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Mervyn Peake and the Great Individualist Novel

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07/22/2010Jeff Riggenbach

[This article is transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "Mervyn Peake."]

It was 99 years ago this month that Mervyn Peake, the author of one of the most notable individualist novels of the 20th century, was born, in the unlikely setting of Tientsin, China, where his father, Dr. Ernest Cromwell Peake, a "nonconformist" — that is, an English Protestant not associated with the Church of England — was working as a medical missionary. Young Mervyn had what his widow would later call "[a] strange childhood" in China during and just after World War I. "Such a mixture of English nonconformity, and almost bourgeois convention," she wrote. "Congregational hymns, tea-parties, a straight-laced upbringing, and outside surrounded by dragons and carvings of ancient imagination and disastrous beauty."

When his son was 11 years old, in 1922, Dr. Peake moved the family back to England. And it was in England that Mervyn Peake acquired the bulk of his formal education and, in the early 1930s, launched his career — not as a novelist (that would come later), but as a graphic artist. He specialized in book illustration, and was, according to the British literary critic C.N. Manlove, "best known to the public" during his lifetime "for his drawings." He produced new sets of illustrations for classics like Lewis Carroll's Hunting of the Snark and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, and the Household Tales of the brothers Grimm.

Peake taught drawing at an art school. He wrote and illustrated several of his own children's books. He wrote a book for aspiring artists called The Craft of the Lead Pencil. He began publishing poetry in the weekly and monthly magazines. He became moderately well-known in England, but little of his work made its way outside England into any of the rest of the English-speaking world. Things remained this way for the rest of his short life, which ended in 1968, when death took him at the age of 57. Parkinson's disease had robbed him of the ability to either write or draw for the last ten years of his life, which he spent mostly in various institutions. But I get ahead of my story.

It was early in 1940, in the first months of World War II, when Mervyn Peake was 28 years old, that he began working on that novel I mentioned earlier — a work that turned out to be one of the most extraordinary novels of individualism written and published in the last century. Most people who know about this work don't think of it as a single novel. They think of it as three novels — a trilogy — and they call it "the Gormenghast Trilogy." This is misleading, just as it is misleading to speak of J.R.R. Tolkien's great novel, The Lord of the Rings, as a "trilogy," and for similar reasons. Tolkien originally submitted The Lord of the Rings to his publisher as a single, long manuscript, and he meant for it to be published as a single, long volume. It tells, after all, one long, continuous story. It was published in three volumes for purely economic reasons. It is not three novels, but one novel published in three volumes.

The case of the "Gormenghast Trilogy" is somewhat different. Mervyn Peake did publish its three volumes as three separate novels. And several years went by between volumes. The first volume, Titus Groan, appeared in 1946. The second, Gormenghast, appeared in 1950. The third, Titus Alone, appeared in 1959. By contrast, the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings were issued within a few months of each other in late 1954 and early 1955. On the other hand, the three Gormenghast novels, turn out to be, on examination, one long, continuous story split up into three volumes — just like The Lord of the Rings. In my own mind, I think of Peake's work as a single, long novel, which I call, simply, Gormenghast.

The first two volumes of this long novel are set in and around an almost inconceivably immense castle called Gormenghast. C.N. Manlove estimates, on the basis of descriptions of the place scattered through the first two volumes of Peake's story that it must be "at least twenty miles across and two thousand feet high" at its highest point — the top of the massive Tower of Flints. It has grown gradually over many, many years, each generation building and adding new wings, new extensions, new towers.

"Gormenghast is like civilization itself."

Vast expanses of the castle are abandoned as our story begins, for Gormenghast is like civilization itself: sometimes what one generation builds is used for centuries; sometimes it is forgotten and left to molder and ruin while life goes on all about it; sometimes what one generation builds has not been very well thought out; sometimes what one generation adds onto the ever-expanding patchwork of civilization is quickly seen to be utterly useless, like the "useless passage" in one part of the castle, described early in the second chapter of Titus Groan, which stretches in darkness, "for there were no windows" or doors, until "it [is] terminated by a wall of flints." Then there's the "rectangular area of some length" in the castle's east wing that is "entirely filled with pillars set so closely together that it was difficult for a man to squeeze between them." Like civilization itself, Gormenghast has evolved somewhat randomly, guided by no master plan, and this process has been going on for a long, long time.

How long? The castle and its immediate environs constitute a tiny principality or city-state, ruled ostensibly by the House of Groan. The man on the throne of this principality at the time our story begins is Sepulchrave, the 76th Earl of Gormenghast. Think about that number for a moment: the 76th Earl of Gormenghast. The Groan dynasty has been in place, then, for close to 2,000 years, at the very least.

I have said that Gormenghast is "ruled ostensibly by the House of Groan," because in fact it is ruled by a person known as the Master of Ritual, who meets "every morning of the year," Peake tells us, with the currently reigning earl. The two men meet in the castle library, just after breakfast, and the Master of Ritual instructs the earl on what will be required of him on that day. The Master of Ritual does this with the aid of three huge books. "The left hand pages were headed with the date," Peake writes,

and in the first of the three books this was followed by a list of activities to be performed hour by hour during the day by his lordship. The exact times; the garments to be worn for each occasion and the symbolic gestures to be used. Diagrams facing the left-hand page gave particulars of the routes by which his lordship should approach the various scenes of operation. The diagrams were hand tinted.

So much for the first of the Master of Ritual's volumes. "The second tome," Peake continues,

was full of blank pages and was entirely symbolic, while the third was a mass of cross references. If, for instance, his lordship, Sepulchrave, the present Earl of Groan, had been three inches shorter, the costumes, gestures and even the routes would have differed from the ones described in the first tome, and from the enormous library, another volume would have had to have been chosen which would have applied. Had he been of a fair skin, or had he been heavier than he was, had his eyes been green, blue or brown instead of black, then, automatically another set of archaic regulations would have appeared this morning on the breakfast table. This complex system was understood in its entirety only by [the Master of Ritual] — the technicalities demanding the devotion of a lifetime, though the sacred spirit of tradition implied by the daily manifestations was understood by all.

Gormenghast is, then, a society ruled by a body of tradition so old that the symbolic acts, the rituals, that express that body of tradition and fill up every day of the earl's life are no longer understood by anyone but the Master of Ritual. No one else knows why the earl does what he does — what it means, what it signifies. The earl and, to a lesser extent, all the other inhabitants of the castle do what they do because they are told to do so by the Master of Ritual. It is, then, he who actually rules Gormenghast. The supposed hereditary "rulers," the members of the Groan family, are more ruled by the tradition and by the ritual than any of their supposed subjects.

On the day our story begins, an heir to the throne is born — Titus Groan, who will become the 77th Earl of Gormenghast. The problem is that the heir doesn't want the throne. In the very first public act of traditional symbolism in which he participates, while still a small child, he is supposed to stand on a raft floating in Gormenghast lake, holding a symbolic stone in one hand and a symbolic ivy branch in the other. But when his handlers attempt to place these objects in his hands, he won't take them. After a few minutes, he does take them — only to pitch them quite unceremoniously into the lake.

A few years later, the Master of Ritual, walking through the castle, reflects for a few moments on what he sees as the perplexing problem presented by the young Earl, who is now around ten and enrolled in the castle's grammar school. "There was something about the way the boy moved," Peake writes, "a restlessness, an independence — that galled [the Master of Ritual]." It had about it "the taste of something acid; something rebellious. The young earl was too much himself. It was as though the child imagined he had a life of his own apart from the life of Gormenghast."

As Titus enters his teens, it becomes apparent that this is precisely what he imagines. Increasingly, by word and deed, he makes it clear that he wants to live his own life, make his own decisions for himself, do some traveling, see what else exists in the world besides Gormenghast. He doesn't want a life in which every minute of every day is planned in advance for him and laid out in a bunch of books, however venerable they may be.

"What do I care for the symbolism of it all?" he demands of his mother near the end of the second volume. "What do I care if the castle's heart is sound or not? I don't want to be sound anyway! Anybody can be sound if they're always doing what they're told. I want to live! Can't you see? Oh, can't you see? I want to be myself, and become what I make myself, a person, a real live person and not a symbol anymore." Titus ends the conversation with his mother decisively. He says to her, in so many words, "To hell with Gormenghast."

If he feels this way, why, then, doesn't Titus just leave Gormenghast once he has become old enough? In the end, he does. But in the meantime, there is a complication. For on the day of his birth, another important event had taken place in the castle. A seventeen-year-old scullery rat named Steerpike had escaped the Great Kitchen on that day and embarked on a new and much more ominous career — a career in what one can only call politics.

Steerpike, as Peake depicts him, is a clever young man, talented with words, a quick and avid learner, whether from books or from experience, a young man who possesses remarkable charm, remarkable skill at telling people what they want to hear, remarkable skill at persuading people to do what he, Steerpike, wants done. Steerpike has seen where the true seat of power in Gormenghast lies — in the office of the Master of Ritual. And power is what he seeks. Through a careful, patient, years-long campaign of flattery, insinuation, manipulation, arson, and murder, Steerpike attains his goal. By his mid-30s, he has himself become Gormenghast's Master of Ritual.

He has also, gradually, attracted suspicion, particularly among those in the castle who have known him longest, but who were largely distracted by the events of their own lives while his inexorable climb to power and influence was taking place. Another who comes to suspect Steerpike is Titus, now about the same age Steerpike was when he escaped from the Great Kitchen nearly two decades before. Titus was a mere child when Steerpike committed the worst and most important of the crimes he has only now, belatedly, come to be suspected of committing. And Titus is, as we have seen, no fan of the tradition-based social system around which life in Gormenghast is organized, and which Steerpike is cynically using for his own nefarious purposes.

But Titus seems to make an important distinction when he thinks about his loyalties and duties in this regard. He doesn't, himself, want to spend his life "in a world," as Peake puts it, "where change [is] crime" — a world in which most people believe that, again in Peake's words, "change [is the] most unforgivable of all heresies." His thinking seems to be this: if my family wants to live in a perpetually stagnant society in which, as Frank Vanderlip used to say, nothing is ever done for the first time — let them! At least those administering the tradition are merely trying to do the right thing; at least they are not acting out of any lust for power over others. But one must do what one can to prevent their being enslaved by a despot, someone who would manipulate the pointless traditions and rituals to build and safeguard his own personal power.

And so it is that, in Gormenghast's heavily ironic climactic scene, it is Titus who confronts and brings down Steerpike, only to then confront his own mother and say to her, "I am leaving Gormenghast. I cannot explain. I do not want to talk. I came to tell you and that is all." He turns to go, only to hear his mother's voice behind him. "There is nowhere else," she says. "You will only tread a circle, Titus Groan. There's not a road, not a track, but it will lead you home. For everything comes to Gormenghast." Meaning — if I have read Mervyn Peake's symbolism correctly — that human society must have some structure, and there is nothing but tradition that can give it such structure. In human society it is therefore true, figuratively speaking, that everything comes to Gormenghast.

In the third and final volume of Peake's masterwork, Titus discovers a human society outside of Gormenghast — a police state not too unlike the sort of society Steerpike would probably have created if he had ever had the opportunity, the time, and the resources. I'll say nothing more about this third volume of Mervyn Peake's so-called "Gormenghast Trilogy" in the hope that the chance to find out what happens in it will entice at least a few of my readers to read these books for themselves.

The three volumes of Peake's great novel have enjoyed the status of modern classics in England since around the time of their original publication in the 1940s and '50s. It is high time that American readers were brought up to speed on the importance of these books, too. And I would think that American libertarians would be particularly interested in them, since the perspective on the individual and society that pervades them is very libertarian in the broadest sense of that word.


Jeff Riggenbach

Jeff Riggenbach was a journalist, author, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A member of the Organization of American Historians and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, he wrote for such newspapers as the New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle; such magazines as Reason, Inquiry, and Liberty; and such websites as LewRockwell.com, AntiWar.com, and RationalReview.com. His books include In Praise of Decadence (1998), Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism (2009), and Persuaded by Reason: Joan Kennedy Taylor & the Rebirth of American Individualism (2014). Drawing on vocal skills he honed in classical and all-news radio in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Houston, Riggenbach also narrated the audiobook versions of numerous libertarian works, many of them available on Mises.org.