Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

Titus GroanIf you imagine a sliding scale of fantasy from the Epic to the Gothic, the defining works at either end must surely be Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Peake’s Gormenghast books. Both Tolkien and Peake were illustrators (Tolkien on a much more amateur level), and both used (initially private) drawing as a means of immersing themselves in their created worlds. A quick glance through J R R Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator shows that Tolkien was mostly interested in, and accomplished at, landscapes. His humans and humanoids, when present, are often stiff, and usually take second place to the scenery, but his landscapes, though conjured with a decorative rather than a realistic style (and very much under the influence of the Golden Age of Illustrators), are much more convincing. Peake, on the other hand, was a professional illustrator, and his manuscripts for Titus Groan were peppered with evocative little sketches, mostly of his characters, in an attempt to capture their personalities and test the authenticity of the dialogue he wrote for them. Tolkien’s characters are people in a landscape, and you know that, should the people depart, the landscape would remain, just as magnificent, just as laden with myth and history. Middle Earth is a place you can imagine visiting for a while. But you can’t imagine visiting Gormenghast castle without the fear of it bringing out your Gormenghastian side, your urge to find your own lonely niche in its spidery attics and dusty, junk-filled side-rooms, and there stew in your eccentricities till cooked into a weird and ornery self-caricature. Peake’s characters and landscape are one — his cast of oddities are not so much in the shadow of the great castle, as it is the shadow of them, and they the shadow of it. So much do its limits make an entire world for them that when one of their number, crack-kneed Flay, is banished to the wilderness, he’s astonished to find that:

“Nature, it seemed, was huge as Gormenghast.”

Peake's own dustjacket design for Titus Groan

Peake’s own dustjacket design for Titus Groan

Knowing Peake is an illustrator, it’s tempting to say that the incredible vividness in which his world and characters are described must be the result of an artist’s eye and a well-honed visual imagination, right down to the details:

“a sweep of old cobwebs, like a fly-filled hammock…”

“a thin beam of light threaded the warm brooding dusk and was filled with slowly moving motes like an attenuate firmament of stars…”

“His face was very lined, as though it had been made of brown paper that had been crunched by some savage hand before being hastily smoothed out and spread over the tissues…”

or, one of the most evocative lines from the second book, Gormenghast:

“…a streak of lightning, like an outrider, lit up the terrain so that for a moment the world was made of nothing but wet steel.”

But read his descriptions closely, and you find that Peake feels his world as much as he sees it — both the physical weight of it, and the unseen tensions and moods that haunt it — though this of course may be what explains his ability as an illustrator as much as it explains his ability as a writer: both are translations of a keen inner sense of the is-ness of things, and the being-ness of people, rather than merely what they look like. And Gormenghast is a world as much shadowed with dark emotion as it is by lack of light. Here is doomed Sepulchrave in his doomed library, dwelling on doom:

“The library appeared to spread outwards from him as from a core. His dejection infected the air about him and diffused its illness upon every side. All things in the long room absorbed his melancholia. The shadowing galleries brooded with slow anguish; the books receding into the deep corners, tier upon tier, seemed each a separate tragic note in a monumental fugue of volumes.”

Fuchsia, by Mervyn Peake

Fuchsia, by Mervyn Peake

I first read Titus Groan when I was about 17. I read it again a year later, then once more just recently, and was amazed to find how vividly every incident and character had remained in my memory throughout the 24 year gap. Each character, though grotesquely fantastic, is also utterly, realistically human, a product of what Peake called “extreme individualism”, both infinitely strange and infinitely right, a perfect example of a type of person I’m sure I’ve met, but know I can’t have. That shark-eyed look of cold calculation you get from Steerpike (who was originally called Smuggerly in Peake’s earliest drafts) makes him the original of all Machiavellian social climbers and arch-manipulators; Fuchsia’s tempests of love and hate, resentment and forgiveness, (always full on, one then the other), make her the most awkwardly adolescent of adolescents; Prunesquallor so rightly accused (by his snapping sister) of being “drunk with [his] own levity” is perhaps the only character with the potential of seeing beyond the Gormenghastness of Gormenghast, if only he weren’t so Gormenghastian himself; the Twins as emotionally dead as marionettes; the drear solemn weight of mournful Sepulchrave; the stateliness and indifference of Countess Gertrude; the insignificant whining of Nanny Slagg — all so real, so human, so exaggerated, so true.

In a radio broadcast at the time of the book’s publication, Peake said:

“I enjoy the fantastic and the sheer excitement of having a sheet of white paper and a pen in one’s hand and no dictator on earth can say what word I put down…”

And, in a later essay (“How a Romantic Novel Was Evolved”), he talks of just what sort of words he found himself putting down as he began Titus Groan:

“A mixture of serious as well as nonsensical fantasy began to pour itself out, without object, sentences growing out of their precursors involuntarily.”

Growing out of their precursors — like the mass of Gormenghast grows from its own tortuous foundations. Has a novel ever so resembled its own subject? Titus Groan is a monumental fugue of words.


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.


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.