9.5/10 – review and interpretation
One of my 10 favorite books of all time. In an alien version of Dante’s purgatory, the man Maskull traverses an alien planet in a spiritual journey of enlightenment and personal growth.
This is one of those books that you can reread every 5 or 10 years and get something completely new out of it. You really take your own psychology and beliefs into this, and the novel reflects back to you whatever stimulates or stings you at that moment in your life. You do need to think about it. I read this as a teenager and all I got out of it was fascination but little real insight. I’m reading this again more than a decade later and making notes to figure it all out.
On the face of it, A Voyage to Arcturus is a wacky dream journey. It starts out in England with a séance, and then a character named Maskull travels via a lighthouse to another planet, the planet Tormance in the Arcturus system. Maskull is generally open to new experiences and he has the feeling that he travelled to Tormance for a reason, so he starts tramping about. All the while, he meets strange characters and grows new organs, and the very geography has psychological effects on him.
The crux of the matter is that Maskull’s journey on Tormance is actually a journey into his own mind, the human mind, and the weird aliens and geographies he encounters represent elements of the human psyche. For instance, the first characters he meets, Joiwind and Panawe, represent emotion and intellect, if I interpret it correctly. But that’s a beauty of Lindsay’s extended metaphor. The characters represent building-blocks of the mind, but their personalities make our interpretations a bit loose and vague, as if the truth can only be hinted at.
So, as Maskull travels forth, we are urged to close the book every few pages and think about what is happening, because everything has a double meaning. And as the story unfolds, Lindsay is actually communicating his personal philosophy about life and the human spirit, and it is all told through a humorous, phantasmagorical adventure and unique metaphysical theories.
This is absolutely brilliant. The great achievement is that Lindsay completely superimposes this psychological journey with a spiritual journey. For Maskull is seeking the creator, the God of this world Tormance that represents the human mind, and this creator is alternately called Surtur, Shaping or Crystalman. Maskull sees his journey as a moral quest, and his journey of discovering the human mind overlaps with the spiritual journey of a pilgrim in search for enlightenment. The spiritual journey is external, it is Maskull’s travels, while the psychological journey is merely implied.
Even on the most superficial level, the novel is a joy to read because of Lindsay’s dry wit and the bizarre alien experiences of Maskull. Lindsay goes a step beyond any other book ever written when it comes to bewildering experiences. Think of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories, or George MacDonald’s Lilith, but with some extra layers of weirdness added where even the sun, the water and the mountains exert strange influences on the mind. It is a bit dated though; Lindsay has odd ideas about men and women.
There are, for example, two suns on Tormance: Branchspell and Alppain. The rays of Branchspell slow you down and depress you, while Alppain, just beyond the horizon, makes you feel restless and noble. Seeing them together in the sky would tear you apart because of their opposing forces. Of course, keeping in mind Maskull’s journey towards self-knowledge and actualization, he travels towards Alppain. This is just a small part of the jigsaw puzzle that is A Voyage to Arcturus, and every couple of pages introduce new ideas.
By now you might have noticed how Lindsay hints at meanings through the names that he gives to characters and places. Maskull, a combination of mask and skull, hints at the role he plays and the metaphysics of his journey, as do all the other names. Nothing is random, everything carries implications. The names are very evocative and linger in the mind, because they carry tantalizing emotional significances that lay just beyond the edge of understanding.
Other times, actions carry hidden meanings. Maskull is only able to travel to Tormance after he receives a big wound, which is then covered up, but the pain spreads throughout his body. Does that mean that we are only inclined to investigate our own emotions after getting hurt? And what about the character that gives Maskull this wound? Enlightenment comes to those who think, close the book, and think again. You have to be inclined to think about your own emotions, though. I never stopped thinking about this book.
WHAT I THINK IS GOING ON (SPOILERS).
Maskull’s journey is one of self-development and self-actualization. He is set on his journey of introspection by Krag, or pain, who gives him a diffuse melancholy. On arrival at Tormance, which both resembles his mind and is a metaphysical representation of reality, he first encounters Joiwind and Panawe, who represent two ways of knowing. Joiwind is emotion, Panawe is intellect. This is the basic start of Maskull’s personality, and then he meets the maker of the world, Surtur, who sets him on his journey.
Next, a dimension is added to his personality: will and a desire for efficacy. He develops these faculties while interacting with Oceaxe and whilst travelling through the Ifdawn Marest, which is a land of quick decisions and quick action to stay alive. After his actions in Ifdawn, Maskull realizes that he has committed crimes. Guided by Tydomin, who is his voice of judgment, he feels morality and shame and he sacrifices himself to atone for his actions. Instead of being reborn, pain sends him back to Tormance and Maskull masters Tydomin and moves on.
Next, he encounters Spadevil, who represents a new concept which once again builds on what came before, namely: duty. For Spadevil, duty is an alternative sacrifice, an escape from emotion and from the self, a refuge for all those who are hurt by the false pleasures of Surtur’s world. However, Maskull finds that this is an illusion and rejects duty as a solution.
After this, the quest turns more spiritual in search for answers. Maskull receives a vision: he is a version of himself as he exists on Tormance, influenced by pleasure and pain, but Nightspore is another, purer version of himself, standing outside the envelope of Surtur’s world. He must die for Nightspore to meet Surtur. Also, the world itself is false. It is created to capture sparks of Surtur, but it is blemished by pain, and the way to know the outside reality of Surtur is through pain, which is the crack in the foundation. Maskull also learns from Leehallfae that as a man, he might be unfit to experience Surtur, because he represents only half of living creation.
He comes across a religion in Threal that divides reality into three worlds: existence, relation and emotion, but all three turn out to be variations of Crystalman, while Surtur exists beyond. By now, Lindsay is building up a complex metaphysical theory that transforms Maskull’s journey from psychology to a spiritual journey of morality.
Finally, Maskull is ready for his greatest challenge before coming to his destination: that of love. He learns that all men have a bit of woman inside of them and vice versa. Then he meets a dream-woman, Sullenbode, who is the perfect partner for him but will die once he stops loving her. But Maskull learns that love is earthly and thus part of Crystalman, and then he sees the light of Muspel and forgets Sullenbode, and loses her. In grief, he renounces the whole world. Krag, who is pain, then appears to lead him through the final land of Barey. Maskull’s whole journey has by now devolved to the elemental struggle between pleasure and pain, and learns how the two are intertwined. The final test is whether to ignore pain, or embrace it. Pain, Krag, then leads him to the ultimate vision of reality.