Modern Fantasy by C N Manlove

‘Modern fantasy has a very large readership, and already enjoys considerable academic repute, particularly in America: it is surprising that as yet no serious study of the subject has appeared.’

Modern Fantasy by C N ManloveThus writes Colin Manlove in the preface to his 1975 offering, Modern Fantasy: Five Studies, the first book of academic criticism about fantasy literature (as opposed to books by insiders — Moorcock and Le Guin, for instance) that I read. In it, Manlove looks at the works of five fantasists: Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, George MacDonald’s fairy tales, C S Lewis’s Perelandra, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and Mervyn Peake’s Titus books. The treatment of each work is in-depth, looking (briefly) at the author’s life, their stated intentions for their work, and then at how well they realise those intentions.

Each time, Manlove concludes the work to be a failure.

With Peake, for instance, he’s not convinced by Titus’s desire to escape Gormenghast. He says there’s no evidence in the text that having his every spare moment taken up by age-old meaningless ritual has a detrimental effect on the young boy. As this repugnance for Gormenghast’s constant ceremonies and rituals is, really, a fundamental element not just of Titus’s character, but of the three books’ basic worldview, Manlove fails to be convinced by the trilogy.

With Tolkien, he finds three points to criticise. First, that there’s a ‘continued presence of a biased fortune’ in the plot, meaning that ‘it is not mortal will but luck which is the architect of success, the struggles with the evil forces become unreal, mere posturings in a rigged bout.’ Second, that ‘Tolkien has realised [Mordor and Sauron] far more vividly than anything he gives us to oppose them. What we have is… an imaginative imbalance: good is supposed to overcome evil, but since it is less real to us, its victory does not convince.’ And third, that ‘there is no real pain in the laments’ — that the air of melancholy created by the passing of the great ages of elvish magic is no genuine loss, but is, instead, ‘a loss so bejewelled that it is a pleasure to contemplate’.

Gormenghast, cover by Mark Robertson

Gormenghast, cover by Mark Robertson

With all of these points, for both Peake and Tolkien, I find myself wondering just where Manlove is coming from. To me, Gormenghast’s ritual — and, specifically, its effect on young Titus — is so much the sharp end of all that shadowy edifice’s oppressiveness, that to say there’s no evidence for Titus’s dislike of it seems to be missing the massive, and fundamental, weight of Gormenghast itself. (Also, I’d say that Titus is the least interesting character in the books, and to judge them a failure because of Titus’s character would be similar to judging, say, The Tempest a failure because of the limp character of its male lead Ferdinand — ignoring the splendours of Prospero, Ariel and Caliban.) To Peake, a free spirit if ever there was one, the need for freedom was perhaps too fundamental to be stated; nevertheless, oppression saturates Gormenghast’s shadowy gloom and soaks every word of those two fabulous books, Titus Groan and Gormenghast, to the point that every word is, surely, the ‘evidence’ Manlove finds lacking.

cover to The Lord of the Rings by Pauline Baynes

cover to The Lord of the Rings by Pauline Baynes

With Tolkien, I have to say Manlove’s first point may be a genuine criticism, it just never occurred to me while reading the books. (Or watching either Jackson’s films, or Bakshi’s.) Manlove says there are too many narrow escapes from danger for us to believe in them — despite acknowledging that the narrow escape from danger (what Tolkien termed the ‘Eucatastrophe’) was fundamental to the fairy-tale effect Tolkien was after. But does anyone starting to read The Lord of the Rings really doubt the One Ring will be destroyed, at the end? So, we have to accept that, throughout the three books, all we’ll ever have is the illusion of peril, otherwise the quest will fail. And it’s the very narrowness of the escapes from danger that, surely, provide that illusion. It certainly worked for me.

The point about evil in Tolkien’s work is simply bizarre. Manlove argues that ‘Sauron is more real than anything else in The Lord of the Rings because Tolkien has chosen never to present him directly.’ Which surely goes against Manlove’s requirement for ‘textual evidence’ (as in the arguments against Peake). It’s also odd considering most people’s objections being that Tolkien doesn’t do evil very well, precisely because Sauron never appears (Leiber, quoted in Moorcock’s Wizardry and Wild Romance: ‘he’s not really interested in the villains unless they’re just miserable sneaks, bullies and resentful cowards’). I’d say Sauron can’t appear because he’s pure evil, which can’t convincingly be embodied, and it’s a good thing Tolkien didn’t try. Against this, the forces of ‘good’, which Manlove finds unconvincing, are partly ‘good’ because they’re so diverse — because they allow individuals to be individuals, with no single, fixed idea, no ‘One Ring to rule them’, no single figure to embody their various ideals. It’s this very multiplicity — they’re a ragtag many against a totalitarian one — that makes their stand against Sauron all the more difficult.

The Fellowship of the RingManlove’s criticism of the elegiac air of Tolkien’s trilogy comes down to the fact that the elves aren’t dying off, but are merely leaving Middle Earth for other shores. However, they are still leaving our world, and this is perhaps the basis for the feeling of loss in The Lord of the Rings: it’s an elegy for the fact that our world isn’t the world of wonder and magic that we find in fairy tales. Tolkien can’t kill off his elves, because they’re immortal — they will always live, because they live in our imaginations — but still, they aren’t here, with us, and we don’t live in a magical world. This, though, is a poetic fact, something that I find in the books, rather than something Tolkien writes about, and so is, therefore, something ‘serious’ academic criticism can’t address, however vital a part of the reading of the trilogy it is, to me.

I’ve always been interested in the polarising effect fantasy has on people. Some get it, and enjoy it, others not only don’t enjoy it but feel the need to attack it. They can’t just say, ‘It’s not for me,’ they have to say, ‘Of course, it’s rubbish,’ or, at best, ‘Yes, but it’s for kids.’ I still never fail to be amazed to find people writing entire ‘serious’ books on a subject that, at a deep level, they clearly despise. I wouldn’t say this applies to Manlove, who went on to write several more books about fantasy, including The Fantasy Literature of England (1999) and The Fantasy Literature of EnglandFrom Alice to Harry Potter: Children’s Fantasy in England (2003), which are less critical (perhaps because they’re overviews of subjects, rather than in-depth looks, and both are very useful for the sheer breadth of their coverage) — but there’s a feeling of inevitability to his conclusion that ‘not one of the people we have looked at sustains his original vision’. Why? I didn’t understand it at the time I first read Modern Fantasy (in the mid-90s, after finding it in our local library), but have since come to think there’s something fundamental missing from the academic criticism of the time, in its approach to fantasy. By writing a ‘serious’ book on fantasy, Manlove is, of course, criticising using the standards and methods he’d use when approaching ‘serious’ literature (as it was once called): by looking at the various elements like plot, characterisation and style — all vital elements — and finding that the work failed in each of these departments. But I think fantasy criticism requires consideration of another basic element, something that’s to be found in all art, but is so much more evident in the fantastic: I’d call it imagination, or perhaps invention, but perhaps ‘wonder’ is the best word for it, here. Great fantasy has, at its heart, a sort of poetry that’s not grounded in character, or plot, or style — it’s what those elements are grounded in. To ‘get’ fantasy, you have to get the wonder, and that is something you can’t get by taking a critical, analytical perspective. You have to give yourself over to it, and then it either works or it doesn’t. With Peake, it’s Gormenghast — the whole gloom-shadowed, oppressive grotesquery of it, and the way it embodies itself in the various characters who inhabit it; with Tolkien, it’s the majesty of the quest, the heroism of the struggle (not the ultimate success, but how harrowing the journey is), and the whole legend-soaked background of Middle Earth, with its melancholy air of fading elvish magic. These are the central points from which all appreciation of these works must come. To me, both of these works work, and any criticism can only ask why they work. Which isn’t to say that all fantasy works, but I think if you’re not open to that key quality of fantasy, you’re just never going to get the works that do. Certainly, diving straight down into details, as Manlove does, is fatal — it’s the old idea of dissecting a frog to find out which part makes it alive. All you end up with is dead, messy frog parts, and no answers; then you start convincing yourself the frog was never really alive in the first place. Poor frog.


Titus Alone by Mervyn Peake

Titus Alone, by Mervyn Peake “To the reader who has followed Titus through the two earlier books Titus Alone administers a profound jolt, and many have not liked it,” writes Malcolm Yorke in My Eyes Mint Gold, his biography of Mervyn Peake. It was warnings such as this that put me off reading the third of Peake’s Titus books back when I read the first two, and which prepared me, on finally getting round to it, not to be disappointed by it not being a Gormenghast book. But, as it is a Titus book, it is at least haunted by Gormenghast, even if the world Titus moves through, and the prose style we get to experience it through, aren’t Gormenghastian, but something less grandiose and Gothic, less solid, and of that much less character, too. At times, it reads like a sort of mannered absurdism, full of details that ought to add up to character and style but without any of the substance that would make them work.

Perhaps the trouble is that Titus, though the figure around whom the whole series revolves, isn’t one of Peake’s more interesting characters. He exists, at first, to be oppressed by Gormenghast, then to defy it and escape from it. But because his identity is so tied up with that vast shadow-haunted castle, once he’s away from it, what is he? This is something Titus himself has to confront, as he finds himself, in Titus Alone, so far from his home that no-one has ever heard of it, and most don’t believe such a place even exists:

“Did you run away, young man?”

“I rode away,” said Titus.

“From… Gormenghast?”

“Yes, your Worship.”

“Leaving your mother…?”


“And your father…?”

“No, not my father…”

“Ah… is he dead, my boy?”

“Yes, your Worship. He was eaten by owls.”

The Magistrate raised an eyebrow and began to write upon a piece of paper.

Finding himself in a very un-Gormenghastian land of motorcars and helicopters, tall glass buildings and needle-like aeroplanes, Titus is arrested for having no identity. “So my papers are out of order, are they?” he says. “So is my brain and heart.”

MuzzlehatchUnfortunately, this lack of identity makes for him being a very weak character to hang a novel on. In the Gormenghast books, relief would be found in other characters, or in Gormenghast itself, but here there’s not much weight to the world Titus finds himself in, and we only get a small handful of characters who have any real character at all. Perhaps there’s only one. And that would be fine, because the whole of “Boy in Darkness” is sustained by the eerie presence of the Lamb alone, but here the one new character of interest, Muzzlehatch, exists mainly to stride in and out of the plot at key points, rescuing Titus when Titus needs rescuing, then to disappear, because Muzzlehatch, “Barbaric to the eye, his silhouette more like something of ropes and bones,” a man “so ragged and yet, at the same time, so like a king”, whose “every movement was a kind of stab in the bosom of the orthodox world” is a kind of hero of indifference, a hero of individuality and self-containment, something Titus aspires to, but fails to achieve until the very final paragraph of the novel. Till then, Muzzlehatch must exist as a heroic example, but one who therefore can’t take centre place in a novel which is all about the attempt to solve the problem Muzzlehatch has already solved — the problem of knowing who you are, of being self-contained — not what Titus is, a ghost of his own past, simultaneously longing for, and trying to deny his need for, Gormenghast. “Give me some proof of me!” Titus cries, at one point. Yet Gormenghast, his once-home, is the only proof of Titus.

I said in my Mewsings on the second Titus book that it didn’t hit its stride, and really get back into the immersive feel of the first book, till about 250 pages in. This is excusable in a book with another 250 pages to go. For me, Titus Alone didn’t hit its stride till the 200 page mark, which might sound like an improvement till you realise Titus Alone is only 260 pages long, leading me to think it might have been better as a novella like “Boy in Darkness” — short, but focused on a single episode. And, if it weren’t for the need to build up the characters that feature in that final episode, it would surely be possible to read just those final 60 pages on their own, because they comprise the only real set-piece of any weight in the book, and almost all of its meaning.

Peake’s at his best with set pieces. His style is all about elaboration, about building up his characters from quirky little cartoons to full-blown human beings, and building up his settings in all their Gothic cobwebbed glory, and then bringing it all together in grand, climactic moments. In Titus Alone, there’s nothing for his elaborations to adhere to till the final scene, where Cheeta, the scientist’s daughter who’s intent on ruining Titus’s mind, builds a mockery of Gormenghast and brings him to it, to parade in front of him grotesque creations meant to represent his mother, his dead sister, his dead father, and the other inhabitants of a world she has only heard about through Titus’s mutterings whilst in a fever.

Titus Alone, by Mervyn PeakeThe thing that makes the world of Titus Alone most different from that of Gormenghast is that, whilst Gormenghast seemed at most to be a post-World War II world, and that only as a distant echo, Titus Alone is resolutely in the atomic age. Cheeta’s father, described in the book as “the greatest scientist in the world” was in fact, in Peake’s original manuscript (according to John Batchelor’s book on Peake), described as “the greatest deathray scientist in the world” — something which makes a lot more sense of why his factory, and his daughter, should be the focus for the book’s idea of evil. Scientists in Titus Alone are purveyors of death, and inventors of devices for mass killing, and the world of Titus Alone, though slightly futuristic with its tall glass buildings and needle-like aircraft (and its over-leisured middle classes who spend so much time at over-crowded cocktail parties), is a diminished world:

“Once there were islands all a-sprout with palms: and coral reefs and sands as white as milk. What is there now but a vast shambles of the heart? Filth, squalor, and a world of little men.”

Titus Alone isn’t in the same league as the two Gormenghast books, or even the much shorter “Boy in Darkness”, and for most of it, I found myself wondering if I’d get anything out of the reading at all. But the final 60 pages were good — not quite Gormenghast good, but certainly good enough, and unlike the early parts of the book, they tied in enough with the story of Titus’s leaving Gormenghast to make them seem a worthwhile continuation, completing the arc of Titus’s development into manhood that began, in the second book, with the sudden death of “the Thing”, then his decision to leave Gormenghast, to the moment in the final paragraph of Titus Alone where he finds, finally, the link to his past that properly enables him to absorb it, and escape it.


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.