Mervyn Peake and Whiteness

I’ve been reading Moby-Dick recently. My reason for reading it is quite specific: I believe that Mervyn Peake read it, and I’m in the process of writing a book about Mervyn Peake. My way of reading is perhaps unusual: each morning I do two hundred press ups, in sets of twenty, and read a paragraph or two of Moby-Dick between each set. Strangely, I find that the book gets imprinted on my mind by the exercise, just as the exercise is made easier by being interspersed with sections of the book. I mention this in case other Melville readers might want to try the same experiment. Readers of Dickens and Lord Dunsany might try it too; I read Bleak House and David Copperfield in the same way, and before that a collection of Dunsany’s brilliant but sometimes hard-to-differentiate short stories. I can differentiate his stories now, thanks perhaps to the rush of blood to the brain occasioned by those interspersed press-ups…

This is a blog post that records one of the key findings of my slow perusal of Melville’s text: that he and Peake were both obsessed with the colour white, and for similar reasons. This shared obsession says something, I think, about the uprooting of the world from faith and other familiar grand narratives in the wake of the industrial revolution and the vastly increased mobility of populations it brought about. The whaling ship Pequod embodies that mobility in obvious terms; but Gormenghast, too, embodies it, as a castle-shaped vessel cut adrift from the meanings and contexts of the rituals that serve as its wayward motor, marooning or islanding it (to use two of Peake’s favourite words) in an ocean-like landscape bereft of identifying names and historical or geographical contexts.[1] Whiteness is to the Pequod and Gormenghast Castle as the blank page of the present is to the migrants of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: a symbol of possibility and terror, laden with past associations which have turned strange and sometimes dreadful as the world enters a period of accelerated and often catastrophic change.

There are certain obvious parallels between Melville’s world and Peake’s – most importantly their common fascination with the architecture of the body, whether human or cetacean, and the fact that Peake was as obsessed with sea stories as Melville was, from the favourite book of his childhood, Treasure Island, to the pirates, explorers and Ancient Mariners who are always showing up in his writing and his artwork. And there are more specific links to be found between Peake and Melville. There’s a chapter in Moby-Dick written from Ahab’s point of view, ‘Sunset’, which transforms him into a seagoing Earl of Gormenghast, iron crown and all: ‘Is, then, the crown too heavy that I wear? this Iron Crown of Lombardy’ (p. 182) (note that the first of these two sentences is an iambic pentameter; Peake’s Lord Sepulchrave, like Ahab, often speaks in Shakespearean pentameters).[2] This is the second in a startling series of chapters in Moby-Dick delivered in the form of first-person monologues or dramatic dialogue, strikingly reminiscent of the chapter in Titus Groan devoted to the internal reveries of its cast of characters as they sit in silence round a ritual breakfast table, communing only with themselves.[3] In another, more conventional chapter that follows the series, called simply ‘Moby Dick’, Ishmael considers Ahab’s madness in terms that align the captain with the passionate knife-wielders of Titus Groan and Gormenghast: Steerpike, Titus Groan, the duellists Rantel and Braigon. Each of these young men pits himself against his destiny armed only with a short blade; and Ahab, too, famously attacked the great white whale armed only with a knife on the day he lost his leg to its jaws. We’ll come across further parallels as we go along.

There’s one chapter in particular that stood out from the rest of the American epic as I read it with Peake in mind. This is Chapter 42, ‘The Whiteness of the Whale’: a prolonged and eclectic meditation on the colour white. As soon as I read it I felt as though an unbreakable link had just been forged between Moby-Dick and the workings of Mervyn Peake’s imagination. Peake too, as I’ve often noticed, had an intense relationship with the colour white. He seems to have found it both dazzlingly, even oppressively beautiful, and somehow disturbing; and it was so central to his imagination that something intensely white provides him with the climax of at least three of his major works. In addition, he wrote many poems about it, some of which strike me as among the oddest and most idiosyncratic he composed. A glance at Melville’s Chapter 42 gives, I think, many clues as to the nature of Peake’s obsession – though Melville himself confessed, in the person of his narrator Ishmael, that no one knows exactly ‘where lie the nameless things of which the mystic sign gives forth such hints’, despite the fact that ‘somewhere those things must exist’ (p. 211). But before taking that glance we should look at the evidence that Peake could in fact have read the chapter in question.

Maeve Gilmore, Moby Dick, c. 1972

That Peake did read Melville is suggested by a number of things, not least the fact that he and his wife Maeve Gilmore had a cat called Moby Dick in the 1930s.[4] There is a portrait by Mervyn of Maeve from this period with a white cat standing on her shoulders;[5] this is presumably the animal in question, while Maeve herself painted Moby, or one of his descendants, in the 1970s, long after the original cat was dead. Mervyn’s poem of 1942-3, ‘I Am the Slung Stone that No Target Has’, refers to mysterious angelic saints with wings ‘like sheets / And as white/ As Ahab’s whale’ (Collected Poems, p. 123), and Ahab appears again in the opening paragraph of the short story ‘I Bought a Palm-tree’.[6] Peake’s picture book Letters from a Lost Uncle in Polar Regions (1948) includes many echoes of Moby-Dick, from the one-legged adventurer of the title, whose missing leg has been replaced with a prosthesis made from the ‘spike’ of a sword-fish or narwhal (Ahab’s, of course, was made of whalebone), to the object of his quest: to take a photograph of the mythical ‘WHITE LION; The LION on the stamp – the Emperor of the Snows’. At the point when the Uncle finally finds the Lion it is accompanied by a whale ‘as long as a street’, which swims underneath the floor of ice where the Lion is standing. Another whale occurs in Peake’s novel Mr Pye (1953) – a small, dead whale, whose appearance seems to symbolise the loss of epic or tragic aspirations in the wake of the Second World War. Its appearance marks a downturn in the fortunes of the book’s hero, a missionary who seeks to convert the inhabitants of the Island of Sark to his own peculiar brand of Christianity; and the whale is a white one.[7] The white whale of Melville’s novel haunts Peake’s work, much as Stevenson’s Treasure Island did; though of course this need not mean that Peake had actually read the novel. Moby Dick, after all, is a myth of the twentieth century, like Barrie’s Peter Pan, the creature from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or L. Frank Baum’s Marvellous Land of Oz; everyone knows about these things without having encountered the books or plays that brought them into being.

Peake’s intimate knowledge of the novel is best confirmed, perhaps, by a comment he made about it in a radio interview of May 1947, quoted in the biography by Malcolm Yorke.[8] The interview addresses Peake’s trade of book illustration – something he says he was drawn into by the limited opportunities and materials available to artists in the Second World War; and in it Peake describes various works of prose in olfactory terms, as an array of distinctive scents, perfumes and odours:

One might say that books have different smells. Wuthering Heights smells different from Moby Dick, Green Mansions smells different from Tristram Shandy. The Book of Job, smells different – very different – from The Fall of the House of Usher. It is for the illustrator to make his drawings have the same smell as the book he is illustrating.

Inhaling involves absorption, and in some cases addiction, a kind of possession readers experience when in the grip of a congenial narrative. Peake speaks, then, of being addicted to or possessed by the books he reads; and some of the characters in his work are clearly so addicted or possessed: Earl Sepulchrave among them, who goes mad when he loses his library, or Mr Slaughterboard, the pirate captain in an unfinished early novel who takes his library with him to sea, and who seeks to write himself into the list of literary greats by staging elaborate and fatal artistic events with his unfortunate crew as the pages he writes on. Yorke tells us, all the same, that Peake was ‘not a great reader’ (p. 195), and goes on to assert that he ‘lacked the stamina or time necessary to get through a long novel apart, perhaps, from Dickens and those swashbuckling books he had loved in his youth’ (p. 196). Elsewhere Yorke actually includes Moby-Dick among these ‘swashbuckling books’ (‘Stevenson, Ballantyne, Defoe, Melville and other writers of adventure yarns’, p. 182), which rather suggests he hadn’t read it himself. But we know that Maeve – herself a voracious reader who loved Proust – read aloud to him a great deal while he was painting or drawing; a ‘catholic selection’ of books, she tells us, which included Voltaire’s Candide and Waugh’s The Loved One.[9] We know, too, that some of the books Peake most enjoyed were decidedly long ones: Bleak House, David Copperfield, Tristram Shandy, Don Quixote (which he wanted to illustrate). In any case, delighting in the ‘smell’ of a book rather than its plot means that one can immerse oneself in giant tomes without feeling the need to read them in their entirety. Dipping into Bleak House, Tristram Shandy or Don Quixote is entirely delightful, evoking the precise mood, taste and texture of the world they bring to life while visiting only chapters or short passages. The same, of course, can be said of Titus Groan or Gormenghast, and of Moby-Dick too, whose brief chapters can be read as individual essays penned by a perverse and playful intellect, each with its own atmosphere and philosophical vision. Tzvetan Todorov has wise words on what he calls the ‘fetishism of the book’, whereby ‘the literary work is transformed both into a precious and motionless object and into a symbol of plenitude, [so that] the act of cutting it becomes an equivalent of castration’.[10] Peake knew the smell of Moby-Dick, even if he knew only a fraction of the novel; and the evidence suggests he knew at least this.

Mervyn Peake, Muzzlehatch with Mouse and Chameleon, sketch for Titus Alone

In the radio interview Peake assigns colours to books as well as smells. He speaks of the importance of capturing the ‘colour’ of the writing, and of how the illustrator must be willing ‘to identify himself with another personality’, as well as having ‘the chameleon’s power to take on the colour of the leaf he dwells on’ (pp. 194-5). There’s a delightful sketch in many editions of Titus Alone showing the misanthrope Muzzlehatch holding aloft both a cheerful chameleon and a tiny mouse, which seems designed to make the point all over again: in it, Peake as illustrator absorbs himself in his character Muzzlehatch, just as Muzzlehatch absorbs himself wholly in the creatures he keeps in his private zoo, who ‘smell one another’ as a reader smells a book (does the chameleon mimic Muzzlehatch’s colouring or Muzzlehatch the chameleon’s, we wonder? There’s no way of telling from a black-and-white illustration).[11] Sniffing and staring at Moby-Dick as he read it, or listened to Maeve reading it aloud as he painted or drew, Peake the visual artist may well have been struck by the only chapter in it dedicated to his medium, colour. After all, he always maintained that ‘we do not see with our eyes, but with our trades’,[12] and Peake seems to have seen his primary trade as painting, even if, as Gordon Smith suggests, ‘he never fully realized his ambitions as a painter in oils’.[13] Moby-Dick is a kind of verbal painting in oils – whale oils – and has many paintings in it, from the picture almost obscured by dirt which hangs in the entrance to the Spouter-Inn in Chapter 3, to the discussion of cetacean art in Chapters 55, 56 and 58 (‘Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales’, ‘Of the […] True Pictures of Whaling Scenes’, ‘Of Whales in Paint; in Teeth; in Wood [etc.]’). No wonder Peake was drawn to Melville’s epic, as an expression of his ambitions as a painter as well as a novelist.

Peake himself painted whales at least three times: as an illustration for Johann Wyss’s The Swiss Family Robinson (1950) and as embellishments for two of his own books, Letters from a Lost Uncle (1948) and the volume of nonsense poems Rhymes Without Reason (1944). The colour illustration in Rhymes without Reason shows a Greenland whale sitting on a mantelpiece over a blazing fire, watched by a cat.[14] The cat is clearly surprised to see its usual place usurped by a sea mammal; but the situation would be stranger still if the cat’s name were Moby Dick. The cat is not white, however, but ginger. The whale is not exactly white, either; more greyish green. Peake may have modelled it on a stranded whale he found on the island of Sark, which also inspired the rotting whale in Mr Pye; but it’s nice to think he may also have consulted Melville’s authoritative chapters on the subject, and the paintings they recommend, in his quest for an accurate image.

Mervyn Peake, illustration for ‘It Makes a Change’, Rhymes Without Reason (1944)

But to return to Moby-Dick Chapter 42; this is one of the most extraordinary moments in Melville’s novel. In it, Melville points out that whiteness has acquired a range of symbolic meanings at different times and in different cultures; but as with so much of the book, the illusion of control at first imparted by the orderly listing of these associations quickly breaks down as the list gets out of hand. The chapter begins by pointing out that many communities have ‘recognised a certain royal pre-eminence in this hue’, so that the monarchs of Pegu in Myanmar, for instance, had exclusive right to possession of a white elephant, while the Austro-Hungarian Empire chose white as the imperial colour, and (inevitably) the ‘white man’ sees himself as having ‘ideal mastership over every dusky tribe’ thanks to the pallid complexion of his skin. The introduction of racism into the chapter, in a book that sees a South Sea Islander forge a bond of brotherhood with a white American, anticipates the unsettling change of tone that occurs in Ishmael’s chapter on whiteness. At the end of the same paragraph, where the narrator also points out the religious significance of the colour white for the ancient Greeks, the Iroquois nations, and the Catholic Church, Ishmael observes that ‘for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood’ (p. 205, my emphasis). Whiteness has been incorporated into rituals and ceremonies and systems; but it retains an ‘elusive quality’ which ‘causes the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds’ (p. 205). The colour, that is, somehow escapes the confines of human organisation, eluding all limits and circumventing taxonomies. The terrible appearance of the polar bear and the great white shark is intensified by it; the glory of the albatross and the legendary White Steed of the Prairies is given them by their pigmentation. And a host of creatures and apparitions is rendered dreadful by their association with this colour; partly, Melville observes, because it is the colour of death, transforming the complexion of corpses until they seem to be frightened by their own condition – ‘as if indeed that pallor were as much the badge of consternation in the other world, as of mortal trepidation here’ (p. 208). The notion that whiteness should be fearful precisely because it is the colour faces take on when a person is frightened has a wonderful, weird logic about it, and extends its appalling reach to embrace our terror of ghosts and of the horse on which Death rides in the biblical Book of the Apocalypse.

In the end, though, Melville’s Ishmael confesses that there is no logical argument to account for the powerful grip maintained by whiteness on the human body and mind, which renders it both supremely worthy of worship and supremely frightening. ‘How is mortal man to account for it?’ he asks himself midway through the chapter, adding that ‘To analyse it, would seem impossible’ (p. 208). He goes on to list many more examples of the fear aroused by whiteness without offering any explanation of that fear, from the apparitions called the White Friar or the White Nun to the ‘tall pale man’ of the Hartz forests (p. 209), from the White Mountains of New Hampshire to the sailor looking out over Antarctic seas:

where at times, by some infernal trick of legerdemain in the powers of frost and air, he, shivering and half shipwrecked, instead of rainbows speaking hope and solace to his misery, views what seems a boundless church-yard grinning upon him with its lean ice monuments and splintered crosses. (p. 211).

The notion of the Antarctic as a ‘boundless churchyard’ decorated with ‘splintered crosses’ conjures up religion again, which adopted white as its colour at the beginning of the chapter. Here, however, it is a forgotten, faithless religion whose insignia have been smashed to pieces by the operation of the polar cold and whose promise of eternal life has been reduced to the posthumous ‘grinning’ of a skull. White is the colour of death again in this passage, though a death that has a hideous life of its own, like the ghosts, the Pale Horse and the White Nun mentioned previously.

But the chapter ends with another explanation for the fearfulness of whiteness. This is the idea advanced by certain philosophers that the colour white represents the ‘great principle of light’ itself (p. 212), which underlies all material things as the blank page underlies the printed word, or as the white-painted canvas underlies the pigments applied by the impressionist’s brushstrokes. Other colours are mere illusions: ‘subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without’. The inherent whiteness of light is only imbued with colour by its interaction with physical media (crystals, fluids, shadows and so forth) or the complex operations of the human mind. Without the influence of these interposed phenomena ‘the great principle of light, [which] for ever remains white or colorless in itself, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge’, so that the universe would resemble a ‘leper’ (whose condition turns their skin white) or a ‘charnel-house’ (a repository of bones) (p. 212). The chapter closes with the illustrative analogy of ‘wilful travellers in Lapland’ who ‘refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes’ and thus gaze themselves ‘blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect’. For the philosopher who adopts this perspective on colour as a cosmetic application screening us from the horror of universal blankness, whiteness embodies not the life promised by religious orators but again death: the shroud, the bones in a charnel house, leprous diseases, an Arctic wilderness utterly inimical to human existence.

Whiteness for Melville, then, symbolizes both the hope and joy of religious faith and the terror of the world as viewed by an unbeliever: a universal blankness on which the semblance of order and beauty has been superimposed by chance, or by the strenuous efforts of those pedlars in distracting illusion, artists and writers. The first aspect of whiteness – as a symbol of faith in a benevolent deity – is constantly slipping into the second – whiteness as utter indifference or even hostility to human life with its symbols and meanings – just as Ahab the Quaker ends up seeking the whale, not for religious purposes, but to impose total destruction on it as it imposed partial destruction on him. Whiteness, then, may be said to represent symbolism itself, which is continually being imposed by communities and individuals on things that resist being constrained by their symbolic functions. ‘Of all these things’, Ishmael tells us, ‘the Albino whale was the symbol’ (p. 212) – but the statement occurs at the end of a chapter in which so many ‘things’ have been connected with whiteness that it has lost its shape; just as a whale is rendered by Melville’s book a thing of such complexity and variousness that it cannot be said to symbolise anything but itself.

Jan van Eyck, Adoration of the Lamb, Ghent Altarpiece, detail

For Peake, too, whiteness was associated with religion, but a religion that was constantly becoming strange to him in different phases of his life. Coming from a nonconformist background – his parents were missionaries in China, where Peake lived for the first eleven years of his childhood – Peake married a Catholic artist, Maeve Gilmore, in 1936, and soon found himself at odds with certain aspects of Maeve’s religion. His poem ‘No Creed Shall Bind Me to a Sapless Bole’ (Collected Poems, pp. 61-2) sees him ‘fighting the Cathedral / And the voluptuous clouds of Catholic / Narcotic ritual / And all the sick / And opalescent glory of the pearl’, the last line associating whiteness with the elaborate ceremony of the Mass and its ‘sapless’ emblem, ‘the jewelled Crucifix, the golden Tree’. A vestment called the alb forms part of this ‘Narcotic ritual’, a garment (Melville tells us) whose name is derived ‘directly from the Latin word for white’, and invokes the white robes of the twenty-four elders in the Apocalypse, who stand ‘before the great white throne, and the Holy One that sitteth there white like wool’ (Moby-Dick, p. 205). As we shall see, this ceremonial whiteness seems for Peake as well as for Melville to ‘strike more of panic to the soul than that redness that affrights in blood’. At the same time, whiteness also attached itself, for Peake, to his parents’ nonconformist faith. When his Welsh mother died in October 1939, just after the outbreak of World War Two, he wrote a number of verses about her in the tetrameters favoured by the Protestant hymns he knew so well (Mr Pye sings several hymns in Peake’s late novel set on Sark). These verses associate the afterlife both with the chalky whiteness of the Sussex downs where Peake’s mother was buried (‘She who was so loved rests now / Gently in the chalk below’) and of the angels who carry her soul to heaven:

Now are gathering in the skies
Round the gates of Paradise
Those white angels who shall come
And gently bear her spirit home.

(Collected Poems, p. 49)

Other, less conventional verses of around the same time – set to the so-called ‘common metre’ of alternating four-stress and three-stress lines, rhymed ABCB – describe a widely-travelled woman (his mother again?) whose interest in the quality of whiteness has persisted throughout her life:

O she has walked all lands that are
In search of all things white –
For they are to her eyes a fair
And lonely sight.
But O, to her, beyond compare,
In all things of delight
Is the whiteness in the darkness
Of wanderers at night.

(Collected Poems, p. 76)

Whiteness in this poem has become detached from its association with conventional faith, a detachment stressed both by the loneliness the unnamed woman intuits in the ‘things’ of that colour and by her particular predilection for the pale shapes of nocturnal ‘wanderers’, rootless and solitary. These wanderers may be the moon and stars as well as people; Peake calls the moon a ‘white coin’ in his poem ‘Burgled Beauty’ (Collected Poems, p. 46).

This eccentric, post-religious whiteness features again in a longer poem which begins in comic mode but ends in a kind of Blakean rapture, making it Peake’s most explicit statement in verse of the combined attraction and weirdness of the colour white as articulated by Melville:

To all things solid as to all things flat
He raised his little peacock-coloured hat

To all things lucent as to all things dense
He bowed his little head in deference

To all things coloured as to things of grey
He turned and smiled in a most gentle way

But ah, at all things white… at all things white
He could but stand and stare in grief’s delight.

White wonderment upon him and within
That filled him to his cold and wrinkled skin.

That was his hour, his phoenix hour, his world
When all his flags of beauty were unfurled

Inhuman ecstasy of chill delight
Unworldly, lonely agony of white;

The white flower of the field, the white mane blowing
The white cloud over the white waters flowing

All things of white transported him to where
Long wings of crystal beat on stainless air

(Collected Poems, p. 75)

Derek Jacobi as Mr Pye

In a number of ways this poem reads like a first draft of Peake’s third novel, Mr Pye (1953), with its diminutive, beaming protagonist, who bows and wears a hat (though Mr Pye’s is not ‘peacock-coloured’ but an ordinary Panama or bowler) and shows ‘deference’ to all things, not just ecclesiastical symbols.[15] Mr Pye is a kind of missionary to the Channel Island of Sark, which could be described as Peake’s spiritual home – he stayed there several times, most notably as a member of an artist’s commune in the 1930s and as the father of a family in the 1940s. The little man in the novel aims to convert the islanders to a pantheistic ‘Faith of Love and Laughter’, presided over by a God who inhabits all things from the sea and sky to a smoking cigarette. The little man in the poem, like Mr Pye, makes gestures of recognition and acknowledgment (bowing, smiling, staring), but to inanimate objects rather than people, as if to suggest a sense of kinship with the many ‘things’ of different visual and physical properties he encounters; and he seeks no converts to his way of seeing. Mr Pye finds that his preoccupation with religion has an impact on his body: as his good deeds proliferate he starts to grow wings like an angel, and has to resort to evil deeds to keep them in check – only to find that doing evil makes devilish horns sprout from his head. The little man of the poem, seemingly by contrast, is drawn to whiteness itself, not just the whiteness of religion. He is as entranced by white animals, plants and weather as by angelic wings or priestly albs: ‘The white flower of the field, the white mane blowing / The white cloud over the white waters flowing’ (Melville mentions the flower japonica in his Chapter on Whiteness [Moby-Dick, p. 204], while weather and horses feature in it prominently). But as with Mr Pye, the little man’s unique philosophy marks him out as different from his fellow humans and therefore isolated and suffering (‘Unworldly, lonely agony of white’). And as with Mr Pye, what he worships ends by carrying him away to a place that can’t be visualised by others. Mr Pye flies away from Sark at the end of the book on his newly-fledged angelic wings, heading out across the sea towards some unknown destination; while the little man of the poem finds himself inwardly transported ‘to where / Long wings of crystal beat on stainless air’. The Catholic Church represents heaven as a place of spiritual hierarchies occupied by beings rendered wholly and permanently collective by the shared and freely given love of God. Mr Pye’s and the little man’s heaven (if heaven it is) seems utterly strange, and no other human beings or human-shaped entities seem to live there. Certain kinds of vision detach the visionary from the rest of humankind, leaving them as lonely in this life as in the world to come, solitary occupants of a church whose symbolism neither they nor anyone else can decipher, and of whose congregation they are in the end the only members.

As with Mr Pye, there’s a transition in this poem from whimsy – the little man in peculiar clothes who makes gestures at inanimate objects as if they were people – to sublimity, a glimpse of something radically other whose identity cannot be fully established, though it echoes Judaeo-Christian iconography. Unaffiliated to any institution, when confronted by whiteness the little man finds himself suspended in a state of ‘White wonderment’ – wonder being definable as the reluctance to assign some specific phenomenon to any given symbolic order, the sort of hesitation that characterizes Todorov’s famous genre of the fantastic. The little man’s reaction isn’t that of an artist, seeking to recreate and enhance the effect that amazes him, or of the conventional missionary, who sees everything in terms of the religious doctrine he serves. He simply experiences, as Peake so often does in his early poems.

In some of those poems this raw experience – unmediated by institutions, trades (such as that of the artist or the missionary) or set forms of knowledge – proves problematic in its purposelessness, the difficulty it presents of finding a suitable outlet for all that the senses have taken in. In ‘Coloured Money’, for instance (Collected Poems, pp. 22-3), the beauty encountered by the poet every day sometimes proves painfully burdensome, like an accumulating heap of gold coins pressing down on or against his heart, and he longs to rid himself of it altogether:

O then I long to spring
Through the charged air, a wastrel, with not one
Farthing to weigh me down,
But hollow! foot to crown[.]

Here the pain of the glut of coinage dispensed to him by the beauty of what he sees each day stems from his inability to ‘spend’ it with sufficient liberality – that is to express or press it all out, so to speak, in charcoal, paint, words, music, or the actions of his own body.[16] Another poem, ‘Heaven Hires Me’ (Collected Poems, p. 30), gives a religious twist to Peake’s sense of being salaried, and identifies the location of the paymaster (or paymasters – the occupants of his ‘Heaven’ are always ambiguous), as ‘Coloured Money’ does not. In this poem, the speaker is paid not in coins but in whiteness, which represents both moments of supreme calm and self-confidence and sudden, startling visionary experiences [my emphasis]:

Heaven hires me; and my payment is in those
White moments of repose
Between the seething of my brain’s all-coloured
Flora of woes,
Fauna from hills unhallowed.
While guilt grows
Stronger as I grow older
And lose love –
How break the terrible girders of the grove?

This is one of those poems whose full meaning may only ever be known to the poet. What grove is Peake talking about, with its ‘terrible girders’? My own feeling is that he’s referring to the heart, the girders being the ribs which serve either to preserve or bar out love; Peter Winnington has shown in detail how crucial the heart is to Peake’s imagination, and the containment of the heart by ribs is an anatomical fact he returns to time and again in his poems.[17] But the broad significance of the poem is plain enough. A sense of depression (‘woes’), shame (‘guilt’) and above all waste pervades the text (‘I do squander a largesse of un- / Uprooted glory’, he tells us in the final section – my emphasis), which is compensated for by moments of unearned ‘payment’. As I said, this payment comes in the form of whiteness, whether it be quiescent ‘white moments of repose’ or dynamic ‘alchemies’ of whiteness; alchemies being Peake’s favourite word for the transformation of the world, often by changing weather or shifting mood, into something fit to be celebrated in art – some substance that reacts with the substances of the artist’s body and brain. These ‘alchemies’ here involve wings or other means of moving through the air, unanchored to the ground, like the springing wastrel of ‘Coloured Money’. In one instance, the appearance of certain birds – migrating swans or geese, perhaps? – somehow empties Peake’s mental landscape of its ‘Flora of woes’ and re-hallows its formerly ‘unhallowed’ uplands:

Great Fowl along the combers of the sky
Undulate on such wings as suck
Breath from the pockets of far cliffs, and prise
The rocks apart with draughts that clear the muck
Out of a sickened sky.

Elsewhere in the poem, clouds are metamorphosed by the evening sunshine into pale deities:

Along the west
White gods move slowly, and the golden scales
Upon their breastplates twinkle momently
Now here, now there along the rim of Wales.

Their transformation balances out Peake’s transgressions against whiteness, whereby he chooses to ‘spit upon the marble face / And carve [his] name upon a seraph’s breast / To testify to my unclean disgrace / The guttersnipe of dreams’. The poet, in other words, still has access to genuine ‘moments’ of vision, despite his propensity for besmirching or vandalising marmoreal and angelic whiteness, a tendency that makes him in his own eyes a dirt-encrusted guttersnipe or mudlark in the vicinity of the house of dreams, rather than the kind of fully-fledged dreamer he most admired: a William Blake (who likewise, he tells us in his poem on the writer-artist, acknowledged plural ‘gods’ rather than a singular God), a van Gogh, a Goya or an El Greco.[18] The phrase ‘unclean disgrace’ in conjunction with ‘marble’ and ‘seraph’ suggests that part at least of his tendency to besmirch whiteness may involve sexual acts, perhaps infidelities (his poems about Maeve often imagine her in terms of whiteness and pallor[19]). But the range of meanings Peake (like Melville) bestows on the colour suggests that to limit it to sexual ‘purity’ would be too simplistic. The poem as a whole, then, gratefully acknowledges the uncomplicated wonder at whiteness he is still capable of feeling, however often he may trespass against that colour and its meanings, both aesthetic and moral.

‘Heaven Hires Me’ concludes that the poet is a split personality, permanently divided between opposing impulses to take pleasure in whiteness and to damage or destroy it: ‘Though I do darken hourly the sweet sun / Of love and ruth – yet, hell / And heaven, so conjoined do make me’. The theme is a repeated one in Peake’s work. Several poems identify ‘conjoined’ but contrasting elements in Peake’s composition – Doppelgängers of the mind and body, so to speak. An example is the poem I mentioned earlier, ‘I Am the Slung Stone that No Target Has’, which sets the whiteness of the writer’s internal saints (whose wings are ‘as white / As Ahab’s whale’) against the ‘hideous ghouls’ that also flow through him, personifications of ‘Death, lust and fever’. ‘Heaven Hires Me’ suggests that Peake’s two conjoined personae embody good and evil, ‘hell / And heaven’; and the opposition of ‘saints’ to ‘ghouls’ in ‘I Am the Slung Stone’ would seem to confirm this reading. But it’s notable that the ‘saints’ in this pairing are associated with the story of the Pequod, with its obsessive, self-destructive captain and his pursuit of the furiously vengeful Moby Dick. The implication is that Peake internally quests after the winged holy ones with the same energy that drove Ahab, but that his quest is constantly side-tracked by his demons; hence his aimlessness, Peake being the stone without a target mentioned in the poem’s title. But Peake’s quest for the whiteness of angels may also be an unhealthily obsessive one, as Ahab’s was. Will they destroy him when he catches up with them, as the whale destroyed the captain? In other Peakean depictions of split personalities the identity of the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ Doppelgängers is even trickier to determine. The ‘good’ side often seems ambiguous, its purity unsettling, its whiteness inhuman; so that even when Peake gives the impression of returning to religious cliché – good versus evil, light versus darkness, angel versus devil – the oppositions being set up do not feel in any way settled or familiar.

Two poems in his first poetry collection, Shapes and Sounds, summarize the ambiguities of Peake’s double being. The first of these, ‘They Move With Me, My War-Ghosts’, identifies the two conjoined aspects of the poet as ‘my rebeller / And my conceder’, one of whom concedes to the ‘lies of hoarding’ – war propaganda – while the other revolts against them. Between them they generate an internal ‘civil war’ in Peake, reflecting the ‘war-filled weather’ of Britain in the early 1940s. The angel is associated with ‘love’, the centaur with brashness and cruelty – ‘thoughtless hooves and violent laughter’ – and Peake’s rational mind is unable to control or reconcile them. So far so straightforward, it would seem. But it’s by no means clear in the poem which of the two figures is the ‘conceder’ to the ‘lies of hoarding’ and which the ‘rebeller’ against them. The wildness of the centaur makes it seem invulnerable to nationalist slogans, except in a spirit of savage irony; while the angel’s affinity for love would hardly permit it to embrace militaristic rhetoric, and ‘rebelling’ angels have an unfortunate reputation in Christian theology. In any case, whichever of the pair adopts which of these two responses to the war, the fierceness with which they ‘greet / Each other’ on the ‘narrow stair’ of Peake’s inward life – represented here as a house too cramped and small to contain them both – makes both figures part of the climate of hostility in which Peake finds himself. They are both ‘conceders’ in that sense, transforming Peake into a helpless reflection of the war he loathes – and hence ‘rebellers’ against his yearning for untrammelled access to uninhibited creativity.

Mervyn Peake, sketches of centaurs

The angel’s whiteness is not mentioned in this first poem; but in the second, ‘I Am For Ever with Me’, it certainly is, and the whiteness makes the angel ambiguous, even threatening, like the polar bears and ghosts of Melville’s chapter. In this poem it’s not at first clear that there are two figures inhabiting the poet. ‘I am always / Companion to the ghost-man whom I nurture’, it begins, and the first stanza summarizes the situation as follows: ‘There I am with me, haunting me for ever, / My ghost-man, and my lover’. That last word hints that Peake desires his ‘ghost-man’; that the figure might, in fact, represent an alternative, queer sexuality, competing for his attention with his acknowledged lover, his wife Maeve Gilmore. As the poem goes on, however, the two personas in Peake begin to be distinguished more clearly. The first is ‘the ghost-man’, the second ‘the man of startling armour’, while later the first becomes ‘The Gabriel-headed scorner / White like light!’ – an arrogant angel who considers himself superior to others – and the second ‘the plunger’, a rash seeker after adventure, boy-like and aggressive. The plunger-adventurer gets aligned soon after this with the figure of the pirate, which dominates Peake’s imagination throughout his work, as I’ve shown elsewhere:

Arises now in me the pilferer
Of hollow goods, the sprig and the swashbuckler.
I find in me the boy of shoddy glamour
And violent laughter.
The penny pirate and his cheap adventure…
Stars! And the cocky feather!

Here the pirate is not a real one but a theatrical pose to be adopted, a play pirate embodying fakery and cheapness, as against the solid earthly riches described in ‘Coloured Money’. The cheapness is there in his pilfering of ‘hollow’ or worthless goods, in the ‘shoddiness’ of his glamour, in his link to the low-cost, mass-produced publications which furnished imaginative adventures for children in Peake’s youth (‘The penny pirate and his cheap adventure’) but not material for the attention of serious artists. Like the centaur’s, his laughter is ‘violent’. Can one detect here a certain shame for Peake’s continuing pirate obsession, which stretched back to his boyhood love of Treasure Island and the swashbuckling books derided by Peake’s biographer, Malcolm Yorke? All the same, there is something attractive about this ‘plunger’, as there was about the centaur in ‘They Move with Me’. The poet’s sudden attack on the childish pirate figure in the following stanza seems disturbingly destructive, as he tears off its ‘cloak of crimson paper’, smashes its wooden sword and plucks out the ‘gaudy […] marbles’ of its eyes. And what is left after the pirate has been demolished is no more attractive than what it replaces: ‘white Gabriel the Scorner’, symbol of pride (thanks to his scorn for others), art, and perhaps ambition.

Students drawing from plaster casts, c.1892, New York

In this poem the angel’s connection with art is explicit. Gabriel the Scorner is, we are told, ‘No plaster cast, no imitation figure […] nor replica / Of some snow-muscled marble’, a description that invokes the plaster casts of old works of sculpture used for teaching and copying purposes in art schools. Instead this white being is the ‘eternal / And terrible original’, an authentically new and living vision despite being founded in ancient ideas (such as the angelic hierarchies listed by Milton), and hence a ‘miracle’ that ‘flares’ for a ‘lit moment […] In the clay prison’ of Peake’s body. The miracle is that something new has been given life, and that the figure perfectly embodies the current time as well as the long tradition it sprang from: ‘In me the modern angel has arisen’. But it remains ‘terrible’ and ‘scornful’, somehow inimical to the person who conceives it, just as the violent laughter and fakery of the pirate have something endearing about them. The two figures of Peake’s being are not moral opposites but alternative aspects of him – different moods, perhaps, or inducers of moods. Both trouble him with their violence or scorn, and both represent equally appropriate reflections of the troubled times he lived in.

In his introduction to The Drawings of Mervyn Peake the writer-artist considers in detail the importance of tradition in art as well as innovation, arguing that originality is born from long study of what came before – all the way back to wall paintings in ‘a cave in Spain’ – combined with an acute sensitivity to what needs to be expressed in the here and now.[20] ‘That the body of a work is common heritage,’ he writes, ‘in no way drowns the individual note […] it is the individual twist that haunts us’. The final section of ‘I Am For Ever with Me’, however, identifies the tradition from which the angel sprang as a profoundly collective one; not unique to the solitary genius but shared by all humanity like a communal meal held in commemoration of the dead, a eucharist reimagined in intensely material and social terms. Having celebrated the presence of the angel in himself (‘In me the modern angel has arisen’) the poet goes on to recognise its presence – alongside that of its twin, the pirate-plunger – in all the living and the dead, not just the gifted poet or artist:

Alive, the million million, and the dead
Breathe from the furrow and the wooden table:
Gulped with the wine, broken with bread,
Arising through the green sheets of the stubble.
In fruit, in flower, springing invisible
The phantom dead who knew the double owner,
The ghost-man, and the fellow
Of obvious colour.

The tracing of the transition from the dead to the living, from the furrow to wooden table, from the ‘green sheets of the stubble’ to the bread that is broken while the wine is drunk, identifies the doubles in Peake as seasonal or cyclical visitants, like the moods I mentioned earlier – a reading that’s confirmed in the stanza that follows when Peake mentions ‘the autumn grief and the spring bubble’, the different moods that visit him at different times of year, as also expressed in his season-poems such as ‘Two Seasons’, ‘Autumn: the lit mosaic of the wood’, ‘Autumn: There is a surge of stillness bred’, or ‘An April Radiance of White Light Dances’ (Collected Poems, pp. 35, 36, 38 and 119). More importantly, though, the ghostly angel and the ‘fellow of obvious colour’ inhabit all humankind, dead and alive, as well as Peake: ‘One of a million million, I’, extending in an unbroken line from the people of the deep past to the populations of the future: ‘The sons / Of our sons’ sons and all the unborn people’. The segregation of one person from another, in other words, on the basis of race, class or inborn abilities, is for Peake dishonest and artificial. A person’s characteristics are equally complex, rich, fascinating, and painfully in conflict with one another no matter who that person may be:

For everyone, the double man: the torture.
The struggle and the grim perpetual laughter.
For everyone his Gabriel and the Mocker,
The stillness, and the fountain, and the Master.

That last line identifies Peake’s Christ figure as being both bound up with the painful struggle between competing personae described in the poem and as a potential resolution to it; but it’s a resolution for everyone, not just the elect, the orthodox, the person of genius. Christ emerges from the physical and mental torment to which he was subjected as the grain that furnishes bread emerges from the furrow, or as the masterful drawing emerges (after long gestation in the form of apprenticeship and practice) from the application of charcoal to the ‘white page’. It’s no coincidence that this final section of the poem invokes Christian art as much as Christian religion: Leonardo’s Last Supper, Raphael’s Annunciation, Bosch’s Christ Mocked, all paintings by artists Peake alludes to by name in his written work. Peake’s Christ is the ‘Master’ in two senses, both as a religious teacher and as an Old Master invoked by the painters known as the Old Masters. His mastery does not set him apart from ‘everyone’ but makes him part of the ‘common heritage’, along with the antagonistic double beings that accompany each individual.

Giampetrino’s copy of Leonardo’s The Last Supper, c. 1520. Royal Academy of Arts, London.

The communion table of the Last Supper occurs a number of times in Peake’s poetry: in ‘Au Moulin Joyeux: September Crisis, 1938’, for instance (p. 43); ‘Absent from You Where Is There Corn and Wine?’ (p. 122); ‘That Phoenix Hour’ (p. 168); and most surprisingly, perhaps, in Peake’s most extended meditation on whiteness, the long poem ‘A Reverie of Bone’ which he wrote (according to Peter Winnington’s calculations) in 1942, part way through the composition of his first novel, Titus Groan. Originally titled ‘Valley of Bones’, the poem identifies bones, as against ghosts or souls, as the sole remaining trace of the human dead, their delicate whiteness transcending the dry intricacies of theology, their beauty surpassing that of any clay-encumbered living person whose ‘bright blood […] swarms their plinths of bone’ (stanza 18). This erasure of colour from the human afterlife, replacing it with what Melville calls the ‘great principle of light’ – the internal whiteness that unites all human beings, of all classes and all races – means that death removes one of the two beings that inhabit the Peakean human body from the picture. The pirate/plunger disappears, leaving only the cold purity of the ghost-man/Gabriel to dominate the landscape. That is the drive behind the poem: the abandonment of struggle and the replacement of it with a beautiful, eerie, and endlessly mutating stillness and silence.

Accordingly, there is something angel-like about bones in Peake’s poem. The skeletal structure of the hands and feet, for instance (‘The gelid / Twigs of the brittle fingers […] And all the arctic filigree of feet’), along with the ulna – the largest bone in the human forearm – are transformed by Peake’s imagination into the instruments of an angelic flight that is lovelier far than any achieved by avian wings. ‘I see,’ he writes in stanzas 3 and 4,

the pallid
Ulna as downless as the lyric quill
Of some sky-wandering pinion that the sleet

And gusts have stripped of all its clinging hairs;
So that a sliver-shred of whiteness wanders
Across the stars until the night-winds fail.

Here angelic flight has been removed from its celestial context and bestowed on the unaffiliated ‘wanderers at night’ we encountered in the short poem Peake wrote around the time of his mother’s death, ‘O She Has Walked All Lands There Are’. The bones’ wanderings are verbal as well as spatial, so that the ulna’s ‘sky-wandering pinion’ is also the ‘lyric quill’ that writes (perhaps) the wandering verses we are reading. The ribs of the dead, too, undergo dreamlike mutations, into household structures and musical instruments: ‘O ribs of light! bright flight, yours are such stairs / As wail at midnight when the sand meanders / Through your cold rungs that sieve the desert gale’ (stanza 4). The imagined flight of the ulna transitions as we read into the ‘bright flight’ of stairs provided by the ribs, which change again in the next two stanzas into a ‘Bright lyre of ribs’ that play ‘a music of fled forms’ when plucked by a gust of wind (stanza 5), like the Aeolian harp in Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’. The poem, then, is a virtuoso exercise in imaginatively mutating the last remains of the human body after death. But the key thing, I think, is that each mutation takes it further away from the brightly-coloured emotions and physical urges, the violence, flamboyant self-display and cruel laughter that drove the pirate aspect of the double human body. And each mutation serves to sever angelic whiteness from its religious framework – with the exception of the reference to the Last Supper, which we shall come to shortly.

The poem’s wanderings are given shape and point by the analogy Peake draws between the location of his imagined bones and the open sea. The bones he celebrates in ‘A Reverie of Bone’ inhabit a vast sandy desert of wave-like dunes, which change shape as the wind blows, alternately revealing and concealing the stripped-down corpses they contain – much as the ever-changing ocean alternately reveals and conceals its treasures, denizens and victims. True to Peake’s sense of being a flung stone without a target, his desert ocean harbours no reefs or shores; it is, then, a destination in itself, the objective as well as the pathway for the non-existent ship he imagines crossing it, steered by an ‘impossible helmsman’ and slicing the dunes with its ‘free keel’ (stanzas 13 and 14). The whiteness of the bones thrown up by the desert is visible everywhere – not, as in Moby-Dick, exclusively in Ahab’s whale, or in the whalebones that decorate the ship and furnish Ahab with his prosthetic leg. One ‘ghosted mountain’ in the wasteland, ‘lit by the full torch / Of a sailing moon’, is ‘littered with the white / Residue of the dead, as though its bright / Steep sides were dusted with dry leprosy’ (stanzas 30 and 31) – leprosy being one of the more unsettling forms of whiteness touched on by Melville. In Peake’s desert ocean, all creatures harbour a pallor of some sort, so that a white whale is no more remarkable (or no less astonishing) than the other denizens of the desert or the deep, or the human wanderers who watch them from the backs of horses or the decks of ships.

A white whale does come to mind as the poet crosses his sea of dunes, but it is not the special objective of a quest or hunt. At one point the poet summons up a ‘blanched whale’, as white as Moby Dick, swimming between ‘floating islands of translucent ice’ (stanza 37). For Peake, this whale is a miracle of bones rather than of flesh, carrying its living skeleton in ‘undulations / Through sunless waters’, while overhead the gulls with their own internal skeletons execute a similar bony dance in the Arctic gale. The emphasis on bones in this passage may remind us of Melville’s series of meditations on the skeleton of the whale in his chapters ‘A Bower in the Arsacides’, ‘Measurement of the Whale’s Skeleton’, and ‘The Fossil Whale’; while the Arctic location recalls Melville’s conviction that the whale can never be hunted to extinction because of its ability to hide itself in certain ‘Polar citadels’, ‘diving under the ultimate glassy barriers and walls’ to reach the ‘icy fields and floes’ where, ‘in a charmed circle of everlasting December’, it can ‘bid defiance to all pursuit from man’ (Moby-Dick, p. 503). There is no hunting Peake’s white whale because it’s already effectively dead, its undulating skeleton anticipating the moment when another Ishmael will stand in awe of its bare bones, fingering his ‘green measuring-rod’ as he considers how best to calculate their dimensions (Moby-Dick, p. 490). And Peake’s whale is imaginary, as is the ocean in which it swims, as is the desert to which that ocean is being compared. The ‘reverie’ or waking dream of the poem is a flight into the imagination from the realities of war – a flight by pen rather than by pinion.

But it is also a flight from death into death, as one might expect from a poet who is also a soldier in wartime. In war there is no escape from the ‘ruthless regions of what’s true’, as the poet puts it in stanza 32; a soldier is always thinking of his end. The material facts of the body’s composition assert themselves, no matter how brilliantly one seeks to play with them. Unlike the Christian heaven, bones are an undeniable fact or truth of existence; an observation that gets wittily confirmed by stanza 33, in which the poet conjures up ‘a prophet’s skull’ being bowled by the wind across the ‘burning scarp,’ its shadow ‘Cruising before it as it rolls through sunlight’. Prophecies form part of a religious grand narrative that may or may not have any validity. The principal bone of a prophet’s head, on the other hand – the skull – undeniably exists, and is pictured here in perpetual motion across the ‘vast and valid landscapes’ conjured up by Peake’s brain (stanza 32), as recorded by the blue ink of his moving pen-nib.

Leonardo’s The Last Supper, detail

Peake’s evocation in this poem of Leonardo da Vinci’s great mural of the Last Supper has something similar to say about religion. It occurs in stanzas 38 and 39, immediately after the mention of the whale, and like the whale serves as an illustration of Peake’s core statement on whiteness. In stanza 34, Peake observes that ‘this hand that props my forehead / Is not more real than those hands of frost / That lie in myriads like an astral choir / Of endless gesture, eloquent though dead’. Through the study of anatomy, Peake’s training as an artist has made him infinitely familiar with the ‘astral choir’ of the human skeleton, which sings in gestures rather than sound. And it is a choir that celebrates not some theologically elaborated hierarchy but the common whiteness underlying all life – and perhaps all visible objects in the universe, if Melville’s philosopher is correct. Stanzas 35 and 36 sum up this materialist religion in terms that seem to echo the chapter on Whiteness:

O passionless, amoral, unearthly whiteness
Emptied of ardour like a thought of crystal
Scoring a circle in the air of Time:
Closer to darkness is this lovely lightness
Than to the wannest breath of colour. All
That is most ultimate and clear: the prime

And essence of a dream, that flowering, loses
Its colour-tinctured parts on finding climax
And consummation in a spectral land,
Vaster than arctic, rarer than where cruises
The frigate moon, is your demesne that works
Its magic in the thighbone on the sand.

Again these stanzas stress the purging of colour from whiteness, and with it the personality of the plunger-pirate from the composition of the universe at its key moments. At this point of consummation or flowering the desert becomes a ‘spectral land’ as haunting as the land of the Sami in Melville’s chapter, where visitors are urged to don tinted spectacles to avoid being blinded by the unrelieved whiteness of the frozen vistas. And it inhabits an ‘amoral’ space where the distinctions between black and white, light and darkness, good and evil have been replaced with passionless, amoral perfection, free from emotion, doctrine, faith or ‘ardour’.

This is the space occupied by Leonardo’s Last Supper in Peake’s painstakingly non-narrative poem. For Peake, the key feature of the famous mural is neither the people who appear in it – the dramatis personae of the Passion (Christ declaring that one of his followers will betray him, the twelve disciples reacting with various degrees of dismay or anguish) – nor the symbolic substances displayed on the table, the wine that Christ declares to be his blood, the rolls of bread of which only one has been broken: Christ’s roll, in token of the breaking of his body on the cross. Instead it is the white tablecloth on which the Last Supper is served that Peake considers the crucial component of the celebrated image. This is for him a manifestation of the ‘passionless, amoral, unearthly whiteness’ he identified in stanza 35; a whiteness, he writes,

As bleached and scrupulous as that stern linen
Da Vinci laid forever underneath
The isolation of the unfingered loaves,
The desolation of the untasted wine,
The thirteen double islands from the Earth,
Stiff, icebound and estranged from vines and sheaves[.]

In Peake’s reading, the painting shows a moment when all the figures and symbolic objects in the picture have been isolated or ‘islanded’ from one another: Christ because of his consciousness that he alone knows what will happen next and why, the disciples because of the sudden access of distrust (or in Judas’s case guilt and shame) to which they have been subjected, the bread and wine because they have been forgotten in the turmoil of Christ’s revelation. All thirteen people in the picture are referred to as ‘double islands’, not single ones – a phrase that makes little sense except as an assertion that they all contain the twin figures we considered earlier, the ghost-man and the plunger, Christ included. This extraordinary moment renders both figures and objects frozen in time – ‘forever’ – and temperature – they are all ‘icebound and estranged’. But the white tablecloth stands apart from all this turmoil in its passionlessness, its bonelike ‘asceticism’, its sternness – a word Peake invokes twice in successive stanzas. The bread and wine lying on it, Peake suggests,

Show with their pool and crust how pure is flax,
How cold it is and how immaculate
And close it is at the Supper, charged and lorn[,]
To the asceticism of the stern stalk
Of hollow bone that the same master sought –
Blanched, holy whiteness that continues on. [My emphasis.]

The syntax of this stanza is hard to follow, but the drift is clear. For Peake, the bread and wine at Leonardo’s supper are no more than aesthetic supplements to the linen tablecloth, which points the way to what Christ really seeks: the bone-whiteness of a death that will rid him of the turbulence of living, with its betrayals, moral dilemmas, revelations, physical agonies, emotional traumas. Or is it Leonardo rather than Christ who seeks this whiteness; Leonardo who is the ‘master’ or Old Master of this ascetic vision? Or is the power of each master, Christ and Leonardo, somehow shared, like the twin powers that co-occupy the human frame, the angel and the plunger?

The latter reading seems to be invoked in a neologism Peake introduces in stanzas 41-42, as he describes the shifting narratives generated by the desert sands. ‘All is changed’, he notes as knolls of sand collapse into sandy vales or valleys:

the hills as hot as blood
Have given place to corrugated, pale
And ash-grey tracts that have thrown up fresh plunder

From sterile torpor of the desert’s womb;
So that across the desolate plains are littered
Fresh relics of incongruous dynarchies[.]

The word ‘dynarchies’ does not exist, but it fuses three words at least: ‘dynasties’, which implies successions of well-documented generations; ‘anarchy’, which suggests no organisation, documentation, authority, or formal narrative at all; and ‘diarchy’, which means co-rule or shared authority, of the kind Peake repeatedly identifies as present in the human body and mind, dominated as they are by incongruous twins. Such co-rulership could also be implied by the double meaning of ‘master’ in the account of Leonardo’s painting, which may refer either to the ascetic master of the disciples, Christ, or to the grand Old Master, Leonardo, who freezes the key moment of the Last Supper in paint and plaster, capturing its uneasy fusion of evanescent human passion and ‘blanched, holy whiteness that continues on’. Just as the ‘dynarchies’ of the desert circumvent the human dynasties and power systems they repeatedly invoke, so does Leonardo’s painting distance itself from its religious subject; it only represents eucharist, it can never be the eucharistic act as, say, an Orthodox icon can, so that by it eucharist is rendered cold, strange and always elsewhere, always distant. Peake’s meditation on the painting is a meditation on death, not religion, a wresting of the religious subject from the deadening clutch of the ecclesiastical authorities and a returning of it to the material facts in all their strangeness, the beauty of bones in all their insolence, their refusal to be cabined, cribbed, confined within traditional paradigms. As such it empowers the meditator – who is also the artist, the soldier, and the ordinary human being – as well as the human act of creation through painting, dreaming and making verse.

Peake, Letters from a Lost Uncle, First Edition

A similar estrangement of whiteness from its religious context takes place in Letters from a Lost Uncle (1948).[21] The Uncle’s quest for the White Lion is not inspired by missionary zeal, nor by a thirst for imperial conquest, nor yet by an Ahab-like quest for vengeance – despite the fact that the Uncle seems permanently angry (he is always swearing like a whaleman, using phrases like ‘blubber it!’ ‘blubberation!’ and ‘blubber take this thumb mark!’). This said, the fragments of empire lie around him throughout his life. As a youth the Uncle spends his time in the imperialist Museum of Natural History in London, or drawing the imperial lions in Trafalgar Square, which he sketches one by one, unaware that (like the colonial project) they replicate each other precisely in the different spaces they have been allotted. He sets out on his adventures in a ship called the S. S. Em, whose name may stand (he thinks) for Empire or Emu, in either case recognising the curtailment of the British imperial project in the era immediately following the Second World War.[22] The Uncle’s relationship with his only companion, Jackson, is decidedly colonial. On first meeting the mournful ‘turtle-dog’ on a beach of red sand, with his shell, his perpetual cold, and his permanently downturned beak, the Uncle decides at once that the creature would serve as the ideal ‘beast of burden – and possibly as a friend’, while at the same time confessing that ‘I was irritated [by him] right from the start’. The ghosts of missionary zeal and colonialism, then, accompany the adventurer on his wanderings, just as the ghosts of his various adventures haunt the formerly pristine pages of every letter he sends to his nephew, in the form of thumb-prints, drops of blood, gravy stains and splashes of coffee. The Lion itself is a symbol of empire; he appears on stamps, like the head of the British monarch; he features alongside the unicorn on the royal coat of arms; and he represents the grandest prize available to the colonial big game hunter, symbolic of the subjugation of the territories he occupies. But the Uncle’s Lion has been partly purged of colonial associations by his dazzling whiteness – which distinguishes him from all other lions and their significations – as well as by his transplantation from the plains of Africa to the frozen (and in Peake’s book uninhabited) wastes of the North. The Uncle, meanwhile, does not plan to subjugate him or his territories with a phallic gun. Instead he hopes to take pictures of him with his box camera, to supplement the stains and pencil sketches which swarm around the margins of his letters. And even this modest aim is dashed when a whirlwind whips away his camera, leaving him only his pencil and his sword-fish leg with which to face the King of the Snows.

The Uncle’s pursuit of the Lion, in fact, reduces him to rags, detaching him from family, friends, home, institutions, even one of his limbs. Symbolically severed from the oppressions of the past, bereft of the grand narratives that would have given some semblance of coherence or control to his wayward wanderings, the Uncle’s sole attachment is to his nameless nephew, whose mind he seeks to fill with brilliant visions of his own vagrancy, unencumbered by moral lessons or useful facts. His polar pictures are full of non-existent animals – snow serpents, Arctic vultures, polar beetles – and promiscuously mix Antarctic penguins with Arctic bears. Even the conventions of fiction do not govern his adventures; the Uncle’s relationship with Jackson does not improve, despite the fact that they save each other’s lives on several occasions, and he never meets his nephew, despite growing fonder of him as he writes his letters. The Uncle’s story is as haphazard as his method of telling it, given structure only by his obsession with the pristine whiteness of the Lion and the landscape it lives in.

Like the Antarctic landscape of broken crosses described by Melville, Peake’s polar regions resonate with religious imagery. As they approach the frigid zone where the Lion lives, Jackson and the Uncle notice that ‘great glittering steeples of ice began to show above the horizon just as though we were approaching a city of glass churches’. The Lion inhabits the largest church of all, a ‘cathedral of glass’ with ‘twenty thousand spires’, which encloses a see-through floor and a ‘rough and dusky throne of ice’. Blue light, green light, then lights of many colours shine up from beneath the structure’s frozen floor, as if through stained glass, painting the creatures gathered there to pay homage to the king of beasts, just as shadows and reflections paint the essential whiteness of the universe in Melville’s chapter. ‘But although everything else reflected the colours that smouldered through the ice,’ the Uncle tells us, ‘the Lion didn’t. Nothing could change his whiteness. He was apart from everything else’. His apartness, like that of the tablecloth under Leonardo’s Last Supper, cuts him adrift from any acknowledged narrative, religious or otherwise. And the Lion’s own blindness cuts him off from those around him: his ‘vast and silent congregation’ of animal subjects, the Uncle and Jackson, the whale, the swarms of fishes under the ice, the glass cathedral. No longer a symbol of religious or secular power, the Lion has become the embodiment of beauty itself, uncorrupted by the stains of history or story. In token of this, the story culminates in the Lion’s death: he roars, rears up, and freezes into a statue, in which form he remains unvisited forever except in the memory of the Uncle, in the imagination of the nephew, and in the sketches that fill the Uncle’s penultimate letter: ‘alone and beautiful in the wild polar waste,’ as the Uncle puts it, ‘my Lion of white ice’. In this book, then, the Lion’s whiteness may be said to liberate its image from religious and imperial colonialism – though these things echo around it like the traces of its dying roar. Pure sculpture, he is uncontaminated by any kind of purpose beyond the artwork’s singular function of being beautiful, strange and unsettling, as well as averse to entanglement in the convoluted coils of cause and effect as recognised by the conventions of verbal logic.

In a similar way, Mr Pye’s white wings – which grow like leprosy as he indulges his delight in good deeds on the Island of Sark – gradually detach themselves from religious significance in the course of Mr Pye, becoming instead a skill to be mastered, a delight to be enjoyed, an embodiment of liberation from the narrative conventions that governed the lifetime of their wearer. In the final paragraphs of the novel, pursued by the island’s inhabitants as a freak or demon, the little missionary first flings his spirit up to Heaven (‘he drew forth his soul and tossed it skywards to his God’, p. 253) before ending the chase as himself alone, unpossessed, ungoverned, unbeholden; not a representative of a faith or congregation but a being complete and confident in his own uniqueness:

It was a never-to-be-forgotten sight. There was beauty in it, with those ample 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. (Mr Pye, p. 254)

The last paragraph of the novel confirms that Mr Pye has ‘already mastered his wings’, becoming in the process an accomplished craftsman in the art of flying – and freeing himself from the control of his smug and sometimes tormenting former master, the Christ-figure whom he labelled the ‘Great Pal’.

Again in a similar way, Peake’s novella Boy in Darkness culminates in an act of liberation from religious and imperial mastery. The story begins with the nameless Boy under the tutelage of various masters – the Master of the Ritual, the Master of the Quills – as he suffers day by day through the onerous duties of a child in his position, hereditary ‘Lord of a tower’d tract’ (Boy in Darkness, p. 23). The Boy is of course Titus Groan, and the ‘tower’d tract’ is his ancient home of Gormenghast Castle, but the Boy is as much a subject to tyrannical authority as any other schoolboy under the sway of cruel masters. The Lost Uncle, we learn, evaded the school authorities by making himself ill with doses of ink. The Boy escapes instead by fleeing into the castle, making use of his intimate knowledge of its obscurer tracts to worm his way through its corridors, attics, lost staircases and ruined fortifications into a wasteland twice as bleak as the ocean-desert in ‘A Reverie of Bone’. The Boy’s mastery of the castle displays itself even as he flees the titanic structure; and his flight takes him into the hands of a new kind of mastery. Each escape he accomplishes as the narrative unfolds, in fact, takes him deeper into the convoluted structures of power and servitude to which his heredity has consigned him. As a Boy he cannot escape, though the will to escape and the cunning to effect an escape manifests itself, in potential at least, at every stage of his brief adventure.

The post-apocalyptic landscape to which he flees – a colourless vista strewn with ‘soft white dust’ (p. 38) and littered with industrial wreckage – is ruled over by a malignant relative of the Lion of the Snows: a Lamb of unsettling whiteness. Melville’s chapter on whiteness mentions the regal Lamb of the Apocalypse only in passing (‘the great white throne, and the Holy One that sitteth there white like wool’, Moby-Dick, p. 205), but Peake’s novella makes him the nightmarish focus of the Boy’s journey, entirely defined, like Ahab’s whale, by his distinctive colouring:

White. White as foam when the moon is full on the sea; white as the white of a child’s eye; or the brow of a dead man; white as a sheeted ghost; oh, white as wool. Bright wool… white wool… in half a million curls… seraphic in its purity and softness… the raiment of the Lamb. (Boy in Darkness, p. 56)

The passage invokes the full range of associations given to whiteness in Moby-Dick, from childhood innocence to an unpeopled ocean, from living angels to livid corpses, from priestly albs to ‘sheeted ghosts’. As with the Lion, however, the crowning strangeness of the Lamb is his blindness, which in Peake’s imagination seals him away from sympathy with the human prisoners brought before him, islanding him, so to speak, in his own internal narrative, his lust for power. The Lamb uses his subjects as material for his art, tracing their facial contours with his coldly sensuous little finger before drawing out of them by some diabolical magic the features of the particular beast – bird, mammal, fish or insect – whose likeness he detects in their composition. Peake depicts him as both an artist and an artwork: the ‘creator as it were of a new kingdom, a new species’ (p. 72), comparable in his reworking of limbs and organs to a concert pianist, a sculptor or a gourmet, while himself recalling a ‘marble carving’ (p. 74) and a ‘dancer’ (p. 90), as well as an ‘Emperor’ (pp. 53, 74, 77 etc.), the last surviving emblem of British imperialism. But his art has something wrong with it. Its chilly perfection is deathly. Most of the beast-men he has created in his lifetime are now dead, their bones littering the floors of the mines he makes his home. And the two survivors are grotesques: a muscular, foppish Hyena and a dusty Goat, each of them aspects of the pirate-figure who shares the human body with his white twin, the angel Gabriel, in Peake’s poems. The Lamb, meanwhile, represents the final example in Peake’s work of that ‘modern angel’: master of an art that seeks absolute mastery over its subjects, tormenting, humiliating, reshaping and finally killing them with its intimate attentions. As an embodiment of the soulless present – the pale shadow of Cold War in a post-industrial wasteland, fused with a violent sensuality utterly destructive to its objects – he sums up the topics available to art and artists in the 1950s, which involve making twisted copies of the personal, political and religious power-games on offer, haunted (like the adventures of the Lost Uncle) by spectral memories of the grand narratives of the past.

Under these circumstances, the simple stories that fill the Boy’s imagination – stories of flight, adventure, cunning, unexpected encounters in dangerous places, narrow escapes – take on the status of acts of insurrection, powerful precisely because they are disdained and half forgotten by the authorities. In the narrow confines of his castle bedroom, hemmed in by various forms of adult coercion and control, the Boy finds foreign shores in a patch of mould above his bed: undiscovered countries beyond the reach of his appointed masters, imaginary lands to which he can swear semi-blasphemous loyalty in defiance of his expected total commitment to his role as Earl. Thanks to these inward mental games of piratical abandon, he is able to dream his way out of the castle, although he cannot conjure up any clear images of what lies beyond its broken walls. But once confronted in the wasteland by the Goat and the Hyena, the Boy’s imagination sets to work at once on this new material, discovering ways to imagine them afresh not as the grovelling slaves the Lamb has made them, but instead as powerful rivals to the Lamb, capable of occupying golden thrones exactly like his and of commanding armies of slaves as the Lamb commands the two sad relicts of the army of mighty beast-men he once assembled. Physically weak – the Boy spends much of the novella either asleep or in a faint while being conveyed from place to place, first by a pack of silent dogs, then by the beast-men – Peake’s youthful hero nonetheless has an uncanny ability to conjoin himself to other people’s minds, to inhabit their desires and dreams. When escaping from his bedroom he briefly mingles with an anarchic group of children revelling in the castle grounds, becoming indistinguishable from them by reason of their common youth. Later he becomes an honorary member of the dog-pack thanks to their shared vitality (p. 36); and later still he shows himself able to second-guess the dreams of the Goat and the Hyena, whose own imaginations are limited to the pleasures they already enjoy, rolling in the dust and crunching bones between their teeth – or the pleasures of the Lamb, tyranny and torture. He even imagines himself into the imagination of the inhuman Lamb, describing himself at one point as an escaped ‘figment of [the Lamb’s] thought’ who has somehow ‘wandered – wandered away from his great brain’ (p. 54), and urging the beast-men to let him wander away altogether, out of the wasteland and back again to his abandoned castle bedroom. Each new mind he shares offers a way out of itself, a way to breach its boundaries, and the Boy’s own restless brain is constantly working to uncover these means of egress, these secret passages to an unguessed freedom. He works his way inward to work his way outward, just as he did when effecting his flight from his ancestral home.

The Boy’s mind is coloured, in fact, both by the brilliant lights that shine into it from outside and by the inward light that illuminates his dreams and narratives. This fusion of inward and outward lights is most brilliantly invoked in Peake’s work by the unpublished poem he wrote in Southport hospital in 1942, just before being invalided out of the army, ‘Blue as the Indigo and Fabulous Storm’. In the poem, the blue-uniformed patients at the hospital have a means of inward egress from its thick brick walls by means of the brilliantly-coloured dreams that fill them:

For we are bluer than the fabulous waters
That lap the inner skull-walls of a boy
So that his head is filled with brimming summer’s
Dazzling rollers which make dull the day
Surrounding him, like an un-focused twilight,
Such waters as uplift a rippling acre
Of naked jelly through the sunfire drifting
With at its centre a vermilion ember
Across whose fire the transparent eyelids rove
O fiercer than the azure lights that flare
At the lit core of fantasy.

(Collected Poems, p. 120)

In Boy in Darkness, too, the Boy’s ‘lit core of fantasy’ offers a means of escape from the darkness of the Lamb’s mine, and a means of combating the power expressed by that beast’s tyrannical whiteness. It’s the Boy’s inclination towards the piratical ‘fabulous’ that transforms the Hyena’s murderous knife – at first no more than a ‘long, slim blade’ (p. 49) – into a sword: a ‘long, thin, deadly yard of steel’ (p. 90) perfectly adapted to the needs of a young adventurer in peril of his life. A sword can be ‘brandished’ as a knife cannot, and can destroy a godlike being in an act of quasi-ritual sacrifice:

In fact the air seemed to open up for him as he sprang, his sword brandished. He brought it down across the skull of the Lamb so that it split the head into two pieces which fell down to earth on either side. There was no blood, nor anything to be seen in the nature of a brain. […] The wool lay everywhere in dazzling curls.

(Boy in Darkness, p. 92)

This execution signals the termination of the angel figure in Peake’s work; there are no more beings of immaculate whiteness in his final novel, Titus Alone (1959). The pirate figure, the ‘plunger’ of the poem ‘I Am For Ever with Me’, has finally rid himself of his pale, perfect heavenly twin. Ahab has purged himself of the white whale, Moby Dick, and in the process exorcised his self-destructive obsession. The oppressive pearlescence of Catholic ritual has been dispersed, along with the various hierarchies – symbolized by thrones and distinctive vestments – it sustained. This exorcism is not absolute; Titus in Titus Alone, for instance, remains haunted by post-traumatic echoes of his ancestral castle, and is briefly reinstated on a fake throne before he dashes it to pieces in a fit of fury. The Boy, too, is finally carried back to the ‘immemorial home’ he briefly escaped from (Boy in Darkness, p. 93). But both young people have been given licence to rove, a licence Peake clearly intended to make use of in the later Titus books he never wrote.

Illustration for Boy in Darkness, Santiago Caruso

Something else happens at the climax of Boy in Darkness. Peake’s boyishness, as an artist, is justified; his immaturity confirmed as a strength, his instinctive insurrection necessary, his lust for adventure no longer an aesthetic liability. And Moby-Dick may have helped. Malcolm Yorke, as we’ve seen, wrote with some acerbity of Peake’s continuing affection for the ‘swashbuckling books’ of his youth. G. Peter Winnington suspects he didn’t read anything too ‘literary’ after his schooldays ended. And Peake himself writes in some embarrassment of his lifelong passion for wild romance at the beginning of his short story ‘I Bought a Palm-Tree’:

Perhaps it’s because there is something wrong with my upper storey, for I am incurably romantic. King Solomon’s Mines still haunt me. Coral Island and The Blue Water Ballads are all mixed up in my memory. […] Ben Gunn and Amos Leigh, Ahab and Crusoe – they are with me still in a tangle of fern and palm-trees.

(Boy in Darkness and Other Stories, p. 103)

It’s the ‘rainbow-tinted world’ of the tropics that calls out to him, he tells us, though he knows full well that this is a thing of ‘dog-eared and thumb-marked story books’ of the kind the Lost Uncle penned, which invoke the ‘tropics as one wants them, not as they are’ (p. 103). Embedded in this confession is the name of Ahab, whose journey and life both ended in the tropics, in a succession of ‘clear steel-blue day[s]’ when he chose to chase the whale instead of taking the advice of Starbuck and turning his helm towards his home on far-off Nantucket Island (Moby-Dick, p. 589). The novel he appeared in, Moby-Dick, was derided by one London reviewer as an ‘absurd book’, an ‘ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact’ (https://lithub.com/check-out-the-original-1851-reviews-of-moby-dick/). Peake and his writings were just such an ill-compounded mixture of cold, white reason and rainbow colours. But his poetry and prose suggest that all human beings are made up of such a mixture. And Melville’s acknowledged masterpiece showed a way to transmute this ungainly compound into art, without bleaching it of the rainbow tints that illuminated Peake’s ‘upper storey’, the magic of the Boy’s Own adventures that continued to haunt him. For this, as for so much else, we owe Moby-Dick a world of thanks.

NOTES

[1] A good example of Peake’s use of the term ‘islanded’ is the poem ‘Tides’, which begins ‘Always you are remote and islanded’ and ends ‘You will be always far and islanded’. Mervyn Peake, Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen, Fyfield Books (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), pp. 129-30. All quotations from Peake’s poems are taken from this edition.

[2] All references to Moby-Dick or, The Whale are taken from the Penguin edition, with an introduction by Andrew Delbanco and Notes an Commentary by Tom Quirk (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992).

[3] Mervyn Peake, The Gormenghast Trilogy (London: Mandarin, 1992), ‘THE REVERIES’, pp. 285-292.

[4] Maeve mentions the cat in her book A World Away, in Mervyn Peake: Two Lives (London: Vintage, 1999), p. 22.

[5] For the portrait see G. Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 2009), p. 132; Winnington suggests its name on p. 131.

[6] Mervyn Peake, Boy in Darkness and Other Stories, ed. Sebastian Peake (London and Chicago: Peter Owen, 2007), p. 103).

[7] We learn the whale’s colour after its corpse has drifted away from the beach on Sark where it first appeared: ‘The wind blew into Guernsey from the sea, and as that angry island which had so lately been convulsed at the plight of the Sarkese, closed its doors and windows against the little white whale, the Sarkese opened theirs and breathed again; and grinned’ (Mr Pye [Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978] p. 130. All quotations are from this edition). After its appearance Mr Pye tries unsuccessfully to get to sleep by counting ‘little white whales jumping over a hedge’ (p. 125). For the actual dead whales on which this one was based see Stephen Foote, Mervyn Peake: Son of Sark (Guernsey: Blue Ormer, 2019), p. 42.

[8] Malcolm Yorke, Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold. A Life (London: John Murray, 2000), p. 195.

[9] Maeve Gilmore, A World Away, p. 72.

[10] Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. Richard Howard (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975), pp. 42-3.

[11] The illustration of Muzzlehatch is reproduced in Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art, ed. G. Peter Winnington (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 2006), p. 16. The quotation from Titus Alone comes from The Gormenghast Trilogy, p. 770.

[12] Malcolm Yorke, Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold, p. 193.

[13] Gordon Smith, Mervyn Peake: A Personal Memoir (London: Victor Gollancz, 1984), p. 118.

[14] See Mervyn Peake, Complete Nonsense, ed. R. W. Maslen and G. Peter Winnington, Fyfield Books (Manchester: Carcanet, 2011), p. 89. The illustration for The Swiss Family Robinson is reproduced in Yorke, Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold, p. 187.

[15] On first sighting his landlady on Sark, Miss Dredger, Mr Pye ‘lifted his hat a few inches from his head and bowed very slightly from the hips’ (Mr Pye, p. 18). Later he gives her, with ‘an old-world charm that was quite inimitable, a little bow’ (p. 134).

[16] The double meaning of the verb ‘express’ is explained by Rosemary Jackson in her book Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London and New York: Routledge, 1981), pp. 3-4.

[17] A striking example is the poem ‘Maeve’, which describes her as ‘the cause / Of my heart crying from its midnight grove / Of ribs’.

[18] For Peake’s poems on three of these four visionary artists see Collected Poems, pp. 41 (‘El Greco’), 44 (‘Van Gogh’) and 63 (‘Blake’). He also refers to Rembrandt in his poem of that title (p. 165) and in ‘She Does Not Know’ (p. 69), which mentions Raphael too; and he wrote poems on Jacob Epstein (p. 45) and Mané Katz (p. 34). For Leonardo, see below.

[19] See e.g. ‘To Maeve’, Collected Poems, p. 38, which refers to ‘your white streams / Of clear clay that I love’ and ‘your ivory grove’, ‘Poem’, p. 39 (‘the white shell of you’); ‘Tides’, p. 129 (‘always a remoteness lingers / About you like a vestment of the moon, / O whitely’).

[20] The introduction is reproduced in Peake’s Progress: Selected Writings and Drawings of Mervyn Peake, ed. Maeve Gilmore (London: Allen Lane, 1978), pp. 235-41.

[21] All quotations from Letters from a Lost Uncle (from Polar Regions) are taken from the Picador edition (London: Pan Books, 1977). This edition is unpaginated, and so are my references.

[22] Peter Winnington tells us that the ship’s name contains a reference to ‘the pre-1912 name of Eltham College, “School for the Sons of Missionaries”. At school matches, the boys would support their team with the chant ‘Ess-ess-emm!”.’ Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 228.

Fantasy and Puppetry: Diana Wynne Jones, Russell Hoban and John Masefield

[This blog post was inspired by the recent ‘Fantasy and Puppetry’ event hosted by the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow, featuring Marita Arvaniti, Brian Froud, Wendy Froud, Howard Gayton, William Todd Jones, Mary Robinette Kowal and Terri Windling, with funding from the University of Glasgow’s Chancellor’s Fund, obtained by my wonderful colleague Dimitra Fimi. My warm thanks to all the participants for their stunning insights, to which I’ve hardly begun to do justice here. Special thanks to Mary Robinette Kowal for putting me on to the work of Steve Tillis.]


What is it about puppets that draws and horrifies us? Puppets are representations of human figures whose radical dissimilarity to human figures marks them out as grotesque imitations, always eerily distanced from what they purport to portray. Their workings are often visible, whether as rods or strings manipulating limbs, or the bony solidity of hands beneath the cloth of their bodies, or puppeteers alongside them on stage, manoeuvring heads and arms and legs with the attentive reverence of priests or undertakers. They are, then, the embodiment of control: control by authority, control by fate, control by our own desires, fears, instincts and diseases – control by anyone but themselves.

But they are also the embodiment of anarchy. Their unfeeling bodies make them impervious to damage, their seeming detachment from their puppeteers absolves them of responsibility, with the result that many puppets are violent things often subjected to violence. Most of the narratives about puppets I can think of involve acts of aggression: from the constant infighting of the friends Damon and Pythias in the puppet show that dominates the final act of Ben Jonson’s play Bartholomew Fair (1614) to the multiple murders that beset Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio (1883); from the self-destructive darkness that inhabits human puppets in Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker (1980), to the forced reiterations of Mr Punch’s actions magically imposed on young children in Diana Wynne Jones’s book The Magicians of Caprona (also 1980), the ‘scrobbling’ and near murder of the Punch and Judy man Cole Hawlings in The Box of Delights (1935), or the revelations of dark family secrets imposed on a child by successive encounters with the puppet master, Mr Swatchet, in Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s graphic novel The Tragical Comedy and Comical Tragedy of Mr Punch (1994). All these narratives are designed for children or have children in them, so that the darkness and violence they contain runs fiercely counter to the narrative of innocent childhood, which prescribes insipid pap as children’s entertainment in place of unsettling revelations. Puppets tell us that childhood is, like adulthood, full of shadows and damaging encounters, confirming our suspicion that the version of our young selves that is foisted on us by much children’s television is a falsification, a smiling puppet rendered increasingly sinister, as we grow, by its distance from our concussive daily lives.

Human but not human; controlled yet anarchic; violent and subjected to violence yet somehow amusing; puppets are full of paradoxes and contradictions, and this, for Steve Tillis, is the source of their ancient fascination. For Tillis, puppets of all kinds give rise to a kind of double-vision, and his definition of a puppet incorporates this fundamental doubleness:

the puppet is a theatrical figure, perceived by an audience to be an object, that is given design, movement, and frequently, speech, so that it fulfils the audience’s desire to imagine it as having life; by creating a double-vision of perception and imagination, the puppet pleasurably challenges the audience’s understanding of the relationship between objects and life.[1]

This double-vision whereby an object is seemingly endowed with life while at the same time remaining self-evidently an object explains the affinity puppets seem to have with the fantastic – an affinity which Tillis notes elsewhere in his book Toward an Aesthetics of the Puppet, and which is borne out by the many fantasy movies that have given a central role to puppets.[2] Fantasy is the art of the impossible; objects endowed with life are an impossibility; so the union of fantasy with puppets seems an obvious artistic strategy. But Tillis’s placement of double-vision at the heart of the attraction of the puppet also has something crucial to say about fantasy as a mode or genre. Fantasy involves a similar double-vision. We read a fantasy text, or watch a fantasy film, in the knowledge that what we are reading about or seeing could never have happened in what we think of as ‘real life’; if it could, the film or book would not be fantasy. This awareness inhabits our minds all the time we are viewing or reading. Where Tolkien would have us totally immersed in the fantasy narrative as we read or watch, forgetful of the rules that govern the ‘real’ world we live in,[3] that immersion involves processes which we know very well as we watch or read have never happened and never will happen, such as a person turning invisible by putting on a ring, a person looking across a vast distance by peering into a stone, a tree coming alive and waxing lyrical about the ages it has lived through and the changes it has seen. The amazement with which the Hobbits confront such processes reminds us repeatedly of the fact they cannot take place in the world we live in; this is why they’re delightful. Reading about these things may make us look at gold rings and stones and trees in a new light – surrounding them with an aura of previously unimagined (im)possibilities, as Tolkien says it will in his essay on Fairy Stories – but it won’t lead us to expect that these objects will somehow really acquire the qualities Tolkien gave them; that we may find a ring to turn ourselves invisible, or a stone to see through, or a walking, talking tree. When we walk over downs and stroll through forests our imagination may fill them with barrow wights, Black Riders, Ents and elves, but we’ll always be conscious these are things of the imagination, no matter how keenly we may yearn for them to be real.[4]

The double-vision of perception and imagination, in other words, is not exclusive to puppets. It inheres in paintings, where the viewer can often see the brush-strokes laid on paper by a watercolour artist – even intuit the movements that laid down those brush-strokes – yet simultaneously recognise what they’re looking at as a landscape. It inheres in poetry and prose, where words on the page remain stubbornly present in front of our eyes even as we look through them into the worlds they conjure up. Fantasy, like puppets, stresses the disparity between the object we are looking at – the book, the painting, the screen – and the impossible forms of life with which it seems to have been imbued. The fantasy book or film or painting are theatres, like the puppet theatre, in which impossibilities are brought into being yet remain impossibilities, because if they weren’t we wouldn’t get the kick out of seeing the impossible brought to life that defines them as fantasy.

In the final chapter of his book, Tillis has a chapter entitled ‘Coda – Metaphor and the Puppet’ (pp. 159-169), in which he considers how the metaphors of puppets and puppetry have been used in a range of contexts. He is mostly concerned with marionettes – not glove puppets, rod puppets, shadow puppets or Bunraku – and hence with the relationship between the puppet and the hidden, distant puppeteer, which he sees as embodying the awareness humans have of being at the beck and call of forces beyond our vision: divine forces, political forces, or the force of a powerful emotion such as love. In this blog post I’d like to consider three fantastic texts which deploy the metaphor of puppets in special ways, particularly as a way of playing with the double-vision Tillis writes of. All three of my examples contain representations of glove puppets rather than marionettes, which affects the terms of Tillis’s coda in certain fundamental ways (the glove puppet, for instance, is partly made of the puppeteer’s flesh and blood, as well as the wood and cloth of the head and body; the puppeteer may be in some sense distant, but they are also very much present and intimately bound up with the objects they manipulate). In all three cases, too, double-vision is central to the narrative in which the puppets appear; or rather double-, treble- and quadruple-vision, as the puppet metaphor introduces us to a world in which multiple layers of perception and imagination dominate our lives. These puppet narratives seem designed to defy our belief (our practical belief, that is, as evinced by our movements as we go about our activities) that we live in a rational universe, where the rules that govern what’s real, what’s imagined, and how effect will follow cause, are more or less known and more or less invariable. That’s what the last sentence of Tillis’s definition implies: ‘the puppet pleasurably challenges the audience’s understanding of the relationship between objects and life’. In the particular puppet stories I’ll be discussing, knowledge is precisely what’s being called into question by the prolonged encounter with an inanimate object which is also imagined to be alive, while remaining an object, against all the laws of biology and physics.

Diana Wynne Jones, The Magicians of Caprona

Diana Wynne Jones’s children’s book The Magicians of Caprona is all about contention, violence, and the kinds of knowledge and ignorance that enable acts of spontaneous aggression. She sets it in an alternative Italy that has never been unified, and is therefore made up of multiple city states whose competing interests break out from time to time in military conflict. Her book sees the neighbouring city states of Florence, Pisa and Siena invade the made-up city-state of Caprona, hoping to extend their respective territories at Capronan expense. This contention between countries is reflected in the hostilities that divide the two principal Capronan families, the Montanas and the Petrocchis. Each family possesses a stock of grievances and disparaging myths about its rivals, handed down from parent to child and growing more extravagant with each new iteration, until violence breaks out between them around the middle of the book in the form of a huge street brawl, rendered more terrible by the fact that it is waged by magic – the families in question being universally renowned specialists in fashioning spells.

Jones’s imagined world, in other words, is governed by imaginary boundaries: boundaries between those fantastic entities known as nations, between those porous entities known as families, between the commercial interests of businesses which trade in the same product – in this case, magic. These boundaries encourage conflict – war and brawling – and inhibit the sharing and verification of ideas and information – in other words, knowledge. At the same time, the book makes it clear that neither the boundaries nor the selective information that leads to conflict has any basis in material reality. All the geographical divisions between nation states mentioned in the book have long been removed, in our own world, by Italy’s nineteenth-century unification, while the reader knows that the two families are mistaken in thinking that each house has kidnapped a child from its rival, which is the ostensible cause of the street brawl. In other words, the plot of the book is based on double-visions engendered by self-absorption, delusion and prejudice, proposing their dominance of our daily lives and the destructive intransigence that maintains them.

Meanwhile, the book’s comic treatment of its two conflicts – between neighbouring nations, between neighbouring families – stirs up echoes of two well-known tragedies, one real, one imagined. The imagined tragedy is Shakespeare’s play about young love in the context of a feud between two Italian families, Romeo and Juliet. The real tragedy is the civil war between fascists and partisans in Nazi-occupied Italy towards the end of the Second World War, with all the atrocities that entailed. The book is founded, then, on a set of double-visions which gives its light-hearted story, full of cats and puppets and clever children, the darkest of undertones.

It’s hardly surprising, then, if the metaphor at the centre of Jones’s narrative should be that of the Punch and Judy show, a light-hearted take on the domestic or homegrown violence which breaches so many imaginary boundaries: between sexes (Punch and Judy), between adults and children (Punch, the Baby and the children in the audience), between legality and illegality (Punch and the Policeman), between life and death (Punch, the Ghost, the Devil), between the domestic and the public (Punch, Judy, the Policeman and the Hangman), between the stage and the world beyond the stage (Punch, Judy, the Baby and the audience), and so on. No wonder, too, if Jones is concerned to compound the double-vision produced by puppets in Tillis’s book – which is governed by perception and imagination, the perception of the puppet as an object, the imagination of that object as alive – by adding multiple further double-visions to it. I’ve mentioned the double-visions behind the book’s two central conflicts; but there is also a particular double-vision in it that challenges the boundaries conventionally imposed between adulthood and childhood. For instance, in this novel the traditional Punch and Judy show is a personal obsession of the Duke of Caprona, who is himself a living, breathing double-vision, a ‘large damp-faced man’ decked out like royalty (‘He was wearing a shiny silk suit with flashing gold buttons and glittering medals’) who responds to a street puppet show with as much enthusiasm as ‘the smallest boy there’ (p. 21).[5] He is also, as it happens, a puppet himself, in the metaphorical sense mentioned by Tillis in his coda. His wife, the Duchess, indulges his love of puppets in order to distract him from his royal duties, leaving her free to rule Caprona herself. It’s while the Duke is watching a Punch and Judy show at the palace that she declares war on Siena, Florence and Pisa in his name, triggering the invasion for her own dark purposes. And the same Punch and Judy show also effectively triggers the childish brawl between the two families that distracts them from the impending political crisis. It is the Duchess who kidnaps a child from each of the families, then spreads the rumour that each child was stolen by the other family, thus unleashing a potentially deadly Punch-and-Judy style fight between the two families in the city streets. Meanwhile the two kidnapped children are themselves transformed by magic into Punch and Judy puppets – the Duchess being a powerful sorceress whose magic powers exceed those of the Montanas and the Petrocchis combined. So the presence of the kidnapped children as puppet-performers in the Punch and Judy show watched by the Duke at the palace, at the very moment when war is being declared in the Duke’s name by the scheming Duchess, lends a further double-vision to the double-vision of the objects endowed with life as defined by Tillis. The show, designed for children, masks very adult political manoeuvres, while the children who take part in it find themselves deeply conscious, in a very adult way, that they are in mortal danger from an adult (the Duchess), while the principal member of the adult audience (the Duke) watches the show with all the insouciance of a child. There could hardly be a more complex troubling of the conventions that divide the adult world from the sphere supposedly occupied by children.

The Duke is not the only adult in the book to be consumed by childish obsessions. The head of the Montana family, too, resembles a child: ‘Old Niccolo’s face, and his eyes in it, were round and wondering as the latest baby’s’ (p. 16); while his son and heir Rinaldo strikes poses, harbours grudges, and ‘enlists’ the youngest members of the family as part of his secret gang, like an overgrown schoolboy (p. 166). Both men are content to believe the old lies about the Petrocchis, and to ignore the plentiful evidence that the Petrocchis had nothing to do with the Montana child’s kidnapping. Like the Duke they are therefore easily puppeteered by the Duchess into acting out their obsessions. Enraged by the kidnapping and certain they know who is responsible, Niccolo and Rinaldo spontaneously lead their family through Caprona towards the Petrocchi residence, unleashing a chaos of dangerous spells as they go without regard to the possible consequences. All Jones’s books, in fact, are full of adults who have not grown up, continuing to cleave to the stories, prejudices, resentments and obsessions of childhood without subjecting them to any kind of discipline or critical analysis. The division between adulthood and childhood is rendered permeable by her narratives, which are equally full of children who take on responsibility for themselves and their families, often with considerable success.

At a certain point in each book, these responsible children show themselves capable of moving on from a passive acceptance of the controls imposed on them by the simplistic narratives they inherit from their childish parents to a critical consciousness of those narratives’ simplicity. In many cases this is brought about by a kind of double-vision which enables them to separate one aspect of a person’s character from another, and hence to ‘clear [their] eyes’, as Jones puts it in the Magicians (p. 166). A case in point is Paolo Montana, the elder brother of one of the kidnapped children. Paolo’s moment of productive double-vision comes when Rinaldo, a ‘true Montana’ whom Paolo has always tried to mimic (p. 163), expresses callous indifference to the question of whether his father will die of a stroke he has recently suffered. ‘It’s about time the old idiot gave up anyway,’ Rinaldo scoffs; ‘I shall be one step closer to being head of the Casa Montana then’ (p. 165). At these words, things in Paolo’s head abruptly fall into a new perspective: ‘he tried to imagine Rinaldo doing the things Old Niccolo did. And as soon as he did, he saw Rinaldo was quite unsuitable. […] It was as if Rinaldo had said a powerful spell to clear Paolo’s eyes’ (pp. 165-6, my emphasis). Abruptly the boy understands the callous self-interest of Rinaldo, the will to power that motivates his heroic posturing – posturing which is itself based on the model of the theatrical brigand, a human puppet whose clichéd heroism is fatally compromised by a casual indifference to other people’s sufferings. From this moment onwards for Paolo, his older brother Rinaldo is always the spoilt, irresponsible eldest son, whose posturing no longer hides his bullying propensities.

Paolo’s kidnapped younger brother, meanwhile, whose name is Tonino, needs his own eyes cleared by acquisition of the distance provided by double-vision. He loves to read, an activity represented in most children’s fiction as an unqualified good. But in Tonino’s case his kidnapping is accomplished through a spell cast by a book he has been reading obsessively; and the book in question is a novel full of questionable nationalist heroics called The Boy Who Saved His Country. Tonino believes the story to have been sent to him as a present by the most highly educated member of his family, Uncle Umberto; and the boy’s conviction that it is precisely the kind of gift his uncle might have sent him suggests that its propagandistic content may indeed conform to the Montana family’s philosophy. We already know by the time the book appears that a ‘true Montana’ like Rinaldo will do anything to put down the Petrocchis, whether or not there is evidence that they are at fault for any given situation. Tonino’s outlook has been shaped by his family and his city as well as his reading, and having finished the book he at once sets out to map its story onto his home, Caprona.  The boy searches its streets for the strange blue house at which the protagonist’s adventures began, hoping to mimic the fictional boy’s heroism, just as his brother Paolo hoped to mimic the heroic posturing of Rinaldo. Thanks to his family, then, Tonino already has a propensity for confusing fiction with reality, and it’s by playing on this propensity that the Duchess is able to entrap him. His eventual discovery of a real blue house matching the fictional one in The Boy Who Saved His Country triggers the trap which is woven by magic into the fabric of the volume. Soon afterwards he finds himself imprisoned in the ducal palace, held alongside (horror of horrors!) a Petrocchi child, who turns out to have been entrapped by reading fiction in exactly the same way. Both children have to learn that the fantasies peddled by stories shouldn’t be uncritically confused with the day-to-day reality of family life; and it’s by being changed into puppets that this fact comes home to them, quite against the wishes of the sorceress who accomplished that transformation, the scheming Duchess.

Becoming a puppet gives Tonino and his fellow prisoner, Angelica Petrocchi, a terrifying insight into what it is to be controlled by an unscrupulous adult. The motivation for the change is never quite clear to them – they may have been ‘punished’ for an attempt to escape from their imprisonment, or simply transformed to give sadistic pleasure to the Duchess – but once changed, their knowledge of the story they are part of makes the situation far worse than if they had been acting out an unfamiliar narrative. Tonino is Punch, Angelica Judy, and as each new puppet character pops up from under the stage – Angelica-as-Judy, the Baby, the Policeman, the Hangman – the children are horribly aware of the fate that lies in store for it, yet wholly unable to prevent the unfolding suite of murders, as Mr Punch annihilates the entire cast-list one by one through a mixture of trickery and brute force, to the accompaniment of strident laughter.

Jones represents the children’s sense of entrapment by adding yet another layer of double-vision to the usual double-vision engendered by puppets. As Punch and Judy, each child can see the other’s dual nature in their puppet face:

Judy was coming along the stage holding the white rolled-up shape of the baby. Judy wore a blue nightdress and a blue cap. Her face was mauve, with a nose in it nearly as large and red as Tonino’s. But the eyes on either side of it were Angelica’s, alternately blinking and wide with terror. She blinked beseechingly at Tonino as she squawked, ‘I have to go out, Mr Punch. Mind you mind the baby!’ […]

‘What have you done with the baby?’ squawked Angelica. And she belaboured Tonino with the stick. It really hurt. It knocked him to his knees and went on bashing at him. Tonino […] tried to stay crouched on the floor. But it was no good. He was made to spring up, wrest the stick from Judy and beat Angelica with it. He could see the Duke laughing, and the courtiers smiling. The Duchess’s smile was very broad now, because, of course, Tonino was going to have to beat Angelica to death. (pp. 155-7)

Here the transformed Angelica and Tonino, trapped in cloth bodies and hard wooden heads, clearly recognise that they have a distinct identity from that of the puppets in whose forms they are enclosed – the kind of recognition they lacked when they imagined themselves as the heroes of the children’s book The Boy/Girl Who Saved Their Country. Angelica has a large red wooden nose, the nose of Judy, but the eyes that stare out on either side of it are her own, while Tonino finds himself ‘made to spring up’ (the phrase makes it sound as if the necessity is woven into the fibres of his puppet body), then ‘wrest the stick from Judy and beat Angelica with it’ – the sentence underlining his horror at and inward resistance to these enforced actions even as he performs them. The stick is described as Judy’s, the beaten body Angelica’s – two distinct entities – and the action is rendered more horrific by Tonino’s awareness that a child’s body feels the blows of the stick intensely (‘It really hurt’), even after the child has been changed into a thing of wood and cloth. Meanwhile the stick is not just Judy’s, Angelica’s or Punch’s; it has a will of its own: ‘It knocked him to his knees and went on bashing at him’. Jones’s prose perfectly captures, in other words, the multiple identities of a glove puppet, whose head and body clothe a living hand which directs their actions. The hand, meanwhile, serves a traditional, centuries-old story, embodied in the stick which cannot be restrained from its murderous ‘bashing’. Some of the elements of a puppet should in theory be able to operate independently of the others; the flesh-and-blood heads of the children inside the puppets, for instance, are deeply opposed to the story represented by the figures’ wooden heads, while the flesh-and-blood hand of the puppeteer has the agency to take that story in new directions. Yet with seeming inevitability the narrative repeats itself along the same old lines. From a position outside the story – the position of the spectators – the repetition might seem pleasurable, since none of the characters (except perhaps Mr Punch himself) knows what will happen next, and a sense of superiority is part of what makes a situation funny – especially when we’re conscious that no harm is being done (puppets don’t really feel pain). But Jones’s story positions the eyes of the child spectators within the puppets performing the action, so that their horrified knowledge of where the story is going is coupled with a still more horrifying sense of vulnerability (‘it really hurt’), as well as complicity – though it’s a complicity driven not by their own desires but the impossibility of escaping from the long tradition.

The situation I’ve just described can of course be read in political terms. It may invoke the moment when a child suddenly realizes that in looking at its elders – as represented by the Punch and Judy puppets – it may be looking at a horrible image of its future self, physically and mentally transformed by years of damage inflicted by inside and outside forces, and horribly incompatible with the heroic, successful or beautiful selves it has been promised in stories. The audience of royalty and courtiers, meanwhile, who laugh uproariously as Tonino and Angelica batter each other, might suggest the moment when a child first acquires a political consciousness and understands its personal helplessness in the face of indifference or even sadism on the part of the ruling classes. The Duchess with her ‘very broad’ smile need say nothing to make it clear how she relates to the children in terms of class. They can see from her expression that she knows exactly who they are, what has been done to them, how it will end, and that this only pleases her, is part of her plan, an image of what makes her a Duchess and them nothing more than her helpless lower-class subjects. The fact that the show is performed in front of a royal court helps to underscore the disparity between the comfortable fairy tales about themselves encouraged by the powerful and the oppressive truths these tales conceal.

But in fact, as Jones shows us, the kids are not without a power of their own. There are ways they can exploit the rules of the Punch and Judy show to resist their sneering puppet-master – as there always are in Jones’s books.[6]  Mr Punch, after all, is the master of breaking rules. He successively kills the Policeman, the Hangman, a Ghost and the Devil, the details varying according to the version of the show you happen to be playing; and it isn’t long before Tonino realises he can use this characteristic of his puppet character to undermine the Duchess. In order to control the show the Duchess must be ‘putting some of herself into all the puppets to make them work’ (p. 158). This means that to some extent she is the Policeman, the Hangman, the Devil and the rest, each of the instruments of power effectively drawing on some vital element in the puppet master who operates them. Her power over the puppets links her to the puppets, so that if Tonino-Punch can beat the other puppets he can beat the Duchess – physically as well as metaphorically. And he can beat them, because Punch always beats his enemies. The Duchess is as much the victim of the narrative she has chosen to be part of as the children are; and despite all her efforts to alter the outcome of the confrontation between Punch and the Hangman, it’s inevitably the Hangman who comes off worst in the end. Punch asks the Hangman repeatedly to show him how to put his head in the noose, and after several attempts to change the script the Hangman finally succumbs, puts the rope around his own neck, and is hanged himself by the irrepressible murderer – which damages the Duchess quite badly, thanks to the link between herself and the Hangman puppet. The Duchess may have thought this could not happen because her Punch and Judy puppets were mere children, and therefore self-evidently powerless; but one of the children was also Punch, and therefore self-evidently capable of subverting the script written by authority. The Duchess’s double-vision was not sufficiently advanced to let her recognise the consequences of her decision to take control of the Punch and Judy show, which is all about working against control.

Stories have rules, like states, Jones seems to suggest, but those rules can work both ways, asserting control over the would-be storyteller as much as over the story’s cast of actors. Another mistake the Duchess makes is to use her magic to bring both the rival families of Caprona under her control at once. By uniting Tonino and Angelica as her prisoners, forcing them to work together to escape her, she begins the process of undermining the two sets of familial stories or myths that have been handed down to the children of each family in lieu of knowledge. It doesn’t take long for Angelica and Tonino to realise that they have both been manipulated by their elders all their lives, as they exchange inherited ‘facts’ about the Montanas and the Petrucchis which turn out to be lies, all underpinned by their first-hand knowledge that they have both been kidnapped not by a rival family but by the Duchess. Their two separate perspectives combine to form a truthful double-vision of each other’s upbringing and of the myths on which it was founded.

Between them, too, they begin to read their situation in the light of a new story, dedicated not to conflict but cooperation. This is the story of the Angel of Caprona, a symbolic being who provides the two families with a spell to protect themselves against the White Devil that seeks to destroy the City of Caprona in each successive generation. Thanks to the children’s new alertness to the fact that one thing can also be another – their double-vision – they learn that the human-seeming Duchess is also the legendary White Devil, manifesting itself in a new form in their lifetimes as it has done in every earlier age or epoch. To defeat her, the children must combine the words of the spell of protection brought from Heaven by the Angel, only half of which is known to each of the families, the Montanas and the Petrocchis. The double-vision of the two families, who have described each other in grotesque terms to sustain their quarrel, must be symbolically fused by bringing together the two halves of the spell; and once this has happened the statue of the Angel on the dome of the Cathedral will come to life and defend the City (and it’s worth stressing here how the statue, once animated, becomes in this way an alternative ‘puppet’ to Punch and Judy). At the same time the White Devil will appear in her true form – a giant white rat – and be hunted down, in a final act of violence, by the cats of each family. Double-vision, in other words, need not be divisive. It can be shared, like all forms of knowledge, so that two people on opposing sides can learn together that the world is not the simplistic place they thought it was, composed only of trusty friends and implacable enemies; and this lesson once learned, their new, positive double-vision of each other can be shared in turn with the warring factions that brought them up.

With the end of the Duchess the invasion ends too, as the bewildered armies of Siena, Pisa and Florence return home after being somehow defeated by the Angel (we never learn the details). The Duchess’s favourite story, too, goes into abeyance at this point, as the narrative of Punch and Judy suddenly ceases to be relevant. At the climactic moment of her plot to destroy Caprona, all the members of both warring families, the Montanas and the Petrocchis, are turned into Punch and Judy puppets by the Duchess’s sorcery and imprisoned in the ducal palace, like Tonino and Angelica before them. The defeat of the White Devil restores them to human form, but in the meantime their transformation has humiliatingly confirmed their predilection for being manipulated, as Tonino and Angelica were in the puppet show before the Duke. As a result, both families quickly agree to abandon the habit of attacking one another on the slightest provocation, thus freeing themselves from the danger of succumbing to the power of puppet masters. The Duke, too, decides to abandon his obsession with Punch and Judy puppets; ‘Somehow I don’t fancy them like I used to’, he observes ruefully (p. 265). At this point the story of the Angel of Caprona – another object magically or imaginatively endowed with life – takes the place of Punch and Judy as the presiding narrative of the city and the novel. We can, then, choose the stories that govern us, Jones implies, at least to some extent.

But our choice of story will have a material effect on the way we see ourselves and each other. It must be made with care; and we must be equally careful not to let ourselves be subsumed or mastered by the narratives we have selected. Reading them with double-vision will help, keeping ourselves conscious of the fictionality of the stories we live by. An angel which is also a statue has less say over our choices than a plain angel. A Duchess who is also a giant rat can hardly make a bid for control of the country. Enemies who also have families just like ours are more difficult to see in simplistic terms; while we can hardly take ourselves over-seriously if we understand our own capacity for becoming objects, operated by strings, rods, slogans or cunning fingers. Puppets not only have a use in bringing stories to life, but they also have a use in reminding us that they are only stories. The double-vision they afford is a crucial one, and needs to be valued.

Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker

If The Magicians of Caprona considers glove puppets as embodiments of our susceptibility to being possessed by malevolent powers, Hoban’s Riddley Walker presents us with a still more disturbing vision of how they might embody the human condition. In a South-East England of the distant future – after a worldwide nuclear holocaust that has wiped out much of the population and mutated many of the survivors – we find ourselves wandering across a blasted landscape described in an English language which has mutated into a broken down, worn-out dialect, haunted by unintended puns and echoes of ideas, people, beasts, desires and objects from earlier epochs. Words, here, harbour double-visions of multiple kinds, reminding us repeatedly of their composite nature – constructed both from letters arranged in an unfamiliar orthography and embedded fragments of other words – while pointing towards different fragmentary narratives and forms of knowledge that run concurrently through the novel. The verbal units that make up this futuristic dialect can be seen as puppets steered by puppet-masters who suffer from acute memory loss – and who are therefore themselves in a sense made up of fragments, a situation symbolised by the severed hand of a dead puppeteer which is discovered by the protagonist, Riddley Walker, inside the remains of a glove puppet he unearths near the start of the novel. Desperately guessing at connections between one part of a sentence and the next, between one historical period and another, and between one element of knowledge – science, religion or philosophy – and the crucial companion element that will ignite it into new significance, the many would-be puppet-masters of time to come plunge blindly forward towards an unknown end. Some of them, indeed, plunge forward in a state of literal blindness, as one would-be puppet-master loses his eyes by violence, while another was born with ‘no eyes nor no hoals for eyes’ in his pallid face (p. 72).[7] As a result of this outward and inward sightlessness their quest to move forward takes them only in circles, treading paths that have already been well worn by their ancestors, each circle centred on the ancient city of Canterbury, or ‘Cambry’ as it is known in Riddley’s lifetime. They are pilgrims condemned to repeat the trajectories of their forefathers over and over, Punch and Judies unable to free themselves from the murderous traditional narrative, so once again it’s hardly surprising to find Mr Punch himself at the heart of Hoban’s novel.

The multiple meanings spawned by the dialect of Hoban’s text are matched by the multiple rival factions that seek to dominate this damaged future, each of which is hard at work to recover the half-understood technologies of the past. Most of these factions are ironically convinced that recreating the nuclear bomb – or a less ambitious explosive such as gunpowder – holds the key to regaining the power that once put planes in the sky, light and heating into homes, and pictures and information into the metal brains of quasi-sentient machines. They seek, in other words, the power of destruction, thinking it the power of creation, and the most frightening thing about the book is its suggestion that they may well be right about the close connection between these two processes.

Stalking this blasted landscape is the half-remembered figure of Mr Punch, the embodiment of human resilience, human savagery, and human possession by ideas, dreams, feelings and obsessions not our own. A figure of Mr Punch is unearthed by twelve-year-old Riddley near the start of the narrative, and comes to embody in his mind the uneasy relationship between the post-apocalyptic present and the forgotten past. The chief characteristic of Mr Punch, for Hoban as for Wynne Jones, is possession. The puppet is possessed both by the puppeteer who seeks to make gains from his performances and by the violent story he is condemned to repeat through endless generations. His visible disability – the hump on his back – is understood by Riddley as a sign that Punch’s body has been deformed by radioactive fallout, while his violent life story (which Riddley learns from the puppeteer-politician Abel Goodparley) is being re-enacted on a larger scale in the book’s ‘real’ world, where the power-seeking factions descend from murderous local rivalry to the brink of all-out war. Possession locks Mr Punch into re-enacting his past again and again, and Mr Punch’s re-enactments confirm that the world is also locked into its habit of repeating past mistakes again and again till it self-destructs and the tortuous history begins once more.

The possessed interior of Mr Punch is destructively at odds with his colourful exterior. Inside is a living darkness full of fear and cunning, while the side he presents to the world is bright and crude – the disparity between the two qualities making him funny, at least in theory, at least for some. The inside is always on the verge of breaking out, of breaking into and breaking apart the already broken body that contains it (back to those broken-down words again, with meanings breaking through them in all directions). The same is true of Riddley Walker’s world, the world from which the body of Punch was accidentally dug up in a quest for the technological secrets of the past. The puppet body unearthed by Riddley at the dig signals the fact that the past has finally broken through into the present, and that the hidden darkness, fear and cunning which lurk in the human heart and mind have broken through into the light and colour of the shattered landscape, as one might expect they would in a place whose name has mutated over the centuries from ‘England’ to ‘Inland’, a land whose inhabitants are obsessed with looking inwards.

One of Quentin Blake’s illustrations for the Folio Society edition of Riddley Walker. ‘Sharna pax and get the poal.’

‘Looking inwards’, here, might mean seeking out one’s personal advantage in a bid to survive from day to day; or behaving parochially – in the interests of one’s local ‘crowd’, not anyone else’s; or examining one’s mind and body in a bid to understand one’s desires and instincts. Two sets of desires and instincts struggle for possession of the ‘inward’ parts of humankind in Hoban’s future. The first is the ‘first knowing’, the sort of knowledge humans share with animals: an inherited awareness of how to survive, and of the tragic inevitability of not surviving, giving rise to a sadness born of collective memory of family members and much-loved places repeatedly lost to disease or violence in a constant cycle from generation to generation. The second is ‘clevverness’, embodied in Mr Punch himself, as well as in his immortal enemy and twin Mr Clevver, aka Mr On The Levvil, aka the Devil. Clevverness is the constant quest for the upper hand, combined with the dangerous conviction that one’s head will supply it; this is the force that drives the factions on their explosive rival quests for power. These two forms of possession or inward action are in effect one, since they combine to urge the possessed – the human species or its subject members – on the same circular path that was trodden by their forebears. Clevverness cannot prevent this – and in Mr On the Levvil’s case may even wish to bring it about – and the First Knowing in us knows as much, though we suppress that knowledge as best we can. Riddley Walker, our protagonist, represents a fusion of Clevverness and First Knowing, reading riddles in the landscape and people around him, working out those riddles through ingenuity or by instinct or by accident, and walking them around the circuit he is doomed to tread, like his ancestors and contemporaries, till the answers fall into place (or don’t, as the case may be). For the most part, though, it’s the First Knowing that possesses him, giving him a special empathy with the anarchic wild dogs (the opposite of controlling gods) that roam the Inland landscape, for ever alienated from humankind by the memory of worldwide devastation.

The best representation in the book of First Knowing – the inherited, instinctual, dark knowledge we carry with us from birth – comes near the beginning in a conversation between Riddley Walker and the wise woman of his community, Lorna Elswint (Lorna implying loneliness, her surname suggesting a wind or spirit from elsewhere). Read in the light of Riddley’s later discovery of Mr Punch, the passage could equally be an account of the power of puppets, especially puppets of the glove variety, made from painted wood and colourful cloth and designed to fit the human hand, with the thumb and middle finger working the arms while the index finger nods the head. The passage is also a fine example of the broken-down dialect in which the novel is written, a suitable medium for a narrative about brokenness, forgetfulness, incomprehension, and the tendency to repeat ourselves inadvertently, without understanding:

Lorna said to me: ‘You know Riddley theres some thing in us it dont have no name.’

I said, ‘What thing is that?’

She said, ‘Its some kynd of thing it aint us but yet its in us. Its looking out thru our eye hoals. May be you dont take no noatis of it only some times. Say you get woak up suddn in the middl of the nite. 1 minim youre a sleap and the nex youre on your feet with a spear in your han. Wel it wernt you put that spear in your han it wer that other thing whats looking out thru your eye hoals. It aint you nor it dont even know your name. Its in us lorn and loan and sheltering how it can.’

I said, ‘If its in every 1 of us theres moren 1 of it theres got to be a manying theres got to be a millying and mor.’

Lorna said, ‘Wel there is a millying and mor.’

I said, ‘Wel if theres such a manying of it whys it lorn then whys it loan?’

She said, ‘Becaws the manying and the millying its all 1 thing it dont have nothing to gether with. You look at lykens on a stoan its all them tiny manyings of it and may be each part of it myt think its sepert only we can see its all 1 thing. Thats how it is with what we are its all 1 girt big thing and divvyt up amongst the many. Its all 1 girt thing bigger nor the worl and lorn and loan and oansome. Tremmering it is and feart. It puts us on like we put on our cloes. Some times we dont fit. Some times it cant fynd the arm hoals and it tears us a part. I dont think I took all that much noatis of it when I ben yung. Now Im old I noatis it mor. It dont realy like to put me on no mor. Every morning I can feal how its tiret of me and readying to throw me a way. Iwl tel you some thing Riddley and keap this in memberment. What ever it is we dont come naturel to it.’

I said, ‘Lorna I dont know what you mean.’

She said, ‘We aint a naturel part of it. We dint begin when it begun we dint begin where it begun. It ben here befor us nor I dont know what we are to it. May be weare jus only sickness and a feaver to it or boyls on the arse of it I dont know. Now lissen what Im going to tel you Riddley. It thinks us but it dont think like us. It dont think the way we think. Plus like I said befor its afeart.’

I said, ‘Whats it afeart of?’

She said, ‘Its afeart of being beartht.’

I said, ‘How can that be? You said it ben here befor us. If it ben here all this time it musve ben beartht some time.’

She said, ‘No it aint ben beartht it never does get beartht its all ways in the woom of things its all ways on the road.’ (pp. 6-7)

In this passage, the ‘thing’ inside us could be taken for our puppeteer, or the impulses that drive the puppeteer. But instead of a ‘clevver’ being with a self-serving agenda – the kind of being implied by the phrase ‘a puppet state’, authoritative, cunning and cruel, like the Duchess of Caprona – the being inside the human puppet is both childishly innocent and utterly inhuman. It has no identity, no words, no shape, no community, no hidden agenda. It isn’t an individual and it’s not a collective; it seems to have been split into multiple pieces by some past cataclysm – each piece lodged in a separate human person – and to be both lonely for the lost fragments of itself and terrified of assembling them, as if when assembled like the ingredients of a bomb it might go off, with devastating consequences. Like the hidden puppeteer it has no name, but its primary motivation is fear; above all, fear of itself, or of what might happen to itself and others if it comes together and gets ‘beartht’ or born. Hoban’s narrative gives numerous indications of the kind of happening that might ensue from such a reassembly and parturition. The nuclear catastrophe that destroyed humankind in the past seems to embody the sudden coming-together and emergence of that ‘thing’, released from the caging and sheltering womb by the quest for clevverness. A smaller-scale coming together and sudden emergence or birth takes place at the end of the novel, when one of the questing factions succeeds in detonating gunpowder, using ingredients of various kinds which have not been brought into explosive contact with each other for generations. In the process, the ‘thing’ is let loose again on the world, being born and killing, creating and destroying at one and the same time. And throughout the rest of the narrative, human beings and animals – dogs, boars, boys and men – find themselves torn to pieces and tossed aside as they first converge, then burst apart, like gloves or garments or bodies that can no longer contain what lies within. Being reassembled and born into the world, this dismantled ‘thing’ subjects itself and others to destruction of different magnitudes. The ‘woom’ or womb of creation is also the ‘WHAP’ of exploding ordnance (p. 188). No wonder the ‘thing’ is ‘Tremmering’ at the prospect of its own destructive creation.

In Riddley Walker, then, human beings are violent puppets; but puppets themselves also play a role. Puppet shows tour the scattered communities of the future, performed by the Pry Mincer and Wes Mincer of Inland’s government or Mincery, which is physically based on an island known as the Ram (the Isle of Thanet, with Ramsgate on it). The show is essentially government propaganda, informing the people of Inland about Mincery policy and urging their compliance. But the communities can answer back, and in doing so affect that policy. Each show is digested and reinterpreted for the local community by their own ‘connexion man’, a job that falls to Riddley Walker when his father, the old connexion man, is killed in an accident while working on a Mincery dig. Riddley ‘tels’ or makes connexions for his people, and in doing so has the potential to build resistance to unpopular directives from the Ram. He supplies them with a political double-vision, ensuring they never lose sight of the contingent nature of the policies acted out by the Mincery’s puppets.

The Ram’s puppet shows, in other words, have several checks on them to ensure they cannot work in a monologic or univocal way. Being delivered by puppets, all of them stock characters who get reused from show to show and from generation to generation, they are contained and controlled by certain conventions. The Ram’s shows have a backdrop of smoke and flames that reminds their audiences of the appalling consequences of wrong decisions. One of the characters is a figure called Eusa, a Punch-figure whose name recalls the two Cold War superpowers that brought about those consequences (USA, USSR). Another is Mr Clevver, with his pointy beard, his horns and his red complexion – an animated warning of the dangers of certain forms of knowledge, or of assuming one can control those dangers by ingenuity. The puppets are necessarily small, the ‘fit-up’ in which the show takes place is a portable, collapsible box, and the Mincery men who deliver the show are required to carry it around Inland themselves as if in ritual penitence for the events that reduced Inland to its current state. They are pilgrims, in other words, doing penance for past misdemeanours. And the show’s audience, as well as the connexion man, is actively involved in interpreting the Mincery’s performance, as well as in deciding whether or not to accept the connexion man’s exegetic reading of it, or ‘tel’. They are stridently vocal, as we see whenever Hoban describes a puppet performance. They are sometimes violent. Some nervous Pry Mincers and Wes Mincers, including Abel Goodparley and his sidekick Ernie Orfing, choose to protect themselves against potentially hostile audiences by being accompanied on their travels by a crowd of ‘hevvies’ from the Ram. Puppetry, in Hoban’s world, is an art that restricts the ambitions of the powerful and confers a degree of power on the people, who are rendered by it unruly co-performers as well as spectators, with a voice and unruly bodies of their own.

The map of Inland

It’s crucially, too, a mobile art, created by travellers, even when those travellers purport to be speaking for a government attached to a fixed location (the Ram). Travellers are vulnerable, dependent on the goodwill of the communities they pass through and trade with; in this case, the items for trade on offer being the entertainment and the knowledge or information supplied by the show. Riddley Walker takes place at a point in future history when the communities across Inland have become divided between travellers and ‘formers’ or farmers, who are increasingly enclosing land for their own private uses, encroaching on the space available to the groups who have chosen to continue with their mobile lifestyle. Formers are also implicitly conservative, dedicated to recovering former times. A shift of power is taking place, from travellers to formers, and the current Pry Mincer and Wes Mincer are keen to encourage the shift to a forming existence. But their tool for encouragement, the show, embodies travelling rather than forming; and the travelling community who watch it, if not the formers, are inclined to side with the travelling ethos figured by the puppets, rather than the policies preferred by the Mincery’s script.

Meanwhile the Mincery itself is not monologic; like a Punch and Judy show, it doesn’t speak with a single voice. Of course, the voices of puppets in such a show are all spoken by one person – the puppeteer – albeit in different ways, so that like Lorna Elswint’s hidden ‘thing’ the puppets are one as well as many. But a crucial mediator between the show and its audience is the front man or bottler, who in the old days would pass a leather bottle round the audience to collect their fees, and who in Riddley’s time does the ‘patter’ – encouraging Eusa to come up from inside the booth and begin his performance, then challenging him when the show goes in a direction he doesn’t approve of. Orfing is the front man or bottler, and hence also the ‘Shaddow Mincer’, ‘Wes Mincer’ or opposition leader in the Mincery, and he challenges the Pry Mincer Goodparley repeatedly in the first performance by the pair we witness. Later the two Mincers split up, in a witty allusion to the splitting of the atom to create nuclear fusion, and form separate factions in the quest for power. And later still Orfing joins Riddley as they develop a new show – based not on Eusa but on Punch and Judy – which is designed specifically to encourage the continuation of travelling, and of remembering the disastrous outcome of the last quest for geographically demarcated, hierarchically organised power on the part of their ancestors. Orfing becomes Riddley’s front man, continuing the tradition of questioning the monologic voice on behalf of the community, without robbing the community itself of its raucous multiple voices.

From the cover of Quentin Blake’s illustrated edition of Riddley Walker

For Hoban, in other words, a puppet show can be used for propaganda – like television, from which the twenty-first century public gets ‘tels’ from its powerful rulers – or as a work of art, with its own, less predictable ‘tels’, always wandering, refusing stability, taking its creators as much as its recipients by surprise, stirring up trouble, breaking up communities as well as forming them. At the end of the novel, Riddley and Orfing acquire a following through their performances: a mobile community of men, women and children, who choose to join them on their travels after each performance instead of continuing their lives as members of stable communities defined by ‘forms’ and ‘fentses’ (fences, the temporary defensive structures put up by travellers at their camp sites). This travelling troupe, possessed by the spirit of First Knowing and carrying the memory of the ambiguous Mr Punch, takes to the roads at a time of crisis, when the knowledge of how to make gunpowder has been unleashed on the world once more and violent power struggles have broken out of the shadows to which for a while they had been confined. Puppets have always been used for resistance and protest – most strikingly, perhaps, in the radical days of the 1960s and 70s, when political companies like Bread and Puppet (in New York City, then Vermont) or In the Heart of the Beast (in Minneapolis) sponsored performances and May Day processions in the USA, or in modern times when the refugee puppet Little Amal walked from the Syrian border to Glasgow for COP 26, the climate conference of 2021. For Hoban these political puppets have a supernatural or spiritual air about them, being driven by forces we and they do not understand: the winds of change, the wind from elsewhere (the ‘Elswint’), an instinctive alertness for imminent crisis. In Riddley Walker and his people he has created a potent image of the perennial potential of puppets to serve as a means of giving a voice to the unvoiced, the dis-voiced, the voiceless.

John Masefield, The Box of Delights

If Riddley’s puppet show is an unsettling work of political and spiritual art, written as prologue to the cyclical human performance of war, another puppet show that speaks to an approaching conflict is that of the Punch and Judy man, Cole Hawlings, in John Masefield’s celebrated fantasy for children The Box of Delights (1935). Like Punch himself, old Cole is an ancient figure, reminiscent of the Wandering Jew or the Flying Dutchman as portrayed by Eugène Sue and Richard Wagner. Masefield introduced him in a long poem of 1921, King Cole, as a flute-playing traveller whose magic revives the fortunes of a group of destitute circus performers by bringing royalty to watch their show. In the poem, King Cole is the resurrected figure of a legendary monarch commemorated in the nursery rhyme ‘Old King Cole’, under whom England was properly merry – or at least that little corner of England ruled by him, the quasi-fictional ‘valley-land from Condicote to Thame’ in which Masefield sets most of his novels, a kindlier, smaller version of Hardy’s Wessex (p. 731).[8] After his death King Cole is granted the gift of wandering the country with his wooden flute, an ‘old, poor, wandering man, with glittering eyes’ who bestows blessings on the needy: ‘His piping feeds the starved and warms the cold, / It gives the beaten courage; to the lost / It brings back faith, that lodestar of the ghost’ (p. 731). As a performer who brings new courage and prosperity to performers, King Cole is a patron of art and artists, who specializes in celebrating the humblest forms of creativity. He says of the travelling circus people, ‘they serve the arts and love delight’ (p. 749), and transforms their painted waggons with his music into rich emblems of fertility: ‘And all the vans seemed grown with living leaves / And living flowers, the best September knows, / Moist poppies scarlet from the Hilcote sheaves, / Green-fingered bine that runs the barley-rows’ (p. 741). By the end of the poem the fragile love-relationships between members of the circus troupe have also been renewed. Returned from the dead as a genial green god, King Cole in turn revives, refreshes and regenerates the people of Masefield country and their dreams (hence the reference to poppies), giving him the same supernatural, quasi-ritualistic potency as Hoban’s puppets.

In The Box of Delights Masefield brings back King Cole again in the person of Cole Hawlings, still a wandering, poor old man with glittering eyes, but transformed in voice – he now speaks like a traveller rather than a monarch – and seemingly also more ancient than any King of England, since he has been travelling, he tells us, since before England even existed. As he explains to the book’s protagonist, young Kay Harker: ‘First there were pagan times; then there were in-between times; then there were Christian times; then there was another in-between time; then there was Oliver’s time; and then there was pudding time: but the time I liked best was just before the in-between time, what you might call Henry’s time’ (p. 46).[9] In this incarnation Cole is a Punch and Judy man, with a little dog called Toby; but the focus of his act is not so much on the puppets as on the visions he can conjure up with his performer’s magic: sometimes in the fire, sometimes from the wainscot of a living-room wall, sometimes in an ordinary picture (which becomes a portal, Mary Poppins style, when Cole needs to make a quick escape from his enemies), but most often through the little box of the novel’s title, which gives its user free access to the folkloric spaces of the past like a miniature time machine.

The Box of Delights is a kind of Puppet theatre or booth, and hence an embodiment of the artist’s ability to conjure up wonders in a little space with the most ordinary of ingredients: wood, paint and cloth, or words like Masefield’s, or a child’s imagination. The theatre can be carried even by a little man – Orfing in Riddley Walker is the porter of the Mincery’s booth despite his diminutive stature – and Cole Hawlings can lift it with ease when escaping by mule from his enemies into the drawing of a Swiss mountain: ‘he swung himself onto the mule, picked up the theatre with one hand, gathered the reins with the other, said, “Come, Toby,” and at once rode off with Toby trotting under the mule, out of the room, up the mountain path, up, up, up, till the path was nothing more than a line in the faded painting, that was so dark upon the wall’ (p. 61). The portable nature of the theatre explains and symbolises its resilience, its capacity to survive from generation to generation, evading censorship and litigation, and mutating from time to time to accommodate new social and political circumstances. It is a theatre for travellers, as Hoban confirmed in Riddley Walker; and as it travels the magic it contains can be unleashed and escape into its various surroundings, rendering them magical too. In this scene the drawing on the wall becomes another miniature theatre, and after Cole Hawlings has disappeared into the picture magical fragments continue to blow back into the room where it is hung from the mountain landscape he has brought alive: snowflakes that resolve themselves into ‘shapes of coloured paper’ and ‘little coloured balloons, in the shapes of cocks, horses, ships and aeroplanes’, each carrying a gift for one of the children in Kay’s house (p. 61). The puppet theatre is small and seemingly enclosed, but thanks to the interactions between the puppets, the audience, the bottler (where there is one) and the puppet-master’s little dog Toby, is always escaping from its confines and unleashing strangeness on the world. And every audience that witnesses a puppet performance takes a fragment of it home with them in their hearts and minds, to lend new strangeness to enclosed spaces like paintings, boxes, wainscots, wardrobes, and windows with curtains, throughout their lives to come.

The Box of Delights, being even smaller and more portable than a puppet theatre – though equally full of the visions and wonders which Cole Hawlings calls ‘plays’ (p. 47)[10] – comes to symbolise this capacity for survival from the deep past as strongly as the booth itself. And the theatre and its master are connected to the past from the very beginning of the story. The villainous Abner Brown – a foreigner of uncertain origins, possibly American, who wants to get hold of the Box for his own nefarious purposes – thinks of Cole Hawlings as the custodian of an ancient puppeteering tradition that goes back even further than Punch. ‘I am interested,’ he tells Kay’s cousin Little Maria,

‘in the various forms of the Punch and Judy show, and this man is the son, and grandson of Punch and Judy men, who were on the roads many years ago. This man is known to have several versions of the play which they played, and other versions still older, which are not played, and I do most earnestly want to meet him, and now he is off to this wild life of the roads in weather like this, where a touch of pneumonia, or a passing van, may wipe out his knowledge for ever.’ (p. 68)

Brown’s slightly sinister hint at the fragile mortality of the Punch and Judy man is belied by Cole’s own account of his long, long memory, which implies that he is more or less immortal. Abner’s concern for the old man’s welfare as he continues in the traveller tradition seems to mask a desire to see him confined to a fixed address, perhaps a workhouse or a Public Assistance Institution (the replacement for the workhouse in the 1930s). And Brown’s later insistence that Cole is no more than a reincarnation of the Catalan philosopher and alchemist Ramon Lully, Lull, or Llull (p. 265), serves a similar purpose: to fix him in a specific time and place, robbing him of his supernatural mystique. Cole himself never answers to the name ‘Lully’, and his memory of ‘pagan times’ suggests that if he is indeed Llull (who lived in the twelfth century) then Llull is a good deal more ancient than historians suspect; Lull, that is, may be Cole, rather than the other way round. Abner contends that Llull invented an elixir of life, and sought to trade it for the Box of Delights, which gave him mastery over time and space. If such a bargain had been successfully concluded this would help to explain Cole’s longevity, of course, while his possession of the Box – dug up by the Punch and Judy man many years after it was first lost – would help to explain his detailed knowledge of all those periods of history and prehistory; after all, the maker of the Box, Arnold of Todi, shows an equally detailed familiarity with the career of his greatest hero, Alexander the Great. But Cole’s own interest in the past is driven not by history but folklore. His Box transports its new possessor, Kay, to encounters with the pagan wood-spirit Herne the Hunter and a nameless Woman of the Oak-Tree, who has a wonderful way with animals of all species. These folkloric figures are as unconfined as the creatures that accompany them – squirrels, birds of every kind, and porpoises – and by giving Kay access to them, the Box identifies itself as a work of resistance to arbitrary boundaries and oppressive limitations.

Cole’s connection with Herne the Hunter and the Woman of the Oak-Tree marks him out, too, as a folkloric figure, not a historical one, closer to the nursery rhyme personality Old King Cole than the twelfth-century philosopher with whom Abner seeks to identify him. He embodies knowledge which is not that of ancient philosophers, elitist magic-workers or modern scientists, but of the popular, oral variety; a knowledge which is decaying in the current cycle of history, but may revive itself, as King Cole did in the poem, when the next cycle begins. Wielders of such knowledge, like Punch and Judy men and travellers, are now despised, but were not so in the past and may not be in the future: ‘Time was when we had power,’ Cole tells Kay Harker when he first meets him, ‘like the Sun, and could swing the Earth and the Moon, and now our old wheels are all running down and we are coming to our second childhood. […] Still, they say […] that it begins again, in the course of time’ (p. 20). Regardless of Abner’s stories about Cole as Ramon Llull and Arnold of Todi, the old man seems possessed of both command over space and time and immortality thanks to his folkloric knowledge what he calls ‘the secrets of my show’, which ‘aren’t to be had by these common ones’ (p. 20), meaning the wealthy, ruling class men and women who seek possession of them – though he shares his show freely with the those who don’t seek exclusive possession of it.

Abner’s desire to get hold of Cole, meanwhile, and to winkle his knowledge out of him by fair means or foul, marks him out as the polar opposite of the old man. Brown is a person with his own narrow, secretive, self-serving range of desires and obsessions; not a generous sharer of his art like the puppet master, who performs for every comer he encounters in his ‘wild life on the roads’, but a private collector, who keeps the things he collects (like the box of jewels he crows over at one point in the novel, a colder, stonier container than the Box of Delights) for his own delight and no one else’s. Brown, in fact, represents a menace from the past that has always been opposed to what Cole stands for: imaginative wonder, delight, and adventure freely shared with all. Brown is the leader of a band of ravening ‘wolves’, who have materialised in every epoch to which the Box gives Kay magical access. In each of these epochs these symbolic ‘wolves’ have hurled themselves against the protective fences of peace and art: not just as the ‘enormous wolves, with red eyes and gleaming teeth’ that attack Kay when the Box takes him into the Camp of the legendary King Arthur (p. 88), or clamour about the walls of the mythical City of Troy, which Kay also visits; but as the ‘other wolves’ who are in pursuit of the Box, the devious human kind that ‘magistrates don’t heed’ (p. 90). One of the reasons magistrates don’t heed this kind of wolf is that it so often takes the shape of establishment figures. Abner disguises himself as a clergyman – the head of a missionary training college – while his followers who kidnap Cole after he has passed the Box to Kay are at first assumed by the police to be officers from the local aerodrome, having a frolic. Abner’s gang has an enormous underground hideout which is mostly made up of prison cells; cars that can turn into planes and fly at great speed in absolute silence; criminal operations throughout the world, it seems; and an endless supply of weaponry. Abner himself, meanwhile, is an avid collector. He has his personal collection of jewels, a collection of enslaved supernatural servants – including a sullen Boy and a Brazen Head – and a collection of human prisoners, to which he adds as the novel goes on till the dungeons underneath his hideout are crammed full of them. His acquisitiveness marks him out as capitalistic, as well as socially elevated; but for all his high status the double-vision supplied by Cole identifies him as one of the wolves, readily visible to all despite the clerical sheep’s clothing he affects.

An illustration of The Box of Delights by Faith Jaques

Abner Brown shuts things down and locks people up; the Box opens things out and liberates people from bondage – first the castaway Arnold of Todi, who is rescued from a desert island through its agency, then the crowds of prisoners locked up by Abner Brown. Kay’s acquisition of the Box of Delights from Cole Hawlings renders Kay an apprentice puppet master, first drawn into the wonderful ‘plays’ the Box already contains, then empowered to produce original ‘plays’ with props of their own. And his plays are dedicated to liberty. In the final section of the book, Kay uses the Box to transport himself to Abner’s underground lair, where the cells are, and here Cole shows him how to make functional, liberatory art using the old man’s special brand of magic. Under Cole’s direction Kay makes drawings of creatures and objects that could help the prisoners break free from the cells in which Abner has locked them; drawings that come alive, as the drawing of the mountains came alive for Cole, and detach themselves from the fragile sheets of paper to which they were once confined. Here’s the moment when it begins to happen:

In fact, the drawings did stand out from the paper rather strangely. The light was concentrated on them; as [Kay] looked at them the horses seemed to be coming towards him out of the light, and, no, it was not seeming, they were moving; he saw the hoof casts flying and heard the rhythmical beat of hoofs. The horses were coming out of the picture, galloping fast, and becoming brighter and brighter. Then he saw that the light was partly fire from their eyes and manes, partly sparks from their hoofs. “They are real horses,” he cried. “Look.” (p. 378)

As with the moment when Cole Hawlings rides the mule into the picture of the mountains, the wonder of this passage is the double-vision it generates; the picture is as vividly present to the reader’s eye as the horses in it, and Kay’s joyful cry, “They are real horses,” serves only to remind us that they are also not real horses, since they are ‘coming out of the picture’, not out of a field or forest, and they have a light about them ordinary horses do not cast.

In The Box of Delights, then, large and small puppet theatres, the puppet master and his young apprentice, become emblems of art at its most liberating and exuberant. And although the end of the book has disappointed some, with its Alice in Wonderland consignment of Kay’s adventures to the land of dreams, Masefield ensures the boy wakes up in a railway carriage – making him a modern traveller, capable of going wherever the rails might take him – and with a strong appreciation of the dream in which he met Cole Hawlings (‘Have you had a nice dream?’ his governess asks him, and Kay replies ‘I have’, p. 418). His return to the ordinary world need not disenchant the story we’ve just been reading so much as re-enchant the ordinary. And the ordinary was in great need of re-enchantment in the year the book was published, 1935.

Abner Brown is a pleasingly hopeless villain, plotted against by his witchy wife, Sylvia Daisy Pouncer, and her scheming lover the foxy-faced Charles, unable to retain the loyalty of his gang (purely on account of his own disloyalty), incapable even of getting satisfactory service from his supernatural servants, who resent him because he mistreats them every time he consults them. But the Wolves with whom he is associated are sometimes frightening, if only because they are everywhere, in all times and places, and always hungry. Perhaps, too, Masefield’s first readers of Kay’s age would have been aware that there were Wolves abroad as they read: the wolves of fascism, Stalinism, Nazism and the rest, whose presence in Europe would lead to another war almost as mythical as and vastly more cataclysmic than the Trojan wars or the wars waged by King Arthur, or even Alexander the Great. Under these conditions the smallness of puppets, who enact stories that endure from age to age in the face of conflict and calamity, and who come to life again and again despite the self-evident lifelessness of their wood, paint and cloth, can be comforting and even inspiring, as we look for ways to express our own opposition to the abuses of power. Diana Wynne Jones, Russell Hoban and John Masefield all seem to say so. We could do with some of their hopeful double-, treble- and quadruple visions right here and now, in the year of conflict 2022.

Notes

[1] Steve Tillis, Toward an Aesthetics of the Puppet (New York etc.: Greenwood Pres, 1992), p. 65.

[2] See for example the quote from Michael R. Malkin on p. 37 of Tillis’s Toward an Aesthetic of the Puppet: ‘Puppetry has played a vital role in the development of what can be called the dramatic concept of the plausible impossible […] [This] is the link between the world of the real and the realm of pure fantasy […] It is this sense that puppetry represents a basic theatrical concept; it represents dramatic imagination in one of its most fluid forms’.

[3] See his discussion of ‘literary belief’ in the essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ in Tree and Leaf (London: HarperCollins 2001), pp. 37-8.

[4] As I write this, I remember the artist and puppet designer Brian Froud telling us how, when drawing our painting the Devon landscape, he seeks out the strange life that inhabits it – the life that’s somehow inside it, as the faeries of Ireland and Scotland are said to dwell inside the hills; and I wonder if I’m right. That wonder is exactly where the pleasure of fantasy lies. The status of what we ‘know’ is at stake here, and fantasy is often concerned to trouble our assumptions about ‘knowledge’ and ignorance, as I hope this post will go on to suggest.

 

[5] All references are to The Magicians of Caprona (London: HarperCollins, 2008).

[6] Tillis’s book includes a fascinating section on the way puppets have sometimes seemed to take control of their puppet masters; Toward an Aesthetics of the Puppet, p. 33 ff.

[7] All references are to Riddley Walker (London: Picador, 1980).

[8] All references to ‘King Cole’ are taken from The Collected Poems of John Masefield (London: William Heinemann, 1923).

[9] All references are to John Masefield, The Box of Delights, or When the Wolves Were Running (London: William Heinemann, 1935).

[10] ‘And now, Master Harker and friends,’ he said, coming outside his stand, ‘now that I’ve played my play, I’ll play more than my Punch and my Judy, for a travelling man collects as he goes, or doesn’t he?’

Play Houses: Alasdair Gray, Poor Things and A History Maker. Part 1

[This is my belated contribution to Gray Day 2022, which took place last Friday, 25 February. Today is World Book Day, which also seems appropriate, since Poor Things is an embodiment of the delight in books. What follows is the first of two posts; the second will appear later in March.]


The 1990s: a rich decade for fantasy, and a suitable subject for mixed metaphors. The new millennium, that phantom barrier between the twentieth century and an unforeseeable future, was flinging out a backwash of apocalyptic premonitions, from the Millennium Bug to the End of the Civilised World. The Cold War had abruptly come to an end, and the hunt for a new enemy of late capitalism was in full cry. Not surprisingly, fantasy literature stood on the brink of reinvigoration. His Dark Materials and Harry Potter were bubbling away in the soup of their creators’ brains. The New Weird was stirring its tentacles, and a league of brilliant women from Pamela Dean and Robin Hobb to Ursula Le Guin, Nalo Hopkinson, Terry Windling and Jane Yolen were rapidly remaking the fantastic along new-old lines, while male fantasy authors too (Gregory Maguire, Geoff Ryman, Michael Swanwick as well as Pullman) found themselves reimagining the power dynamic between women, men and others in response. An end and a beginning: the 1990s.

As brilliant as any of these male authors was the Scottish writer-artist Alasdair Gray, who had made his name with the publication of Lanark in 1981. The 1990s saw the publication of his finest novel, Poor Things (1992), and a novella called A History Maker (1994), both of which could be described as science fiction, as well as the novels Something Leather (1990), McGrotty and Ludmilla (1990), Mavis Belfrage (1996) and the short story collection Ten Tales Tall and True (1993). All these texts gave a prominent place to women, and to the sense that the experience of women at the end of the twentieth century was undergoing a transformation. Poor Things did this by examining the last two decades of the nineteenth century as a parallel moment in the history of women’s experiences, as well as of socialism and industrial capitalism. A History Maker did it by examining a moment of near-revolution against a worldwide matriarchy two centuries or so in the future. Between them, the two books suggest a pair of parentheses bracketing the calamitous twentieth century – the Century of War, as Doris Lessing calls it in Shikasta (1979). For Gray, women were stationed at the points of arrival and departure of the century, and throughout the century had always offered the best hope for a turn towards a better tomorrow.

A History Maker came out two years after Poor Things, and can be read as a witty appendix to that book. The novella feeds parasitically on the novel, replicating its form and some of its content while also performing ingenious acts of reversal and inversion on both. As if to reinforce the association with appendices, exactly a third of A History Maker is made up of notes and a postscript, parasitically feeding on the lifeblood of the ‘central’ narrative. Poor Things, too, has a hypertrophied paratext, its introduction, notes and postscript hollowing out the central narrative’s intestines from within, so to speak, like the segments of a hungry tapeworm. To understand A History Maker, then, we need to start with a consideration of Poor Things; while understanding Poor Things benefits from setting it alongside what might be loosely termed its sequel. Taken together, these books represent Gray’s meditation on the end of an era: the close of the twentieth century, the termination of the twentieth-century version of the socialist dream as embodied in the Soviet Union, the seeming lull after a period of global warfare which had extended from 1914 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Both books, too, are about parasitism of various kinds, above all in the form of complicity, and in particular the complicity to which all citizens of the First World are inevitably doomed by virtue of their location within an increasingly unbalanced global economy. So Poor Things is where I’ll begin in this post, before moving on in a second post to its neglected younger sibling. And afterwards I’ll move on again, to their status as representations of beginnings.

Poor Things consists of a series of backward glances, each provided by one of its myriad narrators and commentators. The central narrative, as written by the Public Health Officer Archibald McCandless, looks back on the events of the last decade of the nineteenth century from 1911, when he bequeaths his memoirs to his wife just before his death. McCandless’s memoirs are then ‘edited’ in 1990 or so, under the title Poor Things, by an irascible version of Alasdair Gray himself, who looks back in his introduction to the 1970s when the manuscript was first ‘discovered’ by Michael Donnelly, co-curator with Elspeth King of the People’s Palace Museum in Glasgow. Along with the memoirs themselves, Gray reproduces a letter from Victoria McCandless, Archibald’s wife, written in 1914 when she first read them after the death of her husband in 1911. Gray also adds notes incorporating various documents such as a letter from 1945, in which Victoria celebrates the election of a Labour Government as the beginning of a new epoch of social justice in the United Kingdom. The novel, in other words, is an elaborate exercise in reminiscence, so that even the hopes and political ambitions articulated by the forward-thinking Victoria McCandless are strongly tinged with nostalgia for the more committed, less irony-tainted epoch in which her life began.

Irony, however, pervades the narrative, because these successive backward glances expose the past century of human existence as a complex tissue of fabrications. Victoria insists, for instance, that Archibald’s account of their first meeting and her subsequent adventures is not just fictional but fantastic, implying as it does that Victoria herself was assembled from parts of different human beings according to the ‘Frankenstein method’ by an eccentric surgeon called Godwin Baxter (p. 274). Archibald confected this alternative origin story for his busy wife, she suspects, both to grab her attention and to coerce her into co-authoring his book by issuing some sort of denial or correction, either in her thoughts or in a covering letter of the kind we are given by the editor before the notes. But the reader knows that Victoria’s vision of a socialist future – as expressed in her later letter of 1945 – is also a fantasy, since Poor Things was first published in 1992, after twelve years of Tory rule during which social justice was for the most part conspicuous by its absence. And Victoria’s letter of 1914 shows that her socialist dreams were fantastic then, too, since she predicts that the Great War will be averted by the workers of Great Britain by means of a General Strike. Victoria’s first name, meanwhile, identifies her brand of socialism as a product of the nineteenth century, and the endurance of her and her name into the mid-century (she died, we’re told, soon after writing that letter about the election of the Labour government) symbolises the continuing legacy of Victorian cultural attitudes into the middle of the twentieth century – and beyond, thanks to the publication of the manuscript by its ‘editor’, Gray.

The batters of Poor Things, adorned with a thistle motif and a Gray proverb

Victorianism itself, meanwhile, is described by Victoria as an ornate fantasy, best understood through its embodiment in such ‘sham-gothic’ buildings as ‘the Scott Monument [in Edinburgh], Glasgow University, St. Pancras Station and the Houses of Parliament’ (p. 275). The ‘useless over-ornamentation’ of these buildings, she claims, ‘was paid for out of needlessly high profits: profits squeezed from the stunted lives of children, women and men working more than twelve hours a day, six days a week in NEEDLESSLY filthy factories; for by the nineteenth century we had the knowledge to make things cleanly’. And for Victoria, her husband’s memoir is as sham-gothic and hence as needless as any of these extravagant works of architecture. Archibald paid a high price for it to be printed in a single copy, illustrated with etchings by the well-known artist William Strang, so it is over-ornate and expensive. The first edition of Poor Things, too, with its dustjacket sporting mock reviews by made-up magazines and newspapers, its hardback covers or ‘batters’ stamped with a silver thistle motif and Gray’s personal motto, its typeface and page design both created by Gray himself, and its many illustrations, some of which have been purloined from Victorian publications while others are misattributed to Strang (in fact Gray did them), must have been hugely expensive for the publishers Bloomsbury to produce. Poor Things, then, looks backward in its ornate aesthetics and the economics that drive them as well as in its narrative and commentary. The fictionalised memoir it contains is parasitic on the working classes, because Archibald’s late-life prosperity depended on their labour, which made possible the investments on which he drew to support his ‘idle, dreamy[,] fantastical’ middle-class existence, as Victoria tells us (pp. 251-2). And it is doubly parasitic on Victoria McCandless, whose life story Archibald falsified to produce his memoir, and whose notes Alasdair Gray purloined to create his book.

18 Park Circus, Glasgow

The Gothicism of Poor Things is of the domestic variety. It uses the household as a synecdoche for society, instead of the monumental public buildings listed by Victoria. In this it recalls the great Gothic novels of the period in which it’s set, from Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde (largely set in a doctor’s house) to Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray (set in a fashionable London townhouse with a large attic) and Dracula (which is all about real estate). It focuses on the house of the surgeon Godwin Baxter, where he either builds a woman in his father’s private laboratory (p. 33) or nurses her back to health, depending on whose version of the story you choose to accept – Archibald’s or Victoria’s. Victoria tells us she grew up in needless poverty in a cramped apartment before marrying an abusive husband, fleeing from his London house and being offered shelter and support in the Glasgow mansion of Godwin Baxter. Archibald tells us she committed suicide in the Clyde, when pregnant, and was afterwards restored to life through the grotesque process of implanting her unborn baby’s brain in her skull – the resulting adult/infant hybrid being christened Bella Baxter. In both versions of her life story, Godwin’s house provides Victoria/Bella with intellectual stimulus as well as shelter: through the personal example set by its various inhabitants, through the political and medical instruction it provides, and through its architectural and economic organisation. The medical instruction comes from Godwin’s knowledge, books, instruments and conversation, while the political and economic instruction is provided by a ‘big doll’s house’ modelled on the house itself, which is present in both Archibald’s (p. 28) and Victoria’s versions.

‘See me open the hinged front of this big doll’s house and fold it back,’ Godwin tells Victoria in her version of her life story:

‘This is a type of house you will find by thousands in British cities, by hundreds in the towns, and tens in the villages. […] The servants live mostly in the basement and attics: the coldest and most crowded floors with the smallest rooms. Their body heat, while they sleep, keeps their employers in the central floors more snug. This little female doll in the kitchen is a scullery-maid who will also do rough laundry work, scrubbing and mangling the clothes. She will have plenty of hot water to use if her master or mistress is generous, and may not be overworked if the servants set over her are kind, but we live in an age when thrift and hard competition are proclaimed as the foundations of the state, so if she is meanly and cruelly used nobody will remark upon it. Now look into the parlour on the first floor. Here is a piano with another little female doll sitting at it. If her dress and hair-style were changed for the scullery-maid’s she might be the same girl, but that will not happen. She is probably trying to play Beethoven’s Für Elise without a wrong note – her parents want her one day to attract a rich husband who will use her as a social ornament and breeder of his children. Tell me, Bella, what the scullery-maid and the master’s daughter have in common, apart from their similar ages and bodies and this house.’

‘Both are used by other people,’ I said. ‘They are allowed to decide nothing for themselves.’ [pp. 262-3]

For Godwin, the house is a machine designed to replicate the Victorian class system. Its human inhabitants, represented by the models of the two young girls, have been slotted into their domestic places – each attached to an instrument they must master, the mangle and the piano – like components of the machine, their bodily energy contributing to the smooth functioning of the house and of the hegemony of which it is part. The scullery-maid is an integral part of the house’s heating and cleaning system, the piano-playing girl the inert guarantor of her class’s continued ascendancy. The girls represented by the dolls are as much ‘things’ as the dolls that represent them.

Bella/Victoria as the embodiment of Bella Caledonia, Bonnie Scotland

Victoria herself is often treated as a doll-like ‘thing’ in Poor Things. Her life is manipulated by her husband Archibald McCandless as grist for his fantastical mill; even the words she utters are reported by him as half-understood fragments, representative of the gradual assembly of her mind over time after the swifter assembly of her body by the surgeon Baxter. Archibald accuses Baxter of constructing Victoria/Bella for his own sexual gratification (pp. 36-7), so she is twice a ‘thing’ from his point of view – as a woman driven to suicide by one man (her first husband) and intended as a plaything by another (Godwin). Archibald also hints that Baxter is a ‘thing’ constructed by his surgeon father, and that Bella/Victoria’s abusive first husband – when he shows up to claim her – is a ‘thing’ reassembled by surgeons after repeated damage inflicted by acts of violence in his military career. Even Archibald is a ‘thing’, a self-made man who has been awkwardly put together from ill-fitting parts: a neglectful farm servant mother, an absent landowner father, clothes paid for by an unknown benefactor, a regional accent that sounds out of place in the gentlemen’s club of the medical faculty at the Victorian University of Glasgow. All the people in the book are ‘things’, their status as mostly damaged or defective mechanisms reinforced by the images from Gray’s Anatomy scattered through the text, each carefully placed at a point in the narrative when the portion of the body shown in the picture (nose, tongue, brain, genitals, pelvis) comes briefly to the fore in the narrative.

Illustration from Gray’s Anatomy in Poor Things

The thing-ness of Poor Thing’s characters – their resemblance to dolls – is compounded by their affinity with the people who for the most part play with dolls – young children. Nearly all retain childish traits, and nearly all have had damaging childhoods. This is most obvious in Archibald’s version of Bella/Victoria, a grown woman with the transplanted brain of her own baby, who greets everything and everybody with surprise, delight and curiosity. But her supposed maker Godwin Baxter, too, though vast and powerful in stature, resembles a baby in his physical proportions. When Archibald first meets him he notes this resemblance at once: ‘Despite the ogreish body he had the wide hopeful eyes, snub nose and mournful mouth of an anxious infant’ (p. 12); and when he later spots him at a distance on the hills he tells us: ‘I saw what seemed a two-year-old child with a tiny puppy approaching from the Cambuslang side’, which on closer approach turns out to be Baxter ‘accompanied by a huge Newfoundland dog’ (p. 16); his powerful voice has the shrillness of a baby’s, and the hand he holds out to Archibald in friendship is so unusual that Archibald cannot bear to shake it:

The hand I intended to grasp was not to so much square as cubical, nearly as thick as broad, with huge thick first knuckles from which the fingers tapered so steeply to babyish tips with rosy wee nails that they seemed conical. A cold grue went through me – I was unable to touch such a hand. [p. 25]

Baxter’s neglected childhood and lonely adulthood, as the illegitimate and ugly son of an eminent scientist, makes his mind childishly needy too, in its longing for an unprejudiced companion who will not be disconcerted by his strange appearance; this longing, perhaps, is what suggests to Archibald that he may be another Frankenstein’s creature, constructed in his father’s laboratory, then abandoned to the whims of the world. But Archibald, too, is childish in his quest for a father figure he never had (which he finds in Godwin) and a loving, powerful woman to replace his less than loving mother (whom he finds in Bella/Victoria). He is constantly harking back to his boyhood in rural Galloway, as when he ascribes his lack of sexual hang-ups to growing up on a farm, or informs Victoria/Bella of his fighting prowess, having proved his courage ‘in the playground of Whauphill School’ (p. 63). The dustjacket of the book’s first edition shows him cuddling Bella, who is cuddling Godwin, who sits facing out of the picture, huge and implacable, with his baby’s hand planted on his knee: three children clinging together in the face of a hostile world.

Victoria/Bella’s abusive first husband, General Sir Aubrey de la Pole Blessington, is a child too. The offspring of abusive parents and an abusive education system, who continues to seek out abuse in the brothels of Europe as an anonymous masked client by the name of Monsieur Spankybot, who likes to pose ‘first […] as a baby, then as a little lad on his first night in a new boarding-school’ (p. 181). Even Victoria/Bella’s lover, Duncan Wedderburn – the man with whom she elopes to seek adventure and travel the world – is still devoted to his mother and the female servants who raised him, returning to them after the tour to resume his role as the spoiled child of the household. These men’s damaged childhoods are lodged inside them, unnurtured and underdeveloped, rendering them as fixed and helpless and eternally infantile as the dolls in the instructive doll’s house in Baxter’s living room. The doll theme continues in Victoria’s notes at the end of the book, where she describes the soldiers about to leave for the Great War as ‘young men marching in regular rows, each imitating the stiff movements of a clockwork doll’ (p. 253). Victoria herself claims to have been educated by nuns in a Swiss convent school ‘to be a rich man’s domestic toy’ (pp. 258-9) – though her subsequent education at Baxter’s hands has since liberated her from doll-like rigidity and silence. Stocked from end to end with dolls, Victorian Britain would seem to be populated by several generations of male and female citizens in various states of arrested development.

The continuing childishness of all these characters has the effect of stressing the importance of the home environment in fashioning a healthy adult mind and body. For Godwin Baxter, the need for good housing in wholesome surroundings is paramount. To Archibald he expresses the opinion that all social ills could be healed by three key elements: ‘Sunlight, cleanliness and exercise, McCandless! Fresh air, pure water, a good diet and clean roomy houses for everyone’ (p. 24). A little later he diagnoses the mental illness running rife in Shakespeare’s Hamlet as the effect of ‘an epidemic brain fever which, like typhoid, was perhaps caused by seepings from the palace graveyard into the Elsinore water supply’, and goes on to explain how he would have treated it as the family’s physician:

I imagined myself entering the palace quite early in the drama with all the executive powers of an efficient public health officer. The main carriers of the disease (Claudius, Polonius and the obviously incurable Hamlet) would be quarantined in separate wards. A fresh water supply and efficient modern plumbing would soon set the Danish state right and Ophelia, seeing this gruff Scottish doctor pointing her people toward a clean and healthy future, would be powerless to withhold her love. (p. 40)

In Godwin’s version of Hamlet the diseases of the state, which originate in the Danish royal palace, could be eradicated at once by putting in place the infrastructure that makes pure water and clean houses available to everyone – an infrastructure of the kind installed in Glasgow in the 1850s, and commemorated by the erection of the Stewart Memorial Fountain in Kelvingrove Park immediately below Godwin’s dwelling in Park Circus, where Archibald first kisses Bella/Victoria. What Godwin omits, however, from his list of essentials for a nurturing home environment, is affection; the sort of affection he dreams of obtaining from Ophelia in this passage, and which he lavishes on and receives back from that other unfortunate drowned woman, Bella/Victoria. In both versions of her life story, affection in the domestic context is more crucial than cleanliness and shelter to her wellbeing, and it’s affection (or what she calls ‘cuddling’) that she puts at the centre of her own medical philosophy when she trains as a doctor and puts her skills at the service of the city that (re)made her.

Thanks, in fact, to the domestic affection with which she is surrounded – the affection of Godwin’s many dogs as well as the people in his household – Bella/Victoria is the only person in the book whose inner childishness is allowed to grow to a healthy maturity, unstunted by neglect or arbitrary boundaries. In Archibald’s version of the narrative, the baby’s mind which has been surgically transplanted into her adult body develops rapidly under the tuition of the free-thinking Godwin (whose name, of course, recalls the great anarchist thinker, Mary Shelley’s father William Godwin). With his support, she encounters the world with fresh pleasure and bright new ideas at every stage of her preternaturally rapid mental maturation. In Victoria’s version, her complex childhood is what gives her an unusually clear understanding of how the world works before Godwin’s affection (along with his schooling in medicine and politics) completes the process. This version of her life story tells how she was raised by a hard-working mother in a Manchester slum, then transplanted to a sumptuous house by her newly-wealthy father before being transplanted again to a Swiss convent school and afterwards to the London house of an ice-cold military husband. From London she escaped to the Glasgow house of the friendly surgeon who had treated her for sexual hysteria on her husband’s orders. By this time she had witnessed both extreme poverty and excessive wealth, both the religious discipline of religious women and the martial discipline of aristocratic men, both the Manchester slums and the mountains of Switzerland, the elegant streets of central London and the splendid suburbs of industrial Glasgow. Five households made her – if you include the convent school – each with its economic and emotional peculiarities, most strikingly the profound interdependencies each entails between the house’s owners and their employees.

Each of Bella/Victoria’s households, in fact, fosters close sexual and cultural relations between social classes which are supposed to live in strict segregation from each other. Her father grows wealthy while leaving his wife to live in poverty, like a servant, before transferring her to a grand house in which she feels useless. There is a strong suggestion that the father has been having an affair with the housekeeper of that house, since she wears ‘a brighter dress than worn by housekeepers I met in later years’, as Victoria notes (p. 257), while her father observes that the woman has taught him ‘a few new tricks’ (p. 258). Later, Victoria’s soldier husband gets a young servant pregnant through the sexual attentions he denies his wife (the girl is afterwards sacked); while Godwin Baxter’s household includes another servant who had her master’s child: Godwin’s mother, Mrs Dinwiddie. As we’ve seen, Archibald is the child of a servant who slept with her master, while Duncan Wedderburn got his erotic education at the hands of a servant in his household named Auld Jessy. If the female dolls of different classes in Godwin’s doll’s house can be readily exchanged for one another, they closely match the experiences of the women in Victoria/Bella’s households, the bulk of whom are treated by men like servants – providing labour for inadequate wages, no matter what their class. Victoria’s understanding of the class system stems from her position as a woman who has first-hand experience of its operation through the set-ups of the houses she has lived in, which served as real-life equivalents of the doll’s house.

When Godwin opens up the front of that doll’s house, then, he could be said to open up her world, much as an expert anatomist (like the author of Gray’s Anatomy, from which so many of the book’s illustrations have been taken) opens up a corpse to show its inner workings. The beginning and end of Archibald’s narrative take place in Godwin’s ‘tall, gloomy terrace house’ in Park Circus (p. 22), in the West End of Glasgow. But the house also anchors the middle section of the narrative, which moves away from Glasgow but never leaves it behind.

More illustrations from Gray’s Anatomy in Poor Things

Bella/Victoria’s travels are described in two letters delivered to the Park Circus address, the first from her lover Duncan Wedderburn, the second from herself. The letters are opened and read aloud by Godwin to Archibald in Godwin’s living room, to which the narrative returns us often as the two readers exchange observations before moving on. The formal properties of these letters – some in verse, the rest in prose, distinguished visually from the rest of the novel by being printed in italics – mark them out as created objects or ‘things’ which will eventually find a place for themselves among Godwin’s domestic possessions. The middle part of Bella/Victoria’s letter is even reproduced in her handwriting, ‘printed by a photogravure process which exactly reproduces the blurring caused by tear stains, but does not show the pressure of pen strokes which often ripped right through the paper’ (p. 144). We are never allowed to forget the materiality of these epistolary travelogues, and their Glasgow roots, no matter how far from Glasgow their contents take us.

In fact, despite the global wanderings they chronicle, the contents of both letters are as Glaswegian as the location in which they are read. Wedderburn’s letter obsessively ascribes Bella/Victoria’s behaviour (she enjoys sex with him but has no interest in marrying him) to the devilish influence of her Glasgow mentor, Godwin Baxter (or ‘GOD-SWINE BOSH BACK-STAIR, BEAST OF THE BOTTOMLESS PIT’ as he inventively dubs him [p. 95]). This culminates in an elaborate list of parallels between Godwin, Bella, the Park Circus building they live in and the biblical Book of Revelation. Twice Wedderburn mentions theatrical performances he has seen in Glasgow, and throughout their travels he funds himself with money drawn from his Glasgow-based Scottish Widows and Orphans savings and the Clydesdale and North Scotland Bank. In Bella/Victoria’s letter, meanwhile, a betting shop in Germany reminds her of the Glasgow Stock Exchange, with its ‘fluted columns, cream and gold’ (p. 110), while a ‘huge’ flight of steps in Odessa (made famous by The Battleship Potemkin) seems ‘very like the steps down to the West End Park near our house’ (p. 115), and Wedderburn splashing about in a ‘puddle’ of his winnings recalls ‘little Robbie Murdoch with a mud puddle’ (p. 121) – Robbie being the grandson of Godwin’s housekeeper. The journey as a whole reiterates the earlier stage of Bella/Victoria’s education when she toured the world with Godwin, visiting a selected set of tourist destinations with the aim of giving substance to his teachings in the front room at Park Circus. Every stage of her journey with Wedderburn, in other words, has close links to Godwin’s home.

The ‘huge’ flight of steps down to the West End Park (now Kelvingrove Park), Glasgow

At one point in the journey, the doll’s house model is briefly replaced by another, and for a while Godwin’s vision is threatened with less democratic ideas, presenting Bella/Victoria with a range of socio-political perspectives from which she must choose before she decides on her future course of action. On her cruise round the Mediterranean Bella/Victoria meets two ‘gentlemen’ who seek to supplement or correct the home-schooling Godwin gave her: an American missionary-cum-government-spy called Dr Hooker and an English businessman-cum-government spy named Astley. Each seeks to convert her to his own way of thinking – Astley as a cynical Malthusian, who thinks that keeping large groups of people in poverty is the only way to keep the world in balance, Hooker as a Christian eugenicist who thinks the world should be run by what he terms the ‘Anglo-Saxon race’ (p. 139). In the interests of demonstrating the inferiority of non-Anglo-Saxon peoples, Hooker invites the young woman to disembark with him at the port of Alexandria, where she will see for herself the decline of the once great Egyptian people and thereby learn the necessity for Anglo-Saxons to take charge of the global economy. Before disembarking, Bella/Victoria remembers her previous visit to Egypt under Godwin’s watchful eye: ‘When God took me to see the pyramids,’ she tells Hooker, ‘we left the hotel in the middle of a crowd’, but she did not see the people at the fringes of the crowd who were calling out for money (p. 142). This makes it clear that Godwin had been keen to shelter her from the most brutal facts of politics and economics; his teachings were suitable for the child in Bella’s brain, not the mature young woman she has rapidly become. At Alexandria the dolls in her mind are replaced with actual girls: she sits with Astley and Hooker on a hotel veranda ‘among well-dressed people like ourselves’ while a crowd of ‘nearly naked folk mostly children’ scramble for coins tossed by the wealthy on the dusty ground below the veranda, kept in order by men with whips (p. 173). Among the children is a pair who strike an instant chord in Bella/Victoria (and her tendency to resonate in sympathy with others is indicated by the name Godwin gave her, Bella, the bell – though the name has other resonances too, such as the bell of revolution, the Beauty to Godwin’s Beast, church bells, etc. etc.). The two children are ‘a thin little girl blind in one eye carrying a baby with a big head who was blind in both’ (pp. 173-4), and Bella/Victoria takes them at once for her lost daughter and a young sibling, lost to their parents just as Bella/Victoria’s unborn child was lost to her. These Egyptian youngsters, in other words, are immediately identified by Bella/Victoria as citizens of Glasgow – miniature versions of herself and her lost baby – and she at once attempts to take them back to Glasgow with her, only to be prevented by Astley and Hooker on the grounds that they will not be allowed out of the port and onto the ship. The section of her letter reproduced by photogravure, with the ‘blurring caused by tear stains’ and the rips in the paper caused by the pressure of her pen strokes (p. 144), carries material evidence of her immediate reaction back to Glasgow, as a substitute for the children and her yearning to be of use to them.

Bella/Victoria’s letter reproduced by photogravure

Later, Astley points out that the scene in which Bella/Victoria saw the girl and baby might be substituted for the Glasgow doll’s house as a miniature model of capitalist society. In seeing it, he tells her, Bella/Victoria has

seen a working model of nearly every civilized nation. The people on the veranda were the owners and rulers – their inherited intelligence and wealth set them above everyone else. The crowd of beggars represented the jealous and incompetent majority, who were kept in their place by the whips of those on the ground between: the latter represented policemen and functionaries who keep society as it is. (pp. 175-6).

For Astley, this model is like the doll’s house in its inertia; there is no better practical structure to replace it with, though he scrupulously lists the alternative political movements Bella could join in her futile quest to change it, each with its own shortcomings, or so he claims. Then after finishing his list he offers her another doll’s house to play with – a real one. After listing the political choices available to her, he proposes marriage: ‘Marry me,’ he prompts, since

My country estate has a farm on it and a [whole] village – think of the power you will have. Besides caring for my children (who we will not send to public schools) you can bully me into improving the drains and lowering the rents of a whole community. I am offering you the chance to be as happy and good as an intelligent woman can be on this filthy planet. (p. 163).

Bella/Victoria refuses, on the grounds that he has merely offered her ‘the most cunning inducement to lead a wholly selfish life you could offer a woman’ (p. 164), and chooses instead one of the political options he listed – Socialism, whose adherents aim ‘to tax the surplus of the rich and make laws to give everyone productive work in good conditions, along with good food, housing, education and health care’ (p. 161) – a vision pretty much consonant with Godwin’s. And having made this choice, she returns to Glasgow to take her place once again in the ‘tall, gloomy terrace house’ in Park Circus (p. 22), and transform it into a model for the Socialist state.

After all, the house is part way there already. In his medical career Godwin has treated factory workers and animals there for free, while he always uses the back door intended for servants as his preferred entrance (p. 26), and presents the former housekeeper Mrs Dinwiddie to strangers as his mother, despite the fact that she conceived him out of wedlock (he can afford to do this, Bella/Victoria points out, because of his private income). The social hierarchy, in other words, has been partly excluded from this building, though Godwin remains master there in legal terms. Godwin’s affection for and education of Bella/Victoria brought an end to his philanthropic activities, but on her return from Alexandria Bella kick-starts them again, first by demanding to return to Egypt to find and adopt the girl and infant. Godwin informs her that this is impractical, but that there are hundreds of equally destitute children in Glasgow’s East End, and he brings home this fact, so to speak, by pointing out that the worst slums can be found on the spot where the nearby University once stood in the East End of the city – its move to the West End, on the next hill along from Park Circus, having been precisely designed to remove it from the dispiriting sight of crowded slums in the University’s back yard.

The ‘sham Gothic’ University of Glasgow, facing the Park

But Godwin also suggests that it is no good adopting children you cannot train to look after themselves in adulthood, and that before this can be done you must learn to look after yourself; the often tritely-used Victorian proverb ‘charity begins at home’ is recalled throughout this section of the novel. Bella/Victoria determines to train as a doctor, and it’s from 18 Park Circus that Godwin plots her difficult path to a medical degree at the University. It’s at 18 Park Circus, too, that he suggests the best role for her husband-to-be, Dr McCandless: he is to be a public health officer because there are ‘no better public benefactors than those who [strive] to make Glasgow better watered, drained and lit – better housed, in fact’ (p. 198). In fact, Victoria’s postscript tells us, Archibald held this role for only a year, after which he effectively became a househusband (Victoria even describes him as ‘a very good wife’ at one point [p. 303]), focusing his energies on improving his home, above all for the benefit of his children. Under his eye the house became what it was before – a place of practical learning – and the couple’s three sons were trained there in socialist principles, and treated to affectionate cuddles (by their father at least) till the age of ten. After this they were sent to Glasgow High School, where they came disastrously into contact with military training and imperialist propaganda.

The editor’s notes at the end of the book trace the future history of the house in Park Circus, in the process developing its significance as a representative part of society in the first half of the twentieth century. Its connection with Socialism continued, so the notes suggest, from the 1890s to the 1920s and 30s, when literary figures like H G Wells (with whom Bella/Victoria had a brief affair) and later Hugh MacDiarmid (with whom she didn’t) and political figures like the revolutionary socialist John Maclean were frequent visitors. The fortunes of the house were depleted by the amount of money Bella/Victoria poured into her clinic in the Cowcaddens, where working-class women and children could go for medical treatment and training, safe and sanitary childbirth, or abortions, paying only what they could afford. By the 1920s Bella/Victoria’s residential space in the Park Circus building was reduced to the basement, to which she moved her clinic after the medical profession conspired to have the Cowcaddens clinic shut down. The rest of the house – no longer needed as a family home since the death of her three boys during and after the Great War – was let out, first to university students, then to artists and dancers, turning it from a medical and political hub into ‘one of several unofficial little arts centres flourishing in or near Sauchiehall Street’ during the Second World War (p. 315). In this way it embodies the successive processes of expansion and shrinkage to which the ambitions of British Socialism were subjected in the first half of the twentieth century, from the confines of a single building to the world, from the circuit of a city to the bounds of the United Kingdom, ending on the seeming fulfilment of those ambitions with the election of a Labour Government in 1945. Bella/Victoria hails this moment in a letter to MacDiarmid, while also describing the diminution of her own household to a single Newfoundland dog, and of her client list to a few children’s pets and a couple of hypochondriacs (p. 317). On this sweet-sour note the novel ends, as Bella/Victoria confidently predicts the emergence of a ‘worker’s co-operative nation’ that never came to pass; a notion that will have seemed as improbable in the Tory-governed Britain of 1992 as the notion mentioned in the final paragraph that when she died Bella/Victoria’s brain was 66 and her body 92.

Drawing and plan of Park Circus, Glasgow, from Poor Things

Meanwhile the editor’s notes have also identified the house in Park Circus as a site of historical contention. The archivist Michael Donnelly who discovered Archibald’s manuscript uses it as evidence that the story told in it is a fabrication. While the manuscript describes the house as having a ‘narrow garden between high walls’, Donnelly’s visit to the building confirms ‘that the space between back entrance and coach-house is too small and sunken to have ever been more than a drying-yard’ (p. 280). The editor Gray, equally determined to prove the manuscript truthful, retorts that this only proves that the coach-house was erected at a later date. The historical-architectural bickering continues in a subsequent note, where the editor tells us Donnelly has shown him the architect’s plans for 18 Park Circus, which include the coach-house, and responds that the fact ‘an architect designed such a feature would not prevent it being built much later’ (p. 285). The different readings of the ‘gloomy terrace house’ transform it into a Frankenstein’s creature of a place, cobbled together in various shapes according to the desires and interests of those who ‘read’ it, a museum curator and a writer-artist, both involved in an imaginative engagement with the intersection of past and future, the known and the unknown, the hoped-for and the actual, the remembered and the forgotten.

Overlapping, too, in the space of the house is the playful utopian space conjured up by Archibald in his memoirs – where he, Godwin and Bella/Victoria cohabit ‘in perfect equality’, having undergone what Victoria calls an ‘equality of deprivation in their childhood (p. 274) – and the unequal space it is in Bella/Victoria’s postscript and the editor’s notes. The postscript is devastatingly honest about Bella/Victoria’s contempt for Archibald, for his series of useless self-published books (including a play about Burke and Hare, an epic poem about the Borders cannibal Sawney Bean, and a volume of childhood reminiscences), and for the state of dreamy idleness into which his medical career descended, leaving him a homebody unconcerned with anyone’s happiness but his own and his little family’s. The notes, meanwhile, expose Bella/Victoria’s own decline into obscurity, from being the first female graduate of the medical school at the University of Glasgow, with elevated Socialist convictions, to a solitary idealist whose entire family has predeceased her, dreaming of an impossible future in the narrow confines of a West End basement. Like Archibald’s career, Bella/Victoria’s could be said to go nowhere, side-tracked by idle dreams; and like Archibald she compensates for its increasing irrelevance by self-publishing a series of texts which have as little practical effect as any fantastic narrative.

The subject of Bella/Victoria’s self-published pamphlets is domesticity. After the Great War she is riddled with guilt for what she considers to be her part in the deaths of her sons, blaming herself for the relentless busy-ness that meant she gave little time to their emotional needs, and driving them by neglect into the service of the British Empire. She is convinced their deaths had their roots in her own behaviour, believing that she somehow managed to instil in the boys a sense of the profound contempt in which she held the male body and mind, and which she had imagined herself to be directing only at her husband; for her, their attraction to the military offered perfect proof of their self-contempt. To placate her sense of guilt, she publishes the last of her pamphlets under the title A Loving Economy – A Mother’s Recipe for the End of All National and Class Warfare. The word ‘economy’, as A History Maker reminds us, derives from the ‘Old Greek word for the art of keeping a home weatherproof and supplied with what the householders need’ (p. v). Bella/Victoria’s pamphlet extols the virtue of ‘cuddling’, which refers to the practice of a child sharing a bed with its parents, where ‘it will learn all about love-making and birth control by practical example’, and grow up ‘free of the Oedipus complex, penis envy and other diseases discovered or invented by Doctor Freud’ (p. 308). Contemporary reviews of the pamphlet – accusing Bella/Victoria of erotomania – force her to close her Cowcaddens clinic and retreat to the confines of the West End house. Most of the pamphlets remain undistributed and unread, like Archibald’s literary efforts. Victoria’s recommendation of a new household economy diminishes her influence largely to the circuits of her own household – where her childrearing had already proved ineffectual against the influence of imperialist propaganda. In the process she is effectively erased from a public history which is not yet ready to recognise how ‘private’ domestic practices may lie at the roots of all that is rotten in twentieth-century public life.

Equestrian statue of Lord Roberts near Park Circus, Glasgow. An inspiration for General Blessington?

At this point it’s worth returning to the concept of complicity. How we live, Gray’s novel suggests, on the smallest social scale – as single people, couples and families – makes us complicit in innumerable ways with the large-scale political failures and successes of the community we inhabit. We are made by our environment, yes, but we also make the environment that makes us and our children; our household economy interacts with the larger economy of our neighbourhood, our nation and our world. The novel traces the way Godwin’s household both reflects on the global economy as it is and offers hope for a new economy as it might be; several new economies, in fact, depending on which version of his household we choose to accept. Alongside his household there are others which reflect a desire to live quite differently, and whose influence can be clearly seen in the archives of history. The most interesting of these alternative households is that of Bella/Victoria’s first husband, General Sir Aubrey de la Pole Blessington, a great man of history – like the brilliant scientist Godwin Baxter – who has been removed from history, thanks to the disgrace of his suicide. Sir Aubrey is famous at the time of his death for acts of brutal destruction, having waged war on the enemies of British imperialism all over the Empire. As we learn more about him, however, it emerges that Sir Aubrey has been bred to wage war on himself; he is consumed with self-loathing, disgusted by his own body and its ill-managed desires, and correspondingly disgusted by the women to whom he feels attracted. His damaged limbs are a consequence of repeated efforts at self-destruction on the battlefield; his penchant for sado-masochism in brothels stems from the same impulse; while his ruined marriage is the result of an inbred contempt for the affections that bind one human being to another, and for the anatomies that propagate those affections. At the end of Archibald’s narrative occurs a scene in which Sir Aubrey seeks to snatch Bella/Victoria back from Godwin; the scene begins in Lansdowne Parish Church but quickly transfers to 18 Park Circus. It culminates in a chapter, titled ‘Blessington’s Last Stand’ (p. 234), in which Sir Aubrey barks out orders and wields a weapon as if on the battlefield, all in the living room of Godwin’s ‘tall, gloomy terrace house’, before being defeated by the powerful woman he seeks to control. At the moment of his defeat, Bella/Victoria snatches his pistol from him and aims it at his chest and Sir Aubrey bellows at her in a kind of ecstasy, ‘SHOOT! I ORDER YOU TO SHOOT!’ At this moment, Archibald tells us, ‘to my ears the order rang backward in history through Balaclava, Waterloo, Culloden and Blenheim to Agincourt and Crécy’ (p. 236). ‘This historical command and passionate plea,’ he goes on, ‘were so powerful that I imagined all the men killed in his battles rising from their graves to shoot him where he stood’ (p. 237). Sir Aunrey’s cry knits the field of battle to the living room carpet as firmly as Bella/Victoria’s pamphlet, which prescribes a capacious double bed as an antidote to war. History has its roots in the household, the space that for so many generations history did not acknowledge, the little space that makes us.

Page design for Poor Things, Chapter 22, with section of lost Who’s Who entry for General Blessington

As it happens, that historical figure General Blessington does not feature in British history. He was erased from Who’s Who after his suicide, either because he disgraced himself by this final act of unauthorised self-destruction (as against authorised self-destruction in military action) or because he had the temerity to die for personal reasons, for causes rooted in the household rather than the state. His disappearance from the history books renders his presence in Gray’s novel an irrelevance, and the book itself a luxury item, filled as it is with fantastically imagined things and people who do not feature in the factual narratives that bestow cultural capital on their readers. Godwin Baxter, Bella/Victoria, Archibald McCandless, all exist (imaginatively speaking) in the forgotten corners of the archives, as shadows at the edges of the old etchings with which the editor fills the last pages of the novel. Spending time and money on them would seem to be an act of reckless self-indulgence, on the part of both the reader and the writer-artist. The care and artistry that have been lavished on the hardback edition of the book – all that strictly unnecessary labour – render it more self-indulgent still, an item to be rejected by pragmatists: financiers, scientists, evangelists, politicians. Except that the book exposes the dreams and desires that suffuse economics, science, politics and evangelism, knitting them together with our ungainly bodies and the material conditions of our lives, identifying them as the energies that drive us. It invites us to reconsider what history is, and how it relates to the fantastic. And that’s a story that gets continued in its fine appendix, A History Maker – the subject of a follow-up blog post in a few weeks’ time.

 

Magical Journeys in Sixteenth-Century Prose Fiction

Ulysses and the Sirens, by Herbert James Draper (1909)

Journeys in the sixteenth century were woven around with magic. Classical precedent meant that any educated sailor could expect to meet a bewildering variety of supernatural obstacles on a sea voyage, from Sirens, sea monsters and Cyclopes to the enchantresses Circe, Calypso and Medea. Even writers who thought these phenomena fantastical invoked them as potent metaphors for the genuine perils of early modern travel. Circe in particular stood for temptations of the flesh and spirit that threatened to turn travellers aside from their educational, religious or political objectives. And for the celebrated teacher Roger Ascham, the highest concentration of such temptations was to be found in Catholic Italy, whose people and customs were capable of transforming English tourists into beasts or demons, with disastrous effects on the island nation that produced them.[1]

Even Italians, Ascham claims, fear an Englishman infected with the virus of Italianism. ‘Englese Italianato, e un diabolo incarnato’, he cites them as saying in his influential tract The Schoolmaster (1570), and he goes on to list the specific forms of devilry carried home to England by youths returning from Rome:

for Religion, Papistrie or worse: for learning, lesse commonly then they caried out with them: for pollicie, a factious hart, a discoursing head, a mynde to medle in all mens matters: for experience, plenty of new mischieves never knowne in England before: for maners, varietie of vanities, and chaunge of filthy lyving. These be the inchantementes of Circes, brought out of Italie, to marre mens maners in England.[2]

Catholicism, ignorance, treason, clever talk, an interfering nature, voracious lechery – such are the toxic side effects of spells cast on the unwary English student who strays too close to Venice or the Vatican, refashioning him into an ungainly monster with ‘the belie of a Swyne, the head of an Asse, the brayne of a Foxe, the wombe of a wolfe’ (p. 228) whose sole purpose is to spread the twin diseases of false religion and sexual promiscuity throughout his native country. And travel, Ascham adds, need not be physical to work its deadly mutations. Italian soil can be imported to England in the form of books, and Italian books translated into English can do twenty times more damage than any trip to Naples. Travel weaves its deadly enchantments in the head, which is why the young traveller, whether in foreign books or foreign countries, needs to cultivate the godliness and ingenuity of the greatest of travellers, Ulysses, if he is to keep a fragile hold on his identity during his wanderings.

John William Waterhouse, Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses (1891)

At the same time, the seductiveness of travel is taken as read by the moralists who rail against it. Circe, the Sirens, Calypso, Medea – all are deeply alluring to the vagabonds who cross their path. And the notion of travel itself, with its dissolution of boundaries and obligations, its pleasures erotically tangled up with its perils, its encounters with wonderful novelties and antiquities of art and nature – there is a magic to it which, as Ascham acknowledges, incites young Englishmen to ‘go, and ryde, and flie’ after ‘the Siren songes of Italie’ (pp. 228, 226). What more natural for aspiring authors, then, than to harness this metaphorical magic in their own books by sending their protagonists on a literally magical journey? A voyage by a fiery chariot, perhaps, cutting the tedium of a long-haul sea voyage to a few short hours of flight; or an excursion to somewhere no one else has ever visited, like the moon, the stars, the underworld; or a succession of close encounters with figures from myth or history or legend. To narrate such a journey is to set your mind at liberty for a while and question everything your teachers told you about right and wrong, truth and falsehood, the orthodox and the heretical. It is to discover that thought is free (as Stephano and Trinculo did with Caliban’s help), and that mobility can make your actions as unencumbered as your thought is.[3] And if anybody challenges you about the ideological implications of your fantastic journey – well, you can always say with Lucian that you never claimed to be giving an account of anything real, just indulging in a little jeu d’esprit to relax the exhausted minds of busy readers.[4]

Besides the chivalric romance, two major traditions of prose fiction sought to exploit the imaginative possibilities of the magical journey in the Tudor period. The better known of these is the magical jest-book, most successfully represented by the Europe-wide bestseller Virgilius – first translated into English, and printed by Jan van Doesborch, in about 1518 – whose protagonist embarks on a career of conjuring, sexual adventure, and flamboyant trickery, which provided a template for the legends of Dr Faustus.[5] The other tradition was that of Lucianic satire: a witty, highly inventive literary exercise derived from the work of the Syrian satirist Lucian. The translation of some of Lucian’s dialogues by the celebrated humanists Desiderius Erasmus and Thomas More set him for a while at the heart of the English school curriculum; he was used to teach both Greek and Latin, despite his reputation for irreverence and even blasphemy;[6] and his status in Protestant countries was enhanced by the fact that two of his works were placed on the papal Index of forbidden books in 1559, followed by the rest in 1590.[7] From a twenty-first century perspective, these two traditions – the magical jest-book and the Lucianic satire – look as though they might have been aimed at two different classes of reader. The barely educated man or woman has seemed to many critics to be the obvious target audience for the exploits of a trickster magician; and the scholar has seemed the obvious recipient of Lucian’s dialogues, with their high density of literary allusions and their risqué, sophisticated subject matter. I’d like to suggest, though, that the two traditions were more closely linked than we tend to think. Thanks to Faustus, the magical jest-book became as closely associated with the Protestant Reformation as the works of Lucian, and as engaged with the serio-comic scrutiny of the triumphs and disasters of contemporary scholarship. The magical jest-book found its way into Tudor imitations of Lucian in the guise of ‘merry tales’, those pithy celebrations of spontaneous wit, scatological pranks, and inventive adultery. And both traditions fused in explosive fashion in the 1580s and early 1590s as components of the great burst of creativity that gave rise to Marlowe’s theatrical masterpiece Doctor Faustus, along with some equally energetic works of experimental prose fiction.

Mephistopheles, played by Arthur Darvil, in the Globe’s first production of Dr. Faustus (2012)

This essay about magical journeys, in fact, traces a journey that participates in the transformative magic of the narratives it discusses. Supernatural travel begins in the early years of the sixteenth century as a pleasure trip, spiced up by the presence of devils and the somewhat blasphemous resemblance between its protagonist’s peregrinations and those of a wonder-working saint, a second Saint Brendan. It becomes a tool of Protestant propaganda in the middle years of the century, tracking down the illegitimate activities of Catholics in England and beyond with the persistence of a good-humoured spymaster. And in the 1580s and 90s it undergoes another metamorphosis, mocking the religious inflexibility of Protestant moralists as cheerfully as it continues to deride the adherents of other religions. From one point of view, this is a voyage from exuberance to wittily articulated paranoia and back again to exuberance; and it provides a fascinating miniature model of the trajectory of English literature as a whole in the course of the Tudor period. But throughout the period there is a moral ambiguity about the magical journey that protects even its most propagandistic manifestations from charges of crudeness or simplicity. Authors who flirt with magic are playing with fire, and such perilous playfulness has little to do with preaching.

To begin with a magical jest-book, then: the most influential work of this kind before the Faustbuch – Virgilius – is a wish fulfilment fantasy that invites its readers to throw themselves headlong into the heady joys of imaginative travel. Virgilius himself is a strange alternative version of Virgil the poet, possessing at once the phenomenal powers ascribed by some to Virgil’s Aeneid (which could predict the future by way of a ritual called the Sortes Virgilianae, whereby readers chose a passage of the poem at random and then applied it to the circumstances of their own lives) and the dubious moral status of Aeneas himself, betrayer of his hometown Troy and his lover Dido.[8] The son of a Roman knight, Virgilius begins life as an ordinary schoolboy in Spain before stealing some necromantic books from a devil and reinventing himself as a teacher of thaumaturgy renowned across Europe for his learning and good looks. When his mother falls ill he does to her in Rome, where he quickly rises to become chief counsellor to the Emperor himself. His geographical mobility is as remarkable as the speed of his social rise. He goes to school in Tolleten – presumably Toledo, famous for sorcery – then moves to Rome and builds the city of Naples with his necromantic arts. In between, he indulges in a spot of sexual tourism. Finding himself unhappily married, he constructs a bridge of air and visits a soldan’s daughter on the other side of the Mediterranean. On being caught together by her father the couple flees across the airy viaduct, and it is for the princess that he builds his Neapolitan city by the sea. Power, sex and unlimited travel, then, derive in this book from books of magic – the volumes Virgilius purloins from the fiend. So too does danger, as the poet-magician’s exploits anticipate all Ascham’s anxieties about the deleterious effects of travel and Italian culture half a century before the publication of The Schoolmaster. And this combined promise of power and danger lends the book itself – the fiction purveyed by the anonymous author to his readers – a curiously amoral atmosphere, which may help to explain its Europe-wide success.

Virgilius the Sorcerer, by Aubrey Beardsley

The most fascinating thing about Virgilius is his unstable position as protagonist, which his freewheeling lifestyle serves to emphasize. What are we to think of him? We are never allowed a settled view of this magician as a jest-book hero. An immigrant in Rome, Virgilius begins by showing solidarity with the Roman poor, rewarding them for looking after his mother and providing them with free public services such as an efficient lighting system for the city. Later he becomes the patron of scholars, who are the most favoured citizens in the city he founds by magic, Naples. He is a successful lover, bowling over his eastern princess at first sight, and the world’s most powerful magician, twice defeating the Roman army. At the same time, all his encounters with women apart from the Soldan’s daughter prove unsatisfactory. A woman he fancies arranges to hoist him up to her bedroom window, only to leave him dangling in a basket for the world to laugh at; his wife destroys the magic image he made that robbed women of the desire to ‘do bodely lust’;[9] and an unfaithful wife gets the better of his patent lie detector, made in the shape of a metal serpent, with a simple but cunning ruse. As these incidents suggest, there are times when Virgilius has no sympathy at all with underdogs, male or female. He dedicates much of his time and energy to installing security systems to protect the Emperor’s interests: a palace designed to let him eavesdrop on the private conversations of his subjects; a brass horseman who enforces a curfew by slaughtering anyone who emerges from their houses after nightfall; a device for keeping tabs on the Roman dominions, installed in statues mounted on the Capitol. Such devices indicate the traveller-magician’s willingness to insinuate himself where he is not wanted, to pry into the minds and bedrooms of men and women, violating other people’s private space in a more insidious manner than any nosy tourist or itinerant scholar. And his undermining of his own heroic status is compounded by the manner of his death.

In the last chapter of the book Virgilius attempts to rejuvenate himself, using the tried and trusted method by which the enchantress Medea promised to rejuvenate King Pelias. The magician instructs his servant to chop him to bits and stow them in a barrel, then carefully tend a lamp hanging over the barrel for nine full days, after which the dismembered mage will be reborn as a beardless youth. Unfortunately, the Roman Emperor suspects the servant of having murdered his master and executes him before the nine days are over, after which a miracle does indeed occur – but not the one Virgilius intended:

Than sawe the Emperoure and all his folke a naked chylde .iii. tymes rennynge a boute the barell saynge the words. Cursed be the tyme that ye cam ever here / and with those words vanysshed the chylde a waye and was never sene a geyne and thus abyd Virgilius in the barell deed [i.e. dead]. (sig. F3r)

Ironically, given his status as the Emperor’s surveillance expert, Virgilius dies as a result of the Emperor’s eagerness to keep him under surveillance, which leads the dictator to break into his castle and stab his research assistant. Virgilius the spy is killed by an aggressive act of espionage; and his lifelong struggle to get the better of the supreme imperial authority – which began with a campaign to get back his father’s lands in Rome, and later saw Virgilius challenge the Emperor’s supremacy by setting up a rival metropolis – ends with power being restored to the Emperor again, albeit with the minor compensation that the latter never gets hold of the magician’s fabulous wealth, which remains secreted in an undiscovered cellar.

Virgilius the Sorcerer carries away the Princess of Babylon, by Henry Justice Ford (1906)

This scholar’s fantasy ends, then, by reinstating the political status quo, thus setting a precedent for the ultimate submission of magicians to their political masters, and the eventual entrapment of itinerant sorcerers, which is a regular feature of magical jest-books from the Faustbuch to Fortunatus. The return of the status quo is reinforced by the effacement of the wonders created with the help of the black arts. A traveller-magician builds many monuments but leaves few behind. The palace Virgilius built for the Emperor exists no longer. Neither do the surveillance statues he set up on the Capitol, or the lighting system he devised for Rome, or the airy bridge with which he abducted the soldan’s daughter, or his lie-detecting serpent. At each stage of the narrative the reader is invited to gawp like a tourist at Virgilius’s achievements in Rome and Naples; but should we wish to retrace his footsteps like a secular pilgrim, we shall be disappointed. All that remains of the magic that founded Naples is an egg suspended in a steeple (actually the Castel dell’Ovo on the island of Megaride), and the myth that the city will fall if the egg should break. The black arts of Virgilius have proved as short-lived as the man himself, ensuring that any traveller who seeks material traces of his passage can only bear witness to the rapid dissolution of his achievements in necromancy, despite his reputation as ‘the conyngest that ever was a fore or after in that scyence’ (sig. E3r).

Virgilius takes place in a pre-Christian society, and this along with its meticulous erasure of its protagonist and all his works helped it avoid religious censure. The sorcerer-poet’s errant behaviour poses no threat to the early modern authorities by virtue of its antiquity and the obliteration of its traces. But with the advent of the Reformation, the suspect qualities of the traveller (magical or otherwise) were multiplied a thousandfold by the pressures of religious conflict. In mid-Tudor England the uncertain credentials of every vagrant (where does he come from, who is his master, what is his agenda?) easily identified travellers with Catholic missionaries who sought to reclaim England for the Church; and the wonders they spoke of could easily be equated with the miracles and transubstantiations legitimized by Rome. During this period it was the satirist Lucian, with his reputation as the scourge of religious hypocrisy, whose accounts of fantastic voyages made him a favourite with English Protestants. William Baldwin’s brilliant anti-Catholic satire Beware the Cat (c. 1553), which is full of lying Catholic travellers, witches and magicians as well as the devious feline informers of the title, bears a close resemblance to Lucian’s Philopseudes (‘The Doubter’), translated by Thomas More in the first decade of the century.[10] And in 1564 the physician William Bullein introduced a still closer imitation of Lucian into this celebrated Dialogue Against the Fever Pestilence (1564), in the form of the magical journey of a traveller called Mendax [i.e. liar, perhaps with a pun on mendicant or beggar], modelled as much on the sublime nonsense of Lucian’s True History as on the travels of Sir John Mandeville.[11]

William Bullein, from his Bulwarke of Defence against all Sicknesse, Soarenesse, and Woundes (1562)

In exchange for food, Bullein’s Catholic wanderer mesmerizes a London citizen with his strange accounts of the dragons, unicorns, giants, chess-playing parrots, tennis-playing apes and tree-climbing mermaids he has encountered on his worldwide peregrinations. His narrative is filled with hints at the abundant riches he has gained and lost, and with promises of future riches to be obtained by seizing certain ‘little fleting [i.e. floating] Islandes’ full of ‘Suger, Spice, Silke, Linnen, &c., readie made, and that will make readie money, and money maketh a man’ (p. 102). The islands are clearly ships to be snapped up in acts of piracy, and the whole narrative reeks of the greed for gold that fuelled the first great wave of Tudor exploration. The fact that buccaneering is advocated here by a Catholic makes it seem a Catholic vice rather than an English one – ironically enough, given the Dialogue’s publication in the lifetime of the English buccaneers and slave traders John Hawkins and Francis Drake.

But the satire of Bullein’s Dialogue is not exclusively directed at Catholics. Mendax’s story also satirizes the credulity of those Protestants who fall so easily for the tall stories told by beggarly ex-mariners and vagrant con artists. As proof of his veracity, Mendax offers his listeners his own dog, who is in fact (he claims) the victim of a spell like the one used by Circe to turn Ulysses’ companions into pigs. This dog, he insists, was once a boy who had the bad luck to be changed into a dog in the magical land of Ethiopia. In that country children grow on trees, which encourages cannibalism – a human being or an apple for breakfast, it makes no difference to an Ethiopian enchanter. Unfortunately, a recent team of Catholic missionaries did not know about this taste for human flesh, and got themselves consumed by hostile locals who disliked the new brand of magic the missionaries brought with them. Mendax and his boy were saved from consumption by their canine transformation at the hands of a friendly local; and the boy remains trapped in the form of a domestic pet. ‘This same is he,’ the traveller asserts:

he was a gentleman of a good house; he understandeth us well, and sometime was a proper man, and shoulde have maried with one in London called Jone Trim: whiche nowe are, God wot, of sondrie kyndes, but differ not in conditions, chast, religious, and kind harted. (p. 104)

Here the Circean metamorphosis performs a quite different function from the one it would have in Ascham’s treatise The Schoolmaster. The cannibalistic magicians of a distant land use it to protect themselves from the rapacious acquisitiveness of English visitors as well as from the agents of the Inquisition. In fact, foreignness has become naturalised in England as a result of religious division. The Englishman is as much a menace to his own countrymen as to the Africans whose goods and persons he covets, and young people of the island kingdom find themselves estranged from one another – rendered ‘of sondrye kyndes’ – by the bad religious company they find at home (where presumably the boy signed up for his ill-fated voyage to Africa). That the boy’s metamorphosis – indeed, the boy himself – is clearly a fiction invented by Mendax merely reinforces the point: it is Mendax, not the Ethiopians, who is the deadly enchanter of Bullein’s tale, seeking to take advantage of a naïve Londoner by charming him with seductive falsehoods and using Othello-esque tales to spirit away his gold. The Siren songs of Italy have already come home to roost on English soil.

Thomas More’s Island of Utopia (1518)

In fact Mendax goes on to suggest that the Western Archipelago itself is somehow ‘foreign’ to the idea of what it should be. He describes his visit to an antipodean Great Britain, whose Swiftian name (Taerg Natrib) implies that it is the inverted mirror image of his homeland. The capital city Nodnol is the ‘best reformed Citie of this woorlde’ (p. 105); there is ‘not one Papiste in all that lande […] no, nor one wicked liver’ (p. 106); churches are well attended, and ‘[t]here is not one Usurer: not one’ (p. 107). Disturbingly, Mendax’s lying account of his adventures ends with the biggest lie of all: that a version of Great Britain exists that is the ideal Protestant nation. Bullein here pulls off a conjuring trick worthy of the greatest Lucianist of all, the Catholic apologist Thomas More, by having a speaker of nonsense – a second Hythloday (whose name means ‘speaker of nonsense’ and who tells the story of More’s Utopia) – suddenly confront his readers with their own reversed reflection, to their intense discomfort. Protestant readers who have so far revelled in the satirist’s attack on papistry suddenly find themselves the butt of his excoriating pen, forced to acknowledge that they are as diseased as the hostile religionists they despise. Bullein’s Dialogue concerns the plague, and its point is that no one in England can escape either the punishment of that infection or responsibility for the sins that caused it.

We have now encountered both the magical jest-book and the Lucianic satire in English, although one should add that both Baldwin and Bullein incorporate plenty of jest-book material or ‘merry tales’ into their masterpieces. But in the decade after Bullein wrote hs Dialogue, we suddenly get evidence that two learned Englishmen, at least, recognised a generic kinship between the jest-book and the works of Lucian. On 20 December 1578 Edmund Spenser gave his friend the academic Gabriel Harvey a German jest-book called Till Eulenspiegel, translated as A Merry Jest of a Man Called Howleglas, together with two English jest-books and the Spanish picaresque ‘novel’ Lazarillo de Tormes, on condition that he read them all by New Year’s Day; ‘otherwise to forfeit unto him my Lucian in fower volumes’, as Harvey explains in his copy of Howleglas.[12] Clearly, itinerant trickster-heroes like the English jester-poet Henry or John Scoggin and the poet-priest John Skelton, whose jest-books Spenser gave to Harvey along with Howleglas, were seen as inhabiting the same comic universe as Lucian’s philosopher-slave Menippus – the man on whom Lucian modelled himself as a poet and a social commentator. All these texts, it would appear, made suitable Christmas reading, at least from Spenser’s point of view. The link between them was perhaps strengthened by the fact that Scoggin and Skelton were scholars, like Menippus, as would be the heroes of the two most famous magical jest-books of the following decade. Scoggin and Skelton were not magicians, but there is a necromantic aspect to some of their escapades that suggest they would have felt quite at home in the company of Virgilius or Fortunatus.

Gabriel Harvey, c. 1590

In 1578 Gabriel Harvey was a lecturer at Cambridge; Spenser may have been one of his students. Over the next few years his job could have put him in touch with several equally gifted young Cambridge students: Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, the experimental poet Abraham Fraunce, the teacher of French John Eliot.[13] One thing that links all these men is an interest in Lucianic magical journeys, which Harvey may have helped to stimulate with his ‘Lucian in fower volumes’. Fraunce published an amusing pastiche of Lucian’s True History in 1592, in which a trio of Cambridge scholars travels to heaven to consult with the pagan gods on a problem of astronomy.[14] Eliot printed a series of amusing passages on travel in his French and English textbook Ortho-epia Gallica (1593), taking much of his material from Rabelais and acknowledging Lucian’s influence (STC 7574, sig. B1v). Marlowe worked with Nashe on a Lucianic play about the seductive charms of the traveller Aeneas, Dido Queen of Carthage (c. 1593);[15] while Nashe’s Pierce Penniless (1592) owes much to Lucian’s Menippus and his journeys to the underworld. One gets the sense that the loosely-knit group of playwrights, poets and pamphleteers working in the 1580s and early 1590s known as the ‘University Wits’ felt an affinity with the learned Syrian satirist, especially the Cambridge contingent of that fellowship; and that they shared his delight in drawing on magic and the supernatural as instruments of satire.

But some of these Cambridge men were also interested in magical jest-books. Marlowe used the English translation of the German Faustbuch, The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Dr John Faustus (c. 1588), as the source for his greatest play; and Greene drew on an English jest-book, The Famous History of Friar Bacon (c. 1590), when he penned his own Faustian tragicomedy Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (c. 1590).[16] Evidently, one of the features of the Faustbuch that most appealed to its English translator P.F. – and which gets picked up in Marlowe’s play – was the vivid account it gave of Faustus’s travels. Not content with rendering the Doctor’s journeys as they are given in the original, P.F. adds many new details about, among other things, the city of Kraków and the tomb of Virgilius near Naples. Details like these make the central section of his translation read like a supernatural Baedeker or Rough Guide – making it ‘perhaps the most lively brief travelogue of the sixteenth century’[17] – and it is in these central sections that the master magician is permitted most unequivocally to assume the status of a jest-book hero, punching the Pope and stealing his food without a peep of authorial indignation. When Faustus acts out the naughtiest dreams of good German or English Protestants he can be permitted to play his pranks unimpeded, although his famous deal with the devil – to say nothing of the portentous title page – makes it inevitable that his story will end in disaster.

Roger Bacon, from Symbola Aureae by Michael Maier (1617)

Friar Bacon, on the other hand, engineers a cheerful ending for his story, burning his books, renouncing his craft, and saving his soul on the brink of damnation. To justify this redemption, the anonymous author has him devote his entire career to the service of the English monarch; and his geographical stability as a resident of England helps to confirm the relative moral stability of his character, as compared with those shifty wanderers Virgilius and Faustus. Instead of travelling himself, Bacon makes other people travel to him. He conjures Russians, Poles, Indians and Armenians to meet the English king in Oxford, bearing ‘sundry kinds of furres’ as if in celebration of the productive sort of travel indulged in by the English Muscovy Company.[18] He sends his German rival Vandermast flying home through the air to his wife after beating him in a conjuring contest. And he seeks to procure England’s safety by all means necessary. The Friar constructs his famous brazen head not for personal gain but to protect his country from its enemies by surrounding it with a giant wall of brass. Had he succeeded, he would also have cut the English off from the possibility of foreign travel, penning up the Englishman’s identity once and for all by barring him from shopping for outlandish continental fashions. He fails to build the wall, of course; but Bacon’s failures serve not as judgments on his character but to affirm for him the weaknesses of necromancy when set against the will of God – a lesson which like any good proto-Protestant he proves ready and willing to learn.

Like Virgilius, Bacon is an expert in the art of surveillance; but unlike his Roman predecessor his surveillance devices end up by making him see how closely he himself is watched by the divinity. At one point he constructs a mirror capable of showing what is going on at a distance – thus once again obviating the need for travel. But a pair of young men use the mirror to watch their fathers kill each other, and they avenge these deaths by fighting each other to the death in imitation of their parents. This incident is what makes Bacon renounce magic, burn his books, and become a ‘true penitent Sinner, and an Anchorite’ or hermit.[19] So the English book, like Virgilius, ends in a decisive act of self-censorship, symbolically stamping out the trade in inflammatory texts that caused such anxiety to Roger Ascham, and committing its protagonist to solitude, bookishness, and meditative silence.

Robert Greene in his grave clothes, from John Dickenson’s Greene in Conceit (1598)

It is well known that Marlowe and Greene wrote plays based on these two magical jest-books. What is less well known, perhaps, is the extent to which they themselves became the topic of magical jest-books after their deaths.[20] Greene in particular had a hugely active afterlife following his death in September 1592. He and the comic actor or clown Dick Tarleton (who died in 1588) embarked on a series of Lucianic journeys through Heaven, Hell and Purgatory in a number of ebullient pamphlets, from the anonymous Tarleton’s News Out of Purgatory (1590) to Greene’s News Out of Heaven and Hell (1593) by Barnaby Rich. Indeed, so many of these posthumous pamphlets were published that the cover illustration for John Dickenson’s Greene in Conceit (1598) shows Greene scribbling away in his grave-clothes, as far from decay six years after his death as he had been six years before it. As they wander through the afterlife, Greene and Tarleton make a mockery of the religious wars of the Reformation by co-opting both the fictional region of Purgatory (speaking from a Protestant perspective) and the very real realm of Hell as a source of gossip and merry tales. And in Henry Chettle’s Kind-Heart’s Dream (1593) their ghosts take up verbal arms to defend the theatre, which had been graphically linked to Hell by the anti-theatrical lobbyist William Rankins in 1587.[21] It is Tarleton who makes the best case in this text for tolerating drama, insisting that:

Mirth in seasonable time taken is not forbidden by the austerest sapients [i.e. wise people]. But indeed there is a time of mirth, and a time of mourning. Which time having been by Magistrates wisely observed, as well for the suppressing of Playes, as other pleasures: so likewise a time may come, when honest recreation shall have his former libertie. (STC 5123, sig. C4r).

The magical journeys in these posthumous pamphlets not only purge their dead theatrical protagonists of their sins, but constitute a serial celebration of imaginative freedom. Clearly, the literary scene had changed quite drastically since the aggressive anti-Catholic satires of Baldwin and Bullein in the 1550s and 60s.

Greene’s ghostly travels had a happy ending: he finished as an inhabitant of a Lucianic underworld at the beginning of Dickenson’s Greene in Conceit, listening appreciatively as the Cynic philosophers Menippus and Diogenes torment the spirits of the rich for their desperate desire to get back to their self-indulgent lifestyles. Greene evidently feels at home with these classical satirists who earned a reputation, like himself, for excoriating secret vices. And Marlowe too, I would suggest, ended by being redeemed in a work of supernatural fiction: an extraordinary magical jest-book called The Second Report of Doctor John Faustus.

A seventeenth-century engraving of Doctor Faustus and a friend

Entered in the Stationer’s Register in November 1593 and published in 1594, the anonymous Second Report begins by demonstrating its intention to continue in the role played by the first English Faust book, the Damnable Life, as a Rough Guide to supernatural Europe. It opens with a detailed account of all the tourist sights associated with Faustus in Wittenberg, most of which had been visited by the traveller Fynes Morrison in 1590.[22] Even more than Virgilius, the Second Report encourages the sort of magic-themed tourism that Morrison indulged in; it also includes an elaborate description of Vienna, the backdrop for the spectacular thaumaturgic events of the book’s second half. But there is a big difference in tone between the Second Report’s willingness to indulge the reader’s curiosity as to the material evidence of Faustus’s adventures and the Damnable Life’s insistence on its own moral function as a deterrent to curiosity. And this genial indulgence of the reader’s taste for the supernatural extends to its indulgence of Faustus himself, who reappears in the Second Report as a devilish trickster, as well as to Fuastus’s young servant Wagner, who acquires the forename Kit as if to align him with the controversial playwright who was stabbed to death six months before the Second Report was registered.

In fact allusions to Marlowe are stamped all over this jest-book like the fingerprints of a ghost. The first half is a Faustian tract, narrating the adventures of Kit Wagner as he takes up the black arts his master practised. The second half is set in Vienna, which is under siege by the Turks and is clearly, among other things, a pastiche of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. Both halves are packed with references to the theatre. Wagner first meets the ghost of Faustus in ‘the same Hall wherein his Maisters latest Tragedy was perfourmed’;[23] and when he later decides to summon Faustus formally, with a spell, the ghost arrives in a pageant like the masque of the Seven Daedly Sins in Doctor Faustus, preceded by a miniature devil ‘as it were the Prologue of a Comedy’ (sig. B2v), and culminating in the dead doctor’s coronation. Later still, when a messenger from the Duke of Austria seeks a demonstration of Wagner’s necromantic skills, the young man mounts a performance of Doctor Faustus with a cast of devils in the sky above Wittenberg. Wagner’s activities as a young theatrical impresario align him with Kit Marlowe as strongly as does his nickname; and they also gradually transform the jest-book into a cheeky defence of the stage – or rather of the imagination, whether in the theatre or in print – even livelier and more impertinent than the one mounted by Tarleton in Kind-Heart’s Dream.

Design by Orson Welles for the costume of Wagner (1937)

A gradual change of tone takes place between the first half and the second half of the Second Report. The first frequently pays lip-service to the moral severity of the Damnable Life; Wagner is racked with remorse of conscience as he drifts into necromancy, and the dire consequences of such magical dabblings are mentioned often. When Faustus is crowned by devils, for instance, the author warns: ‘his wretchednes made [him] a king, and his new-found king-ship nothing’ (sig. B3r); and such interjections invest the first few chapters with some of the menacing atmosphere of the Damnable Life. But as the book goes on, the moral interventions decline in number, to be replaced by an implied imaginative complicity with the events that are being narrated. When Mephistopheles notices that Wagner has got a little depressed by his account of the psychological effects of Hell, he offers him a young woman to restore his spirits, who is described in lascivious details from head to foot – although the author insists the description is ‘farre more copious’ in the non-existent German original (sig. D4v). at the end of the chapter Wagner goes to bed with her, passing the night ‘in such pleasure as I could find in my heart to enjoy or any man (unlesse an Euenuch beside)’ (sig. E1r). The author and the male reader are suddenly in bed with Wagner, both imaginatively and morally speaking, and the theological connotations of the scene are all but forgotten.

The reason for this transformation, it seems to me, lies in the ludic attitude to fiction that gradually comes to dominate the text. It is an attitude much like Lucian’s in his True History, which begins by insisting on its own fictional status and mocking those accounts of impossible journeys that masquerade as reportage. ‘Let this voluntary confession forestall any future criticism’, Lucian declares. ‘I am writing about things entirely outside my own experience or anyone else’s, things that have no reality whatever and never could have’. As we have seen, the True History was in vogue in the early 1590s, when Abraham Fraunce published an imitation of it less than a year before the Second Report was entered in the Stationer’s Register. And the jest-book tales a similar delight on toying with ideas of truth and falsehood.

The house in Wittenberg where Faustus was dismembered

The description of Faustian tourist sites in Wittenberg, for instance, seems designed to contrast the accuracy of the Second Report with the ‘many things in the first book’ that are ‘meere lies’ (sig. A4r) – for instance, its claim to be a translation, when in fact it expands considerably on the original, especially in the section where Faustus discusses philosophy with Mephistopheles. ‘Let a man mark [these discussions] duely,’ the narrator goes on, ‘they shall finde them I will not saie childish, but certainly superficiall, not like the talk of Divels, where with foldings of words they doe use to dilate at large, and more subtell by farre’ (sig. A4r). The implication is that the Second Report will be a more accurate as well as a more naturalistic narrative, and that the material remains of Faustus (the ruins of his house, a hollow tree where he taught magic to his scholars, the stone he engraved with his own epitaph) may be taken as proof of its authenticity. But the Second Report is even less of a translation than the first, although a German Wagner book did in fact exist by the time of its composition. The text has nothing to do with any German original. And when a philosophical discussion takes place between Wagner and Faustus’s ghost, it lays no stronger claim to authenticity than the Faustus-Mephistopheles dialogue in the Damnable Life. The only proof that this discussion took place are the bruises Wagner shows to his friends afterwards, which he claims to have received when Faustus battered him for doubting he could come back from the dead. ‘As for the disuptations betwixte those two in this place,’ the narrator goes on, ‘consider from whose braines they proceede, for you must give the Germane leave to shew his Art, for witte for the most part they have very little, but that which they toile for like Cart horses’ (sig. C3v). The narrator, in other words, insists that his supernatural dialogue is as crudely conceived as the dialogue he criticized in the first Faust book. Both books betray their fictionality by their style; and this should alert even the most timid of readers to the fact that they are not dabbling in forbidden knowledge when they turn their pages.

All the early episodes are framed by mildly anti-German quips like this one, suggesting that the legend of Faustus is ‘whetted over with the dropping of the Tappe exceedingly’ (sig. C3v) – that is, soaked in beer, which had been identified by the Tudor travel-writer and jest-book author Andrew Borde as a weakness of the Dutch and Germans. Chapter 2 is a case in point, with its title (‘How certaine drunken Dutchmen [i.e. Germans] were abused by theyr owne conceite and selfe imagination, of seing […] Doctor Faustus’, sig. B4v) being reinforced by the chapter’s final sentence: ‘Many odde pranks Faustus is made the father of, which are […] so merely smelling of the Caske, that a man may easily know the childe by the father’ (sig. B4v). This is not just random xenophobia. The effect of the thick, beery vapours that envelop these early episodes is to disarm them by rendering them wholly imaginative – the products not of Satanic influence but of excessive drinking. Thus gradually the moral implications of Wagner’s transactions with damnable spirits get dissipated by the author’s repeated assertions – disguised as reassurances of his text’s veracity – that what he is telling is no more than a silly fiction. Few Elizabethan writers more cleverly illustrate Sidney’s statement in the Apology for Poetry that the poet ‘nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth’ – that he is, in fact, not dangerous.[24] It is even tempting to believe that the writer could have had access to Sidney’s Apology, despite the fact that it only saw print two years after the Second Report went to press.

The journey on which the reader is taken in this text is, in fact, a trip from realism to mock-romance, from fictional biography to Rabelaisian nonsense. One step of the process is marked by the moment when the reader is invited to become complicit with Wagner’s liaison with the young woman. The episode drifts into the realm of romance when Mephistopheles disguises Wagner as the girl’s husband:

O wonder, his habite was changed with his thought, and he was no longer Wagner but Armisuerio the Ladies Lorde. And to be short this new Armisuerio and old Wagner mette with the Lady, and saluting her in the best kind of Bon noche, used her as he would doe his Lady, and shee him as her Lord. (sig. D4v)

The register of the narrative here shifts from the half-sombre tone it has had till now to the cheeky register of Ariosto. An Italian name introduces the lascivious Italianate encounter, and the name Armisuerio, with its gesture towards the terms for ‘true’ and ‘weapons’ (vero, armi), transports readers to the fabulous world of Charlemagne, as mapped out by Sir John Harington in his recent translation of Orlando Furioso (1591). Later the author confirms this link with Orlando by translating a poem in ‘Aristos vaine’ (sig. F2r). And once the scene has shifted again to Vienna, the narrative opens out into a fully-fledged pastiche of a romantic epic.

Gustave Doré, scene from Orlando Furioso

The siege of Vienna is dominated by a whacky Rabelaisian duel between the Holy Roman Emperor – Charlemagne’s descendant – and the Great Turk, a combat as ornately chivalric as it is ridiculous. The duel is complicated by the fact that the Christian combatant is mounted on a giant horse – big enough to be ‘the son of Gargantuas’ (sig. H2v) – and the Turk on a monstrous elephant. There is a great deal of ineffectual slashing and stabbing with weapons that are much too short, together with improbably agile side-stepping of potentially lethal blows. By this stage the text has stopped insisting on its fictive nature, and relaxed instead into a narrative so flamboyant that it could never be mistaken for realism. By this stage, too, the cold didacticism of the first half has completely vanished. Like the English conjurer Friar Bacon before them, Wagner, Faustus and their devilish companions devote their skills to the defence of Christian territory against foreign invasion, and as a result the author’s disapproval of the black arts is cast aside – just as in the text the religious differences between Christians are temporarily set aside for the fight against the Turk, with Catholics and Protestants joining together to defend the elements of faith they hold in common.

Even the Turks are not presented here as out-and-out villains. The Great Turk accepts the Holy Roman Emperor’s challenge to single combat with all the aplomb of a Carolingean paladin. In the final battle he meets his end like a hero, ‘fighting manfully on his Elephant’ (sig. K2r). Meanwhile his nemesis Kit Wagner, unlike the Wagner of the German Wagner book, avoids death altogether; we never learn what happens to him after the central role he played in the Turk’s defeat. Friar Bacon retired to the life of a hermit; but the Second Report ends with very un-eremitic celebrations, as the Christian princes ‘caused generall feasts and triumphs to be performed in all theyr kingdoms, provinces, and territories whatsoever’ (sig. K2r). For all we know, Wagner took part in the German leg of these celebrations; and we never see him suffer for the infernal pact that put him at the centre of them.

Gustave Doré, scene from Orlando Furioso

The journey of the Second Report – from England, where the author originated, to a beer-befuddled Germany, to Vienna, to the land of romance – can be read, I think, as a voyage of liberation; a pilgrimage towards the moment predicted in Kind-Heart’s Dream ‘when honest recreation shall have his former libertie’. The book’s breaching of geographical boundaries corresponds to its breaching of moral conventions, a repudiation of the defensive religiosity that put literature in fetters during the early phases of the Reformation.[25] The point of this narrative’s exuberant trajectory may well be that the most flamboyant fictions of page and stage are not finally damnable but inspiring – like the works of the satirist Lucian, or his successors Rabelais and Ariosto, or the outrageous experimental theatre of Kit Marlowe. It is a celebration of the imagination and its ability to cross gulfs, to bring people together, to delight and terrify, to make people believe that unreal things are real, to elevate the poor (as Faustus and Wagner are elevated), to reconcile enemies, and to win heroic victories, where life itself produces only massacres or uneasy compromises. The freedom it invokes may be achievable only through the magic journey of a fictional narrative. But the capacity of that journey to dismantle national, religious and social barriers, using only the bloodless weapon of impish laughter, rendered it as valuable to early modern readers as any more elevated art form.

Kit Marlowe (possibly)

NOTES

This essay was first printed in the Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 41, no. 1 (2011), 35-50. My thanks to Nandini Das for inviting me to write it.

[1] For a fuller account of Ascham’s attitude to Italianate Englishmen see R. W. Maslen, Elizabethan Fictions: Espionage, Counter-espionage and the Duplicity of Fiction in Early Elizabethan Prose Narratives (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), pp. 41-51.

[2] Roger Ascham, The Scholemaster, in The English Works of Roger Ascham, ed. William Aldis Wright (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1904), pp. 171-302 (p. 229). Subsequent page references will be given in the body of the text.

[3] The Tempest, III. 2. 119.

[4] See Lucian, Preface to The True History, in Satirical Sketches, trans. Paul Turner (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961), pp. 249-50.

[5] The two editions of this translation are STC 24828 (c. 1518) and 24829 (c. 1562). All references are to the former.

[6] More’s translations of Lucian are given in The Complete Works of Thomas More, III, Part I, ed. Craig R. Thompson (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974). For the impact of Erasmus’s and More’s Lucian translations see Thompson’s introduction.

[7] See Brenda H. Hosington, ‘Translations of Lucian in Renaissance England’, Syntagmatia: Essays on Neo-Latin Literature in Honour of Monique Mund-Dopchie and Gilbert Tournoy, ed. Dirk Sacré and Jan Papy (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2009), pp. 187-205 (p. 188). Thanks to Stuart Gillespie for this reference.

[8] The dubiousness of Aeneas stems from his depiction as a traitor in the works of Dares Phrygius and Dictis Cretensis. For the vatic powers of the Aeneid see the entry on Virgil in The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, ed. Paul Harvey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).

[9] Virgilius, STC 24828 (c. 1518), sig. D2v. Further references will be given in the text.

[10] For a detailed discussion of Beware the Cat see R. W. Maslen, ‘William Baldwin and the Tudor Imagination’, in The Oxford Handbook of Tudor Literature, 1485-1603, ed. Mike Pincombe and Cathy Shrank (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 291-306. Baldwin’s debt to Lucian needs further investigation.

[11] For a detailed account of Bullein’s Dialogue see R. W. Maslen, ‘The Healing Dialogues of Doctor Bullein’, Yearbook of English Studies, 38.1-2 (2008), 119-135. All references are to William Bullein, Dialogue Against the Fever Pestilence, ed. Mark W. Bullen and A. H. Bullen (London: N. Trübner, 1888), and will be given in the text.

[12] Virginia F. Stern, Gabriel Harvey: A Study of his Life, Marginalia, and Library (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979).

[13] For the notion that some of these writers may have formed a kind of literary fellowship see Stephen W. May, ‘Marlowe, Spenser, Sidney and – Abraham Fraunce?’, RES Advance Access (published 11 February 2010), http://res.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/reprint/hgp117.

[14] Abraham Fraunce, The Third Part of the Countess of Pembroke’s Ivychurch (London, 1592), fols. 55r – 59r.

[15] For the Lucianic tone of Dido Queen of Carthage see Roma Gill, ‘Marlowe’s Virgil: Dido Queen of Carthage’, RES, n.s., 28.110 (1977), 141-155.

[16] For the date of the Damnable Life see R. J. Fehrenbach, ‘A Pre-1592 English Faust Book and the Date of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus’, The Library, 2 (2001), pp. 327-335. For the date of the Famous History see The English Faust Book: A Critical Edition Based on the Text of 1592, ed. John Henry Jones (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 54-72. All references to the Damnable Life are taken from Jones’s edition.

[17] The English Faust Book, ed. Jones, p. 25.

[18] 1629 edition, STC 1184, sig. B1r.

[19] 1629 edition, STC 1184, sig. G3v.

[20] For further discussion of the texts that follow, with the exception of the Second Report, see R. W. Maslen, ‘Dreams, Freedom of Speech and the Demonic Affiliations of Robin Goodfellow’, Journal of the Northern Renaissance, 1.1 (2009), pp. 129-44.

[21] For William Rankins see R. W. Maslen, Shakespeare and Comedy (London: Thomson Learning, 2006), p. 13.

[22] See John A. Walz, ‘An English Faustsplitter’, Modern Language Notes, 42.6 (1927), pp. 325-365.

[23] The Second Report of Doctor John Faustus, sig. B2v. All references are taken from the first edition (1594), STC 10715, and will henceforth be given in the text.

[24] ‘The poet never maketh any circles about your imagination, to conjure you to believe for true what he writes’; that is, the poet never works magic to enchant your reason into credulity. Philip Sidney, Apology for Poetry, ed. Geoffrey Shepherd, revised R. W. Maslen (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), p. 103. Sir John Harington says something similar in the preface to his translation of Orlando Furioso, but does not invoke conjuring; see Ariosto, Orlando Furioso, trans. Harington, ed. Robert McNulty (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), p. 5, l. 3.

[25] For this notion of writing in imaginative fetters in the Reformation see James Simpson, The Oxford English Literary History, II. 1350-1547: Reform and Cultural Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), Introduction and Chapter 1.

Peake and Dickens

Mervyn Peake was passionate about Dickens. You only need to read a few pages of his first completed novel, Titus Groan, to see this at once, even before it has been pointed out – as Peter Winnington points out in his fine biography of Peake – that the scholar-pirate Mr Slaughterboard in Peake’s unfinished early novel of that name owns a complete set of Dickens bound in red leather; or that the hero-villain Steerpike in the Gormenghast books takes his name from the hero-villain of David Copperfield, Steerforth; or that Peake drew a magnificent set of charcoal illustrations for Bleak House in the 1940s, which wasn’t published till after his death.[1] There are Dickensian touches all over his work, and I’d like to point out a few of them in this post.

Peake looked at people with a Dickensian eye. In 1941, after being drafted into the army, he found himself studying his fellow conscripts with a sense of frustration that they should have been doomed to live in time of war – when lives and talents were being wasted at a frightening rate – rather than at a time when they could have served as imaginative material to be worked into a masterpiece of Victorian fiction. He wrote a poem about his frustration, ‘To a Scarecrow Gunner’. It’s not one of his best poems, and he knew it, leaving it in manuscript along with the unfinished Mr Slaughterboard; but it’s worth considering all the same. Here it is, a fourteen-line sonnet:

To a Scarecrow Gunner

The Fates have willed it that you’re living now
And not when Dickens might have watched your face
Your pigeon body and the tousled crow
That on your scalp finds perilous nesting space
And they have willed that Dickens cannot hear
Your sad inconsequent ejaculations
In such a curlew voice, as none may share
The portent of, save in hallucinations.

But so much less do I respect the Fates.

The Fates have willed the always insecure
And muddy forage cap on your dark head
Should not be part of Dickens’ stock and store –
But now sits cocky while the man is dead

Who might have seen what’s lost upon your mates.[2]

Mervyn Peake, 1945

Written as it is in wartime, this lament for what the scarecrow gunner fails to become – a character in one of Dickens’s novels – is rendered more painful by his likely other fate, to serve as fodder for the enemy’s guns. The birds in the poem – crow, pigeon, curlew – all have unfortunate connotations; the crow is a bird of ill omen, as is the curlew (its mournful cry is often thought to presage death), while the pigeon is a game bird whose use to carry messages in wartime makes it doubly vulnerable, as a source of food and a possible enemy instrument. The gunner’s scalp serves as a ‘perilous nesting place’ for his crow-like hair both because he is permanently dishevelled and because he is himself in peril as a soldier. The sound of the gunner’s voice is ‘sad’ because of the danger he is in, his voice unheard in the general din of a global conflict, the ‘portent’ it carries thanks to its resemblance to a curlew’s cry unnoticed by anyone except in the fever dreams or ‘hallucinations’ of the sick or wounded. The reference towards the end of the poem to Dickens being dead could have a double meaning; the scarecrow gunner’s cap ‘sits cocky while the man is dead’, both in the sense that the man who wears it is effectively dead already before being transported to the battlefields of the continent, and in the sense that the author is dead who might have seen his potential as a model for a character in his latest novel. The abrupt ending of the sonnet, then, while on the one hand it can be read as a poetic failing, can also be said to augur the premature ending of this potential. The scarecrow gunner is one of those lost souls in Peake’s work whose condemnation to obscurity robs the world of something extraordinary; and Dickens’s books are full of similar laments for lost potential.

Mervyn Peake, Harold Skimpole, from Bleak House

David Copperfield was obviously one of Peake’s favourite works by Dickens, and it’s a work that’s full of the fear of wasted talent: from the talent of Mr Micawber, who finds it so hard to find an outlet for his natural skills, to that of Rosa Dartle, whose disfigurement by the spoiled boy Steerforth has condemned her to a state of perpetual bitterness and a permanent quest for revenge against all the world apart from the man who actually injured her; from Little Emily, who is engaged to be married to a kindly and devoted fisherman named Ham, but is seduced by Steerforth into running off with him to Europe, ‘ruining’ her good name in the process, to Mrs Micawber, who is thought by her family to have made a disastrous marriage to the always-indebted Mr Micawber, and Agnes Wickfield, who is let down both by her widower father and her young admirer, David, and finds herself facing financial and personal ‘ruin’ as a result. There are several writers in the novel whose writing never comes to anything: Dr Strong, who is compiling a dictionary that never gets beyond the letter D; Mr Dick, who is writing an obscure Memorial which keeps being invaded by the figure of Charles I, decapitating the writer’s ambitions with every appearance. Mr Micawber, too, is a writer, who turns every event in his life, no matter how trivial, into a letter, very few of which succeed in their primary purpose, which is to bring him financial gain. David Copperfield is a writer, but for much of the novel all the writing he has time for is to jot down Parliamentary proceedings in shorthand, while his ill-considered marriage to the childlike Dora Spenlow quickly makes his nascent career as a novelist into a formidable barrier between them that augments their intellectual and imaginative differences instead of cementing their happiness. Relationships in this book are always on the point of collapsing or being destroyed by hostile forces; writing is always in the process of proving empty and pointless; and growing up, which is supposed to bring the potential of a child to maturation, is always being arrested or cut short.

Miss Mowcher, for instance, has stopped growing upwards at an early age and finds her life defined by her diminutive height. Dora has stopped developing intellectually at an equally early age, and finds herself being cheated by every tradesman or servant she asks to help her. Mr Dick, too, is widely perceived as having a childish mind, although his formidable guardian Betsey Trotwood remains convinced of his untapped genius. Mr Micawber is childish in his inability to find gainful employment, his permanent reliance on the kindness of a few good friends; Agnes too is trapped in childish dependence on others by the machinations of the upwardly-mobile clerk, Uriah Heep; Uriah has been forever tainted by the philosophy of the charitable foundation school where he was educated, which taught him to keep proclaiming his own humbleness no matter how fiercely he might resent it (p. 464).[3] For a Bildungsroman, a novel of growth from youth to maturity, David Copperfield is packed with people for whom growth has proved impossible in the teeth of the various social, economic, emotional and educational barriers they have been faced with.

Phiz, Steerforth at school

Perhaps the most striking figure of lost potential in the book is James Steerforth, the seemingly heroic young man who effortlessly wins the affection of people from every social class with his charm and charisma. Steerforth delights the inhabitants of the fishing community of Great Yarmouth, where he chooses to spend much of his time; the sailors and shipbuilders there, whose trades he learns at a whim; the schoolboys at the school where he gains his education – including David, who adores him with a passion; the women who fall for him and whom he betrays. Handsome, clever, rich (like Jane Austen’s Emma), he misuses his abundant gifts to damage the people who love him most as if in a destructive game – a game that proves self-destructive in the end. Rosa Dartle, the woman whose face he scarred and whose life he blighted, considers him to have been in potential worth ‘millions’ of any other person in the novel (p. 644). In practice he does nothing at all except flirt with David, damage Rosa Dartle and his mother, abscond with Little Emily, abandon her, and finally die pointlessly in a shipwreck.

As one might expect from the poet who lamented the lost possibilities of the scarecrow gunner, Gormenghast Castle in Titus Groan positively teems with similar cases of arrested development – to such an extent that Alice Mills has written an entire monograph about ‘stuckness’ in the fiction of Mervyn Peake.[4] In the first of the novel series that bears his name, Titus Groan himself gets stuck in childhood, growing with difficulty until he is ‘not two years old’ in the final chapter of the book that bears his name.[5] He is surrounded by people who are variously imprisoned by habit and custom, from the eremitic castle poet, who walls himself up in his tower with a barricade of books, to the community of the Bright Carvers, obsessively dedicated to the pursuit of carving wood into fantastic shapes while also being doomed to grow suddenly old at the age of twenty. There is the manservant Flay, so devoted to the castle that he has begun to ossify into a moving sculpture himself, and his arch-enemy Swelter the chef, permanently swathed in self-indulgence in the form of the imprisoning folds of fat that engulf him. There is the Countess Gertrude, Titus’s mother, an intelligent and formidable woman who is so wholly absorbed by her birds and cats she has no time for her children. There is his father Sepulchrave, so committed to his library that when Steerpike burns it he goes mad, repeatedly recreating the books he has lost by arranging pinecones on the ground as if on shelves, speaking in blank verse like his favourite dramatists and poets, and transforming himself as if by an act of unhinged imaginative will-power into a Death Owl from one of his tragedies or lost novels. Titus’s sister the Lady Fuchsia is stuck in her position as an impotent family member, ignored by everyone except her doting nurse and the castle doctor; and his aunts, the Ladies Cora and Clarice, are identical twins who are stuck in a permanent loop of mindlessly echoing each other’s thoughts and dreaming of a political coup that will never happen. All these characters embody the capacity of human beings to cut themselves off from one another – and from the past and the future, as the scarecrow gunner is cut off both from Dickens and from the life he might have lived in the time to come, if the deadly rituals of military life had not taken possession of his ‘pigeon body’. Gormenghast Castle is itself the mournful dream of an infinitely fertile imagination left to decay, like the forgotten halls and roofscapes of the seat of the Groans.

If Gormenghast perfectly embodies the lost potential that haunts the characters in David Copperfield, the young antagonist Steerpike embodies the character in Dickens’s book who has the most potential, Steerforth. Peter Winnington has pointed out that Steerforth had already made an appearance around ten years before the publication of Titus Groan in Peake’s unfinished novel, Mr Slaughterboard:

the moment when the dwarf, Shrivel, stands on the table and brushes Smear’s hair to a gloss inevitably brings David Copperfield to mind: the dwarf Miss Moucher [sic] is described by Dickens and memorably illustrated by Phiz, standing on a table, brushing and combing Steerforth’s hair which she has treated with oil.[6]

Phiz, ‘I make the acquaintance of Miss Mowcher’, from David Copperfield

This, Winnington says, is ‘about the closest Mervyn came to borrowing from Dickens’; but the echoes of Steerforth in the kitchen-boy Steerpike have been recognised for years. Steerpike is both charismatic and strangely attractive to others, despite his strange appearance and unsettling personality. Dr Prunesquallor is as arrested by his energy and naked ambition as Fuchsia is entranced by his mimicry of an adventure hero and a circus clown. Skilled, like Steerforth, in every craft he turns his hand to, he is galvanised into action by the birth of Titus, just as Steerforth is galvanised into action when he is invited to share in his young friend David’s personal life: to visit David’s working-class friends in their boat at Yarmouth, to meet David’s childhood sweetheart, Little Emily, and to entrance her adoptive family, slipping easily into their confidence thanks to his friendship with David, and laying his plans to break up their seaside idyll as if challenging himself to provide the most tragic of endings to David’s life story. Steerpike similarly worms his way into the lives of Titus’s family and associates: his sister, mother, father and aunts, the doctor who presided over his birth, the official who oversees the rituals they are obliged to attend, his elderly, diminutive nurse. Steerpike shares Steerforth’s playful brand of wicked humour, his willingness to do harm on a whim, and is at his most strenuously active when laying the groundwork for seemingly pointless acts of villainy: burning Sepulchrave’s library; designing imperial thrones for the aunts which will never be occupied; scrambling up and down a ladder to rescue members of the Groan family from a fire he himself has started; mixing poisons in the Doctor’s laboratory which he never uses, unless for the singularly pointless purpose of killing Nannie Slagg; lurking in a hammock under the Earl’s dining table to listen in on conversations that tell him nothing. His penetration of Titus’s environment is as complete, and as ruthless, as Steerforth’s invasion of David’s.

Mervyn Peake, Steerpike

In the second Titus book, Gormenghast, the former kitchen boy is more maliciously playful than ever, accompanied always by a monkey as if to point up his tricksterish nature. In this book his role as a double for Titus Groan – a kind of malignant substitute for him – is finally confirmed by his purloining of Titus’s boat, a light canoe the boy has imaginatively invested with the personality of the feral girl who was his first crush. And death is Steerpike’s constant companion or shadow, just as it is Steerforth’s. After being seduced and abandoned by Steerforth, Little Emily is urged to commit suicide by the envious Rosa Dartle, while her friend Martha (also ‘ruined’ by illicit sex) almost succumbs to the same temptation as she lingers on the banks of the Thames, before being saved by David and Mr Peggotty. In Gormenghast the young woman seduced by the upstart Steerpike ends by really committing suicide, since there is no one nearby to save her – one more in the trail of victims he leaves in his wake. She dies by drowning, as Martha nearly did. Steerpike, meanwhile, ends his days in water, like Dickens’s Steerforth, as if to atone for driving Fuchsia to despair. As we might expect, Steerpike is at his most strenuously active in the moments that lead to his death, nimbly evading hordes of pursuers, picking them off one by one with his catapult, skimming about the surface of the rising flood waters in his stolen canoe, until he is symbolically trapped in the ivy of the castle walls – and even then he wields his knife in delighted defiance and crows in triumph like a second Peter Pan. His ingenuity and energy are at their peak when there is nowhere left to go, and as a result he is as charismatic in the termination of his story as ever he was in its slow unfolding.

Steerforth’s death, too, contains unnerving echoes of an adventure story for boys. His charisma shines through as David observes him from a distance, labouring away with his less industrious shipmates in a hopeless attempt to fashion an escape from a deadly storm. Watching helplessly as Steerforth’s ship comes to grief among the breakers, David tells us: ‘I plainly descried her people at work with axes, especially one active figure with long curling hair, conspicuous among the rest’ (p. 637); and a few minutes later, ‘four men arose with the wreck out of the deep, clinging to the rigging of the remaining mast; uppermost, the active figure with the curling hair’ (p. 638). Even from far away David notices the beauty as well as the energy of the ‘active figure’, from the curling of his hair – so carefully tended by Miss Mowcher – to the very attractive head-covering that does so little to confine it: ‘He had a singular red cap on, – not like a sailor’s cap, but of a finer colour; and as the few yielding planks between him and destruction rolled and bulged, and his anticipative death-knell rung, he was seen by all of us to wave it’ (p. 639). Steerforth remains distinctive, handsome, stylish and theatrical in his final seconds, just as Peake’s Steerpike when he knows he is about to die promises to savour every second of it in a performance of melodramatic self-indulgence: ‘He would indulge himself – would taste the peculiar quality of near-death on his tongue – would loll above the waters of Lethe’ (p. 741). Steerpike is childish in his death, letting out the ‘high-pitched, overweening cry of a fighting cock’ as Titus strikes at him. Steerforth’s childishness comes out only after his death, when David sees him lying on shore among the ruins of Mr Peggotty’s boat-house, ‘with his head upon his arm, as I had often seen him lie at school’ (p. 640). He does not die alone; in another echo of a boy’s adventure story, the boatbuilder Ham – whose fiancée, Little Emily, Steerforth stole from him – makes a final heroic attempt to rescue his enemy, and drowns in the attempt, adding one more name to the list of lives destroyed by the young man’s influence. In both books – David Copperfield and Gormenghast ­– water comes to represent the threat of obliteration and obscurity, against which the books’ protagonists and villains struggle with every ounce of strength they have. The protagonists keep their heads above the water, while the villains and their victims succumb to it – on the villains’ part, at least, with seeming enjoyment, as they flash their knives and wave their caps in a last farewell.

Frank Reynolds, Uriah Heep

The other David Copperfield connection in the Titus books can be found in Steerpike’s resemblance to the book’s other villain, Uriah Heep. The ambitious clerk who rises to a position of power over the family that previously gave him employment has much in common with Peake’s unscrupulous kitchen-boy, who shares his humble beginnings and vaulting ambition. The pair resemble each other physically in obvious ways: Uriah when we first meet him is a ‘cadaverous’ youth of about fifteen, ‘who had hardly any eyebrows, and no eyelashes, with eyes of a red-brown, so unsheltered and unshaded that I remember wondering how he went to sleep’ (p. 181). Steerpike is seventeen when we first meet him in Swelter’s kitchen. He does not lose his eyebrows and eyelashes until he is almost burnt to death in the process of murdering Barquentine in the second Titus book, Gormenghast, but his eyes are of a distinctive shade of red from the beginning: he has ‘dark-red concentrated eyes’ (p. 111) when he first opens them to look at Fuchsia in her attic, and by the day of his death they have intensified to ‘two red points of light’ or ‘beads of blood’ (p. 743). Uriah is ‘high-shouldered and bony’ (p. 181), and Steerpike when he strips to wash is ‘very thin, very bunched at the shoulders, and with an extraordinary perkiness in the poise of the body’ (p. 115). Uriah is given to spasms of self-deprecating ‘writhing’ – at one point early on he ‘writhe[s] himself quite off [his] stool in the excitement of his feelings’ (p. 194) – and Steerpike undergoes a similar spasm when he begins to realise he has Fuchsia under his spell: ‘A snake writhed suddenly under the ribs of Steerpike. He had succeeded’ (p. 116). Uriah has the daughter of his employer firmly in his sights from the beginning of his rise to power, in much the same way as Steerforth has Little Emily in his sights from their first meeting; and Steerpike’s desire to fascinate Fuchsia stems from a similar conviction, when he first meets her, that she will be useful to him later – and afterwards perhaps from a sheer delight in imposing his power on people weaker than himself.

Phiz, ‘Somebody Turns Up’, from David Copperfield

Uriah’s designs on Agnes Wickfield form part of a long-term plan whose slow working out involves putting the unfortunate girl through what is effectively slow torture, as she watches her father gradually lose his identity under the combined influence of alcohol and Uriah’s remorseless exposure of his calamitous financial dealings. ‘My Agnes is very young still,’ Uriah tells David at one point (p. 310), ‘so I shall have time gradually to make her familiar with my hopes, as opportunities offer’; his hopes being that he can marry her after taking control of her father’s affairs. Peake’s Fuchsia undergoes a similar torture at Steerpike’s hands, as she watches her father slowly lose his reason after Steerpike has burned his beloved library. Both men, as well as Steerforth, worm their way like parasites into other people’s lives, taking possession of their most intimate private spaces – their rooms, their papers, their families, their bodies, their thoughts. And both men, it seems to me, embody this process of parasitical possession and consumption in a metaphor that represents another clear echo of Dickens’s wording in the work of Peake.

Many months after informing David of his ambition to make Agnes his wife, Uriah comes up with a novel way of describing the lengthy process of bringing his plans for her to fruition. ‘I say! I suppose,’ he says to David at one point, as the young man waits for a coach to leave, ‘you have sometimes plucked a pear before it was ripe, Master Copperfield?’ (p. 469). David answers, ‘I suppose I have’; and Uriah tells him: ‘I did that last night’. He is referring to his first abortive attempt to ask Mr Wickfield for his daughter’s hand in marriage, an attempt that resulted in wild rejection. Uriah remains convinced, however, as he tells David, that his plan will succeed. ‘It’ll ripen yet!’ he gloats; ‘It only wants attending to. I can wait!’ Shortly afterwards, David notices him through the coach window, moving his mouth as if in the process of eating the pear. ‘For anything I know,’ David observes, ‘he was eating something to keep the raw morning air out; but he made motions with his mouth as if the pear was ripe already, and he were smacking his lips over it’. Uriah’s gesture is as cannibalistic as it is proprietorial.

Frederick Barnard, Uriah Heep

In this passage, Uriah’s unpleasant anticipation of Agnes’s ripening contrasts to his habit of referring to David by the honorific reserved for young boys. Uriah is always calling him Master Copperfield instead of Mister Copperfield – something he rarely fails to point out whenever he does it. David, in other words, has always been unripe as far as Uriah is concerned, and always will be. This habit of making people seem younger than they are is shared by Steerforth, who feminises and belittles David by calling him Daisy, and by Steerforth’s scheming manservant Littimer, whose every word and gesture makes David think himself terribly young. In the passage I’ve just quoted, Agnes too is infantilised, as Uriah assumes that the only reason for her to reject him is because she has not yet reached maturity – and conversely, that maturation will render their marriage inevitable. At the same time, her prospective maturation is described in terms that wholly subject her to his body as well as his will; ‘smacking his lips’ anticipates the moment when he will effectively ingest her, making her part of himself. For Uriah, Agnes’ qualities and talents are reserved for his use alone, since he has effectively bought her when he took control of her father’s money. David listens to him with all the horror of a man who recognises how far this assumption implies the wastage of Agnes’s qualities and talents.

Mervyn Peake, ‘Sensitive, Seldom and Sad’, from Rhymes Without Reason (1944)

Steerpike has a similar moment of acute acquisitiveness in relation to the woman he desires. Having escaped from a prison cell in which the servant Mr Flay has locked him and climbed across a vast expanse of the castle walls and roofscape, the kitchen boy tumbles in through an attic window and loses consciousness. When he wakes he finds himself in a hidden room that belongs to a young girl: fifteen-year-old Lady Fuchsia, who retreats to this attic to withdraw into her imagination and forget the humdrum life of ritual that enfolds her in the formal spaces of the castle. Little by little Steerpike pieces together the evidence he sees around him of the proclivities and age of the attic’s owner – above all the picture book he finds open on a table, in which he finds a poem about three eccentric old men in a ‘grey and purple world’ (p. 106) and notices on the page the signatory marks of the book’s last reader: ‘Steerpike noticed small thumb-marks on the margin of the page. They were as important to him as the poem or the picture’ (pp. 106-7). Beside the picture-book lie two wrinkled pears, and Steerpike is hungry; he picks one up and notices that a bite has already been taken from its side. Nevertheless he proceeds to bite into the pear himself, as if intentionally to continue his violation of Fuchsia’s personal space as embodied by the attic:

Making use of the miniature and fluted precipice of hard, white discoloured flesh, where Fuchsia’s teeth had left their parallel grooves, he bit greedily, his top teeth severing the wrinkled skin of the pear, and the teeth of his lower jaw entering the pale cliff about halfway up its face; they met in the secret and dark centre of the fruit – in that abactinal region where, since the petals of the pear flower had been scattered in some far June breeze, a stealthy and profound maturing had progressed by day and night. (p. 107)

At this point in the novel Steerpike has only once seen Fuchsia at a distance, through a ‘circular spyhole in the wall of Octagonal Room’ where the Groans were gathering after the birth of the castle’s heir (p. 108). He does not know that she is the proprietor of the attic, the reader of the book who left her thumbprints on the pages, the biter of the pear.  Steerpike’s ascent is as yet only physical – the ascent he has just made up the wall of the castle, which finally severed his connection with the castle kitchens where his own development was cabined, cribbed, confined, hemmed in, by his monstrous master, Swelter the Chef. Steerpike himself is young – only seventeen. But his deliberate biting into the pear that has already been bitten – and the implications of this violation of the ‘secret and dark centre of the fruit’ – prefigures his invasion of the secret and dark centre of the castle, as well as his exploitation of the fruit’s first consumer, Fuchsia, whose personal space he is occupying at the moment he bites – and the trajectory of whose life will be interrupted by his meeting of her within a few pages of the bite. Like Uriah, he will assume that he possesses her from that moment, and that her maturation will provide him with another sumptuous meal like the pear he ate in her attic. But unlike Uriah, Steerpike will succeed in the end in wasting her talents completely – her talent for love as well as for all the various arts her attic contains.

Mervyn Peake, Fuchsia

As he wrote Titus Groan, Peake was intensely aware that the time he lived in was inimical to the process of bringing the rich potential of youth to maturation, especially for young artists such as Fuchsia or himself. Dickens gave him the language and some of the other novelistic techniques he needed to articulate this threat of artistic waste and loss. His version of David Copperfield, however, goes further in fulfilling this threat than Dickens dared to, at least at this stage in his career (Bleak House goes much further). Gormenghast castle and its occupants have been cut off from the historical, familial and economic resources that gave Dickens’s protagonist, David, the outlets he needed to fulfil his potential as a novelist. Cut adrift from the past and the future, as England was cut adrift from the rest of the world by war, Peake’s castle finds itself tossing on a sea of oblivion as deadly as the ocean that drowned Steerforth and threatened to overwhelm his victims, as well as the victims of his red-eyed double, Uriah Heep. At the same time, writing in response to Dickens perhaps gave Peake a sense of control in the chaos of wartime; control, and a promise that the arrested development of his cast of lonely characters might find a way to maturation after all.

Mervyn Peake, Miss Flyte from Bleak House

Notes

[1] See G. Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography (London: Peter Own, 2009), pp. 95, 100, 283. For the full set of Bleak House illustrations see Mervyn Peake, Sketches from Bleak House, selected and introduced by Leon Garfield and Edward Blishen (London: Methuen, 1983).

[2] Mervyn Peake, Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen, Fyfield Books (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), p. 85.

[3] The Personal History of David Copperfield (London:Hazell, Watson and Viney, n.d.).

[4] Alice Mills, Stuckness in the Fiction of Mervyn Peake (London: Rodopi, 2005).

[5] The Gormenghast Trilogy (London: Mandarin, 1989), p. 365.

[6] Winnington, Vast Alchemies, p. 95.

Alasdair Gray on Alfred Kubin

A few months back I wrote a post on Alasdair Gray. Among other things I mentioned a note he wrote me about the writer-artist Alfred Kubin, which at the time I didn’t have access to because it was locked away in my office at the University of Glasgow, being protected from Covid like the rest of us.

In recent weeks I’ve been able to get back into my office and have been ferrying things back and forward between there and my Glasgow flat. Among other things I ferried my copy of Alfred Kubin’s fantastic novel The Other Side (1908), and when I opened it I found the note I mentioned in the earlier blog post.

My edition of the novel is from 1967, and was published by those friends of the fantastic Victor Gollancz Limited. Here it is with its handsome dust jacket:

As I said in that earlier blog post, this book was first recommended to me by my tutor Christopher Butler, as a superior alternative to the work of Mervyn Peake. Needless to say I couldn’t agree with him on the matter of its superiority, though I found it fascinating, as Kafka did apparently.

And here’s the note, written in Alasdair’s inimitable hand. A transcript follows.

31 July 2002
Office
Glasgow Uni

Dear Rob,

I should have returned this long ago as I finished reading it the morning after the day you gave it to me. I found it fascinating yet repulsive. One of the richest men in the world creates, circa 1900, a small principality in central Asia that is modelled on just such a small German autocratic city state circa 1850. He peoples it with the kind of folk he knew from his schooldays, living in the same kind of buildings. Having completed this static, stagnant world, he dies. It rots away and disintegrates with him. This cannot be called a prophetic story since the 3rd Reich rotted away more violently, through attacking the outer world into overwhelming it back. The style of illustration completely fits the narrative. Both strike me as foosty – modelled from the stuff that collects in vacuum cleaner bags.

BUT thanks for lending it. My response is highly emotional, so despite the foost it did not strike me as dull!

Yours – with thanks – Alasdair

I loved that sentence about the stuff that collects in vacuum cleaner bags. Here’s an example of what he’s talking about:

As a contrast, here’s the Handbook Alasdair designed for the then MPhil in Creative Writing when he was Professor at the University of Glasgow. Look at those clean lines, and the arrogant power of that writer-artist-lion, with his back foot grasping a mouse, his tongue reaching out to lick the quill. No wonder Gray felt sick at the sight of foostiness:

Front
Back

GOODBYE

 

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Gold Coast (1988)

On Monday I’ll be going to listen to Kim Stanley Robinson when he speaks in the Glasgow University Chapel. In doing so I’ll be fulfilling one of my dreams as a graduate student. I was a passionate fan of Robinson’s books in the 1980s, especially his debut novel The Wild Shore (1984), set in a post-Apocalyptic America which has been effectively segregated from the world after an act of calamitous military aggression, and his haunting trilogy Icehenge (1984), made up of three novellas containing three distinct perspectives on a gigantic monument located at the North Pole of Pluto. I was excited by his story collection The Planet on the Table (1986), bowled over by its experimentalism and variousness; puzzled and delighted by The Memory of Whiteness (1985), in which a religious cult called the Grays tracks the movements of a celebrated blind musician as he tours the solar system with his hi-tech orchestra: a story that combines physics, music and space opera with a stylistic exuberance that still resonates in my memory.

In 1989 I wrote a review of one of Robinson’s books, in a short-lived magazine called StarRoots edited by my friend the musician and writer Warren Scott-Morrow (aka Martin O’Cuthbert). I re-read the review today, and was surprised to find that it was of The Gold Coast (1988), the sequel to The Wild Shore and the second book in his Orange County trilogy (now known as the Three Californias trilogy – perhaps that was always its name). In my head the review had been of Pacific Edge (1990), the third book in that trilogy, probably because I liked that book far more: it remains for me the seminal example of how to invent an ecotopia, and an image from it – a hyper-modern sailing ship cutting through the waves of the Pacific, symbolic of the slower, quieter means of travel that need to be cultivated if ecocatastrophe is to be averted or reversed – still flashes into my mind whenever I think about the possibilities of a better tomorrow. I bought a mountain bike soon after reading Pacific Edge, and was always pleased that it was a Marin Muirwoods, designed and built on the West Coast and so potentially related to the mountain bike on which the protagonist of Robinson’s novel spends much of his time.

But in fact my review was of The Gold Coast, the second and bleakest in the trilogy, which depicts a near-future California riddled with corporate corruption, chained and bound by its freeways, utterly complicit with escalating global militarism – a miniature working model of capitalism in action as championed by the Republicans under the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher. It’s a clumsy review, especially in its opening, which signals the fact that at the time (and ever since) I was obsessed with fantasy rather than science fiction, and hence with the past rather than the future – to the extent that my prose style was often contaminated with the Romantic flourishes of not very elevated high fantasy. My favourite SF writer was Ursula Le Guin, mainly because I thought of her SF as practically fantasy since I had come to her through the Earthsea books, and my enjoyment of Robinson can be measured by the fact that I thought him a potential successor to the woman who for me was the greatest living writer. His writing had an element of the magical in it, as embodied in the mysterious Grays in The Memory of Whiteness, and I was thrilled when he published a weird-ish fantasy novella called A Short Sharp Shock in 1990.

Another aspect of the clumsiness of my review is the absence from it of any mention of the indigenous people of the West Coast. This is ironic, given that Le Guin had recently published her own West Coast utopia, Always Coming Home (1985), modelled in part on the way of living of certain indigenous peoples such as the Yahi, about whose culture (now extinct) her mother had written a book, Ishi in Two Worlds (1961). My account of Robinson’s book is in fact largely unconscious of the questions of race and gender that have come to dominate my thinking in the decades since.

All the same, I’m going to place it on this blog as a kind of time capsule from the 1980s. It seems appropriate to do so because at the time of writing this was the kind of future the world was looking at, the kind of future it has in fact made for itself: something bleakly and appallingly different from the parallel futures represented in the first and last books of the Three Californias trilogy. In The Wild Shore America has ‘regressed’, thanks to its segregation, to a frontier world which is beautiful as well as mournfully conscious of lost possibilities in the past. In Pacific Edge those possibilities have been joyfully seized to create a world which coexists in conscious and careful harmony with the needs of the environment. In The Gold Coast the world is bent on self-destruction. We’re still faced with the question of which of these futures we wish to have; and it’s still clear that the course we’re bound on is the last. Let’s hope COP26, for which my home city Glasgow is preparing as I type, provides the impetus for changing that course at last, after all these decades.

*****

The triumphal progress of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels has produced a new wonder: the Gold Coast, set in Orange County a few years from now, the Autopia of suburban Los Angeles. Then, as now, the freeways rule, travelled by cars that follow tracks preprogrammed into their computers, as do most of their owners. For the novel’s protagonist Jim McPherson, Orange County represents ‘the end of history, its purest product’, the termination of man’s westward progress where the past has begun to pile up on itself as freeway is elevated above freeway, mall above mall. Robinson’s first novel, The Wild Shore, isolated California in political quarantine from the rest of the world; in The Gold Coast Los Angeles has become the world, and Jim finds Californian landscapes and burgers replicated in miniature throughout Europe. Somehow Robinson convinces us that to learn about Orange County is to discover ourselves.

Jim’s problems are an astonishingly accurate rendition of everyone’s problems, give immediacy by the present-tense narrative; he expresses them in clumsy phrases which contrast strongly with the stylistic exuberance of Robinson’s previous novel, The Memory of Whiteness. The Gold Coast traces Jim’s efforts to forge order from his emotional and ideological confusion. He writes poems which he then juggles into incoherence by randomly rearranging their lines with his computer; he engages in political activity which involves blowing up arms factories at night, an empty expression of his need to ‘do something’; and most satisfactorily for him, he writes a history of Orange County to explain how the web of freeways and malls came into being, a past-tense narrative that provides a lyrical counterpoint to his botched present-tense dealings with friends and family, an affirmation of the land’s enduring identity.

Other characters pursue their own quests for coherence. One of Jim’s friends is a paramedic who clears human debris from the freeways and so confronts the stripped bone beneath the tanned Californian flesh. Another is famous for parties where designer drugs impose a superficial stability on the riot of the emotions. Despite all the layers of concrete, of economic and political systems, at the core of the novel’s interwoven narratives lies the crude functioning of the human organism. Jim’s engineer father, who is engaged in advanced research for the Defence Industry (its red tape brilliantly evoked in a tangle of abbreviations), finds his most successful project hamstrung by a private squabble among the Air Force top brass. Jim’s idealistic sabotage turns out to be a cover for a stranger’s profitable drug-running. As always in Robinson’s work ideals are complicated by personal misunderstandings. In this The Gold Coast resembles The Wild Shore, and it proclaims this affinity. Underneath the concrete Orange County retains traces of the tiny community of the earlier work, as Jim shows his friends when they dig up the remains of an elementary school at the beginning of the book, in an act recalling the boys’ attempt to exhume twentieth-century affluence in The Wild Shore. The personification of the endlessly revitalised past in The Wild Shore, old Tom Barnard, reemerges in The Gold Coast as Jim’s indestructible Uncle Tom, still telling his stories despite being bedridden.

But a comparison with Robinson’s first work only underlines the new novel’s greatness. This is a mature and courageous celebration of a land’s influence on its people; of broken but enduring idealism and friendship; and on the crudest level of the body itself, as it surfs the night waves or hikes the mountains that have escaped the depredations of real estate. Robinson has emerged from his rewritings of future history to challenge us more forcefully by rewriting the present.

Puck, Dreams and the Devil

[This article first appeared as ‘Dreams, Freedom of Speech, and the Demonic Affiliations of Robin Goodfellow’ in the Journal of the Northern Renaissance, Issue 1.1 (March 2009), pp. 129-44, and was reprinted by Cengage Learning in Shakespearean Criticism, vol. 139 (2011). I put it here to sit alongside a number of other pieces on the early modern fantastic.]

Henry Fuseli, Robin Goodfellow

1.  Robin Goodfellow in Athens

In darkness, Nashe tells us in The Terrors of the Night (1594), mortals are more vulnerable to the machinations of the devil than they ever are by daylight.[1] Dreams and night visions weave Satan’s most cunning ‘nets of temptation’ (p. 210), and after sunset one’s eyes turn into magnifying glasses, so that ‘each mote… they make a monster, and every slight glimmering a giant’ (p. 239), multiplying the viewer’s proneness to delinquency and despair.  For the Elizabethan anti-theatrical lobby, on the other hand – as represented by pamphleteers like Stephen Gosson, Phillip Stubbes and William Rankins – it’s drama rather than dreams that constitutes the Devil’s weapon of choice in the unceasing siege he lays to the human mind and spirit.  Plays, they claim, constitute an elaborate imaginative trap whereby Satan lulls the citizens of London into a false sense of security, then ambushes their souls through the unguarded portals of the senses.[2]  So when in about 1595 Shakespeare wrote a comedy called A Midsummer Night’s Dream and crammed it full of spirits, damned or otherwise, he was playing a witty game with the fears of Gosson and his fellow thespiphobes.[3]  What I shall argue here is that the game he played in the Dream was already in full swing among the pamphlets and printers’ shops of 1590s London, and that the appearance of Robin Goodfellow in the woods of Athens would instantly have alerted his first audiences to Shakespeare’s participation in it.

Puck’s presence in the Dream has long been something of a puzzle – whether acknowledged as such or simply ignored.  Classical creatures had found their way into the English landscape often enough in Elizabethan culture before Shakespeare started writing: the transformed Philomene had warbled in English woods in Gascoigne’s verse satire The Steel Glass (1576), Neptune had terrorized Humberside in John Lyly’s play Gallathea (c. 1588), the sea-god Glaucus had moped by the banks of the Thames in Thomas Lodge’s poem Scilla’s Metamorphosis (1589).  But Shakespeare’s transplanting of Robin Goodfellow to some woods near Athens was the first time (to my knowledge) that a figure from English folk legend had been relocated to the Mediterranean, and the implications of that relocation have not yet, I think, been fully worked out.  For one thing, as a peculiarly northern forest-dweller Robin may have had some effect on the relationship between night and day in his new, more southerly setting.  Nashe reminds us in The Terrors of the Night that nights are longer in the north, and especially in Iceland, where witches and wizards are plentiful and possess an enviable power over local weather-conditions (p. 223).  The Dream transplants those northern nights to Greece, curtailing daylight hours and extending the shortest night in the year to giant proportions.  Four days and four nights are supposed to have passed between the first and last scenes of the comedy, whereas the audience experiences only two – and has no idea which of those two is the midsummer night of the title.  Robin Goodfellow seems the obvious person to blame for this hypertrophied period of darkness, since he is associated in folk tradition with night, dreams, trickery and Devilish magic.  Moreover, he had an unusually high profile in print during the early 1590s, featuring everywhere as a spirit who transcends the normal boundaries of space, time, life and death.  It’s only by recovering this profile that we can hope to understand his function in Shakespeare’s ancient Greek extravaganza.

2. Puck in Print

For the Elizabethans, Robin possessed a strange double nature, as the embodiment both of English Catholic superstition in the past and of an innocent native cheerfulness that had been lost with the advent of continental sophistication in the present.[4] Reginald Scot paints him in the former light in The Discovery of Witchcraft (1584), where he features as a bugbear whose ability to terrorize night-wandering papists has been stripped from him by Protestant rationalism: ‘Robin goodfellowe ceaseth now to be much feared, and poperie is sufficientlie discovered’ (sig. B2v).  The poet William Warner concurs with Scot. His Robin is a spirit who appears like an incubus to sleeping mortals, and in the fourteenth book of Warner’s digressive epic Albion’s England (published in 1606) Robin sits naked on the face of a dormant shepherd and laments the good old days of Mary’s reign, when English Catholics everywhere believed in him: ‘Was then a merrie world with us when Mary wore the Crowne, / And holy-water-sprinkle was beleevd to put us downe’.[5]  But Warner’s Robin is also a blunt teller of unwelcome truths to Protestants.  He goes on to utter a satirical invective against the various forms of hypocrisy prevalent in the reigns of Elizabeth and James, thus revealing himself to have as much of the satyr as of the demon about him.

This is hardly surprising, since by the time Warner painted this picture of him in 1606 Robin had long been associated with satire as well as with drama, dreams and devils.  Robin’s conversion into a satirist is in fact inextricably bound up with his theatrical associations.  In a pamphlet of 1590 called Tarlton’s News out of Purgatory the ghost of the late great comic actor Richard Tarlton appears to the anonymous author in a dream, and sooths his terror at this visitation by reassuring him that he is no devil, but a homely spirit like the noted goblin: ‘thinke mee to bee one of those Familiares Lares that were rather pleasantly disposed then indued with any hurtfull influence, as Hob Thrust, Robin Goodfellowe and such like spirites (as they terme them of the buttry) famozed in everie olde wives Chronicle for their mad merry pranckes’ (p. 2).  As a substitute Robin, Tarlton links himself with Catholicism – but a Catholicism defused of the terrors of damnation with which it had been charged by Protestant dogma.  When the author asks the dead clown’s ghost how it has managed to visit the land of the living, given the Calvinist belief that ‘the soules of them which are departed… never returne into the world againe till the generall resurrection’ (pp. 2-3), Tarlton contemptuously dismisses Calvinist doctrine as unhealthily dualistic.  His spirit, like the spirit of Hamlet’s father, inhabits Purgatory, the third alternative to heaven and hell, vouched for by the great poet ‘Dant’ as well as by ‘our forefathers’ and ‘holy Bishops of Rome’ (p. 3) – hence its ability to return now and then to the earth’s surface. In this way the clown blithely sweeps aside decades of religious conflict; and he goes on to tell a string of stories under the aegis of a non-judgemental version of the afterlife which permits the free flow of merry tales between this world and the next, regardless of theology.  His stories may stink of sulphur but they are ‘rather pleasantly disposed then indued with any hurtfull influence’; and in telling them he dismisses out of hand the didactic goody-goodies who saw all such stories – on stage or on the page – as works of Satan.

Tarlton’s News was ‘published’, according to its title-page, by an ‘old Companion’ of Tarlton’s, Robin Goodfellow – the spirit with which the ghost of Tarlton links itself.  It seems fitting, then, that when an anonymous ‘Cobbler’ wrote a story-collection of his own (The Cobbler of Canterbury (1590)), and prefaced it with a light-hearted attack on the shortcomings of Tarlton’s News, Robin Goodfellow should have penned a response to the cobbler’s preface, which was printed immediately after it in the first edition.  Here the goblin takes the cobbler’s objections to his publication as a sign of the times, when respect for good manners has been utterly eroded since the happy days when he was ‘so merry a spirit of the Butterie’, helping maids to grind malt and getting a ‘messe of Creame’ for his labour (sig. A4r).  The inhospitable spirit of Elizabethan England has driven Robin to a self-imposed exile in Purgatory along with his old friend Tarlton.  It has also made him devilishly vindictive, though not frighteningly so: he promises to ‘haunt’ the cobbler ‘in his sleepe, and after his olde merrie humour, so to playe the knave with the Cobler, that hee shall repent hee medled so farre beyond his latchet’ (sig. A4r).  Damnation and hauntings have here been reduced to pretexts for comic squabbling and trickery, quite bereft of the fear with which the established churches sought to invest them.

Robert Greene in his shroud

At this point in our story the immensely popular writer of romances and comedies Robert Greene gets mixed up with Puck’s Elizabethan biography.  Evidently a rumour went round that Greene had written The Cobbler of Canterbury, and to deny this rumour Greene wrote a pamphlet called Greene’s Vision (1592) in which he is visited in his sleep by the ghosts of Chaucer and Gower, who debate the merits and demerits of Greene’s prolific scribblings.[6] At the end of the dispute the spirit of King Solomon appears and elicits a promise from Greene that he will from henceforth devote himself to theology; and perhaps for this reason Greene did not publish the pamphlet in his lifetime, reluctant to commit himself to such a career-changing volte-face until he had exhausted the profitable vein of fiction he was still working at the end of his life.  When it did appear, the pamphlet reintroduced the fear of hell into the dialogue between pamphleteers, since it opened with a section where Greene articulates his  ‘trouble of minde’ in distinctly Faustian terms: ‘can the hideous mountaines hide me, can wealth redeeme sinne, can beautie countervaile my faults, or the whole world counterpoyse the balance of mine offences?’[7]  Greene’s fellow pamphleteer Barnaby Rich pounced on this hint at Greene’s posthumous fate, and described him in Greene’s News both from Heaven and Hell (1593) as wandering between Heaven and Hell in search of the happy third location, Purgatory, where he can escape damnation while retaining all the venial faults that made him so attractive a writer in his lifetime.  (On his journey he meets Dick Tarlton, who has now become Lucifer’s resident satirist-entertainer.)  The devil finally expels Greene’s ghost from hell at the request of the cony-catchers he exposed in his final pamphlets; and at this point Greene is transformed into a particularly aggressive incarnation of our old friend Robin Goodfellow, a spirit who troubles the nocturnal wanderings of living sinners.  ‘I woulde therefore wish my friendes,’ he declares, ‘to beware howe they walke late a nights, for I will bee the maddest Gobline, that ever used to walke in the moonshine’ (sig. H3r), haunting the sleep of women and persuading them to cuckold their husbands, infecting men of all occupations with the spirit of avarice so that they will do anything to amass wealth for their heirs, and urging lawyers, courtiers and clergymen to persevere in the corrupt practices already rife in their professions.  Robin has resumed his mantle as a night-dwelling satirist; but by now he trails in his wake the ghosts of clowns and popular authors, whose activities had been denounced as devilish by the theatre- and fiction-haters along with Robin himself.  The implication here as elsewhere is that the target of the moralists has been badly misjudged, and that they have wasted their energies in denouncing fictions and the makers of fictions, when in fact these are far more effective and energetic in attacking social abuses than they are.

For all his residence in a fictitious Catholic Purgatory, then, Robin Goodfellow was seen as mostly harmless by Shakespeare’s predecessors in popular print.  Indeed, he was represented as the victim of a miscarriage of justice, sharing with the common people of England the burden of an inequitable social and legal system, and endowed with gifts that enable him to expose these inequities.  In the anonymous pamphlet Tell-Troth’s New Year’s Gift (1593) he joins forces with the honest narrator Tell-troth to denounce the operations of jealousy or envy at every level of the English commonwealth.  Here he is characterised as ‘Robin good-fellow… who never did worse harme, then correct manners, and made diligent maides’ (sig. A2r), a kind of incorruptible agent for the discovery of hidden vices, who ‘could go invisible from his infancy’, is ‘subject to no inferiour power whatsoever’, and has ‘a generall priviledge to search every corner, and enter every castell to a good purpose’ (sig. A2r-A2v).  Robin’s affiliation with hell is explained as a consequence of this privilege, which means he can visit even the infernal regions without becoming contaminated by them, and use what he sees and hears there ‘to a good purpose’.  The insistence on his independence of all authority apart from nature’s is intriguing: it is the most explicit statement so far that Robin has become a figure for the legendary liberty of imaginative writers, a liberty invoked by the ghost of the executed poet Collingbourne in William Baldwin’s hugely influential collection of political poems, The Mirror for Magistrates (1559, 1563, etc.).[8]

Behind all these vision-pamphlets, in fact, the Mirror looms as a monumental presence, containing as it does the richest collection of posthumous first-person narratives in the English language.  Its versified stories of the decline and fall of great men and women throughout English history are narrated by the spirits of the dead, and its representation of the past is repeatedly linked to political and social abuses still current in the present.  Interestingly, too, it features a representation by a protestant poet of a Hell that is based on classical accounts of Hades (as it is in Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy (c. 1589) and Tell-Troth’s New Year’s Gift) and which is also explicitly linked to the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory.  This representation of Hell occurs in the celebrated ‘Induction’ to Thomas Sackville’s tragedy of the Duke of Buckingham, and is followed by a discussion of Purgatory among the protestant writers who have gathered to hear the narrative.  The Induction’s Hell, complains one writer, ‘savoreth so much of Purgatory… that the ignorant maye thereby be deceyved’ (fol. 137r) – presumably into thinking that Purgatory really exists.  But the chief editor of the Mirror, the printer-poet William Baldwin, disagrees.  In his poem, says Baldwin, Sackville has depicted not Hell or Purgatory but the grave, ‘wherin the dead bodies of al sortes of people do rest till tyme of the resurrection.  And in this sence is Hel taken often in the scriptures, and in the writynges of learned christians’ (fol. 137r).  A second listener goes further.  What does it matter if Sackville’s Hell resembles Purgatory, he says, since ‘it is a Poesie and no divinitye, and it is lawfull for poetes to fayne what they lyst, so it be appertinent to the matter’?  True enough, Baldwin replies, but such liberty has not always been accorded to poets; and he proceeds to read out the tragedy of Collingbourne, who was executed for writing satirical verse in the reign of Richard III, and whose ghost warns all poets to beware of speaking the truth about tyrants in an age that has grown ‘so fell and fearce / That vicious actes may not be toucht in verse’, and when ‘The Muses freedome, graunted them of olde, / Is barde, aye reasons treasons hye are helde’ (fol. 138r).  The tragedy closes with the heartfelt wish from its listeners that the warning it contains ‘may take suche place with the Magistrates, that they maye ratifie our olde freedome’ to speak openly in verse (fol. 146v).  Restoring this liberty will work for the ruling classes as much as for the common people in whose name the poet speaks, since rulers need to know what their subjects think of them if they are to defend themselves from popular insurrection and eventual dethronement.

The audience of Collingbourne’s tragedy speak with the heartfelt hopefulness of Protestants who have lived through persecution under a Catholic monarch and who hope for something better under her successor.  The first print-run of The Mirror for Magistrates was suppressed in the reign of Mary Tudor, and the 1563 edition from which I have been quoting couches its plea for poetic liberty in terms that are wittily designed to shock both radical protestants and Catholics alike – invoking the concept of Purgatory while at the same time dismissing it as a poetic fabrication – as if to test the Elizabethan reader’s capacity for greater tolerance.[9]  The references to Purgatory in the pamphlets of the 1590s seem to take up this notion of Purgatory as emblematic of the poet’s exemption from political or religious persecution, as does their frequent invocation of that figment of the superstitious Catholic imagination Robin Goodfellow.  Robin is a spirit of the buttery – that is, the bar or pub – rather than of the infernal regions, and his location in Purgatory indicates his temporary immunity from knee-jerk moral judgments based on over-rigid notions of right and wrong.

In the spirit of the other pamphlets we have touched on, Henry Chettle’s Kind-Heart’s Dream (1593) deploys its revenants to argue against simplistic views of the theatre and popular print.  Robin does not figure in it (though it addresses itself to ‘Gentlemen and good-fellowes’, sig. B1r), but the ghosts of both Tarlton and Robert Greene are summoned up, the latter appealing to Pierce Penniless – a pseudonym of Thomas Nashe – to defend his memory against the posthumous slanders of Gabriel Harvey, and the former defending the stage against its detractors while acknowledging the shortcomings of the modern theatre.[10]  ‘Mirth in seasonable time taken,’ the ghost of Tarlton avers, ‘is not forbidden by the austerest Sapients.  But indeed there is a time of mirth, and a time of mourning.  Which time having been by the Magistrates wisely observed, as well for the suppressing of Playes, as other pleasures: so likewise a time may come, when honest recreation shall have his former libertie’ (sig. C4r).  The latter sentence so closely echoes the discussion of Collingbourne’s tragedy in the Mirror that it is hard not to read it as a reminder of William Baldwin’s hope that liberty of speech will be restored to poets at last – even if only at the latter end of Elizabeth’s reign.  Greene and Tarlton, poets and players are ‘good fellows’ in two Elizabethan senses: good drinking companions (Kind-heart sees their apparitions while dozing in a tavern) and morally upright citizens who tackle vice wherever they see it.  And both wish the same punishment on all moralistic ‘maligners of honest mirth’: that is, ‘continuall melancholy’ (sig. C2v).

In Nashe’s Terrors of the Night – a pamphlet where spirits and devils are reduced to the size of dust particles so that ‘not a room in any man’s house but is pestered and close-packed with them’ (p. 212) – Don Lucifer himself, ‘their grand Capitano’, is described as having taken on the form of a ‘puritan’ with an aversion to shows and ceremonies of all kinds (p. 230).  In doing so he has ceased to be the cheerful entertainer he was of yore, when he ‘was wont to jest and sport with country people, and play the Goodfellow amongst kitchen-wenches’ (p. 231).  As a result of this transformation ‘there is no goodness in him but miserableness and covetousness’; he has shifted his allegiance to the camp of the theatre-haters and laughter-loathers, and the world is a poorer place.  Here again Robin represents a form of night mischief that is finally harmless, despite its devilish associations, and those who set themselves against it condemn both themselves and others to an unalleviated depression, the condition for which laughter was prescribed by early modern physicians.[11]   

Shakespeare’s Robin Goodfellow is the heir to all these Robins, Greenes, Tarltons and merry Devils.  Like his precursors he frequents the sleeping places of mortals, shaping what are in effect their dreams (all the lovers concur in retrospectively perceiving the business in the wood as dreamlike).  Like the Robin of Tell-Troth’s New Year’s Gift he can make himself invisible at will and go with impunity wherever he wishes in the globe or, presumably, out of it.  Tell-Troth’s Robin has the licence accorded to fools (and sometimes poets) to meddle with the doings of all classes, and Shakespeare’s Puck takes the role of Oberon’s fool, making and discovering fools wherever he turns up.  The merry tricks he plays are mentioned often in the pamphlets, and became the subject of a jest-book in the seventeenth century, Robin Goodfellow his Mad Pranks and Merry Jests (1628), filled with stories like the ones he tells the fairy on his first appearance in Act Two.  And his connection with fairies is taken for granted by nearly all the pamphleteers, as it is by Shakespeare.  Nashe, for instance, associates Robin with ‘elves, fairies, hobgoblins of our latter age’ in The Terrors of the Night (p. 210); and it is striking that Puck’s fairy friends in Shakespeare’s play have the capacity to shrink themselves to the size of Nashe’s mote-like devils.  Even Puck’s fondness for hemp, for stamping and for bellowing ‘Ho ho ho!’ is shared with the Robin of The Cobler of Caunterburie, whose catchphrase when provoked is ‘What Hemp and Hampe, here will I never more grinde nor stampe’ (sig. A4v).[12]  Clearly Shakespeare was deeply immersed in the recent literary as well as folkloric history of his ‘merry wanderer of the night’ (2.1.43), and knew how well the ground had been prepared for the rapprochement between popular superstition and sophisticated comedy by his precursors among the Elizabethan pamphleteers.   

 Shakespeare’s artfully managed rapprochement between popular superstition and romance, too, was prepared for by the pamphleteers we’ve glanced at.  Robin’s interest in lovers is first established in Tell-Troth’s New Year’s Gift, where he condemns greedy fathers for seeking to wed their daughters to wealthy men against their will, and catalogues the many forms of jealousy and fallings-out between sweethearts which occupy the central scenes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Tell-Troth ends with a general blessing bestowed by Robin on young lovers, which foreshadows Oberon’s blessing of Theseus’s household at the end of the Dream:

Their dalliaunce shall bee rewarded with darlings, whose sweete favoured faces, shall be continuall pledges of their faithfull kindnesse… Their encrease shalbe multiplied, their substance doubled and trebled till it come to aboundance… They shall adde so great a blessing to their store as time shall not take away the memory of them, nor fame suffer their antiquitye ever to die… Thus shall loves followers be thrise happy, and thus Robin goodfellowes well-willers, in imitating his care bee manifolde blessed (sig. F4v-F5r).

Oberon too promises that the issue created in the ‘bride beds’ of Theseus, Hippolyta and the rest will be ‘fortunate’, free from the ‘blots of nature’s hand’, and that the ‘couples three’ who engendered them will ‘Ever true in loving be’ (5.1.394-411); and Puck follows up this promise with a heartfelt appeal to his well-willers among the audience.  Shakespeare’s Puck shares, too, with Tell-Troth’s Robin a particular concern for the well-being of amorous women, as he shows when he mistakenly dismisses Lysander as ‘this lack-love, this kill-courtesy’ for his apparent spurning of Hermia (2.2.83).  The goblin, then, was associated with the defence of romance as well as of the stage at the point when Shakespeare introduced him into his Athenian love story.  He was also already seen as a link between English and classical myth, one of the Lares Familiares or household spirits transformed into an impudent English imp who lives in a classical-Purgatorial Hades, well before Shakespeare gave him a new home in the woods of ancient Greece;[13] and a half-demonic champion of laughter with a heart of gold, well before Shakespeare gave him the capacity both to laugh at and pity the mortal fools he spies on. 

Stanley Tucci as Puck

The combination of mischief-making with benevolence is shared by Shakespeare’s goblin with his namesakes in Tarlton’s News, The Cobbler of Canterbury and Tell-Troth’s New Year’s Gift.  In Shakespeare’s play, it is Oberon who speaks most openly about this fusion of qualities, when he invokes the link between himself, his fellow spirits and the devil at the end of the third act, telling Robin to ‘overcast the night’ with ‘fog as black as Acheron’ (3.2.355-7) – one of the rivers in the classical underworld – and encouraging him to mimic the voices of Demetrius and Lysander as devils are said to mimic men’s voices in Nashe’s Terrors of the Night (3.2.360-3).[14] But when Robin tells him that this must be done swiftly before dawn sends ‘damned spirits’ back to their ‘wormy beds’ (no hint of Purgatory here), Oberon replies by dissociating himself and Robin utterly from souls who have ‘themselves exiled from light’.  ‘We are spirits of another sort’, he claims, and goes on to describe his delight in dallying with the morning sunshine like Apollo, the classical god of learning (3.2.378-93); and this assertion of benevolence is reinforced at the point when the fairies and Puck extend their benison to the sleeping lovers in the play’s last scene.  If plays resemble dreams, in this play they are evidently dreams that bring peace and health to those who experience them.

Having said this, the terror of damnation with which the theatre-haters had infected the playhouse is by no means absent from Shakespeare’s comedy.  When Robin Goodfellow turns ‘actor’, for instance, after witnessing the amateur theatrics of the craftsmen (3.1.75), he throws them into a superstitious panic by assuming a range of terrible forms: ‘Like horse, hound, hog, bear, fire, at every turn’ (3.1.106).  But the devilry he practises is finally harmless, like the merry pranks played by the demonic Vices of an earlier dramatic tradition, or the antics of the devilish satyr-spirits in the pamphlets of the 1590s.  And if it is both harmless and health-giving, the theatre-haters who saw it only as monstrous stand condemned for crude thinking, moral cowardice, and a lack of generosity.  After all, the craftsmen welcomed Bottom back into their midst when they saw he was no monster (4.2); whereas the theatre-haters at their most extreme could find no place in a civil commonwealth for comedy.[15] 

Mickey Rooney as Puck   

It is hardly surprising, then, if in the last lines of the play Robin himself should turn defender of the theatre, like Tarlton in Kind-Heart’s Dream.  Theseus lays the groundwork for this defence earlier in the scene when he teaches his contemptuous master of the revels Philostrate the proper way to respond to well-meant drama.  ‘Never anything can be amiss,’ he says, ‘When simpleness and duty tender it’ (5.1.82-3); and he goes on to explain how best to read incompetent performances where the actors stumble over their lines and fall silent, overawed by the grandeur of their audience.  ‘Trust me, sweet,’ he tells Titania,

Out of this silence yet I picked a welcome,
And in the modesty of fearful duty
I read as much as from the rattling tongue
Of saucy and audacious eloquence.
Love, therefore, and tongue-tied simplicity
In least speak most, to my capacity (5.1.99-105).

For Theseus, a courteous audience participates in a performance, reading into it the good will they would hope to find in all the works of the imagination.  A little later he characterizes this process of generous reading as a kind of amendment or emendation: ‘The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them’ (5.1.210-1).  It’s the word ‘amend’ that Puck takes up in his epilogue; a word that had long been associated with readerly generosity by Elizabethan readers.  Presenting their books to a potentially hostile public, some authors prefaced them with a gnomic challenge to their critics: ‘commend it, or amend it’; speak well of a work of art if you can’t improve on it.[16]  Robin Goodfellow presents his audience with a more genial offer from the playwright and actors who have entertained them.  ‘If we shadows have offended,’ he begins, ‘Think but this, and all is mended: / That you have but slumbered here, / While these visions did appear’ (5.1.414-7).  For Nashe, visions seen in sleep, like Robin, are mostly harmless; they seldom have prophetic significance, and in most cases signify little more than the quality or otherwise of the last meal you have eaten.[17]  Robin’s dream, too, is no more than a ‘weak and idle theme’, and its idleness is not threatening (5.1.418).  If it is pardoned, the players will ‘mend’ or improve their performance next time; if they escape the hissing of envious serpents among their spectators they ‘will make amends ere long’; and finally, generosity from their audience will strengthen the bond of imaginative friendship or amity among the citizens and their entertainers: ‘Give me your hands, if we be friends, / And Robin shall restore amends’ (5.1.421-9).  The theatre-haters insisted that the playwrights had failed to amend or reform their plays despite endless promises of amendment.[18]  Robin makes the process of amendment a general one, healing rifts and bridging gaps between friendly co-habitants of the linked spaces of playhouse and city, and exorcising the demons that had been introduced into those spaces by the serpentine hissing of ungenerous prudes.

Henry Fuseli, Titania and Bottom

3.  Robin Goodfellow and Bottom’s Dream

It’s perhaps worth mentioning one more way in which Shakespeare’s Robin both evokes and counters the anti-theatrical prejudice through interference with sleep.  His decision to replace Bottom’s head with the head of an ass, then obtrude him into the presence of the sleeping Titania, in whose arms he is afterwards lulled asleep to the strains of seductive music, is another knowing reference to the Tudor controversy over the beneficence or devilishness of drama.  As early as the 1540s, the schoolmaster-playwright John Redford introduced a scene into his moral interlude Wit and Science in which the schoolboy-hero Wit is danced into a state of exhaustion by a seductive female Vice, then lulled to drowsiness in her arms.  As he dozes, the Vice’s son Ignorance places his fool’s cap on Wit’s shoulders: a cap no doubt endowed with the usual pair of ass’s ears.  On waking, it is some time before Wit becomes aware of his transformation; and if ever Shakespeare saw a performance of Wit and Science or one of its variants, it seems unlikely he would have forgotten the peals of laughter that greeted Wit’s puzzlement at the reaction of those around him to his changed appearance.

The Vice who seduced Wit into this compromising somnolence was called Idleness, a term often used by the theatre-haters to designate the unproductive activities of players.  Her rival in the play is a Virtue called Honest Recreation – and again, this is the virtue defenders of the theatre liked to champion, insisting on the necessity for relaxing and instructive entertainment in the midst of one’s daily labour, and claiming that the theatre could provide such entertainment more fully than any other art-form.  Redford’s Honest Recreation has nothing but contempt for Idleness; but any attack of hers on the Vice is pre-empted by the Vice herself, who launches a devastating verbal assault on Honest Recreation that anticipates in its wording the polemic of the theatre-haters in the 1570s and 80s.  Honest Recreation, says Idleness, is nothing but a fake, a common player or mummer who uses the mask of virtue to cover her vices:

The dyvyll and hys dam can not devyse
More devlyshnes then by the doth ryse
Under the name of Honest Recreacion:
She, lo, bryngth in her abhominacion!
Mark her dawnsyng, her masking and mummyng.
Where more concupiscence then ther cummyng? [19]

Honest Recreation retaliates with an eloquent humanistic defence of leisure-time activities as a source of intellectual refreshment; but her thunder has been stolen, her name forever muddied, and she retires defeated as soon as she has said her piece, leaving Wit firmly entwined in the embrace of her demonic counterpart Idleness.  And here he was to be found, again and again, throughout the rest of the sixteenth century.  Two more versions of the story of Wit and Science were staged in the 1560s and 70s (The Marriage of Wit and Science and Francis Merbury’s The Marriage Between Wit and Wisdom), each of which replayed the scene where Wit gets saddled with a fool’s cap in his sleep.  In the early 1580s a version of the play was acted called The Play of Playes and Pastimes, which responded to Stephen Gosson’s attack on the theatre by depicting Life lulled asleep by Honest Recreation herself – not by her vicious substitute – then entertained with Comedy when she wakes.20  And Redford’s play was reworked at least three more times in the following decade: once in The Cobbler’s Prophecy (c. 1590), a comedy by the celebrated clown Robert Wilson, where the god Mars is lulled asleep by Venus until startled into action by a comic cobbler; once in Anthony Munday’s Sir Thomas More (c. 1593), where More takes part in a performance of The Marriage Between Wit and Wisdom; and once in the Inns of Court entertainment The Pilgrimage to Parnassus, whose entire plot is ultimately derived from Redford’s.  Shakespeare helped to revise Sir Thomas More for performance, perhaps in the early 1600s.  It seems beyond the bounds of possibility that he should not have known the plot, at least, of Wit and Science, and its affiliation with the theatrical controversy.  And read as another reworking of this plot, Bottom’s transformation tells us a good deal about his creator’s attitude to the theatre at this stage in his career.

Henry Fuseli, Titania and Bottom

Bottom the weaver is an actor – albeit a very bad one.  His designation as one of the ‘rude mechanicals’ – the phrase Robin applies to them (3.2.9) – associates him with the standard insult levelled at actors and non-university playwrights by two of the so-called University Wits of the 1580s, Greene and Nashe, both of whom saw acting as a ‘mechanical’ art, a non-intellectual exercise well suited to the offspring of craftsmen and tradesmen who practised it.[21]  So when Puck invests Bottom with the head of an ass it seems no more than he deserves, as an upstart crow who plans to raise his presumptuous voice in the presence of royalty against all the principles of classical decorum.

Yet the weaver responds to his predicament with astonishing dignity.   He refuses to be frightened by the insults levelled at him (he tells his fellow craftsmen that in accusing him of monstrosity they are merely exposing themselves as ‘ass-heads’ or fools, 3.1.111), and sings to keep up his courage.  His song acts like that of a mermaid or Siren on Titania’s senses; she becomes ‘enamoured of his note’ (3.1.131), much as audiences were said by the theatre-haters to be roused to lustful paroxysms by the melodic blandishments of the stage.  Yet when she declares her love for him he remains both rational and scrupulously courteous.  ‘Methinks, mistress, you should have little reason for that’, he tells her, and later denies her statement that he is ‘as wise as he is beautiful’ – he lays claim only to the pragmatic ‘wit’ he needs to ‘get out of this wood’ (3.1.135-42).  This practical or mechanical intelligence manifests itself, too, in his philosophy: ‘reason and love,’ he says, ‘keep little company together nowadays – the more the pity that some honest neighbours will not make them friends’ (3.1.136-9).  For him, the love that matters is the love that binds communities, the love between neighbours which he has clearly provoked among his own neighbours, the fellow craftsmen and actors who mourn his absence at the end of Act Four, just before he is miraculously restored to them.  Bottom is a fool only in that he voices popular wisdom, fails to take advantage of Titania’s infatuation for selfish ends, and refuses to modify his behaviour in the presence of power, as a sycophantic courtier would have done.  His deportment to Titania’s fairy servants is impeccable; and when Titania tells them to ‘Tie up my love’s tongue; bring him silently’ (3.1.191), it is not an injunction to restrain the ribaldry of an unruly clown, as it would have been in a Redfordian moral interlude, nor yet an act of ritual humiliation, as it would have been in a play by Robert Wilson, but a means of subduing him to her desire – a desire that is ultimately harmless, to herself, to him, and to their Elizabethan audience.

Joseph Noel Paton, Oberon and the Mermaid (with Puck)

The harmlessness of the piece of supernatural theatre Bottom finds himself caught up in is strongly asserted by Puck in the following scene.  When he describes the weaver’s transformation to Oberon, Robin laughs at the unnecessary terror of Bottom’s companions when faced with his metamorphosis: ‘Their sense thus weak, lost with their fears thus strong, / Made senseless things begin to do them wrong’ (3.2.27-8).  Later, unreasoning terror is mentioned again by Theseus, whose analysis of the workings of ‘strong imagination’ includes the transformation of inanimate harmless objects by panic: ‘in the night, imagining some fear, / How easy is a bush supposed a bear!’ (5.1.18-22).  Even the craftsmen are aware of the ease with which terror can be aroused by harmless things: they seek to defuse any fear that might be generated by their own theatrical performance by drawing attention to its theatricality, so that the lion in their play gives an elaborate and wholly unnecessary explanation of the principle of dramatic illusion to its courtly spectators.  Both the craftsmen’s very reasonable fear of Bottom, and their less reasonable fear that the ladies in their audience will fear them, are profoundly funny; and the implication is that the fear of the theatre evinced by its critics is not much less so.

Malice is simply absent from Robin’s actions, as it is from those of the well-intentioned craftsmen.  When Oberon rebukes him for administering the love-juice to the wrong lover, for instance, the goblin repeatedly insists that he ‘mistook’, although he is delighted by the outcome of his errors.  Once his cruel but harmless ‘sport’ is over, it assumes the status of ‘a dream and fruitless vision’ (3.2.371) for the Athenian lovers who were its victims; and Titania’s fleeting affair with Bottom – something mistaken on her part, not maliciously intended – also ends by being dismissed as ‘the fierce vexation of a dream’ (4.1.68).  Like Titania and the lovers, audiences will leave the theatre without having been adversely affected by what they saw there; restored to what Robin calls ‘True delight’ (3.2.455) – responsible pleasure, something the theatre-haters don’t seem able to imagine – in the things and people that are dear to them, they will return to waking life with nothing but an enhanced sense of its fragile beauty and comic unreasonableness.  And having left the stage, they will be no more tempted to engage in any over-critical analysis of their ‘most rare’ theatrical ‘vision’ than they would to analyse a dream after a feast (4.1.202).  If they sought to do so, they would show themselves to be asses, transformed to fools by the spectacle they have witnessed, just as those who take exception to satire transform themselves into satire’s targets by their over-sensitive response to its gibes.  

Arthur Rackham, Bottom

This, at least, is what Bottom implies when he wakes from the dramatic role of Titania’s lover in Act 4 scene 1.  ‘I have had a most rare vision,’ he says, and ‘Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream’ (4.1.202-4).  But he couches this observation in the language of theology, adding a somewhat jumbled but instantly recognizable version of Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians: ‘The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was’ (4.1.207-10).  As we’ve seen, Robin Goodfellow and Dick Tarlton were not afraid to get themselves mixed up with theology, despite the bloody history of religious controversy throughout sixteenth-century Europe.  At the bottom of Bottom’s theatrical dream there may be a serious point about the working of the imagination at all levels of society.  After all, real dreams could, Nashe tells us, be heaven-sent ‘visions’ containing genuine prophecies, even if the bulk of them were nothing but outlets for the superfluous matter engendered by the human digestive system.[22]  Prophecies could provoke social change, insurrection, maybe even revolution; visions could start religions or spark off heresies; that’s why there was such careful legislation in England against men’s claims to be visionaries or prophets throughout the Tudor period.  Bottom awakes these controversial matters even as he dismisses them, just as Robin Goodfellow and his fairy companions evoke the demonic associations of drama even as they dismiss them.  The magic of the theatre, and its status as the space where human dreams and nightmares can be realized as nowhere else, remain as potent at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as they were at the beginning.  And it’s partly thanks to Shakespeare’s clever predecessors, with all the goblins, ghosts, and visions they invoked on stage and printed page, that this is so.  The time has come to wake them from their long sleep, set them loose among us once again, and listen carefully to what they have to tell us.

Arthur Rackham, Puck

NOTES

  1. See Thomas Nashe, The Terrors of the Night or a Discourse of Apparitions, in The Unfortunate Traveller and Other Works, ed. J. B. Steane (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), pp. 209-210.  All references to The Terrors of the Night are taken from this edition.  An early version of this paper was given at the World Shakespeare Congress, Brisbane 2006, in a panel on early modern sleep organized by Garrett Sullivan and Evelyn Tribble.  I am very grateful to all the participants in the panel, especially Jeffrey Marsten and Rebecca Totaro.
  2. I have discussed the anti-theatrical prejudice in my book, Shakespeare and Comedy (London: The Arden Shakespeare, 2005), pp. 5-24 etc.  See also Jonas Barish, The Anti-Theatrical Prejudice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), and Laura Levine, Men in Women’s Clothing: Anti-Theatricality, 1579-1642 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
  3. My reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in this paper develops my discussion of it in Shakespeare and Comedy, pp. 141-154.  I am also indebted to Peter Holland’s introduction to his edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), and his essay ‘“The Interpretation of Dreams” in the Renaissance’, Reading Dreams: The Interpretation of Dreams from Chaucer to Shakespeare, ed. Peter Brown (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).  See also Derek Alwes, ‘Elizabethan Dreaming: Fictional Dreams from Gascoigne to Lodge’, in Framing Elizabethan Fictions: Contemporary Approaches to Early Modern Narrative Prose, ed. Constance C. Relihan (Kent, Ohio and London: Kent State University Press, 1996), 153-67.
  4. Accounts of Robin Goodfellow can be found in Katharine Briggs, The Anatomy of Puck: An Examination of Fairy Beliefs among Shakespeare’s Contemporaries (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1959) (see index); Briggs, A Dictionary of Fairies (London: Lane, 1976), entries for Puck and Robin Goodfellow; Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things: A History of Fairies and Fairy Stories (London: Allen Lane, 2000), ch. 5; and Winfried Schleiner, ‘Imaginative Sources for Shakespeare’s Puck’, Shakespeare Quarterly 36 (1985), 65-8
  5. Albions England (1612), Anglistica and Americana (Hildesheim and New York: Georg Olms Verlag, 1971), p. 368.  The first four books of Warner’s epic were published in 1588; the 14th book, containing ‘A Tale of Robin-goodfellow’, first appeared in the 1606 edition.  See my ‘Myths Exploited: The Metamorphoses of Ovid in Early Elizabethan England’, Shakespeare’s Ovid, ed. A. B. Taylor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 27-8.
  6. For a fuller discussion of this text see my ‘Robert Greene and the Uses of Time’, Writing Robert Greene, ed. Kirk Melnikoff and Edward Gieskes (Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008), ch. 8, pp.182-7.
  7. The Life and Complete Works… of Robert Greene, ed. Alexander B. Grosart, 15 vols. (London and Aylesbury: privately printed, 1881-3), vol. 12, p. 207.
  8. For a detailed discussion of the place of the tragedy of Collingbourne in The Mirror for Magistrates see Andrew Hadfield, Literature, Politics and National Identity: Reformation to Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), chapter 3.  All references are to the 1563 edition.
  9. For a print history of The Mirror for Magistrates see the introduction to Lily B. Campbell’s edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1938).
  10. For a recent account of Gabriel Harvey’s posthumous attack on Robert Greene and Nashe’s response, see Ronald A. Tumelson II, ‘Robert Greene, “Author of Playes”’, Writing Robert Greene, ed. Melnikoff and Gieskes, ch. 5.
  11. For the health-giving properties of laughter see my ‘The Afterlife of Andrew Borde’, Studies in Philology vol. 100 no. 4 (Fall 2003), pp. 463-92.
  12. The Cobbler’s Robin opens his epistle with ‘Ho, Ho, Ho’, the phrase Shakespeare’s Robin uses at 3.2.421.  Shakespeare’s Robin alludes to hemp at 3.1.72, and describes himself stamping to terrify Peter Quince and his fellow craftsmen at 3.2.25. 
  13. Nashe associates him with the Lares or ‘household Gods’ in The Terrors of the Night (p. 210), and Warner calls Robin a ‘breechlesse Larr’ in Albions England, p. 367.  See also Tarlton’s News Out of Purgatory, p. 2, quoted above.
  14. Nashe mentions the devil’s power of mimicry several times in The Terrors of the Night, but cf. ‘Those that catch birds imitate their voices; so will he imitate the voices of God’s vengeance, to bring us like birds into the net of eternal damnation’ (p. 211).
  15. Stephen Gosson takes this stance in his Plays Confuted in Five Actions (1582).  See Arthur F. Kinney, Markets of Bawdrie: The Dramatic Criticism of Stephen Gosson (Salzburg: University of Salzburg, 1974), introduction.
  16. For the phrase ‘Commend it, or amend it’ see e.g. the title-page of John Lyly’s Euphues and his England (1580).
  17. ‘From the unequal and repugnant mixture of contrarious meats… many of our mystic cogitations proceed; and even as fire maketh iron like itself, so the fiery inflammations of our liver or stomach transform our imaginations to their analogy and likeness’.  Nashe, Terrors of the Night, p. 233.
  18. For the theatre-haters’ rejection of the playwrights’ claims to have reformed their work, see my Shakespeare and Comedy, pp. 11-12.
  19. John Redford, Wit and Science, in Tudor Interludes, ed. Peter Happé (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972), pp.181-219, p. 196.
  20. For a summary of the plot of The Play of Plays, which demonstrates its indebtedness to the plot of Wit and Science, see Markets of Bawdrie: The Dramatic Criticism of Stephen Gosson, ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Salzburg: Universitaet Salzburg, 1974), pp. 181-3.
  21. See Nashe’s statement that ‘everie mechanicall mate’ aspires to the status of a rhetorician because of the example set by ‘vainglorious tragoedians’; epistle ‘To the Gentlemen Students of both Universities’, printed with Greene’s romance Menaphon (1589), Works… of Robert Greene, ed. Grosart, vol. 6, p. 9.  See also Greene’s romance Francescos Fortunes (1590), Works… of Robert Greene, ed. Grosart, vol. 8, p. 132, where the players’ art is described as ‘a kind of mechanical labour’.
  22. The Terrors of the Night, p. 235.

Helen Marshall, The Migration (2019)

[This post was inspired by a series of workshops called the What If Consortium, organised by the writers Helen Marshall and Kim Wilkins of the University of Queensland and involving scholars and writers from all over the world. The aim of the project is to explore the concept of Story Thinking, which uses creative writing methods drawn from speculative fiction to help transdisciplinary teams imagine and find solutions for complex problems collaboratively and effectively. In preparation for the workshops I read some of Helen’s work, for which she has won (among other things) a World Fantasy Award. I quickly found that her novel The Migration might be read as offering a fine example of Story Thinking in action. The post is intended as a contribution to the cogitations of the What If Consortium; and it’s also intended to form part of a case for fantasy as a genre that can contribute as much to real-world problem solving as science fiction can, despite the tendency to forget about it when the affordances of speculative fiction are under discussion. Or is ‘solving’ the right word? I prefer ‘resolution’, I think, which pays attention to the dialogic processes which are an essential feature of collaborative enterprises, and gestures towards music as a model rather than mathematics. Any good conference, classroom discussion, workshop series or in-depth conversation should have a close affinity with a concert, though I have to admit there’s not much about music in what follows…

Please be warned that there are numerous spoilers in this post.]

Oxford is the birthplace of fantasy. Charles Dodgson wrote his Alice books there, surreal dream worlds that helped define the distinctive art of the twentieth century. Tolkien and Lewis met there and formed the Inklings, a reading and talking group which played midwife to the most influential fantasies of modern times: The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) and The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956). These books were written by scholars and reflect their interests, from Dodgson’s fascination with sophistry and riddles to Tolkien’s delight in ancient Northern European cultures, whose material and literary remains survive only in serendipitous fragments – including riddles – and which he painstakingly embeds in a rich new context, making them whole in the ultimate fulfilment of a scholar’s dreams. Scholarship sits lightly on the pages of these seminal fantasies: in the Anglo-Saxon attitudes of the messengers Hatta and Haigha, in the prefatory matter to The Fellowship of the Ring, in the textbooks used by the tutor Doctor Cornelius to instruct the future monarch Prince Caspian of Narnia in behaviour fit for a king. Oxford, where Dodgson, Tolkien and Lewis lived, is a city redolent of magic as well as of scholarship, with bizarre grotesques sprouting from its towers and spires and turrets, hidden gardens revealing themselves through the keyholes of old locked doors, a thousand waterways teeming with wildlife forming a maze in and around its streets, which get regularly flooded in periods of bad weather. It has urban myths aplenty, from the Underground Cathedral of Saint Giles, which can be entered via the steps to a Victorian toilet near the Martyrs’ Memorial, to the rumoured discovery of well-dressed skeletons in an underground brook near Christ Church Meadows.[1] And the city spawns new myths weekly – at least, it was still doing so when I last visited in 2019.

No wonder, then, if Oxford has continued to generate beguiling fantasies since Carroll, Lewis and Tolkien set off on their final journeys to another world. Many of these fantasies touch on themes which Tolkien and Lewis chose to ignore: the past understood as a deadly curse relating to toxic masculinity, as in Joan Aiken’s The Shadow Guests (1980); colonialism in Oxford’s museums, as partly acknowledged by Penelope Lively in The House in Norham Gardens (1974); the exclusion of women from much of the university’s history, and the careful replication of the British class system in Oxford’s colleges, as mimicked in the alternative Oxford of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights (1995). It was a stroke of genius, then, for Helen Marshall to set her weird novel The Migration in the city where modern fantasy had its birth, as she charts the progression of what could well be the death of fantasy. In The Migration all the elements I’ve listed combine to create a peculiarly modern narrative: from medieval scholarship (here a historian’s investigations into the science of the Black Death) to riddles (what is the mysterious ailment that is killing young people all over the world?) to myths, legends and fantastic stories, as the ailment sparks off wild rumours only marginally less bizarre than its possibly ancient causes and modern symptoms. Set all these elements against the backdrop of a world which is falling apart because of the climate catastrophe and you have a potent reinvention of Oxford fantasy, a love-letter to Carroll, Lewis and Tolkien which is also a rallying cry for a revolutionary new way of seeing the world, and an urgent warning to take collective action before it’s too late, if it isn’t already.

Marshall’s Oxford is seen through the eyes of a teenage stranger. For Sophie Perella from Toronto, the buildings, history and habits of Oxford are just as strange as the strange events breaking out all over the globe. She shares her foreignness with the boy Cosmo in Aiken’s The Shadow Guests, who is from Australia but whose name proclaims him a citizen of the planet; with the Ugandan scholar John Sempebwa in Lively’s The House in Norham Gardens, who mournfully teaches fourteen-year-old Oxford girl Clare Mayfield two or three things about British colonial history; with the young Greek refugee Anna in Paul Kearney’s The Wolf in the Attic (2016), whose first-hand knowledge of the horrors of war makes 1920s Oxford look like a different universe – until she learns it harbours horrors of its own. Oxford for them is already weird before weird things start happening to them. Apart from anything else, they are young and Oxford is old, an embodiment of the piled-up generations which helped to construct the dangerous world they now inhabit. Sophie’s youthfulness in Marshall’s book is constantly reaffirmed by the fact that it’s written in the present tense, a tense never used for fiction by Lewis, Tolkien or Carroll, a tense that stresses the unpredictable nature of the story we’re reading. Past tense tells us that someone at least comes out of the story alive, that what happened is safely over, done and dusted, gone but not forgotten. Present tense tells us that the narrative voice could be the voice of the dead, speaking perhaps out of the ruins not only of their own life but of the whole cultural system that produced them. It implies that what we’re reading about is going on right here and now, even as we read. It’s also the preferred tense of Young Adult fiction. For the young, almost anything they come across is a surprise, sometimes pleasurable, sometimes shocking. Present tense ensures that we, like the young, have no idea what will happen next or how it will end.

Death is present from the opening pages of Marshall’s novel, and with it a sense that the nature of death is one of the many things in the world we don’t have a grip on. In a brief prologue, Sophie recognises the domination of her life by death when she recalls her games of playing dead as a very young child. Sophie tells us she played these games ‘before I knew what dead meant – what it really meant’, she adds (p. 1); but the rest of the book is dedicated to erasing any certainties we might have had as to what really means. The word’s meaning remains elusive throughout the prologue. ‘By the time I was older,’ Sophie tells us, ‘I understood more of the way the world worked, but it still wasn’t real dead I was playing at. It was something else. Something mysterious and terrifying. Like kissing a boy for the first time’ (p. 2). When her younger sister Kira joins in the games of playing dead, Sophie finds it deeply uncomfortable to see her sprawled out lifeless beside her and tickles the child till she moves and giggles, breaking the spell. In this way the comfort of a faux recovery eases the terror of perceiving death as a final ending. But by the end of the prologue, death has got caught up with the idea of memory – traces in the mind of what came before – which itself threatens to lose its function, as Sophie’s recollections of her life in Toronto begin to fade in another enactment of the dying process. The prologue ends with a plaintive acknowledgement of open-endedness. As an older child, Sophie tells us, she thought of death as ‘the feeling of rest after a long journey’ (p. 8). But her journey from Toronto to Oxford did not bring her rest. As a result of what happened next, she goes on, she now thinks of death as a ‘doorway’ and doesn’t wish to know what’s on the other side (p. 8). Portals to Narnia can be read as doorways to death, as the many doorways in The Last Battle (1956) disturbingly drive home. The prologue informs us that Sophia’s doorway leads nowhere so comforting or stable as a land of instructive lions, articulate beavers and walking trees.

From the beginning, then, Marshall’s book announces its preoccupation with questions about which Lewis and Tolkien had strong convictions: with the destination, for example, of the individual human identity after the death of the body; or with the problem of how far the past impinges on the present, to what extent its traces retain some semblance of life, how far they remain entangled in and relevant to the struggles of the living. These questions acquire a personal urgency for Sophie when her sister Kira falls ill. The girl suffers from an unknown condition which is rapidly spreading, jumping from child to child, from youth to youth across the world with unnerving speed, like a coronavirus that singles out the young instead of the old (the novel was written, of course, before the outbreak of the Covid 19 pandemic). It’s this condition, called JI2, that sends Sophie’s family from Toronto to Oxford, where cutting-edge research is being carried out on treatments for it (the temptation to mention AstraZeneca is irresistible). Sophie, then, heads to Oxford in a quest for answers; but what she finds is only more questions, about the past as well as the present. The treatment, as it turns out, is not effective – at least, not effective in certain crucial respects. Sophie’s world has no more certainties in it, and none of its occupants has much in the way of faith: in religion, in their fellow humans, or indeed in science, which has claimed in the past to find sure means to avert disaster. All conventional terms and familiar concepts have been destabilized, and the city of Oxford itself is vulnerable, its network of waterways rendered treacherous by the increasing frequency of deadly storms and torrential rain.

The clash of past and present is everywhere in Sophie’s new life in Oxford. Cut off from the past – her father stayed behind in Toronto, as did her best friend Jaina – Sophie has to rebuild her network of relationships almost from scratch, beginning with Aunt Irene, an Oxford historian with whom she and her family are staying. Irene’s specialism in history is death: the Black Death, to be precise, which swept through the world in the Fourteenth Century, wiping out populations on a scale unequalled since. And Irene’s research has direct relevance to the new pandemic of youth. Traces of the same hormone have been found in the corpses of the Black Death’s victims and the victims of JI2. Could the fourteenth-century plague and JI2 have something in common? Certainly both have called into question previous certainties, faiths, and social structures; and as Sophie begins to assist her aunt with her research, she soon finds herself empathising with the terrified victims of the earlier infestation. Whether or not there is a scientific link between her time and that one, JI2 represents for Sophie a reawakening of the fourteenth-century plague, just as the calamitous weather of the twenty-first century represents a reawakening of nature in retributive fury at the accumulated centuries of human abuse. Even the weather of the fourteenth century, we learn, was correspondingly calamitous, and its extreme events may have triggered (so Sophie speculates) some momentous change in human DNA, as they have again.

St Bartlemas Chapel, Oxford

Aunt Irene’s college embodies (and in this book about changing bodies the word is apt) the collision of old and new to perfection. Anachronistically known as New College it is in fact very old, having been founded in the fourteenth century when the plague was at its height. Dedicated to the meeting of young and old – undergraduates seeking instruction from established scholars – it is also the explosive meeting point for the past pandemic and its modern equivalent. ‘Did you know,’ Aunt Irene asks Sophie, as if the teenager could somehow have acquired an older woman’s knowledge through her traumatic experiences of disease and migration, ‘Did you know that most of the quads in the College used to be burial pits for plague victims?’ (p. 47). There are, in fact, as Sophie realises, ‘bodies underneath us right now’, telling a story of an old calamity that might unlock the secrets of the new one. It’s from a base in New College that the young people of Oxford rise up in protest against the social restrictions that are being increasingly imposed on them as the pandemic spreads. At one point in the novel Sophie follows the New College students to a party in a graveyard, in defiance of the curfew. The graveyard belongs to a little chapel known as Saint Bartlemas, in East Oxford, where New College students often sought solace when the Black Death was raging, hoping for bodily regeneration through the intervention of the relics there, which included a piece of Saint Bartholomew’s skin (the saint was martyred by being flayed). At this chapel, where the students and scholars gathered annually in medieval times on May Day and Ascension Day, occurs a key moment in the conflict between the infected young and their censorious elders: a chaotic fight between police and undergraduates sparked off by an act of police violence. Several students die in the fight and one policeman. Later, it’s the records of one of the undergraduates who died that confirm for Sophie exactly what is happening to the diseased. A sympathetic doctor hands her the dead boy’s medical records, and Sophie’s reading of this archival document links up with her part-time researches for Aunt Irene to bring past and present fully alive with unprecedented clarity. Aunt Irene’s investigations into the Black Death and the deaths of modern university students place that ancient institution, New College, at the epicentre of the revolutions and evolutions of the twenty-first century.

But Marshall’s Oxford is a site of industrial as well as intellectual labour. There have been long-standing tensions between Town and Gown – between local inhabitants and the intellectuals who gravitate to the University from all over the world – and these tensions are invariably understood in terms of class. Sophie herself occupies a space between the two populations. She attends a private school for girls and lives in the house of an academic, but the boy she falls in love with is a local boy from a half-derelict working-class estate, whose previous girlfriend – also local, also working-class – was an Oxford student who died of JI2. Sophie’s ties to the Town have a geographical, emotional and architectural centre, just like her ties to the Gown or university. Her first trip with her academic Aunt is not to a medieval site – though there are plenty such visits at later points in the book – but to the neighbourhood of the former cement works at Shipton on Cherwell, where stands ‘a tower, at least a hundred feet tall, jutting into the sky’ (p. 13): the cement works chimney. Kira mistakes this at first for a castle, having been prepared by her mother back home in Toronto to expect an England full of castles. Aunt Irene promises to take her to see a proper castle – the one at nearby Warwick – but the cement works chimney has more in the way of history than any decaying military fortification. It’s an integral part, for instance, of Irene’s own past – the place where she met a man who was perhaps her lover, ‘a quarry engineer who sometimes did freelance work assessing dig sites for the School of Archaeology’ (p. 14). This half-forgotten love story invokes the many points of convergence between Town and Gown in Oxford’s history, their symbiotic relationship despite the tensions between them. And it invokes for Sophie the disruption of her personal history by the onset of the pandemic. In Toronto she had always assumed that her future would involve a university education. Uprooted from Canada at a time when the world is waking up to a new Black Death, accompanied by unprecedented storms and temperature changes, such comfortable expectations have quickly come to seem beyond the pale. As a result, the ruins of the cement works look more like the pictures she is painting in her mind of the world’s future, stripped of its human population, quickly reclaimed by vegetation, its soundscape dominated by the calls of birds – like the ‘fantastic noise’ made by a flock of starlings that suddenly materialises near the abandoned factory, twisting itself into ‘complicated patterns and ghostly shapes’ as if to sketch out an unreadable prediction of things to come (and the incident clearly invokes the Roman habit of reading omens in the flights of birds) (p. 16). But its resemblance to a ruined castle means that the chimney is also tied to the past, or to an imagined alternative past which is always invading the present in fantastic stories, as doors open into it from wardrobes or pictures, or figures from it come striding or stumbling into the modern landscape, as in the work of Susan Cooper. And it is a brave and impetuous act by Sophie herself that brings the chimney back to life, rendering it urgently relevant despite its derelict condition.

It’s to the chimney that Sophie decides to bring the corpse of her sister after she has died of JI2 – stealing her from the hospital mortuary and smuggling her out of the city in her Aunt’s requisitioned Renault. It’s in the chimney that the body undergoes a wonderfully unsettling metamorphosis, reminiscent at first of the pupa stage in an insect’s development. It’s at the chimney that Sophie gets to know the Town boy, Bryan, an amateur engineer who becomes her lover, just as an older engineer became Irene’s; and it’s there that she learns to let the transmuted Kira go, to stop trying to keep her as the child she once was, the child she is no longer. The chimney even becomes a kind of chute or birth canal leading from this life to the next, as the resurrected, changed and now airborne Kira batters her way like a giant moth towards the circle of light at its distant apex. Finally, the chimney is the place where Sophie and Bryan plot together to acquire for themselves the secret of flight, building a powered paraglider or paramotor with which they hope to make contact with the freshly-fledged dead, the youthful angels of the climate apocalypse, Kira among them. The chimney, then, like New College, is a brooding and birthing place where the future can be germinated from the seeds of now.

It’s the place, too, where the impossible happens, taking over from New College as the central site of Oxford fantasy. This new version of the impossible is forged from the kinds of technical ingredients largely ignored by the scholarly Inklings: a petrol engine, a foam seat fitted with recycled seatbelts, the ‘giant steel circle of welded pipes’ which forms the paramotor’s frame (p. 318) – a witty homage to Tolkien’s One Ring, with the chimney as its Barad-dûr. The paramotor becomes Sophie’s obsession, just as the Ring becomes Frodo’s, and a similar aura of destructiveness clings to it, reinforced by the fact that it’s powered by fossil fuels. But it’s also an emblem of something like hope out of despair. Aunt Irene considers this kind of hope – the hope of an afterlife, the hope of a new phase of evolution that might involve some kind of resurrection from the dead – as no more than ‘magical thinking’ (p. 304), an anachronistic state of mind which might have been suitable for the fourteenth-century victims of the Black Death, because of the different ‘conceptual schema’ by which they lived (p. 303), but has lost its validity since the Millennium. Sophie and Bryan, however, who grew up with an easy familiarity with the miracles of science and technology, see magical thinking as a blueprint for action. Bugs undergo astonishing changes every day, resurrecting themselves from the tomb of the chrysalis or pupa. The laws of physics keep being rewritten, as the impossible proves possible in each successive generation. Technology shows itself capable of replicating some of the bizarrest actions of the natural world – such as the flying technique of the bumble bee, as imitated by ‘Herr Cederberg’ in the short story by Karin Tidbeck.[2] And the cement works chimney might just be the channel or conduit which will take human thought and action, if not science and technology, to a whole new level.

Marshall’s book, then, has something interesting to say about the impulse to indulge ourselves in fantasy and the fantastic, the art of the impossible. What happens to Sophie in Oxford has been prepared for in her mind by her self-immersion in often old-fashioned fantasy texts. Her idea of England is shaped in Toronto by her reading of books posted to her by the Oxford-based scholar Aunt Irene: The Ladybird Book of British History, for instance (p. 3), or Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series (1965-77), which deals with modern children (modern, that is, in the 60s and 70s) who are precipitated into a sudden clash between old and new, the ordinary world and a magical otherworld, for enormous stakes (p. 3). Cooper wrote The Dark Is Rising in America, although she was born and raised in Britain, so the series represents the intersection between cultures that will feature throughout Marshall’s book. Sophie also reads The Chrysalids (1955) at school in Canada, a book about a post-apocalyptic America written by the British author John Wyndham, whose title hints at insectile metamorphoses of the kind that are happening again in Sophie’s England (p. 28). A few pages later we learn more about Sophie’s reading. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), which describes a woman’s breakdown in fantastic terms and anticipates the breakdown of Sophie’s mother at one point in the novel (which is in fact a breaking down and reconstruction of her assumptions, her ‘schemata’ as Aunt Irene might call them) (p. 30). Harry Potter, whose schooldays anticipate the bizarre educational experiences of the students of New College, including their cultural war against the older generation and its police. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937), comforting in a way The Migration refuses to be, though Marshall’s book freely acknowledges the necessity of comfort reading and therapeutic storytelling (p. 39). Fairy tales about appalling family crises such as Hansel and Gretel (p. 40). Peter Pan (book version, 1911), about a boy who learns to fly exactly as Kira and Sophie do (p. 160). I’ve already hinted at the presence in the novel of the Narnia books (that reference to death as a portal in the prologue), and one element of those books features prominently in it: animals (in this case bugs or birds) who share their thoughts with human beings. The novel swarms, in fact, with fantasy references, and in each case the fantasy in question has direct application to Sophie’s situation, preparing her for the wonders and horrors of the world of now. Fantasy provides her with schemata for a time of radical, painful or appalling change, despite or perhaps precisely because of its roots in the past.

One of the great moments in Marshall’s novel occurs at the point when Sophie confronts her Aunt Irene with some searching questions about her attitude to history and its bearing on the present. Sophie is almost certain that the young people such as her sister who have died of JI2 live on after death as themselves in some discernible way. Aunt Irene has spent her life studying a Medieval civilisation that believed the same thing; but for her it is ‘dangerous… to think in that way’, since ‘magical thinking’ means ‘you might do something stupid’ (p. 303), such as throwing away your only chance at adult life in a suicidal leap of faith simply because you believe that something better might come after. Aunt Irene sustains her argument with scientific discourse, as she insists that Sophie’s hopes for her sister are ill-founded:

The structure of the human brain is delicate. It can’t survive the kind of trauma those bodies are going through. So whatever lives on, even if it’s biologically alive, it isn’t the same. Don’t you think I want to believe as well that something continues on? But that’s false hope, Sophie. It’s a trick. (p. 303)

Her case against a belief in resurrection is much the same as the case an atheist might make against the delusions of a passionate believer. Yet it also echoes the arguments of the Christian apologist C. S. Lewis when he expostulated against the visions of human evolution propounded by the visionary science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon. In Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) and The Star Maker (1937), Lewis contended – books which describe the future history of humanity, covering thousands and even millions of years – the human body, mind and social order undergo changes so extreme that the new life forms these books describe can no longer accurately be called human. They have lost (Lewis thought) their soul. The fact that the same reasoning can be applied both by a believer and an unbeliever suggests that the territory each occupies is not as alien as one might think. In both cases, resistance to radical ideas and the different schemata that inform them can be a screen for deeply-rooted conservatism born of timidity: fear of difference, fear of revolution, fear of extreme corporeal change.

But Sophie has scientific reasoning on her side too. ‘That’s not how history works, though, is it?’ she argues (p. 304). ‘We don’t get to put things back to how they should be because it makes life easier to understand’. In any case, she adds, the past was as full of traumatic incidents as the present: ‘There isn’t safety in the way things were’. The Black Death is proof enough of that, or the massacres and migrations that have featured throughout human history. ‘So what if there’s an answer here,’ she concludes, ‘something radical and new’ about the changes undergone by the new plague’s victims?  Aunt Irene’s response to this unsettling suggestion may itself be conditioned by biology rather than reason. ‘Her eyes slide away from mine,’ Sophie observes; ‘For a moment I felt she almost grasped my line of thought but now she’s shifting away, her mind rejecting what I told her, antibodies pushing out a foreign bacterium’ (p. 305). The older woman is protecting herself against the unfamiliar, as people often do, not yet ready to ‘let it break through [her] defences, […] find a way to use it’. At the same time, Irene is a reader of fantasy and the fantastic, with Susan Cooper and John Wyndham on her shelves at home. She has not yet learned to accommodate the new, but that does not mean she never will. Like Sophie herself, Aunt Irene has been prepared for radical change by the kind of fiction she enjoys in her spare time.

Sophie’s scientific reasoning is akin to faith. As she prepares for her first desperate flight in the paramotor, the young woman recognises her half-baked plan to make some sort of contact in the sky with the newly-evolved survivors of JI2 as the definitive act of a true believer: ‘It is the only chance I have to see Kira again, even if it is a long shot. A leap of faith. I don’t know what comes next but I have to try’ (p. 319). She is spurred by the fact that she herself has now contracted JI2, which means she is already affiliated or committed to the metamorphosis her sister underwent before her. As the plague began to spread, the older generation started to think of the young as in some sense a different species, threatening the precious cultural inheritance they had hoped to pass down to their children and grandchildren; threatening, in fact, the survival of the world they thought they knew. For Sophie, by contrast, the infected young may carry the seeds of knowledge of the time to come, a wisdom she yearns for, as her name suggests. And sure enough, her desperate flight into the eye of a storm helps her gain that knowledge. In a lyrical passage, she finds Kira’s memories in her head along with her own, as well as Kira’s premonitions of the drowned world of the future, the world that will inevitably follow the melting of the polar icecaps and the onset of extreme weather incidents. It is a world for which the metamorphosed young will be fully adapted. The resurrected, airborne Kira ‘has been made for the storm – not just to survive, but to flourish in it. […] And the earth is passing away from me, the earth has hatched me. It’s hatched both of us. I can feel her closer now’ (p. 361). Myth enthusiasts may detect a reference here to the egg that hatched the twins Castor and Pollux and their sister Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world. Helen is a paradox, like the victims of JI2; she both brought about the fall of Troy and bequeathed to future generations the magnificent story of that fall, the ‘terrible beauty’ described by Yeats, somehow liberating as well as tragic.[3] Sophie’s leap of faith is both terrible and beautiful, committing her body, like that of her sister, to the next ‘gyre’ or cycle of the world’s existence.

The book ends as it began, with the act of playing dead; but in the final chapter Sophie’s childhood games are relayed to us through the memories of her mother, now newly recovered from the breakdown brought on by her younger daughter’s death. Like Sophie, Char has always been haunted by the potential link between playing dead and ‘actual’ death. Each time she found the child Sophie acting out her own mortality, a ‘terrible fear would come over me that this time, maybe it wasn’t just playing, maybe it was real’ (p. 379). But in this final chapter, Sophie’s death is no game. The paramotor (a trivial object designed for pleasure – a means of playing with death) has crashed to the ground on its maiden flight and broken her body, and Sophie herself is about to undergo the post-mortem metamorphosis of all JI2 victims. Fantasy has been revealed once again as mental preparation for traumas to come.

But for Marshall, fantasy is more than this; especially experimental fantasy, of the sort that refuses to tread the path of slavish imitation – like The Lord of the Rings, whose familiarity sometimes makes us lose sight of just how original Tolkien’s text was at the time of writing. Sophie herself embodies such experimental fantasy, having had an ‘aura of unpredictability’ since birth, in her mother’s eyes, arriving ten weeks before her due date with bluish skin, yet surviving against all odds in an incubator and emerging stronger for the ordeal. Unpredictable fantasy – the sort whose ending you cannot guess when you start reading – can help us understand and resist brutality of various kinds, as is hinted at in the name of the doctor who wishes to take Sophies corpse for experimental treatment in his lab (he is ‘Lane Ballard’, a clear allusion to the dark visions of the future hatched by the former trainee doctor, J. G. Ballard, in his so-called ‘space fiction’). But experimental fantasy also enables us to confront the impossible, inhabit it, make it our home. Magical thinking gave Char hope in her early days as a mother, as she waited to find out if her premature baby would emerge from the incubator dead or alive. ‘“Live,” I whispered as I looked at you behind the glass, “please, live”’ (p. 383). But, she adds in the present as she breathes the same words while waiting to see if her broken daughter will live or die, ‘it doesn’t always work like that, does it? Only in fairy tales does it work like that’. Baby Sophie obeyed the logic of fairy tales in her childhood – the ‘magical thinking’ they encourage; but the laws of chance, Char thinks, make it unlikely this will happen again.

Sure enough, teenage Sophie doesn’t live; or rather, she ‘really’ dies. But fairy tales can be as unpredictable as any other kind of fiction, especially if you turn to non-European storytelling traditions. An Egyptian fairy tale known to Char, which Sophie used to read to Kira, tells of a heron who rebuilt the world after the Deluge, the universal flood which is also described in the Old Testament and classical legend. This tale told by a child to her sister offers a model for seeing a way out of the climate crisis: a way that involves stepping sideways from one form of life – the dominant form of our time, the life of human beings under late capitalism – into another whose schemata are unfamiliar to us, as unfamiliar as the notion of a heron as the world’s creator. Sophie and Kira take that sideways step or leap, with trepidation and excitement. In tracing their transition to another schema, Marshall’s book refashions Oxford, the birthplace of the fantastic, as the birthplace of a new fantastic, better suited to our needs at a time of accelerated global change. Readers of all generations can learn from this refashioning.

NOTES

[1] Marshall alludes obliquely to both these myths in her novel. I leave it to you to spot the references!

[2] Karin Tidbeck, Jagannath (2012), pp. 41-44.

[3] See Yeats, ‘Easter 1916’, ‘Leda and the Swan’, ‘The Second Coming’, etc.

Fantastic Economies: Flann O’Brien and James Stephens

[I’m deep in the marking season, so haven’t had time to finish the blog post I was working on this month. Instead I’m putting up an essay from a few years ago, adding to the discussions of Irish fantasy you can find elsewhere on this blog. The essay was published in Flann O’Brien: Problems with Authority (Cork: Cork University Press, 2017), pp. 136-51, expertly edited by Ruben Borg, Paul Fagan and John McCourt. A Russian translation by Shasha Martynova is also available here, edited for Gorky by Maxim Nemtsov.

You can find more on James Stephens here, and on Flann O’Brien here.]

In this essay I shall argue that Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman (1940) is (among other things) a radical reimagining of one of the best-loved Irish novels of the twentieth century: James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold (1912). In reworking Stephens’s quirky nationalist fantasy for a later generation, O’Brien arranges elements of the earlier novel into strange new forms adapted to the grim new social and political realities of the 1930s.  Stephens conceived his book as an imaginative act of resistance against the unholy alliance of the church and the British state, pitting mutually supportive poverty against the reactionary self-interest of the middle classes, the passionate body against the cultural and religious authorities who sought to suppress it, and predicting a brilliant future for an independent, egalitarian, quasi-pagan Irish nation. O’Brien reconceives the novel as an elaborate trap, in which Ireland, its people and its landscape wholeheartedly participate in the worldwide trend towards totalitarian authoritarianism and its inevitable outcome: self-destruction. The chief components of both novels are a pastoral, often lyric vision of the Irish countryside, a clutch of self-educated philosophers, a man condemned to death and some eccentric but threatening policemen. How and why such similar elements should have been recombined to produce such radically different texts, each of which issues an equally scathing assessment of the condition of Ireland at its own particular point in history, is the subject of this essay. [1]

O’Brien’s debt to Stephens has often been noted.  In 1966 an anonymous essayist argued in the Times Literary Supplement that O’Brien owed more to the ‘tradition of modern Irish fantasy and romance in which the definitive figure is James Stephens’ than to Joycean modernism (though there seems no good reason to choose between these debts, since Joyce and Stephens were friends).[2] Thirty years later, Keith Hopper pointed out that Sergeant Pluck is ‘a fictional composition of […] features borrowed from other texts (most notably James Stephens’s policemen in The Crock of Gold)’;[3] while Carol Taaffe has recently contended that the ‘nearest predecessor to O’Nolan’s fantasy was James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold’.[4]  None of these commentators took their perceptions much further; but the sheer frequency with which O’Brien’s debt to Stephens has been affirmed suggests that a close comparison is overdue. And Taaffe’s comments in particular open up a number of fruitful avenues of inquiry.

Scene from the Blue Raincoat Theatre production of The Third Policeman

For Taaffe, The Third Policeman is a ‘resolutely apolitical piece of nonsense’ (my emphasis), which reflects O’Brien’s ambiguous attitude to de Valera’s Ireland, caught between anger at and complicity with its oppressive paternalism towards its citizens.[5] It seems to me, though, that O’Brien’s evident fascination with The Crock of Gold could be read as the key to a decidedly political reading of The Third Policeman, which reinforces Shelly Brivic’s contention that an ‘insurrectionary attitude’ lurks beneath the surface of O’Brien’s masterpiece.[6] Neither The Crock of Gold nor James Stephens could be described as in any sense ‘apolitical’, embroiled as they were in the ferment of nationalist activism that preceded the outbreak of the First World War.[7]  O’Brien’s decision, then, to redraft Stephens’s book in the context of the nationalist ferment that preceded the Second can itself be seen as a political act.  That the political outlooks in question are so different can be ascribed to the different class backgrounds of the two writers, as well as to the times in which they wrote. And these differences emerge most clearly in the contrasting imaginative economies of their novels.

Stephens saw himself as having been shaped by the economic conditions of his upbringing.  In a fragment of autobiography he represents his early life in terms of a series of transitions from one social milieu to another:

The Dublin I was born to was poor and Protestant and athletic. While very young I extended my range and entered a Dublin that was poor and Catholic and Gaelic – a very wonderworld. Then as a young writer I further extended to a Dublin that was poor and artistic and political. Then I made a Dublin for myself, my Dublin.[8]

The recurring note throughout these transitions is one of poverty. Stephens was educated at the Meath Industrial School for Protestant Boys, for which he qualified by getting himself arrested for begging at the age of six.[9] He left school at sixteen to work for a pittance as a solicitor’s clerk, a life from which he was precariously set free by the success of his writing. Brian O’Nolan, by contrast, came from a Catholic middle-class background, took a Master’s degree in Irish literature at University College Dublin, and followed his father into the Civil Service.[10] His father’s early death left O’Nolan to support eleven siblings, but thanks to O’Nolan’s salary the family never experienced poverty. At the same time, as a native Irish speaker O’Nolan was intensely conscious of the quasi-mythical link that had been forged by scholars and patriots between economic deprivation and the Irish language. The association formed the basis of his satire An Béal Bocht (1941), where the purest Irish is spoken by starving peasants who are kept artificially segregated from modernity, by government decree, in a fantastic Gaeltacht.  Stephens and O’Nolan, then, had radically different experiences of poverty, but shared an intense awareness of the economic basis of relations between classes, between nations, between an author and his readers; and this awareness manifests itself on every page of their strangely linked masterpieces.

The dominant economy of The Crock of Gold is a romanticized version of the economics of the working classes, underpinned by the custom of gift exchange among the travellers who throng its rural highways.  Men and women in Stephens’s Ireland are always sharing bread, as well as advice and information, with random strangers they meet on the road. At one point the protagonist, an elderly Philosopher, generously shares his one small cake with seven large labourers, male and female, and is rewarded with the ‘larger part’ of a food parcel belonging to one of them.[11] Later, when he is hungry again, he meets a young boy who tells him ‘I am bringing you your dinner’ and spontaneously hands over another food parcel.[12] The generosity of strangers extends to the courtesies they exchange, verbal equivalents of the material gifts that sustain them on their travels. Having finished the meal donated to him by the boy the Philosopher tells his benefactor, ‘I want nothing more in the world […] except to talk with you’, and the two quickly discover there is ‘not so much difference’ between a child and an old man.[13] And each of these chance encounters – with the boy and with the labourers – concludes with the Philosopher giving the strangers important messages from the Irish god Angus Óg, which serve to bind together the community of the poor in a single purpose: the democratization of the reawakened Irish nation.

The Third Policeman, by contrast, is dominated by the economics of the middle classes, based on individual self-advancement, a paranoid concern to protect what they take to be their private property (though in this book property is for the most part theft and the concept of ownership problematic), and a penchant for aggressive competition in all their dealings. The verbal courtesies they exchange are as elaborate as those of Stephens’s travellers, but serve the function of a robber’s mask as they seek to con conversationalists out of their possessions and even their lives.  When the unnamed first person narrator meets a ‘poorly dressed’ stranger on the road his first reaction is to check that his wallet is safe, after which he decides to ‘talk to him genially and civilly’ in the hope of coaxing information out of him.[14] The stranger’s courteous replies to the narrator’s civility (‘More power to yourself’) lead inexorably to a threat of murder (‘Even if you have no money […] I will take your little life’), which is only averted by the discovery that both men possess an unusual feature in common – each has a wooden left leg.[15] Shortly afterwards the friendly welcome the narrator receives at the local police station rapidly transforms itself into another death threat, when he is arrested and condemned to be hanged for a crime of which there is no evidence that he is guilty.

Illustration by Jen O’Brien

In O’Brien’s world, too, information is guarded jealously as a source of power, not shared as it is in Stephens’s Ireland. Policeman Pluck’s second and third rules of wisdom – the only rules he follows that have nothing to do with bicycles – are ‘Always ask any questions that are to be asked and never answer any’ and ‘Turn everything you hear to your own advantage’.[16] Meanwhile the driving motive for the narrator’s journey is a quest for gold to finance his pet project: the private printing of his otherwise unpublishable book on the unhinged philosopher de Selby, containing information of no conceivable value to anyone but a few scholarly authorities on the man himself – and to its author, of course, who hopes to join their exalted ranks by virtue of his volume. O’Brien’s inversion of Stephens’s economy could not be more complete, and the competition between individuals and social classes that underpins it – in contrast to the communal interests that dominate The Crock of Gold ­– can be summed up in the narrator’s contempt, as a would-be scholar, for the intellects of the men he meets (‘I decided now that he was a simple man and that I would have no difficulty in dealing with him exactly as I desired’), as he kills and lies his way towards the cashbox he requires to fund his project.[17]

Stephens composed The Crock of Gold in a ferment of political and personal optimism.  The year of its publication, 1912, saw the publication of the other two books that made his name: a quasi-realist novel, The Charwoman’s Daughter, and the poetry collection that cemented his reputation as one of the finest Irish poets of his generation, The Hill of Vision. The immediate success of these volumes prompted him to give up his job as a clerk, acquire an agent, and set off to seek his fortune in Paris.[18]  His plans for the future, as the title of his poetry collection suggests, were ambitious.  He shared the vision of an independent socialist Ireland with his friends and fellow poets Thomas MacDonagh and Patrick Pearce, both of whom died in the Easter Rising; and he dreamed of giving a suitable literary form to this vision by writing a multi-volume epic based on the Ulster Cycle, a work worthy of the richly creative and egalitarian society he expected Ireland to become. But the Free State turned out very different from the Ireland he had imagined, and he completed only fragments of this project. It is therefore his two celebrated prose works of 1912, along with his early lyrics, that best articulate his youthful ambitions for his country.

O’Nolan seems to have been thinking about Stephens a good deal around the time when he was writing The Third Policeman. In 1938 he wrote to the older novelist asking permission to translate The Crock of Gold into Irish; and as Taaffe points out, if this permission had been forthcoming the translation ‘would have been his next project after At Swim-Two-Birds’ – would have taken the place, in fact, of The Third Policeman in the chronology of O’Nolan’s major works.[19] Stephens’s refusal denied twentieth-century Irish literature what might have been one of its collaborative masterpieces; but it also enabled his fiction to undergo some unexpected mutations in the crucible of O’Nolan’s imagination.  In 1941, for instance, The Crock of Gold cropped up in Cruiskeen Lawn as one of the prized items on offer to wealthy customers of the Myles na cGopaleen ‘book handling’ service. In the de luxe version of this service, Myles’s team of so-called ‘master handlers’ undertake to upgrade your private book collection (for a suitable fee) by padding it out with classic volumes, their title pages inscribed with ‘forged messages of affection and gratitude from the author of each work’, including an expression of esteem from ‘Your old friend, James Stephens’.[20] Stephens’s influence may also be detected ‘in the erudite dialogues of the Pooka and the Good Fairy’ in At Swim-Two-Birds, as Taaffe points out, which recall the dialogues between the Philosopher and his brother in The Crock of Gold;[21] and in the many bar-room rhetoricians of Cruiskeen Lawn, who resemble the sponging old gentleman-philosopher in Stephens’s story collection Here Are Ladies (1913).[22] It can be traced in O’Brien’s description of Sergeant Pluck, whose ‘violent red moustache […] shot out from his skin far into the air like the antennae of some unusual animal’,[23] evoking the red moustache of the equally huge policeman in The Charwoman’s Daughter, which ‘stood out above his lip like wire’ so that ‘One expected it to crackle when he touched it’.[24] Even the famous multiple personae O’Nolan adopted might remind us of Stephens’s many pen-names, from Tiny Tim to the Leprechaun, James Esse, Jacques and Seumas Beg.

In 1940, O’Nolan accomplished his most extended act of translation from the work of Stephens: The Third Policeman, which translates The Crock of Gold into terms directly applicable to the global situation at the beginning of a second Great War and at the end of the depression. The fact that this is a translation of a sort emerges most clearly in the plot of each novel, which links capitalist economics to the crime of murder. In both books the desire for capital leads to violence; but the route from cash to aggression is quite different in each case, and the relationship between capital, violence and Ireland differs too, in ways that summarize the different worlds in which the authors found themselves.

The plot of The Crock of Gold involves a stock of money, the crock of the title; but the coins it contains play only a marginal role in the lives of their owners. The Leprechauns of Gort na Cloca Mora have accumulated the cash as insurance against the greed of mortal men. As one of them explains, ‘a Leprecaun [sic] has to have a crock of gold so that if he’s captured by men folk he may be able to ransom himself’.[25]  Their traditional work as shoemakers, by contrast, participates in a non-monetary economy: it is remunerated in kind by mortals through the strict preservation of certain customs, such as leaving out a pan of milk for them on Tuesdays, removing one’s hat when faced with a dust-twirl, and observing a pact of non-aggression against their special bird, the robin redbreast.  The Leprechauns, then, inhabit a world where one economy is pitted against another, where the competitive thirst for accumulated capital which makes the crock necessary is set against a strategy of mutual co-operation within the working class community; and the climax of the novel sees an escalation of the conflict between these two economies, with very nearly fatal consequences for Stephens’s Philosopher.

The representatives of the capitalist economy in the novel are the policemen, called in by the Leprechauns in the course of a feud with one of their neighbours, Meehawl MacMurrachu, who stole their crock of gold on the Philosopher’s advice. In revenge, the Leprechauns frame the Philosopher for the murder of his brother; and the men who come to arrest him bring with them an alien set of values, characterised by a rigid sense of hierarchy and a propensity for violence. Where the rural people in the book’s community – mortals, gods and fairies alike – portion out their food and drink with scrupulous fairness, the policemen divide what they have according to rank, with the sergeant drinking whiskey and his subordinates milk.[26] Where the Philosopher bases his wisdom on the behaviour of birds, beasts and insects, on the assumption that all creatures were created equal – an attitude the book endorses by recording the thoughts of donkeys, cows and spiders – the policemen treat dumb animals with brutality, as if to confirm the brutal nature of their own social function. We hear of a policeman’s pet jackdaw whose tongue was split with a coin to make it talk, and which was accidentally trampled to death by its owner’s mother;[27] of a dog that got kicked for counting too long;[28] and of a cat that ate her kittens, about which Policeman Shawn informs us: ‘I killed it myself one day with a hammer for I couldn’t stand the smell it made, so I couldn’t’.[29] Soon after saying this, Policeman Shawn treats one of the Leprechauns with equal aggression. ‘Tell me where the money is or I’ll twist your neck off’, he warns, driven half mad by his lust for fairy gold; and later, ‘Tell me where the money is or I’ll kill you’.[30] The brutality of Stephens’s policemen is connected with money in an endless cycle of cause and effect. And when the Philosopher arrives at their barracks he discovers that the citizens they police, as represented by the prisoners in the cell, have been trapped in a similar cycle, body and mind.

Both prisoners were driven to crime by unfair dismissal from jobs in the city. The first was sacked for non-attendance owing to illness, the second summarily dismissed because of his age. Both men experience unemployment as a brutalising loss of identity, expressed in their exclusion from the system of verbal exchanges that define a community. When the Philosopher first enters the cell, neither man returns his greeting – the only time in the book when a courteous gesture is not reciprocated. The prisoners tell their stories in the dark without giving their names, so it is unclear which man is speaking. And the stories they tell identify inarticulacy as the first symptom of their exclusion from social and economic significance. The sickness of one prisoner manifests itself in an inability to write out words (like Stephens he is a clerk): ‘The end of a word seemed […] like the conclusion of an event – it was a surprising, isolated, individual thing, having no reference to anything else in the world’.[31] Here, the loss of a coherent written language is the cause of his dismissal from his job, while its effect is that speech too fails him. He stops talking to his wife, and eventually leaves his family without a word of explanation or farewell. For the second prisoner, too, the loss of his job is quickly followed by a loss of articulacy: ‘I did not allow my mind to think, but now and again a word swooped from immense distances through my brain, swinging like a comet across a sky and jarring terribly when it struck: “Sacked” was one word, “Old” was another word’.[32] When their income is taken away, each prisoner suffers the concomitant removal of the verbal grammar that binds one term to another, and of the social grammar that links one man to his neighbour or to his sense of his own identity in the past.

In the end, it is the improbable intervention of the fairies, gods and heroes of old Ireland that frees these prisoners from the cycle of economic and social exclusion to which they have been condemned. The hosts of the Shee rise up under the leadership of Angus Óg to liberate the Irish workers in a pagan insurrection. And the most striking characteristic of the insurrectionists is their unity-in-diversity, their ability to reconcile individualism with collectivism, exuberance with organisation, as expressed in a universal language:

For these people, though many, were one. Each spoke to the other as to himself, without reservation or subterfuge. They moved freely each in his personal whim, and they moved also with the unity of one being: for when they shouted to the Mother of the gods they shouted with one voice, and they bowed to her as one man bows. Through the many minds there went also one mind, correcting, commanding, so that in a moment the interchangeable and fluid became locked, and organic with a simultaneous understanding, a collective action – which was freedom.[33]

Stephens here represents the host of Angus Óg as practising a form of instantaneous communication, whereby they understand each other completely without discarding what makes them distinctive: precisely the obverse of the prisoners’ isolation and anonymity. And this language aspires to be uttered beyond the confines of Stephens’s narrative. The chapter in which the insurrection takes place is the only one with its own title, ‘The Happy March’, as if to ensure that its contents can be detached from the novel and deployed as the imaginative blueprint, or at least the incidental music, for an actual Irish insurrection of the kind that took place in 1916. Stephens’s book, in other words, opens up at the end, offering its contents as common currency to the Irish people in a generously inclusive gesture of the kind with which it is filled, in an attempt to liberate them by example from the prison of their colonised minds.[34]

Illustration by David and Edward O’Kane

O’Brien’s novel, by contrast, affirms the continued entrapment of the Irish people. It reverses the class positions of the police and the novel’s protagonist – the first-person narrator – forcing the reader to take the point of view of a petit bourgeois social climber, instead of that selfless if somewhat arrogant servant of the community, Stephens’s Philosopher. In contrast to the courteous and curious Philosopher, O’Brien’s narrator feels only disdain for those he thinks of as his social inferiors – including the police. He too is a philosopher, but a parasitic one who seeks to accumulate cultural capital by publishing a wholly derivative volume, an index to the works of the incoherent savant de Selby. And de Selby himself is the polar opposite of Stephens’s genial pedant: a solipsist who refuses to engage in dialogue with other thinkers, and who sees human existence not as a single organic entity but as a series of disconnected moments (‘a succession of static experiences each infinitely brief’),[35] each as detached from adjacent moments as he is from the rest of the human species. Where Stephens’s Philosopher draws on the collective wisdom of beasts, children and ordinary people to develop his theories, de Selby rejects any form of consensus: he ‘would question the most obvious realities and object even to things scientifically demonstrated’.[36] And his works conduct their readers not to enlightenment but bloodshed. In the last of many footnotes on de Selby in the novel we see one of his commentators set out with bombs and guns to kill his German rival because they disagree on how the great man’s writings are to be interpreted.[37] The link between this philosophy of exclusivity and obfuscation and the rise of Nazism is confirmed in an earlier footnote, where de Selby claims to be able to ‘state the physiological “group” of any person merely from a brief study of the letters of his name’ and avers that ‘Certain “groups” [are] universally “repugnant” to other “groups”’.[38] One race or family, then, gets segregated from another in de Selby’s thinking, just as one moment in time gets divorced from the next; so it is hardly surprising if the narrator of O’Brien’s novel, as the great man’s acolyte, finds himself increasingly alienated from other people in the course of the narrative, baffled by their discourse, convinced that his private interests are opposed to theirs, and prepared to kill to assert his own intellectual and economic superiority to those around him.[39]

Where Stephens locates his genial Philosopher in a gift exchange economy, O’Brien ensures that his narrator-philosopher is acutely conscious that he lives in a cutthroat capitalist environment. He knows (as does the reader) exactly how his research on de Selby is funded – through the farm and the failing pub he inherits from his parents – and how the income from these combined resources is not enough to fund the publication of his Index. He imagines the contents of the cashbox for which he kills old Mathers not as gold but as ‘Ten thousand pounds’ worth of negotiable securities’ such as stocks and bonds;[40] so that for all his claim to be absorbed in matters of the mind he knows the market intimately. And he plans to use these assets not for some collective benefit but to enhance his financial and social worth as an individual, despite the fact that neither the cashbox nor the book he has written is his own: the cashbox belongs to Mathers and the book is made up of quotations from other writers, since in it ‘the views of all known commentators on every aspect of the savant and his work had been collated’.[41] The only forms of interaction with the community he undertakes, in fact, are competitive, and even his conversation entails a constant jockeying for position, a quest for the upper hand that merely sinks him deeper and deeper into a self-imposed confinement of body and mind.

Illustration by Armando Veve

In O’Brien’s novel, as in Stephens’s, philosophers set out on journeys across an unspecified Irish landscape made up of rolling hills and bogland and populated by labourers, policemen, beasts and fantastical beings. But where Stephens’s Philosopher, true to his convictions, travels in order to put right the wrong he did when he gave poor advice to Meehawl MacMurrachu, O’Brien’s travels for personal profit. Where Stephens’s Philosopher encounters many women on his journey and engages in conversations with them about male-female companionship, O’Brien’s encounters only men, the closest he comes to female companionship being with an exquisitely-proportioned bicycle (designed for a man, with a cross bar), which he thinks of as utterly compliant – the ultimate patriarchal fantasy. Where Stephens’s Philosopher draws abundant conclusions from his experiences on his travels, changing his opinions on many subjects as he walks, O’Brien’s narrator constantly fantasizes about people and objects, and has a tendency to forget everything that has just happened. ‘If that watch of mine were found you would be welcome to it,’ he tells his departing soul at one point, to which his soul answers dryly, ‘But you have no watch’.[42]  This forgetfulness means he is incapable of reaping enlightenment from his adventures. In any case, with every step he moves further into a world powered by strange machines whose fabrication and functions defy analysis – such as the light boxes constructed by Policeman MacCruiskeen, or the mysterious engines tended by the police beneath the ground – and which therefore fail to illustrate any universal laws.

Illustration by Martin Herbert

On his journey to put right his mistake in misadvising Meehawl, Stephens’s Philosopher makes his way into caves where gods dwell. In the first cave he encounters the Greek god Pan, in the second Angus Óg, the Celtic god of youth; and each deity presents him with something of value. Pan gives him a pleasure in his senses, Angus makes him his messenger to mortals, investing him with a sociability he did not possess before, a consciousness of and a keen interest in his place in the wider community.  O’Brien’s philosopher, too, enters spaces like caves: an underground ‘eternity’ and a secret policeman’s barracks in a house’s walls; but in each he finds only policemen, personifications of an inescapable authority which is repudiated by the gods of Stephens, who ask only that mortals choose between them. Stephens’s Philosopher has to negotiate terrifying darkness and discomfort to reach Angus’s cave: ‘He could not see an inch in front, and so he went with his hands outstretched like a blind man who stumbles painfully along’.[43]  O’Brien’s narrator is similarly afflicted as he approaches the entrance to the underground eternity: ‘I […] followed the noisy Sergeant with blind faith till my strength was nearly gone, so that I reeled forward instead of walking and was defenceless against the brutality of the boughs’.[44] But in each of the cave-like spaces the narrator enters, the underground ‘eternity’ and the secret barracks, he discovers truths about himself which he never acknowledges – in marked contrast to Stephens’s protagonist, who not only recognizes the worth of what the gods show him but seeks to share this recognition with strangers on his way home.

What O’Brien’s narrator discovers in his two ‘caves’ is his own anonymity, which arises from his myopic obsession with accumulating financial and cultural capital. When he enters eternity in the wake of Sergeant Pluck he converts everything he sees into financial terms – in contrast with Stephens’s Philosopher, who converts what he sees into topics of conversation and quirky aphorisms. For the narrator, eternity is a giant cashbox full of ‘safe-deposits such as banks have’, ‘expensive-looking cabinets’ and ‘American cash registers’.[45] When he finds he can get what he wants there, he can only think of ordering a ‘solid block of gold weighing half a ton’, which he afterwards exchanges for a more practical quantity of valuables: ‘fifty cubes of solid gold each weighing one pound’ and ‘precious stones to the value of £200,000’.[46] As he warms to the task of exploiting his miraculous environment, the narrator acquires the accessories of the ultimate capitalist icon, a futuristic Hollywood gangster robbing a bank vault. Along with the valuables he orders a blue serge suit and a weapon capable of killing ‘any man or any million men who try at any time to take my life’, thus transforming himself into a feeble imitation of James Cagney – its feebleness confirmed by the fact that he forgets to ask for a bag to hold his loot (Sergeant Pluck obligingly gets him one ‘worth at least fifty guineas in the open market’).[47]  This excursion into cinematic fantasy confirms the link between his capitalist values and an early death; Cagney always dies young in his gangster movies. It confirms too the groundlessness of the narrator’s sense of superiority to the rustic police. No Hollywood gangster of the 30s or 40s was permitted to profit from his crimes, and it comes as no surprise when the policemen spring their trap, informing him that he cannot take any of his precious commodities back to the world above. And it also links him, almost incidentally, to the atrocities of global conflict. The weapon he orders can kill a million men as easily as one. The narrator’s glib way with numbers, in other words, permits him to gloss mass murder as self-preservation, yoking the capitalist mentality he represents to the outbreak of the Second World War.

Illustration by James Kenny

The second point in the novel where the narrator shows his true petit bourgeois colours comes at the end, when he finally meets the mysterious third policeman of the title. On learning that the cashbox he is looking for contains the substance omnium – the building-material from which anything and everything in the universe may be constructed – and on finding that Policeman Fox has confirmed his ownership of the box and its contents, the narrator launches into an extended series of fantasies about what he will do with it. While dismissing the pettiness of Policeman Fox’s deployment of the omnium (he uses it to make strawberry jam and to decorate his barracks), the narrator dreams of exploiting it to resolve the various more or less petty problems that have arisen in his own narrative, as related in the novel. And while each of his plans begin by sounding benevolent – giving John Divney ‘ten million pounds’ to make him go away, presenting ‘every poor labourer in the world’ with a golden bicycle – when he turns to thoughts of revenge on Sergeant Pluck his dreams mutate into nightmares.[48] Once again his thoughts revert to the underground eternity, where his hopes of enriching himself were raised and dashed, and he proceeds to convert this mysterious space in his imagination from an Aladdin’s cave to a sadist’s cellar, with ‘millions of diseased and decayed monsters clawing the inside latches of the ovens to open them and escape’ and ‘rats with horns walking upside down along the ceiling pipes trailing their leprous tails on the policemen’s heads’.[49] His grandiose projects are as limited as Policeman Fox’s little ones, and infinitely more damaging, since they are dedicated only to arranging time and space to his own private satisfaction.

Ironically, the narrator’s desire to differentiate himself from the other characters serves only to render him more anonymous – a tissue of financial and filmic clichés of the kind Myles na gCopaleen mocked in Cruiskeen Lawn. Many of Stephens’s characters, too, are anonymous, in that they are nameless. But while the namelessness of his two prisoners confirms their exclusion from social discourse, the namelessness of other people in The Crock of Gold (the Philosopher, the Thin Woman, the Leprechauns, the women, men and children met on the road) identifies them as representative: quasi-allegorical symbols of a vibrant nation that is moving towards a new collective identity.  The namelessness of the narrator in The Third Policeman confirms instead his biddable nature, his tendency to mutate into the person with whom he is currently in conversation, effectively losing himself in the process, to disastrous effect.  When working on de Selby the narrator imbibes the selfish, irascible, and amoral personality traits of his subject – with the result that he becomes capable of murder.  So, too, he becomes indistinguishable from his devious friend John Divney, locked together with him in a horrifying pastiche of Ciceronian amity whereby each is the other’s self, sharing bed and board while steadily winding each other up into an intense mutual hatred.[50]  When speaking to Martin Finnucane the narrator becomes the sworn brother of this one-legged murderer, without noticing the moral implications of their casual bonding.  And when conversing with Sergeant Pluck and Policeman MacCruiskeen he adopts their stylistic eccentricities in his narrative as well as in his conversation.  Helplessly driven by the impulses of his chameleon disposition, the narrator mingles his personality with those of everyone else he meets, as if to confirm the tendency of Ireland and Europe in the 1930s to follow disastrous models and totalitarian authorities, large and small, with slavish admiration.

The narrator’s namelessness, then, is that of Stephens’s prisoners rather than his representative types. Unlike the prisoners, he is not excluded from conversation; but his most honest and satisfactory conversations are with himself, or rather with his soul, who has a name, Joe, and who is always on the verge of leaving him. Joe’s disembodied voice, speaking to the narrator in the gloom of old Mathers’s house as the narrator confronts the ghost of the man he murdered, might remind us of the disembodied voices of the prisoners who speak to the Philosopher out of the dark of the cell.  In that episode the Philosopher, too, found himself unsure of his identity for the first time in his experience as the boundaries of his mind began to dissolve: ‘The creatures of the dark invaded him, fantastic terrors were thronging on every side: they came from the darkness into his eyes and beyond into himself, so that his mind as well as his fancy was captured, and he knew he was, indeed, in gaol’.[51]  This sense of the encroaching dissolution or erasure of the self resonates throughout The Third Policemen, especially in moments of darkness: the stormy dawn before the narrator’s hanging, for example, or the terrible moment when he wakes from sleep to find himself blind, before recalling that his eyes were bound by Policeman McCruiskeen before he nodded off. The flip side of the narrator’s desire to distinguish himself from others is the fear of losing his identity altogether; a fear substantiated on the last page of the novel, where he finds himself recommencing all his adventures – having forgotten them first, as is his wont – in the company of one of his many doubles in the narrative, John Divney, as if there were no difference between him and his friend.

Most striking of O’Brien’s inversions of The Crock of Gold is what he does to the body.  As an athlete – he was a gymnast – Stephens sought in all his work to liberate the body from the constraints imposed on it by the churches, Catholic and Protestant alike.  Meehawl MacMurrachu’s daughter Caitilin spends most of the novel in a state of edenic nakedness, and although the Philosopher begins by disapproving he quickly reasons himself into acquiescence with her choice.  ‘If a person does not desire to be […] protected who will quarrel with an honourable liberty?’ he asks himself; ‘Decency is not clothing but Mind’.[52]  Soon afterwards he finds himself exulting for the first time in the energy of his own body: ‘Years had toppled from his shoulders. He left one pound of solid matter behind at every stride.  His very skin grew flexuous, and he found a pleasure in taking long steps such as he could not have accounted for by thought’.[53]  O’Brien’s characters, too, are defined by their bodies; but in the policemen’s case these are grotesquely, massively physical, always on the verge of heart attacks or seizures, brought on by their relentless consuming of candy and jam as well as excessive quantities of the stirabout that sustained the rural poor in The Crock of Gold.  The narrator, on the other hand, is small and skinny, like the Philosopher; but where the Philosopher’s emaciated frame testified to his hunger – the quality that brings the working classes together in solidarity when they share their meals[54] – the narrator’s thinness and feeble appetite demonstrates his radical disconnection from people and things.  The policemen’s delight in food serves only to awake his snobbish disgust, whether at the effect their greed has on their monstrous bodies or at their inability to extend their imaginations beyond the narrow confines of the relative merits of different sweeties, the tastiness of stirabout, or the possibility of making strawberry jam out of the most powerful substance in the universe.

All of O’Brien’s bodies are ill-constructed machines, whose capacity to harbour sympathy or affection has been compromised by the discoveries of science. Sergeant Pluck’s atomic theory depicts the world as a concatenation of samenesses, an arrangement of particles which merely get rearranged when a person dies, so that executing an acquaintance is no more problematic than devouring a bowlful of porridge.[55] The narrator’s leg is a symptom of this loss of affect in O’Brien’s universe.  At one point he is afraid its woodenness is spreading through his torso, just as the atoms of bicycles spread into the bottoms of their riders.  In The Crock of Gold, the goat-god Pan’s half-bestial body insists on the animal sensuality which is part of our heritage as human beings, and which enjoins us to delight in the sentient donkeys, cows, and flies with whom the Philosopher comes in contact.  But in The Third Policeman, John Divney’s innocent, cow-like eyes conceal a vicious disposition,[56] and human beings have more in common with machines than animals.  The Parish policed by Sergeant Pluck is populated with half-human, half-bicycle cyborgs, though none of these hybrids are as bereft of fellow-feeling as the narrator, who has become fused with de Selby’s books, his mind stocked, like de Selby’s pages, with useless inventions of no conceivable benefit to anyone but the ego of the inventor and his adoring commentators.  As a result of this fusion, the narrator’s substantial funds of pity are reserved for himself, and he sheds abundant tears over his own predicament.  The only close relationship he forges (if one discounts his friendship with Joe, who is an aspect of himself) is with a bicycle, which he converts into a fantasy of female acquiescence, a willing, voiceless servant that mechanically submits to his every whim.  Stephens’s collaborative Ireland has been left far behind, a vision that has been outpaced by the speed of scientific and technological progress, hurtling the world towards conflict.

Nowhere is the difference between the books more evident than in their endings. O’Brien’s version of Stephens’s ‘The Happy March’ involves an apparent liberation, in which the nameless narrator sails off into the night astride the Sergeant’s bicycle, a metal goddess in total harmony with her environment: ‘all the time she was under me in a flawless racing onwards, touching the road with the lightest touches, surefooted, straight and faultless, each of her metal bars like spear-shafts superbly cast by angels’.[57]  Together man and bicycle liberate themselves first from Sergeant Pluck’s barracks, then from the smaller police station presided over by Policeman Fox; and in the final section they even free Divney from the constraints of his grotesque mortal body, as if in imitation of Angus Óg’s liberation of the Irish workers in The Crock of Gold (‘Come away! come away! from the loom and the desk, from the shop where the carcasses are hung, from the place where raiment is sold and the place where it is sewn in darkness’).[58]  But this chain of liberations is an illusion. Unlike the Philosopher, the narrator and John Divney are guilty of the crimes for which they were incarcerated, and both are dead rather than exuberantly alive by the end of the novel, trapped for all time in the cyclical jail of their forward momentum. As a result, where Stephens ends his book not so much with a march – happy or otherwise – as with a dance (‘they returned again, dancing and singing, to the country of the gods’),[59] The Third Policeman ends with the narrator and Divney ‘marching’ in unison into Sergeant Pluck’s police station – the place from which the narrator ‘escaped’ only pages before. Their mechanical, quasi-military return to the barracks aligns the novel as a whole with those ‘adventure books’ mentioned by the narrator in his conversations with Policeman Fox ‘in which every extravagance was mechanical and lethal and solely concerned with bringing about somebody’s death in the most elaborate way imaginable’.[60] It would hardly have escaped O’Brien’s readers that Europe in 1940 could have been described in similar terms.

The comparison of the ‘metal bars’ of Sergeant Pluck’s winsome bicycle to the ‘spear-shafts superbly cast by angels’ recalls the spears flung down by stars in Blake’s revolutionary poem The Tyger, from the Songs of Innocence and of Experience.  James Stephens was a self-professed Blakean visionary,[61] who sought in his poetry to adapt the Londoner’s proto-socialist vision to the needs of an Irish insurrection (Insurrections was the title of his first collection).  Brian O’Nolan, on the other hand, was a Swiftian satirist, for whom experience had long blotted out the possibility of recapturing or even celebrating innocence.  But it is the memory of innocence, I would like to suggest – the beautifully crafted innocence of The Crock of Gold – that gives The Third Policeman its astonishing vitality and poignancy.  The two books should be read in tandem.

Bibliography

Anon.  ‘Tall Talk.’  The Times Literary Supplement, September 7 1967. 793.

Brivic, Shelly.  ‘The Third Policeman as Lacanian Deity: O’Brien’s Critique of Language and Subjectivity.’ New Hibernia Review, vol. 16, no. 2 (Summer 2012). 112-132.

Coyle, John.  ‘Flann O’Brien in the Devil Era.’ No Country for Old Men: Fresh Perspectives on Irish Literature, ed. Paddy Lyons and Alison O’Malley-Younger. London: Peter Lang, 2009). 69-85.

Cronin, Anthony.  No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien. London: Grafton, 1989.

Frankenberg, Lloyd (ed.).  James, Seumas and Jacques: Unpublished Writings of James Stephens. London: Macmillan and co., 1964.

Hopper, Keith.  Flann O’Brien: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Post-modernist. Cork: Cork University Press, 1995.

Jeffares, A. Norman. ‘Introduction.’ The Poems of James Stephens, ed. Shirley Stevens Mulligan. Buckinghamshire: Colin Smythe Ltd., 2006. xi-xxxiv.

McFate, Patricia (ed.). Uncollected Prose of James Stephens. 2 vols. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1983.

Maslen, R. W.  ‘Flann O’Brien’s Bombshells: At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman.New Hibernia Review, vol. 10, no. 4 (Winter 2006). 84-104.

O’Brien, Flann. The Best of Myles: A Selection from ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’.  London etc.: Paladin, 1990.

——————–.  The Third Policeman. The Complete Novels, introd. Keith Donohue. New York etc.: Everyman’s Library, 2007. 219-406.

Pyle, Hilary. James Stephens: His Work and an Account of his Life. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965.

Stephens, James. Here Are Ladies. London: Macmillan, 1914 (f.p. October 1913).

——————–.  The Charwoman’s Daughter.  London: Macmillan and Co., 1912.

——————–.  The Crock of Gold. London: Macmillan and Co., 1928 (f.p. 1912).

Taaffe, Carol. Ireland Through the Looking Glass: Flann O’Brien, Myles na gCopaleen and Irish Cultural Debate. Cork: Cork University Press, 2008.

Notes

[1] Warm thanks to Paul Fagan for detailed and incisive comments on the first draft of this essay, and to the participants in the Second International Flann O’Brien Conference in Rome, 2013, for their questions and suggestions.

[2] ‘Tall Talk’, The Times Literary Supplement, September 7 1967, p. 793. On Stephens’s relationship with Joyce see Hilary Pyle, James Stephens: His Work and an Account of his Life, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965), pp. 114-5; the detailed account in Lloyd Frankenberg (ed.), James, Seumas and Jacques: Unpublished Writings of James Stephens (London: Macmillan and co., 1964), pp. xxiii-xxx; and Stephens’s own broadcasts on Joyce in the same book, pp. 147-62.

[3] Keith Hopper, Flann O’Brien: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Post-modernist (Cork: Cork University Press, 1995), p. 126.

[4] Carol Taaffe, Ireland Through the Looking Glass: Flann O’Brien, Myles na gCopaleen and Irish Cultural Debate (Cork: Cork University Press, 2008), p. 80.

[5] Taaffe, Ireland Through the Looking Glass, p. 65. For O’Nolan’s attitude to de Valera see also John Coyle, ‘Flann O’Brien in the Devil Era’, Paddy Lyons and Alison O’Malley-Younger (eds.), No Country for Old Men: Fresh Perspectives on Irish Literature (London: Peter Lang, 2009), pp. 69-85.

[6] Shelly Brivic, ‘The Third Policeman as Lacanian Deity: O’Brien’s Critique of Language and Subjectivity’, New Hibernia Review, vol. 16, no. 2 (Summer 2012), pp. 112-132, p. 114.

[7] The best picture of Stephens’s politics is painted in the political essays reprinted in Patricia McFate (ed.), Uncollected Prose of James Stephens, 2 vols. (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1983), vol. 1.

[8] Pyle, James Stephens, p. 3.

[9] Pyle, James Stephens, p. 5.

[10] See Anthony Cronin, No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien (London: Grafton, 1989).

[11] James Stephens, The Crock of Gold (London: Macmillan and Co., 1928; f.p. 1912), pp. 172-3.

[12] Stephens, Crock of Gold, p. 186.

[13] Stephens, Crock of Gold, pp. 187-9.

[14] Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman, in The Complete Novels, introd. Keith Donohue (New York etc.: Everyman’s Library, 2007), pp. 256-7.

[15] O’Brien, Complete Novels, pp. 257-60.

[16] O’Brien, Complete Novels, p. 272.

[17] O’Brien, Complete Novels, p. 268.

[18] See Pyle, James Stephens, Part One: Dublin – 1880-1925, pp. 3-107. See also A. Norman Jeffares, ‘Introduction’, The Poems of James Stephens, ed. Shirley Stevens Mulligan (Buckinghamshire: Colin Smythe Ltd., 2006), pp. xi-xxxiv.

[19] Taaffe, Ireland Through the Looking Glass, p. 80.

[20] See Flann O’Brien, The Best of Myles: A Selection from ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ (London etc.: Paladin, 1990), pp. 17-24.

[21] Taaffe, Ireland Through the Looking Glass, p. 80.

[22] Stephens, ‘There is a Tavern in the Town’, Here Are Ladies (London: Macmillan, 1914, f.p. October 1913), pp. 277-349.

[23] O’Brien, Complete Novels, p. 267.

[24] Stephens, The Charwoman’s Daughter (London: Macmillan and Co., 1912), p. 62.

[25] Stephens, Crock of Gold, p. 76.

[26] Stephens, Crock of Gold, p. 209.

[27] Stephens, Crock of Gold, p. 206.

[28] Stephens, Crock of Gold, p. 218.

[29] Stephens, Crock of Gold, pp. 219-20.

[30] Stephens, Crock of Gold, pp. 226-7.

[31] Stephens, Crock of Gold, p. 246.

[32] Stephens, Crock of Gold, p. 262.

[33] Stephens, Crock of Gold, p. 308.

[34] One writer who took advantage of the detachable quality of ‘The Happy March’ was C. S. Lewis, who adapted it in the final section of his second Narnia book, Prince Caspian (1951).

[35] O’Brien, Complete Novels, p. 263.

[36] O’Brien, Complete Novels, p. 265.

[37] O’Brien, Complete Novels, pp. 373-6.

[38] O’Brien, Complete Works, p. 254, note 3.

[39] It is worth noting that one of de Selby’s commentators, le Fournier, seems to assign the philosopher a portion of blame for the outbreak of the First World War. See O’Brien, Complete Works, p. 246, note 4. For a fuller account of violence in The Third Policeman see my ‘Flann O’Brien’s Bombshells: At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman’, New Hibernia Review, vol. 10, no. 4 (Winter 2006), pp. 84-104.

[40] O’Brien, Complete Works, p. 251.

[41] O’Brien, Complete Novels, p. 229.

[42] O’Brien, Complete Novels, p. 368.

[43] Stephens, Crock of Gold, p. 140.

[44] O’Brien, Complete Novels, p. 335.

[45] O’Brien, Complete Novels, pp. 339-40.

[46] O’Brien, Complete Novels, pp. 343-4.

[47] O’Brien, Complete Novels, pp. 344-5.

[48] O’Brien, Complete Novels, pp. 394-5

[49] O’Brien, Complete Novels, p. 396.

[50] For Ciceronian amity see Cicero, ‘Laelius de amicitia’, Cicero in Twenty-Eight Volumes, vol. 20, De senectute, de amicitia, de divinatione, trans. W. A. Falconer, The Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press and London: Heinemann, 1971), xxi. 80: ‘est enim is qui est tamquam alter idem’; ‘for he is, as it were, another self’.

[51] Stephens, Crock of Gold, p. 244.

[52] Stephens, Crock of Gold, p. 100.

[53] Stephens, Crock of Gold, p. 106.

[54] See Stephens, Crock of Gold, p. 91: ‘Every person who is hungry is a good person, and every person who is not hungry is a bad person. It is better to be hungry than rich’.

[55] See O’Brien, Complete Novels, p. 293ff.

[56] See O’Brien, Complete Novels, p. 226: ‘[Divney] had a quiet civil face with eyes like cow’s eyes, brooding, brown, and patient’.

[57] O’Brien, Complete Novels, p. 380.

[58] Stephens, Crock of Gold, p. 311.

[59] Stephens, Crock of Gold, p. 312.

[60] O’Brien, Complete Novels, p. 395.

[61] See Pyle, James Stephens, Chapters 3 and 4 (pp. 31-76).