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C S Lewis’s Space Trilogy and David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus

C S Lewis read David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus some time between December 1935 (when he complained in a letter to Arthur Greeves, who’d recommended it to him, that it was out of print and he couldn’t get a copy) and December 1938 (when he recommends it in a letter to Roger Lancelyn Green). It was, he later said, the “real father of my planet books”, the first of which, Out of the Silent Planet, was written after he and J R R Tolkien decided that one would write a story about space travel, and the other about time travel. (Tolkien never finished his.)

Lewis went on to recommend A Voyage to Arcturus several times in subsequent letters, and to mention it in essays and lectures, the most extensive of which was in a 1947 essay “On Stories”, where he says:

“[David Lindsay] is the first writer to discover what ‘other planets’ are really good for in fiction. No merely physical strangeness or merely spatial distance will realise that idea of otherness which is what we are always trying to grasp in a story about voyaging through space: you must go into another dimension. To construct plausible and moving ‘other worlds’ you must draw on the only real ‘other world’ we know, that of the spirit.”

And this was Lindsay’s key influence on Lewis’s Space Trilogy. Lewis found reading Lindsay’s novel a profound experience (he once called it “that shattering, intolerable, and irresistible work”). A Voyage to Arcturus showed him that a story about visiting another planet needn’t be simply about the material science and physical dangers involved, but could be more the sort of thing Lewis wanted to write: exciting, imaginative and meaningful adventures of the spirit.

Lewis was less impressed by Lindsay’s worldview. When recommending Arcturus, he would often add that he found the philosophy of Lindsay’s book “detestable, almost diabolist”, and the style “appalling”. So it’s no surprise that any examination of Lindsay’s influence on Lewis will find similarities of external form rather than philosophical intent.

The purpose of this essay isn’t to imply that every similarity that can be found between Lewis’s trilogy and Lindsay’s novel is down to influence. Lewis, after all, had a strong imagination of his own, and read widely. Perhaps the best way of looking at these points of similarity between Lewis’s trilogy and Lindsay’s novel is what Laura Miller has written of Lewis’s Narnia series (in The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia):

“Lewis poured into his imaginary world everything that he had adored in the books he read as a child and in the handful of children’s books he’d enjoyed as an adult.”

I think the Space Trilogy is no different. As well as Lewis’s own inventions, it takes up images and ideas used by a wide range of books both in the same genre (such as H G Wells’s early science fiction novels) and outside it (John Milton’s Paradise Lost, for instance), some thrown in for fun, some for the purpose of engaging with, challenging, or adding to their ideas, and all, of course, for Lewis’s own ends.

In this article, then, I’ll list everything that, to me, feels similar between Lewis’s Space Trilogy books and David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus. Some of these similarities will probably seem minor, and aren’t intended as irrefutable evidence of influence. After all, Lewis has already said that Arcturus was an influence on the Space Trilogy, as well as what sort of influence it was (“From Lyndsay [sic] I first learned what other planets in fiction are really good for: for spiritual adventures”). What remains is to examine the extent and detail of that influence.

Out of the Silent Planet (1938)

If you encounter Lewis’s remark that the “real father of my planet books is David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus”, then turn to the first book of the Space Trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, you’ll struggle to find much evidence of all but the vaguest actual influence.

Aside from the broadest strokes of plot — both books start with three men travelling to another world, one of whom (our protagonist) doesn’t know why he’s going or what he’s going to do when he gets there — connections between the books are slight.

Perhaps the strongest parallel is a background element in Out of the Silent Planet, but a key part of Arcturus. In A Voyage to Arcturus, when Maskull travels to Tormance, he learns that it, and the whole universe, is in the grip of a demiurge or false god called Crystalman, who ensnares living souls with an illusory world of pleasure, feeds off their deaths, and lures them back into existence once more so he can feed again. The divine order is entirely different in Out of the Silent Planet, with Maleldil a clear analogue of the Christian God, who has created our solar system as a place of harmony and order. But Earth (known as Thulcandra, or the “Silent Planet” to the rest of the solar system) is controlled by an evil spirit, the Bent One, Lewis’s version of the rebel angel Lucifer. Because the Bent One has rebelled against Maleldil, his world (our world) lives in ignorance of Maleldil’s order, which it can only access through faith rather than direct experience (as the beings of Malacandra do). Humans living on Earth, then, are in the grip of Lucifer — Weston and Devine clearly serve him, though unwittingly — and only those whose faith is strong can see through the Bent One’s wiles to Maleldil’s truth. In this, Lewis’s Earth could be seen as being in the same state as Lindsay’s Tormance, but where Tormance, in A Voyage to Arcturus, is representative of the entire cosmos, Earth, in Out of the Silent Planet, is an unfortunate exception. In this, Lewis’s narrative is a mirror image of A Voyage to Arcturus: in Arcturus, Maskull travels to Tormance to find it in the control of the demiurge Crystalman; in Out of the Silent Planet, Ransom travels to another world to find he’s actually living in a harmonious cosmological order. Both are about a cosmic revelation you have to go to another planet to experience.

Aside from this, the points where Out of the Silent Planet echoes Arcturus (or seems to) are details rather than plot points, and could easily be as much coincidence as a genuine sign of influence, conscious or otherwise. Minor though they are, I’ll list them here:

Perelandra (1943)

Of all of Lewis’s Space Trilogy books, the second, Perelandra, is the most obviously indebted to Lindsay. And, in addition to a number of both major and minor similarities to A Voyage to Arcturus, it’s also the work in which Lewis seems to explicitly address what, perhaps, he thought of as Lindsay’s “almost diabolist” philosophy.

In Perelandra, Lewis’s hero from the first of his Space Trilogy novels, Ransom, is sent to the planet we know as Venus (it’s Perelandra to the other beings of our solar system) on a special mission. Though he isn’t told the nature of this mission at first, it turns out he’s to take part in Perelandra’s version of the Temptation of Eve. Perelandra, a new world made mostly of oceans, is a paradise. All but one of its lands are not fixed, but are islands of matted vegetation, which flex and flow over the waves of the planet-wide ocean. The single Fixed Land is solid rock, but the planet’s two humanoid inhabitants — a King and Queen who are its equivalent of Adam and Eve — although allowed to visit this land, are forbidden by Maleldil (God) to sleep on it. Soon after Ransom arrives, his old adversary from Out of the Silent Planet, Weston, turns up. Weston, though, is possessed by an evil force and is here to tempt this planet’s Eve (the Green Lady) into breaking Maleldil’s injunction, and so into repeating the Fall. Ransom realises his role is to counteract this temptation, and when persuasion fails, he resorts to simply trying to kill the thing that Weston, now the evil Un-Man, has become. (And Lewis leaves us in no doubt that the Un-Man is evil. The Un-Man’s arguments may be persuasive, but he spends his spare time ripping live frogs apart, just so we know he’s truly evil.)

There are a lot of similarities in plot and situation to A Voyage to Arcturus:

There are, then, a lot of formalistic similarities. But where Lewis really grapples with the central idea of A Voyage to Arcturus is, I think, through the character of Professor Weston, and the worldview he at one point expresses.

It’s worth, first of all, considering what Lewis thought of Lindsay’s philosophy. Whenever he recommends A Voyage to Arcturus to anyone, he takes care to point out that, as he says in a letter to Charles A Brady for instance, Lindsay’s “spiritual outlook is detestable, almost diabolist I think”. To Ruth Pitter, who seems to have written to Lewis thinking Lindsay had been inspired by Perelandra, only for Lewis to tell her it was the other way round, Lewis says:

Voyage to A is on the borderline of the diabolical: i.e. the philosophy expressed is so Manichaean as to be almost Satanic.”

It’s easy to see why Lewis thought of Lindsay’s outlook as “Satanic” or “diabolist”. Lindsay presented our world as being fully created by, and in the hands of, his Devil-like Crystalman, whereas Lewis believed the world was God’s creation. “Manichaean” is an odder description, as it’s usually used nowadays to refer to the strict good/evil dualism of the Manichaean belief, and Lewis can hardly accuse Lindsay of dualism when the good and evil in Perelandra are just as clearly defined. But Lewis may have been referring to another aspect of Manichaeism, the fact that it was influenced by Gnosticism. (And as Lewis was writing in 1947, only two years after the Nag Hammadi texts were discovered — and well before they were translated — he may have associated what we now call Gnostic beliefs more with Manichaeism than with the term “Gnosticism”.)

To Lewis, then, Lindsay was not only mistaken but fatally deluded, and, because not a believer, probably bound for Hell, where he may have found some of his beliefs apparently confirmed — though only because he was (in Lewis’s eyes) wrongheaded to start with. And I think it’s possible to find something of this picture of a deluded, damned man unable to see the truth of God’s world because of being so mired in false beliefs in the character of Weston, as though Lewis were looking at Lindsay’s novel’s conclusion and asking himself, “How does someone end up so wrong?”

After their first bout of fighting, Ransom pursues Weston/the Un-Man out to sea, and both succumb to exhaustion. At this point, the Un-Man seems to lose its grip on Weston, and Weston speaks as himself — as a defeated, despairing man. It’s evident from what he says that, perhaps from having being ousted from his body by the Un-Man or perhaps from actually having died and been brought back to life, Weston has spent some time in Hell. And this has not only confirmed him in his despairing beliefs, but carried them even further into utter bleakness.

To Weston, the universe is a horrible place, shot through with meaningless but inimical supernatural forces, “All witless, twittering, gibbering, decaying. Bogeymen” who “hate the living”. God is “the God of the living, not of the dead”, and when we die, “from His point of view, we move away, into what He regards as nonentity, where He never follows.” Weston explicitly mentions spiritualism — which is of course found at the start of Lindsay’s novel — as an example of how meaningless, and disgusting, the true universe is:

“‘Then there’s Spiritualism,’ said Weston... ‘I used to think it all nonsense. But it isn’t. It’s all true. You’ve noticed that all pleasant accounts of the dead are traditional or philosophical? What actual experiment discovers is quite different. Ectoplasm — slimy films coming out of a medium’s belly and making great, chaotic, tumbledown faces. Automatic writing producing reams of rubbish.’”

To Weston, our world is a world of illusion: “‘Real’ and ‘Unreal’, ‘true’ and ‘false’ — they’re only on the surface. They give way the moment you press them.” (And Lindsay’s world, in A Voyage to Arcturus, is also mired in illusion.)

Ransom never provides a convincing argument against any of these points, but provides a few comments as to how Weston may have arrived at this state of mind. Ransom says, for instance:

“That the account a man gives of the universe, or of any other building, depends very much on where he is standing.”

As Weston has apparently been in Hell, he’s bound to see the world as Hellish — inverted, even — so the “God of the living” we “move away” from when we die could be seen, in negative, as similar-but-opposite to Lindsay’s Crystalman, whose Empire is only living souls, and who we must move away from to find our true home, Muspel, where Crystalman has no dominion.

Most relevant in linking Weston’s philosophy to Lindsay’s (or Lewis’s view of Lindsay’s), though, is this passage, which is how Ransom finally sums up, to himself, how Weston must have come to such a point of evil despair:

“There was, no doubt, a confusion of persons in damnation: what Pantheists falsely hoped of Heaven bad men really received in Hell. They were melted down into their Master, as a lead soldier slips down and loses his shape in the ladle held over the gas ring. The question whether Satan, or one whom Satan has digested, is acting on any given occasion, has in the long run no clear significance.”

Just as Crystalman feeds off the death of living souls in Arcturus, so, in Perelandra, the souls of the damned are “melted down into their Master”, and they become “one whom Satan has digested”.

But Lewis also seems to take up some of the terms of Lindsay’s own argument. In A Voyage to Arcturus, this universe is not our true, spiritual home; we really belong in an entirely different realm, which Lindsay calls Muspel. Lewis also speaks of our true home, when Ransom dismisses one of Weston’s despairing comments about reality:

“If the whole universe were like that, then we, being parts of it, would feel at home in such a universe. The very fact that it strikes us as monstrous—”

Lewis is saying that we have an instinctual feeling for what is right and what is wrong, and this can be taken as evidence that we know when something is spiritually true or not. The fact that Weston’s outlook leads him to despair is the argument against that outlook; Ransom’s own belief in a Christian cosmic order is its own justification, because it feels right to him, and does not lead to despair.

Weston’s philosophy, as presented in Perelandra, isn’t exactly Lindsay’s. It is mostly not a philosophy at all, but an outpouring of despair, and I take Lewis to be saying here that non-belief, or nonsensical/false belief, will inevitably lead to just such a jumble of incoherent and frightening conclusions as Weston’s. But I think there are echoes here of Lindsay’s worldview, as set out in A Voyage to Arcturus — enough, anyway, to make me think that Lewis perhaps was including them, along with all the other beliefs of despairing non-believers, in Weston, and to dismiss them wholesale as fundamentally unsound.

That Hideous Strength (1945)

Where the previous books in Lewis’s Space Trilogy involved visits to other planets, the third, That Hideous Strength, is entirely earthbound. After all, a series which was speaking out against the idea of humankind spreading itself among the other planets of the solar system couldn’t very well go on presenting extra-planetary adventures without undermining its own argument.

As the main influence of A Voyage to Arcturus on Lewis’s trilogy has been of form rather than content, there’s no obvious influence to be found in the third book, which is necessarily so different in form. Aside from one reference to unearthly colours (“A rod of coloured light, whose colour no man can name or picture”), which is simply being consistent with Lewis’s own creation by this point, and the existence of new genders (among the eldila, the angels of Lewis’s cosmology), which can only be lightly connected to Lindsay’s invention of a new, third gender in Arcturus, there’s nothing to note.

Lewis’s mind, I feel, was firmly on other things by this point. He had, in Perelandra, made his best point about “what ‘other planets’ are really good for in fiction”, and so had perhaps answered the imaginative need that reading A Voyage to Arcturus had created in him. He was, in That Hideous Strength, engaged in more pressing philosophical problems. (That Hideous Strength’s strongest literary connection was to Lewis’s own book, The Abolition of Man, published the year before; and in terms of fictional works, it feels like it owes more to the occult thrillers of Charles Williams than anything David Lindsay wrote.)

To confuse things slightly, the novel’s epigraph is two lines from a poem by Sir David Lyndsay of the Mount — the 16th century Scottish poet, and not the author of A Voyage to Arcturus.

The Dark Tower (written circa 1938)

The Dark Tower is an unfinished Space Trilogy novel, the manuscript of which was found among Lewis’s papers after his death (it was published in The Dark Tower and Other Stories in 1977), that seems to have been begun after Out of the Silent Planet was finished. Set in 1938, it features Ransom as a character (in his un-wounded, pre-Perelandran state, but after his visit to Malacandra), Lewis as the narrator, and another character, MacPhee, “an inveterate sceptic”, who’d appear in That Hideous Strength (though here he is a Scot, in the other book he’s from Ulster in Northern Ireland).

The Dark Tower isn’t about space travel but a sort of time travel (in fact, travel between parallel time-streams) — which is interesting, as Lewis originally wrote Out of the Silent Planet as part of an agreement with Tolkien that one would create a space-travel story, the other a time-travel story. Lewis wrote his, Tolkien never finished his, so perhaps that’s why Lewis began The Dark Tower — it’s the time-travel story he wanted Tolkien to write.

As The Dark Tower is unfinished, it’s difficult to draw many meaningful parallels between it and A Voyage to Arcturus, but there are a couple worth noting:

An essay at The Discovery Institute website, “A Voyage to Arcturus, C. S. Lewis, and The Dark Tower” by Casey R. Law, J. D. (originally published in 1998), suggests some other similarities between the two books.

A debt repaid

As well as in letters, Lewis mentioned Lindsay in such essays and talks as “On Stories” (in 1947), “On Science Fiction” (in 1955), and “Unreal Estates” (in 1964), which is the transcript of a conversation between Kingsley Amis, Brian Aldiss and C S Lewis. Lewis doesn’t seem to have read any of Lindsay’s other novels — or at least hasn’t commented on them — which is a pity, as Lindsay’s use of Christianity in The Violet Apple (never published in Lewis’s lifetime, sadly) and Devil’s Tor might have elicited an interesting critical (or even fictional) response from Lewis.

Lewis’s continued recommendation of Lindsay’s novel was undoubtedly part of what helped it to be republished, and to remain in print to this day. Many people first come to Lindsay having heard of him through Lewis, meaning C S Lewis is a key figure in the history of David Lindsay’s continued publication — amply repaying, I think, Lewis’s own debt, however small, to Lindsay in his Space Trilogy.

Bibliography

Lewis, C S

Collected Letters Volume Two: Books, Broadcasts and War, 1931–1949, HarperCollins. Kindle edition 2004.
On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, Harcourt Brace 1982.
The Dark Tower and Other Stories, ed. Walter Hooper. First published: 1977. Edition used: Fount Paperbacks, 1990.
The Space Trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength, HarperCollins. First published separately: 1938, 1943, 1945. Edition used: Kindle edition 2013.

Miller, Laura

The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, Little, Brown, 2008.
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© Murray Ewing 2019