Top Ten Fantasy Titles

[Last semester my colleague Matt Sangster challenged me to list my top ten fantasy titles (or, to be precise, my top ten works of fantasy literature written in the English language in the twentieth century). I’ve tried this exercise before, and the list has radically changed each time I’ve compiled it in my head. Call this a snapshot, then, of my preferences at the time of asking (October 2016). If he’d asked me the same question this month the list would have been quite different…]

Hope Mirrlees, Lud-in-the-Mist (1926)

The oddest of fairy tales, in which the bourgeois citizens of a prosperous town express their fear of sex, death, the working classes, unruly women and disobedient children, by banishing all talk of such things from polite society. They also banish a hallucinogenic drug called Fairy Fruit. Forbidden things (which also include the priesthood and the aristocracy) are confined to a place they call ‘Fairyland’, beyond the country’s borders. Inevitably the borders can’t be policed, and all efforts at containing illegal people and objects fail. Gorgeous descriptions, extravagant names, and a murder mystery complete the picture. A snapshot of English life in the immediate aftermath of the First World War.

 

Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman (c. 1940, published 1966)

Written in a language like no other, this bizarre trip into the tormented interior of 1930s Ireland – which is a miniature working model of 1930s Europe – is so packed with invention, so chock-full of gags, so musical in its rhythms and so disturbing in its vision of the way the world ticks that there’s no describing it. The nameless narrator finds himself caught up in the clockwork mechanisms of the universe. Although from one point of view his experiences are hell, they are punctuated by moments of such heartbreaking beauty and hilarity that the book is like a piece of shot silk, as dark or light as your mood at the time of reading. Boxes within boxes have never seemed so explosively complicated. Bicycles have never seemed so erotic.

 

Mervyn Peake, Gormenghast (1950)

An architectural fantasy, whose chief character is a labyrinthine castle governed by rituals whose origins and purpose have been lost in the dusty corridors of time. At first the castle’s denizens are as isolated from each other as the castle is from the outside world. Gradually they come together in the face of the threat posed by Steerpike, an ambitious former kitchen boy who seeks to transform the building into a totalitarian state, or a playground, or a madhouse, depending on his mood. A matchless commentary on the various forms of dictatorship, internal and external, that dominated the middle years of the twentieth century.

 

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1954-5)

I love this for the subtlety of the transition from the world of the hobbits – the comfortable Shire – to the world of the ancient epic heroes; for the effortless interplay between telling details (mushrooms, pocket handkerchiefs, Longbottom Leaf, stewed rabbit) and the sweep of a grand narrative; for the sense of increasing danger it generates from the first chapter; for Tolkien’s obvious delight in bringing the remote past into vibrant life. The book perfectly captures the precariousness of the mid-twentieth century, in which war and imperialist expansionism threatened to obliterate the past altogether.

 

Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)

A perfectly constructed story, about a boy whose abusive and lonely childhood gives him a problem with women that almost turns him into a monster. The world he lives in, made up of islands, encourages an isolationism in its inhabitants that only adds to his loneliness. The dragons here are the best in fiction, with the possible exception of Tolkien’s Smaug. Le Guin’s delight in the sea that both separates and links her islands is as palpable as her fascination with the social and political causes of psychological damage, and the strange roads that lead to healing.

 

Doris Lessing, The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974)

Lessing called this an experiment in autobiography, and it’s the perfect example of how fantasy can force us to rethink the terms by which we understand the world we live in. A city is undergoing radical changes, a breakdown in the social order which the protagonist observes uneasily through the window of her ground floor apartment. The causes of the breakdown are unclear, but it’s implied that they have their roots in the breakdown of relationships between men, women and children in the domestic environment, which the protagonist also sees played out in a kind of looking-glass world on the other side of her living room wall. The style has a magnificent awkwardness that admirably conveys the difficulty of making sense of things, and the inadequacy of conventional forms of expression as a means of doing so. The ending is as ambiguous as it is exhilarating.

 

Gene Wolfe, The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories (1980)

The best collection of fantastic stories of the twentieth century. Though many of these are science fiction rather than fantasy, Wolfe’s refusal to authorize any single version of the strange events he presents us with invests the whole collection with a magical atmosphere, as if we are witnessing successive acts in a ghost circus. You’ll have to read these stories again and again in an effort to work out what happens in them, and each reading will give you a different answer. Just like living through the 60s and 70s, those decades of change when the stories were written.

 

John Crowley, Little, Big (1981)

Another architectural fantasy, set in a house whose many facades make it seem like several houses occupying the same space. Over three or four generations, an American family struggles to come to terms with its close relationship with a supernatural community of half-seen beings – perhaps the fairies – who have made their homes in the house’s environs. The fairies become a metaphor for the many forms of estrangement and misunderstanding that afflict the small community called the family, as well as the larger communities of the city, the nation and the world. Re-reading it now I think of it as the ultimate threnody for the political and social possibilities of the 60s and 70s. The prose sings.

 

Diana Wynne Jones, Fire and Hemlock (1984)

A children’s book for grown ups. A neglected young girl makes friends with a man who seems in thrall to the mysterious head of an extensive and powerful family. The girl and the man tell each other stories and the stories come true in unexpected ways. Based on two old Scottish ballads, ‘Tam Lin’ and ‘Thomas the Rhymer’, this novel is remarkable for the way it traces the changing relationship between girl and man until both are adults and equals. It is also an extended commentary on the complex relationship between the life of the imagination and ‘real life’ – whatever that is – and how the former changes as we change, adapting itself to our needs at different stages of our development. And it has much to say about our false assumptions concerning the natures of adulthood and childishness.

 

China Miéville, Perdido Street Station (2000)

A disgraced scientist sets himself up as the champion of justice and the saviour of a city. In fact he is the one who put the city in danger by releasing the Slake Moths, monstrous yet strangely attractive insects that feed on the dreams and memories of men and women, leaving them helpless, barely sentient. A brilliant meditation on the problem of mounting an effective resistance to global capitalism in an age when everything you eat, wear, study, think and dream is in some sense an integral part of the capitalist machine. Full of astounding composite creatures (cactus-people, insect-people, machine-people) whose awkward hybridity confirms the fact that we are all of us bizarre from other people’s perspectives, and that we are all of us to some extent implicated in other people’s atrocities (which means we are also honour bound to work against them).

 

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Café Culture

No, please – sit down. This place gets so crowded at this time of day, and I always feel a little embarrassed to be tucked away here in the corner with my small black coffee when everyone else is doing justice to the substantial and expensive lunches on the menu. The staff are kind about it, of course – they always make me feel most welcome – but I can see they notice. There’s plenty of room at the table. Be my guest.

Oh dear oh dear. Would you mind? I must just help my poor old friend at the next table, who has dropped his cup again. Coffee all over his nice clean trousers. Could you pass me some of those napkins? Thanks so much. Really, the poor old fellow shouldn’t be out on his own – but he insists on maintaining his independence, even at the cost of his personal dignity. And who can blame him? It’s quite touching to see him struggle to maintain control over his bodily functions, especially in view of his – well – what can only be called his steep decline over the last few months. That’s better, he’s drier now and looks more cheerful. Of course, he nearly always looks cheerful nowadays; that’s one of the better side effects of a decaying mind. Last August, though – you should have seen him only last August. Sharp as a razor, sparkling as cut glass. People used to come here almost every morning to consult him on affairs of real importance – not just your ordinary mugginses but community leaders, company directors, sometimes even (better whisper it) members of the cabinet…

And now – well – look at him. The poor old boy can barely focus on his spoon as it lifts a precarious portion of soup to his drooling lips. Do I sound heartless? Believe me, I’m speaking from the bottom of my heart; his condition affects me deeply. He’s been a friend of mind for over sixty years, and here he is –

I beg your pardon? You can’t believe I’ve even been alive for sixty years? You flatter me, my dear. I’m seventy-nine.

Yes, yes, you heard me correctly. Seventy-nine years and eleven months, to be precise. It’ll soon be my birthday. I’m effectively an octogenarian. It’s kind of you to say so; people often tell me I look younger than my age, though I’m never completely sure if they’re being serious. Of course, my friend over there, he’s only three weeks older than I am – I know, I know, it’s hard to believe we’re the same generation – but just a few months ago you’d have said he was decades younger than me, not decades my senior. It’s true, it’s true. At sixty he looked like a man in his mid-thirties. At seventy he looked no older than forty-five. His neck was firm, his hands unwrinkled, his eyes flashed as he shot you down with spontaneous wisecracks, or delivered his verdict on current affairs in elegant sentences and exquisitely crafted paragraphs… You say I’m well preserved, but only last August you’d have said he was my younger brother, perhaps even my son. And now, I say again: look at him! It’s a warning to us all. Don’t get complacent. Time tarries for no man – and no woman either, if you don’t mind my saying so. Do forgive my bluntness. I get so philosophical when I think about what happened to my friend.

What did happen, I hear you ask in your quiet voice. Did he fall ill? Well no, not ill exactly. He ate something that disagreed with him. I find that ironic. After all, if you listen to a dietician just about everything we eat disagrees with us in one way or another. Every morsel we place in our mouths is wearing us down, grinding away our teeth, eating at our organs, consuming our digestive tracts, laying waste to our wastepipes, so to speak – I mean our rectal passages… Again, I apologize for speaking bluntly, but I know what I’m talking about – know it better, indeed, than anyone else. What happened to him wasn’t unexpected, at least not to me. But dramatic, yes. Far more dramatic, indeed, than I had dared to hope…

I can see from your expression that you’d like to know more. My hints have intrigued you. Well, you’ve got a hearty sandwich to consume in the next few minutes, so if you’re sure I’m not intruding on your lunch break – I’ll tell you what happened to my poor old friend with the tremulous hands, the wattled neck, the mottled skin and the bleary vision. (Did you notice his hair, by the way? Only in August he had hair right down to his shoulders – it put this mane of mine to shame, I can assure you. And now, he should really be wearing a wig to cover up those clumps of shriveled vegetation that so egregiously fail to conceal his flaking scalp…)

Let me see, now. Where to begin? Tell me, my dear; have you heard of the Elixir of Youth? Of course you’ve heard of it – I’m sorry, my question must have sounded patronizing – and of course you’ve never believed in its existence. No more have I. Oh ho! You’re not the first to assume I must have found it, the Well at the World’s End, the Fountain of Eternal Replenishment, the Restorative Fruit from the Tree of Life. But no, I haven’t. To arrest the process of decay one needs three things: a measure of luck, a great deal of effort (eat well, live well, take plenty of exercise), and excellent genes. There are no other ways to hold back old age, and never will be, if you ask me. But I mention the Elixir of Youth for a very good reason, and will return to it in time.

My old friend there – now he was someone you’d have said had found it, if you’d seen him in August. He used to joke about it, you know – tempting fate, I tended to think in my superstitious way. ‘I can’t help it,’ he would tell strangers in his forceful voice (do you hear how it whistles now as he calls for a drink of water to help him swallow the final crumbs of his frugal meal?). ‘I just can’t help it,’ he would bellow. ‘Everything I eat makes me stronger and younger. Everything I drink revives my flesh. My grandmother was the same, and her mother before her. They both of them lived to a hundred and twelve. I expect I’ll outlast them, God willing’ (he was always throwing in those religious references, though he wasn’t a believer). ‘Come back in forty years and I’ll be sitting here at this table, as I am now, regaling the company with stories of the days when we used to drink coffee instead of kale and grapefruit smoothies. Here, feel my biceps. Impressive, no, for a man over sixty? What would you say if I told you I was over seventy? Surprised? I’m surprised myself. But I can’t help it – can I, Freddy? I’m simply the youngest octogenarian in the world.’ He exaggerated his age, of course, for dramatic effect, but he didn’t need to – he really was a wonder of nature.

That’s my name, Freddy. You’re Patricia? Pleased to meet you. It’s such a pleasure to meet a young woman with a good attention span, who isn’t always fiddling with her smartphone in the middle of a conversation.

No, no, of course I don’t mind if you answer that text. Finished? Jolly good. Now then: where was I?

Oh yes: the decline. Well, I have to say I thought he was asking for it with all his boasting about the lifespan of his family, his own good health, the astonishing weights he lifted daily in the gym. Tempting Providence, I thought, though like him I’m not religious. Almost as if he was daring the world to prove him wrong. Well, what could I do but take up the challenge? After all, he himself acknowledged me as his closest rival. The second youngest octogenarian on the planet, he would call me, and he’d buy me coffee from time to time – full fat lattes with plenty of sugar, though he knew I always drink mine black. But then, he wanted me to put on weight, just as he has now, poor devil (just look at that belly).

So I took it up. The challenge, I mean. I took up the challenge, and I took up chemistry. Not conventional chemistry, of course – GlaxoSmithKline and all that jazz. What I wanted was a nice quick fix for one small problem: the Fountain of Youth which he seemed to have tapped. I needed something to combat his natural fortitude. I needed – well, I’ll be blunt, since I’ve been blunt before. I needed a spell. Nothing else would do. I wanted fast results, and quite specific ones, and nothing in the way of regular science quite fitted the bill. A spell, my dear. By my age you don’t discount such things. Or rather, perhaps, you’re prepared to try them out because you’ve nothing to lose, not if you’re an unbeliever and you’ve witnessed the failings of conventional chemistry too many times in your life to number. Why not? After all, what’s a spell but a wish expressed in substances and gestures as well as in words? We all wish for things, I think, and every now and then we’re lucky enough to see a wish come true.

I found one, of course. A spell. Where else but on the internet – isn’t that where we find everything these days? The Dark Net, of course, not the Light One, if there’s any such thing. Not just any old Dark Net, either. This one needs to be accessed using HTMLs you can only obtain from certain individuals not to be named in respectable company. How do I know such individuals? I didn’t at the time – my life up till that point had been a relatively clean one – but I knew full well how to get in touch. How does Marlowe put it?

For when we hear one rack the name of God,
Abjure the Scriptures and his Saviour Christ,
We fly in hope to get his glorious soul;
Nor will we come, unless he use such means
Whereby he is in danger to be damned.
Therefore the shortest cut for conjuring
Is stoutly to abjure the Trinity,
And pray devoutly to the Prince of Hell.

Isn’t Kit sublime? I want to cry every time I speak those lines. And I’m not even a believer! I can attest, though, to the efficacy of the method. You don’t do your abjuring out loud, of course, if you want a cyber solution; you do it on Google. But it works. My old friend there is proof of that.

One way or another, then, I got my spell. I can tell you what was in it if you like. Have you finished your meal? I ask, because – well, some of the contents were a little disgusting. Bitter aloes was the least of them. The central nervous system of a traumatized orphan. A migrant’s tearducts. Infected blood. Bile, spleen, a dysfunctional liver, a malignant tumour – all of them human, I’m sorry to say. Lots of saturated fat, mixed with glucose, fructose – any kind of sugar, the more the merrier. Petrol. Ash. Bat’s wings, of course, Pipistrellus pipistrellus being the preferred variety, the bird of evening as the Romans called it. Eye of newt. Those last two items can be found in all the most efficacious spells, and I have to tell you the eye of newt was by far the hardest thing to get hold of – everything else is readily available on the world wide web, but you have no idea how rare a great crested newt is these days, or how fiercely the conservationists protect them. A pinch of salt – no, make that a fistful. There’s more, of course, but you get the picture. Hardly palatable, you’ll agree; and of course it took me months to get it all together.

There were words, too, as there always are, but you can’t have those – I don’t want to get you into trouble, not at your age. (At my age, on the other hand, trouble should be actively sought out. Keeps you young, so my seniors tell me.) And then of course I had to get the timing right. Leave the noxious mixture to brew for several weeks, chanting charms over it at appointed times, when the planets were properly aligned etc. – wearisome stuff. Consult the usual star charts to ascertain the optimum moment to administer the concoction. And then…

Then came the difficult part, or so you’d imagine. How to make him drink the potion? Funnily enough, that was the simplest thing of all. I just had to tell him everyone was doing it – that the tincture I’d cooked up was the dernier cri in holistic wellness therapy – and he took it like a man. After all, he’d been inured to foul concoctions for many decades; you don’t get a physique of the sort he had without downing vitamins and proteins by the bucketful, mostly in the foulest form imaginable. He made a wry face as he tossed it down, but he kept it down, as I’d known he would, and even managed to drink a mug of green tea afterwards to wash away the aftertaste. Impressive.

The effects didn’t begin to show for over a week – I was on tenterhooks till I finally spotted the first telltale change in his complexion. He must have been as strong as an ox. I knew that, of course, but I’m sure you’ll agree that knowing something isn’t the same as seeing it empirically demonstrated. When he came in here looking yellow – well, I was in clover. I settled down, then, to watch the changes day by day as they swarmed across him like a plague of locusts across healthy farmland. An outbreak of boils, which made him waddle like a pregnant duck. Scurf and scabies, which quickly led to hair loss. Sudden tooth decay, so that between one week and the next he’d gone from a full set of gleaming gnashers without one filling to a full set of dentures, which didn’t properly fit his mouth (the shape of his jaw was in constant flux). A case of palsy in the hands, whose cause could never be traced. Wasting of the muscles. Chronic indigestion. Distortion of the bones; incontinence; a number of strokes. His conversation changed, becoming a litany of complaints which drove away even his oldest friends – apart from myself, to whom they were music, a driveling ode to the success of my necromantic efforts. Then he more or less stopped talking altogether. It was too painful at first, what with all those abscesses, and later on he simply forgot how to govern his tongue. These days he can only manage the simplest requests for a glass of water or a bowl of soup, and to be honest we can only understand him because we know his habits.

Must you go? Have I driven you off? Of course not, it’s just that your lunch break is almost over, you need to get back, your time is precious as mine is not. Well well, it’s been a pleasure to meet you, and I say it sincerely – I who say very little sincerely (there is so much enjoyment to be had from pulling the leg of an attractive stranger). Remember, I’m here every morning with my small black coffee; I’d be pleased to tell you more about my friend’s career and its unfortunate end. Or if you prefer I can tell you about my other friend, the one who gave me the spell and helped me work it. Don’t worry, my dear, you’d never find him in this café. He prefers the swanky places near Piccadilly Circus and Holland Park; he has expensive tastes. Just visiting, were you? Off home tomorrow? Never mind. But before you go, let me say one more thing. I think you’ll find it useful.

A young woman of your age doesn’t think about ageing, or if you do, you think of it as far away, a distant prospect, the tiniest blot on life’s horizon. As you get older, though, I assure you it starts to loom. Every time you look in the mirror it looms larger. You start to cast envious glances at other people, guessing their ages, making notes on the stealthy meddling of Father Time with their faces and bodies as compared with yours. There will come a day, I guarantee, when you start to think: how can I look younger? Can I afford to dress like a twenty-year-old any more, or will it simply bring out the grotesque disparity between my sense of style and the wrinkled, bespeckled texture of my skin? That woman there – she’s older than me, yet she looks much younger. How does she do it? What’s her secret? Will she tell me honestly, or will she fob me off with a bit of folklore, a fat red herring, a downright lie?

There will come a moment, believe me, when you’ll even start to find yourself half believing that it may exist: the Elixir of Youth. Wishful thinking, of course – but as I said, we all wish for things, and now and then we’re lucky enough to see a wish come true.

My advice to you is this: the Elixir of Youth is a waste of time. There’s no such thing. Forget it. You could waste years in search of it, and one day you may even find that you’ve sold your soul for it, given up your happiness – what there is of it left – for a piece of nonsense in a crystal flask which does nothing at all but give you stomach cramps or a temporary, painful high, swiftly followed by half a year’s worth of deep depression. Believe me, I know this from bitter experience. It doesn’t work. Put it out of your mind.

But there’s something else, in my view, that’s much, much better. One day, in a few decades, you’ll remember our meeting and what I said as you left the café, determined never to darken its door again (what a horrible man! What a dreadful story!). You’ll remember that I told you how to get hold of it, and who to call on when you want to find it. You’ll start to believe what I’m telling you now: that it’s the only potion worth possessing, the only spell worth seeking out. And you’ll go looking for it, as I did, with beating heart and a welcome warmth spreading through the normally chilly joints of your hands and feet. You’ll go wandering through the mazes of the Dark Dark Net until it comes to you at last, in one form or another, with the ghastly inevitability of death itself.

What am I talking about, you ask? Oh, I think you know.

The Elixir of Age, young woman. The Elixir of Age.

 

 

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Utopia, Laughter and Reformation: Erasmus, More and Rastell

For some time now I’ve been thinking about writing a book about English comic fiction and the Reformation – no doubt one of those many lost books that will never get finished. It’s an odd combination, certainly: a religious crisis that provoked violent conflict throughout Europe and a mode of writing that tends to get lost in literary history, largely because it’s thought of as light, a form of ‘popular’ and often crude entertainment that has nothing significant to tell us about the culture that produced it. James Simpson’s brilliant volume of the Oxford English Literary History, for instance (1350-1547: Reform and Cultural Revolution), has no comic fiction in it at all, and there has never been a monograph on early modern comic fiction in English. What has comic prose fiction to do with religious and political controversy? Very little, this neglect seems to say. But my view is that it has a great deal to tell us about reformation of one sort or another, and here I’m going to try to show this through a peculiarly rich case study.

Early 17th-century illustration of The Praise of Folly

The comic is about obliqueness: disrupting patterns of expectation, twisting familiar narratives, social customs and verbal conventions out of shape, taking people by surprise in such a way as to shock them into laughter. It depends for its effects on the assumption that there is a direction in which things usually go: a social or cultural pattern or norm that gets transgressed by the comic incident or comment, though in such a way as not to disturb the reader too radically. For this reason the comic, like satire, is sometimes taken to be a basically conservative medium; the status quo gets asserted rather than undermined by comic disruption. Even when the laughter it induces is uncomfortable or nervous, the fact that we laugh at all confirms that the object of our laughter is not serious – that in the end it has no power to alter things. If it did, we wouldn’t laugh at it; we would weep, gasp, rage, or shout. The medieval church’s ready accommodation of carnival periods into its religious cycle attests to laughter’s power of containing the emotions it releases, and to the inevitability of the return to sober normality after the period of laughter is over.

Illustration for Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools

Not all laughter, though, is so easily contained by the authorities. All three of the writers I want to write about here share a tendency to cross the line between the comic and the unacceptably transgressive, the forbidden, even the treacherous. There’s a time and a place for laughter, the Bible tells us, and even if fools have a degree of licence or legal protection there are subjects even a fool doesn’t breach with impunity. One of the most famous fools in history, Scoggin – who became the hero of his own collection of comic stories which went on being published into the eighteenth century – got himself sentenced to death by the king he served, and only saved himself by asking to be allowed to choose the tree from which he would be hanged – a choice he of course never made. All three of my writers were famous for their humour; and all three fell foul of the authorities of church and state, two dying for the doctrinal positions they took up in the early years of the Lutheran controversy, while the third lived largely in exile, and had his works placed on the papal index of prohibited books after his death. These writers didn’t get into trouble specifically for their humour; but their comic writings do have something to tell us about how and why they crossed the nebulous borders between the permissible and the illicit, and perhaps also about why each of them ended up on different sides of the religious conflict. Their eventual differences are all the more remarkable because the three of them started out with such similar convictions. What, then, does their comic fiction tell us about the different directions in which these convictions took them?

From the early days of their friendship the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus, the English lawyer Thomas More, and More’s brother-in-law, the printer John Rastell, shared a very humanist passion for social and ecclesiastical reform achieved through letters: above all, through the process of making words perspicuous; of clarifying their meanings with the help of translation, etymology (tracing the history of words) and exegesis or explanatory commentary. Erasmus sought a return to the first principles of Christianity through a return to correct texts – especially, of course, accurate texts of the Bible. For him, the accurate use of words and grammar, in translations of the scriptures but also in the secular scripture of classical literature, could lead to a reformation of society and the Church. His quest for perspicuous or lucid wisdom expressed itself in the successive editions of his Adagia: collections of proverbs or adages drawn from ancient Greek and Latin authors, which he saw as embedded in and indeed springing from a collective popular culture, since many have close affinities with old Dutch sayings he had known since childhood. His aim was to reintroduce the sort of lucid wisdom expressed in these proverbs into a church and secular government that had lost sight of the common people, and so of Christ’s original message, which embraced the powerless and disenfranchised.

Erasmus by Hans Holbein

Erasmus’ friends Thomas More and John Rastell shared his view of the redemptive power of words properly used in grammar, rhetoric and reasoning; but their focus at the beginning of their careers was on the secular letter of the law. More famously depicted in Utopia a land where the law is reduced to a few simple precepts understood by all citizens, in token of the common responsibility for government which is the founding principle of his invented society. John Rastell sought to realize this vision in his own country, England, by printing the first translations of English law into the English language, thus removing the mystique that had woven itself around legal processes by virtue of the erudite language in which they were couched. Rastell’s translations proved so popular that they went on being reprinted into the eighteenth century; and the global success of More’s Utopia is well known. But it’s also well known that the dreams of these humanists were just that: idealistic dreams, which never stood a chance of achieving a proper reformation of church and state in any country. We know this now, of course, with the advantage of hindsight; and it’s clear that all three writers knew it then, since they chose to convey their dreams, in part at least, through comic fiction. But I would suggest that they knew it in different degrees. Rastell really seems to have thought he could effect some sort of change in English society, since he converted to Protestantism in old age and set about furthering the cause with all his resources – in fact, he bankrupted himself in the end as he worked to establish radical Protestantism in England. Erasmus, too, truly believed that he could change the world with his words – or rather with God’s words freshly presented to readers alongside his commentaries – though he had few illusions about how radical the change must be or how hard to effect. More, on the other hand, knew full well that his utopianism was utopian; that however ‘good’ it was, it existed nowhere, and that there was little hope that any of its precepts would be accepted in Europe any time soon. As I said, with the advantage of hindsight it could be said that these writers’ comic fictions represent these positions with startling accuracy. It’s time, then, to turn to those fictions to see if they bear out this contention.

The theme of Erasmus’s Praise of Folly is inversion. The goddess Folly distinguishes a vast variety of foolishnesses as she argues for her own centrality to human experience, first by showing how she dominates each individual’s life from birth to death, then by schematically illustrating the foolishness of each estate or class in European society, with special emphasis on the people who regard themselves as least ridiculous, the ruling classes of church and state. But two special kinds of folly are pitted against each other throughout her discourse. The first is the folly of simplicity, which states openly and plainly in the most lucid words what is and what (in Christian terms) should be – and hence attracts derision from the powerful, who have a vested interest in keeping things obscure an incomprehensible. The second is the folly of sophistication, which aims to complicate the simple tenets of Christianity through verbal obfuscation in the interests of underpropping tyranny. As Folly’s mock sermon unfolds, we learn that the dominant folly of sophisticated people is the pretence of following Christ’s simple philosophy, as Erasmus calls it elsewhere, while actually following the fool-osophy of self-interest – which means that what’s called folly by the world is in God’s eyes wisdom, and vice versa. Folly’s constant switching between these two brands of folly produces a vertiginous effect on the reader, so that we find ourselves constantly wrong-footed, repeatedly enmeshed in one folly or another until the sermon’s final section, when the ecstatic foolishness of Christ’s followers emerges triumphant as the one stance worth cultivating. Erasmus’s constant comic violation of the reader’s expectations in this discourse leaves us without stability except in Christ, whose perspicuousness or simplicity of phrase and purpose is confirmed at last as the only certain ground in a world turned inside out by the Fall. The radically disturbing effect of the sermon preached by Erasmus’s Folly, with all its comic volatility, was confirmed by the condemnations to which it became subject; including, of course, the famous statement by More, at the height of the Lutheran controversy, that he would rather have it burnt with his own Utopia than add its fuel to the mounting flames of religious revolution.

Roman mask of Silenus

It’s ironic that the celebration of simplicity should have been so central to a text that delights in its own complexity, its cunning play of one form of absurd behaviour against another. One might say the same for Erasmus’s Adagia, where simple proverbs open out like boxes to disclose the wealth of ideas they can accommodate. But in the Fallen world we have lived in since the exile of Adam and Eve from the first utopia, Eden, the relationship between simplicity and sophistication has been drastically reversed or inverted, so Erasmus believed. As a result, the simple playfulness of verbal punning (like the pun of his book’s title) has been transformed by unscrupulous authorities into self-serving trickery, lies and fraud. This is best illustrated by comparing two of the metaphors he uses in The Praise of Folly. The first is the ‘Silenus of Alcibiades’, a grotesque statue that opens up like a container to reveal the figure of a god concealed inside. Erasmus sees words themselves, when properly used, as such a container, and he repeatedly returns in his pedagogic writings to the idea of words and phrases as boxes that can be endlessly unpacked. The other metaphor, which is the reverse of the Silenus, is the theatre, where a resplendent show conceals the physical and moral turpitude or sickness of the actors. A prince resembles an actor, Folly tells us, when he seems ‘bothe riche, and a great lorde’ but has ‘no good qualitees of the mynde’; and she pursues this analogy by imagining ‘one at a solemne stage plaie’ who decides ‘to plucke of the plaiers garmentes, whiles they were saiyng of theyr partes, and so disciphre unto the lokers on, the true and native faces of the plaiers’. Under these conditions ‘who before plaied the woman, shoulde than appeare to be a man: who seemed a youth, should shew his hore heares: who countrefaited the kynge, shulde tourne to a rascall, and who plaied god almightie, shulde become a cobler as he was before’ (37-8). The person who removes the players’ costumes in mid-performance exposes the absurd illusion that allows the play to function, just as the analyst who exposes the disparity between a prince’s splendid appearance and his sordid personality reveals the absurd illusion that sustains monarchic authority in contemporary Europe.

At the same time, the costume remover exposes his own folly by his actions. Doesn’t such a man ‘marre all the mattier,’ Folly asks, ‘and well deserve for a madman to be pelted out of the place with stones’? Elsewhere she describes the pagan gods as looking down on the unruly ‘Theatre’ of the world and laughing at all mortals without exception. To see oneself as planted somehow outside this universal theatre – as spectator rather than actor – is delusional; so that the critic who strips the actors of their costumes discloses his own inability to see that he is one of them. Even those few men or women who glimpse the truth make themselves foolish by their efforts to describe it: ‘thei doo speake certaine thynges not hangyng one with an other, nor after any earthly facion, but rather dooe put foorth a voice they wote never what, much lesse to be understode of others’. In the process they too become actors: clowns or fools who entertain the rest of the world with their incoherent jabbering. The quest for the simplicity of truth, then, is as much a form of folly in the fallen world as the sophistication that seeks to conceal the true nature of things for personal advantage. No one is free from Folly’s influence; so it hardly seems surprising that Erasmus never took a hard line in the reformation struggles that broke out after his book was published. He was not arrogant enough to suppose he was exceptional; and The Praise of Folly illustrates this wittily self-conscious humility on every page. His book is utopian in that the ideal Christian exists nowhere – that is, he or she is an exile in a world that has dedicated itself to something very different from the Christian ideal. The hope Folly’s sermon offers us is that ideal Christianity nevertheless exists, not just in Heaven but hidden away in the nooks and crannies and strange containers of the human mind, and of the mind’s preferred mode of communication, the art of words.

Thomas More by Hans Holbein

More’s most celebrated work, Utopia, adopts a different perspective. If Erasmus is concerned with inversions and reversals, More dwells on separations, dividing his text into two parts as if to confirm the eternal division between the knotty complexities of Tudor England, as described in the first book, and the rationality of the communist state described in the second. The man who brings news of Utopia to Europe is Raphael Hythloday, the angelic messenger (as his Christian name suggests) who is also a purveyor of nonsense (as his surname indicates). Hythloday tells More that he lived in Utopia for several years, and that he would never have left it except to spread word of its achievements – to serve as a secular evangelist for the ideal society. Yet Hythloday refuses to offer his services to kings for fear of being contaminated by the corruption of courts. As a result, news of Utopia is confined to More’s comic fiction, which can be dismissed by kings and their advisors as a toy, a tissue of impossibilities fit only for leisure-time perusal by the small band of erudite readers who know Greek and Latin. This superior attitude of kings and the aristocracy towards Utopia exactly mirrors the superior attitude of the discoverer of Utopia, Raphael Hythloday, who sees himself as self-evidently more intelligent than any adviser currently serving a European prince. And More’s persona in the book seems to share this superior attitude, to judge, at least, by his use of the theatrical metaphor, which is so very different from the use of it made by Folly.

In an effort to persuade Hythloday that philosophers should serve as counsellors to kings, More makes a famous distinction between the philosopher who gives the same advice to every audience and the philosopher who adapts his words to the needs and whims of each recipient. The former, More contends, may be compared to the man who interrupts one theatrical performance with another, obtruding a solemn speech from a Senecan tragedy into the buzz and burley of a Plautine comedy so that he ‘must needs mar and pervert the play that is in hand, though the stuff that you bring be much better’. In the same way, when serving in a prince’s court one must not ‘labour to drive into their heads new and strange information which you know well shall be nothing regarded with them that be of clean contrary minds. But you must with a crafty wile and a subtle train study and endeavour yourself, as much as in you lieth, to handle the matter wittily and handsomely for the purpose; and that which you cannot turn to good, so to order it that it be not very bad’. Throughout this account More assumes, like Hythloday, that the philosopher – he himself – is wiser than the men he deals with, and guileful enough to insinuate part of his advice into ‘contrary minds’ through a clever performance. Hythloday points out that such a performance runs the risk of propping up corrupt regimes, since how can one persuade a monarch to do anything except by flattery? But even this objection continues to imply a sharp distinction between the principled humanist counselor and the ignorant men he seeks to influence. This distinction corresponds to the difference between the carefully rationalized order of Utopia, described in the second book, and the chaotic social and legal practices of Europe; and the narrative concludes with the acknowledgment that it is unlikely Europe will ever be influenced by even the best Utopian ideas: ‘so must I needs confess and grant that many things be in the Utopian weal public which in our cities I may rather wish for than hope for’. Hythloday and More cannot agree on the philosopher’s role in a modern state; but they do agree that in the end no modern state will accommodate any good principles he may put forward, however ingeniously. Utopia, then, anticipates More’s final performance at the court of Henry VIII, when he played out his own dissent from the king’s agenda by cracking jokes on his way to the tragic scaffold. The book’s ostensible topic is communism, but its effect is to reinforce the isolation of the tiny community of humanist thinkers from everyone else in Europe.

More was inclined to preserve this isolation as far as possible; an ambition that runs counter to his famous pleasure in taking part in stage performances and cracking jokes. In his works More often expresses particular anxiety about the new medium of print and its capacity for slipping out of the author’s control, putting sensitive political and religious ideas in the hands of the malicious or the uninformed. His persona Morus, for instance, tells Peter Gillis that he is unsure whether to print Utopia:

For the natures of men be so diverse, the phantasies of some so wayward, their minds so unkind, their judgments so corrupt, that they which lead a merry and jocund life, following their own sensual pleasures and carnal lusts, may seem to be in a much better state or case than they that vex and unquiet themselves with cares and study for the putting forth and publishing to others, which others will disdainfully, scornfully, and unkindly accept the same.

Where his brother-in-law the printer John Rastell tends to note with amazement the multitude of alternative points of view in the commonwealth, and the enthusiasm with which they’re being disseminated in print, More is concerned that many of these different points of view proceed from ‘corrupt judgments’ – a phrase that testifies to his lifelong concern with religious and political orthodoxy. Merriment, in this passage, is both a private affair and in this case a corrupt one, since the ‘merry and jocund life’ he represents as easier than a hard-working one dedicates itself exclusively to ‘sensual pleasures and carnal lusts’. At the same time, More has no time for people who don’t appreciate a good joke (and merriness and jocundity are both words associated with jokes and funny stories). The worst reader of his book, he insists, would be ‘One [who] is so sour, so crabbed, and so unpleasant, that he can away with no mirth or sport’, or ‘so narrow between the shoulders, that he can bear no jests or taunts’. The clash between these two positions – both in favour of and antagonistic to jokes and merry-making – is what makes More such a fascinating figure, despite his later propensity for torturing and burning people who didn’t agree with his religious position.

As I’ve mentioned already, More limited the number of hostile or perverse readings of Utopia by printing it in Latin, and in later life he famously expressed the view that it should be burned along with the Praise of Folly rather than set forth in English, for fear of corrupting the ‘wayward phantasies’ of its unlearned readers even further than they had been already. Merry-making became an increasingly serious matter as the religious controversies of the 1520s got under way. More’s most significant intervention in the Lutheran controversy, the Dialogue Concerning Heresies, places most of its ‘merry tales’ or funny stories in the mouth of a youthful ‘Messenger’ with whom More disputes concerning Luther’s doctrines. At one point, More warns the young man against the comic anti-clerical anecdotes that were so popular in the period – and to which More himself had contributed more than once – because they lay undue emphasis on laughable members of the clergy rather than on those who set good examples. The Dialogue Concerning Heresies also presents itself as a testament to the dangers of the printing press. More worries about printing it because it contains eloquent accounts of so many of the heresies he seeks to refute. He decides to do so, in the end, because of the fear that the Messenger may misrepresent More’s arguments, printing them in a version that gives greater weight to the young man’s own ‘corrupt judgment’ as a Lutheran sympathizer than to the authoritative judgment of the church as articulated by the older man. By the time of his Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, which he wrote in prison under the shadow of execution, More was even more ambivalent about the value of wit at a time of religious controversy. The first book alludes to two biblical texts on the delicate problem of comic timing: ‘Woe may you be that laugh now, for you shall wail and weep’, ‘There is time of weeping and there is time of laughing’. More goes so far as to assert that in both passages Christ ‘setteth the weeping time before; for that is the time of this wretched world, and the laughing time shall come after in heaven’. By this reasoning, well-timed mirth can only occur after death. Fortunately in the second book of the Dialogue More chooses to ignore this perception and tells a string of funny stories designed to lift the reader’s mood. But there’s an indication in much of his work that the merry tales he tells, and the kind of merry-making in which he participates, is an essentially private affair that can only be safely enjoyed by the learned and their carefully vetted employees. Part of what makes the Messenger in the Dialogue Concerning Heresy susceptible to Lutheran influences is his impatience with learning, despite his evident intelligence; and More is inclined to put this position down to sheer laziness, asserting that the Lutheran insistence on an unmediated reading of the Bible arises from the fact that he is simply too lazy to read the commentaries of the Church Fathers. For More, both printing and laughter can get out of hand, and he circumscribes his enterprises in both areas with warnings and provisos.

Utopia itself is isolated from the rest of the world, both geographically and conceptually speaking. More tells Peter Giles in the letter at the beginning that he only managed to write it in snatches: ‘I therefore do win and get only that time which I steal from meat and sleep’. We eventually reach Raphael Hythloday’s account of Utopia through a thicket of debates about England: the effects of enclosure, the punishment of criminals, the value of advising monarchs, the operation of the law, all these things get in the way of the perfect commonwealth and no consensus is reached about them. Utopia, on the other hand, is one universal consensus. Nothing is hidden there, all thoughts and ideas are open, the laws are readily comprehensible to all citizens, there even seems to be general agreement about which books are most interesting – and the Utopian taste in books corresponds very closely with More’s (they love the Greek satirist Lucian, for instance, whose work More translated into Latin with his friend Erasmus). At the same time, the consensus is reached by a remorseless logic that protects itself with threats of violence; as Hythloday’s narrative goes on, in Ralph Robinson’s translation, the word ‘death’ gets repeated with alarming frequency, as the agreements among the Utopians are defended against those who might object to them with the ultimate sanction of capital punishment. If you don’t agree with our logic, the implication is, no matter how we talk and explain and reason, you must die. It would seem that reaching consensus is a costly business. Meanwhile, the lack of consensus between the Utopians and the rest of the world means that communication between them is not only difficult but more or less impossible. The famous story of the ambassadors from a neighbouring country who bedeck themselves in gold to impress the Utopians and instead find themselves to be objects of derision – Utopians only dress children and fools in gold, since it’s a useless metal for any practical purposes – suggests that the opposite values held by outsiders and Utopian insiders make dialogue profoundly problematic. A similar verbal impasse is suggested when Hythloday tells his listeners ironically that the Utopian logicians – scholars of logic or reason – are much inferior to European ones, since ‘they have not devised one of all those rules of restrictions, amplifications, and suppositions, very wittily invented in the small logicals (logical textbooks) which her our children in every place do learn’. Utopian logic is simple and readily comprehensible to all, and this makes it incomprehensible to non-Utopian specialists in logic. The basic values of this society in terms of gold – the staple content of European treasuries – and the use of reason are entirely different; which means that only a few eccentric Europeans who can appreciate their point of view are able to talk to the Utopians at all.

It’s not surprising, then, that while the Utopians have welcomed and absorbed a great deal of knowledge from the outside world, the rest of the world has learned nothing from Utopia. They inhabit different conceptual spheres, speak different languages, cleave to different values, which explains the shutting down of possibilities with which the second part concludes, when More speaks of the ‘many things […] in the Utopian weal-public which in our cities I may rather wish for than hope for’. Laughter separates the Utopians from ourselves – the derision of the Utopians for the foreign ambassadors, the derision of foreign logicians for Utopian logic. Perhaps More’s simultaneous approval and disapproval of jokes and humour springs from this: that there are different kinds of laughter, some of which draws people together, others of which drive a wedge between them, and the difficult business of knowing the difference between them is a matter of life and death.

John Rastell’s comic fiction is almost unknown in the twentieth century; it’s utopian in the sense that it’s nowhere now, but I also want to suggest that it’s utopian in the political sense, aiming to establish an egalitarian commonwealth in the land of its publication. It can be found in a small collection called A Hundred Merry Tales, which he published in 1526 and was still well enough known in Shakespeare’s time to earn a mention in Much Ado About Nothing. If More’s and Erasmus’s fictions crossed borders throughout Europe, Rastell’s collection is stubbornly English: it’s the first collection of comic fiction to locate itself firmly in England through the names and places it contains, and it doesn’t seem to have won fame outside its country of origin. Unlike the works of Erasmus and More it is anonymous; Rastell’s authorship can only be deduced from internal evidence, mainly its similarity to his excellent play The Four Elements. And it doesn’t claim any kind of authority, either through the humanist credentials of its author (since the writer is unnamed) or by the ease of scholarly reference that characterizes More’s and Erasmus’s writings. The men and women whose adventures Rastell relates come from all classes, trades and callings, so that the few critics who have written about his book tend to treat it as a sociological document, an anthology of popular anecdotes that were common currency in Rastell’s lifetime. The book stems, in fact, from an acceptance of popular or collective wisdom which is yet more radical, by implication, than Erasmus’s Adagia. And it also displays a determination to add a few grains to this collective wisdom. A couple of examples will give a flavour of its contents.

In tale 52, a ‘rude and unlerned’ young man is instructed by his priest to learn the Lord’s Prayer, and asks his friend to teach it to him in exchange for something more valuable: ‘a songe of Robyn Hode that shall be worth xx of it’. The humour here arises from the incompatible value systems held by the church and the ‘rude’ young man: in Tudor culture stories of Robin Hood were used as synonyms for worthlessness, because of their popularity, their simplicity, their self-conscious opposition to the ‘high’ matter of chivalric romance. But Rastell’s tale doesn’t pass judgment on the young man’s valuation of such songs and stories. In the course of getting to the punchline we are given a detailed ‘exposicyon’ of the ‘vii peticyons’ contained in the Lord’s Prayer; and the moral of the story merely makes mention of what we have learned while we were reading it: ‘By thys tale ye may lerne to knowe the effecte of the holy prayer of the Pater noster’. One could add that the tale instructs the clergy in their duty to their parishioners, since the young man has not reaped much benefit from clerical tuition. The worth of the Lord’s Prayer has been declared to the reader of this story by way of a reference to Robin Hood, and these two very different forms of discourse work together to a worthwhile end.

The same could be said, in fact, of all the ‘merry tales’ in Rastell’s collection. The story of the pater noster occurs in a part of the book that is given over to religious instruction. Embedded among the comic narratives, this sequence of four stories – from 52 to 55 – explain certain key texts of the Christian liturgy: the pater noster, the Ave Maria, the creed and the ten commandments. The sequence might remind us that many medieval collections of merry tales claim to have been assembled for the use of the clergy, who liked to inject comic anecdotes into their sermons. But it also confirms Rastell’s commitment to the project of making knowledge common. Tale 53, for instance, the story of a friar who preaches in rhyme, sets the good intentions of the preacher against the snobbery of the courtiers in his congregation. The friar explains the Ave Maria, the narrator tells us, ‘in suche fonde ryme, that dyvers and many gentlemen of the court that were there began to smyle and laughe’, whereupon the friar rebukes them for mocking a man who seeks to ‘preche to you the worde of God’. The tale ends with a moral that seems to side with the courtiers: ‘the most holyest matter that is, by fond pronuncyacion and otterauns, may be marryd nor shall not edyfye to the audyence’. But this conclusion is followed by a second moral or summary: ‘by thys tale they that be unlearnyd in the laten tonge may knowe the sentence of the Ave Maria’. For the courtiers, then, the sermon was marred by the manner of its ‘otterauns’ or delivery; but for the unlearned it was rendered more effective by being conveyed in memorable verse. The courtiers in the tale are clearly uninterested in the edification of the unlearned; and it seems that many priests share their indifference, since the friar’s lesson is only necessary to his non-courtly hearers because they have not been properly taught by previous preachers. A reformist perspective can be detected in this story, making it consistent with Rastell’s lifelong concern for making things common: from his translations of the English law for the use of all readers, to his publication of the first popular history of England, The Pastime of People, in 1530, to his conversion to reformed religion a year or so later, won over by its commitment to making the scriptures available to all Christians.

Rastell’s philosophy may again be best summed up by his attitude to theatre. Tale 54, on the ‘artycles of the Crede’, urges its readers to go to Coventry ‘for a more […] suffycyent auctoryte’ of its doctrines, where ‘ye shall se them all playe in Corpus Cristi playe’. Rastell was a member of the Coventry Gild of Corpus Christi, so it’s pleasing to hear him ascribe ‘auctoryte’ to his gild’s productions of the popular religious plays known as mysteries. Tale 3 tells the story of a man called John Adroyns who played the devil in a Suffolk mystery play; his failure to remove his costume after a performance leads to a succession of terrifying encounters, which culminate with a gentleman coming to the door of his house with a chaplain, armed with holy water, to prevent the supposed devil from collecting his immortal soul. In this tale, an illusion or fantasy begins in ‘feare’ and ends in ‘myrthe and dysporte’, as everyone finally disentangles the confusions that caused such chaos. So too in tale 16, a thieving miller and his accomplice get mistaken for a ghost and a devil, in the process becoming inadvertent actors like John Adroyns and spreading havoc throughout the community. Here, too, the moral or exegesis alludes to the defusing of tensions and the pointlessness of paranoia: ‘it is foly for any man to fere a thing to moche, tyll that he se some profe or cause’. In these last two cases, entire communities are deceived by accident, a situation that is resolved by a collective agreement as to the interpretation of events which restores ‘myrthe and dysporte’ without resort to clerical intervention. No social class or religious order is exempt from folly; and the ease with which a collective resolution is reached reflects the optimistic outlook that led the ageing Rastell to adopt the Lutheran confession, and to devote the remainder of his days – along with his printing press and the whole of his fortune – to the furtherance of the Lutheran cause in England.

Rastell was jailed in 1536 for arguing against the payment of tithes to the church, and died in prison without a trial; an ironic ending for a man who had devoted so much time to making the law accessible to ordinary people. He is not remembered as a martyr; but even this oblivion is not inappropriate for a man who repeatedly insisted that his objective was not self-promotion but to benefit the English commonwealth, working quietly behind the scenes for its reformation. All three of our writers claimed to serve the commonwealth, and did so in part through the common currency of laughter; but only Rastell chose to do so in the common language, which perhaps explains why he was so susceptible to conversion. The other texts we’ve discussed today – Erasmus’s Praise of Folly and More’s Utopia – were first translated into English in the radical religious climate of the reign of Edward VI. Protestant readers of these texts would have received them in a very different light from their early Catholic readers. And it’s this difference, I would contend – the variety of readings to which these texts have been subjected, so that they are very far from the restricted documents More wanted to them to be – that makes the story of English comic fiction and reformation so well worth telling.

 

 

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Mervyn Peake and the Poetics of Piracy

[This is the text of a keynote I gave recently at a terrific conference in Edinburgh, ‘Deeper than Swords: Fear and Loathing in Fantasy and Folklore’. It’s also a rough sketch, I hope, for something larger. Warm thanks to Anahit Behrooz and Harriet MacMillan for inviting me to give it!]

I’d like here to consider the work of Mervyn Peake as an extended exercise in what I’m calling the ‘poetics of piracy’. Peake had a lifelong obsession with pirates, born in part from his boyhood obsession with Robert Louis Stevenson: he is said to have known Treasure Island by heart, and his illustrated edition of that text, published in 1949, confirmed its continuing centrality to his imaginative life and artistic practice. The first book he wrote and published was a pirate story, Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939). One of his earliest surviving experiments in prose fiction, the unfinished Mr Slaughterboard (c. 1933-6), links piracy to the work of the artist in disturbing ways. His early verse is filled with the vocabulary of piracy, and pirates continue to emblazon and trouble his visual and verbal art throughout his career. It seems to me that thinking about what piracy meant to Peake can help us map out his peculiar relationship to what has come to be known as fantasy literature; to pin down its elusiveness, much as the map in Stevenson’s novel pins down the whereabouts of Captain Flint’s buried treasure – though it’s worth remembering that in the novel the chart obtained by Jim Hawkins proves an untrustworthy guide to the current location of the treasure in question. But then, that’s the point of the poetics of piracy; it’s all about the elusive, the illegal, the unsettling and the endlessly alluring, as seen in relation to the seemingly fixed and inviolable rules that govern the authoritative discourses of society, religion and science. I don’t promise, then, that I’ll be able to offer a conclusive account of Peake as a writer of fantasy; but his fascination with buccaneering literature and folklore can certainly explain why he so exasperatingly refuses to locate himself at the epicentre of any genre, which is itself, I think, a crucial quality of good fantasy fiction.

Peake’s most celebrated works of fiction, the Titus novels, have always had a vexed relationship to the fantastic. Nothing explicitly impossible takes place in them; they contain no magic; and indeed one of Peake’s few uses of the term ‘fantasy’ in the texts – when Titus encounters a wild girl known as the Thing – seems firmly to differentiate the physical environs of the titanic castle of Gormenghast from the immaterial fabrications of the human mind:

He was propelled forward by his imagination having been stirred to its depths by the sight of her. He had not seen her face. He had not heard her speak. But that which over the years had become a fantasy, a fantasy of dreaming trees and moss, of golden acorns and a sprig in flight, was fantasy no longer. It was here. It was now. He was running through heat and darkness towards it; to the verity of it all. (673)

 For Peake, then, the imagination is stimulated by what exists, by the rich evidence of the senses which forms the basis of the visual artist’s training, as he or she scrutinizes live or inanimate models with the aim of populating the mind with the precise proportions, textures, contours and colours of the real. At the same time the Thing, as represented to Titus’s imagination from his first sighting of her at the age of seven, has come to represent a range of qualities with associations to the pirate stories Titus loves as much as Peake does. A thief, a rebel and an outcast, the Thing’s opposition to the monumental authority of the boy’s ancestral home is embodied in the free-ranging agility of her frame, its seeming ability to defy the laws of gravity as well as of the books of ritual that restrict the daily movements of the castle’s denizens. Rooted or earthed in the real, despite her airiness, she represents the liberty to spin dazzling new structures from the materials afforded by empirical observation. And she is also deeply disturbing to him, as pirates are, even to lovers of pirate stories. In both these associations – with liberty and with inward disturbance – she has affinities with the faculty of fantasy which has been placed at the heart of a peculiarly modern literary genre.

Fantasy has always been a disreputable object. Its ancient Greek roots meant ‘making visible’, an exposure of that which has been hidden, perhaps for good reason; while in later Greek the word associated itself with the concept of having visions, as well as with the less alarming process of showing, demonstrating, pointing out. When used to refer to the imaginative faculty, the source of its disreputability comes to the fore. For early modern English speakers the Imagination or Fantasy was the part of your brain that received the evidence of the senses; but it was also capable of representing to your mind the images of things not actually present, which would seem to ally it with the faculty of Memory. The difference was that Memory was an orderly faculty full of shelves and files labeled in alphabetical and chronological order, grouped under headings and carefully connected with one another through a range of logical associations. The business of organizing mental images was that of the Understanding, which interposed itself between the unruly space of the Fantasy or Imagination and the storehouse of the Memory. Understanding, then, was a kind of sorting office staffed by efficient functionaries; while there was a wildness about the Fantasy before the Understanding got hold of it, an innate tendency to disconnect the mental image from all association with its original contexts, or to link images together which had never been conjoined in reality: tacking a fish’s tail or a horse’s body onto a human torso; assembling elaborate fusions of elements from different life forms to create griffins, dragons, and chimeras of all kinds. Memory was associated with maturity, with a settled awareness of one’s intellectual, social and moral responsibilities. Fantasy was associated with the playful, sometimes destructive or self-destructive exuberance of youth.

Some thinkers, like the Elizabethan poetic theorist George Puttenham, have always warned against inventing fictions altogether, since this could permanently distort one’s judgement of what is real. He split the fantasy into two kinds: the good sort, which conveyed things to the understanding ‘right as they be indeed’, and the bad sort that filled the analytical parts of the mind with false impressions. Poets, he said, should confine themselves to drawing on authentic memories or accurate representations of extant things when composing their verses; they should be historians. Writing about what never happened or could happen distorts not only the past but the efficient functioning of the present. Lawcourts could have their findings compromised by made-up testimony. Religions could become corrupted, as Plato said had happened in ancient Greece when poets allowed themselves to reimagine the gods. Governments could find their policies determined by non-existent threats or possibilities. For Puttenham as for Plato, irresponsible poetic fictions can proliferate like viruses, spawning insurrections, illusions and errors as they spread.

For the modern poet Jeffrey Robinson, Puttenham’s distinction between responsible and irresponsible fantasy – between the practice of poetic and intellectual realism and what we now call ‘making things up’ – endured in a subtly different form into the age of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and the revolutionary movements that arose from it. Robinson identifies the famous distinction between the Imagination and the Fancy in Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (1817) as a struggle to distinguish between the orderly functioning of the imaginative faculty as, in effect, a tool of authority, imposing its unified vision on everything it comes in contact with, and its deployment as an instrument of exploration or discovery, a light skiff or launch capable of skimming from image to image, from one idea to the next, irrespective of the accepted relations between the various objects of its attention. The Fancy, which is etymologically linked with Fantasy, is for Robinson the precursor of twentieth-century modernist poetic experiment; but his list of its qualities could also serve as a description of how the genre of Fantasy Literature has often been perceived in modern times:

A faculty that acknowledges ‘the referent’ through the playful, unpredictable, erotically engaged, unregulated mind of the subject, without a ruling regard for the socially acceptable […] The Fancy […] begins to emerge as whimsical, playful, trivial, physical, sexual, and popular, more than enough reasons for the poetry of the Fancy to trouble the cultural police. […] Indeed, its triviality and whimsicality is precisely what keeps it from remaining a polite ornament of the literary aristocracy. […] Poetry of the Fancy isn’t about ‘work’ or ‘usefulness’ but about play. As do children, poems of the Fancy play seriously.

The qualities of ‘fancy’ as Robinson describes them here have survived from the early modern period to the present day in attitudes to the word fantasy, which is now a term of opprobrium in ordinary discourse, no longer dignified by association with a necessary mental function but used to denounce the childish failure to take proper account of the material conditions that govern our economic, social, political or even physical circumstances. Fantasy is irresponsible, fleeting, flippant, self-indulgent, infantile, wayward. As a result it’s also dangerous, especially when used as a guide in our daily actions. Too much fantasy can make you go blind.

The poetics of piracy are not the same as Robinson’s poetics of fancy, and they aren’t necessarily connected to the fantasy genre as we now understand it, since the folklore of piracy springs from what are deemed to be real people and real social practices, rooted in history. The origins of modern pirate folklore lie in an early eighteenth-century book, Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1725), which recounts the purportedly factual adventures of a number of buccaneers whose names have passed into common currency: Bartholomew Roberts (better known as ‘the Dread’); Blackbeard; Calico Jack; William Kidd; and Israel Hands, who lent his name to the man shot dead by Jim Hawkins on the rigging of the Hispaniola. I don’t know if Peake was familiar with Johnson’s book, but all three of the principal texts he drew on for his boyhood dreams of piracy certainly were. Treasure Island is the first and foremost. The second, mentioned in Peake’s short story ‘I Bought a Palm Tree’ (1948), is that classic account of survival, piracy, and the healing powers of missionary work, R M Ballantyne’s The Coral Island; while the third is J M Barrie’s Peter and Wendy. To look at Peake’s work through the prism of these three novels is to recognize the dominant role played by buccaneers not just in his plots and images but in his aesthetic philosophy, not just in his early years but throughout his life. His poetry, prose and pictures owe an incalculable debt to the figure of the sea-wolf as imagined by Ballantyne, Stevenson and Barrie, and a full understanding of the development of his most celebrated creation, Gormenghast Castle, can only be achieved by asking oneself why the notion of piracy should have proved so endlessly suggestive to this quintessential mid-twentieth-century artist.

What, then, do the pirates of legend and literature bring with them? First of all, they’re associated with boyhood and youth, as Peake knew very well. Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor was a pirate book for children, and he drew dozens of pirate pictures for his sons in the Sunday Books – exercise books in which he sketched for them on Sundays – to such an extent that Michael Moorcock’s recent novelization of that document was more or less forced to take pirates as its subject. Like children, pirates have no sense of responsibility, breaking laws freely, abandoning families, friends and partners whenever they feel like it, killing each other on the slightest of pretexts without a qualm (children do this in play). Their resistance to convention is given physical expression by their mobility: pirate ships sail the seas at the whim of the crew, not in obedience to instructions from outside authorities as is the case with most seagoing vessels. At the same time there are severe constraints on a pirate’s freedom, the chief of these being the ship itself, which confines its crew within a narrow circuit more effectively than any building or institution. Pirates are also often subject to tyranny. The imposition of the captain’s will by force, widely practised on other vessels, takes its most extreme form in the spontaneous and inventive acts of cruelty practised by certain legendary leaders among the buccaneers – though there’s also a folkloric tradition of more or less democratic practices under the sign of the Jolly Roger. Rituals govern them: the necessary rituals associated with the everyday running of the ship, supplemented by additional oaths, codes, rules or agreements enforced with threats of appalling violence. Pirate ships are often represented as all-male communities, and this too imposes constraints: certain forms of behaviour are associated with masculinity in any given culture or period, and the lack of any alternative gender perspective can mean that notions of ‘manhood’ govern the pirate’s thoughts, desires and actions. Same-sex desire is perhaps more widespread under these conditions than in mixed-sex communities, and though this has traditionally tended to be eschewed in children’s fiction, it’s worth noting how central it is to Peake’s own children’s book, Captain Slaughterboard, which is one of the few narratives of the period to place what is clearly a homoerotic romance at its centre. Other piratical concerns are economic (they indulge in plunder – a word Peake uses repeatedly in his verse to describe the process of absorbing the physical wonders of the world through the eye – and conceal their treasure, which clearly works against the principles of capitalism); geographic and artistic (treasure maps are as inseparable from pirate culture as their icon, the Jolly Roger); and dramatic (pirates like to dress up and make theatrical speeches, and everyone else likes to dress up as pirates). To sum up: breaking national, international, moral and sartorial laws is what pirates do – sometimes by imposing laws of their own – and they do it as flamboyantly as possible. That, at least, is the folklore, and it’s from folklore as conveyed through literature that piracy derives its energy.

In the literary folklore there’s another association with pirates that hasn’t been much discussed, which is their complicated relationship with the middle classes. It’s Stevenson, I think, who’s responsible for this link. The young hero of Treasure Island, Jim Hawkins, is the son of an innkeeper – the kind of job in the service industry that a retired pirate might well choose for himself, as in effect Long John Silver has done when Jim first meets him; but when mutiny breaks out he decides to throw in his lot with the ‘gentry’ rather than the sea dogs. Jim’s allies in the book are the local landowner, Squire Trelawney, a physician called Doctor Livesey, and Captain Smollett, and his adventures see him make the transition from servant (he is employed before the cruise alongside the squire’s gamekeeper, and serves as cabin boy on board the squire’s ship) to junior partner in the economic enterprise of seeking the titular treasure. At the same time Jim is strongly drawn to the charismatic ship’s cook, Silver, who has an astonishing ability to make himself equally attractive to the working men of the crew and to their masters, and who switches sides between them at a moment’s notice when it suits his interests. Silver, in fact, represents another aspect of pirates: their ability to merge with other communities, springing spontaneously out of the disciplined ranks of a legitimate crew and melting away into anonymity as soon as they disembark at the end of a voyage. Whatever his class origins, Silver’s easy relations with all classes, his predatory focus on economic self-interest, his insouciant pleasure in legal and economic risk-taking, his constant reinvention of himself as innkeeper, cook, friend, conspirator, captain, rebel, trusty servant and eventually fugitive, all stand to endear him to the guilty bourgeoisie who secretly share many of his values and even some of his techniques. The ease with which Jim might find himself on Silver’s side can be measured by the speed of Ralph’s capture and impression as a pirate in The Coral Island; but where Ralph never feels at home aboard the pirate ship – at least until he acquires it for himself – one can imagine Jim feeling thoroughly at home with Silver once committed to his cause.

Piracy, in fact, can represent the middle classes’ flirtation with working class culture; and this is confirmed by the personality of that most middle-class of pirates, Captain Hook, who is haunted by his failures during his schooldays at Eton, and who shares his persona in crucial ways with Peter Pan: both feel the lack of a mother, both enjoy a little swordplay, and both tyrannize over their social inferiors, giving vent to their moods whenever they feel like it and indulging in occasional bouts of disloyalty or outright betrayal. Both, too, thrive on having enemies, to the extent that Peter’s bereavement of Hook at the end of the novel compounds the sense of desolation generated by his effectual marooning on his island by Wendy and the Lost Boys. Hook and Peter represent the middle-class view of piracy – a temporary game in a contained alien space which arouses forbidden lusts (for blood, dictatorship, extreme risk-taking, imaginative self-indulgence) only to suppress them as the book draws to a close, allowing its young reader to return, perhaps a little embittered, to his or her preordained role in polite society.

Mervyn Peake’s attachment to piracy is everywhere apparent in his poems. Pirates and the poetics of piracy as I’ve sketched it out enable him to articulate his fierce resistance to the economic and social pressures that threaten to curtail his practices as an artist, and to acknowledge the link he sees between the destructive energy of violence and the creative stimulus he derives from the natural world. The earliest verses in the Collected Poems figure the dawn as a potentially piratical act of murder: ‘The’invisible scimitar of Morn, / Again had passionately torn / And slashed the Sky’s pale neck’, which culminates unexpectedly in a birth: ‘And in that welter of living fire / Be-jewelled and robed to his heart’s desire / Was born – young Day’. This three-way link between blood, fire and new life continued to resonate in Peake’s mind into the 1940s, finding its most startling expression in the encounter between a decidedly piratical sailor and a newborn baby in the fires of the Blitz in his 1947 ballad, ‘The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb’. An equally troubling association between beauty and violence emerges from Peake’s frequent references to the artist’s absorption of information through his senses as a process of piratical looting. In ‘If I Could See, Not Surfaces’ (1937), for instance, he speaks of his desire to ‘plunder splendor / At the womb’, and of how this activity promises to feminize him so that he can ‘give bold birth / To long / Rivers of song’ (so birth comes into the equation here too). These are neither of them specifically buccaneering references, but there are plenty of those, from the description of the artist Mané Katz’s Paris studio as ‘a pirate’s glutted locker’ (1937) to the account of unemployed young men in ‘The Cocky Walkers’ (c. 1937) as skidding ‘Their careless privateer’ down the ‘seas’ of London streets ‘Agog for a gold island / Or a war / With penny pirates on a silver sand’. In 1942, when Peake suffered a nervous breakdown in the army, he pictured himself and his fellow patients at Southport Hospital as sickly sea-dogs, ‘The swashbucklers / Who have to be in bed by half past nine […] The unconvincing pirates of the ward’. And if in his last known poems pirates aren’t mentioned by name, the imagery of the sea and its devastations lingers on, as in ‘Great Hulk down the Astonished Waters Drifting’ (c. 1958), which records what could well be the aftermath of a life of piracy:

Where is her captain and the golden shore
Where danced the golden sailors? Where’s the sea
That sang of water when the heart was free
And mermaids sang where mermaids swim no more?

In all these verses, creativity and the artist’s receptiveness to beauty have an intimate connection to wandering, illicit adventures, flamboyant masculinity, playfulness, mutiny, pain and bloodshed – a potent and disturbing fusion that testifies to Peake’s sense that there is no officially sanctioned place for his kind of art (imaginative, grotesque, inflected by the influences of romanticism and popular culture) in the mid-twentieth century, any more than there is a place for psychiatric patients in the military machine.

For Peake as for Barrie and Stevenson, piracy is both at odds with and strangely attuned to the values of the middle classes. His most elaborate working-out of his buccaneering aesthetics was the eccentric prose narrative Mr Slaughterboard, whose titular pirate captain sails the oceans with a cargo of books lovingly preserved in a seaborne library, where he spends his days discussing literature with his manservant Smear, ‘An eyeless deformed creature dressed as if about to catch a train to London Bridge’. The narrative culminates in a massacre, Mr Slaughterboard having been assailed by an attack of creativity (‘the Captain was becoming aesthetic. Always dangerous’) which makes him command his crew to swim repeatedly under his vessel in a series of ever more demanding competitions until they are all wiped out. The captain claims to have a conscience, but it’s the kind that favours his leather-covered volumes of Dickens above human lives, that celebrates the aesthetic at the expense of his crewmembers, and that privileges the accumulation of an ever-increasing and diverse plunder of beauty – literary and visual – over everything else. Self-centred, murderous and godless, Mr Slaughterboard nonetheless shares the tastes of the bourgeoisie for all the components of conspicuous consumption – high culture, good clothes, congenial company and attractive surroundings – with a bourgeois disregard for the material processes by which they fall into his hands.

If the link between beauty and death lay at the heart of Peake’s aesthetics, then the outbreak of war must have come as a shock for him – not least because what it represented for him was a drastic extension of aesthetic ‘plunder’ for his inward piratical treasure chest or locker. As war swept over Europe he wrote two fine sonnets which responded with simultaneous horror and exhilaration to the beauty of warplanes: ‘The Metal Bird’ (c. 1937) and ‘Where Skidded Only in the Upper Air’ (c. 1939). During the Spanish Civil War he wrote a sonnet on the Spanish mannerist painter El Greco (1938), which reads his strangely elongated and brightly-coloured saints as premonitory visions of the bombing of Guernica: ‘Their beauty, ice-like, shrills – and everywhere / A metal music sounds, cold spirit shriven’. When World War 2 broke out Peake responded with a series of drawings in the style of Goya, showing works purportedly painted by ‘the Artist Adolf Hitler’ using the fields and towns of Europe as his canvas, in which standard studio subjects – ‘Family Group’, ‘Reclining Figure’, ‘Study of a Young Girl’ – are reconceived as images of atrocity, modeled on the real atrocities Hitler had sanctioned in his quest for power. Peake’s poetics of piracy had found a rival in the irresponsible, lawless, plunder-loving artist figure from Austria, who reproduced in actuality, using human material, the aesthetics of piracy as practised by Mr Slaughterboard. The collision between one version of piracy and another – between the buccaneering spirit of the lonely heart and the cold privateering of a would-be pirate dictator – provides the plot of the first two Titus books, Titus Groan (1946) and Gormenghast (1950). The books delineate an epic struggle over Peake’s imaginative territory, embodied in a monstrous post-medieval castle which doubles as a middle class household, its seemingly interminable rooms occupied by doctors, teachers, poets, and lonely children who might have been modeled on the inmates of British boarding schools. And it’s suffused from beginning to end with the poetics of piracy, shared freely between the youthful upstart Steerpike and the rest of the castle’s denizens, as if Peake is concerned to find a way to rescue his beloved buccaneering from its enforced association with the aesthetics of Nazism.

As G Peter Winnington has shown us, Gormenghast is an island full of natural wonders, prowled by bizarre creatures (all its denizens get linked to beasts at one point) and subject to violent natural forces, some of them as awe-inspiring as the tidal wave in The Coral Island (a calamitous snowfall, a period of scorching heat, a flood). As the novels proceed it becomes a territory ripe for exploring, inhabited by various tribes, each with its own exotic customs and cultural practices: the teachers of Gormenghast school, for instance, who can be seen ‘squatting like aboriginals upon their haunches’, or lurking in the shadows ‘like bandits in a bad light’. Despite being made of stone, it also resembles a ship by virtue of its creaking timbers, its cargo of unexpected treasures, the piratical manners of its crew. Like a ship the place is full of hammocks, from Rottcodd’s in the Hall of the Bright Carvings to the hammock Steerpike slings under the table at the Dark Breakfast, or the hammocks occupied by Bellgrove and Irma when the flood waters rise in the second volume. Even authority there has a piratical aura. The Master of Ceremonies, Barquentine, is named after a ship – the kind Captain Cook used when he sailed to Australia – and stumps around on a wooden leg like an elderly Silver, cursing and threatening violence wherever he goes. Lady Gertrude is a giant pirate with a booming voice, who has a horde of affectionate birds instead of a parrot, a bevy of white ship’s cats and an utter disregard for any authority besides her duty to what is effectively her ship – the castle itself. She is constantly being compared to a vessel, and her language is a pirate’s, as when she swears to track down the killer of her husband at the end of Titus Groan: ‘Let them rear their ugly hands, and by the Doom, we’ll crack ’em chine-ways’ (p. 347). Her daughter Fuchsia, meanwhile, is sometimes one of the natives of the territory colonized by the sea-wolves, sometimes the sea-wolves’ young accomplice, a female Jim Hawkins. She enters her private attic like a pearl diver entering the sea, ‘his world of wavering light’, and moves through it with the confidence of a Cherokee or a Sioux, knowing every inch of it ‘as an Indian knows his green and secret trail’. One of the items she keeps in the attic is a pirate portrait of ‘the twenty-second Earl of Groan’, who has ‘pure white hair and a face the colour of smoke as a result of immoderate tattooing’ (p. 57). Once ensconced in her lair beneath the rafters, she reads a nonsense poem about a seaborne cake who is pursued by an amorous and deadly piratical knife; and the poem proves prophetic, since it’s there that she encounters Steerpike, who presents himself (after reading her books and guessing at her tastes) as a bold adventurer, a rebel and a dangerous would-be lover – a kind of landlocked pirate.

The servant classes of Gormenghast, too, have piratical aspects. The grotesque physical appearances of Flay and Swelter recall the bizarre bodies and outlandish manners of Mr Slaughterboard’s crew, and its inspiration, Captain Hook’s crew in Peter and Wendy (‘Bill Jukes, every inch of him tattooed […] Gentleman Starkey, once an usher in a public school and still dainty in his ways of killing […] Noodler, whose hands were fixed on backwards’). The climactic battle between Flay and Swelter in the Hall of Spiders evokes the random duels to the death between grappling pirates in Treasure Island. They turn the Hall into a feverish nocturnal tropical island, full of ‘lianas’ of trailing thread, oppressive heat and reflections from water:

As pirates in the hot brine-shallows wading, make, face to face, their comber-hindered lunges, sun-blind, fly-agonied, and browned with pearls, so here the timbers leaned, moonlight misled and the rank webs impeded.

In this context Swelter comes into his own, moving ‘more and more like something from the deeps where the grey twine-weed coils the sidling sea-cow’. He also acquires a distinct resemblance to Long John Silver, who had, if you remember, ‘a face as big as a ham ’; so too, as Swelter stalks Flay we learn that he has a ‘great ham of a face’, which seems at odds with its earlier representation as a place of opening and closing cavities of fat. At the climax of the battle Swelter moves yet further into pirate territory. His freshly-slain corpse becomes a vessel, with Flay’s sword sticking out of it ‘like a mast of steel’ (p. 318). Flay’s own piratical apotheosis has to wait till he becomes marooned, transforming himself into a ragged and hairy Ben Gunn whose cave contains not treasure but – in the end – the Thing – for it’s in Flay’s cave that Titus finally catches hold of her, acquiring in the process the sort of imaginative ‘plunder’ Peake recorded in his poems.

The central form piracy takes in the Titus books is its embodiment in two boys: the upstart Steerpike and Titus himself. Both are rebels who dream of taking charge of their own destiny; both rove freely across the landscape of the castle; both detest the oppressive weight of authority, and both trigger acts of treason and rebellion again and again throughout the two novels. Steerpike, at the beginning, is the one who discovers the castle’s potential as a setting for romance, scaling its precipitous walls like a young adventurer scaling cliffs, unveiling its hidden wonders such as the terrace open to the sky, and spinning exotic yarns to Fuchsia like the old sea-cook Silver in his galley (and of course Steerpike begins the book in the galley or kitchen too). But Steerpike is also a thief, who steals other people’s romances – notably Fuchsia’s – and uses them to further his own ends, thereby destroying their imaginative landscapes as he destroys Lord Sepulchrave’s library. In the second book he seeks to supplant young Titus as the protagonist – and it’s striking how he seems if anything to get younger in that book, as if to make this possible: playing games such as walking on his hands for no good reason, tormenting the Twins like a bullying schoolboy, cutting off Barquentine’s hair in clumps with a pair of scissors as he walks behind him, acquiring a catapult which he uses to deadly effect. The analogy to Peter Pan grows increasingly obvious. As he approaches Barquentine’s bedroom, planning to murder him, his shadow gains an independent life of its own in one of Peake’s most astonishing virtuoso passages (the shadow grows and shrinks until it becomes a ‘thick and stunted thing – a malformation, intangible, terrible, that led the way towards those rooms where its immediate journey could, for a while, be ended’, p. 567). Later Steerpike learns the pipe, Peter Pan’s instrument; and before the end of the book he has started to crow like a cock, Peter’s trademark cry of triumph: first over the corpses of the Twins he murdered – then, fatally, as Titus plunges towards him through the ivy in the final showdown between the two young men.

Meanwhile, he retains both the adaptability of Long John Silver – able to speak to any denizen of the castle in his or her own language whenever he chooses – and his casual murderousness. When Steerpike kills Flay, he does it in much the same way as Silver kills the young sailor, Tom, who refuses to join his mutiny. In Treasure Island Jim watches in horror as John ‘whipped the crutch out of his armpit, and sent that uncouth missile hurtling through the air. It struck poor Tom, point foremost, and with stunning violence, right between the shoulders in the middle of his back’; and Silver follows the missile ‘agile as a monkey’ and ‘twice buried his knife up to the hilt in that defenceless body’ (p. 97). In the same way Steerpike flings a knife at Flay, watched by the horrified Titus, and ‘while the blade […] still quivered in his heart […] following the path of the flung knife, as though he were tied behind it, sped over their shoulders and was in the upper room before they could recover’. Once a fugitive after the killing, Steerpike seems to come into his own; he finds his Satanic solitude in the deserted places of the castle utterly congenial, and embraces it so completely that he generates a Silver- or Pan-like aura around himself even as the manhunt closes in, convincing his pursuers that he could ‘hide in a rudder’, as the Countess puts it.

Titus too is a rebel, an explorer of the castle, a congenital loner, and a player of games (though his game is marbles, not theatrical posturing). His imagination, much more than Steerpike’s, is possessed by pirates. As he muses in a sun-drenched classroom, one of his marbles spawns another astonishing flight of fancy – sunny and colourful, in marked contrast to the passage about Steerpike’s shadow:

Wading towards him, dilating as they neared until they pressed out and broke the frame of fancy, was a posse of pirates. They were as tall as towers, their great brows beetling over their sunken eyes, like shelves of overhanging rocks. In their mouths were hoops of red gold, and in their mouths scythe-edged cutlasses a-drip. […] And still they came on, until there was only room enough for the smouldering head of the central buccaneer, a great salt-water lord, every inch of whose face was scabbed and scarred like a boy’s knee, whose teeth were carved into the shapes of skulls, whose throat was circled by the tattooing of a scaled snake.

Following the pirates’ example, Titus breaks out of the ‘frame of fancy’ – making his daydreams real by playing hooky on Gormenghast Mountain, seeking out the castaway Flay in his cave, evading the rituals that are meant to define his days, and finally tracking down his rival Steerpike in a feverish daze, as if infected by the marshes of Treasure Island, to engage him in single combat. In the process of pursuing his piratical dreams, Titus sees the castle fulfil its potential as the stronghold of liberating romance, as against the authoritarian prison of the policed imagination – or the grim playground of a dictator, which is what Steerpike seeks to make it. At the beginning of the second novel, Peake points out how the castle holds all the ingredients of an adventure story, a boy’s own thriller: ‘Here all about him the raw material burned: the properties and settings of romance. Romance that is passionate; obscure and sexless: that is dangerous and arrogant’. By the end of the book the potentialities of that material, which lay dormant at the beginning, have been activated by the twin energies of Titus and Steerpike. As the floodwaters rise around it, making of it a fitting stage for the conclusive fight between them, Gormenghast becomes a true island, not just the copy of one; the morose Bright Carvers become pirates or Indians, skimming about the castle’s perimeters in the canoes they have carved; the Professors take to the water, steering their dilapidated boats through corridors in fulfillment of their own daydreams of liberation from their sun-drenched classrooms; Bellgrove and Irma take to their hammocks and find new contentment in their marriage; and the Countess becomes the pirate captain she was always meant to be, issuing orders for the summary execution of the traitor she has vowed to gut.

The interesting part about all this is that Titus, too, is a traitor, who proclaims his hatred for the castle’s ritual to his mother at the very moment when he brings her news about the whereabouts of the traitor Steerpike. If Steerpike was Fuchsia’s would-be seducer, Titus is the Thing’s, and both the women they covet end up dead. If Steerpike is a bundle of contradictions – cold and calculating yet whimsical, murderous yet capable of astonishing empathy, treacherous yet ready to master every detail of the pointless rituals he despises – Titus is full of contradictions too, in his love and hate for Gormenghast, his pride at and disgust with his inheritance as the Earl of Groan. This ‘terrible antithesis within him – the tearing in two directions of his heart and head’ – is made up of a ‘growing and feverish longing’, an ‘ineradicable, irrational pride’ in himself and his lineage, and ‘the love, as deep as the hate, which he felt, unwittingly, for the least of the stones of his loveless home’. The antithesis brings him so close to his enemy Steerpike that before long the other young man has stolen his boat – the light canoe or skiff he associates in his mind with the Thing – and paddled off in it as if to take his place at the centre of the narrative. Antitheses are the stuff of the poetics of piracy, as I hope I have shown. In placing them at the centre of his narrative, Peake made an enduring statement about the state of things – especially, perhaps, about the state of England in and after the Second World War – which he could have articulated in no other way.

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Vortex

IMG_4208Bob went up close to the screen, scowling as if this would change the weatherwoman’s mind and improve the forecast. The blue-green pixelated blot representing the Vortex remained clearly visible over the North Atlantic, edging its way coastwards as the woman talked her viewers through the next twenty-four hours. By the time she reached midnight the shapeless icon was pulsating over the city, venting weather warnings, stylized snowflakes and numbers representing wind speeds of up to one hundred and fifteen miles an hour. Bob continued to scowl, convinced as usual that it was her personal malice that had brought on the unprecedented storms of the last few months. ‘I’d better fetch in more wood,’ he muttered, flexing his shoulders. Instead he stayed put, toying with his glass and jigging one of his legs up and down to ease off cramp.

Anne was setting out candles in all available holders: church candles, household candles, tea lights, hurricane lamps, a paper lantern. ‘Quit bustling around,’ Bob snarled. ‘You’re giving me a headache.’ Anne shot him one of her looks. ‘You know very well, Bob Carlin,’ she snapped, ‘that every time the Vortex comes round we get power cuts all over the city. They sometimes last for days. You’d best get in that wood before it hits us.’

‘I’ll fetch it in when I’m good and ready,’ Bob muttered, and took another sip of his whisky. The slug went down the wrong way and he started to cough, lungs and gullet burning. The truth was he felt a deep reluctance to leave the flat. The storm hadn’t even struck and the wind was howling along the street like a CG bomb blast, tossing the branches of the trees so that they cast enormous shadows across the fronts of the tenements opposite. A year or two back they would have called this a storm; but the recent worsening of global weather conditions had changed the definition of a storm to something much more drastic. ‘When I’m good and ready,’ he repeated, glancing at the window. A spatter of raindrops rattled the glass as if in answer. You’ll never be ready, it seemed to say, not for the likes of this. He shuddered and shuffled off in his worn-down slippers to pour himself another dram at the kitchen sideboard.

The odd thing was that he usually loved the job of getting in wood. It gave him the feeling of being the provider, direct descendant of the Neolithic hunter-gatherers of Ice Age Europe, snotty-nosed mammoth-wranglers who would have sneered through their cavernous nostrils at the thought of cowering indoors on account of a bout of inclement weather. His actual resemblance to such a hunter-gatherer was of course minimal; it was mainly based on the fact that he had chopped the wood himself, then stacked it in the first and only woodpile he had ever built from scratch. Well, to be exact, he and Jurek had built it – and Jurek was a better stacker of logs than Bob. But it was Bob, not Jurek, who had watched as the huge Leylandia tree next door was dismantled piece by piece by chainsaw-wielding contractors. It was Bob who had seen the pieces carried out one by one into the weed-choked lane that ran between the high brick walls that separated the back yards of the tenements; and it was Bob who had kept an eye on them month by month as nettles and dock leaves sprang up between the chunks like a miniature forest. It was Bob, too, who had finally decided that they’d been forgotten, and that the time had come when he could reasonably claim the wood as fuel. He had planned to drag the pieces home alone, but the first chunk was such a weight that it jarred his shoulder when he tried to lift it. So he’d called in Jurek to help; Jurek, who could carry a washing machine up the stairs on his own without breaking a sweat; Jurek, who cycled thirty miles to work each morning on a bike like a sleek metal greyhound. But it was Bob, again, who supplied the axe: a logging axe nearly four foot long with a wedge-shaped head freshly sharpened by his close-mouthed brother-in-law, from whom he’d borrowed it. By the time he and Jurek had split all the logs the axe was blunt, and he’d had to ask Jurek to sharpen it again with his Belgian whetstone. As a consequence the wood from the huge Leylandia had to be shared between Bob’s family and Jurek’s; but you couldn’t resent the man his portion, not after he’d worked so hard for it. And Jurek’s wife had brought out beers as they’d chopped and sweated in the summer sun. Winter had seemed far off in those days of comradeship, when all the kids in the street had scampered up and down the lane to each other’s houses and a cold beer had been as pleasant pressed to the forehead as poured down the throat. Hard to imagine days like that in winter, after all the storms that had intervened since August.

He’d had plenty of occasions to be thankful for his foresight in the months that followed. The stack of wood, built up against the back wall of the close and covered with an old tarpaulin, had provided him and Jurek with all the fuel they needed to last them through the days and weeks when the power failed and the radiators cooled into lifeless slabs of moulded metal. Both men had been wise enough to keep the Victorian fireplaces in their front rooms, and though the cast iron inserts were really meant for coal you could get a good wood fire going with a bit of patience and some twists of newspaper. That was Anne’s job, of course; patience wasn’t one of the virtues Bob claimed to have mastered.

When he got back from the kitchen, glass refreshed, the weatherwoman had vanished from the TV screen. In her place, worried-looking cops were stalking down a corridor clutching handguns, casting suspicious glances left and right as if expecting the weatherwoman to spring out at them from behind a door. Bob settled in his chair to see what would happen next, nursing the tumbler in his hand to release the fragrance. But the tension on screen was mounting, and after a while he put the glass down on the coal box and leaned forward, running his fingers across the ten-o-clock stubble on his chin. Anne mentioned the wood again and he snorted, studying the cops like a private detective searching for clues.

Bob’s phone buzzed in his pocket and he swore as he struggled to pull it free before he missed the call. He didn’t recognize the number and almost put it away again, but something made him tap the green icon and raise it to his ear. An accented voice, Polish or Rumanian: ‘Bob? It’s Jurek. Have you heard wind? It sounds bad, doesn’t it? Worse than usual, I think – much worse. Listen, can I ask a favour? Do you mind if we come upstairs and sit in your flat, just till storm is over? We ran out of fuel, and Magda – well, she gets nervous. She don’t want me going outside to fetch in more wood. She says… well, she don’t want me to, that’s all. What you say, man? Can we come up?’

Bob swore again silently, placing his palm across the receiver in case the force of his feelings should somehow communicate itself to Jurek without the help of sound. Just what he could do without – a bunch of lousy Polacks jabbering away in his front room while he was trying to chill. They’d probably want some whisky, and there wasn’t much left. ‘Sorry, mate,’ he said with a dry mouth. ‘We’re out of wood too. I was just heading out the back to fetch another load. You want me to get you a couple of logs?’

‘No no, it don’t matter. We’ll just come up and bring duvets. We’ll all be warmer if we sit in same room, don’t you agree?’

Bob was casting about in his mind for a good excuse to say no and hang up when Anne butted in. For her, phonecalls weren’t a private matter: anyone could take part in them from any part of the flat, with often chaotic consequences. ‘Who’s that?’ she asked. ‘Is it Jurek? Magda’s been texting me all evening. They’d like to come up till the storm’s gone by. Says she saw something in the back court – really put her out, she’s a bag of nerves. Tell them to bring their duvets and some nice warm clothes and I’ll make a few hot water bottles while the kettle’s still working. The Vortex never lasts long, and it’ll be nice to have some company to keep our minds off it.’

Bob gritted his teeth and gave what he hoped was a convincing smile. ‘No problem, hon,’ he said. ‘Jurek, come on up. It’ll be good to see you. I’ll fetch in the wood and we’ll make ourselves comfortable.’

‘No need for wood.’ There was an urgency now to Jurek’s voice, as if he really meant what he was saying. ‘You stay put, Bob. We’ll be up in a minute. We bring duvets. We’ll be fine.’

Why, I do believe the man’s afraid, Bob thought in surprise. Magda’s got nothing to do with it; Jurek’s afraid to go outside. Who would have thought it? Big strong Jurek, put off by a bit of wind and sleet. Maybe they don’t get this sort of weather in Rumania. He smiled to himself and flexed his muscles unconsciously, testing his strength before he stood up and went into action. He relished the thought that he’d pass Jurek on the stairs. He would nod kindly, he decided, as he stumped past him, with his refuse-collector’s gloves and his sleeves rolled back to expose his impressive forearms. Bob’s forearms were his best feature, and he liked to expose them on every opportunity; he fancied he had caught even Jurek casting glances at them last summer as they sipped beer sitting at the table on the unkempt lawn. When body parts were handed out, Jurek got the biceps and Bob the forearms. Unfortunately he also got the belly, but he could lose that in two or three weeks if he put his mind to it…

The lights went out. The TV went blank. Darkness overwhelmed them.

Anne let out a small involuntary noise, a sort of gasp from where she lay stretched out on the sofa. Even Bob made a noise of some kind, though he covered it up a moment later by scuffing his slippers on the polished parquet. ‘Christ, not again,’ he swore as he heaved himself to his feet. ‘That’s the third time this week. We’re claiming compensation, I don’t care how long it lasts. I’m paying for power, not a string of blackouts.’

A battery of blows at the double front doors made him swear again. ‘Christ, Jurek, do you have to try and smash it down? Keep your hair on, will you? I’m on my way.’ As he pulled open the inner door and reached for the bolt that fastened the double doors – the portcullis, so to speak, which sealed off the flat from the communal staircase – he heard a high-pitched whimper from the other side and cursed for a third time under his breath. The Polack kids were awake, then. That was the end of any dreams he might have had of a pleasant evening in adult company. Kids never slept in a storm, in his experience. And Anne would insist he make up a bed for them in the second bedroom. He hated making up beds.

Jurek, Magda and the kids blew in through the doors, bringing with them a gust of cold air and a babble of voices. Light spilled in too: the phosphorescent glow Bob had earlier seen from the living room window turning the sky behind the streetlamps into a pallid screen. He contrived to twist his face into what he hoped was a welcoming grin.

‘Go on through, folks,’ he urged them heartily, waving his arm towards the sitting room. ‘Get yourselves warm. Anne’ll make some tea.’

Jurek hovered in the hallway, arms full of duvet, as Bob slipped his feet into his boots. Perhaps the big man wanted to urge him once more to stay inside, keep safe and warm till the storm blew over. But Jurek said nothing. No doubt he could see the resolution in Bob’s face, the determination to provide for his wife and neighbours whatever the weather, whatever the time. Bob shrugged on his coat and reached for the work-gloves, relishing the scrape of untreated canvas against his forearms as he tugged them on.

‘Back in a sec,’ he said with studied casualness, and walked out of the door.

A moment later he walked back in. Jurek was still standing in the hallway, looking lost. ‘Forgot the keys,’ Bob explained brusquely, and unhooked them from inside the little cupboard beside the door. His second exit was quieter, though no less resolute.

There was a peculiar atmosphere on the communal staircase. The wan light leaked in through the windows, illuminating the anatomically dubious birds painted on the panes whose mournful eyes stared down at him on every landing. Unexpected draughts kept buffeting his body, making him sway as he descended the stairs. By the time he reached the bottom he felt a little lightheaded, and had to pause to gather strength before approaching the back door. The key turned easily, the handle too, but when he tried to tug it open the door wouldn’t budge, held shut, he supposed, by the force of the gale outside – though surely the wind should be pushing it open, not keeping it shut. He tugged again, harder, to no avail. It’s an omen, his mind informed him, drawing on the lore from all those movies he liked to watch when Anne was in bed. It’s telling me I shouldn’t go out. Magda warned me, and so did Jurek. That’s three omens so far, if you don’t count the weird light in the close, or me forgetting the keys, or the nasty feeling in the pit of my belly. If I open this door I’m doomed – all the movies say so. I better go back upstairs and say I couldn’t get out. No one would blame me –

The door flew open, as if some prankster on the other side had let go of the handle. It banged against the wall of the close and a shower of dust rained down from the dent where the inside handle always hit the plaster. Bob stood in the doorframe with his jaw hanging open.

He looked out into the storm – or rather, into the void where the storm should have been.

The yard was eerily still, bathed in the greenish glow that wasn’t quite moonlight. Every blade of grass in the lawn had its clearcut shadow. The hedge that ran down the left hand side of the lawn stood rigid as sculpture, branch and twig and thorn immobile in the eerie light, deep darkness behind them. Even the washing lines didn’t stir, their nylon cords stretched out stiff and stark between the iron poles planted in the lawn. The garden furniture looked implacable, a set of standing stones on the spiky grass. Only the hectic flight of the clouds gave any indication that a storm was raging somewhere above this moonlit bubble of perfect silence.

The whole thing looked like one of those wee glass snowstorms you hold in your hand and shake till the blizzard whirls – only here the blizzard lay outside, and the globe held a tiny world cut off from motion.

It was painfully cold. Bob’s coat didn’t touch it; the cold cut through the triple fabric and lanced his flesh with surgical precision. His hands beneath the work gloves began to burn. His eyes went watery. He shuddered once, a titanic shudder, and stepped across the threshold into the night.

Not another sound, not another movement in the empty garden: just the crunch of his boots as they sank through the perished rubber of the doormat. He had never seen it so still. This is a bit of luck, he told himself firmly as he turned to his right, towards the woodpile. This must be a lull in the storm: a brief break in the relentless pounding that’s being meted out by the Arctic wind and the polar rain. If I hurry I might get the wood inside before it starts again.

The wood was piled under the green tarpaulin against the back wall of the tenement, beside the door. Like the garden furniture the logs looked stony, and Bob half expected them to resist his strength, cementing themselves to one another in solidarity with the frozen landscape of the yard. Instead, the first log lifted up so easily he almost lost his balance, staggering a little on the crunchy grass as he fought to stay upright. Once safely stable, Bob settled the recalcitrant log in the crook of his arm where it nestled like a changeling baby, prematurely aged and stiffened by long exposure to the winter nights. He stooped for a second log, then a third, working swiftly to pick out the best wood for the fireplace: small, dense pieces that would fit in the narrow Victorian grate. He had to turn his back on the lawn to lift them. He didn’t want to, but there was no other way, despite the nagging sensation between his shoulders which told him against all reason that someone was standing close behind him as he worked.

Absurd, of course. There had been no noise in the yard – in the city as a whole, for all he could hear – since he stepped through the door, apart from the puffing of his whisky-tainted breath and the creaking of his knees. Still, there it was: that sensation of being watched by an unseen stranger – and he couldn’t shake it off no matter how he puffed and creaked and stamped in an effort to fill the void with movement, stave off the oppressive silence till the job was done. Instead of retreating, the sensation grew and spread cold fingers across his skin. Only one way to get rid of it, he knew: stand up, turn round, take a long slow look at the empty lawn. But not before he had lifted as many logs as his arms would carry. He refused to be spooked by a draught of wind. There were people depending on him tonight – women, children, friends – and he wouldn’t go letting them down on account of a feeling.

Then the voices began.

They started out as what could best be described as a kind of muttering: a stream of consonants linked together by a faint semi-musical hum, coming at him from several directions, and closer than he would have liked – no more than a yard or two from where he was leaning over the woodpile. Under any other circumstances he’d have assumed he was hearing a radio, but how likely was it that there’d be three or four radios close behind him at the dead of night? He straightened slowly, clutching the logs, and stood there listening, one hand rested on the topmost log, fingertips slowly tracing the grain as if for anchorage. The voices got louder; he began to hear words. The tone of the voices wasn’t threatening, but there was an urgency about them, a quiet desperation that raised the hairs on the back of his neck like an uneasy army getting to its feet.

He didn’t turn round slowly. He turned in a rush of impatience, almost letting the logs spill out of his arms – he had to clutch at them to prevent them scattering across the lawn. The impatience came from his sense that this was all too childish; he hadn’t felt this way since he’d been a nipper of ten, and he didn’t like it, wouldn’t let the sensation last a second longer. The lawn, he knew, was empty, and he was much too old to let a trick of acoustics set his heart racing and fill his palms with sweat in the middle of winter.

There were people standing on the lawn.

Five of them altogether. A man dressed in some sort of tight rubber suit and an orange life vest. A woman in shorts, clutching a mobile phone against her chest. A couple standing side by side in climbing gear, helmeted and harnessed, hands tightly linked. A child. They were none of them looking at him, though all of them faced in his direction. No, not quite in his direction – they faced west, which meant they were angled slightly away from him, unseeing eyes directed a little to his right. The effect was that of looking at a flock of turbines on a level pasture, all positioned at the optimum angle to take advantage of the prevailing wind. The difference, of course, was that flocks of turbines look identical – clean and white with elegant blades – while these figures were a motley crew, all of different body shapes and colours and with different clothes. The child was wearing pyjamas, pink with some sort of grinning cartoon creature printed all over. Her brownish hair was plastered flat across her cheeks and forehead. Her face, like those of the adults, were unsettlingly colourful: bluish lips, a bluish tinge to the cheeks, wide open bloodshot eyes set in hollow recesses and staring sightlessly towards the place where the sun had set not long before.

All five of the figures were talking, a steady noise like a running brook. His ears weren’t what they used to be, and he had to tilt his head at exactly the right angle to catch the words as they trickled by.

His left ear was the best, and he found himself turning it towards the man in the rubber suit. The man stood bolt upright, hands hanging at his hips, fingers twitching from time to time with involuntary convulsions. ‘Okay,’ he was saying to himself in an urgent whisper. ‘In a minute I’ll have got my legs out, Jim’ll help me, current’s not so strong. I been in worse, Christ it’s cold but not so bad really, I’m pretty much numb, almost warm in fact, just need to hold out a few more seconds, just a few seconds and I’ll be okay. My lungs are bursting, my chest hurts, my head hurts, I can’t see anything in this water, things have been worse, can’t get hold of the catch, I know it’s here somewhere, things have been worse, this isn’t how it ends, this isn’t how it ends…’

Bob’s head moved away from the man and towards the young woman, whose shorts and T-shirt were obviously sodden, clinging to her skin in icy folds. Her eyes were wide open – they looked as if the lids had been stretched apart with clamps – and her hair lay in weedy strands along her jawline. ‘No signal,’ she was saying. ‘So dark I can’t see my hand in front of my face. I thought that only happened in books, didn’t think it could get that dark once your eyes adjusted, not so dark you couldn’t see your hands right in front of your eyes. Tread carefully, don’t go too fast, there are cliffs nearby, I saw them when I was running through the glen, shouldn’t go too slow though, it’s much too cold, I could freeze to death. Someone knows where I am, I must have said where I was going, I never told them, why didn’t I tell them, why did I change direction and head up the mountain, what an idiot, what an idiot, still can’t get a signal, I’ll get one in a minute, this isn’t how it ends, this isn’t how it ends…’

Relentlessly Bob’s head kept turning, though he already had a premonition of what he would hear from the climbers, whose hands were locked together so fiercely they must have been crushing one another’s joints. ‘I’ve got you, honey,’ the man was saying. ‘Thank God, thank God I got hold of you when you slipped, just need to get a better grip on the rock with my other hand, sliding a bit but I won’t let go, nothing on earth would make me let go, we’ve done this before, we’re prepared for this, I’m strong, you’re strong, we’ve both got the training. The weather turned so suddenly but we’ve got the gear, my shoulder hurts, my elbow hurts, my hands are slipping, I won’t let go, this isn’t how it ends, this isn’t how it ends…’

The woman was speaking too, but he couldn’t hear her; and the child, when his ear was turned in her direction, was speaking nonsense, a rhyme repeated over and over: ‘Christopher Robin went hoppity hoppity hoppity hoppity hop. Whenever I ask him politely to stop it he says he can’t possibly stop. Christopher Robin went hoppity hoppity, hoppity hoppity hoppity hoppity, hoppity hoppity, hoppity hoppity, hoppity hoppity hop.’ She had some furry creature in her hands, clutched against her chest exactly as the older girl was clutching her mobile. There was a stain in her hair, and now he looked he could see a gash, well, more like a hole, and he looked away rather than peer any closer to see how deep it was, how obviously fatal. He wondered what had made it – then steered his mind away from the subject with another huge shudder.

He was shuddering all over now, legs, arms and belly. The wind was getting up, puffs of it driving across the yard and disrupting the unnatural stillness, shaking the thorny branches of the hedge, bending the frosty grass stems. The cold cut through his body, parting fat and muscle and bone, making his legs and shoulders leap with the pain of it. One of the shudders sent the logs flying across the lawn, and a piece of wood struck the boot of the woman climber with a hollow thunk. Bob crouched and stretched out his hand to pick it up again, keeping his face down to avoid another glimpse of her vacant stare. But the wind was driving fiercely at him now, burning his face, burning his hands inside their canvas gloves, burning the bones inside his face, his hands, his feet. He remained crouched and locked his arms around his chest in an effort to get some warmth before he tried again. He wouldn’t go inside without that wood. He was the hunter gatherer, the father provider, and nothing could blow him into submission, not even the Vortex.

The wind buffeted him where he crouched, but the figures on the lawn seemed unaffected. Their bluish lips were moving still, but he could no longer hear any sound from them – the howling in his ears was too intense. A metal dustbin lid rolled away from the bin area, clashing as it bounced. The wind howled louder, and the lid was lifted into the air, spinning high up over the hedge and away to join other spinning objects in the yard next door. A plastic crate crashed against the tenement wall, scattering chunks of dust and stone into the rising storm. Flowerpots, branches, polythene bags whirled around in a kind of dance just above the heads of the murmuring figures. A piece of cardboard struck the canoeist’s helmet, but the man didn’t move; all his attention was focused on the stream of desperate words spilling out of his mouth.

And now Bob was swaying in a kind of dance beneath the mauling fingers of the puppeteer wind. Like a marionette he staggered to and fro across the grass, all balance lost. He bumped against the older girl and gasped a kind of apology before staggering on. He straightened in an effort to gain control, spreading his arms and fingers wide, lifting his chin. His feet left the ground for a moment, then landed again in a scuffling dance on the concrete slabs of the garden path. Another gust took him, and this time he was lifted into the air like the metal lid. His legs struck the hedge and he felt the cuffs of his trousers tear on the thorns. He spun head over heels, head over heels, whirling always upwards, hurtling with terrible speed towards a slanting frost-covered roof. Dimly he could see more figures beneath him in other yards, all facing westwards, all standing stiff and upright like ivory chessmen, all muttering still, no doubt, if he could have heard them. But the wind plucked him up and away, and his eyes grew dimmer, and he gritted his teeth in a furious effort to stop the words from spilling out.

Squeezing his lids together he could see the lights of the city spread out below him in a kind of cobweb. He was hundreds of feet above them and rising swiftly. His stomach lurched in terror, but he kept his eyes open, staring down, just to prove to himself he was still alive. So high, so cold, his body on fire, his lungs expanding to fill his chest in a last-ditch effort to catch enough air to feed his blood…

The words pounded through his skull in a driving rhythm, and after a while he knew he was saying them over and over. He couldn’t breathe, his chest was bursting, sight almost gone – but still his lips moved as he flew towards the clouds, and he heard the words, though not with his ears, a steady noise like a running brook in the upper air: it can’t end like this, it can’t end like this, it can’t end like this…

 

 

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Marlowe’s Ghost: The Second Report of Doctor John Faustus (1592)

[This essay was first published in Airy Nothings: Imagining the Otherworld of Faerie from the Middle Ages to the Age of Reason: Essays in Honour of Alasdair A. MacDonald, eds. Karin E. Olsen & Jan R. Veenstra (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 1-24. I’m republishing it here, with permission, because it’s about a lost book, because the book in question is clearly fantastic, and because… well, because Kit Marlowe.]

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  1. Afterlives in fact and fiction

Our story begins with two bad deaths. In September 1592 the poet, author and playwright Robert Greene succumbed to a sickness brought on by a surfeit of pickled herrings and Rhenish wine – or so his enemy Gabriel Harvey asserted. Eight months later, in May 1593, the poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe was murdered by Ingram Frizer at a boarding house in Deptford, stabbed through the eye in a quarrel over a bill or ‘reckoning’. Greene and Marlowe were hostile to each other; Greene, at least, did his best to make them so. But they had much in common, from their relatively humble origins to a university education and a life of mixing with, but never quite profiting by, some of the most powerful men and women in England.[1] They shared, too, a fascination with magic, metamorphoses and desire, as well as a mutual obsession with bad death and the possibility of averting it or putting it off. And immediately after Marlowe’s death their fates became entwined to an extent that neither could have predicted. From tellers of stories they found themselves transformed into the stories’ protagonists, and their ghosts continued to haunt the stage, the bookstalls and the streets of late Elizabethan London as if linked in a diabolic pact. This essay concerns the ghost of Marlowe; but ghosts are notoriously difficult to see clearly, and Greene’s frequent and prominent posthumous appearances will help bring Marlowe’s more elusive spirit into better focus.

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Robert Greene in his Shroud

The details of Greene’s afterlife have long been familiar to us.[2] Besides the posthumous, quasi-autobiographical pamphlets attributed to Greene himself, such as The Repentance of Robert Greene and Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit (both 1592), he returns from the grave in Greene’s News Both from Heaven and Hell (1593), by Barnaby Rich, which contains tales purportedly collected by Greene’s spirit on a trip to Purgatory; Henry Chettle’s Kind-Heart’s Dream (1593), where Greene’s ghost urges the satirist Thomas Nashe to avenge him on his detractor, Harvey; and John Dickenson’s Greene in Conceit, New Raised from His Grave to Write the Tragic History of Valeria (1598), whose title page shows him vigorously scribbling fiction in his grave-clothes. Until recently, by contrast, the afterlife of Marlowe has been confined to some passing allusions, such as Peele’s proto-Dickensian reference to him as ‘Marley, the Muses darling for thy verse, / Fit to write passions for the souls below, / If any wretched souls in passion speak’ in his poem The Honour of the Garter, published only a month after his death;[3] William Webbe’s critical assessment of him in 1598 as ‘our best for Tragedie’; and Nashe’s eulogy in Lenten Stuff (1599), where he is a ‘rarer muse’ than the mythic poet Musaeus, whose tale of Hero and Leander he made his own.[4] On the stage, of course, he lived on in his plays, and could be said to have gone on writing well into the seventeenth century, as new scenes for Doctor Faustus kept appearing as if by magic in new productions of the tragedy.[5] In this essay, however, I shall suggest that Marlowe’s ghost also achieved a substantial presence (so to speak) on paper, in the form of an anonymous narrative printed less than a year after his murder, The Second Report of Doctor John Faustus (1594).[6] The publication of this pamphlet coincided with a revival of his most popular plays on the London stage.[7] It would seem that some of the details in it got mixed up with the theatrical legends surrounding his most scandalous play, Doctor Faustus, so that boundaries between truth and fiction, the theatre and the written page became blurred in a way that the author of the Second Report would no doubt have found deeply satisfying.

To return for a while, though, to the relationship between Greene and Marlowe, the story of their lifetime enmity comes to us largely through Greene’s references to it in print. Soon after the success of Marlowe’s first play for the public theatre, Tamburlaine the Great (1587), and the failure of Greene’s clumsy imitation of it, Alphonsus King of Aragon, Greene inaugurated what was to become a familiar rumour concerning Marlowe: that he shared his Scythian hero’s contempt for religion – that Tamburlaine was, in fact, an avatar of Marlowe himself. In the epistle to his romance Perimedes the Blacksmith (1588) Greene refers bitterly to two gentleman poets who had scoffed at Alphonsus because

I could not make my verses jet upon the stage in tragicall buskins […] daring God out of heaven with that Atheist Tamburlan, or blaspheming with the mad preest of the sonne [i.e. Giordano Bruno]: but let me rather openly pocket up the Asse at Diogenes hand [i.e. ignore the scholars’ insults] then wantonlye set out such impious instances of intolerable poetrie[.][8] Such mad and scoffing poets, that have propheticall spirits, as bred of Merlins race, if there be anye in England that set the end of scollarisme in an English blanck verse, I thinke either it is the humor of a novice that tickles them with self-love, or to much frequenting the hot house …[9]

The reference to ‘Merlins race’ here alongside Tamburlaine identifies one of Greene’s targets as Marlowe, who was known in his Cambridge days as Marlen,[10] a name that links him with the Arthurian prophet-magician – an apt connection for the playwright who dramatized the life of Faustus. Prophets had as bad a press as atheists in Tudor times – all the major insurrections in The Mirror for Magistrates, for instance, are supported by false prophesies – and the term ‘intolerable’ might well have been taken by Greene’s readers as a plea for the censorship of Marlowe’s ‘impious’ verse. After this Greene took to needling Marlowe whenever he had the chance, referring to him as ‘the cobbler’ who teaches actors to spout speeches like Julius Caesar, asserting that the ‘unsavorie papers’ of the first edition of Tamburlaine were used by pedlars to wrap their powders in, and most notoriously upbraiding him along with Shakespeare in his posthumously-published pamphlet Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit Bought With a Million of Repentance (1592):[11]

Wonder not […] thou famous gracer of Tragedians, that Greene, who hath said with thee like the foole in his heart, There is no God, should now give glorie unto his greatnesse: for […] his hand lies heavie upon me […] and I have felt he is a God that can punish enimies. Why should thy excellent wit, his gift, be so blinded, that thou shouldst give no glory to the giver? […] Defer not (with me) till this last point of extremitie; for little knowest thou how in the end thou shalt be visited.[12]

Printed so shortly after Greene’s death, and followed so soon by the death of Marlowe, these words would no doubt have had a major impact on any reader who recalled them in the aftermath of Marlowe’s assassination. Scholars now largely agree that they were not written by Greene but by Henry Chettle, who had a habit of ascribing his work to other people.[13] More interestingly, though, they tie Greene to Marlowe as an atheist, while separating him from his fellow playwright by stressing his repentance. In the process Marlowe becomes a second Faustus, just as Greene had identified him with his earlier protagonist Tamburlaine in the 1580s. Marlowe’s gift of ‘excellent wit’ is dangerously allied with the folly of religious blindness, and his fate is prophetically hinted at by the reference to an unexpected, and possibly ‘extreme’ end: ‘Defer not (with me) till this last point of extremitie; little knowest thou how in the end thou shalt be visited’. The process of fusing Marlowe with his characters was well advanced by the time this passage was composed, and anticipates the inventive fusion of allusions to his plays with some seeds of truth and much malicious gossip that constitutes the infamous Baines Note.

GroatsworthIf Chettle did write Greene’s Groatsworth, he had a firm grasp of one of Greene’s most disarming characteristics: his tendency to put things off, which is referred to in the title of one of his ‘autobiographies’, Greene’s Never Too Late (1590).[14] One of the texts whose publication Greene deferred till after his death was an entertaining pamphlet called Greene’s Vision, written in 1590 but not published till 1592. In it, the spirit of the biblical King Solomon finally persuades the prolific author to give up his practice of penning romances – though not before Geoffrey Chaucer has warmly congratulated him on their literary quality – and take up theology instead. Greene’s motive for putting off the publication of this Chaucerian retraction seems clear enough: he was not yet ready to take up religious studies full time. But when it did appear, the pamphlet included a wonderfully desperate piece of prose that brings Greene as close to Faustus as Marlowe seemed in the Groatsworth:

When with a strict insight, I […] take a straight accompt what the deedes of my youth have beene […] oh then what a fearefull terror dooth torture my minde, what a dungeon of dollours lyes open to swallow me? As the Scorpion stings deadly, and the Vipers bites [sic] mortally, so dooth the worme of my conscience grype without ceasing. And yet O Lord, a deeper miserie, for when with a foreseeing consideration I looke into the time to come, wherein the secret conjecture of my faults and offences, shall be manifested and laid to my charge, and that I know Stipendium peccati mors, Oh then whether shall I flie from thy presence? shall I take the wings of the morning and absent my selfe? can the hideous mountaines hide me, can wealth redeeme sinne, can beautie countervaile my faults, or the whole world counterpoyse the ballance of mine offences? oh no, and therefore am I at my wits end, wishing for death, and the end of my miserable dayes, and yet then the remembrance of hell, and the torments thereof drive me to wish the contrarie.[15]

Here the first and last speeches of Marlowe’s protagonist – whose adventures may well have been staged a year or so before this passage was written, in 1589[16] – run together, as the curtailed reference to St Paul’s letter to the Romans from Doctor Faustus I.i.39 (‘Stipendium, etc. / The reward of sin is death’) collides with the wild desire for escape, metamorphosis or oblivion from V.ii.104-23. Greene does not identify himself here with Faustus/Marlowe’s supposed atheism – he is guilty only of ‘vanitie, and fond conceited fancies’ – and once again his repentance is implied at the end of the pamphlet. But his willingness to mimic Faustus indicates Greene’s keen perception that the drama of his own life might profitably (and indeed daringly) be made the subject of his fiction, just as Marlowe’s life had got mixed up with his dramatic fabrications. Greene worked out this perception in his cony-catching pamphlets as well as his autobiographies. In these pamphlets his bad behaviour in London – the reason for his need for repentance – supplies him with the raw material for an exposition of the seamier side of London life; while the very act of exposition puts him in danger of retaliation from the men and women whose crimes he exposes, so that each new cony-catching pamphlet becomes an instalment in an ongoing game of cat-and-mouse, played out (Greene would have us believe) between the London mafia and the intrepid pamphleteer. Paper becomes a kind of theatre, implicitly stirring up frantic action in the underworld each time it leaves the press, and whipping its audience into frenzied anticipation of the next instalment as each pamphlet ends. One wonders how far Greene’s brilliant staging of this drama in his final publications was inspired by his inclination to link Marlowe with his own quasi-historical overreachers, Tamburlaine and Faustus?

Eugène_Delacroix_-_Mephistopheles_in_the_Sky_-_Google_Art_Project

Eugene Delacroix, Mephistopheles

Characteristically, Greene deferred the last instalment of his cony-catching pamphlets – the Black Book, which he announced in two pamphlets published in 1592 – until it was too late, advertising it as forthcoming when he was already in the grip of his final illness. The Black Book was to have been the climax of his one-man war on the London underworld, naming and shaming all the principal criminals operating in the capital. Greene’s death cut short this climax; and when at last a Black Book came out in 1604, it was written by Thomas Middleton, and took the form of a sequel to Tom Nashe’s celebrated satire Pierce Penniless his Supplication to the Devil (1592) rather than to anything written by Greene – though the title clearly links it with Greene’s promised pamphlet. The book was printed in a black letter font that associated it with the early 1590s, when Nashe and Greene were active, and is full of references to the stage, including two to Marlowe.[17] When the devil visits Pierce Penniless in the pamphlet he finds him in a bed surrounded by cobwebs, spun by ‘spindle-shank spiders’ which ‘went stalking over his head as if they had been conning of Tamburlaine’ (p. 213). And a pimp is described as having a head of hair ‘like one of my devils in Doctor Faustus when the old Theatre cracked and frighted the audience’ (p. 209). The Oxford Middleton glosses this line as an allusion to the supernatural events that were rumoured to attend productions of Marlowe’s tragedy, as performed, perhaps, in the old Theatre playhouse in Shoreditch before its demolition in 1597. But Eric Rasmussen sees it instead as a reference to an incident in the Second Report of Doctor Faustus, when Faustus’s tragedy is re-enacted by his ghost and a cast of devils in an ‘excellent faire Theator’ (sig. E2v) in the sky above Wittenberg.[18] This supernatural spectacle ends when the stage collapses into the river ‘with a most monstrous thundering crack’ (sig. F1r), to the horror of the watching citizens. Rasmussen strengthens his case by pointing out that the chief actor-devil in the Second Report is remarkable for his haircut: he makes his subordinate devils tremble by stamping his foot and ‘shaking his great bushe of hair’ (sig. C3r), which helps explain the reference to the pimp’s ‘head of hair’ in Middleton’s Black Book. The difficulty with Rasmussen’s argument is the reference to the ‘old Theatre’, since ‘old’ seems an inappropriate epithet for a temporary aerial playhouse. Could it be, then, that the incident in the Second Report has been elided in Middleton’s mind with an actual incident that took place in the Shoreditch Theatre? As Rasmussen points out, the London stages were always creaking, cracking, even collapsing, and Middleton need not have had in mind the collapse of a stage during a performance of Doctor Faustus in particular; after all, for the theatre-haters all dramatic performances were devilish. In the Black Book, fact and fiction merge – rather as the appearance of the book itself, with its old-fashioned typeface, links it both physically and fictitiously, as it were, with the satiric fictions of the early 1590s.

Middleton’s Black Book poses as a kind of literary ghost, recalling its readers to a decade when the supernatural stalked the streets of London, both in the shape of pamphlets about Purgatory, dead writers and the devil, such as Pierce Penniless, and in the form of necromantic plays such as Doctor Faustus (performed in September 1594) and Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (performed in February 1592 and April 1594). The two plays were also linked to successful works of prose fiction: The History of the Damned Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus, translated from the German Faustbuch in about 1588, and The Famous History of Friar Bacon, an English imitation of the former.[19] The cross-fertilization of fact and fiction, prose and drama at this time coincided with a special interest among writers and their audiences or readers in the interaction between spirits and ordinary mortals; an interest testified to by the revival of the ghosts of Robert Greene and the clown Dick Tarleton in prose narratives written after their deaths (the latter featured in Tarleton’s News Out of Purgatory, 1590, and the popular jestbook Tarleton’s Jests).[20] The Second Report of Doctor John Faustus shares many features with the other supernatural narratives of the early 1590s; but the games it plays with the relationship between fact and fiction, page and stage, and the living and the dead are very much more sophisticated than those of its rivals – a fact which, together with its anonymity, may have contributed to its relative obscurity in the annals of English fiction. The book may simply have been too clever to be readily assimilated into any of the categories by which scholars have sought to taxonomize Tudor prose fiction. The games begin in the preface or prologue of the first edition, and a close analysis of this prologue will give a good indication of the pamphlet’s unique relationship to the interwoven legends of Dr Faustus and Christopher Marlowe.

 

2. Authenticity and charlatanism in the prologue to the Second Report

lutherstadt-wittenberg-055-collegienstrasse-wohnhaus-johann-faust-1480-1540-astrologe-alchimist

Faust’s house in Wittenberg

The first game with ‘fact’ played in the prologue is the notion that the Second Report is a translation from the German. Although a German sequel to the original Faustbuch was in print by 1594 – the so-called Wagner Book – the Second Report has nothing to do with it, as Harold Jantz pointed out in the 1950s.[21] Instead, it purports to be based on information translated from second-hand testimony by an English gentleman student in Faustus’s hometown of Wittenberg; and it boosts its claims to authenticity by questioning the accuracy of the English translation of the original Faustbuch. ‘I have talked with the man that first wrote [it]’, claims the student, ‘wherein he saith manie thinges are corrupted [in the translation], some added de novo, some canceld and taken awaie, and many were augmented’ (sig. A4r). In recent years John Henry Jones has demonstrated the extent to which these accusations would hold true of P.F., the Faustbuch’s translator, who inserted passages freely, enlarged the sections that interested him and omitted offensive material; and anyone who knew this would have been impressed by the Second Report’s apparent concern for textual accuracy.[22] This pose of scholarly scrupulousness is reinforced by a meticulous description of three tourist sites in Wittenberg offering physical evidence that Faustus existed, ‘which is generally a thing not beleeved’ (sig. A4r). The ruins of Faustus’s house, says the student, can still be seen, as can the tree where he ‘used to reade Nigromancy to his Scholers’, and his tomb, marked by a stone on which his epitaph is roughly carved ‘by his owne hand’ (sig. A4v). The first two sites were seen by the traveller Fynes Morrison in 1591, which lends force to the student’s statement that ‘Germany [is not] so unknowen but that the trueth of these thinges… may be founde if any suspect’ (sig. A4r).[23] Later, when the gentleman student reveals his view of the Germans as a nation of fantasizing drunkards, the ambiguity of this last sentence becomes apparent; but on first reading one could take it as a firm assurance that the remains give material proof of Faustus’s existence.

Having erected his imaginative stage, as it were, and implied the identity of one of his sources – a man who got his facts ‘from Wagner’s very friend’ (sig. A4r) – the student ends his prologue with some tantalizing snippets on Faustus from a well-known work of scholarship. Dr Johann Weyer, he tells us, gives an account of one of Faustus’s ‘knaveries’ in his book on witchcraft, De praestigiis daemonum (1563), where­by the magician promised to depilate a grown man permanently, but succeeded only in scorching off his victim’s skin ‘causing such inflammations in his face that it burned all over cruelly’ (sig. B1r). Dr Weyer gives a gruesome account, too, of Faustus’s end, in which he is found ‘by his bed side starke dead, and his face turnde backewards’ (sig. B1r). But if the painfully physical nature of both accounts seems to drive home their authenticity – who, after all, would invent such lurid details if they were not true? – they cast serious doubt on the credibility of the Faustbuch. Dr Weyer may support the notion that Faustus existed, but he also insists that he was a charlatan ‘who could doe nothing’ (sig. B1r). Indeed, Weyer’s chief fame rests on his scepticism concerning magic and witchcraft, which made him an invaluable source for the English sceptic Reginald Scot, whose refutation of the myths concerning witches, The Discovery of Witchcraft (1584), cites Weyer frequently, as the student points out (sig. B1v). Every detail Weyer gives of Faustus’s life, in fact, from the place of his birth to the manner of his death, contradicts a detail in the Faustbuch. Not only was the translation ‘meere lies’ (sig. A4r), then, but so was the original. The legend of Doctor Faustus is an artificial fog of rumour, gossip and brazen fabrication, and the book that follows proceeds to document the means by which that fog was generated.

800px-Faustus-tragedyIf the prologue of the first edition of the Second Report presents the book as a kind of litmus test of its readers’ intelligence, the second (published in the same year) presents it as a playful intellectual exchange between young scholars in England and Germany. Two prefatory letters were added to this second edition: ‘To the Reader’ and ‘Unto the Christian Reader’. Both imply that the first edition had disturbed the ‘bitter natures’ of some of its less intelligent readers (sig. A3r) – in part because of its stylistic plainness (‘Here is wanting the great Chaos of Similes, which build themselves over a Booke like Colosses’, sig. A3r); and in part because it had been taken literally. ‘This is a Booke’, the writer insists, ‘and so take it, and if you take it otherwise you are to blame, and if you trie your worst, you can term it but wast paper’ (sig. A3r). It would seem, then, that some readers had taken it as more than a book – that is, as a report of actual devilish goings-on in early modern Germany, and as capable perhaps of stimulating similar incidents in its adoptive country. And when the writer goes on to state that ‘I have delivered it to you from them of whome I took it for truth’, and that ‘if you could be as credulous as some are newfangled, I know this might serve to be the recorded [recorde?] of Faustus’ (sig. A3r-A3v), the impression that some credulous readers have been taken in by the seeming ‘realism’ of the first edition is confirmed. The writer goes on to imply that the text was delivered to the press against his will by the Oxford friends to whom he sent it; that he penned the two new epistles to explain this; and that ‘my vaine in this booke, is nothing’, since it is ‘but a bare translation of as bare mater of the gestes and actes of one Faustus a great Magitian’, a subject of such ‘unworthynes’ that no-one should read it (sig. A3v). The first of the new epistles, then, presents the Second Report as a double prank played by two sets of scholars: the gentleman student, who sent the manuscript to his Oxford friends as a humanist jeu d’esprit; and the ‘injurious’ Oxford friends themselves, who gave it uncorrected to the printer, so that other men might ‘laugh at the rude phrase’ – that is, mock its crude style – and thus embarrass their Wittenberg correspondent (sig. A3v). Those who detract from the book for something more than its stylistic defects expose themselves as ‘fools’ like the common players, since they make themselves what they wish to make others: the butt of laughter.

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Richard Burton as Faustus

This account of the book’s genesis is supported by the second epistle, ‘Unto the Christian Reader’. The letter purports to have been written by the friends of the gentleman student, and confirms the origins of this ‘novel’ or ‘news’ (think of the news Tarlton brought from Purgatory, which were ‘novels’ – literally ‘new things’ – or short stories) in a private game among the educated gentry. ‘These newes here raised out of auncient copies’, it declares, ‘a Gentleman friend of ours translated for our private intelligence amongest our selves, and sent them from Wittenberge to Oxenford’ (sig. A4r). The playfulness of the supposed translation is evident in the notion of something new being generated from ancient copies – a seemingly absurd proposition which is in any case undermined by the gentleman student’s statement that he ‘acquired these pages piecemeal from students at Wittenberg’ (Accepi ego has chartulas sparsim a studiosis Wittenbergensibus), a source that scarcely guarantees their antiquity.[24] And the playfulness continues in the penultimate sentence of the second epistle. ‘The truth is’, it concludes, ‘that these [new stories or ancient copies] are commonly carried about for very certainty, yea and some are secretly laide up in grave men’s studyes for great reliques’ (sig. A4r). The balance here implied between ‘very certainty’ – incontrovertible truths – and ‘great reliques’, the hallmark of papist superstition, tells us exactly what we should think about the grave men who take such nonsense literally. The narrative to follow is no ‘truthe’ but a fiction, and should be read as nothing more. Those who accept it as fact and denounce it as dangerous are merely adding to its entertainment value by making a spectacle, for cleverer readers, of their own gullibility.

An intriguing aspect of the two new epistles is the dates appended to them. The first, from the gentleman student, is dated May 1590. The second incorporates a Latin letter from the same student, dated July 1589, in which he commends his ‘trivial’ translation of Wagner’s adventures to the attention of his Oxford colleagues. The implication is that the Second Report was first printed between these dates. There is no evidence of a first edition of the Second Report before 1594, though of course it could well have been lost, like the first edition of the Damnable History. But it is equally possible that the dates in the epistles were fabricated, for some special purpose of the writer or printer. The Second Report was entered in the Stationers’ Register for November 16, 1593; and the fact that the first known edition of 1594 does not contain the two epistles, while the second contains them, suggests that they were composed between the two editions as a means of defusing the controversy to which the first gave rise. In support of this hypothesis is the fact that the printer of both editions, Abel Jeffes, had been in trouble with the authorities in 1592 for printing books whose copyright belonged to another printer; and that he continued to court controversy till it ended his career (in 1595 he published Giovanni Cipriano’s ‘lewd’ book A Wonderful Prophecy upon this Troublesome World, which led to the destruction of his press and letters by the Stationers’ Company).[25] He therefore had a motive both for reassuring the authorities that the Second Report was not another blot on his publishing record – that is, for adding the explanatory letters to the second edition when the first proved scandalous – and for continuing to excite the frisson in his readers that the Wonderful Prophecy later provided, in such unfortunate measure that it ruined him.

DoctorFaustus_New2_smallFurther indications that the dates were fabricated might be cited. The German sequel to the Faustbuch, the Wagnerbuch – which may well have inspired the Second Report, despite the fact that the book is no translation – was not published until 1593. And Chapter Nine of the Second Report contains a few verses in ‘Ari[o]stos vein’ (sig. F2r) that form a prologue to the Ariosto-esque second half, a link with Orlando Furioso which could have been suggested by the success of Sir John Harington’s translation, first published in 1591. Neither piece of evidence is conclusive, of course, but they lend additional weight to my conjecture. Why, then, would the claim that the Second Report had been first published in 1589-90 make things easier for its printer and author than the admission that it was new in 1594? The answer may lie in the perceived connection between the text and that playful scholar Christopher Marlowe, whose death in 1593 may have prompted Jeffes to register the Second Report a few months later. The Second Report is a ghost story, like the posthumous adventures of Greene and Tarleton. In it, the most famous creation of the notorious ‘atheist’ Marlowe (as Greene called him) returns from the dead to lend his services to the Doctor’s former houseboy, Wagner; and we have already seen how Faustus had been linked with his creator by Greene. In this book, too, the houseboy Wagner (whose nickname here is the same as Marlowe’s, Kit – in the Famous History he is always Christopher), takes on his master’s mantle not just as conjurer but playwright: it is he who stages the production of Faustus’s trial in the sky above Wittenberg. And in it – unlike the Faustbuch – neither Faustus nor Wagner gets punished for meddling with magic. If this narrative had been taken on its first appearance as a half-blasphemous vindication of the notorious atheist playwright, and if this is what made it controversial, then both writer and printer may have deemed it prudent to claim that it originated several years before the playwright’s murder. It remains to be seen, then, how far the text can be read as I’ve suggested; how far, in fact, the Second Report of Doctor John Faustus might have given its early readers a second report on Marlowe, to set alongside the infamous calumnies of the Baines Note.

 

3. Fictions of fiction in the Second Report

The narrative of the Second Report is divided into two neat halves, each of which derives its tone and content from one of Marlowe’s plays. The first half takes place in Wittenberg, and tells the story of Faustus’s former houseboy Wagner as he takes on his master’s mantle as a great magician. This part culminates in the supernatural performance of the Tragedy of Doctor Faustus in the air above the town, which ends with the thunderous collapse of the stage into the river Elbe. The second half takes place at a fictionalized Siege of Vienna (1529), and derives its delight in spectacular conflict both from the Orlando Furioso and from Marlowe’s first stage triumph, Tamburlaine the Great. In this section Wagner uses magic to assist the Duke of Austria in his wars against the Turks, executing a series of practical jokes on the Great Turk himself designed to humiliate and baffle the unfortunate sultan. The jokes resemble the tricks Faustus plays both in the Faustbuch and in Marlowe’s play, but being directed against a monarch they also recall the humiliating practices of Tamburlaine, who liked to cage his royal captives and use them as entertainment at mealtimes, as well as forcing a team of kings to draw his chariot like ‘pampered jades’.

Mephisto_by_Mark_Antokolski,_marble_(GTG,_after_1883)_by_shakko_08The amoral tone of the narrative, too, may owe something to Marlowe. P. F., the translator of the Faustbuch, toned down the moral comments of the German original, but retained enough didactic touches to soothe the consciences of his Christian readers. The conclusion, for example, exhorts them to ‘fear God and to be careful of their vocation and to be at defiance with all devilish works, as God hath most precisely forbidden’.[26] The Second Report follows a quite different moral trajectory. The first half pays careful lip service to the qualms about pacts with the devil – even imagined ones – which get articulated both in the Damnable History and in Doctor Faustus. But the second half abandons these qualms altogether, and permits Wagner to enlist the help of the devil in the ongoing Christian struggle against the heathen. The first half takes care to establish the historical and geographical context of Wagner’s adventures in his hometown of Wittenberg. The second throws historical accuracy to the winds and represents the Siege of Vienna as an orientalist extravaganza, with giant horses and elephants. The narrative, then, journeys from a state of profound uncertainty regarding the relationship between the imagination and real life – implying the very real dangers of succumbing to the allure of imagined power – to an unabashed celebration of fiction, unalloyed by any fear about confusing the factual and the fantastic. The book looks like a conscious effort to move prose fiction forward from the old-fashioned view of it as a form of pedagogy, in tune with the agendas of religious reformers, to a proto-modern celebration of imaginative writing for its own sake. In this it shares its attitude with the books that narrate the afterlives of Greene and Tarleton, tracing the paths of the two celebrities through such controversial posthumous environments as Purgatory and the Shades of classical myth, and transforming these spaces in the process from sites of religious controversy into treasuries of narrative: inexhaustible repositories of gossip, tale, secret history and anecdote. Like Marlowe’s drama, these ghostly texts (Tarleton’s News out of Purgatory, Greene’s News Both from Heaven and Hell, Greene in Conceit) mark a major step on the road from post-medieval didactic literature to ‘pure’ literature as it is understood today; and the Second Report seems to be particularly frank about its ambition to take part in the contemporary reinvention of theatrical and literary fiction.[27]

Within the two-part structure sketched out above, the Second Report is organized into a varied sequence of chapters, each of which constitutes a rhetorical tour de force, an exuberant experiment in some new style or generic convention. These include a philosophical-theological disquisition by Mephistopheles; the theatrical performance by devils in the sky; a disastrous incident involving some Wittenberg students, Faustus’ stolen books of magic, and a bunch of sadistic devils; and a spectacular single combat between the Duke of Austria, mounted on a giant horse, and the Great Turk, mounted on an elephant. Each set piece is treated in a quasi-theatrical manner, and repeatedly has recourse to the language of the theatre – a tendency that distinguishes the Second Report from the Damnable Life. Even the epistle ‘To the Reader’ in the second edition adopts this language, describing the gentleman student as going ‘personate’ (i.e. masked, anonymous) like a Roman actor and as fearful for his reputation ‘if my maske shall fall’ – that is, if his identity should be unveiled (sig. A3v). In response to these theatrical touches, one nineteenth-century critic went so far as to conjecture that the Second Report might be based on a German play about the life of Wagner.[28] The book is a kind of comedy on paper, pervaded by the spirit of the experimental mid-Elizabethan drama of which Marlowe was the leading exponent.

Harlequin Doctor Faustus, 18th Century Pantomime

Harlequin Doctor Faustus, 18th Century Pantomime

The link with the theatre is established in the opening chapter. Wagner strays into the hall where ‘his Maisters latest Tragedy was perfourmed’ (sig. B2v) – that is, where he died – while thinking about the great magician’s ‘former meriments, sports and delights’ (all terms connected with plays in early modern England) and the various ‘comicall journeis’ he accomplished with the devil’s assistance (sig. B2r). This inspires the young man to think about calling up Faustus’s ghost to act as his familiar. At this point the doors fly open and a pageant enters, like a version of the pageant of the Seven Deadly Sins in Marlowe’s Faustus. First ‘entred as it were the prologue of a Comedy, a fellow so short and litle as if hee should be of one year, and yet not so briefe as ill favored’ (sig. B2v). He is followed by a boy with rusty metal wings ‘like an Angell of Hell’; a king dressed in rags; Lucifer ‘king of the Orient’; and Faustus himself, drawn in a cart by a pair of giant spaniels. The doctor is crowned by the spirits, accompanied by a ‘huge tumult and ecchoing of trumpets’ (sig. B3r). Then the performers vanish. Impressed by this ‘merry Enterlude’ (sig. B3r), Wagner decides that he merits crowning even more than Faustus; a reaction that would have confirmed the fears of any devout reader concerning the pernicious effects of Marlovian drama on the minds of its spectators. But such fears are undermined by the style of the narrative, which makes use of a quasi-Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt to emphasize the fictional status of the reported performance, and the correspondingly fictional status of Wagner’s reaction to it. The doors of the hall fly open ‘Sodainly’, we are told, because ‘alwaies such haps are sodain’ – a phrase that reduces the dramatic entrance to a well-worn cliché (sig. B2v). The winged boy holds in his hands a flaming torch like an extra in a play ‘to give light to the after-commers and beholders’; and one beholder, Wagner, is intensely conscious that the person he takes for Faustus is not the man himself, despite the impulse he has to greet him as his former master (‘so naturall was his semblaunce, so lively his countenaunce, as if it had eyther beene a new Faustus, or not the olde murthered Faustus’). Finally, after the pageant is over Wagner is quick to dismiss it as a baseless mirage: ‘an illusion[,] dream, or a temptation, or else some conceite proceeding from his moiste and melancholicke fantasie, overprest with too many vapors, raised up by continuall thought into his Pores’ (sig. B3r). He looks back on the ‘comicall jest’ as ‘meere fansie’ (sig. B3r), and tells it to his companions as ‘a matter of great truth and litle moment’ (i.e. small importance) (sig. B3v). In doing so he implicitly dismisses the fears of the student’s own readers as to the damaging effect on their minds of the devilish book they are perusing.

This section of the narrative, then, partakes of the playful interweaving of mimetic realism and reflexive fictionality that characterizes the prologue of the first edition and the two epistles of the second. And the rest of the narrative is filled with a similar blend of realism and self-conscious fictionality. The next chapter, for instance, tells of a similar ‘illusion’ involving a group of travelling merchants who come across a dance of ‘countrey maids servants, and other of the female sexe’, known as ‘Phogels’, in a place called the ‘Phogelwald’ not far from Wittenberg (sig. B3v-B4r). The dance assumes a supernatural dimension when they see Faustus’s ghost dancing cheerfully among the women. He greets them and leads them away to a Land of Cockaigne full of beer-mugs that grow like flowers, ‘wherin as they seemed they dwelt many daies with great mirth and pleasure’ (sig. B4r-B4v), till devils shatter their idyll and they wake to find themselves half-buried in mud by the river. Once again, however, the veracity of the story is undermined – not this time by the possible ‘melancholy’ of the witnesses, but by their habitual drunkenness, a condition that afflicts all Germans, the student tells us. The beer of Germany is so thick, he claims, that the vapour rising from it ‘clambering up and spreading it selfe so universally in the fantasie, maketh it to conceave no other impression, but that which the minde afore it came to be overpressed was conversant about’ (sig. B4v). The subject of the merchants’ conversation when they met the Phogels was ‘Faustus merriments’; so it is scarcely surprising when they started to drink that a brand new ‘merriment’ should have been the result. In this way the student suggests that every appearance of Faustus’s ghost since his tragic demise was engendered by the addled imaginations of a beer-swilling nation – though the inclusion of two English merchants in the Phogelwald episode suggests that the English, too, are quite capable of having lascivious visions of their own through excessive drinking.

Doctor-Faustus-with-the-DevilThe third chapter describes an encounter between Wagner and Faustus, which takes up the theme of Faustus’s posthumous existence from the pageant episode in Chapter One. Faustus appears to Wagner (‘sodainely like as all such chaunces happe’) in a secluded grove, suspended (as the ensuing conversation reveals) in mid-air, yet seemingly flesh and blood like Wagner himself (sig. C1r). There ensues a lengthy dispute between master and student concerning the possibility or otherwise of a material body hovering above the earth without succumbing to the force of gravity. The dispute culminates in Faustus filling a cup with his own hot blood to prove his body substantial. He invites Wagner to inspect the cup, then grabs the youth by the hand and beats him ‘miserably’ to clinch his point, leaving him ‘halfe dead’ on the ground, with the final injunction ‘hereafter… either to be more wary or lesse mistrustfull’ (sig. C3r). Once again the episode is intensely self-reflexive. In addition to the comment on the cliché of Faustus’s ‘sodaine’ appearance, the translator notes the long-windedness of Wagner’s part in the disputation (‘I wondred when I read this discourse, with what patience the Doctor could endure so long an argument’, sig. C2r), and concludes with a brusque dismissal of the chapter’s quality as fiction. It is typical, he observes, of the gross ‘lies’ that the Germans like to ‘father’ on Faustus, ‘new children’ (in the form of stories) who ‘cost very litle nursing and bringing uppe’ (sig. C3r). In this chapter, then, a discussion between Wagner and Faustus concerning substance and insubstantiality is identified as a thing of no substance – which is no surprise, the narrator adds, when you ‘consider from whose braines [it] proceede[s]’, since ‘witte for the most part [the Germans] have very little’ (sig. C3v). By this stage in the narrative, the relationship between substance and the insubstantial, nature and the supernatural, has been identified as a matter of psychology. The brain conceives as real what it wishes to conceive as real, and lends it substance through the force of its own credulity. Magic is a product of the imagination, and can do no harm to those who recognize its fanciful nature. And the point is underlined by the role played in the disputation by a cup full of blood.

Presented to Wagner by Faustus as proof of his corporeality, the blood in the cup undergoes a perverse transubstantiation after the doctor’s disappearance: it changes into a ‘Cap full of pisse’, a filthy item from his own wardrobe. This is only the first of a series of gibes linking magic to papist superstition throughout the text. In Chapter Ten, for instance, ‘A lamentable history of the death of sundry students of Wittenberg’, the students’ doom is sealed when they seek to protect themselves while working magic with the useless clutter of Catholicism: ‘the surplesses, the stoles, pall, miters, holy water pots broken, their periapts, seats, signes of the Angels of the seaven daies, with infinite like trash and damnable rogg[u]ery, the fruites of the Divels rancke fansie’ (sig. F4v). The inefficacy of these Catholic symbols, like the revolting transformation of a cup to a piss-filled cap, reminds the readers of the Second Report that they inhabit a world where ‘fansie’ has long run rampant in the form of mistaken or perverse religions. But it also affirms the readers’ capacity, as responsible and intelligent adults, to appreciate the obvious differences between reality and illusion, substance and shadow, true faith and false; a skill that permits them to see fictions like the Second Report for what they are, harmless ‘merriments’ of the sort that made Marlowe famous.

The third episode that concerns itself with illusory posthumous presences occurs in Chapter Six, which contains ‘A long discourse betwixt the Divell and Wagner’ on the question of whether the spirits of the damned may return to life in corporeal form. Resurrection of this kind is regularly practised by writers and actors, of course, so that mimetically speaking, at least, it is perfectly possible; and although the discussion that follows engages with the theology of resurrection – in particular, the controversy over Purgatory which had been humorously taken up in the ‘posthumous’ prose fiction of the early 1590s (think of Tarleton’s News Out of Purgatory) – it is equally preoccupied with the question of fictional representations both of resurrection and of theology. The discussion begins uneasily, with Wagner drawing attention to a problematic aspect of the Faustbuch and Marlowe’s Faustus. Both these narratives affirm that the devils became enraged when the doctor tried to ask them questions about theology; and Wagner begs Mephistopheles to have patience if he does the same, ‘for what hurt can redound to you’, he asks reasonably, ‘by aunswering of a question?’ The point could also apply, of course, to those severe Elizabethans who objected to the presence of theological questions in light fiction; and the reasonable response to Wagner’s inquiry – that engaging with such questions, in itself, can do no harm – is pointed up by the self-evidently fantastic context of the disputation that follows.

Mephistopheles reacts to Wagner’s cautious inquiry by flying into a rage, rushing in and out of the room and striking the table (in another anti-Catholic touch, the mark he leaves in the wood is later made into a relic). After that ‘he takes me one booke and hurls it against a Cupboorde, and then he takes the Cupboord and hurls it against the wall, and then he takes the wall and throwes it against the house, and the house out at the Window’ (sig. D1r). Only then does he calm down, at which point he ‘sate down further off, and thus quietly spake with a lowde voice’ (sig. D1r). This sequence of impossible reactions, culminating in a house being flung out of its own window and a loud voice speaking quietly, confirms the ironic spirit in which the ensuing disputation should be received. Mephistopheles lends his support to orthodox Calvinist doctrine, insisting that there are only two states following death, salvation and damnation, with ‘no place left for a third’ – that is, for Purgatory (sig. D2v); but the gentleman student clearly anticipates Protestant as well as Catholic objections to this section of the narrative. He observes that Puritans or ‘precisians’ – ‘they that have their consciences of the more precise cut’ – will be horrified by Mephistopheles’s intervention in a matter of divinity, but that ‘they which have right mindes’ will remain immune to the devil’s influence, or, by extension, to anything written about him (sig. D3r). On the contrary, he insists, it is the ‘precise’ Puritans who lead the more feeble-minded Christian astray with ‘vayn reasonings and questions’ (sig. D3r). Like Milton in Areopagitica, the student assumes that his readers are grown-up enough to distinguish between sense and nonsense, good and bad arguments – that is, until some Puritan succeeds in confusing them. The problem lies not in fiction but its recipients; it is a position thoroughly familiar from defences of poetry. Once again, stories and plays come across as a kind of intelligence test, and also as a measure of orthodoxy, distinguishing Catholic and Protestant extremists from the more moderate adherents of the Elizabethan religious settlement.

doctor-faustus-mephistophelesMephistopheles reinforces this implicit defence of fiction by acknowledging the ultimate uselessness of his own rhetoric. ‘I can’, he admits, ‘largely discourse of al divine and humaine propositions, but as the unlearned Parrat who speaketh oft and much, and understandeth never any thing to profite himselfe’ (sig. D3v). In other words, his ability to talk theology has no effect on his own damned condition; and by extension, it should have no effect on those who hear it. Mephistopheles urges Wagner, too, to dismiss the devil’s discourse as empty noise: ‘Knowest thou not (quoth he) that all the Rhetorickes are the servaunts of my tongue, or that we can move pitty or hatred when we please[?] Foole as thou art forget these vaine conferences, perswade thy selfe that they are but the effect of speach’ (sig. D4r). Instead he encourages the boy to immerse himself in pleasures of the flesh; and the chapter closes with a passage of sheer self-indulgence. Mephistopheles summons an Italian lady into Wagner’s chamber; she is described in lascivious detail (though the description is ‘farre more copious in the Dutch Coppy’, the student informs us), and Wagner himself is given the appearance of ‘Armisverio the Ladies Lorde’ so that he can have his way with her (sig. D4v). The rest of the night, we are told, passed for Wagner ‘in such pleasure as I could find in my heart to enjoy or any man (unless an Euenuch) beside’ (sig. E1r). And this sentence marks the beginning of the end of moralising in this cheeky narrative. By encouraging the male reader to join him in imaginative complicity with his youthful protagonist, the student adds the final touch to his case for the relative harmlessness of taking pleasure in fiction. This is a book for men who acknowledge that they are no eunuchs, who can see no sin in indulging in imaginative pleasures, who know they have both souls and bodies, both hearts and minds (‘I could find it in my heart’, the student admits, to share Wagner’s enjoyment). The discussion of Faustus’s corporeality in Chapter Three takes on a new significance: precisians ask more of the flesh than it can very well deliver. Human bodies contain blood, and blood demands the satisfaction of its sexual as well as its nutritional requirements. The position seems far more compatible with Marlowe’s sympathetic treatment of Faustus than with the moralistic stance of the Faustbuch, or even the Damnable History.

Conventional morality continues to assert itself from time to time in the chapters that follow – without it, after all, where would be the frisson in composing a satanic narrative? – but it gets increasingly overshadowed by the delights experienced by Wagner, and vicariously by narrator and reader, as he plunges ever more exuberantly into the practice of necromancy. In Chapter Seven, for instance, the narrator praises Wagner’s good looks, and the moral note is sounded with seeming reluctance at the end of the eulogy: ‘ther was nothing wanting in the man but a godly minde’ (sig. E1v). In Chapter Eight, the ‘Tragedy of Doctor Faustus seene in the Ayre’ shows how the doctor’s overthrow is accomplished after he has rejected the assistance of a ‘Legion of bright Angels ridinge uppon milke white Chariots’ in his final fight against the forces of darkness – a clear statement of Faustus’s guilt in rejecting God’s aid (E3r). But the fictiveness of the narrative is again stressed when the student refuses to describe the devilish theatre in detail, since this would run contrary ‘to the nature of the whole History’, with its fast pace and impish tone (sig. E2v); and he goes on to quote from the ultimate Renaissance text on writing fiction, the first seven lines of the Art of Poetry by Horace (sig. E2r), in support of his decision to use a plain rhetorical style for a modest subject. The stress in this chapter, then, is on artistry, both in the devils’ production of ‘The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus’ and in the narrator’s skilful description of it. The moral lesson is decidedly secondary. And in case we haven’t got the point, the chapter soon veers away from the performance altogether, to describe a physician’s fantastic voyage to Arabia Felix on a winged horse in search of a cure for one of the performance’s traumatized spectators, a young girl. The digression has a similar tone to the satirical digression concerning Mercury and the maid in Marlowe’s Hero and Leander; and like that digression it serves to underline the philosophy that informs the work as a whole. The physician’s journey represents a wholly benign use of magic – deployed for the purpose of curing an innocent patient; and it ends by demonstrating the fictional nature of the performance in the air, and its consequent harmlessness. The parents of the traumatized girl healed by the physician decide to erase all traces of the satanic performance that induced her trauma. They ‘for ever after caused the place wherein their daughter was thus scared’ (that is, the meadow above which the tragedy of Faustus was performed) ‘to bee unaccessable for man or beast, compassing it in with a high wall, and overthrowing the banckes, so that now there is no mention of the medow nor of the wall’ (sig. E4v). In other words, not only has the location of the aerial tragedy been removed from public sight, but so has the means of its removal – the high wall that blocked it from view. It would be as easy to overlook this piece of chop-logic (how could a wall be the cause of its own disappearance from the historical record?) as to miss the illogicality of the earlier statement that Mephistopheles ‘quietly spake with a lowde voice’. But to do so would be to confirm that one is not sophisticated enough to read comic prose in the proper spirit; that one is, in fact, an incompetent reader, incapable of appreciating the ironic, slippery tone of contemporary fiction.

German basse Rene Pape (R) as Mephistopheles and French tenor Roberto Alagna as Faust perform, on July 31, 2008, in Gounod's Opera "Faust" directed by Nicolas Joel and assisted by musical director Michel Plasson, at the "Theatre antique" in Orange, southern France, during the Choregies of Orange. AFP PHOTO ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT (Photo credit should read ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images)

Rene Pape and Roberto Alagna in Gounod’s Opera Faust

The mockery of didacticism, and of Elizabethan paranoia concerning the ill effects of fiction on its readers, reaches its climax in the story’s second half. Here Wagner is assisted by damned spirits, including the ghost of his former master, in the laudable business of playing a string of cruel tricks on the Sultan of Turkey, thus helping to foil his plot to overthrow Christendom. The notion of devils defending Christendom may be unexpected, but it builds on Mephistopheles’s staunch defence of Protestant orthodoxy in Chapter Six. And it could also be taken as a robust defence of the most celebrated English chronicler of Faustus’s adventures, the late Kit Marlowe, against charges of atheism based on his work. If Marlowe could conjure up devils this did not make him a devil; if he could imagine Tamburlaine this did not make him a heathen. As many have pointed out, nothing happens to Faustus – or Tamburlaine, Barabas, Edward II or the Guise – that contravenes Calvinist doctrine; all come to a sticky end (with the notable exception of Tamburlaine in Part One) which ought to satisfy the fiercest of moralists. And the point is driven home in the Report by Mephistopheles’s orthodoxy. His behaviour is in many ways impeccable, his theology sound, his defence of Christendom resolute; and the student author could have pointed this out to any would-be detractors. At the same time, his Mephistopheles, like Marlowe’s, is immensely sympathetic – in fact the Second Report elicits more sympathy for its damned characters, and grants them a happier ending, than any play by Marlowe. It is composed of the same explosive mixture of conformity and controversy, humour and horror, that made the dead man’s work so attractive.

Throughout the second half, for instance, the tone of the narrative continues to veer from solemnity to silliness, from the didactic to the daft, until it becomes effectively impossible to paint a coherent picture of the writer’s moral outlook. A portrayal of the Christian leader, Duke Alphonsus of Vienna, as the ideal prince and defender of the faith, is followed by the lurid account of an orgy thrown by Wagner before he sets off to fight on the Duke’s behalf. The tricks Wagner plays on the Great Turk end with the poor man’s death – swiftly followed by a magical resurrection, as if to underline the peculiar fusion of the comic and the serious that make this narrative so hard to pin down – after which he is soundly buffeted and plastered with mud, a treatment that might well have delighted the book’s more aggressive Christian readers. But the chivalrous Duke expresses his horror that so great a monarch should be treated so shamefully, thus rebuking any reader who took pleasure in the man’s humiliation. And Wagner’s response is to restore the Great Turk to his former condition, and to wipe from his mind all remembrance of his ordeal. Resurrection, restoration, the eradication of unhappy memories – all these imply that there is nothing to be feared from playing the devil in fiction. The temptation to see this as a justification of Marlowe’s treatment of the Turkish Emperor Bajazeth in Tamburlaine the Great is irresistible; Tamburlaine’s cruelty on stage, it implies, has no more serious consequences than Wagner’s cruelty to the Great Turk, and takes no more permanent purchase on the viewer’s brain. And Wagner’s obedience to the Christian Duke recalls Faustus’s service to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, in Doctor Faustus. Tamburlaine, Faustus, the Duke, Wagner, even Mephistopheles, are all made champions of the new mimesis in this narrative, which represents the strangeness of the human mind in all its complexity, liberated from the need to conform to the simplistic patterns of cause and effect laid down by the moralists. And the point would seem to be clinched in the final section, when Wagner and Faustus are made honorary Englishmen.

MarloweThe last battle against the Great Turk sees the German magicians and their team of familiars take their places among the ‘English archers’ in the Christian army (sig. K1r). Here they show an expertise in the tactical uses of the ‘eughen bow’ (sig. K1v) – instrumental in the English victories at Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt – to match their skills in necromancy. And in return for their patriotism, their inevitable fate as damned spirits is replaced by celebration, a triumphal party that embraces the whole of continental Europe. The concluding sentence of the book tells how the Duke and his fellow Christian princes ‘with great joy caused generall feasts and triumphs to be performed in all theyr kingdomes, provinces, and territories whatsoever’ (sig. K2r). And this lapse into the language of official proclamations seems to cast a retrospective benison on the man who brought Faustus to the English stage. If Faustus could be reinvented as an English hero, then Marlowe could be a hero too, and his ghost re-imagined as a vigorous participant in the retrospective celebration of his achievements that took place, on stage and in print, in the wake of his murder. Clearly The Second Report must be seen as among the wittiest and most inventive contributions to this celebration.

 

Notes

[1] See Park Honan, Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy (Oxford, 2005), and Lori Humphrey Newcomb, ‘Robert Greene’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/11418, accessed 2.8.2011).

[2] See e.g. Lori Humphrey Newcomb, ‘Ghosts’, Reading Popular Romance in Early Modern England (New York, 2002), pp. 70-76.

[3]The Works of George Peele, ed. A. H. Bullen, 2 (London, 1888), p. 320.

[4] For literary responses to Marlowe’s death, see Honan, Christopher Marlowe (see above, n. 1), pp. 355-67.

[5] See David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen, eds., Doctor Faustus: A- and B-Texts, The Revels Plays (Manchester and New York, 1993), ‘The B-text’, pp. 72-77. All references to Doctor Faustus are to this edition.

[6] STC 10715; 2nd ed. STC 10715.3 (online available through EEBO).

[7] See Honan, Christopher Marlowe, p. 361.

[8] Greene explains his reference to Diogenes more fully in his Farewell to Folly (1591): ‘Diogenes hath taught me, that to kicke an asse when he strikes, were to smell of the asse for meddling with the asse’; Life and Works of Robert Greene, ed. A. B. Grosart (London and Aylesbury, 1881-83), 9, p. 230.

[9]Life and Works of Robert Greene, ed. Grosart, 7, pp. 7-8.

[10] Honan, Christopher Marlowe (see above, n. 1), p. 184.

[11] For these attacks, see Honan, Christopher Marlowe (see above, n. 1), pp. 184-85.

[12]Life and Works of Robert Greene, ed. Grosart (see above, n. 8), 12, pp. 141-43.

[13] See John Jowett, ‘Notes on Henry Chettle [pt 1]’, Review of English Studies, n.s., 45 (1994), 384-88.

[14] On Greene’s habit of deferral, see R. W. Maslen, ‘Robert Greene and the Uses of Time’, Writing Robert Greene, ed. Kirk Melnikoff and Edward Gieskes (Aldershot and Burlington, VT, 2008), pp. 157-88.

[15]Life and Works of Robert Greene, ed. Grosart (see above, n. 8), 12, p. 207.

[16] See ‘Faust in England: Dating the English Faust Book and Doctor Faustus’, The English Faust Book, ed. John Henry Jones (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 52-72.

[17] See The Black Book, ed. G. B. Shand, Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works, ed. Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino (Oxford, 2007), pp. 204-6. All references are to this edition.

[18] Eric Rasmussen, ‘The Black Book and the Date of Doctor Faustus’, Notes and Queries 235, n.s., 37 (1990), pp. 168-70.

[19] For the dates of both texts see The English Faust Book, ed. Jones (see above, n. 16), pp. 52-72.

[20] See R. W. Maslen, ‘Dreams, Freedom of Speech, and the Demonic Affiliations of Robin Goodfellow’, Journal of the Northern Renaissance, Issue 1.1 (March, 2009), pp. 129-44. (http://northernrenaissance.org/articles/Robin-GoodfellowbrRobert-Maslen/13, accessed 2.8.2011).

[21] Harold Jantz, ‘An Elizabethan Statement on the Origin of the German Faust Book’, Journal of English and German Philology, vol. 15, no. 2 (April, 1952), pp. 137-53.

[22] See The English Faust Book, ed. Jones (see above, n. 16), p. 10 ff. Interestingly, Jantz proposes that the translation referred to in the passage is the German translation (the Faustbuch) from a lost Latin original, whose existence was surmised by Robert Petsch in his edition of the Faustbuch, Das Volksbuch vom Doktor Faust (Halle, 1911). See Jantz, ‘An Elizabethan Statement’ (see above, n. 21).

[23] See Fynes Morison, An Itinerary Containing His Ten Years’ Travel (1617), 4 (Glasgow, 1907-8), p. 16.

[24] My thanks to Robert Cummings for furnishing me with a translation of the Latin in the second epistle.

[25] For a summary of Jeffes’s career, see The English Faust Book, ed. Jones (see above, n. 16), pp. 45-50.

[26]The English Faust Book, ed. Jones (see above, n. 16), p. 181.

[27] This passage builds on arguments I developed (in relation to other texts) in Elizabethan Fictions (Oxford, 1997), and ‘Dreams, Freedom of Speech, and the Demonic Affiliations of Robin Goodfellow’ (see above, n. 20).

[28] Richard Stralik, ‘Doktor Faust und die erste Türkenbelagerung Wiens’, Zeit­schrift für Allgemeine Geschichte, ed. Hans von Zwiedineck-Südenhorst, 1 (Stutt­gart, 1884), pp. 401-6.

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The Goblin Basements

3453163-dump-yard-full-of-dust-mess-and-garbageThe first time he visited the Goblin Basements he was very nearly unprepared. It was Christmas Eve, and the toys had been rioting all day, refusing to obey the simplest orders and breaking each other at the slightest excuse. He had given his laser to two members of the Imperial Guard so they could keep a couple of recalcitrant roboshifters at bay on the bedside table. His bodyguard ‘Thug’ Thorson was under interrogation in the kitchen cupboard, having been arrested the day before by the Bear Police for suspected dealings with a criminal gang on the True Crime channel. Gran had opened the flap of the garbage chute and a little vampire bat had escaped from inside, fluttering around and spraying noxious fumes all over the kitchen till Jenny flattened it with a spatula. ‘Bottom flap must be jammed open,’ said Gran. ‘Go down and fix it, would you, Ben? Quick as you can, tea’s almost ready. I’d go myself if it wasn’t for my gammy leg.’

Showering curses on elderly grandmothers and their gammy legs, Ben left the bears to grill ‘Thug’ Thorson and stumped out of the flat without so much as strapping on a light sabre. ‘Don’t be long, now, Ben,’ Gran called after him. ‘Don’t talk to strangers and don’t turn aside. If you see something useful in the basement bring it up – but never stray from the path whatever happens. You know the rules.’

‘I’m not a kid,’ Ben muttered under his breath, too softly for Gran to hear. He pressed the button for the lift and heard the distant clunk as it came to life in the depths of the building.

Then the lights went out.

The lights in all the public areas of the apartment block were governed by timing devices to save electricity. You switched them on by hand and after so many seconds they switched themselves off, usually at the most inconvenient moment possible. If you needed to switch them on again you could locate the switches because they had little red lights behind them like the eyes of Morlocks – those underground cannibals in the movie Ben had watched when he was eight, whose white fur and yellow teeth he could never forget when darkness took him. He thought of them now and shrugged his shoulders to shake off the shivers. He was older now; if he met a Morlock he would punch out its teeth with a blow of his fist. Still, he wished ‘Thug’ Thorson was with him. Thug wasn’t that big, and his left arm was missing, but he could talk Ben out of his fears with his Texas drawl and his cheerful grin. Maybe he should go back and get him now, before the lift doors opened –

The lift doors opened with a pneumatic hiss.

The cage of the lift was as dark as the corridor, though the light wasn’t governed by a timer. The bulb must be broken again. Ben stepped inside and felt for the button marked ‘Basement’. It would be the bottom button, wouldn’t it? He punched that. The lift gave an angry jerk and began its descent.

This was one of those old-fashioned lifts with open sides shielded with wire mesh to prevent you falling out into the lift shaft. When there was light you could see the concrete walls with their girders moving slowly past you. You could see other things as well: scribblings where, through one of the gaps in the mesh, someone had managed to scrawl his name as the lift went by; and other, more elaborate scribblings which could only have been done with time and patience. Ben had often wondered how they got there. Gran said it was when the lift got stuck, as it often did – then told him not to think about such horrible things, what was wrong with him, he should know better at his age. He thought the scribblings must have been made by the vampire bats or their leather-clad riders, who moved about the shaft independent of elevators.

Down the lift went, and down and down. Surely we should be there by now, Ben thought, tapping his teeth with one of his thumbnails as he always did when nervous. At least it was getting lighter. A pale green glow filtered up from below, and the usual groan and hum of the elevator was accompanied by other noises: a tapping as of distant hammers, a scraping as of shuffling feet. Must be workers in the basement, he told himself, though why they should be clearing sewage pipes or collecting refuse at midnight was beyond his comprehension. They would probably be strangers. When he got there he’d better keep shtum and stay close to the walls. Strangers meant trouble, and he didn’t want trouble so close to Christmas. You never knew what Santa would make of it if a brawl broke out and someone got hurt.

As the pale green light grew stronger he began to notice things. There were no longer doors at intervals in the concrete sides of the shaft; the last one had passed many seconds ago. And the drawings on the cracked grey surface were getting more ornate. They were mostly done in black and red: sharp, ugly little drawings that bore a family resemblance to the sharp, ugly little tap-tap-tapping noises in the depths of the building, which grew louder by the minute. Mostly they seemed to be of little black and scarlet figures, all spikes and jags, torturing each other with a range of complicated instruments. Under some of them slogans were painted in a childish scrawl: THE END IS NIGH, YOU’RE GOING DOWN, or simply DEATH. Ben loosened an imaginary pistol in its holster, acutely feeling his own defencelessness. His anger with Gran was still too hot for the cold to have entered him yet. If he was shivering it wasn’t with fear but with irritation; he would almost welcome, he thought, the chance to work off his feelings in a decent brawl. Deep down, though, he knew it wouldn’t be long before fear took hold, and he hoped against hope that he would have reached the bottom and stepped out of the lift before it did. If not, he would find it hard to leave the shelter of the cramped steel cage.

Now the lift was moving more slowly. Soon it stopped. The green light, as if governed by a timing device, went out. With another sharp hiss the doors slid open – he could tell by the gust of putrescent air that hit his face. Ben squared his shoulders and waited till his breathing was steadier. Then he stepped through.

Blackness swathed him, thick and breathless, muffling his ears so that the scuff of his boots on the concrete floor sounded far away and timeworn. His nose, too, was plugged by a stench that turned the air to acrid tar. He looked around for the small red glow that would mark a light switch. There were several, none close by. As he edged towards one of them along the wall, the distance turned out to be far greater than he had imagined, and was made to seem further still by the jumble of oddments that covered the floor. He kept treading on brittle sticks that snapped or crunched beneath his heels, or kicking aside hard hollow objects that clattered and rolled. The darkness, too, kept changing texture, sometimes stifling him like a pelt, sometimes clinging to his skin like plastic sheeting or trailing sticky cobweb-threads across his face. The journey to the light became a trek and then a nightmare, extending itself beyond all probability until the space he moved through seemed as vast as the vaults of hell and as full of torment.

Just as he reached the little red light – and by this time he had become uncomfortable with its shape – it suddenly vanished. He found himself utterly without coordinates, unsure where he had come from or what lay ahead. He had lost the wall; when he stretched out his hand to find it he felt only the brush of tepid air against his fingertips. Ben turned full circle in a desperate effort to locate another switch, the rubberized heels of his boots letting out small fearful squeals as they ground against concrete.

A squeal rang out to his left.

He stopped dead and stood unmoving, holding his breath, ears pricked to detect any further sounds. There were none.

After what seemed several minutes he could stand it no longer and broke the silence. ‘Anyone there?’ he whispered hoarsely. Then louder: ‘Anyone there?’

At once an echo seized his words and whipped them away into the cavernous blackness, making them rise and rise in pitch as they moved higher and circled faster, until the air was filled with squeaks and the frantic flutter of tiny wings. That was when Ben realized where he was. Everyone knew about the Goblin Basement – the yawning gulf that lay beneath the lowest level of the building, the abode of vampire bats and other things best left unnamed – and though the knowledge made his knees melt under him, it meant that he wasn’t wholly unprepared for what he saw when the light returned, flooding the unwholesome chamber with its luminescence.

The room was vast, as he had guessed, and half filled with rubbish. Parts of the ceiling had fallen in, dropping chunks of plaster on mouldering heaps of rusty cans, old stoves and fridges, twisted hub-caps, plastic bags, crushed cardboard boxes, broken bottles, the arms and heads of dismembered robots, the shattered shells of ancient visiscreens with sense-o-listic sense-stimulators trailing limply from their sides like the tentacles of long-dead octopods. From the holes in the broken ceiling, tubes and chutes stuck out at haphazard angles like severed limbs. Oily liquid drooled from the pipes, slavering the refuse underneath with yellow slime. As Ben crouched in the middle of the room, his features bathed in the uncertain glow from the globe above his head, he heard something crashing as it bounced against the sides of a nearby chute: down, down, down, louder and louder, till it whizzed from the open mouth and smashed to pieces on the rubbish beneath. He knew what the object was when a uniformed leg bounced against his foot: one of the guardsmen he’d left on duty on his bedside table. The leg gave a feeble jerk and then lay still.

The globe flickered bright and dim and dim and bright as if in time to some sickly heartbeat. By it, you couldn’t tell if there was anything else besides the rubbish in the Goblin Basements. But Ben knew there was something else; he’d heard the stories. He looked wildly around for the lift. There it was, impossibly far away to his right across the desert of the concrete floor. Between him and it the concrete stretched, a dusty plain marked with tiny ripples like the ocean bed and littered with overspill from the tip. He swiftly turned to face the rubbish and started to back towards the elevator doors. Always face your enemy, Gran had warned him, unless you fancy the thought of something long and sharp and rusty between your shoulderblades. Not tonight, he didn’t. Not on Christmas Eve, alone and weaponless in an underground dump.

A tap-tap-tapping broke out behind him: the same noise that had sounded in the lift shaft. He glanced over his shoulder, one swift glance, then returned his gaze to the mountain of refuse. The glance had been enough to show him a tall thin figure with an oily cockscomb of black spiked hair, a torn leather jacket, a T shirt asking DO YOU FEEL LUCKY, chains on its chest. Where the face should have been the figure wore a mask made from the front panel of an old-fashioned vacuum cleaner, with a vacant ‘O’ in the middle for dust to be sucked through. The legs were jointed metal lampstands, terminating in high leather boots without soles or toecaps. He could see through the gaps that there were no feet inside them. Strapped to the boots was a pair of rollerblades, a wheel missing from one axle.

The tapping came from a monkey-wrench being gently swung against the elevator doors.

‘Look alive, lads,’ a whistling voice called through the mask. ‘We have a guest to share our midnight frolics!’

Piece by piece the refuse stirred. Each piece turned out to be connected to another piece and moved by a will. The plastic face of a cabbage-patch doll, grotesquely small, attached to the barrel-chest of a boiler, rose on frail mop-o-matic legs and blinked its lashes as it looked Ben over. A small green rubberized monster with lightswitch eyes uncurled itself from under an unsprung armchair, which itself unfolded arms made of copper wire and peered at Ben from bloodshot eyes embedded in the upholstery. Kicking jars and cans aside, the Goblins lurched from their putrescent hiding-places and gathered in a semicircle about ten feet from where Ben stood. Ben went on retreating, right hand held out in the defensive posture favoured by ‘Thug’ Thorson. The thumb of his other hand – the one Thug didn’t have – knocked against his teeth, tapping out a nervous tattoo in time to the tapping of the monkey-wrench against the metal panels.

‘A big fellow, this,’ the whistling voice remarked, close by his shoulder. There was a rumbling sound as the rollerblades changed position on the concrete floor. Ben stopped dead, acutely aware that another step or two would bring him within range of the tool in Cockscomb’s fist. ‘Big enough to do the Jinglebells Waltz, I should imagine,’ the voice whistled on. ‘Or the Crimbo Caper, or the Krampus Can Can. Which will it be?’

‘The Krampus Can Can! The Krampus Can Can!’ ground out a waste disposal unit with iron teeth. ‘There’s so much more leftover waste in the Krampus Can Can.’

‘Can you dance, friend?’ Cockscomb whispered in Ben’s left ear, touching his elbow with the tip of its wrench. Ben swung round suddenly and smashed the panel from its crested head with a blow of his fist, sending it scuttering across the floor like a wrecked toboggan. In the space where the panel had been, a confusion of wires and fuses spat out sparks as if in outrage.

Ben broke into a run. ‘He’s dancing, he’s dancing,’ shrieked the Goblins, scampering to plant themselves between him and the liftshaft. A serve-o-bot mounted on a set of twisted pramwheels screeched past on his right. The faceless rollerblader passed him on his left, trailing sparks and smoke. Ben stopped dead and kicked out backwards with his steel-capped boot, felt the rubber monster bounce away at the impact, dodged around doll-face, then wheeled abruptly and started to run back the way he’d come, towards the mountain of waste. Wrong-footed, the Goblins didn’t recover quickly, which gave him hope. They careened into each other, cursing and laughing hysterically and spinning in circles to see which way he’d gone. He plunged straight into the garbage, driving forward with all his force until he reached the guardsman’s torso and snatched at the pouch he’d seen on its belt.

‘He’s meddling with our property!’ Cockscomb vented in a stream-train shriek. ‘He wants to play rough! Stop hedging, boys, and grapple him! Let him feel us!’

Ben had just managed to unfasten the pouch and get his hand inside when a hubcap, hurled discus-fashion, struck the side of his head. He fell sprawling into a pile of rotting vegetables and the rubber monster landed on his chest. Luckily his hold on the pouch never loosened; he clung to it like death as he rose to his feet. And now the Goblins began to shove him from one to another like a broken puppet. One pushed him in the small of the back so that he stumbled forwards; a second struck him on the cheek so he spun to his left; a third stamped on his boot so hard that he shrieked in pain, despite the steel toecaps. ‘He’s dancing the Krampus Can Can!’ the Goblins screamed, and clapped their hands, claws, gloves, or drill bits in a rising cacophony of wild applause.

In a lull between the punches, shoves and gouges, he managed to grasp the thing in the pouch, the thing he had stolen from Gran last week for just such emergencies. ‘Stop, all of you!’ he bellowed, holding it aloft. So loud he bellowed that even the bat-echoes forgot to transform his words into metallic shrieks. So loud that the Goblins did indeed stop for a moment, stunned into silence by his urgent tone.

The silence lasted only a moment, but it was long enough for him to shout again: ‘I’ve got the thimble! Don’t any of you move! I’ve got the thimble!

A hundred eyes fixed fearful gazes on the tiny thing he held above his head. Red eyes, hole eyes, single eyes, composite eyes, glittering or midnight black in the verdigris light that kept up its flickering from bright to dim, from dim to bright in uneasy response to the irregular current. The waste disposal unit took a step backwards on chickenbone legs, grinding metal teeth. A visiscreen retracted its sense-o-listic tentacles, which had been fully extended to deliver stabs of electric pain to Ben’s face and hands. A stove with lion’s-claw feet lost its balance and fell, crushing a sentient cardboard box that had been standing behind it. Still holding high the thimble, Ben stepped between the Goblins, taking care to hold their eyes with his fierce black stare. For a horrible moment he thought that Cockscomb and Pramwheels would not shrink away from him like the rest. But as he came closer the serve-o-bot trundled off into a corner and Cockscomb skated aside to let him pass. A whispering and murmuring followed him and he turned to face it, because, Gran said, you must never turn your back.

‘The thimble,’ Cockscomb was muttering. ‘He’s got the thimble. What does it do?’

‘Don’t ask me,’ Pramwheels hissed back. ‘I never felt it and I never want to feel it. See how it shines!’

‘Anyone here ever felt the thimble?’ Cockscomb called, and Ben knew his time was short. He picked up the monkey-wrench from where Cockscomb had dropped it and weighed it in his hand. Then he hurled it with all his strength at the glowing green globe in the middle of the ceiling. He had practised throws like this for many months on the roof of the building, hurling spanners, bricks and pool balls at a range of targets, until he could throw almost anything of any size and shape with pinpoint accuracy across a distance of up to fifty feet. The globe exploded, spraying the nearby Goblins with luminous goo. Screams rang out as the affected Goblins began to melt like plastic soldiers on a red-hot stovetop. Ben lunged for the elevator doors and punched the button. The doors began to open. Tires, claws, boots, pincers and caterpillar tracks clashed, rumbled, screeched or squealed as the Goblins rushed him. He flung the wrench at Cockscomb’s head and threw himself backwards, twisting round to punch a button, any button, as he landed inside. The doors hissed together with maddening slowness. A leather glove encasing steel pistons jammed itself between them. Ben gripped it and gave it a yank, the mightiest yank he had ever given; he’d practised for many months to perfect that yank, pulling rivets from twisted girders with bleeding fingers, ripping wheels and accelerator pedals from the wrecks of cars. It came off in his hand. The doors hissed shut. Outside a Goblin howled, a steam-whistle shriek of pain and fury that hurt his ears. Bleeding from head and sides, Ben sank down in a corner, clutching the glove.

As the lift ascended, the lights went on.

At Ben’s floor it stopped with a jolt and the doors hissed open. ‘Thug’ Thorson stood there, his one thumb hooked in his tooled leather belt with the snake’s head buckle, his Stetson tipped at a rakish angle on his shaven skull. With him were two or three members of the Imperial Guard, their uniforms still blackened from the famous battle in the attic a few weeks previously. They lifted Ben to his feet and half led, half carried him along the corridor towards Gran’s flat. ‘Thug’ Thorson stayed behind to cover their retreat with a rapid-fire crossbow.

Gran was at the kitchen sink, peeling tatties for their Christmas dinner. Carols drifted faint and shaky from the ancient wireless. ‘Did you manage to fix the chute?’ she asked without turning. Then, catching sight of his reflection in the kitchen window, she swung round and let out a cry of concern and anger.

‘Oh you poor dear foolish boy!’ she exclaimed. ‘You’ve got yourself thrashed by them boys that live in the rough parts of the building, haven’t you? You turned aside when I told you not to. You spoke to strangers when you should have kept shtum. I’ve told you over and over, but do you listen? Do you heck. Oh, whatever am I going to do with this mindless idiot?’

‘Lock him in the loony bin,’ Jemima suggested, cramming a fistful of tortilla chips between her jaws. She and Jerry were watching a horror film on the visiscreen, surrounded by the usual litter that accompanies such viewings: magazines to hide behind, armchairs likewise, screwed-up crisp packets, popcorn, plates. But Jerry took one swift glance at Ben’s bleeding wounds and let out a shriek fit to wake the dead, then buried his head beneath a pile of cushions.

‘Jemima, mind your wicked tongue!’ Gran snapped. ‘Ben can’t help his intellect. And Jerry, stop that awful racket. It’s bad enough having one fool in the family without you making it two.’

‘I saw a f-f-face at the window!’ Jerry stammered from under the cushions. ‘It was green, and it had red eyes like the lights in the c-c-corridor!’

‘Oh, hold your noise!’ Gran snarled as she steered Ben towards the bathroom. ‘You should be in bed. I always said them sorts of films was bad for young minds.’

But when Ben’s head had been bandaged up and his other wounds seen to, he went straight back to work, despite Gran’s weary demands that he go to bed. He did the rounds of the flat with extra care, stationing a guardsman at every window, a space platoon under every table, a laser-wielding bear on top of the tree. Far into the night he sat with ‘Thug’ Thorson in the living room, making his plans. Now and then he heard Gran muttering in her sleep, or one of the kids crying out in terror at some vivid nightmare: a monster remembered from the movie maybe, or a vision at the kitchen window, or something worse. Tonight, though, Ben didn’t go and comfort them as usual with a story or a wordless song. He was far too busy. Ben was plotting the Battle of the Goblin Basements; and as he plotted he paused now and then to raise his head, listening intently to the tap-tap-tapping that echoed up the waste-chute from the depths of the building.

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Frances Hardinge, Fly by Night

[This post contains many spoilers. Sorry.]

51yVWZqt8bL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Can we count as fantasy those texts in which nothing impossible actually happens? There are plenty of books in the fantasy section of my mental library about which this could be said: G K Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, the Gormenghast books, many of the novels in Joan Aiken’s Wolves series, Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint. Given the absence of impossibilities in these narratives – people turning into beetles, acts of magic, fairies, dragons, mythical beings with astounding powers – why do they persist in finding their way onto fantasy booklists? Why do I think of Frances Hardinge as a fantasy writer, despite the fact that her first novel, Fly by Night, only violates the laws of physics once or twice, and then not to a degree significantly more startling than a conventional thriller?

In each of the cases I’ve listed the relationship with the fantastic is, I think, slightly different; but one thing all of them have in common is a knowing dialogue with other books of different degrees of implausibility. Chesterton is in conversation with detective fiction and the supernatural stories of the previous decade, such as Dorian Gray; Peake draws his inspiration from Dickens and the folklore of piracy; Aiken pays homage to Victorian melodrama; Kushner to the regency romances of Georgette Heyer and the swashbuckling adventure stories of Alexandre Dumas. These non-fantastic fantasies are books at two removes from what we think of as reality, and their flamboyant display of their own literariness makes it clear to their readers that they have no pretensions to mimetic realism except as a literary technique, a means of bringing alive a cast of invented characters in a clearly imaginary space. They are concerned to generate for a new readership some literary atmosphere which is particularly important for the writer – or rather, they seek to produce a new atmosphere out of that old one, an atmosphere that fuses the properties of an old literary genre with the urgent concerns of the present.

hardinge-xlarge_trans++1e7PqSjuVlPS9E5Sk9dVRSUvG1VjmqmGsf10Hf8vKfcFly by Night is unusual in that the texts it draws on have rarely been chosen as raw material for the construction of alternative universes. It’s also unusual, even among the fantasies mentioned above, in the degree to which its literariness is foregrounded. Literature – the world of littera or letters – is what it’s all about, and there are few novels that have played with concepts of literacy more wittily. Characters are read, written and printed with unceasing diligence throughout the narrative – at one point the heroine even finds herself stamped all over with printer’s ink – and the consequences of all these literary acts are as various as the people they happen to. Books, in this book, are the proverbial dragon’s teeth in Milton’s celebrated essay on censorship, Areopagitica: the seeds they sow spring up as armed men, and the urgent question that preoccupies Hardinge’s characters is whose side those armed men are on, whether or not their guns are loaded, and at whom they are prepared to shoot. Reading and writing are not, for Hardinge, an unqualified good. They can be instruments of torture, as when thieves are branded with the letter T, making their crimes indelible, their characters irrecoverable (and a character, too, is an act of writing). But reading and writing are always immensely powerful, and their power isn’t easy or even possible to control. That’s a good starting point for a book to take, I think, if it wishes to imprint itself on its reader’s imagination.

If there was ever a time when pens could kill, the early eighteenth century was it, when Pope, Swift, Addison and Steele waged war on the follies of humankind from the smoky interiors of coffee houses, when religion was a fiery theme and the British Empire was spreading its crimson tentacles across the globe, partly funded by the profits from the slave trade. This was also the period of enormous wigs, silly hats and ridiculous clothes worn mostly by men and women of the upper classes. What tends to get remembered from this time is the stuff of romance: the pirates who sailed the early eighteenth-century seas, the highwaymen who haunted its heaths, the plots being hatched by rebels of various stamps in its city streets, the battles fought by its generals. Hardinge’s secondary world, the Shattered or Fractured Realm, is evidently based on early eighteenth-century England, but her book is not concerned to romanticize it. Its only pirate is a barge captain with a fierce temper and a crooked wrist instead of a hook. Its only highwayman finds life on the open heath cataclysmically bad for his health, and the fame his exploits bring him profoundly inconvenient. Its principal rebel is a mild-mannered schoolteacher who has nothing further from his mind than insurrection; its only general an insane Duke who cheats when fighting a duel on behalf of his imaginary lovers. Hardinge’s topic is not so much romance as the processes by which romance is generated: in particular the printing press, whose output turns highwaymen into heroes, ordinary men into revolutionary masterminds, and piratical barge captains into corpses, thanks to the efforts of competing factions to take control of what the printing press produces.

Hardinge’s aim, in fact, is to make her readers think twice about the nature of the book they’re reading: the stuff it’s made of, print, paper, pages, font, words, letters, sentences, chapters, plots, and what these different things can accomplish for good and bad when brought together. And her means of doing this is to pick them apart, in much the same way that she picks apart eighteenth-century England by reducing it to its constituent elements in the Shattered Realm.

The name ‘Shattered Realm’ gets applied to Hardinge’s world in the book’s first chapter by Quillam Mye, a scholar whose work is banned and whose account of the country’s history left unfinished, so that it never gets printed. It’s an unofficial name, then, although it describes the country’s condition with perfect accuracy. And it’s a name that, like Quillam’s forbidden books and pamphlets, escapes from the limits of the written page and finds its way into public ownership, because it’s needed, because the people it describes require its lucid acknowledgement of their political and social situation. Like Dorimare in Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist, the Realm has undergone a revolution in which the monarchs were expelled, as in the English Civil War of 1645; and like Dorimare it has never undergone a Restoration, whereby the monarchs returned in triumph to resume their position at the head of state. As a result, the divisions between the religious and political beliefs of the Realm’s inhabitants are everywhere obvious. They worship different gods – saint-like figures called the Beloved, with bizarre names and peculiar functions, such as Goodman Palpitattle (He Who Keeps Flies out of Jams and Butterchurns), Goodlady Prill (Protector of Pigs), Goodman Grenoble (He Who Keeps Knots out of Moustachios) and Goodman Sicklenose (He Who Lures the Shelled Fish into the Hungry Net). They give their allegiance to different claimants to the throne: King Prael, the ‘king across the Tosteroy Sea’, King Hazard, the ‘king across the Magora mountains’, the Twin Queens, the ‘monarchs beyond the Jottland foothills’. Workers in every trade belong to a different Guild; dwellers in adjacent districts wear distinctive clothing; members of different Guilds or with different beliefs frequent different coffee houses. Yet these diverse affiliations are not absolute ones. The inhabitants of the Realm seem perfectly comfortable with their differences, and the chief dangers in the book are posed by fanatics who want total unity: a unified religion, a plain understanding of right and wrong, a single ruler, one set of keys to all the kingdom’s doors, a censorship system that imposes identical restraints on all printed texts, and so on. In Hardinge’s Realm, centrism is pitched against eccentricity, conformity against the marginal, consistency against multiplicity, and the artificiality of imposing any uniform regime on a wildly diverse population is brought out by the crazy inventiveness of their names: Aramai Goshawk, Mabwick Toke, Eponymous Clent, Vocado Avourlace, Mosca Mye. The Shattered Realm owes its fragmentary nature to the splits between large and small segments of its populace, and the question of how to bind the nation together without losing the distinctiveness of its fragments is a vexed one, to which Hardinge offers no simple answer.

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Mosca by Antonia Russell-Clark

The book, too, is a thing of fragments working together to solve a problem: how to find a place in the Realm for its diminutive heroine, twelve-year-old Mosca Mye. Each chapter takes for its title a letter of the alphabet which is linked to the aspect of the Realm it reveals to Mosca: ‘E is for Extortion’, ‘L is for Locksmith’, ‘S is for Sedition’, and so forth. The format of these chapter titles is that of old alphabets used to teach children their letters; but where conventional alphabets of this kind refer to simple everyday things (A is for Apple, B is for Bread, C is for Cat), Hardinge’s letters allude to the criminal underclass and the legal system that seeks to contain them. This is because Mosca herself is doomed from the start to consort with felons. Her father is an exile, sent to Chough from Mandelion for writing seditious tracts about the non-existence of the Beloved, the corruption of the powerful, and the universal necessity for freedom of expression. What’s more, her father taught her to read, which is another violation of convention in the Realm (considering her sex) and has thus invested her eyes with a power that renders her permanently suspect to the illiterate villagers among whom she grew up:

Everybody knew that books were dangerous. Read the wrong book, it was said, and the words crawled around your brain on black legs and drove you mad, wicked mad. […] Mosca might as well have been the local witch in miniature.

Here Mosca, whose name means ‘fly’ in Italian, gets inextricably linked with the words she loves, which crawl around readers’ brains (so the Choughians think) and drive them mad like the constant buzzing of flies in a limited space. The villagers’ reaction to this danger is to deprive the girl of reading material. When her father dies they burn his books with the aim of restricting his daughter’s development as a reader. But the result of this act of censorship is precisely the opposite of what was intended. In response to the lack of books, the girl reads everything else instead: the arbitrary rules the villagers live by, the monotonous rigidity of their existence, the fascinating ways of passing strangers. Hardinge’s constant references to her ink-black eyes insist on their agency, the agency of a child who is always playing the old alphabet game of ‘I spy’ (and the chapter headings could also be taken as answers to the game as she plays it). Mosca picks out unremarked elements of her surroundings and uses them to her advantage in the competition she has been forced to take part in since her father’s death: the struggle for survival in a hostile environment. In the process she continues her father’s work of challenging other people to see what she sees, with drastic results, in the end, for the Realm itself.

710437Mosca is not just a reader; she’s a writer too. She carries with her a violent goose called Saracen, whose name identifies him as another outsider in the village that raised him – hence their strange alliance. Quillam Mye, as his name suggests, wrote his books with a quill, and the best writing quills are fashioned from the primary feathers of a goose or swan. Mosca, then, carries a living sheaf of quills on her adventures, quills with a will of their own and a belligerent energy that reduces armed men to quivering wrecks in any confrontation. The goose also embodies her resistance to the most deadly threat she faces on her travels: the Birdcatchers, religious fanatics whose name alludes to their obsession with restricting the free movement of minds and bodies, as expressed in their vicious practice of trapping birds, men, women and children in metal cages, then murdering them by starvation or burning. The Birdcatchers think of anyone who disagrees with them as heretics, and Saracen’s name connects him with the ultimate heresy, a different religion altogether. During their period of power in the Realm, the Birdcatchers took control of the printing presses and restricted what could be written to texts authorized by their church. Saracen’s quills can no more be controlled than Quillam’s pen, and Mosca’s alliance with him marks her out as a resister of religious intolerance as well as of censorship, like her father before her.

With Saracen’s help she finds her way into the underworld of the Realm, where she learns new words: the argot of the streets which is designed to befuddle the ignorant as surely as the professional jargon spoken by lawyers, doctors, clerics, politicians and poets. But her vigilant eyes ensure that she also picks up the words of the elite, startling strangers with her command of a vocabulary to which by rights she should have had no access. This little fly gets everywhere, like letters, those insectile scrawlings which can be used for the purposes of all classes, all plots, all tricksters with the nous to arrange them in different orders.

Letter by letter, she makes her way through the Shattered Realm, assembling her own unofficial version of the country, its past, its present, its possible futures. It’s a journey from rigidity to fluidity, from settled certainties to infinite possibilities, from being written to writing the world for herself with her own peculiar slant. At the beginning of the novel she is given a name that brands her forever as an affiliate of the least propitious of Beloveds, Palpitattle – the Realm’s equivalent of Beelzebub, Lord of the Flies. Her father insists she be given this name because she was born on Palpitattle’s feast day, and children in the Realm are always named for their patron Beloved; despite his atheism, the historian considers accuracy to be sacrosanct and will not permit the infant’s nurse to change the record of her birth by half an hour to give her the advantage of a better title. From this moment her name allies her to unpalatable truths – after all, flies are a necessary element in any ecosystem, like the detritus they feed on.[1] But flies are not easily contained, and by the end of the book Mosca is making her own choices, all of which involve liberating words and people from unwelcome constraints. This liberation, too, is associated with the alphabet, since Hardinge makes sure the procession of letters in her chapter titles never reaches Z: the final chapter heading is ‘V for Verdict’, and in it Mosca passes judgement on the people of Realm, just as they have judged her, while heading off in a new direction, not dictated by the conventions of the classroom. Her new direction was predicted, like the start of her life, by her father, with his passion for truth: ‘True stories seldom have endings’, he tells her, thus ensuring she will finally settle for the life of a vagabond (V stands for that too), and eschew the happy ever after of romance.

BlackbirdInk fanart - Mosca and Saracen in Chough

Mosca and Saracen by Lesya Blackbirdink

The movement from restraint to liberation is embodied in water as well as in letters. The village of Chough is full of the sound of water thanks to its dreadful climate, but the limescale in the water ensures that everything immersed in it turns to stone. The connection with the mental rigidity of Chough’s occupants is obvious. So too is the fact that it’s the criminal underworld that takes best advantage of this rigidity, offering an escape route to the child who suffers most from the villagers’ petrifaction. An itinerant conman, Eponymous Clent, spins a web of yarns from their hopes and dreams, and is condemned to the stocks when his scams are exposed. Mosca’s first act of liberation is to set him free, and in the process to free herself, since he can act as her mentor on the unfamiliar highways through the Realm she intends to take. It’s Clent who introduces her to Jennifer Bessel, a former gang leader who now sells objects turned to stone by the waters of Chough. Jennifer’s trade shows how ordinary things can be turned to new uses with a bit of ingenuity. So too does the barge captain, Partridge, with whom Clent and she take passage to Mandelion. Partridge is smuggling statues of Beloveds stolen from shrines in the hold of his barge, with the aim of melting down the lead they contain to make bullets for a planned insurrection. Thanks to Clent, Bessel, Partridge and their fellow felons, the rigidity bestowed by the waters of Chough melts away to be replaced by fluidity – of words, scams, improvised falsehoods and imaginative circumventions of authority (including the Guild of Watermen, who serve as the river police). By the end of the book Mosca is utterly at home on the water – as well as with felons of all stamps – while two at least of her enemies have met their end by it.

She has also learned the fluidity that characterizes human affairs, in spite of all attempts to render them rigid and simple – that is, to divide people into simple categories of good or bad, orthodox or heretic, law-abiding citizen or hardened criminal, or to write them into the constricting clichés of romance. Everyone in Hardinge’s world has a back story which makes them capable of eliciting sympathy. Everyone is to some extent connected with everyone else, and Mosca’s assessment of every major character changes in the course of the narrative, sometimes more than once. So too does her assessment of herself. At different stages of her journey she thinks of herself in different terms, as she aligns herself first with one character or interest group and then with another. This fluidity of narrative and personality can be seen as an act of re-education of her readers on the part of the author: the invention of a new kind of writing, with Mosca and her unorthodox schooling as an avatar of the reader, learning day by day to translate her growing skills in literacy into a fresh understanding of the richly interwoven languages of Hardinge’s world and our own.

The chief architect of this education is the conman, Eponymous Clent, whose first name links him to the title of the book, thereby signaling the crucial role he plays in its plotting. The eponymous hero of any narrative is the one whose name appears on the title page, and Clent is a fly-by-night if ever there was one, whose lies keep landing him in trouble even as they propel the story he gets caught up in. Trouble is what stories thrive on; without it there would be no tension to hold our attention for page after page, no crisis to trace through its convolutions to resolution. Clent himself allies the art of the professional fibber and thief with the art of the wordsmith. When Mosca bluntly tells him what he does for a living – ‘You tell lies for money’ – he replies by spinning himself a cloak of artistic respectability which serves as a perfect smokescreen for his scams. ‘My child,’ he tells her,

you have a flawed grasp of the nature of myth-making. I am a poet and storyteller, a creator of ballads and sagas. Pray do not confuse the exercise of the imagination with mere mendacity. I am a master of the mysteries of words, their meanings and music and mellifluous magic.

Mosca sees at once that he is right, since he drew her to him in the first place with his language, the fire-new phrases he brought to rural Chough (mellifluous, mendacity) which she ‘stroked […] in her thoughts like the curved backs of cats’. At the same time she sees that she is right also: he may supply her with ‘Words, words, wonderful words’, but they are ‘lies too’, and it’s this linguistic duplicity that governs their relationship throughout the novel.

200px-FlyByNight-FrancesHardingeAfter the girl has freed him from the stocks, Clent employs her as his secretary – literally, the keeper of his secrets – despite his assumption that (as a country girl) she cannot read or write, and despite the fact that he has no intention of taking her into his confidence. But it’s through her unsuspected skill as a reader that she discovers his only secret: a letter that reveals his identity as a spy for the Guild of Stationers, the organization in charge of the printing and censorship of books – the organization with which her father worked before his exile. The discovery puts Clent in her power, as she had earlier put herself in Clent’s by revealing that she’d torched her uncle’s mill; but it also connects Clent in her mind with her dead father, that uncompromising advocate of truth who was sent into exile for his insistence that people be permitted to peddle lies in print, unmolested by censorship. It’s appropriate, then, that Clent and Mosca should turn to writing as a means of cementing their relationship, and that the writing in question should be as mutual as their knowledge of each other’s secrets. Clent draws up a contract with Mosca, a document that binds him as well as her, and which she co-authors. But if words are lies, then a contract written in words can never be binding, and Mosca quickly loses confidence in the document, reading Clent’s dialogue and behaviour in a sinister new light thanks to her newly-acquired belief that he hides a more terrible secret than spying – she thinks him a murderer, which makes his cheerful garrulity deeply sinister. Later she recovers her former opinion of him, as a self-interested but largely loyal rogue; but in the meantime it’s become clear how the same words and actions can be subjected to entirely different interpretations, a revelation that applies with even greater force to the other characters she encounters.

Lady Tamarind, for example – the first woman she meets on the road after Jennifer Bessel – embodies a mass of carefully calculated contradictions. On first appearance she puts herself across as a coolly detached but still romantic damsel in distress, a white-clad fairytale princess whose damaged coach is attacked by highwaymen, placing her in a situation from which she permits herself to be rescued by the eloquent Clent. But the unvarying whiteness of her clothing also marks her out as a blank page, unreadable to others, unwritten on and therefore unaffiliated, available to be filled with any text of her choice that might advance her Machiavellian interests. She is a master wordsmith, like Clent, but on a grander, less human scale. Her main motive for avoiding robbery is to keep possession of an illegal signet ring which she uses to forge letters from the Twin Queens to her brother the Duke – who is obsessed with the identical monarchs –thus manipulating him into acting as she pleases. She also wields a printing press which she uses to sow fear throughout the city, again in her own interests, and employs the word-loving urchin Mosca as her spy, exchanging notes with her through the medium of a feather: a quill planted in the ground as a memorial to the many victims of the fanatical Birdcatchers. For a while Mosca is as obsessed with her as the Duke is with his uninterested lovers; she dreams of serving her and even becoming her, a distant figure clothed in white as a symbol of her exemption from the common dirt that binds together the rest of the Realm. But Lady Tamarind is not content with mere detachment – with not being written; she seeks to write others, as her scripting of her brother’s non-existent correspondence with the Queens makes clear. In this, ironically enough, she resembles the brother she seeks to displace, whose obsession with a pair of perfect doubles prompts him to rebuild the city, bit by bit, in perfect and impractical symmetry, at the cost of demolished homes and mass unrest. Lady Tamarind’s immaculate clothes have an equivalent in the Duke’s concern with his own appearance: he possesses the largest collection of wigs in the Realm, and is followed everywhere by a servant carrying spares. If the different parts of the Realm have different styles of garment, the distinctive fashions of Lady Tamarind and her brother set them apart, identifying them as outsiders, like the ousted monarchs of the Realm, for ever above and beyond their subjects – and therefore irrelevant to them, despite all their efforts to write them (and the city’s geography) into submission.

tamarind01-c

Lady Tamarind by Tealin

Lady Tamarind is not, however, as detached from her people as she thinks. For one thing, she enlists Clent as well as Mosca as her spy after he rescues her from the highwaymen; and between them, Clent and Mosca seem to have connections with everyone else in the Shattered Realm. For another, the lady has servants and admirers, women of an inferior class who aspire to emulate her ‘look’ – and it’s one such act of emulation that leads Mosca to expose Lady Tamarind’s darkest secret: her control of the clandestine printing press with which she disseminates fear throughout the city for her own nefarious purposes. One of Tamarind’s maids sells a dress of hers – pure white, of course – which has been blemished in a distinctive way by contact with the press, and Mosca learns to ‘read’ the dress after finding the press and getting blemished with printer’s ink in a similar manner. In the process she exposes Tamarind as a liar far more deadly than Clent. Her fibs have led to imprisonment and danger of death for many, and her plans for the city include its seizure by the most deadly absolutists of them all, the Birdcatchers – who paradoxically see themselves as the unique custodians of truth, despite their alliance with the Duke’s mendacious sister. Where Clent wields words as tools in an elaborate and democratic competition, a game of ‘I spy’ in which everyone and anyone can join, Lady Tamarind’s words are designed to limit and suppress the words of others, to reduce them to a petrified silence, the oral equivalent of her pristine garments. This also sets her in opposition to Mosca’s father, whose controversial works are often mistaken for Birdcatcher propaganda, but who devoted his career to the fight for freedom of expression. Tamarind uses words as well as clothes to distinguish herself from others, to control them – and it’s Mosca’s awareness that words themselves, with their multiple meanings, can’t be controlled, that leads to the ultimate defeat of Tamarind’s plans, the frustration of her intended narrative.

The most prominent of Tamarind’s servants is Linden Kohlrabi, a young man so different from what he seems that his very name may not be his own – despite the taboo against changing your name in the Shattered Realm. His first meeting with Mosca entails an act of secrecy – he conceals her from a pursuer beneath his cloak – and this effectively defines their relationship as one of shared confidences, though of a very different kind than the confidences Mosca shares with Eponymous Clent. Mosca takes him for a replacement father, the association confirmed when he gifts her a pipe very like her father’s, which she had used – before she lost it – as an aid to thought. Kohlrabi meanwhile takes her as a copy of himself, an orphan whose father died for a cause – just as he reads her father’s works as confirmations of his own convictions as a lifelong member of the Birdcatcher cult. He is wrong, of course – Hardinge’s awareness of words’ duplicity makes this inevitable. Quillam Mye was never a Birdcatcher, he was a freethinker and a sceptic. And Mosca is not blindly loyal to her father, which makes her wholly unlike Linden. She used her father’s pipe to think for herself, not to share his thoughts; and in the process she followed his instructions not to let herself be told what to think by others, and thus not to subject herself to inward censorship. For this reason, it’s also inevitable that Mosca’s view of Kohlrabi will change, as will his of her, with tragic results. But the link forged between them ensures that neither finally sees the other as an enemy, despite Kohlrabi’s willingness, in the end, to take Mosca’s life.

Kohlrabi is a fundamentalist. He is willing to defend Lady Tamarind’s press by murder, because for him words must only ever be used to defend his faith, which is inherited, not self-discovered – handed down wholesale from his father, who he always took at his word. Given this, it is paradoxical that words themselves have little interest for him. It is their meaning that concerns him, and his certainty that this meaning can be conveyed by language without ambiguity or misunderstanding. When Mosca tells him, towards the end, that she knows he is a Birdcatcher, he dismisses the term as an empty signifier, scoffing that ‘the whole country is frightened of a word’, and adding that a word has never killed anyone – ironically enough, given his murder of Partridge to protect a printing press that was being used to foment civil war. He goes on to explain the Birdcatcher faith:

that there is something higher and better in this world than the dirt and darkness which surrounds us […] something pure, something so bright that its light could enchant everything else, like sunlight through a stained-glass window.

The man who makes this statement has blood on his hands and wishes to stain them with more. The conviction that things are see-through, that words or objects can be used as a means to gain access to some immutable truth, is the first step on the road to murder, itself the first step on the road to genocide. From this perspective it would be easy to persuade oneself that those who stand in the way of the light must be disposed of, and that the process of disposal is no more horrifying than the removal of dirt from a lens, the dispersal of darkness to illuminate a room. Mosca reponds to this conviction with the sentence she first applied to the conman Clent: ‘Words, words, wonderful words. But lies too.’ The difference is that she now knows the difference between Clent’s lies and the lies of a killer. Clent’s lies spring from an entirely different perception of language; and Clent’s perception brings life and liberty, where Kohlrabi’s brings only death, petrifaction, and imprisonment in iron cages.

Kohlrabi, then, is Clent’s inverted double, just as Lady Tamarind is Mosca’s (though as we’ve seen, the relationship between these four is more complicated than this). Kohlrabi and Tamarind aim to take control of the story of their country, writing it into something rigid, colourless and lifeless. Clent, on the other hand, improvises his stories spontaneously, desperately, with no overarching plot or scheme at all; yet his word-spinning finally sparks an uprising that briefly unites all the disparate elements of the Realm against the Duke, the Lady and Kohlrabi’s Birdcatchers. To save Tamarind from the highwaymen, Clent writes a ballad about their leader, Captain Blythe, which turns him into a hero; this makes Blythe the obvious choice for leader of the rising. Clent later writes a letter to his employers, the Guild of Stationers, claiming that a harmless lawyer called Pertellis is a deadly radical, who runs the clandestine press which the Guild is attempting to shut down. In the process Clent makes of Pertellis another popular hero ideally suited to supply the theory behind Blythe’s insurrection (and the theory he provides consists of the writings of Quillam Mye in defence of free speech). Clent’s letter falls into the hands of the Guild of Locksmiths, bringing them together (through circuitous routes) with their bitter rivals, the Guild of Stationers, as well as Blythe, Pertellis and Clent, in a floating coffee-house full of radicals, the Laurel Bower. The name of the coffee house connects it with poetry, of which Clent is a professed practitioner. And thus the web of Clent’s ‘way with words’, as Mosca puts it, comes full circle, confirming him as the disheveled Virgil, so to speak, of Hardinge’s farcical epic, and as the unacknowledged catalyst of insurrection.

Clent, then, has a kind of weight despite his comic appearance – and I’m not just referring to his physical corpulence. At the beginning of the book Kohlrabi identified him as dangerous, and by the end it’s clear the young Birdcatcher was right, since it’s Clent and Mosca between them who bring him down. Words, then, when used in the anarchic but expert way Clent has with them, can make things happen, for all Kohlrabi’s contempt for them as weightless objects, window panes that let light through but have no substance. Farce and pastiche, too, of which Clent is also a practitioner, can make real things happen. The marriage house where Clent stays, for instance – a semi-legal site where people get tied in bands of holy matrimony when the church refuses to tie them – plays an integral part in the improvised plot that leads to the fall of Lady Tamarind and the Duke: it’s here that Kohlrabi frames Clent for Partridge’s murder, the act that leads in a roundabout way to Mosca’s discovery of the clandestine press. And for all the absurdity of the ceremonies conducted in it, for all the Whitehall farces it encourages and takes part in, the marriage house also stands for something real as well as a fantasy, a tissue of dreams. One of its denizens, the young wedding-cake-maker who becomes Mosca’s friend and ally, learns about love there, a discovery that acquires substance in her romance with a young apprentice. Romance, like words, like poetry, like friendship, like loyalty, like truth, can be a source of joy as well as of danger. Nothing in this book is just one thing, and the lightest, most casual deployment of words can form part of a movement, can bring down tyrannies or shore them up.

Frances-HardingeI suspect that this is where, for me, Hardinge’s first novel intersects with the fantastic. Fantasy is a genre that has been consistently marginalized as a form of entertainment, branded as merely popular, merely escapist – much like farce, or its barely respectable parent, comedy. Hardinge’s novel affiliates itself with marginal people and popular fantasies, broadly defined, of every stripe: ballads, thrillers, detective novels, romances, fairy tales, farces, pamphlets, religious cults. To bring all these ingredients together in a coherent plot is an act of ingenuity. To make that plot a serious one, with political weight, would seem impossible. This is what she achieves; and in doing so she affirms my conviction that the fantastic, for all its lightness, is where we live, and that we must pay close attention to it if we don’t want it either to dull our minds or to be stolen from us by the forces of darkness.

They exist, those forces. We have them in us as well as around us, like Clent and Mosca, who are spies as well as heroes, traitors as well as resisters of tyranny. Thanks to Hardinge’s marvelously light but intricate novels, we now have the means to see more clearly how those forces work. We had better read her books if we want to know how the farcical and quasi-fantastic political events of 2016 could possibly have happened.

 

Notes

[1] Choughs too feed on detritus, above all manure; hence the poor reputation these birds enjoyed in the time of Shakespeare. So the citizens of Chough are more closely related to Mosca than they might have liked.

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The Reader

220px-Marbled_PaperCaptain Abend had asked to arrest his old friend Professor Bildnis himself, out of some confused desire to conduct the matter with the respect that had always characterized their dealings with one another. But now, as he stood at the great front door of the professor’s ancestral Schloss and waited for the ancient housekeeper to answer the bell, the uneasy feeling possessed him that this had been a mistake, and that he would have been better occupied burying himself in the pile of paperwork that was waiting for him on his desk in an obscure corner of the general’s mansion. He tried to imagine the look on the professor’s face when she realized what he had come for: hurt betrayal; tragic loss; or worse still, a barely-perceptible nod to indicate that yes, she had known this time would come from the moment she first saw him lingering on the threshold of her library, eyes wide with mingled awe and bitterness, as if he had already known at nine years old that he would never make a room like this his intellectual home. As old Marta led him across the hall he shrank, in his mind, to the size he had been then, recalling the prickly suit into which he had been crammed by his nervous mother before the visit, and how it had seemed to lock him into itself as he walked towards the monumental figure in front of the window, forcing his overheated legs to stride forwards even as his protesting mind yearned to make them sprint in the opposite direction, towards the manicured lawns and regimented woods of the Bildnis estate. ‘Captain Abend,’ Marta quavered as she pushed open the library door – he would have liked to help her, since the door was heavy, but knew that any attempt to do so would have inflicted appalling pain on her proud old servant’s heart – and he stepped through into the land of enchantment, the forest of books in which he had lost himself so often over the eighteen years or so since he had first entered it.

Professor Bildnis was standing at the great bay window with her back to him, poring over a gigantic volume which seemed to contain brightly-coloured pictures and exquisitely painted initial capitals – though of course he couldn’t make out any details at such a distance. The Professor herself was just as massive, on a human scale, as the book was on the bibliographical one. She wore a shabby plush dressing gown as dark and voluminous as an academic robe, and her tangled grey hair hung like cobwebs across the great flat boulders of her cheeks. Yet there was something light and nimble about her: the way her big hands caressed the leather binding of the book she held, the way she was poised almost on tiptoe in her old worn slippers as if about to take flight, etherealized to weightlessness by her excitement at what she had found there.

As he walked towards her, his polished boots boomed aggressively on the floorboards and he shrank still further inside. The echoes of his footsteps rolled about the room like out-of-control dirigibles, bumping against the age-dimmed spines of the books that lined the shelves from floor to ceiling, bumbling up and down the steps of the wheeled wooden staircases that stood around the edges like patient giraffes ready to help any undersized reader – such as the captain himself, as he felt at this moment – to reach the upper shelves. Captain Abend came to a halt in front of the professor, clicked his heels together – not very smartly – and saluted. The professor raised her grey eyes from the page at which she had been gazing, her lips still curved in the smile of pleasure the words and images on it had conjured up.

‘You’re here to arrest, me, aren’t you?’ she said, in a voice both distracted and kindly, as if this were a minor disturbance which was drawing her attention away from important business, but which she must pay attention to, for a while at least, out of courtesy and a lifelong affection for the young man who had brought it about. ‘I’ve packed my bags, if I’m allowed to take them. No?’ she added quickly as Abend gave the slightest shake of his head. ‘No bags? Not even a toothbrush? Never mind. I’ve made arrangements for the books here. I once hoped the city library would take them: I always meant to hand them over to the people, but I somehow doubt most of the people in their present mood would be inclined to accept the donation. Marta and her family will keep them safe for those in the future who care to read them.’

Captain Abend stared at her as she spoke, then sensed that his mouth was hanging open and closed it hurriedly. She had always had this effect on him: one unexpected observation (you’re here to arrest me, aren’t you?) and all his carefully-planned excuses and words of comfort fell round his feet, where they lay twitching their ascenders and descenders like exhausted mayflies. The professor watched him for a while, the same sweet smile playing on her lips, though there was a hint of sadness to it now. In fact, when he came to think of it, there had been a hint of sadness mixed with pleasure in her face when she first looked up. Sadness was what she lived on, it was meat and drink to her; her arrest, it seemed, was merely the culmination of a succession of sad moments born of the excessive hopes her books had awoken in her at a tender age.

‘May I ask, at least,’ she said at last, placing her big hand on his arm – she held the giant volume open in the other hand as if it had been a child’s hornbook – ‘may I ask why I’m being arrested? Is it for what I’ve written? If so, I have to say I’m pleasantly surprised. I hadn’t expected the generals to take such a sudden interest in the obscurer byways of historiography. They have risen several notches in my estimation.’

Captain Abend shook his head again and cleared his throat. ‘Well, yes and no,’ he said at last, his throat so dry the words hurt as they forced themselves past his larynx. ‘Of course they’re aware of what you’ve written. In fact you’re doing them an injustice to accuse them of ignorance. Some of them are actually fans – General Halfisch, for instance, told me the other day that you’d been an inspiration to him in his student days at Heldenbein University. The fact is, though, it’s you yourself they disapprove of. A woman of your ancestry and standing who has chosen to lead a life of scholarship, to involve herself in radical politics, to invite workers and poets and thinkers to her Schloss without regard to the view of their activities taken by the government, to draw the attention of foreigners to their so-called “cause” by virtue of her international reputation as a historian… Need I go on? You’ll know the charges against you well enough, Professor. I’m only sorry you didn’t listen to all my warnings.’

The Professor nodded her head slowly, still looking distracted. ‘That’s a pity,’ she murmured, though Abend saw at once that she wasn’t talking about her failure to pick up his mumbled hints at the growing hostility to her among the ruling party. ‘They should have read my books more carefully. If they had they would have arrested me long ago.’

All at once her eyes hardened, as if she were really seeing him for the first time. ‘But you’ve read them properly, haven’t you, August? Not just my books, but my dreams, my quest – I’ve spoken about these things to you many times, you are well acquainted with the book of my mind. You know what I’ve been looking for all these years. You know that my writings are little more than a record of frustration, scribbled notes on a lifelong search that kept leading me up blind alleys in chase of a glimpse, a damaged map, a riddling clue, a forgotten archive which, when I reached it, invariably turned out to contain no more than second-hand information, scraps of gossip, castles in the air. You’ve followed me on my mental journeys. You’ve embarked on mental journeys of your own from time to time. I could have wished you’d journeyed more, boy, and not let yourself get mixed up in this bad business. You can see plainly now, I think, the blind alley to which that particular path has brought you.’

Abend felt a flash of rage and clenched his fists, half tempted to strike her. He could never have dedicated himself to the journeys she spoke of – unlike her he had to make a living, he had younger brothers and sisters to think of, who had depended on him since his father’s death and his mother’s illness. Besides, his military career was not so much of a dead end as all that. He was well paid, he had glittering prospects – the general had told him so when they’d met by chance on the mansion staircase. And who was she to talk to him about blind alleys? Where had her reading got her? To this room, to this moment in time when her young friend stood awkwardly before her with an order for her arrest in his inside pocket. This was a cul de sac if ever there was one. He ought to pull out the paper at once and show her the wording, with the general’s extravagant signature at the bottom.

But his anger quickly faded as he noticed her eyes straying back to the book in her big left hand, as if pulled by strings. She would hardly notice the paper, even if he waved it in front of her eyes or struck her head with it; she had already half forgotten about it and him. This was not even a proper conversation, really, because she’d been talking to herself all along, as she always had, as she always would. He had never really been of any interest to her, and it was mere hypocrisy in her to express regret about his failure to follow intellectual paths for which she had always shown a supreme indifference. He might as well let her go on talking. There was no great hurry. This job once over, he had only the other dull papers on his shabby desk to attend to for the rest of the day. If he took his time over this arrest he could at least make sure that the rest of the day didn’t last too long.

And now she was speaking loudly, almost shouting, and waving the book at him as if it contained evidence of his sins of omission. ‘But August, August!’ she cried, cheeks wobbling with emotion. ‘I have finally found it! To think it was always there, right in front of my nose, in a book I knew as well as the inside of my head – a book I’ve known since I was younger than you were when I first met you! I would be embarrassed by my blindness if I weren’t so happy. Come over to the window; let me show you. It’s a matter of looking at the words and the pictures, both at once. I knew how to do that once, as a little girl; but you may have noticed how such skills melt away like frost with the passing years. It’s because we don’t read with all our attention, we don’t inhabit our books and populate them as we did when we were young. They don’t live in our minds, words and pictures together, when we go to sleep. They don’t talk to us in our dreams, as they did when we first discovered the heaven-sent miracle of reading.’

In a dream – half mesmerised by the flow of her words – he saw that she was looking at him now with what seemed genuine attention, as she beckoned with her head towards the bay window. ‘It’s not our fault, you know,’ she went on companionably. ‘We read too much, as adults – we know too much to be able to inhabit the books we read as we did before. We’d go mad if we tried. But every now and then, when we concentrate hard, we recover that skill again for a few short minutes. And those minutes stay with us for a while after we’ve stopped reading – long enough, sometimes, for us to set down some bald impression of what we’ve learned.’

As the Captain moved with her to the sunlit bay he experienced another sudden flashback to his nine-year-old self. Again and again she had beckoned him to some corner where she was poring over a page, often in another language he didn’t know. Forgetting his age, she would read it out to him, the mellifluous clatter of Greek, the dancing curlicues of Italian, the baroque efflorescences of formal French or Latin. He had listened enrapt, with pictures forming and fading before his eyes. The shape of the scripts told him stories more energetic and convoluted than the comics he secretly scanned in the shops when his mother wasn’t looking (she thought them vulgar and feared exposure to them would impede his development as a reader). Later he became resentful of the Professor’s blithe assumption that he could understand the erudite syllables she intoned. But now, striding after her, a sensation caught him by the throat, a thrill of excitement as of some imminent revelation, a door about to open on some world of wonders. He remembered it well now, that sensation, though he had thrust it down to some hidden cellar of his being, where it had mouldered under the stacks of soulless documents he had been piling up through his wearisome years as a military administrator. Each of the Professor’s readings had been, for him, a musical performance with a visual accompaniment, like the ballads sung by old men as they rapidly flipped through the great shimmering pamphlets full of crude hand-coloured pictures displayed on easels in the market squares of Helden. Suddenly he felt sure that he would now recover that half-forgotten pleasure, the one he had denied himself in his teenage years because of mounting frustration with his limited prospects. He drew close to her shoulder and found himself too short, still, to peer over it. Instead he squinted round the side of her massive gown-draped arm, allowing the script and illustrations on the page to fill his vision.

The words were arranged in short, neat lines that formed a column from top to bottom, which told him they were verse. The columns were broken at regular intervals, which told him the verse was arranged in stanzas. Alternate lines were indented apart from the final couplet of each stanza, so he had a good idea of the rhyme scheme. The Professor didn’t recite verse to him, however, nor did she speak in the archaic dialect of the poem. She spoke rapidly in the language he knew best, turning the pages to match the pictures to her words. Yet the story made little sense: something about a princess in a castle on an island, whose loneliness drew birds and beasts to her through the waves, till at last it drew a young fisherman who took her away with him on his skiff to the place where fishes have wings and birds have fins and beasts can sing. The story ended badly – ‘all stories from this period ended badly, it’s as if they didn’t know how to write a happily ever after’ – with the fisherman dead and the princess imprisoned once again on her lump of rock. ‘But look here!’ the Professor cried, tapping the final illustration. ‘The picture of the room where she lies dead after giving birth; do you see the door? It’s exactly like the door to this library. The carving on the lintel, the details of the paneling, the smallest glimpse of the room beyond. Her child is walking towards the door, growing as she walks – she’s almost grown already, see how tall she is, how long her hair. And the door is the door to the library – I can only assume the painter copied it from life, if that’s the right expression, still life I suppose it should be. If you look closely at the picture you can see the edge of this bay window. Do you see it, August? Her child is walking into this room, this very room where we’re standing now. I’m assuming – it’s a reasonable hypothesis – that the writer and illustrator knew very well that it would end up in this location; they must have been commissioned by one of my ancestors. The books themselves – the books are the key. I always assumed, when I was a child, that the king had won, that the child in the picture was myself, trapped in this castle without escape like her mother before her. But the books hold the key to the end of tyranny. She’s even carrying one in her hand. Can you see the title? With eyes like yours you can surely read it even without the magnifying glass – though of course you can borrow mine if necessary.’

Of course Captain Abend could read the title: his vision was perfect, they had complimented him on it only the year before when he had undergone the annual test. Only his asthma had let him down, condemning him for ever to a desk job despite his impeccable scores in every element of his military training. He could see the title of the book, and knew full well why it had excited her so greatly. The title was hers – the name of the book she had written three years after he had met her. She had talked to him about it as she wrote, and later he had read it himself, head spinning with the visions she had put into it of better times to come. But this was hardly news – much less the miracle she was making it into. Clearly as a girl she had read that title, when her eyes were as good as his. Clearly she had recalled the title – though perhaps she had not known where she’d first read it – when she’d been writing her book. The Professor knew about the unconscious; she’d explained it to him often enough. How could she imagine the name of the book was a clue to anything?

The fact was, though, this was typical of her: to see her life as a perfect circle, beginning and ending in this room where her books had made her. What a charming justification that would be for a life of reading – for a life spent travelling, as she would put it, in the realms of gold, where ordinary men and women could not follow! How naïve she was, how profoundly selfish, to see such a life as having been worth leading, as having had any kind of purpose or significance for her people! While they had suffered and died outside her estate, here she had flipped the pages of ancient books with unsated hunger, searching and searching among forgotten texts – for what? For a fairy tale, a castle in the air, a chimera. She had never grown up, that was her problem; could not conceive what adulthood meant, or responsibility, or pain. Even her arrest wasn’t real to her; just the typical sad ending to one of the romances she had been reading since she could read.

‘That is… remarkable,’ he said coldly, hoping the irony of his tone would not be lost on her. ‘The library, the book, the title. I’m sure you’re right, and this old romance holds the key to everything you’ve been looking for all your life. I shall be sure to tell my friends at the officer’s club, and my brothers and sisters; they’ll be overwhelmed. But now, Professor Bildnis, I’m sorry to say that time’s against us. We have to go. Formally, of course, I’m supposed to show you the mandate for your arrest – but we can dispense with that formality if you don’t care to see it. Is there anything you wish to do before we leave? Any final instructions you want to leave for Marta? A note of farewell, perhaps, for someone close to you?’

The Professor turned her great grey eyes on him – they had always been her finest feature, the eyes of a woman slimmer and swifter than she, a dryad of the woods, a mermaid. To his surprise, they were full of tears. She shook her head gently, and he had the uncomfortable feeling that she was shaking it in pity at his willful ignorance. Her expression was exactly as it had been when he had had that outburst, on the last occasion he had seen her before enlisting.

‘You’re very kind,’ she said. ‘You always were, you know – though now I think of it I’m not sure you ever did know it. He hath ever but slenderly known himself. No, thank you; I’ve said my farewells, and my books will be my note to my friends and allies – especially that one. Read it again for me, will you, when I’ve gone? Just one last time. And try to read it with seeing eyes. I know you can.’

He was blushing now, though he was not sure if it was with childish embarrassment or anger. He had reached out to take her arm, ready to steer her through the Schloss to the great front door; he fancied he could hear the horses pawing the gravel, impatient to return to their stables and the excellent fodder they would receive after this long divergence from their normal routines. But the Professor was holding up her finger as if in remonstrance. Not just yet, her finger was saying; you know very well there is one last thing I have to do before we depart. Do I need to tell you, after all these years?

‘I had better put the book back,’ she said softly. ‘I want to be sure other people will find it in the right place when I am no longer there to find it for them. Wait by the door, my dear; I shan’t be a minute.’ And she turned away, cradling the book in her two great arms like a much-loved infant.

For a moment Captain Abend stood looking after her, as if turned to stone, as if striving to fix her massive form in his memory once and for all, so he could summon it up at will whenever he needed to consult her later in life. He could not have known, of course, that his life would not last much longer – that he would be one of the few casualties of the bloodless revolution of the following year, and that old Marta would find his corpse beneath his desk in an obscure corner of the general’s mansion, a sheaf of papers clutched to its chest as if to defend it against the bullets that had sprayed the building. He had no premonition of such an ending as he watched the Professor walk stiffly to a free-standing bookcase and vanish behind it. He thought only of how he would miss her, in spite of her ugly face, her eccentricity, her air of always knowing so much more than he did about everything – even the things she could not possibly know as well as him, such as life in the army and the ways of generals.

He heard her characteristic sniff from behind the bookcase. He heard a faint thump, as if she had stamped one of her slippered feet on the ancient floorboards – like Rumpelstilzchen, he thought, when he stamped his foot so hard he fell through the floor into endless darkness. What in the world, he wondered, had called that tale to mind? It was not as if she were angry with him – at least, not angry enough to make a hole in the castle floor and tumble through it, disappear without leaving a trace, apart from a heap of golden straw and a woman with a young child in her arms, a newborn baby, sign of the future…

All at once, fear swept through him: a sudden wind of panic blowing in from nowhere. He tensed where he stood and listened intently. There was no sound from behind the bookcase – and this alone was enough to chill his bones. The Professor was incapable of staying silent; she huffed and puffed as she moved around the library, her joints creaked, her slippers scuffed, her dressing gown swished as it brushed against incidental tables and the wheeled wooden staircases that waited to serve her like tame giraffes. And she sniffed constantly; her sniffing had driven him mad when he was a teenager. Why was she not sniffing? Had something happened to her? Could that thump have been the sound of her death?

In rising terror – ridiculous, really, he would think that evening, since he had come to the Schloss, to all intents and purposes, with the task of escorting her to her execution – he lurched forward in a clumsy run. His boots drummed against the floorboards once again with the aggressive tread of an intruder. He rounded the corner of the bookcase, bracing himself for what he would find, and stopped dead, heaving great gulps of vellum-scented air into his lungs. He put out a hand to steady himself against the top of the bookcase. He stood there panting and staring, staring and panting, letting his heartbeats slow to a steady rhythm against his ribs as he struggled to take in the scene in front of him.

Lying on the floor lay the painted volume, wide open at the page where the child was approaching the door with a book in her hands.

Behind the child, the princess lay on her curtained bed, eyes closed, hands neatly folded across her stomach.

Before the child, beyond the door, you could see the edge of the great bay window.

All in the picture was exactly as it had been a few moments earlier.

All except for the monstrous shadow on the floorboards under the window, the shadow of an ogre or a rampant bear.

All except for the hem of an old plush dressing gown, trailing in the air as if its owner had whipped out of sight when the book was opened.

All except for the expression of wild excitement on the young girl’s face as she hurried towards what lay beyond the door, clutching the book as if her life depended on it, her black hair streaming out behind her like a banner.

A sudden draught from the open window caught the edge of the page and flipped it over. The Captain still stood transfixed, staring at the marbled end-papers as if searching for words among the swirls of blue, green, red and muted yellow that marked the space between the story and the world.

 

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Mervyn Peake at Southport

[I’ve been busy marking this month, which hasn’t given me much time for blogging. Here, then, is an essay I wrote for Peter Winnington’s journal Peake Studies; the full version with notes can be found in Vol. 12 No. 1 (October 2010), 3-24. There will be more on Peake in January.]

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Sapper Peake

Mervyn Peake lived his life surrounded by eerie foreshadowings and replicas of Gormenghast castle.  His biographer Peter Winnington describes the hospital compound where he spent his early childhood in Tientsin as ‘a world surrounded by a wall with China on the other side; as in Gormenghast, the emphasis is on enclosure’.   Not many miles from the compound was Beijing, and the Forbidden City where the Boy-Emperor lived in seclusion as Peake grew up nearby; and the city inspired the setting of the BBC Gormenghast series along with a ‘Tibetan-style monastery in Ladakh’.   In the 1930s Peake joined an artist’s colony on the tiny Channel IslanFlying Bomb 8d of Sark, whose geography has often been compared to that of his imaginary castle;  and in the 1940s he moved back to the island with his family.  When he succumbed to Parkinson’s disease in the late 1950s, he was treated in the Holloway Sanatorium, Virginia Water: a spectacular palatial building decorated with astonishing grotesques, hailed by Pevsner as one of the crowning achievements of late Victorian architecture.  As with all great literary creations, once it was summoned up Gormenghast castle proceeded to generate doubles of itself through time and space, and Peake himself inhabited more than a few of these topographical echoes of the imaginary fastness.

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Southport Promenade Hospital today

One of the Gormenghasts he occupied, however, has remained more obscure than the rest.  This is the neo-Gothic building where he lived for one summer in the middle of the Second World War: the Convalescent and Sea-Bathing Hospital (later known as the Promenade Hospital) at Southport, Lancashire.  An imposing red brick Victorian structure at the seaside resort a few miles up the coast from Liverpool, the infirmary was administered after the outbreak of war as an emergency hospital, with beds for 600 patients, whose presence transformed it into a bustling miniature city with high-ceilinged nightingale wards and an enormous dining room.  To this place Peake came as a patient in the spring of 1942, after suffering a breakdown while on military service at a camp near Clitheroe, Lancashire.   The windows at the front of the building looked out on the promenade, which ran alongside a large artificial lake where you could go boating in peacetime.  Beyond the lake lay the vast expanse of the Southport sands.  Spanning the lake and stretching out across the sands was the Southport pier, one of the longest in the British Isles.  In the other direction, behind the hospital, you could stroll along Lord Street: a magnificent tree-lined shopping avenue once frequented by the future Emperor Napoleon III, who is said to have been inspired by it to fill the centre of Paris with spacious boulevards.    At any other time Peake might have liked Southport; but its brightness came to him at a time of emotional and intellectual crisis, and the works of art he produced there are as anguished as they are beautiful.

Writing SoldierTill now, most of what we have known about Peake’s time at Southport has come from his letters, the most informative of which was addressed to his old school friend Gordon Smith shortly before he left.  In this letter he lists some of the symptoms that landed him in a sickbed: ‘sleeplessness at night and tired all day (ironically) – irritable as a bereaved rattle-snake and apt to weep on breaking a bootlace’.   He found himself unable to work on the various illustrations he had been commissioned to produce because he was so ‘jittery’ – a word that might imply (Peter Winnington suggests) that his hands were shaking as they would do again in the 1950s, in the early stages of the Parkinson’s disease that ultimately killed him.   In a letter to Sir Kenneth Clark, Peake attributes these symptoms to the ‘perpetual frustration and […] wastefulness’ of army life: ‘two years of trivial routine’ during which he was perversely refused all opportunity to deploy his talents in the service of the war effort, condemned instead to fritter away his time at a succession of tasks and training exercises for which he had no aptitude.   ‘I am sick, sick, sick of it,’ he told Smith, ‘the perpetual littleness of the life – the monotonous conversation of what I suppose are my comrades who are with me polishing buttons and blancoing the webbing in our fight against world tyranny […] I just want to cry when I think of the stupidity of the whole bloody, ghastly, sordid business’.   Isolation, boredom, a sense of wasted time, combined with the ‘bloody, ghastly, sordid business’ of war to plunge him into a state of acute emotional vulnerability which left him unable to sustain the farce of pretending to participate in what were for him the senseless rituals of the army – a mood comparable to that of Titus Groan as he rebels against the meaningless rituals of Gormenghast castle.

This mood was intensified when Peake’s second son Fabian was born in April 1942 and he was refused permission to visit his family in Sussex.  Peake promptly went absent without leave and headed South; but when he arrived home his wife Maeve found him strangely distant and distracted, a condition he describes from within, as it were, in several powerful poems of the period (‘O, This Estrangement’; ‘Absent From You’, etc.).  Returning to Clitheroe, he accepted the routine punishment dished out to him by his regiment – he never said what it was – and continued his descent into depression.  The breaking point came at the end of May, when he found himself struck down with an attack of involuntary insubordination: ‘I bent down to do up my boot-lace, when I suddenly realized that I could never obey another order again, not ever in my whole life.’   He reported to the Medical Officer, and was admitted to Southport Hospital on 27 May, suffering from what he called a ‘nervous collapse’.

At the Southport hospital, patients were dressed in a distinctive uniform that caused Peake extreme embarrassment when he wore it in public: ‘shapeless “suits” of peacock blue with crimson rag ties’, unfurnished with pockets, which made their wearers ‘very noticeable in this artificial town with its sea on the horizon’.   The pyjama-like garments drew the unwelcome attention of the local women, who would look ‘very lovingly’ at Peake until they learned that he wasn’t wounded at Dunkirk.  He mentions the clothes in several letters, and wrote a poem about them too, as we shall see.  No doubt they contributed to his sense of being confined in an asylum, which was exacerbated by the behaviour of the other patients, who went about ‘gesticulating or grinning suddenly at nothing’, as Peake did not (at least, he didn’t think so).   One of the pictures he sent to Maeve showed him ‘with his fellow sick-men queuing up for their meals, in long nightshirts, huge army boots, and cropped hair’.   After collecting their meals on trays they would take them back to their wards, to eat in bed after taking off the boots.  It was the oddness of their physical appearance, as much as their eccentric actions, that marked out these men as distinct from the nattily uniformed ‘healthy-men’ of the British Army.

gormenghasttext_6805Other aspects of hospital life proved more congenial.  Peake was prescribed as treatment for his condition the task of getting on with his half-completed novel, Titus Groan; and some of the finest chapters in that book bear the inscription ‘Occupational therapy, Southport Neurosis Centre’ (a name for Southport Hospital which he seems to have invented).  He learned to play a pipe – ‘It’s the most thrilly thing in the world’, he told Smith  – and made two for himself, one in A and one in D, from which he could produce simple tunes such as ‘Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring’.   Evidently the carving of the pipes gave him as much pleasure as playing them.  ‘I want to make one of black walnut,’ he declared, ‘brace-and-biting it right through (one inch diameter) and then cutting away, rasping, etc., until I have a perfect tube, very slender’.   At other times he drew pictures of strange animals, cut them out and sent them home in letters to his sons.   Meanwhile he was taking an interest in poetry, spurred on perhaps by the good sales of his first collection, Shapes and Sounds, the year before.  He recommended to Smith a new anthology, Poetry in Wartime, singling out the Welsh poet Vernon Watkins – a friend of his friend Dylan Thomas – for special praise.  One of the manuscript pages of Titus Groan carries the injunction ‘Get Trahern’ [sic], signalling his intention to familiarize himself with the seventeenth-century poet and mystic Thomas Traherne.  He gave a copy of the Selected Poems of Louis MacNeice to a woman called Dora Street (was she a nurse at the hospital?).   And he was also writing poems himself.  Until recently none of the verses he wrote at Southport have been identifiable; but now a number have come to light, and they offer an intriguing insight into his existence on the Lancashire coast during his enforced four-month stay.

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Long John Silver by Peake

One of these poems is a fragment which brings us right into the ward where the ‘sick-men’ ate their meals side by side in bed.  Maeve tells us that Peake’s next-door neighbour in the ward was another sufferer from breakdown, a spiritualist who received regular visits from his dead mother.  Because of the army timetable, the man’s mother had been unable to find him while he was on military service; but since his hospitalization ‘they had been able to re-establish their old routine, and she came to see her son every evening at six o’clock promptly’.   The anecdote conjures up a vision of solidarity among patients who had been subjected to the intolerable pressure of conforming to the inflexible schedule of military life; Maeve reports it as if the mother’s visits were a secret shared by the bedridden neighbours in defiance of the hospital officials, and in broader defiance of the notion of sanity imposed on them by a manifestly insane environment.  This sense of conspiracy is consolidated in the fragment of verse I mentioned, which has never before been published.

WE ARE THE LIFELESS GYPSIES

We are the lifeless gypsies.  The swashbucklers
Who have to be in bed by half past nine
These summer nights – we are the grievance crew
Of love and filth, of plot and secret sign,

The unconvincing pirates of the ward
Where nurses whisper of their own intended
In cubicles when the ward lights are out

These verses repeatedly juxtapose tremendous vigour with passivity, building up to a crescendo of specifically sexual frustration in which patients and nurses find themselves confined in an artificially sexless environment, their proximity to one another strictly regulated to prevent any fraternization beyond the ‘plot and secret sign’ exchanged between patients.  The sick are represented as displaced persons in the disciplined hospital environment: gypsies and swashbuckling pirates, both groups associated with energetic wandering and often romanticized acts of courageous lawlessness, but here hobbled by adjectives that drain them of their traditional vitality: lifeless, unconvincing.  The pirates’ potential for swashbuckling has been buckled, as it were, to a strict routine (they ‘have to be in bed by half past nine’) which pays no attention to their maturity or the changing seasons (in north-western ‘summer nights’ the light remains strong till late, accentuating the earliness of the swashbucklers’ bed-time).  The sexual frustration of the patients, whose ‘grievance’ at their confinement manifests itself in outbreaks of ‘love and filth’ – abortive romance and furtive fantasy – leads them to listen intently to the conversation of the nurses after lights-out, as the women discuss their own love-lives in the seeming privacy of ‘cubicles’.  There is something satisfying in the way this poetic fragment peters out, just as the whispers inevitably drift into the silence of sleep.  There can be no satisfaction or closure for the hospital’s segregated inhabitants, and the form of the fragment as we have it mimics their inconclusive existence.

The fragment is written in the five-stress line, iambic pentameter, which could be described as Peake’s default metre in his ‘serious’ poems (as opposed to his nonsense).    In the letter he wrote to Gordon Smith from Southport he shows himself uncomfortably aware of the extent to which this metre dominates the music of his verse.  ‘My chief problem,’ he tells Smith,

is one of Form, and I find myself to be expressing things overmuch in the five-beat line, irrespective of the core of the notion.  Not really quite as bad as that, but a lack of being able to leap instinctively into the only form that the mood must be externalised by.  I want my poems to create this form in a growth way, out of the very nature of the thought, unfolding as they continue from line to line, from idea to idea, and then to close in gradually (or swiftly) like the petal of a flower at night…

Another poem to emerge from his Southport period is both a striking example of Peake’s weddedness to the ‘five-stress line’ and the extent to which he could make it seem to have grown quite naturally from the ‘very nature of the thought’ it embodies.  Published for the first time in the Collected Poems,  the poem has since been found on the reverse of the manuscript leaf that contains ‘We Are the Lifeless Gypsies’, confirming them as products of the same period of invalidity:

BLUE AS THE INDIGO AND FABULOUS STORM

Blue as the indigo and fabulous storm
Of a picture book long lost where islands burst
Out of the page, exploding palm on palm,
Are we, whom the authorities have dressed.
For we are bluer than the fabulous waters
That lap the inner skull-walls of a boy
So that his head is filled with brimming summer’s
Dazzling rollers which make dull the day
Surrounding him, like an un-focused twilight,
Such waters as uplift a rippling acre
Of naked jelly through the sunfire drifting
With at its centre a vermilion ember
Across whose fire the transparent eyelids rove
O fiercer than the azure lights that flare
At the lit core of fantasy.  We move –
See how the sick kingfishers take the air! –
In brilliance past the Southport pier
Yet we are shapeless in our azure suits
Which hang in monstrous folds.  Around our throats
The twisted snakes of fire burn all day long,
And tenderness recoils from our preposterous boots.

Jim and HandsRead in the context of Peake’s institutionalized summer at Southport the poem becomes a dazzling evocation of the sense of alienation imposed both by the condition of being a patient and by the state of being a visionary artist: a Blake or a John Clare with a distinctive perception of the world which he struggles to convey through word and image.  This sense of alienation is present in many of Peake’s poems, but is here exacerbated by the ‘monstrous folds’ of the vivid blue uniform that makes the hospital inmates stand out even from the blueness of sea and sky on a northern summer day.  Their costumes transform the patients into grotesque parodies of a vision that was of intense and lifelong interest to Peake: the ‘fabulous waters / That lap the inner skull-walls’ of a young boy, an imaginative ocean which dims the brightness of the actual summer day to a mere ‘un-focused twilight’, and which for Peake were specifically associated with the favourite book of his childhood, Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

As the poem proceeds, its focus shifts repeatedly from the outward appearance of the patients in their blue suits and fiery neckties to the boy’s interior landscape, whose brilliance is both challenged and alluded to by the ‘brilliance’ of the ‘sick kingfishers’ the patients have become.  The fantastic energy of the boy’s vision of a piratical picture book, where palm trees resemble explosions and ‘brimming summer’s / Dazzling rollers’ reduce the daylight of the room in which he is reading to ‘an un-focused twilight’, is more than matched by the monstrous vitality of the patients’ costumes, which are ‘bluer than the fabulous waters’ imagined by the child reader.  At the same time, the boy’s imaginative world and the patients’ real one seem to merge as the fabulous waters are described in greater detail, becoming the account of a vision which invalids and children share:

Such waters as uplift a rippling acre
Of naked jelly through the sunfire drifting
With at its centre a vermilion ember
Across whose fire the transparent eyelids rove
O fiercer than the azure lights that flare
At the lit core of fantasy.

At first hard to visualize, after rereading it becomes clear that these lines evoke with astonishing precision a breaker lifting its ‘rippling acre of naked jelly’ in front of a summer sun, so that the sun is seen through the advancing wave.  Wonderfully, it is not made clear whether we’re to think of the ‘transparent eyelids’ as a metaphorical description of the wave or as a reference to the actual eyelids of the spectator/poet, closed against the dazzling brilliance of the vision he has been granted.  In the same way, it is not clear whether ‘O fiercer than the azure lights that flare / At the lit core of fantasy’ refers to the fierceness of the sunlight seen through water, or whether it refers back to the blueness of the patients’ uniforms, which were ‘bluer than the fabulous waters’ of the boy’s imagination, and perhaps fiercer than them too.  The confusion is a productive one, because it mimics the bedazzlement brought on by the vision of the wave against the sun.  Spectator, wave, sun, and the imagined vision that the wave and the sun represent, become fused in a single scene where the explosive inward landscape of the child reading a picture book and the incongruous brightness of the patients at the sea front are equally at home, and equally alien to the ‘un-focused twilight’ of the ‘dull… day’ that surrounds them.  Implicitly, child and patients share common access to the ‘lit core of fantasy’, and a common desire to turn away from the everyday world to face the searing brightness of the inward picture.  The quasi-visionary nature of the experience described here may help to explain Peake’s interest, while he was at Southport, in getting hold of the work of the visionary poet Thomas Traherne.

0472The link forged between hospital patients and a young boy in this poem brilliantly denotes the infantilization of the institutionalized – one of several kinds of infantilization to which Peake was subjected before ever he came to Southport.  His first self-illustrated book had been a child’s picture story full of metaphorically exploding palms, Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor; but when he tried to interest Chatto and Windus, the printers of his poetry collection Shapes and Sounds, in publishing illustrations to his poems, they rejected the idea as too radical: illustrations were too closely associated with publications for the young to be admissible in a serious publication  – and besides, there was a shortage of paper (though this didn’t prevent Eyre and Spottiswood from publishing his illustrated collection of nonsense verses, Rhymes Without Reason, in 1944).  With the exception of the jacket drawing, the illustrations he sent to Chatto’s disappeared, only for two of them to resurface decades later disconnected from the poems they were meant to embellish.   The same infantilizing view of his talents was shown by the army in wartime, who set him to painting signs for toilets as if this were the most suitable outlet for his artistic energies.   It’s hardly surprising, then, if the patients in ‘Blue as the Indigo and Fabulous Storm’ end up as the kind of half-terrifying clowns Peake loved to draw throughout his life, whose shapeless suits hang in ‘monstrous folds’ and whose throats are encircled by actual monsters, the ‘twisted snakes of fire’ which externalize their inner torments.  Even the outsized boots which in clowns are comic have been transformed in this context to the kind of preposterous spectacle from which ‘tenderness recoils’, rendering their wearers bereft of emotional or sexual succour.  These clowns, like the murderously clownish pirate Captain Slaughterboard in the opinion of some contemporary critics, are both the stuff of infantile fantasy and at the same time wholly unsuitable for consumption by the young.

clown-oil-paint-on-canvas-by-mervyn-peake-1950s1Peake’s use of iambic pentameter in the poem is masterful, as is his subtle use of rhyme or half-rhyme throughout.  It’s easy not to notice the rhyme scheme when you first read it (although the division of the text into stanzas in the recently-discovered MS accentuates the rhyme);  and the repeated use of enjambment renders the five-stress line as fluid as its subject, the oceanic mental riot that the grotesque hospital uniforms both signal and seek to contain.  This fluidity makes it easy for Peake to break the ABAB rhyme scheme whenever he feels like it, or to add an extra foot to the last line – an entirely appropriate gesture given that it refers to the outsized boots described by Maeve as an integral part of the ‘sick-men’ of Southport’s uniform.  Here, then, despite his self-doubts, Peake has shown himself ‘able to leap instinctively into the only form that the mood must be externalised by’ – even if that form happens to be the five-stress line he deploys so frequently.

Two more poems from his time at Southport make equally skilful use of iambic pentameter; and although each is only a sketch that survives in a single manuscript, scribbled in a hand that is sometimes hard to decipher, each shows a similar mastery of its chosen metre, and throws similar light on his mood at this troubled moment in his creative development.  The first, scrawled on the marbled cover of an exercise book, describes a woman seated by a window, irresistibly conjuring up the many images of Maeve her husband sketched throughout their marriage (although it is always unwise to make assumptions about the identity of the women in Peake’s poems).  Because it is written in the second person, it reads like an act of mesmerism, whereby Peake seeks to affect Maeve’s actions across the war-torn miles that separate them:

CURL UP IN THE GREAT WINDOW SEAT

Curl up in the great window seat, your heels
Beneath you in the cushions while you watch
The summer rain fall with unnatural darkness
Beyond the pane.  Move your dim arm and touch

The glass that shields you from the violence
Of the primeval gods.  Then turn your eyes
To the book upon your knees, and make pretence
To read, but do not see it.  Then heave such sighs

As the melancholy drifts of water heave
As they draw back their salt drifts from a cove
Of clashing shingle – then, my darling, leave,
And suddenly, the room, and weep, my love.

Water and isolation dominate this poem, as they did ‘Blue as the Indigo and Fabulous Storm’; and once again a visual impairment is described – though in this case connected with premature darkness rather than excessive light.  The first stanza sketches a comfortable homely scene with impressive economy.  The detail of the woman’s ‘heels / Beneath you in the cushions’ implies a tender familiarity with her habits (going barefoot indoors, sitting in certain favourite spots and attitudes), while the ‘unnatural darkness’ of the rain beyond the window pane only accentuates the cosiness of her situation.  But her touching of the glass, beyond which the ‘violence / Of the primeval gods’ is being visited upon the elements, abruptly changes the poem’s tone.  Soft summer rain is suddenly transformed to a tempest from which the watcher needs to be ‘shielded’.  The domestic calm is shattered.  We never learn exactly what makes the woman unable to read while pretending to do so – while trying to keep up the appearance, at least, of the cosiness of the first stanza; but by the third stanza the chill and damp of the weather outside has definitely penetrated the room she occupies, as her sighs become those of the cold ‘salt drifts’ of some retreating tide, which are powerful enough to make the shingle clash as the waves heave backwards from a cove they once filled.

0106At the end of the poem, the salt drifts have begun to vent themselves in the salt tears the woman weeps when she leaves the room.  Meanwhile the brokenness of the last two lines, achieved by commas and awkward syntax, is accentuated by the tender phrases that occur in them: ‘my darling’, ‘my love’, each confirming our suspicions as to the cause of the woman’s sudden melancholy (she is in some way separated from someone close to her).  There’s a violence about the last two lines, too, that is accentuated by these terms of affection.  If the poem is indeed a conjuration or a set of instructions, what kind of ‘love’ on the part of the writer would be prepared to call down such suffering on his absent ‘darling’?  Coldness, an inability to touch or be touched, seems here to be as much a product of the alienated state of mind of the writer as it is of the long enforced separation of Maeve and Mervyn brought about by his hospitalization.  Gothic creepiness replaces cosiness at the close, and we might well be reminded of the fact that Peake was writing some of the most powerful evocations of isolation in the Titus novels – the section he calls the ‘reveries’, in which guests at the baby earl’s birthday breakfast each find themselves locked away in their own thoughts, unable to communicate their hopes and fears to the people sitting next to them – at about the time when he wrote this poem.

The other poem in iambic pentameter he wrote at Southport has a very similar topic and mood.  Until now it has been known only in typescript, but I found a manuscript copy of the poem, in Peake’s hand, while looking through the Peake Archives at Sotheby’s, and the manuscript is written on the same paper, in the same ink, and with the same handwriting as the sole surviving manuscript of ‘Blue as the Indigo and Fabulous Storm’ (which was also in the Archives, and had likewise not been available to me when I edited the Collected Poems).  Given the immense variations in Peake’s handwriting at different times of his life  (by turns confident, aggressive, shaky, sprawling, minuscule, painterly, and insectile), and in the paper and ink he used throughout his career, this makes it likely that the two were written in the same period; and although the grounds of the Southport Emergency Hospital do not seem to correspond with the landscape described in the poem, the state of mind Peake here articulates closely resembles his description to Gordon Smith of his state of mind at Southport: exhausted, irritable, emotionally hypersensitive, and unable to engage with any consistency with his various creative projects (even his work on Titus Groan stalled while he was at Southport, after completion of the ‘Reveries’ section).

Here is the poem, transcribed for the first time from manuscript, and thus differing slightly from the version in Collected Poems:

FOR GOD’S SAKE DRAW THE BLIND

For God’s sake draw the blind and shut away
The beauty that is crowding through the window:
A score of rain drenched elms and four drenched pastures,
All apple green against the leaden sky[.]
I do not want it – I am out of tune
With all this loveliness.  To hell with it.
Draw the thick blinds, put on the light – I will
Not watch the green leaves fluttering in the dark,
I will not watch it.  I am far too tired
For the responsibility for miracles[,]
O vulnerable when nature comes to me
And lifts the corner of her common veil.

The last two lines are particularly hard to read, which explains some of the differences between this transcription and that of the anonymous typist whose typescript I used for the version in the Collected Poems.  It seems clear, however, that the poem is not complete – although once again its fragmentary status renders it curiously eloquent, enacting the lassitude it describes, the refusal to continue to ‘take responsibility for miracles’.  And the subject of the poem seems clear enough too.  On a rainy day, the extraordinary beauty of a pastoral scene outside the window – the kind of scene Peake had been writing fine poems about only months or weeks before (consider ‘Leave Train’, ‘With People, So with Trees’, ‘An April Radiance of White Light Dances’) – suddenly becomes oppressive, carrying with it the burden of ‘responsibility’; presumably the artist’s responsibility to capture scenes like these in verbal or visual form.  That Peake is referring to a loss of artistic energy and confidence is suggested by another poem on the same subject, ‘Conscious that Greatness Has Its Tinder Here’,  which describes his loss of the ‘power’ to access the inner resources that might make him great as an artist or a writer, and perhaps specifically as a poet, since he tells us the power might manifest itself as the ‘high flame of an oracle’, a prophecy that traditionally takes the form of verse.   In this poem, his hope that the power of oracular speech has not been lost for ever is twice called ‘the hope of miracle’, a phrase recalled by the Southport poem’s reference to ‘responsibility for miracles’.  But in the Southport poem the plural noun distances the speaker from the processes he is describing.  The creative ‘miracle’ of ‘Conscious that Greatness Has Its Tinder Here’ takes place inside the writer; it is the sudden outbreak of ‘inner fire’ into artistic form.  The ‘miracles’ of ‘For God’s Sake Draw the Blind’ take place outside not just the writer but the room he sits in, in a rain-washed space where ‘nature’ is attempting to seduce him into participating in her ‘loveliness’ – into being in tune with it, as if he were a well-made pipe – at a point when he finds himself too weak to respond to her advances.  The tone of sexual alienation accords well both with the tone of ‘We Are the Lifeless Gypsies’, and recalls Peake’s account of his awkward encounters with the respectable women of Southport in his letter to Gordon Smith.

‘For God’s Sake Draw the Blind’ resembles ‘Curl Up in the Great Window Seat’ in that both take place at windows, beyond whose panes events are taking place which trigger a strong emotional reaction in those who are watching them: the seated woman, the hospital patient.  Peake’s most well-know window poem, ‘Each Day We Live Is a Glass Room’,  describes the whole of human existence as framed by glass, implying that ‘we’ share a sense of separation both from our fellow human beings and from the ideal landscape we would like to inhabit, a place of ‘green pastures’ where ‘the birds and buds are breaking / Into fabulous song and hue /By the still waters’.  In the version of this poem published in Collected Poems, the phrase ‘green pastures’ echoes Psalm 23 (‘He maketh me to lie down by green pastures’), and the biblical echo is confirmed by a later reference to the occupant of those pastures, ‘the Lord’.  An unpublished earlier version of the poem, however, does not possess these religious connotations; and the isolation it describes is a personal one, not collectively experienced by ‘we’ or ‘us’ but encountered on a daily basis by a single first-person speaker:

EACH DAY I LIVE IS A GLASS ROOM

Each day I live is a glass room
Unless I break it with the thrusting
Of my senses and pass through
The splintered walls to great landscapes
Where the birds and buds are bursting
Into Song and into Shape and Hue
Vivid and lasting.

Each day is a glass room until
I break it – but there’s many a day
I have no power to smash the walls
Of cloudy glass, and make my way
Into my own, into that vibrant country

Lesley Hurry’s illustration for ‘September 1939’

The landscape here is not the psalm-inspired pastureland of the published version but a grander, wilder expanse which Peake dubs ‘my own […] vibrant country’.  This sounds very like the private inward space described as a person’s ‘world’ in the celebrated chapter of Titus Groan entitled ‘The Attic’.  Here Peake speaks of the love ‘that equals in its power the love of man for woman and reaches inwards as deeply.  It is the love of a man or of a woman for their world.  For the world of their centre where their lives burn genuinely and with a free flame’.   In Fuchsia’s case, her world is a suite of rooms in a hidden attic of Gormenghast castle; the one place where she can allow her imagination free rein, where it can burn with the brightness of the sea-refracted sun in ‘Blue as the Indigo and Fabulous Storm’.  Fuchsia can access her suite of attic rooms with enviable ease.  In ‘Each Day I live’, by contrast, ‘my own country’ may be visited only sporadically and with considerable effort, when the strenuous ‘thrusting / Of my senses’ smashes the glass cell to which the speaker is confined.  Interestingly, though, both Fuchsia’s ‘world’ and the poet’s share a common concern with the fusion of shape and sound, word and image.  Fuchsia’s attic contains a ‘big coloured book of verses and pictures’, two of which (‘The Frivolous Cake’ and ‘Simple, Seldom and Sad’) we are privileged to read, the first through Fuchsia’s, the second through Steerpike’s eyes.   In ‘Each Day I Live’, the birds and buds of ‘my own country’ are always bursting ‘Into Song and into Shape and Hue / Vivid and lasting’; a fusion of sound, shape and colour which gets lost in the published version, where the green pastures contain birds of ‘fabulous song and hue’ whose shapes are never mentioned.  The combination of shape, sound and colour here recalls the title of Peake’s first collection of poems, Shapes and Sounds, and seems to suggest that poetry’s unique ability to combine shape with sound, on the page and in the writer’s and reader’s brain, makes it for Peake the imaginative space that most completely defines him – the ultimate expression of his ‘world’.   Presumably this poetic space would be even more defining of Peake if it were accompanied by illustrations, as Shapes and Sounds was meant to be – and as several poems by Peake were when they first appeared.  His friend Lesley Hurry illustrated three of his poems in the 1930s, including ‘September 1939’, which Hurry framed in a surreal watercolour landscape, thus enclosing it in its own glass room.

ForS+S1941

Illustration for ‘The Craters’

It would seem, then, that the ‘nervous collapse’  that took Peake to Southport was particularly disturbing, like the war in which it occurred, because of the violence it did to his inner landscape – a violence given external expression in the damage that was also being done to the urban landscapes Peake knew so well (the link between outward and inward damage is well expressed in his poem ‘The Craters’).  Fuchsia’s attic world is a place of tranquillity, where she can act out plays, tell herself stories, and read her illustrated poems without interference or regulation; and when Steerpike bursts violently into it from outside – reading her ‘book of verses and pictures’ to gain access to her mind – its magic is lost for ever.  Peake’s own country in ‘Each Day I Live’ is an energetic but peaceful place where only buds and birds are bursting, not bodies or bombs.  The visionary seascape he evokes in ‘Blue as the Indigo and Fabulous Storm’ is far more tempestuous, with palms exploding and islands bursting from the waves instead of buds; but then it has been afflicted by the psychological condition of the patients it describes, whose privacy has been violated first by war and military service, then by parading them along the seafront in abominable suits.  The landscape beyond the glass in ‘Curl Up in the Great Window Seat’ is more tempestuous still, ravaged by the ‘violence / Of the primeval gods’ like the embodiment of the woman reader’s inner turmoil.  And though the four pastures in ‘For God’s Sake Draw the Blind’ are tranquil enough, the speaker cannot respond to their tranquillity, traumatized or nerve-wracked as he is into acute vulnerability – a word derived from the Latin vulnus, wound, returning the poem to the theatre of war from which it seems at first to be secluded.  The Southport poems show Peake exiled from the ‘vibrant country’ of himself, having been brutally pressed into performing absurd and inappropriate services for his nation.  The cloudy glass that surrounded him at Southport Hospital, separating him from his home and the people around him as well as from his creativity, must sometimes have seemed unbreakable during his prolonged confinement.

One more unpublished poem, though, shows how he fought to acclimatize himself to the physical and psychological landscape he inhabited in 1942.  Unlike the other Southport poems, it is not in iambic pentameter, but wends through various metres and rhyme-schemes, perhaps in an attempt to ‘create form in a growth way’, as Peake put it to Gordon Smith: that is, to discover a form of verse that grew organically, as it were, out of its subject, and out of the time and place of its composition.  Such a form would have a better chance than the five-stress line, he thought, of flowering and producing fruit; in other words, of spawning future works of art, especially poetry.  Certainly no other poem of his Southport period – not even ‘Blue as the Indigo and Fabulous Storm’ – more obviously grows out of the specific location it was written in.  Those who have visited the beach at Southport will remember the great expanse of sands which is bared there at low tide, where even from the end of the pier it is possible to lose sight of the sea altogether, or see it only as a narrow strip of brightness on the horizon.  Southport is a place of immense vistas – as is the coastal part of Lancashire where it’s located, whose wide flat fields look like a green extension of the beaches that lie beyond them.  The ‘distant tide’, the ‘far, portentous sea’ in this poem, of which one remains acutely conscious despite its farness, is something that clearly springs from the land and seascapes of western Lancashire.

Here it is:

GATES OPEN AND LOVE’S VISTAS SPREAD

Gates open and love’s vistas spread
To the mournful barely heard
Tides that lap the bay of death
Where the wanderer through pastures
Wades and makes an end of breath
And the bodies thousand gestures
Many many years away.
But between the great gateway
Which has opened suddenly
And the far, portentous sea
Like a grey curtain filling up
The space where all the sky should be –
Spreads the dazzling woof and warp
Of the days and of the hours
And of the months and of the years
The rainbow and the diamond showers
And the tears
Of our love which are the river
That makes green the fields of lovers
When they wander through the world[.]
For what are tears but proof that we
Are alive to everything
That we hear and that we see
In each other’s entity
Where the purple heart takes wing[?]

Unlike the other poems of the Southport period, these verses enact not confinement but liberation.  Where the others are full of shut windows, this begins with an opening, rather like the generous opening of gates which Milton links with Heaven in Paradise Lost – or the gates of God’s house in Psalm 24.  The landscape revealed by this opening (we never find out in the poem which gates are being opened – perhaps they stand for the experience or recollection of falling in love) is a representation of the lover’s life, reaching through ‘many many years’ to the far-distant ‘Tides that lap the bay of death’.  These tides provoke thoughts of suicide, since at the end of his or her life’s journey the wanderer through love’s vistas wades into them voluntarily, as if eager to put a stop to the act of breathing.  They resemble a ‘grey curtain’ (covering another window?); but the panorama spread out in front of them is a dazzling confusion of shifting shapes and colours, reminiscent of the dazzling confusion of ‘Blue as the Indigo and Fabulous Storm’.

But the reason for the confusion is here quite different.  It arises from the tears that blur the speaker’s eyes; tears that have little in common with the tears that occur in ‘Curl Up in the Great Window Seat’.  There they seem to flow from the ‘salt drifts’ of the woman reader’s melancholy.  She leaves the room suddenly to shed them in private, and there is nothing in them capable of mitigating the gloomy condition either of the woman’s mind or of the storm-surrounded room she has just left.  In ‘Gates Open and Love’s Vistas Spread’, by contrast, the tears utterly transform the landscape that is seen through them, giving it the ‘dazzling warp and woof’ of an exotic fabric, watering it with ‘rainbow and… diamond showers’, and greening its fields with irrigating rivers.  In Southport Hospital, tears were proof of disordered nerves: the symptoms of Peake’s breakdown as he described them to Gordon Smith included being ‘apt to weep on breaking a bootlace’.  In the poem’s transmuted Southport, tears are instead a proof of life; proof that those who shed them possess the most acute form of hearing and vision, the sensory acuteness of the lover, which is capable of breaking through the isolation of the individual and experiencing the whole of another person’s being (‘entity’ recalls the word ‘entirety’ or wholeness as well as being – health, then, instead of sickness).  So acute is the lover’s sight, in fact, that it can see the motions of the loved one’s ’purple heart’ as if it were the flight of a brightly coloured bird across wide-open spaces.   The poem closes with a phrase, ‘takes wing’, which is the direct obverse of the entrapment articulated in the other Southport verses.  Clearly, then, Peake had at times recourse to stratagems – born perhaps of his love for Maeve – capable of freeing him mentally from the confines of Southport Hospital.  And we may count ourselves lucky to have been granted a glimpse of one, at least, of these liberating moments.

 

 

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