A Journey into Fantasyland

A Voyage to Arcturus Book CoverI am currently in my last semester of studying English Literature and have only my thesis left to write. Luckily, I got to choose my topic, and I decided to research fantasy literature. More specifically, I’m looking at the power structures and ideas about authority in different novels. To get really into the topic, I thought it would first make sense to read a couple of Fantasy classics. To solidify my knowledge of the genre, so to speak. As I read, I am occasionally going to blog about the different novels I’ve read – I want to preserve that fresh impression you get when you first put down a book.

My first two choices are rather on the fuzzy borderline between fantasy and science fiction. I won’t bother trying to distinguish the two properly, since knowing that a book is more science fiction than fantasy or vice versa won’t make my analysis better or improve my reading. Suffice it to say that one of the central elements in fantasy is metaphor or allegory: something usually happens in a fantastic environment that metaphorically relates to me as a non-fantastic human being. Science fiction can work exactly like that, but I would define a more direct approach as the main difference: A SciFi novel shows me not a metaphor but a sufficiently “real” technological development and the ethical concerns attached to it. That is as far as I will go in talking about this difference. I needed to, however, since the first two novels I looked at are both rather “spacey”.

The first was David Lindsay’s classic A Voyage to Arcturus, which some of my secondary sources kept mentioning the novel as an important milestone. It has indeed been described as the “greatest novel of the twentieth century” (SciFi Dimensions via Wikipedia), and Philip Pullman called it “overwhelming” and maintains that “A Voyage to Arcturus shows that fantasy is capable of saying large and important things.” He likes it a lot better than he does The Lord of the Rings. I had to check it out.

My first impression was that it was very hard to read. The style is heavy and changes a lot, and it is never quite clear what is really going on. The novel recounts (as I later discovered) a metaphysical journey to a distant planet (“Tormance”, in the Arcturus system), where the hero Maskull meets several inhabitants and engages in philosophical discussions with them. It may sound boring – but actually, the novel read like something someone had written after drug-induced hallucinations. The colourfulness of Tormance knows no bounds. You constantly feel like in a psychedelic movie – or maybe that was just my imagination acting up at all the descriptions of purple trees and green snow.

The hero is drawn from place to place in a vague quest after the supposed maker of the world, Surtur. Whenever he enters a new area and meets someone new, he receives a change to his new, specially-grown organs. A tentacle from his heart or six eyes on his forehead – Maskull stops wondering about it after a while, and so should you. The organs are a metaphor for the point of view Maskull adopts in each given scene. They influence, for example, whether he sees the world with compassion and love, or with the will to conquer it. In this respect, A Voyage to Arcturus is rather “sexist”, too. It constantly tells you what women in are like and what they can and cannot do, and that most of their general traits are “caused” by their biology. Maybe that’s a side effect of the novel having been written in 1920. There are certain organs which are considered “female” on Tormance, but some males have them as well, and gender is not necessarily a fixed affair. One of the first people Maskull meets (Panawe) is basically transgender.  In that respect the novel seems surprisingly open-minded – but I was never quite sure whether Lindsay was consciously undermining the idea of binary gender, or criticizing the transgender aspect of Tormance just as every other philosophical concept on the planet.

Maskull’s travels feel entirely unrealistic and more like a bible lesson than a proper fantasy or science fiction story as we understand it today. He never sees any cities up close or larger groups of people that live on Tormance. His journey resembles that of Alice in Wonderland: he only ever encounters single persons, or two to three at the most, who familiarize him with their particular outlook on life. He then usually has to murder one or several of them and moves on. His trail of bodies throughout the novel is discussed as “evil”, but never really addressed in terms of morality. I was quite shocked, and generally amused at this at some point. Whenever he met someone new, I immediately thought “well, too bad s/he’s not gonna make it!” This upsets everything I expect from a fantasy novel nowadays: when the hero meets a guide, I expect them to be around until almost before the end of the novel. Oh, except with George R.R. Martin. I learnt not to get too attached to his characters.

It would go too far in detailing every single philosophical concept Maskull encounters, and frankly I had no clue about them whilst I was reading. But they all eventually come down to two concepts: pleasure versus pain. As Pullman summed it up:

[I]t is a variety of the Gnostic myth, the idea that this material world is the creation of a false god, and that it’s the duty of the Gnostics, the knowing ones, to escape from the false deluding beauty of the physical universe and find their way back to the inconceivably distant true god who is their home. In A Voyage to Arcturus, the two principles of pain and pleasure are opposed morally: they represent truth and illusion, or good and evil.

The ending of the novel is ambiguous at best – I won’t spoil anything here, but let’s just say it fulfilled my expectation that there was no real solution to this story. A Voyage to Arcturus isn’t about the solution, but about the journey, the discovery, and the freakishness of it all. (I’m sure Lindsay wouldn’t have put it that way, but I have to be honest, it was pretty trippy.)

It might have been a tough read, but I’m glad I struggled through it. I am not usually a huge fan of such allegorical works, since once you have the “key” to read them, they become rather obvious. In this case, if I had bothered to, I could have read up on the idea of Gnosticism before I read the novel, and I probably would have had an easier time of it. Then again, puzzling it all out was actually tremendous fun in itself. It gave me rather crazy ideas and images in my head and reminded me what it felt like to get totally involved in a fantasy story again. In that sense, it was a fitting beginning for my continuing journey into fantasyland* – wish me safe travels, and stay tuned for my second post on C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, which was heavily influenced by Arcturus.

* Yes, I’ve read Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide – I’ll get to it in another blog post!

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