The Infernal Riddle of Historical Fantasy – report and video recording

Thank you for joining us online for our The Infernal Riddle of Historical Fantasy event! We are delighted to share a report on this event by Fantasy PhD student Lucinda Holdsworth.

History is an ideological battleground. For as long as humans have thought about the past, we have altered it to suit our view of the world and repurposed it to achieve our goals. Misremembered or misrepresented histories have inspired rampant nationalism and fascism, but reinterpreting  the past also provides opportunities for liberation and new visibility for groups excluded from historical record. With so much at stake, historical fantasy, a genre which consciously changes elements of the past, is a risky business.

The dangerous entanglement of fantasy and history took centre stage one cold night in November as we gathered to celebrate the launch of James Treadwell’s new historical fantasy novel, The Infernal Riddle of Thomas Peach. Treadwell was joined in conversation by L. J. MacWhirter (author of the Tudor fantasy Black Snow Falling), Rob Maslen (Co-director of the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at Glasgow), and Fraser Dallachy (Lecturer in historical linguistics). Our speakers shared a fascination with the affordances of historical fantasy and its unique ability to confront truths of the past.

The evening began with a dramatic reading from The Infernal Riddle of Thomas Peach. As we took in the rich detail of Treadwell’s gorgeous prose, it was easy to become lost in his 18th century world, created by replicating the writing style of the time. It is, as Maslen pointed out, a kind of literary necromancy, resurrecting a long dead style of communication, and with it, the world view that language constructed. Treadwell’s own take on his style is less complimentary, describing this resurrection as a ‘mangled and distorted’ version of the original body. Yet here he makes an important point—it is only through this distortion that a sense of the period can be accurately conveyed to contemporary readers.

The distortion afforded by fantasy plays a similar role here. Our relationship with our own history is often uneasy—did it really happen that way? Can the sources be trusted? Can our own memories? Our knowledge of any given event, be it recent or ancient history, is inherently fuzzy. We misremember, misspeak, misrepresent. We are subjective creatures and that subjectivity, passed down through the ages, is often all we have to go on. How better to navigate the haziness of ancient biases than through the fantastic, a mode which Todorov defines as the ‘hesitation’ between belief and disbelief. Where historical fiction must come down on one side or another of a historical debate, historical fantasy can allow hesitation and the truth of uncertainty to remain. Perhaps the crew of the Mary Celeste really did vanish into thin air. Perhaps Nostradamus really did have prophetic visions. Almost certainly untrue, but perhaps true enough to many at the time that fantasy is the only way to capture a sense of the period accurately. By making the past strange, we can often engage with it more honestly. 

As the conversation turns towards magic systems, Treadwell’s own thoughts on the uncertainty fantasy allows are voiced: ‘magic shouldn’t have systems and rules, magic is what happens when the system collapses’. In his new novel, this is certainly the case. After the Enlightenment, the hesitation of the fantastic should not be possible, and as such the appearance of magic is an embarrassment. It breaks the rules and undermines objective scientific fact. For this reason, magic is made socially invisible.

As we begin to discuss the trials and tribulations of replicating the language of a given time period, Fraser Dallachy gives us a brief overview of the remarkable work of a historical linguist. In this role, Dallachy charts the changing meaning and power of words across time. A particularly intriguing part of this work involves catching anachronisms—words which appear in periods they do not belong in. Such linguistic analysis is invaluable to historical fantasy authors like Treadwell and MacWhirter, both of whom have made use of this kind of research in their work. Treadwell has used historical linguistics to pay homage to the narratorial voice of literature of the time, noting in particular the influence of 18th century gothic novels such as Clarissa. MacWhirter, on the other hand, has used a minimalist approach in her appropriation of historical language. She notes that, given the complex temporal structure of her work, anything more linguistically unconventional might have alienated readers.

As the discussion continues, Maslen realises that there is a striking difference between our authors’ approaches to historical fantasy. Treadwell focuses on the practicalities of his characters’ day to day needs—needs upset by the intrusion of the fantastic. As such, his characters are resistant to the magical elements of their world. MacWhirter’s characters, on the other hand, enter into much larger fantastic frameworks consciously and deliberately. In this, MacWhirter seeks to address issues from our own time, or perhaps more precisely, from our future. The path ahead of us seems, at times, apocalyptic in the light of climate change. Such a global phenomenon is too large to get our heads around, and can only be made sense of through fantastic narratives.

Towards the end of the evening, Maslen asks the question we have all been waiting for: How important is accuracy to historical fantasy?

This question of historical accuracy is a source of great contention in the world of fantasy literature. Demands for historical accuracy have long been used to justify the exclusion of people of colour, women and queer folk from medievalist works. It was an argument that cropped up again and again in the discussion surrounding Game of Thrones which, despite being set in a secondary world, appears to have been heavily influenced by the War of the Roses. Its depictions of sexual assault in particular, many argued, were necessary for historical accuracy. As many scholars and fans have pointed out before me, this kind of historical accuracy is rarely actually accurate. David Olusoga has traced the presence of black individuals and communities in Britain since the time of the Romans. Women have, of course, always been part of our society, as have queer folk. Sexual assault may have been more normalised in the past, but when the women being assaulted are sexualised according to contemporary beauty standards (e.g. skinny women with modern makeup and no body hair), the excuse breaks down. This is not so much historical accuracy as it is a dark romanticisation of history—nostalgia for a past that never existed. At the same time, genuine historical accuracy has a radical power to counter this exclusionary romanticisation by pointing out the truth of our interconnectedness throughout history.

Our authors’ responses reveal a shared awareness of the awesome responsibility of the historical fantasist, yet their approaches to this conundrum are quite different. When asked if historical accuracy matters, Treadwell replies enthusiastically, “Not at all!” He notes that accuracy is not the aim here; instead, he works to create a sense of time and place which feels convincing to contemporary readers. Yet Treadwell’s extensive academic work with 18th century literature puts him at an advantage here. MacWhirter takes the opposite line. For her, research plays a key role in replicating the past as faithfully as possible, allowing her to wrap a rich tapestry of details around her story. Her own academic work is also great source of knowledge and expertise in this—her PhD on pre-modern responses to ontological suffering have given her great insight into the Tudor mind.

As the evening comes to an end, our speakers give us some closing thoughts on the magical power of language. The ability of style and syntax to convey more than the words themselves, they all agree, is magical in itself, let alone the magic of Old Words or verbal spells. It is, as Treadwell notes, a ‘richly textured beautiful thing that is constantly drawing attention to itself’. It is magical because it is how we understand the world, but it is not neutral in this role—it changes the world at the same time it describes it. In this, once again, fantasy is the perfect lens through which to view the past. Our view of history is at times frighteningly malleable (just look at the Mandela Effect for a recent example!) and fantasy, above all other genres, understands the power of language to shape the world and our memories of it.

We close with some final recommendations for historical fantasists—Octavia Butler is a popular choice, her award winning Kindred the perfect example of historical fantasy forcing us to reckon with an uncomfortable past. Alison Uttley and Frances Hardinge are mentioned too, but Macwhirter suggests going back much further and experiencing the magic of historical texts for yourself, starting with medieval romances and dream poetry. After a final thanks to our guests, the night ends.

The evening’s conversation took many twists and turns along the way, through unnatural temporalities, histories real and imagined, and our strange relationship with the truth of that past. Such discussion is, if you’ll forgive the pun, timely, given our current state of affairs. Our movie theatres are full of 80s remakes and every week a new TV reboot is announced. Our political leaders harken back to the good old days at every turn, and there is ever greater public opposition to teaching the ugly truth of history in our schools. Perhaps it is a hopelessness for our future, as MacWhirter noted earlier, that inspires this widespread romanticisation of the past. Whatever the reason, historical fantasy lies at the centre of this conundrum. The night’s discussion has shown us that historical fantasy has a greater power than we could imagine, allowing us to engage, critically, with the past, or obscure the truth. It is a powerful tool, but a tool that can break just as easily as build.

Lucinda Holdsworth

If you missed this event, you can catch up with the video recording here:

CFF Statement on the online abuse of Mariana Rios Maldonado

CFF Statement on the online abuse of Mariana Rios Maldonado

The Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic (CFF) at the University of Glasgow condemns online attacks, harassment, and bullying against our Equality and Diversity Officer and PhD researcher Mariana Rios Maldonado.

In recognition of her standing as a scholar with special expertise in Tolkien studies, Mariana was interviewed by journalists, and a short quotation from the interview was included in the 10 February 2022 exclusive Vanity Fair article ‘Amazon’s Lord of the Rings Series Rises: Inside The Rings of Power’,which revealed some of the casting, plotline, and other choices behind the highly-anticipated TV epic.

This quotation has elicited unwarranted and unacceptable abuse and misinformation from certain quarters who have taken against the series’ diverse casting.

We are saddened to see hate and abuse directed towards a person of colour researching Tolkien, and we stand by Mariana, her research, and her inclusive approach to fantasy. These are values the Centre shares, clearly articulated in our Code of Conduct.

Dr Dimitra Fimi
Senior Lecturer in Fantasy and Children’s Literature, CFF Co-Director

Dr Robert Maslen
Senior Lecturer in English Literature, CFF Co-Director

Rewarding Fantasy Research

by Oliver Langmead, Editor in Chief of Mapping the Impossible

At Mapping the Impossible, we are so excited to announce that we are taking a significant first step towards appropriately rewarding the authors of the papers we publish.

Launched earlier this year, Mapping the Impossible is a brand new open-access student journal publishing peer-reviewed early career research into fantasy, affiliated with and supported by the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic. We are open to submissions for our second issue now.

Renumeration for publication remains notoriously poor in academia. Thanks to generous support from the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic, we are proud to be working towards remedying the situation by offering a reward for each paper we publish. On this, the editorial board of Mapping the Impossible and the core team of the Centre agree: publishing research for recognition alone should not be the standard.

As of today, we are pleased to be able to offer a £20 digital voucher (most likely for Amazon, but we are open to providing book tokens) for each paper we publish. This will be available to all scholars (in the UK and internationally), and distributed upon the publication of each paper we accept. Additionally, we have managed to secure funding for our forthcoming first issue, to be released in late January, and all of our current authors will receive vouchers.

Obviously, this is a both literal and figurative token reward, and is not intended to reflect adequate payment for all the hard work the researchers we publish put into their papers. But by providing these tokens, we are doing a number of important things. Firstly, we are putting Centre funds directly into the hands of fantasy researchers, to reward the hard work they are doing to enrich the field. Secondly, we are incentivising other journals to adopt similar policies. And thirdly, of course, we are further encouraging fantasy researchers (like you!) to consider taking the time to submit your paper to us. We’d love to read it.

One day, we hope to be able to offer full, appropriate payment for the papers we publish. But we hope you’ll join us in celebrating what amounts to a significant first step towards that. And to other journals, we say: if we can do it, so can you.

If you’re interested in finding out more, or wondering whether your paper would be eligible for our journal, please check out our website here: and our page on payments here:

A Tale of Two Lindsays: In Search of Starkness Observatory

Kristine Larsen, Central Connecticut State University

The term “astronomical observatory” usually brings to mind an image of a gleaming white or silver hemispherical dome, or a vision of the Hubble Space Telescope, hurtling around the earth at 30,000 km per hour at an altitude of more than 500 km above the surface of our planet. But in centuries past, the basic architecture of the astronomical observatory was far more utilitarian, merely constructed to raise the observer above the local landscape. For example, Cheomseongdae in South Korea is a 7th century ten-meter-high bottle-shaped tower made of granite blocks (Castro Tirado 3).

Figure 1: Cheomseongdae Observatory [Public domain]
Figure 2. Exterior of the Rundetårn [Public domain].

The Rundetårn (Round Tower) Observatory in Copenhagen was built by Danish king Christian IV in 1642, a helical internal ramp not only leading to an observation platform 40 meters above the ground, but reportedly offering amusement to Peter the Great as he frequently rode his horse up to the top (Castro Tirado 6; Cajori 372). Hans Christian Andersen included numerous references to the Round Tower in his writings, for example as a setting in the 1857 novel To Be or Not To Be (At være eller ikke være) (“Hans Christian Andersen”).

Figure 3. Interior tamp of the Rundetårn [Jorge Láscar, CC-BY-2.0]

In H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel The War of the Worlds, the narrator recounts viewing Mars through a telescope in a “black and silent” fictional domed observatory in the English village of Ottershaw, describing the “shadowed lantern throwing a feeble glow upon the floor in the corner, the steady ticking of the clockwork of the telescope, the little slit in the roof” (Wells 11). George MacDonald’s 1864 short story “The Castle” includes an “observatory on a lofty tower,” part of the eponymous castle built on “the top of a high cliff” (n.p.). This latter architecture is echoed in David Lindsay’s 1920 novel A Voyage to Arcturus. The fictional “famous Starkness Observatory” where “Curious discoveries are made … from time to time” is said to be located on “the north-east coast of Scotland” (Lindsay 14). The characters Maskull and Nightspore arrived at the observatory after walking seven miles from the fictional Haillar Station, along a road “very wild and lonely, [that] ran for the greater part of the way near the edge of rather lofty cliffs, within sight of the North Sea” (Lindsay 17). The observatory complex, which looked as if it had been deserted for six months or more, is described as a “self-contained little community” and composed of “three buildings: a small, stone-built dwelling house [including a library], a low workshop, and, about two hundred yards farther north, a square tower of granite masonry, seventy feet in height” (Lindsay 17).

The eponymous departure for Arcturus is made from a platform on the top of the observatory tower. Lindsay’s choice of design is understandable, as it is certainly easier to launch a “torpedo of crystal” (Lindsay 27) from the flat roof of a tower than the narrow slit of a round dome. But the description of this abandoned Scottish observatory brings to mind the troubled history of real Scottish facilities, those in Edinburgh.  In 1768 optician Thomas Short (1711-1788) inherited a telescope made for the Danish King upon his telescope-maker brother James’ death. Thomas brought the instrument back to Edinburgh and after first setting it up on the roof of Heriot’s Hospital, petitioned the Town Council to lease him land on Calton Hill for the purpose of building an observatory that could be used by University of Edinburgh students (Brück, “The Story” 5). The stone structure was begun in 1776 but not completed until 1792, four years after Short’s death. While it is not built on the coast, and is composed of a single structure (unlike Starkness Observatory), it is made of stone, has a flat roof, and hugs a cliff-side.

Unfortunately, no funds had been set aside to purchase research-quality instruments, and the so-called Gothic Observatory languished. In 1811, nine years before the founding of the Royal Astronomical Society in London, a group of private citizens founded the Astronomical Institution of Edinburgh, and convinced the Town Council to lease them the Gothic Tower and adjoining land. The original structure (which became known as the Old Observatory) was slated to be used as a public observatory, while a true scientific observatory would be built nearby (Brück, “The Story” 7).

Famed Scottish engineer William Playfair’s unorthodox design for the new observatory was a “cruciform Roman Doric structure with six pillars in front of each of its strictly equal sides and with a prominent dome for a telescope at its centre” (Brück, “The Story” 8). While the observatory was begun in 1818 and not completed until 1825, a 1822 visit by King George IV led the facility to be “styled The Royal Observatory of King George the Fourth,” elevating it in name to a similar level as the Royal Observatory at Greenwich (Brück, “The Story” 10). Unfortunately the years were not kind to the new Royal Observatory, as financial support waned. The second Scottish Astronomer Royal, Charles Piazzi Smyth, announced his retirement in 1888, and a royal commission on the Scottish Universities issued a series of devastating recommendations, including abolishing the designations of Royal Observatory and Astronomer Royal for this facility (Brück, “Lord Crawford’s” 126).

Figure 6. Playfair’s Observatory [Andrew Shiva/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0]
Figure 7. 1878 caricature of James Lindsay [Public domain].

All seemed lost for Edinburgh astronomy, but fate had other plans. James Ludovic Lindsay (1847-1913) twenty-sixth earl of Crawford and ninth earl of Balcarres, had long been trying to garner support for the Scottish Royal Observatory. A gifted amateur astronomer, in 1872 he moved to the mansion estate his grandfather had purchased in Dunecht, near Aberdeen, and built a world-class astronomical facility, including a 15-inch aperture refractor, in the U.K. second only to the Royal Greenwich Observatory. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1878 and president of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1878 and 1879 (Gingerich 872).

Dunecht is certainly farther north than Edinburgh, but while it is on the coast it is not in sight of the North Sea. Lindsay’s observatory did include a number of separate buildings, including some with cylindrical domes and single-story structures housing solar instruments and a photographic laboratory (Brück, “Lord Crawford’s” 102). While there was also a library and a stone-built astronomer’s house, which had an observing platform on the roof, there was no separate stone tower (Brück, “Lord Crawford’s” 99).  

Lindsay’s astronomical instruments were admittedly the envy of his colleagues, but his library was even more impressive. The so-called Crawford Collection is considered “one of the finest collections of astronomical books in the world, and especially rich in ancient and rare books, … altogether there may well be as many as 11,ooo books and pamphlets representing the individual contributions of well over 4,ooo authors in at least sixteen different languages” (Forbes 459). Upon the death of his father in 1880, the new Lord Crawford gave up his astronomical duties, leaving the day-to-day operation to his main assistant Ralph Copeland (1837-1905). When he later inherited his uncle’s title, he decided to sell Dunecht and move his observatory to Balcarres House in Southeast Fife, closer to the coast.

It was during this time (1888) that Piazzi Smyth resigned as astronomy professor at the University of Edinburgh and Scottish Astronomer Royal, leaving the future of Edinburgh astronomy hanging by a thread. Lindsay approached the government and offered all his astronomical equipment and his legendary library as “a gift to the nation, subject to the condition that the observatory should be rebuilt upon a suitable site and maintained in a proper manner” (“James Ludovic Lindsay” 272). The offer was accepted, and in 1889 Copeland was given the titles of Regius Professor of Practical Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh and Scottish Astronomer Royal (Brück, “Lord Crawford’s” 127). A committee was established to locate a more suitable site, away from the lights and smoke of the city, leading to the selection of Blackford Hill, a public park on the southern edge of Edinburgh. (Brück, “The Story” 53). As in the case of Starkness Observatory, there was no railway up to Blackford Hill, but a temporary track was built in 1892 branching from Blackford railway station in order to facilitate the movement of building supplies to the site (Brück, “The Story” 55). The main building is end capped by two revolving cylindrical domes “38 and 22 feet in diameter at the east and west ends of the building which were to cover the two principal telescopes of the observatory, the 15-inch refractor and a 24-inch reflector” (Brück, “The Story” 55). In between was a flat-roofed section housing the library and a platform for portable instruments. The facility was completed in 1895, far faster than the previous iterations of the Edinburgh observatories. With the Royal Observatory safely moved to Blackford Hill, the Calton Hill facilities became the property of the city council, and the Playfair facility was open to the public as the “City Observatory” for many decades.

Figure 8. The two revolving domes of the Blackford Hill Observatory [Magnus Hagdorm, CC-BY-SA-2.0]

While there is not a one-to-one correspondence between Lindsay’s description of Starkness Observatory and any one of the Edinburgh Observatories, there are tantalizing parallels to each. More importantly, having been born in 1876, David Lindsay could have witnessed the drama concerning the Royal Edinburgh Observatory in real time as a young man, having spent part of his youth in Jedburgh, Scotland (near the border with England) with father’s relatives (Ewing, “Biography”). While I have seen no evidence to suggest that David Lindsay was closely related to James Lindsay, the similarity in name may have attracted the author to the astronomer’s life story. It is also interesting that David’s older brother, Alexander (1869-1915) used the pseudonym Alexander Crawford to write serialized novels and short stories between 1911-15. As Murray Ewing notes, “the name Crawford has a long association with that of Lindsay, since a Sir David Lindsay (c.1360–1407) was made 1st Earl of Crawford in 1398” (Ewing, “Alexander ‘Crawford’ Lindsay”).

Today the observatories of Edinburgh have come back to life. While the COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated the closing of the Royal Observatory’s visitor’s center, scientific work continues at the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) and the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Astronomy (IfA), both housed at the observatory. In 2018 the Collective Gallery took on responsibility for the Calton Hill complex, turning the City Observatory into a public celebration of contemporary art. In 2020 it was announced that the long-neglected Gothic Tower was being refurbished as apartments for visiting artists, special events, and vacations (Ferguson). This ultimate marriage of exploration, science, and the arts is certainly worthy of the heritage of Lindsay’s novel, and its Starkness Observatory. I wish them many successful voyages to ‘Art-cturus’ – and beyond.


Brück, Hermann A. (1992) “Lord Crawford’s Observatory at Dun Echt 1872-1892.” Vistas in Astronomy 35: 81-138.

Brück, Hermann A. (1983) The Story of Astronomy in Edinburgh. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Cajori, Florian (1928) “Four Old Astronomical Observatory Buildings.” Science 26(4):372-6.

Castro Tirado, Miguel A. (2019) “Astronomical Observatories: From the Prehistory to the XVIII Century.” Revista Mexicana de Astronomía Y Astrofísica 51: 1-8.

Ewing, Murray (2021) “Alexander ‘Crawford’ Lindsay.” The Violet Apple

Ewing, Murray (2021) “Biography.” The Violet Apple

Ferguson, Brian (2020) “Gothic Landmark Built for 18th Century Astronomers in Edinburgh to Become Artists’ Retreat on Calton Hill.” The Scotsman

Forbes, Eric G. (1973) “Collections II: The Crawford Collection of Books and Manuscripts on the History of Astronomy, Mathematics, Etc., at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh.” The British Journal for the History of Science 6(4): 459-61.

Gingerich, Owen (2004) “Lindsay, James Ludovic.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 872-3.

 “Hans Christian Andersen and the Round Tower” (n.d.) Rundetaarn

“James Ludovic Lindsay.” Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 74: 271-3.

Lindsay, David (2007) A Voyage to Arcturus. Radford: Wilder Publications.

MacDonald, George (2016) “The Portent and Other Stories.” Project Gutenberg

Wells, H.G. (2008) The War of the Worlds. Waiheke Island: The Floating Press


(1) Public domain

(2) Public domain

(3) Jorge Láscar CC-BY-2.0

(4) Public domain

(5) Public domain

(6) Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 4.0

(7) Public domain

(8),_Edinburgh,_Scotland-10Nov2010_(1).jpg Magnus Hagdorn CC-BY-SA-2.0

Mapping the Impossible: Journal for Fantasy Research

by Oliver Langmead

Mapping the Impossible is a brand new open-access student journal publishing peer-reviewed research into fantasy and the fantastic. The editorial board and reviewers are composed of current students and recent graduates from institutions across the world, and we are so pleased to be opening for submissions this month. If you’d like to get involved, we are currently looking for reviewers and we would love to hear from you.

We currently have two issues lined up. Our first issue, to be published in October 2021, will be a special issue for papers submitted from this year’s GIFCon. Our second issue, to be published in March 2022, will be a general issue. We operate with a rolling submissions window, and if you’re interested in submitting to us, we would love to see your paper no matter when it’s ready! Check out our submissions page for the details and guidelines.

Mapping the Impossible has been developed specifically with early-career research into fantasy and the fantastic in mind. We exclusively publish papers by current students and recent graduates, and we define “fantasy” very broadly. Our aim is to highlight the brilliant work being done by undergraduates, postgraduates and student researchers looking into fantasy, and give them a new avenue to publication.

We are affiliated with and supported by the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic along with the annual fantasy research conference GIFCon, and are generously hosted by the University of Glasgow. It’s wonderful to be a part of such a vibrant community of fantasts, and we strongly encourage checking out the Centre, GIFCon, and the University of Glasgow’s Masters in Fantasy if the research we’re publishing inspires you.

On a personal note – putting together this journal, along with my colleagues Katarina O’Dette and Emma French, has been a real work of love, and we have a lot of people to thank for helping us get it off the ground. In the first instance, we have to highlight the wonderful work being done over at our sister publication, Press Start, who are publishing early career research in Game Studies and were the inspiration for Mapping the Impossible. The Press Start team have provided us with brilliant support in setting up, and without Matt Barr it’s likely we would have never got off the ground. Everyone at the Centre for Fantasy has been so enthusiastic and helpful, and their guidance has helped us work out the fine details of what you see today. And a special thanks must go to my brilliant sister, Lois Langmead, who was generous enough to donate some really wonderful illustrations to the site.

Celebrating the Centenary of A Voyage to Arcturus – Report and Video Recording

Many thanks to everyone who attended our event to celebrate the centenary of David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus on 19th November. We are pleased to share the opening remarks by our panelists Douglas A. Anderson and Nina Allan, who have both kindly made them available in their respective blogs:

Douglas A. Anderson – Arcturus centenary opening remarks

Nina Allan – Arcturus centenary opening remarks

We are also delighted to share a report on our event by English and Scottish Literature Honours student (and President of the University’s Scottish Literature Society) Domenico Di Rosa (who tweets at

A Voyage to Arcturus: David Lindsay’s legacy across a century

By Domenico Di Rosa

On the occasion of the 100th year since the first publication of Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, the Centre For Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow held a commemoration and discussion of this science fiction novel in partnership with the Being Human festival, the UK’s only national celebration of the humanities ( Delving into several philosophical and spiritual interrogations, the novel follows Maskull’s interstellar journey from an observatory situated in Scotland to an unknown world across space, where the protagonist creates an extensively comprehensive imaginary planet.

The event’s host, Dr Dimitra Fimi, started the discussion with an introductory presentation of the novel’s several editions, remarking how, although the book’s initial publication in 1920 was unsuccessful in capturing the readers’ attention, Lindsay still managed to emerge as a tremendous influence to renowned authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and Philip Pullman.

American scholar Douglas A. Anderson, who has worked first-hand with Lindsay’s materials, offered a brief account of the writer’s life as well as some aspects about the origins and inspirations behind A Voyage to Arcturus. It was particularly the imaginative powers of Lindsay’s worldbuilding that influenced C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, as well as the novel’s treatment of philosophy and religion which pushed Tolkien to read it ‘with avidity’. Ultimately, Anderson pins down the novel’s leitmotiv, namely that ‘Our visible primary world is a sham, and the real spiritual world, occasionally visible or recognised, lies underneath the sham’. It is arguably the universality of such search for answers to convoluted existential questions around spirituality which allowed Lindsay’s novel to gradually become more recognised towards the late twentieth-century. Moreover, in conjunction with the flourishing of science-fiction literature, A Voyage to Arcturus also starts to be acknowledged as a classic of Scottish fantasy and, in many ways, as a precursor of many science-fiction trends.

The second panellist, Robert Davis, Professor of Religious and Cultural Education at Glasgow University, focused his discussion around the spiritual and philosophical dimensions of the novel. In particular, Gnosticism seems to have had a relevant influence on Lindsay’s writing, even though the only references to it until 1945 were found in some citations of works written by the early Church. A Voyage to Arcturus might be considered as a ‘gnostic romance’ as Davis depicts gnostic theology as ‘confused, fragmentary, sometimes impenetrable’. Overall a revision of Judeo-Christian religious orthodoxy, Gnosticism depicts the God of the Old Testament as a demonic impostor whose disastrous work of creation is deliberately malevolent. The book is imprinted with these notions that were, similarly, perennial themes in the work of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, whom Lindsay knew well. Evident is, for Davis, the link with Philip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials, a ‘deeply antichristian work’ that follows the lines of Milton, Shelley and Blake in its gnostic rebellion against authority.

The final panellist, award-winning British author Nina Allan, centred her discussion around Lindsay’s novel in contemporary science fiction. She notes some of the aspects that link Arcturus to her novel The Rift (2017), particularly the ‘poetic synchronicity’ between the two stories and the ambiguity or lack of closure around the narrated events which makes it a frustrating yet rewarding experience for the reader. She also mentions those elements that relate Lindsay’s work to current waves of SF writing as well as those aspects which make it distant from it. On the one hand, A Voyage to Arcturus may be one of the first science-fiction voyages in interspace, highly imaginative in its description of alien landscapes that seem almost ‘incandescent’, which could have been shockingly outlandish for the readers of the time. On the other hand, the novel takes inspiration from older influences such as Stevenson and Verne, and takes its philosophical underpinnings from universal questions such as ‘What makes human existence meaningful?’ and ‘How do we bear the existential nihilism of our world where death and suffering are all around?’. Ultimately, Allan suggests the novel is about a transcendent experience that invites us to connect with the universe, thereby setting our spirit free and exhibiting the best side of ourselves.

Overall, the event reached its purpose in remembering the legacy of A Voyage to Arcturus and in determining David Lindsay as one of the forefathers of Scottish fantasy. Tracing a quest for knowledge and higher learning while providing an unparalleled vision of imaginary worlds, Lindsay’s novel certainly proves to be worthy of further investigation.

If you missed this event, our YouTube recording is available here: