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A Voyage to Arcturus, C. S. Lewis, and The Dark Tower

The Lewis Legacy-Issue 78, Autumn 1998 The C.S. Lewis Foundation for Truth in Publishing

by Casey R. Law, J. D.

THOUGH MANY OF C. S. LEWIS’S Christian readers would find the gnostic David Lindsay an improbable influence upon Lewis, Lindsay was in fact important in inspiring Lewis to write two of his interplanetary novels, the famous Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra. The heavy influence of Voyage is also (to this writers thinking) discernible in The Dark Tower, an incomplete novel published posthumously in 1977 as Lewis’s work.

A brief word on A Voyage to Arcturus may be helpful for those Lewis admirers who are unfamiliar with this novel. This austere, violent, and wildly beautiful work begins with a seance at a wealthy Londoner’s home. A medium causes the materialization of a handsome young man. An ugly and brash character, Krag, intrudes upon the seance and breaks the neck of the materialized young man, whose face assumes in death a hideous and evil smile. Krag then invites the hero of the book, Maskull, on an journey to the planet where the materialized figure came from. After Maskull is transported, by mysterious means, to the planet Tormance, he finds that a strange new sense organ has grown on his forehead. The rest of the work, though fascinating, is unimportant for the present discussion.

Voyage to Arcturus was first recommended to Lewis by his longtime friend Arthur Greeves in Dec. 1934. (Sayer, George, Jack: C. S. Lewis and His Times, San Francisco: Harper & Row [1988], p. 152) Since Voyage had however gone out of print shortly after it was published in 1920, Lewis did not succeed in finding a copy of the book and reading it until almost two years later. (Ibid.)

Lewis was extremely impressed by Voyage. He wrote to a friend that it was Lindsay that had discovered that the authentic use for other planets in fiction was as the site for spiritual adventures. (Sayer, p. 153; emphasis in original.) Elsewhere, Lewis said that Lindsay’s real theme was a passionate spiritual journey. (On Stories, in Lewis, C. S., Of Other Worlds, ed. Walter Hooper, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich [1967, 1975], p. 19)

Inspired by Voyage, Lewis challenged his friend J. R. R. Tolkien to a kind of contest: Lewis would write a story of space travel, and Tolkien one of time travel. (Sayer, p. 153) The result on Tolkien’s side was an apparently never-completed story; but from Lewis the contest yielded Out of the Silent Planet, published in 1938. (Ibid.) Silent Planet, which tells of a voyage to Mars, was of course followed by Lewis’s novel of a journey to Perelandra, our planet Venus.

Throughout the remainder of his life, Lewis spoke of Voyage with great respect. In a 1955 lecture, “On Science Fiction,” Lewis discussed that type of science fiction or fantasy that was an actual addition to life and enlarge[d] our conception of the range of possible experience. Among the very few and select works of this type that Lewis mentioned was that shattering, intolerable, and irresistible work, David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus. (in Of Other Worlds, p. 71) In a taped conversation that took place between Lewis, Kingsley Amis and Brian Aldiss shortly before Lewis’s retirement, Lewis again spoke of Voyage: It’s a remarkable thing, because scientifically it’s nonsense, the style is appalling, and yet this ghastly vision comes through. (“Unreal Estates,” in Of Other Worlds, p. 88) (Lewis had already repeatedly criticized Voyage’s prose style as clumsy or worse.)

Though Lindsay inspired Lewis to begin his interplanetary novels series, this writer at least discerns no detailed similarities between any of the works Lewis himself published and Voyage. When one however turns to The Dark Tower, a novel fragment published in 1977 as Lewis’s work, certain striking similarities to Voyage appear. (According to Walter Hooper, Lewis’s longtime editor, Dark Tower was probably begun by Lewis in 1938, right after Silent Planet was finished. Lewis, C. S. The Dark Tower and Other Stories, ed. Walter Hooper, New York: Harcourt Brace and Co. [1977])

The Dark Tower, set in Cambridge, evidently in the late 1930s, is a story of time travel. Orfieu, one of a group of intellectual (and evidently academic) friends, invents the chronoscope, a device that enables the viewer to see into the past or future. As it happens, the chronoscope seems to provide a view of only one time and place: Cambridge, at some unknown, but evidently future, date. Society has there evolved into a totalitarian dystopia that is ruled by one or more Stingingmen; these are humans (evidently all males) that have grown a hideous stinging organ on their foreheads. The Stingingman uses this organ to transform his (evidently willing, or at least resigned) victims into something resembling automata, who seem to perform military or police functions in this future society.

A character in Othertime (the term used for the future world) is seen to bear a stunning physical resemblance to Scudamour, Orfieu’s assistant. Scudamour’s Othertime double turns into a Stingingman, who appears ready to sting the Othertime double of Scudamour’s present-day lover. At this point, unhinged by indignation and rage, Scudamour somehow leaps into Othertime, where he finds himself in the Stingingman’s body. Scudamour discovers that he, as a Stingingman, is in a position of command, and that he is expected to perform various acts he (since he is really Scudamour) considers evil. He sets about protecting his lover’s double (who, having apparently been found unworthy of receiving the sting, will be executed unless Scudamour intervenes) and learning what he can about the nature of Othertime. Meanwhile, Scudamour’s present-day body appears to have been occupied by an alien personality. (Readers may here see resemblances to the Mirror, Mirror episode of the original Star Trek TV series.)

The world of Othertime, seen through the chronoscope, is strongly reminiscent of aspects of the seance that takes place in Ch. 1 of Voyage To Arcturus, of the journey to the strange planet Tormance, and of what happens to Maskull when he reaches Tormance:

  1. Both seances (viewing of the otherworldly manifestations) take place in essentially theatrical settings. The materialization in Voyage is staged in [a] replica . . . of the Drury Lane presentation of the temple scene in the Magic Flute[.] Voyage , p. 46. (All my Voyage references are to the Citadel Press edition.) The chronoscope apparently projects images onto a screen, as does a motion picture projector or an old-fashioned camera obscura. Indeed, the view of Othertime is so theatrical that an intruder thinks he is watching a performance of a great . . . work of art. (Dark Tower, p. 53)
  2. In each book, the spectators view what is in essence a temple. This is, as noted, explicit in Voyage In Dark Tower, the Stingingman appears to be wearing priestly black robes; the victims enter silently in an attitude of apparent religious awe; the Stingingman also remains silent; an idol is present (this reminds one of the presence of the Pharaoh’s statue mentioned in Voyage) and is evidently reverenced; and the victims approach the Stingingman by backing up to him, as though he were too holy to be looked upon.
  3. In both Voyage and Dark Tower, the victims killed or otherwise harmed are silent.
  4. In each case, there is a violent transformation of a handsome young person into something less than human, which smiles or grins hideously. This happens in Voyage of course, when Krag breaks the neck of the materialized young man, who, in death, assumes a Satanic grin. After being stung, the victims in Dark Tower assume a fixed grin, become automata, and begin to move in such a mechanical and abrupt way that the Cambridge friends adopt the term Jerkies to describe them. (Dark Tower , pp.35, 39)
  5. The most striking resemblance of all, of course, is the presence in both novels of new organs on the foreheads of the protagonists. Upon reaching Tormance, Maskull immediately finds a strange new organ upon his forehead. (Voyage, p. 44). When Scudamour enters Othertime, he likewise immediately finds a new organ on his forehead. (Dark Tower, pp. 62-63)
  6. It is also interesting that in both novels the discovery of the strange new world is associated with a tower. In Voyage, the interplanetary journey is launched from a tower’s top. The friends in Dark Tower discover that Othertime contains a replica of the library at Cambridge University (or the actual library building, much older), which has a tower. (Dark Tower , p. 47)

I do not know what, if any, bearing these resemblances between Voyage and Dark Tower may have upon the vexed question of Dark Tower’s authorship. But it seems unquestionable that the resemblances do exist.

Copyright 1998 by Casey R. Law