Monday, November 23, 2020


Dorothy Braby's 1956 illustration in The Radio Times
The Being Human 2020 festival, and the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow, sponsored a session on 19 November 2020 on "Celebrating the Centenary of A Voyage to Arcturus". Moderated by Dr. Dimitra Fimi of the University of Glasgow, the panelists included novelist Nina Allan, Professor Robert Davis (also of the University of Glasgow), and myself.  It was a fine event, and I note that Nina has posted on her blog her own contribution to the session, and since I've also had a few requests, I thought I'd do the same here. The actually centenary was on the 16th of September, and for that date I wrote a blog post at Wormwoodiana, which has a number of illustrations and links to some other online things, like Bill Holloway's 1970 student film of  Arcturus.  My (untitled) piece for the Glasgow event follows here.


David Lindsay was born in 1876 in Blackheath, a suburb of London. His father was Scottish, from a large family in Edinburgh. His mother came from a farming family in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire. Lindsay had two siblings: a brother Alexander, who was six and a half years older than him; and a sister, Margaret, three years older. His brother, under the pen name “Alexander Crawford”, published six novels (four in book form, some serialized in newspapers) and a handful of short stories in the 1910s before his early death in 1915 at the age of 46.

David was educated in London and in Jedburgh, Scotland. He followed his brother at Colfe's Grammar School in Lewisham, which he attended from 1885 until December 1890, when David was fourteen. Around this time the father simply disappeared, and was presumed dead until years later when it was learned that he had emigrated to Canada, and started a new family there. Lindsay was sent to an uncle in Jedburgh, and finished his schooling there. Around 1893 he joined a firm of insurance underwriters in London, and worked his way up in positions over the next twenty-odd years. During these decades he read voraciously, novels as well as philosophers including Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and he planned someday to turn to literature. Meanwhile he kept notebooks of his observations and personal philosophy. In a literary club, after the outbreak of World War I, he met Jacqueline Silver, and they were married in December 1916. Lindsay was 40 and Jacqueline 18. They would have two daughters.

Lindsay did war service in London with the Grenadier Guards. In 1919 Lindsay and his wife settled in Cornwall, a decade later they would move to Ferring, near Worthing in West Sussex, and after another ten years finally to Hove. In Cornwall Lindsay began his first novel in April 1919. It was finished by March the following year, when it was accepted for publication by the first publisher to whom Lindsay submitted it, Methuen of London. Then titled Nightspore in Tortprism, Methuen insisted on two provisions. 1) The manuscript be cut by 15,000 words, and 2) the work be retitled A Voyage to Arcturus. Lindsay complied, re-writing the book (and changing the name of Tortprism to Tormance—the original manuscript does not survive), though he regretted the change of title, which removed Nightspore as a character from the reader’s active attention. The book was published on the 16th of September 1920. Methuen printed 2,500 folded and gathered sheets, but initially bound up only 1000 copies. The book sold poorly. 1000 further sets of sheets were scrapped as waste paper, and the book was remaindered a few years later. The first edition sold only 596 copies at full price, but the whole bound run of 1,500 copies did in fact sell out. One of the first reviews appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on 30 September 1920. It was not favorable, and I wish I could read the whole of it here for its complete obtuseness. Clearly the anonymous critic (which later research has revealed to be Adelaide Champneys, daughter of the famous architect Basil Champneys) was a poor choice as reviewer. She noted that Lindsay captures “the elusive quality of the worst kind of nightmare”; the plot appears to be “a riot of morbid fancy”. The book is “consistent in respect of its uniform unwholesomeness.” The review ends: “It is, no doubt, a legitimate aim of the writer of fiction to make the flesh creep; scarcely, we think, to make the gorge rise.”

From that point on Lindsay’s writing career was increasingly troubled. He published only four more novels before his death in 1945 at the age of 69. The Haunted Woman was serialized in the London newspaper The Daily News in 1921, and came out in book form in 1922; Sphinx came out in 1923; The Adventures of M. de Mailly in 1926; and Devil’s Tor in 1932. His total output was small: seven novels (two unpublished at his death), one 57 page typescript of “Sketch Notes for a New System of Philosophy” based on his discarded notebooks; and a fairy play written for his daughters one Christmastime in the mid-1930s. I was very pleased that Lindsay’s daughters allowed me to publish for the first time the “Christmas Play” in my 2003 anthology, Tales Before Tolkien.

The common key to all of Lindsay’s writings is found in his “Sketch Notes,” and exemplified in Arcturus. It is that our visible, primary world is a sham, and that the real world of the spirit lies underneath this sham, occasionally visible or recognized. The pain-motif in Arcturus is often misunderstood; pain to Lindsay was a phenomenon of this sham world, one which reminds us of the existence of the real world.

After Arcturus, all of Lindsay’s novels are earthbound. The Haunted Woman is a kind of metaphysical thriller of the type soon afterwards to be written by Charles Williams. Sphinx tells of a man who invents a machine to record dreams, and thus accesses the real world via the dreams. Devil’s Tor, set in Dartmoor, concerns the worship of the Mother Goddess, and an associated talisman that was anciently broken in halves, but will be rejoined in modern times for the betterment of all humanity. The Adventures of M. de Mailly, a historical adventure novel of early 18th-century France under Louis XIV, is often derided as a pot-boiler, despite Lindsay’s own assertion that it was not one. Oddly, it was the only novel by Lindsay to achieve an American edition (where it was retitled A Blade for Sale) during his lifetime.

Lindsay never lost faith in Arcturus. In 1932, when Devil’s Tor was about to come out, Lindsay reclaimed the publishing rights to Arcturus from Methuen, though he was unable to get another publisher to reissue it. Finally Victor Gollancz reissued it in 1946 the year after Lindsay’s death. Gollancz, as a fledgling publisher, had met Lindsay in the late 20s and early 30s, and he admired Arcturus, but did not then dare to republish the book.

Gradually Arcturus picked up admirers. One of the first, in 1925, was L.H. Myers, the novelist and fringe Bloomsbury member. Lindsay and Myers became friends, and Myers's multi-volumed novel The Near and the Far was clearly influenced by Lindsay's Arcturus. In the early 1930s Myers got science fiction writer Olaf Stapeldon to read Arcturus, and at the same time he got Lindsay to read Stapeldon's Last and First Men. Desmond MacCarthy called Arcturus “a great experience” and J.B. Priestley said it was “a grand piece of wild imagining.”

In early 1937 C.S. Lewis read the book, which his friend Arthur Greeves had highly recommended to him. And Lewis shared it immediately with J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien wrote of Arcturus in 1938: “I read Voyage to Arcturus with avidity… no one could read it merely as a thriller and without interest in philosophy, religion and morals.” Lewis called Arcturus “that shattering, intolerable, and irresistible work” and basically stole its plot for the first two books of his Ransom cycle, Out of the Silent Planet, published in 1938, and Perelandra, 1943. In a letter from 1947, Lewis noted that “from Lindsay I first learned what other planets in fiction are really good for; for spiritual adventures.” Lewis championed Arcturus until his death in 1963. Tolkien cited Arcturus in his unfinished “The Notion Club Papers”, published posthumously in 1992. At Tolkien's death in 1973, three copies of Arcturus were found in his library: a second-hand copy of the first edition of 1920; and the Gollancz reprints of 1946 and 1963.

Interest in Lindsay really picked up after the 1956 BBC Third Programme radio dramatization of Arcturus. In 1963, Arcturus finally appeared in an American edition, published in a line of Macmillan Classics of Science Fiction. Sadly, the text was line edited by a copyeditor who not only changed punctuation but words and phrases. This edition was introduced by the naturalist Loren Eiseley, an odd choice, but the editor of the series, Kenneth Heuer, wrote me that he'd first approached others (Bertrand Russell turned him down, as he didn't like the book! T.S. Eliot, and W.H. Auden, Heuer thought, also turned him down.) The corrupted text appeared in the Ballantine paperback, with cover art by Bob Pepper. It appeared in 1968 and when through several printings in the US and the UK. By this point the book had really caught on.

In 1970 William Holloway made a student film of the novel, over seventy minutes long, at Antioch College in Ohio. For a few years it had some national distribution in the US, and then it disappeared for decades, until in 2003, when Holloway restored it and released it on DVD. After Holloway's death in 2014, his sons put the film up on youtube.

In 1976, Lindsay's unpublished novel The Violet Apple appeared, along with a severely edited portion of his final novel The Witch. The Violet Apple concerns the planting of two ancient seeds purported to be from the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, from which a stunted apple tree grows that gives forth two small violet apples, the eating of which brings about a metaphysical raising of concsciousness. The Witch is a remarkable dream-vision of a man being allowed to pass through the three musics of death while still living, and thus able to report on the experience to his fellow mankind.

In 1979, critic Harold Bloom published the only novel of his long career, The Flight to Lucifer: A Gnostic Fantasy, which is a turgid reworking of Arcturus, which Bloom would champion in his chapter on fantasy in his 1982 critical work Agon. Afterwards, Bloom would never let The Flight to Lucifer be reprinted. But other authors would be inspired by Arcturus too.

In 1983 Paul Corfield Godfrey wrote the score for an opera based on Arcturus, performed in Cardiff, and in 1985 another opera of Arcturus was performed in Los Angeles. Many artists and musicians have also been inspired by Arcturus. You will already have seen some of the artwork that appeared on various covers of the book in Dimitra's introduction. Of musicians there are relevant works by Ron Thomas, Daniel Kanaga, Henry Kaiser, and Vakula. Just last year, in Australia, there was Phil Moore’s Heavy-Metal Steampunk Sci-Fi Musical of Arcturus.

The publisher Victor Gollancz met Lindsay only a couple of times, but he left a brief memoir. Gollancz wrote: “He struck me as a person of singular charm and gentleness, not at all what one would expect from the pain motif of Arcturus. I remember only two things about him. The first is that he seemed to me far more a Beethovian than of a writer. The second is that he made a remark which, on the face of it, was the most outrageously arrogant I have ever heard given and yet was, in fact, the expression of a profound humility. He said, 'Only a very few people will ever read Arcturus: but as long as even two or three people will listen to Beethoven, two or three people will read it.'

A Voyage to Arcturus is now one hundred years old. It is hailed as a classic of Scottish literature and of fantasy literature. Lindsay's audience has now far surpassed the two or three people he once foresaw.


  1. I don't think he would mind, though normally material from fictionmags stays on fictionmags, but Robert Silverberg mentioned recently that he'd reread "A Voyage to Arcturus" several times and thought it a wonderful book. As indeed it is.--md

  2. I noted Bob's comment, and he gave me permission to use it. I expect to in the Dec 9th Lindsay event.

  3. Thanks for this, and for turning me on to 'A Voyage to Arcturus' and Lindsay's work in general, Doug!