[Between 2006 and 2016 I wrote a number of short articles for the magazine of Shakespeare’s Globe in London, Around the Globe; I’ve been depositing them on this blog under the category ‘Globe Essays’. This is the fourth, written before the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014.]
How Scottish is Macbeth? The answer, of course, is not at all. It’s a play written by an Englishman, performed in England, to an audience the bulk of whom would have been Englishmen – and Southerners at that. But the play is also evidence of Shakespeare’s intense interest in Scottish history; hardly surprising given his status as chief playwright for a company newly christened the King’s Men, patronized by King James VI of Scotland who had assumed the Scottish throne in 1603. And it’s evidence, too, of just how unsettling the rapprochement between these two nations, which had for centuries shared little but a border and an intense mutual hatred, must have been for everyone involved.
Macbeth is about the near impossibility of holding a single kingdom together, or even of defining its limits: an impossibility that manifests itself in the dreadful trouble the play’s characters have in holding themselves together – that is, in keeping body and soul in one piece, or in reconciling their convictions with their actions, or in saying what they think. The threatened dismemberment of Scotland and its inhabitants in the play neatly parallels the religious, regional and factional divisions that had split the northern kingdom throughout the sixteenth century. And the Scottish royal family had felt the effects of these internal conflicts for generations before they were exacerbated by the Reformation. As Sir Charles Piggott pointed out to the English Parliament in 1606 – the year Macbeth was written and performed – the Scots ‘have not suffered above two kings to die in their beds, these 200 years’. The Stuarts had been subjected to a seemingly endless series of assassinations and massacres, more often at the hands of their own subjects than those of their English neighbours.
Ancient Scotland was no better, as Shakespeare would have seen as he browsed through Holinshed’s chronicle seeking plots for James’s entertainment. The kings who reigned before and after the eleventh-century monarch Macbeth met their ends in appallingly inventive ways: by poison, witchcraft, or (in one case) an elaborate trap involving a golden apple and hidden crossbows, whose quarrels were launched at Kenneth II ‘with great force and violence’ when the apple was touched. And the Scots had a habit of importing their violent ways into the neighbouring kingdom. The last Scottish monarch before James – his mother, Mary Queen of Scots – was accused of murdering James’s father (which led to her exile in England), then hatching a series of plots against her cousin Elizabeth I (which led to her execution). James himself had twice been kidnapped, in 1582 and 1600; and his experience of near shipwreck en route to collect his wife Anne of Denmark in 1587 left him certain that he had narrowly avoided murder by witchcraft. The Gunpowder Plot of 1605, whereby disaffected Catholics planned to destroy James and the English Parliament in one devastating explosion, may have convinced some Englishmen that the Scots had transplanted their own particular version of political hell into English soil along with their monarch.
A whiff of sulphur accompanied the stench of gunpowder. Scotland seems to have been associated in England with the supernatural: partly perhaps because of the spooky ballads that spread through England from north of the Border (think of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer), and partly because of James VI’s own treatise on magic and witchcraft, Daemonologie (1597 and 1603), which insisted on the dangers they posed as fiercely as the Englishman Reginald Scot had insisted on their non-existence in his The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584). The witches in Macbeth, whose agency is so hotly disputed (did they drive Macbeth to murder, or did they merely redirect a murderous tendency he already possessed?), cater for both the English and Scottish views of witchcraft. They introduce the theme of double-talk or equivocation – saying one thing and meaning another, or convincing yourself through chop-logic that it’s permissible to do the unforgivable – that pervades the play. For them, ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’, and their delight in reversing moral polarities infects Macbeth’s language, so that he can persuade himself that in a world where ‘nothing is but what is not’ he might get away with regicide. The witches’ later prophecies – that Macbeth cannot be killed by a man born of woman, that he will be safe till Burnam Wood comes to Dunsinane – are classic examples of equivocation: they sound impossible, yet prove accurate because of unforeseeable circumstances (Macbeth’s killer was born by Caesarean section; the wood is uprooted to be used as camouflage by the English army). The witches’ double-speak reflects both the treachery associated with Scotland by the English, and the merging of two cultures and two languages under James, which transformed the English court into a hotbed of mutual misunderstandings.
The Scottish King’s inheritance of England had been anticipated for years, as the English panicked over the ageing Elizabeth’s refusal to name an heir. That period of anxiety has its aftershocks in Macbeth. Problems of succession had often been solved in Scotland by spates of blood-letting – as when Kenneth II murdered the heir to the throne, Prince Malcolm, to ensure that his own son wore the crown. Shakespeare’s Macbeth re-enacts all the atrocities perpetrated by Scots through history against inconvenient heirs. His massacre of MacDuff’s children stands in for his desire to massacre Duncan’s sons Malcolm and Donalbane, Banquo’s heir Fleance, and with them the whole line of monarchs that descended from Banquo to James. Each time he thinks he has the kingdom and its succession under control a new child emerges to taunt him. Young Fleance escapes from the scene of his father’s murder, and his escape leaves Macbeth ‘bound in / To saucy doubts and fears’. Later the witches summon up two infant spirits to taunt Macbeth with the fact that his children will not succeed him. At the end of the play, a Scottish prince, Malcolm, defeats Macbeth at the head of an English army composed largely of ‘unrough youths’ – adolescents who have not yet started shaving. Children die at Macbeth’s hands only to be resurrected like a succession of vengeful ‘newborn babes / Striding the blast’.
The reign of the ‘boy Malcolm’ promises fresh new possibilities for the kingdoms that have combined to put him on the throne. The new king promises to make himself ‘even with’ his helpers of all ranks, thus anticipating a fair and equal partnership between Scottish ruler and subject, and between the erstwhile enemy nations. But the bloody head of Macbeth, dangling like a chunk of Scotland’s history from the fist of his killer MacDuff, undermines Malcolm’s self-assurance with a second promise: that the Stuart dynasty will continue to encounter more than its share of rebels and regicides – including, as we now know, the parliamentary decapitators of James’s son. Accompanied by omens like this, it’s no wonder that a hundred years would pass before the union of England and Scotland would be finally ratified.
[For more on Macbeth see my post ‘Wonders of the Northlands: Hamlet and Macbeth’, here.]
[I wrote this story in the mid-1990s, for a workshop run by the late, great Aonghas MacNeacail when he was Writer in Residence at the University of Glasgow. It shows its age in the colour of the buses; in Glasgow now they are no longer orange. In the alternative Glasgow of this story, of course, they may still be.]
The central station of this northern city is built to resemble a harbour. The trains dock at the platforms like huge sea-monsters, gleaming fishes and breaching whales, electric eels and diesel-driven walruses which balefully study the land with great glass eyes. The concourse is awash with passengers who eddy here and there in brightly-coloured schools drawn back and forth by the immeasurable tides. On either side of the concourse ticket offices, supermarket outlets and coffee shops are housed in wooden buildings whose elegantly curved facades mimic the flanks of nineteenth-century merchant vessels riding at anchor. In the old days the shed was filled with the fog of steam, but now the air in the station seems crystal clear, like the air of the city it serves, and the stationary ships at the station are the only ships you’ll see apart from the hulks on the river which have been turned into casinos, restaurants and wedding venues.
The young man who sat on a suitcase in the middle of the concourse sighed and screwed up the paper he had been writing on. ‘Too fussy,’ he muttered. ‘There must be a way of catching a city in words that doesn’t involved turning it into the scenario for a second rate musical.’ He pocketed his notebook, picked up his suitcase and wandered out into the rain. This is why he failed to see the Flying Pict pull in at Platform One and a man get out carrying the future of the city in a violin case made of scratched black leather.
The tall thin man stood still for a moment on the platform. He was so tall and thin that the passers-by, who were mostly short, darted furtive glances at him as they hurried towards the concourse. His head was remarkable: flattened on top with a crest of black hair which spread out behind in a spiky ruff. He peered about with quick jerky movements as if he were spearing the air with his pointed nose. When he began to stalk after the other passengers dust rose from his shabby black coat and with every step his trouser-cuffs lifted to expose a length of yellow sock. The roof of the shed seemed to fascinate him. This was noticeable because to look at it he had to tilt his head sideways, as if his eyes weren’t mobile enough in their sockets to look upwards without assistance from his crane-like neck. His inspection of the roof had an odd effect on the passers-by. An urge to look up likewise possessed the people closest to the stranger, spreading outwards from them to their more distant neighbours like ripples on water. Some resisted the urge by setting their jaws and hurrying on, determined not to be tricked into showing interest. Others gave way to the impulse and raised their eyes. Each of these saw something different: a cage of girders, a metal cobweb, a harbourful of tilted glass sails. The ones who looked up collided with the ones who didn’t, muttered apologies and hurried on, looking foolish. One young woman bumped into the stranger himself. For an instant her gaze was filled with bright black eyes, a pointed nose, a crest of spiky hair. In that instant she noticed that his skin was raw and yellow as if it had been freshly plucked. The stranger said in a harsh voice, ‘I peck your pardon,’ but the woman only squawked and ran. She never travelled by train, had only taken the short cut through the station to escape the rain, and swore to herself she wouldn’t take it again if she could help it. You never knew what queer birds you might meet on the concourse.
Towards the station entrance stands a defused brass shell of the kind fired from naval guns in the Second World War. The rows of names on a brass plaque behind it betrays its function as a war memorial, but it also functions as a useful meeting place, an island amid the eddying crowds, and two men stood by it now with the bored but watchful expressions of professional loiterers. They both wore mackintoshes and unlit cigarettes hung from their long lean jaws. When they noticed the disturbance caused by the stranger they swung their heads in his direction and drawled to each other out of the corners of their mouths.
‘Would you look at that, Jeek. Walking this way, bold as brass. Must be – what, seven, eight feet tall?’
The younger man surreptitiously lifted his sleeve to look at a note he had written in biro on his forearm. ‘Black hair, yellow skin, dressed in black, carrying a bag. Fits the description, Bill.’
‘Jeek,’ said the older man, who was balding and wore his hair cropped short so the baldness wouldn’t show. ‘Jeek, you’re thinking again. Leave the thinking to me. Of course he fits the description. That’s because he’s the fella we’re here to meet.’
Jeek turned up the collar on his mackintosh to show that thinking was the very last thing on his mind. ‘What do we do, then, Bill? Do we grab him now?’
‘Jeek,’ said the older man with weary patience, ‘when I want your suggestions I’ll ask for them. Look around you, Jeek. What do you see?’
Jeek took the cigarette from his mouth and stared around him, trying to look haughty but succeeding only in looking haunted. ‘Eh – nothing, Bill. Nothing much, that is.’
‘People, Jeek,’ said the older man. ‘The place is full of people. We cannae grab him here, can we?’
‘Do we – do we follow him then, Bill?’ Jeek asked hopefully.
‘No, Jeek. I’ll follow him. You follow me. And try not to look so much like a fucking bent copper.’
At this point the stranger stalked past them and nodded amicably. ‘Coot evenink,’ he said, and continued his inspection of the roof. The two men froze into parodic statues of nonchalance, Bill suddenly absorbed in examining his jaw in the polished surface of the naval shell, Jeek thrusting his hands into his mackintosh pockets and growling like a dog. As soon as the stranger had passed they sprang into action. With hurried glances to left and right, as if calling the world to witness their anonymity, they trotted after their quarry. In his haste Jeek barged against an old woman who had come to look at the shell, as was her custom, and reminisce loudly about the war to anyone who cared to listen. ‘Well really,’ she shrilled after him. ‘There’s no respect among young people these days. Nobody behaved like that in the war, let me tell you. Manners counted for something then.’
By this time the stranger had stepped out into the porch of the station and was cocking one bright black eye at the ornate metalwork that framed the roof that guarded the station entrance from the elements. ‘Splen-tit,’ he cried, and plunged between two black taxis that had just roared into life at the taxi rank.
‘He’s headed up Slope Street,’ Bill bayed to Jeek as they narrowly avoided having their shins broken by one of the taxis. ‘Jesus he’s fast.’
And so began a game of tag up and down the streets of the northern city: an ungainly dance whose only rules were that the three dancers must avoid contact with each other at all costs. Either the stranger knew the streets like a native and was trying to shake off his pursuers, or else he was merely insane and his pirouettes and gyrations were the random products of a tortured brain. A little way up Slope Street he spun and seemed to be staring in ecstasy at a spot just above his mackintoshed followers’ heads. ‘Preathtakink,’ he trilled, and glancing round Bill saw that he was gazing at the massive corner tower of the Central Hotel, a mock-medieval chateau which dominated the north-west face of the station. Having vented his admiration, the stranger whipped round again and swooped up the incline of Slope Street, only to fling himself into the path of an orange bus a few blocks further on. The bus let out a screech of indignation and Bill gave a startled bark.
‘He’s nuts, I tell you! Where’s he headed now?’
The two men splashed impatiently in the gutter, looking for an opening in the traffic. When they finally stumbled into St Vitus Street they found the stranger performing a jerky triumphal jig in front of the building known as the Birdcage: a tall art-nouveau structure with many curved, barred windows that stoops over St Vitus Street as if it is melting. ‘Vot light! Vot crace!’ called the stranger to a group of little boys who had stopped under some scaffolding for a smoke. Then he was off again, waving one ungainly arm at the monolithic façade of a bank which looked as if it was aspiring to become the base of a Chicago skyscraper. ‘It traws your eye to the sky, sir, tuss it not?’ he cawed to an elderly tramp, who snarled in an unexpectedly pompous voice, ‘Go away! I don’t have any change!’ But by the time the tramp had shaken his torn umbrella at the stranger’s back, and almost been carried off into the sky himself by a sudden gust of rain-sodden wind, the tall thin man was already hopping down Renfield Street and pointing at the Casa di Vetro, which now houses a supermarket. It is modelled on a Venetian palazzo, but its slender columns, high arched bays and ornately decorated eaves are made of cast iron, a graceful marriage of Victorian engineering and Mediterranean exuberance, as the stranger did not fail to inform a woman who was pushing a shopping trolley towards the doorway on Eireachdail Street where she would spend the night.
The stranger stared for several minutes at the way the reflective windows of the Casa di Vitro mirrored the upper storeys of the neo-Gothic buildings that faced it and the racing clouds above their steeply-pitched roofs. Jeek and Bill were able to catch their breath, which was short and noisy from all the cigarettes their professional loitering forced them to consume. They noticed that when the stranger was still he was unnervingly immobile, as if his internal organs had ceased to move along with his limbs. They found themselves mesmerised by this stillness, so that when he suddenly sprang to life again and galloped eastwards towards Maskull Street it took them several seconds to react. Bill cursed as he set off after him. ‘If he’d packed a piece,’ he gasped to no one in particular, ‘and if he’d wanted to, he could have picked us off like bunny rabbits.’ The scenarios that presented themselves to Bill’s imagination were invariably savage.
They caught up with him on Maskull Street, craning his neck to get a better view of the pagoda-like structure that balanced on the highest point of the former office of a city newspaper. ‘Zere is another city, my frients,’ the stranger was explaining to a startled woman dressed in what looked like a lampshade, ‘up zere, apove your hets.’ The woman staggered off on high heels towards the relative safety of Argle street, with its crowds of shoppers, and for the first time Bill and Jeek found themselves alone in the street with the stranger. Maskull Street narrowed at this end to a kind of funnel, and just before it began to narrow, there was an opening on the left that led to an unlit cobbled alley. ‘We’ve got him now,’ Bill hissed to Jeek. ‘You take the right arm, I’ll take the left. We’ll have a nice chat with our long-legged chum in this wee side-street.’ With intense concentration the two men advanced on the exultant stranger from either side, their jaws thrust forward, their ears laid back. Bill was clenching and unclenching his gloved hands, which were as thick and clumsy as the paws of a bear. He had a mad gleam in his eye, and Jeek knew that this was one of the rare moments he had been living for through all those months – maybe years – of loitering. But before they could reach out to grasp the stranger’s elbows, the stranger took a long step backwards and wrapped his long, skinny arms around their shoulders, pinning them to his chest in a grip of impossible and terrible power.
Jeek found his nose pressed up against the stranger’s shabby coat. His nostrils were filled with a rank smell that reminded him of the time when his mother had made him pluck a well-hung pheasant on the kitchen table. His eyes filled with tears and he began to choke.
‘My frients,’ the stranger whispered in an intimate croak. ‘I luff ziss city already. I vill make it my home. Putt I vill need somevhere to liff. Somevhere high up, viz pig vindows and a coot few. Do you haff any suchestions?’
Jeek thought he was going to suffocate, and the pressure on his shoulders made his bones creak. He began to struggle and strike feebly at the stranger’s side. He could hear Bill struggling more violently somewhere close by. Fear seized him: this was a monster, only a fiend in human form could have such dreadful strength. With a sudden wrench he freed himself from the stranger’s embrace and stumbled aside. At the same time Bill broke loose, letting out a volley of colourful curses. He was fumbling for something under his mackintosh; his face was purple. The stranger paid no attention. He merely spread wide his arms, with the violin case dangling from one hand, and proceeded to leap and twirl like an ungainly ballerina.
‘You see, I haff such plans,’ he crowed. ‘Such clorious plans. Ziss place iss ripe for transformation. For example, ziss old puilding,’ and he struck the wall of the abandoned office. ‘It iss empty! It shoult be full off life ant noise! Consider ze soarink imachination that coult conceive off such a puilding, that coult erect it stone by stone ant top it off viz a pacoda, yes a pacoda so high up, so far from ze dirt ant sqvallor of ze street! It is ass if ze architect so long ago foresaw my arrifal ant ze gifts I voult pring! I vill make zis city great, I tell you. Greater zan it hass effer been!’
‘For God’s sake, no!’ howled Jeek, and it was not clear even to him whether he was shouting at the stranger or at Bill, who had pulled out something black and gleaming and was pointing it with trembling hands at the stranger’s head. Curses continued to stream out of Bill’s mouth like brightly-coloured ribbons. ‘Bill, Bill!’ wailed Jeek. ‘Don’t do it, man! Ye’re mad!’
‘Did I ask for your opinion, Jeek?’ Bill shouted back. ‘Can’t ye see he’s tanked up to the eyeballs wi some kind of junk the likes of which we’ve never seen? What do you think he’s got in that bag of his? He’ll make this city great, all right; but not before I’ve plastered his brains all over it.’ As he spoke he shifted his eyes momentarily from the stranger, the better to fix his young accomplice with a withering stare. In that instant the two men found themselves alone in Maskull Street. ‘You stupid ape!’ roared Bill. ‘You let him escape again!’
Before Jeek could answer back, Bill had rushed down the funnel into the buzz of Argle Street. Jeek followed more slowly, shaken by his recent ordeal and hampered by the weight of the rain that had soaked his mackintosh. He stopped at the mouth of Maskull Street, looking into the busy thoroughfare, and watched in horror as several things happened in quick succession.
The stranger was bounding down the middle of Argle Street, dodging the traffic with nonchalant ease. His black coat flapped behind him, his violin case swung wildly from his right hand, and his yellow socks flashed at the throngs of astonished shoppers who had stopped to stare as he bounded by. The oddest thing about him was that his enormous feet never touched the ground; they kicked and thrust at the empty air two or three centimetres above the gleaming tarmac. After him ran Bill, with heavy thumping strides, his shoulders hunched, right arm extended, right hand clutching the gun. Bill’s arm jerked, there was an explosion, and the stranger gave a mighty leap that carried him high over the wet black roof of a passing taxi.
A second later Jeek heard the obscene and unmistakable crunch that a heavy vehicle makes when it hits a man.
His first thought was that the stranger’s leap had carried him into the taxi’s path, but an orange bus obscured his view and he couldn’t tell. Shoppers began to scream in an almost matter-of-fact fashion, as if it was their duty as honest citizens, and the screams were taken up by other shoppers closer to Jeek who had no more idea than he did of what had just happened. He saw a man and woman look at each other inquiringly, pucker up their foreheads and start to scream with the perfect timing of opera singers. Jeek hurried along the pavement to where the screams were loudest, and saw that another orange bus had come to a standstill and that shoppers were now converging on it, again with an oddly businesslike air. A pair of scuffed black cowboy boots stuck out from under the bus. They belonged to Bill.
Something shiny lay in the gutter. Jeek picked it up. It was a life-size replica of a colt revolver, of the kind that Gary Cooper carried in ‘High Noon’. The stink of gunpowder still hung about the hammer: Bill had adapted the replica to fire blanks. Weighing the toy gun in his hand Jeek looked up and down the street. The stranger had disappeared: vanished into thin air. The young man had a fleeting vision of those nightmarishly thin and powerful limbs dwindling down to the width of a line drawn in ink on paper, then winking out altogether, leaving only a shadow behind. The rain plastered his hair over his eyes and dripped off the barrel of the revolver. Shoppers had begun to stare and point at him; those closest to him backed away, their mouths shaping little black O’s in their white faces. Men and women in official black with chequered hatbands forged their way towards him from left and right.
‘I saw him, officer,’ called a fat man in a yellow plastic anorak. ‘He gunned him down like an animal.’
Jeek contemplated brandishing the gun and making his escape after firing off a few rounds into the air; but that was exactly what Bill would have done. Suddenly the city felt heavy with menace. The dark clouds scudding overhead, the darkening concrete and stone of the sodden buildings, the merciless rain, the glare of headlamps which turned the raindrops into tiny flashing knives, the black of the tarmac that glistened like an underground river: the street had become a trap into which the dancing stranger had led them. Jeek dropped the revolver, lifted his face to the rain and began to howl.
‘Something about the devil coming to town,’ the fat man confided later to an anaemic policewoman. ‘Turned my blood to ice, I can tell you. Sounded just like a sad lost dog. I swear I won’t sleep a wink tonight.’
The policewoman wrote down his words very carefully in her notebook. Normally she would have taken little trouble to record such nonsense; but as she had pushed through the crowd towards the young gunman she too had seen and heard something remarkable. Perhaps it was merely some trick of the light, a hallucination brought on by the rain and the passing headlights; but she could swear she had seen over the young man’s head a dense black cloud in the shape of a bird, bigger than any she’d ever seen, maybe five or six metres from wingtip to wingtip; and before it vanished she could have sworn she had heard it laugh.
The stranger stood in the topmost window of the Birdsnest. The window was curved like a Halloween lantern, and when it opened, the curve of the frame and the curves of the panes made the shape of a bird in flight. Dark shapes and lights mingled and moved on the streets below, which looked more than ever like rivers in motion as the rainwater splashed and spread across their smooth black surfaces.
When the stranger raised his eyes he met the eyes of an almost naked statue on the building opposite, the statue of a man who stooped beneath the weight of a sandstone portico incongruously perched on an upper storey far above any door it might have embellished – yet another of the pointless decorative features that encrusted the higher levels of buildings in this once prosperous city. The stone man glowered balefully at the stranger as if humiliated by the attention he was receiving. Leave me alone, his glower implied. I prefer to work unseen, as I always have.
The stranger nodded as if in agreement, turned his back on the street and went into the room. It was bare of furnishings. The Birdcage had stood for years now with advertising hoardings plastered all over it, urging passers-by to rent office space in its oddly shaped apartments, but nobody had accepted its invitations. Not, at least, till now. With a smooth single movement the stranger stalked to the middle of the room, knelt down on the wooden boards by his violin case and reached for the buckles with his long thin hands. The case sprang open. Inside, neatly packed in straw, lay six large eggs, glowing a mottled pale blue in the light of the streetlamps. The markings on the eggs made them look like pebbles from some distant beach, smoothed by tides for countless millennia. For the stranger they seemed to tremble with possibility.
‘Fery soon now, my little treshurs,’ the stranger murmured, smoothing their surfaces each in turn with feather-light fingers. ‘Fery soon you vill choin me in ziss place of empty nests. Togezzer ve vill fill zem, yes? And zen… and zen…’
Outside, the stone man continued to glower across the street at the open window, his shoulders bowed under the weight of the useless portico. It would be wrong to describe his work as loitering, but it was clear from his every curve that he had been doing it for many years. His glower had a world-weary look, as of one who refuses to be surprised by strangers no matter how tall, no matter how eccentric their movements, no matter how grandiose their plans. He would be watching, it seemed to say, till the moment came when he must spring into action.
It was hard to gauge what kind of action he had in mind.
[In August I visited Shetland, making Scalloway my base and adding to the rich tally of remarkable islands and island systems we’ve encountered over the years: the Inner Hebrides, Rathlin, Sark, Stradbroke, Gont, the Dream Archipelago and many more. My soundtrack was the fiddle music of Shetlander Kevin Henderson, my verse the work of Shetland-based poet Jen Hadfield, and my fiction the fantasy novels of Inverness-shire resident and Shetland devotee Maureen McIlwraith, known to her many admirers as Mollie Hunter. This post is the outcome of that trip.]
For me the word ‘selkie’ has always referred to seals who can slough off their skins and transform themselves into people: beings entirely distinct from ordinary folk like you or me. In Shetland, by contrast, the term refers to seals of any kind; the potential for transformation is part and parcel of what makes them seals. Mollie Hunter’s celebrated children’s book A Stranger Came Ashore (1975), which is set in Shetland, contains selkies of both kinds: a seal which can shed its skin and become a man, and seals which remain implacably themselves, marine mammals with mass and fur and teeth of their own, fiercely resistant to being tampered with by humans of any stamp. It’s this interplay between two ingredients – the solidity, weight and texture of everyday things and the indecipherable strangeness of wild beasts and supernatural entities, inhabitants of elements we can only ever skim the surface of – that makes Hunter’s book so potent. It’s a novel for middle-grade readers written in short, well-crafted chapters told in plain English, but the collisions between competing worlds it delineates (between sea and land, between the material and the supernatural, truth and fiction, childhood and adulthood, life and death) make it a work of great complexity as well as a gripping narrative. I’d like here to unpick some of its complexity.
In the middle of the book – chapter nine of eighteen – a young human boy named Robbie Henderson, a Shetlander, heads down to the voe (a ‘long sea inlet’, as the Museum of Shetland glosses the term). Here he hopes to fulfil an ambition of his: picking up a baby seal. His grandfather, Old Da, has always warned him off such foolishness, conscious that selkie pups are born with a head full of pointy teeth well suited to defending themselves against the indignities posed by curious boys. But by this point in the story Old Da is dead, and Robbie feels free at last to put his ambition to the test, despite his deep respect for his grandfather’s words of wisdom. Old Da is the source of young Robbie’s store of island stories, including stories about the shapeshifters known to non-Shetlanders as selkies; but the boy doesn’t let this hold him back from seizing one of the pups and testing its weight in his arms and hands. It’s the pup’s unexpected heaviness – all that protective blubber concealed beneath a deceptively soft-looking surface of white fur – together with the strength of its small front claws and the heat it radiates – which makes it clear to him soon afterwards that the stranger of the title shares the nature of these singing, swimming creatures of sea and shore. The stranger has a seal’s mass in his body, a seal’s heat in his flesh and a seal’s strength in his hands, and for all his charm – because of his charm, in fact – is far more dangerous than any seal to the little fishing community in which he appears one stormy night. The fiddle music he plays is the music sung by a mother seal to her pup; his love of music in general is shared by the seals who gather round men’s boats whenever they sing; his large dark eyes are a seal’s eyes, and his agility on shore is a seal’s agility at sea. At the same time, his desire for Robbie’s older sister, Elspeth, is the desire of a predatory man, and his methods of seducing her – with gold and compliments and smiles – are innately human. Hunter weaves together the familiar and the strange, the human and the nonhuman, the fantastic and the intensely real, so that one element in each case gains strength, substance and emotional heft from another, nowhere more strikingly than in this central chapter. In doing so she demonstrates the processes by which folk knowledge constructs itself from the disparate materials available to any given culture.
The interplay of the real and the supernatural at each point in the narrative is governed by the changing human influences that dominate Robbie’s life. Consistent presences throughout the story are his mother and father, but they are distanced from him by the difficult work they do and the practical everyday needs by which they are motivated. Their influence is overshadowed by that of three other adults, who compete for Robbie’s attention in three successive stages of the novel. Old Da dominates the first third of the story, but falls ill and dies in chapter six, exactly one third of the way through Hunter’s eighteen chapters. At this point the menacing stranger, Finn Learson, becomes the dominant presence in Robbie’s life, and the boy’s suspicion of him – which he once shared with his grandfather – now threatens to isolate him from the rest of the island community, as Finn charms his way into its hearts and minds. Chapter twelve, however, marks another change, as the gloomy schoolmaster Yarl Corbie assumes the role of Robbie’s chief ally and Finn’s chief antagonist. Chapter twelve also marks the point when Robbie starts to take action on his own account, enlisting Yarl Corbie in his struggle against Finn and playing a central role in Finn’s defeat. The last six chapters of the novel, in other words – from twelve to eighteen – represent a new stage in Robbie’s development as well as in the novel’s structure. But Hunter is careful to stress the foundational role played in this development by Old Da’s stories from the first six chapters, which continue to resonate with his grandson as the boy grows to adulthood and becomes a storyteller and traveller himself. The storyteller Old Da, the man of learning Yarl Corbie, and even the menacing traveller Finn Learson, each helps to shape Robbie as a man, so that no one stage of Robbie’s three-part adventure ends up entirely suppressing or displacing the rest. Their threefold influence makes of Robbie himself a kind of selkie – a creature who inhabits more than one element; and Hunter implies, I think, that every human being could be said to participate in this selkie nature.
The three parts also trace Robbie’s changing relationship to belief in the supernatural. In the first six chapters, he is unsure whether or not to believe his grandfather’s tales about the Selkie Folk, and unsure too whether Old Da himself believes that Finn Learson is one of them. His uncertainty extends into the second six chapters, but in chapter ten – one of the two chapters that stand at the centre of the novel, the other being chapter eleven, in which he cuddles the seal pup – he becomes convinced of Finn’s identity, not just as a Selkie Man but as the Great Selkie himself, the malicious wizard-king of the sea. The last third of the novel sees his suspicions shared at last by one of his fellow islanders – Yarl Corbie, the schoolmaster – which permits Robbie to focus his energies on working with his new ally to stop Finn from abducting Elspeth. The trajectory of scepticism leading to conviction leading to action fits perfectly within the framework of the novel, whether one thinks of it as being divided into three parts or two halves or both. Conviction occurs in those central chapters, nine and ten, and the final six chapters – the final third of the narrative – is simply packed with incidents that draw on Shetland folklore, not just as a set of picturesque customs but as practical magic worked against the potentially malignant beings who share the Shetland archipelago with its human occupants. The narrative has the meticulous construction of a tune played by one of the legendary Shetland fiddlers; so it comes as no surprise to find that Robbie’s father plays the fiddle, or that fiddle music plays a crucial role in the action of the last six chapters.
The three-part structure of Hunter’s novel is no accident. All the fantasy books of hers I’ve read are constructed in multiples of three. The Bodach (1970) – later reprinted as The Walking Stones – has nine chapters, and begins with the arrival of no fewer than three mysterious strangers in an isolated highland glen, all of them called Rory. The Haunted Mountain (1972) also has nine chapters. Her later Shetland novel, The Mermaid Summer (1988), has twelve, or four times three, and helpfully explains the significance of the many multiples of three that structure its narrative: as the Howdy or wise woman puts it, ‘three is the number […] that is at the root of all magic’. The halfway point of each novel, too, involves a major shift in the plot, as it does in A Stranger. The chapters of The Mermaid Summer are divided into two groups of six, and it’s exactly half way through – at the end of the sixth chapter – that the ‘mermaid summer’ itself begins, this being the point at which the central figure in the novel, Anna the fisherman’s daughter, turns twelve. The same break occurs in The Haunted Mountain, where young Fergus MacAllister reaches his twelfth birthday in the middle chapter of nine, which divides the book into two neat halves, the first half dominated by his father’s feud against the fairies or sidhe (pronounced shee), the second half dominated by Fergus’s attempt to rescue his father from the sidhe’s dominion. In fact the main action of all Hunter’s fantasies takes place when the protagonist – Anna, Robbie, Donald Campbell in The Walking Stones, Fergus in The Haunted Mountain – reaches the age of twelve. Hunter is an admirer of well-executed work of all kinds, from the fiddle music of A Stranger Came Ashore to the crafts represented by the nine gifts sent by Eric Anderson to his grandchildren in The Mermaid Summer: a shawl, a compass, a brooch, a necklace, a conch shell, a piece of silk, a silver mirror, a knife and a comb, three times three gifts in all, the last three of which play a crucial part in the struggle waged by Anna and her brother Jon against the mermaid who threatens their grandfather’s life. Each of her novels is a work of craftsmanship, and their numerical composition serves as a clue to the meticulous artistry that went into them.
Each of these novels also inhabits two elements, like the selkies. These are the everyday element we live in – the world of hard work, of ploughing and fishing and cooking and making and mending with limited resources – and the magical ‘Otherworld’, that is, ‘the world of seal-men, kelpies, urisks, and all the other creatures of Highland legend’. Kelpies occur in Hunter’s early novel The Kelpie’s Necklace (1964), urisks (creatures half man half goat) in both that and The Haunted Mountain, and selkies, of course, in A Stranger Came Ashore. The central child character in each novel also occupies two elements, like Robbie; caught between childhood and adulthood, thanks to their age, they also occupy a space between pragmatic modern materialism and belief in the supernatural. And in each case this latter belief is instilled in them by an older mentor like Old Da: the Bodach or old man in The Walking Stones, who practises magic as well as telling stories about it; the Skeelie Woman in The Haunted Mountain, whose knowledge of the sidhe Fergus learns to respect; the Howdy or wise woman in The Mermaid Summer, along with the Oldest Fisherman, her male equivalent. Hunter’s narratives are designed to impart a double vision to their young readers, acknowledging the inevitable changes that come to communities as time goes by while urging them to preserve old knowledge in the face of those changes.
The starkest confrontation between old and new takes place in The Walking Stones, in which young Donald Campbell and his parents are all too delighted to move from their traditional but-and-ben cottage in the glen to a modern townhouse with central heating, and to give up their lives as shepherds for easier work in the new pine forests being planted on the hillsides around their new home. At the end of the novel Donald returns from an encounter with strange and ancient magic – endowed with magic powers himself – to take his place in the world as a thoroughly modern boy, as fascinated by the engineering of dams and reservoirs as by the mysteries of the walking stones of the novel’s title. There’s little sentimentality about the past in Hunter’s work; the old creatures of the Otherworld are often malevolent, and the sidhe of The Haunted Mountain, the mermaid of The Mermaid Summer and the Great Selkie of A Stranger are each of them terrifying forces which must be disempowered if ordinary working human beings are to take control of their lives and livelihoods. It’s worth noting, too, that each of these supernatural beings is associated with hereditary royalty. Finn Learson claims to have a royal palace and great riches, the mermaid seeks to be queen of her people, at least in terms of her appearance, while the sidhe are clearly aristocratic, their fine clothes and lavish lifestyles setting them apart from their human neighbours, who scrape a strenous living from the poor soil of the Cairngorm valleys. At the same time, the young protagonists’ involvement in old stories brings them that much closer to the seas and shores and mountain landscapes among which they live, encouraging an equal, intimate partnership with these spaces which may well be lost in the strictly hierarchical business of planning and building dams (which happens in The Walking Stones) or in the bustle of migration (which happens at the end of The Haunted Mountain). Selkie folk, mermaids, fairies and trows (the Shetland version of the sidhe) manifest in their bodies the fusion of humanity with the local ecosystem. Half seal half human, half fish half woman, human-seeming adults the size (Hunter tells us) of the twelve-year-old local children who love to roam across the hills, they are wholly at home in the land- and seascape in a way no adult human could replicate, inviting us to dream of and yearn for a similarly intimate involvement with mountains, waves, wild animals, and the changing seasons and weather.
There’s a binary quality, too, about Hunter’s prose style in her fantastic novels, which present themselves both as oral narratives and printed texts. This is especially true, I think, of AStranger Came to Shore. The list of chapters with which the book begins – like all the novels I’ve mentioned, apart from The Mermaid Summer – and the headings with which each chapter opens, seem to me specific to the printed narrative, whose identical page numbering across multiple copies makes such contents pages possible. But the informal, singsong language in which it is written associates it with oral storytelling, of the kind that’s best exemplified in print by the ‘silkie stories’ of the Argyll-based traveller Duncan Williamson, as transcribed by his wife, the folklorist Linda Williamson. And the interweaving of print and the spoken word can be detected in A Stranger from the very first page.
In its opening paragraphs, Hunter makes cunning play of the novel’s status as a publication, the product of a time when oral storytelling has been devalued and largely discontinued. ‘It was a while ago,’ she writes,
in the days when they used to tell stories about creatures called the Selkie Folk.
A stranger came ashore to an island at that time – a man who gave his name as Finn Learson – and there was a mystery about him which had to do with these selkie creatures. Or so some people say, anyway; but to be exact about all this, you must first of all know that the Selkie Folk are the seals that live in the waters around the Shetland Islands. Also, the Shetlands themselves lie in the stormy seas to the north of Britain, and it was on a night of very fierce storm that it all began. (p. 9)
The opening of that first sentence, ‘It was a while ago’, gives the impression of taking up a story that has been spoken about and promised before the novel’s opening. The imprecision of that sentence – ‘a while ago’ – invokes the famously imprecise fairy tale formula ‘Once upon a time’, linking the narrative to a wider stock of stories of which this is only one example. That this stock belongs to a community, not to a single storyteller, is confirmed by the phrase some people say; there are plenty of people, it seems, who have opinions on the tale we’re about to hear, so many that they can be divided into competing groups. What follows, then, is implied to be common knowledge, with a known geographical setting (Shetland) and certain known details, such as the name Finn Learson. Implied too, however, in this opening passage, is the presence of a specific speaker and a specific listener or group of listeners who are probably strangers to the speaker, since the speaker knows the story she’s about to tell, while the listeners (‘you’) need to be apprised of certain facts before the tale begins.
At the same time, the practice of oral storytelling is implied in this passage to be under threat. The past tense of the phrase ‘when they used to tell stories about creatures called the Selkie Folk’, and the fact that the term ‘Selkie Folk’ needs explaining, cut off the story from the time and place of its publication. This makes the nature of Finn Learson a matter for conjecture rather than certainty, a man with a ‘mystery’ about him which only ‘some people’ will be willing to attach to seals. So even as the story gets linked to oral storytelling, the oral tradition is slipping into the past, and must be shored up with ascertained facts: the location of Shetland, the little village of Black Ness where the events took place, and the name of the story’s protagonist, Robbie Henderson, whose identity and age are known to his community, even if what happened to him is not so certain. At the time when the tale is set Robbie was ‘a lad of twelve years old, according to all accounts’ (p. 9, my emphasis). Only ‘some people’ connect Finn Learson with the seals, but everyone in Black Ness, it seems, is in agreement on Robbie Henderson, and it’s from this springboard of historical precision (which we need, it seems, in order ‘to be exact about all this’ [my emphasis]) that the tale takes its starting point – in direct contravention of the folktale spirit of ‘a while ago’ or ‘once upon a time’.
The narrator, then, straddles a boundary between the tellers of folktales, like Old Da, and the historian, who deals as far as she can in ‘exactness’ and attested facts. And the first third of the novel – which concerns Old Da and his relationship with Robbie – continues to straddle this boundary with real dexterity, immersing us in Robbie’s thoughts and feelings while at the same time distancing us from the context he inhabits, its folk beliefs and practices. We learn in the first chapter, for example, that the old man’s head ‘was simply full of the superstitions of those days’ (p. 10, my emphasis), a statement that once again distances his period from our own. These ‘superstitions’ mean that when he sees a solitary peat standing upright and still burning in a near-extinguished fire on a cottage hearth he identifies it at once as a sign or portent, ‘something which seemed to him the true cause of [the family dog’s] uneasiness’ (p. 10, my emphasis). Hunter is careful to stress, with the phrase ‘which seemed to him’, that some people even then might not have shared Old Da’s perspective, and the term ‘superstitions’ also suggests a certain scepticism on the writer’s own part about his beliefs or half-beliefs. Yet the event for which the upright peat may stand, in Old Da’s opinion – the arrival of a stranger in the family home – does indeed come to pass, and lends its title to the novel as a whole. The structure of the novel, too, tends to endorse Old Da’s perspective, even if its title refrains from wholly endorsing it (since the ‘stranger’ is simply that – a stranger, not necessarily a selkie) and the reader is invited to consider the evidence both for and against the stranger’s supernatural status throughout the novel. For instance, the first chapter shows both how Robbie’s father is right in assuming that there has been a ‘shipwreck in the voe’ (p. 10) and that the stranger may have come from it (p. 11), while also planting seeds of doubt as to whether or not he is really a survivor from the wreck: ‘it’s a miracle he managed to get ashore,’ as Old Da points out, ‘for it would take the Selkie Folk themselves to stay alive in such a sea’ (p. 13). The same chapter makes it clear that Robbie leans towards his grandfather’s point of view, since he takes careful note of the old man’s comment (p. 15), while at the same time Robbie’s own ‘very noticing kind of mind’ (p. 15) picks up additional clues about the stranger’s personality, above all the disconcerting nature of his smile, which seems to corroborate Old Da’s suspicions. A smile may of course be disconcerting without there being anything supernatural about it; but the stranger’s smile serves to ward off awkward questions about the wreck, to provide a silent commentary on the stranger’s acknowledgment that he has been ‘very lucky’, and to hint at something left unsaid – a lacuna which leaves Robbie feeling ‘uncomfortable’ though ‘he had no time to think why this should have been so’ (p. 15). Robbie, like the reader at this early stage in the narrative, hangs suspended between a supernatural and a natural explanation of the stranger’s identity, underlining the fact that there will frequently be more than one way of understanding the tale that follows.
As the narrative goes on, Old Da’s bond with Robbie itself serves to raise questions as to the old man’s reliability. Robbie, after all, is a boy of twelve, poised on the threshold between childhood and adolescence. Children are expected to listen to stories, the stories told them are not expected to be always factual, and Old Da as the purveyor of these stories finds himself marginalised in the adult world, poised like his grandson on the threshold between one sort of life and another – in the old man’s case, between his earlier life as an active adult member of the fishing community and a second childhood of tale-telling, perpetuating quasi-outmoded folk customs, and light work within the limits of his waning strength. According to Robbie’s parents, the bond between the boy and Old Da poses something of a threat to the boy’s transition to maturity. ‘Old Da was a great talker’, Hunter tells us in chapter four,
and although they were […] glad enough of his stories around the fire in the winter time, Janet and Peter were inclined to complain that Robbie took all this kind of talk too seriously. “Letting his imagination run away with him”, they called it; which was a foolish habit, in their opinion, and therefore one which should be checked before it got too strong a grip on him. (pp. 28-9)
Similarly, Old Da’s hold upon the boy devalues the old man’s stories, which themselves become tainted with foolishness thanks to their fostering of Robbie’s ‘foolish habit’. Knowing the difference between the fantastic and the real is for Robbie’s parents a sign of maturity, and they are confident that they themselves have made this transition successfully (although as the novel goes on it becomes clear that they have retained some of Old Da’s ‘superstitions’, as we shall see). Hunter’s narrator, meanwhile, maintains her balanced stance between perspectives. Being too imaginative, she tells us, is ‘in their opinion’ a foolish habit, and opinion may not always have much to do with careful reasoning. Old Da’s opinion about the peat in chapter one, for instance, was linked to outworn ‘superstition’, and at the end of chapter one he chooses to keep his ‘own idea’ about Finn Learson to himself (p. 33), presumably conscious that it will be dismissed as unfounded ‘opinion’ unless he backs it up with stronger evidence than he has. Robbie, meanwhile, has his own opinions on Finn Learson, but these ‘swithered and swayed’ in response to unfolding events and the boy’s conflicting emotions (p. 29). For Hunter’s narrator, then, practical people and imaginative woolgatherers are equally vulnerable to opinions based on prejudice or conjecture, and the question of which kind of thinking is most useful tends to get muddied by the fact that both may work very well as an explanation of certain stories – including Hunter’s.
Robbie spends much of his time in Old Da’s company, and chapter five, ‘The Selkie Summer’, neatly summarizes the mixture of practical learning and folkloric wisdom their companionship imparts to the boy. Old Da supervises Robbie as he scales the island cliffs in search of eggs; identifies mosses for him, to be used in making dyes; and shows him how to feather his oars (that is, to acquire ‘the trick of holding the boat so steady in one place that [the seals] lost all fear of it’, p. 37). Meanwhile he entertains him by telling him ‘one story after another’ (p. 36): concerning the trows or ‘creatures of the Otherworld which is not human’ (p. 36), who live in mounds all over Shetland and work their magic only at night; tales of the Selkie Folk who gather on lonely beaches and cast off their skins to dance (p. 37); and the story of the Great Selkie himself, who roofs his undersea palace with the golden hair of the mortal girls he persuades to join him in the deep, girls who invariably drown in a vain attempt to make their way back to their former homes above the waves (p. 39). Robbie is sometimes sceptical about these stories (‘I don’t believe that,’ he objects at one point, p. 39) and sometimes credulous, and his suspension between these two states marks him out again as a kind of selkie in his own right, a creature of two elements. After all, as Old Da tells him, in ‘real life’ the seal pups undergo a metamorphosis almost as remarkable as the change from seal to human. They have a lengthy childhood (‘believe it or not, these same pups are all four weeks old before they even start learning to swim’), yet ‘they still grow up’, he points out, ‘to be the most travelled of any sea creatures’ (p. 39). Old Da’s stories may seem foolish, but they are no more wonderful than the facts of the natural world in which they are set, and Robbie’s interest in supernatural wonders is only enhanced by his interest in the natural world in which he grows up.
Later in the book, Finn Learson similarly bridges the gap of wonder between ‘real life’ and the supernatural, as he tells stories of his own travels in the second six-chapter section of the book:
‘Once, on the shores of Greenland,’ he told Robbie, ‘a man came at me with a knife to kill me – see, I bear the mark of his knife to this very day, in this long white scar of the healed wound on my shoulder…’
Then on he went, spinning many another tale of strange adventure in far countries. (p. 63)
It’s at this stage in the novel that Robbie begins to study navigation at school, eager to fit himself for similar ‘adventures in far countries’; and this yearning is clearly fuelled by what Old Da told him about the far-travelled seals, as well as by Finn Learson’s tales, since it at once inspires him to seek a more limited kind of adventure by going off to hold the seal pup in chapter nine. When Robbie grows up in the final chapter of the novel he becomes as famous for his seafaring as for his extravagant stories, including the story of Finn Learson; and someone who knows him observes, as they might have observed of Old Da or Finn Learson himself, that ‘nobody can ever tell how much of Robbie Henderson’s stories are true, and how much of them are made up’ (p. 134). As with Old Da or Finn Learson, however, there is material evidence to back up Robbie’s tales; and his account is corroborated by people who knew the mysterious stranger as well as he did, such as his sister Elspeth and her fiancé Nicol Anderson (pp. 134-5). At every point of Hunter’s novel, in other words, the observable facts of bodily scars, or animal behaviour, or animal-human relations, help to underprop a supernatural reading of her tale as well as they justify a wholly natural reading of its component elements. Facts themselves can be selkie-like in their ability to lend themselves to utterly different interpretations, depending on the inclination of their interpreters.
Old Da’s death – which takes place, as I said, in chapter six, exactly a third of the way through the novel – brings the collision between imaginative stories and ‘real life’ to a fitting climax. In the old man’s final illness he summons Robbie to his side, desperate to tell him something important about Finn Learson before it’s too late. Robbie later concludes that Old Da believes the stranger to be the Great Selkie, come ashore to beguile a new victim to take to his palace beneath the waves: and that this victim is none other than Robbie’s sister Elspeth, with her ‘sandy-gold hair’ (p. 14). This, at least, is what the boy deduces from the breathless hints the old man gives him: ‘It has to do with the gold, Robbie, and dancing, and the crystal palace under the sea’ (p. 43) – a palace roofed with the golden hair of the Great Selkie’s female victims. Old Da also tries to tell his grandson about a similar episode that happened in the past, when another predatory stranger came ashore and brought about a tragedy, but runs out of breath before he can explain. Robbie’s mother Jean comes in as the old man struggles to describe this earlier incident, and at once assumes that Robbie has been pestering him for another idle tale: ‘What’s this, Robbie? Have you no heart at all that you can let your poor Old Da waste his last breath on stories for you?’ (p. 44). For Jean these tales remain foolish fantasies, whereas for Robbie they are crucial pieces of new evidence in forming his own opinion of Finn Learson. But whatever Old Da failed to say with his ‘last breath’ might just as easily have been guessed at by a realist like Jean as by a fantasist like her son; the difference being that Jean does not give herself a chance to do the guessing. Old Da might be warning the boy against a sexual predator, using terms he knows a child will understand; or he might be seeking to link Finn Learson to the lore about the Selkie King, which is how Robbie understands the fragments he lets drop. Or of course he might be doing both, since the Selkie King is first and foremost a sexual predator. If the old man’s head is dwelling on stories at the time of his death, this could be a consequence of his fever, or it could be because he thinks them important, or it could be both. The narrator is careful to withhold her judgement, while providing the reader with evidence to sustain all these perspectives.
Hunter’s withholding of judgement has a crucial role to play in the final scene of chapter six. On the day of the old man’s death Robbie finds himself suddenly alone with Finn, who approaches him to ask what his grandfather said about him when the two of them were alone together. Finn’s approach fills the boy with nameless dread – ‘a fear he could not understand or explain’ (p. 47) – although Hunter is careful to stress the stranger’s relative size and power (he stands ‘dark and tall against the sun’) and the stark contrast between his young, handsome face and the hardness Robbie detects in his ‘dark eyes’, both of which supply reason enough for apprehension in themselves. At this point all the supernatural possibilities represented by Finn’s appearance (does his unusual height hint at his status as an undersea king? Are his eyes dark because they are a seal’s eyes?) seem to vanish from the boy’s mind, leaving him with a simple practical question: ‘What did he have to fear from Finn Learson?’ One of Old Da’s phrases provides a kind of answer – ‘Don’t trust him, Robbie. Don’t trust him’ (p. 47) – but the reasons for distrust remain unclear. The only things that are certain at this stage is that the boy can’t be sure of the stranger’s nature or motives, that Finn has the physical capacity to damage Robbie, and that Robbie has only Old Da’s stories to go on, none of which has been specifically linked to Finn. In telling Finn Learson, then, that ‘my Old Da told me nothing’, the boy is speaking no more than the truth – though he is also telling a half-truth, since his suspicions of Finn are rooted in the foolish nothings Old Da did tell him. The storyteller may have died, but his stories live on, and can be applied – emotionally, if not rationally – to real-life situations, perhaps to the benefit of the listener. There may be something in their nothings, after all, even if they are merely works of the fantastic imagination.
The middle six chapters testify once more to the fine craftsmanship of Hunter’s novel. In the first three of the six (chapters seven, eight and nine) the stranger succeeds in integrating himself fully into Black Ness society, while in the last three (chapters ten, eleven and twelve) Robbie finds himself increasingly isolated from it, seeking and failing to convince Elspeth’s fiancé Nicol Anderson and Elspeth herself that the stranger is the Selkie King, before finding common cause with another loner, the schoolmaster Yarl Corbie. As I’ve already pointed out, the middle two chapters of the six – also the middle two chapters of the novel – see Robbie himself confirmed in his belief that Finn Learson is indeed the Great Selkie, marking a fundamental shift in the dynamics of the novel; from this point onward all Robbie’s efforts will be bent on frustrating Finn’s attempts to seduce Elspeth. In the first of these two central chapters Robbie sets out in his boat with the aim of holding a seal-pup; and having held one, he moves on to another voe to count their numbers. When he accidentally falls from his boat, Finn Learson rescues him, and in the midst of the rescue the boy notes how closely the stranger’s body resembles the seal’s:
There was warmth like a furnace heat in the body pressed against his own, and the hand gripping him had fingertips that probed like steel into his flesh […] – yet how could that be? How could there be selkie warmth in a man’s body, and selkie strength in a man’s hands? (p. 70).
Having encountered both seal and man, Robbie quickly concludes that both beings can be contained in a single body – that of Finn Learson; this is now his ‘truth’ (p. 72), and for him all doubts have been put to rest. In the second central chapter, chapter ten, Robbie lays out in full the evidence for Finn’s double identity as he seeks to persuade the fisherman Nicol Anderson to accept this ‘truth’. The evidence includes the stranger’s careful prevarication over whether or not he was a sailor from the shipwreck on the night of his arrival (p. 74); the ‘selkie music’ he played on Robbie’s father’s fiddle at night (p. 74); a gold coin he offered as payment to Robbie’s parents for putting him up – a coin that could only have come from a ‘sunken treasure ship’; omens on the day of Old Da’s funeral (p. 75); Finn’s quasi-miraculous evasion of the naval Press Gang (p. 78); the way Finn’s body feels (p. 77); Finn’s love of deep water (p. 77). The accumulated evidence, each element of which has been shared with the reader as they occurred, reinforces Robbie’s conviction that Finn is the Great Selkie; but for Nicol they amount to no more than a verbal game: ‘You’re talking in riddles, boy,’ the fisherman declares (p. 73). Even as Robbie makes up his mind about the stranger, we are reminded that every element of his argument is susceptible to alternative interpretations. Riddles are games of obfuscation, transforming something ordinary into something deeply strange – a fish, for instance, into an undead mail-clad ghoul, time into an all-devouring monster, an egg into a treasure box. Old Da’s stories, too, could be read as riddles, with simple but important lessons hidden inside them; and Hunter’s narrative too has a riddling quality, its key moments haunted by puzzles, paradoxes and doubts.
For instance, even as Robbie makes up his mind that Finn is a malevolent selkie and his personal enemy, the middle six chapters of the novel see a strange bond begin to grow between boy and stranger. It is first forged by Robbie’s suspicions that Finn is the only person who shares his knowledge of the supernatural ‘Otherworld’ that could be taken to explain Finn’s actions. But the bond is intensified by the fact that Finn is in many ways an attractive figure. He is tall, strong and handsome. He is ingenious in his ability to endear himself both to the local minister, who dismisses local folk customs as ‘superstitious nonsense’ (p. 51), and to Robbie’s family, who sustain those same folk customs by incorporating them into Old Da’s funeral. He is physically powerful, too. Finn evades the brutal Press Gang of the British Navy – formed to forcefully recruit seamen during the Napoleonic wars – with the laughing, athletic nonchalance of a folk hero, saving Robbie’s father and his fishing crew in the process (pp. 56-59). Later he saves Robbie’s life with heroic flair, diving into the waters of the voe from a ledge on a high cliff and heaving the boy into his boat with the strength of an animal or a god (p. 70). He is eloquent, proving more than capable of taking over the role of community storyteller after Old Da’s death. Up to this point in the book Finn has been mostly silent; afterwards he becomes both talkative and sociable, boosting Robbie’s interest in navigation with his stories of ‘strange adventures in far countries’ (p. 63) and thus filling the gap left in the boy’s life by his mentor’s demise. Finally, he is something of a riddlemaster. When asked by Nicol Anderson to decipher a riddle which is said to be unanswerable by anyone but a Shetlander, ‘What head is it that wears no hair?’ – he answers it at once, since he has lived closer to the answer than anyone on dry land: ‘There is no hair on the head of a fish; and so that is the reading of your riddle – the fish!’ (p. 32). Finn’s success makes him a riddle, too, as Robbie himself points out: ‘There’s no one outside the islands has ever managed to read that riddle[.] […] And so how did he guess the answer?’ (p. 33). Finn is both a stranger and a local, both an outsider to the fishing community and a native of the deep water in which it plies its trade. Robbie works out his own answer in the middle two chapters, even as he works out that Finn is not as admirable as his many qualities make him seem.
For Robbie, all these qualities merely serve as the perfect cover for Finn’s plans for abducting Elspeth. In addition, they mean that Robbie’s family and friends cannot condone the boy’s mounting hostility to the stranger – above all because he is indebted to that stranger in the deepest way imaginable. ‘You should think shame,’ Nicol Anderson tells him at one point, ‘for even wanting to speak against a man who has just saved your life’ (p. 73). Meanwhile, Robbie’s own double vision of Finn as both hero and villain – as a replacement for Old Da, as a substitute for Robbie’s often absent father, as a role model for the boy’s dreams of becoming a worldwide traveller, and as a menace to his older sister – confirms the stranger’s dual identity as man and seal.
The six middle chapters, then, serve as a kind of two-way gate in Hunter’s novel. They look backwards to Old Da’s stories, as one by one they are implied to have solid foundations in reality, and they look forward to Robbie’s eventual showdown with Finn Learson, and to the time of greater scepticism which the reader inhabits. The Roman god of gates and doorways was two-faced Janus, who lent his name to the first month of the New Year; and the novel builds up to a January climax in its last six chapters. Robbie has his final showdown with Finn at the Up Helly Aa fire festival – traditionally held on 29 January, 24 days after Aald Yule (the Shetland Christmas) on 5 January. So it’s appropriate that Robbie should be joined in his January showdown by another two-faced enigma, the schoolmaster of Black Ness, Yarl Corbie. In the last six chapters of the book, Yarl Corbie comes to stand for the fundamentally double nature of the islands Robbie inhabits, a doubleness that makes the islanders well capable of tackling the double-natured stranger who threatens their children.
That double nature was already clear enough from the middle six chapters, in which the most sceptical of the islanders – the ones most resistant to the notion that Finn Learson might be a supernatural being – nevertheless manifested their commitment to a supernatural perspective through their actions. Robbie’s father and mother, who half disapprove of Old Da’s influence on Robbie, nevertheless incorporate old superstitions into his funeral ceremony: the ritual burning of his bedding and the discovery of traces of the future in the resultant ashes (pp. 49-52). The formally-educated minister scoffs at these rituals, but neither Robbie’s parents nor his equally sceptical sister are prepared to dismiss them; indeed, Elspeth faints when she finds that the footprints which appear in the ashes perfectly match her own shoe size, which traditionally means that she will be the next in line to die. Nicol Anderson refuses to accept Robbie’s claim that Finn is King of the Selkies (pp. 75-78); but later he reluctantly agrees to incorporate certain magical elements into his ritual performance at Up Helly Aa, despite his conviction that they will be ineffectual and therefore pointless (pp. 103-105). Robbie’s sister Elspeth, meanwhile, rejects her brother’s suspicions of Finn not so much out of scepticism as out of a desire to retain her own more positive perspective on the stranger’s supernatural powers. When the ashes of Old Da’s bedding seemed to suggest that she would die, Finn insisted that they predicted something different: that Elspeth ‘will live to wed the man of [her] choice, and […] will be rich when you wed’ (p. 52). In chapter eleven the young woman embraces this rival vision of the future, which she associates – as Finn intended – with Finn himself: ‘if I marry Finn Learson, I’ll be a lady with servants, and live in a great house like a palace, with walls of crystal and a golden roof’ (p. 82). Her scepticism, then, is highly selective: she accepts a stranger’s prophecy, but refuses to believe that this same prophecy aligns with one of Old Da’s stories, which foretells that if she marries a rich husband she will perish. The community that resists Robbie’s warnings nevertheless contrives to inhabit the double space – touched everywhere by traces of the supernatural – which they claim to have left behind them.
The schoolmaster embodies this double space in both his appearance and his name. Dressed in a gown, which represents his formal academic accomplishments, he resembles a raven, a bird of ill omen among the Shetlanders which is closely linked with a very different kind of knowledge: the marginalised folk knowledge of the island wizards. His birdlike appearance matches his nickname, Yarl Corbie, which is the Shetland term for the ominous raven (Jarl or Lord of the Crows). The schoolmaster’s double knowledge is quickly revealed in his own sensitivity to the meaning of names; with a teacher’s instincts he helps Robbie to understand that Finn Learson’s name, too, betrays his supernatural identity:
‘Finn, Lear’s son – that is the proper sound of the name, for the Great Selkie is the son of the sea-god, Lear. As for “Finn”, that is simply an old word for “magician”. And so there you have the full measure of the bold way that name told everyone exactly who he is – the Magician, who is also Lear’s son, the Great Selkie.’ (p. 88)
This explanation draws on the academic field of philology – the study of words and the way their forms and meanings have changed through history. Tolkien famously described himself as a philologist, and for Corbie, as for Tolkien, this branch of learning yokes the present with the deep past, the material with the supernatural, since words have folk meanings and ancient belief systems embedded in them. By virtue of his academic training as well as his folk knowledge Corbie at once understood the meaning of Finn’s name when he first heard it, as the other inhabitants of Black Ness did not. For the schoolmaster, then, formal learning and folk knowledge are closely linked, and both have intimate links with the material world, as Yarl Corbie’s physical appearance links him to his mastery of two very different knowledge systems.
Yarl Corbie’s character, like his learning, is ambiguous or double. He is a menacing as well as a useful ally, both because stern schoolmasters naturally seem menacing to their pupils and because of his association with the ominous raven. When first approaching him for help, Robbie is put off by the island rumour that Corbie is a wizard as well as by the fact that ‘deep, deep down in his blood there lived the Shetlander’s ancient fear of the raven and its croaking cry of death’ (p. 85). Robbie’s fears are borne out at once; when he tells Yarl Corbie of his suspicions about Finn Learson, the schoolmaster quickly turns violent, lifting a knife as if to strike at the boy before plunging it into his desk so that it stands ‘quivering in the wood’ (p. 91). The blow is not meant for Robbie; Corbie picked up the knife as he told the story of another encounter with the Great Selkie, when the Seal King stole a man’s fiancée from him (she was ‘never seen alive again’), after which the man tracked him down to Greenland and stabbed him there ‘with a blow that was meant to kill’ (p. 90). At the climax of this tale the schoolmaster rose to his feet, ‘his face suddenly all twisted with rage’ (p. 90), and struck with the knife; but his action is meant only to emphasize his own active role in the tale he told: ‘this is the knife that made the wound,’ he declares, ‘and I am the man who struck the blow!’ (p. 91). At the same time, the action confirms the potential threat posed by Corbie himself, so that when the schoolmaster later tells Robbie not to breathe a word about their meeting, his warning that any disobedience will be punished rings disturbingly true: ‘That had better be a promise […] or I will be revenged on you also!’ (p. 94). Corbie represents the boy’s best hope of defeating Finn; but he also represents the boy’s worst fears of the mysterious forces that haunt the Shetland landscape, such as the trows that bedevil his walk to school on dark winter mornings – fears that skew his perception of the schoolmaster who awaits him at the end of those dark walks (p. 85).
Corbie, then, comes across as a double of Finn Learson. His association with ravens makes him as much of a mysterious force as the troublesome stranger. Finn threatens Robbie just as Corbie does, warning him to steer clear of the place where he rescued him from drowning (‘keep out of this geo in future, do you hear? It’s high time you learned to leave deep waters to those who can swim in them’, p. 72). Like Finn, Corbie is a traveller – he has been at least as far as Greenland with the whaling ships. Like Finn, he is a wielder of magic; the schoolmaster soon confirms the islanders’ view of him as a wizard – with a book of magic written entirely in mirror writing – and it’s also Corbie who points out that ‘Finn’ means ‘wizard’ in Shetland lore. Like Finn, Corbie shares an uneasy bond with Robbie. And like Finn, he is capable of changing shape, both in Robbie’s imagination and in real life. When he first enters Hunter’s narrative he is described like this:
There, as usual, sat Yarl Corbie hunched at his desk with his gown drooping like black wings from his bony shoulders. There was his dark and beaky face, seeming all bones and hollows in the candlelight. There was the glittering eye with its knowing stare. (p. 86)
At this point the resemblance between the schoolmaster and a raven is metaphorical (with a pun, in the word ‘beaky’, on the old slang term for schoolmaster, ‘beak’). But before the end of the novel the metaphor has been made concrete, with the schoolmaster changing into a raven to make his attack on the Selkie King (p. 131). In the section of the book dominated by Corbie, what was earlier merely implied becomes materially present, what was imagined becomes embodied, what was spoken of becomes enacted; and certain material objects confirm this new phase of embodiment of folk knowledge in Hunter’s text.
The knife Corbie wields is one of these objects. It provides a material link between the schoolmaster and the stranger, by way of the story Finn told Robbie in chapter nine about how he came by one of his scars: ‘Once, on the shores of Greenland, a man came at me with a knife to kill me – see, I bear the mark of his knife to this very day, in this long white scar of the healed wound in my shoulder’ (p. 63). This is the same story, of course, as the story Corbie tells Robbie in chapter twelve, about his attack on the Great Selkie on the Greenland coast; and both stories gain traction from the presence in Hunter’s narrative of both knife and scar, providing physical ‘evidence’ in support of oral tales – giving historical and archaeological exactness to folkloric narratives. Thanks to the knife and the scar, the material and the supernatural come closer than ever at this point in the novel; and the wielder of the knife, Yarl Corbie – himself a native of the islands – serves to cement the bond between the supernatural and the natural in island culture, thereby confirming the islanders’ power to confront and defeat the selkie threat to their homes and families.
The same is true of another object wielded by Corbie: the book of magic in which he finds the spell which he later uses to defeat Finn Learson. Robbie first sees the book in chapter fifteen, recognising it for what it is thanks to Old Da’s stories:
A book lay open on the table, a big book with pages so yellow in colour that he guessed it must be very old.
Moreover, these yellowish pages were covered with writing that was all back-to-front – mirror-writing, in fact, and he remembered Old Da had told him this was the kind of writing wizards used for their spells! (p. 107)
Through this new object, Old Da’s stories are again given material support, as they were by the knife and the scar. The book of magic also shows how Hunter’s novel itself taps into a literary tradition that challenges official knowledge as strongly as any oral tradition does. Before Robbie sees the book, the schoolmaster has already confirmed that his natural enemy on the island is the minister of the local church or kirk, the embodiment of official knowledge, itself embodied in the Bible – the Holy Book. ‘You heard the way he raged against superstition on the day of your Old Da’s funeral,’ Corbie reminds his pupil; ‘And so what do you think he would do if he heard I was indeed practising the unholy arts that people say I do practise?’ (p. 94). The book of magic finally confirms Corbie’s claim to be a practitioner of the ‘unholy arts’; and the term ‘indeed’ – that is, in truth, in action – dispels the hesitations and uncertainties with which supernatural things, such as magic and selkies, have been hedged in since the opening sentences of Hunter’s novel. At this point in the story we are given the strongest indication yet that there are other ‘truths’ besides the official ‘truth’: a magic book which provides the knowledge that changes the shape of Hunter’s book through the efficacy of the spell it supplies to its wizardly reader. And by the time we encounter the book of magic, another object has dispelled all Robbie’s remaining hesitations over Finn’s identity.
That object is Finn’s discarded sealskin, which Robbie concludes must have been hidden in the cave at the voe where the stranger saved him from drowning, and from which Finn afterwards warned him to stay away. In Duncan Williamson’s oral tales about the Selkie Folk they wear their sealskins even when in human form, as long coats that cover them up from neck to heel, made of a substance which feels like fur but is not fur. A better-known tradition, followed here by Hunter, says that Selkies hide their skins when they leave the sea, and that whoever finds those skins will have power over their owners. The moment when Robbie and Corbie find Finn’s sealskin – in chapter thirteen – marks the moment when conjecture, wayward imaginings and superstition finally find themselves made substantial, embodied, or realised, in the sense in which Tolkien uses it in his essay On Fairy Stories; that is, ‘made real’. Hunter is careful to make this moment memorable, indeed almost tangible:
The sealskin was there, lying spread right out to cover a wide rock shelf a few feet from the floor of the cave. The fur of it was the colour of Finn Learson’s hair – dark, almost black, streaked with silvery grey – and it shone so richly that it seemed to turn the whole pool of candlelight into gleaming black and glittering silver.
Yarl Corbie and Robbie stood staring at it, both of them struck quite dumb at the sight. The empty sockets of the head on the selkie skin stared back at them, and after a few moments of this, Robbie found he could no longer face the eeriness of that empty stare. He turned his head away, and the movement broke the spell of silence in the cave. (pp. 97-98)
The passage forges links both to the narrative we have been reading, by way of the reference to the colour of Finn’s hair, and between Finn Learson and his human enemies, by way of the stare they exchange with the empty eye sockets of his sealskin. It concludes, too, with the notion that silence itself – being empty of sound – has a supernatural quality, weaving a ‘spell’ to mesmerize mortals subjected to it; in other words, that we are all of us bound by spells many times a day. A moment later, Corbie symbolically takes this eery object into his power by making it ordinary: ‘Then, much to Robbie’s horror, he reached up and pulled the skin down from the shelf as casually as he would have pulled a blanket off a bed’ (p. 98). In the process he draws the supernatural into the everyday, confirming the interrelationship between them which has been implied but not confirmed throughout the novel up to this point. And the gesture effectively grants power to the ordinary, the familiar, the known. Up till now, most of the power in the book has been wielded by the strange, and by the threatening stranger who chiefly embodies it. From this point onwards, the strange is made captive by the familiar, which contains the strange – or binds it – by means of a series of riddles whose answers cannot be parsed or ‘read’ by the stranger, unlike the riddle of the fish. Shetland takes possession of Finn Learson, bringing him comprehensively ashore, where his power is diminished. And Shetland itself becomes a selkie as a result.
The first riddle by which Finn Learson gets bound is conceived by his rival wizard, Corbie. Describing the place where he intends to secrete Finn’s sealskin, Corbie refers to it in terms that sound like a verbal game:
‘Nowhere on sea,’ said Yarl Corbie […] ‘because that is the first place Finn Learson would search for it. Nowhere on land, because that is the second place he would search. We will hide it in a place that belongs neither to the sea nor to the land, a place that is open to every eye, but secret from all; a place which Finn Learson may enter as a man, yet which he cannot leave again except as the Great Selkie.’ (p. 100)
The place in question is a hole in the turf at the top of the cliffs above the voe where they found the sealskin. The sea has cut a tunnel through the rock of the cliffs to a cave directly underneath the hole, and the skin, we later learn, has been stowed in that tunnel. Hole and tunnel could, then, be described as belonging to neither land nor sea, and their inaccessibility makes them secret to all, though the mouth of the hole is ‘open to every eye’. The double nature of the location makes it selkie-like, and thus a suitable site for foiling a selkie. And by the time we are introduced to it in the narrative, we have encountered a number of other riddling double spaces peculiar to the mortal inhabitants of the islands, all of which, crucially, are strange or unfamiliar to the Selkie Folk, those immortal denizens of the ocean.
The most potent of these riddling double spaces is the folk custom of ‘guising’, which is practised by Shetlanders at Hallowe’en, Christmas, New Year and Up Helly Aa. In Hunter’s version of the practise, the guisers are men dressed up as women, in ‘long petticoats made of straw, with tall, pointed hats of straw, white shirts, and everything all covered with bunches of coloured ribbons’ (p. 102). Their identities are hidden behind ‘white handkerchiefs tied like masks over their faces’ (p. 101), and they are led by a man called the Skuddler, who takes them from house to house throughout the community, dancing wildly to fiddle music and bringing symbolic blessings to all the families who let them in. Old Da, we learn, has explained to Robbie that there is an ‘ancient magic’ behind this guising (p. 101):
‘They are supposed to be earth-spirits – the spirits of corn, and fruit, and flowers – and the Skuddler himself is the god of the earth commanding them to dance in honour of all the good things he has created […] The dressing-up was a sort of spell. The dancing was another part of the spell, and the whole thing made a magic that turned them into the creatures they were supposed to be – the earth-god and his spirits…’ (pp. 116-117)
The guisers, then, are both actors playing their parts and somehow also the things they play; they resemble both men and women, both mortals and the immortals they invoke. Finn’s ignorance of these land-bound folk customs (he asks many questions about them, but Robbie refuses to tell him what he knows) conceals from him some of the many meanings behind the Skuddler and his crew, especially their link to the earth-god who is the rival of Finn’s father and patron, Lear, the god of the sea. As a result Finn cannot ‘read’ or solve this non-verbal riddle, and knows nothing about the advantage the Skuddler will have over him if he fights him above the waterline, on land that is sacred to the earth-god, as against water, the province of Lear. Finn also cannot guess the identity of the man who plays the Skuddler; Robbie persuades Nicol Anderson to take on the role, so that the Skuddler will gain yet greater strength from the fisherman’s determination to wrest his fiancée from the stranger’s grip, while Robbie himself is given strength by his knowledge of the Skuddler’s dual identity as both god and man. In the chapters dedicated to guising – chapters sixteen and seventeen – Finn is rendered not more powerful but weaker by his status as a stranger, and the borderline between sea and shore proves crucial in his defeat, despite his own seemingly double nature as a creature of both shore and sea.
In the first half of the novel, Finn was the master riddler, keeping to himself the secret of his own identity and easily solving the riddling secrets of his human hosts. In this final six-chapter section it is the humans who are master riddlers. Even children have their riddles, as Robbie finds when he follows the guisers from house to house at Up Helly Aa. Yarl Corbie has told the boy to keep his eyes on Elspeth to prevent Finn from spiriting her away to his maritime home; but at one house Robbie loses sight of her, trapped by boys of his own age into staying behind to answer a riddle as his sister disappears into the night:
Wingle wangle, like a tangle, If I was even, I’d reach to Heaven.
Luckily Robbie thinks of the answer before he loses track of Elspeth altogether, suddenly remembering her footprint in the ashes at Old Da’s funeral and shouting ‘Smoke!’ before following her out into the darkness. The boys’ riddle invokes another element besides earth over which the stranger has no power – the element of fire; and both fire and air seem to strengthen the guisers’ performance as they dance wildly across the island. Dancing with them are the Northern Lights, known in Shetland as the Merry Dancers (p. 118): ‘the light seemed sometimes to roll in great green waves over the sky, and sometimes it was like long searchlights of green shooting brilliantly out from a huge and starless black dome’. Finn may be lord of sea and shore, but the islanders’ lives are bound to sea, shore, fire and sky, making them twice as many-sided as the Selkie King – twice as rich as him too, perhaps, despite their relative poverty and the harshness of their lives.
Finn does his best, of course, to retain his shifty double nature and the power it gives him in the last six chapters. Several times Robbie directly confronts the stranger’s shiftiness: first when he spots him staring at Elspeth hungrily, and Finn’s human mask slips a little: ‘For a moment […] the young and handsome appearance of his face would slip aside like a mask, and another face would look at Elspeth – a watchful, old, and cunning face that held her fascinated’ (p. 110). The mask slips again when Finn is fighting the Skuddler – played by Nicol Anderson – and finds himself forced above the high water mark in the course of the struggle. When this happens the Skuddler seems to tower over him, as if possessed by the spirit of the earth god, while Finn’s identity as the ancient son of the sea-god Lear comes to the fore: ‘The skin of his face was withering, falling away to wrinkles. His hands were becoming an old man’s hands […] The youthful lines of his body were sagging into something twisted, and evil, and very, very old’ (p. 126). And the mask slips for the final time when Robbie leads the triumphant stranger to the edge of the hole where his skin is hidden, and sees ‘at last the true face of Finn the Magician’ (p. 129):
The face hovered over him, and it was not old, or young, nor yet anything in between, but simply a shifting blur of features that changed with every nightmare moment of his stare at it. It was no face at all, in fact, and yet somehow it was still every face that had ever haunted his deepest fears and his darkest dreams. (pp. 129-130)
In the first two thirds of the book, as we’ve seen, Finn showed himself capable of being all things to all people: a good churchman to the minister, a hero to Robbie’s family, a dream lover to Elspeth, a fine dancer, an eloquent storyteller, a rebel against the unjust naval authorities and a strong and capable pair of working hands to the community of Black Ness. Robbie’s terror in this passage makes it seem as though Finn’s power is greater than ever; but there is a difference in the boy’s attitude in the last third of the narrative. Despite his fear he now knows for sure that he is looking at ‘the true face of Finn the Magician’; Finn’s concealment is over, his riddle solved, his identity exposed for all to see. The hesitation over whether or not he is meant to be a truly supernatural figure has been dispelled, from the narrator’s prose as well as from Robbie’s mind. This renders his true face vulnerable as well as visible; it’s a single, identifiable target, despite its changefulness; so it seems only right that Yarl Corbie should direct his attack at Finn’s exposed face when he manifests himself for the first time as the raven whose name he bears.
More specifically, Corbie directs his attack at Finn’s eyes, which are ‘the one thing about the nightmare that did not change’, remaining the ‘great dark eyes’ of a bull seal through all his facial shifts (p. 130). These eyes have always seemed to Robbie to see everything, which explains the mocking smile Finn so often wears. But by this final chapter of the novel we know that this seeming total vision is an illusion, like Finn’s humanity itself. The stranger had no idea that Yarl Corbie was a wizard or that Robbie was in collusion with the schoolmaster. For a long time he was ignorant that Nicol Anderson was playing the Skuddler. He doesn’t know the location of his sealskin. His vision, in other words, has failed him. When the Raven-Corbie, then, strikes at his eyes, blinding one of them, he confirms this failure of vision, physically depriving the Great Selkie of the dual perspectives that made him powerful – those of sea and land, seal and human – and hence by extension of one of the two elements over which Finn sought control. From this point on, it seems, Finn Learson is confined to his seal form, unable or unwilling to resume his form as a man.
This may be because he can no longer take the form of a handsome stranger – or so Yarl Corbie suggests to Robbie. The extinguishing of Finn’s eye not only affects his own ability to see, but changes too the human view of him. Beforehand, the stranger’s good looks served as one of his most potent weapons, seducing everyone he talks to, especially the women he aims to lure to his undersea home. But as a one-eyed man, Yarl Corbie insists, he will be less attractive: ‘never again will he be able to come ashore in the shape of a handsome young man’ (p. 133). And he will also always be known for who he is, whatever shape he assumes. Wounded and unbalanced by the ferocity of Corbie’s attack, he falls into the hole where his sealskin is hidden and resumes his form as a selkie; and from this point on, his occasional returns to the shores of Shetland can be identified from people’s sightings of a one-eyed seal:
There was one further thing which struck the people of Black Ness then. All of them had noticed a bull seal which haunted the voe from time to time – a huge, old fellow which had only one eye, and which had certainly not been known to come to the voe before the night of Finn Learson’s disappearance.
The seal version of Finn Learson can now be distinguished from all other selkies by its injury, just as the human version of Finn no longer conforms to ableist conventions of human beauty. Finn Learson has been set apart, just as Finn’s seduction of Yarl Corbie’s fiancée turned the schoolmaster into a pariah and a master of ‘forbidden’ lore. No longer a tall dark handsome stranger, he is also in effect no longer a selkie, having lost the power to mingle with human or seal communities unnoticed as he did before.
The Shetland community, by contrast, has been rendered stronger by Robbie’s adventure, its members confirmed in their dual identity as having one foot in the real and orderly, the other in the magical, the marginal, the strange, the shifty. Thanks to their folklore, their specialist skills as fiddlers, dancers, sailors and homemakers, and their intimate knowledge of the windswept place they have made their home, they can face up to any challenge that gets thrown against them, from official press gangs to the Kings of the Seal People.
Yarl Corbie used the old folk customs of the islands to overthrow Finn Learson. In the process those customs were shown to embrace the whole community, as the Skuddler and his men danced wildly from cottage to cottage throughout Black Ness. They were accompanied in their dancing by the fiddle that has come to symbolize Shetland art for the rest of the world, thanks to the seemingly supernatural skills of the Shetland fiddlers. And the victory over the stranger ensures that these customs and skills get handed down to a new generation. In the final chapter we learn that as Robbie grows up his account of Finn Learson becomes a communal possession, like the stories of Old Da. Some people don’t believe it; others, like the former sceptics Nicol and Elspeth, support it with first-hand testimony; but it belongs to all his listeners, believers and unbelievers. Of the children he tells it to, some say they don’t believe it, others embrace it with enthusiasm; but the borderland between belief and scepticism we now know to be profoundly permeable. So long as the stories are alive – and in this book alone they pass down through multiple generations from Old Da to his great-great-grandchildren – the possibility of their being useful remains. They suffuse the Shetland landscape with enchantment; they draw Shetlanders together on Winter evenings; and thanks to Mollie Hunter’s novel, they make of us strangers honorary members of the Shetland community, for a while at least, listening to their stories and hearing their music as we gather round an imagined fire. The hybridity of the Great Selkie affirms the hybridity of humankind, and of the people and animals we share the world with. We all have great need of Hunter’s double vision at this time of climate catastrophe, and A Stranger Came Ashore imparts it to us, wherever in this fragile world we happen to live.
 Mollie Hunter, The Mermaid Summer (London: Lions, 1990), p. 119.
 Mollie Hunter, The Walking Stones (London: Magnet Books, 1986), p. 43.
A Stranger Came Ashore explains the Scots term but-and-ben as follows: ‘this is the way Shetland houses were built in those days, with only a living room called the but end, and a sleeping room called the ben end’ (‘but’ = outside/here, ‘ben’ = inside). Mollie Hunter, A Stranger Came Ashore (Edinburgh: Kelpies, 2005), p. 13.
 In The Mermaid Summer it’s one of the children who meet the mermaid, Anna, who compares the mermaid to a queen: presenting her with a fine green dress, Anna tells he ‘it’s beautiful enough for a queen to wear’ (p. 92). The comparison may come from the mermaid’s efforts to make herself the fairest mermaid of all, like the wicked Queen in Snow White. For the fine clothes of the Sidhe see The Haunted Mountain: ‘they all wore the same kind of fine clothes made of silk, with ornaments of gold and shoes of fine, soft leather’. Mollie Hunter, The Haunted Mountain (London: Lions, 1983), p. 31.
 ‘They were small, certainly – about the height of a twelve-year-old boy, they say – and they were beautiful; but they were a lordly race, and terrible when angered.’ The Haunted Mountain, p. 10.
 See Duncan Williamson, Land of the Seal People (Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd, 2010).
 The setting of such a story should not, however, be too precisely located, as Duncan Williamson insists: ‘now the thing about the silkie stories when you hear them told the teller never gives the name of the island because it’s too close to the people; in case they say you might be telling a lie, this never happened in our island. So they always say in a little island in the Hebrides, and this began long ago’ (Land of the Seal People, p. 24). Hunter follows this practice; for instance the Shetland village in A Stranger Came Ashore, known by the generic name of Black Ness, is located on ‘one of the islands’ (p. 9), but we never learn which one.
 This part of my discussion draws on Tzvetan Todorov’s notion of uncertainty or hesitation as explained in The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. Richard Howard (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1975). See especially p. 25:
Which brings us to the very heart of the fantastic. In a world which is indeed our world, the one we know, a world without devils, sylphides, or vampires [and we might add ‘selkies’ here], there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world. The person who experiences the event must opt for one of two possible solutions: either he is the victim of an illusion of the senses, of a product of the imagination – and [the] laws of the world remain what they are; or else the event has indeed really taken place, it is an integral part of reality – but then this reality is controlled by laws unknown to us. Either the devil is an illusion, an imaginary being; or else he really exists, precisely like other living beings – with this reservation, that we encounter him infrequently.
The fantastic occupies the duration of this uncertainty. Once we choose one answer or the other, we leave the fantastic for a neighbouring genre, the uncanny or the marvellous. The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event.
 Note the similarity between this chapter title and the title of Hunter’s later Shetland novel The Mermaid Summer. Both invoke the precariousness of folk beliefs in the supernatural by setting them in the context of the famously evanescent period of summer in childhood. Robbie’s story, however, extends from winter to winter, with ‘The Selkie Summer’ in between.
 These examples come from Tolkien’s The Hobbit (London: Unwin Hyman, 1987), pp. 68-74. See also Adam Roberts, The Riddles of The Hobbit (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), which argues that ‘“the riddle” is a trope for reading itself’, and is especially prevalent in the ‘ironic’ genres of fantasy and science fiction (pp. 5-6).
 The Scalloway Museum suggests instead that the term refers to a race of wizard-like beings, the ‘finn folk’, who ‘can turn themselves into a human, animal, bird or fish, and can even make themselves invisible’, who have ‘a close relationship to the sea’, resent human incursions into their fishing grounds, and love amber. This is not quite Hunter’s version of the Finn.
 See e.g. Williamson, Land of the Sea People, pp. 35, 47, 120, 158-9, 170, 175-6, 180 etc.
 See e.g. Tolkien, ‘On Fairy Stories’, Tree and Leaf (London: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 53: ‘At the heart of many man-made stories of the elves lies, open or concealed, pure or alloyed, the desire for a living, realised sub-creative art, which (however it may outwardly resemble it) is inwardly wholly different from the greed for self-centred power which is the mark of the mere Magician’ [my emphasis].
Way back in 2017 I wrote a post about William Croft Dickinson’s wonderful children’s fantasy novel Borrobil (1944), making a case for its rootedness in Scottish legend and folklore and in the context of the Second World War. This post is by way of a supplement to what I wrote then; but it can also be read by itself, I hope, by anyone interested in dragons, or Scottish fantasy, or both.
In Dickinson’s novel, two children – Donald and Jean – dance through a stone circle on Beltane Eve, a major pagan festival, and find themselves in an early version of Scotland (though the land is never named), where magic is rife and adventures abound. Here they meet Borrobil, ‘the best good magician who has lived in these parts ever since the rule of King Diarmid’, who conducts them safely through various perils and strange places, dispensing poetry, stories and riddles along the way. Borrobil is a fusion of Tom Bombadil, Gandalf and one of the dwarves from The Hobbit (1937), but he is also very much himself, and the worthy creation of a Professor who had much in common with a more famous Professor who invented a string of fantasies in the mid-twentieth century. The novel has had a small but enthusiastic readership ever since its first publication, and found a new audience after it was published by Puffin Books in the 1960s with a cover by Pauline Baynes, illustrator of Tolkien’s and Lewis’s best-loved fantasy texts. It’s no longer in print, but it really should be.
William Croft Dickinson was born in Leicester, in the East Midlands not far from Tolkien’s hometown of Birmingham. Like Tolkien he served in the First World War – being awarded the Military Cross for his service with the Machine Gun Corps – and afterwards completed his degree at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland, graduating in 1920. After distinguishing himself as an editor of early modern texts, he was appointed Sir William Fraser Professor of Scottish History and Palaeography at the University of Edinburgh. He took up his chair the year before Borrobil came out, in 1943, and held it for twenty years until his death in 1963. As a historian, Dickinson is best known for his work on late medieval and early modern history, but he also wrote a lively monograph on Scotland from the Earliest Times to 1603 (London etc.: Thomas Nelson, 1961); and it’s here that he elaborated his theories concerning the impact of the Scottish landscape on the trajectory of Scottish history. These theories get imaginative treatment in his three fantasy novels featuring Donald and Jean – Borrobil, The Eildon Tree (1947) and The Flag from the Isles (1951) – and a memorable episode in Borrobil provides a fine illustration of the relationship between landscape and story in that novel.
One of the many adventures witnessed by the children in Dickinson’s narrative (and they often only witness adventures rather than taking active part in them) concerns a wingless dragon with deadly breath, which terrorizes the nameless countryside of the novel until it is finally defeated by a brave warrior named Morac, wielding a lance which is tipped with fire. The episode clearly has much in common with the struggle between Bard, Bilbo and the Dwarves and the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit, but one main difference lies in Dickinson’s account of the episode’s impact on specific features of the local landscape. Every element of Dickinson’s dragon narrative has its socio-geographical consequences, and Borrobil’s version of Lake-town, as one of those consequences, provides an interesting contrast with Tolkien’s community on the Long Lake.
Like Lake-town, Dickinson’s ‘village’ is built on a seeming island in a lake – though in fact it is no island but a human artefact:
Thick wooden logs had been driven down through the water, and other logs had been fastened across them to make one big wooden platform holding a village right in the centre of the lake. And all the houses of the village were built of wood, their walls being fastened to the logs that rose upright from the water. (p. 42)
This description is a reasonably accurate picture of the kind of structure known as a crannog, uniquely found in Scotland and Ireland, although most crannogs are now thought to have held only one or two buildings rather than several, like the reconstructed crannog at Loch Tay. It’s also very close to Tolkien’s description of Lake-town, although Lake-town is a more grandiose affair – decidedly a town rather than a village. ‘A great bridge made of wood,’ Tolkien tells us, ‘ran out to where on huge piles made of forest trees was built a busy wooden town, not a town of elves but of Men, who still dared to dwell here under the shadow of the distant dragon-mountain’. Tolkien’s structure was not built as defence against the dragon; it has been existence since the days ‘when Dale in the North was rich and prosperous’, long before Smaug came to the district (p. 198). The reason for its lake location is never given, unless it is to take advantage of the best available highways of ancient times – lakes and navigable rivers – which could just as easily be exploited by a shore-dwelling people such as the Wood-elves of Mirkwood. But Lake-town has clearly become a defensive stronghold since the dragon’s arrival. Its human founders are described as ‘daring’ for choosing to remain there after Dale’s destruction, and the thinking behind their daring emerges when the dragon is roused by Bilbo and the Dwarves after long quiescence. Under orders from Bard the Bowman, the lake-dwellers rush at once to destroy the bridge that leads to the town, and on seeing that the bridge has gone Smaug is briefly dismayed, since the place is now wholly surrounded by water ‘too deep and dark and cool for his liking’ (p. 253). Water is of course the direct antithesis of Smaug’s element, fire, and the lake makes it easy to fill every watertight vessel in town and to make sure the ‘thatched roofs and wooden beam-ends’ have been ‘drenched with water’ before his arrival (p. 254). But as protection against Smaug, Lake-town is nonetheless badly flawed. Tolkien’s dragon can fly and breathe out flames, which means that after shaking off his discomposure he can sweep across the lake without a second thought and burn the wooden buildings down to the surface. His flight exposes his vulnerable underparts to Bard’s arrows, but the town, too, is exposed to his flames by its aqueous setting, and dragon and Lake-town come to an end at the very same moment, each undone by its own built-in weaknesses.
The dragon in Borrobil, by contrast, is of the wingless Scottish kind sometimes known as a beithir. It cannot fly, and shares with Smaug an aversion to water, which restricts its movements as Smaug’s are not restricted by the demolition of the ‘great bridge’. As Borrobil explains:
Over all the king’s land the dragon reigns. But once, one man fleeing from it, took to a boat and rowed out into the middle of this lake. Then did he discover to his joy that across the water the dragon could not follow him. Round and round the edge of the lake went the dragon; round and round it went until it became dizzy and all curled up in so many knots that the man escaped even while it was trying to untie itself again. And when the wise men in the castle heard of that, at once they decided to build an island in the very centre of the lake so that the people might have a place of safety in which to live. (p. 43)
Dickinson’s crannog, then, is the product of empirical observation, and quickly leads to the king abandoning his castle and moving to the village on the lake for his own safety as well as his people’s. Dickinson’s Scotland from the Earliest Times to 1603 goes into some detail on the tactical reasons for the siting of Scotland’s castles and fortified towns – to guard major passes between hills, to overlook the waters of Scotland’s coasts which were used as thoroughfares in the absence of roads – and the king’s decision to abandon his stone fortress makes perfect sense in the context of this tactical analysis.
Dickinson’s dragon, too, has very different breath from Smaug’s, though it is just as deadly. Its ‘green and poisonous breath’ (p. 49) is capable of melting ordinary weapons such as swords, though not magic armour (p. 39); and it also seems to have attractive powers, like the breath of panthers in medieval legend, which drew prey to their jaws with its irresistible fragrance. As Borrobil explains again, ‘Those who come within range of [the dragon’s] breath are lost, for they are drawn down its throat. Its breath reaches out and seizes them even as a frog will catch flies with its tongue’ (p. 32). A wooden village, then, built on a platform well out of reach of this dragon’s breath, is a much safer bet than a similar village in the neighbourhood of Smaug. To be fair, Tolkien informs us that the dwellers in his crannog have become complacent, lulled to inattention by the long years when Smaug remained inactive and hence semi-mythical; this is why they are ill prepared when the dragon wakes up and comes to visit. In his world, the memories of Men are short – though the memories of Dwarves and Elves are much longer – so that ‘some of the younger people in the town openly doubted the existence of any dragon in the mountain’ (p. 201). But since one of the purported purposes of post-Smaug Lake-town is as a defence against a flying, fire-breathing worm, the complacency in question is clearly egregious. The buildings on the wooden platform in the middle of Esgaroth, the Long Lake, have no protection from the monster of the Lonely Mountain, and it is only the strenuous efforts of Bard the Bowman that saves their occupants from destruction.
In The Hobbit, Smaug has an unpleasant effect on the landscape around the Lonely Mountain. As the Dwarves approach, they note this effect in everything they see:
The land about them grew bleak and barren, though once, as Thorin told them, it had been green and fair. There was little grass, and before long there was neither bush nor tree, and only broken and blackened stumps to speak of ones long vanished. They were come to the Desolation of the Dragon, and they were come at the waning of the year. (p. 210)
In Borrobil, however, Morac’s fight against the dragon takes place at a very different time of year – Beltane, or May 1st in modern terminology, which marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring. The whole novel revolves around the changing of the seasons, from dark to light, from cold to warmth, from infertility to fertility, and its optimistic tone – the cycle of seasonal change is here always inevitable – is well suited to the needs of a wartime readership. The landscape where the dragon dwells is here green and fertile, though perfectly suited to a pitched battle between the monster and any champion who is up for the challenge:
The cluster of low hills formed a ring round a stretch of smooth turf in the hollow beneath. To Jean it looked as though they were standing on the rim of a large bowl with a bottom of green grass. But the men who had come from the island to watch the fight […] were standing only on one side of the ‘bowl’. At the other side, resting on the grass, was a large yellow head, with two wicked eyes. […] For a time, Donald found it impossible to move his eyes from that awful head. Then, as he looked, he saw that the dragon had wound its long yellowy body round and round one of the hills on the other side of the ‘bowl’. It reminded him of a tug-of-war he had once seen in which the last man of each side had wound the rope round and round his waist before poising himself to act as an anchor for his side. (p. 48).
This convenient arena, Borrobil suggests, has been devised or chosen specifically to ensure a champion can find the dragon once every seven years, as prophesied by an ancient seer when the dragon first hatched. And the landscape remains after the dragon has been defeated, marked for ever by the encounter. In its death throes, we learn, the dragon changes the shape of the hill around which it had been coiled: ‘all round the hill Donald could see sharp ridges in the grass where the dragon had tightened its body in that last convulsive movement when he had thought the hill would crack’ (p. 57). Such terracing or ridging of hillsides is a common geological feature, and Donald knows this fact, as well as the cause of the ridging on this particular hill: ‘“Now I know what makes those ridges on the sides of hills,” he said to himself; but what a lot of dragons must have been killed all over the country in the days gone by”’. For Dickinson, legend as well as military and economic strategy is embedded in Scotland’s landscape, and Donald’s reflection populates the Scottish hill country with mythical monsters and heroic warriors able to defeat them.
As it happens, Dickinson’s dragon can be located quite specifically on the map of modern Scotland. The cunning method by which it is defeated, we learn, was tailored to the particular problem of the dragon’s deadly breath, which has always in the past overcome any champion who managed to get close enough to pierce its hide with sword or spear. With the advice of a wise man called Giric, the champion Morac attaches a peat ‘dipped in strongest pitch’ to the point of his lance. ‘Setting this alight,’ Borrobil tells the children,
He drove it, as you saw, deep down the dragon’s throat. The blazing pitch with its smoke and smell overcame the poisonous vapour of the dragon’s breath; Morac could drive down his lance and still live. More than that, the blazing pitch with running fire ran down the dragon’s throat, deep into its vital parts, making doubly fatal the lance’s wound. (p. 52).
Satisfyingly, the land itself by this means conspires to destroy the dragon, since peat must be cut from bogs or wetlands and pitch too can occur naturally in the soil, as well as being distilled from wood. And Morac’s fiery lance connects Dickinson’s dragon to another Scottish monster, the Linton Worm, whose story comes from the parish of Linton in Roxburghshire. Here’s the account of the worm given in The Lore of Scotland, edited by Jennifer Westwood and Sophia Kingshill, based on a more detailed account given by William Henderson in 1866. This dragon
lived in a den east of Linton Hill. The worm used to slay the cattle with its poisonous breath, and would sometimes emerge and coil around a nearby eminence still known in Henderson’s time as Wormington or Wormiston. At last Somerville, Laird of Lariston, a brave and reckless man, volunteered to kill the beast. Having failed in one attack with ordinary weapons, he came up with a brilliant device, ‘as the Linton cottagers testify to this day’. To the end of his lance he attached a small wheel, and on this he fixed a peat soaked in pitch. Setting fire to the peat, he thrust the lance down the worm’s throat, suffocating the monster with the fumes of burning pitch. So violent were its death throes that the contractions of its coils left a permanent impression on the sides of Linton or ‘Wormiston’ Hill.
The name of the hill at Linton, like its contours, was changed by the dragon’s presence there, and the same is true of the hill transformed by Dickinson’s dragon, which is known as ‘the Worm’s Hill’ both before and after its physical transformation (pp. 48 and 56). Somerville’s exploit gave him control over the landscape he fought for: ‘this is really the point of the story,’ we are told, ‘a charter myth concocted by the Somerville family to account for their ownership of the manor of Linton’; the family crest was a green wyvern or heraldic dragon perched on a golden wheel, and the Somerville stone above the lintel of Linton Church shows a knight attacking two monsters with a lance (though neither of them looks much like a dragon), and the legend could well have been fabricated from these pre-existing elements. Dickinson’s Morac, too, takes possession of the land he fights for, though his reward is more symbolically loaded; Borrobil calls it the ‘three-fold prize’ (p. 40), which comprises ‘The king’s daughter, half the kingdom, and the magic sword Greysteel’, a sword embedded in a yew tree (p. 41). If the Somervilles spread the story to enhance their claims to some real estate, Dickinson takes pains to link his to ancient concepts of fertility and regeneration, embodying these in the fairy tale tropes of a princess, a kingdom, and a tree whose living trunk makes a pleasing alternative to the lifeless mass of King Arthur’s famous stone.
Dickinson’s story, too, has much more than a local geographical reach. After killing his monster, Morac’s quest to fetch the king’s daughter, Finella, takes him northwards across the Scottish mainland to the broch where she has been placed for safety while the dragon ravaged her father’s kingdom. His journey takes him and his companions – including Jean and Donald – from the hills and crannogs of the Borders, where Linton is located, to the brochs of the north, which are themselves caught up in a topographically-determined struggle against Viking longships and the amphibious Blue Men who inhabit the Minch – the sea that divides mainland Scotland from the islands of Lewis and Harris. Morac’s adviser Giric, meanwhile, is linked to the stone-lined souterrains or earth houses found throughout Scotland from Wigtownshire to Caithness. Dickinson’s dragon, in other words – along with the various actions connected to it – provides the focal point for a complete cartography of ancient Caledonia, effectively unifying the land through narrative as it was never unified in political practice.
In his book Scotland from the Earliest Times to 1603 Dickinson makes a persuasive case for the argument that ‘The history of the Scottish people has been influenced in many ways by geography – not only by the physical structure of Scotland itself, but also by Scotland’s position in relation to neighbouring countries’ (p. 1). For him the most significant geographical characteristic of Scotland is that it forms ‘the northern part of one island’, and that for many centuries the border country between the two parts was fiercely contested, meaning that northern culture was largely conditioned by ‘warfare and strife’ (p. 3). Morac’s fight with the dragon, if we associate it with Linton, takes place in this border country, not far from Roxburgh Castle, one of the fortifications that guard the major passes through the hills between England and Scotland (it was at Roxburgh that James II was killed in a bid to win back the castle from the English). The second key characteristic of Scotland’s geography is its division into ‘high land and low land’ (p. 4), with most of the fertile low land concentrated in the ‘Midland Valley’ now better known as Central Scotland. Morac’s journey to fetch Finella traverses the highlands, where he and his friends defeat the evil magician Black Sulig, making good use of restricted thoroughfares through the thick highland forests and narrow passes between the mountains. The land of the Men of Orc, which lies beyond the mountains, is culturally and politically distinct from Morac’s southern kingdom, like the north-western Highlands and Islands as described in Scotland from Earliest Times, an area ‘walled in by mountains and high hills, with deep indentations of the coast, with far-penetrating sea lochs, and with many off-shore islands’ (p. 9), where ‘communications by water [are] easier than communications by land’. This makes it vulnerable to the Men of the Long Ships, Scotland’s Scandinavian neighbours, and the depredations on local vessels of the sea-dwelling Blue Men. At each stage of the narrative, the geography of its various settings plays a crucial role in both generating crises and resolving them, like a miniature working model of Dickinson’s thesis in his monograph.
Fortunately, the good magician Borrobil and his friend Giric know their way through all these different kinds of country. A polymath of the diverse Scottish land- and seascapes, Borrobil tells the children when he first meets them: ‘I know every path of the wood. I know the rabbit’s path, the hare’s path, the fox’s path, the wolf’s path. I know the eagle’s way and the way of the dragons that fly’ (p. 31). And this knowledge of paths gives Borrobil and Giric an edge in every encounter that takes place in the book, from the fight with the dragon onwards. When the sorcerer Black Sulig obscures the path through the highland forest with a magic fog – giving him an opportunity to snatch away the children in hope of ransom – Borrobil finds and liberates his captives with impressive ease, and as he leads them away from Sulig’s castle and back to Morac he ‘seemed to know which way to turn, which track to follow and which to avoid’ (p. 75). When Sulig seeks to prevent their escape by sending a message to his monstrous ally, the Giant Grugol, Borrobil knows exactly which route the messenger-dwarf must take and where he must be ambushed: ‘There is only one path the dwarf can take now […] and that is the path leading to the giant’s cave’ (p. 80). He also knows exactly where the Giant Grugol will hide to waylay Morac, behind a standing stone that must be reached by a ‘narrow mountain pass […] so narrow that there were only two ways to go – to go on, or to go back’. (p. 91). When he needs a horse, Borrobil knows exactly where the nearest fairy knoll can be found and how to behave once he has entered it so that his wish for a horse will be granted. He also knows how to ‘keep the path’ through the subterranean darkness of the fairy kingdom (p. 114). Later, when Jean is kidnapped by two Men of the Long Ships – who take her through a ‘narrow pass’ very similar to the mountain pass where Morac’s company encountered the Giant Grugol (p. 136) – the narrowness of the way enables Giric to play a trick on her captors using his shoes; he leaves one shoe ‘in the way’ of the men (p. 139), who discard it as useless, then the other shoe further on (p. 140), which tempts one of them to run back along the track to fetch the first, thus separating them and enabling Giric to fight them individually. Finally, Borrobil knows ‘the Blue Men’s ways’ (p. 149), which enables Morac’s company to sail safely back from Orc to the lowland kingdom they started out from. In several of these cases the knowledge of ‘ways’ – meaning roads or paths – is the same as knowing ‘ways’ – meaning customs and habits; so that each episode effectively confirms Dickinson’s conviction that the shape of the land (or sea) helps to shape the behaviour of its inhabitants.
All the ways or paths I’ve just listed could be seen as extensions of a single way at the beginning of the novel: the narrow lane that takes the children to the mysterious wood on Beltane Eve, where they dance through the stone circle – ignorant of the ways or customs attached to Beltane – and encounter Borrobil. The link with the lane is pointed up when Donald and Jean find themselves in the narrow mountain pass on the way to the place where the giant is waiting: ‘Were they always to be shut in like this on every journey? Was every journey to be like that first journey of all, the journey to the wood?’ (p. 91). When Jean is kidnapped by the Men of the Long Boats she remembers the mountain pass, and this effectively links the kidnapping, too, to the narrow lane. The description of the lane provides Dickinson with one of his most memorable passages, and is worth quoting at length:
They climbed the third stile and found themselves in a narrow lane that led up the hill towards the wood. Now was the real beginning of their adventure. The lane twisted and turned, this way and that. Soon it was so narrow that Donald had to walk ahead with Jean following. On either side of them the hedgerows became thicker and thicker; and as they thickened so they began to bend over the lane, meeting one another overhead and forming a dark ceiling above two dark walls. Scarcely any moonlight came through. The lane was steep, narrow and dark. Before long Jean noticed that it was silent, too. In the undergrowth on either side there were no rustling or squeaking noises such as she had always heard in the evening hedgerows. All was quiet and still. Even their own footsteps made no sound. They seemed to be walking in soft shoes along a dark passage that had no ending; and no beginning either, for as they looked behind them they could see nothing but a wall of blackness that cut them off from the way they had come. Both were a little frightening. (p. 13)
Soon after this passage the lane acquires a mind of its own. At first it seems to be trying to prevent the children from reaching the wood at the top of the hill, then suddenly becomes ‘just as determined to help them when they were on the point of giving in and turning back’ (p. 14). As an exercise in building up atmosphere this is as impressive, I think, as anything in the Narnia books or even in Tolkien; and the notion of being stranded in darkness, unable to see forwards or backwards, past or future, unable to do anything except advance or retreat, beset on every side with menace, conjures up the moment of its writing – in the middle of the Second World War – with extraordinary potency. Any child reader of the time might have thought of the blackouts that accompanied every wartime air raid, quite apart from the symbolic significance of a road with no choices as to direction and no certainty as to destination. The children find themselves in a similar passage many times in the novel that follows; not least when trying to leave the fairy knoll, a process which involves a ‘strange journey in inky blackness, their only guide the white fire burning in the heart of the Moonstone’ (a magical object that recalls the Arkenstone found by Bilbo in the dragon’s lair). On each occasion Jean and Donald find themselves helped by benevolent forces – allies and objects they find on the way. One ally is the warrior-counsellor Giric, who spends his winters in an underground house that resembles a ‘long low passage in which he had to bend down as he walked, and which was completely lined with slabs of stone’ (p. 33). This ‘tunnel’, as Jean calls it, doesn’t go anywhere; it is a shelter, ‘safe from the wolves and other dangers of the black days’ and thus effectively domesticates the menacing approach to the wooded hill, much as Bilbo’s hobbit hole ‘means comfort’ rather than claustrophobia, and fits him for future underground adventures in the course of The Hobbit. But Donald and Jean must call on their own resources as well as those of their allies to ensure their survival, and their introduction to narrow passages by way of the lane proves crucial to their ability to see their way through the other narrow passages and underground chambers that beset their journeys with Borrobil.
The darkness of the lane may also suggest the darkness of the forgotten past, above all the so-called Dark Ages of Britain’s own history, between the time when rising sea levels made it an island and the earliest tentative efforts at historiography. Dickinson does not, I think, use the phrase ‘Dark Ages’ in his own history of early Scotland, instead shedding light on the first human inhabitants of the landscape through the wordless script provided by leftover artefacts: prehistoric dwellings, tools and other objects unearthed from their long temporal journey underground. Borrobil himself is concerned with bringing light to darkness; this is the objective of all the adventures in which he takes part – the securing of a peaceful and fertile future – and he articulates his concern with intellectual as well as actual illumination when he first meets the children. After explaining the meaning of Beltane in terms that Donald and the reader both find puzzling – ‘Beltane means the end of the Black King’s rule and the beginning of the White King’s reign’ – he goes on to tell his young acquaintances: ‘[I]t’s very important to know these things. If you don’t know them you’ll never know where you are’ (p. 20). Sure enough, Borrobil’s knowledge of the landscape and customs of ancient Scotland proves invaluable time and again in the adventures that follow, just as an intimate knowledge of Britain’s geography and practices proved crucial to the island’s defence against the menace of Nazism. The Black King, we eventually learn, is an embodiment of Winter, while the White King represents Spring, and the inevitability of the Black King’s defeat is confirmed by the past; it has always happened in years gone by, so it will happen in the future too, no matter how slow and painful the process of winning victory. There could hardly be a more comforting conclusion to reach in a novel written in time of war.
In the course of this post I’ve mentioned several times the debt Dickinson owes to Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which was first published seven years earlier. One more debt is worth mentioning, first as evidence that Dickinson’s debt to The Hobbit is a self-conscious one, and secondly as another example of certain key differences between the texts. When Borrobil meets the children he bids them good morning, and tells them he is ‘at your service’ (p. 19) – a phrase any reader will recognise from the greetings given to Bilbo by the many Dwarves who come to visit his hobbit-hole in The Hobbit’s first chapter, ‘An Unexpected Party’. Soon afterwards, Borrobil and the children embark on a discussion of the phrase ‘good morning’ which recalls a similar discussion of the phrase by Bilbo and Gandalf. You’ll remember the exchange from The Hobbit well, I’m sure:
‘Good Morning!’ said Bilbo, and he meant it. The sun was shining, and the grass was very green. But Gandalf looked at him from under long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat.
‘What do you mean?’ he said. ‘Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?’
‘All of them at once,’ said Bilbo. (p. 14)
A little later, Bilbo uses the phrase to mean ‘goodbye’, and Gandalf tells him: ‘What a lot of things you do use Good morning for! […] Now you mean that you want to get rid of me, and that it won’t be good till I move off’ (p. 15). In Tolkien’s hands, an utterly conventional phrase becomes both a neat illustration of the convention-driven world of Bilbo and his fellow hobbits – none of whom will have any truck with those ‘Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things’ adventures (p. 14) – and a display of the adventures that lie concealed in the most conventional of phrases, in the form of double meanings and the possibility of talking at cross purposes. In Tolkien’s hands, in other words, ‘good morning’ becomes a riddle, and Adam Roberts has shown us how central the philosophy of riddling is to Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
In Borrobil, by contrast, the phrase is uttered by the Gandalf figure – the children’s all-knowing guide through the ancient country to which they have been transported – and becomes an illustration of the distinction between their world and the world they have entered. When first uttered, in the mysterious woods to which the children have just travelled under cover of darkness – near the Beltane fires and the stone circle through which they have just danced – the conventional greeting has the transformative effects of a powerful spell:
‘Good morning,’ said a strange voice. And at the self-same moment the fires of burning pine-logs disappeared; the standing-stones seemed to become higher and more majestic; the ring itself seemed to become wider and more spacious; the night seemed to change to the half-light of dawn; and a fresh wind blew. (p. 17).
Borrobil confirms the spell-like nature of the phrase by uttering it three times (and though he says it once more, this seems to me to serve as a kind of summary, since he draws attention to the number of repetitions on each of its previous utterances – ‘for the second time’, ‘for the third time’ – and appears to the children after the third, marking the completion of the spell). Donald much later reflects on the series of threes that govern their magical journey throughout its length: ‘But what a queer world this was! Three riddles in verses. Now three verses to be completed. Three magic tests with Sulig. Yes! And three biscuits and nine standing-stones! […] Why was everything in threes?’ (p. 152). Three is, of course, an ancient magic number, and though Dickinson never says this in so many words, the children recognise at once how the thrice repeated phrase ‘good morning’ seems not only to describe the state of the world but somehow to have brought it about:
‘I think I like you,’ confided Jean at last. ‘But why did you say “Good morning” when it must be quite late at night?’
‘Yes,’ added Donald, knowing that to talk about the weather was much the best way of beginning any conversation[,] ‘And why has the night suddenly changed and become like morning? It seems funny, somehow.’ (p. 19)
‘Good morning’ has here made morning – or something ‘like morning’ – and Borrobil answers the children by explaining that they themselves have made the spell that made morning through their own actions: by dancing through the stone circle on Beltane’s Eve ‘with summer joy’, which is ‘the most magic-making thing I know’ (p. 22). Their actions are ‘like telling the White King [of Summer] that he’s won already, or the Black King [of Winter] that he simply cannot win’. So the children themselves have brought the past to life, and will return from the world of the long-dead to the living present once the battle between the Black and White Kings has been achieved in the final chapter. That is why ‘the darkness of your night suddenly changed to the light of a past day’ (p. 22); and that is why Borrobil said ‘good morning’, since the words accommodate all the serendipities or good coincidences involved in what the children did. Quite apart from the fact, Borrobil adds, that it really is a good morning: ‘It looks like being a fine day. And Morac looks like having the sun with him when he fights the dragon’ (p. 22). Dickinson’s thoughts on ‘good morning’, in other words, take Tolkien’s thoughts on the phrase and expand them to encompass all the ebullience and optimism of the narrative that follows.
One might go further, and suggest that it makes of the novel a sort of spell to defeat the Nazis, and invites the children of Scotland to take an active part in completing the spell. And the other thing that phrase does, as I’ve suggested, is to indicate that Dickinson was paying direct homage to Tolkien in his own children’s novel – one of the earliest authors to do so. This is perhaps not too surprising given that he was writing a fairy story – with actual fairies in it at one stage – and that he had a close association with the University of Saint Andrews. I don’t know for sure if he was at Saint Andrews in 1939, the year that war broke out; but I think it quite possible that he had at least heard about Tolkien’s famous Andrew Lang lecture on fairy stories, given at the University on 8 March (Dickinson himself delivered the Andrew Lang lecture at Saint Andrews in 1951). An account of the lecture could have led him to Tolkien’s own fairy story; or maybe he had already read it to his children, Susan and Jane. Either way, his little book anticipates the explosion of Tolkienian fantasy in the 1960s, not least Alan Garner’s first book, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960). Written fourteen years before TheWeirdstone, it’s high time this charming and deftly crafted novel was reinserted into the landscape of fantasy fiction.
 William Croft Dickinson, Borrobil (Harmondsworth: Puffin Books, 1977), p. 21. All quotations are taken from this edition.
 For a detailed account of Dickinson’s life from an academic perspective see John Imrie, ‘William Croft Dickinson: A Memoir’, The Scottish Historical Review, vol. 42, no.133, Part 1 (April 1963), pp. 1-12.
 J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit or There and Back Again, facsimile of the first edition (London: HarperCollins, 2016), p. 198. All quotations are from this edition.
 Borrobil points out, however, that this is not the only kind of dragon in existence: ‘all the dragons I have seen killed have all been killed in different ways, for every dragon is different from every other dragon, and no two dragons fight alike’ (Borrobil, p. 35).
 For Dickinson’s account of the major fortified places of Scotland see Scotland from the Earliest Times to 1603 (London etc.: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1961), p. 6.
 Jennifer Westwood and Sophia Kingshill (eds.), The Lore of Scotland: A Guide to Scottish Legends (London: Random House Books, 2009), p. 257.
 Similar dragon-inspired names occur in Tolkien’s Farmer Giles of Ham (1949). After taming the dragon Chrysophylax the titular farmer becomes known as ‘Lord of the Tame Worm, or shortly of Tame’ – which is Thame, not far from Oxford – while another town nearby, ‘where Giles and Chrysophylax first made acquaintance’, became known as Worminghall, pronounced ‘Wunnle’, based on Giles’s family name of Worming. See Farmer Giles of Ham (London: George Allan and Unwin and Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974), pp. 74 and 77.
 Westwood and Kingshill, The Lore of Scotland, p. 257.
 See Adam Roberts, The Riddles of The Hobbit (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
 As a wise woman puts it in Hollie Hunter’s Shetland-set fantasy The Mermaid Summer (1988), ‘three is the number […] that is at the root of all magic’. The Mermaid Summer (London: Lions, 1990), p. 119.
[This piece was written for a conference, ‘Dark Fantasies: Aesthetics of the Nightmare in the 20th Century’, organised by Sheila Dickson and Hans-Walter Schmidt-Hannisa, which took place at the Goethe Institut, Glasgow, on 11 and 12 May 2023. The conference marked the opening of an exhibition featuring the art of Caspar Walter Rauh and Frank Quitely, which is why the piece begins with a comparison of Peake and Rauh. Warm thanks to Sheila and Hans-Walter for inviting me to participate.]
The British artist Mervyn Peake and the German artist Caspar Walter Rauh were born within a year of each other. The careers of both took off in the 1930s. Both entered into creative dialogue with contemporary movements such as Expressionism, Surrealism, New Romanticism and Fantastic Realism, without becoming fully attached to any of them. Both men’s careers were interrupted and profoundly reshaped by the Second World War, and the art of both has long been associated with fantasy and the fantastic. Both were fascinated by grotesque bodies marking the intersection between humans, beasts and trees; both illustrated the fairy tales of the brothers Grimm; both penned their own fantastic stories. Between them, in fact, they offer striking case studies relating to the emergence of fantasy and the fantastic in the verbal and visual arts as among the most resonant responses to the cataclysmic middle years of the Twentieth Century.
For both men, the cataclysm found its birth in the human mind, and in Peake’s case, at least, in his own unconscious. His art exposes disturbing parallels between his lifelong creative impulses and the impulse to dominate or wreck the world, as manifested first in the career of Adolf Hitler and later in the threat of global nuclear war. I’d like to consider what I’ll call Peake’s fantasy of complicity in relation to his last masterpiece in prose, a ‘long short story’ called ‘Boy in Darkness’. This novelette was first published in 1956 as one third of an anthology, Sometime, Never, reprinted the following year as ‘A Ballantine Science Fiction Classic’. The other two contributors were William Golding and John Wyndham, whose novelettes, set respectively in ancient Rome and the time to come, make up the first and second parts of the collection under the headings ‘The Past’ and ‘The Future’. One might, then, have expected Peake’s text – the third and final part – to come under the heading ‘The Present’, but instead it was designated ‘The Dream’. Dreams pervade this little collection, from the transient vision of an alternative Roman history conjured up by a Greek inventor in Golding’s ‘Envoy Extraordinary’ to the dream of a near future with no men in it in Wyndham’s futuristic narrative ‘Consider Her Ways’. The book as a whole is the product of a period infatuated with Freud, which recognised that sleep takes up a third of a person’s lifetime and sought to represent the pervasive influence of dreams on contemporary culture through all available media, from paint, fur and feathers to household appliances. For artists working in this period, the distinction between dream and wakefulness was barely valid, and a serious attention to dreams – and their dark siblings, nightmares – was an urgent necessity if the modern world was to be fully accounted for, and perhaps restored to some semblance of health.
There’s no direct indication in ‘Boy in Darkness’ that the Boy protagonist is asleep and dreaming, but the story begins with him throwing himself on his bed in a teenage huff, and a sense of nightmare suffuses the text from this point onwards. The source of the nightmare is the dissolution of boundaries: between dream and reality, childhood and adulthood, play and earnest, humans and beasts, past, present and future, and above all between good and evil, as defined by religious institutions, politicians and moral philosophers. All these boundaries had, of course, already been breached by the time Peake wrote his story, largely thanks to the First World War, which weakened or destroyed all the old grand narratives. But ‘Boy in Darkness’ addresses their dissolution with unique intensity, re-affirming the contemporary sense that life itself had become a dream, and demonstrating how rival forces were engaged in a struggle for possession of the modern dreamscape.
The contemporary movement in art most concerned with dreams was of course Surrealism, which sought access to the unconscious through automatic drawing, psychoanalysis, and close attention to the dream life of the artist. Peake’s links with Surrealism mostly came through association. His wife, the artist Maeve Gilmore, has been linked to the Surrealists by a recent exhibition of her work at Studio Voltaire, whose website compares her work to that of Eileen Agar, Leonora Carrington and Ithell Colquhoun (Peake drew pencil sketches of Colquhoun in 1939). One of Peake’s closest friends of the 1930s was the Surrealist painter and set designer Leslie Hurry, who illustrated three of his poems. Another friend was Dylan Thomas, closely associated with Surrealism at the time, whose poetry had a powerful influence on Peake’s early verse. We don’t know if Peake visited the London International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936, but given that he was teaching at the Westminster School of Art at the time it’s hard to imagine he didn’t. He could well have read the famous introduction, by the art critic Herbert Read, to the anthology that accompanied the exhibition, Surrealism (1936). And if he did, he might have found several things in it that resonated with his own concerns.
In his introduction Read argues for a close affinity between the Surrealist movement and a well-established fantastical strand of the English literary imagination, which includes ballads, the Gothic novels of Mary Shelley and Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis, the Prophetic Books of Blake and the nonsense of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. Lovers of Peake will notice how closely this list aligns with his interests: he illustrated Coleridge’s ballad The Ancient Mariner, Stevenson’s Gothic novel Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Carroll’s Alice books, as well as writing a number of ballads, several novels and short stories with many Gothic features, a poem on Blake and a great deal of what he called ‘Nonsence’. For Herbert Read, Surrealism was a form of Romantic art which, by taking account of the unconscious as well as the conscious life of human beings, achieves what he calls ‘super-realism’, as against the restricted ‘realism’ of much art and fiction. Realism, Read argues, acknowledges only the conventions recognised by the conscious mind and so fails to represent the full range of human experience, as does the reason-and-rules-based approach known as ‘classicism’. Romantic surrealism, by contrast, maintains a constant tension between reason and the life of the unconstrained imagination as encountered in dreams. Read’s essay culminates in an account of the transformation of a dream he had into a (very bad) poem, as a means of demonstrating the techniques by which an unconscious experience can migrate into literary form. The poem in turn serves to confirm the fact that ‘In dialectical terms there is a continual state of opposition and interaction between the world of objective fact – the sensational and social world of active and economic existence – and the world of subjective fantasy’. This opposition and interaction, Read goes on, ‘creates a state of disquietude, a lack of spiritual equilibrium, which it is the business of the artist to resolve’. Writing poems or stories based on dreams is one way of transacting this ‘business’, and to do justice to dreams artists must feel ‘unimpeded by the irrelevant standards of morality’ – morality being no more than a set of conventions or codes subject to change with each new generation. Read’s essay, in other words, sets out radically to destabilize conventional notions of good and evil, identifying the fantastic art of the Surrealists as a crucial tool in that emancipatory process.
A more radical approach to dream, which did not seek to ‘resolve’ its contradictions, was published three years later by another of Peake’s friends, the poet Walter de la Mare. Angela Carter described de la Mare as a Surrealist, presumably on the grounds of his lifelong obsession with the oneiric; and though he never joined this or any other movement, his mammoth introduction to his anthology Behold, This Dreamer! – published in the year the War broke out, 1939 – could have served as a field guide to dreams for Surrealist artists. For de la Mare the distinction between waking and sleeping is always uncertain. The border between the two states defies cartography, waking dreams are as common as sleeping ones, and what recollections in tranquillity we may have of dreams is only ever achieved in our waking moments, contaminating them with conscious thought. A section of his introduction is titled ‘Day-Dreams’ and concerns the phenomenon of ‘reverie’: a kind of waking sleep in which the mind spins subjective visions from what Read calls ‘objective fact’. Peake famously entitled one chapter in his novel Titus Groan (1946) ‘The Reveries’, sinking his reader into the daydreams of his principal characters as if in response to de la Mare’s essay. Another section of the introduction to Behold, This Dreamer!, ‘Day-Life and Dream-Life’, asserts that waking experience is no more coherent than that of sleep. Reality, de la Mare points out, is made up of random elements – ‘the clump and clatter of a country horse and cart, the demoniac scream of a motor horn, the rumble of a distant train, the crowing of a cock, a maid polishing a brass door-handle, the barking of a distant dog’ – with no rational connection between them except for their simultaneous reception by a pair of human ears. And he goes on to point out that we sometimes lose certainty as to whether we’re awake or asleep, selecting a recent international incident to drive home the point:
Few experiences […] can have exceeded in intensity and dread that of living through the recent European crisis[…]. Yet even then, on the brink of that abyss, how many of us must have paused, as I did myself for one moment, at the inward enquiry, ‘Is this a dream?’
The reference here is to the September Crisis of 1938, when Britain and France sought to avert war with Germany by handing over part of Czechoslovakia in response to German aggression. The logic for doing so – that it would ensure peace – was quickly shown to be no logic at all, and the appeasement of Hitler branded Britain and France as directly complicit with Nazi expansionism. The prospect of impending war awakened by the Crisis, then, is for de la Mare a real-life nightmare, and his response to this brutal intrusion of dreams into reality was to publish two successive anthologies – Behold, This Dreamer! and Love (1943), to the second of which Peake contributed a poem – that focussed on dreams rather than nightmares, intimacy rather than conflict. If the world was in the grip of a dream, these collections imply, perhaps the most committed of dreamers could somehow help to alter the kind of dream it was…
At the same time, de la Mare’s own dreams as reported in Behold, This Dreamer! are packed with acts of disturbing aggression and retribution. One dream involves his murder of an elderly woman and his vain attempts to conceal the crime by mopping up her blood. Startled by something, he spills the bucket of blood he has collected, allowing it to run all over the floor, while simultaneously the blood-red light of dawn spills in through the window like a premonition of the crime’s discovery (p.71). In another dream he imagines that the house where he committed the murder has been sold without his consent, meaning that someone will certainly find the corpse in the locked room where he left it (p. 72). In another he sees himself punished for the murder by being tortured on a machine with many wheels (p. 74); in still another he sits awaiting execution, then makes a sudden dash for freedom and is shot dead by a guard (p. 75). All the atrocities of the Twentieth Century seem to be visited on the poet in his sleep, marking him out as the man responsible for them and promising to track him down with the same closed circuit of elusive but deadly logic that trapped the nameless narrator of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman (c. 1940), or the unfortunate Josef K in Kafka’s The Trial (1925, translated 1937).
Peake met de la Mare when he drew his portrait for the London Mercury in 1936 – the year of the International Surrealist Exhibition, and the year when Peake’s writing career began to take off. From 1937, Peake’s verse was widely published in magazines, and it was de la Mare’s encouragement that led him to submit his first collection, Shapes and Sounds (1941), to Chatto and Windus. Peake’s fascination with dreams was almost on a par with the older poet’s, and three at least of his published works take the form of dream visions: the short story ‘The Weird Journey’, first published in 1948; ‘Boy in Darkness’ (1956); and the children’s play ‘Noah’s Ark’, written in the 1950s. Interestingly, all three of these texts have religion at the core. In ‘The Weird Journey’ the protagonist falls ‘wide awake’ to find himself striding like a clockwork giant along a Dali-esque beach surrounded by multicoloured parrots, who carry books of the Old Testament in their beaks. ‘Boy in Darkness’ contains a monstrous Lamb which is clearly a perversion of the Lamb of God, while in ‘Noah’s Ark’ a young child falls asleep to find himself in the story from Genesis, caught up in a conspiracy of carnivorous animals against Noah, the only person who can guide their vessel through the stormy seas of the scriptural Flood. Peake grew up as the son of dissenting missionaries in China, and married a Catholic whose religion he found hard to stomach (as did Gilmore herself, eventually). It’s not surprising, then, if his dream works vividly represent the actual or threatened dissolution of faith, from the dismembered Bible of ‘The Weird Journey’ to the suicidal plot to take over the ark in the children’s play. And ‘Boy in Darkness’ goes one step further, making the Boy himself complicit with faith’s dissolution, a double-dyed blasphemer against the oppressive faiths of his dreamworld, and thus a stand-in for the blasphemer-artist himself. If de la Mare’s dreams made him a murderer, Peake’s made his protagonist a god-killer, completing an artistic trajectory that began in his pirate fictions of the 1930s, around the time when he met de la Mare.
The symbiosis between art and violence was already present in Peake’s early novel fragment, Mr Slaughterboard (c. 1935), whose titular protagonist is a pirate captain who regularly kills off members of his crew ‘in the cause of artistry and to prove the inevitabilities of the illogical’. A few years later, during the war, Peake drew a series of pictures designed to display his talents to the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, from whom he sought employment. Titled ‘An Exhibition of the Artist Adolf Hitler: The New Order’, these consist of images with conventional academic titles – ‘Landscape with Figures’, ‘Sea-scape’, ‘Peasant Dance’, ‘Study of a Young Girl’ – each of which depicts a wartime atrocity. The landscape shows refugees moving through a corpse-strewn city, the seascape a young woman adrift in water after her ship has been torpedoed, ‘Peasant Dance’ shows a man and woman dying in a hail of bullets, while the young girl has been shot in the chest. Most striking of all is ‘Self-Portrait’, which shows the artist Adolf Hitler staring at himself in horror, with haunted eyes, sweat beading his forehead, mouth compressed. He is presumably looking into a mirror as he draws his own likeness; but the artist who really drew him was of course Mervyn Peake, and the notion that the artist might see himself mirrored in Hitler is profoundly unsettling, as unsettling as the notion of wartime atrocities as a form of art. The conceit is lent a perverse wit by the fact that Hitler really was an aspiring artist, and the whole project raises a number of questions about the function of art in wartime; if to represent acts of violence, real or imagined, does this make the artist somehow complicit with those acts, like the appeasers who accepted the logic of Hitler’s violence by rewarding him for it? To draw a man like Hitler convincingly, wouldn’t one have to imagine oneself as his double, see things through his eyes, even if only for a moment? Did Peake’s own propensity for writing about art as violence, à la Mr Slaughterboard, predispose him to achieve this feat of identification? Presumably the War Artists’ Advisory Committee didn’t want the public pondering such questions, since the picture series was never published in his lifetime.
But the concept of the violent artist continued to haunt him. The antihero of the first and second Titus novels, a young man called Steerpike, is an accomplished draftsman and actor whose technical skills are utterly divorced from any emotional investment in his art. What delights him, in fact, is mimicking the effects of art to worm his way into the trust of art’s admirers – and to make a horrible art of his own by accomplishing ingenious murders and getting away with it. As Peake informs us, ‘He could not sink himself. He was not the artist. He was the exact imitation of one’. And the possibility of that ‘exact imitation’ – with no artist’s heart at the core of it – seems to rock Peake the artist with recurrent anxieties over his own status as creator. Was he in fact the artist, or was he merely the mimic, his art no more than a parasitic copy of the great artworks he admired? Was he unable to sink himself, to emotionally invest in his creations? Peake’s nightmare throughout his life is his coexistence with the artist’s double – indistinguishable from the true artist – whose skills are placed at the service of totalitarianism, i.e. of the shaping of life itself into an exact copy of the worst of nightmares, a cold, calculating, self-interested mind. At other, more stable times in history this vision of the artist-dictator might have seemed excessive; but at a time when the political reality surpassed the most appalling of dreams, the notion that there might be any such thing as ‘excess’ in politics may no longer have seemed entirely valid.
Like the Titus books, ‘Boy in Darkness’ begins in the setting of Gormenghast Castle, a vast and ancient edifice which has been governed by nonsensical rituals for thousands of years – though the name of the castle is never mentioned in it, erased from the protagonist’s and reader’s minds like names themselves in Alice’s wood of forgetting. The rituals performed in the castle resemble a religion whose meaning has been leeched from it by the passage of time; but they derive an oppressive authority from their titanic architectural setting, a setting whose veneration lies at the core of each ritual. Stone itself is the object of worship in Gormenghast, and the bodies and minds of its mortal denizens are expected to mimic stoniness in their dedication to the singular functions laid down for them by long-dead zealots. In Titus Groan the bodies of the kitchen cleaners called the Grey Scrubbers seem to be morphing into stone, while the Earl of Groan’s personal servant, Flay, has kneecaps that resound at every step, as if succumbing to petrifaction. Yet in ‘Boy in Darkness’, there is growth at the heart of this implacable structure. Tiny organisms sprout in abandoned cellars and lost staircases; creatures scamper with a ‘husky scuffling sound’ across the floors of abandoned halls; and the central human figure in the Gormenghast hierarchy, the Earl of Gormenghast – the Boy himself, whose name, ‘Titus’, is never mentioned, like the name of the castle – stands on the cusp of maturation. In the novels Titus Groan and Gormenghast, change was deemed blasphemy by the castle’s rule-driven Masters of Ritual; but in ‘Boy in Darkness’ change suffuses both the castle and all its denizens, represented here by the hordes of excited, sweating children and dynamic riders who participate in the night of celebratory ‘high barbecue’ with which the story begins. And as the narrative unfolds, change itself becomes the focus of a struggle over the soul of art and the artist, enacting the struggle over art’s position as the recorder and agent of change in the twentieth century.
The story divides itself into two distinct parts. In the first part, the young Earl rebels against the rigid structure of the castle hierarchy – a structure driven by arbitrary conventions, like Read’s notion of Classicism – by making up his mind to run away. The Boy’s rebellion could be taken to represent the insurgency of Romanticism against the regulations of the Enlightenment, and by fostering such rebellion – limited as it is – the castle could be said to nurture creativity; indeed, the sheer absurdity of its ceremonies makes them seem endlessly creative. In the second half of the story, the Boy flees from the familiar confines of the castle into a changeless wasteland: a post-apocalyptic Dead Zone littered with industrial remains, ruled over by a monstrous sentient Lamb addicted to change – or rather, to changing other people’s bodies, then trapping them in his unchanging service till the end of their days. The wasteland itself is a corpse, no longer useful as a healthy biosphere, or as the site for a farm or working mine, while the disused mine where the Lamb resides is littered with the bones of his worn-out slaves, whose transformation at the Lamb’s cold hands eventually kills them. In the first part of the story, the Boy of the title represents the creativity and vitality of childhood; he tells himself stories, then acts out those stories using himself as his principal player, escaping from the castle into the wilderness beyond in imitation of his reveries and sleeping dreams. In the second part, the Lamb is the heartless pseudo-artist of Peake’s nightmares, the ersatz changes he effects representing a calcification and compression of the human bodies he gets into his power. Once changed by him, none of his formerly human subjects can ever change again, and this changelessness, it’s implied, is what destroys them, militating against the life principle that sustains their flesh and blood.
The two parts of the story represent the past and the future, which converge on the dream of the present much as they did in the famous treatise by J W Dunne, An Experiment with Time (1927). Dunne’s influential book argued that dreams consist in equal parts of fractured images of the past and the future, and he went on to devise a complex theory to account for the elements of precognition he detected in his own dreams; Peake’s friend and first editor, Graham Greene, was deeply interested in Dunne’s theories. The first part of the novelette, in which the Boy figures as a feudal lord in a Gothic castle, represents the past, while the second, set in a terminally damaged landscape full of evidence of lost technologies, represents the future – most obviously in the scientific ‘experiments’ conducted by the Lamb, whereby he transforms human beings into their closest animal equivalents (spiders, lions, goats, monkeys) in order to subject them to his own sadistic uses. The Boy finds himself stranded between these two timelines, desperate to free himself from the oppressions of the feudal past, desperate to resist and overcome the oppressions of the technocratic future – an embodiment of the uneasy post-war present. But he also takes on aspects of both past and future. By rebelling against authoritarian ritual he upholds the decidedly modern philosophy of individual self-determination – a form of anarchy, of the kind with which Peake became partly aligned in the post-war years, as James Gifford has argued. Meanwhile the Boy’s one-person ‘insurrection’ against Gormenghast echoes the revolts, protests and revolutions that have characterised the twentieth century, from the Russian Revolution to the General Strike to the independence movements in Ireland, India, Burma and the rest. But he also incites the Lamb’s servants to rebellion using feudal ideas, promising them ‘golden thrones’ of their own to replace the Lamb’s quasi-ecclesiastical seat; and he deploys a tool from the mythic past – a long knife or sword – to destroy the Lamb at the story’s conclusion. Adrift in a nameless, history-less space – like the Boy stowaway in Peake’s play about Noah’s Ark – he has to construct his own personal narrative to escape the controlling narratives imposed on him against his will, and makes use of all available resources from past, present and future to steer himself to some form of resolution. In doing so he becomes contaminated by the sins both of his ancestors and his descendants, losing an ‘innocence’ that has been usurped by the sheep-shaped dictator of the industrial wasteland, and finally coming to embody the complex condition of the modern artist.
Loss of innocence – that vexed term, with its Christian and Blakean connotations – lies at the centre of the narrative, along with a changing sense of how creativity operates in different contexts. In Freudian terms, the Boy stands on the threshold between the latency phase and the genital phase of a child’s development; his adventure begins on the evening of his fourteenth birthday. The traversing of that threshold is marked by the story’s transition from an unfocused fantasy of exploration in the opening paragraphs to the wielding of a phallic sword in the final showdown. At the beginning the Boy seeks refuge in an act of imaginative art while lying in bed: he studies a stain on the ceiling of his bedroom and transforms it in his mind’s eye into the map of an island fit for exploring, a pirate-infested zone of adventure reminiscent of Stevenson’s Treasure Island – Peake’s favourite reading as a boy, and a books he illustrated as an adult. But this purely imaginative process fails to satisfy him on this day of transition, and instead he chooses to enact adventure using his body as well as his mind, fleeing from the Castle into the rule-less wilderness beyond.
Here he finds many more stains, for the desert or wasteland beyond the wilderness is covered with toxic deposits:
Tinges of glaucous colour, now here, now there, appeared before his eyes. They lay thinly like snail-slime or glistened from the occasional stone or along a blade of grass or spread like a blush over the ground.
But a blush that was grey. A wet and slippery thing that moved hither and thither over the foreign ground.
If the story is a dream, at this point it has become an erotic one, as signalled by the word ‘blush’: suffused with the shame Freud identified as a key sign of transition to the genital phase. Soon afterwards, the Boy encounters two male persons, half man half beast – Goat and Hyena – one of whom constantly employs the language of affection (‘my dear’, ‘my love’) and invites the Boy to stroke his mane (p. 40). This pair carries the Boy to a yet more disturbingly sexualized being in the form of the Lamb, who is both a human child – with a child’s plump hands – and an ancient predator of unfathomable malice, possessing a child’s shrill voice that articulates a murderous adult lust directed at the Boy. This being, too, lives in an environment rife with stains. The objects in the subterranean room he inhabits, lit by innumerable quasi-ecclesiastical candles and lamps, give off a ‘kind of vivid stain; almost as if the lit objects burnt – or gave out, rather than absorbed, the light’ (p. 57), like certain radioactive substances. Later the Lamb himself succumbs to spontaneous staining after touching the Boy’s face with an icy finger: ‘a kind of covetous and fiery rash spread out beneath the wool, so that the milk-white curls appeared to be curdled, in a blush from head to feet’ (p. 82). One reader of the novelette, Peake’s biographer Malcolm Yorke, found its transition from childhood fantasy to implied child sexual abuse by adults too disturbing to condone, especially if the story might have been intended for children. But the anthology in which it first appeared makes it perfectly clear that it was aimed at adults, and that the story it tells is in effect the story of the end of ‘innocence’ in a far wider context than that of a single child’s slow growth to maturity, with all the dangers that entails.
In any case, the Boy never sees himself as ‘innocent’. He begins the story in a rage brought on by the humiliations he has had to endure over the last two days, in the course of his birthday rituals. These include being presented with gifts which must at once be returned to the castle vaults; sitting for hours at the edge of a ‘gnat-haunted’ lake (p. 23); planting a tree without assistance, wearing a hat ‘like a dunce’s cap’ (p. 23); and sporting a necklace of rotting turkey feathers, which must again be returned in the morning to a pointless official called the ‘Hereditary Master of the Quills’ (p. 26). All these details resemble punishments rather than celebrations, and imply that the concepts of misdemeanour and punishment have little meaning in a castle that has lost all sense of proportionate cause and effect. The Boy’s mini-insurgency, meanwhile, though natural under the circumstances, represents for the denizens of Gormenghast a blasphemous revolt against the castle more or less equivalent to Satan’s revolt against his Maker. The link with Satan is strengthened by the fact that the Boy’s rebellion involves breaking promises: ‘Had he forgotten,’ the narrator wonders, ‘the pledges he had made as a child, and on a thousand subsequent occasions? The solemn oaths that bound him, with cords of allegiance, to his home[?]’ (p. 25). The parallel is undermined, a moment later, by its diminutive scale: the Earl proposes only to rebel for a single day (p. 25). But it’s immediately reinstated by a sudden outbreak of verbal blasphemy on the part of the young revolutionary: ‘Oh, damn the Castle! Damn the Laws! Damn everything!’ (p. 25). Uttered in his bed, between waking and sleep, the concept of sacrilege followed by damnation continues to resonate throughout the Boy’s nightmare, culminating in his encounter with a genuinely devilish being, the toxic Lamb. For instance, when the Boy flees from the castle he encounters a pack of strange dogs which help him to cross a river into the wasteland. The Boy sees their yellow eyes as ‘ineradicably wicked’, and the name of their species blasphemously inverts the word for God, yet the Boy identifies with them as a fellow living creature and sends up a ‘prayer of gladness’ for having met them (p. 36). Woven through the first half of the story, then, is the association of the Boy with transgression; while in the second half of the narrative he is increasingly aligned with the monstrous Lamb who is his purported enemy.
Indeed, the second part of the story mirrors the first, with an anticipated ceremony or ritual – to be accomplished when the two beast-men who serve the Lamb bring the Boy to their Master – followed by a second act of insurrection, whereby the Boy substitutes the Lamb for himself as victim in the sacrifice, then recrosses the river with the help of the dogs on his journey homewards. And there are further mirrorings in both parts. At one point in his castle bedroom the Boy catches sight of himself in a looking-glass, which prompts the first of his acts of rebellion, the tearing off and trampling of the turkey-feather necklace. And in the second part, the Boy seeks to gain power over the Lamb’s hybrid man-beast servants by mirroring the homoerotic language used by Goat. ‘What a mane!’ he tells Hyena admiringly: ‘How proud and arrogant are the hairs of it! With what a black, torrential surge do they break through your snow-white shirt’ (p. 51). A little later he mirrors the doctrine of the Lamb, promising the beast-men not only thrones but hordes of ‘slaves’ of the kind the Lamb created for himself when he fabricated man-beasts out of men (p. 88). In the process he transforms the man-beasts into potential mirrors both of the Lamb and of himself, awaking in them a thirst both for Lamb-like tyranny and for the ‘ulcer’ of Boy-like ‘insurrection’ (p. 88). Even the Boy’s failure fully to bring the man-beasts on side – they are too terrified of the Lamb to rise against him – means that, mirror-wise, the Lamb is unable to use the man-beasts for his own purposes, giving the Boy the chance to kill him with Hyena’s sword.
In the Hall of Mirrors which is ‘Boy in Darkness’, the Boy and the Lamb could be taken to represent rival aspects of the creative artist; aspects that overlap and converge at crucial moments. The Boy turns the stain on his ceiling into a piratical Treasure Island, complete with a wandering fly as the explorer he can identify with as he spins his stories – the explorer he embodies as he flees the castle (p. 25). Like Stevenson before him, he shows little awareness of the colonial heritage that forms the backdrop of all pirate adventures, all explorer stories; for him tropical islands are no more than exciting stage sets, only rendered more amusing by the presence of native peoples (branded ‘Indians’ or ‘cannibals’) or non-native but conveniently huntable wild goats. The Lamb, on the other hand, uses people and places rather than ceiling stains and flies as the raw material for his murderous art, like Peake’s artist-Hitler. He stains the once immaculate landscape over which he rules with his lust for dominion; and his two surviving works, Hyena and Goat, make explicit the colonial nature of his artistry. Goat, after all, serves as the staple diet of British castaways and naval frigates, while the hyena is the most despised of indigenous beasts in the colonised territories of Asia and Africa. The Lamb’s history contains hundreds of creatures such as these, metamorphosed into beast-men by his psychic powers; however, all but two have died before the Boy’s arrival, anticipating the long slow death of the British Empire to which Peake bore witness, as a son of missionaries and a product of the British boarding school system, designed as it is to churn out soldiers, entrepreneurs and administrators to control the colonies. The products of the Lamb’s artistry are mostly mockeries of creatures from British colonised territories: the debased ‘king of beasts’ or ‘golden cat’, the man-lion (pp. 69-70), the ‘delicate and nimble’ man-gazelle (p. 70), the ‘mantis-man’, the crocodile-man, and strangest of all the ‘inordinate fish that sang like a linnet’ – a denizen of the colonised field of human dreams. The Lamb himself is a travesty both of the Christian Lamb of God – seated on a throne worthy of a bishop or Pope, and finally sacrificed at the hands of the Boy – and of childhood ‘innocence’, rendered literally hollow by decades and centuries of merciless, self-serving artistry imposed on the bodies of others, whether children or enslaved adults. Even the Lamb’s fascination with making beast-men for his own amusement links him to boyhood adventure stories, such as H G Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) or Edgar Rice Boroughs’s The Monster Men (1913). The Boy of the story’s title – a lost soul like Wells’s Prendick or Burroughs’s Number Thirteen – meets the Lamb in darkness (that could be an alternative title for the novelette), and finds himself capable of both mimicking and destroying it. To destroy the Lamb he uses an instrument from the old imperialist romances – a sword – and so sets himself up as the artist-hero of his own narrative. But the interwovenness of the narratives of Lamb and Boy – for instance, in the way the Boy works on the minds of his beast-man captors, Hyena and Goat, as he seeks to gain some power to face up to the Lamb – renders them disturbingly reflective of each other. By the end of the story it’s easy enough to think of the Boy as some kind of hybrid child-beast, or Boy-Lamb, whose nature contains both the inventive freedom of childhood and the hunger for power of a fully-fledged dictator.
The narrative, as a result, embodies the dissolution of simplistic moral systems as discussed by Herbert Read in his introduction to Surrealism. It could be read as a commentary on Read’s account of the Surrealist’s contempt for such moral systems, which are only ever devised to uphold the interests of the powerful:
The Surrealist is opposed to current morality because he considers that it is rotten. He can have no respect for a code of ethics that tolerates extremes of poverty and riches; that wastes or deliberately destroys the products of the earth amidst a starving or undernourished people; that preaches a gospel of universal peace and wages aggressive war with all the appendages of horror and destruction which its evil genius can invent; that so distorts the sexual impulse that thousands of unsatisfied men and women go mad, millions waste their lives in unhappiness or poison their minds with hypocrisy. For such a morality […] the Surrealist has nothing but hatred and scorn (p. 86).
The Boy’s bid for power ends, in fact, with the refusal of any such system. When he kills the Lamb, the creature’s last remaining victims, Goat and Hyena, undergo a transformation into the humans they once were, losing the allegorical names which had pinned them into their beastly bodies and becoming ‘two ancient men’, one with a ‘sloping back’ no longer locked into the characteristics of the carrion eater he embodied throughout the story, the other with the ‘sideways shuffle’ that formerly marked the self-styled Capricorn or goat (p. 92). The ancient men do not become the Boy’s slaves or servants; they merely lead him out of the mine and part from him and each other ‘without a word’ (p. 92). In doing so, they dismantle what had threatened to become a horrible alternative Pilgrim’s Progress penned by the Lamb, whose characters can only ever signify the narrow range of qualities indicated by their names: Lamb, Goat, Hyena, Boy (or Monkey, as he nearly becomes). As a missionary’s son, one of Peake’s default adventure stories would have been Bunyan’s masterpiece, and a quotation from it provides the epigraph at the beginning of Titus Groan. Like ‘Boy in Darkness’ Bunyan’s book is ‘delivered under the similitude of a dream’, but its tightly controlled allegories have none of the waywardness of actual dreams, being governed by the ‘gospel-laws’ of a stern God. At least, so Bunyan hopes, and expresses those hopes in his verse ‘Apology for his Book’; though the section of that ‘Apology’ selected by Peake to introduce Titus Groan suggests that the resultant allegory will have something Surreal about it (‘Dost thou love picking meat? Or wouldst thou see / A man i’th’clouds, and hear him speak to thee?’). The Boy’s return to the castle at the end of the story consigns the Lamb’s allegory to the realm of dream or nightmare, and makes of the Boy’s ancestral home, by contrast, an uneasy refuge.
Walter de la Mare thought of the European Crisis as a nightmare, in part, perhaps, because of the complicity with Nazism with which it stained British democracy. Peake’s nightmare, in ‘Boy in Darkness’, is a composite British artist who is complicit both with colonialism and with Nazism, both with the feudalism of the past and with the totalitarianism of the present and future. As a portrait of Peake’s moment in history, then, it’s as disturbing – and perhaps as enlightening – as anything else we have. Herbert Read might have called it a work of ‘super-realism’. It’s clearly, at least, a substantial work of art.
 The term ‘long short story’ is applied to ‘Boy in Darkness’ by Maeve Gilmore in her foreword to the story, as reprinted in Boy in Darkness and Other Stories, ed. Sebastian Peake (London and Chicago: Peter Owen, 2007), p. 17. All quotations are from this edition.
Sometime, Never: Three Tales of Imagination by William Golding, John Wyndham, Mervyn Peake (New York: Ballantine Books, 1962), front cover.
 In ‘Consider her Ways’ it’s taken by the first-person narrator – at least at first – as a literal dream: ‘I must still be in a suspended state,’ she tells herself, ‘very likely with concussion, and this was a dream, or hallucination’ (Sometime, Never, p. 68). The dream content of ‘Envoy Extraordinary’ is more complex, fabricated from its three central characters’ radically different perspectives on the world – one fanciful, one apparently practical but equally idealistic, one balanced between fancy and practicality – each held in suspension by the improbable encounter between the owners of those perspectives which the story relates.
 Studio Voltaire, Maeve Gilmore: https://studiovoltaire.org/whats-on/maeve-gilmore-2022/.
 Richard Warren’s account of Hurry sets him firmly in the context of the surrealists and neo-romantics: https://richardawarren.wordpress.com/tag/leslie-hurry/.
 Herbert Read (ed.), Surrealism (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, n.d.), pp. 46-56.
 For Peake’s ‘Nonsence’ see the introduction to R. W. Maslen and G. Peter Winnington (eds.), Complete Nonsense, Fyfield Books (Manchester: Carcanet, 2011), pp. 1-2.
 Read, Surrealism, p. 21. Peake describes himself as a ‘Romanticist in Painting’ in a letter to Gordon Smith; see Smith, Mervyn Peake: A Personal Memoir (London: Victor Gollancz, 1984), p. 46. See also James Gifford on Peake’s loose affiliation with New Romanticism, in Gifford, A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism and the Radical Fantastic (Victoria, BC: ELS Editions, 2018), p. 122 ff.
 Walter de la Mare, Memoirs of a Midget (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), introduction by Angela Carter.
 De la Mare’s interest in reverie goes back to the beginning of his career; he introduces a character called ‘Reverie’ into his chapters on The Pilgrim’s Progress in his first novel, Henry Brocken (1904). See de la Mare, Henry Brocken (London: W. Collins, n.d.), chapters IX and X.
 Walter de la Mare, Behold, This Dreamer! (London: Faber and Faber, 1939), p. 68.
 See Peake’s poem, ‘Au Moulin Joyeux: September Crisis, 1938’, in Peake, Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen, Fyfield Books (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), p. 43, for the writer-artist’s reaction to the same events.
 The picture series has never been reproduced in its entirety; most of the pictures listed can be found in Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art, ed. G. Peter Winnington (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 2006), pp. 66-69. ‘Sea-scape’ can be found in Mervyn Peake, Writings and Drawings, ed. Maeve Gilmore and Shelagh Johnson (London: Academy Editions and New York: St Martin’s Press, 1974), p. 46.
 Mervyn Peake, The Gormenghast Trilogy (London: Mandarin, 1992), p. 116.
 A similar process of petrifaction takes place in the closing part of Herbert Read’s only novel, The Green Child (1935). See Read, The Green Child (London: Grey Walls Press, 1945), pp. 124 ff.
 My edition is this one: J. W. Dunne, An Experiment with Time (London: Faber and Faber, 1973).
 Peake, Boy in Darkness, p. 59: ‘the experiments were without precedent.’
 See James Gifford, A Modernist Fantasy, p. 122 ff.
 Peake, Boy in Darkness, p. 25: ‘Insurrection! It was indeed nothing less.’
 For the Lamb’s usurpation of innocence, see Peake, Boy in Darkness, p. 79: ‘they heard a sound of bleating, so faint, so far away; it was like innocence or a strain of love from the pastures of sweet April.’
[In the week when Loreen of Sweden won the Eurovision Song Contest, I’m putting up a post – quite coincidentally, of course – about one of the great Swedish writers of speculative fiction, Karin Tidbeck. This post marks the return to functionality of The City of Lost Books after a period offline caused by a bug in one of the University of Glasgow’s servers. The episode taught me about the precariousness of one’s online existence. Tidbeck taught me about the precariousness of human existence itself, as mediated by language. My thanks to Helen Marshall and Kim Wilkins, organisers of the What If Consortium sponsored by the University of Queensland, for introducing me to Tidbeck’s work.
The post contains many spoilers, so only read on if you’ve read Amatka or if you don’t mind spoilers too much!]
In an interview for BOMB Magazine, Karin Tidbeck mentions a familiar distinction between two kinds of writers: ‘There’s this concept of writers being either “plotters” or “pantsers”: plotting a story out before they start, or flying by the seat of their pants. I’m definitely a pantser’. Both of Tidbeck’s novels emerged from a long period of gestation, taking the author by surprise as they underwent a slow transition from pupa stage (a collection of poems that became Amatka , a set of linked short stories that became The Memory Theater ) to full-blown novelistic butterflies. Improvisation is clearly integral to Tidbeck’s writing process; and while this is true of many writers, in Tidbeck’s case it’s improvisation that has been honed by long practice in a highly specialised field of performance.
The prizewinning novelist and short story writer is also a participant in Nordic LARP – Live Action Role Play – for which they have been writing scenarios for most of their life. It’s no coincidence that their latest novel has a theatrical title, or that Amatka acknowledges an entire supporting cast of co-enablers in its composition: as Tidbeck puts it, for them ‘It truly takes a village; so many people have been helpful in the creation of this story’ (p. 217). LARP performance, too, involves input from many equals who combine to generate a work of collective improvisation, as a cast of players act out roles based on a pre-agreed scenario, without an audience apart from the actors themselves. Its topics can be as lighthearted as a fantasy adventure set in another world or as serious as imagining yourself into the position of queer people in the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, of Palestinians under occupation, or of a planet where your gender is determined by the time of day when you were born. LARP discloses the intellectual, emotional and psychological value of play, the politics of improvised performance, the performativity of social interaction, the possibility – indeed, the necessity – of cultivating mutual trust and mental flexibility no matter what your age, as a means of collectively reinventing the forgotten past and imagining a better future. To me, Nordic LARP sounds frightening as well as fascinating, and I’d love to try it. For Tidbeck, it may well be fundamental to the way they think. And this may in turn be key to understanding the unique experience offered by their extraordinary novel Amatka, and what it has to say to a world in Climate Catastrophe, led by leaders hellbent on preserving the status quo.
In 2021 I took part in an online workshop at which Tidbeck spoke with passion about Nordic LARP – one of a series of workshops organised by the What If Consortium, about which I’ve written elsewhere. In the same interview Tidbeck spoke about their fascination with learning languages – they speak six in all, and have translated their own work from Swedish to English and from English to Swedish in an exercise that clearly fascinates them as much as any other creative process. Translation can resemble a live action roleplaying game, in that the restrictions it places upon you highlight the different possibilities available in different situations, the different available styles encourage you to see the world through different lenses, the different grammatical structures suggest different underlying philosophies for different linguistic communities. Tidbeck describes their own variety of written English as an invented composite dialect, made up in equal parts of the British English they learned at school and the American English which is ‘the language of MTV and the movies, and, later, science fiction paperbacks’. As a speaker of British English, I notice the Americanisms in Tidbeck’s style, as I read, more than the British dialectical usages which are my native tongue. And for me these Americanisms work an unusual kind of magic. They superimpose a New World grammar on what seems an Old World story – its Old World-ness suggested both by the Slavic and Nordic names of its characters and by the echoes of European history in the society they inhabit. This effect is perfect for Amatka, which takes as its setting a colony or cluster of colonies established by people from the world we know (mostly Russians and Swedes, to judge by their names) in a nameless place whose location is never identified. The colonists fled to that world with the aim of establishing the ‘ideal society’ (p. 44); but the new place – the planned utopia – has an air of being worn out from the opening sentence of the narrative. Its social structure recalls that of other experiments in collective living such as Soviet Communism or the Marxist-Leninist communes of the 1960s and ’70s, and the story that unfolds there seems familiar from countless literary dystopias from We to A Clockwork Orange, 1984 or Kafka’s The Castle. For me, its New World language suggests a veneer of up-to-date modernity thinly applied to a system that unimaginatively echoes long-outmoded efforts to refashion the world along egalitarian lines through the imposition of increasingly authoritarian and inflexible rules, driven by a ‘one-size-fits-all’ mentality. This mentality even extends to the clothing the colonists wear; none of the characters in Amatka wears garments that fit, and everything is designed for function rather than style: ‘She looked a little peculiar with the hat on; her hair stuck out from under the rim and the earflaps stood straight out. She pushed the hat back a little, tucked her hair in, and tied the flaps. That made it look a little better’ (p. 25). Clothing, in fact, plays a central role in the novel, just as costumes do when pooled and exchanged in a theatrical game among friends.
If the names in the book are often Slavic, Tidbeck themself has suggested that their work has a loosely Nordic character, associating it through certain cultural markers with a cluster of countries in Northern Europe: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. In an Afterword to their dazzling story collection Jagannath  Tidbeck lists a few of these markers – a love of festive rituals, the idealization of the working class by the ‘intellectual left’, the soft Swedish dad, all of which find echoes in Amatka – while describing Nordic culture as at once profoundly susceptible to fantastic ways of thinking and unaccommodating when it comes to providing space for fantastic narratives in print. ‘One sensation peculiar to the Nordic culture of my upbringing,’ Tidbeck writes,
is that we really do live on the edge of fairy country. With a small population that’s mostly gathered in towns, vast stretches of countryside could contain any number of critters. Many folktales, and other stories I grew up with, such as the ones by Finno-Swedish author Tove Jansson, show reality as a thin veneer behind which strange creatures move.
This is the North that’s familiar to me, a British reader who lived in Stockholm as a small child and inherited books, comics, pictures and objects from that epoch of my family’s history. It’s the North of the Nobel Prize-winning author Selma Lagerlöf, whose The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (mentioned briefly in The Memory Theater) presents its readers with a folkloric map of Sweden packed with diminutive tomten, underwater cities, statues that come to life at night, giant butterflies, and articulate beasts and birds; of Astrid Lindgren, whose The Brothers Lionheart imagines a succession of Nordic worlds opening out from one another at the point of death, making each new world a link in a never-ending bracelet or chain; of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, set in a world where the dead watch the antics of the living as if in a paper theatre, while children with strange abilities watch the antics of both the living and the dead; or of Ali Abbasi’s movie Border, where customs officers on Sweden’s national borders themselves exist on a border between mortals and the hidden world of the trolls. For Tidbeck, the borders between the human world and fairy country are rendered permeable by the metamorphic possibilities of language, which in turn react to and have a direct impact on the metamorphoses undergone by our bodies in response to emotion, diet, maturation, thought, curiosity, desire and fear. The thin veneer that exists in Nordic countries between the known and the unknown for her consists (among other things) of words, clothes and skin, all of them infinitely permeable surfaces hiding strangenesses unacknowledged by biologists or the compilers of dictionaries.
Amatka is set in a location on the other side of the veneer that separates our world from the strange, the unsettling, the potentially lethal. It’s a place where things are made with words in a very literal way, changing shape if the word that defines them is not regularly repeated aloud by their users, and preferably marked on them too with writing or a printed label. But this nameless place is hardly a conventional fairyland, Nordic or otherwise. It’s a colony committed to conformity, set in a landscape whose uniformity echoes the values of the colonists, with miles of uninhabited tundra interrupted by featureless bodies of water utterly bereft of the inventive fauna of the folktales. In this place improvisation is deemed to be highly dangerous, and childhood games that imaginatively transform one thing to another pose a very real risk of materially transforming the renamed objects into something new – or of reducing them instead to a semi-liquid, quasi-organic ‘gloop’, the primordial substance mined from the soil of this alien world to construct – well – more or less everything the colonists think they need. Metaphors are dangerous, too, since they can reshape the things they describe into something different, or else more gloop. In deference to this constraint on the inhabitants of their invented world, Tidbeck tells their narrative without recourse to metaphor, unfolding the adventures of the protagonist in pellucid prose whose refusal of ornament – once one notices it – takes on the virtuosic quality of an exercise in Oulipo, the French literary game that imposes apparently arbitrary restrictions on its practitioners such as writing an entire novel without the use of the verb ‘to be’. Tidbeck has explained that metaphors are barely used in Swedish, but their absence from Tidbeck’s English makes the language seem pared-down, reduced to essentials, a suitable instrument for a strictly regulated life lived on a frontier on the brink of the unknown – and on the brink of dissolution through the unregulated use of words.
The plot of Amatka is simple. Vanja has been sent to the colony Amatka by the newly-founded private company she works for, which has asked her to assess demand among the colonists for new hygienic products to replace the mostly state-made hygienic resources they have used till now. Her work, then, is concerned with the treatment of human skin, that organic barrier between the colonists and their alien environment. Her researches find that the Amatkans are subject to many skin diseases and conditions, such as psoriasis and eczema, symptomatic of their difficult relationship with the world they inhabit – or perhaps with the society they are part of, whose every waking moment is marked by the stress of maintaining the shape of the objects around them, from toothbrushes, suitcases and bedclothes to the contents of the factories or desks they work at (if they don’t keep naming them they turn to gloop). In the course of her work she falls in love with a citizen of Amatka, a medic called Nina, and decides to stay. At around the same time she unearths evidence of a resistance movement against the Central Committee of the colonies, the governing body based in her home colony of Essre to which all the Committees of the other colonies are finally answerable. Despite her love of the conformist Nina, Vanja finds herself steadily drawn into the resistance movement, largely through her friendship with Amatka’s librarian, a man called Evgen, and the poetry he invites her to read, the work of a colonist called Berols’ Anna. The novel closes with a revolution which involves the breakdown of the verbal tyranny that has governed the colonists’ lives, and a similar breakdown in the composition of their bodies, above all their skins, rendering them impossible to focus on, unbarricaded, unshielded, naked to the world. Something similar happens to language in the revolution, as it ceases to be policed and instead becomes creative and infinitely malleable, the verbal equivalent of the gloop that can be reshaped into anything you choose by those who dare to commit themselves to the idea of revolutionary reshaping.
The trajectory of the novel, then, is from rigidly rules-based organization to improvisation, from strict linguistic and social limitations to unrestricted verbal and social fecundity, from fear of the place in which the colonies are located to a passionate embrace of it, a quest to know it, to merge with and reinvent it, and in doing so to enter a new phase of evolution. The experience described may be not so very different from the experience of learning to improvise in a Nordic LARP community, starting out tentative and awkward, growing in confidence as the performance unfolds within the limitations of the pre-agreed plot. Alternatively, it resembles the philosophical shift that will be necessary to live in harmony with the environment – to discover, in fact, that we are the environment, and cannot segregate ourselves from it with an artificial barrier constructed from the languages of otherness, authority, human self-interest, mental discipline, technological control. In this novel, opening up to other people (falling in love, for instance, as Vanja does with Nina) is no different from opening up to our reliance on the intimidatingly strange material world of which we are part.
If Amatka is a narrative of social revolution, it is also a tale of (partial) psychological healing. The book opens with Vanja in a state of unacknowledged depression, having recently recovered from a medical problem that involved treatment, we later learn, in a fertility clinic. The roots of her depression are deep ones. Her father was arrested as a dangerous dissident when she was a child, having first made her his confidante when he indulged in whispered, alcohol-fueled rants against the system late at night, when the rest of the family were asleep in bed. Unhappy with her job, negligent in her verbal naming or ‘marking’ of her possessions – as a result of which she soon finds her toothbrush and her suitcase reduced to gloop – without a partner or close friend in her home town of Essre, dominated by her more conformist older sister, her ‘general disinterest’ can be measured by the amount of savings she has available to spend on warm clothes when she first arrives in Amatka (p. 25); up till now she has had nothing and nobody to spend her credits on. Her depressed state of mind reflects, for the reader, the depressed state of the colonies, cut off from the world they came from and equally cut off from the world they now inhabit.
This state of isolation and exile is brilliantly evoked in the novel’s opening chapter. Here we find Vanja taking the train journey from Essre to Amatka on board a train which embodies the colonists’ collective material and psychological condition. The passenger car in which she travels is full of bunks, having been ‘built for migration, for transporting pioneers to new frontiers’; but its generous capacity is pointless in a world where exploration has given way to a daily struggle for survival within the perimeters of established settlements (p. 3). Everything in it is strictly functional, from the ‘rigid and uncomfortable’ seats to the bland food provided in the pantry: ‘stew with a base of mycoprotein’, to be eaten cold from a can, root vegetables to be cut into chunks and eaten raw (pp. 3-4). It has no windows, cutting the passengers off from the drab but somehow terrifying landscape through which it travels – partly to suppress their fear of it, partly because there is nothing to be seen outside in any case ‘except the empty steppe: billowing grass, some hillocks, and combes’ (p. 5). Most disturbingly of all, everyday objects in the carriage have their names written on them in ‘large and comforting letters: WASHBASIN, PANTRY, TABLE’, the labels loudly proclaiming the possibility, even the likelihood of their imminent disintegration (p. 4). Everything is utterly familiar and undifferentiated, yet the continuing existence of these familiar things cannot be taken for granted; the fear felt by the colonists is that the things they need will be taken away from them by irresponsible acts, or merely by forgetfulness, by neglect. One is reminded of the way that the presence of imagined objects needs to be constantly reaffirmed in a mime show or improvised scenario, the way they can disappear or lose shape if the performers fail to reinforce their presence by naming them repeatedly or shaping them often with their hands and bodily movements.
The colonists’ identities, too, are always on the verge of dissolution – Vanja’s more so, perhaps, than the rest, since she has little self-confidence, little certainty about where the system ends and her personality begins. The standardization of their names identifies them as little more than objects or functions in space and time. Vanja’s full name, for instance, ‘Brilars’ Vanja Essre Two’, starts with a fusion of her parents’ names (Britta and Lars), followed by a Slavic personal name, and ending with the name of her home colony and where she stands in the chronology of her parents’ offspring (she is their second child, hence ‘Two’). Their bodies, too, are both grimly functional and neglected. When Vanja looks at herself in a mirror on the train she sees that she has lost weight since the last time she noticed her appearance, that ‘her belly no longer sagged from fat but from loose skin and flaccid musculature’ and that ‘her legs were no longer firm’; she has been reshaped, in fact, by the demands of her dull and sedentary job, so that her clothes no longer fit her (p. 5). Her skin no longer fits her either, with the result that to her own eyes she looks much older than she is, accelerating towards an annihilation as complete as that of an object reduced to the gloop of which it is made. We later learn that the records of individual citizens kept in the annals of the colonies are reduced to the minimum after their deaths in order to save paper: name, date of birth and death, profession, cause of death (p. 121). The functionality of the records surrounds the dead inhabitants of the colonies with a featureless waste of unrecorded time, as drably grey and uniform as the landscape surrounding the colonies.
Gradually, however, as the book goes on, we learn that Amatka and the other colonies can be seen as a form of Utopia. That, at least, is how the ruling Committee of each colony describes them and how their more conformist citizens understand them: a perfectly egalitarian community set up in opposition to unspecified but clearly inferior alternative ways of living, now lost in the wasteland of the unrecorded past. But it is a deeply ambiguous Utopia. Indeed, all utopias can be seen as ambiguous, since utopianism itself combines two contradictory impulses: towards radical change (from the material conditions under which the writer and their readers live) and towards total stasis (most Utopias are strictly policed to prevent transition to a less desirable state). Anyone with a preference for change will find themselves stifled by inertia, anyone rendered anxious by transitions will be maddened by the inevitable tendency of societies to mutate and slide into new shapes. All Utopias, then, are Dystopias for some, and Amatka’s Utopia is no exception, since any dissent is savagely punished and any form of eccentric behaviour can be interpreted as dissent. Like the original Utopia of Thomas More, each colony is organised on geometrical principles, with an administrative tower-block in the centre – the all-seeing watchtower of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon – and rings of residences, factories, plant houses and recreational facilities arranged around it, under its eye. The worst of punishments fits the crime for which it is most often exacted, loose or disruptive talk: it involves the surgical destruction of the speech centre in the brain, rendering the citizen inarticulate and hence incapable of participating in the life of the commune. One might call this poetic justice – irresponsible speech being rewarded with enforced silence – if it were not for the fact that enforced silence implies an incapacity for poetry of any kind, just or unjust.
So far so familiar; but Tidbeck is unusually dextrous at making her Utopia seem homely as well as intolerable. Its most loyal citizens can be affectionate, funny, compassionate, mutually supportive; its rebels are not motivated by hatred or anger so much as affection, compassion, mutual supportiveness, even a sense of humour, recognising as they do the sheer absurdity of trying to keep things stable in a world predicated on the need for metamorphosis (birth, growth, death, eating, drinking, successive sleep states, etc. etc.). Both sides, too – loyalists and rebels – are intensely conscious that they themselves have conspired to construct the oppressive Utopia from which some seek to be liberated, and that consensus or complicity is essential both for maintaining the commune as it is and for overthrowing it and installing a new order. The alternative Utopia of the rebels is closely related to the Utopia of the loyalists, being compounded of the same elements, the same desires and dreams and needs. The personalities involved in both sides are not crudely distinguished as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Some of the revolutionaries, like the sarcastic retired doctor Ulla who cohabits with Nina and Vanja in their communal dwelling, can be infuriating, while Nina’s commitment to the colonies is based in a sense of responsibility to other people’s welfare which has also (presumably) driven her to become a nurse, and which makes her deeply sympathetic to Vanja’s loneliness and depression, despite the opposite points on the political spectrum each of them occupies. Even at the point where Nina betrays Vanja to the ruling Committee near the end of the book, she does so in the conviction that the committee will do what’s best for Vanja as well as for the commune; it’s their merciless treatment of Vanja that finally pushes Nina into joining the revolution. For Nina, Vanja’s body is a utopian space; the visitor from Essre is in her eyes a ‘beauty’, despite Vanja’s own conviction of her ugliness and premature ageing, and despite Vanja’s attraction to the dissidence Nina fears (p. 96). By this means – by seeing her as beautiful – Nina instils fresh confidence in Vanja, a confidence that ironically helps to propel her into the arms of the revolution (to which Nina later follows her).
Other Amatkans, meanwhile, have little interest in either conformity or rebellion. Nina’s children by her housemate Ivar, for instance, have been separated from their parents since birth, raised like the rest of the commune’s children in the so-called ‘Children’s House’. They find it hard to get used to being with their parents each weekend, and spend much of their time staring at adults and clinging to one another as representatives of the sole community they really recognise. Ivar, meanwhile, who works in the commune’s subterranean mushroom farms despite his dislike of being underground, and who is unable to obtain a transfer to more congenial work in the Plant Houses, conforms even while he succumbs to acute depression. This isolates him from his fellow colonists, precisely thanks to the damage caused him by his willingness to conform. Ivar, then, is neither a heroic revolutionary – since he never rebels – nor a loyal colonist – since his eventual suicide is treated by the Committee as the ultimate betrayal, a permanent withdrawal of necessary labour from the struggling collective he was expected to preserve. For both Nina and Vanja, on the other hand, he is a beloved friend. Each of them recognises in him an aspect of themselves, despite their seemingly contradictory positions, and each appreciates him for what makes him himself: his love of strong coffee, his delight in making things grow, his tenderness toward the children he shares with Nina. There are no absolutes in Tidbeck’s commune, since there are no absolutes in the words, sentences and personalities from which it is constructed.
It is no surprise, then, that both colonists and revolutionaries share a love of poetry. The ‘wholesome fun’ enjoyed by the Amatkans at gatherings every Sevenday includes regular readings of poetry written by Berols’ Anna, who is revealed in the course of the narrative as the de facto leader of the revolution (p. 61, p. 159). Poems, of course, can be descriptive, and Anna’s poems meticulously describe the various Plant Houses or agricultural conservatories that form the outer circle of Amatka. When Vanja first reads them she finds they stabilize the mundane objects and actions they invoke, as all language should when responsibly uttered: ‘In Berols’ Anna’s poetry, all things became completely and self-evidently solid. The world gained consistency in the life cycle of plants, the sound of a rake in the soil. Breathing became easier’ (pp. 44-5). As Vanja grows in sympathy with the revolution, however, the same poems offer evidence of change as well as of stability – of becoming as well as of being: the plants are always growing and dying, the rake moves the soil, sound and breath dissolve in air. And some poems harbour double meanings thanks to the possibility of reading them ironically, like Berols’ Anna’s hymn in praise of the Central Committee (‘We thank them / for telling us/ What to do / what to do’), which Vanya assumes at once to be ‘sarcastic’ (p. 78). The novel’s readers, meanwhile, might understand the poems as doing both, making and unmaking as they are read or spoken. In them, revolution and reactionary conservatism are shown to spring from the same soil, the same impulses towards shaping a community and a home.
Colonists and revolutionaries also share a love of music. The wholesome fun of a Sevenday gathering involves singing and dancing as well as poetry recitals. Some of the singing is dedicated to preserving the shapes of things against the danger of change; this includes the ‘Marking Song’ taught to young children so that they can name the necessary objects they make use of every day, protecting those objects from disintegration into gloop. When the revolution finally breaks out, the revolutionaries sing a version of the same song, though with a different intent: an opening out of the song’s meaning rather than a closing down and consolidation of that meaning. What the revolutionaries sing is ‘something like “The Marking Song,” but the words were different; it was a song of making and unmaking, a song not of things that were, but that could be’ (p. 216). Indeed, music plays a key role in the revolutionary transformation of Amatka. At one point in the novel, after a minor falling-out with Nina, Vanja makes her way to the lake outside the commune – a lake that has already begun to manifest signs of the coming change, since it freezes each night at sunset and unfreezes with a sound of thunder at the break of dawn, in defiance of the laws of physics. As she sits on the shore of the lake, Vanja sees an old woman standing nearby, holding a long pipe half submerged in the water. When the water freezes, the woman lifts the end of the pipe to her lips and begins to play it like an alp-horn, effectively turning the frozen water into a musical instrument, a tuneful communication system summoning fellow revolutionaries to her aid. Later, pipes begin to manifest themselves in the ground beneath Amatka, in the form of a mysterious network of tunnels that extend into the tundra beyond the city limits. Noises are heard in the tunnels – voices, buzzing, thunder – and later from the vertical pipes that give access to those tunnels, and which sprout from the ground beyond the city in increasing numbers. The pipes wail and groan like the pipes of a church organ, as if the ground itself were singing, or as if an improvised musical instrument were finding voice for the very first time. In their interview with BOMB Magazine Tidbeck speaks of their legendary great-grandfather who had only five fingers but who nevertheless built ‘an organ out of a sofa’; an interest in improvisation was clearly an integral part of their family saga long before they discovered LARP. The elderly revolutionary Ulla, meanwhile, reminds us that pipes or tunnels may be used for ‘travel’ as well as for making sound (p. 132). Music may be a repetition and affirmation of what’s known and loved, or it may transport us to strange new territories, like the train that carried Vanja to Amatka. In Tidbeck’s world it does exactly both, and revolution arrives like a remembered experimental tune, heavy both with nostalgia and with the joy of the unexpected, the innovatory, the yet-to-be.
The family likeness between reaction and revolution is embodied in the spaces where both are fostered. When Vanja finally learns (of course from the conservative Nina) how the revolutionaries left the city under the leadership of the poet, Berols’ Anna, to set up a rival commune on the featureless tundra, she discovers that the habitation they made for themselves differed little from the design of the colonies they had abandoned: ‘It looked sort of like a colony – a ring of little houses and a commune office’ (p. 169, my emphasis). But the sky above this new commune is alive and full of lights, unlike the grey unchanging skies above the old one, while the walls are painted not with the appropriate noun (‘wall’, ‘window’, ‘door’, and so on, lending solidity to the objects they embellish) but with representations of things ‘not there’, transforming them into narratives rather than nouns (tales of utopia, the no-place, perhaps) (p. 170). Apartments, too, can be spaces of revolution or reaction. When Berols’ Anna fulfils her promise to free Amatka – that is, to fulfil its potential to remake itself along radical lines – she is accompanied on her march to the colony by the old woman Ulla, who formerly shared an apartment with a group of friends from across the political divide. Living together in that apartment were the idealist conformist Nina, the unhappy conformist Ivar, the would-be revolutionary Vanja, and Ulla herself, the fully-fledged insurrectionist. Within that apartment were hatched both plans for liberation and plans to betray the liberators to the Committee. Each physical space in the novel, then, is a theatre, full of possibilities, yet constrained by a set of rules. Each performance in each of those spaces depends on an interaction between the performers, as a sentence depends for its sense on the interaction between its grammatical parts. Rebels need conformists to define themselves against; conformists are equally dependent on rebels to understand for themselves what needs to be suppressed, expelled or resisted. And individuals mutate from conformist to rebel, as Vanja mutates in the course of the novel, emerging from her isolation, depression and atrophy into the catalyst and herald of a new era.
Organs themselves in Tidbeck’s work are, so to speak, organic, mutating from one function to another, militating against the laws of biology. The skin is a fine example. Berols’ Anna writes poems about the Plant Houses that form the outer ring of the concentric circles of buildings that comprise Amatka. Her interest, then, is in what could be called the ‘skin’ of the colony, the protective architectural membrane that protects its interior organs from the perceived threat of what lies beyond. Yet the Plant Houses are already mixed with the Other, since the plants they contain spring from the soil of an alien world. So it’s no surprise, when the revolution breaks out, to see one of the Houses bursting apart to release a ‘stream of furiously flapping greenery’, while another sprouts ‘six unsynchronized, rickety legs’ and trundles off across the steppes in a bid for freedom (p. 212). Meanwhile the mysterious tunnels under the colony – the arterial conduits that convey the bacterium of revolution from one part of the communal body to another – spontaneously mutate into Plant Houses full of semi-sentient ‘fruiting bodies’, which were once the colonists who maintained the underground mushroom farms (p. 214). And skin itself often ceases to be a membrane, announcing its identity with the earth and its products, or with the abject inner organs, even as its owners struggle to keep it contained and in good condition, moisturized, blemish-free and snugly clothed. The eczema suffered by the mushroom farmers turns their skin into fertile ground for fruiting bodies, like the caves where they tend their fungi. When the people imagine or speak the malleable earth of this new world into new bodies – such as imitation cats or fish, sketchy copies of the nonhuman creatures they left behind in the world they fled – the bodies in question differentiate themselves from their lost originals by failing to distinguish between skin and flesh: their outer membrane envelops no bones, no veins, no organs, no brains, just undifferentiated gloop from head to toe, like living plasticine or clay (pp. 198-9). The earth of the colonies itself resembles either a membrane or an unprotected inner organ, instinct with life. When a neglected everyday object turns to gloop, the gloop feels somehow warm, alive and potent, capable of evolving into something – anything – under the right conditions (p. 175). Towards the end of the novel, Vanja even adopts a blob of gloop as a kind of pet, mutating it at will into useful everyday tools designed to further the revolution.
Yet the capacity for metamorphosis can be exploited for reactionary purposes as well as revolutionary ones. The past can be moulded by the Committee to erase narratives that threaten the integrity of the colonies; Berols’ Anna’s commune, which drew about a hundred colonists out of Amatka into the tundra, is reimagined by the Committee into a disaster which killed the colonists and their leader – thereby shutting down the narrative instead of opening it out, and putting an end to the possibilities of improvisation. The complexity of individual experience is retrospectively reinvented, thanks to the crudeness of the colonies’ records, into simple descriptors of life, job, death, and a set of dates. When the sensitive colonist Ivar discovers the hidden tunnels under the mushroom farm where he works, he is told that he is suffering from delusions; by erasing his account of the tunnels, reducing him to silence, the Committee hopes to wipe them out of existence – and will wipe him out of existence, too, if he persists in asserting the truth of his narrative. In the end, the contradiction between the Committee’s version and his own drives Ivar to wipe himself out of existence; and he accomplishes this by removing his outer membrane – his coat and shoes – and exposing his skin to the murderous cold of the freezing lake. Ivar’s suicide, in fact, represents his most radical act. He kills himself using a feature of the landscape which is impossible according to the laws of conventional physics, a lake that freezes and unfreezes nightly regardless of the prevailing air temperature or weather conditions. Ivar gives himself up to the new world, in other words, embracing it as the Committee will not. In response, the Committee erases even the barest record of Ivar’s life from its archives. But it cannot erase Ivar himself without erasing the community he was part of: his friend Nina, with whom he had children; the children themselves; his co-workers; the roommates who reacted to his story of the tunnels in different ways. In giving himself up to the world, Ivar shows the way to the revolutionaries, who eventually learn to become the place they find themselves in, as he did, giving themselves ‘to the world’ in a daring gesture of making and unmaking, hope and despair (p. 214).
Tidbeck’s dystopic Utopia, then, defines itself by its dangerous capacity to be two or more things at once, and in this it is closely related to the so-called ‘fairy country’ of European literature and folklore, despite its differences from familiar representations of that space. Tidbeck’s story collection Jagannath contains two stories set in that country, both of which were later incorporated or absorbed into The Memory Theatre. Both stories concern themselves with the human relationship with time, and in particular with our simultaneous desire to inhabit a world impervious to change and a world that is always changing. Time also, of course, has a central role in Amatka, not least as something that happens to one’s body (think of Vanja looking in the mirror, contemplating the way her own body has been altered by time and suffering, or her later contemplation of Ivar’s body, changed for ever by its period of suspension in the ‘frigid water’ of the lake [p. 154]). Bodies mark time, too, in both of the fairy stories in Jagannath. The first of them, ‘Augusta Prima’, tells us what happens to the body of an immortal being when she finds a watch. Once the watch is set in motion it changes its formerly changeless finder, who starts to age, while at the same time she becomes aware of the wearisome changelessness of the garden where she lives, which has preserved her in an immutable state up to the point when the clock began to tick. The discovery, too, makes something clear about the politics of fairy land: that the disconnected shreds of time it does contain affect the working classes – the unfortunate changelings who are stolen, enslaved and tortured by their fairy masters – very differently from the masters themselves, who remain unchanged from one generation of servants to another. Fairy land, in other words, like many other places, is a utopia for its rulers and a dystopia for its workers, though here the distinction between them is not merely confirmed but reinforced by their different experiences of chronology. The stolen children are ritually slaughtered when they reach maturity, in a bid to expel even the memory of time and change from the paradisal garden; while the immortals wake each morning at the beginning of what is effectively the same day. The children live in a state of nervous anticipation, perpetually fearful of a sudden change that will wipe them out of existence; the masters live in endless ennui, driven insane by the knowledge that everything everywhere will always be the same, and that there is nothing more to existence than what they have. And a somewhat similar temporal structure rules in Amatka, though the elements of it are slightly different.
At the beginning of Amatka, when Vanja boards the train to the colony where the rest of the novel is set, we learn that something strange has happened to time in the course of her journey. Long journeys in this new world can sometimes cause machines to malfunction, and her wristwatch gets ‘stuck at one o’clock’ because ‘mechanical things sometimes didn’t behave like they should between the colonies’ (p. 5). We might think of the tricks performed by time on long-haul journeys, or in SF stories that feature Faster-than-light-speed travel, or of the warpings of mortal time experienced by voyagers to fairy land such as Oisín, or by fantasy adventurers like the Pevensies in the Narnian chronicles. At the same time, Vanja notes in the mirror the signs of passing time inscribed in her own body; movement goes on, despite the lack of precision instruments with which to measure it, and this is also true of Oisín, who finds that he has aged when he gets back from Faerie. Augusta Prima’s fairy garden has a similar effect on mechanisms: ‘Mechanical things usually fell apart as soon as they came into the gardens’ domain’ (p. 116), dismantled by the will to immortality embodied in the garden by its creators, just as time has been rendered meaningless in the colonies by the ruling Committee’s systematic erasure of the past. In both train and garden, however, chronometers are rendered unfamiliar by Tidbeck’s descriptions of them: Vanja’s watch is ‘the clock on her wrist’ or ‘the little clock’ (p. 5), which gives it an unusual weight and mass for its size and function, while Augusta Prima’s watch is a ‘little machine’ with ‘Three thin rods […] attached to the centre’, moving round the disc ‘in twitching movements’ and making a noise like the beat of a mouse’s heart (115). The mouse analogy, in a realm that has by this stage in the story shown a propensity for casual cruelty to small, powerless beings such as the changelings, makes the watch sound vulnerable; but the strangeness of these two watches gives them an imaginative power beyond the timepieces we know from our own experience. As a result, Augusta Prima proves more vulnerable still, becoming seized by a desire to ‘know’ about the mystery of time as embodied in the watch, and gradually succumbing to physical change as her knowledge grows.
Vanja too, on arriving at Amatka, becomes afflicted with the desire to know, in this case about the mystery of Amatka’s past – a past embodied in the train which caused her watch to stop (the train is ‘built for migration, for transporting pioneers to new frontiers’, but its ‘capacity was pointless’ in a world where such frontiers no longer exist [p. 3]). Vanja’s quest for knowledge leads her to another apparently damaged machine, a giant subterranean contraption whose intended function – as an agent or symptom of change – is as mysterious to her as the watch’s was to Augusta Prima (p. 149). Like the watch, Vanja’s underground machine changes its discoverer, and with her the colony whose past she has been investigating; her interest in it sets it in motion and its motion restores the tunnels to their role as agents of travel, transformation and trauma. A similar extension of Augusta Prima’s experience of time to the rest of the fairy country is implied in the short story ‘Aunts’, where the inhabitants of a fairy glasshouse or orangery find themselves changed by a fleeting visit from Augusta Prima, who clutches a round, metal, ticking object: clearly the watch. Before this moment, the titular Aunts have existed as part of a perpetual cycle of birth, growth and death, sealed into the ecosphere of the glasshouse in perpetuity, self-fed and self-consumed. With the arrival of Augusta Prima and her watch the cycle is broken, and nobody knows what will happen next, either in the glasshouse or in the garden of which it seems to be the beating heart. Knowledge and time, then, are both creative and destructive, breaking down the composition of the objects and people caught up in their transactions, creating new possibilities from the breakdown, and triggering in the people who witness it either terror, delight, or both. And eternity too has a dual nature, locking its denizens into a happy circular dream, entrapping its victims in a recurring nightmare.
Knowledge, and the impulse to knowledge called curiosity, is a threat to the philosophy of stasis that governs both the fairy garden and the colonies. In the garden it is ‘common knowledge’ that time stands still, and that ‘Whenever one woke up, it was the same day as the day before’, a Groundhog Day of pleasure for the masters and torment for the children they have enslaved (p. 118). Augusta Prima’s sudden awareness that there may be other times and other ways of living gives her access to new knowledge which is far from ‘common’. Amatka too, as we’ve seen, is committed to repetition, since this is the only means of preserving its shape: ‘As morning comes,’ declares a poster in Nina’s bedroom, ‘we see and say: today’s the same as yesterday’ (p. 97). Vanja’s quest for knowledge about the past of the colony challenges this mantra repeatedly, as she discovers (for instance) that enormous chunks of the colony’s history have been strategically fabricated by its historians. If fairy country is a beautiful but dangerous illusion, kept in check by rule-based games such as parties and games of croquet, so too is Utopia, a collectively imagined space whose shape and extent is strenuously maintained by the policing of the inhabitants’ words and actions. It is kept in check by parties too, ‘games and organised play’ (p. 158) at each colony’s leisure centres, which ensure that even the citizen’s spare time is policed, observed and linguistically restricted. The key item of knowledge in both books is the recognition that the worlds in which they are set are no more than games, and that a player may choose to change the rules or leave the game altogether, although deciding to do so will put that player in mortal danger, according to the rules of the game they are choosing to leave.
The location of fairy country is notoriously uncertain; and the same is true of Utopia, whose name means ‘no-place’ or ‘placeless’. In Vanja’s world, the fact that the location of the colonies is unknown is one of the pieces of knowledge kept strictly hidden from the people by the Central Committee. Vanja’s father reveals it to her in her childhood in a whispered confession which gives the imparted knowledge both the delightful air of a bedtime story and disturbing connotations of child abuse, which is so often represented by the abuser as a shameful secret to be concealed from other members of the community. Lars’s whisperings to his daughter, in other words, are another of the ambiguous spaces with which this Utopia is filled. As Lars bends towards her in the dark, his beard tickling her cheek and his ‘whispered words’ smelling of alcohol, he imparts to her the explosive fact that ‘No one knows where we are. But we’re not allowed to say that’ (p. 39). At this point the reader finds themselves torn between the notion that he is imparting to her his inmost knowledge in a gesture of supreme parental trust, and the competing notion that such knowledge is too heavy a burden to be shared with a child; that this is, in fact, an irresponsible act on the part of a parent. Lars goes on to restate the fact of their placelessness as a bedtime story, like the most famous tale of that famously ambiguous tale-teller Lewis Carroll: ‘then he seemed to sober up and began to tell her a story about how people had found a hole in the world, and passed through, and ended up in this place. But where “this place” was, no one knew, not even the committee’ (p. 40). At this point Tidbeck seems to be reminding us that fairy stories, children’s stories, can serve as holes in the world through which we can glimpse the shapes of forbidden topics, though they withhold judgement as to whether or not a child might be harmed by such glimpses.
The link between Lars’s ‘hole in the world’ and Carroll’s famous rabbit hole forges another link to ‘Augusta Prima’, whose games of croquet on the lawns of the fairy garden – their chief aim being to break the heads of players and the enslaved children known as ‘pages’ – recalls the violent game of croquet in Alice in Wonderland, set in a garden which is metaphorically or potentially littered with severed heads. The tunnels that riddle the ground beneath Amatka recall the dream-maze threaded by Alice’s White Rabbit; the wayward workings of watches in Amatka and the fairy garden invoke the Mad Hatter’s squabble with time itself (since when, the Hatter tells us, Time ‘won’t do a thing I ask!’); while the curiosity of both Vanja and Augusta Prima recalls the unflagging curiosity of Alice herself, who finds Wonderland and Looking-Class Country ‘curiouser and curiouser’ as she plunges deeper and deeper into their interiors. Amatka, in fact, is more Looking-Glass country than Wonderland. In the second Alice book it’s Humpty Dumpty who declares that any word can mean exactly what he wants it to mean (or in Amatkan terms, make exactly what he wants it to make), while the loss of Alice’s name in the Looking-Glass wood is invoked by the identikit names bestowed on the colonists, or the permanent loss of speech imposed on dissidents as punishment by the regime. Key to both Amatka and the Looking-Glass country is the question of who is dreaming the whole shebang: in Alice’s case, whether it’s the Red King, Alice herself, Lewis Carroll, or the reader, while in Amatka the choices are Vanja (who dreams often, and often cannot tell whether she is dreaming), or the Central Committee, or the colonists, or Tidbeck and the reader, or a strange fusion of all these. After all, the colonists’ ruling committees are elected by the colonists, while Tidbeck (like a good LARP player) allows themself to be ruled by both colonists and committees for as long as they are writing, as does the reader, for as long as they are turning the pages of Tidbeck’s book. So the novel can be read as a commentary on the acts of reading and writing (both of which ‘take a village’, according to the acknowledgments), which can in turn be used as analogies for the workings of power in any given society or culture. The clear allusions to Carroll’s Alice books underscore the centrality of reading and writing to the narrative, as do the many acts of reading and writing performed by Vanja herself, whether she is borrowing the works of Berols’ Anna from the colony’s library or reading and storing away the records of Amatka’s citizens in the archives.
The Alice books have often been described as nightmares rather than dreams, with Alice under constant threat of being beheaded, driven mad, or having her personality denied or eroded. But Lars’s story of the ‘hole in the world’ also gestures towards another great work of literature: Ursula le Guin’s utopian masterpiece Always Coming Home (1985). In this book – published just one year after the date of the most famous of dystopias, 1984 – Le Guin imagines a future version of California in which humans live in harmony with the land, in a manner that consciously recalls the lives of the native Californian peoples whose cultures were the lifetime preoccupation of the author’s anthropologist parents, Theodora and Alfred Kroeber. In one story in Always Coming Home, a member of this future utopian community, the Kesh, finds his way through a ‘hole in the air’ into the urban California of the 1980s, when the book was written. He is horrified by the pollution, the absence of natural beauty, the noise and the bustle; but before he leaves, he spots one modern woman in the city crowd who is not like the place’s other inhabitants. Recognisably one of his own people – a woman of the Kesh long before the Kesh came into existence – she is conscious of her context as the others are not, stranded and isolated (it would seem) by having been born with an environmental outlook far in advance of her time. Many of Tidbeck’s short stories speak of similarly isolated individuals who find it hard to connect to their fellow humans; individuals who seem to have wandered through some hole in the world from some other place into our own. ‘Mom’ in ‘Some Letters for Ove Lindström’ is one example; the titular ‘Rebecka’ is another; so are the two sisters in ‘Reindeer Mountain’ and the dead human stranger from whose waistcoat pocket Augusta Prima purloins the watch. ‘Some Letters for Ove Lindström’ even contains an anticipatory echo of Vanja’s father: there are certain conditions, the narrator observes, that invoke for her the idea that there is something strange that exists very close to everyday reality, some location analogous to what Tidbeck calls the fairy country. ‘When I was little,’ the narrator observes,
I could sit for hours looking out the window. It could be because of a certain kind of music, or because it was dusk, or a certain slant of the light. There was a sensation in my chest, a churning. I couldn’t put words to it then. But it was a knowledge that there was something out there. That there was a hole in the world. And a longing to go there. (p. 24)
The passage is packed with experiences that get echoed in other Tidbeck stories: the weird ‘churning’ in the protagonist’s chest, which for Vanja in Amatka can represent the grinding of the gears of the machinery of desire, curiosity, or fear – all sensations closely related to one another in the effect they have on her body, and all of them invoked by her discovery of the mysterious machine in the tunnels beneath the colony. The word ‘knowledge’ is used in this passage as it is in Amatka, to signify the consciousness that there are things unknown, lacunae worth locating and confronting, not glossing over; things, in fact, that may never get taxonomized in the official historical or scientific records. There is ‘longing’, here, too, for things unknown, as there is in the novel; and this word is worth pausing over. At the end of the English edition of Jagannath Tidbeck lists a number of words they could not translate from Swedish, and one of these is ‘vemod’ (related, I guess, to the German Wehmut, and akin to the Japanese concept of natsukashii as Erika Hobart describes it here [https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20200119-a-uniquely-japanese-take-on-nostalgia]). Of ‘vemod’ Tidbeck writes as follows: ‘think of it as a wistful sorrow about something that is over or a quiet longing for something else. As a friend of mine put it, “smiling through tears”’ (p. 155). I don’t know if vemod is the word used in the Swedish version of the passage from ‘Ove Lindström’ I just quoted, but the sensation Tidbeck describes here certainly ‘shines through’ her work in general, just as they claim it ‘shines through in much of our culture’. The woman in Le Guin’s story presumably feels it, that longing for ‘something else’ which has not yet come into being, but which is held in mind as wistfully and sorrowfully as something long past and irrecoverable.
Amatka also echoes another of Le Guin’s Utopias, her classic representation of anarchism The Dispossessed. The subtitle of that novel is ‘An Ambiguous Utopia’, and as we’ve seen, the title perfectly describes the colonies of Amatka. Like Tidbeck’s novel, The Dispossessed is concerned with time that’s out of joint, and with a quest for knowledge, its protagonist being a physicist who wishes to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable principles of simultaneity and sequentiality – or to put it another way, of stasis and change. The anarchy of Anarres in The Dispossessed is both deeply attractive, in its commitment to absolute equality among its citizens, and riddled with corruption, like Amatka’s Central Committee. Words in The Dispossessed are always political: the colony speaks a tongue that was invented by its founders, intended to jettison possessive pronouns and hierarchical concepts, though certain words in it, such as the word for ‘egoizing’, can be used as tools of oppression by the more conservative colonists against those who seek knowledge they deem unnecessary, and therefore luxurious, wasteful, capitalistic. In Amatka words are even more political, of course, shaping the world as they are spoken or inscribed. Its colonies are more communistic than anarchistic, reflecting Sweden’s long love-affair with socialism; several stories in Jagannath take place in ex-communes, such as ‘Some Letters for Ove Lindström’, which is full of vemod for an ‘old schoolhouse’ rented out to a ‘bunch of hairy communists from the city’ (p. 17), or ‘Reindeer Mountain’, which revolves around a family home inhabited by six identical reclusive uncles, or ‘Brita’s Holiday Village’, about a tourist destination that never took off which becomes home to a bizarre egalitarian community – most unnervingly egalitarian, perhaps, in its attitude to incestuous inter-generational sex. As in Anarres, Amatka’s children are raised collectively, while love between parents and children is tolerated but discouraged as a distraction from the most responsible form of love, which is for the community. Love between adults, too, comes under pressure in Amatka, as it does in Anarres, where couples must accept postings to separate workplaces in response to the needs of the collective or risk being branded ‘egoists’. Vanja finds love with the woman who puts her up when she first comes to Amatka; but unlike Vanja, Nina is wholly committed to the idea that the colonies represent the best of all possible worlds, and this leads her to betray her lover for what she considers the best of motives. Ambiguity, for Tidbeck as for Le Guin, is where we live, and any political ideology struggles to accommodate this fact as it seeks to form a habitat for its principles. Poetry, music, drama and the visual arts offer spaces where ambiguity can be embraced, but these spaces are always being policed by ideologues with no tolerance of or interest in its ubiquitous presence in human experience. Ambiguity may be everywhere, but acknowledgement of it is rare and vulnerable, always on the verge of being snuffed out, though capable of reasserting itself through, for instance, double meanings, dreams or inexplicable events.
The most moving form of ambiguity in Tidbeck’s work is that of the committed radical who finds it difficult to accommodate their personal needs to their political convictions. The socialist loner; the anarchist who requires a consistent daily schedule for their mental wellbeing; the lover more committed to their chosen partner than to the collective they love – or vice versa; the innovator with a passion for the past; a number of Tidbeck’s protagonists fall into one or more of these categories, and in consequence fail to find a place for themselves in any human community. Or rather, they drift in and out of human communities, always gravitating towards the peripheries of group activities or discussions, afflicted by their ability to see things from a radically different perspective to the one on which the group agrees. In ‘Some Letters for Ove Lindström’, ‘Mom’ spends a few years in a household of ‘starving activists’ but eventually wanders away, her reasons for staying and leaving equally opaque to friends and family. It is hinted that she may have ‘been through something difficult’ in the past – perhaps suffering at the hands of an abusive husband (Jagannath, p. 23) – but this doesn’t explain her disappearance from the place where she was welcomed and cherished. Similar rumours abound about great-grandmother Märet in ‘Reindeer Mountain’. On the one hand she may be one of the vittra, beings who look like humans ‘but taller and more handsome’, and who live inside mountains like the Irish Sidhe (Jagannath, p. 81); on the other she may have ‘had a hard life’ in some isolated human community, given her decision to ‘run away and never speak to her family again’ (p. 82). The protagonist of The Memory Theatre, a young girl called Dora, suffers from the after-effects of the abusive environment of the fairy gardens, where children are enslaved, abused and used as targets in violent games; yet she is not the same as the other children, both because of her parentage – part fairy, part vittra, which means she is taller and stronger than most – and because of her inclinations: she needs solitude as much as or more than company, and becomes distressed by excessive noise or action. Again, her needs may be ascribed either to her psychological make-up – it would be easy to place her somewhere on the autistic spectrum – or her supernatural origins, her literal roots in the stones and solitude of the Nordic mountains by way of her vittra ancestry. Tracing her needs to the supernatural liberates them from the discourse of (dis)ability, instead inviting attention to their specific attributes and their association with the nonhuman environment, the neglected wild spaces. At the end of her story, Dora chooses to return to those wild spaces despite her deep attachment to her adopted brother, Albin – a fellow victim of the gardens – and the eccentric company of supernatural players he elects to join, and of which she has briefly been a part. The dramatic cooperative known as the Memory Theatre is a true utopia for Albin, but for Dora its bustling, convivial atmosphere is in the end unbearable for more than a few months at a time. Becoming a stone among stones, a vittra among the calm and isolated vittras, is much more conducive to her true identity, the identity she was forced to jettison when she lived among the violent lords and ladies of fairy land.
Like Dora and perhaps Mom and Märet, Brilars’ Vanja is the victim of trauma: the trauma of her father’s arrest and murder for so-called crimes in which he implicated her as a child, and the trauma of having been forced to try to conceive children of her own which she did not want. Both forms of trauma set her apart from the community norm. Well-adjusted female colonists are expected to bear children – and to want to bear children – for the sake of the colony’s survival, while the crime for which her father was punished was that of privileging a quest for knowledge above the need to erase any knowledge that might harm the community – a crime Vanja too commits through her quest for Amatka’s past. Thanks to this double trauma she finds herself both inside and outside two social groups: that of the old colonies she was born into, and that of the revolutionary new colony established by Berols’ Anna on the mysterious steppes beyond the limits of the colonies. Vanja begins by behaving like a committed colonist, but becomes increasingly conscious of the damage sustained by individual colonists – such as her flatmate Ivar – thanks to the community’s unyielding stress on the needs of the collective over those of the individual. Like Le Guin’s maverick physicist Shevek in The Dispossessed, Vanja is a loner, unable to commit herself fully even to the tiny community of an apartment, or of a pair of lovers such as herself and Nina. She is always gravitating towards the outside of any given space in which she finds herself, aching for alternatives she doesn’t herself fully understand.
At the same time, Vanja is not wholly at one with the revolution she seeks to bring about. Once Vanja has become conscious of the revolutionary movement in Amatka, she works tirelessly to bring it about; but the language of the revolutionaries, as spoken by Berols’ Anna when she finally meets her, confuses her. As Anna herself puts it, ‘The word… the language. Is too small’ (p. 195), unable to encompass the experience of absolute freedom, of being ‘everything’ in the new world beyond the colonies. Anna’s appearance as a revolutionary leader, too, makes her seem alien to Vanja – dazzling, more-than-human – while even her lover Nina, once she has joined the revolution, seems physically too much for her, as if ‘her body had become too small to contain her’ (p. 214). Instead of melding with one another, as some of the colonists do (a father, for instance, melds with the daughter he slapped, as if in homage to Vanja’s complex relationship with her own father), the lovers scorch each others’ lips when they kiss for the last time in the novel: ‘They burned. Blisters formed where their tongues met’ (p. 214). Even before this, the women’s relationship has often been painful, fraught with misunderstandings, punctuated by hurtful exchanges; the kiss may be taken as a metaphor for the nature of their love up until this moment. And at the point when the kiss takes place, Vanja’s tongue has already been disenfranchised from the post-revolutionary world. In punishment for her revolutionary activities, Amatka’s surgeons destroyed her speech centre, which means she will never make herself perfectly understood again, either to her lover or to the organic, sentient gloop out of which the new world will be sculpted. The blisters on her tongue, then, also represent her painful relationship with speech itself, with participatory communication, with membership of the community she has revolutionised. She has been stranded in the past, infantilized, condemned always to be the uncomprehending child who listens to her father’s urgent whispers in the dark. Even the expression of the revolutionaries’ love for her confirms this infantilization: ‘you will remain […] as you are, separate. But we will carry you. […] We will always carry you, little herald’ (p. 216). Few novels have an emotional high point as intense or multivalenced as this.
For me this is the great achievement of Tidbeck’s ambiguous Utopia: that it finds a way to comprehend, to celebrate and to mourn those revolutionaries who are constitutionally ill-fitted for participation in revolution. I suspect there are many such revolutionaries in the world: the fellow travellers who never joined the body of the revolutionary caravan, the non-party members who worked to further the party’s cause, while always uneasy about certain aspects of the doctrine it upheld; the communists who disliked communal living, the anarchists who yearned for order, the many, many partisans who only ever wanted peace and quiet. The actors in experimental theatre companies or LARP workshops whose passion for acting competes with their preference for self-effacement. Ambiguity can characterize one’s attitude to what one passionately believes in. Perhaps it always should. And there is no genre in which that idea could be better articulated than the weird hybrid of science fiction, fantasy, nonsense, fairy tale, surrealism and Live Action Role Play that comprises Amatka.
 Tidbeck describes the process of writing Amatka in an interview for The Beat Blog, here. The process of writing The Memory Theatre is detailed in the BOMB magazine interview (see footnote 1).
 All quotations from Amatka are taken from the Vintage Books edition of 2017.
 ‘As for language, I have always been enamored with different languages and the musical sound of words. Language is what makes the world, it changes how we see the world; in the novel, language and sound are pure magic. I’ve studied six languages all in all, so the love for languages will always be threaded through my writing.’ https://bombmagazine.org/articles/karin-tidbeck-interviewed/
Jagannath (New York: Vintage, 2018), ‘Afterword: Transposing Worlds’, p. 152. All quotes from Jagannath refer to this edition.
 Other clothes that don’t fit include the outsized medical overalls Vanja borrows from the hospital supplies (as her friend Nina comments, ‘The important thing is they’re not tight across your bottom. That could make lifting patients embarrassing’ [p. 48]). The dissident librarian Evgen meets Vanja at one point ‘buttoned into an enormous overcoat with a thick collar’ (p. 106), as if to hide his radical tendencies from hostile eyes, while surgically damaged political prisoners wear ‘torn and dirty overalls’, as if to reinforce their outcast status (p. 115). Ivar expresses his sense of having been betrayed by his community by removing his outer clothes and setting himself adrift in a freezing lake. Proximity to your friends, meanwhile, gets expressed in Amatka through intimacy with their clothing. After Ivar’s suicide his best friend Nina wears one of his sweaters and sleeps in his bed, face buried in his pillow (p. 162), thereby prolonging his presence in her life beyond his death; and before this Vanja finds solace when she is separated from her lover by ‘resting her nose on the sleeve of her sleep shirt’ and breathing in ‘the scent it had absorbed from Nina’ (p. 103). Clothes conceal and protect, in other words, but they also reinforce deep connections between their wearers.
 The mention of Lagerlöf’s novel can be found in The Memory Theater (New York: Pantheon Books, 2021) at p. 135.
 ‘The Swedish [version of Amatka] has no metaphors, or synonyms, or homonyms, because it’s not part of the Swedish language. Since they were “forbidden” in the book, I had to write them out of the [English] prose as well.’ (I may have misunderstood this statement of Tidbeck’s!) https://www.comicsbeat.com/sdcc-17-interview-author-karin-tidbeck-uncovers-the-dreamlike-storyline-of-amatka/.
[Between 2006 and 2016 I wrote a number of short articles for the magazine of Shakespeare’s Globe in London, Around the Globe; I’ve begun to deposit them on this blog under the category ‘Globe Essays’. This is the third, and the topic seems appropriate for LGBTQI+ month here in the UK.]
As You Like It is one of Shakespeare’s magical plays. Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream the bulk of its action takes place in a forest; and like Prsopero’s island in The Tempest the forest can be what you will, assuming a different shape for each mortal that stumbles into it. The forest of the play, then, mimics the stage. It can suddenly shift location, becoming the English forest of Arden or the Belgian forest of Ardenne, freely mingling Mediterranean palms and olive trees with northern blackthorn and bramble, populating itself with European stags and Asiatic lionesses, English shepherds and Greek shepherdesses. In the forest you can dress as you like: girls as boys, Dukes as outlaws, courtiers as farmers, and everyone as a lover, however foolish, ugly, wicked, old, or cynical. The forest, then, is less like the world as it is than the world as it never can be. But it invokes too the desire to ‘Cleanse the foul body of the infected world’ beyond the limits of its magic circle, and for this reason this comedy has seemed to many commentators to be something much more substantial than a theatrical firework display or a sylvan love-feast.
The play begins in a land ruled by a tyrant, Duke Frederick, who has usurped the throne of his elder brother, and lives in paranoid fear of falling victim to a similar betrayal. In his dukedom free speech is impossible, as it sometimes was in the England of Elizabeth I: in 1599, for instance, when As You Like It was being written, the Bishops of the Church of England burned a number of offensive books in central London, including satires and erotic poems by Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe. Banishing Rosalind, the daughter of his elder brother, Duke Frederick tells his own daughter Celia not to ‘open […] thy lips’ to defend her, despite their friendship. In the previous scene one of his courtiers warns young Orlando that the Duke has taken an equally unreasonable dislike to him, but that the courtier dare not say so openly: ‘What he is indeed / More suits you to conceive than I to speak of’. Yet even in this oppressive atmosphere the Duke’s subjects dream of a ‘better world than this’, as the courtier puts it. Celia and Rosalind preserve their friendship despite the bad blood between their fathers; and everyone knows that the old Duke lives in the nearby forest ‘like the old Robin Hood of England’, where he ‘fleets the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world’. So it’s to the forest that Celia and Rosalind flee with the jester Touchstone after Rosalind’s banishment; and Orlando flees there too with his servant Adam, as if in a bid to find some sort of Eden in Arden, a place where the hand of tyranny cannot touch them.
What they find in the forest is free speech, and a measure of egalitarianism. Exile has made the old Duke philosophical, and everyone in his vicinity may speak their minds, even the trees (he sees ‘tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones, and good in everything’). Unlike Duke Frederick, Duke Senior encourages anti-authoritarian satire; he even has a pet satirist, the traveller Jaques, who tells him off for every act that smacks of despotism. Later the Duke takes equal pleasure in the impudent banter of a boy named Ganymede, who tells him he is as well-born as he is (which is true, since Ganymede is really Duke Senior’s runaway daughter Rosalind in disguise). He is equally disposed to like the jester Touchstone, whose patchwork costume or ‘motley’ grants him liberty to mock whom he pleases, regardless of rank. And these are only three of the free-speakers who populate the woods where the old Duke dwells. The shepherd Corin can hold his own against any courtier in defence of his profession; the shepherdess Audrey, the shepherd William and the hedge-priest Oliver Martext each possesses their dignity, despite the mockery of the ruling classes; and the shepherd Silvius is enlisted in the final act as spokesman for all the lovers in the play, whatever their station.
But the most remarkable free speaker in the forest is the boy-girl Rosalind/Ganymede, who meets her lover Orlando, finds that he does not recognise her as the woman he dotes on, and initiates a game which changes the direction of the play. Since Orlando misses Rosalind, Ganymede ‘pretends’ to be her, seeking to disabuse him of the absurd fantasies about women that were common currency among Elizabethan males. The charm and wit with which he does so seems to spread the benign infection of love throughout the forest. The shepherdess Phoebe promptly falls for Ganymede, Celia for Orlando’s brother Oliver, and Touchstone for the bashful Audrey, while Silvius takes his old love for Phoebe to giddy new heights. As this happens, satire gives way to love as the dominant mode of the comedy. Love-songs take over from songs of betrayal and exile, and lovers become the most eloquent of the foresters, sweeping aside all social inequalities in their willingness to serve one another, and finally rendering the satirist Jaques redundant.
At the end of the play, Ganymede turns magician. Using a spell he learned from an imaginary wizard uncle – invented by Rosalind as a background for her male persona – he finds a way to join the play’s lovers together in a quadruple wedding by changing himself from boy to girl, from Ganymede to Rosalind, with the help of the great god Hymen. As he casts his spell, Duke Frederick wanders into the forest and sloughs off his tyranny like a serpent shedding its skin. Love conquers all, then, in this play, with an efficiency that satirists can only dream of. And at the end of the play, the newly feminized Rosalind turns to the audience and invites them to join the magic circle of love by applauding the actors’ efforts, spurred on by their liking for this boy-girl who has made herself attractive to all genders. It would be a hardened cynic indeed who did not respond to her invitation, and discover in the process that the free-speakers of Arden had subtly changed his/her/their outlook.
[I’d like to start with a shout-out to Dr Taylor Driggers, whose work in general, and in particular his brilliant first book, Queering Faith in Fantasy Literature, Perspectives on Fantasy (London etc. : Bloomsbury Academic, 2022), opened my eyes to new dimensions of the fantastic. His book should be the first port of call for anyone looking at fantasy, queerness and Christianity.]
In my last post I wrote about my recent visit to the island of Sark, in a quest to understand Mervyn Peake’s fascination with this inhabited rock in the English Channel. As I wrote, an idea began to dawn on me, largely in response to Jane Norwich’s book about the Sark Art Group to which Peake belonged, Inspired by Sark (2022). I wondered if he thought of Sark as representing an escape from the rules that bound him on the British mainland, in particular the rules that governed sexuality and gender. Sark as an escape of any kind, of course, was really a Sark of the imagination – a fantastical Sark – and I think this became very clear to him as he spent time on the island, first in the inter-war years when the Art Group briefly flourished as a hothouse of idealistic optimism, and later when he returned after the war to find the community changed by suffering and the landscape transformed by the impact of the German occupation. At the same time, Peake’s dream of an alternative Sark in which the rules of sexuality and gender were relaxed or re-examined remained with him, I think, and helped to shape his novels, not least the only novel he set on Sark itself, the quirkily disturbing Mr Pye. I should stress that this is conjecture, but it’s built on what I think are solid foundations, and this post will expose those foundations as best it can.
Hovering in the background as I write is John Donne’s famous Meditation 17, from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1623). The most familiar part of this contemplative passage is, perhaps, the opening sentence: ‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of a continent, a part of the main’. As a man of his time and of his own particular strand of education, Peake is likely to have known this piece well. He attended a school for the sons of missionaries, and was clearly fascinated by early modern literature, which finds echoes throughout his work, from the quasi-Jacobean blank verse spoken by Earl Sepulchrave in Titus Groan – and the quotation from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress that opens it – to his experiments with the sonnet form (such as his early poem on the sixteenth-century painter El Greco) and the Elizabethan-style verse dramas he wrote in the 1950s.
Meditation 17 runs like this:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
I mentioned in my previous post that an early version of Mr Pye ends with the missionary’s death, and it seems to me that Donne’s meditation could fittingly be used to provide a commentary on that earlier ending. In that version of the novel, the missionary is driven from the island in the end, like James Whale’s creature in the movie Frankenstein (1931), as a monster and an outcast; but his death does not purge the islanders of their kinship with him, according to Donne’s text. Sark could easily be described as a clod washed out to sea from the continent of Europe, and Mr Pye could in turn be seen as an adopted ‘Son of Sark’, like Peake himself: a smaller clod, whose loss both diminishes the island, rendering it spiritually or at least emotionally bereft, and accentuates his involvement in it – the involvement it sought to undo by hounding him to the edge of a cliff and over it. There is even a ‘manor’ on Sark, as in Donne’s Devotion: the Old Manoir which the Lords of Sark first made their home in the Sixteenth Century, though they no longer live there. If Meditation 17 helps to establish Mr Pye’s death in that early version as confirmation of his fellowship with the islanders, despite their hostility to him, then the disappearance of Mr Pye in the novel’s published state leaves the question of what to make of his kinship to the islanders completely open. Does it affirm his difference from them, or their unacknowledged need for him, since after his removal the island is left ‘suddenly empty, […] nothing but a long wasp-waisted rock’ off the coast of France? Mr Pye’s loss diminishes Sark, and by extension all those who cannot contend with what Mr Pye represents. But what is that, exactly?
As my last blog post explained, Mr Pye arrives on Sark with the intention of converting the islanders to his personal religion: the religion of a pantheistic God he calls the Great Pal, who inheres in everything, from the storm at sea to the porridge at the breakfast table, from the ‘brook that sparkles in the Dixcart valley’ (a tree-filled combe that leads down to the beach close to the Peakes’ house on Mill Road) to the cigarette smoked by Mr Pye’s landlady and friend, the redoubtable Miss Dredger (p. 60). His mission, however, soon turns bizarre. His excessive virtue (or what he sees as his virtue) unexpectedly causes him to sprout a pair of wings, and in his efforts to rid himself of this embarrassment he turns to petty crime. This in turn has the effect of both shrinking the wings and making horns spring from his head; and it’s the horns that turn the islanders against him. The wings and the horns mark him out as different; but this physical difference can also be seen as a demonstration of his underlying links to the local community. He is not simply an angelic missionary, but also that benevolent being’s devilish equivalent, the colonial invader. He is, in fact, a human being, and the principal strangeness about him is his ability to demonstrate his human tendency to contradiction and paradox in a strikingly physical way.
From the moment he arrives on the island Mr Pye’s difference from the islanders is marked. Short, plump, urbane and urban, with glasses and a ‘sharp nose, not unlike the beak of a bird’ (p. 10), his appearance and comportment are identified at once by the ticket-sellers and ferry operators as having little resemblance to those of the locals, or indeed to most incomers or tourists. At the same time, he is very ordinary and unthreatening. His paunch accentuates his tendency to self-indulgence – overeating and perhaps inertia – while his smallness underscores his inability to do real harm, despite the fact that small, plump men have disrupted continents (think of Napoleon or Hitler, both of them posers of genuine historical threats to the Channel Islands; Sark is littered with Napoleonic cannons left over from the wars between Britain and France in the early nineteenth century, and Mr Pye sits on one of them late in the book to contemplate his relationship with the islanders). Mr Pye doesn’t look at all dangerous, and it’s only gradually that the Sarkese begin to convince themselves that he represents a danger to them, an invasive threat to their very existence, thanks both to his horns and his angelic-but-alien wings.
What is it, though, that marks out Mr Pye as different when he buys his ferry ticket at the start of the novel, well before anything supernatural attaches itself to him? His urbanity and urbaneness are surely not enough. Nor indeed are his comportment, speech or appearance, since we later learn that there are plenty of other English settlers on the island, as well as characters of equal eccentricity: from the young woman Tintagieu, who claims to have a dolly at home which must be put to bed whenever she doesn’t wish to accept an assignation, to Mrs Rice, who is ‘almost square’ and wears a bizarre straw hat (p. 99). The one thing that marks out Mr Pye as different at this point, it seems to me, is his unabashed campness. Mr Pye shows every sign of being gay, and would have been read as such, I think, by many of Peake’s readers when the book came out. His addiction to fruit-drops makes him ‘the Fruit Drop’ – that’s Tintagieu’s nickname for him – and ‘fruit’ in the 1950s, as now, was a term that could signify gayness. The missionary’s scrupulous care over his own appearance (he has ‘beautifully manicured’ hands, p. 8), his extravagant movements (‘Mr Pye […] joined his hands together beneath his chin, […] stood upon the tips of his toes, and breathed deeply’, p. 11), and his serene indifference to the sexual attractions of the most erotically charged woman on the island, Tintagieu – even when she walks past him naked at dead of night (p. 123ff.) – seem to confirm the assumption. He has a powerful effect on sailors, such as the ‘huge, sour-visaged, red-necked, sea-booted mariner’ of whom he makes a convert (pp. 76-77). He calls his God not father but ‘Pal’, the word a gay man of the 40s or 50s might have used for a lover (and a married woman on Sark, Dorothy La Trobe Bateman, is said to have called her own lover Trevor Blakemore her ‘Great Pal’ in a rather open euphemism). Peake could scarcely have clustered together more signs of Mr Pye’s sexuality without endowing him with a partner of his own.
One might speculate, in fact, that Tintagieu’s presence on Peake’s Sark is partly designed to draw attention to Mr Pye’s queer alterity. She is said to have slept with so many ‘visitors, residents and locals’ that she has become something of an ‘institution’, her diary so packed with assignations ‘that her inability to accept more than a fraction of the innumerable invitations that were tendered her […] had the paradoxical effect of giving her a reputation for a mad kind of chastity, a crazy, indecipherable coyness, among those who had but recently arrived’ (p. 109). After Mr Pye’s famous picnic, discussed in my previous post, she moves in with him and his landlady Miss Dredger, and eventually becomes his closest friend, the flamboyantly physical counterweight to his inordinate spirituality. There is never any question that he will sleep with her after she moves in; his love for her, as for Miss Dredger, is entirely ‘sexless’ (p. 52). But Tintagieu too, as we’ve seen, has a reputation for a strange kind of sexlessness or ‘chastity’. Like him she is plump, which suggests a shared overindulgence of their sensual appetites; like him she is repeatedly described as ‘innocent’, even childish (as I said earlier, she mentions her ‘dolly’ whenever she wishes to dodge a date she does not want, while Mr Pye’s figure resembles that of a toddler); and neither her innocence nor her chastity is presented as being in any way at odds with her sexual freedom. Both Mr Pye’s sexlessness and Tintagieu’s chastity might be taken to signify their freedom from the heteronormative rules that govern other islanders; a freedom they offer freely to the people of Sark, each in their own distinctive manner.
One of the ways of extending love practised by Mr Pye is to bring the people of Sark together in unexpected combinations. In the first part of the novel the missionary makes friends with two single women, Miss Dredger and Miss George, and invites them to share his home in the name of love (despite the fact that the home in question is in fact Miss Dredger’s). There are numerous indications that both women are queer, especially Miss Dredger, who presents as conventionally masculine, with her cigarettes, her angular appearance, and her quasi-military contempt for any sign of weakness or lack of backbone. Both women hate each other when Mr Pye first meets them, a situation which Miss Dredger describes to Miss George as a ‘long divorce’ (p. 66), but they are quickly reconciled under his paternalistic tutelage. Indeed they take part in a kind of vicarious courtship, which begins when Miss Dredger begins to dream, under Mr Pye’s influence (he has ‘laced her chicken soup with a strong sedative’), of ‘floating over Tunbridge Wells hand-in-hand with Miss George’ (p. 43). The courtship reaches a crescendo when the missionary kisses Miss George’s fingers and tells her the ‘romantic story’ of the stones on the rings she wears (p. 79), then comments on her loneliness and invites her to start ‘a new life of love and endeavour’ (p. 80) with Miss Dredger in her boarding house. After this the two women form a family of choice with Mr Pye, working together to prepare his legendary picnic at Derrible Bay and in the process becoming ‘integrate’, as he calls them – ‘magnificently integrate’ (p. 83) or involved. Again there is nothing sexual about their integration, but the language of marriage used to describe it affirms its opposition to heteronormativity, its resistance to 1950s social and sexual conventions.
Not that sexual conventions are much cherished by the heterosexual inhabitants of the island. Tintagieu’s sexual profligacy necessarily reflects the profligacy of the Sarkese men, and Mr Pye notes less than half way through the novel that the islanders are perfectly capable of being as promiscuous as she is without admitting it. Having made a careful study of their collective habits, he informs them at the picnic, he has ‘watched, in microcosm, the “world and his wife” go by – and sometimes I have seen, unless I am mistaken, the world go by with someone else’s wife’ (pp. 103-4). Tintagieu’s behaviour is considered outrageous, but is as integral to island life as the distinctive rock from which she takes her name. Meanwhile, Mr Pye’s encouragement of universal love in place of competition or mutual hostility is merely a rigorous application of a principle supposedly central to the islanders’ religious convictions, but which is breached more often than it is observed by most of Sark’s inhabitants. Both Tintagieu and Mr Pye openly advocate things that are either hypocritically denied while being widely practised or hypocritically advocated without being practised at all. The behaviour of these two unconventional figures is in each case an open affirmation of Donne’s insistence that ‘no man is an island’, since everyone shares a more or less equal collection of follies and foibles, each of which requires the participation of their fellow human beings serving either as collaborators or as countervailing foils against which to measure it. Mr Pye’s mission, as he sees it, is to make the islanders understand the ties that bind them – their common humanity and the mutual affection this should encourage. He seeks, in fact, to bring them ‘true joy’ by binding them into the ‘cosmos of love’ (p. 43). But he ends by uniting them against himself as a threatening intruder, his difference from the islanders reinforced by a relapse on their part – partly inspired by Mr Pye’s own internalised theology, as represented by his unruly wings and horns – into the crudest kind of binarism, whereby the world is neatly divided into separate moral units, good and evil, with everyone naturally assuming that they themselves belong in the former category. He seeks to bring love to the island, and instead unites it in a collective outbreak of hate, the homophobic lynching of Mr Pye.
It’s tempting to see this situation as a response to Peake’s experiences with the Sark Art Group in the 1930s. Jane Norwich’s book about the Group, Inspired by Sark, makes it clear how distinctive the artist’s colony must have seemed when its first representatives arrived on the island in 1933. When the newly-built and innovative Gallery building was opened in August of that year, the Guernsey Press announced dramatically that ‘Modernity has come to Sark’, an occasion of note at a time when the island still operated the last feudal system in the British Isles (Inspired by Sark, p. 27). The island’s feudal lord, the Dame of Sark, encouraged the enterprise, but was careful to insist that the building’s design was intended ‘to interfere as little as possible with Sark’s atmosphere of antiquity’ (p. 25). The young artists who displayed their work in the Gallery were not all of them experimental modernists, but they drew suspicion nonetheless from the more traditional Sarkese painters. The elderly landscape artist William Toplis, for instance, ‘frankly admitted that he did not like the modern school’, lumping modernists and the Sark Art Group together in a homogeneous unit – though he was happy to display his paintings alongside theirs when invited to do so (p. 28). Reviewers affirmed that the Group’s exhibitions embodied ‘a world where modernity is the very keynote’ (p. 43), a fact that provoked some reviewers to sarcasm: one summed up the second Group exhibition of 1934 as composed entirely of ‘modern’ pieces, ‘some ultra-modern, even that which has been described as futuristic; like its parallel in music it has its applauders. Certainly, much of the work is decidedly clever and none could be described as commonplace’ (p. 45, my emphasis). The various manifestos for the Group provided by its founders the Drakes, however, emphasized inclusivity rather than cleverness. The prospectus described it as a ‘non-profit-making cooperative’ (p. 16), which suggests an egalitarian Leftist but non-denominational perspective, and the St Ives painter Borlase Smart wrote after the first exhibition at the gallery that ‘The directors do not subscribe to any set theory or school of thought’ (p. 30). Instead, Smart insisted, ‘They are looking for work that has a constructive and integrating significance in modern life’ (p. 30, my emphasis). From the start the Group was more concerned with giving practical support to artists than with telling them what to make or how to make it, and with drawing in the local community rather than with re-educating them; and this emphasis on egalitarian practice as against theory, on the capacity to ‘integrate’ rather than to attach themselves to a specific method, school or philosophy, also reveals itself in Mr Pye’s religious mission to the island.
As modern, perhaps, as their paintings was the Sark Group’s attitude to sexuality. This could be described, in Mr Pye’s words about Miss Dredger and Miss George, as ‘magnificently integrate’, with a number of queer people joining the cooperative in the course of its brief existence. These included Ala Story, the Viennese gallery director responsible for getting the Sark Group’s work exhibited in London, who was a Lesbian, and Frank Coombs, the gay artist and architect who helped ensure the Sark Art Gallery building remained standing when he spotted flaws in its construction before the exhibition was due to open in 1933. Most flamboyantly queer of all were the artist Alfred ‘Pip’ Waldron and his partner, Alex Gannon, who joined the Group from Birmingham in 1934. Waldron and Gannon, Norwich tells us, never concealed their status as a couple while on the island, and went on to run the Sark Art Group’s activities, first along with the newly appointed manager, Coombs, then by themselves after Coombs left to work with Story in London in 1935. Eric Drake seems to have cultivated a deliberate obtuseness as to his fellow Group members’ sexuality; in a letter to Peter Winnington he insisted that he ‘never tried to probe the relationship’ between Waldron and Gannon, and asserted that Coombs ‘fell for’ the island girl who provided the model for Tintagieu (and of course this is quite possible, despite Coombs’s later relationship with the art critic Eardley Knollys). Overall, though, the Group’s attitude to the body was liberal. They swam naked together from Sark’s beaches, and Eric and Lisel liked to sunbathe naked too, to the surprise of the island postman. Peake seems to have been particularly liberal with his body, sending the same love poems (Malcolm Yorke tells us) to several island women at once, and getting found out pretty quickly. He gained a reputation for painting landscapes in the nude, wearing only a sombrero as protection from the sun, and drew widespread attention with his Bohemian clothes, long hair and piratical earring. Sometimes he wore a cape, like the artist Augustus John or Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. The same habit was later adopted by Mr Pye to conceal the growth of his wings (p. 172), and Mr Pye also took on Peake’s buccaneering aesthetic, donning a bandana ‘in true pirate fashion’ to conceal his horns (p. 205). It’s intriguing to note how Peake’s youthful fashion choices get associated in Mr Pye with the need for camouflage, implying the missionary’s involvement in a running conflict with the islanders’ proneness to suspicion of strangeness and strangers, which necessitates the strategic use of camouflage to protect its ‘commandos’ (Mr Pye’s rather unexpected word for his closest followers and friends) (p. 81).
At one point in his time with the Sark Art Group, Peake fell in love with one of his fellow artists, the Bostonian Janice Thompson, and took her home to meet his parents – possibly to gain their approval for his engagement to her. Thompson found the meeting ‘uncomfortable and disappointing’, and went back to Boston not long after. Peake returned to Sark with his hair cut short and his earring missing. Later, Thompson recalled her time on Sark as possessing a distinctive ‘climate’ of its own, making it an island of experiment and exploration circled by seas of drab conformity. From her perspective, as described in her poem ‘The Artists’, the Sark experience involved an attempt to open a succession of ‘entrances and escapes’ from all kinds of restriction with the help of ‘many keys’, an Alice in Wonderland-style abandonment of conventional logic in favour of a multi-faceted vision capable of comprehending ‘An instant’s multiplicity’ and of defining ‘with line and curve / The pride of rock, / The baleful earthen face’, as embodied in the Sark landscape. For Thompson, leaving the island meant a retreat into cramped and sexless domestic spaces full of ‘mole faces’ and ‘threadbare hair’:
Having breathed deeply of too keen an air
We journeyed back to family parlors
Of gas-blue flames in suffocating rows.
A hand bewildered, faltering with a cup
To brush away a crumb
As grey, mole-faces peered from threadbare hair,
Not knowing from what climates we have come.
Peake, too, wrote of Sark and its people as following a different drum, making it a place where ‘Life beat another rhythm’ like a heart quickened by desire:
Life beat another rhythm on that island
As old as her own birth.
We were the island people, and the earth
Sea, sky, and love, were Sark, and Sark, the earth
While round us moved the swarming of the sea.
Both poems associate the island with a closeness to the earth – soil, rocks and the body of the planet itself – and with freedom from the suffocating constraints of the ordinary. It’s tempting to see this as a comment as much on the sexual liberation it afforded as on the artistic experiment to which it gave rise – as much on ‘love’ as on the work the artists did there.
Peake’s familiarity with the queer culture of the 1930s can be taken for granted, given the fact that he moved in artistic circles in the metropolis. One of his first exhibitions took place at the Black Cat Café in Old Compton Street, London, a well-known meeting place for rent boys and their clients, as Quentin Crisp informs us in his autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant (1968). Crisp himself was a friend of Peake’s, who got to know him at one of the many cafés, eateries and bars Crisp frequented in the Second World War, the Bar-B-Q in Chelsea. It was during the war that Crisp acquired a reputation both for brilliant wit (he has been called the Oscar Wilde of the twentieth century) and for considerable personal courage, since he went on parading the streets of the metropolis in defiance of air raid sirens, flying shrapnel and the disapproval of air wardens. Peake illustrated Crisp’s satirical poem, All This and Bevis Too, in 1943, and later made fine illustrations for the poems of Oscar Wilde, using a Chinese brush his father brought back from Hong Kong. It would hardly be surprising, then, if Peake felt comfortable introducing gay characters into his fiction, and one character in the Gormenghast books, Doctor Prunesquallor, has been regularly read as queer. A sheet of drawings from the war years has been found recently which seems to show a love affair between an older and a younger male centaur, riffing on Peake’s depiction of centaurs in his poetry and elsewhere as epitomes of the exuberant male body. Most strikingly of all, his children’s story Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939) depicts the evolution of a queer relationship between the titular pirate and a Yellow Creature he finds on a tropical island, whose rock formations mimic the distinctive contours of the Sarkese coastline. After capturing the Yellow Creature with the help of his crew, Captain Slaughterboard gradually loses interest in a pirate’s lifestyle and ends by marooning himself voluntarily with the Creature on the island where he found it, luxuriating in idleness and the Yellow Creature’s cooking. Various commentators have pointed out that the Yellow Creature’s face recalls Peake’s many portraits of his wife, Maeve Gilmore; but its body presents as male, and the pronouns Peake uses for it are either gender neutral (it) or masculine (he/him). In one of the last pictures in the book the Creature seems to be cross-dressing, wearing a skirt while making a meal and smoking a distinctly piratical pipe. Peake is said to have enjoyed dressing up in Maeve’s clothing. The body, male or female, was a thing of beauty, and just as he felt comfortable drawing both male and female figures, so too he seems to have had little difficulty in recognising and accepting the various forms of desire that draw male and female bodies together, in whatever combination happens to answer their present needs. In Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor, a tropical version of the Isle of Sark could be read as standing in for a paradise where queer relationships are acknowledged with the same reverence and affection as Peake’s marriage to Maeve.
Besides Crisp, another significant queer presence in Peake’s life was Alfred ‘Pip’ Waldron, his fellow artist in the Sark Art Group. It has been suggested at various times that Mr Pye may have been partly modelled on Waldron: Robjn Cantus speculates as much on his website, Inexpensive Progress (https://inexpensiveprogress.com/4728/alfred-waldron/), but the only evidence he gives is a quotation from Eric Drake, who writes of him that ‘he seemed to live in a world of fantasy that was private to him’. Cantus probably took his speculation from Peter Winnington’s fine biography of Peake, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, which observes that ‘There may be another autobiographical element in Mr Pye’s odd characteristic of sucking his thumb, which recalls Pip Waldron’ (p. 240). Winnington explains this observation in a footnote, where he quotes an unpublished letter from another Sark Group artist, Tony Bridge: ‘[Waldron] used to climb on to Brenda [Streatfield]’s lap (he was very small) and suck his thumb’ (p. 279). Both Winnington and Eric Drake suggest that this habit may have been a result of childhood trauma. Not much more is known about Waldron and his ‘fantasy world’, beyond the fact that he attended the Birmingham Art School, that he and Alex Gannon moved to London after leaving Sark, and that they went on to live in Cheltenham till their deaths. Pip’s linocuts, though, tell us something about his world, and are worth pausing over, given the possible link between Pip and the equally diminutive Mr Pye.
For me as for others, the art produced and shown by Waldron while on Sark can be read as a series of striking comments on British sexual politics in the early twentieth century. I saw reproductions of several linocuts by Waldron at the Visitor Centre on the island, and more have been published by Norwich in her book, one of which looks like an open comment on homophobia, as Norwich points out. ‘Thou Shalt Not’ shows a naked man in the foreground raising his arms and shouting furiously at two more naked men, who flee into the shadows. Is he berating them for homoerotic activity, as the biblical title seems to suggest? If so, his gesture of remonstration looks distinctly ironic, since he could be interpreted as displaying his body to them in his fury; indeed, another reading might suggest he is angrily berating the men for their hypocrisy in rejecting the naked male body as a site of same-sex desire. A second linocut, ‘Masque’, shows a woman in a richly patterned dress holding a mask in front of her face with her right hand while looking out of the frame directly at the viewer; her left hand holds a cigarette and rests on a ribbon at her waist. A man and a woman stand in conversation behind her, like an embodiment of heteronormativity. Norwich sees in the woman’s face a resemblance to the Sapphic art director Ala Story, and the picture might be read as a comment on the necessity for Lesbian women to lead a double life – though the woman has no visible partner of any gender. ‘Tropic’ shows a naked young man sprawling backwards under a blazing sun, as if interpreting the tropics of the imagination described by Peake in his short story ‘I Bought a Palm Tree’ – see my previous post – as a state of liberation from sexual judgments and inhibitions of all kinds. ‘Ballet Moon and Cloud’ shows an apparently naked but extravagantly decorated young man holding the hand of a masked female dancer; they are dancing together, not so much as erotic partners as co-performers of femininity. ‘Festoon’ shows two women embracing in a heap of quasi-oriental clothing. Finally, one of Waldron’s most ambitious pictures, another linocut called ‘Husbands and Wives’, shows a group of women and a group of men (with one woman) by a pool, each group totally engrossed in their companions, nobody in either group showing any awareness of the adjacent party; indeed, the thick black trunk of what looks like a palm tree sets a natural barrier between the men and most of the women. Again, the foliage around them looks tropical; did Waldron’s fantasy life on Sark, like Peake’s in ‘I Bought a Palm Tree’, inhabit the tropics? In each case these linocuts may be read as depicting a world that is subject to the rules of heteronormativity, a world where the idea of husbands and wives takes precedence over alternative sexual relationships, even when those alternative relationships dominate the minds of the men and women in question; a world where homoerotic desire is accounted a sin, and where as a result men and women must of necessity be frequently alone if they are to luxuriate in those desires, even in their secret fantasies.
There is something visionary, it strikes me, about Waldron’s prints. They have a Blakean quality. The shouting man in ‘Thou Shalt Not’, for instance, recalls in his stance one of Blake’s most famous images, ‘Albion Rose’ (1794-1796), sometimes known as ‘The Dance of Albion’ or ‘Glad Day’, which shows a naked young man who stands facing the viewer, his arms and legs spread wide, his face joyful, beams of coloured light radiating from his head and torso. Blake’s print is a thing of glory, as its titles suggest, but the mood of Waldron’s is different. The man seems older, his body more gaunt, it turns away from the viewer as if in shame or anger, and instead of rays of coloured light it is framed in darkness. ‘Tropic’ is much more positive, with its blazing sun and luxuriating male body, taking advantage of solitude to enjoy itself freely; while ‘Husbands and Wives’ and ‘Masque’ seem to contemplate the needful hypocrisy to which the criminalization of queerness gives rise, the men and women in each picture conforming outwardly to heterosexual norms despite the fact that their interests and desires are so obviously at odds with them. Peake’s Mr Pye, like Waldron, is a Blakean visionary. The message he brings to Sark – as he tells the islanders again and again – concerns love for all, based on Donne’s understanding of the connectedness of all people, or on Blake’s of the connectedness of everything in the universe. Could he have taken up Waldron’s mission to make a statement about hypocrisy and small-mindedness to this isolated population? Could the novel, Mr Pye, chart a movement from potential island-wide unity – an embracing of human affection in all its manifestations – to the reinstatement of petty divisions, unfounded hostilities, and specifically homophobic violence? This would invest the hunting of Mr Pye at the end of the book with the disturbing connotations I’ve already touched on. But Quentin Crisp’s biography confirms that homophobic violence was widespread in London between the wars; and the death camps of Nazi Germany represented, among other things, the worst excesses to which such violence could extend. What happens to Peake’s novel, then, if we read it using the queer lens provided by Pip Waldron’s linocuts and Crisp’s life writing?
Waldron’s most ambitious project was an illustrated edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, most famously translated by Edward Fitzgerald (the book was never published). The Rubaiyat was represented by Fitzgerald as a manifesto for religious scepticism, with the poet enjoining his lover to forgo bodily restraint in favour of a hedonistic embracing of food, drink and sex while the opportunity presents itself – the old carpe diem theme. In one of the images from Waldron’s sequence, Omar Khayyam 2 (see end of post), four women mourn over the dead body of a young man – who has a wound in his side reminiscent of the wound inflicted on Christ’s crucified body by a soldier’s spear – while in the background women embrace and chase one another while young men stroll by with arms draped across each other’s shoulders. In another, Omar Khayyam 1 (see below), a masked young man and a woman dance surrounded by older spectators. Two of the spectators are naked, the third is clothed. One male spectator reads from a book, his right hand raised in the attitude of a preacher; another turns away from the dancers with his hands joined as if in prayer. These two are grouped together in the left foreground, as if both belong to the same hypocritical religious sect (hypocritical because the preaching spectator is suggestively unclothed and has his attention fixed on the dancers, while the kneeling spectator has positioned himself right in front of the theatrical floodlights, like another performer). On the right side of the picture a person with a scythe (I think a man, though I’m not certain) gazes at the dancers’ performance with what looks like rapt appreciation. He is smiling and touching his chin as if in thought. Is this scythe-person Death, and is s/he pleased that the dancers are acknowledging his/her imminence by seizing the day? Death’s traditional hood is pushed back to expose not only a living human face but a healthy body, very different from the skeletal bodies favoured by Holbein in his series of woodcuts The Dance of Death. In conjunction with the biblical title of Thou Shalt Not – which echoes the opening phrase of the Ten Commandments – Waldron’s Khayyam project looks like a Blakean rejection of Christian sexual puritanism, because such puritanism invites imprecations and aggression against those who practise or advocate sex in its less acceptable forms (hence the young martyr in the foreground of Omar Khayyam 2). It could be read, indeed, as the work of a visionary atheist or agnostic, disgusted by the hypocrisy of latter-day Pharisees, who happily practise sexual infidelity (Mr Pye claims to have seen ‘the world go by with someone else’s wife’) while repudiating any form of illegal sex they claim not to practise.
Crisp’s biography, meanwhile, includes a number of intriguing references to religion. There is the fact that Crisp presents himself in his naïve youth as a self-styled ‘missionary’ for homosexuality, whose flamboyant self-display is designed to make a place in the world – and more particularly in London – for camp gay men. ‘My outlook was so limited’, he explains in his third chapter, ‘that I assumed all deviates were openly despised and rejected’ (p. 33). In response to this perception, he resolved to embark on a career of dramatic protest on behalf of ‘all deviates’, wearing makeup at a time when it was frowned upon even for women to wear it, growing his hair and fingernails long, and cultivating an exaggeratedly ‘feminine’ walk which drew the attention of passers-by more effectively than any words of protest he could utter (pp. 49-50). Such were his means of pursuing his mission, and he concentrated these activities not on the West End or Soho, where they would barely be noticed, but on the world beyond: ‘the rest of England was straightforward missionary country. It was densely populated by aborigines who had never heard of homosexuality and who, when they did, became frightened and angry. I went to work on them’ (p. 33). Later, Crisp tells us he took on a job as commercial artist not so much to earn money as from an ‘evangelical zeal’ to win from the heterosexual world ‘acceptance as a homosexual’ (p. 74). His religion was not Christian – he had ‘withdrawn [his] ambassadors’ from God’s ‘territory’ at the age of fifteen – but involved a generous extension of the key Christian concept of ‘love’, a word, he tells us, ‘about whose meaning there seemed to be some ambiguity’ (p. 119). ‘Often during this period of my life’, he writes,
to the embarrassment of my hearers, I claimed that my whole existence was love. I meant that I was trying never to close my hand against anyone – even the unlovable (in dealing with whom I was having a great deal of practice). I would have placed at anyone’s disposal my meagre resources of money or advice or concern. Sometimes I fancied that all the elements of a golden age of universal well-wishing were already known and would become instantly effective when […] some genius combined them in the right order. I was always delighted with the slightest break-through in this field. (p. 119)
Crisp’s objective, in other words, was to work towards the ushering-in of a new ‘golden age’ in human relationships, when human beings embraced one another regardless of sexuality, gender, appearance, class, and so on. He adds, a little later on, that owing to his extravagant sexual fantasies and enjoyment of auto-eroticism he had always found sexual acts with other people unsatisfactory, and as a consequence ‘had severed the connection between sex and love’ (p. 121). His love resembles Mr Pye’s in its sexlessness, although unlike Mr Pye he was perfectly happy to engage in sex when the opportunity arose.
It was around this ‘period’ of Crisp’s life that he collaborated with Mervyn Peake on his pamphlet, All This and Bevin Too (1943), a satirical poem for which Peake drew the pictures. The poem itself offers something of an insight into both men’s state of mind in the middle of the Second World War. It describes the frustrated efforts of a melancholy kangaroo to offer his services to the Zoo, where he finds himself repeatedly rejected as a conscript despite the many notices posted everywhere by the Zoo’s management insisting that kangaroos are urgently wanted. Crisp was rejected by the army on account of his open homosexuality, while for years Peake’s efforts to be taken on by the state-sponsored War Artist’s Commission were frustrated, while his own time as a conscript served only to demonstrate his utter unsuitability for the army, ending in a seemingly inevitable breakdown and discharge. The kangaroo, too, finds his place in the Zoo usurped by a horse, while he himself is trained in the equine art of pulling a cart – only to fail once again to be accepted by the Zoo after completing his training. The story would be a bleak one if it were not for the utopian community of friends who help the kangaroo in his efforts to get suitable employment. A monkey lends him a hat to improve his appearance, a cat helps him fill out an impenetrable employment form, and so many other people and animals support him that he throws them a slap-up feast in gratitude, using all available ration tokens. The feast goes magnificently, despite the fact that again one animal is masquerading as another (the lamb chop is made of horse meat; the war effort, in Crisp’s eyes, is predicated on the need for ersatz substitutes). The kangaroo ends as he started, unemployed and miserable (Crisp tells us he was suicidal after being rejected by the army, since he could see no prospect of employment for the rest of the war). But the sense that he’s still part of a supportive community is reinforced by his final exchange with the poet, presumably Crisp himself, which is recorded with obvious sympathy and enlists both Crisp and the reader in the utopian chosen family that sought to alleviate the kangaroo’s problems throughout the narrative. The golden age may not be imminent in Crisp’s poem, but there are signs of a definite ‘break-through in the field’. Peake’s situation, meanwhile, as an artist who had suffered a breakdown, was not much better than Crisp’s in 1943, though he had in fact found employment as a War Artist thanks to his friendship with the head of the War Artist’s Commission, Kenneth Clark. In his readiness to work alongside Crisp, Peake was part of Crisp’s support group, just as Crisp (who gave Peake wartime employment as an illustrator) was part of Peake’s.
It’s quite possible that Peake knew about Crisp’s ‘mission’ of spreading sexual tolerance and love; after all, Crisp himself acknowledges his delight in talking about himself in cafés and bars like the one in which he met the writer-artist. Not only does Mr Pye’s aim as a missionary who wishes to convert an island to a religion of love resemble Crisp’s, while his theatrical flamboyance echoes that of the controversial London character, but the role of Mr Pye’s own chosen family in supporting him against a hostile environment – Miss Dredger, Miss George (before he alienates her), the painter Thorpe and the girl Tintagieu – recalls that of the kangaroo in All This and Bevin Too. Mr Pye’s religious mission catches resonance, too, from Alfred Waldron’s pictorial campaign against Christian hypocrisy, while his smallness, his difference from the other islanders, and his habit of sucking his thumb align him with Waldron himself. Even Mr Pye’s supposed sexlessness finds a philosophical prop in Crisp’s statement that he had succeeded, by the time Peake met him, in separating sex from love. And Mr Pye’s arrogance – his lust for conquest, as expressed in his desire to convert a self-contained territory into the utopia or golden age of his heart’s desire, or in his insistence that he knows what’s best for Miss George – recalls Crisp’s confession at the end of his autobiography that ‘Power was what I craved most ravenously’, and that he ‘wanted dominion over others in order to redress the balance’; as partial recompense, that is, for the powerlessness to which he had been so often consigned by his ‘deviate’ status (p. 222).
Crisp’s autobiography, for all its occasional recourse to a religious vocabulary, resists the temptation to sum itself up with some sort of moral. ‘I know,’ he writes, ‘that on no account must I point a moral or trace a pattern through my past’; this is a sign of his subscription to the ‘modern manner’ (p. 220); and he adds, ‘I clearly see that my life was only an imprudent dash between the cradle and the tomb across open country and under fire’ (p. 220). Apart from anything else, the person who writes is ‘still changing – still in doubt’ (p. 222), which means that any retrospectively imposed moral or pattern will be necessarily incomplete. Mr Pye, too, invokes religious vocabulary, but ends by rejecting any attempt at a moral conclusion. The protagonist grows wings and horns in response to his good and evil actions – or what he perceives as his good and evil actions; his good actions are not always good, his evil actions in many cases barely worthy of the name. And as the book goes on, the moral associations with each bodily eruption grow steadily less certain. The appearance of Mr Pye’s wings coincides with a new sense of alienation from his God, as he ceases to be able to talk with Him – something he claims to have been able to do throughout his life. As a result, it also brings with it a sense of all-encompassing loneliness, of being cut off not only from the mortal friends to whom he is closest but from the spiritual conversation he formerly cherished, and hence from the evangelical narrative of which he felt himself to be part. In the days before the wings’ appearance, Miss George refused point blank to be made a symbol of Mr Pye’s faith; and her lowering down the chimney could be said to mark the failure of religious symbolism itself, a failure reinforced by the uncertain status of those ‘crisp, forceful little feathers’ on her tormentor’s back. Later Mr Pye himself refuses to become a symbol of his own religion, reluctant to display his wings to the world as a mark of God’s favour for fear of being treated like a circus freak (p. 137). In the process Mr Pye divorces himself from his lifelong mission or narrative or purpose for the very first time. The appearance of his wings, which might have been taken to confirm his saintly identity, instead makes him question that identity, and with it the narrative to which he has always sought to conform. But what is there to replace it, apart from the drab narrative of failure, exile and a lonely death?
Mr Pye conceals his wings under a voluminous cape (p. 148), and when his horns begin to grow he hides them under a bandana (p. 205), a Basque beret (p. 209), and a Panama hat (p. 220). For a time, at least, he exists in a state of camouflage, his abnormal body hidden away from view, only his increasingly bizarre behaviour offering clues to the mental and physical anguish he is suffering. He closets himself repeatedly, locking himself in his room at Miss Dredger’s house to examine his growing wings, concealing himself in the island prison when the people of Sark turn against him. His closest friend, by the end of the novel, is Tintagieu, who is famous throughout the island as a rebel against the laws of sexual constraint. His closeness to Tintagieu at the end suggests that she somehow understands him, and Tintagieu’s chosen area of expertise suggests that she understands him because she sees his torment as in some way linked to sexual desire. Tintagieu’s body strains at the seams of her tight-fitting dress, just as Mr Pye’s wings and horns strain at the items he uses to bind them: cape, bandana, beret or hat. Tintagieu’s willingness to walk naked along the roads of Sark may even have given Mr Pye the courage, in the end, to bare himself, to display his horns to the islanders at the annual cattle show, come what may; he certainly approves of her nakedness when he sees her walking past his gate in the early morning (‘It is right,’ he tells her, ‘Absolutely right’, p. 123). And it is Tintagieu who seeks to reconcile him, after he bares himself, to her fellow islanders, insisting that his horns are no more threatening than the horns of the nearby cattle (p. 240). They belong to his body, and have no necessary symbolic significance. The Sarkese woman and Mr Pye, in other words, seek at the end against all hope to advance the golden world of tolerance and mutual affection advocated by Crisp, only to be met with the kind of violence Crisp encountered all too often on the streets of London.
There’s a curious moment at the culmination of the novel, as Mr Pye finds himself pursued by a mob of islanders baying for his blood, when the missionary draws a final, sharp distinction between his mysteriously sprouting body and the discourse of Christianity that might be used to explain it. Just as he is about to make his final leap from the precipitous Coupée, the missionary enters a state of unearthly calm. He sits ‘perfectly upright, yet perfectly relaxed’ on the seat of the carriage that carries him, then symbolically detaches himself from his God: ‘As the ground began to dip,’ Peake tells us, ‘he drew forth his soul and tossed it skywards to his maker. “Oh, catch it if you care to,”, he cried, and he beat his wings in an earthless exultation’ (p. 253). The result is that it’s Mr Pye’s body only – his body and mind – that makes the great leap into space from the narrow isthmus that links Great Sark to Little Sark. This implies, perhaps, that the Christian narrative he has cleaved to so far has no place, as yet, for a body or mind like his. He does not, in response, reject the narrative altogether – he tosses his soul, after all, to the being he sees as his maker – but he recognises all the same that Christian theology cannot embrace his kind of difference at this point in its history. It’s noteworthy that he asks if the Great Pal might care to catch his soul, not if he can do so, as one might expect (‘catch me if you can’ being the phrase his last words seem to echo), and caring is, of course, another term for the ‘love’ Mr Pye has preached throughout his time on Sark (it shares the same root as ‘charity’, from Latin caritas, love). Like Quentin Crisp, in other words, Mr Pye seems to understand that the word ‘love’ as used by Christians is not yet capacious enough to include queer folk like himself. The recent controversy over same-sex marriage in the Anglican Church suggests that it still hasn’t found a way to achieve that capaciousness. Until it does, the queer community must find its own way to the ‘earthless exultation’ experienced by the little missionary.
I’ve mentioned camouflage several times in the course of this post, and I want to end with some thoughts on camouflage in relation to art, and in particular the Sark Art Group. The Group didn’t last long; founded in 1933, all its main members had left the island by 1938, so that when Maeve Gilmore and her husband Peake arrived on Sark for a holiday in the summer of that year, ‘the gallery was closed and Eric Drake and his artists were nowhere to be seen’ (p. 66). During the war, as Norwich tells us, a remarkable number of the Group’s artists went to work with the Camouflage Directorate at Leamington Spa; these included Eric Drake, Pip Waldron, Guy Malet, Leon Underwood and about eight others. It’s satisfying to think of Waldron, with his passion for human masks, providing masks for inanimate objects in support of the Allied cause. The artists’ responsibilities included disguising airfields, storage sites, military vehicles, ships, factories and other industrial locations, as well as playing a major role in preparations for Operation Overlord (the D-Day landings) – making model tanks, among other things, to mislead the German forces. When, a few years after the war, Ralph Thomas filmed a war movie called Appointment with Venus (1951) on Sark – about a daring raid to snatch a prize cow called Venus from the island, under the nose of the occupying Nazis – the artist figure Lionel Fallaize, played by Kenneth More, is recruited to camouflage a cow to serve as stand-in for the bovine protagonist. It’s hard not to see this as a witty reference to the work of the Sark Art Group artists in the Second World War.
Quentin Crisp, too, contemplated offering his services to the Camouflage Directorate, but concluded that his gifts lay elsewhere: ‘My function was rather to render what was already clear blindingly obvious’ (p. 117). Crisp’s art is his body, which he decorates and parades about the streets in a bid to force the city population to recognise and acknowledge what they have always known: that there are queer people in the world and that they have a place in it, or rather many places, since the highly mobile Crisp became in effect one of the sights of London, like the Tower, the Theatre, the Galleries or Westminster Abbey – though unlike these, capable of being seen almost anywhere. His aesthetic armoury – long nails and hair, fabulous clothes, makeup – is the direct opposite of camouflage. The artist Thorpe in Mr Pye, by contrast, cannot make visible the inward vision he is occasionally vouchsafed; it remains concealed within, and his diatribes against the artistic establishment (it is dominated, he claims, by ‘the amateurs, the Philistines, the racketeers, the Jews, the snarling women and the raging queers to whom Soutine is “ever so pretty” and Rembrandt “ever s-so sweet”’, p. 184) only expose his own prejudices, his acute self-consciousness and inward shame at his own inadequacy, all of which make him stammer. He inveighs against ‘the Jews’ without showing any awareness that Chaïm Soutine – an artist he reverences – was Jewish, and died while hiding from the Nazis in occupied France. He inveighs against ‘snarling women’ in the presence of a woman, Tintagieu. And his comment about ‘raging queers’ overlooks the conspicuous queerness of Mr Pye, to whom he is speaking at the time. On the first occasion Thorpe mentioned Mr Pye to Tintagieu, the young woman had said she could tell him ‘some very queer things’ about the little stranger (p. 73); and the marks of queerness accumulate round him as the narrative goes on.
Some of Mr Pye’s ‘queer things’ are apparent from the very beginning, in his talk (‘the gayest quips and sallies’, p. 75) and his extravagant gestures. But when his body begins to manifest its queerness through wings and horns he at once has recourse, as we’ve seen, to the camouflage of clothing. In the end, though, Mr Pye decides to dispense with concealment. He dons garments of Crisp-like conspicuousness at Miss George’s funeral – a cape, a tropical suit (the tropics again!), a ‘lavender scarf of sensuous silk’, and a Panama hat he refuses to doff in respect for the dead (p. 172). He later tells the deputation of islanders who come to complain of his queer behaviour that he and they must be ‘visible’ to one another, adding that ‘If there is anyone here who is afraid to look me in the eyes – let him be gone’ (p. 194). And he finally exposes his horns for all to see in the aptest of places: the island cattle show. The horns themselves have an obvious sexual connotation, which is helpfully pointed up by one of the island boys, who tells a policeman that Mr Pye is nothing less than ‘old Horny Satan’ (p. 241). Ironically, the policemen sent from Guernsey to arrest him for his self-exposure are themselves entrapped by Tintagieu in her cottage, where ‘she had heated their blood and then locked them in’ (p. 242); in other words they are no less ‘Horny’ than the man they came to arrest. Mr Pye’s self-exposure exposes the islanders in all their hypocrisy, outing them, as Thorpe outs himself, as prey to a thousand prejudices, and thus rendering what was already clear, as Crisp puts it, ‘blindingly obvious’. Mr Pye, in other words, moves from confident self-display in his capacity as a missionary, to a desperate use of camouflage to conceal his otherness, to a courageous emergence from his carefully constructed closet.
In the process Mr Pye creates a work of art. His intention when he came to Sark, as he tells the islanders, was ‘upon a small canvas […] to complete a picture to its last brush-stroke’ (p. 198), and he went about his work with ‘meticulous artistry’ (p. 45). But by the end of the book he has become a work of art himself. His wings make him look like a cherub from a Raphael painting; his horns invoke a ‘superb piece of drawing’ accomplished with ‘two sweeps of a Chinese brush – spontaneous, fierce and inevitable’ (p. 225); while his last scene, as he dashes by night to his doom at the Coupée, conjures up images from the most lurid pictures of Gustave Doré or John Martin, or the movies of Fritz Lang and the great James Whale. He has moved, in fact, from the position of the optimistic artists of the Sark Art Group, who brought modernity to the Channel islands in the 1930s, to the position those artists adopted in support of the war effort – experimenting with different kinds of camouflage – and at last to the conspicuous bodily display of that artist-cum-missionary for the golden age of queer liberation, Quentin Crisp. In the process, Mr Pye comes to embody some of the most potent dreams and influences of imaginative artists in the mid-twentieth century. And his embodiment of those dreams and influences arises from the rich, strange web of associations flung out by the little book in which Peake caught him.
I hope that by tracing some of the strands of that strange web I have begun to make a case for its richness.
It’s important to point out, I think, that Thorpe’s anti-Semitic remark about art being ‘in the hands of the Jews’ didn’t go unchallenged when Mr Pye came out in 1953. When Peake wrote to the screenwriter Norman Hudis asking for help in having the book made into a film, Hudis replied that he would do what he could, and that he liked the book, but that there was one thing in it that jarred:
I couldn’t understand why you found it necessary to put into Thorpe’s mouth the conviction that art is “in the hands of the Jews”. Apart from the fact that per se, this is not true, the context in which it is placed leads to an assumption that this would be an evil state of affairs. I am always disturbed to find this kind of statement in a book or story – especially as, in this case, it seems to have been introduced gratuitously. The remark is so casual that, especially in a book like “Mr Pye” – essentially unworldly for me – it stands out as the kind of thing which strengthens any existing prejudice in the reader and plants the horrid seed in minds which may be free of such prejudice.
(Letter of October 8 1953, Peake Archive, British Library)
Hudis makes his point with admirable tact and firmness, and it’s clearly right; Thorpe’s comments run horribly against the grain of the book’s overall tone, and although I have suggested that they are meant to be taken as evidence of the artist’s rudeness and stupidity, to include them at all was a bad mistake under any circumstances; all the more so given Peake’s own deep admiration of Jewish artists such as Jacob Epstein, Mané Katz and Chaïm Soutine (for which, see my discussion here).
 Jane Norwich, Inspired by Sark: The Story of the Sark Art Group (Market Harborough: Matador, 2022).
 I’ve written about the various echoes in Peake’s poetry, many of them Elizabethan, in my introduction to his Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), pp. 10-11.
 For Peake as an honorary islander, see Stephen Foote’s little book Mervyn Peake: Son of Sark (Guernsey: Blue Ormer Publishing, 2019).
 Mervyn Peake, Mr Pye (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978), p. 254. All quotations are taken from this edition.
 See Norwich, Inspired by Sark, pp. 21, 124, 164-5.
 The character from whom he derives his name – ‘Mr Pye’ in Agatha Christie’s novel The Moving Finger (1942) – is similarly coded as gay, being described as ‘an extremely ladylike plump little man’ who delights in his collection of Dresden shepherdesses. The Moving Finger, http://detective.gumer.info/anto/christie_25_2.pdf, p. 28.
 For a discussion of the ‘family of choice’ or chosen family, see Brian Heaphy, Jeffrey Weeks and Catherine Donovan, ‘Narratives of Care, Love and Commitment: AIDS/HIV and Non-Heterosexual Family Formations’, in Peter Aggleton, Peter Davies and Graham Hart (eds.), Families and Communities Responding to AIDS (London: UCL Press, 1999), pp. 67-82
 Ala Story was married to Neville V. O. Story in 1930, but her lifetime partner was Margaret Mallory; for her biography, see Norwich […], and Burcu Dogramaci, ‘Transmetropolitan Refernces in the Metromod Archive: Ala Story in London and New York’, Metromod 19.09.2021, which can be found here: https://metromod.net/2021/09/19/transmetropolitan-references-in-the-metromod-archive-ala-story-in-london-and-new-york/. Frank Coombs, meanwhile, became the partner of the painter Eardley Knollys (see Norwich, p. 135) on his return to London from Sark.
 G. Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography (Londond and Chester Springs, PA: Peter Owen, 2009), p. 85.
 Malcolm Yorke, Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold: A Life (London: John Murray, 2000), p. 65.
 For the sombrero rumour see Yorke, Mervyn Peake, p. 65.
 Strictly speaking the café was called ‘Au Chat Noir’, but Crisp tells us the boys on the game ‘were not putting up with any such nonsense’. The Naked Civil Servant (London etc.: Harper Perennial, 2007), pp. 27-8. For Peake’s exhibition, with two other artists, see G. Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, pp. 71-2.
 See Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 130.
 Cantus here seems to be quoting Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 85.
 See Mr Pye, p. 129: ‘She opened the door quietly, and there he was, curled up like a child, his thumb in his mouth and his sharp nose lying along the pillow’.
 Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 85.
In August this year I went to the Isle of Sark. The reason for the visit was simple: the writer-artist Mervyn Peake stayed on the island several times, and lived there twice, first from 1933 to 1935 as a member of an artist’s community now known as the Sark Art Group, then from 1946 to 1949 as the father of a family. Other visits included his honeymoon in 1938, a trip with his young sons to sort out the selling of his home in 1950, a holiday in 1953 and a period in 1957 when he was trying to finish the last of the Titus books, Titus Alone (1959), as he gradually succumbed to the ravages of Parkinson’s Disease. I’m writing a book about Mervyn Peake, and it seemed important to spend some time on the island that became his island: the country of his heart’s desire, whose presence reverberates through nearly all his written work and a great deal of his work as a visual artist.
Why was it important to go there, you ask? What can we learn from spending time in a place that figures so prominently in an artist’s imagination? Here’s the beginnings of an answer. Peake’s favourite book as a boy concerned an island – Treasure Island (1881-2) – and the book’s author, Robert Louis Stevenson, wrote a fine essay on romance which sets a sense of place at the heart of the genre. ‘One thing in life calls for another,’ Stevenson tells us:
there is a fitness in events and places. The sight of a pleasant arbour puts it in our minds to sit there. One place suggests work, another idleness, a third early rising and long rambles through the dew. The effect of night, of any flowing water, of lighted cities, of the peep of day, of ships, of the open ocean, calls up in the mind an army of anonymous desires and pleasures. Something, we feel, should happen; we know not what, yet we proceed in quest of it. And many of the happiest hours of life fleet by us in this vain attendance on the genius of the place and moment. It is thus that tracts of young fir, and low rocks that reach into deep soundings, particularly torture and delight me. Something must have happened in such places, and perhaps ages back, to members of my race; when I was a child I tried in vain to invent appropriate games for them, as I still try, just as vainly, to fit them with the proper story.
In his own novels, Peake gave us a place like no other: the colossal castle of Gormenghast, whose full dimensions can never be established, with walls like cliffs and rooftops like the tracts of a desert, honeycombed with forgotten corridors and dusty staircases, its main mass punctuated by abandoned courtyards and deserted chambers, lost attics, secluded towers and unlighted windows. His castle aches for occurrence, despite the law that governs its inhabitants, which states that nothing there must ever change. And in the course of the first two Titus novels something happens indeed ‘to justify the place’, as Stevenson puts it; most obviously, perhaps, the two great fights that break the stillness of the castle’s decaying vistas: first the combat between Flay and Swelter at the end of Titus Groan (1946), then the manhunt through the building for the upstart Steerpike at the end of Gormenghast (1950), which culminates in a duel between Steerpike and Titus, reluctant heir to the ancient pile and its incoherent rituals.
In Stevenson’s terms, then, Peake was a writer of romance, and the place of his imagination, Gormenghast Castle, is perhaps the ultimate example of the ‘fitness in events and places’ discussed in Stevenson’s essay. And it’s intimately bound up with the Isle of Sark. The stony bulk of the building recalls the stony bulk of the tiny landmass, rising from the ocean like the carcass of a whale. In the second Titus book, parts of the castle even acquire names associated with the island: the Countess of Groan lists the Coupée (‘the high knife-edge’), Little Sark, Gory and the Silver-Mines, as sections of the building to be searched in the hunt for Steerpike, while Peake’s description of these parts could serve as a description of Sark’s shoreline: ‘Great islands of sheer rock weather-pock’d with countless windows, like caves or the eyries of sea-eagles. Archipelagos of towers, gaunt-fisted things, with knuckled summits – and other towers so broken at their heads as to resemble pulpits, high and sinister; black rostrums for the tutelage of evil’ (p. 699). To visit the island is to return to the source. If certain places seem to cry out for a tale that will do them justice, travelling to the places which spawned great fiction is a necessity for anyone seeking to unlock the riddles of that fiction; a kind of pilgrimage, if you will, to discover the pains and pleasures, the tortures and delights that prompted that spawning. Titus Groan begins, indeed, with a quotation from the ultimate novel of pilgrimage, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), which would have been familiar to any child of nonconformist parents in the first half of the twentieth century:
Dost thou love picking meat? Or woulds’t thou see
A man in the clouds, and have him speak to thee?
I would indeed like to see the visionary ‘man in the clouds’, Mervyn Peake, more clearly than I do, and attending to Sark may give new resonance to the voices he speaks with.
I only had a week for my visit, so my opportunity for deciphering the island’s riddles – and with them the riddles of Peake’s work – was severely restricted. This blogpost records a few of its results.
Cliffs of Sark
What, then, of Sark’s ‘shape, its solidity, or outline, or texture’, as the object of our scrutiny? It lies just off the coast of Normandy, along with the rest of the Channel Islands. Its shape seen from above, as in a map, is well described by Stephen Foote in his invaluable little book Mervyn Peake: Son of Sark (2019), which I took with me on my trip as a guidebook: ‘The island is made up of two parts – Big Sark and Little Sark – which are connected by a narrow isthmus, La Coupée, with steep rocky cliffs either side’. From the sea it resembles a kind of mesa or plateau, like the one in Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World (1912) where dinosaurs have survived into modern times alongside cave-dwelling humans. The Sark plateau is surrounded by cliffs two or three hundred feet high, which guard isolated beaches of stone or sand accessible only by precipitous paths winding down the cliff faces. Hidden among their skirts are innumerable caves, as well as two tidal rock pools named after Venus and Adonis, conjuring up images of pagan worship and erotic dalliance. The two harbours are reached through narrow tunnels drilled through the stone. Peake knew these cliffs very well; on a reconnaissance trip with Gordon Smith in 1932 he got stranded on one of them. Here’s Smith’s account of the incident:
I remember scrambling with Mervyn across a steep cliff-face, with the waves smashing hungrily below. Somehow we got out to a knife-edge of rock that stuck out at right-angles from the face, like the branch-gable of a house. This we both straddled, and found ourselves gazing a bit anxiously up at the main cliff, which went up vertically, a few inches away, for another thirty or forty feet. The only hold seemed to be a shallow depression about half-way up. Perched on the top of the cliff, overhanging the edge, was a boulder the size of a small cottage. I still do not know how we got up the face, though I remember getting first a knee and then a toe into the depression mentioned and reaching some sort of safety near the side of the boulder.
Mervyn also reached the top, but found himself on a tiny ledge just under the worst underhang of the boulder, with his arms clasping as much of its mass as he could compass. I edged towards him to help.
‘If you come near me I’ll bloody well kill you!’ he muttered desperately.
Finally, by some contortion, he managed to turn himself right round, which was no comfort at all: for he was now facing outwards, looking down over the sea far below, with his arms spreadeagled behind him. All I could do was stay still, and watch. After long, agonizing minutes he inched his way to safety.
This passage recalls Steerpike’s vertiginous epic climb up the walls of Gormenghast towards a window in Titus Groan – though the climb in the novel is through thick ivy, the sort of ivy one sees clinging in many places to the cliffs of Sark. The distances involved are different; at one point Steerpike stops to rest in his climb and notes that ‘He was about midway between the ground two hundred feet below him and the window’, which makes the height of the castle wall over four hundred feet, one hundred feet higher than the highest of the island’s cliffs. But the sensations aroused by wall and cliffs may well have been identical:
He could not know that he was nearing the window. Distance, even more than time, had ceased to have any meaning for him, but all at once he found that the leaves were thinning and that blotches of light lay pranked about him. He remembered having observed from below that the ivy had appeared to be less profuse and to lie closer to the wall as it neared the window. The hirsute branches were less dependable now and several had snapped at his weight, so that he was forced to keep to one of the main stems that clung dustily to the wall. Only a foot or two in depth, the ivy lay at his back partially shading him from the sun. A moment later and he was alone in the sunshine. It was difficult for his fingers to find purchase. Fighting to wedge them between the clinging branches and the wall he moved, inch by inch, upwards. It seemed to him that all his life he had been climbing. All his life he had been ill and tortured. All his life he had been terrified, and red shapes rolled. Hammers were beating and sweat poured into his eyes.
The torment of the teenage climber, here, invokes exactly the sort of fierce desperation expressed by Peake in his threat to kill Gordon Smith. But Steerpike later grew adept in the art of negotiating the castle’s precipitous heights, swinging himself up and down on lengths of rope as he pursued his self-appointed trade as spy and assassin, and Peake, too, clearly acquired real confidence on the cliffs. Smith tells us that he accomplished another climb ‘with a young cormorant in each coat pocket pecking angrily at his armpits as he hung’. Afterwards he kept one of the cormorants in his studio, where it ‘defecated all over his canvases’, in the words of Malcolm Yorke. Just as the cormorant became acclimatised to human company, so Peake became what Stephen Foote calls a ‘Son of Sark’, naturalised to its strange and isolated landscape, as all his readers become naturalised to the strange and isolated landscapes of his imaginary castle.
Let’s take another few steps towards our own, more limited kind of naturalisation.
Geographies of Sark
Cliffs are the first feature of Sark you notice as you approach by boat from Saint Peter Port in Guernsey. We saw a dolphin on the crossing; the Peake family saw a school of porpoises. We disembarked at one of the two harbours on the island, the Maseline Harbour, completed after the war and not yet in use when the Peakes lived there. The smaller of the two, Creux Harbour, was the one Mervyn knew best, and features prominently in his illustrations for his third novel, Mr Pye. A cove enclosed by a massive sea wall, it features a pebble beach surrounded by cliffs, a shallow cave, and not one but two tunnels cut through the rock from the road beyond, one leading to the harbour wall, the other, smaller tunnel leading down to the beach. Secret and secluded, it must have been the perfect introduction to the island when the ferry moored there. In Peake’s time visitors to the island could catch a horse and carriage up the steep slope that begins on the other side of the tunnels; in those days, as now, there were no cars on the island. Today the horse and carriage have been replaced by a tractor pulling a long trailer divided into seated sections, known as the Toast Rack because of its shape (the passengers are the toast). We chose instead to walk up the narrow path that winds alongside the road to the top of the hill through the thick vegetation that grows almost everywhere on Sark. Here it’s an exotic subtropical jungle, full of rhododendrons and other alien plants, but elsewhere it’s more of a maquis made up of blackthorn, hawthorn and bramble, the sort of scrubland through which partisans moved in Corsica. You get the best sense of this scrubland from L’Eperquerie Common at the North end of the island, where a maze of narrow paths has been hacked through the thick dwarf-forest, giving sudden access to viewpoints high above the gun-grey waters of the English Channel.
At the top of the road from the harbour, after passing a pub on your left – the Bel Air Inn – you reach the crossroads called the Collinette (i.e. small hill or hillock). There, now as in Peake’s time, horses and carriages wait in a row to collect visitors for leisurely tours around the island. Straight ahead lies the main street of Sark, known as the Avenue. A fine painting of it by Peake called ‘The Avenue, Sark’ (1934) hangs in the Guernsey Museum and Art Gallery, fully bearing out the words of a reporter at a Sark Art Group exhibition who said of Peake’s work that ‘the effect of light which he brings into his pictures makes them vivid, alive and interesting’. That same Sark Art Group exhibition also included a lost picture of his, illustrating Blake’s poem ‘The Tyger’ (1794): ‘a thing of dark trees, slumbrous shadows and wicked green light, with, as centrepiece, a vivid yellow tiger’. There is something distinctly tigerish about the streaks of light and shade in ‘The Avenue, Sark’, though the centrepiece here is a woman in the sunlit distance, rendered spectral by the obscurity of her face.
As the painting shows, the roads of Sark are left untarmacked, presumably to make them easy on the horses’ feet. They are now as Peake first saw them, shaded by sinuous pines and spreading oaks; but by the time he came to live here a second time, just after the war, all the trees along the sides of the road had been chopped down, leaving only the ‘great stub ends of the massacred trees’, as he puts it in Mr Pye. Sark suffered badly under German occupation, occupiers and occupied alike, and the wood was needed as winter fuel, for heating as well as for cooking the islanders’ desperately short rations; I read about these tough conditions in an excellent exhibition at the Old Island Hall on the Rue de la Seigneurie. The adjective ‘massacred’ reflects Peake’s deep affection for trees, and one wonders if he had this massacre in mind when he wrote this short poem in the 1940s:
If trees gushed blood
When they were felled
By meddling man,
And crimson welled
From every gash
His axe can give,
Would he forbear
And let them live?
The absence, during his second long stay on Sark, of the pines and oaks he had carefully painted before the war, must have served as a constant reminder of the time of violence and privation that came between.
The Avenue and its westward extension, Mill Lane, features large in Peake’s Sark life. Just before the right hand turn to the Rue de la Seigneurie stands the Post Office, with its blue plaque commemorating Peake’s association with the island. The building was originally constructed in 1933 as the Sark Art Gallery; Peake helped in its construction when he became a founder-member of the Sark Art Group, and the arched room above the entrance was where Peake had his studio (a photo survives of him painting in it). As originally built, following the designs of the Sark Art Group’s co-directors, Eric and Lisel Drake, the place brought a sense of Modernist flair to the tiny island, with its clean lines, all-round verandas, Art Deco spiral stairway, and ingenious use of natural lighting. These days it remains a very attractive shop, though all the features I’ve listed have long gone, apart from the studio above the entrance. Further along the Avenue you pass the old schoolhouse, now a visitor’s centre, with the little gaol next door. Peake describes the gaol in Mr Pye as ‘a pocket-size prison like a stone sea-chest’, and Mr Pye spends several hours hiding in it from a mob of islanders baying for his blood. Further on, past the sixteenth-century Old Manoir where the first Lords of Sark had their home, you pass the Peake family’s house on your right, half way down Mill Lane. Originally called Le Chalet, after Peake’s time it was renamed Le Clos de Vin, and when I first saw it there was no name on the gate at all, which meant I took several days to identify the place with any certainty. Fortunately the exhibition in the Old Village Hall happened to mention the name change, and I found the sign for Le Clos de Vin lying on a bench in the driveway. The house was very large and shabby, painted white on the outside; it had two glass conservatories attached to the sides that faced the road, and the sagging front gate looks very much like the gate of Miss Dredger’s house as pictured in Mr Pye. It also had an extensive lawn. More than this I couldn’t see, since I was too shy to go up to the front door, ring the doorbell and ask permission to look around. I’d have loved to find out if a palm tree can still be found in the grounds. Peake describes the process of acquiring this exotic specimen in his short story ‘I Bought a Palm Tree’, claiming that he brought it to Sark in a bid to make the island tropical. He had no illusions that the island would actually become tropical when the tree was planted; he wanted only to invoke ‘The tropics that one finds between the thick cardboard covers of dog-eared and thumb-marked story books. The tropics as one wants them, not as they are’. It was his little contribution to the myth of Sark’s connection to piracy, a connection we’ll revisit very shortly.
I was interested in the location of the house because it was so central, so very much (I thought) at the heart of island life. The Gallery – now the post office – was only a few hundred metres away, as were the two-roomed schoolhouse and the Anglican Church on La Seigneurie Road, which Peake also painted. The shops of the Avenue were nearby, and the Island Hall, while the Methodist Church stands on a parallel road called the Rue du Sermon, not far from the island’s tiny parliament, the Chief Pleas, and the home of the island’s feudal lords, La Seigneurie. Connecting all these places is a network of tree-lined roads, along which bicycles bowl between carriages, pedestrians and tractors. If I’d pictured the place as a reclusive artist’s retreat I was quickly disabused of this notion; the Sark I saw was all a-bustle, often of course because of the hordes of summer tourists who came up on day-trips from the ferry, but also because of the vibrant local community. On the day we arrived, there was a cricket match on the pitch by the new Island Hall. I watched lazily, sipping a drink, as Sark got thrashed by Guernsey, and thought about how Peake had joined the island football team in the 1930s as keeper, despite the fact that he’d never played football before (his rugby skills, on the other hand, must have come in useful). I saw posters for a performance by a local amateur theatre company, and remembered the theatrical performance given by the Sark Art Group as the monks who brought Christianity to Sark (Peake didn’t take part in the performance, since he’d left the Group by that time). I drank in the garden of the Bel Air Inn amongst a swarm of chatty Sarkese, and remembered Peake’s paintings of Sark pub life, which included a drawing of a game of darts and several paintings of fishermen drinking. He worked in the fields in the 1930s to make a living, and in the 1940s his two small sons took visitors round the island in a cart drawn by their elderly donkey, Judy. Peake and his family were gregarious, not reclusive, and Peake practised his art in the middle of the island community, just as he wrote, drew and painted in the middle of his family, not set apart from them in some private attic or outhouse. This may seem surprising, given that Gormenghast Castle is full of recluses; but it’s in the first of the Titus books that the loneliest castle dwellers can be found, a book that was largely written during Peake’s troubled period in the army from 1940-1942 – a period that ended in breakdown and hospitalization. The second novel, written on Sark, is full of communities, with Titus drifting among them in perpetual quest of a community of his own – a quest that continues in the picaresque journey of Titus Alone. If Peake and his family felt like outsiders on the island, they were outsiders in a busy society, not hermits like the exiled servant Flay in his cave, or the wild girl called The Thing swinging free and alone through the forests of Gormenghast Mountain.
Peake’s novel set on the island, however – Mr Pye – contains acute loneliness as well as crowds, and it is perfectly possible to be lonely on Sark. During our visit we stayed at a relatively quiet location: a room in a new house off the Rue de la Seigneurie, close to several lonely sites that loomed large in Peake’s imagination. The first is the Window in the Rock – a square hole bored in the rockface two hundred feet above a stony shore, probably designed for hauling up goods from the beach below to the island plateau (we found a rusting winch nearby). Here the plump visitor to Sark, Mr Pye, stood beside his friend Miss Dredger as they contemplated the problem of his burgeoning wings, which seem to have sprouted in response to Mr Pye’s angelic nature, isolating him from the other inhabitants of the island. For once, at this point in the novel Mr Pye is prepared to see the wings not as a moral or social problem – to be combated by behaving badly in secret, which of course leads to an outgrowth of horns instead – but as a practical asset: ‘What a place to take off from,’ Mr Pye comments as they gaze down a ‘sheer wall of sickening rock’. Peake’s illustration for this chapter shows the Window as the uneven border of an animated picture, with two contrasting figures framed by it – one plump, one thin – looking outwards, away from the viewer, outlined against what we know from the text is a dizzying drop, a leap into space, an opening onto the sky, the ocean, fierce life and sudden death. The notion of a picture as an opening onto vast unseen spaces is characteristic of Peake’s art, from the densely crosshatched illustrations to the Ancient Mariner to the gravity-defying supernatural beings of The Quest for Sita. Mr Pye’s response to the view is not to consider its moral implications – a Hamletesque ‘to be or not to be’ prompted by the ethical dilemmas embodied in his wings and horns – but to think of the actions it might inspire, above all the action of taking flight, which implies a final acceptance of and faith in the feathered limbs he has been striving so hard to get rid of. Cliffs, of course, have that effect on some people – including me: an urge to get closer, to jump, to soar from one medium to the next, from earth to air, though for most of us the action of soaring can only ever be achieved in dreams. For Peake, the visionary shift from one medium to another could be achieved by a simple change of art form, from drawing to painting, from book illustration to writing in verse or prose for page or stage. Place prompted thoughts of action, just as it did for Stevenson in his essay on romance. Mr Pye’s response to the Window might almost be a response to the passage in which Stevenson considers the relationship between a person’s concern with conduct – with whether they have behaved, or will behave, rightly or wrongly – and their more practical concern with problems arising from their physical or social environment:
Now we are pleased by our conduct, anon merely pleased by our surroundings. It would be hard to say which of these modes of satisfaction is the more effective, but the latter is surely the more constant. Conduct is three parts of life, they say; but I think they put it high. There is a vast deal in life and letters both which is not immoral, but simply a-moral; which either does not regard the human will at all, or deals with it in obvious and healthy relations; where the interest turns, not upon what a man shall choose to do, but on how he manages to do it; not on the passionate slips and hesitations of the conscience, but on the problems of the body and of the practical intelligence, in clean, open-air adventure, the shock of arms or the diplomacy of life.
In the turbulent mid-twentieth century, one gets the sense that the urgent practical demands of dealing with one’s surroundings – of day-to-day survival, say on an island, under occupation or in the storms of winter in peacetime – vastly outweighed the ‘passionate slips and hesitations of conscience’ as a priority in most people’s lives; as no doubt it did in Stevenson’s, who was a consumptive under sentence of imminent death for most of his life. And ‘problems of the body’ feature largely in Mr Pye, not just in the matter of its unwanted excrescences – wings and horns – but in other ways I shall come to later. They are the source, in fact, of Mr Pye’s isolation, despite his ability to make friends with other outcasts.
The other Peakean landmark close to our lodgings was a group of distinctive stone formations that rise from the sea in the next bay along from the Port du Moulin, above which the Window is sited. These are Les Autelets – the ‘little altars’: four crooked stacks of rock like giant wayward relatives of the standing stones at Stonehenge or Avebury, all of which can be accessed from the shore at low tide. Mr Pye and Miss Dredger looked down on them from the headland that contains the Window in the Rock. I couldn’t reach the top of that headland, which has been fenced off in obedience to the damaging laws of trespass that obtain throughout so much British territory (though not in Scotland); so I had to look at Les Autelets from the other side, standing on a path that led westwards through the bushes of L’Eperquerie Common, at the north end of the island. Mr Pye’s thoughts on these natural monuments combine the artist’s eye with the ‘practical intelligence’ mentioned by Stevenson. The largest stack in the group, the Grand Autelet, ‘isolated from the main cliffs and knee-deep in water’, is described by the narrator of Peake’s novel as a ‘natural effort at cubism’; but for Mr Pye it is ‘very abstract’, a resistance to representation of the world in mimetic or narrative terms. Seeing it brings flying to his mind, as did the sickening drop on the other side of the Window. He thinks of
sailing away through the sweet, translucent air. Of stepping out over the edge of this precipitous headland and, like that gull, of being borne across the bay and the sea, and up into the sun, and down and up again, and away and away and then, perhaps, to return and to perch at last, who knows, on the back of the old Abstract.
Scenery here prompts thoughts of action of a very specific kind: the sort of mythical action that can only be accomplished by a person who has wings, an Icarus flying to the sun, a Satan launching himself across Chaos towards the vulnerable earth – though without the moral implications of these legendary flights (Icarus teaches us not to aspire beyond our reach, Satan’s journey exemplifies the workings of diabolical Pride, but both figures remain fascinating and attractive despite their sins, as Breughel and Doré confirmed in their pictures of them). Mr Pye thinks he has lost his chance for such action, since he is working to shrink his wings through the wicked behaviour he has been practising in recent weeks. But the sight of Les Autelets brings back the possibilities of flight, not as part of a grandiose narrative, appropriated by priests for allegorical religious purposes like the flights of Icarus and Satan, but as an expression of his own inward ‘army of anonymous desires and pleasures’, a summation of Mr Pye himself. After landing on the Grand Autelet he imagines himself reaching into his pocket for a fruit drop – a characteristic gesture wholly specific to Mr Pye, who is known as the ‘Fruit Drop’ to the islanders. His imagined flight goes nowhere – neither to the sun nor to the heavens nor to some distant destination. Instead it doubles back on itself and deposits him at the very place he started out from, without an agenda beyond the satisfaction of his immediate cravings. It confirms his identity, independent of his self-proclaimed mission of converting the people of Sark to his religious way of thinking. It’s an act of self-liberation which must wait to be accomplished till the end of the book. And it’s also an act of insurrection against balance; a concept we’ll be coming back to, along with piracy.
The Seigneurie of Sark
At the centre of the island, ideologically if not geographically speaking, is the Seigneurie, one of whose many roofs we could see from our bedroom window. It’s a strange fusion of buildings which include a sixteenth-century farmhouse, rebuilt and enlarged in more-or-less classical style in the seventeenth century, with a second and third house added on behind in the eighteenth century and further eccentric changes made in the nineteenth, including an ornate five-storey tower and an extravagant dovecote. Each of the past four centuries, then, has seen the house expand, until it looks from most angles more like a village than a family home – or a miniature model for Gormenghast Castle, which organically grew over many centuries into the titanic fortress it is when we first see it in Titus Groan. The Seigneur who added the tower, the Reverend W. T. Collings, also made additions to the nearby parish church and built the tiny prison, extending his architectural reach well beyond the limits of the house’s grounds.
The glory of the Seigneurie, however, is its celebrated gardens, which are crammed with exotic flowers and bushes that bloom in all seasons, alive with bees, birds and butterflies. There is a maze of low-growing hedges with a tiny fortress in the middle, a circular lawn surrounded by trellises, further formal lawns in front of the old original facade, and down the hill a swampy pond with its own dishevelled island, a Sark for ducks. One can imagine the Head Gardener of Gormenghast, the monklike Pentecost, moving along the paths of the Seigneurie Garden in his leather cowl. Could his monkishness have drawn on stories of the performance by the Sark Art Group in May 1935, when the painter Tony Bridges impersonated the island’s patron saint, Saint Magloire, and the rest of the Group dressed up in religious robes? As I mentioned earlier, Peake wasn’t involved in that performance, having taken up a post earlier that year at Westminster School of Art, but there were plenty of photos, and the performance won the artists a prize for their costumes; he very likely knew all about it. One of the buildings at La Seigneurie stood in for Saint Magloire’s chapel; today it houses an exhibition on the lords and ladies of Sark.
These days the Seigneurie looks serene; but it wasn’t always so. Just down the road from Le Chalet, where the Peakes lived, stands an abandoned windmill, whose sails were burned for firewood in the war and never replaced. This was at the centre of a small rebellion in that revolutionary epoch, the late eighteenth century. At the time the Seigneur had a monopoly on the use of the mill, as he also did on the breeding of dogs (Peake tells us in Mr Pye that no bitches were allowed on the island, and paints a verbal picture of the frustrated male dogs of Sark reduced to wrestling and moping in the sun by the absence of females). The Sarkese at last became so fed up with the mill monopoly that they built a second mill on Little Sark; they were encouraged in their resistance to the Seigneur’s authority by the spread of Methodism, and built a Methodist church to rival the Anglican church, Saint Peter’s, as well as a second mill. The second church is still there, though the same minister now serves both. The second mill lies in ruins. Mr Pye has quite a bit to say about the fragmented state of Sark society – divided as it is between indigenous islanders, English incomers, and transient visitors, as well as by the usual feuds between close neighbours. The divisions persist today along economic lines: one local shopkeeper told us the island is strangely split between millionaires and workers, with the Seigneurie placed presumably closer to the former than the latter. But it’s the millionaires who have made the biggest changes to Sark’s feudal system; the Barclay brothers, who built a hideous castle on nearby Brecquou Island, helped to instigate changes which have led to the vote being extended to all Sark’s population, not just the descendants of the sixteenth-century settlers from Jersey.
In the Second World War the Seigneurie became the focus of negotiations between the occupying German forces and the islanders. At first relations were fairly cordial, and the lady of the island, Dame Sibyl Hathaway – who spoke German well – was able to secure certain concessions for the islanders, such as permission to take out fishing boats when the tide was favourable, instead of in strict compliance with a timetable set by the occupiers. But the splits between the islanders were also exacerbated by the occupation. The Nazis made a sharp distinction between natives of the island and settlers from elsewhere, shipping out the non-natives to internment camps on the mainland, and eventually including the Dame’s American husband, Robert Hathaway, among the deportees. The war also brought tragedy to the Seigneurial family: the Dame’s eldest son was killed by a bomb in Liverpool. Relations with the occupiers deteriorated in 1942 when a group of British commandos landed on a headland called the Hogsback, killing three German soldiers and capturing a third; this led to restricted access to beaches, the laying of extensive minefields and an increase in deportations. The German commander and a four-year-old child were killed by mines in 1943, a second British commando raid was foiled by a minefield in the same year – two commandos killed and the rest wounded – and when the war ended, two German soldiers deployed as prisoners to clear the mines were also killed (Dame Sibyl ensured they were buried with full military honours). The most positive outcome of the war, perhaps, was the widening, paving and railing of the narrow isthmus known as the Coupée, which separates Big Sark from Little Sark. The German prisoners of war who did this work commemorated their feat of engineering with a plaque, which can still be seen at the crossing. Afterwards they made toys for all the children on the island – but their best gift was the upgraded Coupée, since before the upgrade, schoolchildren traversing the viaduct in high winds sometimes had to crawl to prevent themselves from being blown over the three-hundred-foot drops on either side.
I seem to remember reading somewhere that Peake once cycled across the Coupée, before it had railings, without touching the handlebars. The only hint of this I found when I looked just now came in his son Sebastian’s book, A Child of Bliss (1989), where he speaks of his father’s astounding feats of balance with undiminished admiration: ‘Riding on his bicycle, standing on the saddle or the handle bars, one foot on each, was another of his tricks, a hazardous one, as I found to my cost on trying to emulate it’. No mention of the Coupée in that passage; perhaps I was thinking metaphorically. Wartime could be seen a hazardous isthmus bridging the gap between one era on the island and another, and Peake’s two long stays on Sark may have given him an unusual insight into the nature of the path that lay between.
Piracy on Sark
If modern visitors find the tale of the German occupation endlessly fascinating, Peake’s own obsession with the island was partly triggered by its association with a very different kind of aggressor from the sea. Sark’s past is bound up with piracy – a fact commemorated by the T-shirts you can buy in one of the shops on the Avenue with the skull and crossbones on the front. The pirate Eustache the Monk, a trickster figure treated by one medieval French poet as a combination of Robin Hood and Reynard the Fox, used the island as a base in the thirteenth century, and by the early modern period it was again occupied by pirates; one of the obligations laid on the first Seigneur of Sark in the reign of Elizabeth I was to keep the place free from salt water thieves. Peake may have known about Sark’s pirate connections before his first visit; on hearing that his former schoolmaster, Eric Drake, planned to set up an artist’s colony on the island, he wrote at once to Gordon Smith: ‘Isn’t it marvellous? Gosh! I’d give my soul to come. Pirates and octopi! O.K., Chief’. The reference, of course, is thoroughly generic, and may only indicate a generalised association of islands with piracy based on Peake’s childhood love of Stevenson’s Treasure Island, which he is said to have known by heart. But once he had joined the colony he could have learned very quickly that in Sark’s case the association is a historical one. And when he painted himself on Sark – a self-portrait in oil survives from 1933 – he is palpably piratical, with windswept hair, a collarless shirt, deep tan and insolent eyes. Piracy was in Peake’s blood, and forged his first and strongest link with the easternmost Channel Island.
A number of Peake’s visual and verbal works connected to Sark have a pirate theme. His picture book Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939) sees the pirate captain of the title capture an androgynous Yellow Creature on an island whose rock formations closely resemble Les Autelets – although the rest of the island is tropical (‘The tropics as one wants them, not as they are’, Peake might have added). At the end of the book the captain retires with the Yellow Creature to another tropical island full of Sarkese rock formations. Much later, Peake’s fourth novel, Mr Pye (1953), transforms Sark itself into a pirate ship, a ‘strange, wasp-waisted ship of stone’ (p. 48) populated by a ‘crew’ that includes Miss Dredger, whom Mr Pye insists on calling ‘sailor’ throughout the novel, and who calls him ‘chief’ in return, as if he were a pirate chief in a Boy’s Own story (and his name, of course, contains the first syllable of both ‘piety’ and ‘pirate’). He even looks like a buccaneer later in the book, when he seeks to do evil in a desperate bid to rid himself of his wings. As horns begin to sprout on his forehead in response to his newfound wickedness, he seeks to hide them under a bandana, giving the effect of an ‘illustration of a pirate out of a story-book for infants’ – a story-book, in fact, just like Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor. His campaign to convert the island to his faith resembles a piratical recruitment drive in a seaport, with the plump English visitor at one point reducing a ‘huge, sour-visaged, red-necked, sea-booted mariner’ into a human wreck – as well as a convert – with a few well-chosen words (p. 77). Another of his converts – the young woman Tintagieu – has hair that ‘flapped like a pirate’s flag’ (p. 111). By the end of the book Mr Pye has taken on the moral ambiguity associated with that greatest of pirates, Long John Silver, who is as attractive as he is terrifying. He is hounded across the island as an embodiment of the Devil, with a mob of islanders and policemen after him led by a man called George with the ‘huge voice’ and aggressive manners of a pirate (p. 238). George refers to his fellow manhunters as ‘lumps of stinking conger’ and tells them to ‘Get out your jack-knives’ (p. 246) for what promises to be a summary execution. Mr Pye hides for a while in that piratical ‘sea-chest’, the island prison. Pirate captains in stories are always on the verge of being usurped by their fellow buccaneers – a sailor called George Merry leads a mutiny against Long John Silver in Treasure Island; so Mr Pye’s position at the end of the novel only confirms his credentials as the self-styled ‘chief’ of the good ship Sark, at the epicentre of a confusion generated by his own abortive attempt to take control of the little island.
Pirates live their lives in a state of precarious balance on the constantly moving sea: think of Israel Hands swarming up the swaying mizzen mast towards young Jim in Treasure Island, a scene which Peake illustrated while living on Sark with two of his most memorable images. One shows Jim sprawling in the crow’s nest, pointing his flintlock pistols at the approaching pirate, who grips his dirk between his teeth as he climbs painfully towards him; Peake draws the mast at a slant as if to emphasize its radical instability. The other shows Israel Hands tumbling limply into the sea after Jim has shot him, all balance lost. Another sea-story told by Peake – an early poem called The Touch o’ the Ash (1929), about a murderous ship’s captain who kills one of his men, only to be hounded to death by the dead man’s ashes – culminates again in the mizzen mast of the vessel, where the captain waits in the crow’s nest, armed with a marlinspike, for the vengeful approaching spirit to claim his soul. The captain is no pirate, but he behaves like one, flogging his men to the bone with a cat-o-nine-tails, stringing them to the bowsprit by their thumbs, or (in one case) flinging them into the ship’s furnace as punishment for insubordination. Like Israel Hands and Long John Silver, and like the plump little missionary-captain Mr Pye, he takes the risk of affiliating himself with the Devil, and it seems inevitable to Peake’s readers that the Devil will take him in the end. The Captain in The Touch o’the Ash has lost his sense of moral balance before the poem began, so that it also seems inevitable that his final confrontation with the vengeful spirit will take place fifty feet above deck, where nothing is stable.
Balance and imbalance play a prominent role in Peake’s thoughts on Sark, which should hardly surprise us, given the presence of ‘sheer wall[s] of sickening rock’ on every side. But what sort of balance did he have in mind? The question may not be answerable, in the end, but what follows is an attempt at a preliminary answer. Or rather answers, since just one solution to any riddle, it seems, won’t do.
A Question of Balance
There are two major incidents in Mr Pye where the question of balance comes to the fore, both of them reliant on the peculiar geography of Sark with its cliffs and precipices.
The first occurs when the little missionary arranges for a disabled woman to be lowered by rope to the beach at Derrible Bay – the hard-to-access shoreline he has chosen as the location for a picnic to which he has invited all non-indigenous or ‘English’ islanders, for purposes of his own. The act of lowering the woman, Miss George, is intended to cement Mr Pye’s status as a worker of miracles, guided by God, and so consolidate his moral hold on the people of Sark. Miss George is heavy, but the lowering makes her seem light; she is thought of as mostly stationary, but the event gives her unexpected vertical mobility; she is treated on most occasions as the legitimate butt of a joke, but her role in Mr Pye’s performance is to serve as a kind of messenger or angel, the embodiment of his vision of universal kindness.
But the lowering is also an act of appalling cruelty, since Miss George is given no warning that it will happen, and would have objected furiously if she had been told in advance exactly how she would be granted access to the beach. Just how cruel an act it is can be best appreciated by visiting Derrible Bay, as we did ourselves the day after coming to the island. There’s a steep path down to the sea, dropping from level to level in zigzags, and at the bottom a formidable barrier of jumbled stones interposes itself between the final flight of steps and the soft white sands. There’s a fine large cave beside the beach – one of the possible models for Peake’s picture of Ben Gunn’s cave in his illustrations for Treasure Island – and beyond this, the place where Miss George undergoes her ordeal. These features – the stones and the place of the ordeal – explain why Peake chose Derrible Bay as the setting for his picnic. The stones both render the beach unusually difficult to reach and supply convenient hiding places for the indigenous islanders in Mr Pye who attend the picnic uninvited. And the location of the lowering – a geological feature of real distinction – gains additional resonance from the name of the Bay in which it is located: Derrible Bay, which is indeed most terrible for Miss George. The lowering-place is frightening in itself, but it is rendered still more frightening both by the name and by the gravity-defying action Mr Pye imposes on it. The missionary, in fact, forces Miss George to act out the event that fits the place, that justifies it, in Stevenson’s words, and there is something deeply unjust and therefore disturbing about how he makes this happen.
The formation is described as a ‘chimney’ in the novel, and Stephen Foote assumes that Peake is referring to a manmade industrial chimney of the kind that can still be seen at the ruins of the Silver Mine on Little Sark. As Foote points out, the Countess of Groan mentions the Silver Mine as a district in Gormenghast Castle (see above), and he suggests that Peake has ‘employed poetic licence to transpose the mine shaft from Little Sark for dramatic effect’. In fact, however, Peake is referring to a geological chimney, and there’s a particularly fine example at Derrible Bay: a giant funnel of rock, rising two hundred feet or so from beach level to the level of the island plateau. Peake describes it with some care: ‘At the foot of the cliff in the northern elbow of the bay a natural archway led, not to a finite cave, but to a shaft that rose in gloomy darkness tinged with red, to where it drew breath, an irregular circle of breath, which from the base of the chimney, looking up, seemed no larger than a plate’ (p. 111). In advance of the picnic, Mr Pye leads Miss George through the ‘thorn bushes’ and ‘waist-high ferns’ of the Sarkese maquis to the ‘lip’ of the ‘murderous hole’ (p. 112) at the top of the shaft, where she is strapped into her favourite armchair before beginning her descent. A fine picture of the ‘murderous hole’ in question opens the novel’s Chapter 14 (p. 96). No one in the book, or reading it, is under any illusion that Miss George wishes to accomplish this feat of false flight – to be Mr Pye’s ‘exemplar’, as he calls her, or his human angel, since he has clad her in a white nightdress to symbolize chastity (p. 90). Mr Pye confirms his own awareness of Miss George’s terror when he describes her as his first ‘martyr’, and later insists to the islanders gathered on the beach below that her descent represents the overcoming of fear through ‘courage’ – despite the fact that it happens ‘not of her own will’ but because he himself has pronounced it ‘right’ that she should suffer (p. 117).
It seems appropriate, then, that Miss George’s reluctant descent of the chimney should turn out to be a turning point in Mr Pye’s fortunes. As the descent begins, the islanders on the beach become aware of another phenomenon taking place nearby: the arrival of a whale’s rotting carcass at Derrible Bay, drifting in on the tide. The appalling stench of the corpse quickly drives the revellers away, leaving only Mr Pye and a few friends to witness the ersatz miracle of Miss George’s touchdown. The ruination of Mr Pye’s attempt to impose his vision on the gathered inhabitants of Sark signals the moment when the balance of the book begins to tip away from him, so to speak; when the equilibrium between good and evil in his body starts to favour evil. Up to this moment he has seemed something of a miracle-worker, capable of disarming powerful men and women by the sheer confidence with which he spreads the word of his own eccentric God. But Miss George’s reluctant feat of balance, as her weight counterposes the weight of the team of powerful men who grip the ropes that lower her chair, while her body maintains its precarious poise in the chair while dropping through the red-tinged darkness towards the sand – occurs at the point when Mr Pye loses control of his own bodily and spiritual equilibrium. The arrival of the whale upsets his plans, and suggests the presence of a force that runs counter to his neat narrative of sin and salvation. From this point on, Mr Pye’s confidence in his collusion with his private God – whom he dubs the ‘Great Pal’ – takes a serious hit, and he loses all certainty that he is engaged in a divinely-ordained mission to convert the islanders to his faith. In the process, he himself undergoes the ordeal he imposed on Miss George, and reveals himself for what he is: not a saint or godling, but a complex being who cannot be reduced to crude moral binaries.
The chief mark of his loss of moral balance is the wings that grow from his back, which start to manifest themselves after the picnic at Derrible Bay. As an apparent sign from God of Mr Pye’s goodness, they also imply that his goodness has gone too far – that it has exceeded the reasonable limits set by the human body and mind, and has begun to be excessive, hypertrophied, oppressive, monstrous. Interestingly, their appearance causes a loss of balance in others as well as himself. When Miss George first glimpses his wings – through the keyhole of Mr Pye’s bedroom, the day after her ordeal (pp. 162-3) – she retreats in disarray, then loses her footing on the stairs and tumbles headlong to her death, confirming the murderous effects of fear and imbalance invoked by the chimney incident (and note how her ersatz flight down the chimney here becomes a fatal fall down a flight of stairs). Much later, when Mr Pye has aroused the hostility of the rest of the island and is galloping towards the Coupée in a horse and carriage, perfectly aware that he cannot escape but flapping his wings in a bid for freedom as he gallops, there are clear echoes of what happened to Miss George. In the first place – as we noted earlier – the ringleader of the posse that seeks to catch him is called George, or sometimes ‘Pawgy’ (as in Georgy Porgy). In the second, one of the lookouts stationed at the old windmill to watch for Mr Pye misses his footing on the building’s stone steps, falls, and ‘was dead before he reached the bottom’, like Miss George before him (p. 251). Mr Pye and his wings, meanwhile, recall Miss George the ersatz angel and her flapping nightgown. Everything points towards a climactic showdown at the cliff’s edge of the Coupée – another great geological feature of Sark, balancing the chimney – and to a showdown that must in some way atone for the Derrible debacle. So to the Coupée is where the last stage of our tour must take us.
At the Coupée
In deference to Peake’s possibly mythical feat of crossing the Coupée by bike, we set out for that famous tourist attraction – images of which have brought visitors to Sark for a hundred years – on two hired bikes; mine even had the name of Peake inscribed on the frame. The best view of the Coupée, we found, could be obtained by turning aside at the highest point of the approach at the Big Sark end, where a footpath takes you up to a grassy prominence overlooking the isthmus, from which pictures may be taken almost as good as the tourist photos you’ll have seen throughout your trip. From the Coupée itself, meanwhile, you can look down three hundred feet on one side to the beach called La Grande Grève. This beach was partitioned during the war into separate areas for German officers, German soldiers and ordinary islanders, and later became a regular bathing-spot for Peake and his sons; Mr Pye kicks over children’s sandcastles here in his bid to shrink his wings by committing petty crimes. On the other side of the Coupée you have a view straight down the cliffs to the rocks below. It’s from here that Peake is supposed to have clambered down the precipice to rescue one or more baby cormorants (history is a little vague as to the numbers involved). Cycling across the narrow stone bridge is not permitted any longer, but even pushing your bike across gives a pretty good sense of how daring it would have been to ride across without using the handlebars in the days before railings were installed.
The Coupée provides a world-class setting for the climactic moment of a film or novel; and Stephen Foote has rightly introduced it, in his guide, with a passage Peake wrote about it near the end of Mr Pye, as the missionary determines to make it the destination of his final journey on Sark:
‘The Coupée,’ whispered Mr Pye, and his mind flew back to that first night on Sark, when, in the storm he had stood on the narrow ridge and heard the waves thrashing the rocks three hundred feet below, and the wind beating on the face of the cliff.
He shut his eyes again and he could see in his imagination how the land narrowed: how Big Sark dwindled to the perilous isthmus: how it seemed as though two great forces were joined together by the Coupée as though it were the cord that joins the unborn child to its mother, or like that moment called life that links the dark domains of the womb and of the tomb. He knew that Tintagieu was right. He must make for that place – the wasp-like waist of the island he had come to save from itself. (p. 249)
In this passage, the narrow viaduct of stone surrounded by precipices becomes a metaphor for human life, rendered yet more perilous in Peake’s lifetime by the outbreak of World War Two and the Cold War that followed. One of his most powerful poems, ‘Grottoed Beneath Your Ribs Our Babe Lay Thriving’ (1940) – written in response to the birth of his son Sebastian and his wife Maeve’s act of childbirth – imagines Maeve’s body as a quasi-organic structure within which the child lay ‘Grottoed’ for nine months ‘Among the breathing rafters of sweet bone’, as if in a Sarkese cave or a Gormenghast attic. Emerging from the womb, especially in wartime, involves a traumatic separation from this place of shelter, as if Little Sark had become divided from the ‘continent’ of the larger island by the severing of its umbilical cord (the Coupée, after all, is subject to erosion and will presumably one day be worn away altogether). At the point of severance, the poem suggests, the child-island must feel a little like the Island of Madagascar, as ‘the tides divide an [A]frica / Of love from his clay island, that the sighs / Of the seas encircle with chill ancientry’. At the same time, in the final stanza of his poem Peake insists that the bond between mother and child, continent and island, will remain as strong as ever after the separation. And the link forged in the poem between island and infant, continent and mother, explains why Mr Pye seeks out the Coupée for his final showdown.
Mr Pye seeks to establish a bond between the islanders reminiscent of the bond between mother and child, fusing them one to another despite the stretches of turbulent water (ideological, personal, social, political, cultural) that divide them. At the Derrible picnic he represents that mission as a preliminary stage in the erasure of the Cold War itself, a re-balancing, so to speak, of an unstable planet. ‘The whole world is unbalanced,’ he tells the picknickers, adding – with characteristic hubris – that ‘There are a few of us, a very few, who fight to keep it upright’ (p. 100). A military man at the picnic, Major Havershot – whose name affirms his predilection for solving problems by the bullet – would prefer to start the project of restoring balance by engaging with Russia rather than Sark, presumably by violence, given his name. But for the missionary ‘it is Sark that we are healing now, isn’t it? Not Russia. Russia can follow’ (p. 101). The West needs to examine itself before turning its gaze on others; only then can the process of healing be effective.
But the logic of this position demands that Mr Pye gaze at himself, too – which is more difficult than it sounds, given that the growth of his unwanted wings starts at his shoulder blades. If Sark must be rebalanced before the rest of the world can be addressed, the would-be balancer, Mr Pye, must be rebalanced first, his excessive piety – and his piratical zeal for taking over islands – supplanted by recognition of his humanity, the bond he has with the ordinary men and women he seeks to evangelize. His desperate dash for the Coupée at the end of the book – the waspish waist of the island where the womb is located, the umbilical cord that connects it with its offspring, Little Sark – symbolizes a return to the ties that bind him to the human race, from which his wings have threatened to banish him. Such, at least, would be the narrative trajectory of a conventional novel: it would close with Mr Pye’s recognition of his own humanity, obtained at the umbilicus or navel of the island, the part of the anatomy that graphically links us to our common ancestry. But Peake’s chosen ending is both wilder and more ambiguous. The novel closes with Mr Pye relinquishing all balance, divesting himself of links to pre-set narratives, and launching his body at last into the flight he contemplated earlier, when gazing at Les Autelets; committing himself, in fact, to his wings. It’s a celebration of vision, strangeness and difference rather than likeness, though the missionary’s very ordinary body, short and plump, seems to invite Peake’s readers to share his commitment to these same qualities – vision, strangeness and difference – however ordinary those readers may think themselves to be.
The loss of all balance on Mr Pye’s approach to the Coupée is made quite explicit, from the unbalancing of the watchman who falls down the old mill’s steps to the unbalancing of the carriage in which the missionary rides. As soon as Mr Pye sets off from his refuge in the island prison he finds himself off kilter: ‘turning dangerously upon two wheels [his carriage] headed up the hill past Rosebud cottage while Mr Pye, his wings beating at his sides, cried out encouragement to the black charger’ (p. 250). His disconnection from the human race is noted by the artist, Thorpe, who sees him in this final dash as a ‘seraph in striped trousers’ rather than a man (pp. 250-251). Dogs chasing the carriage lose their balance, ‘bowling one another over in the madness of the race’ (p. 251). Note how mental imbalance comes into play here too, a condition later reinforced by references to the ‘dementia’ of Mr Pye’s pursuers and Mr Pye’s own position ‘at the plunging spearhead of madness’ (p. 253).
Turning into the ‘long Coupée road’ the carriage almost crashes again – it seems ‘impossible’ that it should not – but Mr Pye’s impossible wings ensure that balance is briefly restored (‘Mr Pye aloft in the driver’s seat threw out one of his wings to steady himself’). Miracles take place as more and more islanders join the chase: ‘Every carriage was miraculously filled with the pursuers’ (p. 252), and Mr Pye begins to resemble an ‘apparition’, something as yet unexplained which seems to defy rational analysis. Soon afterwards the chase becomes something equally irrational, a ‘dream’, while Mr Pye becomes a visionary or vision: when he looks backwards at his pursuers they are ‘dazzled as though a burning glass were trained upon them’ (pp. 252-3). The word ‘seraph’ implies an association with the divine, but Mr Pye discards conventional religious narratives or hierarchies when he divests himself of his soul: ‘As the ground began to dip he drew forth his soul and tossed it skywards to his God’ (we never learn if this act of dismissal is metaphorical or actual) (p. 253). Divested in this way of his attachment to God, Mr Pye ends his headlong journey as a being without affiliations, without links to any story but his own, his unattached condition exemplified in his final grandiose gesture: being flung from the Coupée and taking to the air.
Here’s how it happens:
There, all in a flash, was the Coupée curving like a white snake – but only for that one instant, for at the next the black horse, rearing in the shafts, veered to the right of the track and, catching the carriage wheel in the railing, tore it off the body and the next moment the carriage, losing balance, was toppled bodily over the rust-red rails. It tore them apart as it swayed monstrously and fell, dragging with it the black horse, so that together they plunged, a hideous conglomeration, down, down, down, vaulting horribly as they descended in giant arcs to the shingle far below. (p. 253).
The echo of Satan’s fall in Milton’s Paradise Lost is pretty clear – think of the famous lines from Book One, ‘With hideous ruin and combustion, down / To bottomless perdition’ – and there are distinctly Gothic overtones too, with the snake-like isthmus, the black horse and the ‘rust-red rails’, like a scene from Bela Lugosi’s Dracula (1931), in which a coach and horses approach the vampire’s castle by way of an isthmus. But Mr Pye is spared the plunge. Hurled at the point of impact high into the air above the Grande Grève, he finds himself ‘about to fall like a stone’ – then abruptly remembers his extra limbs, watched by gulls and staring islanders. ‘They saw him begin to fall,’ Peake tells us, ‘but then they saw, as he fell, a movement of the wings and, all at once, they were stretched in a great span on either side so that the speed of his descent was checked, and he hung suspended’ (p. 254). No longer awkwardly stuck out to one side to counteract the veering of the carriage, here for the first time Mr Pye’s wings are extended in all their glory, equally and together, unconstrained by the folds of the Lugosi-esque cloak beneath which he has concealed them for much of the novel. Briefly the missionary looks both comic and fragile as he struggles to control them, combining in his person incongruous elements which have never been brought together like this before:
There was beauty in it, with those wings of dazzling whiteness that bore him to and fro as he tried to learn how best to manage them: and there was pathos – for he looked so solitary – adrift in the hollow air. And there was bathos also, for it seemed incongruous to see his city trousers and his small, black, gleaming shoes. (p. 254)
The moment of solitude is also, here, the moment when Mr Pye severs the umbilical cord that ties him to his mother earth, just as earlier he severed the ties that bound him to his heavenly father, God. His smallness at this moment makes him seem childish; but he soon acquires maturity and even grandeur, in spite of his city trousers: ‘the Islanders saw how he had already mastered his wings and was beginning to soar in slow arcs, and how he was now far out to sea and dwindling until he was only visible to those of keenest vision’. A vision is what he came to the island to impart, but by the end of the novel it has been supplanted with vision itself, the limited capacity for sight shared by all humanity. He has become a messenger for a new kind of religion, which involves flight which is free from the limits of creed or nation, and free from the excessive seriousness which accompanies fanaticism. I wonder if Mr Pye’s flight is among other things a comment on the lightness with which he went through life, the capacity to celebrate earth, sea and sky without being weighed down by the burden of their beauty. ‘I long to spring,’ Peake wrote in his early poem ‘Coloured Money’ (1937), ‘Through the charged air, a wastrel, with not one / Farthing to weigh me down’, and this is how Mr Pye ends his career. I mentioned the epigram to Titus Groan at the beginning of this essay, and at the end of it Mr Pye has become what the epigram refers to, a ‘man in the clouds’. The question is, is there anyone left behind who can replicate his flight to freedom?
In a literal sense, of course, they can’t. The book ends with Mr Pye disappearing from even the keenest islander’s sight, leaving the island ‘suddenly empty […] nothing but a long wasp-waisted rock’: bereft of visions, and even of an artist capable of doing Stevensonian justice to its beauties (the painter named Thorpe who lives on the island is always losing his artistic vision at climactic moments). An early draft of Peake’s novel left the missionary dead, washed ashore not long after his flight like a storm-battered gull; an ending that suggested visions like his have no resting place in this world, like the Son of Man in the Bible (remember his dream of returning from his maiden flight to rest for a while on the Grand Autelet, sucking a fruit-drop). But the ending as it stands leaves things open, rather like the ending of a book by H G Wells, who always leaves open questions in his wake to plant seeds in the minds of his readers: will the Martians return one day? Did the Time Traveller die in his last voyage? What would happen if the Food of the Gods were to keep on working on the living creatures of the earth without opposition? And so on. The last vision of Mr Pye – the sight of him disappearing into the distance on his impossible wings, wearing his shiny black shoes and city trousers – opens up the question of what he stood for. The exaltation of ordinariness, perhaps? His particular ‘ordinariness’ is distinctly middle class – he orders people about with the confidence of one born to it, and pays for things such as the Derrible picnic, or the expensive wine he favours, without blinking. But in the end he enfranchises himself from class as well as religion, launching himself from the cliff with a bathos which deflates all his previous pretensions as missionary, ‘chief’ or prophet.
His launching, too, atones for his one properly harmful act, the attempt to transform Miss George into an unwilling symbol of his beliefs (and the element of atonement would have been made yet clearer if Peake had retained the scene of Mr Pye’s death in the final version of the novel). It balances that act of cruel excess, so to speak, by making Mr Pye repeat it; and in the process confirms the Isle of Sark as a testing ground for balance of all kinds, where a foot put wrong, a lurch or veer too far in one direction or another, will fling one from a precipitous height onto the shingle, like the unfortunate black horse. It’s a site of precarity, which offers constant visual reminders, in the form of cliffs and the open ocean, of the fine line we tread between life and death, between kindness, cruelty and self-obsession, throughout our existence as an individual or species. In an age of extremes – the phrase Eric Hobsbaum uses to describe the Twentieth Century – this acknowledgement of precarity, and the need for some special sense of balance to help us cope with it, may have struck Peake as particularly urgent.
Peake’s poetry shows the same concern with balance as his prose and his pictures, and the same sense that the world itself was unbalanced in his lifetime. Two short poems he wrote in about 1939 summarise this concern. ‘O Heart-Beats’ is the first:
O heart-beats – you are rattling dice –
My rattling dice
Proclaim the edge of precipice
At whose hid boulders stands a soundless sea –
My days with hazards of futurity.
The second is called simply ‘Balance’, and reads very much like another attempt at the same idea:
In crazy balance at the edge of Time
Our spent days turn to cloud behind today –
And all tomorrow is a prophet’s dream –
This moment only rages endlessly
Is always the long moment of decay.
Peake probably wrote these poems while he was waiting to be called up to join the army in the fight against Hitler, while at the same time hoping against hope he would first be selected to put his real talents to use as an official war artist (a hope that failed, at least until 1942). His life, his talents, his capacity for visionary work in both word and image, must have seemed infinitely precarious at that moment, crazily balanced on a fulcrum between hazardous play and imminent death and disintegration. After the war was over, this sense of imbalance did not dissipate. The fate of the world must have seemed yet more uncertain while the Russians and Americans were facing off on either side of the Atlantic, ‘filling the sky with their bombers’ like malignant birds – a ‘murmuration of Stalins’, as Mr Pye puts it (p. 101). Cut off in his mind from both past and future – the dispersing cloud of history, the insubstantial dream of what might or might not be to come – Peake came to see Sark as an emblem of the present, the long moment at which a person’s ‘prime’, or physical and artistic zenith, draws towards the ‘decay’ that awaits all mortal bodies. Its cliffs were his ‘edge of precipice’, and he spent his whole artistic life trying to work out how best to negotiate them.
Take the ferry to Sark, scramble down the path to Derrible Bay, stroll across the Coupée, dare to look out to sea through the Window in the Rock, look down on those little altars the Autelets, and you too may begin to see the island as a kind of emblem – though of what, precisely, I wouldn’t presume to suggest.
 You can find mentions of all these trips but one, I think, in the two key biographies of Peake: Malcolm Yorke’s Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold (London: John Murray, 2000), and G. Peter Winnington’s Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography (London and Chester Springs, P.A.: Peter Owen, 2009), which supersedes Winnington’s Vast Alchemies: The Life and Work of Mervyn Peake (2000). For the Sark Art Group see Jane Norwich, Inspired by Sark: The Story of the Sark Art Group, Who, What, When (Market Harborough: Matador, 2022).
 Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘A Gossip on Romance’, Longman’s Magazine, 1:1 (November 1882), pp. 69-79. Reprinted in Memories and Portraits (1887), pp. 247-74. For the full text visit the following link: http://rogers99.users.sonic.net/rls_gossip_on_romance.html
 Mervyn Peake, The Gormenghast Trilogy (London: Mandarin, 1992), p. 699. All references are to this edition.
 A detailed account of Sark in wartime can be found in Sark – An Island Occupied (Sark: Sark Visitor Centre, 2020), which draws on research by Penny Prevel and ‘various members of staff at Sark Visitor Centre’ (p. 31).
 Mervyn Peake, Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), p. 144.
 For the photo see Foote, Mervyn Peake: Son of Sark, p. 10.
 For a discussion of the illustrations for Maurice Collis’s The Quest for Sita see my blogpost here: https://thecityoflostbooks.glasgow.ac.uk/maurice-collis-and-mervyn-peake-quest-for-sita-1946-part-1-text/
 Smith, Mervyn Peake: A Personal Memoir, p. 44.
 The self-portraits can be found in Winnington (ed.), Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art, p. 160. Another self-portrait from 1931, when Peake was 20, can be found on p. 30, and makes him look even more piratical.
The Touch o’the Ash can be found in Peake’s Progress: Selected Writings and Drawings of Mervyn Peake, ed. Maeve Gilmore (London: Allen Lane, 1978), pp. 45-61.
 For the tendency (need?) for good riddles to have multiple answers see Adam Roberts, The Riddles of The Hobbit (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). The whole book makes the case, but Adams states it plainly on p. 51: ‘One notion I am setting myself against, here – I may as well be plain – is that any given riddle has one right or correct answer’.
[I started writing this piece, which will be of interest to film fans, before I heard about the closure of the Edinburgh Filmhouse – one of the few places in Scotland where you might have watched a silent movie of the kind Elmer Rice had in mind as he wrote his novel. This blogpost, then, is dedicated to the Edinburgh Filmhouse and all who worked in it. May local cinema rise triumphant from the ashes!]
Here’s another of those curios I stumble across from time to time – this time courtesy of Thistle Books, that subterranean treasure-house off Otago Street in the West End of Glasgow. A Voyage to Purilia (1930) is one of five novels published by the socialist playwright Elmer Rice, whose theatrical work includes The Adding Machine (1923) – an Expressionist piece about a worker who commits murder when he finds himself sacked and replaced by a machine – and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Street Scene (1929), turned into a musical in 1946 with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Langston Hughes. He also co-wrote a play with Dorothy Parker, Close Harmony (1924), and wrote anti-capitalist and anti-Fascist plays in the 1930s (We, the People, 1933, and Judgement Day, 1934). These biographical details are important. I had never heard of either Rice or A Voyage to Purilia when I first spotted it on the bookshelves, in one of those lovely orange-and-white Penguin paperbacks of the 1950s; but the premise grabbed me at once. It’s a book about a planet that operates according to the conventions of Hollywood Silent Movies of the 1920s, with all the absurdities this entails. And while it made me laugh out loud as I began to read, I also realised as I read on that it was a deeply disturbing book, designed as a savage attack on the pernicious form of false consciousness that governed American culture in Elmer Rice’s lifetime.
It’s a false consciousness that serves to denigrate women, the working classes, people of colour, disabled people, sick people, and any attempt to engage with economic and social problems in a serious way. And it’s also a false consciousness designed to promote the claims of White Supremacy, as embodied in D. W. Griffith’s three-hour epic The Birth of a Nation (1915). Being Jewish and an activist of the Left – one of the most outspoken playwrights of his generation – Rice was well aware that Griffith’s proto-fascistic agenda governed a great deal of Hollywood’s output between the wars, and attacked that agenda by all the means at his disposal. But his novel’s unflinching representation of American filmic proto-fascism makes uncomfortable reading in the twenty-first century, and it’s crucial to bear his political outlook in mind, I think, before you begin to read.
The Hollywood conventions Rice describes are not so familiar to moviegoers of the twenty-first century. Some will be recognizable, perhaps, from the great silent movies of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd; images from these films – The Gold Rush (1925), Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Freshman (1925) – kept swimming up out of my memory as I read, alongside ‘talkies’ of the 1930s that follow similar rules; but the melodramas Rice has in mind as he writes have mostly vanished from our screens, along with the rules by which they operated. By imaginatively imposing these rules on a whole society – a whole planet – Rice brilliantly brings out both their absurdity and the appalling assumptions they normalise. And as the novel goes on, what starts out as amusing pastiche quickly morphs into nightmare. The ridiculous coincidences, bizarre norms and clichéd characterisations of cinematic melodrama take on the quality of a tortuous labyrinth or prison, and the constant stress laid on human emotion becomes harrowing, since nothing in the movie world of Purilia – not even gravity, the weather or the seasons – is capable of functioning for any other purpose than to reinforce the dominant emotion of the moment – usually heterosexual love between two beautiful young white people. By the end of the book, the protagonist finds himself desperate to leave Purilia before falling victim to one of the irrational and finally deadly laws that govern it.
The novel is written in a slightly formal style like that of H G Wells – Wells being one of the thinkers who influenced Rice’s socialism. It’s a style well suited to its first-person narrator, a nameless ethnologist, who seeks to use it to record his observations of the planet Purilia as impartially as possible – wholly unaware, of course, that impartiality is impossible on that world, where everyone is committed to one side or another in some melodramatic plot or confluence of plots. The narrator starts by describing the final preparations for the titular voyage across the vast abyss of space, which are interrupted by a long delay caused by bad weather. As he and his fellow adventurer – a pilot called Johnson – check over their ‘great birdlike flying-boat’ for the final time, the rain begins, and a week of acute frustration elapses before they can take off on their secret mission to find Purilia. The delay is clearly devised to remind the reader of the conventions of literary realism; this early bout of intransigent weather, which is at odds with the adventurers’ feelings of excitement at the coming journey, provides the starkest of contrasts to the weather on Purilia, which always concedes to the demands of pathetic fallacy. Here’s how Rice describes the narrator’s impatience as the drizzle sets in:
In my keyed-up state, I was all for making the start, rain or no rain. Almost any risk or discomfort seemed to me preferable to a postponement of this carefully planned-for and eagerly awaited hour. But after much persuasion, I deferred to the soberer judgment of Johnson and the meteorological experts. An easterly wind offered no promise of clearing, and a special report from Washington confirmed our doubts. Added to this, was the very real immediate danger of attempting to lift our heavily laden craft from the already sodden field. It would have been a childishly foolhardy risk.
‘Childishly foolhardy risk’ is, of course, the meat and drink of Hollywood, and the idea of either planning something carefully or delaying an action in the interests of prudence is as unknown to the scriptwriters and directors of Los Angeles as the idea of an ‘easterly wind’ with no emotional significance. On arrival in Purilia the narrator discovers that not only are weather conditions there strictly tailored to the emotional needs of the key (white) people in any given vicinity, but that random events like enforced delays on account of rain are non-existent. The first person he meets on the planet, a young woman called Pansy Malone, immediately becomes the love interest that governs his own particular pathway through the planet’s infrastructure, and every other adventure he undergoes turns out to be connected in some intricate way with her life story. Before meeting her, too, he is treated to a fine example of the indifference of Purilians to ‘soberer judgments’ or the dangers involved in taking ‘foolhardy risks’. He and Johnson watch in amazement from their aircraft as two biplanes chase each other through the Purilian skies before their occupants stage a daring display of wing-walking, shoot at each other in a bid to respectively capture or rescue another young woman, and vanish in the blink of an eye when the combat is over (pp. 17-20). The organisation of Purilian affairs clearly has little in common with terrestrial practices, despite the outward similarity in the appearances of their buildings, landscapes and people.
The planet itself is first identified at a distance by the appearance in space of ‘luminous masses of rosy cloud’ (p. 15), which seems to be the physical body of the planet itself (there is no suggestion that it also manifests as a sphere or globe). Its atmosphere is breathable, but has a ‘curious sweetish taste, which made one experience a slight sensation of nausea’ (p. 16). The planet’s appearance and the atmosphere between them suggest something between amniotic fluid and a mind-altering drug, and there’s no doubt that the narrator and Johnson quickly find themselves emotionally affected by the planet, both in their susceptibility to romance (Johnson falls for a circus girl called Mollie not long after the narrator falls for Pansy) and in the way they see things. On Purilia, objects are constantly appearing in close-up, swelling to enormous size then shrinking again as if to emphasize some specific theme or emotional tenor in the scene under observation. The narrator assumes that this is a side-effect of the planet’s somewhat syrupy atmosphere; but it is also a function of the planet’s subservience to the laws of storytelling, laws that have the effect of trapping the planet’s natives and visitors alike in the toils of an inescapable and sometimes horrific destiny.
The effect of entrapment is hinted at in the very first scene the terrestrial adventurers encounter on the planet’s surface. To begin with, we learn that everything that happens on Purilia is accompanied by a musical soundtrack, which Rice describes in terms that again invoke mind-altering substances, and perhaps too mind control – a topic of intense interest in the 1920s and 30s (Freud was fascinated by hypnosis, while the Freudian educationalist Joseph O’Neill wrote an entire science fiction novel about mind control, Land Under England, in 1935). Here’s how Rice conveys the music’s mesmeric effect:
Let the reader try to fancy himself lapped every moment of his existence, waking or sleeping, in liquid, swooning sound, for ever rising and falling, falling and rising, and wrapping itself about him like a caressing garment. The effect is indescribable. It is like the semi-stupor of an habitual intoxication: an inebriety without intervals of either sobriety or complete unconsciousness. It is insidious and irresistible; the hardest head and the stoutest organism cannot withstand it. (p. 24)
Alongside this melodic intoxicant, events on Purilia are accompanied by an authoritarian commentary in the form of a disembodied voice, which ensures they can only ever be given the ‘approved’ reading intended by the invisible scriptwriter. The commentary stands for the flashcards or intertitles containing narrative that introduce new scenes and sequences in the silent movie era; but when transferred from cards to a masculine voiceover with no visible source this narrative somehow becomes distinctly menacing, despite (or even because of) the anodyne nature of its contents. Here is the narrator’s first encounter with what he comes to call ‘the voice’ or ‘the presence’:
While we were still puzzling over the origin of the strange music, we were not a little surprised to hear a voice say: ‘Spring comes early to the Purilian hills’ […] It was a round, suave, unctuous voice, lilting and cadenced, and curiously impersonal. And although the tone in which it made its interesting observation about spring was one of helpful courtesy, there was in it, too, a note of authoritative firmness. (pp. 24-5)
Intertitles don’t exactly have a ‘tone’, though in silent movies they often have an air of schoolmasterly sententiousness. Giving them in addition the tonal qualities of suavity, unctuousness and firmness helps bring out their controlling function. And this function is reinforced by the suddenly looming close-ups that confirm their every assertion:
Scarcely had the voice ceased, when a robin’s nest on the branch of a tree near by […] suddenly swelled to such enormous proportions, that we involuntarily stepped back in alarm. The bird, which was industriously feeding its hungry young […] appeared for an instant to be as large as some fabulous roc. Then it shrank as suddenly as it had swelled and we saw that it was a mere robin after all. But with the deflation of the robin, a distant lamb, tottering across the field, loomed elephantine. And as it, in turn, receded, a modest crocus, just raising its head in the tender grass, expanded and shot upwards with tropical luxuriance. (p. 25)
Johnson is shocked by these manifestations, but the narrator notices at once that they serve to corroborate the observation made by the disembodied voice a moment earlier: ‘“You’ll notice,” I added, “that they all seem to bear out the pronouncement about spring”’ (p. 25). The voice’s views are supported by what the ethnologist dubs a ‘procession of monstrosities’ (p. 25); and its observations are just as authoritative when made about human beings. Note, by the way, the association of the robin with a roc, those giant birds from the second voyage of Sinbad the sailor; while the ‘elephantine’ lamb recalls the hypertrophied animals and people in H. G. Wells’s scientific romance The Food of the Gods (1904). These details neatly invoke the way the film industry makes the ordinary as bizarre and unsettling as a fantastic voyage of the kind undertaken by our two protagonists. They also anticipate the way Rice’s novel will become a horror story, without for a moment losing its ironic sense of humour.
Humans themselves are rendered monstrous in Purilia by their rigid conformity to the voice’s assertions, by the swelling and shrinking to which they too are subject, and by the fact that they are almost indistinguishable from other members of their social and physical community. When he first meets Pansy, the narrator thinks her to be the young woman he saw in the biplane chase on first entering the planet’s atmosphere. She is not, but the resemblance is a symptom of the ‘curious caste-system which is one of the most remarkable institutions of Purilia’ (p. 27). The members of each distinct caste look more or less identical to one another, and are quite unable to escape the caste they belong to except by way of certain strictly delimited routes. The voice identifies Pansy’s age and caste as soon as she appears (she has seen ‘nineteen summers’, it tells us, and is a ‘lovely unspoiled child of nature’); and although the narrator thinks she looks much older (‘I should have thought her to be thirty rather than nineteen’ – something one could say of many silent screen heroines), and although her relationship with ‘nature’ seems ambiguous (she has soft hands, a snowy complexion, manicured toenails, well-coiffed hair, and grasps a rake, despite the fact that spring is ‘scarcely the season for haying’), he and Johnson accept the voice’s claims without demur, as they will throughout the novel. Time itself gets subordinated on Purilia to the observations of the voice, whether concerning the time of year or the ages of the female characters; Pansy’s mother, for instance, looks around seventy (p. 29), despite the fact that she has a teenage daughter (something the voice takes pains to explain by telling us she is ‘old before her time with work and worry’). The analogy to the strict control of a worker’s time by capitalism, or of a society’s time by an authoritarian state, is irresistible.
A number of the bizarre rules of the planet Purilia seem more or less arbitrary. These include the fact that all the railway tracks there are built in curves and contain no straight sections at all – practicality being subordinated to the needs of camera users (though the narrator does not know this: ‘My ignorance of engineering makes it impossible for me to explain this curious method of railroad construction’, p. 67); or that Purilia has no industries, despite being to all appearances an industrially advanced civilization (p. 53); or that the planet is ‘overrun’ with failing circuses (p. 48); or that no journey can be completed without an infinite number of highly dangerous incidents (‘No one who has not travelled along a Purilian road can conceive of the perils of such a journey’, p. 40). Amnesia is widespread, usually caused by blows to the head (p. 163). The only visible shops in the cities are florist’s and jeweller’s shops, which are mostly frequented by men (p. 77). In the end, though, all these rules serve only to underpin the planet’s caste system, which is founded not on economics but on a very small number of emotional imperatives – above all that of furthering the needs of ‘eternal, cosmic love’. ‘Cosmic’ love here means love between beautiful young white heterosexual couples, and understanding this fact is ‘key’, the narrator tells us, to an understanding of Purilia.
The caste system is broadly divided into five categories, two for men and three for women (the genders are rigidly segregated on this planet, and strictly binary). The most venerated caste is that of the ‘Umbilicans’, made up of ‘mothers who have suffered deeply’ (p. 58), thereby acquiring a status ‘which can truly be characterized as […] semi-divine’. Motherhood on the planet is not a biological but an emotional function (indeed, no one knows how life originates in Purilia – babies simply ‘occur’, p. 61), and Umbilicans spend all their time in ‘Weeping, knitting, and the prolonged contemplation of the portraits or photographs of their absent children’ (p. 59). The next caste in rank below the Umbilicans are the Pudencians: beautiful women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, most of them blonde and all of them virgins – a condition which endows them with a status which, the narrator feels, is somewhat surprising in a culture with such a high regard for motherhood. He resolves this seeming inconsistency by pointing out that Pudencians never become Umbilicans, just as there is never any suggestion that Umbilicans were ever Pudencians; both are locked in their particular social or narrative functions, trapped forever within the narrow limits of what is acceptable for members of their caste. Despite the regard to which virginity elevates them, the sole purpose of a Pudencian’s life is to get married. Marriage, however, is an institution which ‘has about it a finality which is almost lethal’ (p. 62), and the narrator suggests that the keenness of Pudencians to get married arises from the exhausting nature of their existences – being constantly pursued, kidnapped, cheated, betrayed, abandoned, rescued and threatened – which makes the prospect of ‘restful physical obliteration’ deeply attractive. He also suggests that the marriage ceremony itself may have a vaguely generative effect, since babies occur soon after a wedding without any indication that sex or conventional childbirth was involved.
The male equivalent of the Pudencians are the Paragonians, young men whose sole purpose in life (despite their reverence for virginity) is to marry a Pudencian, and who must undergo terrible trials before they can do so. Fortunately all Paragonians are not only ‘trained athletes, expert horsemen and marksmen, skilled aviators, untiring swimmers, and clever boxers, and swordsmen’, but seemingly immortal and invincible, since ‘there is no record of a Paragonian’s death or defeat’ (p. 64). Like the Pudencians they all look more or less identical, which frequently threw the narrator, he tells us, into a state of confusion during his time in Purilia.
Pitted against the Paragonians are the Vauriens: male villains who spend all their time chasing Pudencians. They are motivated not by love but by what the narrator calls ‘symbolic lust’ (since acts of sex are unknown in Purilia), though what they might do about this lust if they finally gained possession of a Pudencian can only be guessed at, since they have never succeeded in doing so. Vauriens may be white-skinned or dark-skinned. If dark they always wear ‘some bizarre garment, in lieu of the trousers of civilization and probity’ (p. 65), which soon leads the narrator to conclude, in his time on Purilia, that ‘a man who spurned trousers could be up to no good’. The female equivalents of the Vauriens belong to the lowest caste of all, the immodest Bordellians: ‘fallen’ women who are ‘almost invariably, dark-haired, plump, and past the prime of their youth’, and who spend their lives in ‘attempting to lure the Paragonians, although to what they wish to lure them I never succeeded in discovering’ (p. 66). These women are incapable of the spiritual love that motivates Pudencians, and none of them are or ever have been virgins. They would seem to have been born Bordellians, ‘occurring’ no doubt in that form as babies and perfecting their Bordellian skills as they matured.
Apart from some of the Vaureans, members of the Purilian caste system are all white, and as the novel goes on we keep coming across social groups which stand outside the system, usually on account of the colour of their skins – their outsider status condemning them to bit parts in all the planet’s dominant plotlines. Among these are the Black Purilians, a ‘happy, childlike race, given to song and laughter’, in many cases wholly devoted to ‘the welfare of the white men and women whom they cared for in infancy’ (p. 88). Chinese people, by contrast, spend all their time seeking to undermine white civilisation – quite literally, by digging tunnels under it and setting up a labyrinthine subterranean metropolis beneath the feet of the ‘guileless whites’, no doubt in a bid to circumvent the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese labourers from migrating to the United States between 1882 and 1943. The sole profession of this ‘strange and sinister race (p. 114), as the Purilians call it, is the enslaving of Pudencians for some purpose which the narrator cannot fathom, though ‘it is generally agreed that their purpose is a horrible one’ (p. 115). Their underground cities are invariably destroyed by earthquakes, which seem to operate as quasi-sentient allies of the white Purilians. There are also a few islanders of colour scattered across the oceans of the planet, who are outwardly childlike but in fact prove ‘capable of the most perfidious treachery and appalling bloodthirstiness’ (p. 149). Finally, there are the various nameless dark-skinned peoples who have the audacity to challenge ‘the supremacy of the whites’ (p.157), only to be slaughtered in huge numbers. Helpful regiments of white marines are always on hand at strategic points in the Purilian landscape to accomplish the ‘splendid work of extermination’ necessitated by the existence of these challengers to the hegemony of silent-screen proto-fascism (p. 155). As the novel moves towards its conclusion, references to casual slaughters of non-white communities increase in number incrementally, leaving a trail of ‘smouldering embers’ and ‘dark-skinned bodies’ in their wake. For Rice, the period of early black-and-white movie-making is marked by its strict exclusion of people of colour from the privileges enjoyed by whites, an exclusion which is enforced by omnipresent, almost incidental acts of racist violence.
Disabled people, too, stand outside the Purilian caste system, and are subjected to constant humiliations amounting to physical and psychological torture. This becomes clear to the narrator when he boards a train which carries a circus troupe made up almost entirely of performers with disabilities, branded ‘freaks’ by the Purilians (p. 67). The cruel laughter that accompanies such humiliations is also directed at sick people, especially those who suffer from seasickness, delirium tremens, influenza, gout, or bad teeth, the latter affliction being always conveniently signalled by the fact that the sufferer’s face has been tied in a ‘large handkerchief, which is knotted upon the crown of the head’ (p. 141). These amusing illnesses, along with various incidental ‘abrasions and maimings’ (p. 140), are exclusively endured by members of the lower social orders. More serious diseases (‘serious’ in the sense that they do not produce hilarity) are the exclusive province of high-caste citizens, and can be more readily cured by the power of prayer than medical intervention – a circumstance that suggests the presiding Deity on Purilia works solely on behalf of the upper classes.
In a culture so single-mindedly dedicated to the upholding of a rigid caste system, there can be no more appalling fate than to find yourself near the bottom of the system, or outside it altogether. This fact is driven home for the narrator towards the end of the book, when his fellow traveller Johnson, the pilot and engineer of their expedition, suddenly finds himself flung from a position of seeming pre-eminence – with all the markers of a Paragonian, the highest caste to which a white Purilian man can belong – into the casteless position of a sidekick or extra (a ‘redshirt’ in the terminology of the Trekkie community). Towards the beginning Johnson is described as a ‘man of action’ (p. 39), who seeks to confront the principle Vaurien in the narrative – a man called Millwood – as soon as his villainy has been exposed for the very first time. Later, Johnson’s assimilation into the conventions of Purilia is confirmed by his reaction to being beaten by a Chinese Vaurien, who starts to ‘rain blows’ with a leather thong on the pilot’s defenceless back, only for the narrator to express some doubt as to whether they are really blows at all, since ‘I was unable to discern any actual contact between the instrument of castigation and the body of its victim’ (p. 123). At the same time, the narrator goes on, ‘so patent […] was Johnson’s agony that my companions could scarcely restrain me from flinging open the grated door which concealed us, and rushing to his rescue’. By this point in the narrative the narrator, too, has evidently been seduced by Purilian culture. Where he had earlier described himself as relatively ‘passive’ compared with his friend (p. 39), he here behaves like a classic Paragonian, striving to launch himself into action despite all the criminal forces massed against him. As the would-be rescuer rather than the victim, however, the narrator has begun an upward movement through the caste system, whereas the victimised Johnson is on his way down. This suggests that as strangers from another planet the two visitors are capable of moving freely between the castes in a manner denied to the native Purilians.
A few chapters later, when the narrator and Johnson have arrived at what the narrator calls the ‘pastoral community’ of the Purilian Wild West, Johnson has the misfortune to stumble and fall to the floor to avoid the hooves of a horse ridden through a plate glass window (p. 173). The horse is ridden by a local Vaurien, Killer Evans, and Johnson’s stumble marks him out as a non-Paragonian, since a Paragonian would never show such weakness in the face of an enemy. By stumbling and (worse) by falling, Johnson has precipitated himself bodily out of the planet’s caste system, and hence acquired both vulnerability and mortality, qualities to which the true Paragonian is immune. His one chance at this moment, as a casteless extra, is to make himself comic. If he were to damage himself still more in amusing ways he would at once be assigned to the role of a clown, like the hired man, Jim, who keeps turning up at unexpected moments in the novel doing silly things, or the Chaplinesque ‘little fellows’ who frequent the Purilian streets in their ill-fitting clothes. Clowns in silent movies, of course, never die, any more than Paragonians do. But Johnson still sees himself as a Paragonian – disastrously so, since he has forfeited his title to be treated as anything better than an extra. He responds to Killer Evans’s rudeness with an imprecation, staring him down in ‘justifiable indignation’ (p. 173). And Evans’s response to this upstart extra is foreordained by Vaurien convention. From his holster he whips a handgun ‘of unusual size’ and shoots Johnson dead. Johnson’s death is duly confirmed by the Purilian bystanders, in the usual way, through the instant removal of their hats; once these have been taken off no medical practitioner can save him. As the narrator puts it, his friend was gunned down owing to his refusal to ‘observe a simple formula’ (p. 174), which makes him ‘a victim to the rigid and immutable Purilian code’. Strangers too, it seems, can be destroyed by disobedience of the planet’s totalitarian regime; and the incident finally confirms to the narrator that he, too, has been somehow made subject to the rules by which all Purilian natives are governed.
It’s worth pausing a moment to notice two terms that feature in the scene of Johnson’s death. The first is the phrase ‘a simple formula’, which echoes the set of ethical recommendations compiled by Will Hays in 1924 known as ‘The Formula’. Devised in response to the outbreak of a number of Hollywood scandals, including the trials for rape and murder of the film star Fatty Arbuckle in 1921-2, the Formula laid out certain principles for the reformation of the industry along Puritan lines (Hays was a Presbyterian elder, and might have described himself quite happily as a Puritan). The second term, ‘code’, suggests the process of tightening up the ethical standards by which the motion picture industry was governed. A so-called code of standards was first submitted to Hollywood studios by two Catholic dignitaries in 1929, and led to the adoption of a revised version of the Code by several studios in 1930. Johnson violates both sets of standards – the Formula and the Code – by swearing twice in the moments before his shooting; and one of the oaths he swears also happens to violate the Purilian cult of mother-worship, since it ‘cast doubt upon the honour of Killer Evans’s mother’ (p. 173). He could be said to have died, then, as a victim of censorship as well as movie convention, his ‘rashness’ punished by violence as the racist violence of Purilian culture never has been and never will be.
The narrator himself nearly falls victim to the ultimate fate of all Pudencians and Paragonians: the ‘restful physical obliteration’ of a happy ending. Having spent the novel chasing after the first woman he met on Purilia, Pansy Malone, the narrator finally succeeds in freeing her from the clutches of her enemy, Millwood. The inevitable consequence of this rescue is of course marriage; and all at once the prospect of marriage fills the narrator with horror, possibly because its approach is immediately signalled by an intensification of the two phenomena that most clearly distinguish Purilia from Earth. Having proposed to Pansy and been accepted, he retires to bed, only to experience a sharp crescendo of sound and atmospherics: ‘Never, it seemed to me, had the swooning melodies spoken in such mellow and pervasive accents; never had the atmosphere appeared so palpably pink’ (p. 179). As this happens, he is seized by a desire to escape from the planet, taking Pansy with him whether she likes it or not. Looking back, as he writes, on this dual decision to escape and to treat Pansy as an object without intentions or thoughts of her own, the narrator is horrified by the changes that have been wrought on him by his time on Purilia:
I must ask the reader to believe that the course of conduct upon which I was now determined was wholly foreign to my nature. In ordinary circumstances, I not only am opposed to hasty and quixotic action, but am reasonably considerate of the rights and desires of others. Yet, in all this, it did not occur to me to take into account what might be Pansy’s wishes in the matter. On the contrary, I was quite prepared to overcome, by force or cunning, any objection she might raise. In self-justification, I can offer only the excuse that my long sojourn in Purilia had habituated me to a mode of conduct which, a year earlier, would have struck me as indefensibly arbitrary and unreasonable. (p. 179)
The narrator, in other words, has had his personality almost erased by habituation to Purilian culture and physical conditions. This has led him, in effect, to mentally erase the personality of the woman he claims to love, utterly oblivious to the totalitarian implications of being ‘arbitrary and unreasonable’ in his treatment of her. Both he and Pansy, then, are on the verge of being annihilated, in mind if not in body; Pansy by being denied any kind of agency, the narrator by losing touch with his own ‘nature’ and ignoring hers. So it is scarcely a surprise when, on their wedding day, it becomes clear to the narrator that Purilian marriage is indeed, as he already half suspected, no more than an act of total physical as well as mental obliteration, which puts an end to the existence of both man and woman at the very moment of their symbolic fusion. As the wedding ceremony goes ahead, the narrator notes that the other two couples undergoing marriage at the same time begin to fade into non-existence as soon as the clergymen has pronounced them man and wife. As his own marriage is proclaimed, he sees Pansy, too, begin to vanish. He seeks to clasp her to him, but ‘already she was too insubstantial; nothing remained of the vibrant, pulsating girl but an evanescent wraith’ (p. 183). Appalled at the prospect of succumbing to a similar fate, the narrator flees and boards his aircraft, feeling a ‘sense of indescribable relief’ as the all-pervading Purilian soundtrack gets drowned out by the noise of the engines, and as the ‘faint, persistent nausea’ produced by the Purilian atmosphere is dispelled by the ordinary oxygen he breathes in through his pilot’s mask. Soon he leaves the pink cloud of Purilia behind him and turns his eyes on the ‘luminous globe that hung below me like a welcoming beacon: the world of human beings’ (p. 185). Distinctions make themselves clear to him for the first time in many months, like the spherical sun or moon emerging from behind a bank of clouds: distinctions between individuals, between planets, between one journey and another, between all the subtler elements of human existence which Purilia had rendered simplistic through its enslavement to a strictly limited set of rules. At last he recognises Purilia for what it is – a drug that annihilates the mind; and in rejoining the ‘world of human beings’ he salvages hope that he will no longer see it in the crude and finally deadly terms which is all that Hollywood has to offer by way of narrative.
At the end of the book, in fact, the narrator is restored to his function as narrator. No longer governed by a formulaic narrative imposed on him by malevolent outside forces, no longer a mouthpiece for a monologic, omnipresent, overbearing voice or presence, he writes his story in the form of a novel; a novel that relates his experience of Purilia in language that – like Brecht’s – constantly reminds us of the artificial nature of all forms of narrative, mingling formal discourse with the emotive vocabulary of melodrama, expressing astonishment at the familiar and dismay at the comic and the hackneyed. Rice’s tool of estrangement is laughter; but his novel is as wary of allowing us simply to laugh without acknowledging the political implications of our laughter as it is of allowing us to immerse ourselves unthinkingly in the wild adventures it relates. The laughter it provokes has become more unsettling with time, since most of Rice’s present-day readers will have learned that mocking the marginal is an open highway to fascistic thinking. In 1930, the worst effects of fascism had not yet made themselves felt. In 2022, there is no excuse at all for ignoring or embracing them.
 In this novel, a ‘flying boat’ is capable of navigating the space between worlds, much as a biplane does in Lord Dunsany’s short story of 1929, ‘Our Distant Cousins’ (see Dunsany, The Collected Jorkens, ed. S. T. Joshi (San Francisco and Portland: Night Shade Books, 2004), pp. 41-62.
 It’s perhaps worth mentioning here that the east wind is closely associated with John Jarndyce’s periodic bouts of melancholy in Dickens’s Bleak House (see Chapter 6).