Devil’s Tor by David Lindsay

Devil's Tor by David Lindsay, Putnam'sWriting to his latest publisher (Putnams) shortly before they issued this, his fifth novel, David Lindsay said: “Between the philosophies of Arcturus and Devil’s Tor there seems to be a chasm of contradiction. As both books were sincerely and independently written, and were long matured, no doubt the contradiction is more apparent than real…” He goes on to say his next (never-to-be-finished) project, after the release of his 1932 “monster”, Devil’s Tor, will be “a larger synthesis… a new and higher truth”, but it seems to me that the worldviews of A Voyage to Arcturus and Devil’s Tor are really not that different. Both reject our “terrible temporary world of mud, blood and bubbles” for another we can only have hints of (“sublimity should not represent a natural state of the soul, but be, as it were, its homesickness”). What Devil’s Tor did do was add a key element all but absent from Lindsay’s first book, which, it could be said, he’d spent his post-Arcturus novels (The Haunted Woman, Sphinx, the then-unpublished Violet Apple, and even his ‘pot-boiler’ The Adventures of Monsieur de Mailly) trying to fit into place. For, despite a handful of strong, or at least interesting, female characters (Joiwind, Oceaxe, Tydomin, Sullenbode), the world of A Voyage to Arcturus is ultimately male: the heroes, their guiding deities and would-be deities are all male, from Maskull to Nightspore, Krag to Crystalman. Devil’s Tor’s presiding figure, though, is the Great Mother, and it’s through her that Lindsay works towards a deeper understanding and acceptance of what, in A Voyage to Arcturus, he’d rejected wholesale: existence itself. The Goddess in Devil’s Tor (who shouldn’t be taken as female in the human sense, but as the yin to Arcturus’s yang) represents “the source of the universe”:

“The Virgin-Mother is explanatory of the world, as the others are not — for nothing is explained by the dogmatic assertion that God made the world…”

A Voyage to Arcturus, Ballantine Books, cover by Bob Pepper

A Voyage to Arcturus, Ballantine Books, cover by Bob Pepper

All of Lindsay’s novels can be thought of as battles for the soul of their central character. This is most obvious in A Voyage to Arcturus, whose protagonist Maskull is presented with a series of forthright philosophies, worldviews and ideals, each of which he gives himself to wholeheartedly, only to reject (often violently) when they prove false. In the end, the ultimate falseness of Tormance — the demiurge Crystalman in one of his many guises — tries every last temptation to win Maskull to his side, but Krag, the only real truth in Lindsay’s first novel, wins him in the end with pain — which is the closest, Lindsay says, we can get to truth in a world “rotten with illusion from top to bottom”.

In Devil’s Tor the soul to be battled for is Ingrid Fleming’s (whose name — names mean a lot in Lindsay — I take to contain a hint of ‘flaming’, fire being one of Lindsay’s signs of sublimity). She is, effectively, presented with three would-be husbands or potential soul-mates: the artist Peter Copping, the scholar Stephen Arsinal, and the adventurer Henry Saltfleet. But her soul already belongs to the Goddess, and what’s being battled for is not hers so much as the world’s soul: she is to be the mother of a coming saviour, a redeemer, and only one of those would-be husbands is fated to be the father. And he wins her not as Krag does, with pain, but with the two virtues Lindsay praises most of all in Devil’s Tor: disinterestedness and magnanimity. (David Lindsay is, I suspect, not the one to go to for dating advice, unless perhaps you do your dating at WagnerianHeroines.com.)

The Violet Apple by David LindsayThe novel of Lindsay’s Devil’s Tor most resembles in plot — it could almost be a heightened, intensified version of it — is his then-unpublished The Violet Apple. That book begins when an antique glass ornament, shaped like a serpent, is accidentally shattered, releasing an ancient pip said to derive from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. In Devil’s Tor, a forbidding “Devil’s Head” monument atop the titular Tor is shattered in a storm, revealing a tomb that contains, like the pip of The Violet Apple, one half of an egg-shaped meteoric stone. In both cases, a symbol of new life or rebirth (a pip and an egg-shaped stone) is released when its devil-shaped guardian is accidentally/fatedly broken. And in both cases, this breaking-open releases supernatural powers intent on bringing together, against the wishes of their families, friends and existing fiancés, a man and a woman who are unrecognised soul-mates. (Lindsay likes to throw every worldly difficulty he can in the way of his hero and heroine. He even seems to prefer that they don’t feel any attraction for each other, but are drawn together under pain, duress, and in situations of the utmost tragedy. What a romantic.)

There isn’t a lot of action in Devil’s Tor. Whole chapters are given over to detailed dissections of characters’ reactions to mere moments: someone enters a room and everyone retreats into themselves to review their thoughts on fate. It’s a difficult read; it was probably a difficult write for Lindsay, who’s constantly descending into Yoda-speak (“Reserved of heart she was, proud of temper beneath her domestic obedience; femininely romantic of the imagination she had never been…”) for pages at a time. When it came out, though, it fared better than Arcturus, finding a few sympathetic reviewers. Hugh I’Anson Fausset in The Guardian called it “a vast, formidable, and over-powering book” that “at once engrosses and exhausts us”. To read it is, he says, “to suffer an unforgettable experience, to be excited, appalled, and finally purged.”

How Lindsay must have loved that review: “to read it is to suffer”.

It’s hard to recommend Devil’s Tor. Like the fatedness of its own characters, you’re either compelled to read it (through a fascination with Lindsay’s work) or you pass by, appalled at the tragedy. But it repays the effort put into it, even if the final repayment, so full of renunciation and fate, is a very bleak sort of catharsis.

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