Boy in Darkness by Mervyn Peake

As part of the celebrations for Titus’s 10th birthday in Gormenghast a sort of court masque is put on, featuring four giant puppets — the Lion, the Wolf, the Horse, and the Lamb:

“The Lamb, a little less in height than its companions, for all its towering stature, was a mass of pale golden curls. Its expression was one of unspeakable sanctity. However it moved its head — whatever the angle, whether it scanned the heavens in search of some beatific vision, or lowered its face as though to muse upon its own unspotted breast — there was no escape from its purity. Between its ears, and set upon the golden curls was a silver crown… It carried nothing in its hands for they were clasped upon its heart.”

Sometime, Never - coverThe figure of the Lamb, a somehow menacing mix of purity and unease, obviously stuck in Peake’s mind, because when he was asked to contribute to an anthology of three novellas, published in 1956 as Sometime, Never: Three Tales of Imagination (alongside “Consider Her Ways” by John Wyndham and “Envoy Extraordinary” by William Golding), the figure of the Lamb became the centrepiece in an encounter with one of the most insidious visions of evil in fantasy literature.

The Inner Landscape (cover)The resulting novella, “Boy in Darkness” (which was later included in another three-novella anthology, The Inner Landscape, in 1969, which swapped the Wyndham and Golding stories for “The Voices of Time” by JG Ballard and “Danger, Religion!” by Brian Aldiss) is a mini-masterpiece. Changing the puppet Lamb’s “golden curls” for the purest white, and blinding its eyes with blue-tinted cataracts, Peake does that thing again of creating a character that seems so familiar, so right in its every action and spoken word, I’m wondering where I could have encountered it before.

The first question to ask, though, is whether “Boy in Darkness” is part of Peake’s Titus series at all. From what I can gather, in the initial version, Peake only referred to the protagonist of his tale as “the Boy”, though this Boy is the fourteen-year-old “Lord of a tower’d tract”, and the opening paragraph makes it clear this is Gormenghast in all but name:

“The ceremonies were over for the day. The Boy was tired out. Ritual, like a senseless chariot, had rolled its wheels — and the natural life of the day was bruised and crushed.”

Apparently, after its first publication, Peake changed the manuscript to call the Boy “Titus” (twice, to my count), and it is in this form it’s currently published (in Boy In Darkness and Other Stories). But whether Peake had named him or not, the world he depicts — in its scenery and its concerns — is Gormenghast, and the young Boy is as much Titus as he can be.

Boy In Darkness and Other Stories coverThe plot is simple. Fed up with the castle and all its ritual, the Boy runs away, and finds himself lost in a desert land of industrial ruins. There, he falls into the hands of the Goat and the Hyena, a bickering pair of half-human half-animal creatures whose task it is to find victims for their “White Lord”, the Lamb, who dwells deep in an abandoned mine. With the inescapability of a nightmare (Peake at one point thought of subtitling the novella “A Dream”), the Boy is drawn closer and closer to the Lamb, and we, the readers, learn what the Lamb is planning. This creature, it seems, has the ability to change people, physically. He has done this countless times, but the Goat and the Hyena are the only two surviving examples. And the Lamb has not had a new victim, a new plaything, for a very long time.

The power of the tale resides entirely in Peake’s depiction of the Lamb. It is the very understatement of his bleating speech, the stillness of his body — all except his ever-weaving, self-fondling, whiter than white, softer than soft hands — that makes this apparently so innocent thing so unutterably evil. It is the hands of the Lamb that you will remember:

“There they were, folded one about the other as though they loved one another; neither gripping one another too passionately, for they were made to be bruised, nor touching one another too lightly, for fear of losing the sweet palpation.”

By the end of the novella, the hands are in a frenzy of anticipation:

“…they were moving so fast one about another, circling one another, separating, threading and weaving their ten fantastic fingers in such a delirium of movement…”

Peake’s writing is at its best when he writes of the Lamb, of “the quenchless vitality of his evil”, his “yielding, horrible mollience of endless wool”.

John Batchelor, in his 1974 book on Peake, calls the Lamb “the most blasphemous of Peake’s ideas”, saying it is clearly a “Christ in reverse”, but I think its power is simpler than that. The Lamb is a thing that is as evil within as it is seemingly innocent without. Yorke - My Eyes Mint Gold coverBatchelor goes on to say: “The story is too dark and pessimistic to have fitted the imaginative world even of Titus Alone.” And Malcolm Yorke, in his 2000 biography of Peake, My Eyes Mint Gold, says that “elements of fantasy are introduced that would have been intolerable in the world of Gormenghast”. He finds the style “irritating”, but most of all thinks the whole “a puzzling, unbalanced and very disquieting story and one wonders about the mental health of a person who could engender such a bleak world.”

I disagree on every count. I love the writing, and I think it fits in with Peake’s Gormenghast — as a nightmare episode — perfectly.

And the story isn’t puzzling at all. In fact, like the Lamb, it is almost overwhelming in its purity. Fantasy is so often about being careful what you wish for, and Peake’s protagonist, the Boy, starts off wanting to escape, but:

“…to be alone in a land where nothing can be recognised, that is what he feared, and that is what he longed for.”

And sure enough, the Boy, escaping, finds himself in the hands of a creature whose sole intent is to turn him into something he himself will no longer recognise, not just physically, but mentally and spiritually too:

“For it is the Lamb’s exquisite pleasure to debase.”

Yorke’s main criticism of the story is that “the evil is palpable enough, but where is it opposed by virtue?” But the virtue is as simple as the Lamb’s evil. It’s only the threat to the Boy’s individuality, his existence and his ability to be himself that is needed to justify his fighting back against the Lamb, whose evil is so like that of a child abuser, seeking, as it does, to corrupt others in order to both re-enact and in some way justify the corruption it, at some point, must have suffered. Fighting against the Lamb is simply a fight to retain one’s individuality, something that goes to the heart of Peake’s Gormenghast novels.

The story, then, is primal. It is about an encounter with a corrupting evil, but it is done so powerfully that it — particularly in the soft, white, quietness of the Lamb — will linger rather longer than you’d like.

Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake

Gormenghast, cover by Mark Robertson

Gormenghast, cover by Mark Robertson

Compared to Titus Groan, Gormenghast gets off to a rather bitty start, only hitting its stride at the midway point, with the first of the great set-piece scenes, Irma Prunesquallor’s soirée. These big, long-built-up scenes are what Peake does best. (And afterwards, the book hits an amazing patch of tension as Flay, Prunesquallor and Titus track Steerpike through some of the castle’s uninhabited regions — thirty mostly dialogue-free pages of pure suspense.)

The main focus of this second book is young Titus’s struggle to break free of the “rotten ritual and everything” of the castle he calls home, but for me the most affecting character is the “harrowingly human” Fuchsia. In the first novel nothing but a tempest of fondness and fury, she got her one brief moment of connection with another human being — her mournful father — the instant before he went insane. In Gormenghast, as Titus grows from seven to seventeen and realises that the only way for him “to live… to be myself, and become what I make myself, a person, a real live person and not a symbol any more”, is to escape the cloying world of the castle, Fuchsia seems ever more trapped in a permanent adolescence (despite the fact that over a decade has passed since the first book) whose constant emotional back-and-forth has worn her out, and it’s heartbreaking:

“I love you, Titus, but I can’t feel anything. I’ve gone dead. Even you are dead in me. I know I love you. You’re the only one I love, but I can’t feel anything and I don’t want to. I’ve felt too much, I’m sick of feelings…”

When, on top of this, we get a glimpse of Steerpike’s cynical plan for her, it’s one of Peake’s most shocking moments.

Gormenghast cover by Mervyn Peake

Gormenghast cover by Mervyn Peake

Titus escapes Fuchsia’s fate by having a vision of freedom in the shape of “the Thing”, the wild-spirit force of nature that is (unbeknownst to him) his foster-sister, outcast by the Outer Dwellers, living free in the forests surrounding the castle and scavenging off her own people, but so bereft of human contact she’s more animal than human. Titus, though, is rarely interesting or affecting — certainly not when compared to Fuchsia, or even, for that matter, Flay, whose utter loyalty to the castle sees him return in secret to sniff out the rottenness he senses within, even though he knows that, to Gormenghast, he is an exile, a nothing. His story shows that Titus’s attitude to Gormenghast — that he must be free of it to truly be himself — isn’t the case for everyone. It’s hard to imagine Flay finding any sort of fulfilment without a thing to serve, be it an Earl or the abstraction of one.

I used to be surprised at how the Second World War seemed to have had no discernible impact on Titus Groan, which Peake began writing whilst serving as a soldier. But near the end of Gormenghast, there’s this passage:

“That the flood had once threatened their very existence was forgotten. It was the labour that lay ahead that was appalling… The flood was descending. It had caused havoc, ruin, death, but it was descending.”

The flood that overwhelms Gormenghast, causing “havoc, ruin, death”, and leaving a world in need of such a labour of rebuilding, could easily be an echo of World War Two, impinging on the intense personal dramas of Gormenghast castle just as the real thing impinged on so many in our world. As the storm that causes the flood begins, it kills “the Thing” with a flash of lightning (just as meaningless and instant a death as the flash of a bomb, or a gunshot). The death of the Thing, who has come to symbolise all that Titus longs for — freedom & a fierce individuality — marks the end of the young Earl’s childhood and idealism, just as the beginning of the War would have marked a sudden jolt into a very harsh adulthood for so many young conscripts. And by the end of the flood Titus, like many a homecoming soldier, is physically scarred and has “killed and had felt… the touch of death”.

Plotting the novel, Peake saw things differently. In some notes made during the writing of the book (quoted in John Batchelor’s 1974 study of Peake), he summarised the start of the flood:

The story continues: Titus and the Leaf [an early name for the Thing].
The Leaf is killed in storm.
Titus returns through downpour.
The Universe weeps.

Here, the flood is the world itself weeping as something meaningful is destroyed. (But if the rain is the Universe weeping, it was the Universe’s lightning that killed the Thing in the first place.)

Titus Groan got its power from the brooding, shadowy stasis of everything — even the main story of that novel, Steerpike’s rise from kitchen boy to apprentice Master of Ritual, feels more like the fulfilment of the castle’s own shadow side than a challenge to its nature — but Gormenghast, in its second half, does the unthinkable and turns all that weighed-down Gothic murk into tragic action — and often very suspenseful action, at that. It becomes that impossibility, a page turner written in gorgeous, grandiose prose.

Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth

Tolkien and the Great War, by John GarthIn The Wand in the Word, a collection of interviews with fantasy writers published in 2006, one of the questions Leonard S Marcus asks (of those writers who are old enough) is how they were affected by living through the Second World War. “Several, it seemed, had turned to fantasy both as readers and writers,” he says, “not to ‘escape’ reality, but as the truest way of coming to terms with wartime terrors that for them lay almost beyond words.” Lloyd Alexander’s response to the question is: “For the first time in my life, I had come up against real power.” And Diana Wynne Jones’s “…from the time I was five years old until the time I was getting on to twelve, the entirety of the world as far as I was concerned was stark-staring crazy in a most menacing way. It left me with the feeling that the most appalling and peculiar things are liable to happen at any time.” J R R Tolkien, of course, spent a certain amount of effort denying that The Lord of the Rings was an allegory of the Second World War, with Sauron as Hitler and the Ring of Power as the atom bomb, but John Garth, in Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth explores how the First World War — the conflict Tolkien himself served in — shaped “the legendarium” of Tolkien’s writings.

An essential element of Tolkien’s wartime experience was rooted in the close friendship he had with Christopher Wiseman, Rob Gilson and G B Smith. Together, they formed the TCBS — the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (referring to the tea room at Barrow’s Stores where they’d meet) — a fellowship that dated back to their school days. The TCBS seemed to be a sort of furnace for the forging of these four young men’s ideals and goals. “Tolkien,” Garth says, “had told them that they had a ‘world-shaking power’, and… they all believed it.”

After the start of the Great War, but before any of them had seen any action, the four met for what they dubbed “the Council of London”:

“For Tolkien, the weekend was a revelation, and he came to regard it as a turning point in his creative life. It was, he said eighteen months later, the moment when he first became conscious of ‘the hope and ambitions (inchoate and cloudy I know)’ that had driven him ever since, and were to drive him for the rest of his life.”

Which made it all the more difficult when the war killed first Gilson, then Smith. It’s impossible to read about the TCBS without remembering that the first book of The Lord of the Rings is called The Fellowship of the Ring, and how important the fellowship is within the narrative — the most surprising part of which, to me, has always been Aragorn’s decision not to follow Frodo and Sam into Mordor, but to try to save Merry and Pippin from the orcs, something which has much less strategic value, but which nevertheless embodies the core of what the Fellowship is fighting for. Throughout the First World War, the surviving members of the TCBS continued to write to each other, and Tolkien’s early poems did the rounds. It’s often said that writers need a “perfect reader” in mind when they write, and the TCBS seems to have been Tolkien’s. Certainly their encouragement, and sometimes their forthright criticism, were an essential part of his development as a writer.

J R R Tolkien, 1916One criticism that’s often raised against fantasy of the sort Tolkien wrote is that, by telling tales of battles between good and evil, they reduce the moral complexity of the real world to something childish. Susan Cooper, also interviewed in The Wand in the Word, says: “I think the whole Light and Dark thing in The Dark is Rising goes back to my being a child during the war”, but adds that this, at the time, was probably a prejudice that boiled down to “goodies” and “baddies”, and that “after the dropping of the atomic bombs by the Americans, I realised that the good guys could do bad things too”. But the most surprising thing, for me, that John Garth has to say, is the fact that although Tolkien had been playing with his “legendarium” (which Garth describes as “a vast complex of interwoven histories, sagas, and genealogies, of phonologies, grammars, and vocabularies, and of philological and philosophical disquisitions”) before he saw action, not only did his direct involvement in the war focus his creative efforts, but also, because of it, “Tolkien’s mythology becomes, for the first time, what it would remain: a mythology of the conflict between good and evil.” Although:

“The idea that the conflict must be perpetual arose directly from a long-held scepticism about the blandly optimistic prognoses prevailing during the Great War, as Tolkien recalled in an interview nearly half a century later: ‘That, I suppose, was an actual conscious reaction from the War – from the stuff I was brought up on in the “War to end wars” – that kind of stuff, which I didn’t believe in at the time and I believe in less now.'”

cover to The Lord of the Rings by Pauline Baynes

The Lord of the Rings cover by Pauline Baynes

War, in The Lord of the Rings, is always more complex than the simple good versus evil it is sometimes accused of — particularly as we readers get to see it, that is, through the eyes of the minor players who don’t always grasp the whole power play behind the conflict, but are merely caught between its cogs. Mostly, this complexity is in the potential for once-good people (Saruman, Denethor) to be corrupted either by the enemy, or by hopelessness and despair. Nevertheless, the presence of that background struggle between archetypal good and evil is there, and, according to Garth, it is there because of Tolkien’s experience with the horrors of real war.

Another thing Tolkien has been criticised for, Garth says, is for not adopting the tone of those poets and writers whose reaction to war became the culturally accepted one, which Garth refers to as one of “disenchantment” with heroism and its ideals:

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen

Tolkien wrote in an epic, heroic, and archaic mode that most of his contemporaries thought had been fatally undermined by the realities of the First World War. But in doing so, he not only managed to capture the horrors of war — the terror of being an individual caught in the clash of awful forces, to be snuffed out at any moment, and the relentless onslaught of despair and hopelessness alongside the physical attacks of the enemy — but also the fact that people could fight for worthwhile ideals, and that there was still a place for heroism, even in a world apparently given over to nothing but the “animal horror” (as Tolkien put it) of the trenches.