The Fantastical World of Mervyn Peake: Islands and Seas

[This is the text of the talk I gave at the British Library on 24 February 2024. The talk was designed to accompany a mini-exhibition of the same title, itself designed to supplement the major exhibition Fantasy: Realms of Imagination which came to a close that same weekend.

This explains why the post is so image-rich; I couldn’t make my case without the use of multiple pictures. Some of the images aren’t too good, since the recent cyber-assault on the British Library website meant they couldn’t send me files containing the images I needed. As a result I had to use photos from books I owned, and in two embarrassing cases, photos taken in the mini-exhibition itself. Please forgive the results!]

Cover of first edition of Treasure Island illustrated by Peake.

The writer-artist Mervyn Peake had a lifelong obsession with islands; G. Peter Winnington’s seminal monograph on Peake, The Voice of the Heart, includes a whole chapter about them.[1] Peake’s favourite book as a boy was Treasure Island (1883), and the place he kept returning to throughout his life was the Island of Sark, a one-time nest of pirates off the coast of Normandy. He first lived on Sark as a member of an artists’ commune in the 1930s, went back to live there with his family between 1946 and 1949, and visited several times in the 1950s.[2] Mervyn Peake’s most famous literary creation, Gormenghast Castle, is a building so vast that nobody can ever know it in its entirety; it’s landlocked, but Peake keeps comparing it to an island, cut off from history by its resistance to change, cut off from the outside world by its steadfast refusal to recognize that world’s existence. In the second of his three great Titus novels, Gormenghast (1950), it even becomes an actual island after a flood. His other works are filled with islands of one sort or another: from the pink island to which the pirate Captain Slaughterboard retreats with the love of his life, the Yellow Creature, in Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939), to a floating lump of ice the size of Kent on which a nameless explorer and his companion, a ‘turtle-dog’ named Jackson, find themselves stranded in Letters from a Lost Uncle in Polar Regions (1948); from the many strange and colourful islands Peake painted in the illustrations to his book of nonsense poetry, Rhymes Without Reason (1944), to the boat fraught with all the animals and people in the world in his play of the 1950s, Noah’s Ark. In this talk I’d like to suggest that his love of islands, and of the strange seas in which his islands are located, tells us something important about his love affair with Fantasy. In a number of ways, I think, both Mervyn Peake and many other people of his time were islanded – a word Peake used in his poetry; and their islanding found its most potent expression in the impossible worlds they conjured up, many of which feature in the Peake mini-Exhibition in this building.

Kuling, early 20th century

Peake was born in 1911, in a resort for missionaries called Kuling (now Guling) in Jiangxi Province, eastern China. He lived the first eleven years of his life in Tientsin, now Tianjin, in northern China, where his father, a missionary doctor, ran the MacKenzie Memorial Hospital.[3] In this port city the Treaty of Tientsin was signed in 1858, at the end of the Second Opium War, a conflict started by the British and French; the treaty opened several new Chinese ports to foreign trade, permitted Christian missionary work in China – of the kind Peake’s parents practised – and legalized the importing of Opium, which gave the British a crucial advantage in the Chinese market by literally addicting Chinese people to the products of the British Empire. The Peake family was effectively islanded in Tientsin, since they lived inside the hospital complex, a rectangular chunk of late Victorian Britain segregated from China by a protective wall. Peake’s Tientsin childhood was islanded from the rest of his life by what he calls a ‘misty sea of time’, so that he later felt ‘severed’ from it, since ‘the pictures in my mind seem not to be part of me, but are like some half-forgotten story in a book’, containing adventures that happened to an entirely different child.[4] Having spent several years of my childhood in Singapore I know what he means; the images I have of that part of my life are remarkably vivid and resonant, but stand out from the rest of my memories precisely because they have so little in common with anything that happened after I came to live in Britain. Peake coming to Britain from China at the age of eleven, in 1922, may have felt profoundly islanded from the bulk of the British population who had not been through these experiences – though he went to a boarding school full of similarly islanded children, Eltham College, which catered for the sons of missionaries like himself.

Peake, The Ancient Mariner

The book-like quality of Mervyn’s memories of China helps explain, I think, his willingness to turn to illustrating books in the Second World War – something that happened, he claimed, because he couldn’t get hold of paint after he had been drafted into the army. Many of the books he illustrated feature protagonists severed from the world they know: from the Baker, the Banker and the Billiard-player in Lewis Carroll’s poem The Hunting of the Snark (1941) to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner (1943), adrift in a ship full of corpses; from Carroll’s Alice books (1946) to Johann Wyss’s The Swiss Family Robinson (1949), where an entire middle-class family finds itself stranded on an impossible island crammed full of beasts from all five continents.[5] Immersion in books like these tends to isolate the reader, especially the child who is capable of cutting themselves off from the world for as long as a story lasts. Peake describes this childhood reading experience with amazing intensity in a poem he wrote in 1942, when a nervous breakdown led to him being hospitalized in Southport. Patients at the hospital were distinguished from the general population by the distinctive sky-blue suits in which they were dressed. Here’s how he sums up his state of mind at this difficult time of personal isolation in the middle of the Second World War:

Blue as the indigo and fabulous storm
Of a picture book long lost where islands burst
Out of the page, exploding palm on palm,
Are we, whom the authorities have dressed.
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.[6]

I love Peake’s comparison of the boy’s mind while reading to the mind of a swimmer caught in tropical breakers, his eyes squeezed shut against the salt water but still able to see the sun shining through the ‘naked jelly’ of the waves as a ‘vermilion ember’, reddened by the veins in his eyelids. The eyelids themselves are rendered ‘transparent’ by sunlight, and move or ‘rove’ in response to the movements of the eyeballs behind them. That’s a glorious image for the sensation of reading or remembering particularly vivid picture books, which spark an inner light that makes ordinary daylight into ‘an un-focused twilight’. That inner light, Peake tells us, is ‘fiercer than the azure lights that flare / At the lit core of fantasy’; fiercer, perhaps, because the images in illustrated stories are more focused than those conjured up by the unaided imagination. Peake’s retreat from the humiliating experience of being in Southport Hospital, and of leaving the hospital building to be paraded along the esplanade in a bright blue suit with an orange tie, was to retreat to this realm of exploding islands where his imagination could have free play, like the swimmer no longer constrained by the law of gravity. In fact he retreated to his own picture book quite literally in Southport. As therapy for his breakdown, the staff there encouraged him to write the later chapters of his first novel about Gormenghast Castle, Titus Groan (1946). Part of the process of composition involved drawing pictures of the major characters, some of which you can see in the Fantasy Exhibition next door.

Peake, illustration from The Swiss Family Robinson (c. 1949)

The final picture in the Peake mini-Exhibition, showing a boy from the Swiss Family Robinson lassoing a turtle from a raft amidst the foaming tropical seas (c. 1949), perfectly complements this account of the boy whose mind is shaped for the life of an island castaway by vivid pictures in books. It bursts with youthful energy, straining to escape the page’s rectangle. Notice how the curves of the turtle’s head and shell are echoed by the curves of the barrels and sail on the raft, how the raft and its users have been tilted to one side by the waves and the straining turtle, how the waves themselves are exploding into lacy shawls of foam while the boy who holds the rope hauls with all his might against the turtle’s direction of travel. The picture is dominated by the diagonal line of the taut rope that slashes across the middle and the two tilted right angles it strains between, the hard right angle of the mast and the soft right angle formed by the turtle’s neck; the hardness on the one side and the softness on the other show clearly who is going to win this tug of war. The brilliance of the tropical sunshine is conveyed by the shadows that conceal the boy’s eyes, the shadows on the upper rims of the barrels on the raft, the shadows on the underside of the turtle’s neck and flipper. Peake’s art was shaped by the work of an artist who specialised in illustrating action scenes like these in books for boys, Stanley L. Wood, and in early days he signed his pictures Mervyn L. Peake as if in homage to his idol.[7] Another favourite book of his, Under the Serpent’s Fang (1922-3) by J. Claverdon Wood – about pirates on the island of New Guinea – was illustrated by Stanley Wood, and Peake pays homage to Wood’s strenuously energetic pictures for the novel in a talk he gave on book illustration in the 1940s. This picture strikes me as one of Peake’s most Wood-like images.

Stanley L. Wood, Frontispiece to Under the Serpent’s Fang (1922-3)

Peake’s islanding, as I’ve described it, was not exclusive to himself. Throughout his life he gravitated to other people who had been islanded in one way or another. The Irish nationalist writer James Stephens, author of the Fantasy classic The Crock of Gold (1916), who emigrated to England after Irish independence because he was disappointed by the kind of country Ireland had become. Gordon Smith, Peake’s best friend, whose childhood had also been spent in northern China. The avant garde sculptor Jacob Epstein, an American Jew who suffered from British conservatism and antisemitism and whose work Peake defended in a poem.[8] The Eltham schoolmaster Eric Drake who founded the Sark Group of Artists in the 1930s, and who was another child of Chinese missionaries. The writer Maurice Collis, another Irishman, who found himself at odds with the British imperial project he was expected to uphold as a civil servant in Burma, and whose version of the Ramayana, The Quest for Sita, Peake illustrated in 1949;[9] and many more. Maeve Gilmore, Peake’s artist wife, was herself islanded, first by her strict Catholic upbringing, then by the many pressures on her as a woman artist and a mother of two in wartime, whose husband was first drafted into the army then invalided out of it. Peake describes Gilmore’s particular kind of islanding in one of his poems:

Always you are remote and islanded
In silences that so belie the ardent
Torrents that course beneath your gentle clay[.][10]

Only recently have the ‘ardent / Torrents’ of Gilmore’s creativity been heard and seen as they deserve to be, thanks to a major exhibition of her work at the Voltaire Gallery in 2022.

Peake, ‘Floating Islands on the Waves’ (c. 1928)

Countries, too, were in some sense islanded in Peake’s lifetime by seismic events that severed them from the past. China was severed from its long imperial history by the revolution of 1911, the year of Peake’s birth, which established the Chinese Republic. Britain was severed from its own imperial past by the trauma of the First World War, which lent urgency to the radical questioning of imperialist values that found expression in artistic movements between the wars, Surrealism, Vorticism, Cubism and the rest. Starting with Ireland, Maeve Gilmore’s father’s birthplace, the British dominions were breaking away like floes breaking off a Polar ice cap. The sense of having been cut off by these seismic breakages from the colonial past – like Arctic explorers stranded on one of those ice floes – is what gave rise, I think, to the genre of fantasy as it developed between the wars. The first picture in the mini-exhibition (c. 1928), which shows floating islands precariously balanced on heaving waves, encapsulates the experience of having been uprooted and come adrift which many people shared in the 20s and 30s. It invokes, as the notes suggest, Hokusai’s famous print ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ (1831);[11] but Hokusai’s picture is stabilized by the presence of Mount Fuji in the background. Peake’s seascape is all upheaval and turbulence, with no stable land in view; though its cartoonishness, the pastoral calmness of the floating islands and the single drop dripping off the crest of the biggest wave suggest that the young artist was untroubled, as yet, by the turbulent world he had inherited. There’s no indication that his islands have been colonised or subjected to missionary activity, and this may explain their pastoral appearance. The imagination could invent countries where the toxic inheritance of imperialism could be offloaded onto goblins or dragons, as it is in Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937), which takes place in a world that’s fallen to pieces after some bygone quasi-mythical age of unity and prosperity, leaving a trail of islanded settlements in its wake.

Hokusai, ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ (1831)

Peake’s own imagination inclined to piracy. Pirates can be seen as enemies of imperialism, though they can of course also serve as its parasites and stooges. They have a contempt for human laws, national and international, and a well-earned reputation for random acts of violence; but they’ve also been linked to anarchism, the political movement that rejects authority of all kinds. The seventeenth-century pirate Roberts drew up a celebrated set of egalitarian laws to be observed on the ships he commanded, while the most famous example of pirate anarchism on land is Libertalia, a democratic pirate republic set up on the Island of Madagascar by a Frenchman, Captain James Misson, in defiance of the Empires that were carving up the world between them at the time. The story of Captain Roberts is told in The General History of the Pyrates (1724) by Captain Charles Johnson, thought by some to be a pseudonym for Daniel Defoe; Johnson’s account of Libertalia comes in the second volume (1725). Peake may well have known the General History, which is a source for his favourite novel, Treasure Island, and his interest in Madagascar may also have been piqued by the fact that his grandparents and uncle were missionaries there – that it was in some sense the ‘family island’.[12] In fact Peake uses Madagascar as a metaphor for the process of making a family, in a poem he wrote after the birth of his first child, Sebastian, in January 1940. Addressed to Maeve, the poem represents birth as a process of islanding for everyone who experiences it:

Grottoed beneath your ribs no longer, he,
Like madagascar broken from its mother,
Must feel the tides divide an africa
Of love from his clay island, that the sighs
Of the seas encircle with chill ancientry;
And though your ruthful breast allays his cries,
How vulnerable
He is when you release him, and how terrible
Is that wild strait which separates your bodies.[13]

By this point in Peake’s life, after the outbreak of the Second World War and having been called up for military service – he was awaiting mobilization as he wrote – the sea surrounding each human island has mutated into something much more ‘terrible’ than the comic-book waves of the first picture we looked at. And the island metaphor he chooses for his son – that of Madagascar – is associated with the precariousness of piracy as well as its anti-authoritarian credentials. Captain Misson’s pirate republic, Libertalia, is said to have been destroyed in an attack by Malagasy warriors; Misson himself drowned at sea a short time after. Captain Roberts was killed in a skirmish when struck in the throat by grapeshot. Piracy for Peake, as for many others, always had two aspects, the spirit of freedom, adventure, egalitarianism and loyalty on the one hand, the spirit of violence, random cruelty, treachery and imminent sudden death on the other. The strain between these two aspects of piracy is key to the power of Peake’s fantastic imagination, which rejects simplistic dualisms of good and evil while retaining a deep consciousness (as the son of a missionary must) that these dualisms govern many understandings of the way things work – including, at times, his own. Peake repeatedly represents himself as an uneasy double figure, made up of a ‘rebeller’ and a ‘conceder’, as he puts it in his wartime poem ‘They Move With Me, My War-Ghosts’ (1941) – a conceder being someone who concedes to or is complicit with the horrors being perpetrated in Europe.[14] He embodies these two aspects of himself in the figures of a cold angel and a fiery, sensuous centaur or devil – though these figures don’t neatly align with the notions of rebelling and conceding, or bad and good. He locates this ‘double cargo’, as he puts it, in a ship,

[…] half love,
And half, that rides
The self-same sea-groove with wild laugh
Across these fickle, these infested tides.[15]

That the ship is a pirate ship seems likely enough, given that it’s invoked by a writer-artist who dressed as a buccaneer in the 1930s (complete with earring) and whose obsession with pirates is still startlingly present in his late novels Mr Pye (1953), about an eccentric missionary on Sark who takes to wearing a piratical bandanna to conceal a pair of growing horns,[16] and Titus Alone (1959), in which the self-exiled Earl of Gormenghast becomes the unofficial leader of a loosely-knit anarchist rising against the authorities of a nameless state, seconded by a man called Muzzlehatch with a rudder nose and a one-time sailor called Anchor, both of whom have a pirate’s hatred for the law and its instruments.

Mervyn Peake, illustration for Treasure Island (1949)

The dual nature of pirates, as deeply attractive emblems of adventure and resistance and as murderous salt-water thieves, was visible everywhere in the pirate books being published in the first half of the twentieth century, from William Hope Hodgson’s The Ghost Pirates (1909) to John Masefield’s Lost Endeavour (1910), J M Barrie’s Peter and Wendy (2011), Under the Serpent’s Fang (1923), Gerald Bullett’s The Spanish Caravel (1927), Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica (1929), Arthur Ransome’s Peter Duck and Missee Lee (1932 and 1941), Daphne du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek (1941) and Eric Linklater’s The Pirates in the Deep Green Sea (1949). These divide themselves broadly into texts that favour the pleasures and perils of piracy and texts that celebrate the victories of agents of the imperial law against piratical opponents. Often the same book does both. Treasure Island, for instance – the granddaddy of them all, along with R M Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (1857) – adopts the point of view of the order-loving upper and middle classes, embodied by the shipowner Squire Trelawney, the physician Dr Livesey, and the cabin-boy Jim Hawkins, a family friend of the Doctor’s. Trelawney and Livesey regard their quest for buried treasure as wholly legitimate, since any profits will go to themselves, members of the ruling elite. But Stevenson also represents their class enemy and rival in the treasure hunt, the sea-cook and pirate Long John Silver, as a deeply charming man, capable of drawing middle-class medics and upper-class shipowners into the web of his geniality as easily as he seduces his working-class shipmates into mutiny against them. To the Squire and the Doctor, Silver poses as a loyal member of the servant classes, well content with his station; to his fellow pirates he is a cunning, ruthless killer; but to everyone he is admirable, including the reader, who delights in his capacity to switch sides and personalities whenever it suits him. Even his willingness to murder people who resist his advances offers evidence of his astonishing energy, versatility and poise. When Silver kills the sailor Tom for refusing to join his mutiny he first seeks to sweet-talk him with honeyed words, then suddenly leaps away ‘with the speed and security of a trained gymnast’ and hurls his crutch to knock Tom down, charging after it ‘agile as a monkey, even without leg or crutch’ to bury his knife ‘up to the hilt in that defenceless body’.[17] Peake’s full-length picture of him in the mini-Exhibition (from 1947-1949) wonderfully invokes his seductiveness. He’s got a beautiful face, with heavy lids, prominent eyelashes and a fine head of curly hair, and he peers sideways out of the picture with a smile, suggesting his capacity to extend his influence well beyond his physical proximity. His powerful body is visible through his clothes, and there’s a general sense that he’s disorienting, conveyed both by the way his body tilts in two directions as he leans on his crutch (his leg, left arm and head tilt in one direction, his torso and right arm tilt in another), and by the shading in the background, whose lines begin to curve sideways as they rise from ground level, passing from the horizontal through an area of cross-hatching until they’re diagonal to the rectangular frame of the picture at the level of Silver’s head, so that everything seems in motion and off-balance.

Silver’s politics are interesting, too; it would be easy to see them as rooted in the Enlightenment ideal of rational democracy, as against the feudalism of the Squire. Silver abides by the Roberts code of piracy, being elected captain by his messmates, giving them the vote on key decisions, and assuring them that all will have an equal share in the buried treasure. The name he and his pirates give themselves – gentlemen of fortune – makes them equals, unlike the Squire and Doctor, who embrace the class distinction between themselves as gentry and the commoners who work for them. No wonder the hero of the book, Jim Hawkins, seems to fall in love with Silver, like Peake in his boyhood. Every picture of Jim in the exhibition has him tilted at all angles like Long John Silver: tossed on the waves in Ben Gunn’s coracle…

clinging to the bowsprit of the Hispaniola…

aiming his pistols at Israel Hands as he leans from the Hispaniola’s crow’s nest:

In each picture he comes closer to being a pirate, culminating in the moment when he runs his fingers through the treasure of Captain Flint in Ben Gunn’s cave:

The pirate Silver coveted that treasure, the former pirate Ben Gunn dug it up, the half pirate Jim Hawkins got a share of it; what really divides them? In Peake’s pictures, as in Stevenson’s book, Jim is tainted with Silver’s anarchism. John Silver is the embodiment of resistance to the authorities that frown on exploratory teenagers like Jim – though the pirate also claims to have plans to become a conventional gentleman, and even a member of parliament. Not too conventional, however. In an age when slavery was legal in the British Empire, Silver’s lover – who we never meet in the book – is Black. The sea-cook roves far more freely beyond the imperial frame, it’s implied, than most of his white British male contemporaries.

Map of the Three Principalities, as featured in The Dusky Birron (1929-31)

There’s a queer element to piracy, as anyone knows who’s followed the HBO series Our Flag Means Death. Peake seems well aware of this fact, and the two pirate books he wrote and illustrated – The Dusky Birron and Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor – attest to his awareness, whether or not he acknowledged it openly. The unpublished Dusky Birron (1929-31) was a project he developed with his friend Gordon Smith, and it has a distinctly Chinese quality, as the two authors drew imaginatively on their shared experiences of China. Smith wrote the words, Peake drew the pictures, and the book begins with a sailor man being marooned by pirates on a group of islands, whose monosyllabic names – Soz, Ho, Foon, Chee – bear a faint resemblance to Mandarin, which both Smith and Peake could speak. The first picture from the book in the exhibition shows a European ship sailing through a giant flooded forest, possibly the pirate ship that marooned the sailor…

while the second shows the pirates themselves, looking thoroughly European…

Apologies for the quality of this photo!

But the next two pictures show some very Chinese-looking rocks and mountains…

Lawrence Bristow-Smith, a former British diplomat in China, compares the rock where the Maranesa sits to the rock formations in traditional Chinese gardens, ‘slabs and blocks of stone assembled to form a fantastic, exaggerated landscape with water, paths, steps, bridges and carefully-planted shrubs and trees’.[18] The mountain scene, meanwhile…

Apologies for this photo too!

recalls the Chinese practice of shan shui hua, ‘mountain water art’, as exemplified by Huang Gongwang’s ‘The Remaining Mountain’:

…so that the place where the sailor man finds himself contains a variety of aesthetic elements assembled, like those Chinese gardens, into a ‘fantastic, exaggerated landscape’. In Gordon Smith’s account of the book, the sailor-man’s guide through this fantastic landscape is the Dusky Birron, a naked man with flowing hair and the beard of a prophet:

and the two companions spend most of the book looking for the ideal place to set up house together. They find it at last in Chee, the most laid-back island in the archipelago….

This is not, then, a story of colonisation but of companionship between people of different cultures, in a land full of exiles; the Maranesa, for example, comes from Borneo, but seems happy living in Soz alone on his ‘pointed stone’, as Smith’s words put it. The sailor, by contrast, finds a friend to share his life with, as his mentor and fellow adventurer. There’s a Chinese connection here, too, I think. Peake’s surviving notes for an unwritten book about China – sometimes conceived as an autobiography, sometimes a work of fiction – are full of such cross-cultural friendships, from the Chinese boy who lures a red-haired British boy from his bed into the world beyond the hospital compound, to the one-eyed Russian boy with no shoes whom Peake calls his ‘God’; from Peake’s friend Tony Liang, who ‘did drawings which were copies of Lawson… dogs and parrots and monkeys’ – probably Lawson Wood, who drew animals for The Boy’s Own Paper – to the Chinese boy befriended by a British girl called Laura on a winter’s journey across the mountains.[19] These relationships are full of the seduction of the unfamiliar, something that works both ways in the case of the boy with red hair, whose appearance marks him out as exotic to his Chinese guide.

That seduction turns boldly queer in Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939). The Captain sails his ship, the Black Tiger, between ‘little green islands’ on the ‘bright blue ocean’, accompanied by a crew of bizarre eccentrics clearly inspired by the crew who sailed with Captain Hook in Peter and Wendy.[20] Billy Bottle the bosun, for example, has arms so long that he can knock ashes out of his pipe without bending down; Hook’s shipmate Noodles has equally unusual arms, since his ‘hands were fixed on backwards’. Timothy Twitch is ‘the most elegant in battle, his left hand especially’, just as Hook’s shipmate Gentleman Starkey was ‘once an usher in a public school and still dainty in his ways of killing’…

Slaughterboard’s shipmate whose portrait we see in the exhibition, Charlie Choke, ‘covered all over with dreadful drawings in blue ink’, is closely related to Hook’s shipmate Bill Jukes, ‘every inch of him tattooed’…

Slaughterboard seems immune to the charms of these men, even the elegant Timothy Twitch, but when he spots a Yellow Creature through his telescope he can’t resist its beauty…

That his attraction is erotic as well as aesthetic (he spends hours, we’re told, admiring the butter-yellow colour of the creature against the blue of the ocean) is implied by the fact that many commentators think Peake modelled its face on the face of his wife, Maeve Gilmore, who posed for him hundreds of times throughout their marriage; Maeve also features, if you look closely, among the tattoos on Charlie Choke’s left arm.[21] The creature’s gender is indeterminate – Peake sometimes gives it the pronoun ‘it’ and sometimes ‘he’ – as is its species, since its ears and bristly horns are not quite human. Slaughterboard’s first reaction to it is that of the colonial slave-trader or collector; he sends his men to catch it, then carries it off for his own amusement. On board his ship, too, he at first treats the Creature as an exotic object to be displayed to his fellow sailors, who quickly grow tired of being urged to admire it…

But as time goes by, the power dynamic begins to shift. One by one the crew is killed off until only the Captain and the Yellow Creature are left, and by this time they behave as equals: they dance and eat together…

…and the Captain begins to show an interest in the Yellow Creature’s home environment, the island where he found it, and eventually turns the ship in that direction. The book ends with the Captain and the Creature living together in married bliss; the Creature does the cooking, and they both enjoy the company of the other islanders, or lazily fishing for wonderfully strange fish from the island’s ornamental-looking piles of stones. As Peake’s son Fabian points out in his introduction to the 70th Anniversary edition, the pair of them seem to have found utopia. More specifically, they have found their Libertalia, complete with its stock of unprecedented fauna. The anthropologist David Graeber has recently argued, in his book Pirate Enlightenment, or The Real Libertalia, that the roots of Libertalia lie in the fusion of pirate culture with the indigenous people of north-east Madagascar; just one of the many cultural fusions that have shaped the island’s history.[22] Captain Slaughterboard and the Yellow Creature duplicate this fusion, their gleeful rejection of apartheid or segregation placing them a million miles from the British imperial project. Or the German one, of course; the book was published in 1939, and the first edition was mostly destroyed in a German bombing raid.

The magic of Captain Slaughterboard is its refusal to embrace the sort of conventional moralising that dominated contemporary children’s narratives. The Captain exists outside the imperatives of Empire all the way; his initially colonial actions are a personal choice, and he seems free to dispense with colonialism whenever he feels like it. In J M Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, Captain Hook is tormented by social anxieties, brought on both by his public-school education and by Peter Pan’s self-evident superiority as a pirate and an anarchist to himself. Stevenson’s Long John Silver is intensely conscious of the forces of the social hierarchy ranged against him – of the power of the ruling classes and the disastrous lack of discipline among his fellow pirates – which means he suspects from the start that things can’t possibly go his way. By contrast, Captain Slaughterboard rules his narrative ‘every inch’, as he rules his ship. There are no naval officers, squires or missionaries in his story, just the strangest of sea-wolves and the weirdest of creatures. Instead of moral trajectories, Peake’s book is full of limbs and torsos getting out of control, clothes flying in all directions, bursts of sea-spray, spurts of cannon-smoke or pipe-smoke, and a ship that expands and contracts like a living organ, its decks covered in writhing bodies, flapping swathes of canvas and unbalanced bottles of rum…

The Captain’s resistance to moral imperatives makes him wholly indifferent to the slaughter of his men – we never hear how they died, and he never mentions them again after their deaths. He only pays attention to the fascinating details of the Yellow Creature’s appearance – its delicate body, arms and legs, its enormous eyes, its long, drooping nose, which offer the perfect foil to his own massive body and hands, his button nose, his tiny eyes….

The Captain’s eyes look at everything with cunning; even when introduced by the Yellow Creature to its friends on the island he watches them slyly as if measuring their market value…

But his cunning consists in the recognition that the only treasure he needs is what gives him pleasure: his brightly-coloured lover and the seemingly infinite variety of creatures on the island and around its shores.

Peake: poster for the movie Black Magic, with Sidney Toler playing the detective Charlie Chan in ‘Yellowface’ (see the novel by R F Kuang)

Peake was familiar, of course, with the racist caricatures of Chinese culture that circulated between the wars, from the fictions of the so-called Yellow Peril – such as Sax Rohmer’s tales of Dr Fu Manchu – to the crude pastiches of China that featured in British pantomimes like Aladdin, or Albert Arlen’s play The Son of the Grand Eunuch (1937), for which Peake designed the costumes.[23] He also had friends like Maurice Collis who had a serious interest in South and East Asian art and history, and a father with similar interests who brought him brushes from Hong Kong after the war, giving him a chance to experiment seriously with Chinese painting techniques. Captain Slaughterboard embraces Peake’s childhood in China by representing a kind of queer marriage between formerly hostile cultures, as well as between Chinese and European schools of art. As a statement about its particular moment in British history – on the cusp of the Second World War, when the earth itself was tilting off balance – this picture book seems to me well worth revisiting in our own unbalanced times.

[For an account of pirate references in the Titus/Gormenghast books see my blog post ‘Mervyn Peake and the Poetics of Piracy’.]

NOTES

[1] See Winnington, The Voice of the Heart: The Working of Mervyn Peake’s Imagination (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006), chapter 3, ‘Islands’.

[2] For more on Peake and Sark see my blogposts ‘Mervyn Peake on Sark’ and ‘Mervyn Peake and the Queering of Sark’.

[3] The best account of Peake’s life is Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography (London and Chester Springs, PA: Peter Owen Publishers, 2009).

[4] For Peake’s ‘Notes for a Projected Autobiography’ see Peake’s Progress: Selected Writings and Drawings of Mervyn Peake, ed. Maeve Gilmore (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1981), pp. 469-487.

[5] The dates given here are those of the first editions of Peake’s illustrated versions.

[6] For the full poem see Mervyn Peake, Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), p. 120. For more on Peake’s Southport experience see my blog post ‘Mervyn Peake at Southport’.

[7] See Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 56.

[8] See my blog post ‘Fantasy 1939: Mervyn Peake and Jacob Epstein’.

[9] See my two blog posts, ‘Maurice Collis and Mervyn Peake, Quest for Sita (1946)’, Part 1: Text and Part 2: Drawings.

[10] ‘Tides’, in Peake, Collected Poems, p. 129.

[11] See Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art, p. 36, which cites Peake’s friend Gordon Smith describing the Puy de Dôme near Clermont-Ferrand in France as ‘a most charming hummock, like a miniature Fujiyama’. Smith and Peake saw this ‘charming hummock on a French holiday together in 1930, two years after the date assigned to the picture, ‘Floating islands on the waves’. For a full account of the holiday see Smith, Mervyn Peake: A Personal Memoir (London: Victor Gollancz, 1984), pp. 14-20.

[12] See Winnington, The Voice of the Heart, p. 57, footnote 1: ‘it was the family island, so to speak’.

[13] Peake, Collected Poems, p. 78.

[14] Peake, Collected Poems, p. 93.

[15] Peake, Collected Poems, p. 94.

[16] See Peake, Mr Pye (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978), p. 205.

[17] Robert Louise Stevenson, Treasure Island, illustrated by Mervyn Peake (London: Methuen, 1976), pp. 96-97.

[18] Lawrence Bristow-Smith, ‘The Chinese Puzzle of Mervyn Peake’, Peake Studies, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Winter 1993), pp. 37-39.

[19] Peake, ‘Notes for a Projected Autobiography’, Peake’s Progress, pp. 471, 474, 477-478, 483.

[20] All quotations are taken from Mervyn Peake, Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor, 70th Anniversary Edition (London: Walker Books, 2009). This edition is not paginated.

[21] See Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 130.

[22] David Graeber, Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia (Dublin: Allen Lane, 2023).

[23] See Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 107.

Mervyn Peake, Boy in Darkness (1956), and the Nightmare of Complicity

[This piece was written for a conference, ‘Dark Fantasies: Aesthetics of the Nightmare in the 20th Century’, organised by Sheila Dickson and Hans-Walter Schmidt-Hannisa, which took place at the Goethe Institut, Glasgow, on 11 and 12 May 2023. The conference marked the opening of an exhibition featuring the art of Caspar Walter Rauh and Frank Quitely, which is why the piece begins with a comparison of Peake and Rauh. Warm thanks to Sheila and Hans-Walter for inviting me to participate.]

Mervyn Peake, Strange Bird, n.d.

The British artist Mervyn Peake and the German artist Caspar Walter Rauh were born within a year of each other. The careers of both took off in the 1930s. Both entered into creative dialogue with contemporary movements such as Expressionism, Surrealism, New Romanticism and Fantastic Realism, without becoming fully attached to any of them. Both men’s careers were interrupted and profoundly reshaped by the Second World War, and the art of both has long been associated with fantasy and the fantastic. Both were fascinated by grotesque bodies marking the intersection between humans, beasts and trees; both illustrated the fairy tales of the brothers Grimm; both penned their own fantastic stories. Between them, in fact, they offer striking case studies relating to the emergence of fantasy and the fantastic in the verbal and visual arts as among the most resonant responses to the cataclysmic middle years of the Twentieth Century.

Caspar Walter Rauh, ‘Vogelmensch’ (1973)

For both men, the cataclysm found its birth in the human mind, and in Peake’s case, at least, in his own unconscious. His art exposes disturbing parallels between his lifelong creative impulses and the impulse to dominate or wreck the world, as manifested first in the career of Adolf Hitler and later in the threat of global nuclear war. I’d like to consider what I’ll call Peake’s fantasy of complicity in relation to his last masterpiece in prose, a ‘long short story’ called ‘Boy in Darkness’.[1] This novelette was first published in 1956 as one third of an anthology, Sometime, Never, reprinted the following year as ‘A Ballantine Science Fiction Classic’.[2] The other two contributors were William Golding and John Wyndham, whose novelettes, set respectively in ancient Rome and the time to come, make up the first and second parts of the collection under the headings ‘The Past’ and ‘The Future’. One might, then, have expected Peake’s text – the third and final part – to come under the heading ‘The Present’, but instead it was designated ‘The Dream’. Dreams pervade this little collection, from the transient vision of an alternative Roman history conjured up by a Greek inventor in Golding’s ‘Envoy Extraordinary’ to the dream of a near future with no men in it in Wyndham’s futuristic narrative ‘Consider Her Ways’.[3] The book as a whole is the product of a period infatuated with Freud, which recognised that sleep takes up a third of a person’s lifetime and sought to represent the pervasive influence of dreams on contemporary culture through all available media, from paint, fur and feathers to household appliances. For artists working in this period, the distinction between dream and wakefulness was barely valid, and a serious attention to dreams – and their dark siblings, nightmares – was an urgent necessity if the modern world was to be fully accounted for, and perhaps restored to some semblance of health.

There’s no direct indication in ‘Boy in Darkness’ that the Boy protagonist is asleep and dreaming, but the story begins with him throwing himself on his bed in a teenage huff, and a sense of nightmare suffuses the text from this point onwards. The source of the nightmare is the dissolution of boundaries: between dream and reality, childhood and adulthood, play and earnest, humans and beasts, past, present and future, and above all between good and evil, as defined by religious institutions, politicians and moral philosophers. All these boundaries had, of course, already been breached by the time Peake wrote his story, largely thanks to the First World War, which weakened or destroyed all the old grand narratives. But ‘Boy in Darkness’ addresses their dissolution with unique intensity, re-affirming the contemporary sense that life itself had become a dream, and demonstrating how rival forces were engaged in a struggle for possession of the modern dreamscape.

Mervyn Peake, sketch of Ithell Colquhoun (1939)

The contemporary movement in art most concerned with dreams was of course Surrealism, which sought access to the unconscious through automatic drawing, psychoanalysis, and close attention to the dream life of the artist. Peake’s links with Surrealism mostly came through association. His wife, the artist Maeve Gilmore, has been linked to the Surrealists by a recent exhibition of her work at Studio Voltaire, whose website compares her work to that of Eileen Agar, Leonora Carrington and Ithell Colquhoun (Peake drew pencil sketches of Colquhoun in 1939).[4] One of Peake’s closest friends of the 1930s was the Surrealist painter and set designer Leslie Hurry, who illustrated three of his poems.[5] Another friend was Dylan Thomas, closely associated with Surrealism at the time, whose poetry had a powerful influence on Peake’s early verse. We don’t know if Peake visited the London International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936, but given that he was teaching at the Westminster School of Art at the time it’s hard to imagine he didn’t. He could well have read the famous introduction, by the art critic Herbert Read, to the anthology that accompanied the exhibition, Surrealism (1936). And if he did, he might have found several things in it that resonated with his own concerns.

In his introduction Read argues for a close affinity between the Surrealist movement and a well-established fantastical strand of the English literary imagination, which includes ballads, the Gothic novels of Mary Shelley and Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis, the Prophetic Books of Blake and the nonsense of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.[6] Lovers of Peake will notice how closely this list aligns with his interests: he illustrated Coleridge’s ballad The Ancient Mariner, Stevenson’s Gothic novel Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Carroll’s Alice books, as well as writing a number of ballads, several novels and short stories with many Gothic features, a poem on Blake and a great deal of what he called ‘Nonsence’.[7] For Herbert Read, Surrealism was a form of Romantic art which, by taking account of the unconscious as well as the conscious life of human beings, achieves what he calls ‘super-realism’, as against the restricted ‘realism’ of much art and fiction.[8] Realism, Read argues, acknowledges only the conventions recognised by the conscious mind and so fails to represent the full range of human experience, as does the reason-and-rules-based approach known as ‘classicism’. Romantic surrealism, by contrast, maintains a constant tension between reason and the life of the unconstrained imagination as encountered in dreams. Read’s essay culminates in an account of the transformation of a dream he had into a (very bad) poem, as a means of demonstrating the techniques by which an unconscious experience can migrate into literary form. The poem in turn serves to confirm the fact that ‘In dialectical terms there is a continual state of opposition and interaction between the world of objective fact – the sensational and social world of active and economic existence – and the world of subjective fantasy’.[9] This opposition and interaction, Read goes on, ‘creates a state of disquietude, a lack of spiritual equilibrium, which it is the business of the artist to resolve’. Writing poems or stories based on dreams is one way of transacting this ‘business’, and to do justice to dreams artists must feel ‘unimpeded by the irrelevant standards of morality’ – morality being no more than a set of conventions or codes subject to change with each new generation.[10] Read’s essay, in other words, sets out radically to destabilize conventional notions of good and evil, identifying the fantastic art of the Surrealists as a crucial tool in that emancipatory process.

A more radical approach to dream, which did not seek to ‘resolve’ its contradictions, was published three years later by another of Peake’s friends, the poet Walter de la Mare. Angela Carter described de la Mare as a Surrealist, presumably on the grounds of his lifelong obsession with the oneiric;[11] and though he never joined this or any other movement, his mammoth introduction to his anthology Behold, This Dreamer! – published in the year the War broke out, 1939 – could have served as a field guide to dreams for Surrealist artists. For de la Mare the distinction between waking and sleeping is always uncertain. The border between the two states defies cartography, waking dreams are as common as sleeping ones, and what recollections in tranquillity we may have of dreams is only ever achieved in our waking moments, contaminating them with conscious thought. A section of his introduction is titled ‘Day-Dreams’ and concerns the phenomenon of ‘reverie’: a kind of waking sleep in which the mind spins subjective visions from what Read calls ‘objective fact’.[12] Peake famously entitled one chapter in his novel Titus Groan (1946) ‘The Reveries’, sinking his reader into the daydreams of his principal characters as if in response to de la Mare’s essay. Another section of the introduction to Behold, This Dreamer!, ‘Day-Life and Dream-Life’, asserts that waking experience is no more coherent than that of sleep. Reality, de la Mare points out, is made up of random elements – ‘the clump and clatter of a country horse and cart, the demoniac scream of a motor horn, the rumble of a distant train, the crowing of a cock, a maid polishing a brass door-handle, the barking of a distant dog’ – with no rational connection between them except for their simultaneous reception by a pair of human ears.[13] And he goes on to point out that we sometimes lose certainty as to whether we’re awake or asleep, selecting a recent international incident to drive home the point:

Few experiences […] can have exceeded in intensity and dread that of living through the recent European crisis[…]. Yet even then, on the brink of that abyss, how many of us must have paused, as I did myself for one moment, at the inward enquiry, ‘Is this a dream?’[14]

The reference here is to the September Crisis of 1938, when Britain and France sought to avert war with Germany by handing over part of Czechoslovakia in response to German aggression.[15] The logic for doing so – that it would ensure peace – was quickly shown to be no logic at all, and the appeasement of Hitler branded Britain and France as directly complicit with Nazi expansionism. The prospect of impending war awakened by the Crisis, then, is for de la Mare a real-life nightmare, and his response to this brutal intrusion of dreams into reality was to publish two successive anthologies – Behold, This Dreamer! and Love (1943), to the second of which Peake contributed a poem – that focussed on dreams rather than nightmares, intimacy rather than conflict. If the world was in the grip of a dream, these collections imply, perhaps the most committed of dreamers could somehow help to alter the kind of dream it was…

At the same time, de la Mare’s own dreams as reported in Behold, This Dreamer! are packed with acts of disturbing aggression and retribution. One dream involves his murder of an elderly woman and his vain attempts to conceal the crime by mopping up her blood. Startled by something, he spills the bucket of blood he has collected, allowing it to run all over the floor, while simultaneously the blood-red light of dawn spills in through the window like a premonition of the crime’s discovery (p.71). In another dream he imagines that the house where he committed the murder has been sold without his consent, meaning that someone will certainly find the corpse in the locked room where he left it (p. 72). In another he sees himself punished for the murder by being tortured on a machine with many wheels (p. 74); in still another he sits awaiting execution, then makes a sudden dash for freedom and is shot dead by a guard (p. 75). All the atrocities of the Twentieth Century seem to be visited on the poet in his sleep, marking him out as the man responsible for them and promising to track him down with the same closed circuit of elusive but deadly logic that trapped the nameless narrator of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman (c. 1940), or the unfortunate Josef K in Kafka’s The Trial (1925, translated 1937).

Peake met de la Mare when he drew his portrait for the London Mercury in 1936 – the year of the International Surrealist Exhibition, and the year when Peake’s writing career began to take off. From 1937, Peake’s verse was widely published in magazines, and it was de la Mare’s encouragement that led him to submit his first collection, Shapes and Sounds (1941), to Chatto and Windus. Peake’s fascination with dreams was almost on a par with the older poet’s, and three at least of his published works take the form of dream visions: the short story ‘The Weird Journey’, first published in 1948; ‘Boy in Darkness’ (1956); and the children’s play ‘Noah’s Ark’, written in the 1950s. Interestingly, all three of these texts have religion at the core. In ‘The Weird Journey’ the protagonist falls ‘wide awake’ to find himself striding like a clockwork giant along a Dali-esque beach surrounded by multicoloured parrots, who carry books of the Old Testament in their beaks.[16] ‘Boy in Darkness’ contains a monstrous Lamb which is clearly a perversion of the Lamb of God, while in ‘Noah’s Ark’ a young child falls asleep to find himself in the story from Genesis, caught up in a conspiracy of carnivorous animals against Noah, the only person who can guide their vessel through the stormy seas of the scriptural Flood.[17] Peake grew up as the son of dissenting missionaries in China, and married a Catholic whose religion he found hard to stomach (as did Gilmore herself, eventually).[18] It’s not surprising, then, if his dream works vividly represent the actual or threatened dissolution of faith, from the dismembered Bible of ‘The Weird Journey’ to the suicidal plot to take over the ark in the children’s play. And ‘Boy in Darkness’ goes one step further, making the Boy himself complicit with faith’s dissolution, a double-dyed blasphemer against the oppressive faiths of his dreamworld, and thus a stand-in for the blasphemer-artist himself. If de la Mare’s dreams made him a murderer, Peake’s made his protagonist a god-killer, completing an artistic trajectory that began in his pirate fictions of the 1930s, around the time when he met de la Mare.

The symbiosis between art and violence was already present in Peake’s early novel fragment, Mr Slaughterboard (c. 1935), whose titular protagonist is a pirate captain who regularly kills off members of his crew ‘in the cause of artistry and to prove the inevitabilities of the illogical’.[19] A few years later, during the war, Peake drew a series of pictures designed to display his talents to the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, from whom he sought employment. Titled ‘An Exhibition of the Artist Adolf Hitler: The New Order’, these consist of images with conventional academic titles – ‘Landscape with Figures’, ‘Sea-scape’, ‘Peasant Dance’, ‘Study of a Young Girl’ – each of which depicts a wartime atrocity.[20] The landscape shows refugees moving through a corpse-strewn city, the seascape a young woman adrift in water after her ship has been torpedoed, ‘Peasant Dance’ shows a man and woman dying in a hail of bullets, while the young girl has been shot in the chest. Most striking of all is ‘Self-Portrait’, which shows the artist Adolf Hitler staring at himself in horror, with haunted eyes, sweat beading his forehead, mouth compressed. He is presumably looking into a mirror as he draws his own likeness; but the artist who really drew him was of course Mervyn Peake, and the notion that the artist might see himself mirrored in Hitler is profoundly unsettling, as unsettling as the notion of wartime atrocities as a form of art. The conceit is lent a perverse wit by the fact that Hitler really was an aspiring artist, and the whole project raises a number of questions about the function of art in wartime; if to represent acts of violence, real or imagined, does this make the artist somehow complicit with those acts, like the appeasers who accepted the logic of Hitler’s violence by rewarding him for it? To draw a man like Hitler convincingly, wouldn’t one have to imagine oneself as his double, see things through his eyes, even if only for a moment? Did Peake’s own propensity for writing about art as violence, à la Mr Slaughterboard, predispose him to achieve this feat of identification? Presumably the War Artists’ Advisory Committee didn’t want the public pondering such questions, since the picture series was never published in his lifetime.

Mervyn Peake, ‘Self-Portrait’

But the concept of the violent artist continued to haunt him. The antihero of the first and second Titus novels, a young man called Steerpike, is an accomplished draftsman and actor whose technical skills are utterly divorced from any emotional investment in his art. What delights him, in fact, is mimicking the effects of art to worm his way into the trust of art’s admirers – and to make a horrible art of his own by accomplishing ingenious murders and getting away with it. As Peake informs us, ‘He could not sink himself. He was not the artist. He was the exact imitation of one’.[21] And the possibility of that ‘exact imitation’ – with no artist’s heart at the core of it – seems to rock Peake the artist with recurrent anxieties over his own status as creator. Was he in fact the artist, or was he merely the mimic, his art no more than a parasitic copy of the great artworks he admired? Was he unable to sink himself, to emotionally invest in his creations? Peake’s nightmare throughout his life is his coexistence with the artist’s double – indistinguishable from the true artist – whose skills are placed at the service of totalitarianism, i.e. of the shaping of life itself into an exact copy of the worst of nightmares, a cold, calculating, self-interested mind. At other, more stable times in history this vision of the artist-dictator might have seemed excessive; but at a time when the political reality surpassed the most appalling of dreams, the notion that there might be any such thing as ‘excess’ in politics may no longer have seemed entirely valid.

Mervyn Peake, ‘Steerpike’

Like the Titus books, ‘Boy in Darkness’ begins in the setting of Gormenghast Castle, a vast and ancient edifice which has been governed by nonsensical rituals for thousands of years – though the name of the castle is never mentioned in it, erased from the protagonist’s and reader’s minds like names themselves in Alice’s wood of forgetting. The rituals performed in the castle resemble a religion whose meaning has been leeched from it by the passage of time; but they derive an oppressive authority from their titanic architectural setting, a setting whose veneration lies at the core of each ritual. Stone itself is the object of worship in Gormenghast, and the bodies and minds of its mortal denizens are expected to mimic stoniness in their dedication to the singular functions laid down for them by long-dead zealots. In Titus Groan the bodies of the kitchen cleaners called the Grey Scrubbers seem to be morphing into stone, while the Earl of Groan’s personal servant, Flay, has kneecaps that resound at every step, as if succumbing to petrifaction.[22] Yet in ‘Boy in Darkness’, there is growth at the heart of this implacable structure. Tiny organisms sprout in abandoned cellars and lost staircases; creatures scamper with a ‘husky scuffling sound’ across the floors of abandoned halls;[23] and the central human figure in the Gormenghast hierarchy, the Earl of Gormenghast – the Boy himself, whose name, ‘Titus’, is never mentioned, like the name of the castle – stands on the cusp of maturation. In the novels Titus Groan and Gormenghast, change was deemed blasphemy by the castle’s rule-driven Masters of Ritual; but in ‘Boy in Darkness’ change suffuses both the castle and all its denizens, represented here by the hordes of excited, sweating children and dynamic riders who participate in the night of celebratory ‘high barbecue’ with which the story begins.[24] And as the narrative unfolds, change itself becomes the focus of a struggle over the soul of art and the artist, enacting the struggle over art’s position as the recorder and agent of change in the twentieth century.

The story divides itself into two distinct parts. In the first part, the young Earl rebels against the rigid structure of the castle hierarchy – a structure driven by arbitrary conventions, like Read’s notion of Classicism – by making up his mind to run away. The Boy’s rebellion could be taken to represent the insurgency of Romanticism against the regulations of the Enlightenment, and by fostering such rebellion – limited as it is – the castle could be said to nurture creativity; indeed, the sheer absurdity of its ceremonies makes them seem endlessly creative. In the second half of the story, the Boy flees from the familiar confines of the castle into a changeless wasteland: a post-apocalyptic Dead Zone littered with industrial remains, ruled over by a monstrous sentient Lamb addicted to change – or rather, to changing other people’s bodies, then trapping them in his unchanging service till the end of their days. The wasteland itself is a corpse, no longer useful as a healthy biosphere, or as the site for a farm or working mine, while the disused mine where the Lamb resides is littered with the bones of his worn-out slaves, whose transformation at the Lamb’s cold hands eventually kills them. In the first part of the story, the Boy of the title represents the creativity and vitality of childhood; he tells himself stories, then acts out those stories using himself as his principal player, escaping from the castle into the wilderness beyond in imitation of his reveries and sleeping dreams. In the second part, the Lamb is the heartless pseudo-artist of Peake’s nightmares, the ersatz changes he effects representing a calcification and compression of the human bodies he gets into his power. Once changed by him, none of his formerly human subjects can ever change again, and this changelessness, it’s implied, is what destroys them, militating against the life principle that sustains their flesh and blood.

The two parts of the story represent the past and the future, which converge on the dream of the present much as they did in the famous treatise by J W Dunne, An Experiment with Time (1927).[25] Dunne’s influential book argued that dreams consist in equal parts of fractured images of the past and the future, and he went on to devise a complex theory to account for the elements of precognition he detected in his own dreams; Peake’s friend and first editor, Graham Greene, was deeply interested in Dunne’s theories. The first part of the novelette, in which the Boy figures as a feudal lord in a Gothic castle, represents the past, while the second, set in a terminally damaged landscape full of evidence of lost technologies, represents the future – most obviously in the scientific ‘experiments’ conducted by the Lamb, whereby he transforms human beings into their closest animal equivalents (spiders, lions, goats, monkeys) in order to subject them to his own sadistic uses.[26] The Boy finds himself stranded between these two timelines, desperate to free himself from the oppressions of the feudal past, desperate to resist and overcome the oppressions of the technocratic future – an embodiment of the uneasy post-war present. But he also takes on aspects of both past and future. By rebelling against authoritarian ritual he upholds the decidedly modern philosophy of individual self-determination – a form of anarchy, of the kind with which Peake became partly aligned in the post-war years, as James Gifford has argued.[27] Meanwhile the Boy’s one-person ‘insurrection’ against Gormenghast echoes the revolts, protests and revolutions that have characterised the twentieth century, from the Russian Revolution to the General Strike to the independence movements in Ireland, India, Burma and the rest.[28] But he also incites the Lamb’s servants to rebellion using feudal ideas, promising them ‘golden thrones’ of their own to replace the Lamb’s quasi-ecclesiastical seat; and he deploys a tool from the mythic past – a long knife or sword – to destroy the Lamb at the story’s conclusion. Adrift in a nameless, history-less space – like the Boy stowaway in Peake’s play about Noah’s Ark – he has to construct his own personal narrative to escape the controlling narratives imposed on him against his will, and makes use of all available resources from past, present and future to steer himself to some form of resolution. In doing so he becomes contaminated by the sins both of his ancestors and his descendants, losing an ‘innocence’ that has been usurped by the sheep-shaped dictator of the industrial wasteland, and finally coming to embody the complex condition of the modern artist.[29]

Loss of innocence – that vexed term, with its Christian and Blakean connotations – lies at the centre of the narrative, along with a changing sense of how creativity operates in different contexts. In Freudian terms, the Boy stands on the threshold between the latency phase and the genital phase of a child’s development; his adventure begins on the evening of his fourteenth birthday. The traversing of that threshold is marked by the story’s transition from an unfocused fantasy of exploration in the opening paragraphs to the wielding of a phallic sword in the final showdown. At the beginning the Boy seeks refuge in an act of imaginative art while lying in bed: he studies a stain on the ceiling of his bedroom and transforms it in his mind’s eye into the map of an island fit for exploring, a pirate-infested zone of adventure reminiscent of Stevenson’s Treasure Island – Peake’s favourite reading as a boy, and a books he illustrated as an adult. But this purely imaginative process fails to satisfy him on this day of transition, and instead he chooses to enact adventure using his body as well as his mind, fleeing from the Castle into the rule-less wilderness beyond.

Here he finds many more stains, for the desert or wasteland beyond the wilderness is covered with toxic deposits:

Tinges of glaucous colour, now here, now there, appeared before his eyes. They lay thinly like snail-slime or glistened from the occasional stone or along a blade of grass or spread like a blush over the ground.

But a blush that was grey. A wet and slippery thing that moved hither and thither over the foreign ground.[30]

If the story is a dream, at this point it has become an erotic one, as signalled by the word ‘blush’: suffused with the shame Freud identified as a key sign of transition to the genital phase. Soon afterwards, the Boy encounters two male persons, half man half beast – Goat and Hyena – one of whom constantly employs the language of affection (‘my dear’, ‘my love’) and invites the Boy to stroke his mane (p. 40). This pair carries the Boy to a yet more disturbingly sexualized being in the form of the Lamb, who is both a human child – with a child’s plump hands – and an ancient predator of unfathomable malice, possessing a child’s shrill voice that articulates a murderous adult lust directed at the Boy. This being, too, lives in an environment rife with stains. The objects in the subterranean room he inhabits, lit by innumerable quasi-ecclesiastical candles and lamps, give off a ‘kind of vivid stain; almost as if the lit objects burnt – or gave out, rather than absorbed, the light’ (p. 57), like certain radioactive substances. Later the Lamb himself succumbs to spontaneous staining after touching the Boy’s face with an icy finger: ‘a kind of covetous and fiery rash spread out beneath the wool, so that the milk-white curls appeared to be curdled, in a blush from head to feet’ (p. 82). One reader of the novelette, Peake’s biographer Malcolm Yorke, found its transition from childhood fantasy to implied child sexual abuse by adults too disturbing to condone, especially if the story might have been intended for children.[31] But the anthology in which it first appeared makes it perfectly clear that it was aimed at adults, and that the story it tells is in effect the story of the end of ‘innocence’ in a far wider context than that of a single child’s slow growth to maturity, with all the dangers that entails.

Mervyn Peake, Boys in Masks

In any case, the Boy never sees himself as ‘innocent’. He begins the story in a rage brought on by the humiliations he has had to endure over the last two days, in the course of his birthday rituals. These include being presented with gifts which must at once be returned to the castle vaults; sitting for hours at the edge of a ‘gnat-haunted’ lake (p. 23); planting a tree without assistance, wearing a hat ‘like a dunce’s cap’ (p. 23); and sporting a necklace of rotting turkey feathers, which must again be returned in the morning to a pointless official called the ‘Hereditary Master of the Quills’ (p. 26). All these details resemble punishments rather than celebrations, and imply that the concepts of misdemeanour and punishment have little meaning in a castle that has lost all sense of proportionate cause and effect. The Boy’s mini-insurgency, meanwhile, though natural under the circumstances, represents for the denizens of Gormenghast a blasphemous revolt against the castle more or less equivalent to Satan’s revolt against his Maker. The link with Satan is strengthened by the fact that the Boy’s rebellion involves breaking promises: ‘Had he forgotten,’ the narrator wonders, ‘the pledges he had made as a child, and on a thousand subsequent occasions? The solemn oaths that bound him, with cords of allegiance, to his home[?]’ (p. 25). The parallel is undermined, a moment later, by its diminutive scale: the Earl proposes only to rebel for a single day (p. 25). But it’s immediately reinstated by a sudden outbreak of verbal blasphemy on the part of the young revolutionary: ‘Oh, damn the Castle! Damn the Laws! Damn everything!’ (p. 25). Uttered in his bed, between waking and sleep, the concept of sacrilege followed by damnation continues to resonate throughout the Boy’s nightmare, culminating in his encounter with a genuinely devilish being, the toxic Lamb. For instance, when the Boy flees from the castle he encounters a pack of strange dogs which help him to cross a river into the wasteland. The Boy sees their yellow eyes as ‘ineradicably wicked’, and the name of their species blasphemously inverts the word for God, yet the Boy identifies with them as a fellow living creature and sends up a ‘prayer of gladness’ for having met them (p. 36). Woven through the first half of the story, then, is the association of the Boy with transgression; while in the second half of the narrative he is increasingly aligned with the monstrous Lamb who is his purported enemy.

Indeed, the second part of the story mirrors the first, with an anticipated ceremony or ritual – to be accomplished when the two beast-men who serve the Lamb bring the Boy to their Master – followed by a second act of insurrection, whereby the Boy substitutes the Lamb for himself as victim in the sacrifice, then recrosses the river with the help of the dogs on his journey homewards. And there are further mirrorings in both parts. At one point in his castle bedroom the Boy catches sight of himself in a looking-glass, which prompts the first of his acts of rebellion, the tearing off and trampling of the turkey-feather necklace. And in the second part, the Boy seeks to gain power over the Lamb’s hybrid man-beast servants by mirroring the homoerotic language used by Goat. ‘What a mane!’ he tells Hyena admiringly: ‘How proud and arrogant are the hairs of it! With what a black, torrential surge do they break through your snow-white shirt’ (p. 51). A little later he mirrors the doctrine of the Lamb, promising the beast-men not only thrones but hordes of ‘slaves’ of the kind the Lamb created for himself when he fabricated man-beasts out of men (p. 88). In the process he transforms the man-beasts into potential mirrors both of the Lamb and of himself, awaking in them a thirst both for Lamb-like tyranny and for the ‘ulcer’ of Boy-like ‘insurrection’ (p. 88). Even the Boy’s failure fully to bring the man-beasts on side – they are too terrified of the Lamb to rise against him – means that, mirror-wise, the Lamb is unable to use the man-beasts for his own purposes, giving the Boy the chance to kill him with Hyena’s sword.

In the Hall of Mirrors which is ‘Boy in Darkness’, the Boy and the Lamb could be taken to represent rival aspects of the creative artist; aspects that overlap and converge at crucial moments. The Boy turns the stain on his ceiling into a piratical Treasure Island, complete with a wandering fly as the explorer he can identify with as he spins his stories – the explorer he embodies as he flees the castle (p. 25). Like Stevenson before him, he shows little awareness of the colonial heritage that forms the backdrop of all pirate adventures, all explorer stories; for him tropical islands are no more than exciting stage sets, only rendered more amusing by the presence of native peoples (branded ‘Indians’ or ‘cannibals’) or non-native but conveniently huntable wild goats. The Lamb, on the other hand, uses people and places rather than ceiling stains and flies as the raw material for his murderous art, like Peake’s artist-Hitler. He stains the once immaculate landscape over which he rules with his lust for dominion; and his two surviving works, Hyena and Goat, make explicit the colonial nature of his artistry. Goat, after all, serves as the staple diet of British castaways and naval frigates, while the hyena is the most despised of indigenous beasts in the colonised territories of Asia and Africa. The Lamb’s history contains hundreds of creatures such as these, metamorphosed into beast-men by his psychic powers; however, all but two have died before the Boy’s arrival, anticipating the long slow death of the British Empire to which Peake bore witness, as a son of missionaries and a product of the British boarding school system, designed as it is to churn out soldiers, entrepreneurs and administrators to control the colonies. The products of the Lamb’s artistry are mostly mockeries of creatures from British colonised territories: the debased ‘king of beasts’ or ‘golden cat’, the man-lion (pp. 69-70), the ‘delicate and nimble’ man-gazelle (p. 70), the ‘mantis-man’, the crocodile-man, and strangest of all the ‘inordinate fish that sang like a linnet’ – a denizen of the colonised field of human dreams. The Lamb himself is a travesty both of the Christian Lamb of God – seated on a throne worthy of a bishop or Pope, and finally sacrificed at the hands of the Boy – and of childhood ‘innocence’, rendered literally hollow by decades and centuries of merciless, self-serving artistry imposed on the bodies of others, whether children or enslaved adults. Even the Lamb’s fascination with making beast-men for his own amusement links him to boyhood adventure stories, such as H G Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) or Edgar Rice Boroughs’s The Monster Men (1913). The Boy of the story’s title – a lost soul like Wells’s Prendick or Burroughs’s Number Thirteen – meets the Lamb in darkness (that could be an alternative title for the novelette), and finds himself capable of both mimicking and destroying it. To destroy the Lamb he uses an instrument from the old imperialist romances – a sword – and so sets himself up as the artist-hero of his own narrative. But the interwovenness of the narratives of Lamb and Boy – for instance, in the way the Boy works on the minds of his beast-man captors, Hyena and Goat, as he seeks to gain some power to face up to the Lamb – renders them disturbingly reflective of each other. By the end of the story it’s easy enough to think of the Boy as some kind of hybrid child-beast, or Boy-Lamb, whose nature contains both the inventive freedom of childhood and the hunger for power of a fully-fledged dictator.

The narrative, as a result, embodies the dissolution of simplistic moral systems as discussed by Herbert Read in his introduction to Surrealism. It could be read as a commentary on Read’s account of the Surrealist’s contempt for such moral systems, which are only ever devised to uphold the interests of the powerful:

The Surrealist is opposed to current morality because he considers that it is rotten. He can have no respect for a code of ethics that tolerates extremes of poverty and riches; that wastes or deliberately destroys the products of the earth amidst a starving or undernourished people; that preaches a gospel of universal peace and wages aggressive war with all the appendages of horror and destruction which its evil genius can invent; that so distorts the sexual impulse that thousands of unsatisfied men and women go mad, millions waste their lives in unhappiness or poison their minds with hypocrisy. For such a morality […] the Surrealist has nothing but hatred and scorn (p. 86).

The Boy’s bid for power ends, in fact, with the refusal of any such system. When he kills the Lamb, the creature’s last remaining victims, Goat and Hyena, undergo a transformation into the humans they once were, losing the allegorical names which had pinned them into their beastly bodies and becoming ‘two ancient men’, one with a ‘sloping back’ no longer locked into the characteristics of the carrion eater he embodied throughout the story, the other with the ‘sideways shuffle’ that formerly marked the self-styled Capricorn or goat (p. 92). The ancient men do not become the Boy’s slaves or servants; they merely lead him out of the mine and part from him and each other ‘without a word’ (p. 92). In doing so, they dismantle what had threatened to become a horrible alternative Pilgrim’s Progress penned by the Lamb, whose characters can only ever signify the narrow range of qualities indicated by their names: Lamb, Goat, Hyena, Boy (or Monkey, as he nearly becomes). As a missionary’s son, one of Peake’s default adventure stories would have been Bunyan’s masterpiece, and a quotation from it provides the epigraph at the beginning of Titus Groan. Like ‘Boy in Darkness’ Bunyan’s book is ‘delivered under the similitude of a dream’, but its tightly controlled allegories have none of the waywardness of actual dreams, being governed by the ‘gospel-laws’ of a stern God.[32] At least, so Bunyan hopes, and expresses those hopes in his verse ‘Apology for his Book’; though the section of that ‘Apology’ selected by Peake to introduce Titus Groan suggests that the resultant allegory will have something Surreal about it (‘Dost thou love picking meat? Or wouldst thou see / A man i’th’clouds, and hear him speak to thee?’). The Boy’s return to the castle at the end of the story consigns the Lamb’s allegory to the realm of dream or nightmare, and makes of the Boy’s ancestral home, by contrast, an uneasy refuge.

Walter de la Mare thought of the European Crisis as a nightmare, in part, perhaps, because of the complicity with Nazism with which it stained British democracy. Peake’s nightmare, in ‘Boy in Darkness’, is a composite British artist who is complicit both with colonialism and with Nazism, both with the feudalism of the past and with the totalitarianism of the present and future. As a portrait of Peake’s moment in history, then, it’s as disturbing – and perhaps as enlightening – as anything else we have. Herbert Read might have called it a work of ‘super-realism’. It’s clearly, at least, a substantial work of art.

Mervyn Peake, illustration for Oscar Wilde’s poem The Sphinx

NOTES

[1] The term ‘long short story’ is applied to ‘Boy in Darkness’ by Maeve Gilmore in her foreword to the story, as reprinted in Boy in Darkness and Other Stories, ed. Sebastian Peake (London and Chicago: Peter Owen, 2007), p. 17. All quotations are from this edition.

[2] Sometime, Never: Three Tales of Imagination by William Golding, John Wyndham, Mervyn Peake (New York: Ballantine Books, 1962), front cover.

[3] In ‘Consider her Ways’ it’s taken by the first-person narrator – at least at first – as a literal dream: ‘I must still be in a suspended state,’ she tells herself, ‘very likely with concussion, and this was a dream, or hallucination’ (Sometime, Never, p. 68). The dream content of ‘Envoy Extraordinary’ is more complex, fabricated from its three central characters’ radically different perspectives on the world – one fanciful, one apparently practical but equally idealistic, one balanced between fancy and practicality – each held in suspension by the improbable encounter between the owners of those perspectives which the story relates.

[4] Studio Voltaire, Maeve Gilmore: https://studiovoltaire.org/whats-on/maeve-gilmore-2022/.

[5] Richard Warren’s account of Hurry sets him firmly in the context of the surrealists and neo-romantics: https://richardawarren.wordpress.com/tag/leslie-hurry/.

[6] Herbert Read (ed.), Surrealism (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, n.d.), pp. 46-56.

[7] For Peake’s ‘Nonsence’ see the introduction to R. W. Maslen and G. Peter Winnington (eds.), Complete Nonsense, Fyfield Books (Manchester: Carcanet, 2011), pp. 1-2.

[8] Read, Surrealism, p. 21. Peake describes himself as a ‘Romanticist in Painting’ in a letter to Gordon Smith; see Smith, Mervyn Peake: A Personal Memoir (London: Victor Gollancz, 1984), p. 46.  See also James Gifford on Peake’s loose affiliation with New Romanticism, in Gifford, A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism and the Radical Fantastic (Victoria, BC: ELS Editions, 2018), p. 122 ff.

[9] Read, Surrealism, p. 40.

[10] Read, Surrealism, p. 51.

[11] Walter de la Mare, Memoirs of a Midget (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), introduction by Angela Carter.

[12] De la Mare’s interest in reverie goes back to the beginning of his career; he introduces a character called ‘Reverie’ into his chapters on The Pilgrim’s Progress in his first novel, Henry Brocken (1904). See de la Mare, Henry Brocken (London: W. Collins, n.d.), chapters IX and X.

[13] Walter de la Mare, Behold, This Dreamer! (London: Faber and Faber, 1939), p. 68.

[14] De la Mare, Behold, This Dreamer!, p. 69.

[15] See Peake’s poem, ‘Au Moulin Joyeux: September Crisis, 1938’, in Peake, Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen, Fyfield Books (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), p. 43, for the writer-artist’s reaction to the same events.

[16] Peake, Boy in Darkness, p. 95.

[17] For ‘Noah’s Ark’ see Mervyn Peake, Peake’s Progress: Selected Writings and Drawings of Mervyn Peake, ed. Maeve Gilmore (London: Allen Lane, 1978), pp. 383-443.

[18] For Peake’s struggle with Catholicism see his poems ‘How Foreign to the Spirit’s Early Beauty’ and ‘No Creed Shall Bind Me to the Sapless Bole’, Collected Poems, ed. Maslen, pp. 39 and 61.

[19] Peake, Peake’s Progress, p. 71.

[20] The picture series has never been reproduced in its entirety; most of the pictures listed can be found in Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art, ed. G. Peter Winnington (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 2006), pp. 66-69. ‘Sea-scape’ can be found in Mervyn Peake, Writings and Drawings, ed. Maeve Gilmore and Shelagh Johnson (London: Academy Editions and New York: St Martin’s Press, 1974), p. 46.

[21] Mervyn Peake, The Gormenghast Trilogy (London: Mandarin, 1992), p. 116.

[22] A similar process of petrifaction takes place in the closing part of Herbert Read’s only novel, The Green Child (1935). See Read, The Green Child (London: Grey Walls Press, 1945), pp. 124 ff.

[23] Peake, Boy in Darkness, p. 32.

[24] Peake, ‘Boy in Darkness’, p. 30.

[25] My edition is this one: J. W. Dunne, An Experiment with Time (London: Faber and Faber, 1973).

[26] Peake, Boy in Darkness, p. 59: ‘the experiments were without precedent.’

[27] See James Gifford, A Modernist Fantasy, p. 122 ff.

[28] Peake, Boy in Darkness, p. 25: ‘Insurrection! It was indeed nothing less.’

[29] For the Lamb’s usurpation of innocence, see Peake, Boy in Darkness, p. 79: ‘they heard a sound of bleating, so faint, so far away; it was like innocence or a strain of love from the pastures of sweet April.’

[30] Peake, Boy in Darkness, p. 37.

[31] See Malcolm Yorke, Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold. A Life (London: John Murray, 2000), pp. 257-8.

[32] John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (London: Faber and Faber, 1947), pp. 3-11)

Mervyn Peake and the Queering of Sark

The Hogsback, Sark. British commandos landed here twice in the Second World War.

[I’d like to start with a shout-out to Dr Taylor Driggers, whose work in general, and in particular his brilliant first book, Queering Faith in Fantasy Literature, Perspectives on Fantasy (London etc. : Bloomsbury Academic, 2022), opened my eyes to new dimensions of the fantastic. His book should be the first port of call for anyone looking at fantasy, queerness and Christianity.]

In my last post I wrote about my recent visit to the island of Sark, in a quest to understand Mervyn Peake’s fascination with this inhabited rock in the English Channel. As I wrote, an idea began to dawn on me, largely in response to Jane Norwich’s book about the Sark Art Group to which Peake belonged, Inspired by Sark (2022).[1] I wondered if he thought of Sark as representing an escape from the rules that bound him on the British mainland, in particular the rules that governed sexuality and gender. Sark as an escape of any kind, of course, was really a Sark of the imagination – a fantastical Sark – and I think this became very clear to him as he spent time on the island, first in the inter-war years when the Art Group briefly flourished as a hothouse of idealistic optimism, and later when he returned after the war to find the community changed by suffering and the landscape transformed by the impact of the German occupation. At the same time, Peake’s dream of an alternative Sark in which the rules of sexuality and gender were relaxed or re-examined remained with him, I think, and helped to shape his novels, not least the only novel he set on Sark itself, the quirkily disturbing Mr Pye. I should stress that this is conjecture, but it’s built on what I think are solid foundations, and this post will expose those foundations as best it can.

Hovering in the background as I write is John Donne’s famous Meditation 17, from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1623). The most familiar part of this contemplative passage is, perhaps, the opening sentence: ‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of a continent, a part of the main’. As a man of his time and of his own particular strand of education, Peake is likely to have known this piece well. He attended a school for the sons of missionaries, and was clearly fascinated by early modern literature, which finds echoes throughout his work, from the quasi-Jacobean blank verse spoken by Earl Sepulchrave in Titus Groan – and the quotation from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress that opens it – to his experiments with the sonnet form (such as his early poem on the sixteenth-century painter El Greco) and the Elizabethan-style verse dramas he wrote in the 1950s.[2]

Sea Rocks near Creux Harbour, Sark

Meditation 17 runs like this:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

I mentioned in my previous post that an early version of Mr Pye ends with the missionary’s death, and it seems to me that Donne’s meditation could fittingly be used to provide a commentary on that earlier ending. In that version of the novel, the missionary is driven from the island in the end, like James Whale’s creature in the movie Frankenstein (1931), as a monster and an outcast; but his death does not purge the islanders of their kinship with him, according to Donne’s text. Sark could easily be described as a clod washed out to sea from the continent of Europe, and Mr Pye could in turn be seen as an adopted ‘Son of Sark’, like Peake himself: a smaller clod, whose loss both diminishes the island, rendering it spiritually or at least emotionally bereft, and accentuates his involvement in it – the involvement it sought to undo by hounding him to the edge of a cliff and over it.[3] There is even a ‘manor’ on Sark, as in Donne’s Devotion: the Old Manoir which the Lords of Sark first made their home in the Sixteenth Century, though they no longer live there. If Meditation 17 helps to establish Mr Pye’s death in that early version as confirmation of his fellowship with the islanders, despite their hostility to him, then the disappearance of Mr Pye in the novel’s published state leaves the question of what to make of his kinship to the islanders completely open. Does it affirm his difference from them, or their unacknowledged need for him, since after his removal the island is left ‘suddenly empty, […] nothing but a long wasp-waisted rock’ off the coast of France?[4] Mr Pye’s loss diminishes Sark, and by extension all those who cannot contend with what Mr Pye represents. But what is that, exactly?

As my last blog post explained, Mr Pye arrives on Sark with the intention of converting the islanders to his personal religion: the religion of a pantheistic God he calls the Great Pal, who inheres in everything, from the storm at sea to the porridge at the breakfast table, from the ‘brook that sparkles in the Dixcart valley’ (a tree-filled combe that leads down to the beach close to the Peakes’ house on Mill Road) to the cigarette smoked by Mr Pye’s landlady and friend, the redoubtable Miss Dredger (p. 60). His mission, however, soon turns bizarre. His excessive virtue (or what he sees as his virtue) unexpectedly causes him to sprout a pair of wings, and in his efforts to rid himself of this embarrassment he turns to petty crime. This in turn has the effect of both shrinking the wings and making horns spring from his head; and it’s the horns that turn the islanders against him. The wings and the horns mark him out as different; but this physical difference can also be seen as a demonstration of his underlying links to the local community. He is not simply an angelic missionary, but also that benevolent being’s devilish equivalent, the colonial invader. He is, in fact, a human being, and the principal strangeness about him is his ability to demonstrate his human tendency to contradiction and paradox in a strikingly physical way.

Mr Pye on his way to Sark

From the moment he arrives on the island Mr Pye’s difference from the islanders is marked. Short, plump, urbane and urban, with glasses and a ‘sharp nose, not unlike the beak of a bird’ (p. 10), his appearance and comportment are identified at once by the ticket-sellers and ferry operators as having little resemblance to those of the locals, or indeed to most incomers or tourists. At the same time, he is very ordinary and unthreatening. His paunch accentuates his tendency to self-indulgence – overeating and perhaps inertia – while his smallness underscores his inability to do real harm, despite the fact that small, plump men have disrupted continents (think of Napoleon or Hitler, both of them posers of genuine historical threats to the Channel Islands; Sark is littered with Napoleonic cannons left over from the wars between Britain and France in the early nineteenth century, and Mr Pye sits on one of them late in the book to contemplate his relationship with the islanders). Mr Pye doesn’t look at all dangerous, and it’s only gradually that the Sarkese begin to convince themselves that he represents a danger to them, an invasive threat to their very existence, thanks both to his horns and his angelic-but-alien wings.

What is it, though, that marks out Mr Pye as different when he buys his ferry ticket at the start of the novel, well before anything supernatural attaches itself to him? His urbanity and urbaneness are surely not enough. Nor indeed are his comportment, speech or appearance, since we later learn that there are plenty of other English settlers on the island, as well as characters of equal eccentricity: from the young woman Tintagieu, who claims to have a dolly at home which must be put to bed whenever she doesn’t wish to accept an assignation, to Mrs Rice, who is ‘almost square’ and wears a bizarre straw hat (p. 99). The one thing that marks out Mr Pye as different at this point, it seems to me, is his unabashed campness. Mr Pye shows every sign of being gay, and would have been read as such, I think, by many of Peake’s readers when the book came out. His addiction to fruit-drops makes him ‘the Fruit Drop’ – that’s Tintagieu’s nickname for him – and ‘fruit’ in the 1950s, as now, was a term that could signify gayness. The missionary’s scrupulous care over his own appearance (he has ‘beautifully manicured’ hands, p. 8), his extravagant movements (‘Mr Pye […] joined his hands together beneath his chin, […] stood upon the tips of his toes, and breathed deeply’, p. 11), and his serene indifference to the sexual attractions of the most erotically charged woman on the island, Tintagieu – even when she walks past him naked at dead of night (p. 123ff.) – seem to confirm the assumption. He has a powerful effect on sailors, such as the ‘huge, sour-visaged, red-necked, sea-booted mariner’ of whom he makes a convert (pp. 76-77). He calls his God not father but ‘Pal’, the word a gay man of the 40s or 50s might have used for a lover (and a married woman on Sark, Dorothy La Trobe Bateman, is said to have called her own lover Trevor Blakemore her ‘Great Pal’ in a rather open euphemism).[5] Peake could scarcely have clustered together more signs of Mr Pye’s sexuality without endowing him with a partner of his own.[6]

Tintagieu (r) and the painter Thorpe (l)

One might speculate, in fact, that Tintagieu’s presence on Peake’s Sark is partly designed to draw attention to Mr Pye’s queer alterity. She is said to have slept with so many ‘visitors, residents and locals’ that she has become something of an ‘institution’, her diary so packed with assignations ‘that her inability to accept more than a fraction of the innumerable invitations that were tendered her […] had the paradoxical effect of giving her a reputation for a mad kind of chastity, a crazy, indecipherable coyness, among those who had but recently arrived’ (p. 109). After Mr Pye’s famous picnic, discussed in my previous post, she moves in with him and his landlady Miss Dredger, and eventually becomes his closest friend, the flamboyantly physical counterweight to his inordinate spirituality. There is never any question that he will sleep with her after she moves in; his love for her, as for Miss Dredger, is entirely ‘sexless’ (p. 52). But Tintagieu too, as we’ve seen, has a reputation for a strange kind of sexlessness or ‘chastity’. Like him she is plump, which suggests a shared overindulgence of their sensual appetites; like him she is repeatedly described as ‘innocent’, even childish (as I said earlier, she mentions her ‘dolly’ whenever she wishes to dodge a date she does not want, while Mr Pye’s figure resembles that of a toddler); and neither her innocence nor her chastity is presented as being in any way at odds with her sexual freedom. Both Mr Pye’s sexlessness and Tintagieu’s chastity might be taken to signify their freedom from the heteronormative rules that govern other islanders; a freedom they offer freely to the people of Sark, each in their own distinctive manner.

Mr Pye (l) and Miss George (r)

One of the ways of extending love practised by Mr Pye is to bring the people of Sark together in unexpected combinations. In the first part of the novel the missionary makes friends with two single women, Miss Dredger and Miss George, and invites them to share his home in the name of love (despite the fact that the home in question is in fact Miss Dredger’s). There are numerous indications that both women are queer, especially Miss Dredger, who presents as conventionally masculine, with her cigarettes, her angular appearance, and her quasi-military contempt for any sign of weakness or lack of backbone. Both women hate each other when Mr Pye first meets them, a situation which Miss Dredger describes to Miss George as a ‘long divorce’ (p. 66), but they are quickly reconciled under his paternalistic tutelage. Indeed they take part in a kind of vicarious courtship, which begins when Miss Dredger begins to dream, under Mr Pye’s influence (he has ‘laced her chicken soup with a strong sedative’), of ‘floating over Tunbridge Wells hand-in-hand with Miss George’ (p. 43). The courtship reaches a crescendo when the missionary kisses Miss George’s fingers and tells her the ‘romantic story’ of the stones on the rings she wears (p. 79), then comments on her loneliness and invites her to start ‘a new life of love and endeavour’ (p. 80) with Miss Dredger in her boarding house. After this the two women form a family of choice with Mr Pye, working together to prepare his legendary picnic at Derrible Bay and in the process becoming ‘integrate’, as he calls them – ‘magnificently integrate’ (p. 83) or involved.[7] Again there is nothing sexual about their integration, but the language of marriage used to describe it affirms its opposition to heteronormativity, its resistance to 1950s social and sexual conventions.

Not that sexual conventions are much cherished by the heterosexual inhabitants of the island. Tintagieu’s sexual profligacy necessarily reflects the profligacy of the Sarkese men, and Mr Pye notes less than half way through the novel that the islanders are perfectly capable of being as promiscuous as she is without admitting it. Having made a careful study of their collective habits, he informs them at the picnic, he has ‘watched, in microcosm, the “world and his wife” go by – and sometimes I have seen, unless I am mistaken, the world go by with someone else’s wife’ (pp. 103-4). Tintagieu’s behaviour is considered outrageous, but is as integral to island life as the distinctive rock from which she takes her name. Meanwhile, Mr Pye’s encouragement of universal love in place of competition or mutual hostility is merely a rigorous application of a principle supposedly central to the islanders’ religious convictions, but which is breached more often than it is observed by most of Sark’s inhabitants. Both Tintagieu and Mr Pye openly advocate things that are either hypocritically denied while being widely practised or hypocritically advocated without being practised at all. The behaviour of these two unconventional figures is in each case an open affirmation of Donne’s insistence that ‘no man is an island’, since everyone shares a more or less equal collection of follies and foibles, each of which requires the participation of their fellow human beings serving either as collaborators or as countervailing foils against which to measure it. Mr Pye’s mission, as he sees it, is to make the islanders understand the ties that bind them – their common humanity and the mutual affection this should encourage. He seeks, in fact, to bring them ‘true joy’ by binding them into the ‘cosmos of love’ (p. 43). But he ends by uniting them against himself as a threatening intruder, his difference from the islanders reinforced by a relapse on their part – partly inspired by Mr Pye’s own internalised theology, as represented by his unruly wings and horns – into the crudest kind of binarism, whereby the world is neatly divided into separate moral units, good and evil, with everyone naturally assuming that they themselves belong in the former category. He seeks to bring love to the island, and instead unites it in a collective outbreak of hate, the homophobic lynching of Mr Pye.

Jane Norwich, Inspired by Sark, showing linocut by Alfred Waldron, ‘Actress’

It’s tempting to see this situation as a response to Peake’s experiences with the Sark Art Group in the 1930s. Jane Norwich’s book about the Group, Inspired by Sark, makes it clear how distinctive the artist’s colony must have seemed when its first representatives arrived on the island in 1933. When the newly-built and innovative Gallery building was opened in August of that year, the Guernsey Press announced dramatically that ‘Modernity has come to Sark’, an occasion of note at a time when the island still operated the last feudal system in the British Isles (Inspired by Sark, p. 27). The island’s feudal lord, the Dame of Sark, encouraged the enterprise, but was careful to insist that the building’s design was intended ‘to interfere as little as possible with Sark’s atmosphere of antiquity’ (p. 25). The young artists who displayed their work in the Gallery were not all of them experimental modernists, but they drew suspicion nonetheless from the more traditional Sarkese painters. The elderly landscape artist William Toplis, for instance, ‘frankly admitted that he did not like the modern school’, lumping modernists and the Sark Art Group together in a homogeneous unit – though he was happy to display his paintings alongside theirs when invited to do so (p. 28). Reviewers affirmed that the Group’s exhibitions embodied ‘a world where modernity is the very keynote’ (p. 43), a fact that provoked some reviewers to sarcasm: one summed up the second Group exhibition of 1934 as composed entirely of ‘modern’ pieces, ‘some ultra-modern, even that which has been described as futuristic; like its parallel in music it has its applauders. Certainly, much of the work is decidedly clever and none could be described as commonplace’ (p. 45, my emphasis). The various manifestos for the Group provided by its founders the Drakes, however, emphasized inclusivity rather than cleverness. The prospectus described it as a ‘non-profit-making cooperative’ (p. 16), which suggests an egalitarian Leftist but non-denominational perspective, and the St Ives painter Borlase Smart wrote after the first exhibition at the gallery that ‘The directors do not subscribe to any set theory or school of thought’ (p. 30). Instead, Smart insisted, ‘They are looking for work that has a constructive and integrating significance in modern life’ (p. 30, my emphasis). From the start the Group was more concerned with giving practical support to artists than with telling them what to make or how to make it, and with drawing in the local community rather than with re-educating them; and this emphasis on egalitarian practice as against theory, on the capacity to ‘integrate’ rather than to attach themselves to a specific method, school or philosophy, also reveals itself in Mr Pye’s religious mission to the island.

Eric and Lisel Drake on Sark

As modern, perhaps, as their paintings was the Sark Group’s attitude to sexuality. This could be described, in Mr Pye’s words about Miss Dredger and Miss George, as ‘magnificently integrate’, with a number of queer people joining the cooperative in the course of its brief existence. These included Ala Story, the Viennese gallery director responsible for getting the Sark Group’s work exhibited in London, who was a Lesbian, and Frank Coombs, the gay artist and architect who helped ensure the Sark Art Gallery building remained standing when he spotted flaws in its construction before the exhibition was due to open in 1933.[8] Most flamboyantly queer of all were the artist Alfred ‘Pip’ Waldron and his partner, Alex Gannon, who joined the Group from Birmingham in 1934. Waldron and Gannon, Norwich tells us, never concealed their status as a couple while on the island, and went on to run the Sark Art Group’s activities, first along with the newly appointed manager, Coombs, then by themselves after Coombs left to work with Story in London in 1935. Eric Drake seems to have cultivated a deliberate obtuseness as to his fellow Group members’ sexuality; in a letter to Peter Winnington he insisted that he ‘never tried to probe the relationship’ between Waldron and Gannon, and asserted that Coombs ‘fell for’ the island girl who provided the model for Tintagieu (and of course this is quite possible, despite Coombs’s later relationship with the art critic Eardley Knollys).[9] Overall, though, the Group’s attitude to the body was liberal. They swam naked together from Sark’s beaches, and Eric and Lisel liked to sunbathe naked too, to the surprise of the island postman. Peake seems to have been particularly liberal with his body, sending the same love poems (Malcolm Yorke tells us) to several island women at once, and getting found out pretty quickly.[10] He gained a reputation for painting landscapes in the nude, wearing only a sombrero as protection from the sun, and drew widespread attention with his Bohemian clothes, long hair and piratical earring.[11] Sometimes he wore a cape, like the artist Augustus John or Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. The same habit was later adopted by Mr Pye to conceal the growth of his wings (p. 172), and Mr Pye also took on Peake’s buccaneering aesthetic, donning a bandana ‘in true pirate fashion’ to conceal his horns (p. 205). It’s intriguing to note how Peake’s youthful fashion choices get associated in Mr Pye with the need for camouflage, implying the missionary’s involvement in a running conflict with the islanders’ proneness to suspicion of strangeness and strangers, which necessitates the strategic use of camouflage to protect its ‘commandos’ (Mr Pye’s rather unexpected word for his closest followers and friends) (p. 81).

The Sark Art Gallery

At one point in his time with the Sark Art Group, Peake fell in love with one of his fellow artists, the Bostonian Janice Thompson, and took her home to meet his parents – possibly to gain their approval for his engagement to her. Thompson found the meeting ‘uncomfortable and disappointing’, and went back to Boston not long after.[12] Peake returned to Sark with his hair cut short and his earring missing. Later, Thompson recalled her time on Sark as possessing a distinctive ‘climate’ of its own, making it an island of experiment and exploration circled by seas of drab conformity. From her perspective, as described in her poem ‘The Artists’, the Sark experience involved an attempt to open a succession of ‘entrances and escapes’ from all kinds of restriction with the help of ‘many keys’, an Alice in Wonderland-style abandonment of conventional logic in favour of a multi-faceted vision capable of comprehending ‘An instant’s multiplicity’ and of defining ‘with line and curve / The pride of rock, / The baleful earthen face’, as embodied in the Sark landscape.[13] For Thompson, leaving the island meant a retreat into cramped and sexless domestic spaces full of ‘mole faces’ and ‘threadbare hair’:

Having breathed deeply of too keen an air
We journeyed back to family parlors
Of gas-blue flames in suffocating rows.
A hand bewildered, faltering with a cup
To brush away a crumb
As grey, mole-faces peered from threadbare hair,
Not knowing from what climates we have come.[14]

Peake, too, wrote of Sark and its people as following a different drum, making it a place where ‘Life beat another rhythm’ like a heart quickened by desire:

Life beat another rhythm on that island
As old as her own birth.
We were the island people, and the earth
Sea, sky, and love, were Sark, and Sark, the earth
While round us moved the swarming of the sea.[15]

Both poems associate the island with a closeness to the earth – soil, rocks and the body of the planet itself – and with freedom from the suffocating constraints of the ordinary. It’s tempting to see this as a comment as much on the sexual liberation it afforded as on the artistic experiment to which it gave rise – as much on ‘love’ as on the work the artists did there.

Captain Slaughterboard and the Yellow Creature

Peake’s familiarity with the queer culture of the 1930s can be taken for granted, given the fact that he moved in artistic circles in the metropolis. One of his first exhibitions took place at the Black Cat Café in Old Compton Street, London, a well-known meeting place for rent boys and their clients, as Quentin Crisp informs us in his autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant (1968).[16] Crisp himself was a friend of Peake’s, who got to know him at one of the many cafés, eateries and bars Crisp frequented in the Second World War, the Bar-B-Q in Chelsea. It was during the war that Crisp acquired a reputation both for brilliant wit (he has been called the Oscar Wilde of the twentieth century) and for considerable personal courage, since he went on parading the streets of the metropolis in defiance of air raid sirens, flying shrapnel and the disapproval of air wardens. Peake illustrated Crisp’s satirical poem, All This and Bevis Too, in 1943, and later made fine illustrations for the poems of Oscar Wilde, using a Chinese brush his father brought back from Hong Kong. It would hardly be surprising, then, if Peake felt comfortable introducing gay characters into his fiction, and one character in the Gormenghast books, Doctor Prunesquallor, has been regularly read as queer. A sheet of drawings from the war years has been found recently which seems to show a love affair between an older and a younger male centaur, riffing on Peake’s depiction of centaurs in his poetry and elsewhere as epitomes of the exuberant male body. Most strikingly of all, his children’s story Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939) depicts the evolution of a queer relationship between the titular pirate and a Yellow Creature he finds on a tropical island, whose rock formations mimic the distinctive contours of the Sarkese coastline. After capturing the Yellow Creature with the help of his crew, Captain Slaughterboard gradually loses interest in a pirate’s lifestyle and ends by marooning himself voluntarily with the Creature on the island where he found it, luxuriating in idleness and the Yellow Creature’s cooking. Various commentators have pointed out that the Yellow Creature’s face recalls Peake’s many portraits of his wife, Maeve Gilmore; but its body presents as male, and the pronouns Peake uses for it are either gender neutral (it) or masculine (he/him).[17] In one of the last pictures in the book the Creature seems to be cross-dressing, wearing a skirt while making a meal and smoking a distinctly piratical pipe. Peake is said to have enjoyed dressing up in Maeve’s clothing. The body, male or female, was a thing of beauty, and just as he felt comfortable drawing both male and female figures, so too he seems to have had little difficulty in recognising and accepting the various forms of desire that draw male and female bodies together, in whatever combination happens to answer their present needs. In Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor, a tropical version of the Isle of Sark could be read as standing in for a paradise where queer relationships are acknowledged with the same reverence and affection as Peake’s marriage to Maeve.

Alfred Waldron, ‘Tropic’

Besides Crisp, another significant queer presence in Peake’s life was Alfred ‘Pip’ Waldron, his fellow artist in the Sark Art Group. It has been suggested at various times that Mr Pye may have been partly modelled on Waldron: Robjn Cantus speculates as much on his website, Inexpensive Progress (https://inexpensiveprogress.com/4728/alfred-waldron/), but the only evidence he gives is a quotation from Eric Drake, who writes of him that ‘he seemed to live in a world of fantasy that was private to him’.[18] Cantus probably took his speculation from Peter Winnington’s fine biography of Peake, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, which observes that ‘There may be another autobiographical element in Mr Pye’s odd characteristic of sucking his thumb, which recalls Pip Waldron’ (p. 240).[19] Winnington explains this observation in a footnote, where he quotes an unpublished letter from another Sark Group artist, Tony Bridge: ‘[Waldron] used to climb on to Brenda [Streatfield]’s lap (he was very small) and suck his thumb’ (p. 279). Both Winnington and Eric Drake suggest that this habit may have been a result of childhood trauma.[20] Not much more is known about Waldron and his ‘fantasy world’, beyond the fact that he attended the Birmingham Art School, that he and Alex Gannon moved to London after leaving Sark, and that they went on to live in Cheltenham till their deaths. Pip’s linocuts, though, tell us something about his world, and are worth pausing over, given the possible link between Pip and the equally diminutive Mr Pye.

Alfred Waldron, ‘Thou Shalt Not’

For me as for others, the art produced and shown by Waldron while on Sark can be read as a series of striking comments on British sexual politics in the early twentieth century. I saw reproductions of several linocuts by Waldron at the Visitor Centre on the island, and more have been published by Norwich in her book, one of which looks like an open comment on homophobia, as Norwich points out.[21] ‘Thou Shalt Not’ shows a naked man in the foreground raising his arms and shouting furiously at two more naked men, who flee into the shadows. Is he berating them for homoerotic activity, as the biblical title seems to suggest? If so, his gesture of remonstration looks distinctly ironic, since he could be interpreted as displaying his body to them in his fury; indeed, another reading might suggest he is angrily berating the men for their hypocrisy in rejecting the naked male body as a site of same-sex desire. A second linocut, ‘Masque’, shows a woman in a richly patterned dress holding a mask in front of her face with her right hand while looking out of the frame directly at the viewer; her left hand holds a cigarette and rests on a ribbon at her waist. A man and a woman stand in conversation behind her, like an embodiment of heteronormativity. Norwich sees in the woman’s face a resemblance to the Sapphic art director Ala Story, and the picture might be read as a comment on the necessity for Lesbian women to lead a double life – though the woman has no visible partner of any gender. ‘Tropic’ shows a naked young man sprawling backwards under a blazing sun, as if interpreting the tropics of the imagination described by Peake in his short story ‘I Bought a Palm Tree’ – see my previous post – as a state of liberation from sexual judgments and inhibitions of all kinds.[22] ‘Ballet Moon and Cloud’ shows an apparently naked but extravagantly decorated young man holding the hand of a masked female dancer; they are dancing together, not so much as erotic partners as co-performers of femininity. ‘Festoon’ shows two women embracing in a heap of quasi-oriental clothing. Finally, one of Waldron’s most ambitious pictures, another linocut called ‘Husbands and Wives’, shows a group of women and a group of men (with one woman) by a pool, each group totally engrossed in their companions, nobody in either group showing any awareness of the adjacent party; indeed, the thick black trunk of what looks like a palm tree sets a natural barrier between the men and most of the women. Again, the foliage around them looks tropical; did Waldron’s fantasy life on Sark, like Peake’s in ‘I Bought a Palm Tree’, inhabit the tropics? In each case these linocuts may be read as depicting a world that is subject to the rules of heteronormativity, a world where the idea of husbands and wives takes precedence over alternative sexual relationships, even when those alternative relationships dominate the minds of the men and women in question; a world where homoerotic desire is accounted a sin, and where as a result men and women must of necessity be frequently alone if they are to luxuriate in those desires, even in their secret fantasies.

Alfred Waldron, ‘Husbands and Wives’

There is something visionary, it strikes me, about Waldron’s prints. They have a Blakean quality. The shouting man in ‘Thou Shalt Not’, for instance, recalls in his stance one of Blake’s most famous images, ‘Albion Rose’ (1794-1796), sometimes known as ‘The Dance of Albion’ or ‘Glad Day’, which shows a naked young man who stands facing the viewer, his arms and legs spread wide, his face joyful, beams of coloured light radiating from his head and torso. Blake’s print is a thing of glory, as its titles suggest, but the mood of Waldron’s is different. The man seems older, his body more gaunt, it turns away from the viewer as if in shame or anger, and instead of rays of coloured light it is framed in darkness. ‘Tropic’ is much more positive, with its blazing sun and luxuriating male body, taking advantage of solitude to enjoy itself freely; while ‘Husbands and Wives’ and ‘Masque’ seem to contemplate the needful hypocrisy to which the criminalization of queerness gives rise, the men and women in each picture conforming outwardly to heterosexual norms despite the fact that their interests and desires are so obviously at odds with them. Peake’s Mr Pye, like Waldron, is a Blakean visionary. The message he brings to Sark – as he tells the islanders again and again – concerns love for all, based on Donne’s understanding of the connectedness of all people, or on Blake’s of the connectedness of everything in the universe. Could he have taken up Waldron’s mission to make a statement about hypocrisy and small-mindedness to this isolated population? Could the novel, Mr Pye, chart a movement from potential island-wide unity – an embracing of human affection in all its manifestations – to the reinstatement of petty divisions, unfounded hostilities, and specifically homophobic violence? This would invest the hunting of Mr Pye at the end of the book with the disturbing connotations I’ve already touched on. But Quentin Crisp’s biography confirms that homophobic violence was widespread in London between the wars; and the death camps of Nazi Germany represented, among other things, the worst excesses to which such violence could extend.[23] What happens to Peake’s novel, then, if we read it using the queer lens provided by Pip Waldron’s linocuts and Crisp’s life writing?

William Blake, ‘The Dance of Albion’

Waldron’s most ambitious project was an illustrated edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, most famously translated by Edward Fitzgerald (the book was never published). The Rubaiyat was represented by Fitzgerald as a manifesto for religious scepticism, with the poet enjoining his lover to forgo bodily restraint in favour of a hedonistic embracing of food, drink and sex while the opportunity presents itself – the old carpe diem theme. In one of the images from Waldron’s sequence, Omar Khayyam 2 (see end of post), four women mourn over the dead body of a young man – who has a wound in his side reminiscent of the wound inflicted on Christ’s crucified body by a soldier’s spear – while in the background women embrace and chase one another while young men stroll by with arms draped across each other’s shoulders. In another, Omar Khayyam 1 (see below), a masked young man and a woman dance surrounded by older spectators. Two of the spectators are naked, the third is clothed. One male spectator reads from a book, his right hand raised in the attitude of a preacher; another turns away from the dancers with his hands joined as if in prayer. These two are grouped together in the left foreground, as if both belong to the same hypocritical religious sect (hypocritical because the preaching spectator is suggestively unclothed and has his attention fixed on the dancers, while the kneeling spectator has positioned himself right in front of the theatrical floodlights, like another performer). On the right side of the picture a person with a scythe (I think a man, though I’m not certain) gazes at the dancers’ performance with what looks like rapt appreciation. He is smiling and touching his chin as if in thought. Is this scythe-person Death, and is s/he pleased that the dancers are acknowledging his/her imminence by seizing the day? Death’s traditional hood is pushed back to expose not only a living human face but a healthy body, very different from the skeletal bodies favoured by Holbein in his series of woodcuts The Dance of Death. In conjunction with the biblical title of Thou Shalt Not – which echoes the opening phrase of the Ten Commandments – Waldron’s Khayyam project looks like a Blakean rejection of Christian sexual puritanism, because such puritanism invites imprecations and aggression against those who practise or advocate sex in its less acceptable forms (hence the young martyr in the foreground of Omar Khayyam 2). It could be read, indeed, as the work of a visionary atheist or agnostic, disgusted by the hypocrisy of latter-day Pharisees, who happily practise sexual infidelity (Mr Pye claims to have seen ‘the world go by with someone else’s wife’) while repudiating any form of illegal sex they claim not to practise.

Alfred Waldron, ‘Omar Khayyam 1’

Crisp’s biography, meanwhile, includes a number of intriguing references to religion. There is the fact that Crisp presents himself in his naïve youth as a self-styled ‘missionary’ for homosexuality, whose flamboyant self-display is designed to make a place in the world – and more particularly in London – for camp gay men. ‘My outlook was so limited’, he explains in his third chapter, ‘that I assumed all deviates were openly despised and rejected’ (p. 33). In response to this perception, he resolved to embark on a career of dramatic protest on behalf of ‘all deviates’, wearing makeup at a time when it was frowned upon even for women to wear it, growing his hair and fingernails long, and cultivating an exaggeratedly ‘feminine’ walk which drew the attention of passers-by more effectively than any words of protest he could utter (pp. 49-50). Such were his means of pursuing his mission, and he concentrated these activities not on the West End or Soho, where they would barely be noticed, but on the world beyond: ‘the rest of England was straightforward missionary country. It was densely populated by aborigines who had never heard of homosexuality and who, when they did, became frightened and angry. I went to work on them’ (p. 33). Later, Crisp tells us he took on a job as commercial artist not so much to earn money as from an ‘evangelical zeal’ to win from the heterosexual world ‘acceptance as a homosexual’ (p. 74). His religion was not Christian – he had ‘withdrawn [his] ambassadors’ from God’s ‘territory’ at the age of fifteen – but involved a generous extension of the key Christian concept of ‘love’, a word, he tells us, ‘about whose meaning there seemed to be some ambiguity’ (p. 119). ‘Often during this period of my life’, he writes,

to the embarrassment of my hearers, I claimed that my whole existence was love. I meant that I was trying never to close my hand against anyone – even the unlovable (in dealing with whom I was having a great deal of practice). I would have placed at anyone’s disposal my meagre resources of money or advice or concern. Sometimes I fancied that all the elements of a golden age of universal well-wishing were already known and would become instantly effective when […] some genius combined them in the right order. I was always delighted with the slightest break-through in this field. (p. 119)

Crisp’s objective, in other words, was to work towards the ushering-in of a new ‘golden age’ in human relationships, when human beings embraced one another regardless of sexuality, gender, appearance, class, and so on. He adds, a little later on, that owing to his extravagant sexual fantasies and enjoyment of auto-eroticism he had always found sexual acts with other people unsatisfactory, and as a consequence ‘had severed the connection between sex and love’ (p. 121). His love resembles Mr Pye’s in its sexlessness, although unlike Mr Pye he was perfectly happy to engage in sex when the opportunity arose.

Quentin Crisp photographed by Angus McBean (1941)

It was around this ‘period’ of Crisp’s life that he collaborated with Mervyn Peake on his pamphlet, All This and Bevin Too (1943), a satirical poem for which Peake drew the pictures.[24] The poem itself offers something of an insight into both men’s state of mind in the middle of the Second World War. It describes the frustrated efforts of a melancholy kangaroo to offer his services to the Zoo, where he finds himself repeatedly rejected as a conscript despite the many notices posted everywhere by the Zoo’s management insisting that kangaroos are urgently wanted. Crisp was rejected by the army on account of his open homosexuality, while for years Peake’s efforts to be taken on by the state-sponsored War Artist’s Commission were frustrated, while his own time as a conscript served only to demonstrate his utter unsuitability for the army, ending in a seemingly inevitable breakdown and discharge. The kangaroo, too, finds his place in the Zoo usurped by a horse, while he himself is trained in the equine art of pulling a cart – only to fail once again to be accepted by the Zoo after completing his training. The story would be a bleak one if it were not for the utopian community of friends who help the kangaroo in his efforts to get suitable employment. A monkey lends him a hat to improve his appearance, a cat helps him fill out an impenetrable employment form, and so many other people and animals support him that he throws them a slap-up feast in gratitude, using all available ration tokens. The feast goes magnificently, despite the fact that again one animal is masquerading as another (the lamb chop is made of horse meat; the war effort, in Crisp’s eyes, is predicated on the need for ersatz substitutes). The kangaroo ends as he started, unemployed and miserable (Crisp tells us he was suicidal after being rejected by the army, since he could see no prospect of employment for the rest of the war). But the sense that he’s still part of a supportive community is reinforced by his final exchange with the poet, presumably Crisp himself, which is recorded with obvious sympathy and enlists both Crisp and the reader in the utopian chosen family that sought to alleviate the kangaroo’s problems throughout the narrative. The golden age may not be imminent in Crisp’s poem, but there are signs of a definite ‘break-through in the field’. Peake’s situation, meanwhile, as an artist who had suffered a breakdown, was not much better than Crisp’s in 1943, though he had in fact found employment as a War Artist thanks to his friendship with the head of the War Artist’s Commission, Kenneth Clark. In his readiness to work alongside Crisp, Peake was part of Crisp’s support group, just as Crisp (who gave Peake wartime employment as an illustrator) was part of Peake’s.

It’s quite possible that Peake knew about Crisp’s ‘mission’ of spreading sexual tolerance and love; after all, Crisp himself acknowledges his delight in talking about himself in cafés and bars like the one in which he met the writer-artist. Not only does Mr Pye’s aim as a missionary who wishes to convert an island to a religion of love resemble Crisp’s, while his theatrical flamboyance echoes that of the controversial London character, but the role of Mr Pye’s own chosen family in supporting him against a hostile environment – Miss Dredger, Miss George (before he alienates her), the painter Thorpe and the girl Tintagieu – recalls that of the kangaroo in All This and Bevin Too. Mr Pye’s religious mission catches resonance, too, from Alfred Waldron’s pictorial campaign against Christian hypocrisy, while his smallness, his difference from the other islanders, and his habit of sucking his thumb align him with Waldron himself. Even Mr Pye’s supposed sexlessness finds a philosophical prop in Crisp’s statement that he had succeeded, by the time Peake met him, in separating sex from love. And Mr Pye’s arrogance – his lust for conquest, as expressed in his desire to convert a self-contained territory into the utopia or golden age of his heart’s desire, or in his insistence that he knows what’s best for Miss George – recalls Crisp’s confession at the end of his autobiography that ‘Power was what I craved most ravenously’, and that he ‘wanted dominion over others in order to redress the balance’; as partial recompense, that is, for the powerlessness to which he had been so often consigned by his ‘deviate’ status (p. 222).

Crisp’s autobiography, for all its occasional recourse to a religious vocabulary, resists the temptation to sum itself up with some sort of moral. ‘I know,’ he writes, ‘that on no account must I point a moral or trace a pattern through my past’; this is a sign of his subscription to the ‘modern manner’ (p. 220); and he adds, ‘I clearly see that my life was only an imprudent dash between the cradle and the tomb across open country and under fire’ (p. 220). Apart from anything else, the person who writes is ‘still changing – still in doubt’ (p. 222), which means that any retrospectively imposed moral or pattern will be necessarily incomplete. Mr Pye, too, invokes religious vocabulary, but ends by rejecting any attempt at a moral conclusion. The protagonist grows wings and horns in response to his good and evil actions – or what he perceives as his good and evil actions; his good actions are not always good, his evil actions in many cases barely worthy of the name. And as the book goes on, the moral associations with each bodily eruption grow steadily less certain. The appearance of Mr Pye’s wings coincides with a new sense of alienation from his God, as he ceases to be able to talk with Him – something he claims to have been able to do throughout his life. As a result, it also brings with it a sense of all-encompassing loneliness, of being cut off not only from the mortal friends to whom he is closest but from the spiritual conversation he formerly cherished, and hence from the evangelical narrative of which he felt himself to be part. In the days before the wings’ appearance, Miss George refused point blank to be made a symbol of Mr Pye’s faith; and her lowering down the chimney could be said to mark the failure of religious symbolism itself, a failure reinforced by the uncertain status of those ‘crisp, forceful little feathers’ on her tormentor’s back. Later Mr Pye himself refuses to become a symbol of his own religion, reluctant to display his wings to the world as a mark of God’s favour for fear of being treated like a circus freak (p. 137). In the process Mr Pye divorces himself from his lifelong mission or narrative or purpose for the very first time. The appearance of his wings, which might have been taken to confirm his saintly identity, instead makes him question that identity, and with it the narrative to which he has always sought to conform. But what is there to replace it, apart from the drab narrative of failure, exile and a lonely death?

Mr Pye in Camouflage

Mr Pye conceals his wings under a voluminous cape (p. 148), and when his horns begin to grow he hides them under a bandana (p. 205), a Basque beret (p. 209), and a Panama hat (p. 220). For a time, at least, he exists in a state of camouflage, his abnormal body hidden away from view, only his increasingly bizarre behaviour offering clues to the mental and physical anguish he is suffering. He closets himself repeatedly, locking himself in his room at Miss Dredger’s house to examine his growing wings, concealing himself in the island prison when the people of Sark turn against him. His closest friend, by the end of the novel, is Tintagieu, who is famous throughout the island as a rebel against the laws of sexual constraint. His closeness to Tintagieu at the end suggests that she somehow understands him, and Tintagieu’s chosen area of expertise suggests that she understands him because she sees his torment as in some way linked to sexual desire. Tintagieu’s body strains at the seams of her tight-fitting dress, just as Mr Pye’s wings and horns strain at the items he uses to bind them: cape, bandana, beret or hat. Tintagieu’s willingness to walk naked along the roads of Sark may even have given Mr Pye the courage, in the end, to bare himself, to display his horns to the islanders at the annual cattle show, come what may; he certainly approves of her nakedness when he sees her walking past his gate in the early morning (‘It is right,’ he tells her, ‘Absolutely right’, p. 123). And it is Tintagieu who seeks to reconcile him, after he bares himself, to her fellow islanders, insisting that his horns are no more threatening than the horns of the nearby cattle (p. 240). They belong to his body, and have no necessary symbolic significance. The Sarkese woman and Mr Pye, in other words, seek at the end against all hope to advance the golden world of tolerance and mutual affection advocated by Crisp, only to be met with the kind of violence Crisp encountered all too often on the streets of London.

There’s a curious moment at the culmination of the novel, as Mr Pye finds himself pursued by a mob of islanders baying for his blood, when the missionary draws a final, sharp distinction between his mysteriously sprouting body and the discourse of Christianity that might be used to explain it. Just as he is about to make his final leap from the precipitous Coupée, the missionary enters a state of unearthly calm. He sits ‘perfectly upright, yet perfectly relaxed’ on the seat of the carriage that carries him, then symbolically detaches himself from his God: ‘As the ground began to dip,’ Peake tells us, ‘he drew forth his soul and tossed it skywards to his maker. “Oh, catch it if you care to,”, he cried, and he beat his wings in an earthless exultation’ (p. 253). The result is that it’s Mr Pye’s body only – his body and mind – that makes the great leap into space from the narrow isthmus that links Great Sark to Little Sark. This implies, perhaps, that the Christian narrative he has cleaved to so far has no place, as yet, for a body or mind like his. He does not, in response, reject the narrative altogether – he tosses his soul, after all, to the being he sees as his maker – but he recognises all the same that Christian theology cannot embrace his kind of difference at this point in its history. It’s noteworthy that he asks if the Great Pal might care to catch his soul, not if he can do so, as one might expect (‘catch me if you can’ being the phrase his last words seem to echo), and caring is, of course, another term for the ‘love’ Mr Pye has preached throughout his time on Sark (it shares the same root as ‘charity’, from Latin caritas, love). Like Quentin Crisp, in other words, Mr Pye seems to understand that the word ‘love’ as used by Christians is not yet capacious enough to include queer folk like himself. The recent controversy over same-sex marriage in the Anglican Church suggests that it still hasn’t found a way to achieve that capaciousness. Until it does, the queer community must find its own way to the ‘earthless exultation’ experienced by the little missionary.

Colin Moss, ‘Camouflaged Cooling-Towers’ (1943)

I’ve mentioned camouflage several times in the course of this post, and I want to end with some thoughts on camouflage in relation to art, and in particular the Sark Art Group. The Group didn’t last long; founded in 1933, all its main members had left the island by 1938, so that when Maeve Gilmore and her husband Peake arrived on Sark for a holiday in the summer of that year, ‘the gallery was closed and Eric Drake and his artists were nowhere to be seen’ (p. 66). During the war, as Norwich tells us, a remarkable number of the Group’s artists went to work with the Camouflage Directorate at Leamington Spa; these included Eric Drake, Pip Waldron, Guy Malet, Leon Underwood and about eight others. It’s satisfying to think of Waldron, with his passion for human masks, providing masks for inanimate objects in support of the Allied cause. The artists’ responsibilities included disguising airfields, storage sites, military vehicles, ships, factories and other industrial locations, as well as playing a major role in preparations for Operation Overlord (the D-Day landings) – making model tanks, among other things, to mislead the German forces. When, a few years after the war, Ralph Thomas filmed a war movie called Appointment with Venus (1951) on Sark – about a daring raid to snatch a prize cow called Venus from the island, under the nose of the occupying Nazis – the artist figure Lionel Fallaize, played by Kenneth More, is recruited to camouflage a cow to serve as stand-in for the bovine protagonist. It’s hard not to see this as a witty reference to the work of the Sark Art Group artists in the Second World War.

Kenneth More camouflaged as an artist in Appointment with Venus (1951), Sark in background

Quentin Crisp, too, contemplated offering his services to the Camouflage Directorate, but concluded that his gifts lay elsewhere: ‘My function was rather to render what was already clear blindingly obvious’ (p. 117). Crisp’s art is his body, which he decorates and parades about the streets in a bid to force the city population to recognise and acknowledge what they have always known: that there are queer people in the world and that they have a place in it, or rather many places, since the highly mobile Crisp became in effect one of the sights of London, like the Tower, the Theatre, the Galleries or Westminster Abbey – though unlike these, capable of being seen almost anywhere. His aesthetic armoury – long nails and hair, fabulous clothes, makeup – is the direct opposite of camouflage. The artist Thorpe in Mr Pye, by contrast, cannot make visible the inward vision he is occasionally vouchsafed; it remains concealed within, and his diatribes against the artistic establishment (it is dominated, he claims, by ‘the amateurs, the Philistines, the racketeers, the Jews, the snarling women and the raging queers to whom Soutine is “ever so pretty” and Rembrandt “ever s-so sweet”’, p. 184) only expose his own prejudices, his acute self-consciousness and inward shame at his own inadequacy, all of which make him stammer. He inveighs against ‘the Jews’ without showing any awareness that Chaïm Soutine – an artist he reverences – was Jewish, and died while hiding from the Nazis in occupied France. He inveighs against ‘snarling women’ in the presence of a woman, Tintagieu. And his comment about ‘raging queers’ overlooks the conspicuous queerness of Mr Pye, to whom he is speaking at the time. On the first occasion Thorpe mentioned Mr Pye to Tintagieu, the young woman had said she could tell him ‘some very queer things’ about the little stranger (p. 73); and the marks of queerness accumulate round him as the narrative goes on.

Derek Jacobi as Mr Pye and Robin McCaffrey as ‘Tanty’ (Tintagieu) in the BBC series ‘Mr Pye’ (1986)

Some of Mr Pye’s ‘queer things’ are apparent from the very beginning, in his talk (‘the gayest quips and sallies’, p. 75) and his extravagant gestures. But when his body begins to manifest its queerness through wings and horns he at once has recourse, as we’ve seen, to the camouflage of clothing. In the end, though, Mr Pye decides to dispense with concealment. He dons garments of Crisp-like conspicuousness at Miss George’s funeral – a cape, a tropical suit (the tropics again!), a ‘lavender scarf of sensuous silk’, and a Panama hat he refuses to doff in respect for the dead (p. 172). He later tells the deputation of islanders who come to complain of his queer behaviour that he and they must be ‘visible’ to one another, adding that ‘If there is anyone here who is afraid to look me in the eyes – let him be gone’ (p. 194). And he finally exposes his horns for all to see in the aptest of places: the island cattle show. The horns themselves have an obvious sexual connotation, which is helpfully pointed up by one of the island boys, who tells a policeman that Mr Pye is nothing less than ‘old Horny Satan’ (p. 241). Ironically, the policemen sent from Guernsey to arrest him for his self-exposure are themselves entrapped by Tintagieu in her cottage, where ‘she had heated their blood and then locked them in’ (p. 242); in other words they are no less ‘Horny’ than the man they came to arrest. Mr Pye’s self-exposure exposes the islanders in all their hypocrisy, outing them, as Thorpe outs himself, as prey to a thousand prejudices, and thus rendering what was already clear, as Crisp puts it, ‘blindingly obvious’. Mr Pye, in other words, moves from confident self-display in his capacity as a missionary, to a desperate use of camouflage to conceal his otherness, to a courageous emergence from his carefully constructed closet.

In the process Mr Pye creates a work of art. His intention when he came to Sark, as he tells the islanders, was ‘upon a small canvas […] to complete a picture to its last brush-stroke’ (p. 198), and he went about his work with ‘meticulous artistry’ (p. 45). But by the end of the book he has become a work of art himself. His wings make him look like a cherub from a Raphael painting; his horns invoke a ‘superb piece of drawing’ accomplished with ‘two sweeps of a Chinese brush – spontaneous, fierce and inevitable’ (p. 225); while his last scene, as he dashes by night to his doom at the Coupée, conjures up images from the most lurid pictures of Gustave Doré or John Martin, or the movies of Fritz Lang and the great James Whale. He has moved, in fact, from the position of the optimistic artists of the Sark Art Group, who brought modernity to the Channel islands in the 1930s, to the position those artists adopted in support of the war effort – experimenting with different kinds of camouflage – and at last to the conspicuous bodily display of that artist-cum-missionary for the golden age of queer liberation, Quentin Crisp. In the process, Mr Pye comes to embody some of the most potent dreams and influences of imaginative artists in the mid-twentieth century. And his embodiment of those dreams and influences arises from the rich, strange web of associations flung out by the little book in which Peake caught him.

I hope that by tracing some of the strands of that strange web I have begun to make a case for its richness.

Alfred Waldron, ‘Omar Khayyam 2’

POSTCRIPT

It’s important to point out, I think, that Thorpe’s anti-Semitic remark about art being ‘in the hands of the Jews’ didn’t go unchallenged when Mr Pye came out in 1953. When Peake wrote to the screenwriter Norman Hudis asking for help in having the book made into a film, Hudis replied that he would do what he could, and that he liked the book, but that there was one thing in it that jarred:

I couldn’t understand why you found it necessary to put into Thorpe’s mouth the conviction that art is “in the hands of the Jews”. Apart from the fact that per se, this is not true, the context in which it is placed leads to an assumption that this would be an evil state of affairs. I am always disturbed to find this kind of statement in a book or story – especially as, in this case, it seems to have been introduced gratuitously. The remark is so casual that, especially in a book like “Mr Pye” – essentially unworldly for me – it stands out as the kind of thing which strengthens any existing prejudice in the reader and plants the horrid seed in minds which may be free of such prejudice.

(Letter of October 8 1953, Peake Archive, British Library)

Hudis makes  his point with admirable tact and firmness, and it’s clearly right; Thorpe’s comments run horribly against the grain of the book’s overall tone, and although I have suggested that they are meant to be taken as evidence of the artist’s rudeness and stupidity, to include them at all was a bad mistake under any circumstances; all the more so given Peake’s own deep admiration of Jewish artists such as Jacob Epstein, Mané Katz and Chaïm Soutine (for which, see my discussion here).

NOTES

[1] Jane Norwich, Inspired by Sark: The Story of the Sark Art Group (Market Harborough: Matador, 2022).

[2] I’ve written about the various echoes in Peake’s poetry, many of them Elizabethan, in my introduction to his Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), pp. 10-11.

[3] For Peake as an honorary islander, see Stephen Foote’s little book Mervyn Peake: Son of Sark (Guernsey: Blue Ormer Publishing, 2019).

[4] Mervyn Peake, Mr Pye (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978), p. 254. All quotations are taken from this edition.

[5] See Norwich, Inspired by Sark, pp. 21, 124, 164-5.

[6] The character from whom he derives his name – ‘Mr Pye’ in Agatha Christie’s novel The Moving Finger (1942) – is similarly coded as gay, being described as ‘an extremely ladylike plump little man’ who delights in his collection of Dresden shepherdesses. The Moving Finger, http://detective.gumer.info/anto/christie_25_2.pdf, p. 28.

[7] For a discussion of the ‘family of choice’ or chosen family, see Brian Heaphy, Jeffrey Weeks and Catherine Donovan, ‘Narratives of Care, Love and Commitment: AIDS/HIV and Non-Heterosexual Family Formations’, in Peter Aggleton, Peter Davies and Graham Hart (eds.), Families and Communities Responding to AIDS (London: UCL Press, 1999), pp. 67-82

[8] Ala Story was married to Neville V. O. Story in 1930, but her lifetime partner was Margaret Mallory; for her biography, see Norwich […], and Burcu Dogramaci, ‘Transmetropolitan Refernces in the Metromod Archive: Ala Story in London and New York’, Metromod 19.09.2021, which can be found here: https://metromod.net/2021/09/19/transmetropolitan-references-in-the-metromod-archive-ala-story-in-london-and-new-york/.  Frank Coombs, meanwhile, became the partner of the painter Eardley Knollys (see Norwich, p. 135) on his return to London from Sark.

[9] G. Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography (Londond and Chester Springs, PA: Peter Owen, 2009), p. 85.

[10] Malcolm Yorke, Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold: A Life (London: John Murray, 2000), p. 65.

[11] For the sombrero rumour see Yorke, Mervyn Peake, p. 65.

[12] Norwich, Inspired by Sark, p. 39.

[13] Norwich, Inspired by Sark, p. 40.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Peake, Collected Poems, p. 70.

[16] Strictly speaking the café was called ‘Au Chat Noir’, but Crisp tells us the boys on the game ‘were not putting up with any such nonsense’. The Naked Civil Servant (London etc.: Harper Perennial, 2007), pp. 27-8. For Peake’s exhibition, with two other artists, see G. Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, pp. 71-2.

[17] See Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 130.

[18] Cantus here seems to be quoting Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 85.

[19] See Mr Pye, p. 129: ‘She opened the door quietly, and there he was, curled up like a child, his thumb in his mouth and his sharp nose lying along the pillow’.

[20] Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, p. 85.

[21] Norwich, Inspired by Sark, p. 38.

[22] ‘I Bought a Palm-Tree’ can be found in Peake, Boy in Darkness and Other Stories (London and Chicago: Peter Owen, 2011), pp. 103-109.

[23] See Crisp, The Naked Civil Servant, p. 67ff.

[24] My copy was reprinted by the Mervyn Peake Society in 1978.

Fantasy 1939: Mervyn Peake and Jacob Epstein

Jacob Epstein, Adam (1939)

I was recently reading a book about Adam: Oliver Langmead’s Birds of Paradise (2021), which presents the Father of Humankind as a scarred giant bearing the wounds of many generations, stalking the world in quest of surviving fragments of the fabulous Garden of Eden.[1] Each item from the Garden – bird, beast or flower – has the quality of a Platonic ideal, and this quality is signaled with capitals: the first magpie is Magpie, the first rose is Rose, the first crab is Crab and so on, each being the Crabbiest, the Rosiest or the most Magpieish being in existence. The book is full of the delight of first discoveries, as piece by piece the fragments restore to Adam the sensation of his initial encounter with Rose, Magpie, Crab, Fox, Butterfly and the rest, in the early days of the world’s creation. It’s a fully worked-out model of Tolkien’s notion of Recovery, whereby fantasy (or fairy story, as Tolkien calls it in his famous essay) restores to its readers the exhilarating strangeness of the common creatures and plants that inhabit our world, as if we were encountering them for the first time.[2] There has never been a time when Recovery has been more urgent, and Langmead gives it to us here in lavish profusion, inviting us to learn afresh how wonder-filled the planet is, or has been, in these days of its decline and possible fall.

Jacob Epstein, W H Hudson Memorial (1925), showing Rima

The book reminded me of another act of Recovery around the time when Tolkien wrote his essay on Fairy Stories, which he delivered as the Andrew Lang lecture in St Andrews University in March 1939, in the dark days before the outbreak of the Second World War. The 1930s saw the great sculptor Jacob Epstein turn his attention to the things that made the world, recreating in a series of three-dimensional artworks the delights of creation, the surprise of the new, in defiance of the dictatorships that worked to denigrate, smother, damage or destroy the oddly lovely and the beautifully strange. As a Jew in the 1930s, Epstein had borne witness many times to the distortion and damage that could be inflicted on things of beauty for ideological reasons, and on people and cultures whose achievements lay at the heart of civilizations, but whose contributions were being systematically erased from the records by sneering pseudo-historians. He had seen his own things of beauty – his most ambitious sculptures – subjected to ridicule, outrage and defacement for their bold exposure of things that were meant to remain unseen in civilized countries: homoerotic desire, as embodied in the Tomb of Oscar Wilde; adolescent exuberance in the monument to W. H. Hudson, which featured the writer’s most famous creation, a native Venezuelan girl called Rima; key moments in the life of the human body, from procreation to inelegant old age, in the eighteen spectacular nude sculptures for the British Medical Association Building in the Strand. The desiring sphinx on Wilde’s tomb was fitted with a symbolic figleaf by the Parisian authorities; Rima was tarred and feathered and defaced with swastikas; while the statues on the BMA building were mutilated in 1937, supposedly in the interests of health and safety (the stone had started to decay), but also because of long-term hostility to their open display of human nudity on a prominent public building. Epstein himself had been repeatedly subjected to anti-Semitic abuse, suggesting that hostility to his art was in many cases prompted by racism. He carefully listed the different kinds of verbal and physical damage inflicted on his sculptures in his autobiography, Let There Be Sculpture (1940). But he also gave that book a title which insisted on his continuing commitment, against all odds, to the act of creation, as incapsulated in the words of Genesis 1:3: Let there be light.

Jacob Epstein, Genesis (1931)

Epstein’s choice of title linked his autobiography – and hence his life – to his recent series of sculptures celebrating the early days of the world’s creation as recorded in the Hebrew scriptures. The first of these was a monumental statue titled Genesis, first exhibited in 1931. The image showed a pregnant woman, leaning backwards to display her swollen belly, and touching it with her hands in a gesture of tender pride, puzzlement, protectiveness and pleasure. The woman’s legs seem to be embedded in earth or stone, there is power in her thighs, hips, stomach and hands – which seem to draw strength from the stone below her – and her face resembles an African sculpture, such as the famous Great Bieri bought by Epstein in the 1920s from the Parisian art dealer Paul Guillaume. The name of Epstein’s sculpture, Genesis, implies that it represents Eve, and that the infant in her belly was the first child ever conceived. When it appeared in the Leicester Galleries the statue was vilified by many reviewers, largely because of its African features. The Daily Express described the woman as having ‘the vapid horrible stare of the idiot’, while the Daily Mail called her ‘a simian-like creature whose face suggests, if anything, the missing link’, and poured scorn on the sculptor’s ideas of beauty, which grow ‘every year more peculiar’.[3] Ironically, the Mail’s reference to the so-called missing link – a hypothetical common ancestor of humans and the great apes – touched on one of the points of the sculpture: to bring alive the link between the living and the dead, the people of the present and those who came before, stretching all the way back to the common origins of humankind on the African continent. Eve’s seeming emergence from the soil makes nonsense of the petty nationalisms and racial theories which draw hierarchical distinctions between one branch of humanity and another. The decision to model the face on a religious artifact of the Fang people of Equatorial Guinea, who honour their ancestors, seemed to the sculptor wholly appropriate for this purpose. Epstein’s interest in kinship between all peoples stemmed, he suggests in his book, from his childhood in the multicultural East Side of New York, where ‘swarms of Russians, Poles, Italians, Greeks, and Chinese lived as much in the streets as in the crowded tenements’, and where he made friends – to the shock of his respectable parents – ‘with negroes and anarchists’.[4] His critics had a narrower and nastier set of affiliations.

Jacob Epstein, Einstein (1933)

To some British observers, the project of associating the modern citizens of the United Kingdom with the people of sub-Saharan Africa was at best maliciously wrong-headed, at worst politically explosive, unsettling as it did the assumption that there was a natural racial and cultural hegemony which served to justify British imperialism. In The Daily Mirror a poet calling himself ‘Merry-Andrew’ – the early modern term for a professional clown – took Epstein to task for working so hard in his recent sculptures ‘To prove you and I are related to negroes’, in ‘flat contradiction of all that’s in Genesis’.[5] The poet, meanwhile, chose to identify Epstein as a relative of the great physicist Albert Einstein, presumably because of a perceived resemblance between their names. Like Einstein, Epstein has ‘Invented a theory about Relativity / Called Art for the Artless’, and his work can only be understood by certain intellectuals such as G.B.S. – the Irish socialist playwright George Bernard Shaw – who was one of the sculptor’s staunchest defenders. The Mail made the link with Einstein, too, suggesting that for his next project Epstein take on the theme of the Theory of Relativity, because since very few people understand it, the artist will thereby find himself ‘safe from criticism’.[6] A few years later, a Catholic reviewer of Epstein’s sculpture of the crucified Christ, Consummatum Est (‘It is finished’), again suggested that the two men were indistinguishable, both in name and in their common willingness to traduce plain common sense: ‘What is all this about Mr Epstein or Mr Einstein or whoever it is? I know one invented Relativity and the other Rima, only I never remember which is which. Probably because I can’t make head or tail of either’.[7] The characterization of both as comically foreign-sounding violators of the safe certainties that provided the foundation of British culture mark them out as amusing but potentially dangerous internationalists, scornful of the values that elevated Britain above its continental neighbours. The barely concealed anti-Semitism of this 1937 article is rendered more disturbing by the fact that the writer must have known very well that Einstein had been driven out of Germany by Nazi death threats four years earlier (Epstein made his bust of Einstein during the physicist’s short stay in Britain on the way to the United States). Jokes about Epstein’s and Einstein’s shared interest in disrupting time (and Epstein did say in his autobiography that with Genesis, ‘At one blow, generations of sculptors and sculpture are shattered and sent flying into the limbo of triviality’)[8] had by this point in European history taken on a distinctly menacing air.

Jacob Epstein, Consummatum Est (1937)

Epstein returned to the theme of creation at the end of the 30s. In 1938 he made a bronze sculpture of Adam and Eve being expelled from Eden, as if in acknowledgement of the dreadful turn taken by global events since he first depicted the Mother of Mankind. In the same year he sculpted The Burial of Abel, which like Consummatum Est could be interpreted as a response to the Spanish Civil War, a tribute to the republican idealists whose lives had been cut short by the fascist enemies of democracy. Epstein described Consummatum Est, which shows a prone Christ showing the wounds in his hands to the sky, as a post-apocalyptic vision of bombardment, his equivalent of Picasso’s Guernica: ‘I imagine a waste world; argosies from the air have bombed the humans out of existence, and perished themselves, so that no human thing is left alive’;[9] and The Burial of Abel inhabits a similar wasteland at an earlier stage in its degeneration, with two tortured figures mourning over the limp corpse of a third. In these three sculptures – Adam and Eve, The Burial of Abel, Consummatum Est – the promise for the future Epstein represented in his Genesis, with its burden of vibrant new life, has been replaced with images of exile and destruction; the first beginning had been superseded by foreshadowings of the final end, when all humanity will say with Christ the words consummatum est, ‘It is finished’. But in the same year as his statue of the expulsion from Eden, Epstein produced his most ambitious sculpture yet: the titanic Adam that provides Let There Be Sculpture with its frontispiece. And this sculpture signaled a major change of mood, returning to the exuberant defiance of its partner, Genesis, but in a far more militant tone.

As with Genesis, creation not destruction is Adam’s theme. Once again the power of the body, with both hands held upturned against its ribs, one giant leg thrust forward and the other backwards, like an arch and a pillar or buttress in a Gothic building, was complemented by the masklike face, reminiscent of Fang sculpture, here half obscured by being lifted to the sky. Once again the figure paid homage to the medium from which it was carved, ‘a block of alabaster’, in its shape, colour, texture and proportions. Once again fertility was offensively visible in the sculpture’s anatomy, Adam’s half-engorged phallus providing a flamboyant counterpart to Eve’s pregnant belly. And once more the statue triumphed over time, pointing backwards towards the African origins of humankind in its stylized face, pointing forward to an African future (as Eve’s infant did) through the forward motion of its giant legs, bearing the face and body towards new horizons. In his book Epstein spoke of the sculpture as if it were a machine – ‘a dynamo where a tremendous energy is generated’ – and as if it overthrew nationalism by its mere existence: ‘I feel […] that generations spoke through me, and the inner urge that took shape here was a universal one’ [my emphasis].[10] Observers agreed. The sculptor reports that one Australian observer said, ‘It is as if a people had done this work and not just an individual’; and a New Yorker went one step further: ‘Adam is as if it were not made by a man, but by mankind’.[11] The Scottish artist William McCance went further still, and claimed that the statue was in a sense the product of the stone itself:

[Epstein] has too great a respect for his block of stone to distort it in order to make it look like flesh. He has that kind of humility which respects innate differences of nature; an artist, not a dictator.[12]

His recognition of the right of the stone to retain its nature throughout the process of carving sets the artist up as the antithesis of dictatorship, a teller of inconvenient truths as against a purveyor of nationalist dreams. Adam’s raised face was interpreted by one critic as a gesture of aspiration and spiritual yearning. But the face of the statue Consummatum Est was raised skyward too, and Epstein saw in that a response to blanket bombing on a global scale. Adam’s turn to the sky could be read as speaking calm defiance out of the wasteland. And the wasteland for him is palpably fertile. He is aroused, and the upturned hands raised to the level of his ribs may make us think of Eve, his partner and workmate. God fashioned Eve, we’re told, from Adam’s rib; but Epstein’s statue makes us think the first man might have done it himself, in a fierce continuation of the divine gesture that brought Adam himself into fruitful being, in triumphant repudiation of the related concepts of isolation and uniqueness. Adam insists on having a companion in his primordial garden. Bombs may fall, but the shared existence of Epstein’s Adam and Eve – their shared generative power bracketing the calamitous decade of the 1930s – guarantees that life goes on, and that its energies are unstoppable, as well as impossible to obscure with nationalist figleaves.

Sculptural Element from a Reliquary Ensemble: Head (The Great Bieri), Nineteenth Century

It’s at this point in the story that the writer-artist Mervyn Peake comes into the picture. Peake and Epstein had first met in 1931, when the sculptor visited an exhibition put on by Peake and two other young artists at the Chat Noir café, a significant landmark in London’s gay scene between the wars. They don’t seem to have met again until some years later, but there’s no doubt they had a certain amount in common. Peake shared a number of Epstein’s artistic and political interests: a lifelong fascination with the human body; a delight in unusual bodily and facial proportions, which sometimes led to his being accused of favouring the grotesque; anarchist friends (as James Gifford has demonstrated);[13] a religious bent that remained detached from institutional practices, which Peake expressed in one poem against religious bigotry (‘How Foreign to the Spirit’s Early Beauty’, 1937), and another poem on Christ as the forceful ‘Jewish man’, whom he imagines shorn of the trappings of Catholic ceremony and ornament (‘No Creed Shall Bind Me to a Sapless Bole’, 1939).[14] Peake is known to have been an admirer of W. H. Hudson’s Green Mansions, since Rima inspired the wild girl called ‘the Thing’ in Gormenghast, and one wonders whether Epstein’s Hudson memorial, with its depiction of Rima surrounded by jungle birds, might have sparked off the younger artist’s interest in the writer. Finally, Peake liked to acknowledge, as Epstein did, the lingering presence of past artistic practices in his own modern works of art. In the fine essay that precedes his book The Drawings of Mervyn Peake (1949) he speaks of the ‘authority’ of a good drawing, ‘which is doubly alive, firstly through its overtones and echoes which show it to be born[e] rapidly or languorously along one of the deep streams that wind back through time to a cave in Spain’, and secondly in the ‘individual note’ that marks it out from other products of its time, setting the artist against the monotony of current conventions.[15] Peake’s conviction of art’s capacity to challenge time in these two distinct ways chimes perfectly with Epstein’s desire to work in the tradition of Michelangelo, Rodin and the anonymous sculptor of the Great Bieri while resolutely treading his own path, unaffiliated to contemporary movements.

Emmanuel Mané-Katz, The Quartet (1930s)

Peake, too, was disinclined to attach himself to contemporary movements. He had a marked interest in Spanish art, as the passage from The Drawings of Mervyn Peake suggests; El Greco, Velazquez, Goya and Picasso were major landmarks along the stream that winds back to a cave in Spain, each of which he referenced often in his writings and drawings, as did Epstein. Peake also appreciated Jewish art, as he showed when he paid a visit with his wife Maeve Gilmore – herself a gifted artist – to the studio of Emmanuel Mané-Katz in Paris in 1937. Mané-Katz wasn’t at home, but some of his work was visible through the window. Peake’s short poem about the visit is packed with references to the threatening context in which Mané-Katz was practising his profession. The day is oppressively hot, and makes Peake think of ‘the end of all the world / When no-one knows or cares if hell or heaven / Or nothingness cries trump upon tomorrow’, while the period the couple hope to spend with the artist is imagined as taking up ‘An hour of a painter’s nervous time’ [my emphasis].[16] Even the piratical ferocity of the canvas they glimpse through the studio window seems to be ominously cut off from its surroundings: ‘Upon a shadow’d easel there upreared / A silent canvas with its breast on fire / While all around it silence grew…’ Mané-Katz was best known at this point in his career for his vibrant depictions of everyday life in the Jewish community, and the idea of a painting of, say, a Hassidic wedding or a party of Jewish musicians being hemmed in by mounting silence offers a powerful commentary on the situation faced by Jewish artists at a time when Fascism, Stalinism and Nazism were tightening their grip on Europe.

Stefan Lorant by Howard Coster

Peake’s account of his visit to Mané-Katz’s Paris studio, unpublished in his lifetime, was one of only two poems in which he mentions contemporary artists. The other is a poem he wrote immediately after seeing Epstein’s Adam, which was published in the letter pages of the magazine Picture Post. The editor of Picture Post, Stefan Lorant, was a Hungarian Jewish filmmaker and photojournalist under whose editorship the magazine reported extensively on the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany. Lorant followed Einstein to the United States in 1940, well aware that a German invasion of Britain – which at the time seemed imminent – would condemn him to death. In this context, Peake’s passionate verse defence of Epstein against his detractors may be read as political, placing the poet shoulder to shoulder with anti-Nazi agitators like Lorant. It’s worth bearing in mind that an earlier poem by Peake, a sonnet on ‘El Greco’ published in January 1938, transforms one of the most famous paintings of the Graeco-Hispanic visionary painter into a meditation on the sort of mass bombing carried out in Guernica,[17] in a gesture that closely corresponds to Epstein’s transformation of Christ into a bomb victim in Consummatum Est. Peake is often described as apolitical; but the anti-Nazi interventions in his verse tell another story, as do his close ties to anarchism, as convincingly identified by James Gifford.

Peake’s poem ‘Epstein’s Adam’ is worth giving in full:

EPSTEIN’S ADAM

I have seen this day
A shape that shall outlive our transient clay
And hold
A virile contour when the world
Renews its crust
With our decayed and horizontal dust.
When this our perilous
Bright blood and bone,
Our hectic inches and the singing tone
Of throats and fingers are for ever gone,
And our sons’ sons shall have forgotten us,
This shape that I have seen shall journey on
Erect along the winding corridors
Of the future years –
A craving of cold stone! A vertical
Symbol of man’s perpetual
Dumb cry for light
Among the tangled Edens of our night;
A flowering fact;
A towering dawn of alabaster, hack’d
Into the yearn of Adam. His flat face
Lies parallel to the eternal skies,
His chiselled chest
Swells like a straining sail that holds a tempest
Captive within the rigging of his ribs –
The angular
Stone pistons of his arms – the architecture
Of surging thighs, deliver
A power and a magnificence
As brooks no question; this tremendous stance
Be-damns the bloodless mocker with his smug
And petty vision. Epstein fought
His burning tyrant for the shape he sought
And emptied a stone splendour from his heart.
There is a breed at large who have forgotten
That it is sap that drives the frozen tree
Into an April spasm; that it is blood
That drives the man; and that eternity
Is glimpsed through passion in a sudden light
That blinds the fickle processes of thought,
Thus in my sight
From those charged rhythms, suddenly
Adam broke free
And surged into my darkness, and made bright
The spirit’s deathless hankering
Within man’s body, that proud, tortured thing.[18]
(June/July 1939)

Peake’s poem confirms the sculptor’s conviction that his figure of Adam breaks free from conventional perceptions of time – a conviction ironically shared by the critics who mockingly aligned Epstein with Einstein, the architect of relativity. For Peake, however, the direction of travel of Epstein’s figure is unremittingly forward. The opening of the poem represents the sculpture as a figurative message from the present to the distant future, a shape that ‘shall outlive our transient clay’; outlive the flesh, that is, which was made from ‘the dust of the ground’ by God, according to Genesis, and whose ‘transient’ nature has been demonstrated in the 1930s by the impact on it of mechanized warfare. These lines remind the reader that they are made of the same substance as their progenitor, but that their death, which may be imminent, will shortly renew the earth’s crust ‘with our decayed and horizontal dust’, in stark contrast to the permanent stone sculpture. The second sentence of the poem underscores this sense of fleshly transience in the phrase ‘perilous / Bright blood and bone’, where the term ‘perilous’ and the brightness of blood remind us how often these usually hidden features of the human body have been brutally exposed by conflict in recent decades, as graphically described in (for instance) David Jones’s epic poem about war in the trenches, In Parenthesis (1937).[19] ‘Hectic inches’ in line 9 makes living men seem minuscule as well as feverishly active (hectic is often used to describe the heightened colouring of fever victims), while the ‘singing tone’ produced by ‘throats and fingers’ can only be achieved by the living, and only then under special circumstances – when the mood and conditions make music possible. Bodily transience is made doubly transient by forgetfulness, and in this poem it seems inevitable that ‘our sons’ sons’ will soon have forgotten our very existence. Present generations having been erased like this in the first eleven lines of the poem, it’s for Peake to consider in the next section what sort of message to the future Adam embodies, as the sole survivor from the perilous present day.

In this poem, Epstein’s sculpture speaks first and foremost of masculinity. It has ‘a virile contour’ and line 11 mentions ‘our sons’ sons’ rather than our granddaughters. Its outlasting of living human beings stands in stark contrast to the fate of the many men who died in recent wars, often in far-off places that mattered personally to Peake such as Spain and China (where he was born). Adam’s ability to outlive Peake’s and Epstein’s contemporaries identifies him with a positive, creative version of masculinity as against a negative, destructive kind; he ‘journeys on / Erect along the winding corridors / Of future years’ like a discoverer, not a warrior, and articulates craving rather than hostility or revenge, becoming as he goes ‘A vertical / Symbol of man’s perpetual / Dumb cry for light’ as against darkness, a ‘flowering fact’ rather than a dream of conquest, a ‘towering dawn’ as against a heroic sunset. Violence is present in his makeup; in him an alabaster block has been ‘hack’d / Into the yearn of Adam’, and the idea might remind us of the sculptors Braigon and Rantel in Titus Groan, whose mortal combat over the woman they love, Keda, is fought out with the knives they use when sculpting wood and described as if they were chiselling each other’s bodies instead of stabbing each other to death. Peake’s understanding of Epstein’s Adam, however, is as an ebullient sign of life wrested from a time of death, as expressed in the statement that his cry for light emerges from ‘Among the tangled Edens of our night’. The notion of positive, creative masculinity emerging from destruction, darkness and death is enacted in the way Peake’s description of Adam’s figure emerges only after eleven lines describing man’s mortality, and the way the poem is structured around longer lines emerging out of shorter ones. Epstein’s Adam is for Peake a message of hope for creative men like himself or his editor Stefan Lorent, who were on the verge of being hurled against their will into the tangled night of war, a war fought over competing versions of Eden – some of which have no Jews in them, in spite of the fact that Eden itself is a Jewish concept.

Jacob Epstein, Jacob and the Angel (1941)

Adam’s creativity is one of action, associated with travel, industry and construction as much as with sculpture. His ‘flat face’, which ‘lies parallel to the eternal skies’ in a statement of equality or at least equivalence to his maker, tops a body made up of elements of strenuous physical achievement: a chest which ‘Swells like a straining sail that holds a tempest / Captive within the rigging of his ribs’, arms like pistons, legs like architecture. And in generating this emblem of potent creativity, the sculptor had to fight, Peake tells us, like Braigon and Rantel; though the lines in which the poet describes this struggle make it sound as though Epstein had to fight himself: ‘Epstein fought / His burning tyrant for the shape he sought / And emptied a stone splendour from his heart’ (my emphases). ‘His burning tyrant’ might refer to the sculptor’s lifelong compulsion to create, which he speaks of often in Let There Be Sculpture, while the phrase ‘emptied a stone splendour from his heart’ suggests ejaculation as much as artistic self-expression. The lines capture the way Adam’s upturned hands press forcefully against his own ribs – protectors of his heart – as if in combat or in ecstasy; but they also invoke Epstein’s next and most famous colossal sculpture, Jacob and the Angel (1940), which depicts the grandson of Abraham supported as if in exhaustion by a muscular angel, their posture closer to that of postcoital lovers than the night-long wrestlers of the biblical account. Epstein’s sculptures in stone transform violent combat into sensual intimacy, and so overcome the tyranny of conflict that threatened to overwhelm the world in his lifetime. Peake’s poem does something similar, identifying Adam’s liberation from constraint (‘Adam broke free’) as a gesture like that of the artist, as described in the introduction to The Drawings of Mervyn Peake: ‘the creation of a work of art. The smashing of another window-pane’.[20]

Mervyn Peake, Illustration for Shapes and Sounds (1941)

Set against this strenuously creative, transgressive masculinity in the poem is the emasculated ‘bloodless mocker with his smug / And petty vision’. The line might invoke for art lovers the most famous mockers of all – the people who mocked Christ on the way to his crucifixion at Calvary, as vividly recalled in Peake’s own poem ‘Thunder the Christ of it’[21] – and makes of the artist a Christ figure, the offspring of the divine creator who seeks to redeem creation by renewing it, investing it with fresh purpose and energy. Epstein represented Christ, as we’ve seen, in his most direct response to the rise of fascism, and was roundly mocked for it. Peake’s artists and heroes are repeatedly assailed by mockers: Steerpike is the ultimate mocker, mimicking the dignitaries and servants of Gormenghast and parodying in quick succession a romantic adventurer, a clown, a lover, an efficient medical assistant, a stern functionary and so on – always with that characteristic bloodlessness of his, a refusal to allow his current role to take possession of his body, or more specifically his emotions, the aspects of him governed by his heart. Adam is his polar opposite: representative of the capacity of nature to awake the seeming dead to impossible life, as a tree awakens after a hard winter; committed to seek the ‘sudden light’ when he sees it, irrespective of the rules and expectations that govern other people; unconcerned by the ‘fickle processes of thought’ that instruct the thinker to change direction regularly in pursuit of the best advantage for any given set of circumstances. His monumental body speaks to the capacity of human life to overcome death as arboreal life overcomes the February frosts. Born from stone, he has stone’s endurance in the face of destructive forces, and can frame or capture light in the planes and angles of his body, limbs and head. He is a progenitor of that stupendous structure Gormenghast Castle, though not ruled by ritual as the castle is; in this respect he’s more of a Titus Groan, that ‘proud, tortured thing’. Titus had stone in his heart and mind; other inhabitants of Gormenghast – Flay, Sourdust, Lady Gertrude, the Grey Scrubbers – were practically made of stone. Adam marks that stone as a bastion of defiance against the Nazis, a proclamation of the capacity of material things to resist attempts to reshape them into structures inimical to their properties.

Cover illustration for Peake’s first poetry collection

Viewed from the point of view of the twenty-first century, Peake’s description of Adam’s stone form tramping down unpopulated corridors in a deserted castle, carrying with him pain and love, seems perfectly matched to the actual fate of Epstein’s sculpture. In the year it was exhibited at the Leicester Galleries in London – where Peake held exhibitions, too – Adam was bought by a gold miner Charles Stafford, who leased it out to Lawrence Wright, a Blackpool showman. As Jonathan Lee Cronshaw puts it, ‘Adam was exhibited as a sideshow and was later sold to Louis Tussaud’s waxworks [again, in Blackpool,] as a permanent exhibit, to be joined later by Consummatum Est, Jacob and the Angel and Genesis’.[22] Adam remained in Blackpool for many decades, before being bought by Lord Harewood and displayed in a major retrospective exhibition of Epstein’s work in Edinburgh in 1961. Peake could have seen the sculpture he loved for a second time when he lived in Blackpool as an unhappy conscript between 1940 and 1942. Adam seems to have been displayed there as a kind of pornographic peep-show, with a film from 1939 showing women giggling and fainting at the sight of his enormous genitals.[23] Peake, meanwhile, managed to transmute him into raw material for his own strange masterpiece carved in stone. Much of the first draft of Titus Groan was written in Blackpool, within a few streets of the place where Adam was ignominiously stowed, in his own version of Gormenghast’s Hall of the Bright Carvings, where great sculptures carved in wood reside in perpetuity, unvisited by anything but the settling dust.

In response to Peake’s poem, Epstein invited him and Maeve to dine at his house, where they met the sculptor’s wife, the Scotswoman Peggy Epstein. Peggy has been described as ‘an over-life-size woman with deep red hair’,[24] who resembled Countess Gertrude in the Titus books, or so Maeve thought. One wonders if Epstein himself may have had some hand in ensuring that the most prominent form of art in those books isn’t Peake’s own medium of painting and drawing but sculpture.

Jacob Epstein, Tomb of Oscar Wilde (1914)

NOTES

[1] Published by Titan Books, April 2021.

[2] Tolkien, ‘On Fairy Stories’, Tree and Leaf (London: HarperCollins, 1988), pp. 3-81. For Recovery see pp. 56ff.

[3] Jacob Epstein, Let There Be Sculpture (London: Michael Joseph, 1940), pp. 308-9.

[4] Let There Be Sculpture, pp. 11 and 16.

[5] Jonathan Lee Cronshaw, Carving a Legacy: The Identity of Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) (University of Leeds PhD, 2010), p. 211. http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/3259/1/uk_bl_ethos_540786.pdf

[6] Let There Be Sculpture, p. 309.

[7] Let There Be Sculpture, p. 179.

[8] Let There Be Sculpture, p. 162.

[9] Let There Be Sculpture, p. 178.

[10] Let There Be Sculpture, p. 195.

[11] Let There Be Sculpture, pp. 195 and 198.

[12] Let There Be Sculpture, p. 330.

[13] James Gifford, A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism and the Radical Fantastic (Victoria: ELS Editions, 2018), Chapter Three.

[14] Mervyn Peake, Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), pp. 39 and 61-2.

[15] Writings and Drawings, ed. Maeve Gilmore and Shelagh Johnson (London: Academy Editions and New York: St Martin’s Press, 1974), p. 80.

[16] Collected Poems, p. 34.

[17] See my blog post on Mervyn Peake’s poem ‘September 1939’, here: https://thecityoflostbooks.glasgow.ac.uk/mervyn-peake-september-1939/

[18] Collected Poems, pp. 45-6.

[19] See my blog post on Jones’s poem, here: https://thecityoflostbooks.glasgow.ac.uk/david-jones-in-parenthesis-1937-a-kind-of-space-between/

[20] Writings and Drawings, ed. Gilmore and Johnson, p. 81.

[21] Collected Poems, p. 222. Cf. line 6, ‘Christ is forgotten in a world of wit’.

[22] Carving a Legacy, p. 23.

[23] https://www.britishpathe.com/video/VLVACWP431BEMCHS8N10LIHB66XTX-ARTS-EPSTEINS-ADAM-DRAWS-THE-CROWDS/query/Art

[24] Vast Alchemies, p. 134.

Fantasy 1939: Lord Dunsany, The Story of Mona Sheehy

[This is the second of two blog posts on Dunsany’s Irish Fiction; the first can be found here.]

Dunsany’s Irish novel of 1939, The Story of Mona Sheehy, is one of a pair, both of which can be read as Quixotic, like the earlier Chronicles of Rodriguez. The first of these is Rory and Bran (1936), about a teenage boy and his dog who are entrusted by the boy’s parents with the daunting task of driving a small herd of cattle to the local market without supervision. The boy is Rory and the dog is Bran, and their mission is rendered more challenging by the fact that the boy is widely regarded as having learning difficulties (his parents agonize for a long time over whether or not he has the ‘wits’ to get the cattle safe to Gurtnaroonagh, pp. 1-5). The narrator, however, is of a different opinion. He often celebrates Bran’s abilities, for instance, and never even mentions till the final chapter the fact that Bran is not a human being; so he clearly does not share the view of intelligence which scorns the idiosyncrasies of eccentric or unusual thinkers. And he makes it clear from the opening pages that Rory’s wits are not so much wanting as sharply focused. The boy is obsessed with the heroes of medieval romance, though his heroes are continental rather than Irish – Roland, Charlemagne, Don Quixote and Arthur of Britain; and he sets out on his adventures determined to prove a latter-day Quixote, with the dog Bran as his Sancho Panza. In this he succeeds, and in doing so offers a model of eccentric but effective dealings with the world to his fellow Irish citizens, a model designed to challenge the homogenizing processes that threaten to subdue 1930s culture to drab and sometimes deadly uniformity.

Ranged against Bran and Rory in their quest to get the cattle to market are a couple of tricksters, reminiscent of the fox and the cat in Collodi’s Pinocchio: a cheating jockey named Fagan and a combative traveller named the O’Harrigan. Between them, these men purloin the cattle from Rory several times and promptly lose them back to him again, often through the intervention of the resourceful Bran. On Rory’s side stands a nameless tinker or traveller, who claims to derive his powers from the moon and who takes the young man under his wing as a kind of apprentice, and a dreamy young girl named Oriana, whose name identifies her with the lover of the medieval hero Amadis de Gaul, so admired of Quixote. But Fagan and the O’Harrigan are as fantastical in their imaginings as Rory, Oriana and the moonstruck tinker. O’Harrigan, for instance, claims to be hereditary lord of a ruined castle overlooking a bog, which gives him in Rory’s eyes ‘an almost knightly status’ (p. 41); while Fagan supplies Rory with the colourful, quasi-medieval clothes of a jockey and an old horse to be his Rosinante, thereby exalting him to a ‘splendid position’ in his own eyes, if nobody else’s (p. 55). In addition, both men’s inability to derive any long-term benefit from their scams renders them as Quixotic as Dunsany’s young protagonist. Much more sinister is Rory’s Aunt Bridget, who plots to have the other-worldly Oriana committed to the Mullingar Asylum, a genuine institution in Dunsany’s own County Meath where certified lunatics could be shut away from the eyes of uneasy relatives. Shut away with them are their dreams, which resemble those conjured up by Rory’s reading: dreams woven from the Irish landscape and the Irish weather, just as Mrs Marlin’s dreams in The Curse of the Wise Woman were woven from the bog. In Rory’s eyes, his heroes Roland, Arthur and the rest are connected with the slopes of the local mountain, Slievenamona (as Dunsany writes it in this novel). The magic that invokes them is linked to the constantly changing light and the gradual or rapid changes that take place throughout the year in response to the changing seasons. Oriana’s imprisonment in Mullingar would in effect rob the landscape itself of the magic she sees in it, as does Rory. It’s appropriate, then, that she should be rescued on her way to the Asylum by Rory, still in his gorgeous jockey’s silks, and his fellow dreamers, the tinker, the jockey and the O’Harrigan, by this stage working together as a superpowered team like an Irish Avengers. The tinker is bound up with the landscape thanks to his belief that all roads are his property, as well as all rabbits, chickens, cows and clothes he may find by the wayside; while the O’Harrigan is part of the landscape thanks to his attachment to his ruined castle; and their collective rescue of Oriana represents a triumph for an imaginative commitment to the Irish countryside that stands in danger of being lost in the 1930s, consigned to the categories of the romantic, the useless and the impossible that blind the sceptic’s eye to the haunting loveliness of the fields, bogs, mountains and woods of rural Ireland.

Rory and Bran and The Story of Mona Sheehy are often described as ‘realistic’ novels, but a glance at a passage or two from either of them will undermine that assumption. Rory in the first is our hero, and for him the chivalric heroes he imagines are all around him. When he sets out from home for the first time as a drover they seem to fill his house: ‘He rose and dressed, and went downstairs reluctantly, for in the shadows all over his room there seemed to be lingering yet the shapes of paladins, shadows only themselves, but shadows with a brightness about them’ (p. 8). Shadows, of course, form part of the landscape too, and their mystery is an integral part of what gives a landscape or a building its attraction. Later, after being swindled by the jockey and the O’Harrigan, Rory settles down to sleep beside Bran on Sleivenamona, and finds himself in a dream conversation with the lord of the paladins himself, Charlemagne of France:

[I]n the brief sleep he got […] Charlemagne came to see him, and spoke to him gravely, his huge beard grey as the skirts of the clouds that touched Slievenamona, and told him not to trouble over the loss of money or cattle, the splendours of the hills (‘where we walk unseen,’ he said) and the splendours of Time, ‘where we walk in the sight of all men,’ being enough. (p. 108)

Charlemagne here can be dismissed as a figment, his beard woven out of the beard-like clouds Rory has been immersed in as he climbed the mountain; but the words he speaks are wise, and point up the close link between what is ‘unseen’ and what is plainly visible to ‘the sight of all men’, while highlighting the illusory and transient, cloudlike nature of possessions and riches. Material and immaterial things are set side by side, and the narrator invites the reader to consider, at least, the possibility of consenting to Charlemagne’s judgment that immaterial things or shadows are more worth having.

But it’s Rory’s encounter with the tinker that finally brings him into the orbit of a philosopher worthy of his personal vision. The tinker is from one point of view a madman, with his literally lunatic trust in the moon as a kind of generator for his waxing and waning energies. He plays on his fiddle tunes he claims to have learned at the fairy court, and he possesses a charm called the Stone of the Sea, a piece of glass in which he professes to read the future. Yet at the same time he is an acknowledged expert in the practical business of earning a living. He knows that predicting the future is a kind of sham, but knows too that folk of all kinds love to be fooled, and gives the Stone of the Sea to Rory – the certified fool – as a means of keeping himself alive when he is on the road, since the boy is clearly unsuited to the trade of drover. The tinker, then, nurtures Rory, and in the process nurtures the reader, who allows herself to be fooled for a time by Rory’s adventures, even as the adventures themselves chart the grey area between self-deception and belief.

Dunsany articulates the symbiotic relationship between imagined things and solid objects in a passage that gives a clear sense of Rory’s function, and of the tinker’s role in helping him fulfil it:

As Rory rode away he passed the tinker’s donkey, grazing the land that for the purposes of agricultural returns was always classified as bare mountain. Between him and the tinker, by the side of the road, [so] draped with a profusion of old clothing and bedding as to suggest a monument set up in those hills to Untidiness, Rory saw the donkey’s cart. One might have imagined upon it the figure of Untidiness herself, hidden by all those cloths and pieces of canvas that were her full regalia. Rory as he glanced at it imagined nothing; such tawdry subjects as that were not for him; the music of the tinker’s violin, the sight of the further peaks, all solemn at evening, the mist that closed high valleys against the eye and opened their golden gates to imagination, those were the things for Rory. To some extent he goes for us as an ambassador, from the world that is all around us to the world we should like to know more of; often losing himself on the way, and lost for good but for Bran; and yet a link of a sort between us and Roland. (pp. 120-1)

Advertisements for Rory and Bran and Up in the Hills, on the dustcover of Dunsany’s other ‘dog’ book, Dean Spanley

A range of visions combine in this passage. There is Rory with his dreams; there is the tinker and his material effects, the cart and the donkey; there is the sophisticated writer who comments on both; and there is the reader who, like the writer, can enjoy all these perspectives. Each of these visions is connected to the others by the rural space they occupy, with Rory moving through it like a tutelary spirit, enabling all four visions as he goes – his own, the tinker’s, the writer’s, ours. The landscape that contains him is defined as valueless by the documents pertaining to agricultural returns, which mark the place where we find ourselves as waste or liminal ground, a no-man’s-land standing idle between profitable patches. The tinker and his donkey make productive use of this unproductive zone, for grazing, for mending broken pans, for living in – and above all, perhaps, for appreciating, both at close quarters and at a distance (it’s a good place to enjoy ‘the sight of the further peaks’ in, as the tinker observes). The writer, meanwhile, makes use of the tinker’s cart as a source of material for his allegorical figure of Untidiness, a being that recalls the eighteenth-century passion for eccentric personifications, a passion shared by Dunsany in his earliest short stories where he used it to conjure up an ancient world full of exiled monarchs, lost cities and forgotten gods. Finally there is Rory, who is wholly committed to the world of dreams as shaped into stories by romance, where the ‘high valleys’ of the hills have ‘golden gates’ that equip them for the needs of high adventure. In ending with Rory’s vision, the passage traces a continuity between the mess of the tinker’s cart and the heroic deeds that preoccupy the boy; for Rory these deeds and their doers share the scene with him and us, and the scene is transfigured by them. Dunsany’s description of him as an ‘ambassador’ between different perspectives lends him a seriousness he does not possess in the eyes of Aunt Bridget, or of the strangers who pass him by in his ridiculous outfit, shakily perched on a half-dead horse. An ambassador’s status sets up Rory’s imagination as something that can co-exist, if properly respected, with the other perspectives, and can even be seen as the more exalted vision, the perspective that lends the whole scene a dignity it would not otherwise have.

Fantasy, then, in this mimetic novel, has what might be described as a material function. It makes things happen, unlike poetry – at least, unlike poetry as described in Auden’s three-part elegy on Dunsany’s friend Yeats, which was published in February 1939. Auden’s famously ambiguous statement occurs in the middle section of his elegy:

Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its saying where executives
Would never want to tamper; it flows south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

Auden’s poetry, as wielded by Yeats, here both ‘makes nothing happen’ and represents ‘a way of happening’ – which suggests that the nothing it spoke of earlier happens after all, in places overlooked by the executives, liminal places like rural valleys, raw towns and ‘ranches of isolation’. Dunsany’s fantasy has this in common with Auden’s poetry: its ambiguous effectiveness. Rory’s rescue of Oriana, for instance, does not ‘really’ happen, in the sense that it is a fictional episode invented by Dunsany, which is itself invested in the book with the glamour of romance by a teenage boy’s overactive imagination. But the rescue is brought to life by the writer’s account of it; and it is the first practical thing Rory does in the book which is an unqualified success, marking the moment when he discovers the trick of surviving, despite his dreams, in the rural valley where he was born. In addition, the episode involves chivalric heroism, in that four self-appointed knights errant (the tinker, the jockey, the trickster and the boy) successfully free a young woman from her draconian oppressors. And Rory’s eventual marriage to Oriana seals his tale as a chivalric romance, rather than a tragicomedy like that of his closest literary relative, Quixote. The couple then bequeath romance to future generations in the form of their children, one of whom (we’re told) ‘took a prominent part in Irish politics’ and had the distinction of getting a bill passed which identified the Phoenix – that ‘most national of Irish birds’ – as a protected species (pp. 320-1). The Irish imagination, in other words, as embodied in Rory, Oriana and their descendants, is alive and well in the institutions of the Free State, Dunsany suggests, thriving even in its highest executive body, the Dáil. And it makes things happen by leaving its mark on the landscape as well as the law.

The Phoenix Monument, Dublin

The Phoenix is not in fact the ‘most national of Irish birds’, though as Dunsany points out there have been monuments erected to it in Ireland – most notably the Phoenix Column in Dublin’s famous Phoenix Park. Ironically, the Phoenix Column was erected by an Englishman, the Earl of Chesterfield, and represents a name for the park that stems from a mishearing of the Irish ‘fionn uisce’, meaning ‘clear water’. Rory’s heroes, too, are for the most part not Irish – though when he has a vision of the drovers at Gurtnaroonagh as mythical heroes he sees Finn and Cuchulain among them (pp. 172 and 177). By mingling these Irish demi-gods with French, Spanish and British heroes (Rory thinks of Arthur as King of Little Britain, that is, Brittany) Dunsany frees the young man’s dreams from nationalist politics, attaching them instead to the material spaces and solid objects – constantly changing in Ireland’s weather – which furnish the needs of all political parties, regardless of their members’ conflicting visions of the nation’s future.

If Rory and Bran presents us with a quasi-fantastic, secluded Ireland beyond the reach of party politics, its companion piece, The Story of Mona Sheehy, puts that Ireland in dialogue with the other land of Dunsany’s dreams: England, where both books were originally published. Dunsany grew up at his family’s homes in Kent and London as well as County Meath. Kent provided him with the setting for his novel The Blessing of Pan (1928), in which he shut away part of the county in a permanent state of pagan preservation, shielded for ever from the toxic developments (as he saw them) of industrialization. The Story of Mona Sheehy, on the other hand, represents his dream Ireland as existing at the edge of the damaging dreams of free market capitalism, teetering on the brink of being overwhelmed by them, in a drastic reversal of the overwhelming of Erl by the dreams of Elfland. The quest of the novel is to find a way of coexisting with modernity without succumbing to it, of living in a world that acknowledges the metropolitan wonders of London while at the same time allowing rural Ireland to maintain its independence from the British capital, preserving the particular wonders of its culture and landscape against the depredations of social and technological change. Change takes place in it, of course, and is not represented as an unqualified evil, as it sometimes is in the work of Tolkien; but Dunsany protects his rural Irish community from the worst excesses of twentieth-century progress, preserving it in a kind of imaginative neutrality that anticipates Ireland’s real-life neutrality in the Second World War.

At the heart of the novel is a distinction between the idea of choice, which is the motor that drives the capitalist economy, and inclusivity, which Dunsany sees as the defining feature of his dream Ireland. Capitalism urges its subjects to make frequent selective decisions: between commodities, between homes and jobs, between winning and losing (in a horserace or a financial speculation), between high social status and obscurity. Dunsany’s dream Ireland, by contrast, is resistant to hard and fast choices, preferring to permit its inhabitants to harbour two or more points of view simultaneously and hold them in a delicate but stable equipoise as they go about their daily business. In 1939, such inclusivity was threatened on all sides, in Ireland as much as in totalitarian states elsewhere in Europe. As a result Dunsany’s book is in effect a political project, despite its explicit resistance to party politics, since it is concerned to stress what unifies his country, as against the divisive forces that could dismantle Irish culture (as he sees it) in perpetuity. In The Story of Mona Sheehy Ireland becomes a Quixotic nation, nurturing the dreams of its inhabitants in the face of unimaginative governments – including its own – and the looming threat of global war.

Cathleen Ni Houlihan on stage

Inclusivity in this book is exemplified by the young protagonist, who for the first time in Dunsany’s novels is a woman (or rather a teenage girl). Having a female protagonist could itself be seen as a political act on the part of an Irish writer in the 1930s, given that Ireland had been figured as female since at least the time of Cathleen Ni Houlihan (1902), the influential one-act play by Yeats and Lady Gregory. In the play, a wandering old woman is revealed as the personification of Ireland in the final scene. Her homelessness and frailty designates the state of the country under British rule, while her eventual transformation into a strong young girl ‘with the walk of a queen’ represents what the liberated country might eventually become. Mona Sheehy’s link with the Queen of the Shee, which is enshrined in her unusual surname, marks her out as a potential avatar for the regal younger version of Cathleen. She was even born around the time of the play’s first performance, since we are told that she turns sixteen in the year the Great War comes to an end.[1] At the same time, her link with the Shee marks her out as a threat to the community, since the Queen of those troublesome people can be as dangerous as she is beautiful, bringing ruin on persons or populations who invoke her name without due caution. Mona’s status as a source of both local pride and occasional terror confirms her as the embodiment of Ireland, and in particular of Ireland’s capacity for accommodating several contradictory points of view at once, the quality for which Dunsany most loves his imagined country.

Like Ireland, too, Mona’s identity is under debate from the day of her birth. Is she or is she not the descendant of a supernatural entity, as her name suggests? Her neighbours in the village of Athroonagh think she is, and for the most part she agrees with them. The narrator, meanwhile, knows she is not, and lays out the evidence against her fairy origins with exemplary thoroughness in the opening chapter. Yet he also clearly delights in the villagers’ readiness to accommodate fairies in their world view – against all the resources of reason and science – as a metaphor (among other things) for everything that can’t be measured or articulated. Throughout the book, belief in Mona’s supernatural origins competes with disbelief, in her mind and the minds of others, without either position winning a final victory. And although in the closing chapter her mortal birth seems to have been confirmed, there remains a lingering uncertainty over the sources of her beauty, so that the victory remains as ambiguous as Auden’s claim that poetry makes nothing happen. As one experienced traveller puts it on the final page: ‘I’ve seen such beauty before, but nowhere in this world’ (p. 334). As a result, the air of mystery about Mona is never dispelled, and can be bequeathed at the end of the book to her Irish descendants, a guarantee that they will go on accommodating multiple perspectives in the face of the laws of governments, scientists, lawyers and Church authorities in time to come.

Mona’s ambiguous origins stand at odds, in fact, with rigid rules of all kinds. The few details we are given about the circumstances of her birth point towards a trespass against the laws of the Church, in that she’s clearly illegitimate. But they also hint at a potential infringement of one of the more draconian laws passed by the contemporary Irish government: its right to censor printed texts, as asserted in the Censorship of Publications Act, 1929. Representing explicit sexual acts could get a book banned in 1930s Ireland, and Dunsany is surely playing a game with the censors’ prudishness in the prevarications over Mona’s conception that open the novel. The book begins with a question of sex, as two priests engage in an urgent debate over whether or not the five-year-old Mona is a ‘mortal child’ – in other words, whether she is human. In the opening sentence, the older priest asserts unequivocally that she is: ‘I never saw a more mortal child’ (p. 1), and he repeats the assertion in the final sentence of the book, at Mona’s wedding (p. 334). But in between, the joke is that this assertion can coexist in Ireland with a conviction that the girl could indeed be immortal, whatever the Church asserts or the priests conclude among themselves. And the priests’ concern with the child’s mortality or humanness seems in any case to erase from their minds the mortal sin committed at her conception – the sin that would have been of overriding concern to the government censors. Institutions may have rigid views about the boundaries of legitimacy, but mortals do not, and Mona’s presence in the Athroonagh community serves as a focus for all the ambiguities and plural standards its members embrace on a daily basis.

Indeed, the uncertainty surrounding Mona’s conception helps to cement her status as a representative or ‘ambassador’ for her community. No one knows for sure who her mother is – and even if she were confirmed to be the fairy queen the doubt would remain, since no one is entirely sure what a fairy is. As it happens there is also doubt over her father’s identity, the choice being between a peasant farmer called Dennis O’Flanagan and a self-serving upper-class entrepreneur called Peevers (and one might add to these two Father Kinnehy, the young parish priest of Athroonagh, who is her spiritual father). In the end, no choice is made as to which of these two paternities is more probable, and both men have a hand in her upbringing, which leads to a series of complications which cannot be resolved until Mona’s fate is finally placed in her own hands. The girl’s illegitimacy, then, implicates the whole of Athroonagh and its environs in her making, from the local dignitaries Lady Gurtrim and her husband to the gossips Mrs Ryan and Mrs O’Kelly, who assume a kind of authority over the child on behalf of the local community, the tinker couple who adopt her when she runs away from home, and the mysterious tramp who seems to have strange insights into the minds of both young Mona and Lady Gurtrim. Mona’s presence looms over her neighbours like the mountain Slieve-na-mona from which her first name was taken – the mountain that also happens to be the place of her conception. This means that the novel from beginning to end is dominated by an illicit act of sex, in defiance of the government ban on explicit treatment of this topic in Irish fiction. None of the events in it would have happened if Mona had been born within the pale of legitimacy. In other words, the book itself is illegitimate, and celebrates illegitimacy as a kind of counter to the various forms of tyranny that threaten to constrain the actions of Mona – and by extension of the local and national populations she represents – both in the novel and in the world of the 1930s.

Unlike the Irish censors or the higher Church authorities, the priests who discuss Mona’s birth in the opening chapter are flexible enough to recognize that there is more than one way of representing the act of sex. Refreshingly pragmatic about how their parishioners see the truth, they refuse in the end to take an absolutist stance on the question of Mona’s parentage. Having concluded that both her father and mother were human, they decide not to communicate this conclusion to their parishioners, for the simple reason that the people of Athroonagh would refuse to believe it if they did: ‘And it’s best for us not to be telling them things they would disbelieve,’ as the older priest puts it, because ‘You don’t know where they would stop’ (p. 2). The clergy, then, keep their opinions about Mona to themselves, in deference to the villagers’ reluctance to forfeit any one of their many rival and often contradictory convictions at the behest of those in charge. And the novel’s narrator takes a similar stance. Although he shares the priests’ opinion on the girl’s mortality, he also shares their understanding and sympathy for the villagers’ perspective. This is borne out by the bipartite structure of the opening chapter, which begins with the priests’ discussion of Mona’s parentage and goes on to describe the night of her conception. Just as the discussion ends inconclusively, despite the priests’ clear statement of their views, so too does the story of that night somehow end up simultaneously supporting both the view that Mona is mortal and the perception that there is something magical about her. This is because the narrator describes the facts with some precision, while at the same time investing them with a magical air that fully explains, even while it doesn’t endorse, the villagers’ conviction that supernatural forces were at work on the night in question. He gives us what he calls the ‘story’ of Mona’s birth (p. 2), and in the process places the telling of stories, and the various levels of belief invested in them, at the centre of this novel, which is itself a Story.

The Fairy Queen by Henry Fuseli, illustrating Spenser’s 16th-century Irish epic, The Faerie Queene

The atmosphere and location of the ‘story’ are wholly magical, however unmagical the processes involved. A local dignitary, Lady Gurtrim, is on her way home from an unsatisfactory ball, and is therefore dressed in her finest clothes, with a tiara on her head fit for a queen. She stops her coach on the slopes of Slieve-na-mona, a mountain traditionally linked to the fairies, and steps out for a moment to take the air. She dances dreamily on the slopes, enjoying the movement she did not get the chance to enjoy at the party, to which her dancing partner and adulterous lover, the contemptible Peevers, failed to show up. A local farmer chances by, takes her for the Queen of the Fairies, and proceeds to dance with her by starlight – after which they ‘dance’ together in a different way. Lady Gurtrim knows full well that the farmer believes her to be a fairy, and knows of course that the young man is mistaken; yet at the same time his mistake seems wholly reasonable to her, since ‘she was the daughter of a squireen in lonely hills in Kilkenny, and had never quite made out, from the various tales of her childhood, what actually haunted the hills and what did not’ (p. 5). She therefore plays the role of the Queen of the Fairies with the authenticity of someone who really believes there might be such a person. For the Church authorities, there are ordinary mortals and supernatural beings, but a person (apart from Christ) cannot be both. For governments, there are those who adhere to the laws and those who break them, but you can’t do both in the selfsame act. But for the priests and people of Athroonagh, a girl can somehow be both mortal and immortal, both illegitimate and of high ancestry, both a Christian child and a pagan, both magical and mundane, both on the margins of the community and at the centre of it; and it’s this capacity to sustain a simultaneous belief in two or more incompatible systems that makes these people so well worth celebrating at a time of dictatorship and mechanised conflict.

As it turns out, there are many ways in which the people of Athroonagh can sustain their existence in a liminal place between radically different worlds. If their priests can achieve a delicate balance between two incompatible convictions, so too can those bastions of the law the members of the Royal Irish Constabulary. When interrogated several chapters later on Mona’s identity, the police sergeant at Athroonagh refuses to be drawn on ‘religion and politics’, but will still affirm that he has ‘seen strange things in the course of [his] duties’ (p. 79), which means that she may or may not be what people think she is: a child of the Shee. The sergeant’s views are at once endorsed by his traditional enemy, a passing tramp; and the postmistress adds that the existence of fairies may be a wonder, but so too is that scientific miracle the telegraph, ‘a thing that can talk from the ends of the earth’ (p. 80); and after its invention how can anyone question the validity of other kinds of miracles? The schoolmaster, meanwhile – whose task it is to instil immutable truths in his young charges, and who is instructed by the priest to treat Mona like an ordinary human being – is outraged by the daft pretence that has thus been forced upon him, since he considers it a ‘silly game […] to treat one who came of those mighty forces that roamed the mountain at night, and sometimes shrilled with great voices between the roof and the stars, as a common and mortal child’ (p. 19). As these instances of parallel convictions multiply, Athroonagh begins to look like the most capacious of receptacles for the conflicting paradoxes of twentieth-century existence, a receptacle rendered potent by its unlimited credulity – or to put it another way, by its unusually rich capacity for belief.

The local gamekeeper, too, finds himself torn between contradictory positions. His task is to police the boundaries between public land and private property, but when confronted by Mona Sheehy at twilight he finds himself unable to deny her access to the woods he guards. When she points out that last time they met in the woods he chased her home, he tells her:

‘Ah, sure I have my duty to do by day […] but I don’t forget the ancient powers for that, nor the children of them. And, begob, when the moon’s like that and the woods are still, sure Ireland isn’t any longer under the Government then. It’s under the power of Her Majesty that does be reigning behind Slieve-na-mona. Doesn’t even my dog know it?’ (p. 30).

The gamekeeper’s conflicted state of mind has a political dimension, as this speech suggests. One queen can displace another quite easily in his imagination, and his affiliation to political movements can change just as easily, despite his insistence that Mona needs to choose between being a mortal girl and the child of a fairy. ‘It’s either the top of Slieve-na-mona looking down on the centuries,’ he pronounces, ‘or else it’s our bits of houses and our human ways and the sins we sin and the hopes we have. It can’t be both’ (p. 31). But the choices available to the gamekeeper seem less fixed than this pronouncement tends to suggest, shifting in response to the time of day, the shifting seasons, the changing weather. ‘In that light and at that hour,’ Dunsany assures us,

he would himself have enlisted as one of the bodyguard of the Queen of the Shee, had he been asked to do so by any supernatural power coming from Slieve-na-Mona. And at another hour he would have joined the Fenians, and maybe died in prison for doing it. And in another light and at some other hour he might have enlisted in the Brigade of Guards, being the right height for them, and would have carried into old age tales of their battles as well as tales of the Shee.

At different times of day, Dunsany suggests, the convictions of the Fenians and those of the Unionists might take the upper hand in the gamekeeper’s personality, though both seem equally compatible with ‘tales of the Shee’. The borders set by political parties are always moving in Ireland, like the borders of Elfland in Dunsany’s most famous novel, and affiliates of opposing Irish parties have more that unites them than divides them in Dunsany’s fiction.

The borders of the country were shifting too, of course, around the time when the novel is set – 1919 to 1920 – and at the end of the novel the police sergeant, despite all his efforts to steer clear of religion and politics, is forced to hurry over the border to the newly-established Northern Ireland to avoid paying a heavy price for his membership of an imperialist police force. Making a choice of any kind, it would seem, gets you involved in politics, so that avoiding choices, too, could be a political decision, a means of steering carefully between the deadly shoals of opposing factions.

The borders between purportedly distinct populations of Athroonagh are highly permeable. The villagers live in a symbiotic relationship with the people who live without houses, the traveler or tinker community, who mend their pots, supply their gambling needs, and provide them with false coins when the need arises. The tinkers’ capacity for crossing borders and breaching limits is merely an extension of the villagers’ refusal to be contained within the boundaries of legitimacy. Property laws are largely irrelevant to the tinkers – except where it comes to donkeys (p. 139) – and they treat the whole of Ireland as their household, with all its contents available for them to use at their pleasure, including chickens, rabbits, cows and crops, regardless of legal ownership. The same is true (though to a lesser extent) of the villagers, which is why there’s a need for a gamekeeper in Athroonagh. And while the tinkers have no interest in property, they are also willing (Dunsany suggests) to stake an exclusive claim to the possession of certain individuals, such as Mona Sheehy once she has been cast out by the village community. The two populations may be distinguished by different customs, but they have more in common than either population is willing to concede, and the whole structure of Dunsany’s book has been devised to draw this out.

The tinkers’ criminal activities, too, are coterminous with the secret crimes of the villagers. In Rory and Bran the only tinker was a friendly visionary; but in Mona Sheehy Dunsany represents the tinker community as dangerously as well as delightfully anarchic. Murders, rapes and abductions can be committed among them with impunity, and they have an unsettling habit of stowing dead bodies in the false bottoms of their carts along with the other doubtfully legal goods they carry. Yet the tinkers’ relative lawlessness is never judged, either by the tinkers themselves, the people of Athroonagh or the narrator. This is partly because they exist on a continuum between the fantastic and the real, a mobile state of being that involves radical moral shifts as well as geographical ones; it’s inevitable, then, that they should share the dangerous aspects of the fairies they dream of, as well as their knowledge, musicality, charm, and appreciation of mortal beauty such as Mona’s. In addition, the tinkers’ crimes are committed with equal enthusiasm by the villagers. The gamekeeper’s son, young Peter, commits a murder for Mona’s sake, killing a tinker who plans to rape her; and Mona’s living body is disposed of repeatedly by other people than the tinkers in the course of the novel – from the villagers, who cast her out of the village as a danger to it, to Lady Gurtrim’s lover Peevers, who sends her to London for purposes of his own, to Mona’s ‘true’ father Dennis O’Flanagan and his sister, who forbid her to marry the young man she loves – without considering the girl’s own wishes. Like Mona herself, then, the tinkers could be said to represent the state of continuous fluctuation which is the atmosphere of Athroonagh, and Dunsany celebrates them because they represent the reverse of the rigid lines that separate state from state and right from wrong in the minds of less inclusive populations.

Like the gamekeeper at Athroonagh, the tinkers’ identity fluctuates depending on the time of day and their state of mind. As the wise woman tinker Mrs Joyce tells Mona at one point, the young men of her community can be ‘a bit wicked sometimes’, especially after one of them has killed another in a fight; and on such occasions the wickedness persists ‘until anything happens to make them forget about it’ (pp. 164-5). Even in this, though, they are little different from the villagers. After killing the tinker who wishes to rape Mona – bashing his head in with his shillelagh in a fair but illegal fight – the gamekeeper’s son, young Peter, flees to the hills for a while until the fuss about the death has died down, where he joins the IRA, ‘a band of young men that drilled at night […] and carried a rifle with them’ (p. 256). But he soon returns to his work as a gamekeeper’s assistant for a local landowner, Lord Harahanstown – presumably one of the members of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy that the IRA has sworn to drive out. Peter’s political commitments change with the changing weather, as his father’s do, and his opinions about Mona – whom he loves and courts – change likewise as the weather changes, growing uneasy about her fairy blood when the day grows dark. Peter’s fight with the tinker, in other words, is governed by non-legalistic rules both parties abide by, and the tinkers are as careful to conceal the evidence of Peter’s act of murder as they were to conceal the murder committed by a member of their own community in a fight over Mona the night before.

The tinkers exist on a continuum of belief that runs between the fairies at one end and the police at the other, between anarchy and the long arm of the law; and they maintain an ambiguous understanding with the people at both ends of that continuum. The tinker Joyce, for instance, who takes in Mona when she runs away from Athroonagh, asks her to deliver a message to her mother, the Queen of the Fairies, apologising for his obtuseness in failing to understand her messages throughout his lifetime (pp. 48-50). He does his best to do the Queen’s will, he explains, but was left by his negligent mother with an imperfect knowledge of the many distinctive languages fairies speak. Meanwhile he and his fellow tinkers have their own distinctive way of talking to the police, a form of language designed to delay their investigations for as long as possible through repeated calls for clarification, before eventually sending them off in the wrong direction. The fairies, of course, must be similarly misdirected – no one must name them openly, for fear of attracting their attention (‘Will you not speak that name,’ Mrs Joyce tells Mona when she mentions her putative mother, ‘and bring bad luck down on the tinkers’, p. 140). But this in turn is an extension of the unwritten rules for conversation in Dunsany’s Ireland. Questions from anyone in that country will be met with prevarications, indicative of productive indecision or two-mindedness as much as of a desire to mislead. The tinkers’ discourse is riddled with circumlocutions: ‘I’m not saying they’re not right’ (p. 175), ‘I’m not saying you will’ (p. 49), ‘I’m not saying I saw either, nor I’m not saying I didn’t’ (p. 171), ‘I wouldn’t say it was […] nor I wouldn’t say it wasn’t’ (p. 185). And in using this roundabout way of speaking the tinkers simply take the ways of Athroonagh to a new level. The gamekeeper, for example, shares their liking for circuitous sentences: ‘I’m not saying who’s immortal and who’s not’, he tells his son with reference to Mona (p. 73), and does so ‘with an Irishman’s anxiety not to be definite’. Even the most opinionated villagers reserve the right to change their minds at a moment’s notice. The gossips Mrs Ryan and Mrs O’Kelly do so multiple times in the course of the novel, on one occasion pronouncing the doom that expels poor Mona from the village, on another affirming with equal certainty the rightness and necessity of her return; first denying her the right to marry Peter, then implicitly confirming that the same marriage is entirely appropriate by attending the wedding, and spending the ceremony in making careful comparisons with all the other weddings they have seen in their lifetimes, ‘drawing a moral from any differences that were observed’ (p. 333). Any statement made by the villagers or the tinkers, then, is constructed in such a way as to enable them to retract its assertions whenever necessary, in response to the changing contours of the political, social or emotional landscape.

Mullingar Asylum (St Loman’s Hospital)

The continuum of belief, supported by flexible forms of discourse, finds a counterpart in the invisible map of Ireland constructed by the movements of the tinkers around the country. In Rory and Bran, the madhouse at Mullingar was a destination reserved for tinkers who could no longer disguise their insane dependence on the moon, or young women who show too much faith in the wild romantic dreams of mad young men. In The Story of Mona Sheehy it has become a regular stop on the tinkers’ route from town to town – though it also remains an institution for the incarceration of crazy tramps (p. 263). The Joyces tell Mona that their annual wanderings take them ‘along the roads between Galway and Mullingar’ (p. 49), or ‘between Dublin and Mullingar’ (p. 50), naming points at the extreme West and East of Ireland in relation to the town that contains the asylum, roughly in the middle. Distances are variable – somewhere ‘not far’ might be a week away or more, as a donkey goes (p. 145), while the mysterious tramp who crops up periodically through the novel claims to have travelled through the whole world ‘and other places besides’ (p. 79). For the Joyces and the tramp, space is as relative as the truth, since the whole of the outdoors is their living room, the side of a road their kitchen, the ground their bed.

Science is present in Mona Sheehy as it is not in Rory and Bran, but Dunsany invests it with magical qualities, using similar techniques to the ones he used to enchant the night of Mona’s conception. Mona’s banishment from Athroonagh occurs on the night when she goes to the mountain to find her supernatural mother, which happens also to be the night when the Northern Lights appear in the sky. The villagers assume that these strange celestial lights are manifestations of her mother’s wrath, and drive Mona away to ensure that the consequences of that wrath will not be visited on their community. When the bishops hears of her banishment he sends the villagers a detailed scientific explanation of the meteorological conditions that produce the aurora borealis: ‘they are of the nature of an electrical meteor appearing most frequently in high latitudes in the form of luminous clouds, arches and rays, of which the latter sometimes meet at a point near the zenith’ (p. 158). But the bishop’s explanation itself becomes for the villagers a magic spell of tremendous power against the fairies: ‘Bits of that letter are quoted in Athroonagh to this day,’ Dunsany tells us, ‘and many a frightened man hearing steps behind him at night has muttered to himself “or in other words to the curves of the magnetic force,” and found that the sound of the steps would disappear’ (p. 159). Science has its place on the same continuum that links the fairies to the police, and a scientific publication can become a spell in Athroonagh as easy as blinking.

Mona’s earthly mother is linked with science, just as her supernatural mother is, in this case through her love of cars. The car is a machine whose movements are restricted by the narrow limits of the tarmacked roads along which it travels, as well as the capacities of its engine. Yet it too is invested with magic by the villagers and travellers it passes after dark:

And the hum of a large car disturbed the night, and the radiant light called more trees out of the darkness to show their midday greenery for a moment. The golden flood swept rapidly over the hedges and a huge car went by, and ashes and scraps of paper from the Joyces’ fire ran after it, and the light and the noise were swallowed up by the dark and silent night. It was Lady Gurtrim taking her great car to the coast. (p. 267)

For the Joyces who watch as the car sweeps by, it is as supernatural an event as Lady Gurtrim dancing in the moonlight seemed to the farmer Dennis O’Flanagan more than sixteen years before. At the same time, for Lady Gurtrim her machine is a strictly private obsession, something that cuts her off from the dreams and stories of her neighbours, and prevents her from participating in their generously inclusive systems of belief. She is as narrowly focused on her driving as her ‘great car’ is narrowly constrained and bounded by the road; when sitting at the wheel of her Grostyn-Dhobler she has no eyes or ears or thought for anything else. So it seems appropriate that her obsession with driving should bring about her death, since it divorces her from the community she is part of – the people of Athroonagh, her unacknowledged daughter, her kindly husband. Her car, in fact, cuts her off from life long before it kills her; it’s a symbol of her ‘selfish’ conduct (p. 284), as she acknowledges in the split second before she dies.

Mercedes-Benz W 154, 1939

In Rory and Bran, Lord Dunsany indulged himself in painting a picture of the class to which he belonged – the Irish aristocracy – as an extension of the country’s landscape and an integral part of its ancient culture. When travelling with the moon-worshipping tinker, Rory learns from him that a certain local landowner is a generous patron of travelling folk, and will provide them with a character reference with heartwarming ease. Sure enough, Rory obtains a reference from the baronet Sir Frank of Ardmona House, and uses it to beg a warm coat from Sir Frank’s near neighbour, the landlord Mr Percival, thereby confirming the symbiotic relationship between the ruling classes and the peasantry in rural Ireland before the Great War. In The Story of Mona Sheehy, by contrast, the aristocracy seems on the verge of extinction. The alienation of Lady Gurtrim from Lord Gurtrim means that they have no children, and since Lady Gurtrim never officially acknowledges her relationship to Mona, this means that when both have died they leave no heirs. The couple die separately, each in pursuit of their own hobby: Lord Gurtrim while hunting a fox to hounds, Lady Gurtrim while racing her car. Lord Gurtrim’s hobby is a communal one, since for Dunsany ‘love of the hunt is […] in the Irish blood, and to watch a fox-hunt is as natural to Irish people as to hear tales of the Shee’ (p. 114). His love of hunting, too, is connected in the chapter about his death with his fabled generosity, from which Mona hopes to benefit when she runs away from Athroonagh. He is clearly of a piece with Rory’s benefactor, Sir Frank, in Rory and Bran, because it is widely know that ‘no one in distress appealed in vain to Lord Gurtrim’ (p. 112). His death, then, could be read as a symbol of the end of an era, with Lady Gurtrim and her lover Peevers its cause: Lord Gurtrim thinks about Peevers as he dies, and describes him as a ‘Nasty little rat’ (p.119). Lady Gurtrim, on the other hand, is alone as she dies, and looks back on her life as a selfish one. Her death, however, makes ‘some amends’ for this selfishness (p. 284). While still officially in mourning for her husband, Lady Gurtrim drives her Grostyn-Dhobler to a race in England, and in the middle of the race a little girl runs out of the crowd in front of her car. Lady Gurtrim thinks for a moment that the foolish child deserves to die, then makes ‘The Choice’ which is referred to in the chapter’s title. The choice is a simple one: drive straight on, keeping to the road as her machine is designed to do, and kill the girl; or swerve aside to avoid the child, thus taking the car on a trajectory that will be fatal to its driver. In terms of the rules of the race and of Newtonian motion, the second choice does not exist; and its impossibility is signalled by the presence at the edge of the road of a containing parapet, a ‘cement balustrade that was imitating marble’ (pp. 283-4). But Lady Gurtrim takes it anyway, steering away from the only legitimate or regular course available to her. In the process she steers herself back into a sense of community, and at the same time into local mythology. As the car flashes past the astonished child it seems to her ‘wonderful’, and as it bursts through the parapet the Grostyn-Dobler takes on the appearance of a second meteorological apparition, a firework display on a par with the Northern Lights that shocked the village a few chapters earlier: ‘The balustrade of sham marble burst into dust, and the Grostyn-Dhobler, catching light at once, went over the tree-tops in one long stream of fire’ (p. 285). Lady Gurtrim thereby passes into legend – just as the hunt in which Lord Gurtrim died passes into legend (we are told) among the hunting community of the county. In the process, the aristocracy of Ireland passes into legend too, to be replaced, perhaps, by the born survivor: Lady Gurtrim’s lover Peevers, the ‘Nasty little rat’ who deserts every sinking ship he boards with shameless aplomb.

Race-goers having a picnic at the Galway Races, 1945. Photo by Francis Reiss

Peevers represents the extension of selfish principles to society as a whole, as embodied in free market capitalism, which is founded on providing an increasing number of choices to consumers while a diminishing number of providers stand to benefit from these choices. Choice itself, as Lady Gurtrim discovers in the end, involves shutting down certain possibilities for ever. So when Peevers encourages Mona to bet all her money on a horse at the Rathmoon races – as he does himself – she loses all of it, and so diminishes the range of choice available to her in terms of her life after leaving Athroonagh. Peevers himself, of course, has more money than she does, so that his own range of choices is hardly narrowed at all by his loss. His response to the loss illustrates the free market capitalist’s attitude to projects that fail: fault for the failure is anyone else’s but his own, and in this case it is that of the rider, which introduces a second act of choice: ‘a comparison between his own intelligence and the folly of a jockey’ (p. 203). Each choice Peevers offers in the book is similarly weighted in his favour and against the wellbeing of other choosers. When he suggests that Mona should go to London to work for an advertising company, presenting it as a choice, the suggestion brings a range of benefits for him: Lady Gurtrim will be impressed by his ability to deal with intransigent problems, such as how to provide for her illegitimate daughter without the need to acknowledge her, while the manager of the firm will be impressed by Peevers’s ability to ‘supply him with the kind of material for employment that he rather thought he wanted’ (p. 199). For Mona, however, it brings no benefits at all, however extravagantly Peevers talks up the likelihood that it will make her ‘a good deal of money’ (p. 198). Being underage, she has no choice over whether or not she goes to London; the decision is made for her by her rival fathers, Dennis O’Flanagan and Peevers, who in this case speak with one voice, as if to emphasize the choicelessness of the market system they are urging her to join. She is unhappy when she gets to London, and grows unhappier as time goes by. And London turns out to be a world where her range of choices grows progressively narrower, until she can find no escape at all from the maze-like circuit of its streets. The choice of goods in the city’s shop windows, the choice of company in its streets, the choice of destinations its stations offer to well-heeled travellers – all are closed to her owing to her poverty and inexperience. From the moment she arrives there, then, she begins to shrink, reduced from the queenly daughter of the Shee to an indigent worker trudging the route from work to lodgings, from lodgings to work from day to day without hope of change. The subtle changes of the Irish landscape have been barred to her, and she is reduced to seeking escape from her situation in a place where any escape is merely a route to another dead end.

1939 advertisement

The progressive narrowing of Mona’s choices is summed up by the culture of the firm she works for, the World Improvement Publicity Company. The aim of the firm is to invent for its customers needs they did not think they had, such as the overwhelming need for a new, expensive form of mustard, which is sprayed on your food in a fine transparent mist, as against the yellow, lumpy condiment everyone uses as things stand. The aim of the firm is first to present the spray-on mustard as a superior choice to the lumpy kind, then to ensure that in the end it is the only kind available, and that its manufacturers are the only people to benefit from it. The idea for the mustard comes from a man with the unfortunate name of Snerooth, the son of the firm’s owner, whose monopoly over the product gives him a monopoly over any profits it might bring. Snerooth seeks a similar monopoly over Mona, and when he proposes marriage to her he presents the proposal – like his mustard – as a choice which in the end is no choice at all. If she refuses, she will be condemned to work for the World Improvement Publicity Company for the rest of her life; if she takes it, he will possess her along with the rest of the company’s assets. Snerooth presents to Mona, in fact, a ready made destiny, whereby her life will continue to be shaped by insidious forces beyond her capacity to affect. In this he resembles the odious Peevers, who has a ‘strange desire for a reputation for being able to control destinies’ (p. 199), and who offers choices which are no choices to everyone he meets. For Snerooth and Peevers, money offers choice; but this choice turns out to be as illusory as the choices offered by advertising. The riches promised to Mona by Peevers turn out to be a salary so small that she will take years to build up the capital to do what she wants, go home to Ireland. And when she is left money by Lady Gurtrim in her will, her new wealth means she can finally go home, but once there she is forbidden to marry the man she loves – young Peter, the gamekeeper’s son – because he is now ‘beneath’ her, socially speaking. The mythical gold with which the streets of London are paved is in fact a gold that has no value, just as the mustard devised by Snerooth will have no flavour or colour or substance. Instead it forces on its users a destiny – a single path from which it’s impossible to turn aside – that is not worth having, the polar opposite of the freedom of the Irish roads.

Throughout the London section of the novel, the differences between the metropolis and Athroonagh are repeatedly brought home to us. As Mona travels to London, for instance, Ireland shows herself in her most attractive colours, putting herself in competitive dialogue with the gilded thoroughfares of the capital:

The gorse at the height of its glory beamed upon her. Almost it seems strange that Earth, which has so little gold, could send forth such an abundance of gorse: flowers planted upon a stratum of gold and nurtured by gold dust could not have been more yellow. Catkins shone from the willows and sometimes a blackthorn flashed; and kingcups, which she knew she was leaving, nearly brought tears to her eyes (p. 205).

Here the gold of the Irish countryside offers itself in generous abundance to every passer by, not restricting its loveliness to a small elite. There is no need for jealousy of its possession, as there is (for instance) among the girls at the London firm for Mona’s luck in catching the heart of the owner’s heir. Later, the ‘intrusiveness and the tirelessness’ of advertising in London, which drowns out the subtle, distinctive ‘message’ of the city, is contrasted with the cheerful invitations to passers-by offered up by the tinkers at the Rathmoon races, which attracted players to Mr Joyce’s roulette board ‘of their own accord’ – by a genuine choice (p. 213) – as against the spurious sense of need imposed by publicity. The restricted nature of London’s wealth is emphasized by the suspicious store detectives who police the shop windows, draining them of the seductive ‘magic’ Mona found in them at first, the only magic she found in the capital apart from its power of drawing people to it against their will. The smell of petrol replaces ‘the smell of the flowers that the wind blew over the fields of Athroonagh’ (p. 221), and the ‘sight of immensities’ such as Slieve-na-mona is narrowed down to occasional fleeting glimpses of the clouds:

Sometimes the sky would flash at her down a long street, showing her wandering clouds, and for a moment the world was again a world she was born to live in; and then she was once more under the steep houses, and a shadow fell on her spirit that was so easily shadowed. (p. 221).

Earlier in the book, shadows seen from the height of Slieve-na-mona represented the infinite possibilities of mystery embedded in the Irish landscape (‘she saw even in that broad daylight blue folds of the ground and dark ridges, and patches hidden by mist, which the child decided might well be haunted by the hosts of the people of legend’, p. 69). Shadow Ireland lay all around her, summoning to it the shadows of myth and legend that spoke to Rory. In London however, shadows are simply shadows, and Mona’s ability to talk and think about the ‘hosts of the people of legend’ is taken away (p. 228), leaving her a shadow of her former self. The streets, too, hemmed in by ‘steep houses’, contrast with the ‘wandering’ country lanes of Ireland, along which wayfarers pass with the insouciance of clouds. In this passage, Mona finds herself at the end of the road, her direction permanently fixed for her, in stark opposition to her unknown path of travel when she first set out from Athroonagh, without a destiny, a destination or even the vaguest plan of action, like a wandering knight in an old romance.

1939 advertisement

Her personality, too, is fixed in London, as it never was in Ireland, where she effectively changes her species as the novel goes on. As a daughter of the Shee she is seen by her fellow villagers as a phoenix, akin to the national bird of Ireland commemorated by the statue in Phoenix Park. As Lady Grutrim’s daughter, heir to twenty or forty thousand pounds depending on the whim of rumour, she becomes for the villagers a bird of paradise, a burst of bright feathers of the kind fine ladies put on their hats. In the final chapter of the book, when Peevers has succeeded in frittering away the fortune left her by Lady Gurtrim by investing it all in business prospects that fail – including the ersatz mustard of Snerooth – Mona is reduced, we’re told, to a ‘mere hen, which there was no reason now for grudging to Peter’ (pp. 329-30). At all times, though, she is a bird, and therefore akin to the blackbirds, cuckoos, swallows and thrushes that haunt the woods where she wanders with her young man, singing ‘of magic to her, and the fairy people, and the royal race of the Shee’ (p. 72). And her ability to transform herself by her own powers, and to be transformed into strange new shapes by events beyond her control, suggests that her destiny will not be determined or ordered for her in Athroonagh, as it seemed to be in London when the city consumed her.

The Story of Mona Sheehy offers its readers Lord Dunsany’s final thoughts on Ireland and fantasy before the outbreak of the Second World War. Like Rory and Bran it finds the ‘message’ of Ireland in the Irish countryside round Slieve-na- mona, and more specifically in Irish country roads, which link the country together in an elaborate network along which travellers and tinkers move with the freedom of birds. In doing so it attaches itself to the work of James Stephens, whose novels The Crock of Gold (1912) and The Demi-Gods (1914) concern themselves with the traveller’s life in Ireland, offering it up as a working model for the nation’s road to independence. This attachment – which would have been obvious to readers in the 30s, when the popularity of Stephens’s novels was at its height – suggests (I think) that in these two books Dunsany works out his own imaginative reconciliation with the idea of an independent Ireland, in defiance of his own political stance as a Conservative Unionist. Mona Sheehy in particular, which pictures Ireland on the cusp of the War of Independence, seems to celebrate Ireland’s imminent self-detachment from a destiny bound up with that of London. Mona’s return to Ireland and the loss of her fortune – which parallels the economic ruin predicted by many Unionists to be the inevitable consequence of Irish independence – permits the continuation of the ‘golden romance’ that surrounded her birth (p. 331); a romance that sets itself in opposition to the mineral gold so prized by capitalism, and is conserved not by banks but by the travellers who attend Mona’s marriage ceremony, playing ‘strange music suited well to the wedding of one, whose royal and elfin pretensions were remembered still by the tinkers’ (p. 333).

Ireland’s ‘message’, for Dunsany – its distinctive voice – comes from its commitment to dreams, those never-failing sources of the fantastic imagination. His way of dealing with dreams is what distinguishes Dunsany’s fantasy from Tolkien’s. Tolkien was interested in immersive fantasy, the kind that enables its reader to forget completely for a time the ‘real’ world she lives in. Dunsany’s fantasy after the Great War, by contrast, is always conscious of the ‘real’ world it holds at arm’s length. Rodriguez looks into it from his chronicles through an enchanter’s window; Alveric’s son Orion bequeaths enchantment to it in the form of a unicorn’s horn, which ends up in the real-world royal treasury of France; while in Dunsany’s Irish novels it is the substance through which the shadows of the impossible drift, never quite dispersing. Brian Attebery wrote in Strategies of Fantasy about the idea that fantasy exists on a continuum between two poles; one pole being the purest fantastic, which is dominated by impossible events and beings, such as Alice in Wonderland or the nonsense stories of Edward Lear; and the other being ‘purely’ realist texts such as Barry Hines’s A Kestrel for a Knave, into which the fantastic or impossible only intrudes as dream or metaphor.[2] Dunsany’s fiction between the wars self-consciously slides along this continuum, celebrating the persistence of fantastic romance even while it acknowledges its fictionality. Rory and Bran and Mona Sheehy have no ‘really’ impossible events in them, unlike The Curse of the Wise Woman; but they concern themselves very seriously with belief in the impossible, and contain many characters who cannot rid themselves of the suspicion that the impossible happens, at particular times and in certain places. For Dunsany, the certainty that they do not is something that belongs to the sinister people who wish to profit from others, not share things with them. Such people exist in London and Ireland as well as in the fascist regimes of Italy, Germany and Spain. And the balancing act he achieves in keeping impossible things alive and free in the face of such restrictive opposition remains worth thinking about, I think.

Slievenamon Mountain, Co. Tipperary

Books Cited

Auden, W. H., The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings 1927-1939, ed. Edward Mendelson (London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1986)

Dunsany, Lord, Rory and Bran (London and Toronto: William Heinemann, 1936)

Dunsany, Lord, The Story of Mona Sheehy (London and Toronto: William Heinemann, 1939)

Notes

[1] The novel can be dated pretty precisely from two statements: the first, that the four-year Great War has finished by the time the main action begins (p. 83); the second, that the year that followed her adventures involved ‘anxious months’ for members of the Royal Irish Constabulary – seen by nationalists as the instruments of British oppression (see p. 333) – thanks to the outbreak of the Irish War of Independence. At the same time, Dunsany insists that his book is ‘no history of the greater world, whose faith is in phosgene’ (p. 83) – that is, in a poisonous gas used as a weapon in World War I.

[2] Brian Attebery, Strategies of Fantasy (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992), pp. 2-4.

Fantasy 1939: Lord Dunsany’s Irish Fiction

[This is the first of two blog posts on Dunsany’s Irish Fiction. It follows on from my earlier post on Fantasy 1939: Science Fiction, and is followed by a post dedicated to Dunsany’s The Story of Mona Sheehy.]

Irish fantasy was as fertile as British fantasy between the wars, and in many cases as well known in Britain as in Ireland. This is partly because most of the major fantasy texts were published in or near London. Lord Dunsany’s fantasy novels of the 1920s, for example, were published in the British capital by the American publisher G. P. Putnam’s Sons, and his Irish books – beginning with The Curse of the Wise Woman – by the British firm Heinemann, often bound in green cloth to advertise their Irish content. James Stephens migrated to London in 1925, where he gained great popularity as a broadcaster from 1937 onwards; most of his books were published by Macmillan. Eimar O’Duffy (who also migrated to London in 1925) published his satirical Cuanduine trilogy, King Goshawk and the Birds (1926), The Spacious Adventures of the Man in the Street (1928) and Asses in Clover (1933), with Macmillan and Putnam’s, while Flann O’Brien’s equally satirical At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) was published by Longman’s. Patricia Lynch’s novels of the 1930s were all published by Dent. There was, then, a constant exchange of fantastic ideas between Ireland and the United Kingdom, not to mention the European continent (where Joyce was based) and the United States (where Padraic Colum lived, though he was also in Paris in the early 30s). Irish fantasy fiction needed to take account of a readership in Ireland, Britain and the United States, not to mention France. And in 1939 – as Britain plunged into the Second World War while Ireland and the United States remained neutral – one imagines that it might have been read in very different ways in all three countries, and within each country, too, depending on the political stances of their readers.

For Irish readers, for instance, the dictatorial author Trellis in Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds is a much more complex phenomenon than the many British dictators in contemporary fiction, from the Hitler-like Hillier in Storm Jameson’s In the Second Year (1936) to the Mosley-esque Jagger in R C Sherriff’s The Hopkins Manuscript (1939). This is because Trellis belongs to one of the ‘oppressed peoples’ championed by the Iranian conqueror of Europe, General Selim, at the end of Sherriff’s novel. As the native of a country that existed under foreign rule for many centuries, Trellis’s mistreatment of his characters – and his characters’ savage revenge on him, which involves protracted torture – spring from an experience of colonization which makes it impossible to describe him simply as a ‘home-grown tyrant’, as one might describe Hillier, Jagger, or Clemence Dane’s scarecrow-dictator White Ben. The unique status of Ireland among the islands of the Western Archipelago seems to be underscored by the fact that At Swim-Two-Birds is not exactly a fantasy, and is therefore rarely considered as such in histories of the genre, and yet is also hard to describe as anything else. The fantastic plot of the novel, in which characters in a work of fiction rebel against their author, can be read as a subplot of the realistic scenario that opens the novel, where a first-person narrator, a student at University College Dublin, begins to write an experimental novel with three distinct openings and three concurrent narratives. But as the book goes on the three narratives cross-fertilize, breaking down the generic and stylistic distinctions between them. The student writer is soon joined as ‘author’ of the novel first by the fictional author Dermot Trellis, then by Trellis’s illegitimate son (fathered on another fictional character), a young man called Orlick. And the novel ends – in the third of three conclusions to its three narrative threads – not with the ‘realistic’ narrative about the student but with an anecdote about a German fantasist, who like the student is strangely obsessed with the number three. The man’s obsession leads him to commit an unusual act of suicide in the final paragraph: ‘He went home one evening and drank three cups of tea with three lumps of sugar in each, cut his jugular with a razor three times and scrawled with a dying hand on a picture of his wife good-bye, good-bye, good-bye’ (p. 218). The story of the suicidal German is offered to the reader as an explanation of Trellis’s conviction that the characters in his novel have rebelled against him; perhaps, the narrative voice at this point implies, Trellis was a victim of the same sort of delusion as the one that killed the German, that his life was wholly under control by forces he himself had put in motion. But the obsession with threes, and another personality trait of Trellis’s – the tendency to spend too much time in bed – is as characteristic of the student narrator as of his invented author-figure. And of course another writer – Flann O’Brien, himself a stand-in for the Irish civil servant Brian O’Nolan – is responsible for all the author figures in At Swim-Two-Birds. Fantasies, then – such as the conviction that a certain form of ritual behaviour will have a material effect on the universe – bleed not only into each other but into the substance of the world itself, and lead to suicidal acts of self-damage which by 1939 could be clearly seen to include the imminent outbreak of war in Europe. And the causal links that lead from one author figure to another – from O’Nolan to O’Brien to the student to Trellis to Orlick – can be seen as standing in for the complex links between Ireland, Britain and continental Europe, as well as America (among the cast of the novel is a posse of Dublin cowboys). Writing fiction, psychological delusions and political power are bound together in tangled chains of cause and effect, rendered yet more tangled by the student author’s willingness to practise plagiarism, lifting whole sections of his book from other people’s writings. The notion of the home-grown dictator, O’Nolan implies, is pretty much unsustainable for Irish writers of the period. Too many of the influences on an Irish dictator in the 1930s would have been absentees or foreigners of one sort or another; being home-grown is barely an option, and when it is, the notion of ‘home’ is in any case contaminated by colonialism.

Ireland’s relationship with fantasy itself was both rich and vexed. Yeats, for example, described the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, which was meant to restore Irish independence, as a collection of sleepwalkers who ‘dreamed and are dead’, and whose dreams effectively killed them. Yet veterans of the Easter Rising played a practical and very central role in the establishment of a fully independent Republic of Ireland in 1937, and included the first Taoiseach, Éamon de Valera. Two great Irish fantasy writers had a close relationship with the Rising’s leaders – James Stephens and Padraic Colum; and Stephens’s hugely popular The Crock of Gold (1912) is a kind of rallying cry for a peaceful version of the Insurrection in Dublin (as Stephens called the Easter Rising), providing a vision of a secular, socialist, liberal Ireland very different from the Free State when it came. Nowhere in Europe, then, was it clearer than in Ireland that national identity was a kind of fantasy, the product of a collective feat of the imagination. And nowhere was it clearer that such fantasies could be hijacked for their own purposes by competing political and economic interest groups, with sometimes devastating consequences in the real world.

Two versions of these competing dreams found expression in books of Irish fantasy published by British printers in 1939. These are The Story of Mona Sheehy, by Lord Dunsany, and The Grey Goose of Kilnevin, by Patricia Lynch. The writers of both books were present at the Easter Rising, with affiliations to different sides. Dunsany was a Captain in the British Army, who got shot and captured by the insurrectionists, while Lynch was a young reporter sympathetic to the nationalist cause, eager to put across women’s experience of the Rising in her report for the paper she worked for: The Worker’s Dreadnought, edited by the suffragist Sylvia Pankhurst. Dunsany’s and Lynch’s novels of 1939, then, between them provide an example of how the medium of fantastic fiction could be used to put forward different visions of Irish nationhood.

At the same time, the differences between the two novels are perhaps less obvious than their similarities. Both writers chose to set their books in rural Ireland, placing the Irish traveller community at its heart. Both chose to put forward a version of Ireland that’s to some extent at odds with the nation as it was at the end of the 30s. Both chose women (or rather girls) as their protagonists. And the debt both authors owe to the nationalist James Stephens – whose Crock of Gold also inspired Brian O’Nolan’s second novel, The Third Policeman (1940)[1] ­– confirms the status of Stephens’s novel as a taproot text for fantastic fiction in Ireland, regardless of one’s political position. I’ll be looking at Lynch’s book in a separate blog post, but mention it here to underscore the point that Dunsany’s Irish fantasies – often represented as uncomplicatedly conservative and unionist – have an affinity with the socialist fantasies of his Irish contemporaries, which confirms the strange position they hold in the history of Irish literature. This strange position may well account for the neglect they have fallen into, despite their obvious literary qualities (obvious, at least, to enthusiasts like me).

Dunsany’s politics was much more complicated than simple Unionism – though he remained a professed Conservative Unionist all his life.[2] In an earlier blog post I summed it up as follows:

He was a Unionist, but his family name of Plunkett was intimately associated with the nationalist cause. His uncle, the agricultural reformer Sir Horace Plunkett, began as a unionist but ended as a prominent advocate of Home Rule, while another of his close relatives, Joseph Plunkett, was one of the leaders of the Easter Rising. Dunsany’s friend the poet Francis Ledwidge was another nationalist, who wrote one of the most celebrated verse responses to the Rising, ‘Lament for the Poets’, which transforms the leaders – three of whom were poets like himself – into blackbirds whose songs have been extinguished for ever. Dunsany’s religious affiliations, too, were mixed. He was raised a Protestant, but many of his relatives were Catholic, including George Noble Plunkett, a Papal Count and the father of Joseph.

Dunsany Castle, Co. Meath

One suspects that it’s partly as a result of this mixed religious and political background that Dunsany largely steered clear of Irish subjects in the first half of his career, between 1900 and 1930 or so. When he did come to write fiction set in Ireland – beginning with The Curse of the Wise Woman in 1933 – his representation of the relationship between the Nationalist and Unionist positions was very carefully managed. It’s best summed up by the strangely symbiotic relationship between the protagonist of the Curse, Charles – the teenage son of an Irish peer, whose father is the target of an assassination attempt on the part of the nationalists – and the four IRA hitmen sent to kill Charles’s father, known as the ‘Duke’, at his family home. The boy earns the respect of the assassins when he first refuses to disclose the Duke’s whereabouts, then seeks to distract their attention by talking about the sport of shooting geese on the nearby boglands. A few weeks later, Charles hides the hitmen from the police, using the same method his father used to evade his assassins: a hidden passage in the house’s library. In return for this act of mercy one of the assassins chooses to die at the hands of his fellow nationalists rather than break his promise not to hunt the boy’s father down (p. 176), and decades later another of the assassins – now a ‘very prominent member of the Council of the League of Nations’ (p. 322) – secures an overseas ministerial post for Charles under the Irish Free State. The complex dance of give-and-take between the boy from an ambiguously unionist family and the four nationalists is conducted in a peculiarly Irish language of diplomacy, whereby nothing is said directly apart from the oaths taken by both parties at different times on a holy relic of the True Cross which is kept in Charles’s home (the boy swears he is telling the truth about his father’s location, the assassins later swear that they will not kill his father, and both keep their promises as best they can).

Dunsany gives us an example of the indirect discourse of Irish politics in an incident that occurs a few days after the Duke has been finally killed by assassins in Paris. At once the four hitmen send Charles a message to let him know they were not responsible. A little boy brings it to Charles, who asks:

‘Who is it from?’
‘They said you’d know,’ he answered.
‘But what were their names?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘What’s the message?’
‘“It wasn’t us”,’ he said.
‘Was there anything more?’
‘They just said: “It wasn’t us,”’ the boy answered, and was gone over the wall. (p. 199)

The message, like many political messages in occupied Ireland, is carefully shrouded in obscurity, but its meaning is understood at once by the recipient – an understanding that cannot be shared by people outside the country. Master Charles, like Dunsany himself, is a schoolboy at Eton, where Irish pupils ‘come by the habit […] of avoiding talk in public about religion or politics’ – which means they talk very little of home, since ‘so much in Ireland comes under those two headings’ (p. 197). Even Charles’s favourite sport, the shooting of geese over the local boglands, gets mixed up with politics. One of the assassins gives him a tip on how best to shoot them, just as he’s leaving the house after failing to find the Duke. A goose, he tells him, ‘takes a long time to get his pace up. Don’t aim so much in front of a goose as you do at other birds’ (p. 15). And he adds, ominously: ‘if it ever comes to it, and God knows the world’s full of trouble, aim a foot in front of a man walking, at a hundred yards’. The advice is more pertinent to Dunsany’s political career than it is to Charles’s. During the Easter Rising Dunsany was wounded by a nationalist bullet, and pointed out in his autobiography that if the rifleman had known to ‘aim a foot in front of a man walking, at a hundred yards’ he would never have lived to tell the tale. To talk about Ireland is to talk about religion, politics, and family, all of which are woven together in complicated skeins. Hence Dunsany’s avoidance of writing fiction about his country before the thirties, and his care in writing about it when he did.

There’s another side to Ireland which Dunsany finds endlessly fascinating: its association with the imagination. But the imagination too is political in a country so long colonized; so that Dunsany laboured hard in the first half of his career to keep his imagination un-Irish (his literary models were classical literature, the Thousand and One Nights and the Authorized version of the Bible). The rare cases where he mentions Ireland represent the country as a land of dreams. In the fine short story ‘Idle Days on the Yann’, the narrator tells of his journey through exotic lands only visited in sleep: Kyph, Pir, Mandaroon, Perdóndaris, Nen, and the rest. All these places are chock-full of wonders, such as a city gate fashioned from the tooth of some giant carnivore; but when the narrator tells his fellow-travellers about his own country, ‘Ireland, which is of Europe’ (p. 264), they dismiss the two locations as excessively fanciful: ‘There are no such places,’ they tell him, ‘in all the land of dreams’. And the description of Ireland he gives at the end of the story places it firmly on the border of dreamland, like the Kingdom of Erl in his most famous book, The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924):

…and I to find my way by strange means back to those hazy fields that all poets know, wherein stand small mysterious cottages through whose windows, looking westwards, you may see the fields of men, and looking eastwards see glittering elfin mountains, tipped with snow, going range on range into the region of Myth, and beyond it into the kingdom of Fantasy, which pertain to the Lands of Dream. (p. 281)

The description of Ireland’s topography given here offers a clue to Dunsany’s technique when he wrote about the country in the 1930s. The distinction between Irish Myth, which is the stock-in-trade of the nationalist movement, and the adjoining Lands of Fantasy and Dream, is an important one. The lands surrounding the river Yann in Dunsany’s story are lands of Dream, with names conjured up by the writer’s fancy, not derived from any extant mythology, Irish or otherwise. Dunsany’s Irish novels, too, contain few references to specific literary and mythical stories of old Ireland; and when they do touch on them, ensure that they are largely kept apart from party politics, though not from religion.[3]

In The Curse of the Wise Woman, for example, there are two great visionaries, mother and son – Mrs Marlin and Marlin – who live together at the edge of the bog where the geese come in Spring. Both are worshippers of the bog and of the seasonal transformations that come over it as the year goes round. Both associate these transformations with distant dream countries; but each of their dreamlands is subtly different. For the son, the country in question is Tir-nan-Og, the mythical Irish Land of Youth across the Western sea, and he fears that his commitment to this pagan Paradise will finally damn his immortal soul in the eyes of the Church. Marlin’s political knowledge is sophisticated. He knows why the assassins targeted Charles’s father (the Duke had warned an ex-policeman about an IRA plot against his life, pp. 28-9), and can interpret the secret meaning that underlies the Duke’s coded letter to his son, where Charles himself cannot. But Marlin’s obsession with Tir-nan-Og is not political but personal, and the language he uses to describe it is entirely his own, as when he identifies the moon as a visitor from his dream country:

It comes up huge […] on the hills of Tir-nan-Og, rising up in the West as it sets here, and larger than the shield of the oldest giant, and brighter than we have seen it and full of music. And they hear its music in the Land of Youth. […] Not all the gold of the cities […] nor the gold that is still in the earth, can equal the glow of the blossoms of Tir-nan-Og when the orchards answer the moonlight. It’s for the Land of the Young that it’s shining. (p. 160)

For Mrs Marlin, meanwhile, the dream country evoked by the bog is her beloved Ireland, but an Ireland of the future, far removed from the country she now inhabits, and equally far removed from anything in old Irish literature. The language in which she speaks of it will be familiar to any reader of Dunsany’s early stories, such as ‘Idle Days on the Yann’. ‘There’ll be a day,’ she informs young Charles,

When Ireland’s ships, putting out from all our rivers, will crowd every sea. And they’ll see no grander ships in all their journeys. […] And the ambassadors from foreign lands, coming to greet us, will pass up our rivers and anchor under the walls of the Irish cities, and see their ships go dark from the shade of our towers and humble from the glow of our cities’ pride. And when they ask of our wealth and trade that we do with the other great nations of the world, our singers will tell them, coming down to the harbour’s edge with trumpets and gonfalons and telling the men of strange lands of Ireland’s glory. And the ambassadors will go back wistful into their own lands, telling what they have seen in the West, and all the nations will send costly gifts to welcome us, and to win from us treaties with far Indian kings (pp. 86-7).

So dedicated are mother and son to their own particular visions of a distant dreamland that in the end they sacrifice their lives for them, both vanishing into the bog and thus cutting themselves off along with their visions from the modern Ireland of the 1930s. Their disappearance, however, is not absolute. Both end up buried in the land they loved, and the implication is that their visions live on, partly in the memory of Charles, who is writing the story, and partly in the identity of modern Ireland, an idea that gets more fully explained in Dunsany’s later Irish novels.

Meanwhile The Curse of the Wise Woman carefully keeps the specifics of history at arm’s length. The dates of the events it relates remain uncertain; the narrator insists he is no good with calendars and has never kept a proper journal, though at one point he does inform us that the events he is describing took place around the time of the Siege of Khartoum (1885). Largely unmoored from the markers of chronology, the novel also unmoors itself from political partisanship, transforming nineteenth-century Ireland into a distant place like Tir-nan-Og, whose rivalries, tensions and deeds of violence have melted into the landscape with the establishment of the Free State. One should add, perhaps, that the protagonist of The Curse of the Wise Woman is Catholic, unlike Dunsany himself, so that his relationship with unionism is even more ambiguous than the writer’s, as I hinted earlier. Charles goes to an English school – Eton – and like his father is on good terms with the police, those embodiments of British imperialism (they supply him with a personal bodyguard after the assassins’ visit). Yet his faith is that of the nationalists, and he shares with the Marlins a deep respect for the old stories and myths that inspire their visions, to the extent that he shares Marlin’s fear of being drawn by them towards paganism and damnation. He represents a middle ground in Irish political identity, much as County Meath (where Dunsany Castle stands) occupies the middle ground in Ireland, its name being derived by the antiquarian Edmund Campion from the Latin ‘media’, meaning middle.[4]

All of Dunsany’s Irish novels (apart from one, Up in the Hills [1935], which I’m not discussing here) are set in the days before the Free State, and share with The Curse of the Wise Woman the sense that they inhabit a time now lost, disconnected from the present by major shifts in Irish culture. The most significant of these shifts is the embracing of capitalism, as represented in The Curse of the Wise Woman by the Peat Development (Ireland) Syndicate, which aims to exploit the resources of the bog on an industrial scale. The Syndicate’s plans for the bog – to bring ‘wheels and rails and machinery, and all the unnatural things that the factory was even then giving the world’, and use it to ‘Compress the turf [i.e. peat] by machinery and sell it as coal’ (pp. 211-2) – are designed to bring handsome profits to its shareholders through the wholesale destruction of the natural order. Against this form of destruction-for-profit stand the visions of Marlin and his mother. Mrs Marlin’s fabulously wealthy future Ireland is firmly rooted in the bog she adores and the rivers that feed it, its prosperity assured by a web of treaties with equally fabulous foreign powers, most of them associated with the fantastical Orient of the Thousand and One Nights which inspired so many of Dunsany’s early stories and plays. Mrs Marlin’s potent cursing of the Syndicate – the wise woman’s curse of the title – represents a triumph of the Irish imagination over the industrial capitalist menace, since it brings about the one fantastic incident in the novel, when the bog rises to overwhelm the wheels and cutting machines of Ireland’s ‘real’ future in the name of her imagined one. The curse itself aligns the wise woman’s vision with the natural world, as against the details of Irish mythology. She summons the wind, for instance, to her assistance, ‘with all the strength of the North and the might and splendor of winter’ (p. 306), the rain harvested from the ‘ancient ice of the mountains’ (p. 309), and the clouds which are the nameless ‘kings of the sky, proud riders’ (p. 309) – as against the legendary Irish kings. In summoning these elements she appeals to the weather conditions and seasonal processes that for many contemporary folklorists, as Tolkien points out, lay at the root of all myths.[5] And in the process Dunsany aligns his own fantasies – the fantasies invoked by Mrs Marlin in her vision of the glorious cities of future Ireland – with the natural processes that must be acknowledged and worked with by all political factions, ideologies, empires, no matter how different the convictions or cultures they embody.

In setting themselves against the self-styled financial pragmatists of the future, Mrs Marlin and her son can be seen as eccentric loners, representatives of nostalgia – though Marlin’s political knowhow makes him hard to dismiss as altogether out of touch. The overwhelming of the Syndicate’s machinery by the bog, on the other hand, suggests that the Marlins’ eccentricity is potent; it can make things happen. In fact, it’s one example among many of the efficacious eccentricity of Irish people in Dunsany’s Irish novels, and this stress on the triumph of the marginalized and mocked imagination makes these novels direct successors of the Quixotic novels Dunsany wrote in the 1920s. I suspect this emphasis on Quixotism in his work is a legacy of the Great War, springing from the widespread sense in the wake of that slaughter that governments had lost all respect, if they ever had any, for moral courage, courtesy, honesty and open-handedness. Dunsany’s fiction before the War did not feature Quixote figures, although there are mortals who defy Time and the gods in a number of narratives – most notably King Karnith Zo in ‘The Land of Time’ (1906), who leads an army against the country of the title and is wiped out with all his men by that country’s ruler, Time himself. The first of Dunsany’s genuine Quixotes is the young protagonist of his first novel, The Chronicles of Rodriguez (1922), who sets out on his adventures in search of a war because he hopes to win a castle in it, armed only with his father’s sword and supported by a Sancho Panza figure called Morano. But Rodriguez soon discovers that war is quite different from what it seemed in the old romances that shaped his character. At one point in the book, he is given a glimpse of past and future conflicts through the magic windows of an enchanter’s house, and sees the horrors of the fields of France which Dunsany witnessed at first hand:

Rodriguez lifted his eyes and glanced from city to city, to Albert, Bapaume, and Arras, his gaze moved over a plain with its harvest of desolation lying forlorn and ungathered, lit by the flashing clouds and the moon and peering rockets. He turned from the window and wept (p. 84).

Despite this vision of what’s ‘real’, the young man somehow preserves his romantic outlook on life, and retires at last to the castle of his dreams, a hidden fortress in a forest built for him by a band of Spanish Robin Hoods, who adopt him as their leader. In this way Rodriguez takes his place among the romantic visions of the past that inspired his own quixotic journey. The young man lives on with his lover in that fortress, located in a Shadow Valley whose name suggests it represents the secret spaces of the mind: the Freudian or Jungian unconscious, unacknowledged but hugely potent in the lives of later men and women. His glimpse of the Great War through the enchanter’s window makes him in some sense Dunsany’s contemporary, despite his anachronistic weapons and outlook; and his continuing presence in the shadows, as recorded in the Chronicles, identifies continuing Quixotism (a willingness to cleave to one’s romantic ideals in the teeth of mechanical, militaristic and totalitarian change) as a feature of the modern landscape as much as it was of early modern Spain.

Another Quixote figure of this period is Alveric in The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924), who persists in his quest for Elfland despite the growing scepticism of his travelling companions as to its existence, and whose faith is rewarded by the eventual merging of his country, Erl, with the elusive land of the Elves. Unlike Rodriguez, Alveric is considered mad by many who meet him, obsessed as he is with finding a place he may only have imagined. Mrs Marlin too is considered mad by the English workers of the Peat Development (Ireland) Syndicate, who in this assessment of her show themselves unfamiliar both with the workings of the Irish imagination and the attractions of Quixotism, which in Cervantes’s text too draws accusations of lunacy. If Rodriguez is innocent or ignorant on account of his youth – which puts him at risk of death at the hands of callous warlords – Alveric’s and Mrs Marlin’s insanity puts them at risk of being cast out from their communities, their visions forgotten, their histories erased. In Dunsany’s novels of the 1930s, Quixote figures get threatened with the madhouse, a location that excludes its inmates from participation in the life of the nation – like the cage in which Quixote is imprisoned at the end of Part One. But in each case Dunsany takes care to reintegrate them into modern Ireland, as Rodriguez was effectively reabsorbed into the landscape of Spain and Mrs Marlin into the landscape of the bog.

The Chronicles of Rodriguez is set in a fantastical Golden Age Spain, as is its successor The Charwoman’s Shadow (1926). The King of Elfland’s Daughter takes place in an alternative England, and like the Chronicles with its glimpse through the window into the future is linked with the annals of ‘actual’ history on just one occasion. The horn of a unicorn killed by Alveric’s hunter son, Orion, is said to have been presented by the Pope to King Francis of France in 1530, as recorded in the autobiography of the irascible goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini (pp. 166-7). The games played in these three novels of the 1920s with the connections between the fantastic and the historical – a unicorn’s horn and the King of France, an enchanter’s house and the Great War – continue in the Irish novels of the 1930s, making of Dunsany’s Ireland a ‘Shadow Ireland’ reminiscent of the Shadow Valley where Rodriguez makes his home. And just as the Spain inhabited by Don Quixote – full of giants in need of slaying and knights available and willing to slay them – is a better, simpler world than the actual Golden Age Spain, with its imperial conquests, sordid wars and Inquisition, so Dunsany’s simple Ireland is clearly meant as a better world than the politically complex Ireland he grew up in. Yet the later Irish novels are also designed to draw his Shadow Ireland and modern Ireland closer together, in the spirit of The Curse of the Wise Woman, which aims to reconcile all shades of the nationalist and unionist parties through its explicit rejection of factionalism.

As I suggested, Mrs Marlin and her son in The Curse of the Wise Woman could be read as Quixote figures, who self-consciously turn away from the real in favour of the dreamlands they have constructed in their minds, based on the landscape they inhabit. In this they resemble Alveric in his wanderings in quest of Elfland, which take him through landscapes strangely littered with the lost toys and elusive memories of his childhood; and they also resemble Alveric in that despite their eccentricity they finally get what they desire from both their dreamlands. Marlin is preserved from damnation by giving himself up to the Land of Youth, as embodied in the bog; but Mrs Marlin’s triumph is more spectacular. The overwhelming of the industrial peat-cutting syndicate in response to her curse destroys her along with the machines she despises – both are swallowed up by the ancient peat. But something grander seems to take place as the bog rises, which is that two worlds are brought together, Mrs Marlin’s fantastic future Ireland and the Free State Ireland of the early 1930s. Her triumph resembles the climactic moment in The King of Elfland’s Daughter, when Elfland magically merges with Alveric’s homeland, the mortal land of Erl, giving to each the special properties of the other: the immemorial beauty and stasis of Elfland, the subtle changes wrought on Erl by the operations of time, seasons and weather. Mrs Marlin is buried underground by the peat she incites to destroy the work of her industrialist enemies; and in this she resembles the ancient Tuatha Dé Danann of Ireland, who were defeated by the iron-wielding Milesians from Spain at Tailtiu or Teltown in Dunsany’s own County Meath, and afterwards literally went underground, becoming the aes sídhe or hill-dwelling people known as the fairies. Dunsany makes very little of this alignment of the two Marlins with the Sidhe, but Charles tells us in the book’s last chapter that her memory eclipses in his mind the spectacular events that have overwhelmed the world since her death, including the Great War (‘four and a quarter years of [man’s] greatest violence’) and the invention of the radio (p. 319). She has become a powerful undercurrent in his personal history, and similar undercurrents form a major theme of Dunsany’s later Irish novels, imaginatively shaping Irish identity in defiance of the scorn of the imagination that dominates modern capitalist culture.

[More on Dunsany’s Irish Fiction here.]

Books Cited

Dunsany, Lord, ‘Idle Days on the Yann’, Time and the Gods, Fantasy Masterworks (London: Gollancz, 2003)

Dunsany, Lord, The Chronicles of Don Rodriguez (London and New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1922)

Dunsany, Lord, The Curse of the Wise Woman (London: William Heinemann, 1933)

Dunsany, Lord, The King of Elfland’s Daughter (London and New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1924)

O’Brien, Flann, At Swim-Two-Birds (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1983)

Notes

[1] See my essay ‘Fantastic Economies: James Stephens and Flann O’Brien’, Flann O’Brien: Problems with Authority, ed. Ruben Borg, Paul Fagan and John McCourt (Cork: Cork University Press, 2017), pp. 136-51. ISBN 978-1-78205-230-2.

[2] For a detailed analysis of Dunsany’s political position see Patrick Maume, ‘Dreams of Empire, Empire of Dreams: Lord Dunsany Plays the Game’, in S. T. Joshi (ed.), Critical Essays on Lord Dunsany (Lanham, Toronto and Plymouth: The Scarecrow Press, 2013), pp. 53-71.

[3] The big exception here is Up in the Hills (1935), whose satire of the Irish Civil War is well analysed by Maume.

[4] See Richard Marsh, Meath Folk Tales (Dublin: The History Press, 2013), Introduction, p. 9.

[5] ‘At one time it was a dominant view that all such matter was derived from “nature-myths”. The Olympians were personifications of the sun, of dawn, of night, and so on, and all the stories told about them were originally myths (allegories would have been a better word) of the greater elemental changes and processes of nature’. ‘On Fairy-Stories’, Tree and Leaf (London: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 23.

Fantasy 1939: Science Fiction

Howell Davies/Andrew Marvell, Congratulate the Devil; R C Sherriff, The Hopkins Manuscript

Sam Haile, Woman and Suspended Man (1939)

The 1930s saw a vast range of fantasy published in the United Kingdom and Ireland. But this is a claim that needs interrogation. What do we mean by fantasy in a decade before the term has come to denote a literary genre, before fantasy (invariably yoked up with science fiction) has acquired a section of its own on the shelves of bookshops? My series of blog posts marked ‘British and Irish Fantasy 1939’ are an attempt to answer that question; and more importantly, they’re a bid to show that the question itself – what do we mean by fantasy? – played a central role in British and Irish fiction in the decade that saw the rise of fascism and the outbreak of the Second World War.

Leonora Carrington, The Pomps of the Subsoil (1947)

As I’ve noted elsewhere, the word ‘fantasy’ was widely used in criticism that decade. Herbert Read defined it in his book English Prose Style (1928), which kept being republished and revised throughout the 1930s and 40s, while J R R Tolkien subjected it to more extended scrutiny in his Andrew Lang lecture ‘On Fairy Stories’ in 1937. For Read, fantasy was a sustained work of ‘caprice, whim, fanciful invention’ – with the emphasis on the word sustained – concerning itself with ‘things which are concrete, clearly perceptible, visibly defined’, and developing its caprices in a scrupulously logical manner. Tolkien chose to define fantasy (which as a philologist he knew very well to have a wider range of meanings) as one aspect of the faculty that mediates between the imagination – the capacity to form mental images of things not actually present, as Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary put it – and the external world, or rather its human population. That is, it’s ‘the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality’ (pp. 46-7), the ‘operative link’ between the imagination and its expression in a work of art. More specifically, it’s that aspect of this power or operative link which is concerned to generate ‘a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression, derived from the Image: a quality essential to fairy-story’. Fantasy, for Tolkien, is the capacity to make works of art that convey a sense of ‘“unreality” (that is, of unlikeness to our Primary World), of freedom from the domination of “observed fact”, in short of the fantastic’ (p. 47). It’s the art of the impossible, in other words: art that flamboyantly violates the laws of physics, biology, geography, or space and time, where ‘art’ is being used in the old sense of a skill as well as the product of that skill. Taken in this inclusive but quite specific sense, fantasy fiction of the 1930s is quite astonishing in terms of the sheer diversity of its experiments, and suggests the extent to which the imaginations of writers were being troubled and transformed by the turbulent times they lived in, when world-wide recession, totalitarianism and the spread of conflict across the globe threatened to wipe out all traces of the past – and rewrite the terms on which people lived the present – in what must have looked something like a slow tsunami.

Michael Ayrton, Sleeper in Flight (1943)

Fantasy as the art of the impossible found itself in a strange position in that decade. All certainties about what was impossible, or conversely about what could be described (in Read’s terms) as ‘concrete, clearly perceptible, visibly defined’, were in dispute, caught up in the struggle between opposing philosophies and political positions. Tolkien expresses anxiety about the operations of the faculty called fantasy – ‘the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality’ – in part because it could so easily serve the interests of falsification, in particular the falsification of history beloved of the fascists. This is why he stresses (a) the importance of incorporating the qualities of strangeness and wonder into the products of the fantasy, emphasizing its self-segregation from consensus reality; (b) the fairy tale’s subservience (as ‘sub-creation’) to the primary, substantial creative work of making planets, living creatures and so on, which is the exclusive province of God; and (c) the preservation of a rigorous sense of history in one’s treatment of it – even while he acknowledges that the history of fantasy’s most familiar literary product, the fairy tale, is next to impossible to write. This final point was a tricky one in the 1930s – I mean, the preservation of the rigorous historical perspective for which an etymologist or historian of words like Tolkien prided himself. In the between-war period the distinction between the primary world – whether or not one took it to have been intentionally created by a singular God – and the strangeness of what cannot and never could exist, was constantly being challenged in fantastic fiction, in an obvious and often deliberate reflection of the breakdown of political, social, economic, religious, philosophical and scientific certainties taking place in these two decades. A rigorous historical perspective – an account of the past or indeed the present based on the concrete evidence available, uncontaminated by baseless speculation – was not so easy to define or maintain under the circumstances.

Conroy Maddox, The Lesson (1938)

At the same time as societies were undergoing radical changes, the human mind was being revealed by psychoanalysts as a complex repository of conscious and unconscious fantasies, many of them concerned with exerting some level of control over people, actions, situations and sensations. For Freudians, fantasies were always interposing themselves between the individual’s mind and the world, determining how one interacted with one’s fellow human beings, so that what was ‘real’ was difficult to determine or access. This difficulty underpins many contemporary interpretations of the artistic movement known as surrealism, which took root in Britain in the 1930s. British surrealist apologists like Herbert Read insisted that the set of conventions known as ‘realism’ or mimesis could not properly take account of human experience in the world, since our unconscious desires, dreams and obsessions always direct the way we perceive or interact with our environment.[1] Surrealism, for Read, meant ‘super-realism’: going beyond the notion of objective reality, as befitted artists or creators realistic enough to know that fantasies invariably mediate between ourselves and the material spaces we inhabit, the objects and living creatures with which we interact. The word’s prominence in 1930s Britain, where a wide range of British and Irish artists joined artists from the continent in the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936, underlines the extent to which an awareness of fantasy as a faculty or a product of that faculty was helping to destabilize the very concept of the ‘real’.

One way of grasping the sheer diversity of fantasy literature in the 1930s is to take a snapshot of the fiction that might be termed ‘fantastic’ in any given year. For the purposes of this post and those that follow it I’ve chosen the year when war broke out between Britain and Germany, 1939, selecting a small number of texts from that year – many of which we would now see as belonging to different genres – that demonstrate a sustained engagement with ‘fantasy’ in one or more of the senses given above. Each post deals with a different kind of fantastic fiction: science fiction, Irish rural fantasy, children’s literature – though it doesn’t claim to deal with all examples of these kinds, even in the year under discussion.[2] Instead the books have been chosen because they speak to each other in some way, and because they collectively speak to the state of fantasy at the time of writing.

Two significant books we would now call science fiction came out that year, both of which have a clear association with fantasy and the fantastic. One was by Andrew Marvell: Congratulate the Devil, about a drug that gives its user power over other people’s minds, enabling him or her to realize the desire for absolute control which for anyone else must always remain a daydream. The other is by R C Sherriff: The Hopkins Manuscript, about the collision of the moon with the earth and the social chaos that ensues, as seen through the eyes of an Englishman living in rural Hampshire. Two experimental fantasies were also published: Clemence Dane’s little-known satire The Arrogant History of White Ben, about a scarecrow that becomes fascist dictator of Britain, and Flann O’Brien’s celebrated first novel At Swim-Two-Birds, about a medley of characters in a book who rebel against the tyranny of the author. I’ve written elsewhere about both Dane’s book and O’Brien’s, and introduce them here to give a sense of how Marvell’s and Sherriff’s novels share a number of features with other kinds of fantastic texts published at the same time. To begin with, three of the four books I’ve just listed were published under pseudonyms: Andrew Marvell was the Welsh editor and theatre critic Howell Davies, Clemence Dane the English novelist and playwright Winifred Ashton, while Flann O’Brien was the Irish civil servant Brian O’Nolan. The use of pseudonyms gives some sense of the constraints under which writers felt themselves to be practising their craft at this point in history. All four books concern abuses of power in the form of the dictatorships imposed by the author, the scarecrow and the British government in the books by O’Brien, Dane and Sherriff, as well as through mind control in Marvell’s novel. In all four novels a form of social breakdown takes place, and in every case this follows on from the rise of fascistic forces in the writer’s own country: O’Brien’s Ireland, Sherriff’s United Kingdom, Marvell’s Wales and England (as a Welshman he makes a clear distinction between them), and most grimly of all Dane’s Britain, where after the scarecrow takes control a growing number of social groups begin to be classified as ‘crows’ and condemned to death. All four novels localize the root causes of social and political calamity not in some overseas nation – Fascist Italy or Spain, Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia – but in the fields, towns and cityscapes of home (even The Hopkins Manuscript does this, as we shall see). Clemence Dane’s totalitarian scarecrow, White Ben, is peculiarly British in his origins, constructed by a child and clothed in a random selection of garments that between them represent a cross-section of British society. He springs from the soil of England like the plant that grows in the field where he acquires sentience, and from which he takes his surname, campion. His dictatorship, then, is a British one, forged exclusively from British materials, tailored to British culture. He can stand for many of the adult fantasies written in the late 1930s in his disastrous transplantation of the fascistic dreams that were sweeping through continental Europe into the receptive ground of his native island.

Andrew Marvell’s Congratulate the Devil offers a particularly interesting perspective on the breakdown of boundaries between the fantastic and the real in contemporary Britain. The story tells of a young chemist, William Roper, who discovers a version of the drug mescal which enables him to take control of other people’s minds, and hence to realize his own private fantasies in the actual world (at least to some extent: the drug only works within a certain distance of its user). Roper is a man who bears a marked resemblance to the devil, both in his appearance – he has ‘two glistening lumps’ on his forehead like incipient horns – and his personality, since he loves playing malicious tricks on random strangers. He himself, then, is corporeally linked to the supernatural or impossible, and the drug gives him the chance to demolish the walls between the immaterial religious world whose chief antagonist he resembles and the material world he lives in. The comic possibilities of this demolition of boundaries are obvious, and Roper begins by using his new drug impishly, for his own amusement. He first feeds it to a dog, whose doggish mind then forces all human beings within range to behave like dogs, an episode described in something like the comic style of Lord Dunsany’s charming novella My talks with Dean Spanley (1936). Dunsany’s book is about a clergyman who keeps remembering his former life as a spaniel; it has nothing too serious about it (though there’s a drug involved: he only revisits his past lives when he drinks the Hungarian sweet wine Tokay). In Marvell’s novel, by contrast, Roper’s behaviour quickly transitions from the impish to the diabolical. He falls in love with an artist’s model and forces her to love him back by means of the drug; and from that point on, driven by his no-longer-repressed desires, the chemist’s powers get used for increasingly disturbing purposes: rape, murder, robbery, an incipient revolution. But it also becomes increasingly clear that the young man’s devilry is merely an extension of a range of diabolical activities that are already endemic in British society; that Britain itself, in fact – as a community and an institution – has a barely repressed unconscious which is always breaking through in acts of more or less authoritarian violence. Roper’s incipient horns are the physical manifestation of a widespread tendency throughout the nation he inhabits; and correspondingly, Roper’s adventures make the incipient horns of contemporary Britain clearly visible to Marvell’s readers.

Mervyn Peake, Rumpelstiltskin

For Marvell, the English language itself acknowledges the omnipresence of diabolical tendencies among its users. As you read the novel, count the incidence of diabolical terms such as ‘devil’, ‘hell’, ‘infernal’ and ‘damnation’ in the text, often in commonly used phrases whose submerged religious or moral sense is reawakened by their context: ‘’Old ’im, Sir, ’old the devil’ (p. 8); ‘I […] pelted down the lane as if the devil were at my heels’ (p. 117); ‘Women were the devil’ (p. 185); ‘What the devil is Mayfair running away from?’ (p. 258). Roper’s devilishness, then, is native both to Britain and its dominant language. So too is his coercive attitude to women. The model he desires, Anita, is a married woman, whose husband asserts his power over her through violence, which is effectively condoned by those who know her, since there is little recourse in British law for victims of domestic abuse. As the artist who paints Anita puts it, ‘There have been bruises, now and again, but she hasn’t said anything’ (p. 104) – presumably because nothing she says will make any difference. Roper’s exertion of power over Anita with the help of his drug is just another version of the male violence to which she is already subjected, thanks to the tacit acceptance in British society of the husband’s right to attack his wife whenever he chooses.

Leonora Carrington, The Pine Family (1940)

The relationship between Anita and her husband, then, is as much of a devil’s bargain as her relationship with Roper; and again this is pointed up in Marvell’s infernal references. When the narrator, Jim, first meets the husband, he asks: ‘What the devil do you want? Who are you?’ (p. 153), and the husband’s response exposes the hell of marriage for many wives. He wants to make a business deal with Roper, using the narrator as an intermediary and his wife as a bargaining chip; he knows Roper has been sleeping with Anita and insists on being paid not to divulge it, and when the narrator refuses, the husband beats her up ‘like a maniac’, as Roper puts it (p. 157). From one perspective, this is blackmail reinforced by assault; but from another it’s capitalism in action, as the husband implies when he describes himself and the narrator as ‘men of the world’ (p. 155). In other words, it’s a way of doing business that’s not just accepted but fiercely defended by governments and institutions all over the planet. And when Roper finally kills him – leaving Anita ‘free’, as Roper puts it, though not free to resist Roper’s wishes – the chemist insists it is not murder but justice, and that the narrator’s disapproval brands him a hypocrite (p. 160). Not acting to put a stop to the husband’s violence is more diabolical, Roper implies, than Roper’s own decision to end that violence through violence, so that Roper is in some respects less devilish than the Britain that condones misogynist abuse. By this stage it’s become clear, in fact, that the chemist’s devilish use of mind control – the fantastic impossibility at the heart of the novel – provides a kind of key to reveal the devilish forms of mind control already at work in British society, as well as the intricate hypocrisies – the ‘compunctions and evasions’, as Marvell puts it (p. 89) – that work to sustain them.

Mervyn Peake, Mr Hyde (1948)

As Roper implies, the narrator’s penchant for hypocrisy makes him not just a double for Roper but perhaps even his superior in the hierarchy of wickedness. Jim is a playboy, by his own admission. He claims to be studying the politics of labour in countries round the world, a useful project, one would have thought, at a time of global recession like the 1930s; but his ‘studies’ are merely an excuse for tourism and philandering, and his contributions to political thought or economic planning are non-existent. His identity, too, is almost non-existent. His name is Jim Starling, which suggests a flightiness, a penchant for imitating other people and a liking for bright shiny things without much awareness of their value. We don’t know a great deal about him or his family – and it’s implied that there is little to know – but we’re aware that his money is running out and that his days as a playboy are therefore numbered, thus effectively erasing his identity, since he is defined by his indecisiveness and self-indulgence, both of which are made possible by his fortune. His days themselves are numbered in any case, as we know from the opening sentence: ‘In seven days I shall be killed’, it announces, turning the tumbling pace of the novel into a sprightly gallop towards Jim’s death.

But Jim has already been effectively erased from the world of the book some time before this happens. From the beginning of the novel, his fate is indistinguishable from Roper’s, since he has no story outside of Roper’s story, and there is even a point at which Roper occupies Jim’s body with the help of his drug – when Jim becomes Roper, so to speak. Marvell makes it clear that this occupation is a form of rape; Jim insists, ‘I didn’t want him to do it’ (p. 88), and later tells him directly ‘I would rather not’ (p. 88), but Roper does it anyway, just as he later forces Anita to become his lover. As with Anita, too, Roper represents his violation of Jim as tantamount to an act of love: ‘It’s the kind of thing lovers long for: complete union with the beloved’ (p. 88) – though he adds with characteristic irony, ‘I don’t suppose it would be a healthy experience’. Oddly, though, it’s Roper who claims to feel violated by Jim as a result of their joint occupation of Jim’s body: ‘I think I shall always bear you a grudge for this rape’, he tells him afterwards (p. 90). His resentment stems from a number of sources. First, there is Jim’s stated unwillingness to describe the experience of sharing Roper’s identity, which both Roper and the reader might ascribe to Jim’s cowardice, his reluctance to expose the unsettling cynicism, resentment and lack of conscience he has found in Roper’s mind. Partly, too, the chemist’s resentment stems from his belated wish to preserve what he calls a ‘privacy of self’ (p. 90). Most disturbing of all for Roper, though, is the evidence Jim might provide of the instability of his own identity. During Roper’s occupation of Jim’s body, Jim sees clearly the distinction between himself and Roper: ‘I had never imagined that someone else could feel so different,’ he writes, ‘that his “being” should vary so profoundly from my “being”’ (p. 88); and he confirms that Roper’s personality has what he calls ‘weight’, or gravity, in stark opposition to his own vapid ‘lightness’. But his friend’s mind is also described as existing in some sort of ‘bondage’, exuding a sense ‘of being swathed round and of a desperate stretching against the bandages, as though he were buried alive’, of being in ‘constant strife’ – a phrase that neatly encapsulates the devil’s nature as the arch-fiend or universal enemy, trapped by his own opposition to the whole of creation. Shortly afterwards Jim describes him as ‘a bold, dark, striving spirit, constantly disintegrating and re-cohering’ (p. 89), like evil in Milton’s Comus.[3] Roper, then, like Jim himself, has no consistent being; he can’t distinguish himself from his own victims, and is as subject to coercive binding as anyone he binds with his drug. The breaking down of boundaries between minds, which is made possible by the drug, reveals the permeability of the boundaries between one identity and another, and hence perhaps the difficulty of assigning responsibility for any given action, of determining its moral status. No wonder, then, if Jim tells us that Roper’s brief possession of his body leaves him (and presumably Roper) with a powerful unease about what he calls the ‘mystery of personality’ (p. 88), as well as a ‘furtive sense of shame’, as if his refusal to describe Roper’s mind to its owner makes him responsible, in some sense, both for what Roper has done in the past and what he will do in future.

Mervyn Peake, Dr Jekyll (1948)

Sure enough, Jim condones Roper’s actions again and again in the book, first by failing to describe the state of Roper’s mind to him at this early stage in his addiction, then by repeatedly refusing to condemn them to his face, and finally by failing to report the murders he commits to the authorities – aiding and abetting him, in other words, out of a misplaced sense of loyalty. His own unstable identity transforms him at times into a dead ringer for his more forceful friend, while his hypocrisy makes him as responsible for Roper’s actions as Roper himself; perhaps more so, since he could have brought them to an end more easily than Roper, given the chemist’s self-confessed condition as an ‘addict’ to his new drug (p. 114).

But Jim is not alone in his complicity with Roper’s actions. The book sees the chemist’s personal devilishness manifested in nearly every other character: from the police constable whose mind Roper makes use of to club an unfortunate servant to death with his truncheon (p. 135), to Jim’s elderly aunt, who shows an unseemly fascination with the details of the servant’s murder (p. 112); from Cousin Flo, an unmarried relative of Roper’s who gets hold of one of the pills and transforms a Vicar into the husband of her dreams (p. 144), to the narrator, who is accused by Roper of having designs on the pills himself (p. 138). When Jim insists that Roper give him the pills after the servant’s murder, Roper tells him that he is behaving just like Hitler: ‘with you they’d be safe,’ he observes ironically; ‘It sounds like Hitler’s argument for taking away the colonies’ (p. 138). Britain is filled, in fact, with little Hitlers, whose claims to benevolence are indistinguishable from the dictator’s desire to exercise absolute power. The pills do no more than underline this affinity between the outwardly good-natured English or Welsh citizen and the Nazi dictator of Germany, by giving some of them the means to incarnate their ‘secret desire […] for conquest and capitulation’ (p. 144).

Leslie Hurry, Café Bar (1946)

Despite Jim’s insistence that he is a playboy, then, with no serious political or intellectual commitments; despite the ‘lightness’ of his prose style as first-person narrator of Marvell’s book – full of short paragraphs, rapid-fire dialogue and swift transitions; Jim’s narrative is in the end a political one, as perhaps all narratives had to be in 1939. The political aspect of the book is revealed quite gradually, but comes to a head in the final pages, when the British government stands revealed as the worst of devils in that devilish nation. As the self-appointed watchdogs of global capitalism, the British authorities, it turns out, are willing to sacrifice any number of innocent citizens to protect its interests; and the people they destroy by violence include members of their own forces, policemen and soldiers. The irony is that these innocents are killed to put an end to a professedly benevolent revolution, involving the forcible spread of ‘human kindness’ through the agency of Roper’s friend, a saintly Welsh street singer called Bert who is the chemist’s polar opposite in terms of his moral proclivities. When Bert gets hold of the pills he is persuaded by Roper (for the young man’s private amusement) to conduct an experiment on the British public by forcing them through mind control to be relentlessly ‘kind’ to one another. Kindness, however – it turns out – is inimical to property laws, the hoarding of gold reserves by banks, and hierarchies of every kind; so the government cannot possibly accept its imposition on the populace. The book ends with a devastating artillery attack that kills Roper, Bert, policemen, soldiers and a host of bystanders. As Howell Davies, Andrew Marvell was a veteran of the Great War; so the termination of his novel with the indiscriminate shelling by his government of its own people, in a year when global conflict was about to break out for a second time in the author’s lifetime, makes bona fide devils of the British state.

George Frampton, Peter Pan statue, Kensington Gardens (1911)

The authorities’ erasure of Bert’s revolution also erases Bert and Roper from the annals of history. The clothes of the dictator-scarecrow in Clemence Dane’s The Arrogant History of White Ben transform their wearer into a living emblem of the past: ‘He had been garmented’, Dane writes, ‘with religion, diplomacy, the art of war, the art of healing; for he wore a priest’s vestment, a soldier’s gauntlets and civilian mackintosh; a gentleman’s pleasure-hat, a surgeon’s coat. […] [M]en’s memories were buttoned about him’ (p. 20). The fate of Marvell’s characters, by contrast, is to be remembered (if at all) as the cast of a novel, and hence to be written out of the historical record altogether. This process of writing them out begins at an early stage in the revolution, as the government carefully vets the newspaper coverage of its spread; and later one of the ‘journalists’ reporting on Bert’s movements turns out to be a government spy, whose information enables the shell attack on the Welshman and his followers to be accurately targeted. The only reliable account of what happened to Bert and Roper is to be found in the pages of the seemingly fantastical story told by Jim, which he writes down while staying in a tiny village in Wales – on the margins of history, so to speak – and arranges to be smuggled to Roper’s father after his death. The fact that we are reading this posthumous account in the form of a work of fantastic fiction suggests that the father chose to release it as a product of the imagination rather than of history, presumably to protect the contents from censorship. Indeed, the decision to release it as fantasy seems to be anticipated by the choice of setting for Bert’s last revolutionary headquarters: the tea-house in Kensington Gardens – now the Serpentine Gallery – located in a section of Hyde Park whose best-known associations are with that most influential of British fantasies, Peter Pan. Peter’s first literary appearance famously took place in Kensington Gardens, in J M Barrie’s The Little White Bird, and his statue by Sir George Frampton still stands on the other side of the water from the former café. In Congratulate the Devil, then, the fantastic and the historical are in constant dialogue or exchange, so that the distinction between them is at times more or less impossible to make.

Edward Burra, Dancing Skeletons (1934)

The disintegration of boundaries between fantasy and reality is for Marvell profoundly damaging. He reflects this formally by refusing to divide his novel into chapters, as (for instance) R C Sherriff did in The Hopkins Manuscript. As a result the comic episodes at the beginning, where humans behave like cheerful dogs, exist in a continuum with the much more troubling incidents that follow: the murder of one of those humans – the servant Dobbs; the bank robbery; Roper’s murder of Anita; the destruction of the teahouse by shelling. As we’ve seen, Roper’s mescal breaks down the boundaries between the imagination and material life; Bert’s conviction that human kindness provides the key to a better world, for instance, is described as one of his ‘fantasies’, and the pills let him put this fantasy into practice. But for powerful people – newspaper magnates, rich men, politicians – the world is already a ‘fine hot-pot of fact and fantasy’, which is how Roper describes the ‘inaccurate’ coverage of his killing of Dobbs in the national press (p. 130).

The bank robbery staged by Roper shortly after the murder demonstrates the central role played by fantasy in economics. With his pills he forces the bank manager to think of the money in his vaults as worth less than a pile of leaves: ‘Pieces of paper,’ he calls them, ‘silly little pieces of paper with pictures on them. Gentlemen, you are welcome to them. […] Take them all. […] Leave not a wrack behind’ (p. 125). As the banker expatiates on this new perspective, the notion that ‘pieces of paper with pictures on them’ should have some sort of intrinsic value becomes increasingly absurd; yet it’s in the interests of defending this absurdity that the British government bombs the tea-house in Kensington Gardens. In other words, Roper’s imposition of his fantasies through the operation of his new drug underlines the far more successful imposition of fantasies on human beings by the world’s businesses and the governments that serve them, a form of mind control that reduces people of all nations to helpless dupes.

Alfred Kubin, Caliban (1918)

The bank manager’s phrase, ‘Leave not a wrack behind’, comes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It’s from the scene where the enchanter Prospero acknowledges the insubstantial nature of his magic, and aligns it with the insubstantial nature of the ‘great globe itself’, which will fade away at last and leave no trace of its passing. This is the first of two key references to The Tempest in Marvell’s novel. The second is Roper’s, when he contemplates what would have happened if the islander Caliban had got control of Prospero’s wand and used it to reshape the world around him (p. 152). Roper thinks of himself as a second Caliban: a misshapen, marginalized individual, enslaved by pointless conventions, who lusts after Anita just as Caliban lusted after Prospero’s daughter Miranda. At first the young chemist claims to have no interest in gaining Anita’s affections through the mind-controlling ‘magic’ of mescal, and insists that Caliban, too, would have been uninterested in forcing Miranda to love him. But Shakespeare’s play does not bear this out this assertion. Caliban did in fact try to rape Miranda – according to her father – and Roper follows in his footsteps. With the help of the drug he forces Anita to sleep with him, then when the effects wear off and she recoils from him in horror he strangles her in a paroxysm of rage, resentful of her inability to go on embodying his erotic daydreams without the drug’s intervention. In both play and novel, then, magic is the expression of the desire to shape the world in accordance with one’s fantasies, a project whose eventual failure is rendered inevitable by the incompatibility of one person’s fantasies with another’s – except in an impossible utopia, of the kind Marvell’s Bert or Shakespeare’s Gonzalo conjures up.

Ithell Colquhoun, Song of Songs (1933)

Roper’s willingness to ‘force’ Anita to service his desires is represented as devilish, but no more so than the world’s tendency to ‘force’ her to embody an androcentric vision of femininity. The young chemist first sees the girl in a painting executed by an artist named Joubert, who also happens to supply Roper with the drug which is the source of his problems. In the painting – presumably executed under the influence of the drug in question – Anita stands facing the viewer, naked, ‘hands turned towards us’, looking off into the distance at an indeterminate object (‘It might be a lover, it might be God’, p. 102). It is Roper who suggests a title for this picture: ‘the moment of truth’; but in fact, of course, it’s another fantasy, the image of a young girl as freely and willingly available for all men’s pleasure. The street singer Bert correctly identifies the painting as exploitative, but couches his objections to Anita’s nudity in the same possessive terms that the picture invites all men to use about her: ‘I don’t like you doing that’, he tells her (p. 103). Both Roper’s and Bert’s perceptions of Anita are based on the painting’s representation of her as somehow ‘made’ by and for the male viewer:

‘Look, you made me, here I am. I have nothing to hide. The beauty is yours, all yours.’ She seemed to be saying that, and glorying, too, that the beauty was there to bestow, utterly, without reservation. (p. 103)

Bert later liberates Anita from both Joubert’s and Roper’s influence, but in doing so places her in a setting that infantilizes her – a sweet shop – as does his refusal to acknowledge her adult desire for Bert himself. Later still, Roper murders Anita because she refuses to act out the role of ‘the beauty [that is] there to bestow, utterly, without reservation’ in life as she did in the painting. Both men, in fact, use the drug to ‘make’ or remake Anita as they wish her to be, just as the painter did, and both find themselves unable to cope when she insists on following her own desires and inclinations. In this they are the exact opposite of Roper’s father, a man who the chemist describes as the ‘only complete realist I know’, who ‘knows exactly what he wants from life, never asks more of it than it can give, and is always prepared to find that it gives less than he expects’ (p. 92). The father’s decision to release the narrative of Roper’s drug as a fantasy novel, as against a historical account, is ironically a more realistic choice than any made by the drug’s users, who persist in believing that the world can be reshaped by the transient influence of the magic it contains. Roper and Bert are fantasists, and their treatment of Anita underlines the tendency of fantasists in the 1930s to force their damaging dreams on the world, always asking ‘more of it than it can give’, and roused to rage, in Roper’s case – like Wilde’s version of Caliban – when it doesn’t mirror their dreams and expectations with servile faithfulness.

Oswald Mosley and the British Fascist Blackshirts (1936)

Ironically, Roper’s own death is brought about for a similar reason to his murder of the woman who obsessed him. Bert’s revolution, which Roper first suggests to him and then helps to orchestrate, exposes money and social inequality as manifestations of false consciousness; that is, as fantasies devised to keep the ruling elite in power. It is, in fact, an attempt on Roper’s part to return to the ‘realism’ he was taught by his father, and which he abandoned by treating Anita as an ideal; and as we’ve seen it proves insupportable to the government, which destroys him as he destroyed Anita. This would seem to be Roper’s intention from the beginning: a suicidal desire to atone for his killing of Anita with his own destruction, though as a devil-figure he inevitably brings down his friends Bert and Jim along with him. Roper knows very well how the revolution of kindness is likely to end. When Jim suggests at one point that the government is reluctant to fire on the revolutionaries because of the crowd of innocent people gathered round them, Roper asks him: ‘What do you think you’re up against, the Peace Pledge Union?’ (p. 256) – referring to the pacifists who opposed a military response to the Nazi threat. The real reason for the government’s reluctance, Roper insists, is that the revolutionaries are out of range of the army’s machine guns; and the bombing of the café confirms his suspicions, while also signaling to Marvell’s readers the end of the democratic dream of government as a beneficent force at the service of its electors. World leaders share the obsessive self-interest of other men, a self-interest that devours those who refuse to serve it as a cannibal devours other members of its own species. Roper himself describes his obsession with Anita as a kind of hunger: ‘Ever been hungry, really hungry?’ he asks Jim (pp. 195 and 200), as an analogy for his yearning for her body. This hunger finally consumes her, and it’s in response to this act of metaphorical cannibalism that Roper allows himself to be consumed in his turn by dying in a famous eating-house. Marvell’s novel finishes, in fact, by implying that the mind control imposed on individuals or populations by fascist populism is a form of anthropophagy, and that it is practised everywhere in Europe by governments determined to sustain themselves by consuming the citizens they govern. T H White had made a similar point just one year earlier in The Sword in the Stone (1938).

Bela Lugosi in Chandu the Magician (1932)

In his essay on fairy stories, Tolkien’s unease with the power exerted by fantasy over its readers comes to a head in his discussion of the difference between Magic and Enchantment. Magic makes a change to the world we live in, he tells us, and ‘its desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills’. Enchantment, on the other hand, is the art of sub-creation – of inventing new worlds as imaginative subsets of this one – and is ‘inwardly wholly different from the greed for self-centred power which is the mark of the mere Magician’ (p. 53). But Enchantment too can be ‘perilous’, Tolkien warns (p. 53), because ‘Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evil’ (p. 55). Congratulate the Devil is a book about Magic, in Tolkien’s terms, whose protagonists are as greedy for power as Tolkien’s Magician. But Tolkien also believes that Enchantment, as the human craft he calls Fantasy works it, can be abused to such an extent that we think our sub-created secondary worlds to be somehow real: ‘[Men] have made false gods out of other materials: their nations, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice’ (pp. 55-6). From this perspective, Congratulate the Devil is a work of Enchantment, and as such the product of Fantasy. It draws attention, as I’ve argued here, to the totalitarian abuses of Fantasy that pervaded Europe in the 1930s; and in the process it reminds its readers that they themselves might be worshipping deformed gods of their own invention – the Ropers of their minds.

How, I wonder, does Marvell imagine the effect of his book on its readers? Does he see it as practising mind control on us, experimentally forcing us to root for the devil, Roper, and to congratulate him in the end for the morbid entertainment he has afforded us? There’s a clue, perhaps, in the connection with Wilde I’ve already touched on in connection with Caliban. If Roper is Caliban, he will produce a dual effect on his readership, according to Wilde’s preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, since ‘The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass’, while ‘The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism’ – for which read deliberately unrealistic narratives, like modern fantasy – ‘is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in the glass’. Roper as a representation of contemporary Britishness will make readers angry; Roper as an unrealistic character, with his devilish horn-stubs, will arouse readers’ contempt; though all the while readers will fail to note that they are as much Caliban as Roper is, if we take Wilde’s dicta seriously. Meanwhile the portrait of Anita can be seen as a version of the Picture of Dorian Gray, mirroring the faults of its painter (who worshipped a fake version of Anita just as Basil Hallward worshipped a fake version of Dorian) as well as its spectators (who expect all women to act as the model is made to act by the painter). Marvell’s readers are as much the painters and avid spectators of Anita’s portrait as Joubert and Roper are. Marvell’s position as author, meanwhile, is that of Roper’s father: the realist who expects nothing more from life than it can actually give him, since he unflinchingly demonstrates the likely outcome of giving credence to such deadly fantasies. His fantasy speaks unpalatable truths to power – and to the people who willingly lend unscrupulous authorities what power they have; though like Roper’s father he has no expectation that power or the people will pay attention to it. For Marvell, as for Auden (also writing in 1939), fantasy ‘makes nothing happen’ – though in flamboyant and sometimes spectacular fashion.

*****

I’ve suggested that Congratulate the Devil concerns itself in part with the erasure of unpalatable happenings from the pages of history; but Sherriff’s novel The Hopkins Manuscript contains yet more unsettling revelations about the unreliability of human accounts of the past. Once again the novel presents itself as a form of documentary evidence for events that might seem far-fetched to its readers. Here, however, those events took place at a time so long ago that it has become known as a second Dark Ages. The frame of the novel – like the frame of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – transports the reader to a point many centuries in the future, after the population of Europe has been wiped out, first by the devastating effects of the moon’s collision with the earth, then by conflict over ownership of the shattered remains of the satellite among rival European nations. Lunacy, in other words, is its subject, and the moon serves in it both as a deadly menace – a giant bomb – and as a potent metaphor for the capacity of human beings to set aside reason and self-preservation in the quest for power, or for the illusion of power, since all power is finally lost in Sherriff’s narrative, including the simple power to light a candle in the darkness (the book is written by the light of ‘feeble home-made lanterns’, p. 5). The imminent moon crash is the focus of the first two thirds of the novel; but as it turns out, the cataclysm proves eminently survivable. What destroys Europe is the madness of war, and the complex network of fantasies that bring this madness about, as both embodied and critiqued by Sherriff’s narrator, Edgar Hopkins: the man who gives the book its title and becomes the last lost voice of vanished Britain, ‘a thin, lonely cry of anguish from the gathering darkness’ (p. 3).

R C Sherriff

Sherriff’s choice of narrator is inspired. In the introduction, an unnamed historian from the future describes him damningly as ‘Edgar Hopkins […] a man of such unquenchable self-esteem and limited vision that his narrative becomes valueless to the scientist and historian’ (p. 1). He is, in other words, a fantasist, incapable of adjusting his perception of himself in the light of the catastrophe to which he is subjected – or so the historian claims, though the summary is not fair to him. In a number of ways, Hopkins is a perfect representative of British culture in the 1930s. As a middle-class white man who lives in the countryside, he is a type who is disproportionately represented among the protagonists of English literature – a representative of the fantasy Englishman who never existed – although his self-esteem has rarely been as devastatingly cut down to size as it is by Sherriff’s catastrophe. Despite his high opinion of himself, his marginal status is made obvious from the beginning, as well as his ordinariness (Sherriff’s first title for the book was An Ordinary Man). Retired very early from his job as a teacher (we learn at a late stage in the novel that he was bullied by his pupils, which explains his decision to withdraw his labour), and more interested in breeding chickens than in politics or astronomy, Hopkins becomes a member of the British Lunar Society pretty much by accident; yet he considers his membership of the society – and the early awareness it gives him of the problem with the moon – to mark him out as a person of consequence, specially selected by virtue of his intelligence, birth and education to be the custodian of secret information vouchsafed only to the cream of the British ruling classes. Sherriff brilliantly conveys the strain on Hopkins of maintaining this fantastic view of himself over the months that elapse between the revelation of the coming collision, at a private meeting of the Lunar Society, and the release of the news to the general public. At times during this period Hopkins succeeds in seeing himself as the elite guardian of what he calls The Secret. At others he teeters on the brink of madness, as he notes the horrible disparity between the everyday goings-on around him and the approaching annihilation of life on earth. Christmas brings out this disparity in drastic fashion. It’s a feast that centres on the fantastic, in the form of myths of universal brotherhood, Father Christmas on his sleigh, God’s love for all humanity and so on. It’s also a ritual which is annually repeated – or would be if the world were not about to come to an end. And it’s the yearly high point of consumer capitalism, when economic inequalities are both at their most pronounced and most assiduously occluded. As a result, the Christmas before the crash becomes for Hopkins an almost unbearably ironic pantomime, full of scenes he can’t help but contrast with the devastation that will shortly be unleashed. A family passing Hamley’s toyshop, for instance, ‘brimming with the best that life can give’, fills him with ‘impotent rage’ because ‘this monstrous thing could not happen in a world that harboured such people as these’ (p. 74). Hopkins’ idealized vision of the family, whom he imagines returning ‘to some quiet house in a tree-lined road’, is as palpable a fantasy, perhaps, as the idea that the moon won’t strike the earth, despite the science; and in harbouring it Hopkins displays his own ordinariness at the very point when he wishes to present himself as most elevated by his exclusive lunar knowledge.

Yet on the whole Hopkins manages to preserve his sense of being exceptional, largely by concentrating from day to day on his chicken-breeding – another irony, of course, since breeding prize chickens is hardly regarded even in rural populations as the most significant of occupations (with apologies to my Galloway cousin who breeds ducks). Even in his sense of exceptionalism, however, he is ordinary, since the British people seem largely to share his ability to see themselves as somehow special. In a passage that resonates strikingly with early British responses to Covid 19, Hopkins describes the threefold reaction of the country’s citizens when news of the lunar strike is finally released. For a substantial portion of the populace, he explains – the so-called ‘country gentlemen’ –

‘the moon business’ was all a scare. Nothing would happen, but if it did, it would happen in China where that sort of thing always happened. In their opinion, it would not affect England. Things like that did not happen in England. We should ‘muddle through’ as we always had done in other troubles. We had a Government with a strong majority and the police were equal to anything. (p. 113)

Another portion of the British people anticipates the moon’s arrival as a public spectacle, something to be witnessed from a safe distance and remembered for a lifetime, since they are convinced that the satellite will merely ‘graze’ the earth before glancing off again into space:

They were prepared to see the stately beech trees of Burgin Park come crashing down like nine-pins; they were ready for a deluge, a hurricane, a terrific blowing about of dustbin lids, and a very fine sight as the moon passed overhead almost within touching distance (p. 113).

This portion of the public is seduced each night, he tells us, by their own ‘fantastic imaginings’ (p. 114), which successfully divert their attention from the ‘huge, glittering ball’ of the moon itself. The third part of the British people – only about ‘one in ten’, as Hopkins calculates – are convinced that the world is indeed about to end, and either fall back on religious faith for comfort, as the village Vicar does, or collapse into a state of existential despair which is as fantastic (in Hopkins’s view) as the imaginings of the ‘moon will graze us’ party. The chief representative of these fatalists is the landlord of the local inn, Murgatroyd, whose vision of the end of the world ‘reeked of hearses, musty black plumes and grave-clothes […] the spade of the sexton – the toll of the bell – blackness – dirt -corruption’ (p. 115); a magnificently inappropriate set of images for encompassing universal destruction. Of course as readers of a first-person narrative we have no idea whether Hopkins’s account of Murgatroyd’s views on the crash is in any way accurate, though we are made aware that the ex-teacher dislikes the publican intensely, so it’s probably biased. Each of the three reactions listed here, in other words, as well as Hopkins’s account of them, is more or less an illusion; but then again, the concept of the end of the world is so extreme that it’s hard to envisage a way of describing it that did not fall back on delusions and fancies.

Paul Nash, Eclipse of Sunflower (1945)

This makes it seem particularly suitable for Sherriff to have set his story of the moon-crash in the context of what for many of his readers would have looked like a pastoral fantasy: a prosperous village in rural Hampshire several miles from the nearest town. Such a place is used to seeing itself as on the margins in the best of ways, mostly untroubled by the national and global events that loom so large in the metropolis. That this sense of existing on the margins is an illusion becomes increasingly clear as the book goes on, and the policies of central government begin to take effect in the rural community. First comes the order to build an underground shelter or ‘dug-out’ on village land, capable of holding the whole village. The reason initially given for constructing the dugout – issued before the moon crash has become general knowledge – is that war may soon break out between Britain and some nameless ‘foreign enemy’ (p. 63). This, of course, is an illusion, rather like the notion of national superiority entertained by some of the villagers; though a far greater illusion, as it turns out, is the idea that the dugout will protect its builders. The construction of the shelter does, however, serve a practical purpose: it gives the community something to work on in the weeks before the crash, and by drawing them more closely together than they have ever been before – a process which is made particularly clear by Hopkins’s situation, as he finds himself increasingly reluctant to leave the construction site for his lonely hilltop home after work each evening. The communal nature of the construction process similarly brings out the illusory nature of the social divides that separate the villagers in normal times. All the villagers must cooperate to finish the shelter, which makes it all the odder when Hopkins finds himself reluctant to share his Christian name with the working-class men and women who are working on it by his side; this in spite of the fact that the man in overall charge of the project is a working-class Welshman, Sapper Evans. The dugout is, in fact, both a fantasy and a focus for fantasies, and its fantastic nature is confirmed when it largely fails in its intended function. The moon’s collision with the earth opens up cracks in the walls, letting in seawater and drowning most of the occupants.

The teacher’s dependence on fantasy to sustain his picture of life in the English countryside, and of his own significance as the human race speeds towards extinction, is beautifully pointed up by his choice of reading in the final moments before the moon strikes. The night before, he reads The Wind in the Willows and ‘roamed again in the fragrant meadows with Badger, Mole and the immortal Toad’ (p. 175). On the day itself he begins by revisiting Huckleberry Finn, and in the final hour manages ‘to read, even to enjoy, the first chapter of Treasure Island’. Hopkins regresses to childhood at this time of crisis, setting aside religion and politics in favour of comfortable adventures removed from his own particular moment in history by time, geography and a lack of significant consequences for the events that unfold in the course of the narrative. Each book describes adventures with an all-male cast-list whose ends he knows, and which he regards, ironically enough under the circumstances, as somehow ‘immortal’. Toad’s battle with the working classes of the Wild Wood, Huck’s travels with the African American Jim, Jim Hawkins’s struggle against pirates on behalf of his middle-class friends, Dr Livesey and Squire Trelawney, reassure him that the Britain he loves and the class and race relations it sustains will endure beyond the end of the world itself.

As Hopkins works on the dugout he does in the end begin to set aside some of his snobbery – most obviously in his admiration for the energetic, well-organised Evans. He also begins to emerge from self-inflicted loneliness, a loneliness imposed on him by his sense of aloof superiority to most of his village neighbours and shy inferiority to the local representatives of the ruling classes. The period after the calamity, when he effectively adopts the son and daughter of a local dignitary (tellingly based at The Manor House), reinforces his new sense of belonging. In the first place it gives him an ersatz family and a social status he has never felt before (their adoption of him makes him their replacement father, which means he is now in effect the Lord of the Manor); and in the second (ironically enough, in view of the first) it continues to erode the social divisions by which his life has been guided. The new society established in the two-year ‘Epoch of Recovery’ after the calamity has an Arcadian quality about it, reinforced by the fact that it fulfills Hopkins’s lifelong fantasies, through his effective rise in social status, his acquisition of two affectionate young companions, and the recognition by the entire neighbourhood of his unparalleled importance as a chicken breeder, along with his seeming immortalization in the name of a new breed of hen: the ‘Beadle-Hopkins pullets’. Hopkins is even convinced (despite ample evidence to the contrary, such as his own employment of two farm servants) that in this new order ‘Distinctions of class were gone for ever’, something he illustrates by his willingness to sit side by side with his social inferiors at a civic banquet: ‘I sat with Mrs Smithson, the wife of a plumber, and Miss Bingham of the drapery store, talking to them almost as if they were my equals’ (p. 273).

Georges Méliès, A Trip to the Moon (1902), still

At the same time the status of this two-year period as a continuing pipe dream is reinforced by the fact that is punctuated by a trip to the moon, which has landed in the Atlantic Ocean and become something of a tourist destination. A trip to the moon has traditionally been the term for an absurd impossibility, as Hugh Lofting recognized when he sent Doctor Dolittle there, mounted on a moth, in 1928;[4] and the British enthusiasm for indulging in moon tourism serves in this section of the novel as a metaphor for a peculiarly British capacity for social and political self-delusion. At the same time, the trip itself proves disappointing for Hopkins and his adoptive son and daughter. All they find on the shore of what was once the ocean is ‘what appeared to be the edge of an immense slag-heap of grey, broken slate stretching as far as we could see across the land and far into the distant sea like some gloomy, ghostly continent of primeval times’ (p. 249). The image resembles a post-industrial wasteland as well as a primordial desert, or else the landscape of a battlefield in Flanders, and its blankness also predicts the erasure of history that is to come; so it’s no surprise that Hopkins leave it with a sense of ‘indefinable dread: a haunting conviction that the terrors of its arrival were trivial beside the horrors that it held in store for us’ (p. 250). His premonition proves accurate; the moon turns out to be a storehouse of vast wealth in industrial and monetary terms, laden with gold, coal and other valuable minerals, which leads inevitably to a struggle over which nation has the primary claim to its resources. These industrial fantasies about moon-minerals lead, through the equally toxic fantasy of nationhood, to all-out war, in Britain’s case waged in the name of the most evanescent fantasy of all, the illusion of a continuing global Empire. The war itself ends with the annihilation of European culture and the obliteration of all traces of its past, with ‘The Hopkins Manuscript’ as one of the few pieces of material evidence (thanks to its preservation in a Thermos flask) for British or even European identity. Hopkins, in other words, really does acquire a kind of immortality, and the name of the Hopkins-Beadle pullets really is remembered centuries after the breed first saw the light. His reference to the ‘immortal Toad’ in The Wind in the Willows becomes one of the last pieces of evidence for the existence of a literature in English, a fact whose irony is intensified by the fact that Toad embodies the toxic absurdity of the British class system. Hopkins’s private fantasies become the historical epitaph of the fantasy which is Britain.

It’s not too surprising, then, that one of the last scenes in the book takes place in that hub of the fantastic, Kensington Gardens, where Congratulate the Devil also ended. Here Hopkins discusses with an acquaintance, Professor Bransbury – who is said to resemble another character familiar to children, Robinson Crusoe – the invasion of Europe by the forces of an Iranian general called Selim. Selim and his Asian and African followers aim to erase all traces of ‘Western civilization’ from the world (p. 1), a project whose successful completion is confirmed by the description of a Europe bereft of history in the opening pages of the novel. Selim’s success is partly a consequence of in-fighting among nationalist European leaders such as Britain’s fascist prime minister, Jagger. But it also takes advantage of the fantasies made available by the lunar crash, which enables Selim to identify the moon as the ‘god of oppressed peoples’, who descended to earth in order ‘to destroy their hated white oppressors’ (p. 308). One fantasy, in other words, has effectively driven out another in a world dominated by the conviction that fantasies can be realized, made real: the world of the 30s, extrapolated into the 40s by Sherriff’s almost unbearably convincing little future history.

In the next blogpost on ‘British and Irish Fantasy 1939’ I’ll be looking at Irish rural fantasy, considering what it tells us about the state of things in a country even more on the edge of Europe than its British neighbours; and later I’ll be looking at time in the children’s fantasies of 1939. A series of trips to the moon, so to speak, on the brink of war.

Charles Bittinger, Earth as seen from the moon, National Geographic (1930s)

Appendix: Abyssinia in The Hopkins Manuscript

It’s worth noting that the ‘Foreword’ to The Hopkins Manuscript is said to have been written by a scholar from Addis Ababa in Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia) at some point in the far future. At the time of the novel’s publication Abyssinia was under occupation by fascist Italy, having been invaded in 1936. The League of Nations failed to condemn the invasion, but a speech to the League of Nations by the Abyssinian Emperor in exile, Haile Selassie, became internationally celebrated as an outstanding example of anti-fascist oratory. Sherriff’s decision, then, to have his conquered, culturally bereft version of Europe studied by scholars from a country currently under occupation by European fascists was a carefully considered political gesture.

NOTES

[1] See Michael Remy, Surrealism in Britain (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999), Foreword.

[2] For example, under science fiction I could have included H G Wells’s The Holy Terror and Aldous Huxley’s After Many a Summer, and under children’s fantasy Enid Blyton’s The Enchanted Wood.

[3] I’m thinking of this passage:

But evil on itself shall back recoil
And mix no more with goodness, when at last
Gather’d like scum, and settl’d to itself,
It shall be in eternal restless change
Self-fed, and self-consum’d (Comus, lines 593-7)

[4] The moon’s association with lunacy is also exploited in Eric Linklater’s wartime classic of children’s fantasy, The Wind on the Moon (1944). As a follower of H G Wells, Sherriff will have been familiar with The First Men in the Moon (1901), in which the insane aggression of humankind trumps the horrors of the Selenite dystopia found on the moon by the travellers of the title.

Editions Used

Howell Davies / Andrew Marvell, Congratulate the Devil, The Library of Wales (Cardigan: Parthian Books, 2008)

R C Sherriff, The Hopkins Manuscript, Penguin Modern Classics (UK: Penguin Random House, 2018)

 

Fantasy 1939: Mervyn Peake, ‘September 1939’

The beginning of this month marked the 80th anniversary of Britain’s declaration of war on Nazi Germany, which took place at 11 am on Sunday 3 September 1939. Eleven years ago I published for the first time, in my edition of Mervyn Peake’s Collected Poems, a poem called ‘September 1939’.[1] The poem is short and not particularly distinguished, but it’s attached to the story of a remarkable coincidence – one of several that took place while I was editing the collection. And the coincidence provides an insight into the artistic and political milieu inhabited by Peake in the 1930s. Here, then, is a post about September 1939, the month and the poem, along with a meditation on how a tiny seed of information can begin to effloresce into a full-grown theory about a writer-artist’s friendships, influences and political sympathies.

When I first came across the poem ‘September 1939’ it was in a battered old exercise book full of poems, many of which had never seen print, stowed in a battered old suitcase in the London flat of Peake’s eldest son, Sebastian. The suitcase, as I remember it, was crammed to bursting with manuscripts and typescripts, mostly drafts of Mervyn’s poems, plays and prose of all descriptions. When Sebastian laid it on the table in his living room and opened it up I felt like a pirate suddenly faced with a heap of treasure: tongue-tied, goggle-eyed, caught between the lust of a child confronted by the treasures of a toyshop, with birthday money clutched in its grubby fist, and the astonishment of an adult who has stopped hoping that the world holds surprises like this, yet finds himself in attendance at the fulfilment of a lifelong fantasy. I still feel something of that extraordinary sensation twelve or thirteen years after Sebastian shut the suitcase again and put it away.

I haven’t experienced anything quite like that before or since. Except once, when the internet worked a little magic for me.

Not long after finishing my edition of the Collected Poems and sending it off to Carcanet, at a loss for anything to do with my hands and mind after the white hot excitement of the editorial process, I found myself idly typing a few words from the poem ‘September 1939’ into the search engine of my computer.

I wasn’t really thinking as I did so. I have no idea what made me do it, in fact. The poem from which the words came had never been published before, so there could be no expectation at all of getting a hit. Except that I got one.

The line came up word for word as I had typed it.

Leslie Hurry, ‘September 1939’

I can’t now recall which line it was from the poem, but there it stood, the opening entry in the short list of results for my search terms. And when I clicked on the link I found that the whole poem had somehow been transcribed and put online. I may be remembering this wrong; it may have been only the first few lines of the poem that had been transcribed, while the rest could be read with some difficulty in a low-definition PDF on the webpage I had stumbled across. But the fact remains: there was the poem, and there was I, and once again the impossible had come to pass and the shape of the world had been subtly changed by an unexpected encounter.

Leslie Hurry, This Extraordinary Year, 1945

The webpage on which I found the poem belonged to an online auctioneer, and the creator of the page had ascribed the poem to a man called Leslie Hurry – quite reasonably, since Hurry had incorporated the poem into a painting of his which had recently been sold. A quick search for Hurry’s name revealed that he was a painter and illustrator of considerable promise in the 1930s who later moved into theatre design at the instigation of the director, dancer and actor Robert Helpmann – most famous now as the Childcatcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. At that time there were not many paintings of Hurry’s to be seen online – partly, it seems, because of a dispute over copyright; but in 2019, as I type these words, you can find a great many paintings, drawings and set designs by Hurry scattered across a range of different websites. One of his best-known paintings is ‘This Extraordinary Year, 1945’, which is on show in Tate Britain. It’s a picture that owes a lot to Blake, and that celebrates the end of World War Two and the election of a Labour Government. The painting I found with the poem in it was also concerned with a significant year, this time less auspicious: 1939. The two paintings, then, stand at the opening and closing moments of World War II, and the one I had just found online provided a kind of gateway or portal onto the dreadful time to come.

Leslie Hurry, ‘Self-Portrait 1944’

In fact, a gate or portal features in the painting. In the middle of what seems to be an ocean stand two white pillars side by side, which rise into blue plantlike growths gradually curving towards each other until they meet overhead to form a lintel. Each pillar has a door and two windows in it, giving it the appearance of a lighthouse or the turret of a medieval castle. Two long staircases approach each door, changing direction twice before they reach it. Between the pillars, through the gateway they form, you can see another ocean with a rock or island in it. There is something small and pale in front of the island-rock but I can’t make out what it is; it could be a boat, a whale, or another rock. The island-rock seems to have another tower on it – possibly two – but they are sketched in pen rather than fully painted.

Behind each of the two towers or pillars in the foreground there is what seems to be an upright, reddish rock, whose curve undergoes a very different metamorphosis from that of the pillars. The pillars grow upwards into cool blue plants or flowers. The rocks instead get extended below the gateway into a pair of clashing scimitar blades, which form another lintel under the doorway, this time painted red. The sea we are looking at through the doorway – or alternatively in a mirror, since the two lintels, above and below, could form the frame of a painting or looking glass – seems itself, as I said at the beginning, to be in the depths of another ocean, whose surface appears at the top of the painting, with the gateway underneath, as if immersed.

We’re looking into the depths, in other words, and the doorway or mirror we are looking through is threatening us. While the blue plants are thrusting upwards towards the lightest part of the sky, the blades are sweeping out towards the viewer. It looks as though they could cut us if we weren’t careful.

There is another island in the sea at the top of the painting, and in the lowering sky above the island Hurry has included what look like technical diagrams drawn in pen: a radio mast on the left, a flying machine above it whose wings recall the pages of an open book, a gun sight in the middle, a web of cables. The ocean at the top of the picture could represent the present, when such diagrams are widespread; or it could represent the consciousness. The portal, with its old-looking towers, could represent the past, or alternatively the subconscious, since it’s immersed in the depths. One thing is certain, though: the portal itself enacts two movements, one upwards towards new growth, the other downwards and outwards towards destruction. It’s a Janus-faced painting, even if the date it refers to is September rather than January. And the aggressive outward gesture of the blades suggests that theirs is the direction the world has chosen to take on this side of the picture – the side the viewer stands on.

As for the poem, as I’ve said, in the exercise book it was titled ‘September 1939’, and that’s the title I gave it in my edition. The painting, however, doesn’t give it a title at all. The lines are laid out differently, too, from the way they were in the exercise book:

This is the year of our Lord;
One thousand
And nine hundred years
And thirty-nine
Once the blood was wine
And the flesh was broken
Like bread.

The men of the equal tread
Have come into their own
And the bayonets shine.

This is the year of our Lord;
One thousand
And nine hundred years
And thirty-nine.

It might be better, I think, if there were a break between ‘thirty-nine’ and ‘Once the blood was wine’, which would make the poem into a mirror image like the mirror image implied by the painting, with two stanzas of four lines framing two stanzas of three lines just as the portal frames the painting’s interior sea. The word ‘Once’ in this version doesn’t quite make sense, at least to me; the exercise book has ‘Since’ in its place. I love, though, the way the poem (and the picture) draws the eye to the three central lines: ‘The men of the equal tread / Have come into their own / And the bayonets shine’. In the exercise book version this is slightly different: ‘And the men of the equal tread / Have come into their own / And their bayonets shine’; but the extra repetition of ‘the’ in Hurry’s version (‘the bayonets’) makes the soldiers more impersonal, conjuring up the familiar newsreels of the 1930s showing lines of Nazi soldiers marching in mechanical triumph through Berlin and Poland. And these three lines represent the mid-point in what seems an inexorable movement throughout history, from the moment of Christ’s birth (‘the year of our Lord’) to his death (‘Once […] the flesh was broken’) and on to the present, when the ‘men of the equal tread / Have come into their own’, with bayonets as sharp as Hurry’s scimitars. Having read it, one can also see something bladelike about the metal-blue plants into which the towers have grown, something sinister about the conjunction of defensive towers, radar, flying machine and gun sight at the top of the painting. Hurry’s picture may indicate two alternative directions, one leading to peace and one to war, but with the declaration of war in September 1939 both directions might be seen as always having pointed to the same destination. The breaking of Christ’s flesh and the spilling of his blood pointed the way to the breaking of flesh and the spilling of blood at the mid point of the twentieth century. This was the only possible fruit, one might imagine, that could be produced by that particular sacrificial tree.

Hurry may well have decided that Peake’s poem resembles a set of double doors, which fits into the frame provided by Hurry’s illustration. The repeated four lines at the beginning and end form a verbal counterpart to the painting’s doorframe, while the two sets of three lines form a door each – the door relating to Christ and the door relating to the rise of Nazism. But another way of looking at the poem is as the representation of a fulcrum, the point on which a bar or seesaw balances. The fulcrum lies in the space between the lines ‘Like bread’ and ‘The men of the equal tread’, with Christ’s sacrifice occurring on one side of it, the Nazis on the other; what the poem says is that the world of 1939 has tipped towards the Nazis. Peake’s mind was much preoccupied with fulcrums in the late 1930s. A number of poems from the exercise book – which I’ve dated to 1939 at latest, since it contains sketches of Peake’s mother on her deathbed in October of that year, and no pictures at all of Sebastian, who was born in January 1940[2] – a number of poems in it speak of a sense of precarious balance, or more accurately of having reached a tipping point, beyond which lies an unknown and troubling future.

Three of these poems are short enough to quote in full. The first is ‘Balance’:

In crazy balance at the edge of Time
Our spent days turn to cloud behind today –
And all tomorrow is a prophet’s dream –
This moment only rages endlessly
And prime
Is always the long moment of decay.[3]

This poem insists on the illusory nature of past and future, the turbulent present being the only moment that exists. Hurry’s painting could be read as a response to this sentiment too, with the clouds at the top representing either the ‘spent days’ of the past or the ‘prophet’s dream’ of the future, while the double door-posts – the two ambiguous towers divided between growth and destruction – symbolize the moment of ‘prime’, always engaged in the acts of furious self-destruction which make decay inevitable. A second poem speaks of Peake’s acute sense that it is his own life in particular that is in danger of ending just as it reaches the ‘prime’ of maturity:

O heart-beats – you are rattling dice –
My rattling dice
Proclaim the edge of precipice
At whose hid boulders stands a soundless sea –
These dice
Endanger me,
And spice
My days with hazards of futurity.[4]

The landscape of this poem clearly resembles the rocky, sea-bound islands of the painting, while the diagrammatic drawings in Hurry’s painted sky might be seen as summoning up the ‘hazards of futurity’ in the blueprints they offer for flying machines and gun sights which might so easily be appropriated for military uses. The third poem commemorates another ominous moment in the ticking time-bomb which was the approach to the Second World War. Exactly one year before ‘September 1939’ Peake wrote a poem to mark the September Crisis of 1938, when the appeasers of Europe granted the Nazis free access to the German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia:

Au Moulin Joyeux

September Crisis, 1938

Here with the bread
We tasted anguish; here
The wine was grief,
While dynasties
Swung from a thread.
Yet, while we stared
Blind at a shifting fulcrum,
While our loves
Loaded the bleedy scales
And when to laugh
Were mockery,
Here with their burning flags
Of pride unfurled,
All women raised bright goblets to the world.[5]

The poem opens with the image of bread and wine which recurs in ‘September 1938’. Here the eucharistic sacrifice doesn’t mark a long-past historic event but a process that has only just taken place, in a present which is no longer endlessly raging but rather grief-stricken at the betrayal that has just been perpetrated by the appeasers. The moment of crisis occurred, it seems, while the world was at a party, so that the party food – bread and wine – became suddenly and incongruously symbolic, the partygoers’ ‘loves’ – romantic or erotic – helped to weigh down the scales on the side that denotes war, while their laughter replicated the mockery of the onlookers at Christ’s crucifixion. But the poem ends in the present, not the past; a present in which the women at the party collectively raise a toast to the world which is about to be bathed in bloodshed, while their own ‘burning flags / Of pride’ fly in bright opposition to the military flags which have been raised as opposing standards by Europe’s armies. The women’s gesture of defiance insists on the unity of the world at the point when it is about to be divided; it insists, in fact, on the continuance of hope when all the men in the room are frozen into helplessness.

There is no equivalent of the defiant women in Hurry’s picture, but the unfurling blue vegetation at the top of the doorway could be seen as raising defiant flags of hope at the point when desolation threatens. Each poem I’ve just quoted, then, represents the world in the late 1930s as precariously poised on the brink of ‘precipice’, as ‘O Heart-beats’ puts it, caught at the point of plunging into the oceanic depths of a dark future. And Hurry’s islands, seas and rocky islands – held in a state of precarious calm before the stormy outbreak threatened by the gathering darkness overhead – show a remarkable consonance with Peake’s concerns in the late 1930s and the images he used repeatedly to express them . The rocky islands in particular speak to the recurring island imagery in Peake’s work, stimulated in part by his boyhood obsession with Treasure Island and reinforced by his lifelong fascination with the island of Sark, where he spent two years or so as a member of an artist’s colony in the early 30s, and to which he returned as often as he could in the years that followed.[6]

One more poem of 1939 points the way towards Peake’s future artistic direction, as represented by the Gormenghast novels. Peake’s wife, Maeve Gilmore, tells us that this poem too was written to mark the outbreak of war;[7] and its repetition of a word from the poem ‘Au Moulin Joyeux’ invites us to consider that word’s significance as an expression of what war meant to Peake.

We Are the Haunted People

We are the haunted people.
We, who guess blindly at the seed
That flowers
Into the crimson caption,
Hazarding
The birth of that inflamed
Portentous placard that will lose its flavour
Within an hour,
The while the dark deeds move that gave the words
A bastard birth
And hour by hour
Bursts a new gentian flower
Of bitter savour.
We have no power… no power…
We are the haunted people,
We…
The last loose tasselated fringe that flies
Into the dark of aeons from a dark
Dynastic gown.[8]

This poem represents the present not as a tipping-point but as an act of erasure, whereby the out-of-control if short-lived ‘gentian flower’ of propaganda – the ‘crimson caption’ and the ‘portentous placard’ – overwhelms the senses of the ‘haunted people’, leaving them unable to guess at the real ‘dark deeds’ that may underlie this sudden proliferation of false news. The adjective ‘haunted’ suggests the ‘haunted people’s’ attachment to the past, whose traces are being submerged beneath the militant outbreak of vegetation. A haunting implies the intrusion of the past on the present; but the past in question is a nebulous, fragmentary, frail affair – possessing the sort of evanescence or fragmentariness that is also evoked by the unfinished line ‘We have no power… no power…’

Mervyn Peake, ‘Steerpike’

It’s the last three lines of the poem, however, that point the way to Peake’s later project, Gormenghast. In this conclusion the ‘haunted people’ themselves become apparitions, loosely attached like the tasselated fringe of an ancient gown to a sombre, aeon-long history, which is rapidly disappearing into obscurity just as an ancient building might disappear under the weight of ivy, bindweed or Virginia creeper. Hurry’s twin white towers are undergoing a similar transformation, though in their case the stone is becoming vegetation instead of being overwhelmed by it. In both cases, something enduring and dynastic – the towers, after all, look like castle turrets – is being replaced by something temporary; and the colour of the turret-plants is the same bright blue as the most common varieties of ‘gentian flower’.  The idea of propaganda as a ‘bastard birth’ underlines the break with the past, since dynasties depend on continuity as enshrined in legitimate genealogies. Steerpike comes to mind: that interloper of uncertain origin who inveigles his way (through increasingly hazardous throws of the dice) into a position of power in the dark dynastic castle, assuming the gown of the Master of Ritual in the process, while dispensing his ideas in the form of what might be called ‘crimson captions’. The confrontation between past and present, figured as a collision between the dark, old and ritualistic and the callous, young, and functional, is exactly the clash worked out in the first two books of the Gormenghast sequence. Gormenghast, too, is described on several occasions – most notably in the flood that breaks out in the second novel of the sequence – as a stony island, its contours closely resembling the contours of Sark; so closely, indeed, that parts of the castle are even named after well-known features of the Channel Island. The doors and towers of Hurry’s painting, surrounded by sea and darkness, point the way towards Gormenghast with as much prescience as ‘We Are the Haunted People’, and both works of art – all the works of art I’ve discussed in detail here – identify the Gormenghast books as products of the war that broke out in September 1939, grotesque offshoots from that year’s bitter seed.

Peake saw drawing itself as a dynastic activity – even the drawings of rebels and iconoclasts, which define themselves as revolutionary by virtue of their opposition to established authorities and orthodox lines. He sketched out his conception of the dynasty or genealogy of drawing in the introduction to The Drawings of Mervyn Peake (1949):

We expect authority in a drawing. The authority which is doubly alive, firstly through its overtones and echoes which show it to be born rapidly or languorously along one of the deep streams that wind back through time to a cave in Spain. The authority, as it were, of a chorus of voices; or of a prince, who with a line of kings for lineage can make no gesture that does not recall some royal ancestor. The repercussions of the dead disturb the page: an aeon of ghosts float by with charcoal in their hands. For tradition is the line that joins together the giant crests of a mountain range – that links the great rebels, while in the morasses of the valleys in between, the countless apes stare backwards as they squat like tired armies in the shade. But we expect, also, the authority of the single, isolated voice. That the body of a work is common heritage in no way drowns out the individual note. To work with pen and paper is in itself a common denominator from the outset. But it is the individual twist that haunts us.[9]

The passage suggests we might read the ‘haunted people’ as artists, who are still conscious of the ‘dark of aeons’ which lies behind each mark they make on a page; a darkness that lends each mark resonance by waking comparisons with the ‘aeon’ of artistic ghosts who have made marks on paper before. In The Drawings of Mervyn Peake this very consciousness of their dynasty is what identifies certain artists as rebels, lifting themselves above the massed armies of ‘countless apes’ – the ‘men of the equal tread’, perhaps – to take command of the ‘giant crests’ of artistic and literary endeavour. And the quality that lifts them, Peake tells us, is a sense of balance:

Those threadbare terms ‘classic’, ‘romantic’, have little meaning when the finest examples of any master’s work are contemplated, for the first thing one finds is that they have that most magisterial of qualities, ‘equipoise’. They are compelling because they are not ‘classic’ and because they are not ‘romantic’. They are both and they are neither. They are balanced upon a razor’s edge between the passion and the intellect, between the compulsive and the architectonic. Out of this fusion there erupts that thing called ‘style’. […] The finest painters express themselves through their styles. It is as though they paint, draw, write, or compose with their own blood. Most artists work with other people’s blood. But sooner or later aesthetic theft shows its anaemic head.[10]

Mervyn Peake, ‘Reclining Figure by Hitler’

From these remarks we get a sense of what the outbreak of war might have meant to an artist of the kind Peake admired. If the world has been taken over by the ‘men of the equal tread’ – armies with a determination not to mimic the past but to erase it altogether – then the possibility of making art itself stands in danger of being lost, as history is shunted aside in favour of propagandistic placards and fatuous catchphrases. A balance has been upset, not just between the dynastic past and a troubled future but between passion and intellect, the compulsive and the architectonic. Given the mechanistic equality of the armies’ tread one must presume it’s the intellect that has won out over the passions; that the artist-apes who work with other people’s blood have taken the place of the ‘masters’ who work with their own. Peake’s understanding of the outbreak of war as a struggle over the artist’s soul is perhaps most vividly represented in the series of propagandistic drawings he produced in 1940 to demonstrate his potential as a war artist – or perhaps as a designer of ‘portentous placards’ on behalf of the allies against Hitler. The series poses as a catalogue for ‘An Exhibition by the Artist, Adolf Hitler’, and its title is ‘The New Order’.[11] Each picture in the catalogue has an academic title – awaking echoes of past pictures with similar titles – such as ‘Study of a Young Girl’, ‘Landscape with Figures’, ‘Dutch Interior’ and ‘Reclining Figure’; but each picture shows an atrocity perpetrated by Nazi forces in Europe: the young girl has been shot in the chest, the landscape is full of ruins and refugees, the Dutch Interior shows a young woman in the aftermath of a rape, and so on. The titles of the pictures, by invoking the art of peacetime, intensify the shock of the brutal images to which they have been attached. The visceral reactions viewers will have to these images make them romantic, in that they appeal to the emotions rather than the intellect; they clearly mimic the great series of etchings by Goya called ‘The Disasters of War’ (1810-1820). Classical thinking may underlie the orderly ranks of troops marching through Amsterdam and Paris in the year of this imaginary exhibition, but the extremes of horror their actions generate point up the radical detachment of classical from romantic values that has been engineered by Hitler’s New Order.

Puvis de Chavannes, ‘La Fantaisie’

Going back to Leslie Hurry’s painting of September 1939, it’s clear from everything I’ve said so far that the artist had an intimate awareness of Peake’s imaginative vision, and that the picture he produced is a carefully executed reflection of the emotions and thoughts that underlay the poem it illustrates. The painting, then, shines light on a friendship, one which lasted for most of Peake’s life as a writer-artist. At the time it was painted, both artists were based in London, though Hurry moved to Thaxted in Essex later that year. Both artists became involved in the theatre at a formative moment in their careers; Peake designed costumes for a 1932 production of The Insect Play by the Capek brothers, and went on to write his own plays in the 1950s, while Hurry designed his first theatre set two years after painting the picture, in 1942, and went on to become a celebrated designer for the stage. Both men had a passion for Blake; ‘The Wonderful Year’ invokes one of Blake’s most celebrated pictures, ‘Glad Day’ (now known as ‘Albion Rose’), while Peake wrote a poem about the engraver-poet around the same time he wrote ‘September 1939’.[12] And both artists have often been associated with the neo-romantic movement of the 1930s and 40s. The term ‘romantic’ is used of Hurry on the Tate’s website, while Peake refers to himself as a kind of romantic in a 1932 letter to his friend Gordon Smith: ‘I’ve decided to “be” a Romanticist in Painting, but am going to combine the guts of a Van Gogh with the design of a Puvis de Chavannes, and yet keep the suaveness of a Raphael running through stacks of corn that are yellower than yellow in the sunlight’ (pp. 47-8). Interestingly, Peake’s account of his brand of Romanticism is a fusion of Van Gogh’s passion, Puvis de Chavannes’s classical tendencies and the classically-inspired vibrancy of Raphael, one of the ‘royal ancestors’ of latter-day artist-princes. Balance between passion and intellect is clearly something he was aiming for even at this early stage of his artistic development.

Lee Miller, ‘Portrait of Leslie Hurry in a Teapot’

But if Leslie Hurry was inspired by Romanticism, he was also strongly influenced by surrealism, the movement that found its way from France to Britain in the early 1930s and spawned the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936, in London.[13] Surrealism as a movement was notable for its refusal to be doctrinaire; its resistance to logical structures meant that giving a rationale for its activities was anathema to many of its practitioners, although the British art critic Herbert Read saw it as having affinities with revolutionary Romanticism. Read liked to call the movement ‘superrealism’ rather than surrealism, arguing that traditional realism was unable to take account of the vast proportion of human life which is devoted to dreams and unconscious impulses and that true realism must imitate dream images rather than the contours of the everyday. Surrealists sought to gain access to the unconscious by practising automatic drawing, and Hurry produced two books of automatic drawings in 1940-41 which earned him the title of ‘the ultra-surrealist’, despite his apparent non-involvement in the collective activities of the movement. The surrealist photographer Lee Miller made a portrait of him in 1943, his face reflected in a teapot alongside Miller herself and ‘an unknown man’. Surrealism was closely associated with the modernism of Miró and Picasso, the Apocalyptic Movement of the late 1930s and 1940s, and the neo-romanticism of Paul Nash and David Jones – the latter of whom Peake drew in 1939, possibly as one of a series of portraits of famous people for the London Mercury. The painting, then, forges a link between Peake and all these movements, and helps bring out the surrealist overtones of some of Peake’s images – most notably the one on the dustjacket of his first book of poems, Shapes and Sounds (1941), which represents a bizarre conch in the foreground, incorporating a human eye and ear, with a figure in the background walking off into an ‘architectonic’ space like a younger version of the Ancient Mariner in Peake’s illustrations for that poem.

Peake’s association with Hurry continued after the war in their joint connection with Grey Walls Press. A book of Hurry’s Paintings and Drawings was published by the Press in 1950, one year after the Grey Walls Press edition of The Drawings of Mervyn Peake. Grey Walls Press was closely associated with the anarchist poets Alex Comfort and Henry Treece, as James Gifford has pointed out, and Peake’s introduction to his Drawings, with its celebration of rebellious individualism, can easily be read as having a strongly anarchist slant.[14]

One of the things the friendship hints at, in fact, is that Peake may not have been as a-political as he’s often taken to be. Surrealism was closely allied with anarchism, as was neo-romanticism, and both anarchists and surrealists were actively involved in the struggles against fascism and Nazism in Spain and Germany. In his strangely hostile biography of Peake, My Eyes Mint Gold, Malcolm Yorke insists that Peake and his wife, Maeve Gilmore, paid little attention to contemporary political events in their travels through Europe in 1937, despite the fact that their journey took them through Hitler’s Germany and brought them to Paris at the time when Picasso’s Guernica was on display there.[15] The existence of Peake’s poems on the September Crisis of 1938 and the declaration of war in September 1939 shows that by that stage in his life, at least, he was intensely concerned with contemporary politics; and Hurry’s illustration to the latter indicates that Peake was happy for a Leftist to provide the imagery to go with his decidedly political text. Hurry’s own political position is suggested by his celebration of the Labour victory in 1945, and by the fact that Paintings and Drawings by Leslie Hurry was published with an introduction by the Marxist poet Jack Lindsay. It may be that Peake was Hurry’s political fellow traveller, on some level at least, between 1939 and 1949.

And despite what Malcolm Yorke contends, Peake did pay attention to the Spanish Civil War in 1937. The bombing of Guernica took place on 26 April, when the German air force laid waste to a Basque town, with heavy loss of civilian life, at the behest of the nationalist general Francisco Franco.  In May of that year – a month or so after it was reported in Britain, most famously in The Times – Peake wrote the first of a number of poems about planes, its date being confirmed by the fact that he mentions Wales in the second line (he visited his mother’s homeland over the Whitsun period, which in 1937 fell on 15 and 16 May).[16] The plane he describes is pregnant with menace:

The Metal Bird

Job’s eagle skids the thin sky still,
Her shadow swarms the cold Welsh hill.
The hawk hangs like an unloos’d bomb
And fills the circular sky with doom.
To-day across the meadow
There runs another shadow
Cast by a grizzlier bird that swings
Her body like a scythe, nor beats her wings,
A bloodless bird, whose mother was a man;
A painted bird of steel – a skeleton
That sheers shrill-naked to the screaming bone,
And bears her sexless beauty to the town.
O hawk with naked eyes!
O bloody eagle circling the skies!
Our century has bred a newer beauty,
The metal bird from the cold factory.[17]

Once again the poem charts the displacement of the past – embodied in Jove’s bird, the eagle (which has got fused here with the suffering Job of the Old Testament) and the ‘hawk with naked eyes’ – by a manmade military machine, whose metallic precision and coldly efficient destructiveness marks it out as a product of logic, as against romantic passion. The fact that this bird is flying ‘to the town’, along with the references to skeletons and screaming bones, might have linked it at once to Guernica in the minds of the poem’s first readers. The poem was published in the London Mercury in January 1938; and almost two years later, in November 1939, Peake published in The Listener another version of the same conceit, this time cast as a sonnet, ‘Where Skidded Only in the Upper Air’.[18] In this version, the plane in question is certainly a bomber, ‘Whose metal womb is heavy with a cold / Foetus of bombs unborn, that, ere they rest / In death will revel in a birth of blood’. By 1939, however, when children were being evacuated from all the urban centres of Britain, the significance of these explosive foetuses would probably have struck much closer to home than Guernica.

El Greco, ‘Landscape of Fire’

Between these two versions of the same poem, however, Peake made his most direct poetic reference to the bombing of Guernica. This occurs in another sonnet, this one dedicated to the greatest Spanish painter of the sixteenth century:

El Greco

They spire titanic bodies into heaven,
Tall Saints enswathed in a tempestuous flare
Of twisting draperies that coil through air,
Of dye incredible, from rapture woven,
And heads set steeply skywards, brittle-carven
Against the coiling clouds in regions rare;
Their beauty, ice-like, shrills – and everywhere
A metal music sounds, cold spirit shriven.
So drives the acid nail of coloured pain
Into our vulnerable wood, earth-rooted,
And sends the red sap racing through the trees
Where slugged it lay, now spun with visions looted
From whining skies and cold Gethsemanes
Of hollow light, and all the wounds of Spain.[19]

Here again, as in all the poems we’ve been looking at in this post, the past finds itself utterly transformed by the present; not displaced or lost in darkness, this time, but given a terrible new significance that could never have been anticipated by a sixteenth-century painter, no matter how visionary. In the introduction to The Drawings of Mervyn Peake the artist writes about how one’s perception of a well-known picture can be utterly transformed by increasing familiarity with the artistic tradition it springs from. ‘A particular man,’ he tells us, ‘can see only his own reflection’ as he studies any given painting or drawing; but ‘When he enriches his knowledge of pictures – in other words, when he becomes to that extent a slightly different man – he will see a slightly different picture, and so on, until the canvas or the drawing bears no relation to the work he stared at five years earlier. […] And so,’ he concludes, ‘before all work that is authoritative and vital there must be an inner adjustment: a willingness to change, in other words – to grow’.[20] ‘El Greco’, by contrast, traces a different kind of transformation. In this poem, a familiar painting on a religious subject – ‘Tall saints […] from rapture woven’ – is suddenly overlaid with a modern significance. The curling clouds to which they lift their enraptured hands suddenly get filled with a strange new noise; they shrill, like the implied bomb in ‘The Metal Bird’ that ‘sheers shrill-naked to the screaming bone’. This new ‘metal music’ shifts the scene to twentieth-century Guernica. The viewer feels a stab of ‘coloured pain’ at the association, as if a nail of sympathy has been driven home by the shared nationality of the painter and the bomb victims in the devastated town. The association wakens the sluggish viewer’s response to El Greco’s image into urgent new life. Instead of a religious theme the painting is ‘now spun with visions looted / From whining skies and cold Gethsemanes / Of hollow light, and all the wounds of Spain’. From being historical it has been made urgently topical, and from this moment on the painter’s works can never be looked at in the same light again.

Leslie Hurry’s painting ‘September 1939’ brings a moment of history to life. Plugged into the complex circuitry of Mervyn Peake’s artistic and literary context, it illuminates associations and links that had largely lain in darkness before its discovery: links with the political Left, with the British surrealists, with the major historical markers in the approach to the Second World War – Guernica, the September Crisis, the declaration of war, the evacuation of London. It points up the obsession with equilibrium and its loss that dominates Peake’s thoughts about art and human identity. And it provides a gate or doorway to new, more passionately topical readings of the Gormenghast sequence than the ones we’ve practised before. Read as a continuation, for instance, of his close encounters with surrealists as well as neo-romantics, with anarchists and experimentalists as well as with pillars of the British establishment, Gormenghast Castle starts to look less eccentrically isolated, more organically bound up with other artistic and political responses to the global conflicts of the twentieth century. I look forward to exploring these associations in greater detail.

Additional thoughts, April 2020.

At the time I wrote this post I’d somehow forgotten that Leslie Hurry also illustrated two poems of Peake’s that were published in the year this painting was made, 1939. These were  ‘Watch, Here and Now’, first published in Pinpoints, May-June 1939, No.4, p. 25 (see Collected Poems, pp 42-3), and ‘Au Moulin Joyeux: September Crisis, 1938’ (see above), first printed in Eve’s Journal, July 1939, p. 48. Along with the newly discovered illustration discussed in this post these three examples confirm that Peake and Hurry were working together intensively for a while to combine Peake’s words with Hurry’s images. It’s interesting to note that two of the three poems refer to major current events; was this the sort of thing the two artists discussed together? When I get access to the published Hurry illustrations I hope to have something to say about them.

Another idea occurred to me this month which may be worth mentioning here: that the line ‘The men with the equal tread’ in Peake’s ‘September 1939’ may owe something to one of the epigrams in David Jones’s modernist masterpiece In Parenthesis, first published by Faber and Faber in 1937. The epigram is from a medieval Welsh epic, Y Gododdin, quoted throughout Jones’s own epic: ‘Men marched, they kept equal step… / Men marched, they had been nurtured together’ (In Parenthesis, London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1963, p. xx). The link with Jones’s epigram, if there is one, suggests that Peake’s line ‘the men of the equal tread’ may refer to soldiers of all kinds, not just the Nazis. After all, Jones is careful to dedicate his poem both to his comrades-in-arms and to the German soldiers on the front line, ‘WHO SHARED OUR PAINS AGAINST WHOM WE FOUND OURSELVES BY MISADVENTURE’ (p. xvii). It’s worth mentioning too, perhaps, that on the title page of Part One of Jones’s work the Y Gododdin quote occurs alongside a quote from Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner, ‘The many men so beautiful’. Peake drew a picture of Jones in 1937, as one of a series of portraits of major figures in the arts he published in The London Mercury; see The Drawings of Mervyn Peake, introd. Hilary Spurling (London and New York: Allison and Busby), p. 46, and G. Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 2009), p. 108. Another connection between the two artists is that both claimed Welsh ancestry (Peake through his Welsh mother – hence his Welsh Christian name) and both illustrated The Ancient Mariner, Jones in 1929, Peake in 1943.

NOTES

[1] All references to Peake’s poems in this post are taken from my edition of his Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008). ‘September 1939’ is on p. 47.

[2] See Collected Poems, p. 1.

[3] Collected Poems, p. 65.

[4] Collected Poems, p. 52.

[5] Collected Poems, p. 43.

[6] For Peake’s fascination with islands see G. Peter Winnington, The Voice of the Heart: The Working of Mervyn Peake’s Imagination (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006), chapter 3, ‘Islands’.

[7] See Maeve Gilmore, A World Away: A Memoir of Mervyn Peake, in Mervyn Peake: Two Lives, introd. Sebastian Peake (London: Vintage, 1999), p. 26.

[8] Collected Poems, p. 48.

[9] Mervyn Peake, Writings and Drawings, ed. Maeve Gilmore and Shelagh Johnson (London: Academy Editions and New York: St Martin Press, 1974), p. 80.

[10] Writings and Drawings, p. 81.

[11] Several of these pictures are reproduced in Mervyn Peake: The Man and His Art, compiled by Sebastian Peake and Alison Eldred, ed. G. Peter Winnington (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 2006), pp. 66-69.

[12] ‘Blake’, Collected Poems, p. 63.

[13] See Michael Remy, Surrealism in Britain (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999).

[14] See James Gifford, A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism, and the Radical Fantastic (Victoria, BC: ELS Editions, 2018), chapter 3, pp. 122-45.

[15] Malcolm Yorke, Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold (London: John Murray, 2000), p. 80: ‘Somehow they managed to ignore all the very unromantic preparations for war which were going on all around them in Europe.’

[16] For Peake’s visit to Wales see G Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography(London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 2009), p. 112.

[17] Collected Poems, p. 31.

[18] Collected Poems, p. 50.

[19] Collected Poems, p. 41

[20] Writings and Drawings, p. 81.

Flann O’Brien’s Bombshells

[This is a version of an essay I published a few years ago. For a fully annotated version see “Flann O’Brien’s Bombshells: At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman,” New Hibernia Review, vol. 10 no. 4 (Winter 2006), 84-104.]

During the approach to the Second World War Brian O’Nolan wrote two novels in English under the pen-name Flann O’Brien, both of which are closely connected with bombs. The first of these, At Swim-Two-Birds (published by Longman’s in 1939), sold few copies and got lukewarm reviews, so it could be said to have bombed. The following year Longman’s premises in London were destroyed by a real bomb, and with them the remaining stocks of O’Nolan’s book, and after that it more or less disappeared from public consciousness until it was reprinted in 1960. His second novel, The Third Policeman (finished in 1940), ends with a revelation that might be described as a bombshell. In the last pages of the book the narrator makes the shocking discovery that he has been blown to bits by a booby trap and that he’s telling his tale from beyond the grave. On being offered to the publishers, this novel did more than bomb: it was rejected, and didn’t see print until after O’Nolan’s death.

The link between these two bombs – the real one that destroyed the first edition of At Swim-Two-Birds and the fictitious one in The Third Policeman – may be a brittle one, but it seems to me worth forging. Setting them side by side helps to underscore two things about O’Nolan’s work: the extent to which it is bound up with violence, and the extent to which the imaginary violence it contains has a grounding in reality. The independent Ireland of which At Swim-Two-Birds is an ambiguous celebration was built on armed conflict, and by the time the novel was published that conflict was spreading rapidly through Europe. My contention here is that this novel and its successor express a response to the prospect of annihilation raised by the rapid approach of the Second World War. Everything in them tends to confirm the likelihood both of the outbreak of military aggression and of its cataclysmic effects; effects which may be summarized in the destructive capabilities of bombs, whether conventional – like the bomb that blew up the warehouse – or nuclear – like the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The processes of imagining, constructing and countenancing the use of bombs are carefully mimicked in the pages of these books, and mark them out as prominent examples of what might be called the comedy of cataclysm, of which Stanley Kubrick’s movie Dr Strangelove (1964) is the most celebrated example.

O’Nolan’s consciousness that violence is the presiding genius of his time finds its most direct expression in the ruthlessness with which he kills off his narrators. Much of At Swim-Two-Birds concerns the efforts of the fictional characters in a novel to outwit and finally execute the writer who brought them together. And at the end of the book this cast of revolutionary characters – all of whom collaborate in writing part of the narrative they inhabit – is massacred at one fell swoop, when the pages that sustain their existence are burnt by the writer’s servant. In The Third Policeman the threat of death hangs over the narrator from near the beginning of the story, and at the end he finds that he has been dead since the moment he started to live in fear of death. Like Europe, then, both novels contain the seeds of their own destruction, which germinate and come to appalling fruition as the narrative unfolds. At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman re-enact the contemporary struggle to the death between dictatorship and democracy, and the outcome O’Nolan envisages – for both the real and the fictional struggle – is a catastrophic explosion.

At the same time, the people who inhabit these novels, whether despots or revolutionaries, are supremely civil individuals, always ready to come to terms with one another or to exchange elaborate compliments. The word “civil” is, indeed, among O’Nolan’s favourites, invoking as it does both the prospect of good company and the potential for an unexpected outbreak of genial civil war. The fictional insurgents in At Swim-Two-Birds are so uniformly courteous that one character in the novel who reads about them complains that he’s unable to tell them apart, condemning their “spiritual and physical identity” and claiming that “true dialogue is dependent on the conflict rather than the confluence of minds.” Strangely, though, it’s the confluence of minds that leads to violence in O’Nolan’s work. For him, people resemble certain chemical substances, which, while independently harmless, may when combined acquire the potential to wreak widespread devastation. This process of destructive combining comes to a head at the end of At Swim-Two-Birds, where the many civil conversations that fill the text culminate in the politest of exchanges between a devilish fairy called the Pooka MacPhellimey and a man called Trellis – the dictatorial author whose characters have mutinied against him. Tormented by the Pooka beyond endurance, Trellis is finally goaded into calling him a “black bastard,” to which the devil-fairy retorts: “The character of your colloquy is not harmonious […] and makes for barriers between the classes. Honey-words in torment, a growing urbanity against the sad extremities of human woe, that is the […] injunction I place upon your head.” From this moment Trellis is compelled to behave like a sweet-spoken saint in adversity, warmly congratulating his adversary on the inventiveness with which he smashes, mangles and bursts the unfortunate author’s limbs and organs. Here the confluence of characters proves agonizing, but it is marked by a verbal fluency that manufactures poetry from pain, wit from wounds, delight from disintegration. For O’Nolan as for Yeats, creation and destruction spring from the same roots, and honest writers of both real and fictional histories are forever condemned to pay horrified tribute to this paradox.

If civility is one characteristic of O’Nolan’s Ireland, another is its obsession with knowledge. The acquisition of – or rather, the appearance of possessing – arcane inside information is the supreme goal of every character he invents. In his celebrated column in the Irish Times, for instance, O’Nolan’s alter-ego Myles na gCopaleen veers from sharing his expertise in the field of steam transport to leading his mighty Research Bureau in its efforts to find new means of circumventing wartime shortages; from collaborating with Einstein in his researches to playing duets with the eminent violinist Fritz Kreisler; from drawing on his personal intimacy with Diaghilev and Anna Pavlova to intervening in the global economy through his directorship of the Myles na gCopaleen Banking Corporation. The knowledge he claims in each of these areas – like all the knowledge professed by O’Nolan’s creations – serves the ends, not of some spurious objective “truth” now discredited by Einstein’s theory of relativity, but of relentless self-promotion. Knowledge in O’Nolan’s work is only ever used to make its possessor look big. And it rarely if ever achieves this objective; partly, no doubt, because everyone is familiar with the rules by which the know-all or egg-head operates, and is thus forearmed against his grandiose pretensions.

In a nutshell, the rules are these:

• Facts, both historical and physical, may be freely distorted or invented, but must always be stated with absolute confidence, no matter how misplaced.
• Facts must be conveyed with the help of the most powerful rhetorical tools available. Details of these are given at intervals throughout At Swim-Two-Birds.
• The information thus conveyed must be entirely useless, and must do no good either to you or to anyone else. It must not advance your career, improve your health, or help you to win the philosophical compensation prize of getting to know yourself. Your information must, in fact, contribute nothing whatsoever to the well-being of humanity.
• On the contrary, your information should if possible kill you, or even damn you to perdition. The possession of it, after all, is very often the result of a Faustian pact, a declaration – implicit or explicit – of one’s willingness to sell one’s soul for worthless knowledge.

The Faustian strain in O’Nolan’s work came to the fore in his play Faustus Kelly (1943), in which a local politician teaches the devil that Irish public life is more authentically hellish than Hell itself, and that knowing how to operate in it is a task beyond even the Prince of Darkness. In The Third Policeman, too, Ireland is infernal, and the protagonist is sent there for his murderous zeal in the pursuit of learning. Knowledge is capable of producing the bombs that dismembered so many bodies in the Second World War; but before it does this devilish work it must demoralize the soul to the extent that it is able to condone the manufacture and use of bombs. And in the Ireland of the thirties and forties, O’Nolan tells us, this demoralizing process is exceptionally well advanced.

O’Nolan’s opus didn’t begin with this jaded view of the contemporary forms of knowledge. His first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, begins by treating knowledge with respect: in its opening pages, learning of all kinds figures as the chief weapon wielded by activists for democracy and civil rights in the struggle against tyranny. The novel’s protagonist is a student who is writing a novel about an older author (Trellis), who is also writing a novel, though of a very different kind from the one planned by the student. The story Trellis proposes to write will be a “salutary book to be read by all,” filled with smut in order to appeal to the modern reading public and populated only by villains; a book which will “show the terrible cancer of sin in its true light and act as a clarion-call to torn humanity.” Trellis’s view of sin is appallingly limited given the momentous times in which he’s writing, with fascism on the rise and global conflict just around the corner. He is horrified not by stories of massacres, invasions and civil war but “by the spate of sexual and other crimes recorded in recent times in the newspapers – particularly in those published on Saturday night.” And his scapegoats for these crimes are the motley cast of characters he assembles to participate in his “bad book”, all of whom have been stolen unacknowledged from the work of other writers. It is this process of being forced into an uncongenial role to satisfy the whim of an egotistical plagiarist that the characters object to, and that provokes them to insurrection. From one point of view, their rebellion resembles Ireland’s revolt against its self-styled English landlords; after all, Trellis is the proprietor of a pub called the Red Swan Hotel, so he is indisputably a landlord. But Trellis is also indisputably Irish, with parents from both North and South (“his father was a Galwayman, sober and industrious, tried and true in the service of his country. His mother was from far Fermanagh”). So even the rising he provokes is a form of plagiary, a pale imitation of the struggle for independence. In inventing it, O’Nolan – or his student persona – would seem to be making a point about the substitution of one form of despotism for another that has taken place since the achievement of independence. The new despotism is a petty one, dominated by the church and the policing it encourages: a policing to which Trellis is as much subject as the characters he exploits (his views on the “cancer of sin” have clearly been thrashed into him by the Christian Brothers). And for the student novelist who creates both Trellis and the rebel characters, the resolution to Ireland’s continued subjection to tyrants large and small lies in the revolutionizing of the novel form itself: a transformation of the genre into a treasure-house or storage-room for the many kinds of wisdom that are freely available to Irishmen of all classes.

Before beginning the story of Trellis, the student novelist draws up a manifesto for the modern novel that resembles the charter of a new nation, an idealistic declaration of independence for twentieth-century prose fiction:

The novel, in the hands of an unscrupulous writer, could be despotic […] It was undemocratic to compel characters to be uniformly good or bad or poor or rich. Each should be allowed a private life, self-determination and a decent standard of living. This would make for self-respect, contentment and better service […] The modern novel should be largely a work of reference. Most authors spend their time saying what has been said before – usually said much better. A wealth of references to existing works would acquaint the reader instantaneously with the nature of each character, would obviate tiresome explanations and would effectively preclude mountebanks, upstarts, thimbleriggers and persons of inferior education from an understanding of contemporary literature.

The reference to the exclusion of “persons of inferior education from an understanding of contemporary literature” smacks of elitism, and many of O’Nolan’s characters suffer from advanced cases of intellectual snobbery. But in practice the novel written by the student embraces popular culture with the same enthusiasm it shows for the classics of Irish literature. Its “wealth of references to existing works” accommodates fireside anecdote alongside old Irish storytelling, the American Western novel alongside the philosophical disputation, the poetry of the working man alongside lyrics relating to the ancient Irish kings. All classes of Irish society are represented in the student’s book. All are given work to do and rewarded – at least for a time – with “a decent standard of living.” And all classes of Irish society are shown to have their own peculiar branches of knowledge, to be raided at will by omnivorous youth in its quest for understanding and reconciliation.

Certain forms of knowledge are of common and obvious interest to all classes: among them the rituals associated with “intoxicating beverages and their strange intestinal chemistry,” together with their physical consequences (described in a tract by the Christian Brothers which the student author incorporates into his novel); or information pertaining to turf or track (the student also incorporates letters from a Newmarket man who delivers the goods on “cast-iron plungers”). But the respect of one class for knowledge associated with other classes is also evident throughout the narrative. The working class figures who populate the student’s novel, and who form the backbone of the revolutionary movement against the tyrannical landlord-author Trellis, show an enthusiastic appreciation for the story-telling skills of a character from a quite different tradition – Finn Mac Cool, a “hero of old Ireland.” And although the poet they most admire is the “Poet of the Pick” Jem Casey, author of a ballad with the stirring refrain A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN, Casey himself when he enters the narrative is a confirmed admirer of ancient Irish poetry. On meeting the mad king Sweeny Casey announces “By God I know a bloody poet when I hear one. Hands off the poets. I can write a verse myself and I respect the man that can do the same.”

The solidarity between ancient and modern Ireland and the literatures of both is expressed with still greater eloquence by another working class character from the student’s novel:

You can’t beat it, of course, said Shanahan with a reddening of the features, the real old stuff of the native land, you know, the stuff that brought scholars to our shores when your men on the other side were on the flat of their bellies before the calf of gold with a sheepskin around their man. It’s the stuff that put our country where she stands today, Mr Furriskey, and I’d have my tongue out of my head by the bloody roots before I’d be heard saying a word against it.

Here again the respect for knowledge “that brought scholars to our shores” is warmly and forcefully articulated; in the deep past, at least, knowledge was a matter for unqualified celebration. It’s no wonder that the revolutionary Shanahan delights in “the real old stuff of our native land” since what we see of it in the student’s novel is peculiarly democratic: churchmen and laymen, kings, witches, madmen and milkmaids engage in rhetorical or athletic competition without getting aggressive, and boast outrageously without giving offence. But Shanahan adds a qualification to his praise of old Irish poetry as it is practised and purveyed in modern times: “the man in the street, where does he come in? By God he doesn’t come in at all as far as I can see.” In the twentieth century, knowledge is hemmed in by elitism and by “barriers between the classes.” In the world the student inhabits – the world beyond the pages of his novel where he is reading for a degree at University College Dublin, like Stephen Dedalus – knowledge, and the competition between different kinds of knowledge, is in a permanent state of war, of which the Second World War is merely an aggravated symptom.

The student novelist’s uncle is a member of the lower middle classes who is deeply embroiled in the war of knowledge. Like Trellis, he’s a great purveyor of hackneyed wisdom: “A good degree is a very nice thing to have […] The old schoolmasters believed in the big stick […] For what is the love of God but the love of your neighbour? […] Doctoring and teaching, the two of them are marked out for special graces and blessings.” And like Trellis, the nature of his hackneyed wisdom identifies him as the product of a Catholic education, which serves to strengthen the church’s hegemony in Ireland. But he claims to have a stake in this hegemony: he has a “very special friend” in the Christian Brothers, and can pull strings to get the student-novelist’s friend into the order. And his claim to an insider’s knowledge of the Brothers is of a piece with his claim to an inside knowledge of his nephew’s private doings. “I know the studying you do in your bedroom,” he tells him, “Damn the studying you do in your bedroom […] Tell me this, do you ever open a book at all? […] O I know the game you are at above in your bedroom. I am not as stupid as I look, I’ll warrant you that.” For the sake of his own dignity – for the sake of his aspirations to the “self-determination” mentioned in the manifesto for the student’s novel – this lower-middle-class speaker has built up an impregnable defence system constructed largely from rhetoric. He is “Rat-brained, cunning, concerned-that-he-should-be-well-thought of. Abounding in pretence, deceit.” One might add: acutely conscious that there are areas of knowledge from which he has been systematically excluded, and which impart power to the initiated; eager that he should be thought to have “special” access to these areas. He knows what goes on when a student claims to be “studying,” and he knows the inner workings of the church hierarchy. He seeks additional stakes in ruling-class culture by joining an amateur operatic society that performs the work of those representative Imperial Englishmen, Gilbert and Sullivan. His part in their work requires that he wear a papier-maché replica of a policeman’s hat, marking him out as an eager mimic of Ireland’s former “landlords.” Not surprisingly, then, at the beginning of the novel the student-novelist sees him as the would-be tyrant of his household, an enemy determined to gain control over him by every means at the disposal of his devious rat brain.

But by the end the uncle has been reduced to the status of a comic entertainer – the stage Irishman who is O’Nolan’s pet hate and who hovers at the wings of every passage he writes. He is no longer the enemy; when the student passes his exams the uncle presents him with a second hand gold watch in token of his admission into the work schedule of the nation, of which the uncle himself is part. The enemy is the system that sets one class at odds with another in the same society, in the same family even, using knowledge as its instrument. The enemy, that is, is the class system, an import equally from England and from Rome. And by the end of At Swim-Two-Birds the malevolent machinery of that system stands poised and ready to consume the student-novelist and his reader as they reach the closing pages of the book.

The transmutation of knowledge-acquisition in At Swim-Two-Birds from an amicably democratic occupation to a power-struggle, a war, may be traced by glancing at the beginning and the end of the novel. In keeping with the manifesto’s statement that the modern novel should be a work of reference, a sort of encyclopaedia, At Swim-Two-Birds is interspersed with leaves from an actual encyclopaedia that stands in the student-novelist’s bedroom. It’s a Conspectus of the Arts and Natural Sciences, published in forty buckskin volumes in 1854 by a “reputable Bath house for a guinea the volume.” The volumes “bore their years bravely,” we are told, and “retained in their interior the kindly seed of knowledge intact and without decay.” The Conspectus is a democratic project: it exists to make specialist information available to the curious general reader, regardless of social status or education. Accordingly, in the novel written by the student, knowledge would indeed seem at times to be both kindly and freely available. It is bestowed, for instance, in cornucopian abundance on the rebel characters when one of their number takes over Trellis’s narrative, so that they speak in tongues, as it were, on topics as diverse as the colloquial names for chemical elements, the camel’s inability to swim and the correct way to read your gas metre. But at the time they obtain this wealth of knowledge they are also engaged in less attractive pursuits; above all, in subjecting their author Trellis to unspeakable agonies through the disinterested agency of the Pooka MacPhellimey. And the Pooka, too, possesses an abundance of arcane knowledge, which he applies to Trellis with far-from-pleasant consequences:

A number of miracles were wrought as one and together […] Leaden-hard forked arteries ran speedily about his scalp, his eye-beads bled and the corrugations of boils and piteous tumuli which appeared upon the large of his back gave it the appearance of a valuable studded shield and could be ascertained on counting to be sixty-four in number […] In addition to his person, his room was also the subject of mutations unexplained by any purely physical hypothesis and not to be accounted for by mechanical devices relating to the manipulation of guy-ropes, pulley-blocks, or mechanical collapsible wallsteads of German manufacture, nor did the movements of the room conform to any known laws relating to the behaviour of projectiles as ascertained by a study of gravitation enforced by calculations based on the postulata of the science of ballistics […] A clock could be heard incessantly reciting the hours, a token that the free flight of time had also been interfered with; while the mumbling of the Pooka at his hell-prayers and the screaming of the sufferer, these were other noises perceptible to the practised ear.

Half a dozen academic discourses dependent on precision are at work in this passage: the Catholic theologian’s painstaking notation of miracles; the archaeologist’s eye, which appraises the author’s boil-encrusted back in the light of excavations of pre-Christian tumuli; the mathematician’s fondness for numbers and geometrical patterns; the engineer’s pleasure in mechanics and the physicist’s in disruptions in the space-time continuum; the poet’s delight in perfectly rhythmic speech. And all this in the service of quasi-inquisitorial excruciation. The possessor of knowledge, the Pooka, first appoints himself judge, prosecution, jury and executioner, then applies all the weight of his learning to the end of putting the screws on his chosen victim.

We have entered territory, in fact, which will be explored more thoroughly in The Third Policeman. The pattern is one we shall see repeated in an extraordinary range of O’Nolan’s writings. In the trial scene towards the end of At Swim-Two-Birds, for instance, the author Trellis is arraigned by a panel of judges who are his known enemies – the characters in his novel. The courtroom itself is a former music-hall which has been converted to a cinema and is now a bar, both legal and licensed (all the judges have pints of porter in their fists). These many functions for a single space should alert us to something else that is always happening in O’Nolan’s writing: people are always being judged and convicted in every social space in Ireland, from street to pub to church to schoolroom to bed-chamber. The conviction is always a foregone conclusion, and the laws of physics, of nature, of history, of the nation, and of the divinity will be freely transgressed in order to bring that conviction about. When you think about it, a conviction or legal sentence is a kind of punch-line, and all O’Nolan’s characters will violate any principle in order to end an anecdote with style. And the more you read O’Nolan, the more terrible this comic inevitability becomes. One is tempted to say that for him the comic narrative, the shaggy dog story, the anecdote with the devastating punch-line that unleashes a burst of agonized laughter, is the exact model for what was happening to Ireland and to Europe as the 1930s deteriorated into war.

In At Swim-Two-Birds the inevitable fate of the author is postponed by the act of fate we encountered earlier, when his servant Teresa burns the pages of his novel that give life to his antagonists, the characters who are about to sentence him to death. His legal sentence is commuted to a conversational sentence, a feeble bit of wordplay, which the battered author delivers when he has returned to his house and is following Teresa upstairs, observing the motion of her buttocks – decently concealed beneath her skirt – as he goes: “Ars est celare artem, muttered Trellis, doubtful as to whether he had made a pun.” As he returns to his bedroom the power structure reverts to its pre-revolutionary state, with the author supine on his bed manipulating his characters and fooling his readers as he has always done, a perfect imitation of the social hegemony at work, the art of its power foxily concealed from view. We have assisted at the birth of an encyclopaedia, a circle of knowledge, which has now been transformed from the promise of infinite freedom that it held at the beginning of the book to an elaborate trap. And this is the third characteristic O’Nolan ascribes to 1930s Ireland. Urbanity is the first; an obsession with knowledge is the second. The third is entrapment.

Trapped! You see a bore coming down the street – you make evasive manoeuvres – they are half-hearted ones because you know he has spotted you and is bearing down like a heat-seeking missile. And now you are subject to the anecdote: the unloading of a mass of worthless information with just one end – to astonish, to perplex, to invoke reluctant admiration, to establish the superiority of the bore regardless of all outward and visible signs of his commonplace condition. The punch-line is the sprung trap that awaits you at the end of the anecdote, the confirmation of the bore’s victory, and you will seek every means to identify its whereabouts and to shield yourself against its approach. Yet your efforts to protect yourself will always fail, because the bore holds all the cards, you cannot possibly second-guess the tortuous racking to which he will subject language, history, space and time in order to spring his surprise. The punch-line is the ultimate form of occult knowledge, and the best thief in the world is unable either to wrest the secret of it from the narrator who plans to deliver it – or to divert the narrator from his purpose of giving it vent.

This is especially the case with Keats and Chapman, protagonists of a series of shaggy dog stories O’Nolan unfolded in his daily column in the Irish Times. Each story culminates in one of Keats’s abominable puns, often achieved at the cost of appalling physical pain to some unfortunate innocent – usually his unhappy friend Chapman. On one occasion the schoolboy Chapman is glued to the back of his head teacher, solely in order that Keats can say “I like a man that sticks to his principals.” On another he is chewed and mashed by a steel rolling mill in the interests of allowing Keats to observe that he has “been through the mill.” On a third, a man suffers from intolerable adenoidal agonies after an amateur operation performed by Chapman, which leaves the patient with a surgical instrument embedded in his sinuses for more than a week, merely as a pretext for Keats to state at the end of it all: “He had it up his nose for you a long time.” In each of these episodes, elaborate, weighty machinery is set in motion, narratives of an epic length and complexity are unfolded (remember that Keats and Chapman are associated with an Irish epic, the works of Homer), and the material world is disjointed and stretched beyond the limits of its capacity, all in the interest of a jeu de mots the most appropriate response to which is a scream of derision or torment. In this sense, At Swim-Two-Birds is a Keats and Chapman anecdote, the victim of its violence being the author Trellis. Here for once the victim is allowed to have the punch-line (except of course that Trellis is the most tyrannical anecdotalist of all, the novelist, as well as the novel’s victim). But in most of O’Nolan’s anecdotes the victim of physical violence is made the helpless subject of the climactic pun: like the stranger who is murdered, dissolved in an acid bath, then drunk by Chapman cup by cup, solely in order that Keats’s friend might claim that he has drunk the fellow under the table.

Here the anecdote is relatively innocent, if nasty. But there are times when O’Nolan’s anecdotes are not just nasty but horrible, straying into uncharted regions of poor taste.

One example is the Keats and Chapman story where the unfortunate pair are caught in the blast of an American atomic bomb, whose most freakish effect is to “blow the backs off several humans, leaving them alive, conscious, and otherwise intact.” Keats is one of these unfortunates, and the ensuing search for his own missing part among heaps of bleeding backs while uttering terrible threats of vengeance is driven solely by O’Nolan’s need to vent himself of the final line: “‘I’m going to get my own back,’ Keats said savagely, turning over nearby fleshes.’” “Savagely” is just the right word: the comic has seldom got much closer than this to the monstrously mundane logic of the War Room (the anecdote was published in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

But perhaps the most calculatedly offensive of O’Nolan’s anecdotes is “The Martyr’s Crown,” a short story cited by Frank O’Connor as symptomatic of the degenerate state of Irish writing in the 1930s. In it the fight for independence, the heroic deeds of the Irish resistance and the sacrifices of the men and women who helped them in their struggle against the British are enlisted as components of a squalid tale narrated by the most outrageous of O’Nolan’s self-promoters. The narrator is a man called Toole, whose yearning to be an “insider” has reached unprecedented intensity, and who satisfies it by hailing eminent passers-by as if they were his closest friends, thus startling them into acknowledging his cheerful greetings despite the fact that they do not know him from Adam. Toole then turns to any given walking-companion who has witnessed the incident and proceeds to back up his claim to the passer-by’s acquaintance with some elaborate story concerning their mutual adventures. In one case, an elegant young man has the poise to ignore Toole’s greeting with a devastating display of frostiness, and Toole is stung into inventing an unusually elaborate story to explain the youth’s indifference. It’s a tale that includes a bloody ambush (once again featuring explosives – “a class of a home-made bomb that Bart used to make in his own kitchen”), a massacre of the British military (“there was no heads left on some of them”), and an Irishwoman who sleeps with a British captain to save the resistance fighters hiding in her house – all in the interest of providing Toole with the most explosive of punchlines. Of course the young man is proud, the anecdotalist declares triumphantly; too proud to acknowledge his humbler acquaintances. He is the offspring of the union between the patriotic Irishwoman and the British captain. “For seven hundred years,” Toole goes on, “thousands – no, I’ll make it millions – of Irish men and women have died for Ireland […] But that young man was born for Ireland. There was never anybody else like him. Why wouldn’t he be proud?” In “The Martyr’s Crown,” in other words, Ireland’s bloody history serves as raw material for an elaborate rhetorical scheme for fleeting self-promotion on the part of a nobody. The hopes and high ambitions entertained by the Irish freedom fighters have been reduced to this: and if O’Connor was disgusted by O’Nolan’s willingness to transform an epic struggle into a joke, this was clearly just the reaction O’Nolan was looking for. The apt response to Toole’s punchline is a shriek of mingled laughter and derision both shriller and more unnerving than anything elicited by the various lives of Keats and Chapman. And a more muted shriek might be an apt response to the collective political and economic disappointments suffered by the partitioned Irish people in the early years of independence.

All the characteristics of O’Nolan’s writing I’ve discussed so far find their funniest and most appalling manifestations in The Third Policeman. The book is an anecdote told by a bore – a nameless first-person narrator obsessed with the work of an insane philosopher called de Selby. And it’s populated by many additional raconteurs, each of whom is as willing as the narrator to twist the geometries of space, time, and reason in their efforts to arrive at the punch-line they desire. Unlike O’Nolan’s other texts, however, this anecdote goes on interminably beyond the punch-line, and is located in an infernal Ireland where every verbal coup is a body-blow, calling forth ever more horrified cries of astonishment on the part of the narrator, until he observes that such cries have become “almost a habit with me.” In this place as in all of O’Nolan’s Irelands people are constantly being judged and sentenced without due process (there is “no trial or preliminary proceedings, no caution administered and no hearing before a Commissioner of the Public Peace”). And the sentence passed on the narrator himself – as in At Swim-Two-Birds – is death. But here the irrational system that sentences the narrator to death has everyone in its grip. Everyone is either criminal or policeman or both, and is governed by an arcane set of rules which however arbitrary are finally inescapable, even if nobody knows them. Or rather, the rules are eminently escapable; they can always be circumvented, but only apparently and temporarily before reasserting themselves in the most unexpected and disturbing manner possible, like the pun at the end of a Keats and Chapman story. When the narrator hears in the middle of the book that he’s to be hanged for a murder nobody knows he has committed, he cries out in consternation: “Is this all a joke for entertainment purposes?” To this his accuser and would-be executioner, Sergeant Pluck, replies with warmth: “If you take it that way I will be indefinitely beholden to you.” The book as a whole is only a joke if it is taken that way – just as the outbreak of war may only be taken as a joke if you set aside your humanity and all your moral convictions. In this novel the fear of death is never alleviated, the inevitability of the death sentence never questioned; the narrator is locked into the ultimate tyranny, and the sense of entrapment his story generates is only intensified by the supreme civility with which all the characters behave towards one another, the sincerity with which they comfort their victims in the face of approaching doom.

The worst thing about this comic narrative is that it documents a self-imposed tyranny, a self-sprung trap. Like O’Nolan’s other protagonists the narrator is a seeker after knowledge for his own private advancement; and his quest to make his name through knowledge leads to murder. He kills an elderly man called Mathers for the sake of his money, which he needs to finance the publication of his definitive index to the works of de Selby. And this murder for the sake of knowledge precipitates him into the nightmare world of the three policemen of the title; an idyllic rural landscape dominated by a monstrously crooked police station, centre of operations for Sergeant Pluck and his strange and eloquent colleagues. The narrator goes to the station in his quest for Mathers’s vanished millions, voluntarily delivering himself into the hands of the law when he discovers that the cash is not where he expects to find it. The police, he thinks, will direct him to what he feels is his by right – even if his right to the old man’s cash was obtained through manslaughter. And as if in response to his distorted sense of values, he finds himself in a land where all laws are distorted – even the law of perspective; where a man’s own point of view shapes what he sees (hence the emphasis throughout on the eyes of the different characters); and where the unspoken first and second rules of wisdom that obtain in all of O’Nolan’s works have been adopted by the first policeman he meets as a universal guiding principle. “Always ask any questions that are to be asked and never answer any,” Sergeant Pluck tells him, and “Turn everything you hear to your own advantage.” The latter rule is the narrator’s downfall. When Pluck’s superior, the angry Inspector O’Corky, appears at the station to ask why no action has been taken to find old Mathers’s murderer, Pluck instantly replies that the murderer has been apprehended and is currently awaiting execution. The narrator quickly realizes that he himself is the criminal in question; that he has been identified as the killer regardless of the absence of evidence against him, and that he is to be sacrificed for Pluck’s private purposes, summarily despatched to protect the sergeant from a petty reprimand. Pettiness, parochialism and egomania not only dominate this nightmare Ireland but kill people in it, as if to demonstrate the nation’s unwitting complicity in the atrocities being perpetrated elsewhere in Europe. And despite the arbitrariness of Pluck’s sentence, despite the cheerful despotism it springs from, the narrator can hardly deny in his soul that he thoroughly deserves it, and that he has sought it out with all the tenacity of a detective following the trail of clues he has left behind for his own incrimination.

This self-destructive urge in the narrator – the urge that takes him directly to a police station after he has committed a murder – is part of a tendency to self-destruction that seems inherent in every detail of O’Nolan’s narrative. The rich stock of knowledge it contains – the arcane knowledge purveyed by Policemen MacCruiskeen and Fox as well as by Sergeant Pluck and the narrator himself – tends towards one end only: a great big bang; and the novel itself may aptly be described as an infernal machine, a time-bomb that has already gone off by the time the reader discovers its nature. This aspect of the book is best considered by way of its treatment of boxes. The object for which the narrator commits his murder is a black metal cashbox containing the legendary fortune of old man Mathers. While the narrator is murdering Mathers with his spade, his accomplice Divney conceals the box in the old man’s house, and later sends the narrator to collect it from its hiding place. In the meantime Divney has replaced the cash with an explosive device, and we learn at the end of the novel that the cashbox blew up as soon as the narrator touched it, killing him and demolishing the building. As a result, most of the narrator’s adventures in the novel are posthumous ones. For the narrator, however, at the instant of detonation the cashbox simply disappears; and as far as he is concerned, his adventures are no more than an extended search for the object of his murderous desires. It’s therefore only fitting that from the moment of the cashbox’s disappearance the book should be filled with boxes like the one he’s obsessed with: from the nest of impossible containers constructed by Policeman MacCruiskeen – a pointless labour of love like the narrator’s index to the works of de Selby – to the black boxes with coloured wires coming out of them which MacCruiskeen uses to manufacture light out of noise; from the boxes of peat being cut out of the soil by labourers near the police station to the narrator’s many accounts of de Selby’s mysterious “water box” and MacCruiskeen’s inaudible music box with the knobs on. The brain is a box, as Sergeant Pluck reminds the narrator, and so is the coffin that is constructed to receive the narrator’s body after his execution. At one point the narrator finds himself locked in an “iron box” or elevator with a sixteen stone policeman, descending to an underground region where the obscure mechanisms that control the sunlit world above their heads appear to be located. This underground region, too, is full of boxes, from cubical compartments containing anything you ask for, to biscuit-boxes of indescribable shape and colour that tumble from a chute. And the majority of the boxes that fill the book are deadly. The boxes with coloured wires, for instance, which compress ordinary daytime sounds into electric light, are a disaster waiting to happen. Somewhere in their interiors lurks the dreadful noise of a quarry, a cacophony collected by the policemen during the previous summer as fuel for the dark winter evenings; and when this is compressed, MacCruiskeen tells the narrator, everyone in the vicinity will be blinded. The elevator will kill its occupants if they change weight at all during their subterranean visit. The nest of boxes will drive their contemplator mad if thought about for too long. And on the mantelpiece of MacCruiskeen’s room there is a little box that has already driven two men mad: they lost their wits when they examined its interior. Light-, heat- and sound- producing boxes in this novel are dangerously volatile containers – like the “box” that is the brain; and the whole novel trembles with the anticipation of their eventual detonation.

Over and above the boxes, the world the narrator finds himself in after his death is a peculiarly artificial one. Like the technologies and industries of the twentieth century it is driven by elaborate mechanisms: from parts of the human body, such as old man Mathers’ robotic eyes, or Policeman Fox’s face which is “red and gross as if gallons of hot thick blood had been pumped into it,” or Divney’s jaws, which “clicked a few times like a machine,” to the earth itself, which resembles a giant power-plant driven by subterranean engines. As the narrator approaches the entrance to the underground engine-room with Sergeant Pluck he observes that “The world rang in my ear like a great workshop. Sublime feats of mechanics and chemistry were evident on every side.” Metaphors of mechanism are everywhere; from the “mechanical task” the narrator sets himself of finding the black box, to the description of his response to an unexpected encounter with the reanimated corpse of the man he has murdered: “Words spilled out of me as if they were produced by machinery;” from Pluck’s description of the law as “an extremely intricate phenomenon,” to MacCruiskeen’s account of a retractable pencil as “an intricate article full of machinery and a Present from Southport.” And much of this machinery, like the boxes, is potentially deadly. On meeting a fellow murderer called Martin Finnucane early in the book, the narrator learns that life itself is “a queer contraption, very dangerous, a certain death-trap.” And that is just how it turns out for the narrator, who lives always on the verge of a cataclysm that has always already happened. The policemen in their station are constantly preoccupied with the difficult task of keeping the figures on some obscure device in the underground region poised in delicate equilibrium; should they fail in this task, the implication is, chaos will be unleashed and the world will end. As Sergeant Pluck prepares the scaffold for the narrator’s execution the young man watches him “patiently and politely arranging the mechanics of my death.” Later, when the narrator encounters Policeman Fox and learns that he invented the underground region as a ponderous prank, a practical joke at the expense of his colleagues, he loftily dismisses him as an oaf whose mind had been “fed upon adventure books of small boys, books in which every extravagance was mechanical and lethal and solely concerned with bringing about somebody’s death in the most elaborate way imaginable” – books, that is, like the Sexton Blake adventures O’Nolan himself may have written. But of course this is also a perfectly accurate description of the book in which the narrator finds himself. Any more elaborate literary mechanism for accomplishing death could hardly have been contrived by the most devious deviser of detective thrillers. And lethal mechanical extravagances were also of course a feature of the age of war in which The Third Policeman was composed.

O’Nolan’s novel is built into its time, entrapped by it, caught up in its interior workings. As many commentators have noted, the book is full of references to that most deadly and imaginatively stimulating of all energy sources, atomic energy. Sergeant Pluck expounds his own absurd atomic theory to the writer, which involves the exchange of atoms between the bodies of cyclists and the machines they ride, a process that fuses humans with the tools they have made to serve them. And later, Policeman MacCruiskeen discloses the existence of a substance called omnium, which is a fantastically potent version of sub-atomic matter. As MacCruiskeen puts it, “Omnium is the essential inherent interior essence which is hidden inside the root of the kernel of everything and it is always the same,” and anyone who possesses omnium can do anything, transforming any kind of matter to an infinite range of new and astonishing shapes in a trice, on a moment’s whim. This is what Policeman Fox does when he fabricates the underground region out of a lump of omnium he finds in Mathers’s cashbox. Atomic theory and the theory of relativity – which destabilize the laws of time and space as radically as Pluck, Fox and MacCruiskeen do – are for many people the most “modern” of all forms of scientific knowledge; they were born with the twentieth century and dominated the military and political minds of that century from beginning to end. Both areas of knowledge seemed at the beginning of the century to hold the seed of utopian planetary transformations; both were involved in producing instead the most devastating of weapons, the atomic bomb (or as O’Nolan christened it in 1945, the “abombic tomb”). The presence of atomic theory in O’Nolan’s book, then, links the local crises of the newly-fledged Irish nation with the deepening global crisis at the end of the 1930s in a way that predicts the worst outcome for both. And there is no doubt that O’Nolan could have known about both the best and the worst contemporary predictions for the future as it would be shaped by human interference with the atom.

As early as 1914, H. G. Wells wrote a novel describing both the immense powers for utopian transformation inherent in the atom and the infinite potential for destruction it contained. The World Set Free gives an account of the first nuclear war, in which half-crazed aeronauts hurl bombs from the cockpits of their monoplanes and perish triumphantly in the ensuing conflagration. And a single passage from the beginning of Wells’s novel would have been enough, I think, to have conjured the genially monstrous minds of Pluck, Fox and MacCruiskeen from O’Nolan’s imagination. Here is the passage, from the speech of a Scottish professor named Rufus, an enthusiast for atomic energy:

we know now that the atom, that once we thought hard and impenetrable, and indivisible and final and – lifeless – lifeless, is really a reservoir of immense energy. That is the most wonderful thing about all this work. A little while ago we thought of the atoms as we thought of bricks, as solid building material, as substantial matter, as unit masses of lifeless stuff, and behold! These bricks are boxes, treasure boxes, boxes full of the intensest force. This little bottle contains about a pint of uranium oxide; that is to say about fourteen ounces of the element uranium. It is worth about a pound. And in this bottle, ladies and gentlemen, in the atoms in this bottle slumbers at least as much energy as we could get by burning a hundred and sixty tons of coal. If at a word, in one instant I could suddenly release that energy here and now it would blow us and everything about us to fragments; if I could turn it into the machinery that lights this city, it could keep Edinburgh brightly lit for a week. But at present no man knows, no man has an inkling of how this little lump of stuff can be made to hasten the release of its store…

In The Third Policeman Rufus’ treasure boxes have become a black cashbox, the boxes that can light a city have been perfected, and boxes that release energy little by little exist side by side with boxes that demolish buildings in an explosive instant. Indeed, the passage helps to explain something puzzling about O’Nolan’s novel: which is why a story about death should hum and seethe as it does with the sheer overwhelming energy of the world, its teeming vitality, the life in its every particle. Life and death cohabit in O’Nolan’s Ireland, as they do in Rufus’ atoms, in terrifyingly unstable proximity, ready to set each other off in a vast explosion that will obliterate his little nation and the rest of Europe with it. And the little black boxes that contain these explosive elements are in the hands of madmen and obsessives.

The Third Policeman contains O’Nolan’s most potent bombshells, packed to the skin with comic and tragic elements in equal measure. It is, as I’ve said, an infernal machine, an incendiary device – or perhaps a diagram of the infernal machine that is Europe in the mid-twentieth century. At one point in the book, as he stands on the scaffold beside the writer he is about to hang, Sergeant Pluck tells a story about Ireland’s willingness to seek knowledge through violence. It concerns a man who visits the clouds in a balloon, and is almost lynched when he comes back because he refuses to answer questions about his visit. “That is a nice piece of law and order for you,” says Pluck, shaking his head over the narrowly-averted lynching: “a terrific indictment of democratic self-government, a beautiful commentary on Home Rule.” A little later we learn, in one of the novel’s anarchic footnotes, about the murderous proclivities of commentators on the philosopher-scientist de Selby – something we already know about from the actions of the novel’s protagonist. Exasperated by verbal attacks on his idol de Selby, one commentator – Hatchjaw – sets out for mainland Europe to confront the sage’s chief detractor, a “shadowy” German scholar named Kraus. Hatchjaw is armed, among other things, with “explosive chemicals and the unassembled components of several bombs, grenades and landmines” with which he plans to unleash a “cataclysm” to consume both the German and himself. In each case – the lynching and the cataclysm – violence is narrowly averted. But the point of O’Nolan’s narrative is that all the ingenious trickery and extravagant rhetoric in the world will not finally avert further violence when once it has been accepted and engaged in as a modus operandi – by an individual, a nation or a continent. And the novel’s punch-line involves the retrospective discovery that further violence has not been averted, despite all the twists and turns of the narrator in his efforts to stave it off…

O’Nolan could not have predicted exactly how knowledge-driven violence would manifest itself in the later years of the Second World War. Still less could he have predicted how misinformation and weapons of mass destruction would continue to dominate global politics in the twenty-first century. But if his writings of the 1930s and 40s are undoubtedly the products of an astute analysis of his own place and time, they nevertheless continue to have a shocking applicability to our own disordered decade, here in the 2010s. His jokes cannot be safely contained within the confines of his lifetime, any more than radioactive matter can be safely contained within the slender leaves of a comic novel. They – his jokes, that is – are still very much on us.

Towards an Iconography of the Twentieth Century: C. S. Lewis and the Scientific Humanists, Part 1

[This is the first part of an essay I published in the Inklings Jahrbuch für Literatur und Ästhetik, Band 18, in 2000. I’ve revised it slightly. Part 2 can be found here.]

C. S. Lewis’s unfinished second novel, The Dark Tower (c. 1938-9), recasts the global crisis at the beginning of the Second World War as a battle of the books, a cosmic contest over the writing of twentieth-century history. Two different iconographies are at stake in Lewis’s text. The first is the iconography of what he called ‘scientific humanism’ (Letters 368) – as represented by the socialist future histories of J. B. S. Haldane, H. G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon – which embraces the radical changes brought about by the political, technological and cultural revolutions of the twentieth century. The second is the iconography of Renaissance Christian poetry, through which Lewis rejects these revolutions as manifestations of totalitarianism, and with which he seeks to supplant the scientific humanist iconographies. In The Dark Tower Lewis pitches these two literary modes against one another, ranging them about the grotesque figure of an automaton-dictator called the ‘Stingingman’, who has been spontaneously generated by the forces of modernity but whose physical characteristics make him equally at home in both iconographies. In charting the course of this battle Lewis offers us a vivid conservative vision of the struggle for control of the future in mid-century Europe.

Lewis mentions his battle with the ‘scientific humanists’ in a letter of 1939 describing the genesis of his first science fiction novel, Out of the Silent Planet (1938). ‘What set me about writing the book’, he explains,

Was the discovery that a pupil of mine took all that dream of interplanetary colonization quite seriously, and the realization that thousands of people, in one form or another depend on some hope of perpetuating and improving the human species for the whole meaning of the universe – that a ‘scientific’ hope of defeating death is a real rival to Christianity. At present, of course, the prospect of a war has rather dampened them. […] You will be both grieved and amused to learn that out of about sixty reviews, only two showed any knowledge that my idea of the fall of the Bent One was anything but a private invention of my own! But if only there were someone with a richer talent and more leisure, I believe this great ignorance might be a help to the evangelization of England: any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people’s minds under cover of romance without their knowing it. (Letters 321-2)

With minor variations Lewis reworks the themes of this letter in nearly every account he gives of his science fiction: the notion, for instance, that the socialist ‘hope of perpetuating and improving the human species’ by technological means represents a crude and highly dangerous pastiche of the Christian hope of an afterlife; that twentieth-century Christians are an embattled minority contending against ‘great ignorance’ – a tiny civilized community holding back the massed forces of barbarism; or that the weapons of the science-worshippers might profitably be used against them. Lewis’s exploitation of the radio for purposes of ‘evangelization’ was one practical result of this final conviction, reclaiming a small portion of the airwaves for Christian propaganda. Another was his effort, through his science fiction, to colonize the planets in the name of Christianity – or rather, to represent himself as a strenuous resister of the scientific project of ‘interplanetary colonization’. To understand the reasons for his resistance, and the path it took, we need to begin with a brief examination of the socialist colonialist enterprise as Lewis encountered it.

J B S Haldane

A succinct summary of the enterprise was provided in an essay by the biologist J. B. S. Haldane, ‘The Last Judgment’, from his book Possible Worlds (1927). The essay presents itself as an alternative vision of the end of the world to set alongside the visions offered by the major Western religions.[1] The problem with the Christian account of the Last Judgment, says Haldane, is the vast scale on which it is conceived. It seems to him improbable in the extreme that the actions of so diminutive a species as the human race should provoke an omnipotent creator into wiping out the ‘entire stellar system’, as happens in the Book of Revelation.[2] Instead Haldane proposes an end of the world – that is, of planet earth alone, not the solar system it is part of – on a much more modest scale; an Armageddon brought about by technology, whose disastrous effects on humanity may in turn be evaded, or at least deferred, by technological means. He postulates a time about forty billion years hence when human beings will have found the key to individual happiness – largely through the judicious manipulation of human biology known as eugenics – and when all the energy they need is supplied through the harnessing of the ‘tide-power’ of the world’s oceans. The effect of the ‘tide-machines’ is to disturb the orbit of the moon, and a crisis arises as that satellite drifts slowly closer to the earth and starts to show signs of breaking up. It becomes clear that the only chance of surviving the impending catastrophe is for the human race to abandon its home planet and launch itself into space.

At this point the work of the eugenicists changes as they begin to devote their research towards the task of refashioning the human body and mind to cope with the rigors of interplanetary travel. The instinctual drive to individual happiness is bred out of them, together with cognate emotions such as pride, a personal preference concerning the choice of sexual partners, and pity, ‘an unpleasant feeling aroused by the suffering of other individuals’ (Haldane 303). In their place the drive towards self-sacrifice for the collective good of the species – modeled on the selfless behaviour of the heroes and martyrs of history – is made the dominant characteristic of the race. Huge numbers of people sacrifice themselves in the effort to make the planet Venus habitable for humanity, an effort that also entails the eradication of all native life on the planet.

Once the exodus to Venus has been satisfactorily accomplished, the process of forging the species into a ‘super-organism or deity, possibly the only one in space-time’ is brought to fruition (Haldane 304). Telepathic communication enables all men and women to participate in a fully communal life. Plans are made for spreading the powers of the human super-organism throughout the galaxy, at the expense, where necessary, of other life forms. And after that, Haldane’s little parable concludes, ‘there are other galaxies’ (309). In this version of the future, humanity enjoys the prospect of occupying ‘eternity and infinity’ without assistance from non-human deities.

Haldane’s essay ends with a plea for new mythologies better suited to the needs of twentieth-century people than the old religions: capable of operating on the ‘new’ scales of time and space opened up by contemporary physics.[3] His appeal was brilliantly answered by the novelist-philosopher Olaf Stapledon in a dazzling sequence of speculative ‘future histories’ beginning with Last and First Men (1930), which traces the development of humankind across unimaginable distances of time and space, as the species leaps from planet to planet in a heroic bid to find a satisfactory way of living together and of achieving mental perfection. It was answered too by H. G. Wells, whose The Shape of Things to Come (1933) maps the evolution, across a much shorter time span, of a utopian World State, which starts out as a technocratic dictatorship and ends, like Haldane’s essay and Stapledon’s novel, in a quasi-religious vision. ‘The body of mankind,’ declares Wells’s historian of the future in a moment of Pauline rapture,

is now one single organism of nearly two thousand five hundred million persons. […] We are all members of one body. […] As […] the confluence of wills supersedes individual motives and loses its present factors of artificiality, the history of life will pass into a new phase, a phase with a common consciousness and a common will. […] And when that crest is attained what grandeur of life may not open out to Man! Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard; nor hath it entered into the mind of man to conceive… For now we see as in a glass darkly… (425-6)

The quotations from St Paul here declare the ambition of the scientific humanists to write what is in effect a modern Bible, a new spiritual history of which the Bible itself is only an infinitesimal building block, one of several textual ‘glasses’ (mirrors) which have given the people of the past a distorted glimpse of the infinite possibilities available to the species. Haldane, Stapledon and Wells aspire to colonize not only the planets but the philosophical and religious texts that have helped to shape Western culture.

If the scientific humanists express (through mimicry and selective quotation) a qualified admiration for the Christian tradition, Lewis professes a similarly qualified admiration for the grand narratives of ‘Wellsianity’.[4] His science fiction novels freely acknowledge their debt to Wells and Stapledon, and in a paper delivered to the Oxford Socratic Club in 1944 he speaks of having been ‘deeply moved’ by the heartbreaking beauty of the godless ‘world drama’ constructed by the socialist mythmakers.[5] But his project in his science fiction is the reverse of theirs: it is to rehabilitate ancient classical mythology and the Christian religion as still valid keys to the trajectories of past, present and future history. One might say that he colonizes the planets that had been seized as their territory by the socialists, but it would be more accurate in his terms to say that he reclaims them. In Out of the Silent Planet (1938) it is the visionary socialist scientist Weston who uses the vocabulary of imperialist aggression, while the Christian academic Ransom ‘goes native’, as Weston puts it (155); that is, he finds himself to be thoroughly at home in a universe which he finds he has been studying all his life. Lewis has him exclaim with pleasure as he examines a visual history of the universe sculpted by the Martians, ‘what an extraordinary coincidence […] that their mythology, like ours, associates some idea of the female with Venus’ (Silent Planet 129). Ransom discovers, in fact, that the iconography of the ancient world as reconfigured by Medieval and Renaissance Christian thinkers accurately represents the actual social, spatial and spiritual structure of the universe, and that Spenser and the Florentine Neoplatonists offer a more trustworthy account of human history than any ‘world drama’ concocted by modern scientists. As a result, each time Ransom returns to earth in between his adventures he lapses into a state of nostalgic yearning for the not-so-alien planets he has visited. They are his worlds, not the Wellsians’; he speaks their language, as Weston does not; and they represent the supreme affirmation of his lifelong work as a Cambridge philologist. In wandering the exotic landscapes of Mars and Venus he is wandering the pages of the old books he (or rather Lewis) loves, come alive and bursting with energy, and continuing to participate, now as when they were written, in the eternal cosmic struggle.

This is particularly clear when Ransom finds himself on Venus in the second of Lewis’s completed novels, Perelandra [aka Voyage to Venus] (1943). What he finds there is, on the one hand, a series of echoes of Stapledon – or rather, echoes of Stapledon’s echoes of Haldane, since Stapledon’s treatment of Venus in Last and First Men is clearly modeled on Haldane’s ‘The Last Judgment’. Here, as in Haldane, the first human act of interplanetary colonization is driven by the urge to preserve the species in the face of imminent extinction: the moon shows signs of colliding with the earth, and human biology is reengineered to make it capable of adapting to conditions on Venus (Stapledon 243ff.). An aggressive but intelligent native species – shaped something like a swordfish – is wiped out to make the transference possible; and many generations later, after another interplanetary leap and numerous physical and psychological changes, humanity achieves the capacity to think collectively as a quasi-divine ‘racial mind’ (Stapledon 299ff.). The Perelandra discovered by Lewis’s Ransom shares many characteristics with Stapledon’s Venus. The surface of both worlds is mostly ocean, and the ocean is pleasantly unsalted. Both atmospheres are subject to cataclysmic storms, and floating islands dot the storm-tossed waves, although in Stapledon’s Venus the islands are artificially constructed for the benefit of humanity, while in Lewis’s they are natural. Finally, both worlds are exposed to the threat of colonization. The physicist Weston arrives on Perelandra soon after Ransom and announces his allegiance to a Stapledonian philosophy: ‘To spread spirituality, not to spread the human race, is henceforth my mission’ (Perelandra 81-2).[6] The spirituality he advocates is the disembodied variety to which Haldane alludes at the end of ‘The Last Judgment’: ‘the emergence of a new kind of being which will bear the same relation to mind as do mind to life and life to matter’ (311-2). Haldane (and Stapledon after him) freely acknowledges the hostility that such visions of the future will arouse in even the most progressive twentieth-century thinkers (309-10); and Lewis’s hostility soon becomes vigorously apparent, as he brings the scientific humanist future histories into explosive contact with the Christian narrative.

In appearing on Perelandra at all, we learn, Weston has inadvertently thrown himself into a very old story of which the ‘new’ one he tells is no more than a feeble travesty. Venus is populated with the stuff of ancient myth: from obedient fish (benign counterparts of Stapledon’s aggressive swordfish), which carry men as a dolphin once carried the musician Arion, to mermaids, subterranean monarchies and dragons. Above all there is a new Adam and Eve, into whose tale all other mythologies have been incorporated, and in whose revised authorized version of Genesis Weston is to play the part of the satanic serpent. Soon after explaining his philosophy, Weston finds his body possessed by one of the characters (Satan) from the book he had planned to appropriate for his own ends, the Bible, and compelled to reenact the very myth that had been most decisively consigned to the realm of fantasy by the rise of evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century – the theory which serves as the foundation of his commitment to the perpetual improvement of the human species, as it did of Stapledon’s. Weston’s ‘great ignorance’ of religious history (Lewis once accused Haldane of being as ignorant of history as Lewis was of science)[7] has left him vulnerable to a singularly nasty form of spiritual colonization. And the retribution for his ignorance is horribly enacted on the body he had hoped to discard: he is beaten to a pulp by Ransom in an extended fist-fight. It is difficult to imagine a more aggressive conclusion to what many readers might see as a merely academic, or bookish, quarrel.

But of course for Lewis the Bible is not just a book; it is the book, to which all others are no more than footnotes or polemical responses. Lewis’s science fiction is no fiction in the sense that a thriller or a chivalric romance is fiction; it participates in actual events on a more than cosmic scale that for him are taking place right here, right now, as he writes and as we read. We ourselves are part of the story they tell, which is a chapter in the ‘universal story’ described in Miracles (1947) of which ‘we are not, perhaps, very attentive readers’ (103). This conviction provides the driving force behind the extraordinarily vibrant descriptions of planetary and interplanetary life that unfold in paragraph after paragraph of the four science fiction novels: the invitations to feel the cosmic rays that permeate space or ‘heaven’ on Ransom’s journey to Mars, to taste the fruits he plucks on Perelandra, to wince as his open wounds adhere to the skin of the Perelandran fish he is riding, or to be overwhelmed by the most ancient of languages as it emerges ‘like castles’ from the mouth of Dimble in That Hideous Strength (228). All these are attempts to make us feel with our bodies a life that lies beyond the text – not just in the ‘other world’ of dreams or the imagination, but in the everyday world we inhabit and in the spiritual world that touches it at every point. The conviction that his writing is a contribution to living history is what renders Lewis’s writing iconographic.

In his last work of criticism, Spenser’s Images of Life (1967), Lewis defines iconography as the practice of making visual or verbal images which both describe and participate in the world outside the work of art: ‘art jutting out into life, and life turning into art’ (11). The Renaissance achieved this effect by incorporating a language of symbols embodying moral and psychological qualities into their public art: the decorations of public buildings, for instance; or the pageantry of tournaments, where real knights fought with one another in the context of an imaginary story; or masques, whose imaginative embodiments of aristocratic virtues were performed by real aristocrats. ‘Iconographical art,’ Lewis tells us,

was not a comment on life, so much as a continual statement of it – an accompaniment, rather than a criticism. Or, if you wish, life itself, in another mode. The planets (it said), the Virtues, the Vices, the Liberal Arts, the Worthies, are thus. If now we were to use a similar art, it would be full of figures symbolizing the atom, evolution, relativity, totalitarianism, democracy, and so on. (Images 11)

In his science fiction Lewis begins to flesh out a twentieth-century iconography of the sort he refers to in this final sentence. He achieves the iconographic effect of ‘art jutting out into life, and life turning into art’ (Images 11) by insisting that his readers are actively involved in the events he describes, as Weston is, whether they like it or not. In Out of the Silent Planet the angelic being Oyarsa tells Ransom, and in doing so tells the reader, that the events in the novel are part of the pageant of human history: ‘The year we are now in – but heavenly years are not as yours – has long been prophesied as a year of stirrings and high changes’ (166). Later the narrator Lewis tells us that these cosmic changes have overtaken his readers even before they began to read: ‘What neither of us foresaw was the rapid march of events which was to render the book out of date before it was published’ (180). An even more daring shift in narrative perspective occurs in The Dark Tower, when the narrator (again Lewis) suddenly reveals that the story will not have ended after the last page has been written. The Tower of the story’s title is still standing; ‘the things I am describing are not over and done with’ (32). Scudamour’s diagnosis of the relationship between his companions – a group of scholars gathered in Cambridge to witness an experiment – and the alternative world they are privileged to view by means of the experiment, is equally applicable to Lewis’s readers. There are, Sudamour says, ‘bits of our world in there, or bits of it out here among us’ (48). Lewis’s science fiction aspires to ‘jut out into life’ as obtrusively as an Elizabethan stage jutted into its audience.

In fact, the quasi-scientific premise at the centre of The Dark Tower derives from a twentieth-century text which suggests that the dividing line between ‘fiction’ and ‘real life’ is a good deal less clear-cut than much of our thinking tends to suggest. The scholars at Cambridge find themselves confronted with a ‘chronoscope’ (19), a device for seeing into other times – past, future, or concurrent with their own; and the inspiration for the chronoscope came, they are told, from a celebrated book by the aeronautical inventor J. W. Dunne, An Experiment with Time (1927). Dunne’s book sets out to offer empirical evidence that future events may be ‘previsioned’ by the sleeping mind – that dreams are made up in approximately equal parts of memories of time past and foreshadowings of time to come – and furnishes a theory to account for such prevision. Both Stapledon and Wells made use of Dunne’s book in their future histories as a means of marking the difference between these narratives and the conventional novel. Last and First Men and The Shape of Things to Come present themselves as visions from another epoch, obtained through one of the feats of inverted remembering of which An Experiment with Time offers so many strange examples. Stapledon’s narrative purports to have been directly transmitted to the author’s brain by a future human inhabitant of the planet Neptune, as part of an immense scheme to educate the primitive earlier generations of humankind in the philosophical principles held dear by the Neptunians; while Wells’s text poses as the inadequate transcription of a book read in a dream by a man with the ominous name of Raven, who died before his transcriptions reached print.[8] In The Dark Tower, then, Lewis took over what he may have seen as the most ‘iconographic’ element of his rivals’ fictions: a chronic theory which proposed direct contact between the imaginative faculties and ‘real’ future events, between art and life, and which aimed to demonstrate the plausibility of the claims of the prophets, mystics, poets and dreamers who were the object of Lewis’s more than scholarly interest. Lewis’s, Wells’s and Stapledon’s fictions depend on a text – Dunne’s book – which roots their extravagant speculations in the mysterious common ground of the living human brain.

Reading, for Lewis, was as vivid a process as remembering. ‘I know,’ he wrote in 1940,

the geography of Tormance [in David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus] better than that of Tellus [i.e. earth]. […] Though I saw the trenches before Arras I could not now lecture on them so tactically as on the Greek wall, and Scamander and the Scaean Gate. As a social historian I am sounder on Toad Hall and the Wild Wood or the cave-dwelling Selenites [in Wells’s the First Men in the Moon] or Hrothgar’s court [in Beowulf] […] than on London, Oxford, and Belfast. (Of This and Other Worlds 29)

Things to Come

The Dark Tower can be read, of course, as a speculative fiction concerning the nature of time, but we might also think of it as a meditation on the act of reading in the twentieth century. The location where the action begins – a scholar’s study in the University of Cambridge – is a space dedicated to reading, and although the chronoscope resembles a cinema projector rather than a book (it works by throwing moving images onto a screen, and the dominant image recalls the futuristic buildings of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) or William Cameron Menzies’s Things to Come (1936)), many of the pictures it shows have literary associations.[9] The Tower itself, as it appears on the screen, is a gloomy simulacrum of the recently completed tower of Cambridge University Library – a building Lewis abominated; and although the Othertime Tower is not a library, it contains a room full of books to which the story’s protagonist, the young scientist Scudamour, inevitably makes his way. Here he settles down, at the end of the surviving fragment, to read a history of the time into which he has plunged, and he is immersed in the business of reading when we leave him.

Scudamour enters the Othertime projected by the chronoscope through what might be called a spontaneous act of the readerly will – an accomplishment that a combative scholar like Lewis would no doubt have given his right arm to reproduce. Enraged by something he sees on the screen, Scudamour hurls himself at it, as if to engage in an ungainly academic wrestling-match with his demonic double in Othertime – the Stingingman – of the kind Lewis later took to its bloody conclusion in Perelandra. In the process he somehow swaps souls with the Stingingman, and finds himself in the alternative world he had reacted against so violently, trapped in another man’s body, his tongue constrained by another man’s language. It is tempting to see this as Lewis’s take on the readerly encounter with a disturbing but horrifically vigorous text – an encounter of the sort he describes with such passion in his essay ‘On Stories’.[10] For Lewis, certain ancient and modern adventure stories took on the quality of a lived experience – just as the inventor of the chronoscope in The Dark Tower suggests that certain memories of the past and future constitute direct encounters with other times. ‘On Stories’ indicates that in 1940 some at least of the stories uppermost in Lewis’s mind were scientific romances: Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus (1920), Wells’s The First Men in the Moon (1901) and The War of the Worlds (1897). These, indeed, are just three of the texts into which Scudamour rashly launches himself; his experiences in Othertime, for instance, closely resemble the adventures of Wells’s Time Traveller among the Eloi and the Morlocks. But the texts that really stir his soul to rage are the future histories of Stapledon and Wells.

The Dark Tower itself seems to have been plucked wholesale from an episode in Last and First Men – the same episode Lewis later used as the basis for his last work of science fiction, That Hideous Strength (1945). As the unfinished narrative unfolds we learn that the Tower houses a Big Brain, although we never get to meet it. The servants of the Brain – the Stingingman and his minions – are men and women reduced to the condition of automata. Readers of Stapledon’s text should recognize at once the society of the Fourth Men, a particularly grim stage in the evolution of the interplanetary human race. The Fourth Men are a community of giant brains, each housed in an artificial cranium in the form of a tower, a ‘roomy turret of ferro-concrete some forty feet in diameter’ (211). These ‘preposterous factories of the mind’ are serviced by the docile relics of the previous stage in human evolution, the Third Men, whose telepathic link to their masters suppresses their individuality and makes them ‘an army of […] perfect slaves’ (218). By entering the Dark Tower, then, Scudamour enters one of the gloomiest literary forecasts of the scientific humanists – much as Weston was later to enter the living world of Christian myth. And the longer he stays there the more deeply he becomes enmeshed in the scientific humanist vision. When he visits the room full of books and begins to read the history of Othertime he is duplicating the feat of the man called Raven in The Shape of Things to Come: studying an unfamiliar civilization in a text from another time. And the history he reads is once again an adaptation of a story told in Last and First Men. It concerns a culture as obsessed with the workings of time as our own is obsessed with the workings of space: and that culture is instantly recognizable as that of Stapledon’s Fifth Men, who ‘as a race […] were peculiarly fascinated by time’ (231), and whose researches are devoted to the exploration of cultures of the past by means of the mental time-travel pioneered by Dunne. Like Dunne, the scientists of Lewis’s Othertime convince themselves that dreams contain images of other times besides the past, and like Stapledon’s Fifth Men they are prepared to experiment on children to test their theory. Stapledon’s narrator shows the same horrific detachment from the effects of these experiments as does the Othertime historian; he states simply that ‘[t]he experience seemed to set up a progressive mental disintegration which produced first insanity, then paralysis, and, within a few months, death’ (239). The Dark Tower closely paraphrases this sentence: ‘The experiences of these children had very disagreeable effects, leading to extreme terror and finally to insanity, and most of those whom he used had to be destroyed before they reached maturity’ (Tower 89). And the ends to which the Othertime experiments tend – the achievement of a kind of immortality by leaping from time to time rather as Stapledon’s people leap from planet to planet – recall the vision of immortality vouchsafed to the Eighteenth and final variety of the human species in Last and First Men, for whom cosmic events recur in a never-ending cycle throughout eternity (305-6).

The scientist Scudamour finds himself as disgusted as Lewis by this kind of immortality: ‘I’d sooner go to a heaven of harps and angels like what they used to tell me about when I was a boy. […] I’d sooner have anything than go round and round that way like a rat in a bucket of water’ (Tower 88). His repugnance resembles the repugnance occasionally felt by the scientific humanists themselves at the future they had imagined. Haldane, for instance, expresses his personal distaste for the Venusian mentality he conjures up in ‘The Last Judgment’, where humans have become ‘mere components of a monstrous ant-heap’ (309-10). In Stapledon’s Last and First Men the merciless annihilation of the natives of Venus by a supposedly enlightened human race plunges all humankind into a state of collective depression that lasts for millennia (252-3). Wells’s Raven is unable to copy out the later stages of his dream-history of time to come, appalled – perhaps mentally unhinged – by the atrocities that will have been perpetrated in the struggle to bring about the utopian World State (Wells 331-4). For Lewis, of course, the distaste of the scientific humanists for their own workmanship is a natural reaction to its violation of the universal moral order; and in That Hideous Strength he explores the possibility that this repulsion might form the basis for the conversion of modern scientists from their atheism. The social scientist Mark Studdock begins his conversion during a visit to a repulsive room very like the one where Scudamour first encounters the Stingingman; and presumably Scudamour’s visit to the Dark Tower will end in a similar conversion. We must return to the Stingingman and his room, though, to understand the nature of the conversion Scudamour is to undergo.

[Continued here.]

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Crossley, Robert. ‘Olaf Stapledon and the Idea of Science Fiction.’ Modern Fiction Studies 32 (1986): 21-42.

Dunne, J. W. An Experiment with Time. London: Faber and Faber, 1958.

Fiedler, Lesley A. Olaf Stapledon: A Man Divided. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Haldane, J. B. S. Possible Worlds and Other Essays. London: Chatto and Windus, 1927.

Kegler, Karl. ‘Travels, Towers, Space and Time: Lewis’s The Dark Tower and its Correspondences.’ Inklings-Jahnrbuch 16 (1998): 119-137.

Lewis, C. S. The Dark Tower and Other Stories. Ed. Walter Hooper. Glasgow: Fount Paperbacks, 1983.

Lewis, C. S. Letters. Ed. W. H. Lewis, rev. Walter Hooper. Glasgow: Fount Paperbacks, 1988.

Lewis, C. S. Miracles. Glasgow: Fount Paperbacks, 1988.

Lewis, C. S. Of This and Other Worlds. Ed. Walter Hooper. Glasgow: Fount Paperbacks, 1984.

Lewis, C. S. Out of the Silent Planet. London: Pan Books, 1952.

Lewis, C. S. Perelandra [Voyage to Venus]. London: Pan Books, 1983.

Lewis, C. S. Spenser’s Images of Life. Ed. Alistair Fowler. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Lewis, C. S. That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups. London: Pan Books, 1983.

Lewis, C. S. They Asked for a Paper: Papers and Addresses. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1962.

Lindsay, David. A Voyage to Arcturus. London: Sphere Books, 1980.

Stapledon, Olaf. Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1963.

Wells, H. G. The Shape of Things to Come. London: Corgi Books, 1967.

NOTES

[1] For Lewis’s response to Haldane’s essay see ‘A Reply to Professor Haldane’ (Lewis, Of This and Other Worlds 97-109).

[2] Revelation 20.11.

[3] See also Haldane’s essay ‘On Scales’ (1-6).

[4] The term ‘Wellsianity’ seems to have been invented by someone who attended a talk by Lewis, ‘Is Theology Poetry?’, given to the Oxford Socratic Club in 1944 (They Asked for a Paper 154n).

[5] See They Asked for a Paper, 154-6, which offers Lewis’s version of the Wellsian ‘world drama’. I am grateful to my friend and colleague Donald Mackenzie for drawing this text to my attention.

[6] On the relation of this passage to Stapledon’s philosophy see Fiedler, 130-3).

[7] ‘My science is usually wrong. Why, yes. So is the Professor’s history’ (Lewis, Of This and Other Worlds 98).

[8] For Stapledon’s use of Dunne, see Fiedler, 58ff. Wells refers to Dunne in Things to Come, 16-17. For Dunne’s reply to Wells’s criticisms of his book see Dunne, 211-4.

[9] For Lewis’s possible debt to Metropolis see Kegler, 119-37.

[10] See Lewis, Of This and Other Worlds, 25-45. See also his essay ‘On Science Fiction’, ibid, 80-96, esp. 93.