Books Tolkien Read: A Voyage to Arcturus

The Story

A Voyage to Arcturus is a science fiction novel about a man named Maskull and his journey to Tormance, a planet orbiting the star Arcturus. Maskull journeys across the planet, exploring strange landscapes and meeting many different creatures and people.

Maskull’s only motivation for traveling to Tormance is that of adventure–even though he is warned his bones will never leave the planet. During his journey, he becomes fascinated by an individual most commonly known as Surtur. His eventual goal is to meet Surtur, although he doesn’t know why he wants to meet him.

There isn’t much more I can say about the book without giving too much away. In it’s simplest form, it’s a series of encounters with different characters who have different philosophies of life.

My Thoughts

Frankly, I wasn’t expecting this book to be a study in ways of life, which it most certainly is. Maskull is so profoundly influenced and/or moved by every individual he meets, that his character is almost non-existent. He has no consistent motivations or character traits, save his desire to meet Surtur. The book reads similarly to The Pilgrim’s Progress, although certainly without the Christian background.

Because I didn’t start the book expecting it to be a treatise on various philosophies, I can’t say I enjoyed it much. I think it would be much more interesting to read the novel alongside works of “real” philosophy (that is, essays propounding the lifestyle each chapter of the novel illustrates). I’m not sure I understand the point of the novel. Based on the ending, it would appear Lindsey believes pain is the only truth in life.

For anyone who has read Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis, it’s impossible not to think of that novel when reading this one. While Lewis’s novel is certainly much more of, well, a novel, it’s clear that he drew heavy inspiration from A Voyage to Arcturus. Even the crystal torpedo Maskull used to journey to Tormance reminded me strongly of the “coffin” Ransom used to travel to Venus in Perelandra.

Tolkien’s Thoughts

In 1938, Tolkien’s publisher asked for his opinion on Out of the Silent Planet. Tolkien gave his opinion and added,

I read ‘Voyage to Arcturus’ with avidity–the most comparable work, though it is both more powerful and more mythical (and less rational, and also less of a story–no one could read it merely as a thriller and without interest in philosophy religion and morals).

I wish I read that statement before delving into this book! It certainly would have prepared me better and probably made for a more enjoyable read.


I did (and do) find it somewhat surprising that Tolkien enjoyed A Voyage to Arcturus as much as he said. From what I could gather, it’s written from an atheist/agnostic–and possibly even anti-Christian–viewpoint. It seems more like something Tolkien would have rejected, at least in his later years.

Where to Find

The novel is available on Amazon or you can read it for free on Project Gutenberg. I listened to it on LibriVox. This particular book was read by one person, Mark Nelson. He did a good job, much better than some of the other readers I’ve heard on LibriVox!

Photo Credit: Alejandro Escamilla

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