Maurice Collis and Mervyn Peake, Quest for Sita (1946). Part 2: Drawings

Quest for Sita, p. 105

Understanding the text of Maurice Collis’s Quest for Sita as the work of an Irish nationalist enables one to read it in political terms (see the previous post for details). But what of the drawings that accompany Collis’s narrative? Peake’s association with Ireland came through his wife, Maeve Gilmore, whose father was an Irish Catholic doctor; but Peake’s politics were those of an artist, whose work is to represent the world with fidelity to his own artistic vision, in defiance of the many pressures – financial, cultural, personal, political – to adapt their style in response to the latest fashion or movement.[1] Could his drawings in Quest for Sita be understood as a commentary on the problem of this kind of fidelity to one’s vision in the 1940s, when illusions of many kinds, from propaganda to more insidious kinds of indoctrination, competed for attention with accurate representations of people, things, ideas and feelings as the artist saw them? Collis describes the pictures as ‘a quest of [Peake’s] own to show Sita to us’ (p. vii), and the impression this gives is that ‘showing’ Sita is a process fraught with difficulty.[2] The puzzling nature of Peake’s drawings confirms this impression, not least because it’s not easy to be sure what some of them show. Thinking about them may give a number of clues as to why he chose to offer them as puzzles rather than as a simple visual response to Collis’s text.

Mervyn Peake, Mr Hyde (1948)

As Peter Winnington has pointed out, Peake’s pictures diverge from Collis’s text on many occasions, some of them not even referring to an identifiable incident or character in the adjacent pages.[3] This can’t, I think, be said of his illustrations for other publications, all of which testify to a meticulous close reading of the texts they embellish. Peake explains why he reads so carefully in a talk on ‘Book Illustration’, first given for the BBC radio show ‘As I See It’ in 1947. After embarking on a study of the major illustrators, Peake tells us – the Englishmen Rowlandson, Cruikshank, Hogarth and Blake, the Frenchman Doré, the German Dürer and Goya, the Spaniard:

I began to realize that these men had more than a good eye, a good hand, a good brain. These qualities were not enough. Nor was their power as designers, as draughtsmen. Even passion was not enough. Nor was compassion, nor irony. All this they must have, but above all things there must be the power to be identified with author, character, and atmosphere, the power to slide into another man’s soul. A new and hectic art seemed to have been opened up to me; a new world.[4]

There is something unsettling about the italicized phrase with which this passage climaxes, the power to slide into another man’s soul; a hint at demonic possession that perhaps explains why so many of Peake’s finest illustrating projects involve dark magic, or the suspicion of magic – his images for Christina Hole’s Witchcraft in England (1945), for instance, or Stevenson’s Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1948), or Dorothy Haynes’s Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch (1949). The unsettling tone is taken up by the phrase he uses to describe book illustration, a ‘hectic art’ – hectic often being used to describe out-of-control activity, especially the behaviour and appearance of a fever victim (sufferers from tuberculosis are often said to possess a ‘hectic beauty’). And Quest for Sita, in which a person may well be very different from what they appear – and identities are always available to be changed, as Ravana’s very nearly is by his admiration for his captive – makes the possibility of being possessed by someone else, sliding into another person’s soul, or being gripped by a fever of desire, uncomfortably real. Moreover, in the central portion of the book sliding into the ‘soul’ of the author is a complicated task, since the author is both the Irishman Maurice Collis and the Sanskrit poet Valmiki, from whose text he adapts his version of the Ramayana. It’s striking, then, that Peake chooses only to illustrate this central portion; the part of the text where magic is most active, illusions are omnipresent, and beings from the Three Worlds (earthly, divine, infernal) interact openly with one another, as they do not in the frame narrative. Peake is concerned solely with Swallow’s adventures as Sita, the dream sequence (as Collis presents it) when Swallow is occupying the body of the legendary princess. Sita’s body in this central section of the text is always under threat, in danger of being replaced with the body of Ravana’s sister, Surpanakha, in Rama’s bed, or of having Ravana replace Rama in her own. She is seized and subjected to successive spells of illusion and psychological coercion by the Demon King, his guards and his enchanters. Sita’s identity itself, in fact, is under siege – not just by Ravana but also by Rama, who disbelieves her assertions of her own constancy – while the identity of the demons who abduct her is even more unstable than hers. Peake’s drawings visualize this predicament, which explains why they are so unlike conventional illustrations.

Peake’s drawings are executed with exemplary control, as they had to be, given the simplicity of the drawing style he chose for them. Peter Winnington describes Peake’s three principal drawing styles in Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art:

his illustrations […] fall into three groups. In the first […] the illustrations are based on a single line, drawn with pen and ink, that outlines or silhouettes objects, without recourse to shading or cross-hatching. […] The second group […] is characterized by cross-hatching. […] Works in the third group […] were executed with a brush rather than a pen.[5]

From ‘Just a Line’

The drawings in Quest for Sita fall into the first group: pen and ink work based on a single line unsupported by cross-hatching. And as Winnington points out, it’s among the most ‘spare and economical’ examples of this group, where the ‘continuous thin line endows the space that it encloses with an extraordinary sense of three-dimensional volume and weight’, so that the ‘figures have a sculpturesque fullness and roundness at the same time as an ethereal beauty’, but with ‘nothing of the cold perfection of marble’. Peake never in fact uses a single continuous line in the book – one can easily identify the places where the artist must have lifted his nib from the paper to execute a new line – but Winnington is right in saying that this is frequently the impression these drawings give. The restless curving movements of the pen, the sinuousness of the trail it leaves behind, endow the apparently continuous line of ink with a metamorphic quality which perfectly suits the tale of Sita’s abduction. A few years after completing this commission Peake expressed his delight in the metamorphic possibilities hidden in a continuous line of ink by producing sketches for a never-realized television cartoon called Just a Line (early 1950s), about a straight line that yearns to achieve the sorts of sculpturesque effects with which the Quest for Sita is filled. ‘Sometimes I feel quite frantic,’ the line exclaims at one point, ‘when I think what I might be’ – such as a ‘wonderful land full of strange shapes and sounds and peculiar creatures and broken statues’, perhaps Collis’s India.[6] Liberated from its straightness the line would be able to transform itself into anything it likes, from a tiny mouse to an imaginary landscape, and the impression of continuousness put across by Peake’s serpentine lines in Quest for Sita suggests that they could undergo just as many transformations at the will of the magician-artist. Each drawing can be understood as existing on the verge of becoming something else; and this impression is only enhanced by the reader’s uncertainty in many cases as to what exactly the images refer to in the text – if anything at all. This uncertainty transports the reader into the magic-filled world of the pre-Golden Age, so that we share Swallow’s uncertainty as to who she can trust, how she is to read the bodies that present themselves to her, and indeed, who she herself may be. The notion that each drawing may be controlled by a different personality in the text – sometimes Sita, often Ravana and his enchanters, sometimes perhaps even the great archer Rama, whose skills with another sort of line, his bowstring, are legendary – is reinforced by the thematic echoes that link picture to picture (extravagant headwear, the nudity of both male and female figures, the strange creatures they contain). Unlike the line in Peake’s projected cartoon, the line in these drawings is continually changing, and may be possessed by any number of souls at different points in the visual narrative.

Quest for Sita, p. 107

As I’ve just indicated, one of the ways in which Peake diverges from Collis’s text is to represent most of the male and female figures in the book as nudes, modeled sometimes on the sensuous nudes of Indian, Burmese or Indonesian sculpture in wood or stone (which Collis could have shown him), sometimes on the erotic line drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, often on neither of these things. Each figure looks much like all the other figures of the same gender in the book, the women rounded and flexible, the men well muscled and angular, though some figures blur these gender distinctions, like the androgynous figure clutching a bird on p. 107. They have little or no context – only a little ground beneath their feet, sometimes supplemented with a few lines composing a background – to help us place them in the narrative. Stripped down to the basics, the figures wear headdresses whose extravagance is intensified by the blank spaces all around them and the nakedness of the figures they crown. Reminiscent of the towering royal headdress of South-East Asia known as the makuta, as I said in the previous post, none of these pieces is ever repeated between one picture and another. Each, then, could be taken to represent the current mood of its wearer: aggressive, sad and contemplative, sexually aroused, acquisitive, sly and so on. This is most vividly suggested by the claws that burgeon from Surpanakha’s crown as she performs her dance of seduction on p. 49, suggesting her predatory intentions towards the royal couple, or the daggers and pneumatic drill that spring from its apex when she takes on her monstrous true form on p. 51, just before launching her attack on Sita. The complicated ornamentation on these makutas suggests they are made from gold, which links them to the illusions that envelop Ravana’s gold-filled fortress of Lanka, and to Ravana’s vision of mortals, sprites and gods as so many expensive items to be added to his personal treasury. The sensuality of so many of the pictures, too, suggests that we are looking at them through the eyes of the Demon King; they represent, in other words, the dangers that beset Swallow in her role as Sita, and suggest the ease with which we, the reader-viewers, might have given in to the seductions she resists.

p. 45

This association of the drawings with the dangers posed by Ravana is first suggested by the very first picture we encounter in the book (not including the one on the dustjacket, the sketch of Sita stamped on the cloth-bound hard front cover of my edition, or the nude dancer on the title page). This first picture appears at the point in the narrative when Ravana’s presence is first revealed to Rama and Sita, two chapters after Swallow’s trance-transition to the Golden Age. The Chapter in which it appears is aptly called ‘The Apparition’, announcing the entrance of magic into the story in the person of Surpanakha; and the drawing shows an old man – presumably an anchorite – squeezing water out of his beard at the edge of a cliff, while looking nervously around as if to spot one of the demons who have been troubling his solitary existence since Rama and Sita came to live nearby (p. 45). The old man is fully dressed and wears an umbrella-like hat, and if the dampness of his beard is at first hard to account for – there is no suggestion in the text that the anchorites were unusually wet when the royal couple first met them – it may be explained by the words of the ‘ancient recluse’ who describes the recent depredations of Ravana’s demons:

Taking many forms, both of men and animals, they issue from the forest and haunt us incessantly. […] At dead of night their vast laughter bursts out when we are practicing our penances. Or flooding down they will foul our altars, which at dawn we find to be drenched with blood. (p. 46).

The wetness of the old man’s beard, in other words, may show the after-effect of the demons ‘flooding down’ on himself and his fellow recluses; the liquid he wrings out of it may be blood. As for the cliff, it may represent the precipice of danger at the edge of which the couple find themselves as the old man speaks. Many of the pictures that follow give the impression that we have fallen off this precipice and are leaping, dancing or tumbling through space. This impression is enhanced by the dynamic movement of the male and female figures in the book, who launch themselves through the air, balance on their hands on the backs of beasts, or fling themselves from their foaming steeds in ecstatic agony. Their bodies twist, their arms and legs gesticulate wildly, and they often seem off kilter, always on the verge of taking up a new position, a new life or a new identity. Peake’s series of drawings begins with the entrance of Ravana into the story, so that they seem to be ‘of Ravana’s party without knowing it’, to adapt the famous words of William Blake about John Milton.[7]

p. 67

The old man in that first picture has a creature near him, a diminutive lizard which is taking an obvious interest in the drops coming out of his beard. Many of the pictures contain birds and beasts, often looking on in surprise or curiosity, like this lizard. Again, these creatures have a source in Collis’s text, where they crop up from time to time to stare in amazement or consternation at the actions of gods, sprites, mortals and demons. During the battle between Ravana and the divine vulture Jatayus, the ‘sylvan deities of tree and stream and hill’ manifest themselves and utter cries of encouragement for the vulture (p. 68). Later Sita’s abduction is witnessed by a throng of forest animals, which follow the shadow of Ravana’s chariot in their various ways – ‘galloping, bounding, swinging, a-wing’ – spurred on by their sense that a ‘great wrong [is] being consummated’ (p. 72). Animals also play a major role in the story, of course, in the form of the warrior monkey Hanuman, his king Sugriva, and the vulture brothers Jatayus and Sampati. But these significant beasts, the ones with major roles, are often hard to identify in the drawings. The birds on pp. 67 and 69, for instance, whose pictures sit alongside Collis’s account of the fight between Ravana and Jatayus, have hooked beaks and decorative plumage, but seem not to be the vulture of the text, who is ‘divinely brave, divinely strong, and divinely beautiful’ (p. 66). Instead they are small, their expressions goofy.

p. 63

The animal on p. 63, meanwhile, seems clearly to represent one of the vampiric donkeys that draw Ravana’s chariot, according to Collis; it has protruding fangs, grotesquely puckered lips, and batwing ears, and the drawing of it is positioned very close to Collis’s description of the ‘asses with the faces of vampires’ (p. 64). But the animal’s tail is not much like that of a donkey (Peake could draw donkeys with great accuracy, having ridden one to school in his childhood). And the quadruped that appears a few pages later, in one of the two pictures that accompany the fight between Ravana and Jatayus (p. 67), looks very unlike the vampire ass of p. 63. It has a headdress made of something like coral, square teeth, strange pointed hooves, and an expression even more goofy than that of the bird perched on Sita’s wrist (if the woman in the picture is indeed Sita).

p. 69

The next picture shows a carnivore – perhaps a tiger – with a woman balancing upside down on its back, another small bird perched on her ankle (p. 69). By no stretch of the imagination can the picture be said to represent Sita struggling to free herself from Ravana’s grasp, as she does in the facing text; while the bird on her ankle can hardly be said to have ‘claws as large as pruning hooks’ (p. 68). It also looks rather different from the bird in the previous drawing, which may also be intended to represent Jatayus. What, then, does the picture on p. 69 stand for? The tiger may be some sort of embodiment of Ravana, but the gleeful expression of the woman on his back seems quite inappropriate for Sita, who should be watching for the outcome of the fight with some anxiety. We seem to be in the presence, then, of a visual fantasy in which the battle between Ravana, Jatayus and the vampire asses, as witnessed by Sita, is replayed as an erotic juggling act watched by an appreciative audience consisting of a charmingly decorated snake and a lizard with wings. Is this Ravana’s way of seeing the combat? Or are we in the alternative universe of Peake’s art, the ‘world’, as Collis described it, which is ‘pervaded by a mood unlike that of any writer or painter working today’, and where the fight has a different meaning from the one it has for Collis? We simply don’t know; the drawing is enigmatic.

p. 139

At times, then, Peake’s animal drawings can’t be linked with any confidence to particular details in Collis’s text; and this is most obvious in the case of the monkeys. The monkeys (if they are indeed all monkeys) change their appearance radically on at least three occasions. The most obviously simian figure in the book is the one on p. 143 (see end of post), which may be Hanuman with his bow and spear and elaborately ornamented sword. The short legs, long arms, mobile lips and small, closely-set eyes suggest an orang utan from Burma, while the foliage pouring from its helmet suggests the jungle where it feels at home. The picture on p. 139 may or may not represent Hanuman’s monarch, King Sugriva, because Collis describes him wearing a ‘fantastical battle-cap’ (p. 145), and the creature is certainly wearing the most fantastical of all the crazy bits of headgear in Peake’s illustrations. The crown has what looks like the capital of a stone column incorporated into it, surmounted by a kind of vase containing three hands, one of which supports a wheel, on top of which balances a vase with a single flower in it. But this monster could just as easily be a manifestation of Ravana, who is ten-headed but is always changing his appearance to conceal his decacephalic nature (decacephalic is one of Collis’s favourite words). The picture occurs alongside Rama’s account of how he saw Sita – or her double – lolling in Ravana’s lap before the final battle; so perhaps it represents the Demon King as Rama sees him. Its face might be that of a leonine baboon, and hence suitable for a monkey king; but it might just as easily be the face of a lion, perched on top of a humanoid body, the sort of hybrid shape Ravana might be expected to delight in. Again, we just don’t know.

p. 101

The third monkey image, if it is one, appears on p. 101. The monster in the picture, which has a naked woman crouching on its back, doesn’t look anything like a monkey or an ape – it’s more like a Chinese lion, tiger or dragon; but in my edition it sits alongside the part of the text where the captive Sita refuses to ride on Hanuman’s back to escape from Lanka, because she thinks that certain observers would find this mode of travel unseemly for a woman of her rank. I am tempted to think of it as a representation of what her husband Rama might think if Sita were to agree to escape in this way – an imaginative response, that is, to the words she uses to describe his potential reaction:

What will people think of me riding on a monkey? Will Rama be pleased to see me appear embracing such a mount as your Honour’s self? […] Rama would be glad to have me back, no doubt, but at the same time might condemn the manner of my return, flying over the sea and between the worlds, not like the wife for whom he mourns but like a wild thing, a witch or ghost (p. 100).

Certainly the woman in the picture looks decidedly wild, with her legs spread wide apart, her face smiling impishly, and a telltale skull embedded in her hat. The skull, too, appears to be smiling. And the monster she rides is smiling too, its lips bared in a grin that displays its blunt teeth and long curved tusks. Its six-pronged tail stands erect, perilously close to the woman’s haunches. My reading, then, makes some sort of sense, but the picture doesn’t support it by, for instance, showing the monster as in any way apelike. It’s a riddle, like all the other drawings in Peake’s part of the volume.

p. 131

Other animals in the pictures have no relation at all to anything in Collis’s text. The androgynous person on p. 107, for instance, has a lion ramping behind them, and occurs at a point in the text where the monkey Hanuman is running riot in Ravana’s palace. Is the lion an image of Hanuman’s ferocity? The woman on p. 131 is holding a grotesque sort of Pekinese dog, with tufts like sea anemones on its elbows. There’s no dog mentioned in the text. All in all, the birds and beasts have more in common with Swallow’s retrospective description of her adventures in the Golden Age than with any particular episode she took part in. As she tells the old man Ho after waking from her trance, ‘I saw birds, and dragonish persons who were birdlike, and beasts that were like birds, and birds that were like men’ (p. 147). The sentence might vaguely describe her various meetings with talking vultures and a flying monkey, but they also suggest a world in which people, beasts and spirits are always mixing, melding and changing appearance, as if in the throes of a particularly hectic fever dream.

p. 83

In this procession of uncertain images, the quest for Sita is a challenging one for the reader as well as the artist. The nudity of the women in the drawings does not accord with what we know about the princess, who bedecked herself with finery before her abduction. It’s possible that she lost these clothes in the course of the journey to Lanka, since at one point she flung her ‘yellow silk mantle’ to some monkeys in the hope that they would take it to Rama and show him which way she went. Alternatively, or in addition, Sita’s nudity may be intended to suggest her subjection to the predatory gaze of the Demon King and his monstrous cohorts. Certainly it aligns her with the female nudes in Collis’s text, all of whom are Ravana’s dancers, who ‘had a likeness to dryads, being clad only in gems and the sparkle of gems, as such nymphs are in dew-drops and mottled sun-light’ (p. 78). Some of Peake’s drawings correspond quite closely to Collis’s account of these dancers. They are ‘led by midgets and contortionists’, and Peake represents the dancers’ attendants in several images of Beardsley-esque dwarfs, some of them clutching the legs of women, and in two images of contortionists or acrobats (pp. 83 and 85). Some dancers wear ‘round their waists […] a belt of bells’, and here the distinction between them and Sita blurs still further. The dancer on p. 91 wears a belt that might well be made of bells; but so does the woman standing in front of a horse or ass in the drawing on p. 67, which is positioned alongside the textual description of Ravana’s fight with Jatayus. Most of the dancers have bodies that resemble Sita’s, though some are distinguished from the rest by the length of their claw-like fingernails. Their faces are often like hers, too: heart-shaped, with large, wide-set eyes, full lips and long lashes, like the face of Peake’s favourite model, his wife Maeve. As a result, it’s impossible to be certain in any given picture of a full-length female nude if we’re looking at Sita or one of the dancers. The problem is compounded by the fact that three pictures I’ve already discussed as possible representations of Sita have little connection to Collis’s text (pp. 67, 69 and 101). The hallucinatory quality of the drawings, in other words, is as evident in the human figures they contain as in their birds and animals. They float in a space or world adjacent to the verbal narrative, and only occasionally seem fully to converge with it.

p. 135

Most of the men in the drawings are as hard to identify as the women. There are a couple of exceptions, such as the image on p. 123, which self-evidently shows the beheading of Rama, since this is the only decollation mentioned in Collis’s text. To confirm the identification, the picture occurs on the page before Sita is shown her husband’s ‘freshly severed head’ (p. 124), so the reader is likely to make the connection between the dead man and Rama very soon after the picture has appeared. The head in the drawing, however, has no distinguishing features, and its identity is in any case rendered questionable by the fact that Rama has not in fact been beheaded; his decollation is a lie spread by Ravana’s enchanters. And other possible representations of Rama in Peake’s drawings are not so certain. It’s not clear, for instance, whether the archer shown in the drawing on p. 111 is the bowman Rama as described in Collis text on p. 110 (‘the most famous archer among the mortals’), or is instead one of Ravana’s soldiers, whose ‘bows are the strongest in the Three Worlds’ (p. 109). The bowman in the picture is mounted on a horse, whereas Rama and Ravana ride chariots in their final showdown – so the drawing might show a member of Ravana’s ‘cavalry’ (p. 111). The same uncertainty surrounds another archer, who appears on p. 135, standing in front of a horse. Could this be Rama, standing in front of one of the white horses that draw his chariot, as the text informs us (p. 134)? The cruelty of the man’s expression suggests he is not the prince; but if it’s Ravana, he’s disguised as a human or a god, since Ravana’s true form, as we know, has ten heads. More even than the women, it would seem, the men in the pictures are hard to name, because Ravana has spun his webs of enchantment round them in his bid to mislead Sita into infidelity.

p. 75

The men in Peake’s pictures are mostly naked, as I’ve already mentioned, like the women, and in the men’s case this nudity seems to emphasize their vulnerability: their capacity to be subdued by a woman’s qualities, like the Demon King Ravana, and to lose their grasp on the characteristics of patriarchal masculinity: strength, decisiveness, vigorous activity, control over women. The first man we meet in the drawings is the elderly anchorite, who is fully dressed but fearful, damp and threatened (p. 46). After this we are shown only women, until we reach Chapter 19, which describes the temptation of Sita in Ravana’s palace. Here suddenly a succession of men step onto the paper stage; and the order in which these drawings appear may be significant. The first picture shows a giant of a man who is carrying a tray as if it were laden with heavy objects, although the only thing on the tray is a pot with a solitary flower in it (p. 75). This was the picture, or something very like it, that impelled Collis to approach Peake to make the drawings for Quest for Sita; and here the man forms part of a parade of entertainers that follows Ravana as he comes to seduce his captive on the night after her arrival. Most of the parade is made up of dancers, but it closes with ‘a rout of dwarfs and buffoons, who pretended to carry yet other dainties, with show of effort supporting a dish on which was nothing but a stone or a common flower’ (p. 76). The man, then, is clearly a buffoon, his muscles straining for no purpose at all, symbolically demonstrating the emptiness of the show in which he takes part. The next men to appear in the drawings are a pair of male dwarfs who seem to be fighting over a single place between the legs of a female dancer. One eyes the other, brandishing a phallic snake and making a threatening gesture, as if preparing to shove him away from where he stands clutching the woman’s calf. A few pages later, another dwarf holds up a goofy bird while flouncing a tail between his own buttocks. When at last we get a drawing of the King of Demons, then – in Chapter 20, titled ‘Moonlight in the Park of Spring’ – he has been heralded by a series of satirical versions of maleness: the frightened hermit, the ridiculous muscle-man, the lecherous dwarfs. Men in Peake’s drawings are fragile, and seem to be striving to impose their will on women in a bid to convince themselves of their own forcefulness.

p. 89

Ravana is the other male figure who is easily identified among Peake’s images. Near the beginning of Chapter 20 Collis describes him in some detail, dressed in ‘a scarlet cloak, open in front, floating as he came like the foam of ambrosia, and sown with flowers’ (p. 88). The Demon King is ‘lustful and proud, elated with wine, and glorying in the night’; his face is ‘a mask’, like the masks of the goldfish in his pond (p. 88). But Sita resists him, and at the end of the chapter he is forced to replace her in his bed with one of his dancers, a former favourite who assures him that ‘You will get ill loving one who loves you not’ (p. 92). And Peake pictures him on p. 89 in such a way as to hint at his abject failure to subdue his captive. Gliding along ‘as though on an air current’ (as Collis puts it), his feet suspended above the ground, voluminous cloak thrown back to reveal his naked body, he appears weightless despite the power of his muscular frame beneath the cloak – the exact reverse of the strangely weighty flower we saw a few pages earlier. Muscular though he is, his body is hairless, as if to suggest that he has not yet achieved complete maturity. His face is fishlike, as if to stress the lack of thought going on behind it. His crown looks like a garden ornament. The male gaze may have shaped the bodies of the naked women we have seen in Peake’s drawings up to this point, but men themselves, it seems, are feeble, unable to exploit their power for any greater purpose than to please the eyes. They are decorative, not practical, and thus ill suited for the martial feats they are expected to engage in.

p. 133

As the parade of drawings goes on, the men in them get increasingly fragile. The series of drawings that represent the final fight between Ravana and Rama show men as always dangerously off balance, from the mounted bowman on p. 111, who seems to be sliding off a melting horse, to the beheaded warrior on p. 123, who has lost his body altogether, to the seeming delight of the ferocious mount that stands behind him. After this picture they begin to fall and die, pierced through by arrows, snarling in pain and rage as they writhe towards death. A rearing horse flings its furious rider into space, its mane and tail blazing (p. 127). A dying swordsman drops his fantastically ornate sword, its quillons fashioned in the shape of wings as if to confirm its intention to elude his grasp (p. 133). The man throws back his head in angry ecstasy as an arrow transfixes his chest. The arrow-pierced rider on p. 137 seems to have been mounted by his horse, in an ironic reversal of the hoped-for mounting of Sita by her abductor. The Demon King intended his seduction of the princess to culminate in a ritual, orgiastic penetration; instead he and his men are penetrated by his rival, and flap the air as they die with great limp hands.

Illustration for ‘The Craters’, in Shapes and Sounds (1942)

Ravana and his warriors are closely akin to many other men Peake drew in wartime: the young soldier who seems to die while involved in a homoerotic affair with a centaur, in a set of recently discovered sketches; the naked youths suspended in space which he used to illustrate his first collection of poems, Shapes and Sounds (1942); the Ancient Mariner, who throws out his chest in mute expectation that it will be struck by some supernatural arrow sent to avenge his piercing of the albatross. In Peake’s war drawings men tumble, slump, recline and sag, borne along like flotsam on the tides of a global conflict they cannot control. The tumbling, wounded men in Quest for Sita are located in the Second World War by their affinity with these vulnerable predecessors. They proclaim, too, their affinity with the men in Peake’s wartime novel, Titus Groan, who have been read as uniquely vulnerable by Matt Sangster in a revealing essay.[8]

p. 59

Peake, like Collis, seems to imply that the women in Sita’s story are more powerful in body and mind than the men who compete for their attention. They are also more closely attended to in his drawings, as in Collis’s narrative. In among the full-length images I’ve looked at so far, Peake presents us with a series of portraits, whose positioning in the text implies they show Sita. The first comes in Chapter 16, after the chapter where Sita sends Rama away from her in pursuit of the wonderful gazelle, followed closely by his brother Lakshmana. At this point in the narrative she is alone, and for the first time unsure of her behaviour: ‘With the departure of Lakshmana,’ Chapter 16 begins, ‘Sita remained bowed and weeping […] uncertain whether she had acted rightly or no’ (p. 58). The portrait on the page opposite (p. 59) doesn’t show her in this state; the woman in it is not weeping. Instead she looks sad and thoughtful, much as Sita does when Ravana sees her for the first time, in the chapter’s third paragraph. On hearing a sound outside, Collis tells us, Sita ‘raised her head’ and ‘overwhelmed with joy ran to the door’; but on seeing who it is (Ravana disguised as a religious mendicant) ‘She looked at him askance, grievously disappointed’, while the mendicant looks back ‘with open admiration’. This is no surprise, Collis tells us, because ‘in her court silks, jeweled and tyred, her lovely face reflecting like a mirror her troubled heart, she was a vision hardly imaginable at the door of the mountain retreat’ (p. 58). If the picture opposite shows Sita at this moment, in other words, she is being seen by the Demon King. But she is not seeing him; she looks through or beyond him, seeking her husband. The male gaze may seek to subjugate her face and body to its pleasure, but after the opening chapters of the Ramayana section of the novel, the man who interests her is always elsewhere. As she looks out of the page, he is behind the reader’s shoulder, so to speak. No other man can match him.

Ravana is Sita’s abductor and would-be seducer, and we might expect this to be reflected in how he sees her. At the same time, the Dark Angel’s gaze in Collis’s narrative begins to change him, subjecting him to the power of Sita’s personality, awaking in him an admiration of her inward qualities as well as her body. This split perception of Sita is well represented in Peake’s portraits. She is physically attractive in a conventional way, with large eyes, full lips, tilted eyebrows, curling lashes and a heart-shaped face. In several portraits she is nude or semi-clad, underscoring the Demon-King’s erotic obsession with her; and in all of them she is also ‘bejewelled and tyred’, sporting elaborate earrings and a version of the makuta or crown on her head (that, at least, is what I think Collis means by ‘tyred’, though the OED is not very helpful in supporting my reading of ‘tyre’ as a variant of ‘tiara’). In some drawings, including the first portrait, she wears make-up, with a tilaka or third eye painted between her eyebrows and floral patterns on her cheeks. But if she is represented as physically attractive, she is also represented as strong; her neck, in particular, is extraordinarily powerful, supporting her head on a pillar of muscle that defies the conventions of anatomy, as in this first example. Her expression is always serious in these portraits – whereas the women in the full-length pictures often look gleeful, ecstatic, or coquettish. The portraits are often placed in the first UK and US editions alongside moments in Collis’s text when Sita exerts her power. The first (p. 59) comes at the moment when Ravana begins to admire her; in it she looks at Ravana in disappointment, so that the reader as well as the Demon King is aware that he means nothing to her.

p. 97

The second (p. 97) comes at one of Sita’s weaker moments, when she confesses that she sent Rama after the gazelle on a ‘stupid whim’ (p. 96); but the confession confirms her power over her husband and his brother, and Sita’s expression in the drawing shows no remorse.

p. 113

The third portrait (p. 113) occurs when Ravana’s initial impression of Sita is replaced by ‘a new and more violent feeling’, which makes him aspire to achieve ‘paradise’ for her – to win a place in the world of the immortals – in defiance of his own demonic nature. In this portrait she is not looking at the viewer at all, her thoughts again being clearly occupied with something else.

p. 131

The fourth portrait (p. 131) comes at the point when Sita gains control of her Amazonian guards, who beg her to protect them against Rama’s allies, Hanuman’s army of warrior monkeys. In this picture Sita is holding the bizarre creature I mentioned earlier, some sort of fanged Pekinese. Her nails are long and pointed, like the nails of Surpanakha in Peake’s picture of her. She is looking away from the viewer, as well as the creature, and the impression she gives is that of a woman who can tame any monster without even thinking about it – which is exactly what happens in the text.

p. 141

The last portrait (p. 141) faces the moment in the story when Sita makes her solemn declaration that Rama was mistaken in thinking he had seen her on the final battlefield in Ravana’s chariot, ‘covering him with kisses’, as the Dark Angel sped towards his fatal final encounter with Sita’s husband (p. 140). The tilaka between her eyebrows looks as though it has burst into flame, and her eyebrows too are jagged, as if to indicate her anger at the accusation. Her makuta has a protective cloth attached to it behind, like the helmets worn by the male warriors in Peake’s drawings of them – most notably in the portrait of Ravana. She looks directly at the viewer, as if to confirm her words, and her neck is like a column or tower of flesh. This is the final image we are given of Sita, and it couldn’t be more obviously intended to leave us with the sense that she knows now exactly who she is, and intends us to know it too. In Peake’s terms we have slid into her soul, and are ready to return to the mortal world in the last three chapters, armed with a familiarity with this seminal figure in Indian myth that will enable us to look with new eyes on the countries and cultures in Asia that embraced it.

p. 137

Clearly my interpretations of Peake’s drawings are largely conjectural – stories I’ve made up about them, based on their location at certain points in Collis’s narrative. We have not been given a verbal commentary to help us read them, and other individuals will read them very differently from me. Our scrutiny of these drawings, in fact – our awareness of how they diverge in many details from the text they accompany – makes us collaborators in the business of bringing Sita back to life, the quest for Sita. We are writers and artists as well as readers. Between them, text and drawings ensure that the book is a creative process, since it’s for us to interpret the dialogue in progress between them. And Collis’s preface, with its acknowledgement of the constantly changing texture of the great stories, confirms that this is exactly what both artists – writer and illustrator – set out to do. Their theme was independence, and text and drawings perform that theme as well as any artwork I can think of.

p. 143


[1] Peake explains his philosophy of art in the introduction to The Drawings of Mervyn Peake (Grey Walls Press, 1949), reproduced in Mervyn Peake: Writings and Drawings, ed. Maeve Gilmore and Shelagh Johnson (London: Academy Editions, 1974), pp. 80-82.

[2] Maurice Collis, Quest for Sita (New York: The John Day Company, 1947). All references are to this edition.

[3] Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen Books, 2006), compiled Sebastian Peake and Alison Eldred, ed. G. Peter Winnington, p. 107: ‘there are no captions to Mervyn Peake’s drawings, for (as here) they often do not correspond to a specific character or moment’. The picture mentioned is the one of the old man, the first drawing in the body of the text, discussed below.

[4] Quoted from Mervyn Peake: Oscar Wilde (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1980), Foreword by Maeve Gilmore, p. 9.

[5] Winnington (ed.), Mervyn Peake: The Man and his Art, Chapter 7, pp. 101-103.

[6] See Mervyn Peake: Writings and Drawings, ed. Gilmore and Johnson, pp. 93-96.

[7] ‘The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it.’ William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790), in The Poetical Works of William Blake, ed. John Sampson (London etc.: Oxford University Press, 1914), p. 249.

[8] Matthew Sangster, ‘Peake and Vulnerability’, Miracle Enough: Papers on the Works of Mervyn Peake, ed. G. Peter Winnington, introd. William Gray (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2013), pp. 105-116.

Maurice Collis and Mervyn Peake, Quest for Sita (1946). Part 1: Text

The first American edition (1947)

The work of Maurice Collis is well known in Myanmar (formerly Burma) but hardly at all in Europe or America, though he was once a celebrated author. Quest for Sita (1946) – his version of part of the Sanskrit epic the Ramayana – is most famous in Britain for having been ‘illustrated’ by the writer-artist Mervyn Peake. Collis himself describes their partnership in the book’s preface as joint ‘quests’ to interpret Valmiki’s text, and the equal status of these quests is signaled on the dust jacket of the first US edition of 1947, which describes it as the work of ‘two master craftsmen’ and the pictures as ‘Drawings by Mervyn Peake’.[1] In his Preface to this edition Collis refers to the transformations undergone by the epic through the ages, whereby the story has been repeatedly modified in response to the new pressures exerted on it by the new experiences of successive generations. ‘Each writer,’ Collis tells us, ‘as he brought it to life again, tinged it with the colour of his own period and environment’, and he sees himself as following in this tradition. His aim, he says, was to ‘rescue and bring [Sita] back to life’, and his method ‘while preserving the main outlines of her history’ to ‘vivify it by passing it through his imagination, the course taken freely by his predecessors of Asia’ (p. vii). ‘The same,’ he concludes, ‘may be said of Mr Mervyn Peake, whose drawings are less illustrations of the text than a quest of his own to show Sita to us’. Quest for Sita, then, may be described as a joint venture that represents part of the ancient epic through the eyes of two European artists at a particular time in history. The artists may be from Europe, but for Collis they both participate in India’s commitment to the Sita legend, seeking to transplant it into a Western culture that has deliberately distanced itself from the culture and history of the subcontinent it has been exploiting for so many centuries.

Maurice Collis by Gérard Laenen

In this blog post and the next I will consider Quest for Sita as a collaborative artistic enterprise, rather than as a writer’s project which happens to have been embellished by an artist. In the process I hope to learn something about Collis’s neglected craftsmanship as a writer, while also learning how to think about the illustrator’s craft, which strikes me as having been equally neglected. I can’t think of a better book to use for the second of these purposes; first, because Quest for Sita contains haunting pictures which have been widely praised (though not often analysed) by both commentators and collectors; secondly, because the drawings seem to have a life of their own, quite distinct from the text; and thirdly because this is a book which has never been printed without its illustrations, so that Peake’s images seem to have been accepted as essential adjuncts of Collis’s prose. I should say at once that I didn’t at first expect to have as much to say as I do about Peake’s pictures; and there remains a lot more to say about them. To modify the old saying, a picture is worth much more than a thousand words, a truism that gives the lie to the usual perception of the relationship between word and image in book illustration, which tends to weight the collaboration very heavily in favour of the writer.

Abduction of Sita by Ravana, Prambanan temple, Central Java, ca. 900 CE

If Quest for Sita was a bid to bring the heroine of the Ramayana back to life, 1946 was a remarkable year in which to do it. Valmiki’s epic is revered and performed throughout the Indian subcontinent, South East Asia and China, and the whole of this region was in turmoil as the project took shape. According to Peter Winnington, Peake’s drawings were made ‘in the late summer and autumn of 1944’, while Collis’s text must have been written earlier.[2] Burma (Collis’s home of more than twenty years) was largely under Japanese occupation at the time, and the Burmese independence movement, which aimed to liberate the country from both Japanese and British rule, was at its height. Collis set his version of the story in China, also under partial Japanese occupation in 1944, and India, which was mobilizing huge numbers of troops against the Axis while continuing its own struggle for independence from the British. Peake’s drawings furnish the characters in the story with variations on the South-East Asian royal headdress known as makuta (magaik in Myanmar), linking the story back to Burma. The ‘colour of [the artists’] own period and environment’ pervades the project, in other words, and many of those colours are violent ones, well suited to a story of abduction, combat and rescue played out between gods, mortals, demons and monkeys in a landscape of mountains and magical islands.

Maurice Collis by Feliks Topolski

Maurice Collis was well placed to make the most of the Sita story in this context. He is often described as ‘British’ in accounts of him, but in fact he was an Irishman, the oldest of three brothers from Killiney, County Dublin. His father, a wealthy solicitor, sent him to Rugby School in England, and he joined the Indian Civil Service when he left university, settling in England after his retirement in 1934. All of this makes him sound like a thoroughgoing Unionist and a dedicated servant of Empire. But Collis was a nationalist sympathizer – allying himself to the Burmese as well as the Irish independence movements – and his behaviour as a magistrate in Rangoon got him in trouble for failing to toe the colonial line on several occasions. His book Trials in Burma (1937) describes three trials in particular where his judgments were at odds with those of the British expat community. In the first he failed to impose serious punishment for sedition on a well-known activist for Indian independence, Jatindra Mohan Sengupta, when he spoke publicly in Rangoon; in the second he reprimanded a British merchant for failing to administer first aid to a servant he had fatally injured; while in the third he sought to impose a prison sentence on a British army officer who had knocked down two Burmese women in his car. The sentence was overturned by the High Court and Collis was effectively demoted, being sent as an Excise Commissioner to the remote port of Myeik, where he went on researching Burmese and Chinese history and culture. After his retirement from the Civil Service he wrote many books – novels, histories and biographies – as well as three plays. Many of his titles confirm his continuing interest in the workings of imperialism, from an account of the Spanish invasion of the Americas, Cortés and Montezuma (1954), to a history of the first and second Opium Wars between Britain and China, Foreign Mud (1946). As an Irishman, he saw British activities in the Far East with the sceptical eye of an outsider; and his consciousness of this outsider status may have been intensified by the fact that publications by the Irish nationalist Sinn Féin party were widely circulated in 1930s Burma, as a route map to liberation from British influence.[3]

A few more things are worth mentioning about Collis. First, he had a pair of remarkable brothers, John and Robert, the first of whom became a pioneering ecologist while the second worked as a doctor with the Red Cross during the Second World War, notably in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and later with cerebral palsy patients in Dublin, including the writer-artist Christy Brown. Robert could conceivably have met Mervyn Peake in 1945 when the artist entered Bergen-Belsen with the aim of recording it in pictures (a task Peake found impossible, as he explained in a poem).[4] Maurice Collis, meanwhile, had a lifelong interest in the visual arts; he wrote books about L. S. Lowry and Stanley Spencer, and took up painting himself at the age of 67. It was this interest in art that first brought him together with Peake. He reviewed one of Peake’s exhibitions in June 1944 and was so struck by one drawing in particular that he invited him to draw pictures for Quest for Sita.[5] The friendship between them lasted for the rest of Peake’s lifetime. When Peake won the Heinemann prize for Gormenghast and The Glassblowers in 1951 he asked Collis to go with him to the prize-giving ceremony, and Collis later penned an ‘introduction’ to one of Peake’s exhibition catalogues, in which he comments that ‘His world is pervaded by a mood unlike that of any writer or painter working today’. This unique ‘mood’ is what sets Peake’s pictures apart from Collis’s text in Quest for Sita, and Collis’s celebration, in his Preface, of the independence of Peake’s response to Sita suggests that it was achieved with the writer’s active encouragement.

Maurice Collis, Expulsion of the Foreign Devils

To describe Quest for Sita as a version of part of the Ramayana doesn’t do the book justice. It’s a narrative as much concerned with the international impact of the Ramayana as it is with the epic itself; and its stated intention to ‘rescue and bring [Sita] back to life’ endows Valmiki’s poem with the same kind of vibrant relevance to anti-colonialism in India, China and Burma as the Irish Revival had to the struggle for an independent Ireland. The book introduces the Ramayana to its Western readers in much the same way as James Stephens (another friend of Peake’s) had introduced British and American readers to the Irish literary heritage that underpinned the independence movement.[6] Quest may, in fact, have had a similar intention to Stephens’s retellings of Irish tales: to get the old stories into widespread circulation among populations that did not know them, and thus to lend those stories a symbolic and political reach they would not otherwise have had. And Collis underscores the unexpected link between the Indian and Irish contexts with the addition of a number of new episodes of his own, to supplement the new episodes added over time by his Asian forerunners.

In Collis’s book, the tale of Sita’s abduction by the ‘Dark Angel’ Ravana is set within a frame narrative that takes place near Chongqing City in Sichuan Province, China. A girl named Swallow, whose family are starving, is sold by her parents to a marriage broker, who plans to sell her on as a wife to any man willing to pay a good price. Swallow escapes from the broker’s clutches and is given shelter by the mysterious Sage of Wushan Mountain. The Sage believes he recognizes the girl from some former life, and she agrees to take part in an experiment whereby he sends her back in time, with the help of a meditation-induced trance or dream, to the period when they first knew each other. By this means the pair discover that they are reincarnations of the famous lovers Sita and Rama, having taken on their roles in a dream reenactment of the central portion of the Ramayana. When Swallow wakes from her dream at the end of the novel she learns that the Sage is also the son of the Emperor of China, banished from court after having been unfairly implicated in a plot against his father. The frame narrative ends with the Prince being reinstated as his father’s successor and returning with his new wife Swallow to the imperial court – though not before the girl has made sure that her parents and younger brothers will never starve again.

Pu Yi, the Last Emperor of China

The frame narrative isn’t set in any specific period in history, but it contains elements that would have been familiar to Chinese, Irish and Indian readers. The notion of a Chinese Emperor in exile might have called to mind the so-called Last Emperor of China, Pu Yi, who was deposed as a child in 1912 and later set up as puppet Emperor of Manchuria by the Japanese invaders. Royalty in exile was also a theme of Irish history, especially after the Anglo-Norman Invasion of the late 12th Century. Famine, meanwhile, was an abiding presence in British colonial history. The famine that drives Swallow’s family to offer her up for sale recalls both the Great Hunger triggered in Ireland by the potato blight of 1845-9, which was exacerbated by the refusal of the British government to intervene, and the famines that afflicted China in the nineteenth century, which were exacerbated by population expansion and the widespread use of opium. It was the British who forced the Chinese government into legalizing opium in the Opium Wars of 1839-60, as Collis explains in Foreign Mud (a book he published in the same year as Quest for Sita); so the British imperial authorities were complicit with disastrous famine events in China as well as in Ireland. The British were complicit too with famine in India, much closer to the time when Collis was writing. Churchill famously refused to relieve the food shortage in Bengal in 1943, resulting in around three million deaths. Collis makes no reference in Quest for Sita to the Irish, Chinese or Bengalese famines, but for readers who shared his anti-imperialist sentiments he would not have needed to.

Maurice Collis, Two Figures in a Garden

Famine drove the Chinese and the Irish to disperse across the world, where they often found themselves subject to racist abuse. Collis’s frame narrative works to counter such racism by elevating Swallow, the daughter of a starving Chinese farmer, to semi-divine status as the heroine Sita, before providing her with the most spectacular of fairy tale endings. The ending, in fact, represents the fulfilment of all her dreams – and from the start of the book Swallow is represented as an inveterate dreamer. In childhood she is always dreaming of Wushan Mountain, expecting some ‘Saint’ to come down from its slopes and whisk her away from her life of poverty. She later learns to her disappointment that Wushan is not the mountain it was, in terms of the sanctity of its occupants. An old man named Ho, who helps Swallow escape from the broker’s henchman, explains that the hermits living there now are very far from Saints, and that the mountain’s reputation has dwindled accordingly. Ho’s personality confirms his words, since his own claims to wisdom and holiness are decidedly suspect. He insists, for instance, that he has mastered magic in the course of his studies, but the only spell he ever casts is a feat of trickery whereby he changes Swallow into a boy by giving her male clothes, ‘a metamorphosis as complete,’ he adds, ‘as any that magic might have effected’ (p. 10). He then frightens away the broker’s henchman by telling him that the girl has transformed herself into a hare, which both suggests to the terrified henchman that she is a demon and proves, as Ho points out, ‘what excellent results may be obtained by blending the natural with the supernatural’ (p. 11). By this point in Collis’s story we may suspect that the world in which it takes place is one where spirituality and magic have been set aside in favour of pragmatism, as embodied in the sleight of hand that helps the poor survive in times of crisis.

But later Swallow finds that her dreams are not so far-fetched after all. Magic lurks everywhere in Collis’s novel, just beneath the surface of the present, woven through the fabric of the past. Swallow’s ‘metamorphosis’ into a boy is only the first of many episodes in which illusions play a major part, and each illusion conceals a reality more remarkable than the last, revelation opening out from revelation in a series of Chinese boxes. What seems at first, then, to be a story that highlights the slow decay of Chinese civilization over time, ends by insisting that the link between past glory and the suffering present is an active one, just as it was for the Irish literary revivalists in the days of British rule. One might see the book as an allegory for the work of looking closely into unfamiliar cultures before you judge them. The closer the European or American reader looks into the life of the starving girl we meet in the opening pages the more wonderful she appears, and the more remarkable the Chinese and Indian cultures that produced her.

Set of Chinese nesting boxes, c. 1930

Swallow herself resembles a set of Chinese boxes from the moment we first meet her, like the story in which she appears: one box hidden inside another in an endless series that continues to unpack itself until the end of the narrative. Despite her poverty at the beginning she is well educated, and can recite poetry to express her feelings (pp. 3-4), of the kind made popular in Britain after the Great War by the translations of Arthur Waley. She also feels ‘some hidden aspiration’ (p. 4) for better things even when she is hungry, the earliest clue to her mythical past and imperial future. The Chinese box analogy is reinforced when Ho brings her to meet his master, the Sage of Wushan Mountain, who gains from her face the impression of meeting again ‘one whom I had lost through my own fault in the mists of time’ (p. 22). After a time this impression recedes, but it continues to haunt the Sage’s mind as he gets to know her better. He describes it as ‘fantastical’, since she is only a ‘poor village girl in [a] blue cotton gown’, but nevertheless takes her on as his pupil, and increasingly sees resemblances in her not only to the person he first took her for but also to himself (talking to her is ‘like talking to oneself’, he begins to think [p. 23]). His desire to uncover her past identity is part of a drive to discover his own, since he senses they are closely linked; and Swallow in her turn senses that she knows him as well as herself, being convinced that he is ‘sane and wise’ despite their short acquaintance (p. 27). Her spiritual journey to the past, then, is a journey both into herself and into him, and takes her to a place where disguises and false appearances are everywhere, and where seeing through them is a necessary act of heroism. Collis’s stress on disguises and false appearances in his frame narrative, in other words, echoes a theme in the portion of the Ramayana he retells, and implies that knowledge – of the sort he himself acquired of Chinese and Burmese language, art and history – leads to the recognition of equality between previously unevenly matched elements: communities, individuals, genders, in the frame narrative; humans, gods, demons and animals, in the Ramayana.


At the same time, knowledge in this book is hard to obtain. The Sage’s doubts about Swallow’s past identity, which he tests by sending her back in time, later find an echo in Rama’s doubts about Sita’s loyalty, which he tests by subjecting her to trial by fire. Even the nature of the place and time Swallow travels back to in her trance is left uncertain. We are informed in the heading of chapter 10 that the period she enters is the ‘Golden Age’ of Hindu myth, but Rama’s brother Lakshana casts doubt on this designation (p. 44), and his doubts turn out to be justified. In the following chapter we learn how Rama was banished from his father’s court through the machinations of his wicked stepmother; and later his wife Sita, who went with him into the wilderness, is captured by the Demon King Ravana and taken to his island stronghold of Lanka – later Sri Lanka – from which Rama and his brother Lakshana must set her free. Lanka represents an illusory Golden Age in miniature, which substitutes lavish ornamentation and wild orgies for enlightenment and impartial justice. From a distance the island appears as ‘golden, glittering, bodied with green, rising from the foam’ of the Indian Ocean (p. 118). And it is full of gold. Ravana likes his monstrous followers to wear ‘gold coloured’ skin to hide their true forms (p. 76); he drinks from a gold chalice at his orgies (p. 78), and promises his Amazon warrior women beautiful youths with ‘dimpled golden skins’ as a reward for good service (p. 84). So obsessed with gold is Ravana, in fact, that at one point his prisoner Sita compares him to the ornamental carp in his palace pond:

Sita waited by the goldfish pond, watching the scarlet shapes as they glided under the white locus. The faces were as if masked, like masked dancers in a supernal drama, for the thought in their eyes was not of this world. Their orbs stared coldly, monstrously, like dragon-masks. To the little denizens of the water they seemed dreadful for all their splendour of gold. Such was Lanka, both gilt and demonic, with its shimmering sea and white battlements, its palace of women from all the heavens, and a dragon king of many metamorphoses. (p. 129)

Gold, then, is a suspect mineral in this version of ancient India, and it is for Rama and Sita to find a way to bring about a true Golden Age in place of Ravana’s false one. Sita herself points this out at one stage, when she recalls the miniature Golden Age the couple experienced in their hermitage before her abduction, but goes on to say that this too was not the real thing. ‘That the Golden Age be extended to all the earth,’ she tells her friend, the vulture Sampati, ‘Rama must fell Ravana’ and return to rule his father’s kingdom (p. 120). But this is hard to achieve, since the material gold of royal courts and marriage brokers – as against the spiritual gold of enlightenment – continues to exert its fascination on the young couple, and ends up by competing with spiritual gold throughout the middle portion of Collis’s text for control of their souls.

Maurice Collis’s house in Sittwe, Myanmar

Spiritual gold is much harder to acquire than material gold in Quest for Sita, and as easy to use as deceptive gilding for bad intentions. In the frame narrative, as we’ve seen, there has been a decline in Chinese sanctity in Swallow’s lifetime; but sanctity proves equally elusive in the age of Sita. From the start of the Ramayana section, the notion of holiness is used to put a gloss on political scheming. When Rama’s stepmother, Queen Kaikeyi, coerces his father into naming her son as heir to the realm in Rama’s place, she chooses to reinforce the king’s decision by sending Rama and Sita into exile, setting them up as religious solitaries in the ‘woods of the anchorites’ (p. 38). In token of their new pseudo-religious status the Queen has them clothed in the distinctive habits of the ‘anchorites of the forest mountains’ (p. 42); but this fails to conceal the couple’s true identity, since even dressed in these humble garments they remain ‘as beautiful as denizens of the Golden Age’. Ashamed of his weakness in acceding to Rama’s exile, the King then exposes his sense of the disparity between their high birth and their new role by urging them to carry various luxuries into the wilderness: servants, ladies, soldiers, gold, their favourite dishes. Rama refuses, desiring to prove himself a genuine anchorite, not a fake one, and thus to certify his obedience to his father. The King, however, sends a box of clothes and jewellery after them, so that Sita at least can dress like a princess, even in exile (p. 42). And predictably, this box of clothes and gold is the couple’s undoing. The events that lead to Sita’s kidnapping begin after she has opened the box of clothes to try on the dresses they contain. At once a wonderful gazelle trots out of the forest, whose distinctive markings – the colour of its hide ‘gold splashed with silver’, its rainbow tail like that of an exotic breed of goldfish (p. 54) – reveal its status as bait for unwary princes and princesses. It’s in pursuit of this goldfish-gazelle that Rama leaves his place by Sita’s side, swiftly followed by his brother Lakshmana, sent after him by Sita to rescue her husband from a seeming attack by ferocious demons. The Princess, then, is partly responsible for her own abduction, having been distracted from her religious duties by the sumptuous garments sent by the King. And this distraction could have been anticipated from the start of the central section of Quest for Sita. Not long before this episode, she and Rama were assuring each other, like the banished Duke Senior and his companions in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, that the wilderness is a better place than the royal palace. Rama told Sita that the ripples that embellished her wrists as she bathed in a pool provided ‘Livelier bracelets […] than ever [she] wore’ at the royal Court (p. 33); while Sita in turn assured her husband that the tree under which they were sitting resembled ‘the scented parasol they used to hold above us’ to mark their royal status. Despite their obedience to the King’s command, in other words, the couple kept seeing the royal court through the mountain landscape as if through a window, which suggests that their minds were not attuned to the life ascetic.


Ravana seems to mock this failure to commit to a religious existence when he appears to Sita, soon after the episode of the gazelle, in the unlikely guise of a ‘religious mendicant’ (p. 58). This apparent monk keeps making inappropriate remarks about Sita’s beauty before revealing himself as the Demon King and whisking her off in his magic chariot. Once in Lanka, the religious mockery continues in the entertainments Ravana chooses for Sita’s amusement. At one point his dancer-sprites reenact the seduction of the saintly ‘anchorites of the Black Desert’, each dancer transforming herself from anchorite to seducer and back again to anchorite in ingenious imitation of the constant struggle between body and mind undergone by hermits:

That at certain moments a dancer in jewels and girdle, by force of expression, pose and some inner identification, took on sufficiently the appearance of an anchorite, wrestling against the very lasciviousness which her form represented, was far more potent in suggestion than if she had remained a temptress. To see the anchorites, each a naked sprite, writhing, staring, overcome and, turned pursuer, darting, leaping; and, at the moment of the leap, to see the sprite again, seductive and smiling; to see all this in the self-same dancer, was to be confused, nor to know whether the transformation was by art or magic, an imagined or a real metamorphosis. (p. 80)

This dance in fact replays the adventures of the royal anchorites, Sita and Rama, as an inner conflict. The couple’s dual identities both as prince and princess and as holy hermits set them radically at odds with themselves, a state of mind Ravana hopes to exploit as he seeks to lure them into his power, as he has lured many others before them.


But there’s another side to the dance of the sprites, which predicts the eventual outcome of the continuing contest between Ravana and the royal couple. The dancers, we’re told, have ‘some inner identification’ with the anchorites they mimic, and this suggests that they too are undergoing some sort of identity crisis, torn between their ostensible work of seduction and a secret sympathy for the targets of their sensual assault. And as Sita’s captivity goes on she inflicts a similar identity crisis on her demonic captor, drawing him slowly but surely away from his lifelong obsession with lust and conquest towards a reluctant but growing delight in her inward beauty. As a result, by the time he confronts her rescuer, Rama, Ravana is no longer simply a demon; he has ambitions to transform himself into the ‘King of Heaven’, having been converted by Sita’s goodness ‘from a dark angel into a god of light’ (p. 115). He shares Sita’s state of being split between one kind of existence and another, but with this crucial distinction: neither kind of existence he courts is a legitimate one, since as a demon king he is prone to aggressive attacks on neighbouring kingdoms, while as Sita’s lover he seeks to supplant her lawful husband. Sita’s incongruous interest in royal clothes, by contrast, is an expression of her genuinely royal status, and anticipates the moment when that status will be restored. Sita is never at any point as divided as Ravana is, so that the likely end of their contest can be predicted from the start.

Surpanakha 1

The two-way struggle between Ravana and the royal couple over which shall convert or transform the other is set in motion by the very first meeting between their houses. The first member of Ravana’s household to visit Rama in his hermitage is Surpanakha, the Demon King’s sister, who approaches the prince with the clear intention of replacing Sita in his bed. At the same time, this intention triggers an inner conflict which reveals itself in constant changes to her appearance:

Staring at her face they saw that the features were not constant but fluctuating, as if formed of a mist or substance that ran together, so that now they saw a beautiful, now a hideous face, an expression languid and subtly smiling, or, again, horrific with starting orbs, a grimace so twisted that an eye would be carried to the middle of a cheek, a double face, or a face and the shadow of a face. (p. 47)

Surpanakha 2

Surpanakha’s weirdly mobile, Picasso-esque features (amusingly visualised in Peake’s second portrait of her, reproduced here as Surpanakha 2) provide an index to her uncertainty as to who she is and what she wants. On the one hand she wishes to take Rama back to Lanka, where as her husband he will regain the status he lost as anointed heir to a powerful monarch, though the monarch in question will be her brother. On the other hand, as Rama points out, this seeming restoration of the prince to his former status will in fact transform him utterly, since it will make him the successor of his father’s ‘opposite’, a Demon King. To become Surpanakha’s husband he will have to betray his true wife, Sita, and thus place himself ‘past reason’, succumbing to the permanent instability to which Surpanakha herself is subject, and so ceasing to be Rama, the man she desires. Lost in this maze of contradictions, Surpanakha quickly loses what stability of form she once possessed, launching into a frenzied ‘dance of enticement’ which merely exposes the lurking ‘shadow of her monstrous self’. And the dance concludes with a fierce attack on her rival, Sita, in ‘the full horror of her form’. The attack confirms her desire to supplant Sita as Rama’s wife, while at the same time revealing how incapable she is of filling that position, of becoming the wife whom Rama loves in his current identity as the unimpeachable Prince of Ayodhya. Her inward self is radically at odds with her seductive outward appearance, and she is finally unable to conceal the disparity between these component elements of her being. Rama’s brother Lakshmana wounds her as she attacks, and her defeat predicts (again) the defeat of her brother Ravana, destroyed by the man he wishes to replace in Sita’s affections, the man who, in the end, he wishes to be, in spite of his lifelong quest to become his ‘opposite’.

Ravana describes himself a number of times in the text as the Lord of the Three Worlds – that is, of Paradise, Earth and Hell, as Collis explains in his play Lord of the Three Worlds.[7] As we’ve seen, the Demon King supports his own claim to all three regions by transforming his island fortress into a false Paradise, and by seeking to impose his will on the earthly mortals Rama and Sita while maintaining control over his fellow demons in all their manifestations. But his island Paradise keeps revealing its hellish true colours – for instance in the pink-snouted crocodiles that lurk in its moats (p. 73) – and his own efforts to represent himself as a worthy rival for Prince Rama keep being undermined by his obvious preference for booze-fuelled orgies over faithful love. For all his continuing efforts to hide his real motives behind a veil of illusion he only succeeds in revealing his demonic nature more clearly as time goes on.

Hanuman and the Fish Princess, 19th-c. wayang kulit (shadow puppet figures) from Java

Meanwhile, Sita’s vision becomes increasingly piercing thanks to her affinity with the inhabitants of the true Paradise, as against Ravana’s fake one. This affinity reveals itself in her growing friendship with the animal messengers of the gods, the vulture brothers Jatayus and Sampati and the monkey Hanuman. When first abducted by Ravana, Sita finds her vision distorted by his powers of enchantment, because the white umbrellas that shade his chariot have the property of making her see with the eyes of her captor: ‘As she came beneath their shadow, it was like entering the portal of another world, for the [earthly] cottage was suddenly distant and less real, and the landscape of a different colour’ (pp. 65-6). But by the time she reaches Lanka she sees things more clearly, largely thanks to the intervention of the heavenly vulture, divine Jatayus (p. 53). Sita’s instant recognition of Jatayus when she first meets him, knowing him at once for an authentic denizen of Paradise (‘her instinct told her this was truly Jatayus’, p. 52), established the link between them long before Ravana came on the scene, and the link is confirmed when Jatayus is mortally wounded in the attempt to rescue her from her abductor. Even after his wounding Jatayus is able to set Rama on the right road to rescue Sita, so that his vision continues to work in her favour up to the moment of his death. After his demise his attachment to her is passed on to his brother Sampati, who performs the crucial office of reporting to her the real events of the final battle between Rama and Ravana, even as Ravana’s enchanters seek to persuade her that Rama is dead and Ravana victorious. Meanwhile Hanuman the warrior-monkey, who visits her while she is imprisoned on Lanka, adds to the birds’ clearness of vision a sometimes unsettling clarity of discourse. It is Hanuman who first informs Sita that she is to blame for her own abduction, as ‘It was Hanuman’s manner,’ Collis tells us, ‘to be a little blunt’ (p. 96) – not to say misogynistic, since he insists that her calamitous longing for the wonderful gazelle is merely an illustration of ‘the nature of women’, who ‘must have pretty pets and pretty presents, and continually urge their husbands to supply them with these’ (p. 96). Despite his anti-feminism, however, Hanuman shares the vulture brothers’ accurate perception of Sita’s loyalty, and defends her against the false testimony of Rama’s eyes – which seemed to see her embracing Ravana in his chariot – by affirming that he ‘sat and saw how she repulsed the demon’ (p. 144, my emphasis). In the end it is clearness of vision, rather than prowess on the battlefield, that proves the deciding factor in the combat between heroes and demons, and in Collis’s story it is women rather than men who chiefly possess it.

Sampati, a sculpture in Sanam Luang, Bangkok, Thailand

The vision of men is always being blurred by their expectations and desires. Ravana’s increasing recognition of Sita’s qualities, for example, combines with his desire to possess her as his wife to prevent him from seeing clearly that their marriage would destroy what he most admires about her – her integrity. Rama, meanwhile, has always loved Sita for her integrity, yet is easily deceived by Ravana into believing she has been unfaithful to him. Even after he has killed Ravana, he remains enthralled to the demon’s trickery long after Sita, Sampati and Hanuman have been released from it. This is not entirely Rama’s fault. Before embarking on the final battle, Ravana instructed his enchanters to trick Sita into putting on a ring engraved with his and Sita’s names ‘entwined in an everlasting knot’ (p. 125); and after the demon’s death Rama takes this ring as proof positive that she has turned against him. At the same time, Rama refuses to accept the testimony of the immortal vulture and the plain-speaking monkey that his wife is as he has always known her to be, unwavering in her commitment to her husband. Even when Sita chooses to undergo trial by fire to prove it, Rama sees the trial itself as evidence of her betrayal. In his eyes the flame through which she walks takes on ‘the form of a man’, who ‘leapt with her high into the air and disappeared’ (p. 145), thus enacting a second abduction. Sita, on the other hand, experiences the walk through fire as she has been taught to do by the anchorites of the mountains. For her, the flame is a kindly man who wraps her protectively in his cloak, and instead of suffering loss or blurring of vision, as Rama does at this point, she rises with the burning stranger – as if on the back of an immortal vulture – to a place from which she can see everything in the universe: ‘vast blue horizons, distances incalculable, as between star and star’ (p. 146). Her state of enlightenment brings with it a ‘sense of freedom’, and it’s with this liberating knowledge of her position in time and space that she wakes again as Swallow on Wushan mountain.

Lady Lavery as Cathleen Ni Houlihan by John Lavery

Collis’s decision to tell his tale from a woman’s perspective is another link between his book and his Irish background. Ireland was famously embodied by Yeats and Lady Gregory in their play Cathleen Ni Houlihan (1902) as a homeless old woman, whose homelessness connotes the disenfranchised state of her country under British rule. The play ends with her transformation into a young girl, who departs from the household that sheltered her ‘with the walk of a queen’.[8] Swallow’s poverty and homelessness equate her with Cathleen, and she too turns out to possess qualities that make her worthy of royal status: beauty, but more importantly intelligence, which for the Sage of Wushan and his father, the Emperor of China, makes her a worthy wife for a prince, whatever her birth. Her elevation from poverty to queenship also parallels the life of Collis’s favourite figure from Burmese history, Queen Ma Saw, the protagonist both of his fantastic novel She Was a Queen (1937) and his play, Lord of the Three Worlds (1947). Ma Saw started life as a farmer’s daughter and ended as Chief Queen of Narathihapate, King of Burma. Her royal husband has much in common with King Ravana: headstrong and self-indulgent, he is prone to deadly rages and rash actions which can only be controlled by the sound advice and gentle persuasions of his Queen. Like Ravana, too, he dies when a foreign power invades his country. Ma Saw, who is never in the seat of power herself, although she is highly influential in affairs of state, withdraws into obscurity at the end of both play and novel, and her status in both cases aligns her with the status of Burma as Collis was writing, awaiting the moment of its liberation from forced marriage to Britain. Swallow, too, and her alter-ego Sita, could be seen as standing for the hope of independence in Burma and India, just as Cathleen stood for the dream of an independent Ireland. Her eventual assumption of an imperial title confirms the potential of both countries to assume an equal status with the global Empire that controlled them for so long.

Maurice Collis, Three Figures

In Collis’s hands, then, the abduction of Sita becomes a promise of liberation, both for his heroine and for the many Asian cultures that had welcomed her into their hearts. The end of his book represents a series of liberatory gestures, akin to the flinging open of the lids of many boxes. Sita escapes from Ravana through Rama’s victory, then frees herself from Rama’s suspicions by walking through fire, after which Swallow frees herself from Sita’s influence by casting off the trammels of sleep, then liberates herself from confinement to the Sage’s hermitage and finally makes herself independent of her parents by sending them a gift of money to support themselves for the rest of their lives. These gestures of independence recall the exultant ending of James Stephens’s nationalist fantasy The Crock of Gold, in which the imprisoned Irish people, from school children and clerks to prisoners and factory workers, find themselves liberated from their bonds in a triumphant ‘Happy March’, a parade or dance in which mortals and fairies join together to break the mental and physical shackles of their occupied country. Indian independence came in the year after Quest for Sita was published, 1947, and Burma’s in 1948. Quest for Sita remains a powerful statement of European solidarity with the movements that led to these enfranchisements. In my next blog post I’ll consider what, if anything, Peake’s drawings may contribute to that statement.


[1] Maurice Collis, Quest for Sita (New York: The John Day Company, 1947). All references are to this edition.

[2] G. Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography (London and Chester Springs, PA: Peter Owen, 2009), p. 202.

[3] ‘As Ba Maw points out, the writings of the Sinn Fein leaders were as eagerly studied in Burma as those of Lenin and Sun Yat Sen’. Louis Allen, War, Conflict and Security in Japan and Asia-Pacific, 1941-52 (Folkestone: Global Oriental, 2011), p. 12

[4] See Mervyn Peake, ‘The Consumptive. Belsen 1945’, Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen, Fyfield Books (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), pp. 133-4.

[5] See Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies, pp. 201-2.

[6] I’m thinking here of Stephens’s Irish Fairy Tales (1920) and Deirdre (1923) as well as The Crock of Gold (1912).

[7] When Queen Sawlon sees that her husband, King Narathihapate, has assumed the style of ‘Lord of the Three Worlds’ in Act II she tells him: ‘That you should be invincible in this world, I can bear, for there is Paradise. But if in Paradise too you were Lord, where could I hide? Not even in Hell, for over that domain also would you lord it.’ The Lord of the Three Worlds (London: Faber and Faber, 1947), p. 55.

[8] Collected Plays of W B Yeats (London: Macmillan, 1963), p. 88.