Eaten by Owls

Michael Wood

  • Peake’s Progress: Selected Writings and Drawings of Mervyn Peake edited by Maeve Gilmore
    British Library, 576 pp, £25.00, June 2011, ISBN 978 0 7123 5834 7
  • The Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake
    Vintage, 943 pp, £25.00, June 2011, ISBN 978 0 09 952854 8
  • Titus Awakes by Maeve Gilmore and Mervyn Peake
    Vintage, 288 pp, £7.99, June 2011, ISBN 978 0 09 955276 5
  • Complete Nonsense by Mervyn Peake
    Fyfield, 242 pp, £14.95, July 2011, ISBN 978 1 84777 087 5
  • A Book of Nonsense by Mervyn Peake
    Peter Owen, 87 pp, £9.99, June 2011, ISBN 978 0 7206 1361 2

Mervyn Peake, the son of a medical missionary, was born just over a hundred years ago in Kiang-Hsi Province, China. The family moved back to England when he was 12. He attended the Royal Academy and served in the British army in the first years of the Second World War. He suffered from severe mental illness periodically from that time on, spending various spells in a series of remarkably grim-sounding institutions, and was overtaken by Parkinson’s disease. He died in 1968. He had been a well-known designer and illustrator – his Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (1946 and 1954) are especially memorable. He was a painter, a poet, a novelist and a playwright too. Peake’s Progress, a reissue of a book first published in 1978, brings together a rich collection of verse, fiction, drawings, theatre; and the Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy reprints his best-known works, the novels Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950) and Titus Alone (1959). The three books were apparently not designed as a trilogy, but as early volumes in a longer series. Peake wrote only a few pages of a fourth book, and in the 1970s his widow, Maeve Gilmore, continued it. This work is now published as Titus Awakes. Other centenary publications include a reissue of A Book of Nonsense (1972) and Complete Nonsense, a new volume following on from the Collected Poems of 2008.

One of Peake’s fiercest and most brilliant pieces of writing is his short story ‘Boy in Darkness’, which has the incidental advantage of helping us see what the looming castle-world of the Gormenghast novels is and is not. The story, reprinted in Peake’s Progress, first appeared alongside stories by John Wyndham and William Golding in 1956, in a collection called Sometime, Never. Taken together the three stories read more like fables than fantasy or science fiction, and they glance curiously at the contemporary world they are not directly seeking to imitate. But whereas Wyndham explores genetics and medical experiments in an undated time and Golding takes on inventions in ancient Rome, Peake leads us into a post-human world where half-beasts – a goat and a hyena who used to be men, a lamb whose earlier incarnation is obscure – struggle for power and specialise in pain. What can this story be about, what non-fabulous reality lurks behind it or in its sights?

The Lamb, also known as the Lord of the Mines, is the blind ruler of an underground realm beneath a ruined industrial landscape. ‘There had been a time,’ we read, ‘when these deserted solitudes were alive with hope, excitement and conjecture on how the world was to be changed!’ There were ‘experiments … without precedent’ in the conversion of humans into other animals, which seem to have been carried out without chemicals or surgery. The Lamb ‘gathered … in at will’ a whole variety of ‘supplicants … at differing stages of mutation and dire change’ and ‘willed them to become while they were yet men, beasts’. The repetition of the idea of willing is not casual. A little later Peake writes of ‘the throbbing horror of the will’:

For it was the Lamb’s exquisite pleasure to debase. To work upon and transform in such a way that through terror and vile flattery subtly intertwined, his unwary victims, one by one, ceased to have a will of their own, but began to disintegrate not only morally but palpably … He began to will them into a state in which they longed to do what he wished them to do, and be what he wished them to be. So that by degrees the form and character of the beasts they had somewhat resembled began to strengthen and little signs began to appear, such as a note in the voice that had never been there before, or a way of tossing the head like a stag, or lowering it like a hen when it runs to its food.

The technical term within the story is the creepily bureaucratic ‘readjustment’.

But the Lamb can’t keep his changed creatures alive. The only exceptions are the Goat and the Hyena, unkillable life-forms it seems, and they bring to him a boy they have found wandering in their territory. The Lamb looks forward to working again with ‘nothing less than flesh entirely human’, but the boy is alert enough to baffle his captors, find a sword and kill the ruler. He leaves the mines in the company of the Goat and the Hyena, now described simply as ‘two ancient men’, who go their own way, and he is found by the people who have been looking for him and taken back to his ancestral home.

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