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.

Mervyn Peake and Whiteness

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

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

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

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

Maeve Gilmore, Moby Dick, c. 1972

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Collected Poems, p. 49)

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

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

(Collected Poems, p. 76)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Collected Poems, p. 75)

Derek Jacobi as Mr Pye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mervyn Peake, sketches of centaurs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leonardo’s The Last Supper, detail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peake, Letters from a Lost Uncle, First Edition

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

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

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

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

It was a never-to-be-forgotten sight. There was beauty in it, with those ample wings of dazzling whiteness that bore him to and fro as he tried to learn how best to manage them: and there was pathos – for he looked so solitary – adrift in the hollow air. And there was bathos also, for it seemed incongruous to see his city trousers and his small, black, gleaming shoes. (Mr Pye, p. 254)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Collected Poems, p. 120)

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

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

(Boy in Darkness, p. 92)

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

Illustration for Boy in Darkness, Santiago Caruso

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

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

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

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

NOTES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peake and Dickens

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

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

To a Scarecrow Gunner

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

But so much less do I respect the Fates.

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

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

Mervyn Peake, 1945

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

Mervyn Peake, Harold Skimpole, from Bleak House

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

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

Phiz, Steerforth at school

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mervyn Peake, Steerpike

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

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

Frank Reynolds, Uriah Heep

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

Phiz, ‘Somebody Turns Up’, from David Copperfield

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

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

Frederick Barnard, Uriah Heep

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

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

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

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

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

Mervyn Peake, Fuchsia

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

Mervyn Peake, Miss Flyte from Bleak House

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Poems: A Penny for your Thoughts

1.

The little man who sweeps the roads
Once dropped a penny down a grille.
At that appalling tragedy
He sat and wept, and sits there still

And rocks his body back and forth
While tears like small abandoned loads
Well out between his fingertips
And wash the litter off the roads.

2.

King Sam spent all his money in a vain attempt to wheedle
A dehydrated camel through the eyepiece of a needle.
Eventually, dying at the age of eighty-seven
In a poor but pious hermitage, the monarch went to heaven.

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.

Armour that doesn’t work: an anti-meme in medieval and Renaissance romance

[I wrote this essay for a Festschrift in honour of my DPhil supervisor, Professor Helen Cooper, Medieval into Renaissance: Essays for Helen Cooper, ed. Andrew King and Matthew Woodcock (Woodbridge and Rochester, NY: D S Brewer, 2016); you can find it on pp. 35-54. I place it here in Helen’s honour, with infinite thanks for her patience, scholarship, good humour and support through the difficult years of writing a doctorate.]

One of Helen Cooper’s finest essays concerns the function of magic that doesn’t work in medieval and Renaissance romance.[1] Bringing together her impish sense of humour, her astonishing range of reading and her infectious delight in tracing the mutations of genre in response to cultural change, the essay is a scholarly tour de force, perhaps the most memorable chapter in her celebrated monograph The English Romance in Time. It is particularly suggestive where it draws attention to the moments in medieval romance when the presence of magic serves to focus the reader’s attention on some peculiarly human quality: on selfless love, for instance, as when the imperiled teenage lovers Floris and Blancheflour compete over which of them will bestow on the other the magic ring which is said to preserve its owner’s life; or on stubborn courage, as when an anonymous lover in a tale by Marie de France refuses to drink the magic potion that would help him carry his beloved up a mountain, an act of heroic obstinacy that kills them both.[2] The chapter is not about a ‘meme’, Cooper explains – an idea or theme that survives from generation to generation, mutating in response to the changing pressures of the time. Instead it concerns what she calls a ‘meme that got out of hand’, that of the magical object.[3] All too easily magic can get boring, operating in too predictable a fashion, providing too easy an escape route from a tricky situation. The magic that doesn’t work revitalizes the magical narrative by introducing a crucial element of surprise, disorder, or emotional crisis; and as such it resists replication, since the whole point of it (when well used) is to unsettle the romance reader’s expectations.

Robert Addie as Mordred in Excalibur (1980)

I would like to consider in this essay another recurring theme that has given us some of the most striking passages in medieval and Renaissance romance: that of armour that doesn’t work. For a modern reader, armour is the ultimate emblem of chivalric romance, especially the full plate armour of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as fetishized in the paintings of John William Waterhouse, John Boorman’s film Excalibur, or the BBC TV series Merlin. For the late medieval reader, too, armour or harness that worked was romance incarnate. Someone in the fifteenth or sixteenth century wearing splendid harness instantly displayed his gender, his status, his affiliations (if he wore a coat armour, or if the steel itself bore heraldic devices), and his physical attributes (think of Henry VIII’s expanding girth as recorded in his successive sizes of battle dress). Armour stood for the chivalric code; praying over it was an integral part of a squire’s induction into knighthood.  What you wore in the Middle Ages was, in theory, who you were; and fine armour was at the very apex of the sartorial pyramid.[4]

Sir Galahad, by George Frederick Watts

For all these reasons – because it is so instantly readable in so many ways – armour can be a boring object in romance, especially when its bearer is vying for the position of Number One Knight, so to speak, in the chivalric standings. Under these conditions the armour bearer is like a machine, whose limited functions are always predictable and whose victory always assured. The ultimate example of an armour-bearing machine is of course Sir Galahad, who gallops through the landscape of Malory’s ‘Tale of the Sankgreal’ fulfilling prophesies left and right without any emotional engagement with the men and women he encounters. Galahad is the embodiment of spiritual commitment; he has no personality or history, and when all his deeds have been accomplished his soul is carried up to Heaven by a team of adoring angels, leaving little physical trace behind on the earth he barely touched.[5] In some ways, then, he is the worthy forebear of Spenser’s mechanical man Talus, the metallic dispenser of justice in Book V of The Faerie Queene who signals the poet’s uncomfortable commitment to the Tudor project of subjugating Ireland by force. Talus’s status as what can anachronistically be termed a self-propelled suit of armour conveniently sets him apart from human beings in such a way as to make that project seem (barely) defensible, since though devised by men it is executed by an agent without a soul. Nevertheless, the iron man’s association with the animated statues of Virgilius the Sorcerer or Cornelius Agrippa confirms his ambiguity as a representation of justice.  Virgilius derived his power from the devil and Marlowe assumed, in Doctor Faustus, that Agrippa too was in cahoots with the fiend.[6] Given that Talus is simply an allegorical machine, unsullied by magic, he can in theory be employed by Spenser’s knight of justice, Sir Artegal, without tainting his employer with infernal associations. But the memory of other moving statues would have been hard to shake off for an early modern reader. And there remains the fact that Talus is impossible to like, with his remorseless efficiency, his predictable reactions to every situation, and his utter indifference to the Christian quality of mercy.

This problem of the perfect knight as a soulless machine is brilliantly addressed by Italo Calvino in The Non-existent Knight (Il cavaliere inesistente, 1959), his sparkling tribute to Ariosto and Cervantes.[7] The book’s protagonist, a full-body harness that comes to life by an act of sheer will power, makes himself universally unpopular with his fellow paladins by his rigid adherence to the rules of military and chivalric good conduct. As the book proceeds, however, the knight’s increasing sensitivity to other people’s views of him makes him increasingly likeable, and his posse of followers – the fool Gurduloo, the idealistic female warrior Bradamante, the confused young squire Raimbaud – endow him by proxy with the flesh and emotions he lacks. He becomes the focus of their dreams and passions, the anchor of their identities, no longer merely a metal container for the regulations by which these dreams are rendered manageable by the authorities. Armour requires the flesh to make it move, both emotionally and physically speaking; and codes of conduct, however impractical, give direction to the undirected yearnings of the flesh. Calvino’s story beautifully captures the awkward symbiosis between the organic and the inorganic which is the late medieval and early modern knight.

Flesh, then, is the essential adjunct to the carapace of protective steel, as late Victorian painters such as Waterhouse acknowledged when they surrounded their gleaming knights with voluptuous temptresses. Men, of course, can display their fleshly qualities in romance by defeating powerful opponents without the benefit of armour; this is the homosocial equivalent of the amorous encounters, chaste or unchaste, with which romance women have been traditionally associated. A fine example of such an unarmed hero is the young Sir Perceval de Gallys in the Middle English metrical romance, whose lack of armour serves at first merely to underline his lack of education in chivalry.[8] Wearing only goatskins, young Perceval’s first heroic act is to transfix his father’s killer, a fully armoured knight, with a light Scottish throwing-spear, when the man is foolish enough to raise his visor. But Perceval is an adolescent at the time, and every reader knows from the old stories that he will soon acquire some armour and join his fellow knights at the Table Round. For Perceval, the acquisition of his harness from the slaughtered body of his enemy makes it an emblem of his power and skill, a natural extension of the unusual muscularity of his right arm and torso, his easy mastery over the objects and people he meets on his travels.  But I am concerned in this essay with the knights whose harness proves useless in one way or another after its acquisition; either because the adventure they are on cannot be achieved with the help of steel, or because they are caught without armour through trickery, neglect or betrayal, or because their armour provides inadequate protection – or even because their harness itself is a kind of trap. For these heroes, armour is a difficult affair, never at hand when you need it, not fulfilling its prescribed function when you have it, brittle, permeable or imprisoning rather than impervious, encumbering rather than enabling. And in the adventures they take part in, armour often becomes intriguing in its own right, for a variety of unpredictable reasons.

One twentieth-century embodiment of this difficult relationship to armour is King Pellinore in T. H. White’s novel The Sword in the Stone (1938). Pellinore is an errant knight who is perpetually engaged in the rather pointless pursuit of a friendly creature called the Questing Beast. When the future King Arthur, here known as the Wart, first encounters Pellinore, the boy quickly learns a great deal about the inconvenience of closed helmets for those who wear spectacles (the lenses get ‘completely fogged’[9]), and of armour generally. As the knight explains:

All this beastly amour takes hours to put on. When it is on it’s either frying or freezing, and it gets rusty. You have to sit up all night polishing the stuff. Oh, how Ay do wish Ay had a nice house of my own to live in, a house with beds in it and real pillows and sheets. […] [T]hen Ay would […] throw all this beastly armour out of the window, and let the beastly Beast go and chase itself, that Ay would.[10]

In this passage King Pellinore is a kind of human snail, whose metal shell serves as an uncomfortable substitute for the nice warm house he yearns for. His armour has little value as a means of defence, since the Questing Beast is far too friendly to attack him. Instead it tends to erase the distinction between its bearer and the animal world through which he wanders, exaggerating the limitations of the King’s body by fogging up his spectacles and fraying his temper to the extent that he keeps referring to his equipment as beastly. When the Questing Beast turns up a page or so later, the King’s animal passions get further excited and he promptly forgets the allure of sheets in the thrill of the chase. An unsuccessful fusion of animal unruliness and rigid artifice, of chaos and convention, White’s knight is a direct descendant of Carroll’s White Knight and Cervantes’s Quixote, both of whom are always damaging their elderly bodies precisely because they insist on wearing protective steel. For all three, the harness they wear underscores the limitations of the flesh it encases, as well as the eccentric relationship between that flesh and the code of conduct that the harness represents.

In this as in other ways, armour that doesn’t work has a similar function to magic that doesn’t work, as Cooper describes it. If full plate armour is a kind of meme in late chivalric romance – like the meme of the magic object – then the armour that doesn’t work is designed to circumvent the narrative problems posed by that meme; an ‘anti-meme’, in other words. The romance hero is nearly always one of the greatest fighters of his time, and in full armour his fighting prowess must necessarily render him as indestructible as the owner of an effective charm or talisman – and hence as dull, in terms of the narrative possibilities to which he gives rise. For such a knight to retain his stature as a combatant while engaging in properly perilous adventures, he must be stripped of his protective exoskeleton, deprived of the tools of his trade by one means or other – or those tools must be turned against him, like King Pellinore’s fog-inducing helmet. And the effect of this process of stripping down, deprivation or armorial recalcitrance is to draw attention to the fragile humanness of the romance’s male protagonist.

This may be the central difference between the magic that doesn’t work and the armour that doesn’t work. Cooper’s examples of non-functional magic (and she includes under this rubric magic that might well work but isn’t used, just as the present essay includes functional armour that gets left aside at crucial moments) often serve to demonstrate the spectacularly exceptional nature of the people who fail to use it. It is the exceptional strength of Floris and Blancheflour’s love that prompts a sympathetic king to urge their captor, the Admiral or Emir of Babylon, to spare them. In Marie de France’s tale, it is the refusal of the lover to drink the magic potion that exhibits the exceptional potency of his love, since love alone gives him strength to achieve what no other man has managed by carrying his lady unassisted up a mountain. Armour that doesn’t work, by contrast, tends to underscore the vulnerability of the person it fails, or who fails to wear it. For this reason it becomes one of the defining themes of the late chivalric tradition, when the best writers (Chaucer, Malory, Shakespeare) chose to produce ‘works designed to question their own generic assumptions’ in response to the ‘strong self-consciousness of a genre now passing into its fourth century’, as Cooper reminds us.[11]

These comments on late chivalric romance come from the final chapter of The English Romance in Time, ‘Unhappy Endings’, and armour that doesn’t work is strongly represented here among the romances that choose to resist the genre’s assumption that all its narratives must end well. But like magic that doesn’t work, non-functional armour can be comic too. Inevitably it is Chaucer who provides the best examples of both the comic and tragic aspects of this ‘anti-meme’ (Cooper was always pointing out to me in tutorials that Chaucer provides the best examples of almost anything before the late sixteenth century). In The Canterbury Tales, Sir Thopas exhibits his own and his narrator’s ignorance of the romance tradition by getting caught without his armour when he meets a giant. Any medieval reader would have known that an errant knight should be wearing armour when he seeks adventure, and that if he happens not to be wearing it he should defeat his antagonist regardless, as Perceval beats the Red Knight dressed only in goatskins. But for Chaucer’s narcissistic protagonist, wearing the wrong clothes for any given deed is inexcusable; he must hurry home to arm himself before he can even think of engaging in combat.  When he does so, it is in an elaborate metal and fabric confection which again violates romance conventions, both by its placement in the wrong part of the narrative (he should have armed himself at the beginning) and by the sheer weight of clichés that cluster round it (his coat armour is ‘whit as is a lilye flour’, his fine cypress spear ‘bodeth werre, and nothyng pees’, and so on).[12] The belatedness of Sir Thopas’s arming also confirms his inverted understanding of the chivalric code, which has already been signaled by his plan to marry an elven queen because no mortal woman is worthy of him. After reading this poem it is hard to imagine anyone taking another metrical romance entirely seriously.

At the tragic end of the spectrum, ‘The Knight’s Tale’ provides an example of a yet more radical inversion of the proper order of the chivalric romance narrative and the code to which it theoretically adheres; and it does so largely through the difficult relationship it sketches out between a man and his armour. Like a true romance hero, the protagonist Arcite defeats his friend and rival Palamon in combat, and the tournament in which he achieves this is stuffed to bursting with allusions to armour: from the frantic ‘devisynge of harneys’ that precedes the fighting (line 2496) to King Theseus’s prohibition of certain weapons from the contest itself  (‘ne polax, ne short knyf […] Ne short swerd, for to stoke with poynt bitynge’, lines 2544-6).  As it turns out, however, neither harness nor prohibition offers much protection to the contestants. ‘The helmes they tohewen and toshrede,’ the poet tells us with unnerving relish; ‘Out brest the blood with stierne stremes rede;/ With myghty maces the bones they tobreste’, and it is by the merest chance that no one dies in the melee (lines 2609-2611). When the tournament is over, Arcite takes off his helmet to salute the woman who inspired his triumph; and at once his horse falls over and fatally crushes him. The calamitous effect of this fall on Arcite’s flesh is described in lurid detail, as if to stress the limitations of his strong young body: ‘The pipes of his longes gonne to swelle,/ And every lacerte [muscle] in his brest adoun/ Is shent with venym and corrupcion’ (p. 44, lines 2752-2754).  In this narrative, then, armour and the rules that govern its use represent men’s feeble attempt to take control in a world full of insidious poisons, from the venom of corrupted wounds to the contagion of desire, from the disease of jealousy that sets the knights at odds to the poisonous rivalry of the gods who sponsor each combatant. Theseus does his best to re-impose a sense of order after Arcite’s accident, declaring the tournament a draw and delivering a speech that affirms the continuing stability of creation. But Arcite’s death was not in fact accidental. It was engineered by Venus (or rather by Saturn acting on her behalf), and intended to benefit Palamon, her devoted acolyte. Arcite, by contrast, was an acolyte of Mars, the god of war, who also happens to be Venus’s lover. So the pantheon of pagan gods would seem to be as violently competitive as the knights they sponsor, and as capable of circumventing regulations and breaking alliances. The armour that doesn’t work here serves to point up the limitations of the structures that bind us: above all the kind of structure represented by traditional stories and comforting fictions, the imaginative armour with which we defend to ourselves such slippery concepts as honour and friendship.

The works of Malory, too, offer fine examples of both the comic and tragic aspects of non-functioning armour. On the tragic side, there is the tale of the brothers Balin and Balan, who hack each other to death because each is wearing unfamiliar harness. The final section of ‘The Knight with the Two Swords’ begins with Balin accepting a shield from a stranger knight in place of his own, whereupon a mysterious damsel warns him that ‘ye have put yourself in grete daunger, for by your sheld ye shold have ben knowen’ (p. 56, lines 22-4).  His brother meets him shortly afterwards wearing unmarked red armour, and in the fight that follows both men dismantle each other plate by plate until ‘their hawberkes [were] unnailed, that naked they were on every syde’ (p. 57, lines 12-13).  Mortally wounded, Balan crawls to his brother and takes off his helmet; but he cannot recognize him at first because of the damage he himself inflicted in the battle: he ‘myght not knowe hym by the vysage, it was so ful hewen and bledde’ (p. 57, lines 22-3). As Cooper has argued, part of the power of this denouement springs from the fact that it forms part of a larger narrative with which the medieval reader was well acquainted – the Arthurian cycle – while the knights themselves have no idea what forces drive their fate.[13]  Throughout his adventures, the invincible Balin is helplessly propelled by the machinery of story, unwittingly setting up riddles, problems and conundrums that will only be resolved long after his death by the machine-man Galahad.  The armour that destroys him, then, embodies his entrapment in structures he cannot understand because of his limited vision – the restricted view you get from inside a closed helmet (think of Pellinore’s spectacles). The fact that he cannot recognize his brother, and that his brother cannot recognize him, sums up his condition as an ignorant tool of dispassionate supernatural forces – as represented at Balin’s burial by the sorcerer Merlin, who laughs sardonically as he makes further predictions about the tragic fate of Balin’s sword.

Sir Launcelot and the Witch Hellawes, by Aubrey Beardsley

Malory’s Lancelot, meanwhile, furnishes us with examples of both the comic and tragic aspects of the armour that doesn’t work. Of all the knights in Malory’s pantheon apart from Galahad, Lancelot stands in greatest danger of becoming boring, since he is the best knight in the world and we know in advance the likely outcome of every battle – and hence of every narrative – in which he is involved. For this reason Malory is careful to vary the scenes he selects for inclusion in the parts of his work he devotes to Lancelot; and an inordinate number of these episodes involve non-functional armour. In ‘A Noble Tale of Sir Launcelot du Lake’ the hero is forced to don another man’s armour if he wants adventures; wearing his own means he is avoided like the plague. But some of his best adventures occur when he wears no armour at all. On one occasion, for instance, he finds a pavilion in the forest, lavishly prepared for the reception of a guest. In many romances such a discovery would signal the presence of the supernatural: the pavilion would belong to a fairy or enchantress, as in Sir Launfal, and Lancelot would have to deploy all his knightly self-control to resist the seductions of its owner. It seems only natural, then, to the reader, that on finding the tent he should remove his armour, lie down in the bed and go to sleep; this is what you do in enchanted pavilions. Later, the knight who owns the pavilion comes home and gets into bed. Finding Lancelot between his sheets and assuming him to be his lover, he ‘toke hym in his armys and began to kysse hym’, scratching the sleeping hero with his ‘rough berde’ (p. 153, lines 27-8).  This leads to a brief, fierce swordfight between the two warriors – presumably naked – during which Lancelot wounds the stranger ‘sore nyghe unto the deth’ (p. 153, line 33).  At this point, the men pause to explain themselves to each other. Lancelot then takes the stranger indoors to tend his injuries, and the knight’s lady arrives. The lady is naturally inclined to blame Lancelot for her husband’s injuries; but she soon comes up with a means for him to make amends. He must use his influence at court, she insists, to procure her man a place at the Round Table. In this way Lancelot’s nakedness leaves him exposed to the lady’s judicial expertise, to the extent that he must set aside the usual procedure for admitting knights to that exclusive company and offer a seat at the Round Table to an unproven stranger. What began as an encounter with potential enchantment ends not with a dazzling display of unmatchable swordsmanship but with an out-of-court settlement, a legal compromise; and in this way the episode exposes the absurdity both of chivalric convention and of the narrative traditions Lancelot lives by.

Later in the same book, Lancelot is tricked into removing his armour and climbing a tree to rescue a lady’s falcon. Once he is safely in his breeches and astride a branch, the lady’s husband leaps out of a bush ‘all armed’ (p. 169, line 44), and explains that this was all a plot to get Lancelot into a state of undress so as to enable him to be summarily dispatched. Lancelot disarms the knight with a stick and kills him with his own weapon; but the episode neatly illustrates one of the perils of being a romance hero, which is that the landscape gradually fills up with people who hold a grudge against you, and whose only hope of besting you is by trickery. As a hero you can only trust that your own wiles, or the wiles of some well-disposed passing damsel, will permit you to escape from the tricks to which these grudgers are prepared to resort. And in the last two books of Malory’s work, a deadly web composed of grudges and trickery binds together all the major episodes that feature armour that doesn’t work.

Herbert James Draper, Lancelot and Guinevere

Lancelot’s relationship with armour in these last two books becomes increasingly difficult, as if to emphasize the increasing difficulty of reconciling his duty to King Arthur with his devotion to Arthur’s wife. In the tale of the Fair Maid of Astolat, Lancelot plays his old trick of borrowing armour in order to participate in a tournament. But the armour fails him – he is pierced through the side by his cousin Bors while wearing it; and during his long period of convalescence, necessarily unclothed, his body attracts the devotion of his nurse, the Maid of the title. The borrowed armour has meanwhile got him into trouble with Guinevere, since to complete the disguise he wore a token on his helmet, a red sleeve lent him by the Maid. The sleeve misleads the Queen into thinking he has transferred his affections to another woman, while encouraging the Maid to believe he might eventually fall in love with her. In ‘A Noble Tale of Sir Launcelot du Lake’, Lancelot’s appropriation of Sir Kay’s armour had no serious consequences; it was a game, as were the fights he undertook while bearing it. In the last two books, games turn to earnest, and borrowing armour becomes a problem, which interweaves itself with the personal and political problems that accumulate around the adulterous couple.

Armour is yet more problematic in ‘The Knight of the Cart’. The villain here is a kind of anti-Lancelot, Sir Melliagaunt, who shares his alter ego’s obsession with Guinevere but none of the chivalric qualities by which he justifies that adulterous passion. The difference between the two men can be summed up by their attitudes to armour. Melliagaunt captures the Queen while she is out a-maying with some unarmed knights, who are seriously wounded trying to defend her against the villain’s armed retainers. Lancelot sets out to rescue her, but his horse is shot dead by Melliagaunt’s archers, and as a result his armour ceases to assist him and becomes a burden. He cannot get at the archers because it weighs him down, and when he tries to continue his journey he finds himself ‘sore acombird of hys armoure, hys shylde, and hys speare’ (p. 653, lines 41-2).  Worse still, when he finally arrives at Melliagaunt’s castle – travelling in the requisitioned transport of the title like a prisoner carted off to punishment – the villain refuses to fight him, throwing himself on Guinevere’s mercy. The Queen grants him her protection, and as a result all Lancelot’s skills, as embodied in his harness, are rendered useless. At the end of the first part of this story, Lancelot has been reduced to a state of helpless jealousy, all his efforts to act as the conventional romance hero having been thwarted either by his enemy or by his lover, neither of whom play by the rules a knight’s harness represents. There could be no more devastating exposure of the many chinks in Lancelot’s emotional and physical defences.

Ben Cross as Malagant in First Knight (1995)

Next Melliagaunt succeeds in underscoring the moral link between himself and Lancelot, thus breaking down any clear distinctions that might have been signalled by their different attitudes to armour. The night after arriving at Melliagaunt’s castle, Lancelot disarms himself and slips into Guinevere’s bed, leaving blood on her sheets from a minor injury to his hand. Melliagaunt finds the blood, and accuses Guinevere of infidelity with one of the unarmed knights who were wounded defending her. Lancelot’s discarding of his harness here endangers his knightly colleagues, and he seeks to make up for this lapse by resorting to the chivalric rules of engagement by which he has always lived: rules that require full body armour for their fulfillment. He challenges the villain to trial by combat, as if Lancelot remained the impregnable entity he has always been thanks to his hitherto unquestioned identity as a top romance hero. But God is the ultimate judge in any such trial, ensuring that the fighter with the best cause will emerge triumphant; and in this case, the hero is saddled with a cause which is decidedly questionable.  Guinevere has indeed committed adultery, as Melliagaunt asserts, and Lancelot is forced to equivocate in order to place himself on the side of justice. He therefore challenges his alter ego on the basis, not that Guinevere has not been unfaithful but that she has not slept with any of the knights who were wounded in her defence. This is a blatant prevarication, and its problematic moral status is reflected in the peculiar nature of the trial itself. After a brief bout of hand-to-hand fighting, Melliagaunt surrenders tamely to Lancelot, and chivalry dictates that his opponent must accept his surrender. But Guinevere signals to the hero that her accuser must die, and if Lancelot is to obey her he must once again find a way to circumvent the rules of the judicial game. He persuades Melliagaunt to fight on by offering to disarm his own head and left side to make the contest more even; and he kills the villain, of course, despite this handicap. But the half-armoured state in which he does so confirms his morally compromised position, his susceptibility to the corruption his opponent embraces.  And the disarming of his body on the left side in particular, where the heart is, may be taken to demonstrate the extent to which the desires of that body are undermining his role as a knight.  The whole adventure, in fact, foreshadows the part that will be played by armour in the final book, which tells how Lancelot’s adultery with Guinevere brings about the dissolution of the Round Table and the fall of Arthur.

In this last book, the ‘Morte Arthur’, it is the lack of armour that takes centre stage rather than its failure. When Lancelot is finally caught in flagrante delicto in Guinevere’s bedroom, he blames his resulting predicament on his unarmed state: ‘Alas,’ he complains, ‘in all my lyff thus was I never bestad that I shulde be thus shamefully slayne, for lake of myne armour’ (p. 676, lines 24-5). The sentence recalls the wording of his earlier complaint when trapped up a tree in the story of the falcon: ‘Alas […] that ever a knyght sholde dey wepynles!’ (p. 170, line 17).  But on that occasion Lancelot could have been taken as a representative ‘knyght’, the equivalent of any romance hero trapped by treachery. In Guinevere’s room, by contrast, his situation is unique: he considers it only in the context of his private misfortunes (‘in all my lyff thus was I never bestad’), and sees the situation as ‘shameful’ to himself, not to those who have trapped him. The contrast between the two laments underscores his increasing alienation both from honour or worship and from his fellow knights. He succeeds, of course, in escaping; but he does so by killing one of his comrades of the Round Table, Sir Colgrevaunce, then donning his armour and fighting his way to freedom. The echo here of the many past occasions on which Lancelot borrowed armour serves only to underscore the extent to which what was once a game has become a disaster. And a lack of armour plays a yet more tragic role in the events that unfold in the wake of this episode.

N. C. Wyeth, Lancelot rescues Guinevere

Another knight killed at the door of the Queen’s chamber is Sir Agravain, brother of Gawain, Lancelot’s best friend. It is a measure of Lancelot’s worth that Gawain does not resent his killing. Indeed, Malory fills these late books with loyal friends who refuse to begrudge the hero his unfortunate propensity for causing the deaths of those who love him: the faithful horse in ‘The Knight of the Cart’ which is shot full of arrows by Sir Melliagaunt’s archers, yet continues to follow its master with its guts hanging out; the Maid of Astolat, who dies for love of Lancelot, and her brother Lavayne, who understands why she chose to do so: ‘for sythen I saw first my lorde sir Launcelot I cowde never departe frome hym’ (p. 639, lines 13-14).  Gawain’s younger brother Gareth is another of these paragons of loyalty, who never forgets that Lancelot was the man who made him knight.  He switches to Lancelot’s side in ‘The Great Tournament’ and fights against his brothers on his mentor’s behalf; and when Arthur orders him to accompany Guinevere on her final journey to execution as an adulteress, he refuses to wear his ‘harneyse of warre’ as a token of solidarity with her absent lover (p. 683, line 41).  Inevitably Lancelot rides to her rescue; and inevitably Gareth is killed with his brother Gaheris in the confusion, ‘for they were unarmed and unwares’ (p. 684, line 26).  At this point in the story Lancelot is once again the most efficient of killing machines, as he was before things got complicated. But his repeated compromising of the chivalric code means that his mechanical efficiency is no longer simple. Instead of being deployed in the service of some good cause, his force gets visited on the vulnerable flesh of the men he loves. Even Guinevere suffers from its effects, since the enmity brought about by Gareth’s death – the falling out it occasions between Gawain and Lancelot – is responsible both for her husband’s downfall and for her penitent demise.

Lancelot himself claims it is the brothers’ missing armour that was responsible for their deaths. ‘God wolde,’ he says at one point, that Gareth and Gaheris ‘had ben armed […] for than had they ben on lyve’ (p. 695, lines 41-2).  He duly offers to make reparation by forgoing his warrior status, as embodied in his harness, and walking from end to end of the kingdom ‘in my shearte’, founding religious houses along the way to sing masses for the dead men’s souls (p. 696, line 14). But Gawain, too, has by this stage become machine-like – welded, so to speak, into his martial persona. War against Lancelot is the only reparation he will accept. And since everyone knows by now that Lancelot will be victorious in any conflict, the reader sees at once that this mechanical insistence on revenge will usher in the end of Arthur’s reign. Malory has reversed the machinery of the romance narrative so that it destroys its most efficient components, the iron-clad knights; and it is the armour that doesn’t work which is largely responsible for changing the function of the armour that does, from protective covering to engine of (self) destruction.

Interestingly, what brings about this major change in the function of armour is a change in the form of Malory’s evolving Arthurian narrative. Many of his earlier works consist of a succession of largely disconnected episodes, such as ‘A Noble Tale of Sir Launcelot du Lake’, with its errant structure neatly but loosely bound together by certain recurrent themes: the tricks Lancelot has to play to get a fight, the tricks played on him to render him vulnerable. But the episodes in the laterBook of Launcelot and Guinevere’ are woven together by tangled chains of cause and effect. The consequences of each episode get played out in the next; and the final book, theMorte Arthur’ itself, is more tightly woven still, with each tale emerging organically from its predecessor. It is as if armour can only remain impervious in episodic narratives. Where one adventure has few links to the next, the simplicity of armour’s function as an emblem of the knightly ideal can be sustained, or can readily be recovered when that function has been compromised. But where competing allegiances – to friend and lover, to King and Queen, to knightly honour and a jealous mistress – get carried over from one episode to the next, armour too becomes permeable. In Malory’s interlinked narratives, harness loses its singular purpose and becomes instead, in its uneasy relationship with the flesh it covers (or fails to cover), an increasingly sophisticated device for undermining its bearer’s pretensions to honour, for exposing the fissures and flaws in his logic, the anarchic passions he seeks to hide or suppress.

Gawain and the Green Knight, illustration from original manuscript

The most sophisticated medieval study of the armour that doesn’t work is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; and here too it is the structure of the narrative that renders that armour problematic, as it accumulates associations through the successive sections or ‘fits’ of the poem. In the opening scene at Arthur’s court, where the mysterious Green Knight invites one of the king’s champions to strike off his head with an axe, the poet makes much of the stranger’s unarmed status: ‘Whe[th]er hade he no helme ne hawbergh nau[th]er,/ Ne no pysan ne no plate [th]at pented to armes’.  The Green Knight’s armourlessness is notable because he possesses a body so eminently suited to martial exploits (‘Hit semed as no mon my[gh]t/ Under his dynttez dry[gh]e’), and because the giant axe he carries underscores the violent nature of the strange game he proposes.[14] The relationship between flesh and steel, then, is implicitly foregrounded from the moment he rides into the court; and when Sir Gawain takes up his challenge, the blow he aims at the Green Knight’s neck constitutes perhaps the most graphic encounter between flesh and steel in English literature: ‘[th]e scharp of [th]e schalk schyndered [th]e bones,/ And schrank [th]ur[gh] [th]e schyire grece, and schade hit in twynne,/ [Th]at [th]e bit of [th]e broun stel bot on [th]e grounde’ (lines 424-6). And flesh and steel continue to dominate the poem. The Green Knight survives the blow, by supernatural means, and leaves the court; Gawain sets off to find him the following year, as the game dictates; and his journey begins, as in all proper romances (though not that of Sir Thopas), with a ritual arming, described in loving detail as the knight’s servants assemble his harness piece by piece around his torso, limbs and head. But even as this physical armour is assembled the reader is aware that it will prove useless, since the encounter Gawain has agreed to entails exposing his own ‘naked’ neck to the Green Knight’s axe. And that approaching moment of nakedness is recalled again and again throughout Gawain’s journey.

It is invoked in the physical rigours of his passage through wintry landscape, during which armour provides no protection against the cold: ‘Ner slayn wyth [th]e slete he sleped in his yrnes/ Mo ny[gh]tez [th]en innoghe in naked rokkez’ (my emphasis) (lines 729-30). It is recalled, too, in the Christmas game Gawain plays while staying at Bertilak’s castle. Each day Bertilak goes hunting while his guest remains at home, and at the end of the day they agree to exchange whatever they have obtained in their respective activities. This second contest, like the Green Knight’s, involves the conspicuous juxtaposition of flesh and steel: the lavish descriptions of Bertilak’s wife, who seeks to seduce her guest in her husband’s absence, being interlaced with passages that describe the mangling and butchering of animal flesh with steel on Bertilak’s hunting expeditions. And as the game goes on, the final encounter between flesh and steel at the Green Knight’s chapel draws steadily closer, until it hardly seems surprising when on his final day at the castle Gawain succumbs – not to the lady’s seduction, but to her offer of additional armour. The armour, however, is not metal, since we already know that metal is useless. Instead she offers him a girdle, whose virtue, she claims, is to protect its wearer so that ‘no ha[th]el vnder heuen tohewe hym [th]at my[gh]t,/ For he my[gh]t not be slayn for sly[gh]t vpon er[th]e’ (lines 1853-4). Gawain accepts the gift and does not declare it to Bertilak that evening, thus violating the terms of the game they have been playing; and next morning he ties it on over his harness like an extra layer of proofing. He never, however, wholly trusts in its protection – witness the flinch he gives when the Green Knight raises his axe. After all, the green girdle represents the love of the body, which is intimately connected through food, drink, desire and clothing with the beasts and growing plants in the world around it; and flesh is frail as grass, as the Bible reminds us.[15] The body’s frailty could not be better suggested than by the contrast between the soft silk girdle and the iron plates it binds, or between the fatty tissue of a man’s exposed neck and the steel blade that nicks it. The girdle confirms Gawain’s humanity, and as such it serves a similar purpose to the armour that doesn’t work which he is wearing, and which he knows full well will do him no good when he meets his enemy.

Michael Smith, Gawain and the Green Knight, linocut available for purchase

In tying on the girdle over his harness, as Cooper points out in The English Romance in Time, Gawain compromises the symbolic function of that armour in an effort to supplement its function as protection.[16] This symbolic function is indicated by the device he wears on his coat armour: a pentangle that stands for five interlinked virtues, each virtue possessing five aspects, together making up the combined qualities to which a knight is expected to aspire. In tying on the girdle, Cooper points out, Gawain obscures the ‘endeles knot’ of the pentangle with a lace which has two distinct ends (‘pendauntez’, line 2038) and which is also tied in a ‘knot’ (line 2376). As a man who knows he has an end – the death that awaits all mortals – Gawain shares with his readers the wish to defer it for as long as possible. He is not made of metal, and metal in any case has been inescapably connected with mortality throughout the poem. Most commentators agree with the Green Knight that Gawain’s love of life, as embodied in the girdle, makes him more, not less, attractive.[17]

Gawain’s useless armour, which gets trumped by a band of green silk, foreshadows the many varieties of non-functioning armour in the sixteenth century. Spenser, whose iron man Talus embodied the grimmer connotations of fully functional armour, opens The Faerie Queene with the portrait of a young knight whose ancient armour does not quite suit him, as if to alert us to the complex relationship between physical, spiritual and political struggle that the poem explores. In the first stanza we read about the ‘cruell markes of many a bloody fielde’ with which Redcrosse’s arms are covered, together with the paradox that ‘armes till that time did he never wield’; and Redcrosse certainly does not find it easy to acclimatize himself to his antique equipment.[18] At the half way point of the first book we find him cavorting with the sorceress Duessa, ‘Pourd out in loosnesse on the grassy grownd’ (I.vii.6), just at the moment when a ferocious giant happens by. Sir Thopas, too, met a giant when he was unarmed, but unlike Chaucer’s hero Redcrosse never gets time to dress for the occasion. ‘Ere he could his armour on him dight’ the knight finds himself the giant’s prisoner (I.vii.8), and has to be rescued by a better-furnished hero, Prince Arthur, whose worth is signaled by his ‘glitterand armour’ (I.vii.29). This hero, too, has something in common with Sir Thopas – he serves a fairy queen – but fortunately his excellent dress sense is better matched by his prowess and he slays the giant with ease (Sir Thopas never even gets close to his). The whole of Spenser’s poem, in fact, is populated by people whose outward garb bears a difficult relationship with their inward qualities, or lack of them, and by the time the reader meets Redcrosse’s rescuer Arthur she has become well used to scrutinizing the verbal and emblematic context of each character’s first appearance in the poem before passing judgement on them.

Redcrosse slaying the dragon, from the frontispiece to the first edition of The Faerie Queene

Even after his rescue by Arthur, who ought to have furnished him with a good example of a knight whose inward qualities match his harness, Redcrosse’s armour remains a problem to him. His climactic fight sees him face a dragon whose scales resemble a ‘plated cote of stele’ (I.xi.9), and whose weaponry (the fire he breathes, his claws, the stings in his tail) render armour a hindrance rather than a help to his antagonist. Finding himself ‘seard’ through his metal covering (I.xi.26), Redcrosse seeks to remove it and unlace his helmet.  Soon afterwards the monster pierces his shoulder with its stings, then grips his shield so fiercely he is forced to cut off its claw, which remains attached to the shield, much to the knight’s annoyance. In his ‘Letter to Ralegh’ Spenser explains that the ancient armour Redcrosse wears is the armour of Christ described by Saint Paul in Ephesians 6:10-18; but its emblematic associations (the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation) keep breaking down in this encounter, and the steel has to be reinforced with further injections of allegory – water from the well of life, balm from the tree of life – whose exact significance (baptism? Eucharist?) has never quite been settled. The intense pain Redcrosse endures in his battle with an enemy who is as well armoured as himself tends to overwhelm the allegorical function of his harness, and only the spiritual remedies applied to his scorched and damaged flesh can restore him to his symbolic identity as the champion of holiness.

Lorna Hutson has written brilliantly about how the feats of physical combat that had been central to medieval romance were displaced in many Tudor romances by verbal combat, in which the hero displays his prowess through eloquence rather than force.[19] It is for this reason, perhaps – the widespread emphasis on debate, and in particular the orator’s skill in arguing on both sides of any given question – that there are so many examples of armour that doesn’t work throughout the period: from the armour borne by Parthenia in Sidney’s New Arcadia, which she dons not to avenge her dead husband but to share his fate; to the borrowed armour worn by the hero to hide his identity in Robert Greene’s Gwydonius, which means that he nearly kills his own father in the romance’s climactic fight; or the poisoned helmet put on by Duke Brachiano in John Webster’s tragedy The White Devil. In each of these cases the tools of defence are transformed into agents of destruction – much as Redcrosse’s armour becomes a furnace when he fights the dragon.  The analogy with the way a skilful orator could deploy the same material to argue against a cause he had just been defending is irresistible.

Troilus, Cressida and Pandarus, Act 4 scene 2, by J. Coughlan

The most sophisticated post-medieval treatment of this anti-meme occurs in Shakespeare’s most knotty play, Troilus and Cressida. Like The Faerie Queene the play can be read as a response to Chaucer, though it also recalls the other English-language versions of the Trojan War that had circulated since the Middle Ages. By the sixteenth century Troy was best known, perhaps, as the focus of a conflict about which radically different accounts had been written, some biased towards the Greek perspective, others towards the Trojan. Debate, then, and many forms of falsification were inseparably attached to the Trojan myth, as we learn from the early fifteenth-century romance The Destruction of Troy: ‘sum poyetis full prist [th]at put hom [th]erto/ With fablis and falshed fayned [th]ere speche,/ And made more of [th]at mater [th]an hom maister were’.[20] And armour was the theme of one of the most celebrated debates of the conflict: the quarrel between Ulysses and Ajax over which of them should inherit the arms of Achilles, as described by Ovid in the thirteenth book of the Metamorphoses. Ulysses won those arms with his crafty tongue, a result that led to the suicide of Ajax; and in the process Ajax’s claim that Ulysses was dedicated to undermining his Greek comrades as much as his Trojan enemies was lent a large measure of credibility.

Shakespeare’s play is full of similar debates, between purported friends as well as deadly enemies. The Trojans squabble over whether they should continue to keep Helen from the Greeks; the Greeks contend over whether she is worth fighting for, and over how to maintain discipline in the ranks of the pan-Hellenic army. Caught up in these controversies, armour finally loses the chivalric connotations it possessed in romance, becoming instead a potent weapon in the war of words, fought out in a period of stalemate between the Greeks and Trojans when other forms of fighting have been temporarily suspended. Shakespeare punctuates this, one of his most verbally inventive plays, with allusions to armour, and these become increasingly contaminated by the anxieties and inconsistencies of the armour-bearers as the play wears on.

The performance opens with a ‘Prologue arm’d’, who delivers his speech clad in protective steel. His appearance may have resembled that of the actors illustrated in Henry Peacham’s near-contemporary sketch of a scene from Titus Andronicus: a peculiar fusion of ancient and modern costume, with Elizabethan vambraces and legharness tacked on to Graeco-Roman cuirasses.[21] The Prologue’s harness is, however, no sign of heroism, as it was for Shakespeare’s Henry V when he wore it at Agincourt. Instead it betrays his lack of ‘confidence’ in the play itself, an uncertainty that stems in part from his ignorance about which side the audience will favour in this particular version of the Trojan war: ‘Like, or find fault,’ he tells us, ‘do as your pleasures are:/ Now good, or bad, ’tis but the chance of war’ (Prologue, 30-1).[22] In these lines, as in the play that follows, values have become contingent, the quality of ‘goodness’ being assigned to whichever side emerges victorious from the conflict, while ‘badness’ is used to brand their defeated enemies regardless of any merits they might have had. Under such circumstances, armour is a political weapon, a means of gaining the upper hand in the confusion of battle. Its links with knightly honour have been severed, and with them the romance presumption that a common code of conduct binds together the men who sport it.

Theo Ogundipe as Ajax and Daniel Hawksford as Hector in 2018 RSC production

The first scene of the play confirms the central part that will be played by armour in the action that follows. Angered, we learn, by a recent defeat at the hands of Ajax, the Trojan hero Hector has ‘chid’ his wife that morning and ‘struck his armourer’ before going to battle (1.2.6). His chiding of Andromache, taken together with the blow against a nameless technician, points to the culture of violence that underpins the Trojan claim to be waging war for the best of reasons: in defence of honour and the women they love. Helen may be the official cause of the Trojan War, but she is in reality no more than an excuse to engage in the testosterone-fueled grapplings that define a young man’s standing in a warrior culture. To drive the point home, Shakespeare later makes Hector use Andromache as an excuse for a return match against Ajax, offering to engage in single combat with any Greek who refuses to acknowledge her as ‘a lady wiser, fairer, truer,/ Than ever Greek did couple in his arms’ (1.3.274-5). The terms of this challenge effectively explode the Trojan claim that Helen is worth fighting for (if Hector is right, she is neither as ‘fair’ nor as ‘true’ as his Trojan wife). This fact, however, is mentioned by nobody; and this is because everyone knows full well that the claim for Andromache’s pre-eminence among women has been swiftly cooked up for the single purpose of restoring Hector’s pre-eminence among fighting men. The real motive for the single combat is made clear when Hector enters the Greek camp, as enemies on both sides eye up each others’ muscles and embrace with more than soldierly enthusiasm. Men are far more interested in their own masculinity than in the women they claim as prizes; and this fact is reflected in the tendency of that most masculine of costumes, armour, to get caught up in the rampant infidelities of its bearers.

Ulysses, for instance, deploys armour prominently in his bid to set his fellow Greeks against each other, while ostensibly inciting them to honourable action. When he informs the Greek commanders that Achilles and Patroclus have been undermining their authority among their men, he reinforces the claim by re-enacting one of the scenes Patroclus is supposed to have acted for Achilles’s pleasure: a mocking imitation of the aged warrior Nestor ‘Arming to answer in a night alarm’, where the coughing and spitting old man ‘with a palsy fumbling on his gorget/ Shake[s] in and out the rivet’ (1.3.171-5). Whether or not Ulysses is telling the truth about Patroclus, his performance in front of Nestor of Nestor’s own ineptitude with his armour is clearly more subversive of the old man’s authority than any performance that may have taken place in Achilles’s tent. Later, when Ulysses urges Achilles himself to return to military action after an extended hiatus, he tells him that only ‘Perseverance’ will maintain his heroic status in the public eye: ‘to have done is to hang/ Quite out of fashion, like a rusty mail/ In monumental mockery’ (3.3.150-3). In saying so, Ulysses encourages Achilles to break his promise to the Trojan princess Polyxena, whom he loves, and who has made him swear he will not harm her fellow citizens. This is, then, another treacherous invocation of armour on Ulysses’ part. And when Achilles’s ‘rusty mail’ does indeed go to war, first enclosing the body of Patroclus (who dies in it), then on Achilles’s own body as he seeks revenge for Patroclus’s death, it is more a monument to his serial faithlessness than to his valour.  Achilles has betrayed Polyxena with his male lover Patroclus, betrayed the Greeks by making a promise to Polyxena, and betrayed Polyxena by going to war and breaking his promise. When he finally fights Hector in Act Five, the Greek hero is out of condition and unused to wearing armour or carrying weapons (‘my arms are out of use’, 5.6.16), and it is this that leads him to his final act of betrayal: to have the ‘unarm’d’ Hector slain by his men-at-arms, the Myrmidons, instead of fighting him hand to hand (5.8.9).

Hector, meanwhile, has a passion for armour that amounts to infidelity, not only to his wife Andromache but to the values he purports to be defending. In the central scene of the play, Act 3 scene 1 – our only extended encounter with Helen, the woman whose ‘worth’ is cited by both Greeks and Trojans as justification for their conflict – Paris exhorts his purloined lover to encourage Hector to keep fighting by indulging in a little erotic dalliance with his equipment:

Sweet Helen, I must woo you
To help unarm our Hector. His stubborn buckles,
With these your white enchanting fingers touch’d,
Shall more obey than to the edge of steel
Or force of Greekish sinews: you shall do more
Than all the island kings – disarm great Hector. (3.1.145-50)

Peter Paul Rubens, Achilles Kills Hector

Paris’s request links the act of disarming with a whole sequence of infidelities: Helen’s to her husband Menelaus; his own to Helen in encouraging her to seduce his brother; and Hector’s to Andromache in being aroused by Helen’s ‘white enchanting fingers’. Later, it is Hector’s armour that points up his forgetfulness of the value he earlier attached to his wife Andromache. When she begs him ‘Unarm, unarm, and do not fight today’ (5.3.3) – convinced by many omens that he will die if he ignores her warning – he threatens to ‘offend’ her, for the second time in the play, if she does not lay off (5.3.4). It seems appropriate, then, that armour should also prove his undoing. His last act of war is to pursue a weaponless soldier because he admires his harness (‘I like thy armour well’, 5.6.28). This is another mark of Hector’s inconsistency; he earlier told Troilus that he would never kill a helpless enemy because of his commitment to the rules of ‘fair play’. When he kills the fleeing soldier for the sake of his outer covering he describes him as a ‘putrefied core’ concealed in ‘goodly armour’ (5.8.1-2); and it is not entirely clear here whether he means that all mortal flesh is effectively putrid or that this soldier in particular was diseased, perhaps with syphilis, another mark of infidelity. There is certainly something rotten about Achilles’s actions when he catches Hector ‘unarm’d’ beside the victim’s body. The Greek hero orders his Myrmidons to kill him, which is bad enough; but he then dresses up the unequal contest in a garb of ‘fair play’, by ordering them to spread the word that Achilles killed the Trojan champion in equal combat: ‘On, Myrmidons, and cry you all amain/ “Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain”’ (5.8.13-14). In this scene the audience sees history being written; and it looks very much like a scam, fronted by the ‘goodly armour’ that conceals the cross-infected rottenness of the flesh within.

Shakespeare’s play completes the process of conceptually disengaging armour from its bearer and investing it with a grotesque life of its own; a process that had been steadily at work over the preceding two centuries. There are other manifestations of this process, some contemporary with this one, which would be worth holding up as exemplary representations of the complex relationship between human flesh and the rigid social, cultural and moral carapaces we don in a vain attempt to contain and define it. The most notable of these is the armour of Quixote. The inadequacy of this ancestral iron shell (most notably the various home-made helmets with which he seeks to complete it) reflects the weakness of the bearer’s ageing brain; but it also embodies his infectious delight in the imaginative glamour bestowed on the world by a romance sensibility, and his determination to invest the world with that glamour whatever the cost to his unguarded head. What is evident, however, is that armour that doesn’t work deserves the same close attention Cooper gave to non-functional magic; and that it has enabled equally startling transformations, down the years, of the romance tradition. It is time to polish up the rusty mail.[23]

John Waterhouse, La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Notes

[1] Cooper, Romance, ch. 3: ‘Magic that doesn’t work’.

[2] Cooper, Romance, pp. 148-51.

[3] Cooper, Romance, p. 138.

[4] My knowledge of medieval armour depends largely on two sources: Claude Blair’s European Armour circa 1066 to circa 1700 (London, 1958); and the kindness of Dr Ralph Moffat, Curator of European Arms and Armour at the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow. Warm thanks to Ralph for showing me round the museum’s remarkable collection and providing me with an invaluable reading list.

[5] ‘And so suddeynly departed hys soule to Jesu Cryste, and a grete multitude of angels bare hit up to hevyn evyn in the sight of hys two felowis’: Sir Thomas Malory, Works, ed. Eugène Vinaver (Oxford, 1977), p. 607, lines 6-8. All references are to this edition.

[6] See [Anon.], Virgilius (Antwerp, 1518), sigs. A5v-A6v; Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, eds. David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen (Manchester and New York, 1993), A-Text, I. i. 102-168. For Agrippa’s moving statues, see Three Books of Occult Philosophy Written by Henry Cornelius Agrippa, trans. J.F. (London, 1651), pp. 77-8.

[7] Italo Calvino, Our Ancestors, trans. Archibald Colquhoun (London, 1980), pp. 285-382.

[8] Sir Perceval of Galles, in Middle English Metrical Romances, ed. Walter Hoyt French and Charles Brockway Hale, 2 vols. (New York, 1930), 2: 530-603.

[9] T.H. White, The Sword in the Stone (London, 1959), p. 26.

[10] White, Sword in the Stone, p. 30.

[11] Cooper, Romance, p. 363.

[12] Sir Thopas, in Geoffrey Chaucer, Works, ed. F.N. Robinson, 2nd edn. (Oxford, 1977), p. 166, lines 867 and 882. All references are to this edition.

[13] Cooper, Romance, pp. 367-9.

[14] Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon, 2nd edn., ed. Norman Davis (Oxford, 1979), lines 201-4. All references are to this edition.

[15] Isaiah 40:6 and 1 Peter 1:24.

[16] Cooper, Romance, p. 160.

[17] Cooper, Romance, p. 52.

[18] Spenser, Faerie Queene, I.i.1. All references are to this edition.

[19] See The Usurer’s Daughter: Male Friendship and Fictions of Women in Sixteenth-Century England (London, 1994).

[20] Middle English Metrical Romances, ed. French and Hale, p. 811, lines 33-5.

[21] The sketch is reproduced in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, et al., 2nd edn. (London, 2008), p. 89.

[22] All references to Troilus and Cressida are taken from Kenneth Palmer’s edition for the Arden Shakespeare (London, 1982).

[23] My thanks to Matthew Woodcock for his comments on this essay. He asked me a number of excellent questions I have no space to answer here, among them ‘do you have a sense of when the “armour that doesn’t work” anti-meme develops’? The fact that Beowulf is the first example I can think of (the episode in which the hero’s specially-forged iron shield fails him in his fight against the dragon, of course, but more interestingly the whole notion that Beowulf has never managed to fight with weapons because they have always failed him) suggests to me that it is as old as armour itself.

Three Lost Boys

The three pickled boys depicted in a church window at Barefreston, Kent

[This weekend is the Feast of Saint Nicholas. On the eve of his feast day on 6 December, we always send a poem to our friends from the Netherlands, who now live in Rhode Island. This year the theme of the poem is the legend of the three pickled boys, who are said to have been murdered by a butcher and hidden in a pickle tub. Saint Nicholas brought them back to life, and thanks to this miracle has always been recognised as the patron saint of children, the original Santa Claus. Mixed in with the miracle in this poem is the fact that we are currently moving house to a Victorian ground floor apartment, with all the labour that entails. You can find last year’s poem here.]

Three boys loitering
Underneath the floorboards
Eyes wide open
Staring at the dark.
Three boys leaning
On the broken plaster,
Staring at the brickwork,
Dreaming of the park.

Where’d they come from?
Not the slightest notion.
Somewhere warm, where
People knew their names.
Three boys crouching
By the broken hearthstone,
Cold and empty,
Staring at the flames.

Hammers thundering,
Saw-blades grating,
Scrapers smooth fresh
Plaster on the wall.
Music spirals
From the empty kitchen,
Dust-clouds rise from
Living-room and hall.

Someone’s working,
Warming up the building,
Beating back the chills of
Loneliness and loss.
Someone’s raising
Scaffolding and laughter,
Sweeping off the cobwebs,
Scraping back the moss.

One bright morning,
Sunlight in the bedrooms,
Three boys floating
Near the bathroom floor
Heard a key-bunch
Rattle at the keyhole,
Saw a face peer
Round the open door.

Bright eyes gleaming
See them for the first time,
Hands stretch out and
Lift them till they stand.
Three boys gabbling
To the lofty stranger
Tell their story
Clinging to his hand.

Three boys smiling
Lead him to the fireplace
Sit him down on
Piles of dusty bricks.
Soon his face is
Shining like a chestnut
As he feeds the
Flames with broken sticks.

Walker passing
Notices the firelight
Through the window
Of the empty flat.
Peeps in softly,
Sees decay and mildew,
Wanders homewards
Cogitating that.

Long years later,
Wanderers in darkness
Note the gleam of
Firelight in the glass.
Hear sweet singing
Filter through the window,
See the flat quite
Empty as they pass.

Three boys don’t care
What the world is thinking,
As folks point and
Whisper to their friends.
Tall Saint Nicholas
In his crimson costume
Feeds them, loves them,
Till the winter ends.

Saint Nicholas