David Lindsay - A Voyage to Arcturus (1920)
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
One of the greatest flights of fantasy in all of fantastic fiction, David Lindsay's debut is not only a metaphorical flight; it's also a quite literal one. Beginning with a séance in Hampstead and a journey to an observatory in north-east Scotland, Lindsay's surreal story blasts its protagonist, Maskull, to the far distant solar system of Arcturus and its lone planet Tormance. There he meets a series of seductive and/or threatening alien beings and finally the world's creator, Crystalman.
This is, of course, allegory. But while it's not difficult to recognise an inquisition into the nature of good and evil and its mirror image of Christian mythology, the meaning of the detailed symbolism remains gloriously (maddeningly, for some) elusive. The enigmatic Maskull may be Jesus or the Antichrist; Crystalman may be God or the Devil; Tormance might be Heaven or Hell. Furthermore, everything has a dual nature: Nightspore, Krag and Muspel are the alternates to the above. Vivid though his prose is, Lindsay refuses to spell out his beguiling vision. If the details of Lindsay's allegorical tale aren't fully discernible, then its origins are less ambiguous. Born and bred a Scottish Calvinist, Lindsay was nevertheless influenced by Nietzsche; such contrary belief systems and thought processes suggest a basis for the book's exploration of morality and philosophy and its inquiry into the meaning of life. The answers, such as they are, aren't optimistic, which is unsurprising given Lindsay wrote Arcturus at the end of the apocalyptic World War I.
Twenty years later, JRR Tolkien did likewise, and acknowledged a debt to Lindsay, whose first book sold only 596 copies and whose writing career never flourished before he was killed (indirectly) by the first bomb dropped during the Blitz. Lindsay's career didn't take off during his lifetime, but his sublime fantasy continues to do so.
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