Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

The Final Word: Fictional spaces, Death and Literature. Mervyn Peake and the Gormenghast trilogy

As participants in the mortal experience, it is inevitable that the said experience will come to an end and that end is death. It is the one experience that we all share and it demands a constant presence in how we live our lives. It occupies the full spectrum of human interest from the philosophical heights of existentialism to the more mundane prominence of health insurance. Furthermore, death is interesting. All we know of Death is that it will happen. For the most part we don’t know how it will happen, when or what it will actually be like. The experience of death, then, is both certain and essentially fictive. It is, therefore, no surprise that the idea of death occupies such large areas in Literary Fiction. The fact that we are forever unsure as to the exact nature of death only makes it more compelling and an ideally dramatic element. As Garrett Stewart points out in his book Literature and Death: Styles of Dying in British Fiction[1], it can only ever be “approximated”. It is a “semantically unoccupied zone of utterance”, with “no vocabulary native to it”. In this way, Death as a fictionalised experience allies itself harmoniously with literary fiction. Both are spaces of invention and both seek to fill what is essentially an ever-present void of abstraction. Writers of stories have and will continue to create narratives which are unavoidably embedded within the human experience. Nothing is more implicit in our lives than mortality. Death is the great and final abstract.

In a similar way the very experience of literature as something which is created proves to be equally compelling. In writing, we can create entire worlds which can help us to understand our own. The writer can control the universe and so his or her fictional avenues and possibilities are endless. And so, if literary fiction is just that, fictive, then the marriage between it and the idea of death is obvious.

The relationship between literary fiction and mortality is intense and one which seems to have proved inexhaustible throughout history. Fantasy literature in particular often uses death and the macabre as central themes in weaving imaginary worlds bound by foreign and unfamiliar rules where mortality itself is the only thing that makes sense to the reader. Writer and illustrator Mervyn Peake uses the essentially mysterious aspects of death and its wider metaphorical implications in his own gothic-inspired narrative style in which the idea of death is nearly always implicated.

Working at the time of the second World War in Britain, Peake wrote his celebrated Gormenghast trilogy[2]. Often described as a ‘master of the macabre’[3], Peake creates a highly intricate world of fantasy in which the fictional spaces of literature converge. It is a world of make-believe, set within the invented world of Gormenghast. Peake describes an environment which is deliberately archaic, and constructed within the confines of ancient law and sacred ritual, which are slowly undermined as each of the novels progress. Book one, Titus Groan witnesses the birth of Titus who is to be the Seventy Seventh Earl of Groan. The occasion is a momentous one in that his existence ensures the continuation of the Groan line, which in turn sustains the life of Gormenghast itself. This rapidly degenerates, however, as ruptures start to appear in the fabric of this ordered world. The machiavellian plans of a kitchen hand named Steerpike is the first. The decline of order is often mirrored in death, as many of the principle characters are either murdered or take their own lives. These are often symbolically linked to the decay of Gormenghast itself as a controlled structure. In this way, Death is not incidental to Peake who often uses it as a keystone that points symbolically to the decline of Titus’s very world. Steerpike’s schemes also happen to coincide with the growth of Titus and his own rebellion against the rigid structures of his ancestral home in the Second book Gormenghast. The final episode then, is the culmination of its ruination. Titus Alone describes the effects of the cascade in the wake of the deaths of most of his family and his own abdication of the Earldom of Gormenghast. Each of the three books chart the disintegration of the age old structure of Gormenghast, a world predicated solely on exacting (and often bizarre) ritual. Peake also uses particular modes of writing at each significant point in the narrative. This is especially evident on looking at his personal appropriation of the much contested genre of Fantasy. In creating his narrative the writer points heavily toward the inventive territory of the imagination as a fertile breeding ground in the creation of a world which exists on its own terms, often drawing on zones of the imagination such as mental imagery, poetry and of course, the use of death as a narrative tool. Peake sets out to imagine his world in the most vivid colours, which is rendered more intricate by the fact that he illustrated all of his own work. It will become more and more clear that through the trilogy, Peake ceases to simply be a skilled writer or illustrator but deliberately crosses the traditional boundaries of text, image and of fiction itself.

With the birth of Titus, the trilogy begins. He is the element which is to sustain the very life and meaning of Gormenghast. It is as though he belongs to the stones themselves and his existence will be directed by the needs of the structure of his home. This defines the driving force of a story centred within a formulaic world. The birth brings great relief to his father Sepulchrave, the Seventy Sixth Earl of Gormenghast who had almost given up hope on producing an heir. Titus Groan introduces us to an almost medievalized world which gleans its identity through its decrees and Laws. These rituals are often highly bizarre yet they govern the life and very purpose of the almost animate building of Gormenghast. Indeed, taken “by itself [it] would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls”‘[4]. Gormenghast as the “main massing of original stone” is drawn almost as a great mother suckling the parasitical sub dwellings that “sprawled over the sloping earth” like “limpets to a rock”. They serve the great building and so sustain it. Titus’s world is defined from the outset by its archaic rigidity, both dead and paradoxically alive in its demands. This is exemplified in the episode of his christening presided over by the most essential figure in the world of Gormenghast, the Master of Ritual, Sourdust :

“It is written, and the writing is adhered to, that between these pages where the flax is grey with wisdom, the first-born male child of the House of Groan shall be lowered and laid sideways, his head directed to the christening bowl, and that the pages that are heavy with words shall be bent in and over him, so that he is engulfed in the sere Text encircled with the profound, and as one with the inviolable Law”[5].

The emphasis on ceremony is presented as completely organic to the existence Gormenghas
t. There is no explanation as to the particular significance of this ritual. It is simply the “inviolable Law”. The Earl Sepulchrave illustrates the point beautifully in his reverie as he paces his much loved library, asking himself how he could “not love this place? He was a part of it. He could not imagine a world outside it; and the idea of loving Gormenghast would have shocked him.” His feelings towards his home “would be like asking a man what his feelings were towards his own hand or his own throat”‘[6]. This is further underlined in the sacred breakfast ritual involving him having to ascend a dais and strike a heavy brass bell at precisely the same hour every morning while wearing the appropriate robes and crown for the day. Titus, must therefore be introduced to this symbiosis of stone and self. In order for the proceeding story to make any sense the reader is made aware of just how important the ancient laws of Gormenghast are, for any deviation from them would cause total chaos. This is precisely what happens when we are introduced to the character of Steerpike who decides to free himself from the carefully ordered ranks of society from kitchen boy to ruler of this world. This acts as the first significant rupture in the ordered and predictable fabric of Gormenghast. The results of which will be inevitably ruinous its cohesion on every level. Following his diabolical plan to ingratiate himself with the Earl Sepulchrave by orchestrating the burning of his library and then saving his life, the plan goes awry due to the very crucial mistake made by Steerpike in underestimating the bond between the Earl and every limb of his ancestral home. Far from being grateful to the young boy, Sepulchrave on seeing his library destroyed goes insane. His books, like his “own throat” have been destroyed and so, like a man who has lost a vital organ he cannot function and descends inevitably into decline. Sourdust also pointedly dies in the blaze symbolising the death of ritual itself and of the structural integrity of this world. It will unravel more and more as Steerpike, like a parasite hacks his way into the ancient structure by further machiavellian schemes including his insinuation into the role of Master of ritual, (by murdering Sourdust’s successor) seducing Fuchsia (Titus’s older sister) and manipulating more and more characters to suit his own ends.

The results of this descent into anarchy are illustrated vividly in the deaths which then ensue, many of which are engineered by Steerpike, who interestingly has no love for the stones of Gormenghast, only for power over it. The order of who dies is also important. The fact that Sourdust, master of ritual is the first to die is crucial and serves to underline the driving force of a tale predicated on order. Then comes the demise of the Earl who, perceiving himself to be an owl, ascends the Tower of the Flints and is then eaten by the ravenous owls residing in it. This happens just after Flay, lifelong advisor to the Earl has killed his own enemy Swelter (the head cook). This episode is particularly illustrative of how Peake parallels the deaths of principle characters with the terminal violence upon the stones of Gormenghast itself. Descent in the ranks is first visited, as I have previously mentioned in the ambitions of Steerpike. This is paralleled with another crack in the organisation as the long felt hatred ferments between Flay (the Earl’s personal servant) and Swelter (the head cook). The episode leading up to the suicide of Sepulchrave is seamlessly set up in the epic duel scene between Flay and Swelter. Beginning with Flay as he stalks painstakingly the form of Swelter, the scene revels in the frustration of the action. The reader is left in no doubt as to the imminence of death for one or both yet the longed for climax is horribly drawn out as Peake continues the event over fifteen pages which include many false starts. The tension for both the reader and the characters is almost unbearable:

“His ears were strained with listening and his muscles ached. He had not moved for over an hour, save to turn his head upon his neck. And then, suddenly, what was it that had changed? He had shut his eyes for a moment and on opening them the air had altered. Was the heat even more horrible? His torn shirt was stuck to his shoulders and belly. It was more than that – it was that the darkness was omnipresent.”[7]

The climax is first delayed by Flay, who having been exiled (engineered by Steerpike) is not where he is supposed to be which is in his room at precisely the same hour every night. The thought of Flay being elsewhere does not even occur to Swelter who strikes down with his meat cleaver and hits the floorboards instead[8]. This is followed by many more interruptions to the inevitable as the hatred between them grows. As we wait impatiently for resolution, the action is again interrupted this time by the Ghostly image of the sleepwalking Earl. The moment serves to highlight the presence of Death, almost as a sentient being, biding its time as he mutters ‘Blood, blood, and blood and blood, for you, the muffled, all, all for you and I am on my way, with broken branches.[9]’ This not only underlines the inevitability of spilled blood but also the imminence of his own death by his prophesising that great ‘wings shall come, great silent, silent wings…’. As they follow the Earl, they are then led into the Hall of the Spiders where ‘the features of Death’s battleground’ are laid. The drama of the scene is finally heightened by the moment when Swelter, sure of finding his mark is about to strike the now helpless Flay when a spider crawls across his eye[10]. The end is delayed again this time with an arguably ridiculous element (although Peake describes it with deadly irony) incorporating the event organically into Swelter’s experience: ‘So thickly had his head been draped that he had accepted this impediment to his vision as being part of the general nuisance’.

Just when the delay tactics can seem to stretch no more ‘the horror’ happens. This is what both the characters and the reader have been waiting for yet the longed for moment is visited in an odd anti – climax as Flay manages this time to kill his foe: ‘The water about him was reddening and his eyes, like marbles of gristle, rolled in the moonlight as the sword plunged steeply. Flay did not trouble to withdraw it.[11]’ The moment happens in an instant, and is described almost incidentally as though the scene had simply had enough, running out of its dramatic energy. This would be decidedly at odds with the narrative were it not for the fact that Peake’s aim is not to focus on the resolution of the climax, but the experience of the climax itself. On witnessing the death of Swelter the reader cannot help but breathe a very physical sigh of relief. Peake’s long and laborious descriptions are there in order to build physically for the reader the tension which is the focus of the scene. G.P Winnington in his study on Mervyn Peake[12] highlights t
his sense of the physical in conjunction with the intensely visual. He singles out the opening description of Gormenghast with the Tower of Flints which Peake describes not only in precise visual detail but in also in the use of sound effects. The tower is made ‘an echoing throat’ for the owls. The episode with Flay and Swelter uses a related synthesis of the senses by forcing the reader into the action both visually and physically. We are in this way involved more completely with the experience. It is as though he were trying to make the imagined more real. It is not in the moment of Death itself that interests Peake, but the descriptive experience itself as an expandable fictional space.