Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

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

This conceit is consciously used as the image remains in the mind of the reader. Peake builds upon it as Fuchsia again comes to her window, this time contemplating suicide[27]. This time, as she walks to the window she walks “unsteadily”. Her profound state of depression is made palpable by the very lack of visual excitement as she stares out across the water of the great lake. There is nothing that makes “any kind of visual impression on her”. We can still see her crimson dress which is made more vivid by its contrast against the coldness of the deep water. Peake then in a master stroke sends her to her death not on purpose, but by accident. It is not through a final conscious decision that Titus’s older sister is killed but by a knock on the door which startles her in what is a profoundly silent scene. Just as Fuchsia is “Jerked back into a sudden consciousness of the world”[28], she trembles uncontrollably with the shock of the noise and falls. The sudden modulation from the silent stillness is finally and dreadfully punctuated in her “striking her dark head on the sill as she passed, and was already unconscious before the water received her”. Peake has once again manipulated the physical senses in the reader not only through intensive visual description but by choosing careful sound signifiers which arouse calculated effects. We are in this way directed in how we experience her death. It is done without over sentimentality but with the utmost tenderness as the mood is finally sealed in the reaction of her mother. The Countess is usually cold and reserves any form of Maternal warmth for the animals with whom she resides for much of the time. On witnessing the body of her drowned daughter, however, Peake navigates between her nature and the profound tragedy of the scene:

“The face of the Countess showed nothing, but once she drew the corner of the sheet up a little further over Fuchsia’s shoulder, with an infinite gentleness, as though she feared her child might feel the cold and so must take the risk of waking her.”[29]

It is perhaps this intensity of descriptive experience that puts the writing of Mervyn Peake so firmly in the realms of Fantasy. His narrative is relentless in the creation of an almost dreamlike domain made more palpable (for want of a better term) by what Colin Manlove suggests is a “self -consistent other world”[30]. The world of Gormenghast he suggests has a kind of internal cohesion within the Fantasy genre that sets it apart from other narratives such as those of C.S.Lewis in that the world Peake creates exists without reference to our own. It has its own atmosphere, its own Laws and its own rules which have no relevance outside of it. The motives for any of the bizarre rituals often escape the reader simply because they have no meaning outside the walls of Gormenghast. This is why it never occurs to the reader to question them further than an interest in their strange nature. On the one hand, it is a kind of medievalized universe reminiscent of Tolkien, yet this is complicated by wilful anachronisms which point to the Victorian era. Malcom Yorke in his study on Peake points out that in his drawings for the characters, their manner and dress are quite Victorian while in most parts of the trilogy itself there are no “politicians, soldiers, scientists, lawyers, businessmen, shopkeepers, newspapers or theatres” there are “modern safety-pins, injections, medicines, celluloid, teacups and scones..”[31]. This is further skewed in other areas of the work where, in Titus Groan, for example, Titus is shocked by cars, electronic surveilance, jet-planes, cocktails and helicopters. There is an arguable discrepancy which Peake seems to relish. These worlds cannot belong together yet they do because he wills them to. This is part of the Fantasy. Gormenghast is a fictive space revelling in the imagination however strange or beautiful.

The varying opinions as to the nature of Peake’s fantasy writing are visited not only in finding the trilogy (each bookseller seems to have a different classification from Gothic Fiction to Science Fiction) but most interestingly in the narrative itself as it progresses from the first to the third book in the series. Each episode in the series seems to visit particular avenues of the Fantasy in ways which mirror where the story is in its mood. Book one, Titus Groan for instance, focuses on the birth of Titus and the significance of the event in the world of Gormenghast. It is his birth that changes everything. Steerpike’s epic journey over the flinted roofscape begins as Titus is christened, which coincides with his villainous planning. This, in turn leads to the burning of Sepulchrave’s library, ensuing insanity and his demise. The self contained world of Gormenghast is presented
in a calculatedly Gothic atmosphere, underlining an ordered world bordered by ominous shadows. The Tower of Flints, for instance arises “like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry” pointing “blasphemously at heaven”[32]. The building itself, as I have mentioned is almost animate. As the seventy sixth Earl of Gormenghast, it is natural that he is almost symbiotically linked with the stones. If either is damaged so is the other which is exactly what happens. The structure of Gormenghast cannot withstand rupture of any kind. This is exemplified in the almost hallucinogenic deaths of Swelter, Sepulchrave, his twin sisters, Titus’s wet nurse and then Fuchsia. It is almost as if without the integrity of the Groan structure, the main characters simply die with it. The narrative is dark and the language reflects this in the convoluted nature of the prose which often underlines a world descending into confusion. Gormenghast then expands on the dissolution of order through the growth of Titus into his rebellious adolescence. Peake deliberately uses conflicting modes of language to illustrate this. Rosemary Jackson’s allusion to his Kafkaesque prose is relevant here[33]. Titus is now seven and the novel begins with a direct allusion to “his confines, Gormenghast”. He has been “suckled on shadows, weaned, as it were, on webs of ritual: for his ears, echoes, for his eyes, a labyrinth of stone”[34]. The claustrophobic units of flinted space are therefore contrasted quite consciously it seems with a language that sketches what Tolkien in Fantasy narratives described as the “fugitive spirit”[35]. This is most vivid in Titus’s periodic escapes:

“Titus, wrenching two boughs apart, thrust himself forward and wriggled into the green darkness [….] Like a canvas of gold with its hundreds of majestic oaks, their winding branches dividing and sub-dividing into gilded fingertips – the solid acorns and the deep clusters of legendary leaves.”[36]

Titus as he becomes more and more unable to bear the rigidity of his formulaic existence and the duties as Seventy Seventh Earl of Groan, begins to contemplate the unthinkable: Is their a world beyond Gormenghast? “Was there a slightly different feeling about the light as it slanted through the oak leaves and lay along the glades? Was there a less deathly stillness in the air?”[37] He is young and alive, living in a dead world where nothing changes. The narrative is constructed largely around these episodes where Titus gets a taste for running away which happens more and more frequently as he gets older. In this way, Peake is further suggesting the inevitable collapse of his world. Just as with Sepulchrave’s separation from the stones, Titus’s abandoning of his duties to Gormenghast will secure its decline and ultimately his own sense of dislocation. Fuchsia’s death is the final breaking point as Titus flees for the last time never to return. Titus Alone confronts the results of this cascade as he leaves Gormenghast. The third and final novel in the series sees the now twenty-year-old Titus visiting strange new lands which have never heard of Gormenghast. It is here that Peake stretches most fully his narrative muscles with regard to Fantasy. As Titus moves further and further from what he knows, the doubts of everyone he meets as to whether or not this place is real creeps into his own mind. Did Gormenghast ever really exist or was it only ever a figment of his imagination? This is mirrored in language and imagery. Titus runs and runs, until he comes to the “structures” which seem to belong more to a fairy tale with buildings that are “fantasies of glass and metal”[38]. In this ‘strange and unformulated world’, Titus eventually looses the piece of flint from the stones of Gormenghast which he carried always in his pocket from the moment of his leaving. From here, description descends further and further in to the realms of the imagination which include episodes like the “Under river”, a secret realm underneath the city[39] and a hilarious trial episode reminiscent of Lewis Carroll[40]. It is as though, the farther he moves from the stones of Gormenghast, the further he travels from order and his own sense of self. We have thus moved from a Gothic landscape which is dictated solely through medievalized ritual to the compromising of its integrity and finally to its collapse into the surreal. The reader thus becomes every bit as confused as Titus, validating Todorov’s precondition for the “pure Fantastic” as a necessary hesitation shared by both character and reader with regard to reality[41].