On a Sunday afternoon in 1956 (24th June, thanks David Pringle), aged 13, I was riveted for about 3 hours by a dramatisation of David Lindsay‘s 1920 novel A Voyage to Arcturus on the BBC Third Programme (the intellectual station, finally canned in 1970) accompanied by very suitable eerie musique concrète. By the end of the performance I could recite forever more: “Crystalman is but a shadow on the face of Muspel.”
Probably I tuned in because the name of a *star* in the title suggested that this might be science fiction, although I also remember dutifully listening to a dramatisation of Vladimir Dudintsev’s Not By Bread Alone, interrupted when my father walked in just as some interrogator was uttering the words “sexual intercourse”—”Turn that off; I won’t have you listen to that kind of thing!”—the only even vaguely erotic moment in this tale of heavy engineering and Soviet bureaucrats.
Initially I assumed that Arcturus must be a play, but fairly soon I found a Gollancz edition of the novel, printed on wartime economy paper, in North Shields public library. It didn’t look half as grand as this Gollancz reissue:
After an Edwardian-mode séance, rudely interrupted, the symbolically named trio of Maskull, Krag, and Nightspore travel to an abandoned Scottish observatory, from which they depart in a crystal ship for the planet Tormance (torment + romance, or maybe tor + manse, or maybe…) circling Arcturus, propelled by bottled back-rays, namely the light from Arcturus which yearns to return to its star, much faster than it came to the Earth; not a bad notion, really.
Arcturus is a Pilgrim’s Progress written in the harsh and lurid language of Prophecy rather than mere Fantasy.(This is a distinction owing to E.M Forster in his Aspects of the Novel.) Awaking alone on Tormance, Maskull travels through zones representing different philosophies of life—such as Nietzschean will to power, or duty, or lust, or sweet loving passivity—generally wreaking murder and mayhem unintentionally or intentionally, for in each zone he sprouts new sense organs which make each philosophy seem to be absolutely true and binding, even though this is always proved illusory, usually by a new set of sense organs.
Welcome to the Wombflash Forest, and to Matterplay where evolution runs riot, and to other startling locations, and to such characters as Earthrid who plays deadly music upon the surface of a lake called Irontick.
Arcturus had a big influence on C.S. Lewis‘s interplanetary trilogy.Tolkien also much admired Lindsay’s novel.Colin Wilson went furthest in enthusiasm, declaring Arcturus to be the greatest novel of the 20th century. In recent decades Arcturus has been reprinted umpteen times with evocative covers such as:
Arcturus is the book which I have read the most times. I even started writing a fully worked-out sequel to it, but Gollancz (owners of the copyright at the time) rejected my proposal and my two sample chapters on the grounds that Arcturus is primarily an exotic technicolour adventure like something by Jack Vance (whom I also admire, by the way). This is indeed true superficially, but ignores Lindsay’s metaphysical intentions fully and mesmerisingly carried out; which is why he wrote this masterpiece in the first place—and in the second place.
Incidentally, when I was in Tanzania (from 1965 to 1967) I wrote to the BBC to ask who dramatised Arcturus for the 1956 broadcast, and other details. The BBC replied quickly by airmail to Dar es Salaam that a Mr Odd Bull was the dramatist, but they had no address for him nor had they kept a copy of the script (typical of the BBC).
Odd Bull is quite an odd name. The only person of that name whom I can identify was Chief of Air Staff of the Norwegian Air Force, who in 1958 joined, and later headed, the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization in time for the crisis in Lebanon, leading up the Six Day War of 1967, resulting in a book entitled War and Peace in the Middle East: The Experiences and Views of a UN Observer. Superficially it seems unlikely that this can have been the same Odd Bull, although the Norwegian was indeed an author in English. Could there have been more than one odd bull on the loose at the time?
CORRECTION (29th December 2016): If I’d been aware of the excellent website devoted to the work of David Lindsay http://www.violetapple.org.uk/ I could have avoided this wild bull chase and provided more accurate information! There was nothing “Odd” about Mr Bull, after all.
Odd Bull’s 1956 radio dramatisation goes completely unnoticed in the extensive Wiki account of Arcturus, which does however comment that “in 1985, a three-hour play by David Wolpe based on the novel was staged in Los Angeles.” 3 hours, note… no less will suffice.
Also unnoticed by Wiki’s well-informed Arcturus person(s) is my longish piece in Foundation 43, Summer 1988, “From Pan in the Home Counties—to Pain on a Far Planet: E.M. Forster, David Lindsay, and How the Voyage to Arcturus Should End.” Pause for breath. (Pan refers to the god, but also punningly, or panningly, to the betel leaf chewed by Hindus as in A Passage to India.)
The reason why I wrote to the BBC was that way back in the mid-Sixties, at the University of East Africa, I was writing a lit-crit book to be called The Modern Fantasy, about fantasy elements—at least to my mind at the time—in modernist mainly ‘mainstream’ lit such as John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy, Elias Canetti, Jean Genet, Wole Soyinka, E.M. Forster, and Kafka plus Camara Laye (from Guinea)—whose brilliant Radiance of the King (Le Regard du Roi) is the African Négritude response to Kafka’s The Castle and The Trial.
(This posting owes to Mark West, website master of the Northampton Science Fiction Writers Group, where it appears in a shorter form; subsequently I remembered about the enigma of Odd Bull.)