The book opens with a seance for the amusement and curiosity of the guests of a certain Mr. Faull. Arriving just before the materialization takes place are Maskull and Nightspore, guests invited by a lady friend of Mr. Faull. Shortly after the materialization of a man with a mysterious smile, a stranger bursts in and twists the head of the man, killing him. The materialized man’s face takes on a leering grin. The stranger, who was known to Nightspore as Krag, invites Maskull to visit Tormance, a planet of the binary star system Arcturus. To Nightspore he simply says that Surtur has gone and they must follow him.
Krag tells them to meet him at the Starkness Observatory in northern Scotland in a few days for the journey. Maskull and a perennially dispassionate Nightspore arrive there the evening before Krag. They place feels long abandoned, but they make a dreary home in the library. While in the library Maskull discovers a bottle marked “solar back-rays” and “Arcturian back-rays.” Nightspore condescendingly points out, when asked, that in addition to the forward rays, stars must produce back rays that pull back to themselves (which explains how flowers are pulled towards the sun). The next day Nightspore takes Maskull to the Gap of Sorgie, where they hear a characteristic drum-beat that Nightspore advises Maskull to remember. Upon their return Maskull attempts to climb up the observatory tower, but with every step he takes he gets heavier, and he makes it no higher than the first window (which is a lens that shows the Arcturian system). He hears a voice telling him that Nightspore will return but that Maskull will not.
When Maskull arrives on Tormance he is all alone, and the gravity is very heavy. He is soon met by Joiwind, a woman come to help him. She often communicates by thought, which uses a new organ that has grown on his head. Although asserting that Maskull’s companions must not be good men, she notes that if they are following Surtur, also known as Shaping and Crystalman, they cannot be all bad. Joiwind is the embodiment of lovingkindness, and she performs a blood transfusion with him so that he is able to function on Tormance, then leads him to her home with her husband to escape the heat of the Arcturian sun (known locally as Branchspell). Joiwind and her husband do not wish to harm animals, or even a fruit, so they only drink the (very efficacious) water that bubbles up near their home.
The next day Maskull thanks them for their hospitality, and leaves to seek out the high mountains that he saw the previous day. On the way he meets Surtur, who asks that Maskull follow him. At the end of the day he meets a woman with a third eye, who seems strangely masculine. She is from Ifdawn, the mountain range where Maskull is going, and advises him to make himself less feminine if he wants to go there. So he takes the crystal she indicates, presses it against his flesh, and in the next morning, the breve organ on his forehead has changed into a sorb—a third eye that acts as an enforcer of his will, and he has also grown a third arm in the center of his chest. The woman, Oceaxe is much more attracted to Maskull now, and agrees to guide him into Ifdawn, but clearly tries to seduce him through manipulation. The country is very changeable, with lands rising and falling quite unpredictably, but they ride a flying creature that Oceaxe overpowers with her will and meet Oceaxe’s husband, Crimtyphon.
Crimtyphon is a cruel man; at their arrival he is busy forcing a man to take root as a tree. Crimtyphon and Maskull take an immediate dislike to each other, and when Crimtyphon tries to overpower Maskull with his will, Maskull overpowers him instead, killing him. Crimtyphon’s face immediately takes on the Crystalman grin Maskull saw at the seance. Crimtyphon’s other wife, Tydomin, comes up, and is angry at Oceaxe for killing Crimtyphon, despite Maskull taking responsibility for it. The wives argue, and as Oceaxe leaves, Tydomin uses her will to convince Oceaxe that the right path is over the cliff and Oceaxe dies. Tydomin manipulates Maskull using will and guilt to carry Crimtyphon’s corpse for burial in the lake. The second sun, Alppain, rises which affects Maskull to self-sacrifice. Although he is unaware of the effect of Alppain, Tydomin is not, and manipulates him into promising her his body as an act of sacrifice.
On the way they meet Digrung, from the region of Matterplay, who instead of a breve or sorb has eight eyes, and is a cousin of Joiwind’s. Digrung soon discovers that Maskull killed Crimtyphon, and Maskull asks him not to tell Joiwind, so she would not discover the depths to which he has sunk. Digrung refuses, and Maskull asserts his will, eventually to the point of absorbing Digrung (one of the functions of the third arm). “Then for the first time he comprehended the triumphant joys of ‘absorbing.’ It satisfied the hunger of the will, exactly as food satisfies the hunger of the body...” (107) Afterwards, Tydomin takes him to her home, to an altar in the back. Maskull ends up as the materialized person at the seance he had attended, and wakes up back on Tormance when Krag kills him. Then he becomes angry with Tydomin and forces her to walk to her death at the lake as an execution. However, after they arrive at the lake, which was a lake of lava, and she buries her husband by pushing him into the lava, Maskull sees a vision of Joiwind accusing him, so he sets Tydomin free from her execution and asks to be led out of Ifdawn into the nearby land of Sant.
They meet a man at the entrance to Sant who has two membranes instead of a sorb, and no third arm. Sant is forbidden to women, but the man, named Spadevil, says that he is the bearer of the new law, and allows Tydomin to enter. He covers her sorb with his hand, which disappears, and she grows two membranes. Then she realizes that she has only harmed everyone in her life. Spadevil observes that the past cannot be changed, but that the future is new. Maskull also submits, and when he receives his membranes he understands that they are probes: one for law and the other for duty. Spadevil explains that pleasure is illusory and a tool of Shaping, that pleasure comes from pride, and that duty kills pleasure. They meet Catice, the most diligent of the followers of Hator (law), whom Spadevil once followed but has now rejected. Catice rejects this new law of duty, persuades Maskull that if he destroys one of his probes, Maskull will see as Catice does. Maskull agrees at Spadevil’s request, and it happens as Catice foresaw. Maskull then kills Spadevil and Tydomin, for breaking the law, and their nobly spiritual faces become Crystalman’s grin. Yet, Catice sees their self-sacrifice and decides that he must go away and rethink things, as Spadevil had before him.
After passing through a forest where he heard the drumbeats and saw Krag kill Maskull, he comes out to a river by the edge of the ocean, where he mets a man named Polecrab. They eat lunch together and Polecrab tells him about the countries to the north, and Maskull tells him of his quest to find Surtur and to escape from Crystalman. Polecrab also tells him of the nearby Swaylone’s Island, where a man named Earthrid plays a special kind of music that kills all its listeners. He expresses interest in hearing it, and then Polecrab’s wife, who had always wanted to go, insists on coming. Polecrab forbids it, but eventually relents, despite his certainty that she will not return—everyone who hears Earthrid’s music dies. He gives them his raft and directions how to get to the island.
They arrive, and find the lake the Earthrid plays on like a drum. The music he plays expresses the beauty of life, but Polecrab’s wife dies before he gets that far. Maskull drags Earthrid from the lake and insists on playing the lake; Earthrid says that he will break the instrument. Maskull insists, and Earthrid flees. When the waters are calm, Maskull plays, trying to make the shape of Surtur. He breaks the instrument, however, when sound bursts through the bottom of the lake, opening a cavity and draining all the water. The next day Maskull finds Earthrid dead on the beach.
That night a tree drifts by, and Maskull finds that it has light-sensitive eyes that cause it to move. By selectively covering its eyes he steers it north to Matterplay. This new land is inhabited by what seem to be every permutation of creature, and which seem sort of random and disturbing. As Maskull follows the river upstream the creatures become more random, and eventually one pops into existence in front of him. He meets the last phaen, which are of a third sex: they seek like males but receive like females, and are always searching for their lover, Shaping. The phaen explains that the water is life and is always throwing off sparks of life. At the head of the stream, the life is too powerful to become entrapped in matter, but as the stream slows down, the life sparks are less powerful, and become trapped in matter, whereupon they appear as a new creature. Since both Maskull and the phaen are both searching for something similar, they journey together, the phaen following Maskull because of his obvious luck. Maskull’s luck does indeed hold, as he dislodges a rock while climbing a cliff that reveals an entrance inside the cliff.
Inside the cliff, the phaen promptly dies, immediately taking on Crystalman’s grin. Maskull meets a man named Corpang, who explains that this is Threal, which is outside Shaping’s world, and is instead Thire’s world. The phaen died because aer (the third-gender pronoun) was only part of the visible world, whereas Maskull and Corpang do not die because they are part of three worlds: Shaping’s world (existence), Amfuse’s world (love), and Thire’s world (intimacy with Thire). Corpang leads Maskull to three statues (one for each world), and Maskull has a vision where each statue comes to life in succession. Maskull hears Surtur’s drumming, sees the Muspel light in that direction (Muspel being where Surtur lives, outside the world), and then, looking back, sees that the three statues have the Crystalman grin.
They come out from the rocks and see Lichstorm to the north, and sit down to wait. The wind starts blowing the Lichstorm fog, which excites the passions. Soon they see a man sitting in a floating boat, call out to him, and he turns aside to them. His boat floats because he has two male-stones in it, which give off male particles which anihiliate the attractional female particles the earth is always giving off. The journey is still a rocky one, and slow, because it is now night, and the pilot, Haunte, has to sense where the rocks of the mountains of Lichstorm are. They eventually reach Lichstorm in safety, and the three of them have dinner at Haunte’s house. Haunte gets Maskull to drink a drink that increases his sensations, which will make him unable to resist the female Sullenbode and he will die, for in Lichstorm sexual attraction is torture and death. Haunte is immune because of his male-stones. Corpang starts a fight, and Haunte drops the male-stones off the cliff.
Haunte leads them to Sullenbode, who is a vague female form, and overcome by attraction, he kisses her. He is violently struck by electricity from Sullenbode and dies. Maskull is also overcome by attraction, but unlike Haunte, while walking, he passed from being tortured by the attraction to something else. “I passed through torture to love” (223), he says. He, too, kisses Sullenbode, and then loses consciousness. When he wakes up he sees that Sullenbode has become real; she thanks him for giving her life, which happened when he loved her and she loved him back. (Lichstorm women do not normally enjoy visits from men, hence the death of Haunte.)
Corpang is seeking Muspel, and a previous traveler had advised Haunte that people wishing to find it must go to Adage. So they go. Sullenbode, in love with Maskull (who is mutually in love with her) follows. As they descend from the heights of Lichstorm through the green snow, they talk philosophy of love. Maskull and Sullenbode talk about how it is hard to part when one loves. Corpang, impatient to be off, leaves, and the two lovers stay to rest. After some time, Maskull hears the drum taps and sees the Muspel light (which Sullenbode does not), which becomes his single focus. Sullenbode turns back the way they came and quickly dies. Then Maskull realizes that when he ceased to love her, she ceased to exist. In his grief, he loses all interest in Muspel.
He wanders off the heights of Lichstorm into Barey, where Krag joins him, all the time sneering at useless pleasures. A man named Gangnet joins them as well, and talks philosophy with Maskull while Krag insults pleasures and acts generally repulsive. They reach the ocean and sail out on a small floating island. The blue sun Alppain rises, and Maskull feels completely selfless. Gangnet observes that Crystalman (whom Gangnet likes) is feeling. Then Maskull realizes that he is nothing, Krag does something, and he sees Crystalman struggling against the Muspel-fire and loosing. He sees his body, and realizes that he has, indeed, died. Krag now identifies him as Nightspore.
They arrive at an island with a door at the edge. Krag tells him he must go in, so he goes, finding himself in what appears to be the same tower as in Scotland. The climbing is very slow and painful, but doable. As he climbs, he stops to look out the windows, and each window reveals more of the inner workings of Crystalman. Coming back down, he rejoins Krag, presumably to be reincarnated into Crystalman’s world to work against that world. He asks Krag if Krag’s name is Surtur. Krag answers in the affirmative. Then he asks what Krag’s name on earth is, and Krag says “Pain.”
I read this book because C.S. Lewis said that the story-craft was good. If I recall correctly, Lewis said that he did not like the book. I certainly agree with those sentiments. The world reminds me of MacDonald’s Phantastes, in that the story moves from scene to scene, but each scene has different rules. Instead of principles of right/moral living, Lindsay’s characters are embodiments of philosophy, and the plot is an allegory of the search for meaning. The plot is interesting and engaging, and as you read, you wonder what Maskull will meet next, and what Lindsay is really trying to say. Despite having different rules, each scene seems consistent both internally and with the theme of that area. The philosophizing is well-done, too, both succinct and insightful, with a naturalness reminiscent of Plato’s dialogues.
However, the philosophy itself is dull and somehow infects the rest of the book. Some of it makes more sense when you learn that Lindsay fought in World War I, and you can see how Will manipulates people into murder, just like Will led millions to kill and to die in the trenches of World War I. Ultimately, though, Lindsay looks at everything and stamps Crystalman’s face on it (with the exception of love, but that is clearly Crystalman, too). All that is bad about the world is disposed of early on, and then he disposes of everything good. But Lindsay is not even Buddhist; at the end there is no Nirvana, no escape from rebirth. At the end is only rebirth and Pain, the god who claims to be stronger than Crystalman. While he lives, Maskull quickly falls from Joiwind’s lovingkindness and keeps doing despicable things, while attempting to espouse common Earthly decency. Nightspore, on the other hand, is eternally aloof and bored.
I am not sure what Lindsay’s message is, but it seems to be that pleasure
is an illusion; everything is pain and there is no escape. In
fact, Lindsay seems to be arguing that pain is the ultimate god, able to
overpower pleasure, contentment, and love. This is not the
insightful spiritual philosophy that it seems to be hailed as in some
quarters; it is PTSD in need of healing. Some reviewers praise
Lindsay for his insight into life and condemn Lewis for taking some of
Lindsay’s story-technique but failing to question God; it seems to
me that the reviewers are taking the worst parts and leaving Lewis with
the good parts. Why exchange a God who promises fulfillment of joy
for a god of eternal pain (Krag)—continuing even after death? Lindsay’s god of eternal pain is no different than Hell without the fire
and brimstone. Why espouse a philosophy that Hell overpowers Heaven? Even Buddhism is more hopeful—at least you can escape pain
through enlightenment. Lewis was right about the quality of the story-telling,
but the philosophy of life is as abhorrent as Lindsay portrays the
personality of the mocking Krag. If you are interested in the craft
of story, this may be a useful book, otherwise your time is better spent