Birdcage

[I wrote this story in the mid-1990s, for a workshop run by the late, great Aonghas MacNeacail when he was Writer in Residence at the University of Glasgow. It shows its age in the colour of the buses; in Glasgow now they are no longer orange. In the alternative Glasgow of this story, of course, they may still be.]

The central station of this northern city is built to resemble a harbour. The trains dock at the platforms like huge sea-monsters, gleaming fishes and breaching whales, electric eels and diesel-driven walruses which balefully study the land with great glass eyes. The concourse is awash with passengers who eddy here and there in brightly-coloured schools drawn back and forth by the immeasurable tides. On either side of the concourse ticket offices, supermarket outlets and coffee shops are housed in wooden buildings whose elegantly curved facades mimic the flanks of nineteenth-century merchant vessels riding at anchor. In the old days the shed was filled with the fog of steam, but now the air in the station seems crystal clear, like the air of the city it serves, and the stationary ships at the station are the only ships you’ll see apart from the hulks on the river which have been turned into casinos, restaurants and wedding venues.

The young man who sat on a suitcase in the middle of the concourse sighed and screwed up the paper he had been writing on. ‘Too fussy,’ he muttered. ‘There must be a way of catching a city in words that doesn’t involved turning it into the scenario for a second rate musical.’ He pocketed his notebook, picked up his suitcase and wandered out into the rain. This is why he failed to see the Flying Pict pull in at Platform One and a man get out carrying the future of the city in a violin case made of scratched black leather.

The tall thin man stood still for a moment on the platform. He was so tall and thin that the passers-by, who were mostly short, darted furtive glances at him as they hurried towards the concourse. His head was remarkable: flattened on top with a crest of black hair which spread out behind in a spiky ruff. He peered about with quick jerky movements as if he were spearing the air with his pointed nose. When he began to stalk after the other passengers dust rose from his shabby black coat and with every step his trouser-cuffs lifted to expose a length of yellow sock. The roof of the shed seemed to fascinate him. This was noticeable because to look at it he had to tilt his head sideways, as if his eyes weren’t mobile enough in their sockets to look upwards without assistance from his crane-like neck. His inspection of the roof had an odd effect on the passers-by. An urge to look up likewise possessed the people closest to the stranger, spreading outwards from them to their more distant neighbours like ripples on water. Some resisted the urge by setting their jaws and hurrying on, determined not to be tricked into showing interest. Others gave way to the impulse and raised their eyes. Each of these saw something different: a cage of girders, a metal cobweb, a harbourful of tilted glass sails. The ones who looked up collided with the ones who didn’t, muttered apologies and hurried on, looking foolish. One young woman bumped into the stranger himself. For an instant her gaze was filled with bright black eyes, a pointed nose, a crest of spiky hair. In that instant she noticed that his skin was raw and yellow as if it had been freshly plucked. The stranger said in a harsh voice, ‘I peck your pardon,’ but the woman only squawked and ran. She never travelled by train, had only taken the short cut through the station to escape the rain, and swore to herself she wouldn’t take it again if she could help it. You never knew what queer birds you might meet on the concourse.

Towards the station entrance stands a defused brass shell of the kind fired from naval guns in the Second World War. The rows of names on a brass plaque behind it betrays its function as a war memorial, but it also functions as a useful meeting place, an island amid the eddying crowds, and two men stood by it now with the bored but watchful expressions of professional loiterers. They both wore mackintoshes and unlit cigarettes hung from their long lean jaws. When they noticed the disturbance caused by the stranger they swung their heads in his direction and drawled to each other out of the corners of their mouths.

‘Would you look at that, Jeek. Walking this way, bold as brass. Must be – what, seven, eight feet tall?’

The younger man surreptitiously lifted his sleeve to look at a note he had written in biro on his forearm. ‘Black hair, yellow skin, dressed in black, carrying a bag. Fits the description, Bill.’

‘Jeek,’ said the older man, who was balding and wore his hair cropped short so the baldness wouldn’t show. ‘Jeek, you’re thinking again. Leave the thinking to me. Of course he fits the description. That’s because he’s the fella we’re here to meet.’

Jeek turned up the collar on his mackintosh to show that thinking was the very last thing on his mind. ‘What do we do, then, Bill? Do we grab him now?’

‘Jeek,’ said the older man with weary patience, ‘when I want your suggestions I’ll ask for them. Look around you, Jeek. What do you see?’

Jeek took the cigarette from his mouth and stared around him, trying to look haughty but succeeding only in looking haunted. ‘Eh – nothing, Bill. Nothing much, that is.’

‘People, Jeek,’ said the older man. ‘The place is full of people. We cannae grab him here, can we?’

‘Do we – do we follow him then, Bill?’ Jeek asked hopefully.

‘No, Jeek. I’ll follow him. You follow me. And try not to look so much like a fucking bent copper.’

At this point the stranger stalked past them and nodded amicably. ‘Coot evenink,’ he said, and continued his inspection of the roof. The two men froze into parodic statues of nonchalance, Bill suddenly absorbed in examining his jaw in the polished surface of the naval shell, Jeek thrusting his hands into his mackintosh pockets and growling like a dog. As soon as the stranger had passed they sprang into action. With hurried glances to left and right, as if calling the world to witness their anonymity, they trotted after their quarry. In his haste Jeek barged against an old woman who had come to look at the shell, as was her custom, and reminisce loudly about the war to anyone who cared to listen. ‘Well really,’ she shrilled after him. ‘There’s no respect among young people these days. Nobody behaved like that in the war, let me tell you. Manners counted for something then.’

By this time the stranger had stepped out into the porch of the station and was cocking one bright black eye at the ornate metalwork that framed the roof that guarded the station entrance from the elements. ‘Splen-tit,’ he cried, and plunged between two black taxis that had just roared into life at the taxi rank.

‘He’s headed up Slope Street,’ Bill bayed to Jeek as they narrowly avoided having their shins broken by one of the taxis. ‘Jesus he’s fast.’

And so began a game of tag up and down the streets of the northern city: an ungainly dance whose only rules were that the three dancers must avoid contact with each other at all costs. Either the stranger knew the streets like a native and was trying to shake off his pursuers, or else he was merely insane and his pirouettes and gyrations were the random products of a tortured brain. A little way up Slope Street he spun and seemed to be staring in ecstasy at a spot just above his mackintoshed followers’ heads. ‘Preathtakink,’ he trilled, and glancing round Bill saw that he was gazing at the massive corner tower of the Central Hotel, a mock-medieval chateau which dominated the north-west face of the station. Having vented his admiration, the stranger whipped round again and swooped up the incline of Slope Street, only to fling himself into the path of an orange bus a few blocks further on. The bus let out a screech of indignation and Bill gave a startled bark.

‘He’s nuts, I tell you! Where’s he headed now?’

The two men splashed impatiently in the gutter, looking for an opening in the traffic. When they finally stumbled into St Vitus Street they found the stranger performing a jerky triumphal jig in front of the building known as the Birdcage: a tall art-nouveau structure with many curved, barred windows that stoops over St Vitus Street as if it is melting. ‘Vot light! Vot crace!’ called the stranger to a group of little boys who had stopped under some scaffolding for a smoke. Then he was off again, waving one ungainly arm at the monolithic façade of a bank which looked as if it was aspiring to become the base of a Chicago skyscraper. ‘It traws your eye to the sky, sir, tuss it not?’ he cawed to an elderly tramp, who snarled in an unexpectedly pompous voice, ‘Go away! I don’t have any change!’ But by the time the tramp had shaken his torn umbrella at the stranger’s back, and almost been carried off into the sky himself by a sudden gust of rain-sodden wind, the tall thin man was already hopping down Renfield Street and pointing at the Casa di Vetro, which now houses a supermarket. It is modelled on a Venetian palazzo, but its slender columns, high arched bays and ornately decorated eaves are made of cast iron, a graceful marriage of Victorian engineering and Mediterranean exuberance, as the stranger did not fail to inform a woman who was pushing a shopping trolley towards the doorway on Eireachdail Street where she would spend the night.

The stranger stared for several minutes at the way the reflective windows of the Casa di Vitro mirrored the upper storeys of the neo-Gothic buildings that faced it and the racing clouds above their steeply-pitched roofs. Jeek and Bill were able to catch their breath, which was short and noisy from all the cigarettes their professional loitering forced them to consume. They noticed that when the stranger was still he was unnervingly immobile, as if his internal organs had ceased to move along with his limbs. They found themselves mesmerised by this stillness, so that when he suddenly sprang to life again and galloped eastwards towards Maskull Street it took them several seconds to react. Bill cursed as he set off after him. ‘If he’d packed a piece,’ he gasped to no one in particular, ‘and if he’d wanted to, he could have picked us off like bunny rabbits.’ The scenarios that presented themselves to Bill’s imagination were invariably savage.

They caught up with him on Maskull Street, craning his neck to get a better view of the pagoda-like structure that balanced on the highest point of the former office of a city newspaper. ‘Zere is another city, my frients,’ the stranger was explaining to a startled woman dressed in what looked like a lampshade, ‘up zere, apove your hets.’ The woman staggered off on high heels towards the relative safety of Argle street, with its crowds of shoppers, and for the first time Bill and Jeek found themselves alone in the street with the stranger. Maskull Street narrowed at this end to a kind of funnel, and just before it began to narrow, there was an opening on the left that led to an unlit cobbled alley. ‘We’ve got him now,’ Bill hissed to Jeek. ‘You take the right arm, I’ll take the left. We’ll have a nice chat with our long-legged chum in this wee side-street.’ With intense concentration the two men advanced on the exultant stranger from either side, their jaws thrust forward, their ears laid back. Bill was clenching and unclenching his gloved hands, which were as thick and clumsy as the paws of a bear. He had a mad gleam in his eye, and Jeek knew that this was one of the rare moments he had been living for through all those months – maybe years – of loitering. But before they could reach out to grasp the stranger’s elbows, the stranger took a long step backwards and wrapped his long, skinny arms around their shoulders, pinning them to his chest in a grip of impossible and terrible power.

Jeek found his nose pressed up against the stranger’s shabby coat. His nostrils were filled with a rank smell that reminded him of the time when his mother had made him pluck a well-hung pheasant on the kitchen table. His eyes filled with tears and he began to choke.

‘My frients,’ the stranger whispered in an intimate croak. ‘I luff ziss city already. I vill make it my home. Putt I vill need somevhere to liff. Somevhere high up, viz pig vindows and a coot few. Do you haff any suchestions?’

Jeek thought he was going to suffocate, and the pressure on his shoulders made his bones creak. He began to struggle and strike feebly at the stranger’s side. He could hear Bill struggling more violently somewhere close by. Fear seized him: this was a monster, only a fiend in human form could have such dreadful strength. With a sudden wrench he freed himself from the stranger’s embrace and stumbled aside. At the same time Bill broke loose, letting out a volley of colourful curses. He was fumbling for something under his mackintosh; his face was purple. The stranger paid no attention. He merely spread wide his arms, with the violin case dangling from one hand, and proceeded to leap and twirl like an ungainly ballerina.

‘You see, I haff such plans,’ he crowed. ‘Such clorious plans. Ziss place iss ripe for transformation. For example, ziss old puilding,’ and he struck the wall of the abandoned office. ‘It iss empty! It shoult be full off life ant noise! Consider ze soarink imachination that coult conceive off such a puilding, that coult erect it stone by stone ant top it off viz a pacoda, yes a pacoda so high up, so far from ze dirt ant sqvallor of ze street! It is ass if ze architect so long ago foresaw my arrifal ant ze gifts I voult pring! I vill make zis city great, I tell you. Greater zan it hass effer been!’

‘For God’s sake, no!’ howled Jeek, and it was not clear even to him whether he was shouting at the stranger or at Bill, who had pulled out something black and gleaming and was pointing it with trembling hands at the stranger’s head. Curses continued to stream out of Bill’s mouth like brightly-coloured ribbons. ‘Bill, Bill!’ wailed Jeek. ‘Don’t do it, man! Ye’re mad!’

‘Did I ask for your opinion, Jeek?’ Bill shouted back. ‘Can’t ye see he’s tanked up to the eyeballs wi some kind of junk the likes of which we’ve never seen? What do you think he’s got in that bag of his? He’ll make this city great, all right; but not before I’ve plastered his brains all over it.’ As he spoke he shifted his eyes momentarily from the stranger, the better to fix his young accomplice with a withering stare. In that instant the two men found themselves alone in Maskull Street. ‘You stupid ape!’ roared Bill. ‘You let him escape again!’

Before Jeek could answer back, Bill had rushed down the funnel into the buzz of Argle Street. Jeek followed more slowly, shaken by his recent ordeal and hampered by the weight of the rain that had soaked his mackintosh. He stopped at the mouth of Maskull Street, looking into the busy thoroughfare, and watched in horror as several things happened in quick succession.

The stranger was bounding down the middle of Argle Street, dodging the traffic with nonchalant ease. His black coat flapped behind him, his violin case swung wildly from his right hand, and his yellow socks flashed at the throngs of astonished shoppers who had stopped to stare as he bounded by. The oddest thing about him was that his enormous feet never touched the ground; they kicked and thrust at the empty air two or three centimetres above the gleaming tarmac. After him ran Bill, with heavy thumping strides, his shoulders hunched, right arm extended, right hand clutching the gun. Bill’s arm jerked, there was an explosion, and the stranger gave a mighty leap that carried him high over the wet black roof of a passing taxi.

A second later Jeek heard the obscene and unmistakable crunch that a heavy vehicle makes when it hits a man.

His first thought was that the stranger’s leap had carried him into the taxi’s path, but an orange bus obscured his view and he couldn’t tell. Shoppers began to scream in an almost matter-of-fact fashion, as if it was their duty as honest citizens, and the screams were taken up by other shoppers closer to Jeek who had no more idea than he did of what had just happened. He saw a man and woman look at each other inquiringly, pucker up their foreheads and start to scream with the perfect timing of opera singers. Jeek hurried along the pavement to where the screams were loudest, and saw that another orange bus had come to a standstill and that shoppers were now converging on it, again with an oddly businesslike air. A pair of scuffed black cowboy boots stuck out from under the bus. They belonged to Bill.

Something shiny lay in the gutter. Jeek picked it up. It was a life-size replica of a colt revolver, of the kind that Gary Cooper carried in ‘High Noon’. The stink of gunpowder still hung about the hammer: Bill had adapted the replica to fire blanks. Weighing the toy gun in his hand Jeek looked up and down the street. The stranger had disappeared: vanished into thin air. The young man had a fleeting vision of those nightmarishly thin and powerful limbs dwindling down to the width of a line drawn in ink on paper, then winking out altogether, leaving only a shadow behind. The rain plastered his hair over his eyes and dripped off the barrel of the revolver. Shoppers had begun to stare and point at him; those closest to him backed away, their mouths shaping little black O’s in their white faces. Men and women in official black with chequered hatbands forged their way towards him from left and right.

‘I saw him, officer,’ called a fat man in a yellow plastic anorak. ‘He gunned him down like an animal.’

Jeek contemplated brandishing the gun and making his escape after firing off a few rounds into the air; but that was exactly what Bill would have done. Suddenly the city felt heavy with menace. The dark clouds scudding overhead, the darkening concrete and stone of the sodden buildings, the merciless rain, the glare of headlamps which turned the raindrops into tiny flashing knives, the black of the tarmac that glistened like an underground river: the street had become a trap into which the dancing stranger had led them. Jeek dropped the revolver, lifted his face to the rain and began to howl.

‘Something about the devil coming to town,’ the fat man confided later to an anaemic policewoman. ‘Turned my blood to ice, I can tell you. Sounded just like a sad lost dog. I swear I won’t sleep a wink tonight.’

The policewoman wrote down his words very carefully in her notebook. Normally she would have taken little trouble to record such nonsense; but as she had pushed through the crowd towards the young gunman she too had seen and heard something remarkable. Perhaps it was merely some trick of the light, a hallucination brought on by the rain and the passing headlights; but she could swear she had seen over the young man’s head a dense black cloud in the shape of a bird, bigger than any she’d ever seen, maybe five or six metres from wingtip to wingtip; and before it vanished she could have sworn she had heard it laugh.

*****

The stranger stood in the topmost window of the Birdsnest. The window was curved like a Halloween lantern, and when it opened, the curve of the frame and the curves of the panes made the shape of a bird in flight. Dark shapes and lights mingled and moved on the streets below, which looked more than ever like rivers in motion as the rainwater splashed and spread across their smooth black surfaces.

When the stranger raised his eyes he met the eyes of an almost naked statue on the building opposite, the statue of a man who stooped beneath the weight of a sandstone portico incongruously perched on an upper storey far above any door it might have embellished – yet another of the pointless decorative features that encrusted the higher levels of buildings in this once prosperous city. The stone man glowered balefully at the stranger as if humiliated by the attention he was receiving. Leave me alone, his glower implied. I prefer to work unseen, as I always have.

The stranger nodded as if in agreement, turned his back on the street and went into the room. It was bare of furnishings. The Birdcage had stood for years now with advertising hoardings plastered all over it, urging passers-by to rent office space in its oddly shaped apartments, but nobody had accepted its invitations. Not, at least, till now. With a smooth single movement the stranger stalked to the middle of the room, knelt down on the wooden boards by his violin case and reached for the buckles with his long thin hands. The case sprang open. Inside, neatly packed in straw, lay six large eggs, glowing a mottled pale blue in the light of the streetlamps. The markings on the eggs made them look like pebbles from some distant beach, smoothed by tides for countless millennia. For the stranger they seemed to tremble with possibility.

‘Fery soon now, my little treshurs,’ the stranger murmured, smoothing their surfaces each in turn with feather-light fingers. ‘Fery soon you vill choin me in ziss place of empty nests. Togezzer ve vill fill zem, yes? And zen… and zen…’

Outside, the stone man continued to glower across the street at the open window, his shoulders bowed under the weight of the useless portico. It would be wrong to describe his work as loitering, but it was clear from his every curve that he had been doing it for many years. His glower had a world-weary look, as of one who refuses to be surprised by strangers no matter how tall, no matter how eccentric their movements, no matter how grandiose their plans. He would be watching, it seemed to say, till the moment came when he must spring into action.

It was hard to gauge what kind of action he had in mind.

 

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)

The Ambiguities of Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka (2017)

[In the week when Loreen of Sweden won the Eurovision Song Contest, I’m putting up a post – quite coincidentally, of course – about one of the great Swedish writers of speculative fiction, Karin Tidbeck. This post marks the return to functionality of The City of Lost Books after a period offline caused by a bug in one of the University of Glasgow’s servers. The episode taught me about the precariousness of one’s online existence. Tidbeck taught me about the precariousness of human existence itself, as mediated by language. My thanks to Helen Marshall and Kim Wilkins, organisers of the What If Consortium sponsored by the University of Queensland, for introducing me to Tidbeck’s work.

The post contains many spoilers, so only read on if you’ve read Amatka or if you don’t mind spoilers too much!]


In an interview for BOMB Magazine, Karin Tidbeck mentions a familiar distinction between two kinds of writers: ‘There’s this concept of writers being either “plotters” or “pantsers”: plotting a story out before they start, or flying by the seat of their pants. I’m definitely a pantser’.[1] Both of Tidbeck’s novels emerged from a long period of gestation, taking the author by surprise as they underwent a slow transition from pupa stage (a collection of poems that became Amatka [2017], a set of linked short stories that became The Memory Theater [2021]) to full-blown novelistic butterflies.[2] Improvisation is clearly integral to Tidbeck’s writing process; and while this is true of many writers, in Tidbeck’s case it’s improvisation that has been honed by long practice in a highly specialised field of performance.

The prizewinning novelist and short story writer is also a participant in Nordic LARP – Live Action Role Play – for which they have been writing scenarios for most of their life. It’s no coincidence that their latest novel has a theatrical title, or that Amatka acknowledges an entire supporting cast of co-enablers in its composition: as Tidbeck puts it, for them ‘It truly takes a village; so many people have been helpful in the creation of this story’ (p. 217).[3] LARP performance, too, involves input from many equals who combine to generate a work of collective improvisation, as a cast of players act out roles based on a pre-agreed scenario, without an audience apart from the actors themselves. Its topics can be as lighthearted as a fantasy adventure set in another world or as serious as imagining yourself into the position of queer people in the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, of Palestinians under occupation, or of a planet where your gender is determined by the time of day when you were born. LARP discloses the intellectual, emotional and psychological value of play, the politics of improvised performance, the performativity of social interaction, the possibility – indeed, the necessity – of cultivating mutual trust and mental flexibility no matter what your age, as a means of collectively reinventing the forgotten past and imagining a better future. To me, Nordic LARP sounds frightening as well as fascinating, and I’d love to try it. For Tidbeck, it may well be fundamental to the way they think. And this may in turn be key to understanding the unique experience offered by their extraordinary novel Amatka, and what it has to say to a world in Climate Catastrophe, led by leaders hellbent on preserving the status quo.

In 2021 I took part in an online workshop at which Tidbeck spoke with passion about Nordic LARP – one of a series of workshops organised by the What If Consortium, about which I’ve written elsewhere. In the same interview Tidbeck spoke about their fascination with learning languages – they speak six in all, and have translated their own work from Swedish to English and from English to Swedish in an exercise that clearly fascinates them as much as any other creative process.[4] Translation can resemble a live action roleplaying game, in that the restrictions it places upon you highlight the different possibilities available in different situations, the different available styles encourage you to see the world through different lenses, the different grammatical structures suggest different underlying philosophies for different linguistic communities. Tidbeck describes their own variety of written English as an invented composite dialect, made up in equal parts of the British English they learned at school and the American English which is ‘the language of MTV and the movies, and, later, science fiction paperbacks’.[5] As a speaker of British English, I notice the Americanisms in Tidbeck’s style, as I read, more than the British dialectical usages which are my native tongue. And for me these Americanisms work an unusual kind of magic. They superimpose a New World grammar on what seems an Old World story – its Old World-ness suggested both by the Slavic and Nordic names of its characters and by the echoes of European history in the society they inhabit. This effect is perfect for Amatka, which takes as its setting a colony or cluster of colonies established by people from the world we know (mostly Russians and Swedes, to judge by their names) in a nameless place whose location is never identified. The colonists fled to that world with the aim of establishing the ‘ideal society’ (p. 44); but the new place – the planned utopia – has an air of being worn out from the opening sentence of the narrative. Its social structure recalls that of other experiments in collective living such as Soviet Communism or the Marxist-Leninist communes of the 1960s and ’70s, and the story that unfolds there seems familiar from countless literary dystopias from We to A Clockwork Orange, 1984 or Kafka’s The Castle. For me, its New World language suggests a veneer of up-to-date modernity thinly applied to a system that unimaginatively echoes long-outmoded efforts to refashion the world along egalitarian lines through the imposition of increasingly authoritarian and inflexible rules, driven by a ‘one-size-fits-all’ mentality. This mentality even extends to the clothing the colonists wear; none of the characters in Amatka wears garments that fit, and everything is designed for function rather than style: ‘She looked a little peculiar with the hat on; her hair stuck out from under the rim and the earflaps stood straight out. She pushed the hat back a little, tucked her hair in, and tied the flaps. That made it look a little better’ (p. 25). Clothing, in fact, plays a central role in the novel, just as costumes do when pooled and exchanged in a theatrical game among friends.[6]

If the names in the book are often Slavic, Tidbeck themself has suggested that their work has a loosely Nordic character, associating it through certain cultural markers with a cluster of countries in Northern Europe: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. In an Afterword to their dazzling story collection Jagannath [2012] Tidbeck lists a few of these markers – a love of festive rituals, the idealization of the working class by the ‘intellectual left’, the soft Swedish dad, all of which find echoes in Amatka – while describing Nordic culture as at once profoundly susceptible to fantastic ways of thinking and unaccommodating when it comes to providing space for fantastic narratives in print. ‘One sensation peculiar to the Nordic culture of my upbringing,’ Tidbeck writes,

is that we really do live on the edge of fairy country. With a small population that’s mostly gathered in towns, vast stretches of countryside could contain any number of critters. Many folktales, and other stories I grew up with, such as the ones by Finno-Swedish author Tove Jansson, show reality as a thin veneer behind which strange creatures move.[7]

This is the North that’s familiar to me, a British reader who lived in Stockholm as a small child and inherited books, comics, pictures and objects from that epoch of my family’s history. It’s the North of the Nobel Prize-winning author Selma Lagerlöf, whose The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (mentioned briefly in The Memory Theater) presents its readers with a folkloric map of Sweden packed with diminutive tomten, underwater cities, statues that come to life at night, giant butterflies, and articulate beasts and birds; of Astrid Lindgren, whose The Brothers Lionheart imagines a succession of Nordic worlds opening out from one another at the point of death, making each new world a link in a never-ending bracelet or chain; of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, set in a world where the dead watch the antics of the living as if in a paper theatre, while children with strange abilities watch the antics of both the living and the dead; or of Ali Abbasi’s movie Border, where customs officers on Sweden’s national borders themselves exist on a border between mortals and the hidden world of the trolls.[8] For Tidbeck, the borders between the human world and fairy country are rendered permeable by the metamorphic possibilities of language, which in turn react to and have a direct impact on the metamorphoses undergone by our bodies in response to emotion, diet, maturation, thought, curiosity, desire and fear. The thin veneer that exists in Nordic countries between the known and the unknown for her consists (among other things) of words, clothes and skin, all of them infinitely permeable surfaces hiding strangenesses unacknowledged by biologists or the compilers of dictionaries.

Amatka is set in a location on the other side of the veneer that separates our world from the strange, the unsettling, the potentially lethal. It’s a place where things are made with words in a very literal way, changing shape if the word that defines them is not regularly repeated aloud by their users, and preferably marked on them too with writing or a printed label. But this nameless place is hardly a conventional fairyland, Nordic or otherwise. It’s a colony committed to conformity, set in a landscape whose uniformity echoes the values of the colonists, with miles of uninhabited tundra interrupted by featureless bodies of water utterly bereft of the inventive fauna of the folktales. In this place improvisation is deemed to be highly dangerous, and childhood games that imaginatively transform one thing to another pose a very real risk of materially transforming the renamed objects into something new – or of reducing them instead to a semi-liquid, quasi-organic ‘gloop’, the primordial substance mined from the soil of this alien world to construct – well – more or less everything the colonists think they need. Metaphors are dangerous, too, since they can reshape the things they describe into something different, or else more gloop. In deference to this constraint on the inhabitants of their invented world, Tidbeck tells their narrative without recourse to metaphor, unfolding the adventures of the protagonist in pellucid prose whose refusal of ornament – once one notices it – takes on the virtuosic quality of an exercise in Oulipo, the French literary game that imposes apparently arbitrary restrictions on its practitioners such as writing an entire novel without the use of the verb ‘to be’. Tidbeck has explained that metaphors are barely used in Swedish, but their absence from Tidbeck’s English makes the language seem pared-down, reduced to essentials, a suitable instrument for a strictly regulated life lived on a frontier on the brink of the unknown – and on the brink of dissolution through the unregulated use of words.[9]

The plot of Amatka is simple. Vanja has been sent to the colony Amatka by the newly-founded private company she works for, which has asked her to assess demand among the colonists for new hygienic products to replace the mostly state-made hygienic resources they have used till now. Her work, then, is concerned with the treatment of human skin, that organic barrier between the colonists and their alien environment. Her researches find that the Amatkans are subject to many skin diseases and conditions, such as psoriasis and eczema, symptomatic of their difficult relationship with the world they inhabit – or perhaps with the society they are part of, whose every waking moment is marked by the stress of maintaining the shape of the objects around them, from toothbrushes, suitcases and bedclothes to the contents of the factories or desks they work at (if they don’t keep naming them they turn to gloop). In the course of her work she falls in love with a citizen of Amatka, a medic called Nina, and decides to stay. At around the same time she unearths evidence of a resistance movement against the Central Committee of the colonies, the governing body based in her home colony of Essre to which all the Committees of the other colonies are finally answerable. Despite her love of the conformist Nina, Vanja finds herself steadily drawn into the resistance movement, largely through her friendship with Amatka’s librarian, a man called Evgen, and the poetry he invites her to read, the work of a colonist called Berols’ Anna. The novel closes with a revolution which involves the breakdown of the verbal tyranny that has governed the colonists’ lives, and a similar breakdown in the composition of their bodies, above all their skins, rendering them impossible to focus on, unbarricaded, unshielded, naked to the world. Something similar happens to language in the revolution, as it ceases to be policed and instead becomes creative and infinitely malleable, the verbal equivalent of the gloop that can be reshaped into anything you choose by those who dare to commit themselves to the idea of revolutionary reshaping.

The trajectory of the novel, then, is from rigidly rules-based organization to improvisation, from strict linguistic and social limitations to unrestricted verbal and social fecundity, from fear of the place in which the colonies are located to a passionate embrace of it, a quest to know it, to merge with and reinvent it, and in doing so to enter a new phase of evolution. The experience described may be not so very different from the experience of learning to improvise in a Nordic LARP community, starting out tentative and awkward, growing in confidence as the performance unfolds within the limitations of the pre-agreed plot. Alternatively, it resembles the philosophical shift that will be necessary to live in harmony with the environment – to discover, in fact, that we are the environment, and cannot segregate ourselves from it with an artificial barrier constructed from the languages of otherness, authority, human self-interest, mental discipline, technological control. In this novel, opening up to other people (falling in love, for instance, as Vanja does with Nina) is no different from opening up to our reliance on the intimidatingly strange material world of which we are part.

If Amatka is a narrative of social revolution, it is also a tale of (partial) psychological healing. The book opens with Vanja in a state of unacknowledged depression, having recently recovered from a medical problem that involved treatment, we later learn, in a fertility clinic. The roots of her depression are deep ones. Her father was arrested as a dangerous dissident when she was a child, having first made her his confidante when he indulged in whispered, alcohol-fueled rants against the system late at night, when the rest of the family were asleep in bed. Unhappy with her job, negligent in her verbal naming or ‘marking’ of her possessions – as a result of which she soon finds her toothbrush and her suitcase reduced to gloop – without a partner or close friend in her home town of Essre, dominated by her more conformist older sister, her ‘general disinterest’ can be measured by the amount of savings she has available to spend on warm clothes when she first arrives in Amatka (p. 25); up till now she has had nothing and nobody to spend her credits on. Her depressed state of mind reflects, for the reader, the depressed state of the colonies, cut off from the world they came from and equally cut off from the world they now inhabit.

This state of isolation and exile is brilliantly evoked in the novel’s opening chapter. Here we find Vanja taking the train journey from Essre to Amatka on board a train which embodies the colonists’ collective material and psychological condition. The passenger car in which she travels is full of bunks, having been ‘built for migration, for transporting pioneers to new frontiers’; but its generous capacity is pointless in a world where exploration has given way to a daily struggle for survival within the perimeters of established settlements (p. 3). Everything in it is strictly functional, from the ‘rigid and uncomfortable’ seats to the bland food provided in the pantry: ‘stew with a base of mycoprotein’, to be eaten cold from a can, root vegetables to be cut into chunks and eaten raw (pp. 3-4).  It has no windows, cutting the passengers off from the drab but somehow terrifying landscape through which it travels – partly to suppress their fear of it, partly because there is nothing to be seen outside in any case ‘except the empty steppe: billowing grass, some hillocks, and combes’ (p. 5). Most disturbingly of all, everyday objects in the carriage have their names written on them in ‘large and comforting letters: WASHBASIN, PANTRY, TABLE’, the labels loudly proclaiming the possibility, even the likelihood of their imminent disintegration (p. 4). Everything is utterly familiar and undifferentiated, yet the continuing existence of these familiar things cannot be taken for granted; the fear felt by the colonists is that the things they need will be taken away from them by irresponsible acts, or merely by forgetfulness, by neglect. One is reminded of the way that the presence of imagined objects needs to be constantly reaffirmed in a mime show or improvised scenario, the way they can disappear or lose shape if the performers fail to reinforce their presence by naming them repeatedly or shaping them often with their hands and bodily movements.

The colonists’ identities, too, are always on the verge of dissolution – Vanja’s more so, perhaps, than the rest, since she has little self-confidence, little certainty about where the system ends and her personality begins. The standardization of their names identifies them as little more than objects or functions in space and time. Vanja’s full name, for instance, ‘Brilars’ Vanja Essre Two’, starts with a fusion of her parents’ names (Britta and Lars), followed by a Slavic personal name, and ending with the name of her home colony and where she stands in the chronology of her parents’ offspring (she is their second child, hence ‘Two’).[10] Their bodies, too, are both grimly functional and neglected. When Vanja looks at herself in a mirror on the train she sees that she has lost weight since the last time she noticed her appearance, that ‘her belly no longer sagged from fat but from loose skin and flaccid musculature’ and that ‘her legs were no longer firm’; she has been reshaped, in fact, by the demands of her dull and sedentary job, so that her clothes no longer fit her (p. 5). Her skin no longer fits her either, with the result that to her own eyes she looks much older than she is, accelerating towards an annihilation as complete as that of an object reduced to the gloop of which it is made. We later learn that the records of individual citizens kept in the annals of the colonies are reduced to the minimum after their deaths in order to save paper: name, date of birth and death, profession, cause of death (p. 121). The functionality of the records surrounds the dead inhabitants of the colonies with a featureless waste of unrecorded time, as drably grey and uniform as the landscape surrounding the colonies.

Gradually, however, as the book goes on, we learn that Amatka and the other colonies can be seen as a form of Utopia. That, at least, is how the ruling Committee of each colony describes them and how their more conformist citizens understand them: a perfectly egalitarian community set up in opposition to unspecified but clearly inferior alternative ways of living, now lost in the wasteland of the unrecorded past. But it is a deeply ambiguous Utopia. Indeed, all utopias can be seen as ambiguous, since utopianism itself combines two contradictory impulses: towards radical change (from the material conditions under which the writer and their readers live) and towards total stasis (most Utopias are strictly policed to prevent transition to a less desirable state). Anyone with a preference for change will find themselves stifled by inertia, anyone rendered anxious by transitions will be maddened by the inevitable tendency of societies to mutate and slide into new shapes. All Utopias, then, are Dystopias for some, and Amatka’s Utopia is no exception, since any dissent is savagely punished and any form of eccentric behaviour can be interpreted as dissent. Like the original Utopia of Thomas More, each colony is organised on geometrical principles, with an administrative tower-block in the centre – the all-seeing watchtower of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon – and rings of residences, factories, plant houses and recreational facilities arranged around it, under its eye. The worst of punishments fits the crime for which it is most often exacted, loose or disruptive talk: it involves the surgical destruction of the speech centre in the brain, rendering the citizen inarticulate and hence incapable of participating in the life of the commune. One might call this poetic justice – irresponsible speech being rewarded with enforced silence – if it were not for the fact that enforced silence implies an incapacity for poetry of any kind, just or unjust.

So far so familiar; but Tidbeck is unusually dextrous at making her Utopia seem homely as well as intolerable. Its most loyal citizens can be affectionate, funny, compassionate, mutually supportive; its rebels are not motivated by hatred or anger so much as affection, compassion, mutual supportiveness, even a sense of humour, recognising as they do the sheer absurdity of trying to keep things stable in a world predicated on the need for metamorphosis (birth, growth, death, eating, drinking, successive sleep states, etc. etc.). Both sides, too – loyalists and rebels – are intensely conscious that they themselves have conspired to construct the oppressive Utopia from which some seek to be liberated, and that consensus or complicity is essential both for maintaining the commune as it is and for overthrowing it and installing a new order. The alternative Utopia of the rebels is closely related to the Utopia of the loyalists, being compounded of the same elements, the same desires and dreams and needs. The personalities involved in both sides are not crudely distinguished as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Some of the revolutionaries, like the sarcastic retired doctor Ulla who cohabits with Nina and Vanja in their communal dwelling, can be infuriating, while Nina’s commitment to the colonies is based in a sense of responsibility to other people’s welfare which has also (presumably) driven her to become a nurse, and which makes her deeply sympathetic to Vanja’s loneliness and depression, despite the opposite points on the political spectrum each of them occupies. Even at the point where Nina betrays Vanja to the ruling Committee near the end of the book, she does so in the conviction that the committee will do what’s best for Vanja as well as for the commune; it’s their merciless treatment of Vanja that finally pushes Nina into joining the revolution. For Nina, Vanja’s body is a utopian space; the visitor from Essre is in her eyes a ‘beauty’, despite Vanja’s own conviction of her ugliness and premature ageing, and despite Vanja’s attraction to the dissidence Nina fears (p. 96). By this means – by seeing her as beautiful – Nina instils fresh confidence in Vanja, a confidence that ironically helps to propel her into the arms of the revolution (to which Nina later follows her).

Other Amatkans, meanwhile, have little interest in either conformity or rebellion. Nina’s children by her housemate Ivar, for instance, have been separated from their parents since birth, raised like the rest of the commune’s children in the so-called ‘Children’s House’. They find it hard to get used to being with their parents each weekend, and spend much of their time staring at adults and clinging to one another as representatives of the sole community they really recognise. Ivar, meanwhile, who works in the commune’s subterranean mushroom farms despite his dislike of being underground, and who is unable to obtain a transfer to more congenial work in the Plant Houses, conforms even while he succumbs to acute depression. This isolates him from his fellow colonists, precisely thanks to the damage caused him by his willingness to conform. Ivar, then, is neither a heroic revolutionary – since he never rebels – nor a loyal colonist – since his eventual suicide is treated by the Committee as the ultimate betrayal, a permanent withdrawal of necessary labour from the struggling collective he was expected to preserve. For both Nina and Vanja, on the other hand, he is a beloved friend. Each of them recognises in him an aspect of themselves, despite their seemingly contradictory positions, and each appreciates him for what makes him himself: his love of strong coffee, his delight in making things grow, his tenderness toward the children he shares with Nina. There are no absolutes in Tidbeck’s commune, since there are no absolutes in the words, sentences and personalities from which it is constructed.

It is no surprise, then, that both colonists and revolutionaries share a love of poetry. The ‘wholesome fun’ enjoyed by the Amatkans at gatherings every Sevenday includes regular readings of poetry written by Berols’ Anna, who is revealed in the course of the narrative as the de facto leader of the revolution (p. 61, p. 159). Poems, of course, can be descriptive, and Anna’s poems meticulously describe the various Plant Houses or agricultural conservatories that form the outer circle of Amatka. When Vanja first reads them she finds they stabilize the mundane objects and actions they invoke, as all language should when responsibly uttered: ‘In Berols’ Anna’s poetry, all things became completely and self-evidently solid. The world gained consistency in the life cycle of plants, the sound of a rake in the soil. Breathing became easier’ (pp. 44-5). As Vanja grows in sympathy with the revolution, however, the same poems offer evidence of change as well as of stability – of becoming as well as of being: the plants are always growing and dying, the rake moves the soil, sound and breath dissolve in air. And some poems harbour double meanings thanks to the possibility of reading them ironically, like Berols’ Anna’s hymn in praise of the Central Committee (‘We thank them / for telling us/ What to do / what to do’), which Vanya assumes at once to be ‘sarcastic’ (p. 78). The novel’s readers, meanwhile, might understand the poems as doing both, making and unmaking as they are read or spoken. In them, revolution and reactionary conservatism are shown to spring from the same soil, the same impulses towards shaping a community and a home.

Colonists and revolutionaries also share a love of music. The wholesome fun of a Sevenday gathering involves singing and dancing as well as poetry recitals. Some of the singing is dedicated to preserving the shapes of things against the danger of change; this includes the ‘Marking Song’ taught to young children so that they can name the necessary objects they make use of every day, protecting those objects from disintegration into gloop. When the revolution finally breaks out, the revolutionaries sing a version of the same song, though with a different intent: an opening out of the song’s meaning rather than a closing down and consolidation of that meaning. What the revolutionaries sing is ‘something like “The Marking Song,” but the words were different; it was a song of making and unmaking, a song not of things that were, but that could be’ (p. 216). Indeed, music plays a key role in the revolutionary transformation of Amatka. At one point in the novel, after a minor falling-out with Nina, Vanja makes her way to the lake outside the commune – a lake that has already begun to manifest signs of the coming change, since it freezes each night at sunset and unfreezes with a sound of thunder at the break of dawn, in defiance of the laws of physics. As she sits on the shore of the lake, Vanja sees an old woman standing nearby, holding a long pipe half submerged in the water. When the water freezes, the woman lifts the end of the pipe to her lips and begins to play it like an alp-horn, effectively turning the frozen water into a musical instrument, a tuneful communication system summoning fellow revolutionaries to her aid. Later, pipes begin to manifest themselves in the ground beneath Amatka, in the form of a mysterious network of tunnels that extend into the tundra beyond the city limits. Noises are heard in the tunnels – voices, buzzing, thunder – and later from the vertical pipes that give access to those tunnels, and which sprout from the ground beyond the city in increasing numbers. The pipes wail and groan like the pipes of a church organ, as if the ground itself were singing, or as if an improvised musical instrument were finding voice for the very first time. In their interview with BOMB Magazine Tidbeck speaks of their legendary great-grandfather who had only five fingers but who nevertheless built ‘an organ out of a sofa’; an interest in improvisation was clearly an integral part of their family saga long before they discovered LARP. The elderly revolutionary Ulla, meanwhile, reminds us that pipes or tunnels may be used for ‘travel’ as well as for making sound (p. 132). Music may be a repetition and affirmation of what’s known and loved, or it may transport us to strange new territories, like the train that carried Vanja to Amatka. In Tidbeck’s world it does exactly both, and revolution arrives like a remembered experimental tune, heavy both with nostalgia and with the joy of the unexpected, the innovatory, the yet-to-be.

The family likeness between reaction and revolution is embodied in the spaces where both are fostered. When Vanja finally learns (of course from the conservative Nina) how the revolutionaries left the city under the leadership of the poet, Berols’ Anna, to set up a rival commune on the featureless tundra, she discovers that the habitation they made for themselves differed little from the design of the colonies they had abandoned: ‘It looked sort of like a colony – a ring of little houses and a commune office’ (p. 169, my emphasis). But the sky above this new commune is alive and full of lights, unlike the grey unchanging skies above the old one, while the walls are painted not with the appropriate noun (‘wall’, ‘window’, ‘door’, and so on, lending solidity to the objects they embellish) but with representations of things ‘not there’, transforming them into narratives rather than nouns (tales of utopia, the no-place, perhaps) (p. 170). Apartments, too, can be spaces of revolution or reaction. When Berols’ Anna fulfils her promise to free Amatka – that is, to fulfil its potential to remake itself along radical lines – she is accompanied on her march to the colony by the old woman Ulla, who formerly shared an apartment with a group of friends from across the political divide. Living together in that apartment were the idealist conformist Nina, the unhappy conformist Ivar, the would-be revolutionary Vanja, and Ulla herself, the fully-fledged insurrectionist. Within that apartment were hatched both plans for liberation and plans to betray the liberators to the Committee. Each physical space in the novel, then, is a theatre, full of possibilities, yet constrained by a set of rules. Each performance in each of those spaces depends on an interaction between the performers, as a sentence depends for its sense on the interaction between its grammatical parts. Rebels need conformists to define themselves against; conformists are equally dependent on rebels to understand for themselves what needs to be suppressed, expelled or resisted. And individuals mutate from conformist to rebel, as Vanja mutates in the course of the novel, emerging from her isolation, depression and atrophy into the catalyst and herald of a new era.

Organs themselves in Tidbeck’s work are, so to speak, organic, mutating from one function to another, militating against the laws of biology. The skin is a fine example. Berols’ Anna writes poems about the Plant Houses that form the outer ring of the concentric circles of buildings that comprise Amatka. Her interest, then, is in what could be called the ‘skin’ of the colony, the protective architectural membrane that protects its interior organs from the perceived threat of what lies beyond. Yet the Plant Houses are already mixed with the Other, since the plants they contain spring from the soil of an alien world. So it’s no surprise, when the revolution breaks out, to see one of the Houses bursting apart to release a ‘stream of furiously flapping greenery’, while another sprouts ‘six unsynchronized, rickety legs’ and trundles off across the steppes in a bid for freedom (p. 212). Meanwhile the mysterious tunnels under the colony – the arterial conduits that convey the bacterium of revolution from one part of the communal body to another – spontaneously mutate into Plant Houses full of semi-sentient ‘fruiting bodies’, which were once the colonists who maintained the underground mushroom farms (p. 214). And skin itself often ceases to be a membrane, announcing its identity with the earth and its products, or with the abject inner organs, even as its owners struggle to keep it contained and in good condition, moisturized, blemish-free and snugly clothed. The eczema suffered by the mushroom farmers turns their skin into fertile ground for fruiting bodies, like the caves where they tend their fungi. When the people imagine or speak the malleable earth of this new world into new bodies – such as imitation cats or fish, sketchy copies of the nonhuman creatures they left behind in the world they fled – the bodies in question differentiate themselves from their lost originals by failing to distinguish between skin and  flesh: their outer membrane envelops no bones, no veins, no organs, no brains, just undifferentiated gloop from head to toe, like living plasticine or clay (pp. 198-9). The earth of the colonies itself resembles either a membrane or an unprotected inner organ, instinct with life. When a neglected everyday object turns to gloop, the gloop feels somehow warm, alive and potent, capable of evolving into something – anything – under the right conditions (p. 175). Towards the end of the novel, Vanja even adopts a blob of gloop as a kind of pet, mutating it at will into useful everyday tools designed to further the revolution.

Yet the capacity for metamorphosis can be exploited for reactionary purposes as well as revolutionary ones. The past can be moulded by the Committee to erase narratives that threaten the integrity of the colonies; Berols’ Anna’s commune, which drew about a hundred colonists out of Amatka into the tundra, is reimagined by the Committee into a disaster which killed the colonists and their leader – thereby shutting down the narrative instead of opening it out, and putting an end to the possibilities of improvisation. The complexity of individual experience is retrospectively reinvented, thanks to the crudeness of the colonies’ records, into simple descriptors of life, job, death, and a set of dates. When the sensitive colonist Ivar discovers the hidden tunnels under the mushroom farm where he works, he is told that he is suffering from delusions; by erasing his account of the tunnels, reducing him to silence, the Committee hopes to wipe them out of existence – and will wipe him out of existence, too, if he persists in asserting the truth of his narrative. In the end, the contradiction between the Committee’s version and his own drives Ivar to wipe himself out of existence; and he accomplishes this by removing his outer membrane – his coat and shoes – and exposing his skin to the murderous cold of the freezing lake. Ivar’s suicide, in fact, represents his most radical act. He kills himself using a feature of the landscape which is impossible according to the laws of conventional physics, a lake that freezes and unfreezes nightly regardless of the prevailing air temperature or weather conditions. Ivar gives himself up to the new world, in other words, embracing it as the Committee will not. In response, the Committee erases even the barest record of Ivar’s life from its archives. But it cannot erase Ivar himself without erasing the community he was part of: his friend Nina, with whom he had children; the children themselves; his co-workers; the roommates who reacted to his story of the tunnels in different ways. In giving himself up to the world, Ivar shows the way to the revolutionaries, who eventually learn to become the place they find themselves in, as he did, giving themselves ‘to the world’ in a daring gesture of making and unmaking, hope and despair (p. 214).

Tidbeck’s dystopic Utopia, then, defines itself by its dangerous capacity to be two or more things at once, and in this it is closely related to the so-called ‘fairy country’ of European literature and folklore, despite its differences from familiar representations of that space. Tidbeck’s story collection Jagannath contains two stories set in that country, both of which were later incorporated or absorbed into The Memory Theatre. Both stories concern themselves with the human relationship with time, and in particular with our simultaneous desire to inhabit a world impervious to change and a world that is always changing. Time also, of course, has a central role in Amatka, not least as something that happens to one’s body (think of Vanja looking in the mirror, contemplating the way her own body has been altered by time and suffering, or her later contemplation of Ivar’s body, changed for ever by its period of suspension in the ‘frigid water’ of the lake [p. 154]). Bodies mark time, too, in both of the fairy stories in Jagannath. The first of them, ‘Augusta Prima’, tells us what happens to the body of an immortal being when she finds a watch.[11] Once the watch is set in motion it changes its formerly changeless finder, who starts to age, while at the same time she becomes aware of the wearisome changelessness of the garden where she lives, which has preserved her in an immutable state up to the point when the clock began to tick. The discovery, too, makes something clear about the politics of fairy land: that the disconnected shreds of time it does contain affect the working classes – the unfortunate changelings who are stolen, enslaved and tortured by their fairy masters – very differently from the masters themselves, who remain unchanged from one generation of servants to another. Fairy land, in other words, like many other places, is a utopia for its rulers and a dystopia for its workers, though here the distinction between them is not merely confirmed but reinforced by their different experiences of chronology. The stolen children are ritually slaughtered when they reach maturity, in a bid to expel even the memory of time and change from the paradisal garden; while the immortals wake each morning at the beginning of what is effectively the same day. The children live in a state of nervous anticipation, perpetually fearful of a sudden change that will wipe them out of existence; the masters live in endless ennui, driven insane by the knowledge that everything everywhere will always be the same, and that there is nothing more to existence than what they have. And a somewhat similar temporal structure rules in Amatka, though the elements of it are slightly different.

At the beginning of Amatka, when Vanja boards the train to the colony where the rest of the novel is set, we learn that something strange has happened to time in the course of her journey. Long journeys in this new world can sometimes cause machines to malfunction, and her wristwatch gets ‘stuck at one o’clock’ because ‘mechanical things sometimes didn’t behave like they should between the colonies’ (p. 5). We might think of the tricks performed by time on long-haul journeys, or in SF stories that feature Faster-than-light-speed travel, or of the warpings of mortal time experienced by voyagers to fairy land such as Oisín, or by fantasy adventurers like the Pevensies in the Narnian chronicles. At the same time, Vanja notes in the mirror the signs of passing time inscribed in her own body; movement goes on, despite the lack of precision instruments with which to measure it, and this is also true of Oisín, who finds that he has aged when he gets back from Faerie. Augusta Prima’s fairy garden has a similar effect on mechanisms: ‘Mechanical things usually fell apart as soon as they came into the gardens’ domain’ (p. 116), dismantled by the will to immortality embodied in the garden by its creators, just as time has been rendered meaningless in the colonies by the ruling Committee’s systematic erasure of the past. In both train and garden, however, chronometers are rendered unfamiliar by Tidbeck’s descriptions of them: Vanja’s watch is ‘the clock on her wrist’ or ‘the little clock’ (p. 5), which gives it an unusual weight and mass for its size and function, while Augusta Prima’s watch is a ‘little machine’ with ‘Three thin rods […] attached to the centre’, moving round the disc ‘in twitching movements’ and making a noise like the beat of a mouse’s heart (115). The mouse analogy, in a realm that has by this stage in the story shown a propensity for casual cruelty to small, powerless beings such as the changelings, makes the watch sound vulnerable; but the strangeness of these two watches gives them an imaginative power beyond the timepieces we know from our own experience. As a result, Augusta Prima proves more vulnerable still, becoming seized by a desire to ‘know’ about the mystery of time as embodied in the watch, and gradually succumbing to physical change as her knowledge grows.

Vanja too, on arriving at Amatka, becomes afflicted with the desire to know, in this case about the mystery of Amatka’s past – a past embodied in the train which caused her watch to stop (the train is ‘built for migration, for transporting pioneers to new frontiers’, but its ‘capacity was pointless’ in a world where such frontiers no longer exist [p. 3]). Vanja’s quest for knowledge leads her to another apparently damaged machine, a giant subterranean contraption whose intended function – as an agent or symptom of change – is as mysterious to her as the watch’s was to Augusta Prima (p. 149). Like the watch, Vanja’s underground machine changes its discoverer, and with her the colony whose past she has been investigating; her interest in it sets it in motion and its motion restores the tunnels to their role as agents of travel, transformation and trauma. A similar extension of Augusta Prima’s experience of time to the rest of the fairy country is implied in the short story ‘Aunts’, where the inhabitants of a fairy glasshouse or orangery find themselves changed by a fleeting visit from Augusta Prima, who clutches a round, metal, ticking object: clearly the watch.[12] Before this moment, the titular Aunts have existed as part of a perpetual cycle of birth, growth and death, sealed into the ecosphere of the glasshouse in perpetuity, self-fed and self-consumed. With the arrival of Augusta Prima and her watch the cycle is broken, and nobody knows what will happen next, either in the glasshouse or in the garden of which it seems to be the beating heart. Knowledge and time, then, are both creative and destructive, breaking down the composition of the objects and people caught up in their transactions, creating new possibilities from the breakdown, and triggering in the people who witness it either terror, delight, or both. And eternity too has a dual nature, locking its denizens into a happy circular dream, entrapping its victims in a recurring nightmare.

Knowledge, and the impulse to knowledge called curiosity, is a threat to the philosophy of stasis that governs both the fairy garden and the colonies. In the garden it is ‘common knowledge’ that time stands still, and that ‘Whenever one woke up, it was the same day as the day before’, a Groundhog Day of pleasure for the masters and torment for the children they have enslaved (p. 118). Augusta Prima’s sudden awareness that there may be other times and other ways of living gives her access to new knowledge which is far from ‘common’. Amatka too, as we’ve seen, is committed to repetition, since this is the only means of preserving its shape: ‘As morning comes,’ declares a poster in Nina’s bedroom, ‘we see and say: today’s the same as yesterday’ (p. 97). Vanja’s quest for knowledge about the past of the colony challenges this mantra repeatedly, as she discovers (for instance) that enormous chunks of the colony’s history have been strategically fabricated by its historians. If fairy country is a beautiful but dangerous illusion, kept in check by rule-based games such as parties and games of croquet, so too is Utopia, a collectively imagined space whose shape and extent is strenuously maintained by the policing of the inhabitants’ words and actions. It is kept in check by parties too, ‘games and organised play’ (p. 158) at each colony’s leisure centres, which ensure that even the citizen’s spare time is policed, observed and linguistically restricted. The key item of knowledge in both books is the recognition that the worlds in which they are set are no more than games, and that a player may choose to change the rules or leave the game altogether, although deciding to do so will put that player in mortal danger, according to the rules of the game they are choosing to leave.

The location of fairy country is notoriously uncertain; and the same is true of Utopia, whose name means ‘no-place’ or ‘placeless’. In Vanja’s world, the fact that the location of the colonies is unknown is one of the pieces of knowledge kept strictly hidden from the people by the Central Committee. Vanja’s father reveals it to her in her childhood in a whispered confession which gives the imparted knowledge both the delightful air of a bedtime story and disturbing connotations of child abuse, which is so often represented by the abuser as a shameful secret to be concealed from other members of the community. Lars’s whisperings to his daughter, in other words, are another of the ambiguous spaces with which this Utopia is filled. As Lars bends towards her in the dark, his beard tickling her cheek and his ‘whispered words’ smelling of alcohol, he imparts to her the explosive fact that ‘No one knows where we are. But we’re not allowed to say that’ (p. 39). At this point the reader finds themselves torn between the notion that he is imparting to her his inmost knowledge in a gesture of supreme parental trust, and the competing notion that such knowledge is too heavy a burden to be shared with a child; that this is, in fact, an irresponsible act on the part of a parent. Lars goes on to restate the fact of their placelessness as a bedtime story, like the most famous tale of that famously ambiguous tale-teller Lewis Carroll: ‘then he seemed to sober up and began to tell her a story about how people had found a hole in the world, and passed through, and ended up in this place. But where “this place” was, no one knew, not even the committee’ (p. 40). At this point Tidbeck seems to be reminding us that fairy stories, children’s stories, can serve as holes in the world through which we can glimpse the shapes of forbidden topics, though they withhold judgement as to whether or not a child might be harmed by such glimpses.

The link between Lars’s ‘hole in the world’ and Carroll’s famous rabbit hole forges another link to ‘Augusta Prima’, whose games of croquet on the lawns of the fairy garden – their chief aim being to break the heads of players and the enslaved children known as ‘pages’ – recalls the violent game of croquet in Alice in Wonderland, set in a garden which is metaphorically or potentially littered with severed heads. The tunnels that riddle the ground beneath Amatka recall the dream-maze threaded by Alice’s White Rabbit; the wayward workings of watches in Amatka and the fairy garden invoke the Mad Hatter’s squabble with time itself (since when, the Hatter tells us, Time ‘won’t do a thing I ask!’);[13] while the curiosity of both Vanja and Augusta Prima recalls the unflagging curiosity of Alice herself, who finds Wonderland and Looking-Class Country ‘curiouser and curiouser’ as she plunges deeper and deeper into their interiors. Amatka, in fact, is more Looking-Glass country than Wonderland. In the second Alice book it’s Humpty Dumpty who declares that any word can mean exactly what he wants it to mean (or in Amatkan terms, make exactly what he wants it to make), while the loss of Alice’s name in the Looking-Glass wood is invoked by the identikit names bestowed on the colonists, or the permanent loss of speech imposed on dissidents as punishment by the regime. Key to both Amatka and the Looking-Glass country is the question of who is dreaming the whole shebang: in Alice’s case, whether it’s the Red King, Alice herself, Lewis Carroll, or the reader, while in Amatka the choices are Vanja (who dreams often, and often cannot tell whether she is dreaming), or the Central Committee, or the colonists, or Tidbeck and the reader, or a strange fusion of all these. After all, the colonists’ ruling committees are elected by the colonists, while Tidbeck (like a good LARP player) allows themself to be ruled by both colonists and committees for as long as they are writing, as does the reader, for as long as they are turning the pages of Tidbeck’s book. So the novel can be read as a commentary on the acts of reading and writing (both of which ‘take a village’, according to the acknowledgments), which can in turn be used as analogies for the workings of power in any given society or culture. The clear allusions to Carroll’s Alice books underscore the centrality of reading and writing to the narrative, as do the many acts of reading and writing performed by Vanja herself, whether she is borrowing the works of Berols’ Anna from the colony’s library or reading and storing away the records of Amatka’s citizens in the archives.

The Alice books have often been described as nightmares rather than dreams, with Alice under constant threat of being beheaded, driven mad, or having her personality denied or eroded. But Lars’s story of the ‘hole in the world’ also gestures towards another great work of literature: Ursula le Guin’s utopian masterpiece Always Coming Home (1985). In this book – published just one year after the date of the most famous of dystopias, 1984 – Le Guin imagines a future version of California in which humans live in harmony with the land, in a manner that consciously recalls the lives of the native Californian peoples whose cultures were the lifetime preoccupation of the author’s anthropologist parents, Theodora and Alfred Kroeber. In one story in Always Coming Home, a member of this future utopian community, the Kesh, finds his way through a ‘hole in the air’ into the urban California of the 1980s, when the book was written.[14] He is horrified by the pollution, the absence of natural beauty, the noise and the bustle; but before he leaves, he spots one modern woman in the city crowd who is not like the place’s other inhabitants. Recognisably one of his own people – a woman of the Kesh long before the Kesh came into existence – she is conscious of her context as the others are not, stranded and isolated (it would seem) by having been born with an environmental outlook far in advance of her time. Many of Tidbeck’s short stories speak of similarly isolated individuals who find it hard to connect to their fellow humans; individuals who seem to have wandered through some hole in the world from some other place into our own. ‘Mom’ in ‘Some Letters for Ove Lindström’ is one example; the titular ‘Rebecka’ is another; so are the two sisters in ‘Reindeer Mountain’ and the dead human stranger from whose waistcoat pocket Augusta Prima purloins the watch. ‘Some Letters for Ove Lindström’ even contains an anticipatory echo of Vanja’s father: there are certain conditions, the narrator observes, that invoke for her the idea that there is something strange that exists very close to everyday reality, some location analogous to what Tidbeck calls the fairy country. ‘When I was little,’ the narrator observes,

I could sit for hours looking out the window. It could be because of a certain kind of music, or because it was dusk, or a certain slant of the light. There was a sensation in my chest, a churning. I couldn’t put words to it then. But it was a knowledge that there was something out there. That there was a hole in the world. And a longing to go there. (p. 24)

The passage is packed with experiences that get echoed in other Tidbeck stories: the weird ‘churning’ in the protagonist’s chest, which for Vanja in Amatka can represent the grinding of the gears of the machinery of desire, curiosity, or fear – all sensations closely related to one another in the effect they have on her body, and all of them invoked by her discovery of the mysterious machine in the tunnels beneath the colony. The word ‘knowledge’ is used in this passage as it is in Amatka, to signify the consciousness that there are things unknown, lacunae worth locating and confronting, not glossing over; things, in fact, that may never get taxonomized in the official historical or scientific records. There is ‘longing’, here, too, for things unknown, as there is in the novel; and this word is worth pausing over. At the end of the English edition of Jagannath Tidbeck lists a number of words they could not translate from Swedish, and one of these is ‘vemod’ (related, I guess, to the German Wehmut, and akin to the Japanese concept of natsukashii as Erika Hobart describes it here [https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20200119-a-uniquely-japanese-take-on-nostalgia]). Of ‘vemod’ Tidbeck writes as follows: ‘think of it as a wistful sorrow about something that is over or a quiet longing for something else. As a friend of mine put it, “smiling through tears”’ (p. 155). I don’t know if vemod is the word used in the Swedish version of the passage from ‘Ove Lindström’ I just quoted, but the sensation Tidbeck describes here certainly ‘shines through’ her work in general, just as they claim it ‘shines through in much of our culture’. The woman in Le Guin’s story presumably feels it, that longing for ‘something else’ which has not yet come into being, but which is held in mind as wistfully and sorrowfully as something long past and irrecoverable.

Amatka also echoes another of Le Guin’s Utopias, her classic representation of anarchism The Dispossessed. The subtitle of that novel is ‘An Ambiguous Utopia’, and as we’ve seen, the title perfectly describes the colonies of Amatka.[15] Like Tidbeck’s novel, The Dispossessed is concerned with time that’s out of joint, and with a quest for knowledge, its protagonist being a physicist who wishes to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable principles of simultaneity and sequentiality – or to put it another way, of stasis and change. The anarchy of Anarres in The Dispossessed is both deeply attractive, in its commitment to absolute equality among its citizens, and riddled with corruption, like Amatka’s Central Committee. Words in The Dispossessed are always political: the colony speaks a tongue that was invented by its founders, intended to jettison possessive pronouns and hierarchical concepts, though certain words in it, such as the word for ‘egoizing’, can be used as tools of oppression by the more conservative colonists against those who seek knowledge they deem unnecessary, and therefore luxurious, wasteful, capitalistic.[16] In Amatka words are even more political, of course, shaping the world as they are spoken or inscribed. Its colonies are more communistic than anarchistic, reflecting Sweden’s long love-affair with socialism; several stories in Jagannath take place in ex-communes, such as ‘Some Letters for Ove Lindström’, which is full of vemod for an ‘old schoolhouse’ rented out to a ‘bunch of hairy communists from the city’ (p. 17), or ‘Reindeer Mountain’, which revolves around a family home inhabited by six identical reclusive uncles, or ‘Brita’s Holiday Village’, about a tourist destination that never took off which becomes home to a bizarre egalitarian community – most unnervingly egalitarian, perhaps, in its attitude to incestuous inter-generational sex. As in Anarres, Amatka’s children are raised collectively, while love between parents and children is tolerated but discouraged as a distraction from the most responsible form of love, which is for the community. Love between adults, too, comes under pressure in Amatka, as it does in Anarres, where couples must accept postings to separate workplaces in response to the needs of the collective or risk being branded ‘egoists’. Vanja finds love with the woman who puts her up when she first comes to Amatka; but unlike Vanja, Nina is wholly committed to the idea that the colonies represent the best of all possible worlds, and this leads her to betray her lover for what she considers the best of motives. Ambiguity, for Tidbeck as for Le Guin, is where we live, and any political ideology struggles to accommodate this fact as it seeks to form a habitat for its principles. Poetry, music, drama and the visual arts offer spaces where ambiguity can be embraced, but these spaces are always being policed by ideologues with no tolerance of or interest in its ubiquitous presence in human experience. Ambiguity may be everywhere, but acknowledgement of it is rare and vulnerable, always on the verge of being snuffed out, though capable of reasserting itself through, for instance, double meanings, dreams or inexplicable events.

The most moving form of ambiguity in Tidbeck’s work is that of the committed radical who finds it difficult to accommodate their personal needs to their political convictions. The socialist loner; the anarchist who requires a consistent daily schedule for their mental wellbeing; the lover more committed to their chosen partner than to the collective they love – or vice versa; the innovator with a passion for the past; a number of Tidbeck’s protagonists fall into one or more of these categories, and in consequence fail to find a place for themselves in any human community. Or rather, they drift in and out of human communities, always gravitating towards the peripheries of group activities or discussions, afflicted by their ability to see things from a radically different perspective to the one on which the group agrees. In ‘Some Letters for Ove Lindström’, ‘Mom’ spends a few years in a household of ‘starving activists’ but eventually wanders away, her reasons for staying and leaving equally opaque to friends and family. It is hinted that she may have ‘been through something difficult’ in the past – perhaps suffering at the hands of an abusive husband (Jagannath, p. 23) – but this doesn’t explain her disappearance from the place where she was welcomed and cherished. Similar rumours abound about great-grandmother Märet in ‘Reindeer Mountain’. On the one hand she may be one of the vittra, beings who look like humans ‘but taller and more handsome’, and who live inside mountains like the Irish Sidhe (Jagannath, p. 81); on the other she may have ‘had a hard life’ in some isolated human community, given her decision to ‘run away and never speak to her family again’ (p. 82). The protagonist of The Memory Theatre, a young girl called Dora, suffers from the after-effects of the abusive environment of the fairy gardens, where children are enslaved, abused and used as targets in violent games; yet she is not the same as the other children, both because of her parentage – part fairy, part vittra, which means she is taller and stronger than most – and because of her inclinations: she needs solitude as much as or more than company, and becomes distressed by excessive noise or action. Again, her needs may be ascribed either to her psychological make-up – it would be easy to place her somewhere on the autistic spectrum – or her supernatural origins, her literal roots in the stones and solitude of the Nordic mountains by way of her vittra ancestry. Tracing her needs to the supernatural liberates them from the discourse of (dis)ability, instead inviting attention to their specific attributes and their association with the nonhuman environment, the neglected wild spaces. At the end of her story, Dora chooses to return to those wild spaces despite her deep attachment to her adopted brother, Albin – a fellow victim of the gardens – and the eccentric company of supernatural players he elects to join, and of which she has briefly been a part. The dramatic cooperative known as the Memory Theatre is a true utopia for Albin, but for Dora its bustling, convivial atmosphere is in the end unbearable for more than a few months at a time. Becoming a stone among stones, a vittra among the calm and isolated vittras, is much more conducive to her true identity, the identity she was forced to jettison when she lived among the violent lords and ladies of fairy land.

Like Dora and perhaps Mom and Märet, Brilars’ Vanja is the victim of trauma: the trauma of her father’s arrest and murder for so-called crimes in which he implicated her as a child, and the trauma of having been forced to try to conceive children of her own which she did not want. Both forms of trauma set her apart from the community norm. Well-adjusted female colonists are expected to bear children – and to want to bear children – for the sake of the colony’s survival, while the crime for which her father was punished was that of privileging a quest for knowledge above the need to erase any knowledge that might harm the community – a crime Vanja too commits through her quest for Amatka’s past. Thanks to this double trauma she finds herself both inside and outside two social groups: that of the old colonies she was born into, and that of the revolutionary new colony established by Berols’ Anna on the mysterious steppes beyond the limits of the colonies. Vanja begins by behaving like a committed colonist, but becomes increasingly conscious of the damage sustained by individual colonists – such as her flatmate Ivar – thanks to the community’s unyielding stress on the needs of the collective over those of the individual. Like Le Guin’s maverick physicist Shevek in The Dispossessed, Vanja is a loner, unable to commit herself fully even to the tiny community of an apartment, or of a pair of lovers such as herself and Nina. She is always gravitating towards the outside of any given space in which she finds herself, aching for alternatives she doesn’t herself fully understand.

At the same time, Vanja is not wholly at one with the revolution she seeks to bring about.  Once Vanja has become conscious of the revolutionary movement in Amatka, she works tirelessly to bring it about; but the language of the revolutionaries, as spoken by Berols’ Anna when she finally meets her, confuses her. As Anna herself puts it, ‘The word… the language. Is too small’ (p. 195), unable to encompass the experience of absolute freedom, of being ‘everything’ in the new world beyond the colonies. Anna’s appearance as a revolutionary leader, too, makes her seem alien to Vanja – dazzling, more-than-human – while even her lover Nina, once she has joined the revolution, seems physically too much for her, as if ‘her body had become too small to contain her’ (p. 214). Instead of melding with one another, as some of the colonists do (a father, for instance, melds with the daughter he slapped, as if in homage to Vanja’s complex relationship with her own father), the lovers scorch each others’ lips when they kiss for the last time in the novel: ‘They burned. Blisters formed where their tongues met’ (p. 214). Even before this, the women’s relationship has often been painful, fraught with misunderstandings, punctuated by hurtful exchanges; the kiss may be taken as a metaphor for the nature of their love up until this moment. And at the point when the kiss takes place, Vanja’s tongue has already been disenfranchised from the post-revolutionary world. In punishment for her revolutionary activities, Amatka’s surgeons destroyed her speech centre, which means she will never make herself perfectly understood again, either to her lover or to the organic, sentient gloop out of which the new world will be sculpted. The blisters on her tongue, then, also represent her painful relationship with speech itself, with participatory communication, with membership of the community she has revolutionised. She has been stranded in the past, infantilized, condemned always to be the uncomprehending child who listens to her father’s urgent whispers in the dark. Even the expression of the revolutionaries’ love for her confirms this infantilization: ‘you will remain […] as you are, separate. But we will carry you. […] We will always carry you, little herald’ (p. 216). Few novels have an emotional high point as intense or multivalenced as this.

For me this is the great achievement of Tidbeck’s ambiguous Utopia: that it finds a way to comprehend, to celebrate and to mourn those revolutionaries who are constitutionally ill-fitted for participation in revolution. I suspect there are many such revolutionaries in the world: the fellow travellers who never joined the body of the revolutionary caravan, the non-party members who worked to further the party’s cause, while always uneasy about certain aspects of the doctrine it upheld; the communists who disliked communal living, the anarchists who yearned for order, the many, many partisans who only ever wanted peace and quiet. The actors in experimental theatre companies or LARP workshops whose passion for acting competes with their preference for self-effacement. Ambiguity can characterize one’s attitude to what one passionately believes in. Perhaps it always should. And there is no genre in which that idea could be better articulated than the weird hybrid of science fiction, fantasy, nonsense, fairy tale, surrealism and Live Action Role Play that comprises Amatka.

NOTES

[1] The interview can be found here.

[2] Tidbeck describes the process of writing Amatka in an interview for The Beat Blog, here. The process of writing The Memory Theatre is detailed in the BOMB magazine interview (see footnote 1).

[3] All quotations from Amatka are taken from the Vintage Books edition of 2017.

[4] ‘As for language, I have always been enamored with different languages and the musical sound of words. Language is what makes the world, it changes how we see the world; in the novel, language and sound are pure magic. I’ve studied six languages all in all, so the love for languages will always be threaded through my writing.’ https://bombmagazine.org/articles/karin-tidbeck-interviewed/

[5] Jagannath (New York: Vintage, 2018), ‘Afterword: Transposing Worlds’, p. 152. All quotes from Jagannath refer to this edition.

[6] Other clothes that don’t fit include the outsized medical overalls Vanja borrows from the hospital supplies (as her friend Nina comments, ‘The important thing is they’re not tight across your bottom. That could make lifting patients embarrassing’ [p. 48]). The dissident librarian Evgen meets Vanja at one point ‘buttoned into an enormous overcoat with a thick collar’ (p. 106), as if to hide his radical tendencies from hostile eyes, while surgically damaged political prisoners wear ‘torn and dirty overalls’, as if to reinforce their outcast status (p. 115). Ivar expresses his sense of having been betrayed by his community by removing his outer clothes and setting himself adrift in a freezing lake. Proximity to your friends, meanwhile, gets expressed in Amatka through intimacy with their clothing. After Ivar’s suicide his best friend Nina wears one of his sweaters and sleeps in his bed, face buried in his pillow (p. 162), thereby prolonging his presence in her life beyond his death; and before this Vanja finds solace when she is separated from her lover by ‘resting her nose on the sleeve of her sleep shirt’ and breathing in ‘the scent it had absorbed from Nina’ (p. 103). Clothes conceal and protect, in other words, but they also reinforce deep connections between their wearers.

[7] Jagannath, Afterword, p. 154.

[8] The mention of Lagerlöf’s novel can be found in The Memory Theater (New York: Pantheon Books, 2021) at p. 135.

[9] ‘The Swedish [version of Amatka] has no metaphors, or synonyms, or homonyms, because it’s not part of the Swedish language. Since they were “forbidden” in the book, I had to write them out of the [English] prose as well.’ (I may have misunderstood this statement of Tidbeck’s!) https://www.comicsbeat.com/sdcc-17-interview-author-karin-tidbeck-uncovers-the-dreamlike-storyline-of-amatka/.

[10] See the ‘Edict: Name Usage’, Amatka, p. 199.

[11] Jagannath, pp. 113-124.

[12] Jagannath, pp. 125-133.

[13] The Complete Illustrated Works of Lewis Carroll (London: Chancellor Press, 1986), p. 69.

[14] Ursula K. Le Guin, Always Coming Home (London etc.: Grafton Books, 1988), p. 154.

[15] Ursula K. Le Guin, Hainish Novels and Stories, ed. Brian Attebery, The Library of America, 2 vols. (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2017), vol. 1, p. 613.

[16] See Le Guin, Hainish Novels, vol 1, pp. 640-641.

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.

The Mountain Orchestra

When the villagers began the long toil up the mountainside they carried their houses on their backs like hermit crabs. Hampers, boxes, handbags, cupboards, tables and chairs seemed to have developed spindly legs and a taste for exercise, reeling along from bend to bend of the well-worn path as their owners struggled to outpace the bandits of Bist and Flumm, with their well-known thirst for gold and blood and delicate china. Half-way up the first steep slope the bandits caught them – as Granny Small had said they would – and at once the villagers let fall their burdens to protect their bodies. Chairs, kettles and mattresses rolled away down the spongy slope to fetch up against rocks or tumble into the burn. Soon the burn’s irregular staircase of ice-rimmed pools began to sprout long wavering strings of pale pink weed wherever the villagers’ blood spilled into it in rivulets and gobbets.

They had driven off the first attack and were about to retrieve their bundles when the old man called out: ‘Let them lie. It’s not often you get the excuse to throw out old rubbish. There’ll be better things on the other side of the mountain!’ So they left their kettles and mattresses littering the hillside, to act as an informal open-air reception room for sheep and wrens, and resumed their climb. But the little girl had already guessed that the old man had not been talking about pots and pans. In the attack he had received an ugly gash in the side from a bandit’s curtle-axe, and his feeble attempt to ward it off had resulted only in the smashing of the last of the Rebus violins. For a little while after that the old man had sat on a pile of sheep-droppings with blood and water soaking his trousers and let a tear roll down each cheek in tribute to the instrument. The little girl thought they must be carefully regulated tears, since he had always said you should allow two tears for every sad occasion: one for sorrow at your loss, the other for joy at the gift of life that allowed you to weep despite your losses.

He left the violin on the slope along with his favourite whisky glass – now smashed – and the mortal remains of Granny Small. The oldest woman in the village had died as she said she would, not of a curtle-axe wound but of a heart attack brought on by trying to brain a bandit with a lump of granite. For a long time as they climbed her thin shrill voice kept chattering on at them to hurry up; they were quite relieved when it died away, drifting off like a cricket’s chorus on a mountain breeze.

At one point the little girl and the old man took a rest on a tumbledown wall and looked back the way they had come. A feather of smoke unfurled from the village by the lake and the little girl fancied she could smell the scent of wood-ash on the wind. ‘Well, at least the houses are getting fumigated,’ the old man said; but the little girl was already shedding a good many more than the two small tears he recommended. They just kept welling out of her head like a burn from the side of a rain-drenched mountain. She finally stopped crying from sheer surprise that her head could be so full of water.

A little higher up they reached a stretch of level ground where the mountain path lost all definition in the sheep-cropped turf. At once the fog dropped down on them with what might have been a silent shout of laughter. Within seconds droplets formed in the girl’s brown hair and gleamed like eyes in the old man’s bristling eyebrows. Hills and mountain-ranges of fog rushed past at enormous speed, driven on by a wind that cut their flesh to the bone. The villagers forgot their fear that the bandits would follow them; instead they trembled because the ground beneath their feet was getting narrower, and the crags dropped into nothingness on either side. The wind tried to pluck them from the mountainside like an oystercatcher pecking at the shell of a stubborn mussel.

The little girl trembled with the rest but for a different reason. She was afraid of the Beast that lived among the mountains and left stories like bloody limbs littering the slopes for miles around. The old man patted her cheek and assured her that the Beast was far too large to bother with prey as insignificant as little girls. ‘Besides,’ he said, ‘it’s fast asleep. Can’t you hear it snoring like the waves on a far-off shore?’ The little girl nodded but kept looking behind her uneasily. She could hear the waves on the shore whenever the wind dropped, but they sounded nothing at all like a monster snoring.

All the same, she was glad of the old man’s aimless prattle as he leaned on her shoulder. Although his weight was sometimes painful, she felt as though he were pulling her up the mountain instead of the other way round. ‘All my life I’ve wanted to visit these mountains,’ he panted. ‘It took an attack of bandits to get me up, and it’ll take a band of angels to get me down.’ By the time they reached the bottom of a slope of scree that swept up before them like a frozen wave into a foggy void, the rest of the villagers had disappeared. ‘You’re my guardian angel,’ the old man said, but it was he who pointed out where the little girl should set her feet. He seemed so sure of the way that it came as no surprise when they found themselves at the mouth of a cave, peering into the darkness to make sure there were no Beasts inside. At last they crawled through the narrow entrance, and at once the shriek of the wind dropped down to a whisper, as suddenly as if a door had shut behind them. From then on they only heard it from time to time, wailing disconsolately outside as if bereft of prey.

The cave seemed to run deep into the mountainside. At every movement echoes scuttled off and vanished into the stone entrails of the earth. But the roof was so low that the old man had crawled only a few yards before his head struck rock and he collapsed. He lay on his back as he had fallen, his head propped against the wall, his hands palm upwards by his sides. Every so often a breath escaped him in a little feather of smoke. The little girl curled up in the crook of his arm and busied herself with trying to forget about the Beast. Together they waited for night to enter the cave.

After a while the old man noticed that there was another old man lying beside him, whose breath likewise came in little feathers of smoke. He wore a tail-coat with fraying cuffs and a dirty white tie, and his face was as pale as his shirt-front except for a hint of yellow in the cheeks. The old man saw at once that the stranger was as sick as himself. He gave a chuckle at their shared predicament, then winced at the pain in his injured side.

‘We make a fine pair, I must say,’ he observed.

‘Eh?’ said the stranger, contorting his body to see who had spoken. ‘What’s that? Who’s there?’

‘Can’t you see me?’ asked the old man.

‘Indeed not,’ said the stranger. ‘You’re too strong, too alive. You’ll have to be a good deal closer to death’s door than that before I can see you.’

‘Is this better?’ asked the old man, moving a little closer to death’s door.

‘Yes, much,’ said the stranger, and twisted round to look at him closely. He had very bright eyes in deep sockets, as though he hadn’t eaten for a hundred and fifty-seven years and would stop at nothing for a scrap to feed on.

‘What’s that at your elbow, all wrapped up?’ he asked, nodding at the bundle.

‘It’s the ghost of my violin,’ replied the old man. ‘A genuine Rebus. I was clumsy enough to break it in a recent scuffle.’

‘That’s not all you broke, is it?’ the stranger said with a glance at the old man’s wound and a nasty grin. To his own surprise the old man felt insulted that such a sorry specimen should criticize the state of his body. It had served him for many years and he suddenly had a nostalgic affection for its failing organs. But before he could retort the stranger gave a sudden groan and started to writhe like an angry snake. It seemed he was trying to raise himself on one elbow.

‘So you’re a musician?’ the stranger gasped when at last he succeeded. ‘What a stroke of luck! I’ve been waiting for one of those for many years. You see, I too am a musician. My name is Colossus Retch. I expect you’ve heard of me.’

‘I’m sorry, Mr Retch,’ said the old man. ‘We don’t hear much about modern music in the village by the lake. It’ll be different, I expect, when we reach the other side of the mountain.’

‘That’s DOCTOR Retch,’ the stranger snapped, ‘and my music is NOT modern.’

The old man didn’t hear him, because the little girl had sat up at the sound of voices and asked him who he was talking to. He said no-one and gave her a smile, which she put away at once and kept in a secret place for the rest of her life. She gave him a dazzling smile of her own in return, then took out an old linen handkerchief and started to wipe the blood from his forehead with gentle strokes.

The gentle movement drove everything else out of the old man’s mind. He had just managed to doze off when something buzzed in his ear and woke him up. It sounded like ‘A temporary pause’.

‘I beg your pardon?’ he murmured.

‘Nothing,’ said the little girl, still wiping.

‘I said, O tempora, O mors,’ the stranger said. He too had sat up and was looking much more sprightly. From nowhere he produced a large earthenware jug and poured himself a cup of something that emitted huge gushes of steam. A spicy fragrance filled the cave. Even the little girl felt the warmth invade her nostrils, steal down the back of her throat and invade her lungs, whence it spread throughout her body. The old man’s mouth began to water, and went on watering till he feared he would begin to drool.

‘Sorry I can’t let you have any,’ said the stranger. ‘This is Spirituous Liquor, strictly forbidden to anyone under the age of death.’ He sat back with an exaggerated sigh of contentment which brought back all the old man’s initial loathing of him. For a while all that could be heard were his appreciative slurps and the rumbling of the old man’s belly.

After some time Colossus Retch began to speak again. ‘Let me tell you about myself,’ he suggested. ‘Or at least about my posthumous self. You wouldn’t care to hear the details of my earthly life. Decidedly sordid, I’m afraid!’

He took another sip of the liquor. As he did so the old man saw his teeth flash in one of those grins that seemed to signal some private amusement, forever barred to the uninitiated such as the old man and the little girl. All at once the old man felt certain that if he let the stranger continue he would find himself trapped, forced to repeat some mechanical motion over and over again in the eerie solitude of the mountains. He opened his mouth in an attempt to protest, but his tongue remained frozen to the roof of his mouth as if rendered useless by some numbing potion or poisonous gas.

‘For a hundred and fifty-seven years,’ the stranger said, ‘I have had the honour of being the conductor of the Mountain Orchestra. I see your eyes light up in recognition –’ (they had done nothing of the kind) ‘– as well they might. The Mountain Orchestra, you exclaim, that melodious muster of master musicians, that band of lonely virtuosi collectively conjoined in their determination to subdue the chaos of this savage world with the staves of harmony! Believe it or not, before my time they were no more harmonious than a roomful of angry gibbons. Some of them couldn’t read music, some of them held their instruments upside down, not one of them could tie a bow tie without assistance or fasten a cufflink. But with time and patience and liberal lashings of raw talent I managed to shape them against all odds into a passable resemblance of a real live orchestra. The Mountain Orchestra, my friend, was shaped from my posthumous blood and sweat and tears, I say this without exaggeration. You may congratulate me if you like.’ And the stranger blew his nose on the filthy sleeve of his tail-coat.

At this point a gust of wind blundered into the cave and buffeted its way from wall to wall. A burst of music seemed to be released each time it struck a surface. The old man shivered and turned towards the entrance, laying his hand on the head of the girl which had slowly drooped until it was resting on his knee. Outside, the fog still glowed with a greenish light as it always does for an hour or so after the sun has set. With a start the old man saw that the Mountain Orchestra had taken its seats in the void beyond: rank on rank of see-through musicians fading away into the foggy distance. Each musician had indistinct features, but they held their heads at a certain angle that conveyed a sense of implacable resolution in the teeth of adversity. Each musician was smartly attired in evening dress made of mist and cobwebs.

The old man found his voice again. ‘Do you have repertoire?’ he asked weakly.

The stranger gave a modest cough. ‘We do indeed,’ he answered. ‘A repertoire curated by myself in response to the special needs and challenges of our orchestral purpose. Most of what we play is music,’ he went on, nodding his head as he warmed to his subject, ‘although alas it has not always been recognised as such. Winds, fogs, planetary movements, ghost sonatas; anything insubstantial really. Water music is a speciality; our performances of burns, brooks, becks, and the ripples on highland lochans are justly celebrated. You may know the Incoming Tide by Moonlight? An old composition of my own, I’m happy to say. But my time with the Mountain Orchestra draws to a close. I am looking beyond, so to speak, to new horizons and fresh challenges: spiritual compositions for the most part, though I may try my hand at nullity, loss and irremediable absence. And here you are, a fiddler emerging out of the fog as if by Divine Decree, perfectly qualified to fill the vacancy. How would you like to be my successor? How would you like, my friend, to lead the Mountain Orchestra in my place? Does the prospect thrill you?’

While he discussed his music the stranger’s face had taken on a wistful air. The lines of suffering scored on his brow had disappeared and his large eyes swam like mountain pools in the wake of a storm. But now he leaned forward with disconcerting suddenness and resumed his expression of wolfish hunger. His teeth and eyes were almost too bright to look at. The old man would have recoiled if he had been able to move his body as well as his head.

‘Well now,’ he said in alarm. ‘I’ll need to know a good deal more about the job before I accept it. What’s the pay like? Who do we play for? What are the perks?’

‘The pay,’ the stranger repeated scornfully. ‘The perks. Let me see. A weekly wage in pain and frustration, a lamentable lack of understanding from the general public, all the Spirituous Liquor you can drink and a captive audience. Will that do?’

‘I’ve known worse deals,’ the old man observed. ‘A captive audience, you say. Who are they?’

‘I’d have thought you’d know all about that, since you’re such an expert on the Beast,’ the stranger said. ‘The audience is here. You’re in one of its ears.’

The old man gave a start which woke the girl from a dream about animated furniture. He soothed her by stroking her hair while every nerve in his body strained to detect some other sign of life inside the cave. The stranger’s voice droned on regardless.

‘Yours will be one of the highest and loneliest destinies in the profession. Night and day, year in and year out, the Mountain Orchestra delivers performances of genius to no other audience than the Beast of the Martoc Mountains. As you know, the Beast has lain dormant under these mountains for many centuries. Your job will be to make sure it goes on sleeping undisturbed.’

‘I haven’t accepted yet,’ the old man interposed. ‘It doesn’t sound like much of a challenge to me. You mean to say that the Mountain Orchestra acts as a kind of musical rattle to keep an oversized baby quiet?’

‘That’s not what I mean at all,’ snarled the impresario. ‘You clearly haven’t grasped the seriousness of the situation. Once not so long ago the Beast almost woke up; it opened one eye and breathed out through one of its nostrils. That was what brought about the Age of Ash. It happened because my predecessor’s fingers got so numb he dropped the baton in Loch Tothel. I trust you’re not prone to numbness in the fingers? He spent seven hours trying to fish it out with a piece of string tied round a stone. Eventually it was brought to him by the Tothel Carp, but by then the damage was done. Not a living thing was left on the surface of the earth within five hundred miles of the Martoc Mountains: nothing but ash and bone and a few charred twigs. When he saw what he’d done my predecessor went mad and impaled himself on Cardothen Crag. You can still hear his shrieks when the wind blows north-north-west.’

The old man listened, but he could no longer hear the wind. He could not even hear the little girl’s breathing or feel her warmth against his ribs. Unobtrusively the stranger’s voice had carried him onto another plane of existence. The painful squeaks and wails as the Mountain Orchestra tuned their instruments made the stone floor beneath his fingertips vibrate.

‘My own posthumous career has been more successful,’ observed the stranger, and his eyes took on the wistful expression they held when he talked about his art. ‘I began my reign as conductor with a simple funeral march for all the lost souls. You know the sort of thing, a lot of cold stars and blowing dust, nothing too complex for my newly-trained musicians. Little by little we progressed to something more complex: a green bud here or there pushing out of the ashes, a solitary bird sitting on a dead branch. Cellos and bassoons hinted at stirrings in the earth as it quickened towards new life. Piccolos monitored the movements of approaching rainclouds. I’ll never forget the moment when we launched into a fully-fledged allegro maestoso to celebrate the rebirth of Spring. Since then – well, to tell the truth I’ve never recaptured that moment of glory. The triumphal march of returning life was the overture, as I see it now, for my career’s decline and fall. We’ve had our ups and downs since then, wrong notes, fluffed passages, entire compositions played out of tune or back to front. And I’ve been getting very tired in recent years. I’m sorry for what happened to your lakeside village; I fell asleep at about the seventeen millionth bar of the Peace Pavane and the Beast must have twitched in its sleep. I woke up in the cave this morning, so stiff I couldn’t move a muscle. Fortunately the Mountain Orchestra has filled the gap with some courageous improvisation, despite their lack of experience in such matters. Nevertheless, I think the time has come when I must cede my baton to my successor. And here you are, ready and waiting to step onto the podium at the moment of need. The question is: will you take up the challenge?’

The stranger’s voice had got steadily fainter as he talked. When the old man looked at him again he saw to his horror that his legs had vanished from the knees downwards and his eyes had lost their light. He seemed to be gazing at some scene beyond the cave wall. The old man watched and listened intently, hoping for some clue as to what that scene might be. All he could see, however, was darkness, all he could hear the flutter of his heart, the steady breathing of the little girl, the murmur of the blood-tide in his eardrums. Or was it the clatter of cutlery on silver plates and the murmur of voices against a background of gentle music, somewhere deep in the heart of the mountain? For a moment he could not tell.

‘Wait, wait!’ he cried in panic. ‘I’m not qualified at all! I’m only a humble violinist! Shouldn’t the conductor of the Mountain Orchestra be a celebrated musician like yourself?’

The stranger gave a ghost of his nasty grin. ‘Don’t kid yourself,’ he said. ‘I was no celebrated musician in my lifetime. I hung around at street corners turning the handle of a barrel organ and leering horribly at passers by. They would pay to make me stop leering. Sordid, I tell you! No, the Beast can’t tell an orchestra from a one man band. There’s nothing to worry about. Conducting’s easy; it’s merely a question of bobbing up and down with a little white stick to keep the musicians awake. Anything more is just a matter of pride. Start with something nice and simple like the grass growing, daylight filtering into the cave, or fish asleep in a forgotten pool at the mountain’s roots. You’ll have moved on to thunderstorms and the dawn chorus before you know it. And how about throwing in a violin fantasia from time to time seeing you’re a fiddle player? Everyone loves the screech of the highest note on a G string.’ And he leered again, even as his body was disappearing right up to his lapels.

‘Wait, wait!’ the old man cried again. ‘How can I be sure the Beast will stay asleep? And who are you anyway? How do I know you’re telling the truth?’

‘You can’t; you don’t,’ said the former conductor of the Mountain Orchestra. ‘And now goodbye. I’m due a hundred and fifty-seven years’ back payment of Eternal Reward.’ With that he vanished completely. For a moment it was as if a curtain of rock had been twitched aside. A colourful ball of jazz music bounced through the cave and out into the night, followed by a rich smell of roast meat and a mechanical canary. For the last time the old man called out, ‘Wait!’, but the cry only emphasized its own futility. He did not doubt that Dr Colossus Retch had already taken his first mouthful of everlasting soup.

‘It’s all right, I’m not going anywhere,’ said the little girl, waking up at the sound of his voice and taking his right hand. ‘But it’s so cold in here I think we’ll die.’

In the feeble light of a mountain dawn, the old man tried to examine her cheeks and pale cracked lips for signs of hypothermia, but soon he found that his aching eyes would not focus on her face. In fact he could see the front row of the Mountain Orchestra through her chest. She was fading from his sight, and other things in the cave were becoming visible. A carpet of luminous weeds decorated the floor, a curious chair stood in one corner, and Granny Small, about the size of a shrimp, was peering at him from a nook in the ceiling. He noticed a slender white stick on the carpet by his violin and flexed his right hand, ready to pick it up. Even as he rejoiced in the flow of blood to the fingertips he was aware that for the little girl they remained as cold and still as granite.

‘You won’t die, my dear,’ he told her, making a determined effort to use his tongue instead of his mind. ‘But I must go. I’ve just been offered a job with the Mountain Orchestra; an important job which begins at once; I really can’t say no. You’ll be musician for the village now. You’ll be magnificent.’

‘Me?’ cried the little girl. ‘But I’m not good enough! I don’t play anything!’

‘You’ve got your voice,’ the old man pointed out, ‘and you know all the songs. Will you sing to me now?’

The little girl couldn’t hear what he said, but she decided to sing for him anyway, partly because she thought he would like it, partly to see if her voice would do instead of a violin, and partly to stop herself thinking about the Beast, which had started to prey on her thoughts again as soon as she woke. That was how she pictured the scene years later: herself kneeling by the old man’s side with his hand in hers, music trailing out of her mouth in a silver thread as long and strong as a piece of twine spun by Granny Small. As the thread got longer it grew in size, bouncing off the walls deep down inside the tunnel at the back of the cave, lengthening and thickening until it became a clashing chain of notes, both sweet and harsh, as though the mountain itself were singing. After a while she stopped because the sound had started to scare her, but it continued to ring in the caves of her ears for a long time after.

The old man stood up with a sigh and stretched till his backbone cracked. Then he strode to the mouth of the cave with determined strides. He found he was wearing the stranger’s tail-coat with the fraying cuffs and the musty smell. It was too small for him, but now he remembered it hadn’t fit the stranger either. Underneath he still wore his own shirt, stiff with sweat and blood. ‘They could at least have provided a clean white shirt-front,’ he told himself irritably.

Before going out he took one look behind him to make sure he had left some suitable remains to keep the little girl company. He was shocked at how ill the corpse looked. The little girl had dropped off back to sleep in the crook of its arm.

With some difficulty he clambered up on his rostrum; each leg seemed to sink through each step to the height of his knee. By the time he reached the top he was submerged in fog to hip level and still sinking; at this rate, he thought, he would vanish into the abyss before he’d had a chance to lift the baton for the very first time. But then a flurry of clapping broke out among the violins, taken up with ghostly enthusiasm by the rest of the players. He rose a little, then rose some more when the cellists cheered. The old man graced them with a small, stiff bow, and when he straightened found that his feet were firmly planted on the boards of the rostrum. He struck the top with his little white stick to test its solidity. It gave out a satisfying clack, and the musicians’ eyes opened wide in anticipation. He smiled encouragingly – for his own sake as much as for theirs – and raised the baton.

‘Now then, ladies and gentlemen,’ he said. ‘Let’s see what you’ve got.’

The little girl didn’t notice that the old man had died until the villagers found her curled up beside him the following morning. They buried him under a pile of rocks near the mouth of the cave. Then they walked on over the mountain, carrying the little girl with them on a worn-out armchair and accompanied all the way by a wicked wind. They found many things on the other side: things Granny Small had led them to expect and things she hadn’t mentioned; wanderings in woods and rests by rivers; cities full of noise and pain and the bright clean city where they made their home. By that time the little girl had grown up into a tall strong woman and her voice had grown to the size and strength of the mountain voice she had heard in the cave when she sang to the old man. Old and young men vied for her hand, and a musician won it.

But years later the woman wandered out into the city gardens and up onto the ramparts. As the fog rose out of the woods her mind wandered away to the distant mountains. She had often told the story of the old man’s death, sometimes taking out the smile he had given her, polishing it on her skirt and passing it round among her listeners. With the passing time she embroidered the story as he would have done himself. She insisted that he was still making music in the mountains, conducting a ghostly assembly of musicians called the Mountain Orchestra, who played till their bones ached and their insubstantial heads rang to make sure that the Beast stayed fast asleep. She said that if you listened hard enough you could sometimes hear soaring above the strains of the mountain wind and the chattering burns the silver thread of melody spun by the last of the Rebus violins. She prayed that the old man was not prone to numbness in the fingers.

One thing she had recently added to the story. Was it not possible, she would ask, that with time and the Orchestra’s diligent playing the nature of the Beast would begin to change? That the baroque musical architecture which she knew the old man favoured would enter its skull and impose a gentler structure on its savagery? Was it foolish to hope that next time the Beast stirred in its sleep it wouldn’t reduce the forests and villages to ash, but would instead murmur one of the Mountain Orchestra’s melodies back at them, as the mountain had done on the night she sang the old man out of this life and into the next?

The night laid cold dark hands on the woman’s face, and she let a carefully regulated tear roll down each cheek. One for sorrow, one for joy.

 

Richard Hughes, A High Wind in Jamaica (1929) and The Spider’s Palace (1931)

[I was introduced to A High Wind in Jamaica by my high school history teacher, Dick Woollett, in the late 1970s. This post is dedicated to him. Warning: it contains references to subjects readers may find upsetting.]

Two of my recent posts looked at Lord Dunsany’s Irish fiction, which is rarely considered fantasy. In them I argued that all three of the novels I discussed were directly preoccupied with the way the ‘real’ world is dominated by the fantasies of its inhabitants, and that they could therefore be said to address fantasy directly as an integral part of Irish life in the 1930s. This does not make them fantasies as we usually understand the term, of course, since nothing fantastic is said to have happened in them – apart from the rising of an Irish peat bog against its industrial exploiters in The Curse of the Wise Woman (1933). But it suggests that the discussion of fantasy might benefit from being opened out a little, to reflect on the way the genre or mode exerts a gravitational pull on other kinds of narrative. The period between the wars is full of examples of ‘realist’ texts with fairy tales and fantasies embedded in them, as a means of identifying something crucial about contemporary culture and politics. Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust (1935), with its riffs on the Arthurian legends, examines the impact on masculinity of the Great War and the rise of capitalism, as well as the flagging potency of Victorian ideas in the age of Modernity. Waugh’s novel takes its title from Eliot’s Modernist masterpiece The Waste Land (1922), which also embeds Arthurian legend – reduced to broken verbal fragments, emblems of the fragments left of old certainties after the War – in the English landscape, pointing forward to the successive engagements with Arthurian narratives by Tolkien (who planned for a while to retell those tales as a myth for modern England), T. H. White (in the series of novels that became The Once and Future King), Charles Williams (in his poetry sequence Taliessin Through Logres) and C. S. Lewis (in That Hideous Strength). Meanwhile, the first section of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), ‘The Window’, centres on a mother reading a fairy tale to her son – the story of the Fisherman and his Wife, from the Household Tales of the brothers Grimm – which draws out the book’s concern with problems of communication between men and women as embodied in the Hebridean island where the action takes place, surrounded as it is by the severing sea. There’s a story to be told, I think, about the dialogue between the fantastic and the realistic at a time when fantasy was coming into its own as a distinct way of writing; and this story might help us account for the complex dialogue between the modes embedded in fantasy narratives of the 1950s, from The Lord of the Rings to the Narnian chronicles and the Borrowers books.

This post, too, is dedicated to a work of fiction that addresses the relationship between fantasy and the ‘real’ world: Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica (1929). On the strength of his novel’s immense popularity between the wars, Hughes is often described as one of the most influential writers on childhood in the twentieth century. High Wind is said to have influenced Golding’s The Lord of the Flies (1954) in its debunking of the Victorian cult of the child, its merciless dissection of the myth of childhood innocence. What isn’t often mentioned, though, is that Hughes also wrote fine fantastic stories for children, and that one collection of these stories, The Spider’s Palace and Other Stories (1931), came out just two years after High Wind was published. High Wind self-consciously adopts an adult perspective on children’s thoughts and actions, narrated as it is by a sardonic Victorian commentator. The Spider’s Palace gives us direct access to the children’s imaginative world, makes us natives of it, so to speak. Setting the books side by side paints an arresting picture, I think, of Hughes’s ambivalent attitude to fantasy as it manifests itself in two different age groups: young children and adults. For Hughes, fantasy dominates the lives of adults as well as children, and in both cases this domination can be playful, seductive and lethal. In saying so he marks the radical break that has taken place between his own lifetime, on this side of the Great War, and the supposedly halcyon days of the British Empire in the middle years of the nineteenth century, when the Empire throve on waking dreams of power, order, racism, class divisions and segregation between the sexes, and when the so-called Golden Age of children’s fiction was in full flood. But he also points the way to a recognition of how the invasion of the ‘real world’ by murderous fantasies like those of fascism, which was taking place as he wrote his book, had roots in the Victorian culture of his own country.

Anarchy

The Spider’s Palace is one of the oddest children’s books from a decade of often highly experimental children’s writing. The 1930s, after all, saw the publication of Mary Poppins (1934), The Hobbit (1937), The Sword in the Stone (1938), J. B. S. Haldane’s scientific extravaganza My Friend Mr. Leakey (1937), and the radical Irish fantasies of Patricia Lynch such as The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey (1934) and The Grey Goose of Kilnevin (1939); but each of these narratives is profoundly comforting in comparison with Hughes’s bizarre collection. Described in some editions as a book of ‘modern fairy stories’, the collection dedicates itself to undermining the reader’s sense that they know what fairy stories are. The style is the most fairy-story thing about them, as terse as the language used by Joseph Jacobs or Andrew Lang, a thousand miles from the lyrical flourishes of Hans Christian Andersen or George MacDonald. The narratives are anarchic; anything at all can happen in them, and there’s simply no knowing how a story will end. At the end of the decade, Tolkien argued that fairy stories need to close with a eucatastrophe, a sense of something having been satisfactorily completed – as invoked by the famous formula ‘they lived happily ever after’. When Hughes obliquely refers to that formula, it becomes a source of strangeness as intense as a surrealist painting. In one story, for instance, a prematurely aged gardener (who works so hard he only gets one hour’s sleep a night) decides to chase an equally aged rabbit out of his garden – as if a minor character from Alice in Wonderland had decided to rebel against the monarchist system by tracking down the royal herald and subjecting it to vigilante justice. The rabbit is too fast for him, so the gardener decides to taste some of the rose leaves it has been eating, instead of cultivating or painting the roses like the obedient gardeners in Alice. On eating the leaves he finds that they make him young again, which enables him to chase the rabbit all the way to its burrow, where it has imprisoned twenty or thirty white elephants, which the gardener liberates by strangling the rabbit. The story ends with a ‘happy ever after’ that goes like this:

Now that he had all these white elephants the gardener, of course, was rich, and didn’t have to work in the garden any more. Instead he had a small but comfortable house for himself, and a perfectly enormous stable for all the white elephants: and there they lived happily together for ever after: and this was the strange thing, that though when the rabbit had eaten the rose leaf it had only made him young for one night, when the gardener ate his it made him young for ever, so that he never grew old again at all. (p. 37)

Expensive and useless things, which is the traditional definition of a white elephant, define their possessors as wealthy – and in this story they seem to attract riches to them by simply existing; but the gardener seems as egalitarian in the use of his riches as Hughes is in choosing an elderly gardener as his protagonist, providing the animals and himself with homes that are strictly proportionate to their needs. The ‘strange thing’ in the story, however, is not the gardener’s decision to set up a household with thirty elephants, or the rabbit’s transformation in its final fight with the gardener into a monster with fiery eyes and teeth like a tiger’s, or even the rose’s rejuvenating qualities, but the fact that the rose leaves do not work in the same way for the gardener as they did for the rabbit: the rabbit was only made young for a night, but the man remained young for ever, ‘so that he never grew old […] at all’. That, of course, is the literal meaning of ‘they lived happily ever after’; but it takes Richard Hughes to make the formula strange again by allowing it to work for some people in his story world but not for others. Something like this happens in conventional fairy stories, too – the villain never gets to live happily ever after, the hero always does – but Hughes points up the disparity by having both hero and villain consume the same magical food, and experience different results from its consumption. An imaginative tale that breaks its own rules is utterly unlike the traditional magic tale, which explains exactly how a spell or magic object operates and makes sure that this is how it works from beginning to end. Hughes’s fairy tales are full of such instances of rules that get broken arbitrarily – and in doing so they transplant their readers to a far more dangerous imaginative zone than the one they are familiar with from the fairy tale collections of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The happy-ever-after gets broken more disturbingly in the story of the title, ‘The Spider’s Palace’. In it a little girl gets invited home by a friendly spider, awaking echoes in the reader’s mind of the story of Bluebeard (will she be murdered like a fly?), or Beauty and the Beast, or Cupid and Psyche. The Bluebeard analogy comes closest at first, since the spider’s airborne palace is wholly transparent apart from one room, into which the spider creeps for an hour each day. The girl enjoys her time there, playing in clouds which support her weight, taking pleasure in the spider’s company; but of course she is desperately curious to find out what he does in the hidden room; and when she hides in the room one day she sees him change into a handsome prince, a shape he retains throughout the hour of his concealment. Once the transformation has been witnessed the spell is broken, and from that moment the spider ceases to be a spider, his see-through residence becomes a conventional palace on the ground, and the little girl and the handsome prince go on living together as if nothing has happened. Neither the prince nor the girl, we’re told, ever mentions the change in their living conditions that has taken place. But this is no Tolkienian eucatastrophe. The girl goes on hankering after the days when she lived in an airborne, see-through palace, where she could play among the clouds and do what she liked. Living with a prince in a conventional palace is just no substitute for living with a spider in its magical web. In this story the traditional fairy tale loses its loveliness and an altogether stranger narrative takes its place. It is both a challenge to the usual assumptions about fairy tales – that the conventional forms of happiness they contain will appeal to their readers – and an accurate summary of the reader’s feelings at the end of the story of Beauty and the Beast, which is that life in an ordinary marriage (even a fairy tale one) is not a patch on life in an enchanted castle with a mournful, mysterious, possibly murderous monster (at least, in the context of a story).

Other stories in the collection add further twists to Hughes’s demolition of the Tolkienian eucatastrophe. A little girl who can travel down telephone lines escapes her unpleasant step-parents and gets herself adopted by a strange couple, who have phoned her house by mistake and so inadvertently granted her access to their home. But she tyrannizes over the couple, taking over room after room in their house until they have only an attic left to live in, and later forcing them to remove the roof so she can let off fireworks in her room. Luckily the couple have a friend with a magic rocket; the little girl sets the rocket off on Bonfire Night and it promptly carries her back to her neglectful step-parents, where she lives unhappily ever after on a diet of silence, tapioca pudding and cold mutton. The theme of awkward cohabitation within an unevenly divided domestic space is further developed in the story ‘Inhaling’, in which two small children are given a mysterious substance by a huge policeman. The substance has the property of making things grow to giant proportions, like the Food of the Gods in Wells’s novel, and the two children turn into giants when they pour it into their bath and inhale the steam. Meanwhile the steam also affects their nurse and their father to different extents, while their mother – who inhales nothing – remains the same size. As a result, the mismatched family has to construct a strange new house as experimental as anything by a modernist architect: ‘The nursery, of course, was enormous,’ Hughes explains, ‘Then came the study for their father, that was just about double size […] But the poor little mother had just an ordinary-size drawing-room and bedroom, and had to be ever so careful, when she went into the nursery, that the children didn’t tread on her’ (p. 120). The over-sized nurse, meanwhile, is simply sent away as an inconvenience. As a model of a domestic hierarchy the household is as disturbing as it is strange, and Hughes gives no hint that the situation will ever change. Magical restorations of things to their proper proportions don’t always happen in his fairy tale landscape, any more than they do in the ‘real’ world the child reader will inherit.

The collection ends with two of Hughes’s most unsettling non-happy-endings. In ‘The Old Queen’ the titular monarch is granted the gift of eternal life, but her beloved husband is not, with the result that after his death she is left in dreary solitude in her palace, ‘reigning and reigning’ for ever after without hope of closure (p. 145). And in the final story, a couple of teachers find themselves without a school and are reduced to teaching one another until a lost little girl turns up at their door and they adopt her as both pupil and daughter. The girl proves marvelously biddable except in the matter of getting out of the bath; so in the end one of the teachers flushes her down the plughole, which prompts the last few sentences in the book:

‘OH, what have you done,’ cried the schoolmaster. ‘You have lost our only child!’
‘I don’t care!’ said the schoolmistress in a stern voice. ‘She should have got out of the bath when she was TOLD!’ (p. 158)

The typographic eccentricities of the final sentence (in the original, the last two words are in italic fonts of increasing size) mimic the eccentricity of the story, which breaks free from the traditions of British children’s narratives by subjecting the disobedient child not to chastisement and repentance but to a dreadful and irreversible doom. In the process, the tale provides an unhappy ending to the collection as a whole, which begins in a very different mood. The opening story tells of a determined little girl who decides to go and live in a whale – like an impenitent Jonah – free from any controls at all; but the final story ends with the re-imposition of absolute adult control over a recalcitrant youngster. At the same time, the schoolmistress who punishes the little girl can be seen as anarchic in her impulses, meting out a wholly disproportionate punishment to her disobedient adoptive daughter, who merely acts on a perfectly natural preference to stay in the comfortable bathwater for a few minutes longer than her new mother deems appropriate. Adult order is as much an illusion in this collection as the fantasies conjured up by the wildest child’s imagination; and the fact that the book is not cast as a dream, unlike its most obvious model, Alice in Wonderland, gives it an air of radicalism, of having something to say about the nonsensical nature of accepted conventions, that Carroll’s great novel never quite aspired to.

Portmeirion

It’s perhaps for this reason that contemporary readers referred to the fables in Hughes’ collection as distinctively ‘modern’. The tales refuse to be bounded within the constraints of ordinary literature for the nursery, and refuse to suggest that the world they contain can be distinguished from the world beyond the book’s boundaries. Even the opening story segues very neatly from an everyday situation. An architect who has built a ‘model village’ in Wales (p. 9) – presumably Portmeirion – invites people everywhere to come and live in his country, and a little girl mistakes this for an invitation to live in whales, which is why she ends up moving into the belly of a seagoing mammal. Hughes does not differentiate between her eccentric choice of habitation (a whale) and the eccentric choice of habitation suggested by the architect (an Italianate model village on the Welsh coast). In the same way, the wild behaviour of the children in Hughes’s stories is not distinguished from the wild behaviour of the rabbit-wrestling, white-elephant-collecting, magic-rocket-owning adults. The Spider’s Palace was written before surrealism came to Britain, but its tacit acceptance of the domination of human culture by the riotous unconscious is entirely of a piece with the surrealist activities going on at the time in France.

Its politics, too, is at times as radical as that of the surrealists. Being a prince, a queen or a child does not guarantee its characters a happy ending, and cooks, maids, gardeners, farmers and poachers have as ready access to magic adventures as the youngest children of reigning monarchs. The most openly political story in the book is ‘The Glass-Ball Country’, which focuses on the political implications of ignoring limits and boundaries. A charcoal burner and his wife live in the almost inaccessible ruins of a castle on a cliff, where they shelter from the pointless wars being waged between the nations that surround them. At one point an elderly pedlar seeks shelter with them in the castle, and in their paranoia about discovery they almost kill him as a spy. Instead they reluctantly let him go free, and in return he gives them a glass ball as a present for their daughter. When a band of soldiers approaches the castle, threatening the charcoal-burner’s family with discovery and death, the little girl informs her parents that there is a country inside the glass ball, ‘only about an inch across’ (p. 60), where the family can hide from their military oppressors. They do so at once by reducing themselves to a suitable size, and live happily there for a while, until one of the soldiers decides to throw the ball from the castle window and watch it smash on the rocks below. The tiny country falls out of the globe and begins to grow, and as it grows the little girl invites a wounded soldier to take shelter with her family inside its expanding borders. The soldier soon reveals himself as the pedlar who gave her the ball, and explains that the land is called the Peace Country, a place where no citizen is permitted to fight. The Peace Country continues to expand, absorbing ‘farmers and other quiet people’ as it does so, and soon covers the whole of the ‘old warry country’, pushing its occupants into the ocean where they drown (p. 62). The charcoal burner and his wife are elected king and queen, while their daughter – now a princess – seeks out the soldier to be her husband as a way of sealing the happy ending, only to find that he has ‘disappeared for good’. The trajectory of this narrative is from confinement to liberation, from narrow limits to the removal of all unnecessary borders and constraints, a process orchestrated by a strange man who cannot be restricted to a single role (he is first a pedlar, then a soldier, then one of the ‘quiet people’, then an enigma) or time of life (he fluctuates between old age and youth). It provides a miniature working model – like the glass ball it describes – of a non-militaristic democratic community, whose exemption from the rules of physics and geography aligns it with anarchism. Anarchy here is liberating – just as elsewhere in the collection it is intimidating, allowing the spontaneous dissolution of restraints on the sometimes antisocial behaviour of children, adults and animals, such as rabbits, goats and spiders. The anarchist credentials of the collection are nowhere more evident than in its recognition that anarchy itself can be a force either for mutual support or for untrammeled Hobbesian brutality.

Performance

A High Wind in Jamaica pits the anarchy of childhood play against the most anarchic of adult communities, that of pirates. A group of white British children on their way to England from Jamaica – sent ‘home’ to prevent them being transformed into ‘savages’ by the joint influence of the tropics and emancipated Black slaves – gets accidentally abducted by pirates, and the story traces the relationship between these two sets of outlaws, ending with the execution of the entire pirate crew for a murder they did not commit. Innocence, then, is on trial in this narrative, as its original title (The Innocent Voyage) makes quite clear: the innocence of the children, the innocence of the pirates, both of which are problematic. The murder for which the buccaneers are executed was in fact committed by one of the children, but the pirates were certainly responsible for the accidental death of one child, the sexual assault of another, and the rape and attempted murder of a third. At the same time, the pirates are represented as in some ways more responsible and sympathetic in their treatment of the children than the respectable adults who had charge of them on land. Yet both pirates and respectable adults are united in their abhorrent treatment of the girl who is raped. The girl’s chief offence (it seems) is that she is adolescent, and therefore aware of sex and male violence in a way that the younger children are not; so she does not fit neatly into the categories of innocence and experience which govern the Victorian perception of childhood, and thus becomes an outcast both on the pirate ship and in the British society into which she is transplanted from her Caribbean birthplace. In this novel, the notion of innocence and experience, innocence and guilt, savagery and civilization, as simple binaries clearly distinguishable from one another by easily understood signs, is exposed as a pernicious fiction – even a fantasy, in that it cannot be safely applied to the complex business of existing in a stubbornly non-binary world.

Innocence, as a concept, tends to distract its loyal adherents from what is happening under their noses, and like The Spider’s Palace Hughes’s novel is designed to draw attention to the disparity between what’s expected or imagined by conventional minds and what ‘really’ takes place in both adult and childhood settings. The book explores a series of spaces that exist in the interstices between recognized structures or conceptual frameworks – the economy, class, gender, and especially race, as we shall see. Like the story collection it’s full of dwellings that get utterly transformed by the intransigent refusal of things to fit into the preconceived cultural shapes they are meant to occupy. A British house in Jamaica, with the delightfully Home Counties name of Ferndale, is abruptly torn to pieces by a violent hurricane on the same night that a half-tame cat called Tabby is torn to pieces by his wild cat-cousins. A pirate ship gets transformed into an elaborate playground-cum-circus by the children on board, then seamlessly transitions into a murder scene, much as a playground can imaginatively metamorphose into a scene of carnage or a circus into the setting for a horrific accident or a bloody assault by carnivores. The relative size or prominence of different characters in the book changes constantly, as different figures dominate a setting by becoming its focus, then recede into the background – sometimes disappearing entirely, as happens to the child called John when he falls to his death while watching a show and is at once expunged from the memory of his traumatized siblings. The land proves as unstable as the sea, with earthquakes and high winds shaking the ground and demolishing jungles. Victorian society conceives the world in terms of orderly hierarchies, clear divisions, architecturally rigid conceptual containers, all capable of being accommodated within the organized parameters of scientific, legal and philosophical discourses. The book’s world, by contrast – like the world of The Spider’s Palace – is in constant flux, and no philosophers or scientists exist who can make consistent sense of it.

This resistance to philosophical consistency or control is emphasized by the voice of Hughes’s narrator, who fades into and out of focus constantly, refusing ever to take up a stable position in relation to his characters or the events that overtake them. He identifies himself as Victorian in the opening chapter, where he tells us he hasn’t visited the Caribbean since 1860, ‘which is a long time ago now’ (p. 7); his text, then, is well out of date by the time High Wind was published in 1929. The phrase also implies that he is very old, since other comments in the text imply that he is still alive in the 1920s. The world-weary tone he adopts – together with his impatience for conventions he has too often seen flouted – confirms this impression. And his narrative style is torn between the stances of the 1860s and the 1920s. At times he seems to have the unimpeded spatial vision of the Victorian omniscient narrator, telling us exactly what the children’s parents are thinking, what the children are thinking, what the pirates are thinking, even when reporting incidents he could not possibly have had access to: as when John is the only child to catch a glimpse of an amateur operation on a ship’s monkey – an experience he could not possibly have conveyed to the narrator, since he dies a few pages later. At other times the narrator professes perfect ignorance, most often about the motives of the children in his story. He is dismissive of adult attempts to make sense of their actions and words, and freely confesses when he himself cannot explain why they do the opposite of what he might have anticipated. At one point he implies that there is simply ‘no means of knowing’ why children act as they do – why the youngest child Laura, for instance, conceives a passionate affection for the pirate Captain (pp. 99-100) – because adults have not yet learned to understand how a child’s mind works, caught as it is between the nascent consciousness of a human adult and the animal mind of a tiny baby: ‘babies have minds which work in terms and categories of their own which cannot be translated into the terms and categories of the human mind’ (p. 99). At the end of the novel the narrator withdraws completely from all his characters, becoming a detached observer who makes no claim to special knowledge about any of them, until in the final paragraph he loses sight even of his protagonist, the young girl Emily, professing himself quite unable to read ‘her deeper thoughts’ (p. 169), or even to distinguish her from the other children in the English boarding school where he leaves her. This fading out at the end balances the fading in that takes place at the beginning, where he describes the situation in Jamaica through a series of vignettes – the death of a pair of elderly plantation owners at the hands of former slaves, the gradual disintegration of the plantation buildings – then gradually homes in on the English family, the Bas-Thorntons, which will be his subject in the rest of the novel, as if his verbal picture of them will be just another vignette, or as if they are nothing more to him personally than the decaying buildings of the estate they live on. Overall, then, the narrator’s position is one of sceptical detachment, born from a recognition acquired over a long lifetime that most human ‘terms and categories’ are frankly inadequate as analytical instruments, knocked to pieces by (among other things) the publication of Darwin’s theory of Evolution in 1857, which smashed the biblical boundaries between humans and beasts.

The fluctuating world of the novel, whose terms and categories are always changing in response to changing circumstances, is underpinned by the references to stage performances with which it is filled. Each episode is cast as a piece of theatre: a pantomime (p. 61, p. 65), a peep-show (p. 68), a nativity-play (p. 69), a movie (p. 69), a religious ceremony (p. 122), a melodrama (pp. 23-4), a tragedy (p. 168) or a circus (p. 108). An earthquake witnessed by young Emily early in the novel takes place in a natural arena, a semi-circular bay called Exeter Rocks, and elicits an impromptu performance by the children who witness it: Emily breaks into a dance, John turns ‘head over heels on the damp sand, over and over in an elliptical course, till before he knew it he was in the water’ (p. 18). The attack of the wildcats on Tabby is played out before the children’s horrified eyes like a Roman gladiatorial combat, and Emily seeks to exorcise the horror of it from her mind by another kind of dramatic ‘performance’ (p. 25), retelling the tale of ‘her’ Earthquake to the ‘awed comments’ of an ‘imaginary English audience’. Meanwhile the hurricane destroying the house plays out as a ‘lightning-lit scene’ glimpsed through the ‘gaping frames’ of windows bereft of shutters – a melodrama seen through several proscenium arches. Mrs Thornton seeks to distract her children from it by reciting a poem by Walter Scott, the versified fairy tale The Lady of the Lake (p. 26). In each of these performances, however, the fourth wall of the theatre gets broken down. The children who witness the Earthquake are also in the middle of it, since the arena in which it happens ‘had no outside, it was solid world’ (p.17). The wildcats refuse to confine their murderous hunt for Tabby to the ‘lightning-lit scene’ of the garden, but burst through a skylight above the front door and land in the middle of the dining room table just as the family are settling down to dinner. The storm forces its way into the house, tearing shutters from windows and pictures from walls; while outside fairy tales get murderously enacted on members of the Thornton household, such as the nameless Black servant, a ‘fat old beldam’, who gets ‘blown clean away’ by the mounting wind, ‘bowling across fields and hedgerows like some one in a funny fairy-story, till she fetched up against a wall and was pinned there, unable to move’ (p. 26). We never find out if the ‘beldam’ survived being bowled like this, though we do know that another servant, Old Sam, has been killed by lightning, since his dead body is brought into the house by Mr Thornton. As the white man carries it in, the Black corpse becomes yet another spectacle; the children examine it in fascination, entranced by the old man’s limpness in death as compared with the arthritic stiffness of his limbs when he was alive. Like a circus audience they are ‘thrilled beyond measure’ by the unusual behaviour of his arms and legs (p. 24), and have no sense of him as a person whose life has just ended. By this time in their adventures, in fact, the distinction between performance and reality has fallen apart, with lethal consequences. And as the book goes on, those consequences get increasingly visited on the children.

The schooner from Alexander MacKendrick’s movie of the novel

The pirate schooner places the children at the centre of the performances rather than largely outside them. It makes them performers rather than spectators, in other words; and by the time this happens we should perhaps be conscious of the implications of this transition, since several performers – possibly the beldam, certainly Sam, the unfortunate Tabby and a sick ship’s monkey on the ship to England – have already been killed in shows like the ones the children now take part in. The schooner itself is a kind of performer, since it repeatedly masquerades as something it is not: an ordinary passenger ship full of attractive women, for instance, which is the pose it takes when it attacks the Clorinda, the ship that is carrying the children home; or a merchant ship called the Lizzie Green of Bristol, which is the guise it adopts when approaching a British steamship with the aim of persuading its reluctant captain to take the children off the pirates’ hands. And the captains of the vessels attacked by the schooner help to enhance its theatrical qualities. The pirates’ ship carries no guns, but the captains whose cargoes it purloins tend to reinvent it as a full-scale warship, capable of opening ‘ten or twelve disguised gun-ports’ and thereby unmasking ‘a whole broadside of artillery trained upon us’, as the master of the Clorinda puts it in his report to the children’s parents (p. 39). The behaviour of the pirates is also transformed in the report into the kind of casual brutality expected of marauders. The master asserts that they have murdered all the children in cold blood, and that he watched it happen; and this tendency to turn them into pantomime villains proves ultimately fatal to them in the arena of the courtroom.

Meanwhile the ship’s potential as a circus is first discovered by Emily’s brother John, who writes in a letter to his parents that he can ‘hang from the ratlines by my heels which the sailors say is very brave’ (p. 37). Later in the book he is killed by falling on his head from a height of forty feet, in the process neatly demonstrating the danger involved in hanging upside-down from the ratlines. John is an inveterate seeker after thrilling spectacles to witness as well as take part in: the operation on the gangrenous tail of the Clorinda’s monkey, for instance, which involves sailors plying the beast with rum until it’s so drunk it falls on its head and breaks its neck, in eerie anticipation of John’s demise; or the nativity play put on by a priest in the pirate town of Santa Lucia, which John also manages to be the only child to witness, burrowing through an excited crowd to reach his vantage point – then inadvertently completing the spectacle himself with his fatal dive. In between, John takes part in a spectacle mounted by the pirates when they auction off the goods taken from the Clorinda (he is the child who weighs the coffee offered for sale). This show begins as a ‘pantomime’ performed by the haughty Spanish-speaking dignitaries who come to view the goods on offer (p. 61), and the children are delighted when the mate of the schooner, Otto, decks them out in ‘fancy dress’ to join the performance (p. 63). But things later get unnerving as the adult actors consume a potent cocktail mixed by the pirate captain, Jonsen, until eventually there is ‘something a little nightmare-like in the whole scene’ (p. 67), and the children retreat from the drunken mob to the relative safety of the ship’s hold. In this incident the distinction between theatre and auditorium, performer and spectator blurs again, pointing the way to John’s terminal performance as actor-spectator. Later still, a circus spectacle completes the disintegration of the distinction between theatre and life, play and earnest. The pirates seize control of a ship full of circus animals and try to goad a couple of big cats into a fight for the children’s amusement. Eventually a tiger loses patience with Otto’s goading, and ‘Quicker than eye could see, it had cuffed him, rending half his face’ (p. 110). The first mate survives, none the worse for his ‘rending’; but the last performance he takes part in – the pirates’ trial for kidnapping, robbery and murder, avidly watched by the British public and the press – ends more drastically, largely as a result of a child’s dramatic departure from the prepared script she has been assigned, a spontaneous transition from an act of theatre to the articulation of inward trauma.

Each of these dramatic episodes summons up visions of the death of Tabby on the night when the high wind struck, a performance that ended in bloodshed and that reshaped Emily’s understanding of the world she lived in. As the book goes on, Emily finds herself increasingly conscious of her own affinity with poor Tabby: only half tamed, but deeply vulnerable to far wilder and more lethal forces than the ones she embodies. Her response is to defend herself by any means at her disposal, from telling herself stories to committing murder. One of the modern fairy tales in The Spider’s Palace provides an analogy for the various shifts she undergoes between passive audience and dynamic actor. It concerns a man with a bright green face who works in a circus and is horribly bullied by the circus owner, and who later teams up with a performing elephant and an engine driver to exact revenge. The story ends with the circus owner being magically transformed into a weird giraffe with the face of a man, then displayed to paying customers by his former victims, including the titular ‘Man with a Green Face’. ‘Everybody came to see him’, Hughes concludes,

and paid [a] whole shilling each; and they kept him in a cage. There were soon so many shillings that the man with the green face and the elephant and the engine driver got very rich indeed, and were ever so happy. (p. 45)

But the ending is not so happy, perhaps, for some of its readers. After all, it leaves them pretty much where it found them: in a world where performers are forced to take part in shows and where the happiness of one person is always obtained at the expense of another. A rich man with a green face who owns a slave is an authentic monster; conversely, a one-time bully trapped in a cage can be seen as a victim; and the grotesque institution of the circus freak show remains untouched by Hughes’s narrative, its function as a vehicle for justice hardly detracting from its nastiness or from the nastiness of the world that lets it exist. It’s a similar world to the one in which Emily finds herself, even if the physical laws that govern it – where some men have green faces and others can be turned into giraffes with human heads – seem very different.

At the end of the book, Emily herself becomes a performance, a stage show suffused with all the strangeness such shows can encompass. Her testimony is essential to the pirates’ wrongful conviction for murder, and she delivers much of it in the eerie sing-song tones of an amateur actor. But when she departs from the script written out for her by her lawyer she releases the dramatic potential that has been in her since her rescue. Her father sees this potential clearly before the trial; he thinks of her as ‘the stage of a great tragedy’ (the analogy coming naturally to him, since he works as a theatre critic), and while he pities her for what she has endured he would not have missed her performance in court ‘on any account’ (p. 168). Of course, actors in tragedies are never really the victims or perpetrators of the events they act out on stage, so the analogy does not in fact work for Emily. Her father is superimposing the tragedy on her body, so to speak, like a director organizing actors ahead of a show, or a puppet master investing his dolls with life. And when Emily departs from her script at the pirates’ trial, the audience – including her father – reads into her broken shrieks of horror (‘He was all lying in his blood… he was awful! He… he died, he said something and then he died’, p. 171) the hackneyed story they have in their heads: the pirates’ murderousness, the girl’s abuse, the children’s courage, all the ingredients of a Victorian melodrama. At the same time, like that of an actor Emily’s mind remains impenetrable to them despite her outburst, and their assumptions based on her shrieks are quite mistaken. The narrator knows this, and the father suspects it, half conscious that his view of her as tragic is no more than a symptom of his own ‘fantastic mind’ (p. 170). His knowledge that he has no real access to her thoughts and memories comes into focus when he admits, ‘with a sudden painful shock’, that he is in fact ‘afraid of her’ (p. 170). As a child subjected to experiences adults neither expect a child to suffer nor can really imagine her suffering, she poses a threat to the adult view of the world itself; and the theatrical metaphor can be seen as exposing the radical break between the way she acts and the way she thinks, or feels, or remembers, as well as the fantastic nature of most adult assumptions – about children, about pirates, or about the orderly, ethical, tranquil lives they themselves lead.

Edward Lear, illustration from The Story of the Four Little Children Who Went Round the World

The relationship between A High Wind in Jamaica and fantasy is in fact a close one. Fairy tales intrude on the narrative several times. We’ve already witnessed Scott’s fairytale poem The Lady of the Lake play a crucial role in distracting the children from the hurricane. On another occasion the cross-dressing Cuban men who help the buccaneers fool the crew of the Clorinda into letting them on board are referred to as ‘Fairies’ (p. 59), rendering them strange as well as lovely in the children’s eyes. Later still, Emily is wandering around the pirate ship ‘thinking vaguely about some bees and a fairy queen’ (p. 85) when she is suddenly struck by a recognition of her own identity as a separate person, a distinct individual; after which she at once returns to the bees and the fairy queen, perhaps with a new awareness of the relationship between the hive’s lonely leader (also a queen) and her many subjects. At various points in the narrative the children tell themselves and one another fantastic stories to divert their attention from things they can’t cope with. At other times their occasional outbursts of random behaviour take on all the traits of a nonsense narrative, like Alice in Wonderland or Edward Lear’s extraordinary Story of the Four Little Children Who Went Round the World; and this randomness reflects their refusal on many occasions to acknowledge the cause-and-effect relationships between actions and their consequences – at least until the moment when Emily’s newly-acquired self-consciousness begins to change her attitude. Even then, however, she remains an enigma, like the stranger with the glass ball in The Spider’s Palace. A young woman on the steamship tries to get to know her, but when she dubs her a ‘Little Fairy-girl’ (p. 154) it’s not so much a piece of affectionate whimsy as an oblique acknowledgment of her oddness, the impenetrability of her mind, the possibility, even, that she is some sort of changeling, her conventional girl-nature switched on the pirate ship for something less comforting, less apparently familiar.

The strongest link in the book with fantasy, not surprisingly, is with a story that started out as a theatrical performance: J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Hughes’s narrator shares with Barrie’s narrator in the novel of the play, Peter and Wendy, a willingness to shatter myths of childhood; and Barrie’s protagonist, Peter Pan, has a lot in common with the Thornton children. Peter is always forgetting things as he transfers his attention to new interests, and sometimes his forgetfulness is almost fatal to other people – as when he is flying with the Darlings on the long journey to the Neverland and keeps disappearing to take part in other adventures, leaving his inexperienced companions literally hanging in mid-air. In the same way, Hughes’s children are always changing tack, both imaginatively and physically, and their forgetfulness is sometimes fatal: not so much when they forget about John after his death as when they forget, or even consciously set aside, the pirates’ instructions not to say anything to the passengers on the steamship about their abduction. Peter’s delight in killing is transferred to Hughes’s Edward, who is constantly enacting in his mind far bloodier adventures than those of the buccaneers among whom he lives. The Darling children and the Lost Boys, meanwhile, are always changing affiliations and swapping roles in their games on Peter’s island – becoming pirates, Indians, or feral children as the mood takes them; and Hughes’s children too are always discarding and resuming loyalties, as when Emily spontaneously decides that all men and boys are disgusting – which makes her confidentially inform her new female friend aboard the steamship about the abduction – or when Edward stops describing his adventures on the pirate ship as if he were one of the pirates and instead starts to tell them as if he had heroically resisted his abductors. There are major differences, meanwhile, between Hughes’s Emily and Barrie’s Wendy. Wendy is cloyingly maternal, and this quality is transferred in A High Wind to one of Emily’s younger siblings, Rachel, who is always making babies out of random objects, and whose motherly instincts very nearly kill her older sister, when she accidentally drops a heavy spike she has been nursing and it slashes through Emily’s calf as it falls to the deck (in the process producing useful evidence of the pirates’ brutality for the trial). Emily, by contrast, likes to imagine herself as a pirate, though she is increasingly concerned that this career path may be closed to her because of her sex (p. 117). She also gets increasingly concerned that real-life pirates are much less easily contained than the pirates of her dreams – something that gets driven home to her when Captain Jonsen, in a drunken haze, tries to assault her, prompting her to bite his thumb and make her escape, like Peter Pan evading Hook (though in Barrie’s book it is Hook who bites Peter Pan, p. 150). The discrepancies between Emily’s imaginings and the cold hard facts of the adult world align her with Peter, too, in her mounting resistance to maturation: ‘Why must she grow up?’ she asks herself, ‘Why couldn’t she leave her life always in other people’s keeping, to order as if it was no concern of hers?’ (p. 118). Admittedly, Peter is deeply opposed to being ‘ordered’, but so too is Emily, as it turns out. Her resistance to adult control is what finally kills the pirates, just as Peter’s tendency to resist any limitations placed on his pleasure in violent play ends up by destroying Captain Hook, whose status as the villain of the piece means he can never, in Peter’s world, be granted mercy.

The grown-up characters in Hughes’s novel, meanwhile, both pay homage to and mock the adult characters in Barrie’s narrative. In Peter and Wendy, Mrs Darling has an almost supernatural insight into her children’s minds, to the extent that she can even tidy up their mental landscapes after putting them to bed (pp. 72-3). Mrs Bas-Thornton, on the other hand, is constantly making wrong assumptions about her children; in fact she is ‘constitutionally incapable of telling one end of a child from the other’ (p. 30), the narrator claims. She is certain the children idolize her, when in fact they feel much closer to the doomed cat, Tabby. When parting with her offspring on the ship bound for England she is convinced that her eldest son is too full of grief to say goodbye: compared with his sister Emily, she tells her husband, ‘John is so much the more sensitive’, since he is clearly ‘too full to speak’ (p. 37) at the point of parting. The narrator, meanwhile, has already told us that John’s silence stems from his eagerness to get away and climb the rigging. Mr Bas-Thornton, meanwhile, is very much like Mr Darling, not least in his poor head for business. Mr Darling spends long hours trying to calculate whether he and his wife can afford to have children, but his conclusions have little bearing on the final decision (pp. 70-71); while Mr Bas-Thornton has ‘every accomplishment, except two: that of primogeniture, and that of making a living’ (p. 30). Like Mr Darling he feels a great deal but cannot express his emotions freely without compromising his manhood, which means that both men are always breaking out in fits of temper and making sarcastic comments, sometimes to their own embarrassment and chagrin. Hughes’s pirates, meanwhile, are promiscuously constructed from Barrie’s crew of assorted misfits. Captain Jonsen is an amalgam of Captain Hook and his shipmates; like the mild-mannered bosun Smee he is genial but dangerous, shuffling around in home-made slippers wringing his hands and whimpering a little at times of crisis (p. 66), but capable too of a drunken assault on a ten-year-old girl – just as Smee is capable of tying up Wendy while insisting he will release her if she promises to be his mother. Jonsen’s appearance has the grotesqueness of the rest of Hook’s associates, with a ‘sad, silly face, […] great spreading feet’ and a perpetual stoop, ‘as if always afraid of banging his head on something’ (p. 47). Most distinctive of all, he carries ‘the backs of his hands forward, like an orang-outang’, which recalls Hook’s shipmate Noodler, whose hands are ‘fixed on backwards’ (p. 114). Jonsen is full of cunning stratagems, like Hook himself, and like Hook’s they all go wrong, most spectacularly his plan to return the children to their parents without revealing his complicity in their abduction. Like Hook, again, his origins are respectable – he has served on English vessels and acquired the language before quietly drifting into illegal habits. As with Hook, conventions plague him and can be said to be his downfall; Hook becomes convinced at Eton that he can never possess gentlemanly ‘good form’ or even understand what it is (pp. 188-9), while Jonsen is killed, in effect, by the myth that pirates behave less like gentlemen than legitimate sailors, as represented by the master of the Clorinda, whose report on the children’s abduction is a tissue of lies from start to finish.

Jonsen could even be said to be plagued by a crocodile. The Bas-Thornton children are fascinated by reptiles: Emily collects lizards in Jamaica, and when she and her siblings arrive at port to board the Clorinda they hear that crocodiles have been sighted in the vicinity, and keep peering around the town in the hope of spotting one (p. 33). Much later, when taken on board the English steamship, Emily borrows a baby alligator from a boy named Harold. The alligator’s baby teeth are harmless, but it snaps at Emily’s finger just as she snapped at Jonsen’s, and when the pair of them stare at one another the narrator stresses the resemblance between beast and child, and the reptilian inscrutability of both:

What possible meaning could Emily find in such an eye? Yet she lay there, and stared, and stared: and the alligator stared too. If there had been an observer it might have given him a shiver to see them so – well, eye to eye like that. (p. 146).

Alligators, the narrator concludes, are ‘utterly untameable’ (p. 147), and so are young children. Barrie implies something similar in the famous last sentence of Peter and Wendy: Peter’s adventures will go on, he tells us, for ever, ‘as long as children are gay and innocent and heartless’ (p. 226). Emily’s fascination with the predatory reptile suggests that she shares its untameable heartlessness at some level; and although she does grow up, unlike Peter Pan, the radical difference she exemplifies between adults and children – Hughes seems to suggest – will always remain. Which is not a promising prospect for adults or children.

Race

Peter Pan is now recognized as a racist text, its hackneyed view of native Americans reaffirming the myths that sought to justify their oppression and erasure from history. High Wind, too, has racism at its core. The book’s central characters – a group of white British children – have imbibed racist assumptions from their infancy, and underpinning all their adventures is the contempt they have been taught to feel for Black Jamaicans. At the same time, as the book goes on they become increasingly identified with the African victims of the slave trade as well as its perpetrators. Violent episodes in the book point up the status of violence as the unacknowledged founding principle of the country that shaped them, and Hughes implies that this same violence continues to drive the British imperial machine decades after the purported ending of the slave trade. As the children mature – in particular the older girls, the teenager Margaret and ten-year-old Emily – their awareness of this fact increases, and they find themselves caught up in the cycle of violence and oppression, feeling it in and on their bodies just as Emily felt the Earthquake in her ears (‘a strange, rushing sound’, p. 17), her lungs (‘the children held their breath’, p. 18), her nervous system (‘things vibrated slightly’, p. 18) and her belly (afterwards Emily felt ‘like a child who has eaten too much even to be sick’, p. 21). The girls internalize British racism and imperialist violence in the course of the book, carrying it forward with them into adulthood, just as the heritage of Victorian colonialism gets carried forward into the time of the book’s composition, the second decade of the twentieth century.

The opening of the novel drifts across the landscape of Jamaica, noting the impact of emancipation on its geography (‘ruined slaves’ quarters, ruined sugar-grinding houses, ruined boiling houses’, p. 5) and its inhabitants (the narrator tells about the elderly white sisters, the old Miss Parkers, who were starved to death or possibly poisoned by their ‘three remaining faithful servants’, p. 5). Later, Black Jamaicans do their best to educate the Bas-Thornton children in aspects of African culture. Old Sam teaches them how to set snares for birds and tells them stories about the trickster-spider Anansi, which Emily remembers vividly later. The kids find out about duppies – vengeful spirits of the dead – a concept which they initially deride as a silly superstition, but which later returns to haunt them after the murder of the Dutch captain. On her tenth birthday Emily discovers a lost community of former slaves hidden in the jungle near her home. An elderly ex-slave tells her the history of the community, giving its name as Liberty Hill – a beacon of hope in a time of British tyranny; but Emily is interested only in the worship offered her by the community’s children, or what she takes as worship, though the narrator assures us they are not so much worshipping as vastly curious. Emily returns from this adventure confirmed in her conviction of her own importance: ‘Her heart bubbled up, she swelled with glory: and taking leave with the greatest condescension she trod all the long way home on veritable air’ (p. 13). The attitude that ranks Black families below white families and their pets is reflected in the Bas-Thornton children’s response to the deaths of several Black servants in the hurricane. The woman who gets blown away is merely comic, and even the death of Sam dwindles to nothing compared with the death of Tabby: as the narrator sums up, ‘there is, after all, a vast difference between a negro and a favourite cat’ (p. 29). The hurricane episode, in other words, underscores the endemic racism of the climate in which the children grew up, and sets itself against the sentimental vision of the relationship between Black adults and white children in a post-slavery setting in the hugely popular Uncle Remus books, which were still being read in vast numbers by British children between the wars.

As the book goes on, however, the children’s racism gets turned against them, much as the wild cats turn against Tabby, their half-tame relative – or as the children turn against the pirates in the final chapter. The process begins when the Bas-Thornton children are sent to meet another white family on the island, whose name – Fernandez – marks them out as not ‘purely’ Anglo-Saxon. The Fernandez family are Creoles, defined by the narrator as white families who have lived in the West Indies ‘for more than one generation’ (p. 13). They have been somehow contaminated by their long stay, the Bas-Thorntons believe: the children ‘would often run about barefoot like negroes’, and they have a governess ‘whose blood was possibly not pure’ as well as a ‘brown nurse’. The Fernandez child who most clearly suffers from the racist attitudes of the Thorntons is the girl Margaret, who at thirteen is three years older than Emily, and three years more knowledgeable, both about Jamaica and about the changing female body. Emily’s jealous contempt for this older girl is obvious from the moment they meet, when she is disgusted by Margaret’s finely-tuned sense of smell – another piece of evidence, as far as she is concerned, for her suspected racial ‘impurity’. Margaret can tell by smell that there is going to be an earthquake, and when the earthquake duly strikes shows little recognition of its massive impact on Emily’s feelings. Emily frames the older girl’s familiarity with earthquakes as a racialized sign of obtuseness: ‘How funny Creoles were! They didn’t seem to realize the difference it made to a person’s whole after-life to have been in an Earthquake’ (p. 20). She later associates it with Margaret’s ability to tell by smell which item in the family’s washing belongs to which family member. Ironically, Emily shares this ability – she can tell by smell, for instance, which towel belongs to her and which belongs to her older brother; but she doesn’t articulate such matters, and in her view ‘it just showed what sort of people Creoles were, to talk about Smell, in that open way’ (p. 19). Clearly the distinctions between the Bas-Thorntons and the Fernandez children are both minimal and vastly exaggerated by the British immigrants, in the interests of confirming their own sense of their superior position in Jamaica; a position which has been threatened both by the end of slavery and by their own financial precariousness, their uncertain position as middle-class landowners in a land that refuses to submit to their incompetent efforts to control it.

Margaret in the movie, played by Viviane Ventura

The racist perception of Margaret gets intensified on the pirate ship, where her Creole identity becomes mixed up in Emily’s mind with the older girl’s awareness of sex, and above all with her fear of rape. Non-Creole white people, Emily claimed, do not talk about bodily functions, and not talking becomes a prominent feature of the children’s life among the buccaneers – a way of imaginatively protecting themselves from danger by not mentioning it: not talking about a child’s death, not talking about sex, not talking too directly about the fact that the sailors on board might possibly be pirates (Emily tells the younger children they are in fact pilots, though she has only the vaguest notion of a pilot’s function). Margaret, by contrast, has the fear of rape in mind from the moment she sets foot on Captain Jonsen’s schooner. The girl’s awareness of erotic desire and its economics first emerges on the Clorinda when she notes the handsome appearance of Mr Bas-Thornton – come on board to see his children off – as well as his lack of money. When the children get transferred to the schooner, she is the only one aware of the sexual threat posed by their piratical captors. She sobs in the darkness of the fore-hold, and tells the others they are ‘too young to know’ why she is upset (p. 57) – but again not talking prevents her from stating exactly what they are too young to know. Later still, when the inebriated Captain Jonsen confirms her fears by entering the children’s quarters with rape in mind, Margaret alone has any inkling of what is going on. She turns as ‘yellow as cheese’ (as if to confirm her ‘racial difference’ from the other children), her eyes grow ‘large with terror’, and at that moment Emily remembers ‘how stupidly frightened Margaret had been the very first night on the schooner’ (p. 90). Afterwards, Emily finds her behaviour even more puzzling, as the older girl first seems ‘exaggeratedly frightened of all the men’, then takes to following them around like an affectionate dog, especially Otto, the first mate. She soon transfers all her possessions to the cabin Otto shares with Captain Jonsen, and from this moment her fate is sealed. She is no longer a ‘child’, and so no longer protected (however precariously) by the social obligation to support the weakest in the community. But she is also still somehow a child who has been ‘spoiled’ or rendered ‘impure’ by her sexual awareness. From this point in the book she ceases, in effect, to be part of the conversation between the pirates and the children. She loses her voice, both literally – in that she very seldom speaks – and symbolically – in that the pirates and later the law-abiding British rescuers of the children cease to listen to her. To save herself from rape she has ‘submitted’ to rape, thus ceasing to be ‘innocent’ in the eyes of the patriarchy, becoming instead invisible and inaudible, like a ghost; and nothing she says or does can restore her innocence.

This is largely a result of the consensual silence around what has happened to Margaret – that is, around the fact that she has now become Otto’s sexual partner or slave. The pirates never mention it, and neither do the children’s rescuers on the steamship, while both adult communities make it perfectly clear that they are always picturing for themselves the sordid details of this ‘debauchment’ – while always presuming that it was in some sense a willing act, that Margaret somehow ‘debauched’ or spoiled herself. Silence is also, of course, a widely practised response to the slave trade after abolition, a means of erasing all evidence of slavery from a country’s past in the interests of absolving its citizens from guilt: whether the silence of misnaming, such as describing the former slaves of the old white ladies who starved to death as ‘faithful servants’ (p. 5), or the silence of concealment, like the hiding of Liberty Hill in the heart of the jungle, or the silence of oblivion, like the silence that sidelines Sam from the children’s memories in favour of Tabby. The event that leads to the silencing of Margaret – Jonsen’s assault on Emily – is effectively described as if it, too, had been erased from history. The only episode in the novel that’s narrated in retrospect, out of its proper chronological position in the sequence of events that befall the Bas-Thornton children, it is placed immediately after the moment when Emily becomes self-conscious for the first time, as though her discovery of her independent mind and body were a direct result of the attack. The dawn of Emily’s self-awareness takes place at the beginning of Chapter 6 – pretty much in the middle of the novel – and is described as being ‘of considerable importance’ to her, occurring as it does after a period of time when things have apparently ‘ceased happening’, when Emily and the other children have simply ‘settled down […] to grow’. Only after gaining self-awareness does Emily recall the other event that happened recently, an event that an adult reader might well expect to have greater ‘importance’ in her mind, but which she has evidently suppressed. This is the moment, one week earlier, when the pirate Captain she worshipped betrayed her by coming down into the fore-hold and laying hands on her, lifting her chin and stroking her hair. That was when she bit him and made her escape, after which the other children refused to speak to her for several days, horrified by her unwarranted assault on their grown-up friend. Emily’s period of being sent to Coventry is only temporary, unlike Margaret’s; her ignorance of exactly what happened, of what the threat was to which she reacted, allows her to reintegrate herself quite quickly among her ignorant siblings. But it’s also the point in the book when she comes closest in her mind to the status of the slaves from whom she has been taught to consider herself entirely distinct – comes closest, in fact, to the historical facts that have been jettisoned by the culture that raised her.

The reason for Emily’s closer approach to the experience of slavery is the ongoing threat of violence exposed by Jonsen’s attack. The event in the fore-hold redefines the Captain in Emily’s mind as a deadly feral cat, a ‘waiting tiger’ rather than the bumbling be-slippered father-figure she has always thought him. In the process it reveals the endemic aggression that underpins not only the pirate’s trade but the wider culture inhabited by children, especially girls. As we’ve seen, Margaret was already aware of the presence of this aggression before the attack took place; and the teenager expresses this awareness in the tales she tells. Asked by the younger children for a story at bedtime, she conjures up a narrative more like a nightmare than a fairy tale,

A very stupid story about a princess who had lots and lots of clothes and was always beating her servant for making mistakes and shutting him up in a dark cupboard. The whole story, really had been nothing but clothes and beating, and Rachel had begged her to stop (p. 89).

‘Stupid’ though it may be, the tale proves prophetic. The attractive protagonist of fairy tale tradition, the princess, becomes a tyrant in it, and in the middle of the narrative the kindly Captain comes down the ladder with some other sailors, who are urging him to do something that fills his voice with ‘suppressed excitement’ – urging him, that is, to act the tyrant himself. Emily’s swift and violent response puts a stop to his actions; but all the same her world is turned upside down, her fairy tale existence transformed into something closer to Margaret’s house of horrors or the unpredictable tales of The Spider’s Palace. Biting the Captain makes her a ‘wicked girl’, one of her younger sisters tells her (p. 90) – though something tells Emily that the Captain too had been doing something ‘wicked’, which makes her own behaviour harder to judge. But the incident also changes the Captain’s attitude to Emily. The bite doesn’t lead to punishment or retribution; instead it fills Jonsen with remorse, so that for a long time – between his shame and Emily’s embarrassment – they cannot resume anything approaching friendly relations. The episode changes Margaret too, as we’ve seen – she becomes Otto’s silent, unacknowledged sexual partner; and about a week later it seems to effect a change in Emily herself. Part of her discovery of her own identity involves a new interest in her body: ‘The contact of her face and the warm bare hollow of her shoulder gave her a comfortable thrill, as if it were the caress of some kind friend’ (p. 86). The ‘thrill’ may seem ‘comfortable’ to her, but there’s an uncomfortable echo here, too, of Jonsen’s predatory touch in the fore-hold, which might also be described as the ‘caress of some kind friend’. Shortly afterwards, Emily’s awareness that she can decide things for herself without recourse to adult authority leads her to speculate that she might in fact be a kind of God. But the discovery of independence also brings fear. If her body is no longer organically connected to its surroundings – which can carry on without her when she is absent, as the life of the ship carries on without her when she’s aloft in the rigging – then when she comes down from the mast there might be ‘disasters’ waiting for her on deck, perhaps at the hands of stronger bodies like those of Otto and the Captain (p. 87). Being distinct from the other children makes her noticeable, and being noticeable puts her at risk; and when the narrator goes on to describe the attack in the fore-hold, we can see what has made her think so.

A little after the account of the attack, we learn how Emily now remembers her time in Jamaica. Suddenly the story of her life has become a sequence of connected events that provides a scenario for vivid nightmares. She recalls the Earthquake, and suddenly thinks it may have contributed to the collapse of the house at Ferndale. She recalls her visit to Liberty Hill ‘with a startling clearness’ (p. 95); but she also remembers the death of Tabby at the teeth and claws of his monstrous relatives. In her dreams, the wild cats become embodiments of the deep-seated fear of slaves experienced by slave-owners: they are ‘horrible black shapes’ which have ‘flown in through the fanlight and savaged [the tame cat] out into the bush’ (p. 95). Also in her dreams Tabby turns into Jonsen, staring at her ‘with the same horrible look on his face the captain had worn that time she bit his thumb’. Margaret, meanwhile, completes her transformation into the Black Jamaican she has always been associated with in the Bas-Thornton children’s minds. As Emily flees from Tabby down endless avenues of soaring cabbage-palms, ‘Margaret sat up an orange tree jeering at her, gone as black as a negro’. By this stage in her dream-life, the Captain’s attack has become for Emily a reenactment of the horrors of the British slave trade, with Emily the representative white girl against whom the former slaves seek retribution. Jonsen’s assault, then, leads not just to Emily’s self-recognition as an independent person but to a faint apprehension on her part of British atrocities in Jamaica; atrocities with which she has aligned herself by her treatment of Margaret.

As a result, Emily sees herself as both complicit with and potentially subject to the treatment she has always seen meted out to Black people in Jamaica. Her new sense of vulnerability gets confirmed when her leg is injured by a falling spike, accidentally dropped from the mast by her sister Rachel; and this in turn leads to her confinement in the ‘comfortable’ yet disturbing setting of the captain’s cabin. The cabin also happens to be the scene of Margaret’s rape, and hence the indirect cause of the older girl’s silencing and the mood of the crew that has turned against her ever since. This change of mood is exemplified when Jonsen carries the injured Emily into the cabin and snarls at the teenager ‘Get out!’ in a ‘low, brutal voice’ (p. 104). Margaret is mending clothes at the time, ‘humming softly and feeling deadly ill’, but the men show no interest in her illness, and when she disappears from the room the narrator can only proclaim his ignorance of her fate: ‘Heaven knows what hole [she] had been banished into’ (p. 105). This erasure of her experiences again aligns the teenager with the victims of the slave trade, and Margaret’s unwilling demonstration of what happens to a girl when she reaches puberty has already been preying on Emily’s unconscious. Then, soon after the younger girl’s instalment in the cabin, something happens that brings her fear of becoming a second Margaret to a crisis. The Dutch captain of a ship seized by the pirates is trussed up and left alone in the room with Emily, while the pirates set up a circus show on the captured vessel. The Dutchman is bound and helpless, but he resembles Jonsen to some extent – as a nautical ship’s master who is both funny and frightening in equal measure; and the fact that he’s a prisoner makes him somehow more of a threat than if he were free: ‘There is something much more frightening’, the narrator suggests, ‘about a man who is tied up than a man who is not tied up – I suppose it is the fear he might get loose’. A slave owner might well agree. Emily’s terror of the struggling captive contrasts with the pleasant feeling of power she felt as she approached the hidden Black community, Liberty Hill, on the day she turned ten. Entering the village behind a crowd of fleeing children, she felt ‘Encouraged by the comfortable feeling of inspiring fright’ (p. 12). In the cabin, by contrast, she herself is frightened, aware that the man on the floor may break his bonds, and that if he does he may prove as vindictive as Margaret was in her dream, as well as too strong for Emily to resist, even with her teeth. The scene becomes another ‘nightmare’ (p. 109), and Emily reacts for a second time with a burst of violence. Leaping from her bunk, she seizes a knife and stabs the captain ‘in a dozen places’ (p. 110). He dies under the horrified gazes of Emily and Margaret, who appears at this moment in the entrance to the room with her ‘dulled eyes staring out from her […] skull-like face’ (p. 111). Emily leaps back into bed and faints at once from the pain of her newly-opened wound. And soon afterwards it becomes clear that other old wounds have been newly opened by the murder: the wounds inflicted by the British slave trade.

The murder in the cabin, after all, has been the outcome of several forms of entrapment or bondage. In it, Emily is trapped in her bed by her injured leg, as well as by the subliminal fear of men that was planted in her by Jonsen’s betrayal. The Dutch captain is trapped on the floor by the ropes that bind him. Margaret is trapped in her role as the despised outsider, hovering in the entrance to the cabin, neither inside the room nor outside it, symbolically replicating her exclusion from both communities on the schooner – the adult community and that of the children. Emily’s violence, then, could be seen as springing from two causes: a desire to free herself from entrapment – entrapment by fear, entrapment by the risk of becoming Margaret – and a desire to stop the man she kills from gaining his freedom. Instead it entraps the pirates, who are doomed by it to atone with their lives for the crimes of the slave-trade, while also trapping Emily herself in the nightmare prison of her guilt.

‘The Slave Ship’ by Turner, representing the Zong massacre

Meanwhile, the two girls both suffer a further descent towards the condition of enslaved Black Africans in the earlier part of the Nineteenth Century. When the pirates discover Margaret at the scene of the murder, they assume at once that she is the murderer and toss her overboard in a fit of retribution, fear and disgust. The girl is only rescued by sheer chance when a passing boat, full of pirates who aren’t aware of the murder, finds her swimming in the ocean and returns her to the schooner, physically unharmed but emotionally traumatized. The episode recalls a number of notorious incidents in the history of the British slave trade, most notably the murder of more than 130 Africans by the crew of the slave ship Zong in 1781, who threw them overboard when the ship ran out of drinking water. After this, Margaret’s own erasure from history is complete, as adults increasingly assume (without much evidence) that she has been driven mad by her ordeal, and hence an unsafe witness of what happened on the schooner. Emily, meanwhile, takes refuge in telling stories as a means of blotting out the memory of murder; and the tales she tells are the ones she learned from Sam, the Black servant who died in the hurricane. ‘She could recall the Anansi stories Old Sam had told her,’ the narrator informs us, ‘and they often proved the point of departure for new ones of her own’ (p. 115). She recalls, too, the stories of duppies or vengeful spirits which she and her siblings had mocked when they first heard them in Jamaica. Her experience of violence makes the stories suddenly convincing, and she even catches herself ‘wondering what the Dutchman’s duppy would look like, all bloody, with its head turned backwards on its shoulders and clanking a chain’ (p. 115). But this kind of tale is of course less comforting than the trickster stories of Anansi, and she swiftly replaces them with an imperialist fairy tale in which she sits ‘on a golden throne in the remotest East’, as if in an Orientalist revision of the Thousand and One Nights. The narrator even refers to the Arabic classic, using it as an analogy for the endless stories the young girl conjures up in her bid to stave off nightmares (p. 114). But although the notion of occupying a throne may be pleasurable – a welcome return to the state of power she imagined for herself on her return from Liberty Hill – the situation of the storyteller Scheherazade is not so attractive, given that she told her tales as a means to stave off death. Emily’s nightmares accordingly come back with increasing frequency, and she responds by retreating from any kind of power, whether monarchic or simply adult, instead taking refuge in early childhood to the extent that any stranger who met her would have considered her, the narrator observes, ‘rather young for her age’ (p. 119). Despite this apparent immaturity, she is disturbing to Jonsen and Otto. She sings and shouts too loudly and too often, ‘like a larger, fiercer lark’ (p. 119), and the effect is presumably less like Shelleyan strains of unpremeditated art than the noise of a second madwoman on the schooner.

Jonsen’s disturbance at the girl’s behaviour may be partly at least the effect of guilt. Of course he is guilty of the attempted assault in the hold; but at other times, too, his actions bring him close to the caricature of the pirate captain from which he so assiduously seeks to dissociate himself. In one incident, soon after the murder, Captain Jonsen chases Emily’s younger brother Edward round the ship’s deck with an iron belaying-pin in hand, and is only prevented from doing him a fatal mischief by an unexpected display on the part of Edward’s sister Rachel (p. 122). Later, Jonsen tells Otto as a joke that he plans to murder all the children and drop them overboard (‘sew them up in little bags […] and put them over the side’, p. 137); and though he is chuckling as he says it, Otto half believes him, an assumption presumably based on the time when he and Jonsen threw the unfortunate Margaret into the sea. And all the time Jonsen harbours a terrible secret that gets mentioned only once, and with studied casualness, by the narrator. The pirate captain, it turns out, has first-hand experience of working on a slave ship – an illegal one, which was still shipping slaves after abolition. The sighting of a frigate recalls this time to his memory with sudden vividness: ‘He remembered another occasion, fifteen years before. The slaver of which he was then second mate was bowling along, the hatches down across her stinking cargo, all canvas spread, when right across the glittering path of the moon a frigate crossed, almost within gun-shot’ (p. 131). On that occasion the ship’s ‘stinking cargo’ had been men, women and children on their way from Africa to the Caribbean; this time it is abducted white children from Jamaica. Like the slaves, the children are stowed away in a hold as ‘hot as an oven’; and later in the book, when for reasons of his own the Captain again battens down the hatches, the heat makes the hold into a potentially lethal space, a latter-day ‘Black Hole’ (p. 135). The reference here is to the Black Hole of Calcutta, an incident when racial tension in British India led to the imprisoning of multiple British soldiers and Indian civilians in a cell meant for one or two prisoners, which resulted in the deaths of most of the incarcerated men and women. The phrase also recalls the narrator’s remark about Margaret’s new sleeping arrangements when banished from the cabin: ‘Heaven knows what hole [she] was banished to’ (p. 105). There are times, then, when the children’s experiences among the pirates explicitly echo major atrocities in British colonial history. And the echoes continue after their transference from the schooner to the British steamer. A British lady imagines the children on the pirate ship as being ‘Chained, probably, down in the darkness like blacks, with rats running over them, fed on bread and water’ (p. 151). For this white woman, even after abolition the natural place for ‘blacks’ is to be chained up in darkness, while the thought of white children being treated likewise is so appalling precisely because of the imagined difference between people from Britain and people from Africa. Representing their plight in these terms ensures that the lady continues to highlight the enduring presence of the British slave trade in British minds long after it has been expunged from British history books.

There’s no sign, however, that the slave trade ever gets mentioned in so many words by anyone in the book – no more than that the word ‘rape’ gets uttered in relation to Margaret. Shrouded in silence, slavery acquires the status of a childish fantasy – a nightmare or a fairy tale, the sort of thing that only happens in the Thousand and One Nights. Children, however, the narrator tells us, are supremely good at keeping secrets, despite adult assumptions that they are not: ‘A child can hide the most appalling secret without the least effort, and is practically secure against detection’ (p. 88). They know far more than adults give them credit for, and are far better at keeping their knowledge to themselves. Children, meanwhile, believe that adults are even better liars. As Emily contemplates Jonsen and Otto in the cabin, she thinks: ‘It would be so easy for adult things like them to dissemble to her. Suppose they really intended to kill her: they could so easily hide it’ (p. 118). The narrator is not so sure, believing that ‘Grown-ups embark on a life of deception with considerable misgiving, and generally fail’ (p. 88). In fact, however, both adults and children fail and succeed with equal frequency to keep their secrets in Hughes’s novel. Emily spills out verbal evidence of her act of murder at the trial, but it isn’t properly heard; Margaret’s behaviour convinces her rescuers she has been raped, but this is not acted on; Captain Jonsen fails to keep his identity as a buccaneer under his hat, his scheme to get the children to say nothing about it falling apart with fatal rapidity. The slave trade, too, is both silenced – kept under hatches, like the slaves or the children in the schooner’s hold – and constantly issuing stark reminders of its enduring presence. The fairy story of British imperial history that keeps it suppressed, stressing only the role of Britain in its abolition, cannot be sustained in face of the evidence of persistent racist attitudes. In The Spider’s Palace, a little girl can attend a clandestine party thrown by mice in an upside-down palace, and return to her bed without being detected (‘no one heard her’, p. 106). In High Wind, fairy stories like the Anansi tales or the Thousand and One Nights are circumstantial proof of past atrocities and their survival in the storyteller’s imagination. Few white British writers of the twentieth century better illustrate these things than Richard Hughes.

Cooks

It’s worth ending, I think, with a few more thoughts on race in Hughes’s novel and story collection, with special reference to cooks. Almost the last word in High Wind uttered by anyone but the narrator is almost the first word uttered in the book by a Black character. When the pirates are led out to execution, it’s the ship’s cook who shows the greatest courage, according to a report Hughes quotes from The Times. Until now, the narrator has barely mentioned the cook except as the man who accidentally threw his whetstone overboard in a misguided attempt to rescue a pig, and on that occasion the colour of his skin was never mentioned. Suddenly, however, the Black sailor’s story comes to the fore in the final chapter, with an effect as startling as if Margaret had suddenly been invited to utter her opinion of her life at sea. In The Times’s account, the cook has eloquence and wisdom as well as courage, though neither can save him from execution – despite the fact that several other members of the crew were ‘reprieved and transported’ at the last minute. These are his words – translated, it’s implied, from his native Spanish:

We shall certainly end our lives in this place: nothing can save us. But in a few years we should die in any case. In a few years the judge who condemned us, all men now living, will be dead. You know that I die innocent: anything I have done, I was forced to do by the rest of you. But I am not sorry. I would rather die now, innocent, than in a few years perhaps guilty of some great sin. (p. 173)

The cook’s execution, this implies, is the final murder in the book that can reasonably be ascribed to the toxic influence of the slave trade. He was effectively enslaved by the pirates, forced to work for them against his will, and his innocence has been noted by the law-abiding Britons working for a major newspaper, though not by the magistrate who condemn him. The other pirates, then, may be innocent of the murder for which they are hanged, but they are not innocent of practising slavery. The British legal system, too, is not innocent, being more guilty of murder than Jonsen: the Captain only attempts to execute Margaret, while the judges successfully execute an entire shipload of foreign nationals. The passage reminds us, then, that innocence is an unstable term; but it also emphasizes the fact that criminal acts have long been practised by the British state, and that institutional racism is a major factor in such acts. By 1929, seizing the opportunity to die with a clear conscience had never been trickier for white British subjects.

Mervyn Peake’s rendition of the sea cook, Long John Silver

In The Spider’s Palace, cooks are deeply implicated in the racism of 1920s British society. In the story ‘Nothing’, a cook chooses to conceal the fact that seven children living in a white middle-class household have among their toys a ‘dead Chinaman’ and a ‘live Chinaman’, in defiance of the wishes of their parents. The erasure from scrutiny of these unsettling possessions is referred to in the story’s title, and while the presence of two Chinese people in the list of the children’s playthings is clearly meant to be comic, their concealment by the cook – who ‘hid them under her apron, and when the father and mother were gone […] gave them back to the seven children’ (p. 67) – might invoke for a twenty-first century adult reader the concealment of racist incidents in British history from adult knowledge, through their exclusion from the curriculum in schools and universities as well as from family anecdotes. In another story, ‘The Dark Child’, a boy who exudes darkness when he stands upright and brilliant light when he stands on his hands is saved from his condition by a resourceful cook, who mixes the darkness and light together in a bowl with a wooden spoon, thus rendering the child completely ‘ordinary’ (p. 22). The child is definitely not Black, the narrator tells us: ‘He wasn’t just black like a Negro, either: he was much blacker than that’ (p. 17). Indeed, he spreads darkness around him like a miasma, to the consternation of his relatives, and it’s implied that his restoration to ‘ordinariness’ involves a return to the condition of being a white middle-class schoolboy, a state that makes his family ‘pleased as pleased as pleased’ (p. 22). A twenty-first century reader of this story might well think about racism in white middle-class families, as exemplified in the covering up of interracial relationships and their offspring that took place in white households in the early twentieth century. The presence of a cook in both these stories that touch on race points towards the inside knowledge of private family affairs acquired by these working-class interlopers in middle-class homes, the kitchen servant in each case being privy to awkward racial facts that have been shunted aside or covered up – much like, in historical terms, the scandalous fact of British interference in the Chinese economy from the Opium Wars to the 1920s, or the widespread refusal in the same period to acknowledge Black citizens as fully British. It seems appropriate, then, that it’s a cook who ensures that the narrative of High Wind ends with a focus on race as well as gender. Of all people in the bourgeois household, the cook has the most unfettered access to the various ingredients that go into the occupants’ bodies. Hughes’s cooks also have unfettered access to the contents of middle-class minds. As a result, they are acutely conscious of the disconnect between the rules by which British society claims to abide and the hidden prejudices and obsessions that really drive its actions. Hidden, often, in the basement of the family home – its ‘hold’, so to speak, or underground regions – kitchen servants gain a unique insight into what has been suppressed and silenced by their masters and mistresses. Hughes enjoins us to listen closely to what they have to say.

Richard Hughes

 

Editions

J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and Peter and Wendy, ed. Peter Hollindale, Oxford World Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Richard Hughes, A High Wind in Jamaica (aka The Innocent Voyage) (St Albans: Triad/Panther Books, 1976).

Richard Hughes, The Spider’s Palace and Other Stories (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974).

A Gothic Cathedral

I am known by the ungodly name of Captain Satan because of my habit of crawling through graveyards at midnight. My followers are grim-faced leather-sheathed alley-scuttlers with daggers stuck in their hats, iconoclasts for the mere love of vandalism. Together we are the strangest of God’s instruments.

I alone who am their leader carry the torch that sanctifies our destruction of graven images. At the head of each war-band God has set a leader who recognizes idols for the spawn of the corrupt imagination. Before crude stone carvings the ignorant burn incense as they once did before the flesh-devouring deities of tree and mountain. Everywhere villagers perform obscene rituals in honour of the Blessed Virgin, who has assumed the whoredom of the Earth Mother worshipped long ago by pagans in caves and glens, before the fields were ploughed and planted or the smoke-choked cities built. Black cats and billygoats are reverenced. We are the smelters of such golden calves.

Most ludicrous of all the Devil’s works are the monsters scrawled over every surface of old churches, the gargoyles and grotesques that leer from crevices, wriggle from buttresses, dribble water from the leads, insinuate themselves into the warp of the very sanctuary carpet. How could the craftsmen, often the saintliest of the congregation, prostitute their talents to the creation of such paragons of deformity? The serpent is subtle, but this crowns all.

Once I saw a painting by a Dutchman, an apocalypse swarming with creatures formed from helmets, knives and fragments from the charnelhouse, the wings and beaks of birds, musical instruments, the tails of fishes. Here and there lolled flaccid human bodies undergoing hideous tortures with expressions of bland serenity. The painting shook me to the very soul, for even as I gazed on those translucent flowers of colour blossoming in darkness, lit by the glare of distant fires, I realized that the fecundity of the painter’s imagination delighted my senses, elevated my inward eye to the pitch of sublimity. Every so often the painting blooms again before my inward eye like a spectral garden. Then because I cannot understand I must destroy.

I am feared by my followers as a ruthless executioner. From church to church I stalk with a hammer in one fist, in the other a chisel, my troupe of reprobates and zanies gamboling in my shadow. Beside my bulk they are evanescent as the shapes in the heart of a fire. They pass over many carvings out of weakness or neglect, awed by the alabaster features of a cherub, roused to laughter by the antics of an ape; but nothing escapes my vigilance. There is a rumour that my jaws hold tusks of stone that grind statues, relics and altarpieces to dust. My face is pitted with gunpowder from a thousand battles, my arms scarred in a crisscross pattern by flying splinters. I walk alone but am never lonely because angels attend my every step.

Yet last night I dreamed a dream that shines like a vein of ore in my daylight brain embedded. Whether I was awake or asleep I cannot tell. I lay in my tent on my campaign bed, swaddled in blankets, preparing as I do each night for oblivion to overwhelm me in a swift dark tide. All at once the night-time noises swelled like the notes of some sacrilegious organ, pressing against the sides of my canvas shelter. For a while I took no notice beyond pulling the blankets over my head, for I know full well that at night things grow large and strange; that is why lovers clutch each other at street corners under the moon, why drunkards toss and turn between the sheets, why sinners mutter incantations before the crucifix under cover of darkness (my God is indifferent to incantations). But instead of ebbing away the fear intensified, tightening its grip on my flesh till my limbs were cold and stiff as the limbs of a corpse. The fear sprang from a cacophony of unrelated sounds, each in itself innocuous: the tap of a sentry’s boots, the crackle of watch-fires, the rustle of leaves, the humming of wind in the rigid guy-ropes; but a horror huger than the sum of its parts took shape and stalked through the night towards my tent. I remained unmoving till the drums that warn of danger pounded away along with the blood-beat in my ears. The hammer lay on a stool beside my bed, underneath my breastplate and my breeches (for contrary to popular belief I remove both before retiring). As I measured the distance between my fist and the hammer’s shaft I felt the fear congeal into one amorphous mass and approach the mouth of the tent with uneven tread. The flap that hung loose across the entrance stirred a little, as if in a breeze, then slowly lifted.

Swiftly I thrust the blankets from my face and raised myself trembling on one elbow. The light of the watchfire filtered through the cloth by my left cheek, no doubt accentuating the chiseled grooves that frame my mouth, the pits and channels that deform my cheeks and forehead. Dread clung in sodden folds to my naked legs. When I spoke, my voice came out with the grating rasp of stone on stone:

‘Who’s there?’

No answer but a ripple in the darkness. As my eyes adjusted, little by little I began to distinguish an awful shape against the canvas. For many minutes I lay pinned to my flimsy bed, studying the aberration as its features emerged from the shadows one by one as if carved by some dreadful sculptor. Then all those features came together, and I leapt from my bed with a shriek of terror. The blankets wrapped themselves about my ankles, I ripped one in my efforts to break free. I forgot the hammer, forgot my brooding daylight immensity, flung myself shrieking at the back of the tent, scrabbling with my nails, burrowing through the coarse cloth into open air. I sensed the creature at my back and bolted wild-eyed into the forest, naked as a newborn, mindless as a beast, leaving my impregnable daytime bulk fast asleep on the mattress. My flesh was of a translucent whiteness: I saw my legs flash whitely beneath me as I leaped between the trees.

What frightened me most, I think – beyond the night, beyond the noises or the apparition – was my helplessness. When I was a child I had no governance over my nightmares; they seized me body and soul and had their will of me, plunging me fathoms deep in unsounded oceans of despair. But as I grew older I learned to wrest my dreams from the grip of the waves, steering each vision like a boat out of the stormy waters of calamity into the calm lagoon of rest. Now once more I was at the whim of those dreadful currents, my boat lost for ever, my body tumbling head over heels through the icy blackness, hands and feet outstretched in a desperate quest to find some purchase in the featureless abyss. When some faint awareness of my whereabouts returned, I found myself barreling through bushes, clumps of brambles, tangled weeds, the gargoyle-creature pounding at my heels. I could not wake myself from this nightmare, any more than I could divert it onto a kindlier trajectory. I could not change the shape of the thing that hurried after me, as I had learned to do with the monsters that had plagued me as a child. I did not try to do so – never so much as turned my head to look behind me, because I knew too well what I would see: a helmet with a knife stuck through the crown, fragments of decomposing limbs, the wing, perhaps the beak of a bird, a kettledrum belly with a fish’s tail, a hammer in one claw, in the other a chisel – the amalgam of cathedral demons, driven by the long-deferred desire to take revenge on their steel-clad torturer. Instead I ran, and felt the shape of my pursuer consolidating itself behind my back with every step.

To my shame I say it: in my fear I forgot to pray.

I cannot tell to what physical fastnesses I fled. The night plucked me from every sanctuary, tossed me from earth to heaven, from heaven to hell in a fine frenzy rolling, the demon snapping first at my head then at my legs. The trees stooped to snatch at my hair, which is as long as Absalom’s and gun-grey. The spiky grasses snagged my ankles, the stones splintered my toenails till my trail was marked with blood. At length when I sobbed with exhaustion I caught sight of the cathedral we had stripped the day before. Between the overhanging houses clustered round her skirts like mourning relatives I ran, my bare feet slapping at the cobbles, praying the west door would be open. Praying, did I say? Exhorting the door itself, I should have said, as a heretic exhorts a wooden idol. Prayer did not come into it; I had no room in my mind to spare for anything outside the compass of my headlong flight. And sure enough, in the studded wood of the great west door a little portal stood ajar. I plunged into God’s mansion with a thousand echoes scampering into the shadows ahead of me. Ranks of soaring pillars marched through the sonorous darkness. Puddles of moonshine gleamed at intervals on the floor. On either side, acres of empty space seemed to throb with the remembered warmth of prayers long past. From every recess peeped the featureless heads of statues we had mutilated. Eyeless and earless they watched me and listened to the echoes scattered by my footsteps.

I had paused in my flight. Outside the great west door my pursuer paused too; absurdly I imagined it crossing itself. For joyful moments I thought that it could not tread on sacred ground. My legs had begun to tremble with relief, I had started to subside towards the floor, when I heard it move towards the threshold. Another instant and it was inside the building. The sweet scent of decay brushed across the hairs inside my nostrils. Now I wept, ready to hurl myself in submission at its feet, as I used to do when my brothers chased me as a child and I knew I could run no further. I wanted to lie prostrate before it, invite it to dismember me as I had dismembered its offspring, anything to bring this chase to a quick conclusion. But I could not face the creature I’d tormented. Up the nave I reeled, silent organ-music roaring in my ears. A beadsman mumbling orisons in some side-chapel might have glimpsed my flying form as a shred of luminous gossamer chased by a comet, he might have fainted at the beauty of it.

And now above me reared the altarpiece; only twenty yards to go before I reached it, before I could embrace the Lord’s high table and be sure that nothing hellish could do me harm. My breath came in ragged heaves, I stumbled and fell on my hands and knees, jumped up and stumbled on with the icy impress of Portland stone upon my flesh. Is it seven steps, I wonder, from the level of the nave to the high altar? I have never known. I had surmounted two when I raised my eyes to look closer at the altarpiece. From every niche stared down a headless saint. The summit was ornamented with a row of angels, their instruments smashed in their hands, golden hair streaming from the yawning cavities where their faces had been. Darkness pounced on my soul and I turned in my turn to marble.

The cathedral grew very silent. Not in the highest corner of the roof the faintest whimper of a sleeping bat. The gold cross on the high altar glinted dully in a moonbeam. The Prince of Gargoyles waddled up behind me; the stench of its flesh consumed my faculties, its breath froze on the nape of my unprotected neck. But here comes the strangest moment of my nightmare: the smell was no longer repugnant to me. Indeed, if it is not heresy to believe that a sweet perfume attends the dying moments of a saintly man or woman then the scent can be no sweeter than the one that struck my nostrils as it passed.

And when the object of my terrors had gone by without raising its countenance and had knelt on the highest step before the altar, its ugliness bloomed in my heart like a flower. For minutes I gazed on the child of foulness and my soul was stirred with strange affection. At every street corner I had turned disgusted from this creature where it squatted with its begging bowl, dodged past it when it dogged my footsteps in my dreams, smashed its features in every sanctuary where they lay naked to mallet. Yet here it knelt, a thing with a soul on the highest step before the Lord’s high altar. A thing brighter than the angels, a companion that had attended my every stride though rewarded only with repulsion, indifference or fear.

Is it the moonlight that causes the cross to glow, or is Christ even now hallowing the darkest places of the mind? Suddenly the cathedral was filled with heavenly radiance, the shout of trumpets, the roar of voices, bells swinging in a bronze arc from heaven to heaven. The thunder of a million ragged wings ascending towards God’s throne. The light that streamed from the stained glass windows painted the stone robes of the mutilated saints in a million hues. My gargoyle was scrambling up the altar screen towards an empty niche between Saint Anthony and Saint Francis. I rose from the ground and flew along the nave, my naked toes just skimming the cold smooth surface of the flagstones, out of the little portal in the great west door, between the stooping houses, over the woods to the tent that held my slumbering daytime bulk. The cathedral receded into a flaming casket, from which shot a sunbeam that seared the lining of my eyes.

Today on the pretext of inspecting our handiwork I returned to the cathedral. My breastplate gleamed as I strode between the pillars, hat in hand, drawing hostile stares from the worshippers; they know me for what I am. I would have run with as much terror if I had been followed by an angel.

The gargoyle was still squatting in its niche. I could tell its neighbour was Saint Anthony because of the long-nosed pig that rooted at his feet. Come to think of it, my gargoyle’s nose had something swinish about it too. How wonderful that a chisel like mine should be capable of transforming inorganic stone to the likeness of living tissue! How wonderful, indeed, to be alive and breathing inside this living, breathing building, this work of many hands!

The beadsman in his side chapel must have thought I was deep in prayer as I stood unmoving before the altar, lost in amazement.

The Dark Tower 3: Burd

[This is the third and last of three variations on the old fairy tale of Childe Roland and Burd Ellen, and should be read after the other two. The first variation can be found here, the second here.]

Burd Ellen squatted barefoot on the cold stone floor, ears straining to catch the sound of a human footstep.

The King and the Queen were talking to her all the time now, sometimes in an urgent whisper, sometimes in short sharp barks like the sound of a fox on a winter’s night. Sometimes their voices rose to a high-pitched screeching and she had to turn her head aside and cover one ear to listen for the footstep with the other. All she had heard for a long time now was the sound of the wind in the stone-flagged passage, the scrape of twigs across the stones of the outside wall.

She kept her head turned away from the King, with his bright inhuman eyes staring out from inside a thick white tangled nest of hair, and the Queen, with her translucent leaf-green flesh and twiggy fingers. Each of them squatted at the entrance to a burrow, over there at the base of the wall that faced the entrance, and whenever she looked towards them they began to gesture at her with their eyes, their fingers, their sinuous tongues. She thought they were squatting, at least. All she could see of them were their heads and arms and shoulders, scattered with earth, dead leaves caught up in the hair and eyebrows. They could just as easily have been standing upright in the burrows, hips wedged between the rocks that formed the foundation of the Tower.

There were three burrows in all: the King’s burrow on the left, the Queen’s on the right, and a third burrow in the middle, a dense black hole, its edges fringed with thin fine roots, the peripheral roots, perhaps, of the jungle of withered ivy that cushioned the curving outer walls of the funnel-shaped building. Three burrows or tunnels, leading where? Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, as the Priest in the village might claim? The man’s house, the woman’s house, the place that was neither? She could not tell. All she knew was that the middle burrow was waiting for her, and that one day she would give in to the elfin gestures and the high, fierce barks and deafening screeches, and crawl on her hands and knees to that root-fringed hole, helpless as a rabbit crawling to the jaws of a hungry fox.

She was thinking furiously. There must be another way out.

What was it the old women had said, she with the coat of brindled feathers and the short sharp nose like a bantam’s beak? ‘They will come for you with steel through the Elfin hills, one by one they will come, the eldest first. Every man or woman or child they meet must be slain on sight with the steel they hold. Their heads must be struck off and their bodies left on the ground to rot, untouched by human hand. No word must be uttered on the journey, no food eaten. If they follow these instructions, child, you will be free. If not, you must stay among us in the Elfin hills for seven long years, till the time for the teind comes round and the stream runs dry.’

Till the time for the teind comes round, she thought: the tax paid by the elves to hell, in exchange for an eternity of play. I have been the teind all my life, she thought, at my father the Baron’s house as well as in Elfland: the tax paid as part of a game I had no part in. There must be a way out, as there was from my father’s house when the elves came calling.

Some time later, squatting on stone in her clammy dress with her dew-moist hair hanging round her shoulders, the thought came to her: it’s in the words, of course, the words she spoke. It’s always in the riddling words, the good way out, if you can hear it.

But instead of the riddling words the clang of steel came to her ears, so alien a sound in this world of stone and air and water that she sprang to her feet as if pulled by wires. As she listened, it occurred to her that she had heard this sound before, here in this Tower, carried in through the passage of stone from the world beyond. She stood there a moment, thinking still. How many times had she heard it? Once? Twice? Thrice? If three times, they had all come for her, and not one had passed the test.

That did not bear thinking about. It was time to stop her thinking.

With a kind of spasm she came to life and began to run. She ran down the stone-flagged passage, feet slapping the uneven flagstones, cold cutting her feet like knives, and out into the blazing brightness of early evening. It was always early evening here, the time before the dark overwhelmed the senses and the streams ran dry.

*****

He stood there, the youngest boy, leaning on his sword. His chest heaved with the effort of his journey, his damp brown hair was plastered across his forehead. His always too-serious face, with its brooding brows and glittering eyes, lit up when he caught sight of her, and he let his sword droop till it clanged against a stone.

‘I came for you, Ellen!’ he cried ecstatically. ‘I killed them all and I came for you! We can go home!’

Beside him, a rowan tree stretched anguished arms towards the sky as if in supplication, and a crow on one of its branches gave a croak.

Ellen knew what they were saying. The task is undone, boy, you should not have spoken before it was finished; you will die. But what had the henwife said, exactly? ‘No word must be uttered on the journey, no food swallowed.’ If he did not stir from where he stood – if he took not another step towards her – then his journey might be over and he might have the right to speak at will. ‘Stay where you are!’ she cried, and held up both her hands in an urgent gesture. He swayed a little, either for weariness or from an impulse to run on. But he stayed rooted to the spot, as she’d hoped he would. He had never been one for embraces, her little brother. He stood there swaying like the tree, and spoke again in a low hoarse whisper.

‘Come on, Ellen,’ he said. ‘We should go home. Mum and Dad are waiting.’

A flurry of barks broke out behind her, sharp and fierce, and a gust of musk assailed her nose. The King and Queen were waiting too, and growing anxious: the little chicken they had caught was flexing its wings. She listened, but she heard no footsteps from the Tower; they too were rooted to the spot, waiting for her answer. What must she say? ‘If they follow these instructions, child, you will be free’ – so the henwife said. Follow what instructions, exactly? And what is free? Certainly not the return of a girl to the granite house she had run away from. Then what else?

She stood there staring at her brother, face to face, both damp and desperate, both poised on the brink of unknown action. She studied his face, as if looking there for the response he needed her to give. She saw the desperation in it: a desperation hatched with the boy at birth, which had grown with him as he grew, and of which this particular desperation, the desperation of a rescue so nearly accomplished and yet so easily brought to grief, could only ever be the first of many more forms of desperation if she came with him, if they made it home. She looked at the child as if in a mirror, and began to wonder who it was who must rescue whom.

All at once the answer came to her. A weight of stone seemed to lift itself from her narrow shoulders.

She smiled and took a step towards him. Now she was standing within the ring of steel, the circuit that would be described if he lifted his sword and swung it round in a deadly arc.

‘It’s all right, Roland,’ she reassured him. ‘We can go home. But first you need to chop off my head.’

The boy’s weariness was such that it took three or four seconds for her meaning to sink in. She watched as it became clear to him: first the horror blooming in his eyes like a great black rose; then the fuller understanding, the denial, the shock of acceptance. ‘If they follow these instructions, child, you will be free’. He had not yet followed the instructions to the letter; he had not yet struck off the head of every man or woman or child he had met in Elfland, not yet left every severed corpse on the stony ground. But surely, his eyes began to plead, surely those words could only refer to the things called elves? Elf men, elf women, elf children, we call them by those names no matter how monstrous their proportions, no matter how twisted their twiggy limbs. But no, the words were clear, the instructions issued by the wicked old man on the Blasted Heath. Every man or woman or child, the man had said, just like the henwife. The same instructions from different lips. And now from hers.

She tried to help him by smiling confidently. She even craned her neck a little as if to show him where to strike. But she trembled as she did so, and she could feel the colour draining from her cheeks as the stream ran dry. The barks from the Tower were strident now, beseeching, urgent, and a hole in the ground seemed a pleasant prospect compared with the parting of her flesh by the whistling steel. Yet still she smiled and nodded and trembled, doing her best to make the trembling seem the response of a coatless body to the mountain breeze, doing her best to make the smile seem bright and real. The hills were growing greyer, in any case, and she could hardly see her brother’s eyes. Perhaps he could not see her trembling or her smile? Perhaps if he could he did not care? He was a strange and distant boy, and though she had always thought his distance sprang from the loveless house he lived in, perhaps he really did not care for her, despite the flush of rare delight that had crossed his face when she left the Tower…

All at once he gave a sob – the first she had heard from him – and raised the sword.

For a long time the blade hung motionless in the air.

She studied it from the corner of her eye, even as she continued to smile with confidence at its bearer, even as she told herself it was best to look straight at Roland, not at the instrument of death he held aloft in his shaking hands.

His eyes were glittering still, she noticed. Was it the glitter of grief and fear, or of ill-concealed delight in the act of killing? She could not tell. She peered through the dusk with sudden urgency to see which it was – and as a result she never noticed when the sword began to trace the arc of its downward swing.

*****

The Dark Tower loomed in the early evening light. The hills that surrounded it were tall and grey and featureless, no brighter on the one side than the other, you could never have said which way was west. There was nothing else in the stony valley where the building stood; no trees, no gorse, no heather, not a blade of grass. A cold wind blew between the hills, but for the longest time there was no one there to feel it.

Three young ravens sat on a boulder by the entrance. From time to time they shuffled closer to each other, casting nervous glances at the blackness of the doorway. They seemed apprehensive that something might come out of it, but more apprehensive still to sit further off, out of harm’s way. The wind ruffled the thick dark feathers on their necks, and they lifted their feet one at a time to give them respite from the chill of the boulder’s surface. They seemed to be waiting, but not to know what they were waiting for.

A shriek broke out from the sky above the hills directly in front of them. The birds looked up.

Dropping out of the sky, cutting lazy circuits through the air like a swinging blade, a fourth bird flew down towards them, wings spread wide. Its primary feathers groped at the sky like giant fingers, its hooked beak yawned to release another passionless shriek. With a thump it landed beside the rock, scattering pebbles: a buzzard with a great barred chest, disheveled plumage, huge brown eyes. A pair of bells jangled at its legs as it struck the ground, and the ravens could see the soft leather straps that attached each bell to one of its ankles. For a while it stood there preening, lifting first one wing then the other towards its beak and combing through the feathers with scrupulous attention, bells jangling all the while. Then it stopped preening and simply stood, looking round itself with interest, though it barely spared a glance for the nervous ravens.

The wind blew. The buzzard stood. The ravens watched, as if for a signal.

All at once the buzzard spread its wings and flew to the Tower. Without pausing it flew through the entrance into darkness, its wingtips skimming the granite jambs as it swept by. The ravens followed one by one, each letting out a plaintive croak before it flung itself into the dark as if into the sea. Now the valley was still and empty once again; but the building boomed and clattered and throbbed with the beat of eight strong wings, and a series of screeches broke through the roof, like the sound of a birdbone whistle being blown by a fool on the Blasted Heath.

Inside the Tower a violent storm had broken out. The King and Queen were screeching and groping for the birds with twiggy fingers. The birds were battering at them with their wings, slashing with their beaks, tumbling over one another in their frantic efforts to find a good way out.

The smallest raven landed on the flagstones near the hole between King and Queen. It stepped uneasily towards the hole, one eye fixed on the screeching monarchs, the other on its wheeling, tumbling siblings as they bounced off the walls of the upright cylinder of stone. But it had no eye to watch the buzzard, and just as it reached the fringe of roots and gathered itself for a final hop – the hop that would take it down, down, down, perhaps to Elfland – the buzzard seized it by the ribs and dragged it clear.

The raven croaked and writhed and flapped in the buzzard’s grip, but the raptor would not let it go. Up and up they spiraled, towards the ragged eye of light in the Dark Tower’s roof. With a final beat of its wings the buzzard surged into the waning light of day. The dimness inside the Tower grew dimmer still as the struggling pair passed through the gap, then dimmed twice more as the other two ravens followed, croaking. A final screech flew after them as they rose above the Tower. Then silence fell, and the ruin lay lifeless as the valley in which it stood.

High above the place where the Tower had been, the smallest raven squirmed itself free from the buzzard’s claws and fluttered away. The other two ravens flew alongside it, croaking comfort. The buzzard wheeled.

Below the four great birds, a sea of trees tossed in the wind, and heather shook its stubby branches on the purple hills.

The sun shone from the leaves, the blossoms, the rocks, the clouds, the streams, the birds.

Margaret Irwin between the Wars, Part 1: ‘The Book’ (1930)

[For me, August 2019 has been Margaret Irwin month. Not much is known, it seems, about this popular historical novelist, but she’s a wonderful writer of fantasy and horror, and over the next few days I’ll be devoting three substantial posts to her best-known works of the fantastic. Enjoy!]

Margaret Irwin started to write books in the 1920s, a remarkable decade for women’s fantasy. Other authors who made a name for themselves in that decade included Stella Benson, Hope Mirrlees, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Elinor Wylie, all of whom wrote fantastic novels – Living Alone (1919), Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), Lolly Willowes (1926) and The Venetian Glass Nephew (1925) – while May Sinclair published a collection of modernist ghost stories in 1923, and Virginia Woolf her most lushly fantastic experiment in prose, Orlando, in 1928. Even male writers took to representing women fantastically in the 1920s, from Lord Dunsany in The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924) to David Garnett in his wildly successful novella Lady into Fox (1922), David Lindsay in The Haunted Woman (1922), and Walter de la Mare in his celebrated faux-autobiography Memoirs of a Midget (1921), as well as his finest short story, ‘Seaton’s Aunt’ (1922). The centrality of women to post-war fiction is hardly surprising, given both their unusual visibility during the conflict and the extension of the vote to women in 1918 and 1928 (though I should stress that most of the texts I’ve listed are more concerned with female invisibility than with the belated entrance of women into full citizenship). But why did so many writers choose to represent women’s experiences in fantastic fiction? Margaret Irwin’s first two novels were fantasies, and at the end of the decade she wrote the most anthologized of her short stories, a supernatural horror called ‘The Book’ (1930). These three texts might be said to provide a kind of answer to my question, and one that throws light on the other women’s fantasies I’ve listed.

The 1920s and 1930s have together come to be known as between the wars, as if they were defined by the cataclysmic acts of violence that hem them in, making them a no-man’s land without an identity or direction of its own. The dominant mode of Irwin’s fantasies is in-betweenness. Each story conveys a similar sense of waiting in a state of uneasy suspension to see if something that has just ended will complete its transformation into something else. The transformation hasn’t been fully accomplished by the end of the narrative, and the feeling you’re left with after reading is one of uncertainty, with the protagonist and hence the reader poised or held in prolonged suspension between alternative genres or modes of existence – different philosophies – without any clear sense of which of these, or which combination of these, might best be embraced in order to make sense of the time to come. This mood of suspension pervades all the most prominent female fantasies of the decade. Lolly Willowes ends with its protagonist uncertain about her future, despite her initiation into the powers and demonic connections of being a witch. Living Alone finishes with its desultory heroine wandering off to the United States, uncertain what she will do next. Lud-in-the-Mist leaves many of its female characters either dead or marginalized, despite the transformation of their country through a magical revolution; Orlando’s hero becomes a heroine half way through his unexpectedly extended lifespan, but her happiness at the end of the book is associated with her lifelong association with a quiet and prosperous country estate, out of the political and cultural limelight. Each of these books brings its women into direct contact with potent magical forces, but each also leaves them waiting, half hopeful but with a bass note of well-founded scepticism, for those energies to manifest themselves in genuine social change. And the sense of infinite promise mixed with doubt and even fear pervades the marvellous early narratives of Margaret Irwin.

The best known of Irwin’s fantasies is ‘The Book’, which I first came across in Ann and Jeff Vandermeer’s fine anthology The Weird (2011). The protagonist of the story is a man, but his in-between-ness, like that of the women in the books I’ve listed, is never in question. He is a modestly prosperous middle-class gentleman, with a reliable job, a wife, three children and a dog, and a house in which they all live in close and reasonably democratic proximity. The children in his house all have a voice, and the man’s ‘favourite’ is the youngest, eight-year-old Jean. The egalitarian tendencies of this family are embodied in its solitary set of bookshelves, which promiscuously mingles ancient and modern, male and female, adult’s and children’s texts in cheerful disorder:

The dining-room bookcase was the only considerable one in the house and held a careless unselected collection to suit all the tastes of the household, together with a few dull and obscure old theological books that had been left over from the sale of a learned uncle’s library. Cheap red novels, bought on railway stalls by Mrs Corbett, who thought a journey the only time to read, were thrust in like pert, undersized intruders among the respectable nineteenth-century works of culture, chastely bound in dark blue or green, which Mr Corbett had considered the right thing to buy during his Oxford days; beside these there swaggered the children’s large gaily bound story-books and collections of Fairy Tales in every colour.

This household, then, embodies the inter-war epoch which saw the vote finally extended to all British citizens of suitable age. Its bookshelves are available to all its members and represent many aspects of European culture, both elite and popular, from fairy tales and Latin poetry to railway novels and detective fiction (Mr Corbett was reading a detective novel in the story’s opening sentence, despite the fact that the ‘pert, undersized intruders’ of popular fiction are associated in the list with his less educated wife). The house is not excessively democratic, however; it is not revolutionary, like Soviet Russia. We learn a few pages later that the servants are assumed by their employers to be uninterested in reading: ‘The maid never touched the books’ Mr Corbett thinks (p. 184). And the books themselves speak to moments of ambition in Mr Corbett’s past. They contain a number of nineteenth-century volumes he ‘had considered the right thing to buy during his Oxford days’ and the theological tomes whose only function (since they are never read) must be to inform the world that Mr Corbett’s uncle was a Dean, a figure of some stature in the Church of England. It is one of these ancient books that gives Irwin’s text its title, apparently infecting Mr Corbett’s mind with a miasma of self-interest, intensifying those early ambitions into an all-consuming obsession with financial and intellectual self-advancement at the expense of everyone around him. I say ‘apparently’ here because his passion for self-promotion is hinted at, as we’ve seen, in the books he owns, and Irwin carefully refrains from allowing us to conclude with any certainty that the effects of the titular Book are supernatural. Here is another form of in-between-ness the narrative contains: the gradual corruption of Mr Corbett’s mind by ‘The Book’ can be as easily ascribed to his own character and upbringing as to supernatural causes, and the tale is a perfect example of Tzvetan Todorov’s ‘hesitation’ between supernatural and natural explanations of seemingly impossible occurrences – a hesitation which suggests that the world itself is somehow suspended between irreconcilable philosophical perspectives, materialist and spiritual, supposedly committed to the former while being unable to shake off the residual influence of the latter, even if only as a means of disclaiming responsibility for its own worst actions.

The Book itself is an in-between object. Its presence on the bookshelves can at first only be deduced from an absence: an unexplained gap between the usually densely-packed volumes, which acquires for Mr Corbett an ‘unnatural importance’ and begins to prey on his mind until it develops an unsettling resemblance to ‘a gap between the two front teeth of some grinning monster’. For Chaucer and his medieval contemporaries a gap between the two front teeth was a sign of lechery, and there’s no mistaking the association between Mr Corbett’s obsession with the Book and erotic desire – in particular pornography. Censorship has ensured that pornography constitutes an absence in many libraries. It has also ensured that obscene passages in nineteenth-century texts were sometimes printed in Latin, barring access to uneducated readers on the dubious assumption that only the well-schooled are disciplined enough to read such passages without succumbing to temptation. The Book, when Mr Corbett stumbles across it, turns out to be in Latin, and he is at first drawn to the illustrations rather than the text, since his linguistic skills are not the best. These illustrations invoke both sexual temptation and its possible consequence, childbirth: ‘an ugly woodcut of Adam and Eve with figures like bolsters and hair like dahlias, or a map of the Cosmos with Hell-mouth in the corner, belching forth demons’ (p. 186). When at last Mr Corbett decides to decipher the Latin with the help of his young son’s dictionary, he ‘steals’ into the schoolroom like a thief in the night ‘With a secret and guilty air which would have looked absurd to anyone who knew his harmless purpose’. The part of the book he reads with most attention is a passage that describes (as he thinks) ‘some horrible rite practised by a savage tribe of devil-worshippers’ – though he reflects extensively on it afterwards, ‘committing each detail to memory’ as if to preserve it for his own uses. And the guilt that accompanies his clandestine reading of the Book soon begins to extend itself to Mr Corbett’s dealings with his family. He begins to think they suspect him of some unspecified misconduct and becomes infuriated at their ‘low and bestial suspicions and heavy dullness of mind’. The second time he borrows the dictionary from his son he ‘thought the boy looked oddly at him and he cursed him in his heart for a suspicious young devil, though of what he should be suspicious he could not say’ (p. 187). By this stage in the story his family has become a ‘savage tribe’ with devilish suspicions or superstitions, whose language he no longer speaks and whose culture is a closed book to him. Mr Corbett has become a colonial intruder into his own household, and anyone familiar with the habits of colonists will have begun to expect the worst from his bids to penetrate the secret spaces of its other inhabitants.

Mr Corbett’s inability to say what his family might suspect him of can be taken as another significant gap in the narrative, a deliberate exclusion from it of something in him which Mr Corbett himself refuses to acknowledge. The nature of that unsaid something may be hinted at in the phrase ‘low and bestial suspicions’, sexual desire being often associated with wild animals as against civilized men. The same refusal to acknowledge his own half-suppressed desires is implied by his assumption that the outrageous passage he translates so carefully refers to some ritual performed by savages, as against the actions of a self-disciplined Englishman like himself.  Yet Mr Corbett has been having what are obliquely identified as sexual fantasies before ever he lays hands on the Book. The story begins with him falling into the habit of reading familiar books in perverse new ways, all of which can be seen as eroticized or sexual. Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop – its title suggesting the secrets that might be hidden in broad daylight in a packed emporium – becomes for him an index to its author’s sado-masochistic leanings: ‘Beneath the author’s sentimental pity for the weak and helpless, he could discern a revolting pleasure in cruelty and suffering’. When he turns instead to the classical fiction of Walter Pater he concludes that ‘there is something evil in the austere worship of beauty for its own sake’ (p. 184). Later he identifies Robert Louis Stevenson as another sadist, Treasure Island exhibiting ‘an invalid’s sickly attraction to brutality’ (p. 185). Perverse readings like these can also be readily practised, it turns out, on the books that formed the bedrock of Mr Corbett’s education. In his nightmares after reading Pater ‘the gods and heroes of classic fable acted deeds whose naked crime and shame [he] had never appreciated in Latin and Greek Unseens’, and he wakes ‘in a cold sweat from the spectacle of the ravished Philomel’s torn and bleeding tongue’ (p. 184). Latin itself, the mark of a high-class schooling eminently suitable for boys who are destined by birth to become leaders of men, has been contaminated by association with rape and other ‘naked crimes’ well before Mr Corbett first glances into the manuscript pages of the mysterious tome of the story’s title.

Meanwhile, Mr Corbett entertains the same suspicions of other family members as he suspects them of entertaining about him. When his son in turn suddenly becomes disgusted by a book he used to enjoy (‘Filthy stuff’, he calls it), Mr Corbett’s first assumption is that the boy has been reading a pornographic publication passed on to him by servants or other boys: ‘Mr Corbett was disturbed. Unpleasant housemaids and bad schoolfriends passed through his head, as he gravely asked his son how he had got hold of that book’. His suspicions prove groundless, however. The book the boy finds ‘filthy’ is an expurgated edition of Gulliver’s Travels, with all the obscene bits taken out – though of course in the original Swift’s misanthropic ‘cynicism’, as Mr Corbett calls it, is expressed in graphically corporeal terms. Before long Mr Corbett himself is echoing the boy’s reaction to Swift (and the irony of Swift having been another Dean is surely intentional). By this stage, for him all authors have become ‘filthy-minded’, from the sexually repressed Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte to William Wordsworth with his unwholesome nature fetish, and all of them use literature to articulate ‘what they dared not express in their lives’. Literature itself points to a gap in public life, the gap from which the articulation of erotic arousal has been erased, and it is this gap that the Book of the story’s title comes exclusively to fill in Mr Corbett’s own existence.

As he gets to know the Book better he notices that it is unfinished. There are blank pages at the end, a gap where the perpetual process of learning to which the text pays verbal tribute has been cut short by the author’s death. As Mr Corbett painstakingly deciphers the Book’s contents he sees that these blank pages are being gradually filled with lines of new writing: instructions which permit him to satisfy his clandestine desires in the world beyond the text. At first these lines give him tips on good investments, glutting his appetite for wealth and status. Later, however, they move on to more obviously damaging suggestions, instructing him to kill the family dog and thus pandering to the sadistic pleasure in cruelty which he detected in Stevenson and Dickens. Inevitably the mysterious instructions that appear on the blank pages, which so conveniently chime in with Mr Corbett’s unspoken wishes, imply that he has started to write these wishes into the manuscript, embellishing his work of translation with unwholesome fantasies of his own. His belief that he must obey the lines’ instructions to the letter (if not, he is convinced that something dreadful will happen to him) invokes his respect for authority, as exemplified in his decision to keep his uncle’s books in the first place; and here we come to perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the story – its gender politics.

I suggested earlier that the Corbett household has a quasi-democratic air about it, as attested by its bookshelves, or by the fact that Mr Corbett and his wife share the same tastes in lowbrow reading. What Mr Corbett’s new reading habits exemplify, by contrast, is his frustrated wish for power. His perverse analyses of Dickens, Stevenson and the Book make him feel superior – first to his younger self, who he thinks did not read with the penetration he has acquired in his maturity; then to his wife and children, who strike him as dull and narrow-minded by comparison; and finally to his friends and professional colleagues, whose inability to profit from the Book’s financial tips makes him think of them as incompetent. Inevitably, perhaps, his sense of superiority has a gendered aspect. In the 1920s Latin formed an integral part of a middle-class boy’s education – and there is no indication in the story that the girls in his family have access to it. It’s the ancient language of the law, and Mr Corbett gives as his excuse for borrowing the dictionary his need to translate an old law case for professional purposes. And it’s the language of theology, associated with the late Dean’s library. Law and theology, like Latin, have traditionally been the exclusive province of men; in Irwin’s day this was only slowly changing. And in medieval times, when the Book was written, Latin was the language of the Bible, and of the male priests who had sole access to its contents. Indeed, the title of the short story could well be read as referring to the Good Book, and the mysterious Book itself with its pictures of Adam and Eve and the mouth of Hell could well be taken for an annotated copy of the Scriptures. In turning from detective fiction to what he thinks of as theology Mr Corbett is embracing authority, just as he is when he casts aside the demotic Dickens for the more socially elevated Pater.

Mr Corbett’s recourse to the Dean’s volumes, in other words, immerses him in a world where men’s activities are carefully segregated from those of women; a world from which the twentieth century was only just beginning to emerge in the two decades between the wars. The unhealthy miasma he detects in the vicinity of the bookshelves – exuded by the Dean’s library, and perhaps by the Book in particular – could be construed as the stink of the patriarchal past, when women were men’s chattels and it was the absolute prerogative of men to dispose of their offspring as they saw fit. The association of the Dean’s library with pornography points up the various abuses to which patriarchy gives rise – through its tendency to represent women and children as objects, through its privileging of individual male desires over the collective needs of the community, through its restriction of the arcane secrets of sexual knowledge to male eyes and hands. There’s a ghastly inevitability, then, about the fact that Mr Corbett’s perverse reading culminates in an assault on Jean, a female child. Philomela, after all, whose severed tongue Mr Corbett dreams of, was raped by a patriarch – her father, Tereus – and Mr Corbett’s final attack on his own daughter can be read as the consequence of an education designed to reinforce the historical linkage of patriarchal power with sexual violence.

The build-up to the attack is framed precisely in terms of the protection of privileged authority. By this point the Book has become for Mr Corbett ‘the source of ancient and secret power’, and the nightmares his daughter has begun to have about it suggest that she has somehow ‘acquired dangerous knowledge’ herself – perhaps by reading it, which would make her in his eyes a kind of heretic against his own divine status. She has teamed up with the family dog, he thinks absurdly, to conspire against his plans for universal domination; and the thought leads him to quote a line from the Good Book: ‘“All that are not with me are against me,” he repeated softly’. The words are derived from a sentence uttered by the divine son of a patriarchal God (‘He that is not with me is against me’, Matthew 12:30), and Mr Corbett’s easy appropriation of it for his own ends echoes, in effect, many generations of scriptural exegesis on behalf of male supremacy. In a similar spirit he decides to kill the child with a dose of rat poison no one knows he has – a particularly deadly form of secret knowledge, playing on the notion that his mind (like that of Dorian Gray) has been metaphorically ‘poisoned’ by a Book; his murder will be committed, like an act of God, by the unseen hand of a ‘secret power’. In these final paragraphs of the story Mr Corbett has become an activist on behalf of religion itself, which has acted since classical times in the service of male oppression.

In fact, to his credit, Mr Corbett withstands this last temptation. He doesn’t kill his daughter, but dies himself in her place, destroyed either by the shocking revelation that all his recent investments have collapsed (as some people believe) or by the pressure of a hand upon his windpipe (as the coroner’s report suggests). Was he killed by the Book’s disembodied servant, the demonic hand about which his daughter has been having so many nightmares? Or did he kill himself by his own hand, as the lawyers assert, somehow throttling himself to death to prevent himself becoming a similar servant of oppression? The notion that the hand that killed him might have been his own would seem far-fetched, if it weren’t for the fact that his hand has been associated throughout the story both with his reading of the Latin book and his carrying out of its instructions: ‘with his finger he traced out the words that had been written’; ‘He held onto the door handle [of his daughter’s bedroom], but his fingers seemed to have grown numb, for he could not turn it’ (p. 191). The story’s end, then, falls into a gap between two alternative theories of Mr Corbett’s death, and in doing so it defines the interwar period as a time in suspension between the immaterial preoccupations of the past and the material obsessions of the present; or else between the total dominance of the patriarchy, supported by an intensely patriarchal religion firmly rooted in the scriptures, and the ushering in of a new, egalitarian age in the wake of the universal franchise. It’s presumably up to the reader (as it was to Mr Corbett) to determine which.

Lynd Ward, illustration for William F. Harvey, ‘The Beast with Five Fingers’

 

The Dark Tower 2: Tree and Bird

[This is the second of three short stories playing variations on the theme of the old fairy story of Childe Roland and Burd Ellen. The first variation should be read first, and can be found here. The third and final variation is here.]


Hector had been able to hear Roland coming for some time now. Or rather, he had been able to feel him coming, just as he would have heard him coming if he’d still been a human boy.

Tremors shook the earth each time his younger brother swung his sword and sent a head flying: the thump of the severed head, followed by the heavier thump of a headless body on the stony ground. Hector’s roots detected the tremors from each double thump and carried them up through his slender trunk into the branching channels of his thirsty brain. He’s coming, the tremors whispered. He’s coming to save us: Roland the assassin, Childe Roland with the killer’s eyes and the heart of steel. Hector spread the roots of his toes, feeling for additional clues as to Roland’s whereabouts. He’s coming quickly.

The henwife. The child was approaching the henwife’s hut, and he was tired.

Alexander, now. Roland was surely no Alexander. The eldest brother had only got as far as the henwife’s hut before he succumbed to the lure of mercy. The instructions had been unambiguous – kill everyone you meet in Elfland by decapitation – and Alexander had known full well what would be the consequence of failing to follow them. He had heard the stories, had told them himself in the winter evenings by the fire, his harp trilling out the tunes that gave them life and fixed them in the memory. But knowledge is one thing, acting on it quite another. The henwife had undone Alexander, with her crinkled face and the quizzical look that came into her eyes when he raised his sword.

In retrospect it seemed inevitable. How could Alexander have possibly killed the henwife, that inexhaustible fund of the songs and stories that filled his dreams and his waking hours? As soon kill his mother, his aunt, his gran, the wizened old wives of the mountain village who had taught him all he knew and felt. As soon kill himself

And kill himself he did, at least as a person of any importance or potential. Now Alexander’s claws gripped Hector’s branches, as the bard now bird hopped aimlessly through the tangled thicket of his brother’s thoughts. Gripping branches was his only form of language. He couldn’t speak or sing or play, only croak like a toad and dance his ungainly dance when the wind got up and the rowan swayed, gripping and releasing each branch in turn as he hopped round the crown of the tree in an endless circuit. The elves were both cruel and cunning in the punishments they meted out for disobedience.

Hector, on the other hand – the second brother, now the tree – Hector was made of sterner stuff. Or so he had thought. He had killed the henwife, just as he’d killed the goatherd and the tinker and the tinker’s dog. He’d killed the tinker’s dog because it barked at him, though the old man had never said anything about beheading dogs or birds or insects. After that, Hector had made it all the way to the Tower itself, to his own amazement. He had blown the slug-horn at the door, seen the girl run out. Even now he remembered the sense of exultation he had felt as she ran towards him, because he too had heard the stories, had known from the start that he’d have no chance if he entered this one. The eldest brother sometimes prevailed, the youngest brother often, but the middle brother never, not in any version of the tale he had ever been told. He had had no chance at all; yet he’d reached the Tower, and here he stood, the conditions fulfilled, the last test passed, his sister running towards him. Against all odds he had won her back. In his triumph he dropped the sword, stretched out his arms to catch her shoulders, laughed and cried. And even as the sword hit the ground he had felt the changes coming over him.

His boots split open. His toes burst wriggling out and started to burrow into the earth, like eels burrowing into the rotting carcass of a long-dead horse. His arms forked and forked again, each bifurcation wrenching apart the bones and sinews. His head split open, too, sending tender new twigs of thought in all directions. The last thing he saw, as the bark spread over his eyes, was the look of horror on his sister’s face as he exploded into vegetation. There had been plenty of days since then to remember that look, as he stood by the entrance to the Tower, a rowan rooted among the rocks with a useless raven hopping around in its leafless branches.

There had been plenty of time, too, to think about where he had gone wrong.

Kill everyone you meet in Elfland, the old man told him. Not every elf, as Hector had assumed. Kill everyone you meet in Elfland, without exception. For Hector, Burd Ellen had after all never really been in Elfland – she had come here under duress, she belonged in the fields and woods and hills of Dad’s estate. That was his assumption, based on a particular understanding of the riddling words of bards and elves. But he had been wrong, for all his wiliness (he was the wiliest among the brothers, the middle brother nearly always was). And now…

Here came Roland, the youngest brother, a child of twelve, armed with the same instructions, the same riddling words. He too didn’t stand a chance. For one thing, he was carrying the oldest sword, the rusty one from the back of the stables. His body and limbs were unprotected by cold steel, because there had been no armour in the house small enough to fit him. How to warn him? How to let him know? It couldn’t be done. A tree has no voice, or what voice it has is only borrowed – the hissing of leaves in an autumn wind, the creak of branches under the weight of a late spring snowfall – and is in any case only available at certain times not of its choosing. No hope of warning there. But the bird? It’s a bird of omen, the raven, isn’t it? Couldn’t Alexander give some hint at the old man’s trickery?

Could Alexander save Childe Roland, absent-minded, gullible old Alex with the misty eyes?

From the feel of its claws, the raven was jumping up and down in agitation, croaking no doubt if Hector could have heard it. Flapping its wings as well, no doubt, to attract attention. He could sense it in the thicket of his mind, jumping up and down, letting out a stream of husky croaks at various pitches. Pathetic, really. The boy wouldn’t see the bird in a month of Sundays. Childe Roland only ever had eyes for the task in hand, he couldn’t be distracted, that was the measure of his coldness. Nothing short of a peck on the ankle would get his attention, and then it was likely enough that the boy would strike, with deadly accuracy, at the raven’s head, with his rusty sword, and that Alex would lose his life all over again.

Pathetic.

There was nothing his brothers could do to help the youngest.

And now the footsteps, pounding, pounding on the granite flags of the Dark Tower’s floor. Coming closer at frightening speed. Out into the open. He could feel her presence now through his silvery bark: a kind of glow, like the touch of the sun on his woody skin in the early evening. She had stopped in front of Roland. The child must be looking her up and down with his killer’s eyes.

The child would strike.

And suddenly Hector lost all doubt. The child would strike, it was who he was, it was what he did. Childe Roland had known, from the moment the old man issued his grim instructions, what to do, and had known too that he could do it, that he alone of Ellen’s three brothers had the eyes, the arm, the steel-cold stomach to complete the mission. This was what the boy had been born for, after all: to make up for the fatal flaws of his older siblings. Everything would be all right. The boy would strike, and the head would roll.

Hector held his breath, or would have held it if he’d been human. Instead he stood tall and slim and graceful, waiting for the blow and the double thump.

*****

And waiting on.

A thump. The ring of steel. In two or three seconds, the louder thump of the headless body on the stony ground…

But the second thump – it never came. Slowly it dawned on the waiting Hector that the weight and texture (so to speak) of that first thump did not in fact tally with the weight and texture of a severed head. The boy hadn’t struck. Instead – it was obvious now – he had dropped the sword, the rusty sword from the back of the stables. He had dropped it; and now another light thump sent new vibrations through Hector’s roots.

Could it be possible? Had Roland dropped to his knees? Was he crying, for the first and only time in his life?

A wave of relief ran through Hector’s body, from the tips of his roots to the topmost twigs of his forking arms and his branching mind. A gust of warmth, a tremor like an earthquake, as if instead of the Dark Tower the slender rowan that had once been Hector, the second brother, were about to suffer a fall. A happy fall, from the topmost pitch of expectation to a new understanding of the world his brother lived in.

Childe Roland had not struck. The boy was human, after all.

And then a wave of cold, from roots to twigs and back to roots: Childe Roland had not struck. Burd Ellen was doomed.

There was no one left to save her. No one left to defend her person, body and soul, with a ring of steel. No armour, swords, or warriors. The girl was doomed, and her house was too.

A strong wind blew in from the west. It brought a spray of brackish raindrops tinged with spume, and the cries of lonely seabirds, cold and far, as if they were mocking the perpetual cycles of human grief.

The tree bent before the wind, its grey bark darkening as the raindrops lashed its trunk. For an hour or so it tossed back and forth, but it wasn’t uprooted. Rowans are resilient, despite the shallowness of their roots.

When the storm was over the tree grew still, and the three ravens on its branches relaxed their grips and began to look with caution about them.

They were getting hungry. They had no idea when they had last eaten, and it seemed to them that there was plenty of carrion nearby.

[The third and final variation on the Dark Tower theme can be found here.]