Night Scenes in Peake and Masefield

One of the most memorable moments in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast (1950) comes when the banished servant Flay returns to the castle in secret to continue his faithful vigil over its masters, the Groan family, and above all the young heir to the castle, Titus Groan. At one point in his nocturnal wanderings through abandoned halls and empty corridors, Flay comes across a ‘small cloistered quadrangle’ (p. 639), in the middle of which grows a thorn tree whose silhouette strikes him as strange.[1] Gradually, as the dawn begins to break, he begins to understand the reason for this strangeness. The tree conceals the figure of Steerpike, Gormenghast’s Master of Ritual and (in Flay’s view) the deadliest enemy of the House of Groan. Flay’s discovery of Steerpike leads first to Steerpike’s exposure as a murderer (he has hidden the skeletons of Titus’s two aunts in a forgotten room where he can gloat over them) and afterwards to Flay’s own death. The passage in which he finds him, then, is a turning point in the novel, and deserves to be quoted in full as a masterpiece of atmospheric writing.

Here it is:

In the centre of the quadrangle was a thorn tree, and [Flay’s] eyes turned to the pitchy silhouette of that part of it that cut across the yellow of the sunrise. His familiarity with the shape of the old tree caused him to stare more intently at the rough and branching stem. It seemed thicker than usual. He could only see with any clarity that portion of its bole that crossed the sunrise. It appeared to have changed its outline. It was as though something were leaning against it and adding a little to its bulk. He crouched so that still more of the unfamiliar shape came into view, for the upper part was criss-crossed with branches. As his vision was lowered and he commanded a clearer view beneath the overhanging boughs his muscles became tense for it seemed that against the livid strip of sky – which threw everything else both on the earth and in the air into yet richer blackness – it seemed – that against this livid strip the unfamiliar outline on the left of the stem was narrowing to something the shape of a neck. He got silently to his knee and then, lowering his head and lifting his eyes, he obtained an uninterrupted view of Steerpike’s profile. His body and the back of his head were glued together as though he and the tree had grown up as one thing from the ground.

And that was all there was. The universal darkness above and below. The horizontal stream of saffron yellow and, like a rough bridge that joined the upper darkness to the lower, the silhouette of the ragged thorn stem, with the profile of a face among the stems.

What was he doing there in the darkness alone and motionless? (pp. 639-640)

The genius of the passage lies in its use of light and dark to map the slow revelation of Steerpike’s presence. Piece by piece Flay assembles the puzzle, in the process transforming the familiar thorn into something uncanny – a tree with a human body growing out of it – so that the naming of Steerpike only adds to the young man’s unsettling qualities. For much of the passage the reader’s attention is engaged with the particular difficulties of examining the tree in the dimness of the quadrangle; everything else in Peake’s narrative is held in suspension, waiting until the significance or otherwise of this long, slow process of decipherment should be unveiled and the mechanism of plot be set in motion once again.

There are many such moments in Peake’s novel, moments that invite us to set aside the unfolding drama as we seek with one character or another to negotiate some specific aspect of the ever-changing landscape of Gormenghast Castle. In this passage, Steerpike is for a while no longer a villain – not even to Flay, the man who has reason to hate him most, since he was responsible for Flay’s exile. Nor is he the ex-kitchen boy who rose to be Master of Ritual. He is an enigma, detached from grand or petty narratives of all kinds, fascinating precisely by virtue of being, first, an unknown object spotted in the dark, then a hybrid of tree and man, ‘alone and motionless’, his thoughts more completely hidden than his body. For as long as the passage lasts, he and Flay exist only as rivals locked in a physical and psychological duel, Flay deriving an advantage from Steerpike’s ignorance of his presence, Steerpike deriving a greater advantage from his uncanny relationship to the tree and to the ‘universal darkness’ of the quadrangle and the castle it metonymically represents.[2] At each such moment in the novel, the characters involved become extensions of their setting, doing homage to Gormenghast’s quasi-sentient vastness by their total absorption in the immediate problems or wonders it presents them with. Each of these moments contributes another potent strand to the developing myth of the castle, while the characters themselves gain a mythic dimension thanks to their place within the titanic structure.

In this passage, Steerpike strikes Flay for the first time not as an intruder but as an indigenous denizen of the castle’s gloomy interstices, a being who springs from between its stones just as the tree does; this despite Flay’s conviction that the young man is a deep-dyed traitor to its ruling dynasty, which Flay continues to serve despite his banishment. The young man’s appearance of being wholly at home in the darkness of the quadrangle, and of being able to transform something familiar (the tree) into a tool to advance his hidden purposes, anticipates the final section of the novel, in which Steerpike wanders Gormenghast’s attics, roofscapes, cellars and staircases as at once an outcast and the castle’s deadly alternative monarch, the Arch-fiend of Peake’s secondary world. In that final section of the book, Steerpike’s unrivalled familiarity with the building’s topography gives him an unsettling advantage over his pursuers, the Groans, allowing him to reign unchallenged in spaces of the building to which its nominal rulers have never penetrated. The power this knowledge gives him is something he anticipates from the moment when his murder of the aunts has been discovered. At that point he makes the spontaneous decision to embrace the situation – that is, to relish his sudden fall and the terrifying aura with which it invests him, in a world where tradition elicits absolute obedience:

If it was no longer possible for him to wear, one day, the legitimate crown of Gormenghast, there was still the dark and terrible domain – the subterranean labyrinth – the lairs and warrens where, monarch of darkness like Satan himself, he could wear undisputed a crown no less imperial. (p. 658)

The echo of Milton’s celebrated line here, uttered by Satan in Paradise Lost – ‘Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven’ – is unmistakable.[3] From this point onwards, Steerpike is ‘no less imperial’ than Titus himself or his formidable mother, the Countess Gertrude, having fulfilled his ambition to attain, in a sense, the castle’s crown; the fact that his is an illegitimate version of that crown only enhances his perverse enjoyment of it. The scene at the thorn tree, like a painting of the Tree of Life defiled by the presence of the human-headed Serpent, pre-empts this passionate embrace of perversity, when Steerpike becomes an embodiment of the fastness at the centre of Peake’s imaginative universe.

*****

First edition of Lost Endeavour, Frontispiece by Stephen Remi, showing Little Theo on the left and Charles Harding on the right.

I was reading one of John Masefield’s novels recently – a strange, visionary book called Lost Endeavour (1910) – when I came across a passage which seemed to me to foreshadow the passage with the thorn tree. It’s from one of Masefield’s intense set-pieces: a scene in which a small band of pirates finds itself surrounded by a war party of indigenous Americans on a hill in the wilderness at night. Knowing they are surrounded, and believing that the war party will attack at dawn, the pirates decide that one of their number must leave the hilltop to fetch water if they are to survive the night. An enslaved boy of sixteen whom they happen to have met, and who knows the land as none of the rest do, volunteers for the mission. On his way back from filling their water bottles at a stream, he sees something ahead of him which may or may not be a threat, or a place where a threat is hiding. This is where my next passage begins:

What was the black thing? Was it a thicket of briars, or a patch of sumach, or an Indian grave-heap? I could not be sure; and it was necessary that I should be sure. I lay down flat upon the ground, so as to get its upper edge, if it had one, defined against the stars and the comparative lightness of the lower heaven. Looking at it thus, with my head flat upon the ground, I thought it must be the bulk of a vast uprooted tree, probably much rotted and overgrown. That it was a tree was evident an instant later, when, in a puff of air, I caught the scent of wild honey from some crevice in its bark.

Now it was always my plan when alone in the woods to approach such places from the flank, and never directly from the front. One never knows what may be hiding on the further side. One might stir up a bee’s nest, or a honey-hunting bear, or a wild-cat, if one approaches an old log too rashly, and none of these three is polite when disturbed. And as I looked at this log, with a knop or swelling in its surface well defined against a star, something very slowly rose up from behind it, gradually hiding not only that star but several others. It rose up very slowly, so slowly that I knew that it could be no animal. As it rose it defined itself. Something stuck out from it at right angles. It was round, with something sticking out from it; it was something with eyes and a brain; it was looking at the ground where I lay. It was an Indian with eagle feathers in his hair. I got a sniff of his war-grease intermixed with the perfume of the honey. For an instant we stared at each other through the darkness. We were not five yards from each other. If we had made ‘long arms’ we might have touched. What was I to do now? Did he see me or did he not see me; and if he saw me, what was he going to do; and if he did not see me, how was I to get past the log while he was there? Did he see me? I concluded that he could not help it, since my face, in spite of my tan, was pretty white against the ground. But if he saw me he made no least sign, no least noise. He was like some great fungus thrust up suddenly from the log. He had the best cards; it was for him to call the game. (pp. 103-105).[4]

The parallels between this passage and Peake’s are worth considering in detail. First, the topography of the incidents they examine. Both incidents are shaped by their setting: the cloistered quadrangle, implicitly giving Flay a column to hide behind, or at least a shadowed border to hide in as he surveys the thorn tree; the steep hill with water at the bottom which places Charles below the tree trunk as he approaches it, giving him a greater disadvantage in relation to whatever it may conceal. Both take place at night, with the limitations on vision this imposes. Both passages involve the inspection of a tree, an inspection that requires a careful adjustment of position (Flay kneels and lowers his head, Charles lies on the ground) to make use of all available light (the yellow sunrise in Peake’s passage, the stars in Masefield’s). In both cases the risks involved in this inspection are considerable; the banished Flay, if noticed by a denizen of the castle, risks death, while Charles expects to be hurt or killed if the tree conceals any of the creatures he fears. In each case, the human being revealed by the inspection seems uncannily fused with a tree-bole – Steerpike as its extension, the nameless warrior as a fungal growth on its decaying surface. There’s therefore a fantastic atmosphere about both passages. At the beginning of each, the tree could harbour anything at all; by the end what it harbours has become strangely involved with the adjacent vegetation. In each case, too, the human being next to the tree seems by the end to have the initiative. Flay has no idea what Steerpike is doing in the quadrangle or what he might do next, while Charles Harding has no idea if the warrior has seen him or what he might do if he has. As a result Flay and Charles feel able only to react to, not act upon, the circumstances in which they find themselves. Power lies with the man they are watching, despite the fact that he is, or possibly may be, unaware that he is being watched.

Cowboy ambushed by native American warrior, by Stanley L. Wood, one of Peake’s favourite artists as a boy.

Having looked at the immediate practicalities of the situation in each case, we might consider, too, the point of view adopted in each passage within the context of the novel as a whole. Flay is an outcast from the castle, summarily banished by the Countess of Groan after a lifetime of faithful service. Charles Harding too is an exile and an outcast, having been enslaved in Britain at fourteen and sold in America, so that his common cause with the pirates – forced on him by circumstance – renders him subject by law to aggressive punitive measures. After Flay’s banishment he learns the ways of the woods, living in a cave like Stevenson’s Ben Gunn and discovering an aptitude for survival and a love of the natural environment. Charles, too, learns the ways of the woods, and describes himself as a woodsman, which is why he volunteers for the mission of fetching water; he knows full well the pirates would not last more than a few seconds in the wilderness he has made his home. Charles’s familiarity with this environment also gives him an appreciation for the skills of the native Americans, who know it so much better than he does. His status as an enslaved person, too, means that he does not look on the so-called ‘Indians’ from a wholly colonial perspective; they are free men, as he is not, their skills are greater than his, and in both ways they have him at an advantage. Their superiority is implied by the final sentence of the passage, in which the Indian behind the fallen tree is said to be holding ‘the best cards’, as if he and Charles were engaged in a game played for the highest stakes, with the Indian best placed to win. Masefield is careful, however, to show Charles as having in some measure adopted the perspective of the slaveowner who bought him, worrying about how his ‘master’ is coping without his help, worrying about the punishments he himself may face if he deserts his ‘owner’, and so on. Flay too takes the perspective of the ‘legitimate’ castle authorities, the House of Groan, even though it was they who sent him into exile without pausing a moment to consider his long and faithful service. In the previous novel, Titus Groan (1946), Flay worried constantly in exile about how his master, the old Earl who was Titus’s father, would manage without his services, and in the thorn tree scene he is actively engaged in acting on behalf of the Earl’s son, Titus. At the same time, he has a sense that Steerpike has real power over both himself and the House of Groan. In order to move around the castle freely, despite his banished status, Flay has made himself familiar with its obscurer corridors; but his observation of Steerpike reveals that the younger man has made an even more thorough study of the castle’s layout, though Flay’s hatred for Steerpike prevents him from admiring the extent of this knowledge.

Flay and Charles, in other words, are clearly instruments of a certain power structure founded on radical inequality between different perceived orders or categories of human being. Both also embody the weakness of this structure: Charles because of his admiration and partial understanding of the native Americans, Flay because of his evident fear of Steerpike as a force capable of toppling his ‘masters’. Flay and Charles inhabit unjust, inefficient hegemonies sustained by violence, and recognise the presence in their worlds of potent counter-forces (the ‘traitor’ Steerpike, the native American warriors) dedicated to damaging or destroying those hegemonies through their unrivalled mastery of a certain space (the castle, the wilderness). The primacy of that space in each passage – the quadrangle in the pre-dawn darkness, the hill at night – places the advantage in the court of those counter-forces. The quadrangle and the hill become locations in which imperial rule finds itself suspended, challenged, partly undermined, reflecting the historical moment when each writer was writing, at different stages in the long, slow decline of the British Empire.

This decline is driven by internal contradictions. We’ve noted how the scene involving Steerpike marks the beginning of his transition from authority figure within the hegemony – the Master of Ritual, with a powerful hold even over his putative ‘masters’, the House of Groan – to solitary outcast and devilish monarch of the castle’s tracts. Lost Endeavour, too, includes a character who begins with hugely overblown ambitions and ends (as its title suggests) by losing everything he has worked for. The leader of the pirates encountered by Charles is a Spanish sailor called Little Theo, whose name hints at his resemblance to – and later, his aspiration to become – a minor god (theos is ancient Greek for god). In England, Little Theo was Charles’s schoolmaster at a small school; his name was given him, half in mockery and half in admiration, by his pupils, in recognition that there is something powerful about him despite his short stature and humble occupation. Little Theo was enslaved at the same time as his pupil, and this experience – together with what happened after – is suspected by Charles to have driven him half mad. By the time Charles meets him again, not long before our passage, Little Theo has become convinced he is a kind of messiah for the indigenous peoples of the Americas – a figure foretold, he insists, in all New World mythologies. It’s this conviction, sustained by a series of ‘revelations’ that enable him to overcome a string of life-threatening situations, which drives him to become a pirate chief and later to abandon most of his fellow pirates as unworthy partners in his messianic mission. Inevitably – given the historical setting of the novel in the late seventeenth century, the so-called Golden Age of Piracy – this mission comes to nothing; after all, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century history does not record a collective rising of indigenous American people behind a European leader. But the mission’s mere existence lends the narrative a quasi-anticolonial slant which is twisted and warped by the fact that the self-proclaimed rebel against Empire is both white and committed to seizing power for himself. The parallels with Steerpike, whose claims to set himself against the elitism of the Groans are effectively nullified by his ambition to rule Gormenghast in their place, are clear enough. So is the fact that both aspiring rulers find themselves undone by the contradictions in their stances. The worlds they inhabit – late seventeenth-century Britain and America, Gormenghast Castle – do not yet offer any serious alternative to the status quo. Steerpike and Little Theo pose as rebels against the powers-that-be, but can only envisage combatting those powers by replicating the inequalities that sparked off their rebellions. They are loners – Steerpike has no friends, Little Theo has contempt for his pirate companions – which makes them weak, despite their conviction of their own power (and Little Theo’s weakness is underlined by the fact that he finds himself powerless when attacked by the indigenous people he intends to rule; he is wounded in the dawn attack on the hill). Both, then, embody the contradictions of the power structures they seek to subvert.

To summarize what I’ve said so far: the greatness of the two long passages I’ve quoted springs from the intensity of their focus on one particular time and place in the unfolding narrative of which they are part. The moment in question constitutes a pause in the action, when for a while everything hangs in the balance. The time is circumscribed in each case by the approach of dawn, when the war party is expected to strike, when what hides beside the thorn tree will be fully revealed, and when Steerpike will have enough light to set off for his unknown destination. The topography of the setting is central to both passages. The ‘small cloistered quadrangle’ divides the night into dense, quasi-abstract patches of light and dark, while the thorn tree makes of Steerpike something weird, an amalgam of tree and man which reinforces the sense that he has some eerie biological connection to Gormenghast castle. The fallen log in the second passage is rendered intensely significant by the darkness of the hillside, which both conceals whatever is behind it and renders weird the slow, silent rising of the warrior from that concealment. In both cases, the inner life of the person next to the standing or fallen tree is just as obscure after his identity has been revealed as it was beforehand. This means that the person in question retains at the end a close association with the place described in the passage, and derives from that place a kind of power he would not otherwise have had. Place and person are fused for a while in these passages, and the implications of this fusion remain unknown as they draw to a close.

Robert Louis Stevenson, admired by both Masefield and Peake.

This laying aside of (nearly) all considerations but those of the immediate present puts me in mind of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous essay ‘A Gossip on Romance’, which seeks to explain his fascination with what we now call thrillers or adventure stories, as against novels of ‘character’, ‘drama’ or ‘thought’.[5] For Stevenson, reading a book should be an experience both ‘absorbing and voluptuous’, taking the reader ‘clean out of ourselves’ while reading, and afterwards leaving behind the ‘busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images’ which render the reader ‘incapable of sleep or of continuous thought’. For him, place is central to the best kind of action narrative packed with the sort of focussed, all-consuming passages he thirsts after. Such narratives intensify the haunting effect of certain places by supplying a plot full of ‘fit and striking incident’ that depends entirely on the specific characteristics of those places and could not be set anywhere else. While we are focused on each successive incident, we should be so preoccupied with place and its role in unfolding events that we set aside all considerations of morality; after all, Stevenson points out,

There is a vast deal in life and letters both which is not immoral, but simply a-moral; […] where the interest turns, not upon what a man shall choose to do, but on how he manages to do it; not on the passionate slips and hesitations of the conscience, but on the problems of the body and of the practical intelligence, in clean, open-air adventure, the shock of arms or the diplomacy of life.

Such narratives of circumstance and incident, then, involve a temporary suspension of the mind from active engagement with ethics, politics or philosophy. The only questions that matter for as long as they last are questions as to what may happen next and how it may unfold. This state of suspension bears some resemblance to the period of hesitation identified by Tzvetan Todorov as a key characteristic of the Fantastic in literature: a temporary uncertainty in the reader’s mind over whether the incidents we are reading about (in this case, seemingly impossible incidents) may be understood as actually happening in the world of the story, or as an illusion imposed on the protagonist by his mental state or by some trickery of the light or of another person.[6] The impossible incident is all that matters for the time being, and the multitude of possible explanations for it – together with the refusal to choose any one of those explanations for the time being – lends it an astonishing, vertiginous power over the mind of the reader. For Stevenson, as for Todorov, the period of suspension or hesitation is infinitely productive, allowing ‘whole vistas of secondary stories, besides the one in hand’ to radiate forth, ‘as they radiate from a striking particular in life’. Such a plenitude of possibility, for him, will make any reader ‘as happy as a reader has a right to be’.

The two passages I’ve set side by side offer Stevenson’s experience of suspension in ample measure. Both are intensely concerned with ‘problems of the body’ – indeed, they render the body itself problematic as Steerpike’s head and back seem to emerge from the tree and the warrior’s head becomes a fungal growth. Masefield’s involves what Stevenson terms ‘clean, open-air adventure’, and while Peake’s is nominally set indoors, the profusion of strange vistas, feral creatures and organic growths in Gormenghast castle give it the wildness of a series of undiscovered caves – though this wildness is not exactly ‘open-air’.  The passages also embody a specific quality in both Peake’s and Masefield’s narratives. In both, place is the focus, together with the time at which the protagonist and the reader come in contact with that place. During each successive incident or set-piece in both narratives – and there are many of them – a ‘vista’ of possibilities is generated, any one of which would provide a richly satisfying story; and the fact that there is for a while this vista renders the incident from which they might spring more potent than any one of those stories once it has started to be told. For that period of suspension, the reader’s imagination is wholly engaged, and the reader empowered, made equal partner with the writer and the protagonist, thanks to the prose on the printed page. That’s a political situation, I think, and helps explain why Peake’s novels have been so popular with politically sophisticated readers down the years, despite the apparent lack of specifically political elements in those novels. Masefield has not achieved the same level of popularity, but several of his books deserve to be much better known – not least Lost Endeavour, with its thrilling set pieces, its vivid evocation of place, and its knowingly troubled relationship to the imperialist world that gave it birth.

Lost Endeavour, specially bound first edition. The turbaned man on the front is Little Theo.

NOTES

[1] References are to The Gormenghast Trilogy (London: Mandarin, 1992).

[2] The most celebrated reference to ‘universal darkness’ in literature comes from Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad (1727-1743), which describes the collapse of British culture and ends in a universal apocalypse presided over by stupidity, embodied by the goddess Dulness. The final lines run:

Lo! thy dread empire, Chaos! is restor’d;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And universal Darkness buries all.

[3] Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 1, line 42.

[4] Quoted from Lost Endeavour (London etc.: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1910).

[5] ‘A Gossip on Romance’ can be found in full here: https://electricscotland.com/history/other/EssaysOfRLS09AGossipOnRomancePlusNotes.pdf

[6] See Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975), p. 25.

One thought on “Night Scenes in Peake and Masefield”

  1. I read a book years ago – The Tiger That Isn’t. The title was inspired by how the human brain is wired to see the outline of a large predator in undergrowth even when the reality is entirely innocent. It goes back to when sabre-tooth tigers were still a threat. Then you have a period during which the British Empire was increasingly beleagured. Maybe it’s only natural the authors of the day saw danger lurking out in the shadows and beyond the light?

    ….in which Steerpike wanders Gormenghast’s attics, roofscapes, cellars and staircases as at once an outcast and the castle’s deadly alternative monarch, the Arch-fiend of Peake’s secondary world.

    That description of him racing across the rooftops (prior to falling into Fuschia’s bedroom) is brilliant.

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