voyage to Arcturus requires more interaction with the text than most novels do, but its rewards are greater as a result for the effort expended. It truly is a remarkable piece that holds together well ninety years after its initial release.