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

Notes

[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.

Sita

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.

Dancer

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.

Dancer

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.

NOTES

[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.

Mervyn Peake: The Poet of Gormenghast

[I’m working on several blog posts just now, but none are quite ready to post, so I’m putting this essay here as a placeholder. I gave it as a talk at the 2011 conference marking the centenary of Peake’s birth, ‘Mervyn Peake and the Fantasy Tradition’, held at the University of Chichester where Bill Gray had established the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy (now the Chichester Centre for Fairy Tales, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction). It afterwards appeared in G. Peter Winnington (ed.), Miracle Enough: Papers on the Works of Mervyn Peake (Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013) – a collection that should be consulted by everyone interested in Peake. I’m putting it here so that all my essays on Peake can conveniently be found in one spot.]

Alan Lee, Gormenghast

Gormenghast is the creation of a poet. Peake’s prose is lyrical, playing with rhythm, sound and metaphor as a poem does, and lapsing at crucial moments into meter. During the fight in the Hall of Spiders in Titus Groan, to mark the narrative’s transition into epic, the prose is full of the rhythm of iambic pentameter, blank verse; and the Earl of Gormenghast, Sepulchrave, catches that rhythm in the broken snatches of speech he utters as he enters the Hall to bear witness to the combat, marking his own descent into the madness of a Shakespearean tragic hero. Again, in the final chapter of Titus Groan, blank verse points the way towards the rebellions and atrocities of the sequel, as if in imitation of the vatic verse of the Delphic oracle: ‘There would be tears and there would be strange laughter. Fierce births and deaths beneath umbrageous ceilings. And dreams, and violence, and disenchantment’.[1] These are the rhythms of Peake’s serious verse, which always hovers on the edge of lapsing into the five-beat line of the Renaissance playwrights he loved so much, and whose cadences he mimicked so adroitly in his own play, The Wit to Woo, in the 1950s.[2]

But poetry itself is a marked feature of the Titus books, a crucial skein in the tapestry Peake weaves from the lives and stony structures that together make Gormenghast Castle. There’s a crucial difference, however, between the use of poems in the first and second books of the sequence. In Titus Groan, verse is the private language spoken by each character in the secluded alcove they think of as their ‘world’ (p. 53) – an architectural manifestation of their inner space. The young Fuchsia reads poems to herself in her hidden attic, where she escapes from the pressures of a life ruled by meaningless ritual. Her father Lord Sepulchrave reads the Martrovian Dramatists and the Sonian Poets in the dusty library which is his own retreat (234 and 251-2). And the youth Steerpike catches an insight into the function of verse as a private code when he comes across the castle Poet in his climb across Gormenghast’s deserted roofscape. The wedge-headed bard has poked his head out of a window and is reciting a poem, as he thinks, to the empty air; but as soon as he knows that someone has heard him, he withdraws his head at once and blocks up the window with random objects – among them books that may well contain further verses of the kind he loves (p. 100). In Titus Groan, then, verse is a secret indulgence, a form of self-defence – that is, defence of one’s private self; and this is hardly surprising, given that Peake wrote the first draft of the novel as a conscript in World War Two, his talents ignored, his companions mostly uncongenial. Scribbling his Gothic masterpiece, and poetry, was the one refuge he had from the meaningless ritual of life in the forces – something his doctors recognized when the pressure of army life landed him in a Southport hospital in 1942, and as part of his therapy he was allowed to go on writing his book.

In the second Titus book, by contrast, poetry has become an integral part of the castle’s official rituals – in other words, it has moved from the private to the public sphere. In Gormenghast, the professors at Titus’s school chant a poem about the castle stones, as long and shapeless as the building’s architecture (pp. 466-7). Poems are recited by performers at ritualistic masques (pp. 615-8), and at the end of the book the role of the Master of Ritual, responsible for reading out the prescribed activities assigned to each moment of each day, falls to the castle Poet, who has been reluctantly coerced out of solitude in response to the threat posed by the upstart Steerpike. In addition, poetry becomes a means of cementing intimacy in families or between couples – a role it didn’t have in Titus Groan. In the first draft of the second novel, the curator of the Hall of the Bright Carvings, Rottcodd, dreams about a lullaby his mother used to sing when he was young – the only verbal contact he has with another human being apart from the servant Flay in either book.[3] Later, Doctor Prunesquallor sings a lullaby about an Osseous ’Orse to his sister Irma (p. 393) – and in the radio play of the Titus sequence, Peake assigns even Nannie Slagg a lullaby to sing to the infant Titus).[4] Verses permeate the air of Gormenghast, so that in the second book Fuchsia’s penchant for writing poetry becomes a sign of her authentic attachment to the castle – an attachment she reinforces by letting the castle physician, her friend Doctor Prunesquallor, read a book of her poems in the privacy of his study (pp. 620-1). Conversely, Steerpike’s inability to appreciate poetry – he thinks it romantic drivel – marks him out as an interloper; something he recognizes with characteristic acuity, and seeks to disguise by writing Fuchsia poems of courtship (which we never get to read). In order to complete his conquest of Gormenghast and gain control over every aspect of its structure – from the intimate goings-on in private rooms to the immemorial rites that govern the denizens’ public lives – Steerpike must master the intricacies of verse. And his success in fashioning himself into an ersatz poet, despite his profound contempt for the art form – his success in becoming what he loathes, in other words – is part of what makes him so disturbingly attractive. He also becomes a perverse romantic hero, the kind of man whose exploits are suitable to be celebrated in metre. Fuchsia confirms this in the only poem of hers we are allowed to read:

How white and scarlet is that face,
Who knows, in some unusual place
The coloured heroes are alight
With faces made of red and white. (p. 621)

Even after badly burning himself while murdering the Master of Ritual Barquentine – an incident invoked here by the reference to his red-and-white facial scars, and by the word ‘alight’ – Steerpike remains a worthy subject for celebration in lyric, as well as in the heroic rhythms of Peake’s prose: the Miltonic, fire-damaged Satan of Peake’s ambiguous Gothic paradise.

Charles w. Stewart, The Dark Breakfast (Royal Academy of Arts)

The form of verse that dominates the castle is nonsense; and the question of why this should be is well worth asking.[5] Nonsense pervades the declamations and empty gestures of the castle rituals. These have been stripped of their original meaning, if they ever had one, by the passage of time, and serve only to humiliate those who observe them – not just the subjects but the dynastic rulers of Gormenghast. At the Dark Breakfast the Groan family must look on helplessly, like everyone else, as the Master of Ritual stamps up and down the breakfast table with his filthy stump and crutch, pulping the luxurious food into inedibility. At Titus’s Earling – his investment as Earl – the whole household must dress in sackcloth, while Titus himself must sport a white smock and a necklace of snails in the pouring rain. In this way the rituals reinforce the need for blind allegiance to what is effectively an enormous set of rambling tomes (somewhat akin to the Titus sequence itself), the Books of the Law; tomes that might stand, among other things, for the traditions of English literature – verse, drama, prose, the cadences of the King James Bible – which Peake so self-consciously followed and made his own. But the Books of the Law are literature divorced from its context, randomly perused in a private library like that of Sepulchrave. The centrality to the castle of such literature – of the letter, of what is inscribed – is reinforced at the time of the baby Titus’s christening, when he’s enclosed in a hollow tube formed by two bent-over leaves of the Book of Ritual, on which are written the blank verse lines appropriate to the occasion, many of them in blank verse, though not written out as such (p. 78). These lines enjoin his blind obedience to the book’s contents, the accumulated instructions penned by generations of despots obsessed (like Sepulchrave) with scribbling, reading and dreaming in isolation. And in their refusal to explain or justify their edicts, the blank verse lines on these pages are akin to nonsense. By reading and composing nonsense verse, then, the characters of the first novel proclaim not only their detachment from the castle – their yearning to find refuge from its patterns – but their deep connection to it. Even their solitude, their aching loneliness – most memorably articulated by the castle poet (‘Lingering is so very lonely / When one lingers all alone’, p. 99) – confirms their involvement in the castle community. To sum up: the Books of the Law are the private code of the Earls of Groan, the coloured book of nonsense by which they mark out the whole of Gormenghast as their private alcove, their suite of attics, their refuge. And this is an essential fact for Steerpike to grasp in his quest to seize power.

Like Gormenghast itself, the nonsense verse read and generated by the castle’s inmates makes no reference to any political, economic or historical framework beyond its limits; each – both verse and castle – is a kind of island cut off by the sea. Gormenghast is a landlocked island, as Peter Winnington has shown us.[6] A forest and a mountain cut it off from communication with the rest of humankind, and at the Earling Barquentine declares that Titus ‘will in letter and in spirit defend it in every way against the incursions of alien worlds’ (p. 358). The castle Poet describes its architecture as ‘the sharp archaic shore’ (p. 98), and at the end of the second book the building acquires an actual shoreline when the floodwaters rise until ‘this gaunt asylum’ becomes an island and Gormenghast is ‘marooned’ (p. 691). It does not seem surprising, then, that the nonsense verse in the Titus books is filled with seas, those vast empty spaces which are both barriers and aids to mobility. In an unpublished song he sings to the kitchen urchins in Titus Groan, the Chef Swelter yearns for a ‘shmall shea-worthy pashte-boat’[7] – perhaps a similar vessel to the ‘biscuit-ship’ full of weevils invoked by the castle Poet in another unpublished poem.[8] Fuchsia’s favourite nonsense verses tell the story of a ‘Frivolous Cake’ pursued across the sea by a lustful knife (pp. 158-9). A poem read by Steerpike in Fuchsia’s attic traces the steps of three old men as they take their path ‘To the purple sea’ (p. 106) – the same ocean, perhaps, that features in the lullaby sung to Rottcodd by his mother, beside which groves of rhubarb flourish.[9] The sea, in fact, seems bound up with nonsense verse in Peake’s imagination. The glorious colour illustrations for his collection of nonsense verse, Rhymes Without Reason (1944), ensure that the whole collection takes place in what looks like an archipelago, with water lapping at the edges of each poem. The sea is both beautiful and terrible, lonely and seductive, constricting (think of life on ship-board) and liberating, and thus provides a perfect equivalent for the bitter-sweet atmosphere of Gormenghast, whose grim battlements and stifling ceremonies inspire such passionate devotion from its denizens. And these qualities link both the castle and the sea to the work of the verbal or visual artist as Peake sees it: the artist who plies his trade in solitary communion with the object of his attention, his model – life or still life – to whom he commits himself, in whom he immerses himself utterly, oblivious to interference from beyond the intense magic circle of their mutual exchange.

To take command of Gormenghast, then, the upstart Steerpike must become an artist – a poet – but specifically a purveyor of nonsense. In doing so he will gain access to the most private spaces of the castle’s inhabitants: the secret attic where Fuchsia keeps her book of nonsense verse, her version of the brightly illustrated Rhymes Without Reason; the room where the Countess of Groan reads a nonsense fairy tale to her host of cats about a murderous Dwarf whose ears are fixed on backwards (p. 215); Sepulchrave’s library, with its shelves of verse and drama. And later, his deployment of nonsense gives Steerpike total control of the castle’s ceremonies: the chants and rhythmic declamations that bind the professors, the servants, the Earls themselves, to the archaic books of nonsensical laws of which Steerpike takes possession when he assumes the role of Master of Ritual after murdering Barquentine. It’s therefore appropriate that his rise up the ladder of power begins with his most intense encounter with nonsense. Arriving in Fuchsia’s attic after an epic climb across the castle’s roofs, he finds himself in a landscape cluttered with lumber from Peake’s nonsense verse: the leg of a stuffed giraffe (‘The Giraffe’), the portrait of a jaguar (‘The Jailor and the Jaguar’), a painting of a group of children playing with a viper (think of the snake poems: ‘A Languorous Life’, Uncle Jake from ‘Aunts and Uncles’), a great writhing root from Gormenghast Forest (‘The Hideous Root’). Here he stumbles across a picture book on a table, ‘a large hand-painted book that lay open where a few verses were opposed by a picture in purple and grey’ (p. 105), and finds himself caught in a peculiar limbo between different kinds of reality; a limbo that offers a valuable insight into the process that will propel him from his position at this moment – a half-starved runaway adolescent from the castle kitchens – to the apex of power in the ancient halls of Groan. For this reason it’s worth lingering over the scene.

Steerpike’s hunger and disorientation after his climb mean that he loses the ability to distinguish between the ‘imaginary’ landscape of the picture book and the ‘actual’ castle. As a result, he reads the poem as if he were Fuchsia, or the reader of Titus Groan – entranced, his habitual coldly analytical disbelief temporarily suspended:

It was to Steerpike in his unusual physical state as though that picture were the world, and that he, in some shadowy adjacent province, were glimpsing the reality.

He was the ghost, the purple-and-grey page was truth and actual fact.

Below him stood three men. They were dressed in grey, and purple flowers were in their dark confused locks. The landscape beyond them was desolate and was filled with old metal bridges, and they stood before it together upon the melancholy brow of a small hill. Their hands were exquisitely shaped and their bare feet also, and it seemed that they were listening to a strange music, for their eyes gazed out beyond the page and beyond the reach of Steerpike, and on beyond the hill of Gormenghast and the Twisted Woods.

Equally real to the boy at that moment were the grey-black simple letters that made up the words and the meaning of the verses on the opposite side of the page. The uncompromising visual starkness of all that lay on the table had for a moment caused him to forget his hunger, and although uninterested in poetry or pictures, Steerpike, in spite of himself, read with a curiously slow and deliberate concentration upon the white page of the three old men in their grey and purple world:

Simple, seldom and sad
We are;
Alone on the Halibut Hills
Afar,
With sweet mad Expressions
Of old
Strangely beautiful,
So we’re told
By the Creatures that Move
In the sky
And Die
On the night when the Dead Trees
Prance and Cry.

Sensitive, seldom, and sad –
Sensitive, seldom, and sad –

Simple, seldom and sad
Are we
When we take our path
To the purple sea –
With mad, sweet Expressions
Of Yore,
Strangely beautiful,
Yea, and More
On the Night of all Nights
When the sky
Streams by
In rags, while the Dead Trees
Prance and Die.

Sensitive, seldom, and sad –
Sensitive, seldom, and sad.

Steerpike noticed small thumb-marks on the margin of the page. They were as important to him as the poems or the picture. Everything was equally important because all had become so real now where all had been so blurred. His hand as it lay on the table was now his own. He had forgotten at once what the words meant, but the script was there, black and rounded. (pp. 105-6)

For a moment, then, while reading the poem, Steerpike finds himself removed from his usually utilitarian state of mind. He is always intensely observant, scanning each detail of each scene through which he passes, but not as an artist scans it: he wishes to retain every impression in case it will prove useful to him. At one point, for instance, he spots a swordstick in an abandoned armoury, and is fascinated by the air of treachery and cunning it exudes. He therefore goes back to fetch it when the chance arises. Steerpike sees everything in relation to himself; but in this passage he forgets himself for a passing moment, so that even his own hands look like someone else’s, and the three old men become the centre, himself the periphery. The men are as real as Gormenghast hill or the Twisted Woods, and occupy the same dimension, staring out of the page and beyond the reader, Steerpike, in quest of some unknown object or vision to which he has no access. Their seeming motivelessness, or the unguessable nature of their motives; their self-confessed madness; their communication with aerial Creatures unknown to science; their link with the aimless motion of storm-tossed trees; their simplicity, which proclaims the pointlessness of trying to extrapolate any orderly narrative from these ingredients – all these things make them precisely the kind of thing the kitchen boy would not normally give a second glance to. The extreme old age of the three men, their mad expressions, deprive them of any significant social function; just as the old metal bridges in the background of the picture, made of material which hints at an industrial past, no longer seem to lead anywhere, have become mere decorations in a painting. For a moment, here, Steerpike is at one with the world of nonsense verse, where the black and rounded script in which words are written, the music of their vowels and consonants, are as valuable as their meanings, and where function itself is secondary to the pleasures of sight, sound, mood and atmosphere.

But despite their determined uselessness in social and economic terms, the poem and the picture are or have been of some importance, it would seem, to somebody; important enough to lavish time and skill on. The picture is not merely printed but hand-painted, emphasizing the old men’s ‘exquisitely shaped’ hands and feet and the anthropomorphic contours of the small hill’s ‘melancholy brow’. It is no commercial production but a lovingly crafted artefact designed for the appreciation of a limited but passionate readership. The small thumbprints on the page show that it has been carefully studied by at least one enthusiastic reader. The fact that the pointlessness, the nonsense of the poem and picture have been taken so seriously – indeed, the poem is wholly serious in mood and tone, for all its irrationality – gives Steerpike a crucial clue to the nature of his castle environment, its implacable hostility to the rational notions of cause and effect to which he claims to adhere.

The castle is both self-absorbed and curiously selfless, like the artist. Everything in it is ‘equally important’, despite its rigid hierarchy and its economic inequalities, since everything in it is part of its identity as a castle. In Gormenghast, servants and impoverished artists from the mud huts beneath its walls can take part in tragedies, make themselves works of art, as Flay and Swelter do in their fight to the death in the Hall of Spiders, or as Rantel and Braigon do as they hack each other to pieces for the love of Keda. Steerpike signals his awareness of these facts, his intention to take possession of them, when he picks up an unfinished pear which Fuchsia left beside her book of poems and bites into it, using her bite-mark as purchase for his own teeth. Fuchsia took the pear to the attic not out of utilitarian hunger or need but as a means of intensifying the attic’s atmosphere – reinforcing its vitality, its centrality to her life, by the act of consuming food there (that’s why the fruit remained unfinished). Steerpike takes her decorative, unnecessary food and uses it to staunch his hunger – a hunger to take things to himself which extends to everything he looks at. For Fuchsia, then, the pear is one with the nonsense verse she loves – a pleasure rather than a function – while for Steerpike it is useful, a necessary meal. Fuchsia herself is akin to nonsense; she is not particularly useful to her family, being an adolescent girl who cannot inherit the Earldom, and her concerns are insular, disconnected from the mainland, as it were, of castle life; but Steerpike makes her useful to him as a crucial part of his improvised scheme for self-promotion. Steerpike, then, is a threat to nonsense, to what nonsense stands for – in Keatsian terms, art without a palpable design upon its recipients – and therefore a threat to Gormenghast and all its inhabitants.

What makes Steerpike so dangerous to Gormenghast is his ability to mimic the kind of nonsense art it nurtures with astonishing precision, and hence to appropriate that art to his own ends. On meeting Fuchsia, he first draws her attention to the things he has seen in his climb over the castle rooftops – above all, the senseless parts of it: the empty field of stone, where nobody goes and which therefore has no connection to the narrative of the castle; the horse and its foal swimming in a pool at the summit of a tower, which is manifestly impossible. Later he transforms himself for the girl’s benefit into an exact copy of a clown, the embodiment of nonsense, a performance of simplicity and bizarreness that has no function whatsoever except as a means of captivating her attention, of distracting her from Steerpike’s ruthlessly motivated cunning.

Not long after this oddly disturbing episode – disturbing because Steerpike remains utterly detached throughout it, having no interest in the clown or anything he represents – Fuchsia takes him to visit Doctor Prunesquallor. Here the boy is treated to the spectacle of genuine nonsense in full flight, sent soaring into the ether with every speech the doctor utters. Prunesquallor, like Steerpike, links the teenaged Fuchsia with a young horse; but for Prunesquallor the horse retains its identity even as he uses it as an analogy for her fusion of grace and awkwardness. ‘Fuchsia dear,’ he tells her as he presents her with a ruby,

‘you were so distraught as you ran like a wild pony away from your father and me; so distraught with your black mane and your big hungry eyes – that I said [to] myself: “It’s for Fuchsia,” although ponies don’t usually care much about such things.’ (p. 128).

Just as the ruby has no function in the doctor’s world except to make Fuchsia happy, so the wild pony he has conjured up effectively refuses to be restrained by its intended verbal function. If Fuchsia is like a pony, a pony is not like Fuchsia, since it has no interest in aesthetics or theatre as embodied in the blood-red stone. In Prunesquallor’s discourse, then, Fuchsia gets detached from what he says she resembles – she does not get trapped, even metaphorically, by his metaphor. Steerpike used his field of stones and his swimming horse to worm his way into Fuchsia’s imaginative universe for his own ends. Prunesquallor uses his stone and his pony to show Fuchsia herself, her sensitivity to colour and beauty, her unselfconscious energy, her need for what she has not been getting (hence her ‘big hungry eyes’) – above all, for liberty and affection. But Prunesquallor also offers her these things as of value in themselves, as being worthy of attention, simply as a lovely stone, a headstrong pony. The doctor’s nonsensical fantasias of punning rhetoric represent a form of successful yet undamaging resistance to the stifling rituals of the castle, a celebration of the opposite of ritual – love and freedom – both of which are rendered more lovely by the castle’s indifference to and confinement of its inhabitants.

By contrast, Steerpike’s methodical deployment of his observations of the castle, his mental inventory of the nonsense he encounters there, is a form of resistance which is utterly inimical to nonsense itself, utterly destructive to all those nonsensical characters who find refuge in the castle’s crevices, or who shelter beneath its walls in abject poverty. Steerpike, in fact, comes to represent – as the Titus series develops – everything that is inimical to the practice of making art, as Peake perceives it. He is the embodiment of self-interest, of the inability to commit oneself body and soul to what is outside oneself, whether it be a person, a community, a landscape or a still life. As such, the young man’s journey through the landscape of Gormenghast forms an analogy for the irruption into the privacy of Peake’s imagination of a succession of hostile ‘alien worlds’: Nazism, military life, commercialism and the ever-present need to earn a living through his art; war and the cold war; and the contempt of the artistic elite for the kind of art he made – the art of the fantastic, the nonsensical. For this reason, Steerpike’s relationship to the nonsense of Gormenghast – and in particular, perhaps, to its nonsense verse – is worth pursuing very much further than I have been able to in this essay.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Steerpike in the BBC production of Gormenghast (2000)

Notes

[1] Mervyn Peake, The Gormenghast Trilogy (London: Mandarin, 1992), p. 367. All references are to this edition.

[2] For Peake’s ‘default metre’, see Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), introduction, p. 10.

[3] See Mervyn Peake, Complete Nonsense, ed. R. W. Maslen and G. Peter Winnington (Manchester: Carcanet, 2011), pp. 124-6 and note.

[4] Peake, Complete Nonsense, p. 184.

[5] See Alice Mills, Stuckness in the Fiction of Mervyn Peake (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2005), chapter 4, and Vanessa Bonnet, ‘A World of Nonsense’, Peake Studies, vol. 12, no. 4 (April 2012), pp. 37-8.

[6] G. Peter Winnington, The Voice of the Heart: the working of Mervyn Peake’s imagination (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006), chapter 3.

[7] Peake, Complete Nonsense, p. 53.

[8] Peake, Complete Nonsense, p. 156.

[9] Peake, Complete Nonsense, pp. 124-5.

British and Irish Fantasy 1939. Part 1: Science Fiction

Howell Davies/Andrew Marvell, Congratulate the Devil; R C Sherriff, The Hopkins Manuscript

Sam Haile, Woman and Suspended Man (1939)

The 1930s saw a vast range of fantasy published in the United Kingdom and Ireland. But this is a claim that needs interrogation. What do we mean by fantasy in a decade before the term has come to denote a literary genre, before fantasy (invariably yoked up with science fiction) has acquired a section of its own on the shelves of bookshops? My series of blog posts marked ‘British and Irish Fantasy 1939’ are an attempt to answer that question; and more importantly, they’re a bid to show that the question itself – what do we mean by fantasy? – played a central role in British and Irish fiction in the decade that saw the rise of fascism and the outbreak of the Second World War.

Leonora Carrington, The Pomps of the Subsoil (1947)

As I’ve noted elsewhere, the word ‘fantasy’ was widely used in criticism that decade. Herbert Read defined it in his book English Prose Style (1928), which kept being republished and revised throughout the 1930s and 40s, while J R R Tolkien subjected it to more extended scrutiny in his Andrew Lang lecture ‘On Fairy Stories’ in 1937. For Read, fantasy was a sustained work of ‘caprice, whim, fanciful invention’ – with the emphasis on the word sustained – concerning itself with ‘things which are concrete, clearly perceptible, visibly defined’, and developing its caprices in a scrupulously logical manner. Tolkien chose to define fantasy (which as a philologist he knew very well to have a wider range of meanings) as one aspect of the faculty that mediates between the imagination – the capacity to form mental images of things not actually present, as Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary put it – and the external world, or rather its human population. That is, it’s ‘the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality’ (pp. 46-7), the ‘operative link’ between the imagination and its expression in a work of art. More specifically, it’s that aspect of this power or operative link which is concerned to generate ‘a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression, derived from the Image: a quality essential to fairy-story’. Fantasy, for Tolkien, is the capacity to make works of art that convey a sense of ‘“unreality” (that is, of unlikeness to our Primary World), of freedom from the domination of “observed fact”, in short of the fantastic’ (p. 47). It’s the art of the impossible, in other words: art that flamboyantly violates the laws of physics, biology, geography, or space and time, where ‘art’ is being used in the old sense of a skill as well as the product of that skill. Taken in this inclusive but quite specific sense, fantasy fiction of the 1930s is quite astonishing in terms of the sheer diversity of its experiments, and suggests the extent to which the imaginations of writers were being troubled and transformed by the turbulent times they lived in, when world-wide recession, totalitarianism and the spread of conflict across the globe threatened to wipe out all traces of the past – and rewrite the terms on which people lived the present – in what must have looked something like a slow tsunami.

Michael Ayrton, Sleeper in Flight (1943)

Fantasy as the art of the impossible found itself in a strange position in that decade. All certainties about what was impossible, or conversely about what could be described (in Read’s terms) as ‘concrete, clearly perceptible, visibly defined’, were in dispute, caught up in the struggle between opposing philosophies and political positions. Tolkien expresses anxiety about the operations of the faculty called fantasy – ‘the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality’ – in part because it could so easily serve the interests of falsification, in particular the falsification of history beloved of the fascists. This is why he stresses (a) the importance of incorporating the qualities of strangeness and wonder into the products of the fantasy, emphasizing its self-segregation from consensus reality; (b) the fairy tale’s subservience (as ‘sub-creation’) to the primary, substantial creative work of making planets, living creatures and so on, which is the exclusive province of God; and (c) the preservation of a rigorous sense of history in one’s treatment of it – even while he acknowledges that the history of fantasy’s most familiar literary product, the fairy tale, is next to impossible to write. This final point was a tricky one in the 1930s – I mean, the preservation of the rigorous historical perspective for which an etymologist or historian of words like Tolkien prided himself. In the between-war period the distinction between the primary world – whether or not one took it to have been intentionally created by a singular God – and the strangeness of what cannot and never could exist, was constantly being challenged in fantastic fiction, in an obvious and often deliberate reflection of the breakdown of political, social, economic, religious, philosophical and scientific certainties taking place in these two decades. A rigorous historical perspective – an account of the past or indeed the present based on the concrete evidence available, uncontaminated by baseless speculation – was not so easy to define or maintain under the circumstances.

Conroy Maddox, The Lesson (1938)

At the same time as societies were undergoing radical changes, the human mind was being revealed by psychoanalysts as a complex repository of conscious and unconscious fantasies, many of them concerned with exerting some level of control over people, actions, situations and sensations. For Freudians, fantasies were always interposing themselves between the individual’s mind and the world, determining how one interacted with one’s fellow human beings, so that what was ‘real’ was difficult to determine or access. This difficulty underpins many contemporary interpretations of the artistic movement known as surrealism, which took root in Britain in the 1930s. British surrealist apologists like Herbert Read insisted that the set of conventions known as ‘realism’ or mimesis could not properly take account of human experience in the world, since our unconscious desires, dreams and obsessions always direct the way we perceive or interact with our environment.[1] Surrealism, for Read, meant ‘super-realism’: going beyond the notion of objective reality, as befitted artists or creators realistic enough to know that fantasies invariably mediate between ourselves and the material spaces we inhabit, the objects and living creatures with which we interact. The word’s prominence in 1930s Britain, where a wide range of British and Irish artists joined artists from the continent in the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936, underlines the extent to which an awareness of fantasy as a faculty or a product of that faculty was helping to destabilize the very concept of the ‘real’.

One way of grasping the sheer diversity of fantasy literature in the 1930s is to take a snapshot of the fiction that might be termed ‘fantastic’ in any given year. For the purposes of this post and those that follow it I’ve chosen the year when war broke out between Britain and Germany, 1939, selecting a small number of texts from that year – many of which we would now see as belonging to different genres – that demonstrate a sustained engagement with ‘fantasy’ in one or more of the senses given above. Each post deals with a different kind of fantastic fiction: science fiction, Irish rural fantasy, children’s literature – though it doesn’t claim to deal with all examples of these kinds, even in the year under discussion.[2] Instead the books have been chosen because they speak to each other in some way, and because they collectively speak to the state of fantasy at the time of writing.

Two significant books we would now call science fiction came out that year, both of which have a clear association with fantasy and the fantastic. One was by Andrew Marvell: Congratulate the Devil, about a drug that gives its user power over other people’s minds, enabling him or her to realize the desire for absolute control which for anyone else must always remain a daydream. The other is by R C Sherriff: The Hopkins Manuscript, about the collision of the moon with the earth and the social chaos that ensues, as seen through the eyes of an Englishman living in rural Hampshire. Two experimental fantasies were also published: Clemence Dane’s little-known satire The Arrogant History of White Ben, about a scarecrow that becomes fascist dictator of Britain, and Flann O’Brien’s celebrated first novel At Swim-Two-Birds, about a medley of characters in a book who rebel against the tyranny of the author. I’ve written elsewhere about both Dane’s book and O’Brien’s, and introduce them here to give a sense of how Marvell’s and Sherriff’s novels share a number of features with other kinds of fantastic texts published at the same time. To begin with, three of the four books I’ve just listed were published under pseudonyms: Andrew Marvell was the Welsh editor and theatre critic Howell Davies, Clemence Dane the English novelist and playwright Winifred Ashton, while Flann O’Brien was the Irish civil servant Brian O’Nolan. The use of pseudonyms gives some sense of the constraints under which writers felt themselves to be practising their craft at this point in history. All four books concern abuses of power in the form of the dictatorships imposed by the author, the scarecrow and the British government in the books by O’Brien, Dane and Sherriff, as well as through mind control in Marvell’s novel. In all four novels a form of social breakdown takes place, and in every case this follows on from the rise of fascistic forces in the writer’s own country: O’Brien’s Ireland, Sherriff’s United Kingdom, Marvell’s Wales and England (as a Welshman he makes a clear distinction between them), and most grimly of all Dane’s Britain, where after the scarecrow takes control a growing number of social groups begin to be classified as ‘crows’ and condemned to death. All four novels localize the root causes of social and political calamity not in some overseas nation – Fascist Italy or Spain, Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia – but in the fields, towns and cityscapes of home (even The Hopkins Manuscript does this, as we shall see). Clemence Dane’s totalitarian scarecrow, White Ben, is peculiarly British in his origins, constructed by a child and clothed in a random selection of garments that between them represent a cross-section of British society. He springs from the soil of England like the plant that grows in the field where he acquires sentience, and from which he takes his surname, campion. His dictatorship, then, is a British one, forged exclusively from British materials, tailored to British culture. He can stand for many of the adult fantasies written in the late 1930s in his disastrous transplantation of the fascistic dreams that were sweeping through continental Europe into the receptive ground of his native island.

Andrew Marvell’s Congratulate the Devil offers a particularly interesting perspective on the breakdown of boundaries between the fantastic and the real in contemporary Britain. The story tells of a young chemist, William Roper, who discovers a version of the drug mescal which enables him to take control of other people’s minds, and hence to realize his own private fantasies in the actual world (at least to some extent: the drug only works within a certain distance of its user). Roper is a man who bears a marked resemblance to the devil, both in his appearance – he has ‘two glistening lumps’ on his forehead like incipient horns – and his personality, since he loves playing malicious tricks on random strangers. He himself, then, is corporeally linked to the supernatural or impossible, and the drug gives him the chance to demolish the walls between the immaterial religious world whose chief antagonist he resembles and the material world he lives in. The comic possibilities of this demolition of boundaries are obvious, and Roper begins by using his new drug impishly, for his own amusement. He first feeds it to a dog, whose doggish mind then forces all human beings within range to behave like dogs, an episode described in something like the comic style of Lord Dunsany’s charming novella My talks with Dean Spanley (1936). Dunsany’s book is about a clergyman who keeps remembering his former life as a spaniel; it has nothing too serious about it (though there’s a drug involved: he only revisits his past lives when he drinks the Hungarian sweet wine Tokay). In Marvell’s novel, by contrast, Roper’s behaviour quickly transitions from the impish to the diabolical. He falls in love with an artist’s model and forces her to love him back by means of the drug; and from that point on, driven by his no-longer-repressed desires, the chemist’s powers get used for increasingly disturbing purposes: rape, murder, robbery, an incipient revolution. But it also becomes increasingly clear that the young man’s devilry is merely an extension of a range of diabolical activities that are already endemic in British society; that Britain itself, in fact – as a community and an institution – has a barely repressed unconscious which is always breaking through in acts of more or less authoritarian violence. Roper’s incipient horns are the physical manifestation of a widespread tendency throughout the nation he inhabits; and correspondingly, Roper’s adventures make the incipient horns of contemporary Britain clearly visible to Marvell’s readers.

Mervyn Peake, Rumpelstiltskin

For Marvell, the English language itself acknowledges the omnipresence of diabolical tendencies among its users. As you read the novel, count the incidence of diabolical terms such as ‘devil’, ‘hell’, ‘infernal’ and ‘damnation’ in the text, often in commonly used phrases whose submerged religious or moral sense is reawakened by their context: ‘’Old ’im, Sir, ’old the devil’ (p. 8); ‘I […] pelted down the lane as if the devil were at my heels’ (p. 117); ‘Women were the devil’ (p. 185); ‘What the devil is Mayfair running away from?’ (p. 258). Roper’s devilishness, then, is native both to Britain and its dominant language. So too is his coercive attitude to women. The model he desires, Anita, is a married woman, whose husband asserts his power over her through violence, which is effectively condoned by those who know her, since there is little recourse in British law for victims of domestic abuse. As the artist who paints Anita puts it, ‘There have been bruises, now and again, but she hasn’t said anything’ (p. 104) – presumably because nothing she says will make any difference. Roper’s exertion of power over Anita with the help of his drug is just another version of the male violence to which she is already subjected, thanks to the tacit acceptance in British society of the husband’s right to attack his wife whenever he chooses.

Leonora Carrington, The Pine Family (1940)

The relationship between Anita and her husband, then, is as much of a devil’s bargain as her relationship with Roper; and again this is pointed up in Marvell’s infernal references. When the narrator, Jim, first meets the husband, he asks: ‘What the devil do you want? Who are you?’ (p. 153), and the husband’s response exposes the hell of marriage for many wives. He wants to make a business deal with Roper, using the narrator as an intermediary and his wife as a bargaining chip; he knows Roper has been sleeping with Anita and insists on being paid not to divulge it, and when the narrator refuses, the husband beats her up ‘like a maniac’, as Roper puts it (p. 157). From one perspective, this is blackmail reinforced by assault; but from another it’s capitalism in action, as the husband implies when he describes himself and the narrator as ‘men of the world’ (p. 155). In other words, it’s a way of doing business that’s not just accepted but fiercely defended by governments and institutions all over the planet. And when Roper finally kills him – leaving Anita ‘free’, as Roper puts it, though not free to resist Roper’s wishes – the chemist insists it is not murder but justice, and that the narrator’s disapproval brands him a hypocrite (p. 160). Not acting to put a stop to the husband’s violence is more diabolical, Roper implies, than Roper’s own decision to end that violence through violence, so that Roper is in some respects less devilish than the Britain that condones misogynist abuse. By this stage it’s become clear, in fact, that the chemist’s devilish use of mind control – the fantastic impossibility at the heart of the novel – provides a kind of key to reveal the devilish forms of mind control already at work in British society, as well as the intricate hypocrisies – the ‘compunctions and evasions’, as Marvell puts it (p. 89) – that work to sustain them.

Mervyn Peake, Mr Hyde (1948)

As Roper implies, the narrator’s penchant for hypocrisy makes him not just a double for Roper but perhaps even his superior in the hierarchy of wickedness. Jim is a playboy, by his own admission. He claims to be studying the politics of labour in countries round the world, a useful project, one would have thought, at a time of global recession like the 1930s; but his ‘studies’ are merely an excuse for tourism and philandering, and his contributions to political thought or economic planning are non-existent. His identity, too, is almost non-existent. His name is Jim Starling, which suggests a flightiness, a penchant for imitating other people and a liking for bright shiny things without much awareness of their value. We don’t know a great deal about him or his family – and it’s implied that there is little to know – but we’re aware that his money is running out and that his days as a playboy are therefore numbered, thus effectively erasing his identity, since he is defined by his indecisiveness and self-indulgence, both of which are made possible by his fortune. His days themselves are numbered in any case, as we know from the opening sentence: ‘In seven days I shall be killed’, it announces, turning the tumbling pace of the novel into a sprightly gallop towards Jim’s death.

But Jim has already been effectively erased from the world of the book some time before this happens. From the beginning of the novel, his fate is indistinguishable from Roper’s, since he has no story outside of Roper’s story, and there is even a point at which Roper occupies Jim’s body with the help of his drug – when Jim becomes Roper, so to speak. Marvell makes it clear that this occupation is a form of rape; Jim insists, ‘I didn’t want him to do it’ (p. 88), and later tells him directly ‘I would rather not’ (p. 88), but Roper does it anyway, just as he later forces Anita to become his lover. As with Anita, too, Roper represents his violation of Jim as tantamount to an act of love: ‘It’s the kind of thing lovers long for: complete union with the beloved’ (p. 88) – though he adds with characteristic irony, ‘I don’t suppose it would be a healthy experience’. Oddly, though, it’s Roper who claims to feel violated by Jim as a result of their joint occupation of Jim’s body: ‘I think I shall always bear you a grudge for this rape’, he tells him afterwards (p. 90). His resentment stems from a number of sources. First, there is Jim’s stated unwillingness to describe the experience of sharing Roper’s identity, which both Roper and the reader might ascribe to Jim’s cowardice, his reluctance to expose the unsettling cynicism, resentment and lack of conscience he has found in Roper’s mind. Partly, too, the chemist’s resentment stems from his belated wish to preserve what he calls a ‘privacy of self’ (p. 90). Most disturbing of all for Roper, though, is the evidence Jim might provide of the instability of his own identity. During Roper’s occupation of Jim’s body, Jim sees clearly the distinction between himself and Roper: ‘I had never imagined that someone else could feel so different,’ he writes, ‘that his “being” should vary so profoundly from my “being”’ (p. 88); and he confirms that Roper’s personality has what he calls ‘weight’, or gravity, in stark opposition to his own vapid ‘lightness’. But his friend’s mind is also described as existing in some sort of ‘bondage’, exuding a sense ‘of being swathed round and of a desperate stretching against the bandages, as though he were buried alive’, of being in ‘constant strife’ – a phrase that neatly encapsulates the devil’s nature as the arch-fiend or universal enemy, trapped by his own opposition to the whole of creation. Shortly afterwards Jim describes him as ‘a bold, dark, striving spirit, constantly disintegrating and re-cohering’ (p. 89), like evil in Milton’s Comus.[3] Roper, then, like Jim himself, has no consistent being; he can’t distinguish himself from his own victims, and is as subject to coercive binding as anyone he binds with his drug. The breaking down of boundaries between minds, which is made possible by the drug, reveals the permeability of the boundaries between one identity and another, and hence perhaps the difficulty of assigning responsibility for any given action, of determining its moral status. No wonder, then, if Jim tells us that Roper’s brief possession of his body leaves him (and presumably Roper) with a powerful unease about what he calls the ‘mystery of personality’ (p. 88), as well as a ‘furtive sense of shame’, as if his refusal to describe Roper’s mind to its owner makes him responsible, in some sense, both for what Roper has done in the past and what he will do in future.

Mervyn Peake, Dr Jekyll (1948)

Sure enough, Jim condones Roper’s actions again and again in the book, first by failing to describe the state of Roper’s mind to him at this early stage in his addiction, then by repeatedly refusing to condemn them to his face, and finally by failing to report the murders he commits to the authorities – aiding and abetting him, in other words, out of a misplaced sense of loyalty. His own unstable identity transforms him at times into a dead ringer for his more forceful friend, while his hypocrisy makes him as responsible for Roper’s actions as Roper himself; perhaps more so, since he could have brought them to an end more easily than Roper, given the chemist’s self-confessed condition as an ‘addict’ to his new drug (p. 114).

But Jim is not alone in his complicity with Roper’s actions. The book sees the chemist’s personal devilishness manifested in nearly every other character: from the police constable whose mind Roper makes use of to club an unfortunate servant to death with his truncheon (p. 135), to Jim’s elderly aunt, who shows an unseemly fascination with the details of the servant’s murder (p. 112); from Cousin Flo, an unmarried relative of Roper’s who gets hold of one of the pills and transforms a Vicar into the husband of her dreams (p. 144), to the narrator, who is accused by Roper of having designs on the pills himself (p. 138). When Jim insists that Roper give him the pills after the servant’s murder, Roper tells him that he is behaving just like Hitler: ‘with you they’d be safe,’ he observes ironically; ‘It sounds like Hitler’s argument for taking away the colonies’ (p. 138). Britain is filled, in fact, with little Hitlers, whose claims to benevolence are indistinguishable from the dictator’s desire to exercise absolute power. The pills do no more than underline this affinity between the outwardly good-natured English or Welsh citizen and the Nazi dictator of Germany, by giving some of them the means to incarnate their ‘secret desire […] for conquest and capitulation’ (p. 144).

Leslie Hurry, Café Bar (1946)

Despite Jim’s insistence that he is a playboy, then, with no serious political or intellectual commitments; despite the ‘lightness’ of his prose style as first-person narrator of Marvell’s book – full of short paragraphs, rapid-fire dialogue and swift transitions; Jim’s narrative is in the end a political one, as perhaps all narratives had to be in 1939. The political aspect of the book is revealed quite gradually, but comes to a head in the final pages, when the British government stands revealed as the worst of devils in that devilish nation. As the self-appointed watchdogs of global capitalism, the British authorities, it turns out, are willing to sacrifice any number of innocent citizens to protect its interests; and the people they destroy by violence include members of their own forces, policemen and soldiers. The irony is that these innocents are killed to put an end to a professedly benevolent revolution, involving the forcible spread of ‘human kindness’ through the agency of Roper’s friend, a saintly Welsh street singer called Bert who is the chemist’s polar opposite in terms of his moral proclivities. When Bert gets hold of the pills he is persuaded by Roper (for the young man’s private amusement) to conduct an experiment on the British public by forcing them through mind control to be relentlessly ‘kind’ to one another. Kindness, however – it turns out – is inimical to property laws, the hoarding of gold reserves by banks, and hierarchies of every kind; so the government cannot possibly accept its imposition on the populace. The book ends with a devastating artillery attack that kills Roper, Bert, policemen, soldiers and a host of bystanders. As Howell Davies, Andrew Marvell was a veteran of the Great War; so the termination of his novel with the indiscriminate shelling by his government of its own people, in a year when global conflict was about to break out for a second time in the author’s lifetime, makes bona fide devils of the British state.

George Frampton, Peter Pan statue, Kensington Gardens (1911)

The authorities’ erasure of Bert’s revolution also erases Bert and Roper from the annals of history. The clothes of the dictator-scarecrow in Clemence Dane’s The Arrogant History of White Ben transform their wearer into a living emblem of the past: ‘He had been garmented’, Dane writes, ‘with religion, diplomacy, the art of war, the art of healing; for he wore a priest’s vestment, a soldier’s gauntlets and civilian mackintosh; a gentleman’s pleasure-hat, a surgeon’s coat. […] [M]en’s memories were buttoned about him’ (p. 20). The fate of Marvell’s characters, by contrast, is to be remembered (if at all) as the cast of a novel, and hence to be written out of the historical record altogether. This process of writing them out begins at an early stage in the revolution, as the government carefully vets the newspaper coverage of its spread; and later one of the ‘journalists’ reporting on Bert’s movements turns out to be a government spy, whose information enables the shell attack on the Welshman and his followers to be accurately targeted. The only reliable account of what happened to Bert and Roper is to be found in the pages of the seemingly fantastical story told by Jim, which he writes down while staying in a tiny village in Wales – on the margins of history, so to speak – and arranges to be smuggled to Roper’s father after his death. The fact that we are reading this posthumous account in the form of a work of fantastic fiction suggests that the father chose to release it as a product of the imagination rather than of history, presumably to protect the contents from censorship. Indeed, the decision to release it as fantasy seems to be anticipated by the choice of setting for Bert’s last revolutionary headquarters: the tea-house in Kensington Gardens – now the Serpentine Gallery – located in a section of Hyde Park whose best-known associations are with that most influential of British fantasies, Peter Pan. Peter’s first literary appearance famously took place in Kensington Gardens, in J M Barrie’s The Little White Bird, and his statue by Sir George Frampton still stands on the other side of the water from the former café. In Congratulate the Devil, then, the fantastic and the historical are in constant dialogue or exchange, so that the distinction between them is at times more or less impossible to make.

Edward Burra, Dancing Skeletons (1934)

The disintegration of boundaries between fantasy and reality is for Marvell profoundly damaging. He reflects this formally by refusing to divide his novel into chapters, as (for instance) R C Sherriff did in The Hopkins Manuscript. As a result the comic episodes at the beginning, where humans behave like cheerful dogs, exist in a continuum with the much more troubling incidents that follow: the murder of one of those humans – the servant Dobbs; the bank robbery; Roper’s murder of Anita; the destruction of the teahouse by shelling. As we’ve seen, Roper’s mescal breaks down the boundaries between the imagination and material life; Bert’s conviction that human kindness provides the key to a better world, for instance, is described as one of his ‘fantasies’, and the pills let him put this fantasy into practice. But for powerful people – newspaper magnates, rich men, politicians – the world is already a ‘fine hot-pot of fact and fantasy’, which is how Roper describes the ‘inaccurate’ coverage of his killing of Dobbs in the national press (p. 130).

The bank robbery staged by Roper shortly after the murder demonstrates the central role played by fantasy in economics. With his pills he forces the bank manager to think of the money in his vaults as worth less than a pile of leaves: ‘Pieces of paper,’ he calls them, ‘silly little pieces of paper with pictures on them. Gentlemen, you are welcome to them. […] Take them all. […] Leave not a wrack behind’ (p. 125). As the banker expatiates on this new perspective, the notion that ‘pieces of paper with pictures on them’ should have some sort of intrinsic value becomes increasingly absurd; yet it’s in the interests of defending this absurdity that the British government bombs the tea-house in Kensington Gardens. In other words, Roper’s imposition of his fantasies through the operation of his new drug underlines the far more successful imposition of fantasies on human beings by the world’s businesses and the governments that serve them, a form of mind control that reduces people of all nations to helpless dupes.

Alfred Kubin, Caliban (1918)

The bank manager’s phrase, ‘Leave not a wrack behind’, comes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It’s from the scene where the enchanter Prospero acknowledges the insubstantial nature of his magic, and aligns it with the insubstantial nature of the ‘great globe itself’, which will fade away at last and leave no trace of its passing. This is the first of two key references to The Tempest in Marvell’s novel. The second is Roper’s, when he contemplates what would have happened if the islander Caliban had got control of Prospero’s wand and used it to reshape the world around him (p. 152). Roper thinks of himself as a second Caliban: a misshapen, marginalized individual, enslaved by pointless conventions, who lusts after Anita just as Caliban lusted after Prospero’s daughter Miranda. At first the young chemist claims to have no interest in gaining Anita’s affections through the mind-controlling ‘magic’ of mescal, and insists that Caliban, too, would have been uninterested in forcing Miranda to love him. But Shakespeare’s play does not bear this out this assertion. Caliban did in fact try to rape Miranda – according to her father – and Roper follows in his footsteps. With the help of the drug he forces Anita to sleep with him, then when the effects wear off and she recoils from him in horror he strangles her in a paroxysm of rage, resentful of her inability to go on embodying his erotic daydreams without the drug’s intervention. In both play and novel, then, magic is the expression of the desire to shape the world in accordance with one’s fantasies, a project whose eventual failure is rendered inevitable by the incompatibility of one person’s fantasies with another’s – except in an impossible utopia, of the kind Marvell’s Bert or Shakespeare’s Gonzalo conjures up.

Ithell Colquhoun, Song of Songs (1933)

Roper’s willingness to ‘force’ Anita to service his desires is represented as devilish, but no more so than the world’s tendency to ‘force’ her to embody an androcentric vision of femininity. The young chemist first sees the girl in a painting executed by an artist named Joubert, who also happens to supply Roper with the drug which is the source of his problems. In the painting – presumably executed under the influence of the drug in question – Anita stands facing the viewer, naked, ‘hands turned towards us’, looking off into the distance at an indeterminate object (‘It might be a lover, it might be God’, p. 102). It is Roper who suggests a title for this picture: ‘the moment of truth’; but in fact, of course, it’s another fantasy, the image of a young girl as freely and willingly available for all men’s pleasure. The street singer Bert correctly identifies the painting as exploitative, but couches his objections to Anita’s nudity in the same possessive terms that the picture invites all men to use about her: ‘I don’t like you doing that’, he tells her (p. 103). Both Roper’s and Bert’s perceptions of Anita are based on the painting’s representation of her as somehow ‘made’ by and for the male viewer:

‘Look, you made me, here I am. I have nothing to hide. The beauty is yours, all yours.’ She seemed to be saying that, and glorying, too, that the beauty was there to bestow, utterly, without reservation. (p. 103)

Bert later liberates Anita from both Joubert’s and Roper’s influence, but in doing so places her in a setting that infantilizes her – a sweet shop – as does his refusal to acknowledge her adult desire for Bert himself. Later still, Roper murders Anita because she refuses to act out the role of ‘the beauty [that is] there to bestow, utterly, without reservation’ in life as she did in the painting. Both men, in fact, use the drug to ‘make’ or remake Anita as they wish her to be, just as the painter did, and both find themselves unable to cope when she insists on following her own desires and inclinations. In this they are the exact opposite of Roper’s father, a man who the chemist describes as the ‘only complete realist I know’, who ‘knows exactly what he wants from life, never asks more of it than it can give, and is always prepared to find that it gives less than he expects’ (p. 92). The father’s decision to release the narrative of Roper’s drug as a fantasy novel, as against a historical account, is ironically a more realistic choice than any made by the drug’s users, who persist in believing that the world can be reshaped by the transient influence of the magic it contains. Roper and Bert are fantasists, and their treatment of Anita underlines the tendency of fantasists in the 1930s to force their damaging dreams on the world, always asking ‘more of it than it can give’, and roused to rage, in Roper’s case – like Wilde’s version of Caliban – when it doesn’t mirror their dreams and expectations with servile faithfulness.

Oswald Mosley and the British Fascist Blackshirts (1936)

Ironically, Roper’s own death is brought about for a similar reason to his murder of the woman who obsessed him. Bert’s revolution, which Roper first suggests to him and then helps to orchestrate, exposes money and social inequality as manifestations of false consciousness; that is, as fantasies devised to keep the ruling elite in power. It is, in fact, an attempt on Roper’s part to return to the ‘realism’ he was taught by his father, and which he abandoned by treating Anita as an ideal; and as we’ve seen it proves insupportable to the government, which destroys him as he destroyed Anita. This would seem to be Roper’s intention from the beginning: a suicidal desire to atone for his killing of Anita with his own destruction, though as a devil-figure he inevitably brings down his friends Bert and Jim along with him. Roper knows very well how the revolution of kindness is likely to end. When Jim suggests at one point that the government is reluctant to fire on the revolutionaries because of the crowd of innocent people gathered round them, Roper asks him: ‘What do you think you’re up against, the Peace Pledge Union?’ (p. 256) – referring to the pacifists who opposed a military response to the Nazi threat. The real reason for the government’s reluctance, Roper insists, is that the revolutionaries are out of range of the army’s machine guns; and the bombing of the café confirms his suspicions, while also signaling to Marvell’s readers the end of the democratic dream of government as a beneficent force at the service of its electors. World leaders share the obsessive self-interest of other men, a self-interest that devours those who refuse to serve it as a cannibal devours other members of its own species. Roper himself describes his obsession with Anita as a kind of hunger: ‘Ever been hungry, really hungry?’ he asks Jim (pp. 195 and 200), as an analogy for his yearning for her body. This hunger finally consumes her, and it’s in response to this act of metaphorical cannibalism that Roper allows himself to be consumed in his turn by dying in a famous eating-house. Marvell’s novel finishes, in fact, by implying that the mind control imposed on individuals or populations by fascist populism is a form of anthropophagy, and that it is practised everywhere in Europe by governments determined to sustain themselves by consuming the citizens they govern. T H White had made a similar point just one year earlier in The Sword in the Stone (1938).

Bela Lugosi in Chandu the Magician (1932)

In his essay on fairy stories, Tolkien’s unease with the power exerted by fantasy over its readers comes to a head in his discussion of the difference between Magic and Enchantment. Magic makes a change to the world we live in, he tells us, and ‘its desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills’. Enchantment, on the other hand, is the art of sub-creation – of inventing new worlds as imaginative subsets of this one – and is ‘inwardly wholly different from the greed for self-centred power which is the mark of the mere Magician’ (p. 53). But Enchantment too can be ‘perilous’, Tolkien warns (p. 53), because ‘Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evil’ (p. 55). Congratulate the Devil is a book about Magic, in Tolkien’s terms, whose protagonists are as greedy for power as Tolkien’s Magician. But Tolkien also believes that Enchantment, as the human craft he calls Fantasy works it, can be abused to such an extent that we think our sub-created secondary worlds to be somehow real: ‘[Men] have made false gods out of other materials: their nations, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice’ (pp. 55-6). From this perspective, Congratulate the Devil is a work of Enchantment, and as such the product of Fantasy. It draws attention, as I’ve argued here, to the totalitarian abuses of Fantasy that pervaded Europe in the 1930s; and in the process it reminds its readers that they themselves might be worshipping deformed gods of their own invention – the Ropers of their minds.

How, I wonder, does Marvell imagine the effect of his book on its readers? Does he see it as practising mind control on us, experimentally forcing us to root for the devil, Roper, and to congratulate him in the end for the morbid entertainment he has afforded us? There’s a clue, perhaps, in the connection with Wilde I’ve already touched on in connection with Caliban. If Roper is Caliban, he will produce a dual effect on his readership, according to Wilde’s preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, since ‘The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass’, while ‘The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism’ – for which read deliberately unrealistic narratives, like modern fantasy – ‘is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in the glass’. Roper as a representation of contemporary Britishness will make readers angry; Roper as an unrealistic character, with his devilish horn-stubs, will arouse readers’ contempt; though all the while readers will fail to note that they are as much Caliban as Roper is, if we take Wilde’s dicta seriously. Meanwhile the portrait of Anita can be seen as a version of the Picture of Dorian Gray, mirroring the faults of its painter (who worshipped a fake version of Anita just as Basil Hallward worshipped a fake version of Dorian) as well as its spectators (who expect all women to act as the model is made to act by the painter). Marvell’s readers are as much the painters and avid spectators of Anita’s portrait as Joubert and Roper are. Marvell’s position as author, meanwhile, is that of Roper’s father: the realist who expects nothing more from life than it can actually give him, since he unflinchingly demonstrates the likely outcome of giving credence to such deadly fantasies. His fantasy speaks unpalatable truths to power – and to the people who willingly lend unscrupulous authorities what power they have; though like Roper’s father he has no expectation that power or the people will pay attention to it. For Marvell, as for Auden (also writing in 1939), fantasy ‘makes nothing happen’ – though in flamboyant and sometimes spectacular fashion.

*****

I’ve suggested that Congratulate the Devil concerns itself in part with the erasure of unpalatable happenings from the pages of history; but Sherriff’s novel The Hopkins Manuscript contains yet more unsettling revelations about the unreliability of human accounts of the past. Once again the novel presents itself as a form of documentary evidence for events that might seem far-fetched to its readers. Here, however, those events took place at a time so long ago that it has become known as a second Dark Ages. The frame of the novel – like the frame of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – transports the reader to a point many centuries in the future, after the population of Europe has been wiped out, first by the devastating effects of the moon’s collision with the earth, then by conflict over ownership of the shattered remains of the satellite among rival European nations. Lunacy, in other words, is its subject, and the moon serves in it both as a deadly menace – a giant bomb – and as a potent metaphor for the capacity of human beings to set aside reason and self-preservation in the quest for power, or for the illusion of power, since all power is finally lost in Sherriff’s narrative, including the simple power to light a candle in the darkness (the book is written by the light of ‘feeble home-made lanterns’, p. 5). The imminent moon crash is the focus of the first two thirds of the novel; but as it turns out, the cataclysm proves eminently survivable. What destroys Europe is the madness of war, and the complex network of fantasies that bring this madness about, as both embodied and critiqued by Sherriff’s narrator, Edgar Hopkins: the man who gives the book its title and becomes the last lost voice of vanished Britain, ‘a thin, lonely cry of anguish from the gathering darkness’ (p. 3).

R C Sherriff

Sherriff’s choice of narrator is inspired. In the introduction, an unnamed historian from the future describes him damningly as ‘Edgar Hopkins […] a man of such unquenchable self-esteem and limited vision that his narrative becomes valueless to the scientist and historian’ (p. 1). He is, in other words, a fantasist, incapable of adjusting his perception of himself in the light of the catastrophe to which he is subjected – or so the historian claims, though the summary is not fair to him. In a number of ways, Hopkins is a perfect representative of British culture in the 1930s. As a middle-class white man who lives in the countryside, he is a type who is disproportionately represented among the protagonists of English literature – a representative of the fantasy Englishman who never existed – although his self-esteem has rarely been as devastatingly cut down to size as it is by Sherriff’s catastrophe. Despite his high opinion of himself, his marginal status is made obvious from the beginning, as well as his ordinariness (Sherriff’s first title for the book was An Ordinary Man). Retired very early from his job as a teacher (we learn at a late stage in the novel that he was bullied by his pupils, which explains his decision to withdraw his labour), and more interested in breeding chickens than in politics or astronomy, Hopkins becomes a member of the British Lunar Society pretty much by accident; yet he considers his membership of the society – and the early awareness it gives him of the problem with the moon – to mark him out as a person of consequence, specially selected by virtue of his intelligence, birth and education to be the custodian of secret information vouchsafed only to the cream of the British ruling classes. Sherriff brilliantly conveys the strain on Hopkins of maintaining this fantastic view of himself over the months that elapse between the revelation of the coming collision, at a private meeting of the Lunar Society, and the release of the news to the general public. At times during this period Hopkins succeeds in seeing himself as the elite guardian of what he calls The Secret. At others he teeters on the brink of madness, as he notes the horrible disparity between the everyday goings-on around him and the approaching annihilation of life on earth. Christmas brings out this disparity in drastic fashion. It’s a feast that centres on the fantastic, in the form of myths of universal brotherhood, Father Christmas on his sleigh, God’s love for all humanity and so on. It’s also a ritual which is annually repeated – or would be if the world were not about to come to an end. And it’s the yearly high point of consumer capitalism, when economic inequalities are both at their most pronounced and most assiduously occluded. As a result, the Christmas before the crash becomes for Hopkins an almost unbearably ironic pantomime, full of scenes he can’t help but contrast with the devastation that will shortly be unleashed. A family passing Hamley’s toyshop, for instance, ‘brimming with the best that life can give’, fills him with ‘impotent rage’ because ‘this monstrous thing could not happen in a world that harboured such people as these’ (p. 74). Hopkins’ idealized vision of the family, whom he imagines returning ‘to some quiet house in a tree-lined road’, is as palpable a fantasy, perhaps, as the idea that the moon won’t strike the earth, despite the science; and in harbouring it Hopkins displays his own ordinariness at the very point when he wishes to present himself as most elevated by his exclusive lunar knowledge.

Yet on the whole Hopkins manages to preserve his sense of being exceptional, largely by concentrating from day to day on his chicken-breeding – another irony, of course, since breeding prize chickens is hardly regarded even in rural populations as the most significant of occupations (with apologies to my Galloway cousin who breeds ducks). Even in his sense of exceptionalism, however, he is ordinary, since the British people seem largely to share his ability to see themselves as somehow special. In a passage that resonates strikingly with early British responses to Covid 19, Hopkins describes the threefold reaction of the country’s citizens when news of the lunar strike is finally released. For a substantial portion of the populace, he explains – the so-called ‘country gentlemen’ –

‘the moon business’ was all a scare. Nothing would happen, but if it did, it would happen in China where that sort of thing always happened. In their opinion, it would not affect England. Things like that did not happen in England. We should ‘muddle through’ as we always had done in other troubles. We had a Government with a strong majority and the police were equal to anything. (p. 113)

Another portion of the British people anticipates the moon’s arrival as a public spectacle, something to be witnessed from a safe distance and remembered for a lifetime, since they are convinced that the satellite will merely ‘graze’ the earth before glancing off again into space:

They were prepared to see the stately beech trees of Burgin Park come crashing down like nine-pins; they were ready for a deluge, a hurricane, a terrific blowing about of dustbin lids, and a very fine sight as the moon passed overhead almost within touching distance (p. 113).

This portion of the public is seduced each night, he tells us, by their own ‘fantastic imaginings’ (p. 114), which successfully divert their attention from the ‘huge, glittering ball’ of the moon itself. The third part of the British people – only about ‘one in ten’, as Hopkins calculates – are convinced that the world is indeed about to end, and either fall back on religious faith for comfort, as the village Vicar does, or collapse into a state of existential despair which is as fantastic (in Hopkins’s view) as the imaginings of the ‘moon will graze us’ party. The chief representative of these fatalists is the landlord of the local inn, Murgatroyd, whose vision of the end of the world ‘reeked of hearses, musty black plumes and grave-clothes […] the spade of the sexton – the toll of the bell – blackness – dirt -corruption’ (p. 115); a magnificently inappropriate set of images for encompassing universal destruction. Of course as readers of a first-person narrative we have no idea whether Hopkins’s account of Murgatroyd’s views on the crash is in any way accurate, though we are made aware that the ex-teacher dislikes the publican intensely, so it’s probably biased. Each of the three reactions listed here, in other words, as well as Hopkins’s account of them, is more or less an illusion; but then again, the concept of the end of the world is so extreme that it’s hard to envisage a way of describing it that did not fall back on delusions and fancies.

Paul Nash, Eclipse of Sunflower (1945)

This makes it seem particularly suitable for Sherriff to have set his story of the moon-crash in the context of what for many of his readers would have looked like a pastoral fantasy: a prosperous village in rural Hampshire several miles from the nearest town. Such a place is used to seeing itself as on the margins in the best of ways, mostly untroubled by the national and global events that loom so large in the metropolis. That this sense of existing on the margins is an illusion becomes increasingly clear as the book goes on, and the policies of central government begin to take effect in the rural community. First comes the order to build an underground shelter or ‘dug-out’ on village land, capable of holding the whole village. The reason initially given for constructing the dugout – issued before the moon crash has become general knowledge – is that war may soon break out between Britain and some nameless ‘foreign enemy’ (p. 63). This, of course, is an illusion, rather like the notion of national superiority entertained by some of the villagers; though a far greater illusion, as it turns out, is the idea that the dugout will protect its builders. The construction of the shelter does, however, serve a practical purpose: it gives the community something to work on in the weeks before the crash, and by drawing them more closely together than they have ever been before – a process which is made particularly clear by Hopkins’s situation, as he finds himself increasingly reluctant to leave the construction site for his lonely hilltop home after work each evening. The communal nature of the construction process similarly brings out the illusory nature of the social divides that separate the villagers in normal times. All the villagers must cooperate to finish the shelter, which makes it all the odder when Hopkins finds himself reluctant to share his Christian name with the working-class men and women who are working on it by his side; this in spite of the fact that the man in overall charge of the project is a working-class Welshman, Sapper Evans. The dugout is, in fact, both a fantasy and a focus for fantasies, and its fantastic nature is confirmed when it largely fails in its intended function. The moon’s collision with the earth opens up cracks in the walls, letting in seawater and drowning most of the occupants.

The teacher’s dependence on fantasy to sustain his picture of life in the English countryside, and of his own significance as the human race speeds towards extinction, is beautifully pointed up by his choice of reading in the final moments before the moon strikes. The night before, he reads The Wind in the Willows and ‘roamed again in the fragrant meadows with Badger, Mole and the immortal Toad’ (p. 175). On the day itself he begins by revisiting Huckleberry Finn, and in the final hour manages ‘to read, even to enjoy, the first chapter of Treasure Island’. Hopkins regresses to childhood at this time of crisis, setting aside religion and politics in favour of comfortable adventures removed from his own particular moment in history by time, geography and a lack of significant consequences for the events that unfold in the course of the narrative. Each book describes adventures with an all-male cast-list whose ends he knows, and which he regards, ironically enough under the circumstances, as somehow ‘immortal’. Toad’s battle with the working classes of the Wild Wood, Huck’s travels with the African American Jim, Jim Hawkins’s struggle against pirates on behalf of his middle-class friends, Dr Livesey and Squire Trelawney, reassure him that the Britain he loves and the class and race relations it sustains will endure beyond the end of the world itself.

As Hopkins works on the dugout he does in the end begin to set aside some of his snobbery – most obviously in his admiration for the energetic, well-organised Evans. He also begins to emerge from self-inflicted loneliness, a loneliness imposed on him by his sense of aloof superiority to most of his village neighbours and shy inferiority to the local representatives of the ruling classes. The period after the calamity, when he effectively adopts the son and daughter of a local dignitary (tellingly based at The Manor House), reinforces his new sense of belonging. In the first place it gives him an ersatz family and a social status he has never felt before (their adoption of him makes him their replacement father, which means he is now in effect the Lord of the Manor); and in the second (ironically enough, in view of the first) it continues to erode the social divisions by which his life has been guided. The new society established in the two-year ‘Epoch of Recovery’ after the calamity has an Arcadian quality about it, reinforced by the fact that it fulfills Hopkins’s lifelong fantasies, through his effective rise in social status, his acquisition of two affectionate young companions, and the recognition by the entire neighbourhood of his unparalleled importance as a chicken breeder, along with his seeming immortalization in the name of a new breed of hen: the ‘Beadle-Hopkins pullets’. Hopkins is even convinced (despite ample evidence to the contrary, such as his own employment of two farm servants) that in this new order ‘Distinctions of class were gone for ever’, something he illustrates by his willingness to sit side by side with his social inferiors at a civic banquet: ‘I sat with Mrs Smithson, the wife of a plumber, and Miss Bingham of the drapery store, talking to them almost as if they were my equals’ (p. 273).

Georges Méliès, A Trip to the Moon (1902), still

At the same time the status of this two-year period as a continuing pipe dream is reinforced by the fact that is punctuated by a trip to the moon, which has landed in the Atlantic Ocean and become something of a tourist destination. A trip to the moon has traditionally been the term for an absurd impossibility, as Hugh Lofting recognized when he sent Doctor Dolittle there, mounted on a moth, in 1928;[4] and the British enthusiasm for indulging in moon tourism serves in this section of the novel as a metaphor for a peculiarly British capacity for social and political self-delusion. At the same time, the trip itself proves disappointing for Hopkins and his adoptive son and daughter. All they find on the shore of what was once the ocean is ‘what appeared to be the edge of an immense slag-heap of grey, broken slate stretching as far as we could see across the land and far into the distant sea like some gloomy, ghostly continent of primeval times’ (p. 249). The image resembles a post-industrial wasteland as well as a primordial desert, or else the landscape of a battlefield in Flanders, and its blankness also predicts the erasure of history that is to come; so it’s no surprise that Hopkins leave it with a sense of ‘indefinable dread: a haunting conviction that the terrors of its arrival were trivial beside the horrors that it held in store for us’ (p. 250). His premonition proves accurate; the moon turns out to be a storehouse of vast wealth in industrial and monetary terms, laden with gold, coal and other valuable minerals, which leads inevitably to a struggle over which nation has the primary claim to its resources. These industrial fantasies about moon-minerals lead, through the equally toxic fantasy of nationhood, to all-out war, in Britain’s case waged in the name of the most evanescent fantasy of all, the illusion of a continuing global Empire. The war itself ends with the annihilation of European culture and the obliteration of all traces of its past, with ‘The Hopkins Manuscript’ as one of the few pieces of material evidence (thanks to its preservation in a Thermos flask) for British or even European identity. Hopkins, in other words, really does acquire a kind of immortality, and the name of the Hopkins-Beadle pullets really is remembered centuries after the breed first saw the light. His reference to the ‘immortal Toad’ in The Wind in the Willows becomes one of the last pieces of evidence for the existence of a literature in English, a fact whose irony is intensified by the fact that Toad embodies the toxic absurdity of the British class system. Hopkins’s private fantasies become the historical epitaph of the fantasy which is Britain.

It’s not too surprising, then, that one of the last scenes in the book takes place in that hub of the fantastic, Kensington Gardens, where Congratulate the Devil also ended. Here Hopkins discusses with an acquaintance, Professor Bransbury – who is said to resemble another character familiar to children, Robinson Crusoe – the invasion of Europe by the forces of an Iranian general called Selim. Selim and his Asian and African followers aim to erase all traces of ‘Western civilization’ from the world (p. 1), a project whose successful completion is confirmed by the description of a Europe bereft of history in the opening pages of the novel. Selim’s success is partly a consequence of in-fighting among nationalist European leaders such as Britain’s fascist prime minister, Jagger. But it also takes advantage of the fantasies made available by the lunar crash, which enables Selim to identify the moon as the ‘god of oppressed peoples’, who descended to earth in order ‘to destroy their hated white oppressors’ (p. 308). One fantasy, in other words, has effectively driven out another in a world dominated by the conviction that fantasies can be realized, made real: the world of the 30s, extrapolated into the 40s by Sherriff’s almost unbearably convincing little future history.

In the next blogpost on ‘British and Irish Fantasy 1939’ I’ll be looking at Irish rural fantasy, considering what it tells us about the state of things in a country even more on the edge of Europe than its British neighbours; and later I’ll be looking at time in the children’s fantasies of 1939. A series of trips to the moon, so to speak, on the brink of war.

Charles Bittinger, Earth as seen from the moon, National Geographic (1930s)

Appendix: Abyssinia in The Hopkins Manuscript

It’s worth noting that the ‘Foreword’ to The Hopkins Manuscript is said to have been written by a scholar from Addis Ababa in Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia) at some point in the far future. At the time of the novel’s publication Abyssinia was under occupation by fascist Italy, having been invaded in 1936. The League of Nations failed to condemn the invasion, but a speech to the League of Nations by the Abyssinian Emperor in exile, Haile Selassie, became internationally celebrated as an outstanding example of anti-fascist oratory. Sherriff’s decision, then, to have his conquered, culturally bereft version of Europe studied by scholars from a country currently under occupation by European fascists was a carefully considered political gesture.

Notes

[1] See Michael Remy, Surrealism in Britain (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999), Foreword.

[2] For example, under science fiction I could have included H G Wells’s The Holy Terror and Aldous Huxley’s After Many a Summer, and under children’s fantasy Enid Blyton’s The Enchanted Wood.

[3] I’m thinking of this passage:

But evil on itself shall back recoil
And mix no more with goodness, when at last
Gather’d like scum, and settl’d to itself,
It shall be in eternal restless change
Self-fed, and self-consum’d (Comus, lines 593-7)

[4] The moon’s association with lunacy is also exploited in Eric Linklater’s wartime classic of children’s fantasy, The Wind on the Moon (1944). As a follower of H G Wells, Sherriff will have been familiar with The First Men in the Moon (1901), in which the insane aggression of humankind trumps the horrors of the Selenite dystopia found on the moon by the travellers of the title.

Editions Used

Howell Davies / Andrew Marvell, Congratulate the Devil, The Library of Wales (Cardigan: Parthian Books, 2008)

R C Sherriff, The Hopkins Manuscript, Penguin Modern Classics (UK: Penguin Random House, 2018)

 

David Jones, In Parenthesis (1937): ‘a kind of space between’

Mervyn Peake, David Jones (1939)

I’ve been reading David Jones’s In Parenthesis lately, a book often referred to as a poem (though it’s largely in prose) written by a brilliant artist who illustrated Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner in 1929. I’m reading it as part of a project on Mervyn Peake, because Peake drew Jones’s portrait in January 1939, two years after In Parenthesis was published. I presume the portrait was commissioned by The London Mercury in response to the impact the book was having in literary circles. Prominent writers had praised Jones’s epic prose poem in fulsome terms, including W H Auden (whose portrait Peake also drew in the late 30s), Graham Greene (who selected Titus Groan for publication by Eyre and Spottiswoode), and Herbert Read, the theorist of surrealism and a veteran of the Great War like Jones himself, whose work Peake must have known well as a professional artist and teacher. I can hardly imagine, then, that Peake did not read Jones’s Anglo-Welsh prose epic. He was fascinated by poetry, by book illustration – he too illustrated The Ancient Mariner in 1943 – and by Welshness, thanks to his Welsh mother and his friendship with Dylan Thomas; and like everyone else in 1939, he lived in the shadow of war. He was later in the habit of reading books he illustrated with close attention; I don’t know if this practice extended to the books of men and women whose portraits he drew, but this seems likely. Of course it’s not fair to look at Jones’s work merely through the lens of my interest in Peake, but it seems to me that In Parenthesis has much to tell us about how the Great War helped shape the emergence of fantasy as an artistic mode or practice between the wars. Jones forms, then, part of the picture that includes Tolkien’s emerging The Lord of the Rings, Peake’s development as a fantasy writer as well as an artist, and a number of important fantasy texts I’ll be looking at in future blog posts. Reading In Parenthesis in relation to fantasy, then, may be worthwhile, and that’s what I want to try briefly here.

As I said, the book is often described as a poem, despite the fact that it’s written in prose. This may partly be because of T S Eliot’s championing of it, and because of Jones’s regular references to Eliot and other poets in his preface and throughout the text; but it’s mainly an acknowledgement of Jones’s scrupulous attention to the verbal medium he uses – its rhythms, its sounds, its punctuation, its layout on the page. It tells the story of eight months in the Great War, from December 1915 to July 1916 – a journey from the training of new recruits in the British army to their first major engagement, the attack on Mametz Wood in which Jones was injured. This chronology takes us from Christmastide to High Summer, from relative innocence to hard-won experience, from the largely familiar to the deeply strange, from the nature-oriented past to the mechanized future. It’s told in a kind of verbal collage made up of dialogue in English and Welsh, technical military language including numerous acronyms, painterly descriptive passages, quotations from literature and snatches of song. The dialogue brings together numerous dialects used by different classes in various localities – most often in London and Wales. The narrative is divided into seven parts, each of which has its own pace, rhythm and stylistic techniques, which have been selected to match the subject matter: training and travel, marching, arriving at the front by night, contemplating no-man’s land, the routine of army life, the eve of battle, the battle itself. By the end of the book a transformation has taken place – multiple transformations, in fact, which are too complex to summarize briefly, but which echo the fantastic metamorphoses and ungainly fusions that took place in fiction, art and poetry after the war.

David Jones, Frontispiece to In Parenthesis

The text’s point of view is mainly that of a private called John Ball. Ball is named for the leader of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, who also appears in one of William Morris’s first socialist fictions, The Dream of John Ball (1888), where he embodies the brand of neo-medieval socialism Morris sought to articulate and promote. There is a link here to fantasy as well as politics, since Morris famously wrote a series of neo-medieval romances in the 1890s which strongly influenced Tolkien. Morris’s romances were widely read in the trenches, especially The Well at the World’s End (1896), with its deft mimicry of the prose of Thomas Malory and its vision of a largely egalitarian, meticulously reinvented Middle Ages. Jones had another reason, though, for admiring Morris. The Victorian designer-poet’s theories about the dignity of craftsmanship as embodied in medieval craftsmen’s guilds, and the importance of substituting these for the alienated labour of industrialism, strongly influenced Jones’s mentor the sculptor and designer Eric Gill, founder of the Catholic Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, to which Jones belonged. It’s no surprise, then, if the point of view in the book is more collective than specific. The personal pronouns throughout the book are always changing their referent, so that ‘he’, for instance, can refer at different times to Private Ball, the German enemy, the sun (p. 59), or one of Ball’s comrades or superiors, while ‘she’ can mean a specific woman, or the moon (p. 27), or a ship’s figurehead (p. 51), or Ball’s rifle, or the spiritual embodiment of the wood where the final battle takes place. ‘They’ can be members of other units, distinguished from yours by the supposed cushiness of their living standards (p. 47); or else you and your comrades as you discover the alienness of your bodies after a poor night’s sleep (p. 63). The second person, ‘you’, meanwhile, gets used everywhere, drawing the reader into the narrative by weirdly investing her or him with the status of honorary veteran of a war they didn’t experience.

The most important feature of the book, however – at least from the point of view of understanding its relationship to fantasy – is its title. For Jones, the Great War took place as it were between brackets, separated by imaginary punctuation marks from every other experience he or anyone else involved had undergone. ‘This writing’, he tells us in the Preface,

is called “In Parenthesis” because I have written it in a kind of space between – I don’t know between quite what – but as you turn aside to do something; and because for us amateur soldiers […] the war itself was a parenthesis – how glad we thought we were to step outside its brackets at the end of ’18 – and also because our curious type of existence here is altogether in parenthesis. (p. xv)

The final part of this paragraph seems to extend the wartime experience to the whole of human life (‘our curious type of existence here’); but the text itself marks out the difference of wartime existence from other kinds in a number of ways. The process of reading it is much like entering an invented world of the kind Tolkien started to construct in the trenches; the language, in particular, is distinctive, punctuated by technical military terms which make it necessary for Jones to provide the ignorant reader with detailed notes, and the strangeness of war is constantly being associated with the impossible events and mythic resonances that have come to characterize the genre or mode now known as fantasy. And in the bracketed ‘space between’ that is the war, or the part of the war Jones chose as his subject, many more bracketed spaces occur: turnings aside, as the Preface puts it, ‘to do something’ distinctly different from the monotonous routines of army life. Each of these parentheses has its particular atmosphere and organization, so that it resembles what John Clute has called a ‘polder’ in fantasy fiction: a place where the rules are either subtly or radically different from the ones that govern the world in which the overall narrative takes place.

David Jones, The Mariners, from The Ancient Mariner

Jones prepares us in the Preface for the fantastic nature of what occurs between his book’s pages. ‘I think the day by day in the Waste Land,’ he writes, ‘the sudden violences and the long stillnesses, the sharp contours and unformed voids of that mysterious existence, profoundly affected the imaginations of those who suffered it’ (p. x). He adds, with wonderful unexpectedness: ‘It was a place of enchantment’. Before heading over to France, he tells us, ‘The air was full of rumour, fantastic and credible’ (p. 14), so that the impossible is already starting to be accepted by soldiers as the binding condition of their future lives. Rumour here is the preliminary ritual that sets aside the charm or spell or invocation from ordinary transactions, like the resounding hand-claps that alert the Japanese gods to the prayers of the faithful. Later, as the soldiers disembark from their trucks not far from the front, they receive ‘in their nostrils an awareness and at all their sense-centres a perceiving of strange new things’ (p. 18): a sentence that makes wonderfully concrete the bodily process of encountering and absorbing strangeness. The landscape they find themselves in is a matter of wonder – sometimes, Private Ball discovers, because of its very ordinariness, its stubborn persistence in being at once quotidian and the theatre of unprecedented atrocities.[1] One of the things that make it strange is the shifting light- and sound-patterns caused by natural or man-made weather, which is always rendering the everyday transcendent. Ball ‘marveled’, we learn early on, ‘at these foreign clouds’ (p. 20); and later he witnesses a sunrise like a revelation, the emergence of something divine from behind the cloud-cover: ‘Behind them, beyond the brumous piling the last stars paled and twinkled fitfully, then faded altogether; this beautiful one, his cloud garments dyed, ruddy-flecked, fleecy stoled; the bright healer, climbing certainly the exact degrees to his meridian’ (p. 62). In the bizarre nocturnal of Part 3, lit by flares and gunfire – where the language of the narrative shifts abruptly towards radical modernistic fusions of disparate idea and sound and image, in its efforts to invoke the state of being half-asleep while striving to stay alert and watchful while on sentry duty – the transition to fantasy is made explicit: ‘his mess-mates sleeping like long-barrow sleepers, their dark arms at reach. Spell-sleepers, thrown about anyhow under the night. And this one’s bright brow turned against your boot leather, tranquil as a fer sidhe sleeper, under fairy tumuli, fair as Mac Og sleeping’ (p. 51). The soldiers here resemble the legendary sleepers under mounds – King Arthur and his knights, the Seven Sleepers and the rest – in that they are both fully armed and unconscious, buried alive, so to speak, in roughly-executed trenches, precariously suspended between life and death, their very capacity to sleep under such circumstances a miracle, sure proof of enchantment. At the end of the book, the dead remain for ever in this fairy state, having been invested as ‘secret princes under the trees’ by the mysterious Queen of the Woods, who chooses ‘twelve gentle-men’ from among them to ‘reign with her for a thousand years’ (p. 185). The implication is that the strangeness of the ‘Waste Land’ of war has in some sense persisted beyond its temporal boundaries, enacting the ‘ever after’ of conventional fairy stories through the continuing presence of the twelve chosen sleepers in the mind of the man who saw them, thanks to the alchemy of memory. His memories of the dead, however, are framed in the language of fantastic narratives: dream reportage, folk tales, neo-medieval romances, bedtime stories. Fantasy is what makes it possible to recall them without self-damage, and what lends their casual slaughter point and purpose, giving their abruptly terminated narratives shape. The fantastic references throughout In Parenthesis alert the reader to the fact that the narrative is not a memoir, but a means of making memory bearable, in the sense of being transferrable to new, better contexts where the horror of war can be transmuted into art.

David Jones, page from the manuscript of In Parenthesis

As I’ve already implied, the resemblance of the parenthetical ‘space between’ of war to the secondary world of high fantasy is partly achieved by the cultural difference of army life in wartime from the lives of ordinary citizens, whatever their trade. This cultural difference imposes a clear distinction between readers of the book who were there at the front with Jones and those who were not. The distinction is emphasized, as I suggested, by the necessity for notes. Old soldiers will not need them, at least not the notes explaining army terminology. In the same way, Welshmen won’t need the translations from Welsh, nor Londoners the interpretations of cockney rhyming slang – at least, they won’t need these if they belong to the working classes, or have lived and fought alongside them, as Jones did. This bracketing-off of the veterans, in particular the set of veterans Jones fought with – as well as of the different kinds and phases of veteranship (Jones informs us that some of the terms he uses in the book belong to specific phases in the War, falling into and out of use as the conflict wore on) – may be what’s being referred to in the final sentence: ‘the man who does not know this has not understood anything’ (p. 187). Non-combatants or even combatants who never saw the Somme cannot hope to share the weird knowledge Jones has to impart, and the strangeness of Jones’s patchwork style is designed to emphasize the impossibility of a stranger’s ever achieving comprehension.

David Jones, sleeping soldier (1915)

At the same time, Private Ball himself is quickly initiated into the alien culture of the front after first encountering it as an outsider. Arriving at the trenches he discovers a distinctive ‘folk-life’ embedded there, ‘a people, a culture already developed, already venerable and rooted’, and it’s only with time that he gets initiated as a full member of this order or community: ‘And you too are assimilated, you too are of this people – there will be an indelible characterization – you’ll tip-toe when they name the place’ (p. 49). The sentence emphasizes the exclusiveness of membership of this war-torn people, but its use of the second person also ensures that Ball’s own initiation is shared by the reader. This is not, then, an elitist text, despite its moments of obscurity and its use of unfamiliar cultural references – such as the early medieval Brittonic poem Y Gododdin, quotations from which open each of the seven sections, alongside the much better-known text Morte Darthur by the fifteenth-century soldier Sir Thomas Malory, which crops up everywhere. Jones laments, for instance, the fact that convention forbids him from using swearwords in the text, about which he says in the Preface: ‘The very repetition of them made them seem liturgical, certainly deprived them of malice, and occasionally when skillfully disposed, and used according to established but flexible tradition, gave a kind of significance, and even at moments a dignity, to our speech’ (p. xii). The demotic is elevated to liturgy by the stresses and strains of war, rendering socially ostracized discourse as precious as the language of the training ground, the law court or the parlour.

David Jones, Periscope

The democratic aspect of conflict is intensified by Jones’s acute awareness that every soldier at the front, whatever his background, is unique and therefore valuable in light of the particular cultural referents he contains, as it were in brackets, within his body. No one soldier is more unique and hence significant than anyone else, as the slippery pronouns demonstrate, and this radical egalitarianism cannot help but impose itself on Jones’s readers – re-acculturating us as we read until by the end we are forced to inhabit an egalitarian space, no matter what space we came from at the beginning. The rich specificity of each individual’s assemblage of experiences, cultures and histories is brought out with greatest force at the point of death, when the casual demolition of people we have come to know well in the course of the narrative – such as the young lieutenant Mr Jenkins, sinking to the ground with his revolver swinging from its pendulum like ‘the clock run down’ (p. 166), or Private Wastebottom, who is killed waiting in the trenches for the last assault, yet ‘maintained correct alignment with the others, face down, and you could never have guessed’ (p. 158) – is set alongside the deaths of anonymous soldiers whose lives are briefly lit up, so to speak, by the names of the places and people that helped to make them: such as the German killed by Private Ball in the wood, who in dying ‘calls for Elsa, for Manuela / for the parish priest of Burkersdorf in Saxe Altenburg’ (p. 169). Conversely, one Welsh soldier’s death links him to the deaths of all soldiers everywhere, thanks to his being the namesake of the poet Aneirin who wrote Y Gododdin, the poem that provides In Parenthesis with its epigrams:

No one to care there for Aneirin Lewis spilled there
who worshipped his ancestors like a Chink
who sleeps in Arthur’s lap
who saw Olwen-trefoils some moonlighted night
on precarious slats at Festurbet,
on narrow foothold on le Plantin marsh –
more shaved he is to the bare bone than
Yspaddadan Penkawr.
Properly organized chemists can let make more riving power than ever Twrch Trwyth;
more blistered he is than painted Troy Towers
and unwholer, limb from limb, than any of them fallen at Catraeth
or on the seaboard-down, by Salisbury,
and no maker to contrive his funerary song. (p. 155)

Here Aneirin’s personality or personhood – most marked earlier in the narrative by his propensity for singing constantly under his breath, as if transforming the experiences we are reading into song – gets mixed in with those of earlier poetic memorialists of warfare. These include Shakespeare (in the reference to Arthur’s lap, mentioned as Falstaff’s final resting-place in Henry V); the writer of the Culhwch and Olwen section of the medieval Welsh anthology the Mabinogion; the Arthurian storytellers and poets from Nennius to Chrétien de Troyes; the many poets and dramatists who have written about Troy; and the fifteenth-century soldier-storyteller Malory, whose style is echoed in the phrase ‘let make’ and whose story of Arthur’s final battle on Salisbury Plain is referred to in the penultimate line. At the same time, Aneirin is elevated above and separated from these distinguished predecessors by the excessive destructiveness of his demolition. He is more ‘shaved […] to the bare bone’, more ‘blistered’ and rent ‘limb from limb’ then any soldier on the battlefield of Catraeth, where the tragic action of Y Gododdin takes place. Unlike his predecessors, too, after this horrible unmaking he has no poetic ‘maker to contrive his funerary song’ – he is not remade, so to speak, in verbal form. Not, at least, until Jones started writing; and the success of Jones’s exercise in commemoration depends on the reader’s participation in it, their willingness to subject themselves to the dreadful account of Aneirin’s dismemberment, to understand both where it connects with and where it is bracketed off from the past dismemberments Jones lists in this passage. The reader’s importance is acknowledged in the final broken paragraph of the book, from which I quoted earlier: ‘The geste says this and the man who was in the field… and who wrote the book… the man who does not know this has not understood anything’. Understanding is associated with the man who ‘wrote the book’, which makes the book we have just read a means of connecting us with the material reality of the ‘field’, through a combination of the act of writing, the act of reading, and the act of imagining – all of which take courage. Aneirin’s remaking is achieved through Jones’s connection of the field of the Somme with the field of Catraeth, which most of his readers will not have heard of before that too was remade, so to speak, in the epigrams and notes to In Parenthesis. Making Aneirin anew is possible, then, despite the radical dissimilarity of his death from those in the texts alluded to – the tales of Troy and Catraeth and Arthur – and despite the unfamiliarity of most readers with the time and place where it took place.

The most moving moment in the passage occurs when Jones conjures up an intimate detail of Aneirin’s life at the front line: the time when the soldier noticed a certain species of flower, a trefoil, despite his own precarious perch on moonlit slats in a trench under enemy observation. The flower had for Aneirin an association with a story from his homeland, that of Culhwch and Olwen in the Mabinogion: it is ‘Olwen-trefoil’ (my emphasis). So this perception on the part of Aneirin brings life, so to speak – imparts urgency and vividness – to a tiny fragment of Welsh culture; and this process of bringing a fragment of culture to life would have been lost to the world if Jones had not recorded it. The association between a fragile, easily-missed blossom and personal and cultural memory recalls the opening tale in Lord Dunsany’s story 1918 collection Tales of War, in which soldiers from a small Kentish village called Daleswood – all the grown men left in the community apart from the very old – expecting to be wiped out at any moment, seek some way to record what matters to them most about their village. They seek not to register their own names or the grand historical events they and their ancestors have taken part in, but the tiny everyday details which are crucial, in their opinion, to the place’s identity, and which will be lost for ever if none of them survive (the women of the village, they claim, have different priorities from the menfolk, and would choose to remember different things). But the men cannot agree on what those crucial details are; whether the foxgloves in the wood at the end of summer, or the time of year when they cut the hay with scythes, or the ‘valleys beyond the wood and the twilight on them’, or the ‘old village, with queer chimneys, of red brick, in the wood’. In the end they record on a lump of chalk only the sentiment: ‘Please, God, remember Daleswood just like it used to be’. As it transpires, the men survive; but the question of commemoration – of what’s worth preserving about a culture, a place, a person – remains; and the men’s sense that they lack the verbal means to perform the commemorative act, or even a consensus on what should be mentioned in their memorial, lingers on in the reader’s mind long after the story is finished and the men from the village are unexpectedly spared. The death of Aneirin is of course a tougher proposition. Salvaging the details of his death from Jones’s memory, with other wartime matters, was achieved at the expense of a nervous breakdown on the writer’s part, and the details Jones gives us about him are no more than fragments of the man who died. But they form part of a larger structure of great beauty, while being parenthetically bracketed off from the rest of the book by their specific application to a single soldier, now gone for ever. If it does not succeed in memorializing Aneirin adequately, the passage makes quite clear what has been lost by this inability to memorialize – just as Dunsany’s story makes quite clear what would have been lost if the men of Daleswood had died without being able to pass on their small observations of the village to their children and grandchildren.

The parentheses of Jones’s book, in other words, do not segregate his text from the understanding of its ‘lay’ readers – though that understanding will include, for most of them, the awareness that there is a clear distinction between the man ‘who was in the field’ and the man or woman who was not. Parentheses, in fact, are for Jones the condition we all inhabit, not just soldiers: ‘our curious type of existence here is altogether in parenthesis’. Our lives are parenthetically bound in by non-life, before birth and after death, and war serves only to stress their parenthetical nature by means of its difference. The most startling example of a wartime parenthesis – the kind that accentuates parentheses of other kinds – comes in Part Seven, when the enemy artillery gets increasingly accurate in its aim at the British troops waiting in the trenches. As Private Ball stands motionless, listening and waiting, he observes – using one of those flexible pronouns that turn up everywhere, in this case denoting the enemy by way of the third person singular – how ‘He’s getting it more accurately and each salvo brackets more narrowly and a couple right in, just as “D” and “C” are forming for the second wave’ (p. 157). These are the salvos that annihilate Privates Wastebottom and Talacryn, in very different and individual ways: ‘Talacryn doesn’t take it like Wastebottom, he leaps up & says he’s dead, a-slither down the pale face – his limbs a-girandole at the bottom of the nullah [i.e. ravine or trench]’ (p. 158). Sandwiched between these murderous brackets, Private Ball finds the parenthesis of his life reduced to the fewer and fewer inexorable seconds before he finds himself within range of an enemy salvo; and his awareness of this extends his sense of time to encompass whole epochs: ‘Last minute drums its taut millennium out […] and seconds now our measuring-rods with no Duke Josue nor conniving God / to stay the Divisional Synchronization’ (p. 159). By the time he gets the command to go over the top, every second is a parenthesis packed full of stark terror, impotent denial of his own mortality, and a sense of the infinite preciousness of the tiniest temporal fraction of a man’s existence.

David Jones, rats shot in the trenches

The murderous bracketing of D and C companies by the double salvo can in turn be understood as an open parenthesis before the assault, for which the closing parenthesis for many will be death by violence. But this is just one of many temporal parentheses in the book. There is the opening bracket of the departure from England after training, bracketed at the other end of the war by the capitalized Big Ship that will ferry survivors home (p. 104). There is the parenthetical space of the night described in Part 3, with its own distinctive rules and visions and language; the night is bracketed by those wonderful passages in which Jones describes the slow departure of light and its equally slow return. There’s the parenthetical space of waiting between brief periods of action, the ‘King Pellam’s Laund’, No-Man’s Land or Wasteland of Part 4 – a location which is physically parenthetical, or unlike any other, in that it is stranded between the elements of earth and water (p. 88) and requires constant labour on the soldiers’ part to maintain its identity as solid land. The life led in this location by combatants on both sides aligns them with that parenthetical animal, the ‘rat of no-man’s land’ (p. 67); a parasite that exists in the interstitial spaces between the mapped regions inhabited by ‘real’ people and ‘real’ animals such as horses and mules. There’s the parenthetical space of Private Ball’s period of rest at the start of Part 6, in which he ties his own groundsheet to those of two comrades for extra comfort; a period that ends when one of the three is ordered away to act as a runner. This leads to the symbolic disengagement of the three groundsheets from one another, an act that gains significance from the friends’ awareness that their separation may well prove permanent: ‘such breakings-away and dissolving of comradeship and token of division are cause of great anguish when men sense how they stand so perilous and transitory in the world’ (p. 137). Private Ball’s meeting later that day with another two friends from different regiments takes place in a parenthesis which is grammatically as well as geographically distinct from their everyday lives: ‘These three seldom met except for very brief periods out of the line – at Brigade rest perhaps – or if some accident of billeting threw them near together. These three loved each other, but the routine of their lives made the chances of foregathering rare’ (p. 139). The final foregathering of the three is bracketed by intimations of mortality: the hammering of carpenters as they work to build coffins ahead of the assault (‘He wished they’d stop that hollow tap-tapping’, p. 139, my emphasis) and the parting shot of one of the friends: ‘don’t get nabbed tapping the Gen’ral’s wire – I’d hate to see you shot at dawn’ (p. 143, my emphasis). Each parenthesis, in other words, is a miniature reflection of the great parenthesis which is an individual lifetime, here all too often curtailed by the cold machinery of war.

David Jones, Christ mocked by soldiers

The military body itself in the book is a kind of parenthetical enclosure, clearly distinguished by virtue of its discomfort – and the forms of violence visited on it – from civilian bodies, as well as from its contents, the thoughts and feelings that make up personhood (‘feet following file friends, each his own thought-maze treading’, p. 37). At each stage of its army existence the body is defined as mechanism, the mind as something sensitive, soft and alien to the machine that encloses it, and Jones repeatedly invokes this awkward disparity between the component elements of a soldier’s self. As Private Ball marches, ‘his loaded body moved forward unchoosingly as part of a mechanism’ (p. 19), while his mind roams in other directions. As he wakes up each morning with other members of his platoon, ‘delicate mechanisms of nerve and sinew, grapple afresh, deal for another day’ (p. 61). As stress sets in before the final battle, the machine falters: ‘the sensibility of these instruments to register, / fails; / needle dithers disorientate. / The responsive mercury plays laggard to such fevers – you simply can’t take any more in’ (p. 156). Then at the point of death the machine runs down and comes to a stop: Mr Jenkins sags to the ground like ‘the clock run down’ (p. 166); Private Talacryn’s ‘mechanism slackens, unfed’ (p. 158); their respective recollections, desires and sense impressions are lost irretrievably as their specific functions in the engine of war come to an end. In the last pages of the book, the body becomes increasingly fragmented: Private Lewis loses his limbs, Private Morgan his head (which ‘grins like the Cheshire cat / and full grimly’, p. 180), and Private Ball the use of his legs in a kind of industrial cataclysm, ‘as if a rigid beam of great weight flailed about his calves, caught from behind by ballista-baulk let fly or aft-beam slewed to clout gunnel-walker’ (p. 183). After the war, we’re told, injured men will learn to live without limbs and organs they once thought essential: ‘Give them glass eyes to see / and synthetic spare parts to walk in the Triumphs, without anyone feeling awkward’ (p. 176). The final scene finds us in a wood full of corpses, recumbent in a tree-made crypt where the body is finally liberated from the state of mechanization. The German dead – tall ‘strangers’ in ‘field-grey’ – resemble stone statues rather than broken engines:

Aisle-ways bunged-up between these columns rising,
these long strangers, under this vaulting stare upward,
for recumbent princes of his people.
Stone lords coiffed
long-skirted field-grey to straight fold
for a coat-armour
and for a cere-cloth, for men of renown:
Hardrada-corpse for Froggy sepulture. (p. 182)

The Welsh dead, by contrast, recall discarded clothing, their bodies reduced by war-damage to the condition of prehistoric bog-people or the occupants of Neolithic burial chambers:

And here and there and huddled over, death-halsed to these, a Picton-five-feet-four paragon for the Line, from Newcastle Emlyn or Talgarth in Brycheiniog, lying disordered like discarded garments or crumpled chin to shin-bone like a Lambourne find. (p. 182)[2]

Deprived of their mechanical rigidity, these resting bodies – some broken, some intact – remain as anonymous as memorials in churches or archaeological discoveries. But as the wounded Private Ball crawls through the wood where they lie he imagines a dryad figure ritually reaping their minds and memories as she selects from among the corpses heroes worthy to ‘reign with her for a thousand years’; and Jones’s own recording of this ritual reanimates the dead men by name and personality as a stone tomb or burial chamber never could.

Mervyn Peake, The Ancient Mariner

If the body is a parenthetical ‘space between’, so too is what might be called the War Time into which Jones plunges as he leaves the training ground and travels to France. He tells us in the Preface, ‘I suppose at no time did one so much live with a consciousness of the past, the very remote, and the more immediate and trivial past’ (p. xi); and this fascinating fusion of the remote past of communities and the trivial past of the individual sets the place of war apart from other places in terms of the way it measures time. Time is distorted by the actions of war. Sentry duty distends it, rendering the phosphorescent dial of the soldier’s watch spookily inadequate to the task of marking its passage. The moments before the assault make the soldier yearn to stop time altogether, or somehow to evade the specific period in which the assault will take place, set it apart from himself in a parenthesis where only other soldiers die (p. 158). Transitions from day to night and from night to day are often used to mark the passage of time when clocks or watches are unavailable, but In Parenthesis is filled with twilight moments when day and night are in contention with each other, and where space too seems to collapse:

With the coming dark, ground-mist creeps back to regain the hollow places; across the rare atmosphere you could hear the foreign men cough, and stamp with foreign feet. Things seen precisely just now lost exactness […] Your eyes begin to strain after escaping definitions. (p. 98)

The past, too, ceases to be distinguishable from the present, because the soldier inhabits a continuous War Time which (as the Preface pointed out) seems to exist as a dark undercurrent that is always present behind or alongside the organized timetable of Peace. This is why Jones keeps straying into the language of the war poets, Aneirin, Malory, Shakespeare, the Chanson de Roland; their literary representations of war are always occurring to Private Ball as accurate statements about the strange world he has entered, despite the major changes that have taken place between their times and his own. History is erased or rendered null by War Time because no one has learned from it; men are still marching out to die as they did in Y Gododdin, in which case what is the point of differentiating 600 AD from 1916? The erasure of history is another of the many equalizing processes at work in Jones’s text. Any man in the army can take part in it, from Private Dai Greatcoat – who delivers himself of a long formal boast that links himself to an endless line of fighters stretching back to Cain and the Trojan War (pp. 79-84) – to Private Donkin, whose personal history has brought him to France in a mission to avenge the atrocity whereby four of his brothers died at the front the year before (pp. 144-5); revenge being a process of balancing the books that effectively wipes the action you are avenging from the records, rendering it null and void. Outside War Time, killing is forbidden, or at least killing for personal reasons such as revenge. In War Time, every soldier finds himself exempt from such restrictions, encouraged to do things that would have got him imprisoned or hanged before he joined up – and which may still get him killed, imprisoned or maimed, as Private Donkin’s story shows. The clock of his life, in other words, has undergone an extraordinary metamorphosis. Long before it winds down and stops, it has entered a ‘space between’ and given itself over to Salvador-Dali-style dissolution, as inadequate for the purpose of measuring the distance between one moment and the next as the luminous watch-dial of a bored or frightened sentry.

David Jones, Capel-y-ffin

The final parenthesis in the book incorporates all the others, and seals the link between Jones’s record of wartime and the other great literary records of wars gone by. It’s the parenthesis of the Wood which is the objective of the assault in Part 7, and which becomes the paradigm of woods and forests everywhere in literature, the ‘spaces between’ where adventures take place, magic lurks, and supernatural people and creatures live and move and have their being. Private Ball identifies the Wood as a place apart as early as Part 4, where he contemplates it from a distance while on sentry-duty, observing: ‘To the woods of all the world is this potency – to move the bowels of us’ (p. 66). Woods, he recalls, are at certain times of year a place of holiday, to which men come ‘in heart’s ease and school-free’ or ‘perplexedly with first loves’; or the perfect hiding-place for an ambush; or a refuge for the justly or unjustly persecuted and the lost. They are associated with exiled ‘sweet princes by malignant interests deprived’, like Shakespeare’s Duke Senior, parenthetically barred from his hereditary role; or madmen running wild from grief and pain, as Lancelot did when Guinevere rejected him, or Merlin in certain Arthurian traditions, as well as ‘broken men’ of other kinds. Private Ball or one of his comrades – it’s not clear which – becomes such a ‘broken man’ at the beginning of Part 7, as Jones himself did while writing the poem: ‘He found him all gone to pieces and not pulling himself together nor making the best of things’ (p. 153), in the prelude to the assault on the Wood where he knows most of his company will be slaughtered. Woods, then, are where men are unmade, in that they are dismantled body and mind; but they are also where makings begin. Here unmade men will find a maker to commemorate them, since makers in the sense of poets and storytellers love the woods, which occur everywhere in old romances, lyrics and laments. Woods, then, are a place of destruction and reconstruction. They’re also a kind of neutral ground in wartime. They occur, we’re told in Part 4, on the maps of army draughtsmen, one of whom

Made note on a blue-print of the significance of that grove as one of his [i.e. the enemy’s] strong-points; this wooded rise as the gate of their enemies, a door at whose splintered posts, Janus-wise emplacements shield an automatic fire (p. 66).

Woods are liminal, in other words, Janus-faced like the first month of the year, facing at once towards past and future, death and life, the Germans and the British, making themselves available to anyone with the guts to approach and seize them for the flag. In addition, the Wood in Part 7 serves both as a gate that closes the parentheses within which the action of In Parenthesis takes place and a gate that opens out from the book onto the postwar era when it was written and published. As a portal of both kinds, it gives the lie to the notion of parentheses as sealing off what they contain from ‘normal life’. The world was deeply affected by the Great War; cultures changed radically in response to it; afterwards, as after Covid 19, there was a ‘new normal’. Parentheses in fact are always permeable, like portals, and In Parenthesis enacts this permeability through the uncanny skill with which it conjures up for a postwar readership the between-space of War Time.

Edward Burne Jones, Panel from The Legend of Briar Rose

Through the wood, as I mentioned earlier, stalks the enigmatic Queen of the Woods – whether in earnest or as a figment of Private Ball’s imagination. Her careful selection from among the dead of a representative twelve to serve as her knights makes that sample too a kind of parenthesis, in that it stands outside the categories of class and nation imposed on ordinary individuals by custom. She chooses for inclusion in her company both German and British soldiers, both privates and officers, both men like gods and men who are nothing more than jokes to their companions. And like the mad Ophelia, exempt by virtue of her broken mind from the restrictions that govern the sane, she presents each with some suitable woodland plant as a token of their admission into the culture of the strange:

Her awarding hands can pluck for each their fragile prize.
She speaks to them according to precedence. She knows what’s due to this elect society. She can choose twelve gentle-men. She knows who is most lord between the high trees and the open down.
Some she gives white berries
some she gives brown
Emil has a curious crown it’s
made of golden saxifrage.
Fatty wears sweet-briar […]
For Balder she reaches high to fetch his
Ulrich smiles for his myrtle wand.
That swine Lillywhite has daisies to his chain – you’d hardly credit it.
She plaits torques of equal splendor for Mr Jenkins and Billy Crower.
Hansel with Gronwy share dog-violets for a palm, where they lie in serious embrace beneath the twisted tripod. (p. 185)

In this scene, reminiscent of an arts-and-crafts painting – a panel, perhaps, from Burne Jones’s Briar Rose series of panels – men of all ranks and origins combine in quasi-erotic intimacy. Twelve of them are selected, like twelve apostles for some vegetable Jesus, twelve members of an assessing jury, none differentiated in terms of rank or importance from his copesmate. Balder the beautiful, the Christ-like Norse god who was killed with a mistletoe sprig through Loki’s trickery, is set alongside the pauper Hansel, driven by hunger to the woods with his sister to be murdered by a stranger; the German Hansel locked in ‘serious embrace’ with the Welshman Gronwy, all enmity forgotten; the unpopular commissioned officer Lillywhite alongside Lieutenant Jenkins and Private Crower, all bound together by daisy-chains ‘of equal splendor’, confirming their equal status in the Wood Queen’s universe, which lies well away from the social and military hierarchies that govern the spaces outside the parentheses of war and madness (‘wood’ means madness in Shakespeare’s time, as Demetrius’s phrase from A Midsummer Night’s Dream – ‘wood within this wood’ – might remind us).

John Everett Millais, Ophelia

A ‘prize’ is something that bestows meaning and value on a person’s achievements. The Wood Queen’s awarding of prizes, with its richly pictorial quality, may remind the reader of Pre-Raphaelite paintings of Ophelia as well as Burne Jones’s Legend of Briar Rose; above all the famous painting by John Everett Millais of the drowning Ophelia in the stream, singing as she sinks, and John William Waterhouse’s image of her sitting bolt upright on the river-bank, bedecking her hair like a sacrificial calf before she throws herself into the murderous waters. Millais was one of the founding members of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, while Waterhouse was one of its final generation of adherents, who worked alongside Burne-Jones and his good friend William Morris, whose guild socialism lived on in Eric Gill’s Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, to which Jones belonged. Jones’s creation of a post-pre-Raphaelite scene in these final moments of his book anticipates Gill’s attempt to carry forward the ideas of Morris and his predecessor Ruskin into the postwar era.

David Jones, Ancient Mariner with Albatross. He compares his rifle to the albatross in Part 7.

But the end of the book also seeks to leave the past behind, perhaps by ensuring it undergoes a suitably radical transformation in response to the transformative horror of the war years. The work of setting the war and all that brought it about behind him is accomplished by Jones in the section where Private Ball decides to leave his rifle behind in the Lady’s Wood, where he was wounded. The rifle is his lover – just as the ‘many men so beautiful’ who died embracing one another among the trees are also in a sense his lovers (p. xxi). He has been taught by his training to treat this thing of wood and metal, this fusion of the organic and the industrial, as a bride (‘cherish her, she’s your very own’, p. 183); and the process of abandoning the rifle-bride is announced and then accomplished before and after the Wood-Queen’s ritual selection of her own retinue of dead heroes. Left behind at the ‘gate of the wood’ (p. 186) under an oak tree, like the bodies of Ball’s mingled enemies and comrades (‘Lie still under the oak / next to the Jerry / and Sergeant Jerry Coke’, p. 187), the abandoned gun represents the leaving-behind of a period that has brought both terrible violence and terrible beauty, like Yeats’s Easter 1916. But a gate, as we’ve seen, is Janus-faced, a limen or threshold that admits people both ways, both out and in. It’s a permeable boundary. Jones or Ball imagines the rifle becoming a future archaeological find, to be plundered by bloody-minded tourists on the lookout for souvenirs of mass slaughter (‘a Cook’s tourist to the Devastated Areas’, p. 186). And his account of the war experience ensures that it will be brought to life again, as his comrades will, each time a reader chooses to visit his pages. The gun that unmakes is remade, here, as a way to remake the dead, a tool as essential to the work of the maker as his pen.

In the preface to In Parenthesis, one of the transformations Jones imagines taking place in the wake of the war is the capacity to see the post-industrial world and its killing engines as stunningly beautiful – of giving guns and bombs and poison gas the romantic or magical associations of other murderous objects, such as swords and fires, or tarot cards, or landscapes like the plains of Troy or Salisbury or the hills of Catraeth. ‘It is not easy,’ he observes,

in considering a trench-mortar barrage to give praise for the action proper to chemicals – full though it may be of beauty. […] We who are of the same world of sense with the hairy ass and furry wolf and who presume to other and more radiant affinities, are finding it difficult, as yet, to recognize these creatures of chemicals as true extensions of ourselves, that we may feel for them a native affection, which alone can make them magical for us. It would be interesting to know how we shall ennoble our new media as we have already ennobled and made significant our old – candle-light, fire-light, Cups, Wands and Swords (p. xiv).

One of the techniques by which Jones turns his War Time into a ‘place of enchantment’ is through the practice of radical anachronism: the running together of old and new, past and present, to produce a synthesis which is both disturbing and wonderful (disturbing because wonderful, I could have written). The experiments he practised among the parentheses of In Parenthesis anticipate the experiments practised by fantasy writers after the war, when they invented radically anachronistic, parenthetical secondary worlds as a means of understanding the strange new fusions that surrounded them, whose novelty the Great War threw so violently into relief. Jones helps us to understand, I think, how far these seemingly distant fantastic spaces can be read as responses to the equally anachronistic spaces through which their writers moved, within which they worked. Lovers of fantasy, then, should embrace his epic with the same enthusiasm as the modernists embraced it on its first appearance.

David Jones, Everyman

Notes

[1] ‘It was not that the look of the place was unfamiliar to you. It was at one to all appearances with what you knew already. […] That’s a very usual looking farm house. […] The day itself was what you’d expect of December’ (pp. 18-19).

[2] The Seven Barrows and the Long Barrow at Lambourn (spelt Lambourne here) are thought to have inspired Tolkien’s account of the Barrow Wights in The Fellowship of the Ring. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lambourn

Aspects of Troy in Early English and Italian Erotic Fiction

[Before the onset of Corvid 19 I was due to give a talk at the University of Pisa today. In lieu of that talk I thought I’d put up this essay I wrote a few years back, which touches on the relationship between Italy and England in the sixteenth century. It hasn’t yet been published, and I have no idea if it ever will be, so I’m making it available here, from Scotland to Italy with love.

Behind this post is the astonishing story of the Sienese nobleman Enea Silvio Piccolomini of Corsignano, later Pope Pius II, who found himself in my country, Scotland, in 1435, fathered a child here, and made his way back to Italy through England in disguise, because England and Italy were at war. He was nearly shipwrecked on the coast of Scotland and promised to walk barefoot to the nearest shrine of Our Lady if he survived; as a result of this promise, rashly made in a Scottish winter, he got frostbite in his feet and walked with a limp for the rest of his days. So he left a child in Scotland and Scotland left a limp with him. He nearly got slaughtered by Border rievers on his way south, and was hugely impressed by York Minster when he visited; he described it as walled with coloured glass. He was also much impressed by the beauty of Scottish women, though he thought Scottish men were barbaric. Later, he was the last Pope to be involved in a crusade – in fact he died on the way to the Holy Land, after which the crusade was sensibly cancelled. Besides being the only Pope I know of to have fathered a child in Scotland, he was apparently the only Pope to have written an autobiography while in office (the Commentaries), and certainly the only one to have written a work of erotic fiction (though the latter happened before his election to the papacy). This post is about that work of fiction: a Europe-wide bestseller called de duobus amantibus (The Two Lovers), and its possible influence on the early English novel.]

Corsignano, later renamed Pienza after its most famous son, Pope Pius II
  1. A Lost Golden Age of Tudor Fiction

Along with William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat (c. 1553), George Gascoigne’s Adventures Passed by Master F.J. (1573) is the work of Tudor prose fiction or ‘novelistic discourse’ whose reputation has undergone the most radical transformation in recent years.[1] A lot of work has been done to trace Gascoigne’s influence on his English successors, but the question of where his proto-novel came from remains something of a puzzle. The Adventures is sometimes talked about as if it sprang fully-formed from its author’s head, spontaneously generated by a combination of quick wit and good fortune (which is just the impression Gascoigne meant it to give). The first purpose of this blog post is to show that this is not in fact the case; and the second is to argue for the largely unacknowledged complexity of the novelistic milieu of the 1560s and early 70s from which it emerged. Gascoigne had many different models of prose fiction available to him when he started writing the Adventures, and one model in particular, I shall argue, suggests the extraordinary sophistication of the humanist tradition of erotic novella-writing on which he drew.[2]

Gascoigne’s Miscellany A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres (1573), which includes The Adventures Passed by Master F.J.

Of the possible influences on Gascoigne’s text, Geoffrey Chaucer’s long poem Troilus and Criseyde (mid-1380s) has rightly been given pride of place, along with its Italian source, Giovanni Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato (1345-50). The 1573 version of the Adventures opens with a homage to Chaucer, and the direct links between the climactic bedroom scenes in the poem and the novella have been noted.[3] Gascoigne also acknowledged the impact of the Italian short story writer Matteo Bandello when he revised the Adventures in 1575, disguising his rewrite as a translation from the salacious ‘riding-tales’ of a non-existent author called ‘Bartello’ whose name clearly echoes that of his real-life counterpart from Piedmont.[4] It is becoming increasingly clear, too, that Gascoigne wrote his proto-novel in the wake of a series of sophisticated English fictions: a native pre-novelistic tradition whose practitioners show a keen awareness of their English precursors in the field. The belated publication of Beware the Cat in 1570 may well have inspired him.[5] So might one or more of the many editions of the anonymous novella The Image of Idleness (c. 1556), whose epistolary form and wittily erotic content could have given him many hints.[6] William Bullein’s experimental novella-cum-textbook A Dialogue Against the Fever Pestilence (1564), which influenced Nashe, might have suggested some of the pseudo-medical goings-on in the Adventures; and Gascoigne’s interest in questioni d’amore could have been sharpened by Edmund Tilney’s attractive garden-set novella The Flower of Friendship (1568), as well as by Henry Grantham’s 1566 translation of Boccaccio’s Filocolo.[7] Indeed, if one takes translations and reprints into account as well as original compositions, the 1560s could be seen as a golden age of prose fiction in English, making available to the aficionado a wider range of novelle, merry tales and imaginative dialogues than at any time in the country’s history before that decade.[8]

In this blog post, though, I shall argue that one of Gascoigne’s main inspirations, both for his proto-novel and for the delight in quick-wittedness that drives it, was a little-known book by the fifteenth-century diplomat Enea Silvio Piccolomini, later Pope Pius II: the Historia de duobus amantibus (1444), translated into English as The Goodli History of the Ladye Lucres of Scene and of her Lover Eurialus – or more simply, Eurialus and Lucrece.[9] Piccolomini’s Latin narrative was much better known in sixteenth-century Europe than Chaucer’s Troilus, and proved as popular in England as in Gascoigne’s other stamping-ground, the Netherlands, where the first translation into English was made. John Coyle has described it with disarming accuracy as the best pornographic novel ever written by a future pope.[10] At the centre of Piccolomini’s narrative, I shall argue – as at the centre of Gascoigne’s – is a preoccupation with literary depictions of the Trojan War (Virgil’s, Ovid’s, Boccaccio’s, and in Gascoigne’s case Chaucer’s): and its playful toying with this theme helps to point up its preoccupation with the moral, political and social paradoxes beloved of the humanist movement. In Gascoigne’s and Piccolomini’s novelle the Trojan War becomes internalized in a pair of adulterous early modern lovers at a time of relative peace, a process that highlights the religious and cultural fissures that threatened to tear Europe apart in both men’s lifetimes. As with Chaucer’s and Shakespeare’s versions of the Troilus story, the war also comes to stand for the social and moral hypocrisies that underlie religious conflicts. It’s this internalizing of Troy that I shall explore in this post, as indicative of the transference from Italy to England of an interest in what I’ll call the politics of the mind which found its best expression in prose fiction.

I shall begin with a brief account of Piccolomini’s literary career, and move on to a close comparison of his and Gascoigne’s masterpieces before returning to the Trojan theme of my title. In the process I hope to show that de duobus amantibus deserves to be thought of, alongside the Adventures, as one of the seeds whose long germination culminated in the rise of the novel in late seventeenth-century England.

  1. The Seductive Stranger
Pope Pius II (formerly Enea Silvio Piccolomini)

The neo-Latin novella de duobus amantibus, written by a little man on the make, Enea Silvio Piccolomini (his surname means ‘wee man’, as he often reminds us), is a minor work of genius, a breath of Tuscan fresh air from the middle of the fifteenth century.[11] One of the most widely disseminated and often-translated narratives of the early modern period – a Europe-wide bestseller for 250 years – which was translated four times into English in Tudor times alone, it has nevertheless failed to get more than a passing mention in histories of English fiction. Yet the briefest glance makes it clear that here is a major point of origin for that remarkable series of Elizabethan proto-novels written in the 1570s and 80s, which began with Gascoigne’s own mini-masterpiece, The Adventures of Master F.J., and went on to include George Pettie’s Petite Pallace of Pleasure (1576), John Lyly’s two Euphues books (1578 and 1580), Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (written c. 1580-6, published 1590) and the astonishing outpouring of fictions in the 1580s and early 90s by Robert Greene. Not only may Piccolomini’s text have served as Gascoigne’s inspiration; it may also have fed its influence directly into the work of his successors, as its second Elizabethan translator William Braunche seems to have recognized in 1596 when he transformed the relatively plain style of the original into the highly-patterned prose of Lyly, Sidney and Greene.[12]

One of Piccolomini’s lifelong preoccupations, emerging in both his religious and literary writings throughout his career, was to expose a form of hypocrisy that lay at the heart of European civilization: the refusal to acknowledge the role played by the body in human affairs – the failure, that is, to accommodate humankind’s full humanity. In this he is a true humanist; a rhetorician and a poet rather than a logician or a philosopher. But he is an astonishingly daring and outspoken humanist, whose daring paid off to the extent that despite working through much of his career as a servant of the chief challengers of papal authority, the reformist Council of Basel, he successfully switched allegiance in mid-career and went on to become Pope. His switch of allegiance is seen by some as a career move, one of the supreme examples in the fifteenth century of unprincipled self-advancement; but he insisted that his transformation from agitator for ecclesiastical reform with a hyperactive sex drive to chaste clerical crusader for the papal supremacy was not so much a schizophrenic change of personality as a well-timed and appropriate shift in emphasis.[13] His choice of the name ‘Pius’ as his papal sobriquet alludes to Virgil’s identification of the protagonist of the Aeneid as pious Aeneas (Piccolomini’s forename Enea is the Italian form of Aeneas, legendary founder of the Italian nation). So when Pope Pius II urges his flock in a celebrated proclamation to ‘reject Aeneas; accept Pius’ he is asking them to recognize that he is the same man he was in his youth, but that his priorities have changed, as is expected of an intelligent man in the later stages of his life.[14]

This notion of humankind as an unruly composite, whose bodily needs must be met as well as its mental and spiritual requirements, can be found everywhere in Piccolomini’s writings. His influential treatise on the education of boys the ‘Art of Rhetoric’ stresses the training of the body as forcefully as the training of the mind, the value of poetry as well as the necessity to ingest philosophy, the crucial importance of using theory as a blueprint for practice.[15] As one might expect, the treatise has nothing to say about sex, since it was composed as a letter to a 10-year-old princeling, and Enea was a priest by the time he wrote it. But an equally famous letter to a teenage prince, Sigismund of Tyrol – written before Enea found his ecclesiastical vocation – suggests that sex can in fact form an integral part of a young man’s physical, intellectual and moral development.[16] When young Sigismund asked him to draft a love-letter to instruct him in the art of seduction, Piccolomini explained his motivation in acceding to the request in scrupulous detail. Given that desire is a ‘condition of human life’, he argues, sexual exploits should be undertaken in youth rather than old age, ‘since […] age is inept in love’. Echoing Andreas Capellanus and the school of courtly love he helped to found, he claims that ‘the custom of love… excites the sluggish virtues of youth’, encouraging young men to extraordinary feats of arms, letters and friendship, and enabling them to know ‘good and evil’ and ‘the stratagems of the world’. And he closes the letter with an unusual twist on a familiar literary trope. Writers of the Renaissance are forever urging their readers to treat their texts as bees treat gardens, shunning unwholesome weeds and drawing nectar only from the sweetest literary flowers – or else extracting goodness from weeds and flowers equally. But Piccolomini’s metaphorical gardens are not texts but the bodies of women: ‘as the bees sip honey from flowers, so you should learn virtue from the blandishments of Venus’. This identifies the female body, and the sexual adventures young men might experience with women, as a kind of book or library from which virtue can be extracted as effectively as – more effectively than? – from the tomes of the philosophers. This is a position that gets taken up by some of the most sophisticated English writers of early modern prose fiction, most strikingly John Lyly, as I suggested long ago in my book Elizabethan Fictions (1997).

Pinturicchio: Piccolomini in Scotland, Piccolomini Library, Siena

Piccolomini’s own life, as unfolded in his collected epistles and his autobiography, the Commentaries, gave a perfect practical demonstration of his conviction that sexual adventures have an integral role to play in the development of a fully rounded human being. He fathered two illegitimate children that we know of: one in Scotland, where he was as impressed by the beauty of the Scottish women as by the barbarity of the Scottish men, and one in Strasbourg, with an English or Breton woman named Elizabeth. The Scottish child died in infancy, but Elizabeth’s son seems to have survived a little longer, since Enea wrote a letter to his father asking him to receive the boy into his household.[17] What is striking about this letter is the extent to which he defends his behaviour in literary terms. He begins by describing himself as ‘Aeneas Sylvius, poet’ – a title he used throughout this phase of his career, after being crowned laureate by Frederick III in 1442 – and nearly all the examples it deploys are drawn from the works of poets or fiction writers. When he wants to point out that his father, too, slept around in his youth, he quotes the story of Tancred and Ghismonda from Boccaccio’s great anthology the Decameron (c. 1348-53): ‘you begot no son of stone or iron, being flesh yourself’ (Enea’s own fictional lover Eurialus later uses the same quotation to defend his adulterous desire for Lucrece).[18] A few lines later, Piccolomini uses a different tale from the Decameron, to flesh out the details of his liaison with Elizabeth. Having asked her to leave her bedroom door unlatched and been twice refused, he tells his father that ‘I remembered Zima the Florentine’. This is Boccaccio’s story of a dandy who contrives to arrange a tryst with a woman sworn by her husband to silence, by appointing himself her ventriloquist, speaking her words for her, and setting up a nocturnal meeting, an arrangement with which she silently concurs by following his instructions to the letter. Enea chose to assume that despite Elizabeth’s show of reluctance she too would follow his instructions, which were delivered in the same way Zima delivered his; and when that night he made his way to her room, sure enough he found the door unlatched, whereupon they proceeded to conceive a son together. Enea’s sexual adventure, in other words, was modelled on that of a Boccaccian hero, Zima the dandy, and he uses the words of a Boccaccian heroine, Ghismonda, to defend it. Poetry, then, in Sidney’s sense of ‘fiction’ in verse or prose, for him offers practical help to desperate lovers. And in Piccolomini’s universe all men and women are to a greater or lesser extent lovers, often quite desperate ones. So those who disapprove of erotic fictions or the actions they encourage are no better, Enea claims, than the ‘hypocrite’ who ‘says that he knows no fault in himself’, in defiance of Christian doctrine (1 John 1:8).

Eloquence itself, in fact – the essential skill of a secretary, as he says in one of his letters, and an art whose supreme exponent is the poet[19] – is closely associated with illicit desire by Piccolomini. His attraction to Elizabeth began, he claims, with an admiration for her linguistic skills. For one thing, she spoke his language, Tuscan; for another, Enea ‘delight[ed] in women’s jests’, a field in which ‘she excelled’, reminding him of Cleopatra’s seduction of Ceasar and Antony with her playfully seductive use of language.[20] Her eloquence, in fact, bred eloquence in him. Inspired by his attraction to her, he quickly persuaded himself by analogy with great men – Moses, Aristotle, and certain notable Christians – to pursue his interest in her. For Enea, then, three major philosophical traditions of the world (the Jewish, the ancient Greek and the Christian) agreed in recognizing both the power of the sexual urge and its significant place in the make-up of the great public speakers and policy-makers. And even as Pius II, Piccolomini continued to think of rhetoric in sexual terms. In the famous ‘retraction bull’ he wrote to exonerate himself for defending the controversial Council of Basel[21] – an official pronouncement composed to prevent any of his earlier writings from bringing ‘scandal’ to his pontificate – Pius speaks of his old letters and pamphlets as the product of a youthful passion for articulacy: a passion which produces illegitimate texts as readily as a young lover produces illegitimate offspring. ‘Our writings pleased us,’ he confesses, ‘in the manner of poets who love their poems like sons’.[22] The sentence neatly identifies his pro-Basel polemics as works of poetry or fiction, while showing an amused tolerance for the ease with which a clever man may be seduced by the music of his own utterances.

Pinturicchio: Piccolomini being crowned poet laureate, Piccolomini Library, Siena

1444 was an annus mirabilis for Enea the poet. Having been crowned laureate two years earlier by the Emperor Frederick III, he confirmed the validity of the title by penning a trio of compositions: an epistolary satire on the misery of a courtier’s life (De curialium miseriis), a version of which George Gascoigne could have read in Alexander Barclay’s celebrated Eclogues (c. 1520);[23] a scandalous Plautine comedy called Chrysis, about love between priests and prostitutes in a brothel;[24] and his most widely-read work, De duobus amantibus. All three texts identify Enea as a detached, witty and sometimes acerbic commentator on contemporary European life, a tone made easier for him to adopt by the Emperor Frederick’s policy of maintaining a neutral stance in the conflict between the Anti-pope Felix V (who was elected by the Council of Basel) and Pope Eugenius IV (whom the Council opposed). And the play and the novella identify illicit sexual liaisons as the ultimate testing ground for the pervasive culture of sexual hypocrisy that possessed fifteenth-century Europe. They identify, too, exuberant speech as the peculiar province of lovers, who wield it honestly in the service of dishonest love, and in the process show up the degree to which eloquence has been commandeered for vastly more destructive purposes elsewhere in the world they inhabit.

Pinturicchio: Piccolomini leaves for the Council of Basel

Gascoigne could not have known Chrysis, since the play was lost from the time of its composition to the twentieth century; but it is interesting to note that Enea’s novella was penned by a practitioner of neo-classical comedy, just as Gascoigne’s Adventures sprang from the imagination of the translator of another Italian comedy, Ariosto’s I Suppositi, Englished by Gascoigne as Supposes (meaning something like ‘assumptions’).[25] And Chrysis can help us to interpret de duobus amantibus. Emily O’Brien has recently shown how Enea’s play satirizes the fifteenth-century fashion for Neo-Stoic philosophy: the intellectual tradition that rejects passion in favour of an idealized and unattainable rationalism.[26] In addition, Enea transplants the Grecian setting of his comedy to the political hotbed of Basel in the 1440s, identifying its characters with real-life participants in the struggle between he Anti-pope Felix and Pope Eugenius, and having the young man Charinus allude to the conflict between the pontiffs only to dismiss it as irrelevant to the concerns of non-politicians. ‘There are some gentlemen of the toga,’ Charinus observes,

who say there is some kind of awful dissension between pontiffs. For my part, I keep in mind that saying of the wise: that useless worries are best put behind you. Just as chickens who are destined to be slaughtered tomorrow fight amongst themselves for feed in the henhouse, so men contend for empire when they have no idea how long they’ll be permitted to hold it. If I’m going to give up something, I’d sooner give up an empire than my dinner (IV.164-74).

Accordingly, the characters in Enea’s play have little interest in virtue, as either the popes or the Stoic philosophers defined it. His lecherous priests consider their celibate status as the perfect excuse for evading the legal trap of matrimony and indulging in a perpetual round of free love. They resolve to punish their prostitute lovers not for sinning but for sleeping with other men besides themselves. And the prostitutes teach the priests in return a lesson not in celibacy but mutual affection, showing a warmth for their clerical lovers – despite their promiscuity – that scuppers the men’s plans to abuse the women for being as unfaithful as they themselves are. Overhearing the prostitutes profess their love for them near the end, the priests conclude that ‘it’s we who have been wicked and they good’ (XVIII.778); and the play closes with a reconciliation between whores and clerics which is celebrated with ‘three jugs of the best vintage wine’ (XVIII.802), as well as the applause of Enea’s male audience.

Pinturicchio: Piccolomini leaving for the Council of Basel, detail

When another male character, then, tells us in the epilogue that the play’s moral is that ‘you should work hard to be virtuous, stay away from courtesans, pimps, parasites, and wild parties,’ and that ‘Virtue excels all things, and the virtuous man lacks for nothing’ (XVIII.807-812), we could be forgiven for assuming that he has completely missed the point. The word virtue has been appropriated by popes and politicians, and like the squabbles of politicians has little to do with what makes relationships work between ordinary men and women of flesh and blood. It seems likely, too, that the moral is a joke at the expense of the moralized versions of Terence’s often raunchy comedies that formed a staple of the medieval school curriculum. Unlike the philosopher, the schoolmaster or the power-hungry pontiff, the poet knows all about the emotional machinery that drives the households and daily activities of common people, and can discover a complex web of alternative virtues being practised there which do not involve an actual or presumed withdrawal from either hard work, hard play or a bit of hard core fornication.

All of which brings us to Enea’s masterpiece de duobus amantibus, one of the models, I suggest, for The Adventures Passed by Master F.J. A brief summary of what the two texts have in common can serve as a starting point for the comparison.

  1. Divided Loyalties
Euryalus sends his first letter to Lucretia

Enea’s novella, de duobus amantibus, was written not much more than a year before he accomplished his spectacular political volte-ace, switching his professional role from apologist for the anti-papal Council of Basel to propagandist for the papacy. This imminent change of allegiance is signalled by the fact that it’s a book about divided loyalties. It concerns a German man, who finds his career as an official in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor at odds with his love-life, and a faithfully married woman of Siena, who finds herself in love with the German – a man who is not her husband – and transfers her affections to him without compromising her wholehearted commitment to the principle of loyalty to one’s lover. It is hard to imagine anyone who was not in Enea’s complicated position, or something like it, writing such a richly duplicitous text, which identifies certain intransigent problems at the heart of Christian morality and exposes them in painful detail through what is ostensibly the lightest kind of romance – the prose equivalent of a classical comedy.

Gascoigne’s proto-novel The Adventures Passed by Master F.J., too, is a story of divided loyalties. A young man from the South of England, the titular F.J., comes to stay with a Northern friend in his castle and initiates an affair with his friend’s wife, Elinor. Another woman in the castle, Frances, detects the affair and signals her attraction and loyalty to F.J. by showing him that she knows what he is up to, yet refraining from exposing his adultery. Instead she seeks to win him for herself with a mixture of witty banter, amorous fables, and hints about Elinor’s congenital promiscuity. F.J. finds himself attracted to both women, but cannot commit himself to Frances because (as in Capestranus’ treatise De amore) the allure of illicit, hard-won love proves far too intense to be surrendered for legitimate affection. Gascoigne, like Piccolomini, stood accused in his lifetime of a taste for sexual and political intrigue: he was indicted and acquitted as both a bigamist and a traitor, and his verse outside the Adventures celebrates and repents of adultery (real or imagined) with equal fervour. And if he did not switch his political allegiance in mid career as Enea did, his failure to find steady employment necessitated an equally developed capacity to change objectives and allegiances at a moment’s notice, a talent for spontaneous improvisation which is invoked by the word adventures’ in the title of his novella.[27]

Gascoigne presents his work to Elizabeth I, representing himself as a laureate poet

To live at adventure’ in the sixteenth century was to live from day to day, seizing whatever chances or adventures fell in your path and resisting all attempts to confine you within the bounds of duty, obligation or (by extension) morality. Gascoigne’s well-attested delight in weaving his own reputation as an unruly adventurer into the plots of his various fictions could well have made Enea’s ingenious interweaving of autobiography and poetic invention singularly attractive to him. So too might Enea’s ambiguous recantation, when he transformed himself from Enea/Aeneas to Pius without ever quite rejecting the political and sexual exploits of his youth. Gillian Austen has made a thorough case for the ambiguity of Gascoigne’s many gestures of repentance in the last years of his life.[28] Where Enea cut off the sins of his youth in one clean gesture when he took the cloth (though he remained willing to recall the sins of his youth in ample detail in his autobiographical writings), Gascoigne carefully tailored each of his later texts to its intended recipients, switching with disconcerting ease between stern recantations of his youthful folly and continued dabblings in erotic poetry. He might well have seen Enea as something of a fellow spirit, with his pragmatic juggling of the claims of body and soul, the variety of his literary output, and his reputation as a man of sexual, political and even military action.[29]

The first formal link between Enea’s and Gascoigne’s novelle is that both are contained within the framework of a letter, and that both are packed with epistolary exchanges between their central characters. This formal choice is hardly surprising in Enea, since he was one of the most respected letter-writers of the early modern period; and Gascoigne’s extensive use of the form may owe as much to Piccolomini as to the anonymous author of the first English piece of epistolary prose fiction The Image of Idleness (1556), which kept being reprinted throughout the first half of Elizabeth’s reign.[30] De duobus amantibus first appeared in a letter to the humanist Mariano Sozzini, and was frequently printed in the sixteenth century with this and another letter as explanatory prefaces; and although the Tudor translations of Enea’s text omit these epistles, Gascoigne’s considerable skills as a linguist could have given him ready access to them in Latin, by way of the various Italian, French and German editions circulating in his lifetime.[31] Enea’s prefatory epistles foreshadow the celebrated letters from HW and GT that preface Gascoigne’s Adventures in the book where it first appears, A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres (1573). The first of Enea’s letters as they are printed, to a German friend named Caspar Schlick, lets slip the fact that de duobus may be a roman à clef, and that Schlick has much in common with Eurialus. It thus anticipates the hints at a true-life scandal that run through Gascoigne’s Adventures, and to which Gascoigne alludes in the revised 1575 version of his novella, the Posies of George Gascoigne Esquire.[32] But Enea’s first epistle also resembles the letter from Gascoigne’s HW in the challenge it presents to orthodox morality, and in the way it sets the tone for the tale to come.

The bulk of the epistle to Schlick consists of an extravagant mock eulogy of that ‘very little Person’ Mariano Sozzini, who should have been surnamed ‘wee man’, Enea tells us – like Piccolomini himself – on account of his diminutive size.[33] Despite his small stature, Enea showers Sozzini with praise: he is ‘as great a Philosopher as Plato; in Geometry equal to Boetius; in Arithmetic to Macrobius’; he ‘paints like another Apelles’, carves like the legendary sculptor Praxiteles, and so on. Nobody, of course – let alone a little body like Sozzini – could possibly encompass all these qualities. And even if he did, the letter goes on to point out that even the best of men has some blemish that lets him down. Plagarensis, Enea observes, became enraged that his ass could not bear as many offspring at one birth as his sow; Gomicius thought he had fallen pregnant because he let his wife get on top when they were making love; and Sozzini, too, has his blemish. He is addicted to sex; and since Enea owes him a favour, the writer has duly obeyed the little man’s request to write him a pornographic novella to indulge his proclivities. But the letter ends by claiming, as Sidney did in his Apology for Poetry (1595), that a love of love is hardly a fault. ‘He who never was in Love,’ Enea declares, ‘is either a Stone or a Beast’, and any attempt to deny this would be hypocrisy. Human frailty in matters of desire is an intransigent ‘Truth’, and this frailty deserves due recognition from poets like himself.

Eurialus and Lucretia in bed, from the only illustrated printed edition, by Piero Pacini, c. 1500

The second epistle prefacing Enea’s novella, which is addressed to Sozzini himself, is equally witty at the expense of po-faced moralists. It begins by pointing out that Sozzini is fifty and Enea nearly forty, and that it would therefore seem inappropriate for either of them to show much interest in erotic writing. But Enea adds that Sozzini’s continued ‘Proneness to Amour’ protects him from ageing, and therefore promises that he will ‘rouze all the amorous Spirits of this grey headed Lover’ in the ensuing story. So when the letter closes by claiming that the tale of Eurialus and Lucrece gives a ‘warning to Youth, to avoid such Criminal Amours’ as the lovers indulged in, the rest of the epistle forbids us to take this seriously. Enea undercuts the moral of his narrative by placing it in a context where its obsolescence is palpable. And this process of setting up apparent moral judgements only to explode them in the next sentence – and perhaps reinstate them the sentence after – will become familiar as we read on. It is not a device that Gascoigne mimics directly; but he could have learned a lot, I think, from Enea’s willingness to play continually with set notions of right and wrong.

Piccolomini’s two prefatory epistles prepare us for one aspect of the story that follows: its playfully ironic tone, which undercuts the exalted pretensions of the courtly love tradition, laughs at Petrarchan idealism, and mocks the chivalric code as depicted in conventional romances. The Emperor’s court in the novella is a place where playfulness is endemic: the Emperor himself is both lover and joker, who delights in teasing Eurialus about his attraction to a married woman. At the same time, a strand of seriousness runs through the narrative, which comes to the fore in its final pages. Unlike the Emperor, Eurialus cannot afford to treat his affair with Lucretia as a joke; if he does, his career will suffer. The material conditions of fifteenth-century life dictate that a courtier cannot laugh freely at the things his master laughs at. And a married woman cannot afford to laugh at the things a male courtier might find amusing. Enea keeps reminding us of these incompatibilities, as if to draw our attention to the real social issues that get obscured by talk of moral idealism and the apparatus of conventional romance.

Gascoigne and the Queen, from his The Noble Art of Venerie

Again, it is the philosophy rather than the details of this constant play between light and darkness, the comic and the deeply serious that Gascoigne could have learned from. Gascoigne’s Adventures shares with de duobus an ability to veer between moods at a moment’s notice, and he makes repeated changes of tone and sensibility a defining feature of the relationship between his lovers. There is, however, one occasion when Master F.J., like Eurialus, learns the danger of telling jokes about infidelity in the context of royal courts. One of his poems celebrating his adulterous affair finds its way to the ears of Queen Elizabeth’s courtiers, who take offence at his claim to have got a monopoly on beauty now that he has got Elinor as his mistress (Pigman 176.22-31). Not much is made of the courtiers’ displeasure with F.J.’s boasting and its possible consequences. But the effect of its being mentioned is to stress the provincialism of F.J.’s affair, and to remind us that it would have had quite different personal and political repercussions if it had been prosecuted a little closer to the seat of power. Juxtaposed with the household of the Queen herself, F.J.’s hubristic comparisons of Elinor to a range of mythical deities and monarchs might have looked uncomfortably like treason. And the episode also demonstrates how easy it is for provincial doings to find their way to the cultural centre, however discreetly they may seem to be conducted. Enea’s text could well have laid the foundation for this perception of Gascoigne’s, given the atmosphere of increasing paranoia about the possibility of detection that pervades the Sienese narrative.

  1. Women Versus Men

Like the Adventures, then, de duobus is a duplicitous or two-faced text, remarkable for its clear-eyed recognition of the torments as well as the delights of an illicit relationship. This tension is of course familiar from the literature of courtly love, but both Piccolomini and Gascoigne are astonishingly skilful in sustaining it; and they manage this feat, I think, through the complexity of their female characters. Gascoigne supplies his readers with two clever heroines: an adulterous wife called Elinor and her free-spirited but faithful sister (or sister-in-law) Frances, who between them test F.J.’s intelligence in the context of a three-way attraction. Enea, by contrast, gives his readers a single heroine, Lucrece/Lucretia, who seems to have been designed specifically to confound anti-feminist preconceptions about desiring women. Neither Gascoigne’s Frances nor Enea’s Lucretia permits readers the satisfaction of passing easy judgement on her actions. And part of what forbids such a judgement is the link both stories forge between the dilemma these women find themselves in and the greatest of all stories about adultery: the myth of Troy.

Gascoigne’s The Noble Art of Venerie or Hunting. Hunting was often used as a metaphor for erotic adventuring

The first of the links with Troy is that both novelle describe an affair between a married woman and a foreigner, reminiscent of the relationship between the Trojan Prince Paris and the Greek Queen Helen. In this they run counter to the best-known contemporary versions of a Trojan love story, Boccaccio’s Filostrato and Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, in which Cressida is a widow and Troilus her fellow Trojan. Enea’s and Gascoigne’s lovers have more in common with Paris and Helen, whose affair sparked off the Trojan war, than with the much less politically explosive relationship between Troilus and Cressida. Gascoigne stresses the parallel by naming his heroine Elinor, which gets changed to ‘Helen’ in one of F.J.’s poems (Pigman 175.21-177.24), while Enea gives his heroine a husband called Menelaus and a brother-in-law called Agamemnon, while repeatedly associating his hero with Trojans such as Memnus and Paris. Intriguingly, though, both writers mix up their lovers with Troilus and Cressida too. Enea’s hero Eurialus, for instance, has a go-between called Pandalus, while Master F.J. becomes a member of ‘Troylus sect’ (Pigman 189.5) when he gets jealous of Elinor. The double parallel with Helen/Paris and Cressida/Troilus identifies both couples as simultaneously enemies and friends as well as lovers – a paradox Gascoigne recognizes when he has F.J. refer to Elinor as his ‘friendly enemy’.[34] It also marks them out as subject to a higher dispensation, the helpless playthings of politicians whose agendas run counter to their own. Eurialus’s imperial overlord, the Holy Roman Emperor, governs his fate just as Priam governs that of Troilus, while F.J.’s hidden rival for Elinor’s love, the so-called ‘secretary’, turns out to be a far more potent ghost-writer of Elinor’s affairs than he is, a Homer or an Ovid where F.J. is just a clever schoolboy with too much pride in his own compositions. And the use of Troy as an analogy for these two affairs suggests that each set of lovers is in some sense doomed from the start. They are retreading old ground filled with the ruins of lost civilizations, and the location of this ground in Siena and England suggests that the tensions and contradictions that led to the fall of Troy are somehow replicated at the level of the town and even the household in early modern Europe.

In the 1573 version of the Adventures, Gascoigne associates F.J. with another character from the Trojan war, a figure who makes explicit the link between ancient Troy and early modern England. At the point when F.J. finally succeeds in arranging a secret liaison with his lover Elinor – in a deserted corridor of the castle at night – the narrator invites his male reader to share his imaginative complicity with the act of adultery that follows:

But why hold I so long discourse in discribing the joyes which (for lacke of like experience) I cannot set out to the ful? Were it not that I knowe to whom I write, I would the more beware what I write. F.J. was a man, and neither of us are sencelesse, and therfore I shold slaunder him, (over and besides a greater obloquie to the whole genealogie of Enaeas) if I should imagine that of tender hart he would forbeare to expresse hir more tender limbes against the hard floore (Pigman 168.11-18).

This passage is a wonderful example of the moral ambiguity of the 1573 Adventures (it was omitted from the cleaned-up 1575 version). It begins by implying the inexperience of the narrator, who has never undergone the pleasures he wishes us to picture. His inexperience becomes gullibility in the second sentence, where he claims to know the identity of his reader (‘I knowe to whom I write’): a reference to the fact that the whole narrative is supposed to have been contained in a private letter from the narrator G.T. to his friend H.W. – who promptly betrayed his friend by disobeying his instructions to keep it private and sending it to a printer to be published (Pigman 141.1-142.37). Any reader of the novella who is not H.W. is a beneficiary of this act of betrayal, and therefore complicit with it; in other words, betrayal is spread from person to person like an infection by the printed text we are reading. Yet treason is already endemic in the English people, because they trace their ‘genealogie’ to the arch-traitor Aeneas, whose grandson Brutus founded the island nation, according to Tudor legend. Gascoigne could have referred, if he wished, to ‘the genealogie of Brutus’ – and indeed this was the more usual formulation. But Aeneas’ treachery was proverbial, condemned in the Trojan histories of Dares Phrygius and Dictys Cretensis as well as by the woman he abandoned, Dido Queen of Carthage, in Ovid’s Heroides.[35] By tracing F.J. and the male reader to a common ancestor – the legendary founder of Rome – Gascoigne makes them brothers in brutishness, capable of abandoning any pretence at a ‘tender hart’ and crushing the ‘more tender limbes’ of women without a moment’s reflection. And it is tempting to see the shadow of another womanizing Aeneas/Enea behind the allusion to Virgil’s ambiguous hero.

Gascoigne and the Queen as hunters

F.J.’s treacherous, Aeneas-like nature is confirmed soon afterwards in Gascoigne’s second set of extended references to the Trojan war. F.J. composes several poems or songs to celebrate his betrayal of his friend, Elinor’s husband; and one or more of these songs exposes the young man’s adultery as well as his hubris to the world at large. But the verses also expose him to the suspicion of Elinor, who suspects they were first written about some other lover of his, although F.J. later swears that he changed the name Elinor to Helen in one of the poems because ‘he toke it all for one name, or at least he never red of any Elinor such matter as might sound worthy like commendation for beautie’ (Pigman 177.13-15). The narrator tangles himself into fantastic knots of speculation at this point as to whether Elinor was right, and the Helen of the poem was someone different. Rumour has it, we learn, that F.J. did once have an affair with a woman called Helen; but she was not worth writing poems about, and besides the style of the poem suggests that it was written long before he met her, and besides it is clearly a sensible policy to adapt the same poem for use in more than one relationship. By the end of the passage, poetry has become the versatile tool or pimp of serial adulterers, a stalking horse (or Trojan horse) whose general purpose is always sexual and specific purpose always obscure. ‘Well[,] by whom he wrote it I know not,’ the passage ends:

but once I am sure that he wrote it, for he is no borrower of inventions, and this is al that I meane to prove, as one that sende you his verses by stealth, and do him double wrong, to disclose unto any man the secrete causes why they were devised, but this for your delight I do adventure (Pigman 177.24-29).

In other words, nothing about the poem is clear except that it can readily be adapted to treachery – such as the treachery we are condoning by reading F.J.’s poems, adventurously purloined from him for our voyeuristic pleasure. The one set of values the narrator seems to celebrate is the technical accomplishment of the poet: and he gives F.J. special praise for the originality of his compositions, ‘for he is no borrower of inventions’. But even this seeming ‘fact’ about F.J.’s originality proves uncertain; the next poem we read is a translation from the Italian, and therefore a ‘borrowed invention’. Lyrics are like so many Helens, available to be poached from one situation or language and deployed for erotic purposes in another; no wonder, then, if Elinor regards their male composer with equal distrust, and subjects the poet F.J. to the same cavalier treatment as his poems promise her. Like her namesake Helen, whose first experience of love was with that serial abandoner of women Theseus (as F.J.’s lyric about her reminds us (Pigman 176.9-10)), or like Criseyde in Chaucer’s poem, Elinor inhabits an environment where women are used by men as sexual playthings and political pawns, and under the circumstances it is hard to blame her for acting at all times in her own best interests, as she does when she swaps F.J. for another lover later in the story.

F.J.’s Helen poem marks him out as a betrayer, although he continues to pose throughout the narrative as if he were the soul of amorous integrity. Enea’s male lover Eurialus is also a betrayer, abandoning Lucretia so as not to compromise his political future. Here, then, is another way in which Gascoigne’s narrative has more in common with de duobus amantibus than with Troilus and Criseyde. Chaucer’s innocent Troilus has had no experience of love before he falls for Criseyde, whose widowhood teaches her to be far more wary of the sudden twists and turns of fortune than her lover has yet learned to be. There is an element of Troilus’s innocence in both Eurialus and F.J., but it is the heartless, self-serving innocence of a young man who thinks the pose of courtly lover is a game, and has no idea how much they will damage themselves and others with their infidelities. And once one has recognized this first set of family resemblances between the two texts – Enea’s and Gascoigne’s – a number of others present themselves, binding the books together in intriguing ways.

A hunting party, from The Noble Art of Venerie

Both pairs of lovers are defined in their narratives as being at once foreign to each other and fellow citizens of the same emotional nation. The German Eurialus tells the Italian Lucretia: ‘call me no straunger, I pray the, for I am rathere of thys contrye, than he that is borne heare, sythens hee is but by chaunce, and I by myne own choyse’ (Morrall 16.27-29). Later, of course, his foreignness reasserts itself, as he decides to throw in his lot with Emperor Sigismund rather than his lover, and abandons Lucretia as Aeneas abandoned Dido – or as that other Aeneas, Piccolomini, abandoned his women in Scotland and Strasbourg. F.J. and Elinor, too, begin by assuming that they share a common language: the discourse of continental courtship, whose French, Italian and Spanish lexicon litters their conversation, covertly signalling their willingness to subscribe to continental amorous practices, of which adultery was supposed to be one. In one sentence F.J. gives Elinor a French congé or greeting accompanied by the Spanish gesture of kissing the hand (Bezo las manos), and the cod-Spanish gesture of a kiss on the lips described in the cod-Spanish phrase zuccado dez labros, before reciting a poem in the Italian form of a Terza sequenza (Pigman 149.31-34). The Babel of different languages anticipates the inevitable breakdown in communication, when the lovers’ foreignness to each other reasserts itself as it did in Enea’s novella. F.J. loses track of Elinor’s meaning and avenges himself by raping her; and Elinor at once avenges herself in turn by transferring her affections to another man. The frail city of their relationship, built on the slenderest of foundations, collapses and leaves no trace – like Babel or the City of Troy. In all versions of the Trojan legend the city betrays itself. Without Paris’s ruinous affair with Helen, and Troy’s condoning of it, the war with Greece would never have started; without the city’s rash acceptance of the wooden horse its towers would not have fallen; and in many versions it is the Trojan Aeneas who is responsible for persuading his fellow countrymen to bring the horse inside the city walls. By their allusions to the Trojan war, both Piccolomini and Gascoigne put betrayal at the heart of their stories – and at the heart, I would suggest, of the cultures they inhabit.

Both texts reinforce this theme of self-betrayal by replacing a war between two separate peoples, the Trojans and the Greeks, with what is effectively a civil war. The states where the action of the novelle takes place are in each case enjoying a fragile peace between bouts of conflict. Eurialus comes to Siena in the train of Emperor Sigismund, who is often at war (as Eurialus tells Lucretia) but pays his visit to the city en route to a diplomatic mission in Rome; while the Southerner F.J. arrives in the North parts of England not long after the Northern Rebellion of 1569, when the Catholic lords of the North of England rose against the Protestant settlement that had been imposed on them by the South, as part of the ongoing religious struggle between Reformers and Counter-Reformers.[36] But despite the official lull in hostilities in both texts, conflict continues: between adulterers and husbands; between the lip-service paid to laws and customs in Renaissance Europe and the passionate, wit-fuelled relationship pursued by the lovers in defiance of both; between the literary conventions of courtly love or chivalric romance invoked by the adulterers on the one hand, and their repeated violation of those conventions on the other. And the potential for violence in these conflicts is signalled by the conspicuous presence of swords in sexual encounters. Master F.J. carries a sword to his first assignation with Elinor, on the bare floorboards of the gallery. Eurialus too carries his sword to his first assignation with Lucretia. Their love-making is interrupted by her husband, which condemns Eurialus to an hour or two of cowering in a closet; and when he later recalls the episode, swords figure prominently in his recollection: ‘though I hadde escaped [her husband’s] handes because hee hadde no weapon, and I hadde a sweard by my syde, yet hadde he a man wyth hym, and weapons honge at hande uppon the wall, and there was many servauntes in the house […] and I shoulde have ben handled accordynge’ (Morrall 25.13-18). So war in these narratives is no mere metaphor (although it is that too, especially in the Adventures). There are physical dangers involved, and phallic weapons can end up damaging their bearers, as well as the women they are supposedly intended to protect. Swords, like penises, have divided loyalties, and unsheathing them can lead to a host of unpredictable consequences.

Eurialus’ inner torment, both while he is locked in the closet and afterwards when reflecting on his predicament, dramatizes a central conflict in both narratives: the internal war of attrition between the male lover’s contradictory attitudes to his mistress. Throughout the text Eurialus careers between emotional extremes: delighted celebration of the wonderful sex he is enjoying and outbreaks of lacerating self-disgust in which he berates himself for falling prey to the wiles of women. Gascoigne’s protagonist too gets trapped in mental turmoil – the self-inflicted excruciation of jealousy – which leads him half way through the story to mistrust the elusive word-games with Elinor he has so far relished, and to re-read the letters she has sent him as products of duplicity rather than affection. This agonized reinvention of himself and her leads to his rape of Elinor, a rape that is linked with their earlier liaison in the corridor by being described in terms of a sword attack: ‘he drewe uppon his new professed enimie, and… thrust hir through both hands, and etc.’ (Pigman 198.19-21). Violence in the civil war of these two narratives springs from an interior split or fragmentation in men which inflicts appalling damage on women’s bodies.

The roof of the Piccolomini Library, Siena

Both texts stress the inwardness of the affairs they describe – their origin and growth in the enclosed space of the lovers’ minds and bodies – by careful concentration on the physical details of the buildings where they take place. Gascoigne’s Elinor knows of secret passages between her bedchamber and his, and we quickly become familiar with the ambience of the bedchambers themselves, where F.J. languishes in a jealous fever and Elinor holds court. In the same way, we build up a vivid picture of the streets and buildings that surround Lucretia’s house in de duobus, and learn much about the marital bedroom where she and Eurialus make love. The effect of all this architectural and mental inwardness is a mounting sense of claustrophobia, which culminates in the failure of either affair to escape from the confines of the house where it got started. In each case, it is the woman who stays trapped in the building at the end of the story, unlike her Greek and Trojan counterparts, as if to confirm her continued subjection to the laws and customs she has dared to challenge. Both stories, then, imply that the conditions which gave rise to their own particular Trojan War remain in place after the affair has fizzled out, and that the conflict will carry on into successive generations. Notwithstanding the passions that have been aroused in Siena and Northern England, the European household and the rules that are presumed to govern it remain unchanged, and the emergence of further labyrinthine secret histories – post-Trojan histories – like the ones we have witnessed seems inevitable.

  1. Names and Naming
Titian, Tarquin and Lucretia

Lucretia’s name in de duobus amantibus promises exactly this. It is an inspired choice of name and a deeply unsettling one. It means that hovering over Enea’s heroine is the shadow of rape – the rape that is carried out in Gascoigne’s story – and a corresponding problematization of the early modern anti-feminist tradition of laying the blame for any sexual act, consensual or otherwise, squarely on the woman, who must therefore pay the price for it. Lucretia shares her name with a founder of Rome as distinguished as Enea’s namesake: the woman whose rape set off a revolution, leading to the collapse of the Roman monarchy and the foundation of the republic. She is physically beautiful, described in loving detail by a seemingly besotted narrator; and like Elinor and her sister Frances she is amusing and intelligent as well (‘Who would then leave to love,’ Eurialus cries, ‘when he seeth suche wit and learning in his maystres?’, Morrall 15.35-6). But despite this perilous fusion of beauty and intelligence with powerful desire, Enea never once lets her integrity be questioned. Whenever Eurialus gets frightened or frustrated by his affair, he lapses into the commonplaces of fifteenth-century misogyny; but he always finds his anti-feminism demolished by the unarguable fact that Lucretia lends no fuel to it.

Her fusion of bodily and mental perfection remains as marked at the end of the tale as it was in this lyrical passage near the beginning:

Her mouth small and comely, her lyppes of corall colour, handsom to byte on, her small tethe, wel set in order, semed Cristal through which the quivering tonge dyd send furth (not wordes) but moost pleasant armony. What shall I shewe the beautye of her chynne, or the whytenesse of her necke? Nothynge was in that bodye not too bee praysed[. A]s the outwarde aparaunces shewed token of that that was inwarde, no man beheld her that dyd not envy her husbande[. S]he was in speche as the fame is, the mother of Graccus was, or the doughter of Hortentius. Nothynge was more sweter, nor soberer than her talcke. She pretended not (as dothe many) honestye by hevy countenance: but with mery vysage, shewed her sobernes, not fearefull, nor over heardye: but under drede of shame, she caryed in a womans hart (Morrall 3.35-4.10).

It is only after agonized self-interrogation and a lengthy correspondence that this paragon of loyalty transfers her allegiance from her husband to a German stranger; and once the transference has been completed, her ‘honestye’ and ‘sobernes’ remain unshakeable. This deeply honest form of dishonesty – a carefully considered change of mind as complete as the change of the physical object of her desire – is a state few early modern English poets could allow their women to inhabit. Gascoigne had to split his heroine in two in order to present women from as complex a perspective as Piccolomini did, while Lyly and Greene never tried anything so controversial. I wonder whether, in creating such a heroine and calling her Lucretia, Enea aimed to stage a revolution in the attitudes of his contemporaries to desire itself? If so, the attempt was a failure of heroic proportions. But I suspect he knew his attempt would fail, and was determined only that it should fail heroically.

I.W., the suicide of Lucretia, c. 1525

The most complex use of Lucretia’s name occurs in the final letter of the narrative, in which Eurialus explains why he has to leave her, and why he cannot take her with him. It’s her name, he insists, that has prompted both these acts of seeming betrayal, which he presents as being in her own interest. ‘Thou knowest thou art maryed into a noble familye,’ he says, ‘and haste the name of a ryght beautyful and chaste Lady’ (Morrall 38.2-3); and the English phrase used by the translator neatly collapses the distinction between two meanings of the word ‘name’: designation and reputation. The latter meaning is taken up when he suggests another name that might become linked with hers if she should elope with him: ‘Lo,’ the world would say, ‘Lucres that was called more chast then the wyfe of Brutus, and better than Penelope, foloweth an adulterer […[ it is not Lucres, but […] Medea that folowed Jason’ (Morrall 38.8-12). He concludes by insisting that his abandonment of her will preserve her as the living image of the woman her name commemorates. ‘Another lover peraventure wolde otherwyse counsel the,’ he writes, ‘and desyre the to ronne thy way, that he myghte abuse the as long as he myght, nothynge regardynge what shulde befall of it, whyle he myght satisfye hys appetite[;] but he were no true lover that wolde regarde rather his own lust, than thy fame’ (Morrall 38.26-31). The image he presents of this alternative lover, dragging her like a camp-follower round the battlefields of Europe as he follows in the train of the Emperor, reminds us of what he claims not to be: Diomedes seducing Cressida, Tarquin raping Collatinus’ wife. By invoking these examples, however, he glosses over his own resemblance to the Jason who abandoned Medea. And he also inadvertently betrays his excessive respect for fame and fortune, which he demonstrates by pursuing his political ambitions at the expense of his devotion to Lucretia. Earlier, he persuaded a relative of her husband’s – Pandalus – to act as messenger between them by offering him an earldom. Here Eurialus shows that he shares Pandalus’s preference for position over personal loyalty. The Emperor made Eurialus ‘ryche and of great power,’ he points out, ‘and I cannot departe from hym without the losse of my state, so that if I shulde leave hym, I coulde not convenientlye entertayne the’ (Morrall 38.17-19). The mixture here of genuine concern for Lucretia and deep self-interest, of the exalted vocabulary of courtly love and the double-speak of hypocrisy, renders it as complex a piece of prose as anything written in the following century. Eurialus’s dishonest play on his lover’s name also anticipates Master F.J.’s equally dishonest games with the names ‘Elinor’ and ‘Ellen’.

Aeneas and Dido in a cave (5th century). Aeneas deserted Dido after becoming her lover

One of the things this letter and its aftermath show us is how far Enea’s text works to subvert its reader’s expectations. If Lucretia is never condemned by Piccolomini, neither is Eurialus. He leaves her like a traitor, but is never the same again, psychologically speaking; he is grief-stricken ever after. Having refused to carry her off on this occasion, he tries and fails to find an opportunity to run off with her later. And their final meeting causes such physical torment to both parties that all doubts of Eurialus’s continuing desire for Lucretia are banished: ‘one love and one mynde was in two devyded, and the harte suffred particion. Parte of the mynde wente and part remayned and all the sences were disperpled and playned too departe from theyr owne selfe’ (Morrall 39.33-6). Body and soul, reason and emotion are damaged by the lovers’ parting, and it’s easy to see this as a comment on Piccolomini’s culture, which can see no way to reconcile the needs of the flesh with those of the mind and spirit, the pursuit of a career with the satisfaction of desire. Enea and his protagonists inhabit a radically divided community, and its unification could only ever have been effected by drastic collective action – an ethical revolution – to accommodate the needs of the body alongside the demands of the sacred and secular authorities.

The moral complexity of Enea’s narrative may well have been one of the things English readers prized about it. The 1553 English translator tones down or omits the rare moments of moral commentary that occur in the Latin. Instead he tacks on a few verses at the end which stress not the immorality of the affair but the agonies it inflicted:

Love is no plesur, but a pain perdurable
And the end is deth which is most lamentable
Therfore ere thou be chayned with suche care
By others peryls, take hede and beware (Morrall 41.5-8).

One might be reminded of the apparently ‘moral’ conclusion of Gascoigne’s revised Adventures of 1575, in which a woman dies as a result of the lovers’ affair – though the woman who dies is Elinor’s blameless sister-in-law Frances, not the unfaithful Elinor, while the latter goes on to live ‘long in the continuance of hir acustomed change’ (Pigman 215.29-216.16 note). The death of Frances is as bereft of moral purpose as her rejection by F.J. was in the first version, and serves, like Lucretia’s death in de duobus amantibus, to satirize the early modern tendency to equate literary value with the delivery of simplistic moral lessons, without much concern for their relevance to the difficult world inhabited by the reader.

Throughout both versions of Gascoigne’s Adventures, in fact, Frances behaves like an Elizabethan successor to Enea’s Lucretia, making plain her desire for F.J. at every opportunity while never eliciting a word of condemnation from the narrator for her witty acknowledgement of her own attraction to him. Indeed, Frances’ nickname for F.J. – she dubs him her ‘Trust’ – echoes one of Lucretia’s letters, in which she identifies Eurialus (with equal irony) as ‘my onelye truste’ (Morrall 37.24). Perhaps Gascoigne’s killing off of Frances in his revised version was intended to strengthen her resemblance to Enea’s heroine. One might even consider Frances to have been as selfishly and casually abandoned as Lucretia was. After all, F.J. seems at one point to confirm his status as Frances’s lover and champion: when Frances dubs him her ‘Trust’ he names her his ‘Hope’ as if exchanging verbal tokens or emblems with her, thus sealing his status as her chivalric champion, perhaps even her betrothed. But although F.J. and Frances continue to address each other by these affectionate nicknames, the relationship they imply never comes to fruition – F.J. and Frances never become a couple – and ironically, all because of F.J.’s misplaced insistence that he is loyal to Elinor, despite the fact that he raped her. As in de duobus amantibus, in other words, notions of loyalty and betrayal, friendship and enmity, sexual promiscuity, sexual violence and sexual fidelity, are challenged and problematized at every stage of the Adventures, just as they are in the most interesting stories to have emerged from the myth of Troy.

As I’ve said before, it’s in the tone and moral complexity of his novella rather than its details that Gascoigne most clearly betrays his debt to the subtle mind of Piccolomini. Both men were citizens of a new Troy of intelligent, articulate, playful and destructive desire: a lovely, doomed city that never was and never could be, but whose contours they dared to superimpose on the map of their own particular time and nation. And it would seem to me well worthwhile to go on tracing the contours of that shared imaginative cityscape in more detail than I can manage here.

Statue of Pope Pius II, Pienza Cathedral

NOTES

[1] For the use of the phrase ‘novelistic discourse’ to describe early modern prose fiction see Constance Relihan, Fashioning Authority: The Development of Elizabethan Novelistic Discourse (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1994), introduction. Throughout the paper I use the term ‘novella’ to describe prose fiction by Piccolomini and Gascoigne, but I do so loosely, meaning both to distinguish the kinds of narrative they wrote from the modern novel and to acknowledge its place in the prehistory of that genre.

[2] My thanks to Gillian Austen for inviting me to give a version of this essay as a paper at the Gascoigne Seminar at Lincoln College, Oxford, in September 2009.

[3] For the homage to Chaucer see George Gascoigne, A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres, ed. G.W. Pigman III (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000), p. 143, lines 25-31. All references are to this edition, henceforth cited as Pigman. Pigman gives parallels between the Adventures and Troilus and Criseyde on p. 555.

[4] For the Bartello reference see Pigman, p. 140, lines 1-2, note.

[5] For the publication history of Beware the Cat see Beware the Cat: The First English Novel, ed. William Ringler and Michael Flachmann (San Marino, Cal.: Huntington Library, 1988), introduction.

[6] For the publication history of The Image of Idleness see ‘The First English Epistolary Novel: The Image of Idleness. Text, Introduction and Notes’, ed. Michael Flachmann, SP, 87 (1990), pp. 1-74, introduction.

[7] See R.W. Maslen, ‘The Healing Dialogues of Dr Bullein’, YES 38.1 and 38.2 (2008), pp. 119-35, and R.W. Maslen, ‘Edmund Tilney’, Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 136, Sixteenth-century Nondramatic Writers (Detroit, Washington, D.C. and London: Bruccoli Clark Layman, 1994), 326-9. For Grantham’s translation see STC 3180-3182.

[8] For translations of the 1560s see the entries on prose fiction in The Oxford History of Literary Translation in English, Volume 2: 1550-1660, ed. Gordon Braden, R.M. Cummings and Stuart Gillespie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[9] See E.J. Morrall, ‘Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (Pius II, Historia de duobus amantibus: The early editions and the English translation printed by John Day’, The Library, 16.3 (1996), 216-29, and Piccolomini (Pius II, The Goodli History of the Lady Lucres of Scene and of her Lover Eurialus, EETS 308 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), introduction. All references are to this edition, henceforth cited as Morrall.

[10] John Coyle of the University of Glasgow, in conversation.

[11] For Piccolomini’s jokey explanation of the meaning of his surname see Reject Aeneas, Accept Pius: Selected Letters of Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini (Pope Pius II), introd. and trans. Thomas Izbicki, Gerald Christianson and Philip Krey (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2006), pp. 9-10. He repeats the joke about his surname in his letters to his father and to Mariano Sozzini discussed below.

[12] Braunche’s 1596 translation is The most excellent historie, of Euryalus and Lucresia, STC 19974.

[13] See Cecilia M. Ady, Pius II: The Humanist Pope (London: Methuen, 1913), and Reject Aeneas, Accept Pius, introduction. For Piccolomini’s own retrospective account of his apostasy see Reject Aeneas, Accept Pius, letter 69.

[14] For the proclamation see Reject Aeneas, Accept Pius, entry 78 (pp. 392-406); the phrase occurs on p. 396.

[15] See Albert Baca, ‘The “Art of Rhetoric” of Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini’, Western Journal of Communication 34.1 (Winter 1970), pp. 9-16; and Piccolomini, De liberorum educatione (The Education of Boys) in Humanist Educational Treatises, ed. And trans. Craig W. Kallendorf, The I Tatti Renaissance Library (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 2002), introduction and pp.126-259.

[16] Reject Aeneas, Accept Pius, Letter 38, pp. 180-1.

[17] Reject Aeneas, Accept Pius, Letter 30, pp. 159-62.

[18] The editors of Reject Aeneas, Accept Pius do not note the phrase ‘you begot no son of stone’ as a quotation from Boccaccio, but E.J. Morrall cites the source in his edition of Piccolomini’s novella: see Morrall, p. 30, lines 7-8, note.

[19] The letter is cited in Benedikt Konrad Vollmann, ‘ENKYKLIOS PAIDEIA in the work of Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini’, in Pius II: ‘El Piu Expeditivo Pontifice’, ed. Zweder von Martels and Arjo Vanderjagt (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2003), pp. 10-11.

[20] Reject Aeneas, Accept Pius, p. 161.

[21] Reject Aeneas, Accept Pius, pp. 392-406.

[22] Reject Aeneas, Accept Pius, p. 399, my emphasis.

[23] See The Eclogues of Alexander Barclay from the Original Edition of John Cawood, ed. Beatrice White, EETS 175 (London: Oxford University Press, 1928), introduction.

[24] Reprinted in Humanist Comedies, ed. and trans. Gary R. Grund, The I Tatti Renaissance Library (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 2005), pp. 284-347. All references are to this edition.

[25] The first version of Sidney’s Arcadia, the Old Arcadia, was divided into five acts like a comedy, and the same five-act structure has been traced in Lyly’s Euphues books; a number of works of early prose fiction, in other words, acknowledge their own affinity with classical theatre.

[26] Emily O’Brien, ‘Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini’s Chrysis: Prurient Pastime – or Something More?’, MLN 124.1 (January 2009), pp. 111-36.

[27] For the most up-to-date account of Gascoigne’s life see Gillian Austen, George Gascoigne (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2008), ‘The Literary Career of George Gascoigne: An Introduction’, pp. 1-21. For the term ‘adventures’ in Gascoigne’s novella see R.W. Maslen, Elizabethan Fictions (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), ch. 3, ‘George Gascoigne and the Fiction of Failure’.

[28] Austen, George Gascoigne, pp. 14-21.

[29] The military aspect of Piccolomini’s career can be summarized by the fact that Pope Pius II died on an abortive crusade to liberate Jerusalem from the Turks.

[30] For Piccolomini as letter-writer see Reject Aeneas, Accept Pius, introduction. For Gascoigne’s debt to The Image of Idleness see R.W. Maslen, ‘The Image of Idleness in the Reign of Elizabeth I’, ELN 41.3 (March 2004), pp. 11-23.

[31] See E.J. Morrall’s article, ‘The Early Editions’, and the introduction to his edition of Eurialus and Lucrece.

[32] The autobiographical elements of the Adventures are discussed in Pigman, p. 550. For his possible allusions to a scandal involving the Earl of Leicester see Cyndia Susan Clegg, Press Censorship in Elizabethan England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), ch. 5, pp. 103-22.

[33] References to the prefatory epistles are taken from their first translation into English, The History of the Amours of Count Schlick, Chancellor to the Emperor Sigismund, and a Young Lady of Quality of Sienna (London, 1708). All references are to this edition, which is unpaginated in the relevant section.

[34] See Maslen, Elizabethan Fictions, p. 134ff.

[35] For Aeneas as traitor see James Simpson, Reform and Cultural Revolution, The Oxford English Literary History, Volume 2: 1350-1547 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), ch. 3, especially pp. 79-80 and 87-88.

[36] See Maslen, Elizabethan Fictions, p. 133.

Nicholas Stuart Gray, Down in the Cellar (1961)

Nicholas Stuart Gray is a name which is mostly missing from histories of children’s literature, but which rouses strong passions in those who admire his work. He started out as a respected children’s playwright, his first play being performed in 1949, and worked on many productions throughout the 50s and 60s with his close friend the stage designer Joan Jefferson Farjeon. The plays are all based on fairy tales, though they also include a version of the great medieval fairy poem Gawain and the Green Knight. Not much is known about his private life apart from the fact that he describes himself in blurbs as a ‘Highlander’, that some of his books are set in Sussex and Devon, and that he went on cycling holidays with Joan Jefferson Farjeon in Provence. I discovered him by chance in the early 80s when a friend lent me a copy of his first novel, Over the Hills to Fabylon (1954), about a magical moving city ruled by a paranoid monarch (think Howl’s Moving Castle with a cast of thousands). After this my grandmother took to buying me his books one by one for birthdays and Christmases: The Seventh Swan (1962), The Stone Cage (1963), Mainly in Moonlight (1963), The Apple-Stone (1965), Grimbold’s Other World (1965), and my favourite, Down in the Cellar (1961), magnificently illustrated by Edward Ardizzone.[1] There are several more I haven’t read, and it’s time the whole oeuvre was brought back into print to delight and move new generations. I’m not the only one to think so. This blog post stems from a rereading of Down in the Cellar after Gray’s name was mentioned on Twitter by Neil Gaiman, which led to an outpouring of praise for him from Ellen Kushner, Katherine Langrish, Garth Nix and Terri Windling, among many others. That’s a roll call that should make publishers sit up and take note; and I hope a few words about Down in the Cellar will add fuel to the flame.

Gray’s book is an unsettling fusion of disparate elements that locate it precisely in the time and place of its composition. The plot is misleadingly simple. Four young siblings – Bruce, Julia, Andrew and Deirdre Jefferson, who share their family name with Joan Jefferson Farjeon – are staying in their uncle’s rambling Rectory in the South Downs when they find an injured man in a disused cave. The man tells them he is on the run, and they decide to hide him in a half-forgotten cellar of the Rectory, which they happen to have stumbled across a few days earlier. Having hidden him in the cellar and done their best to tend his wounds, the children suddenly find themselves under siege by a range of threatening forces: from the Rector’s stern but affectionate housekeeper, Old Mim – who is afraid the cellars have rats in them and wants to call in the ratcatchers, like Mrs Driver in The Borrowers (1952) – to the local police, who are on the lookout for a runaway whistleblower; from a conspiracy of unpleasant grown ups who belong to the ‘Spinners and Weavers Club’ – clearly a witch’s coven – to the sinister, barely-visible ‘Green Lantern people’ who infest the hills and fields around the Rectory. All these forces show a keen and unwelcome interest in the cellar and its occupant, while the stranger himself gets increasingly ill as the book goes on, his condition worsening despite the best efforts of Bruce, the eldest Jefferson, who plans to be a doctor or a vet when he grows up ‘Depending on which examination is the easiest’ (p. 9). The novel, in other words, mixes together elements from the Scottish Border Ballads, horror stories and spy thrillers (two of the people tracking Stephen are foreign agents who want to assassinate him for betraying state secrets), as well as children’s fantasy fiction of the sort popularized by Edith Nesbit in the 1900s. The shadow of the Second World War hangs over the narrative in the form of the cave, which was constructed as a shelter to protect the villagers from German flying bombs; while the atmosphere of paranoia generated by the search for the injured man, led as it is by policemen and assassins, locates the action in the decades-long stand-off between superpowers which culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. This modern political context competes for centre stage in the book with a legendary past embodied in the ‘old Roman Camp’ (a prehistoric barrow frequented by the Green Lantern people) and an ancient fairy hill which once stood where now the Rectory stands, and whose entrance may still be concealed in a wall of the cellar. This fusion of ancient and modern narratives, none of which is fully articulated – the Cold War is never mentioned, the words ‘fairy’ or ‘Sidhe’ (i.e. people of the hills) are never uttered – gives the whole story an air of uneasy mystery. At no stage are we offered a full explanation for what is happening in the narrative, or how the competing strands of it fit together, and this refusal to elucidate is what makes the book so strange, with a strangeness that speaks to the uneasy historical moment when it first saw print.

The four Jeffersons

This is a crosshatch novel, in other words – to borrow John Clute’s term from the Encyclopaedia of Fantasy. The word was repurposed by China Miéville in The City and the City (2009) to describe districts claimed by two or more competing cultures or political authorities at the same time. As I’ve suggested, the first sort of crosshatching one can see in the novel is the literary variety. It’s indebted to a range of authors for specific elements in its make-up: Edith Nesbit for the first person narrative from the point of view of a child protagonist; C. S. Lewis for the rambling house where the children stay with an elderly scholar, the village Rector; John Buchan for the spy story element, which comes to the fore when the children are pursued through the night by a pair of grim-faced labourers, clearly assassins in disguise; and John Masefield for the Spinners and Weavers Club, led by the silky Mr Atkinson, which closely resembles the coven led by Abner Brown in The Midnight Folk (1927) and The Box of Delights (1935). The crosshatching of time, meanwhile, in the novel – which fuses the unimaginably ancient with the historical and the modern – is foregrounded by the chronologically ambiguous spaces in which the action unfolds. The bomb shelter, for instance, keeps slipping between time periods in the children’s imagination as they approach and enter it. Julia is afraid to go in because it was constructed ‘ages back, and things might have come to live there since’ (p. 29). Andrew suggests that its inhabitants might be troglodytes or ‘cave-men’, and when Bruce claims that the shelter could have made quite a pleasant modern refuge if well stocked with ‘oil-stoves and […] people’, his brother points out that ‘the cave-men would have lit huge fires and roasted bears for their dinner’ (p. 31), and speculates that the person hiding there might be a ‘left-over cave-man […] drawing bison on the wall’ (p. 31). For the youngest Jefferson, Deirdre, the location has an emotional and supernatural resonance rather than a historical one, as the place where ‘Sad people’ come when they need to cry (p. 30). The strange young man they find in an inner chamber of this shelter resembles by turns a Dickensian ‘escaped convict’ (p. 36), a ‘hunted Cavalier, or a Jacobite in hiding’ (p. 37) – like someone from the work of Captain Marryat or Buchan – and a supernatural being, when he gives a laugh ‘of the sort a ghost would make, if it wasn’t trying to be frightening’ (p. 40). The liminal status of the cave perfectly suits the liminal status of the young man hiding in it, who is stranded between different ideologies (as we deduce later), different countries, and different realms of possibility – that is, between the everyday, the world of espionage and the supernatural, the last of these being in the end the only space available to him as a means of escape from his predicament. He is also caught between the living and the dead, since his younger sister (we later learn) is dead – killed in a car crash – yet he keeps mistaking Deirdre for her. This explains his status as simultaneously one of the ‘Sad people’, who make their way to the cave as a place of mourning, and a kind of ghost suspended between a lost past and an impossible future. Neither healthily stable nor unquestionably doomed to imminent termination, his life is precarious, and might be cut short at any moment either at the hands of the various enemies who are looking for him or by the fever that takes hold as his injury worsens. The fever is a perfect metaphor for his precarious situation and unstable identity, and it worsens as that precariousness and instability grow more intense.

Discovering the cellar

Crosshatched spaces like the cave keep cropping up throughout the novel. There is the cellar of the title, the ‘dark and cobwebbed underworld’ (p. 7) where the children act out games across time and space – Boadicea against the Romans, King Solomon’s Mines, the Babes in the Wood, representing history, adventure romance and fairy tale respectively, all blended and blurred together in the subterranean twilight – and where they later hide the young man, Stephen. The cellar occupies the space where once there was a hill – ‘It was supposed to be a magic one, with sort of people living inside it, and things’ (p. 86) – which was then dug out to make a sandpit and afterwards leveled to provide foundations for the Rectory, that pillar of the eighteenth-century establishment. In former times the cellar served as a storage place for horse’s harness, sacks, wine and other necessities, but by the time the children find it there is nothing left there of any value apart from abandoned odds and ends they use in their games. The nearby village is another liminal space, divided between very old houses like the chemist’s, ‘with its beams showing among the narrow, pink bricks’ (p. 137), and new buildings like the Home Made Cake and Tea-Shoppe, which is a crude pastiche of an older structure: ‘This building also had beams showing, but they were quite new, and rather obvious as they were stained black against the white-washed wall of the front’ (p. 140). The fakeness of the Tea-Shoppe means the children don’t ‘care for it’ much, and also makes it the ideal meeting place for the Spinners and Weavers Club, whose harmless hobbies serve as a front for their machinations against the fugitive, Stephen. A third crosshatched place is the Roman Camp or mound, which is equally associated with the practical Romans and the elusive Green Lantern people. This is a ‘hump like a gigantic mole-hill’ (p. 163), under which the youngest Jefferson is imprisoned at one point by its supernatural occupants, and where the members of the Spinners and Weavers Club converge to barter with the three older Jefferson children for her release. The mound’s joint connection with the Romans and the ahistorical fairies is rendered confusing by the actions of the Spinners and Weavers as they gather round it. As the eldest Jefferson, Bruce, points out, his younger sister ‘said they wove circles and spells. I knew nothing about spells… who does? […] But these people were certainly weaving circles’. The link between magical and physical weaving sets the boy’s thoughts ‘whirling’ or spinning in his head (p. 167), making it hard to focus on the problem of how to win back his imprisoned sister from the mound that impossibly contains her. Is rational thought or a spell the appropriate instrument for her salvation – or should one try a combination of the two? Crossing a Cold War thriller with a fairy story makes the answer uncertain, especially for Bruce, who does not believe in fairies, yet finds himself faced with what seems incontrovertible evidence that they have stolen away his sister.

The solution to Bruce’s dilemma comes from an unexpected quarter: a pair of young and irritating children, Robin and Karen Meddings, who inhabit the most radically crosshatched building in the village. If the Jeffersons find the Home Made Cake and Tea-Shoppe repulsive for its fakery, the Old Forge is more repulsive still, as Bruce explains:

It’s all got up with wrought-iron gates, and lanterns, plaster doves on the roof, and… believe it or not… a plaster deer on the lawn! […] Where the blacksmith used to have his furnace, they have an anvil standing in the fireplace. And the room is packed to bursting with warming-pans, and horse-brasses, and candlesticks wired for electric light, and a wheel hung from the ceiling for more electric light. It’s like a tea-shoppe. We were only asked in once. Julia says we shouldn’t have laughed. Honestly, we didn’t do it loudly, I thought. (p. 23)

The Meddings children who live in this mocked-up Forge are, for Bruce, as fake as their home’s interior décor. They are always simpering and deferring to one another, behaviour that conceals the fact that they are no more angelic at heart than ‘normal’ children like the Jeffersons:

It’s not as though they really meant it. They only do this act when anyone’s watching. I saw Robin once snatch a sweet from his sister, just as she was putting it in her mouth. And she screamed and kicked him. It wasn’t pretty, but at least it was normal. Then they saw me, and started bowing and smirking to each other sickeningly. They may grow out of it. (p. 24)

Bruce’s distaste for the Meddings children’s hypocrisy, as he sees it, makes him treat them ‘’orribly’ (as Robin puts it) whenever he meets them. At one point Robin and Karen have the misfortune to show up at a point when tensions are at their highest – with the cellar under siege by its enemies – and Bruce lets off steam with a fierce tirade against the youngsters as if they embodied all the sinister forces ranged against him in one small package: ‘“Silly brats!” I shouted at them. “Dotty idiots! Showing-off asses! Don’t stand there staring, in front of your silly house. ‘Old Forge’, indeed! It’s an old forgery!’ (p. 135). On this occasion Bruce only succeeds in upsetting his own siblings as well as the Meddingses, making it one of his many moments of physical and social clumsiness in the narrative. Indeed, his resentment of the Meddings children may well stem from the fact that they seem at ease in an adult social context which he finds completely unfathomable, and which he is always failing to negotiate owing to the difficulty he has in concealing his feelings or finding words to convey his meaning.

In the chemist’s shop

At the same time, his association of Robin and Karen with Stephen’s enemies is hardly surprising, since all of them are adepts in the art of concealment. Not only does the Spinners and Weavers Club meet in a Tea Shoppe that closely resembles the Old Forge in its faux-medieval aesthetic, but the Spinners and Weavers themselves are past masters in the art of interweaving truth and falsehood, just like the Meddings children as Bruce sees them. When Bruce meets the Club’s leader, for instance – Mr Atkinson – he at once gets caught up in a complex web of lies and half-truths. Yes, Mr Atkinson is an old university ‘friend’ of the Rector’s, as he claims, but the word ‘friend’ is a misnomer, since the Rector later confesses ‘I didn’t like him very much’ (p. 90). Yes, Mr Atkinson has been given permission to sketch in the parish church, but he can’t be sketching a ‘crusader’s tomb’, as he insists (p. 82), because there isn’t one. The old man keeps addressing Bruce as ‘little boy’, which is both true and false, since Bruce is indeed young, but has no conception of himself as ‘little’ and so feels humiliated by the description. And Bruce does indeed have a ‘secret’, as Mr Atkinson insinuates (p. 81) – he is hiding Stephen – but the old man has secrets too, and the lie about the crusader’s tomb suggests that he will not willingly part with them. The same mixture of truth and falsehood characterizes the other members of the Club. The woman in the chemist’s shop, for instance, is really the sister of the chemist, as she claims, but she is also as ‘nasty’ as he is nice, and seems all too eager to weigh the Jeffersons ‘on a long hook’ – a metaphor with a potentially ‘gruesome double meaning’ (p. 139) – and to supply them with her own home-made and possibly lethal ‘tonic’ in place of their usual medicine. One member of the Club at the Tea Shoppe has her hair dyed blue as if in token of her fakery, while another has ‘what looked to me like a hundred huge false teeth’ (pp. 140-1), and owns a dog that may well be a wolf. In addition, the members of the Club are somehow linked to the ‘so-called labourers’ working at the church (p. 141). Their motives in tracking down Stephen are unclear, but the unclearness itself is of a piece with the disparity between their semi-respectable, everyday appearances and the obvious malice of their hidden agenda.

Bruce, Mr Atkinson, Old Mim

The whole world through which the Jeffersons move is in fact packed with menacing double meanings and false appearances. This leads Bruce a number of times into mistaking friends as enemies: Old Stanley the poacher, for instance, whom he identifies at first as one of Stephen’s pursuers (p. 63) but later finds to be a useful ally against them; or Lady Ariadne Hodgson, whose deep voice and unfriendly appearance make the children think of her as a ‘witch’ (p. 126), but who makes peace with them by giving them a box of toffees, which she cannot eat herself because of her false teeth (so that she too is revealed as a confusing mixture of the fake and the authentic). Robin and Karen Meddings, too, are transformed into friends from their initial status as diminutive enemies. Yet like Old Stanley and Lady Ariadne, the Meddings kids retain their dual nature as a fusion of the true and the false, the real and the imagined, and their transformation could be said to entail a belated recognition on the part of the Jeffersons that they themselves inhabit a context composed in equal parts of dreams and logic, facts and falsehoods.

The Spinners and Weavers at the Roman mound

The transformation of the Meddingses takes place on the night when Deirdre, the youngest of the Jeffersons, gets imprisoned in the crosshatched space of the Roman mound. Taunted by Deirdre’s captors (the Green Lantern people) and their allies (the old men and women of the Spinners and Weavers Club), the three older Jeffersons find themselves on the verge of surrendering Stephen to his pursuers in exchange for the little girl’s safety. At this precise moment they hear footsteps approaching through the darkness, which make the Spinners and Weavers vanish. Bruce at once seeks a ‘reason’ for the coven’s disappearance, and his sister Julia suggests that the footsteps may belong to that embodiment of authenticity and ordinariness, the housekeeper Old Mim. Instead they belong to the Meddings children, embodiments of middle-class ‘forgery’, who are walking up the hill holding hands in the ‘phony’ way Bruce finds so disgusting, and carrying a gift he thinks irrelevant: ‘a big, and very rusty horse-shoe, all covered with mud’ (p. 169). All three of the older Jeffersons, frantic with worry, unite to shoo these kids away and reject their gift; but they are wrong to do so, as Robin insists. The horseshoe is physical proof that the Old Forge and its inhabitants are not in fact the products of fakeness:

‘It’s one the blacksmith made […] We dug it up in the garden this afternoon, when we were planting a chocolate. In our garden. So ’tisn’t all forgery and that, either! This is proper iron, what a proper blacksmith made.’ (p. 169)

The horseshoe shows that the Old Forge is a ‘proper place where a proper blacksmith made proper iron and things’; the name of the house has a meaning just as authentic as that of the Rectory where the children are staying. And the gift is authentically useful to the Jeffersons. Being made of iron and twisted into the familiar U of the horseshoe, with its age-old connotations of protection and good luck, it proves highly effective in the bewildering nocturnal world in which the siblings find themselves stranded. Andrew Jefferson suddenly has the idea of embedding it in the mound as a kind of padlock, thereby imprisoning Deirdre’s gaolers – who like other members of the fairy community cannot pass cold iron – and enabling Andrew to demand his sister’s release in exchange for their freedom. Like the Meddingses themselves, whose presence drove away the Spinners and Weavers, the Meddingses’ gift subdues the powers of Deirdre’s captors, confirming the younger children’s participation in the Jeffersons’ adventures, despite all of Bruce’s attempts to keep them at arm’s length and to claim that the supernatural events going on all round him have a perfectly rational explanation.

Tending to Stephen

In the process, the enduring presence of magic underneath the Sussex landscape is confirmed – the resistance of its ancient charms to all the rapid changes of recent decades. The disused shelter, the forgotten cellar, the Roman mound, even the gnome-ridden garden of the Old Forge each retain an active link to still potent traces of the past, despite the patina of newness that covers them. Indeed, the shelter and the Old Forge could be described as acts of homage to the past, an acknowledgment of its continuing potency framed in terms of the kitsch and the obsolete. The Forge’s plaster gnomes have an ambiguously ‘real’ equivalent in the living gnomes mentioned at one point by Bruce’s younger sister: ‘Deirdre said she didn’t mind gnomes, but she didn’t like the lantern-men who’d gone over the hills, looking and looking’ (p. 65). And as the supernatural hunters and seekers converge on Stephen’s hiding place in the cellar, ‘looking and looking’, Bruce’s desperate efforts to keep things rational prove increasingly ineffective, until he is forced to enlist the Meddingses in the struggle against Stephen’s enemies. After all, Robin and Karen come from a background that freely accommodates the impossible: gnomes and fairies, magic rituals, the resurgence of the past, the power of cold iron. Their parents are ‘artistic’, despite their affection for warming-pans and horse-brasses: the mother is a TV scriptwriter, the father an actor, and both are therefore adult participants in the same imaginative games enjoyed by the Rectory children (p. 22). And the Meddings children themselves mean well, despite their mannerisms and the intrusiveness of their efforts to win the approval of the Jeffersons.

Meaning, in fact, is a central theme of Gray’s novel; in particular, the way meanings change in different contexts. This theme is pointed up by a stylistic quirk of the first person narrative voice, which is that of Bruce, the oldest of the Jefferson siblings. The Jeffersons could be said to inhabit a crosshatched space of their own, whose function in the narrative shifts repeatedly in response to changing situations, and who therefore provide an ideal vehicle for thinking about the complex process of making meaning in the 1960s. Their surname, as I mentioned earlier, recalls the ‘professional name’ of Gray’s good friend Joan Jefferson Farjeon, which she adopted to underline her descent from a celebrated dynasty of American actors. The Jefferson children, too, are inveterate actors, transforming the cellar they find into a private stage sealed off from the rest of the Rectory by a symbolic curtain. Their days are passed in a blend of the imagined and the real quite as complicated as anything they encounter in the outside world, and for them the cellar embodies that potent mixture, changing its significance with each new game they play, from the heathland of Ancient Britain to a fairy tale forest to King Solomon’s mines, depending on which of them is in charge of their activities. Bruce’s voice as narrator mimics the voice of Oswald Bastable, narrator of Edith Nesbit’s The Treasure Seekers and its sequels. Like Oswald, Bruce is an eldest brother with multiple siblings, though Gray adjusts the number to take account of the diminishing size of the average family in the 1960s. Where Oswald is one of six, Bruce is one of only four – two boys, two girls – and is older than his twin sister Julia by just half an hour, which suggests another adjustment in terms of equality between the sexes (although he draws heavily on his male privilege to assume the role of ‘masterful leader’ on most occasions). The characters of these four children are carefully differentiated: Julia is the aspiring novelist with the novelist’s capacity for imaginative empathy; her younger brother Andrew is a passionate reader of non-fiction and decidedly ‘clever’, though imaginative too, as his trick with the horseshoe shows; while five-year-old Deirdre, saddled with a name from Irish mythology, is inevitably a seer, inclined to imagine ‘too much’, as we learn towards the end of the story (p. 200), and vulnerable as a result to the machinations of the Green Lantern people she alone can visualize with absolute clarity.

Bruce meets a bull

Bruce, meanwhile, is a literalist, or so he claims. He keeps insisting he has no imagination – although he willingly joins in with his siblings’ games – and his ambition to become a doctor underlines his concern with the practical needs of the mind and body. His literalism expresses itself in his prose style, which is full of comic clarifications aimed at removing ambiguity from his declarations, but managing only to draw attention to the sometimes bizarre alternative constructions that could be put on his words. From the beginning to the end of the narrative he works to elucidate his meaning, repeatedly using the phrase ‘I mean’ whenever he thinks a word or phrase may be ambiguous: ‘The cellar ran all about under the Rectory. It hadn’t been used for years. The cellar, I mean’ (p. 7); ‘we dropped it… the book, I mean… and it got trodden in with the cider’ (p. 12); ‘This turned out to control the milking-machine, in some obscure way. The switch, I mean’ (p. 14); ‘We’d found some candle-ends in a tin box down there. In the cellar, I mean. […] I took a box of matches from the bathroom, leaving twopence in its place. Just for a start, that was. The matches, I mean’ (p. 17). In most cases here the clarifying phrase ‘I mean’ serves to point up the chaotic situations the children get themselves into: the book of instructions for making cider getting mixed up with the cider itself, the confusion over the function of the switch for the milking-machine, the complex self-justification rendered necessary by an act of minor theft from the Rectory’s stores. Their activities defy all Bruce’s attempts to reduce them to grammatical and rational order – to bring the uncontrollable, so to speak, under verbal control.

The Jeffersons with their uncle, the Rector

In the same way, the eldest Jefferson is always seeking to find rational explanations for things, assigning new, mundane meanings to them as new evidence emerges, but invariably reaching a point where conventional reasoning fails to account for what’s going on. When strange lights begin to appear in the cellar – Deirdre says they come from the gates of the fairy hill – his reasoning becomes fragmented and frantic: ‘There had to be a reasonable explanation for it all. Otherwise one might be forced to believe in Spoilers, and witches, and suchlike. Which was impossible. So there must be the explanation. The trouble was, I couldn’t think of one’ (p. 105). The bewildering events at the Roman mound challenge his logic still further. As the children make their way home after rescuing Deirdre, Bruce observes that ‘No one said any more about the lantern-men for the time being. To my great relief, as I could think of very little to say that made any sense’ (p. 174). Barred from the belief in the impossible that his three siblings increasingly share, his sense of incomprehension grows until the final chapter, ‘The Gate’, when the entrance to the fairy hill is finally opened in the cellar. Here all three of his siblings are able to see that something magical is taking place, but Bruce cannot, since he has been vouchsafed only transient glimpses of the supernatural throughout the narrative. To the end of the story he continues to insist that ‘It was all imagination’ (p. 197) despite the accumulation of evidence to the contrary. When his brother Andrew tells him ‘The cellar’s full of sunlight’, he can only answer: ‘Well, it wasn’t. Not that I could see’, and add: ‘I felt for a moment that I was going mad, rather than the others’. This from the boy who observed in the opening chapter that he might need to become a ‘brain specialist’ to take account of the imaginative eccentricities of his two youngest siblings, who may both be ‘mad’ (p. 9). In the final chapter, in fact, he recognizes that it may be his own senses that are faulty rather than theirs: ‘If I was really the only one who had seen nothing special, then perhaps I was duller than the rest… which was sad, but quite possible’ (p. 196). In the course of the story the boundaries of the possible have grown permeable, and Bruce’s certainty about his position – as rationalist, as the eldest and as the most ‘masterful’ member of his family (p. 62) – has been shaken to the roots.

Stephen in the cellar

The shaking of Bruce’s rationalism is in fact quite literal; he is constantly getting knocks on the head in the course of his adventures, rendering him temporarily disoriented and subject to visual disturbances. His first encounter with the cellar is a violent one: suspended upside down inside a cupboard, he is pushed by Andrew, falls (presumably on his head) and rolls down ‘about ten steps’ into the hidden room. Later the children set up a booby-trap to deter unwelcome visitors, and Bruce promptly forgets it is there, falling down the stairs a second time and being hit on the head with a broom (again by Andrew) at the bottom (‘Things went rather dim for a while’, he comments wryly, p.99). Later still, in a neighbour’s barn, Bruce bangs his head ‘so hard on a beam that it rang like a bell. My head, I mean’ (p. 149); and when the Spinners and Weavers Club converge on the children by the Roman mound he trips over a hummock and falls flat on his face, which prompts Mr Atkinson to comment: ‘Poor little boy […] it’s bumped its poor head, and now it’s all muddled’ (p. 165). This adds to Bruce’s difficulties in distinguishing between the real and the illusory: ‘My head was spinning. I suppose I’d banged it just once too often that night. Even now I can’t be quite sure how much of all this really happened, and how much I imagined. I may have been dreaming, though I was not asleep’ (p. 165). In response to all these knocks, the inside of Bruce’s head becomes a crosshatched space, its contents muddled to the extent that memories can no longer be disentangled from waking dreams.

At the same time, the distinction between the imagined and the real, the dreamed and the remembered, keeps getting blurred even outside Bruce’s head as the book goes on. For one thing, the children’s games keep turning real. Deirdre is constantly telling adults about their clandestine adventures, and although she is never believed – her stories are variously described as ‘horrible inventions’ (p. 160) and wild ‘fantasies’ (p. 175) – her elder siblings are always on tenterhooks in case she lets slip something too believable about the all-too-material runaway Stephen. At one point, seeking to distract their enemies’ attention from the cellar where Stephen is hiding, the children pack a suitcase full of fake medical supplies and set out across country, drawing the two fake labourers after them towards a neighbouring farm. Here the classic children’s game of doctors and nurses becomes a component part of a genuine crisis: the Jeffersons are in fact genuinely tending to a sick fugitive, and only the location of the man and the supplies they carry are illusions. The Roman mound is the focus of a real adventure when Deirdre is trapped underneath it, but it’s also a reminder of the games the children played in the cellar earlier, which involved Romans and Britons, with Bruce inevitably playing a rational Roman while Julia stood in for the impetuous British queen, Boadicea. Not long afterwards the stuff of games is repurposed again as the children prepare to repel Stephen’s massed ‘enemies’ from the cellar. The dustbin-lids and rusty scythe-blades they used as Roman and British weapons in Chapter 2 get recalled and reused in Chapter 13, when Bruce describes them as ‘the weapons of happier days’ and adds forlornly, ‘We didn’t really think they would be much use’ (p. 192). The horseshoe brought to them by the Meddings children changes from an element in a game – Robin and Karen were burying a chocolate when they found it – into a key part of Deirdre’s rescue from the mound. Later the Jeffersons recall the power of cold iron when pondering ways to protect the Rectory, placing iron objects in all the windows and doors to repel the Lantern people. Repeatedly, objects and concepts that were first given new meaning by their involvement in imagined scenarios acquire a serious, even urgent function in the decidedly unplayful context of the hunt for and defence of the fugitive.

Bruce and Julia Jefferson face the police

As the process of ‘realising’ the imaginary goes on, both of the older Jefferson siblings, Bruce and Julia, feel increasingly stressed by the mounting complexity of the situation. This is one of the ways Gray’s novel differs from some analogous work by his contemporaries, such as Alan Garner’s debut novel The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960), which was published the year before. In that book, the child protagonists Colin and Susan are left more or less unscathed by their adventures. The svart alfar or Dark Elves, the terrible journey through the mines, even the death of their friend, the dwarf Durathror, at the hands of the Morrigan – none of these incidents seems to have got much emotional purchase on their psychologies (though the psychological effects of mixing with magic get much more intense in Garner’s later novels). Down in the Cellar, by contrast, leaves one with the sense that Bruce’s mental health, and that of his twin sister, is genuinely suffering as they struggle to manage a state of affairs that would have challenged the psychological equilibrium of any adult. Bruce’s fierce diatribe against the Meddings children is a symptom of this mental stress, which reaches its climax when he bursts into tears under interrogation by the Chief Constable, Mr Wheatley, who has come in person to lead the search for the missing man. ‘Everyone was amazed,’ Bruce says at this point, ‘including me. But I couldn’t help it, it just happened’; and in response, the police and his family members ‘stared at me in horror, while I stood with my mouth open, and tears running into it, hiccupping and sobbing for breath’ (p. 186). Yet Bruce’s siblings mistake this torrent of emotion for a cunning ruse, another bit of playacting designed to disrupt Mr Wheatley’s investigations. Afterwards Andrew asks admiringly, ‘How on earth did you do it? They were real tears!’, and Julia admits ‘I didn’t honestly think Bruce had it in him’; while Bruce himself decides to say no more about ‘the reasons for my break-down’ (p. 187). One good reason for this reticence, perhaps, is that his breakdown springs from the breakdown of reason itself; first, in that his own reasons for protecting the fugitive may not stand up to police scrutiny, and secondly because the events since Stephen entered their lives have been so confusing. Bruce’s outburst is allowed to stand for what his siblings think it: another game that has suddenly been saddled with a serious purpose.

The opening of the gate into the hill

One could read Gray’s novel as what’s glibly called a ‘coming-of-age’ story, as if children grew to adulthood at some definable moment in their lives, or as if maturity itself were something stable. The book suggests instead that the process is complicated, since responsibility emerges from within the context of childhood play, while play and serious adult concerns have the same ingredients. But there’s something else that might be read into Gray’s narrative of transition. Bruce’s isolation at the end, as the only unimaginative Jefferson, is intensified by the fact that he alone of the four siblings is blessed or cursed with the ability to remember Stephen and all they went through to hide and defend him. The three younger children are asked to forget the strange young man by the Lady of the Hill, as she leads him away through the hidden gates to her underground kingdom. The least imaginative Jefferson, Bruce, is left with a memory of Stephen’s face, now indistinguishable from a private dream since none of his siblings shares it. By the final page of the novel the two youngest children have already switched their attention to other things: Deirdre declares that when she gets older she may marry Robin, the older Meddings child, while Andrew adds: ‘Come to that, I may decide to marry Karen’ (p. 203). Bruce, by contrast, recalls specific details of Stephen’s appearance: ‘I remembered Uncle’s old dressing-gown that Stephen had taken with him. And the heap of chalk-stained clothes he’d left behind’ (p. 203). For Bruce, in fact, Stephen himself is always physically interesting, indeed attractive, as well as mysterious. When he first sees the fugitive he describes him as ‘a handsome sort of person, though unshaven and grimy, and all smeared with chalk’ (p. 35). Later on, when tending to him in the cellar, Bruce thinks that Stephen may be complimenting him on his own appearance: ‘How kind you are, and how beautiful’, the sick man murmurs (p. 109), and the startled Stephen thinks to himself, ‘I hoped I was fairly kind, but no one would describe me as more than average good-looking’. On another occasion Bruce is struck for a second time by the stranger’s good looks; now he has grown a beard, he observes, ‘He looked like an actor in Shakespeare or something. Actually, it suited him. It was rather romantic. As he was asleep and couldn’t hear, I said this to Andrew. And he agreed’ (p. 180). Bruce seeks reassurance from his brother that his perception of Stephen’s appearance is accurate, and duly records that his brother agrees, as if to exonerate himself from the charge of paying too much attention to what a man looks like. Then towards the end, when the Hill-Lady finally comes to take Stephen to safety, Bruce is still more impressed by the young man’s beauty: ‘He was much handsomer than anyone we’d imagined from stories’ (p. 200). Stephen, in other words, has drifted in Bruce’s mind from being a figure out of fiction, to the author or actor of fictions, to a real, live human being, whose face is better than anything he could have conjured up in his childhood imaginings. It’s for this reason, perhaps, that the young man’s departure has such an acute effect on Gray’s narrator. As Stephen limps out of the underground room where the siblings have tended him, ‘A sort of grief came over me in a wave’, Bruce tells us (p. 200), and Stephen stops and looks at him as if in response. What Stephen says at this point is an observation that might well have come from a man addressing a young male admirer on parting, at a time in history when same-sex desire was effectively outlawed. ‘You mustn’t mind, Bruce,’ he tells him; ‘It’s not easy to see a thing through, when you aren’t sure what it is you’re seeing’. In the 50s and early 60s same-sex desire might well be something a growing child could not be certain he was seeing or feeling, a state of mind that was wholly unacknowledged in his education or family life. As he passes from the cellar into the hill, Stephen leaves Bruce with a story he can never tell in full, at least with any expectation of understanding, a story he does not fully understand himself, and part of that story may well be what first attracted him to Stephen. Gray’s fairy tale, in other words – like the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde and Hans Christian Andersen, four of which provided themes for plays by Gray – could stand in for the experience of first discovering yourself to be gay in early adolescence.

Gray’s other fiction lends support to this reading. His first short story collection, for instance – Mainly in Moonlight (1965) – is full of stories of young men who are rejected by their communities and find a new place for themselves in an all-male household. The first story, ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentices’, involves a boy called Martin rescuing another boy called Avenel and bringing him back to live with him in the house of his male teacher, Alain. ‘The Hunting of the Dragon’ involves another rescue of a boy by another boy, after which the rescuer, Prince Michael, feels comfortable with his own identity for the first time in his life. ‘According to Tradition’ tells of a pair of princely brothers the younger of whom ends up as the married king of his country, while the elder chooses to defy tradition and go live with the fairies – led by a handsome witch-king – because he ‘could never be at home’ living by the conventions of ‘mortal men’ (p. 104). ‘The Lady’s Quest’ tells of a prince who hates the convention that only men are allowed to embark on dangerous quests. His sister Alexa tells him that ‘you would make a better girl than I do’, he tells one of his father’s soldiers that his men are ‘lovely’ (p. 119), and his best friend Gregory is ‘not quite at home in the company of ladies’ (p. 125). The story culminates with the two young men being rescued by Alexa, and though Gray hints that both have become fascinated by the women they have met in the course of their adventures, there is no indication that either boy intends to do more with this new interest than learn at last ‘to be at ease in the company of ladies’ (p. 129). Very few of Gray’s fairy tales end in marriage; many are about young men who feel deeply out of place in the world they were born into. In one of the most poignant stories, ‘The Star Beast’, an intelligent creature of uncertain gender from another world – its hands are ‘slender, long-fingered, with the fine nails of a girl’, its body ‘like that of a boy – a half-grown lad – though it was as tall as a man’ (p. 71) – is mistreated until it starts to behave like what it has been called by all the people it meets: an abused animal. Both Bruce and Stephen of Down in the Cellar fit easily into this collection of displaced boys and men.

The novel ends with Bruce hearing a sound in the cellar that reminds him of some lines from the Scottish Border Ballad Tam Lin: ‘About the mid-hour of the night / They heard the bridles ring’ (p. 203). The sound, so clearly out of place under the Rectory, offers one final confirmation that it was indeed the ‘Hill-Lady’ who took Stephen into the hill before erasing all memory of him from those who saw him, apart from Bruce. The displacement of the ballad from Scotland to the Sussex Downs, alongside the displacement of the sound from the open air to an enclosed cellar, emphasizes the theme of displacement that runs through the novel; and this displacement is invoked by a number of references to Scotland throughout – from Bruce’s name, which invokes the Scottish hero Robert the Bruce, or Andrew’s, which he shares with Scotland’s patron saint (Deirdre’s name, by contrast, is Irish), to Julie’s observation to the police that the fugitive ‘is probably in the north of Scotland by this time’ (p. 78). The children themselves are displaced, in that they are outsiders from London in a Sussex village, while their parents are on the other side of the planet, in New Zealand. Stephen comes from an unnamed country where a different language is spoken; he can clearly never go back there, and as the novel goes on it becomes clear that there is also no place for him in England. For most of his life Gray was a Scot in England, and the cultural crosshatching he practises in Down in the Cellar, as well as the sense of alienation that fills it, may well have been deeply familiar to him.

As a version of Tam Lin, Gray’s novel does not run ‘According to Tradition’ any more than his other fairy tales tend to. The handsome Tam Lin had to be rescued from the fairy queen to save him from the fate of serving as a human sacrifice to Hell – the famous fairy ‘teind’. The rescue involved great courage on the part of his earthly lover, Janet, who clung to him as he changed shape into a variety of wild animals, as well as a burning coal and a naked man, never letting go until the spell that bound him was finally broken. One of the stories in Mainly in Moonlight, ‘A Letter to My Love’, culminates in an ordeal very like Janet’s, where a young woman clings to the body of a man in need of rescue as it changes from lizard to woodlouse, from slug to lump of ice (pp. 68-69). Stephen, by contrast, must be given over to the Hill-Lady if he is to survive. ‘Poor Bruce’ must let go of him instead of clinging on, give him up instead of winning him, and can expect ‘no sort of reward’ for all his struggles on the stranger’s behalf, all the mental and physical pain he has undergone for him. Tam Lin in all its versions is about a difficult romance, from Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock (1984) to Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin (1991) and Sally Prue’s Cold Tom (2002). Romance is the lifeblood of the story, and Bruce’s sense of loss at the close of the novel – the ‘sort of grief’ that ‘came over me in a wave’ (p. 200)– suggests an emerging awareness that he is being bereaved of the romance that he identified with Stephen from the moment of his discovery in a disused cave.

Among other things, Down in the Cellar is a story about finding that the mind is a strange and complex organ, and about how words, places, communities and relationships participate in its complexity. In it, the imaginative and the rational exist in partnership, memory and fantasy cohabit, new desires transform the world, the body affects the mind and the mind the body, while the lightness of games is always giving way to the heavy weight of responsibility, which in turn reveals an unsuspected affinity with childhood play. It’s a fine example of the way fantasy for children responds to the particular challenges of political and social history. And it’s an argument in itself, I think, for reprinting Gray’s fiction for children.

Note

[1] Gray’s other illustrators included Joan Jefferson Farjeon, Charles W Stewart (who also worked in theatre design), Charles Keeping and himself.

Fantasy Brussels 2: Schuiten and Peeters, Les Cités obscures

If you really want to immerse yourself in fantasy Brussels, you can’t do better than read its comics, and above all the work of Schuiten and Peeters. You should discover, if you can, not just the Cités obscures series but their many side-projects too, which include exhibitions designed to create the illusion that there are portals, openings or passages between our world and certain parallel universes, of which the ‘Continent obscure’ is the most complex and best known.[1] The Continent is a kind of alternative Europe, permanently devoted, it seems, to the architecture and technology of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Interestingly the Continent seems to exclude any version of Britain, as if Schuiten and Peeters were already anticipating Brexit from the moment they started the Obscure project in the early 80s. But if London, Birmingham and Edinburgh are absent from their parallel universe, the place is simply teeming with versions of Brussels: from the art nouveau monster-city Samaris in the first volume of the series, which draws unsuspecting travellers inside its walls to feed on their personalities like a vast carnivorous plant, to the City of Urbicande, which gets taken over by a three-dimensional grid of giant poles or girders, made up of ever-expanding cubes which eventually construct a kind of pyramid over the city, like the pyramid Poelaert wanted to build on the highest point of his Palais de Justice. The buildings of Samaris are no more than frail facades, which invokes the ‘façade retention’ technique of Brusselisation, while the network of Urbicande can be read as a working model of a faceless bureaucracy that has failed to tailor itself to the needs of actual urban environments – the Brexiteer’s version of the European Union. But the growing grid can also be seen as liberating, since it constantly forms new passages between one place and another as it grows, temporarily connecting the prosperous south bank of the city to the impoverished north bank in defiance of the wishes of the totalitarian city council. There are, in other words, at least two perspectives on it, just as there are on the EU’s vision of a unified Europe.[2]

La Tour is set in a version of Pieter Breughel’s two famous paintings of the Tower of Babel[3] – a structure so vast that it may never be completed, where maintenance workers live like parasites in desolate forgotten corners of the building, striving to preserve them against the decay that is setting in before the process of construction has come to an end. Breughel painted his Tower in Antwerp but died in Brussels, where the bulk of his greatest masterpieces were executed. Brüsel concerns itself with the difficulties of the owner of a flower-shop, Constant Abeels, as he struggles to relaunch his business at a time when the City of Brüsel is itself being restructured on an epic scale in response to constantly changing instructions from a corrupt developer, Freddy de Vrouw. Meanwhile the city is falling prey to Kafkaesque bureaucracy – which makes one suspect a punning reference to Terry Gilliam’s great dystopic assault on bureaucracy, Brazil, in the album’s title – as well as a rising tide of polluted water, the very element which the city planners aimed to suppress by paving over the river Senne. As love letters to the European capital, these two albums are as fascinated by its failings as by the overweening vision that continues to test its resources to the limit, and to lift the hearts and minds of its devotees.

Another work, La musée Desombres – comprising a booklet and CD, which I haven’t yet managed to get hold of – is about a museum in our own world whose exhibits look like ordinary paintings by the artist Augustin Desombres, but actually serve as passages to the Continent. The way these passages work is explained in the album L’enfant penchée, one of whose plotlines features Desombres making his way from his dilapidated studio-museum in northern France to the Obscure universe, where he becomes the lover of Mary von Rathen. There’s nothing particularly Brussels-like about the Desombres story apart from the notion that a museum could serve as a conduit between alternative universes, which is surely what the citizens of Brussels believe, else why devote so much money, thought and time to their construction? As the series unfolds it becomes clear that many such conduits or passages exist, and that this may explain the significant overlaps between the culture of the Continent and our own. It may be the resemblances between architecturally unique structures on both worlds that make them suitable to serve as passages. Given their anachronistic purposes, museum buildings are particularly complex and resonant examples of urban architecture, which is presumably why a museum-rich environment like Brussels has so many parallels in the world of Brüsel.

Indeed, there is something akin to a museum in the organization of several albums in the series.[4] Many Franco-Belgian BDs privilege the writer rather than the artist, in that the writer produces the story and the artist illustrates it. With the Cités obscures, by contrast, it’s often the pictures that come first, with the writer producing narratives in response to the artist’s images, much as a museum curator produces a verbal narrative to forge a coherent relationship between objects that have ended up side by side in the museum building, often through historical accident rather than design. Some of the most effective albums in the series were developed this way. L’archiviste started out as a projected collection of posters to be published by Casterman for sale on an individual basis. Converted into an album, it became an account of research carried out by an isolated archivist, perhaps in our world, into a random set of images pertaining to the world of Urbicande and Samaris. This transforms the poster series into a kind of two-dimensional display cabinet, its contents curated by the archivist as he struggles to make sense of the images and compile a report on them for his superiors. Le guide des Cités masquerades as a Lonely Planet-style guidebook to Schuiten and Peeters’s parallel universe, its accounts of the societies, structures and notable personages to be found there helping to supplement the stories told in more conventional albums. It began as a pair of articles for a literary magazine, Les saisons, but ended up as a full-scale Baedeker, transforming the cities it describes into an open-air museum to be rambled through by imaginative tourists. Souvenirs de l’éternel présent is based on Schuiten’s sketches for a planned movie to be directed by Raoul Servais in the 1980s, while La route d’Armilia started life in a commission to create a comic in Danish containing representations of an Obscure version of Copenhagen, which had to be finished in time for the opening of an exhibition of Schuiten and Peeters’s work in the Danish capital. The album also incorporates images from other projects, including posters for a glazier, a watchmaker and a Wagner festival. The constraints imposed on these narratives by the initial circumstances of their production means that they are full of startling unexplained images. A woman clinging desperately to her vacuum cleaner as she dangles over an unfathomable gulf in Brüsel (is she really the star of a commercial, as one witness claims, or is she in deadly danger, as her expression leads us to believe?). Four explorers approaching a shining crystalline mountain (‘Qui peuvent-ils être? Que cherchent-ils?’),[5] with a garden enclosed in a natural glasshouse at the summit. A city full of towers, the tops of which morph into baroque sculptures of naked men and women, their anatomies pierced by windows much as the monumental woman in Salvador Dali’s ‘The Burning Giraffe’ is pierced by drawers. An empty artist’s studio with no artist in it, full of paintings whose central images have been ripped from the canvas by some violent censor. Decontextualized, as unattached to any narrative as an anonymous artwork given to a gallery or an ancient artefact of unknown provenance found in the storerooms of a museum, each of these images exists in a kind of suspension or limbo, available to be read and reread in any way that suits the reader. The subjects of these pictures – buildings, vehicles, machines – have lost all connection to the conditions under which they were fabricated or the purpose for which they were first intended by their makers, and they share this lack of context with many buildings in modern cities, which get repurposed – like the Horta buildings in Brussels – or awkwardly juxtaposed with newer buildings. We must invent our own narratives to account for such juxtapositions, just as Peeters must invent a narrative in each album to account for the wayward juxtapositions in Schuiten’s pictures. The reader’s efforts at supplementary storytelling may be assisted by seemingly authoritative handbooks, like Le guide des Cités, or newspaper articles as in the album L’Echo des Cités – which is made up of pages from the most significant inter-urban news outlet of the Continent – or history books, like the forbidden volume found by the child Aimé in Souvenirs de l’éternel présent, which describes the cataclysm that reduced the City of Taxandria to the graveyard of architectural fragments it has become. But guidebooks, articles and history must in turn be augmented or given life by the imaginations of their diverse readers, which invariably run aslant to one another, since they were formed in response to different pressures and conflicting desires.

One of Schuiten and Peeters’s recurring protagonists, Mary von Rathen, encapsulates this obliqueness or perversity in our various responses to the worlds we encounter. At eleven years old, Mary is struck down by a mysterious ailment after a fairground ride, a condition that leaves her walking at a permanent angle to the ground, 45 degrees aslant from the upright that governs every other person’s posture on the planet. As the narrative unfolds it becomes clear that she is in fact subject to the gravitational pull of a different planet or sphere, and it takes the rest of the album to restore her to a sense of equilibrium within her native world, the Continent. As a result of this ailment Mary becomes an attraction in a circus: Laetitia the tightrope walker, whose balancing skills are rendered astonishing by the 45 degree angle at which she perches on her cable. Fundamentally at odds with her fellow human beings, dismissed by nearly every adult she encounters as a troublemaker, freak or fraud, her personality quickly becomes as perverse as her posture; after all, she is a young girl in a patriarchal culture modelled on the Europe of the fin-de-siècle, and it’s only by contradicting everyone she meets that she is able to pursue her desired trajectory towards an explanation and perhaps a solution to her gravitational problem. Aided and abetted by fellow marginals and outcasts – the journalist Stanislas Sainclair, who as a dwarf has only with difficulty escaped being branded as a ‘freak’, like Mary herself; the aged inventor-scientist Axel Wappendorp, whose real achievements don’t prevent many of his countrymen from dismissing him as a madman; the artist Augustin Desombres, whose paintings are responsible for upsetting the equilibrium of the Continent as a whole, and of Mary in particular, by forging imaginative connections between his native Europe and the parallel world she lives in – Mary eventually recovers her balance, and grows up to be a famous visionary and activist, briefly restoring social, economic and political stability to the industrial city of Mylos where she was born. A slant perspective here becomes the basis for non-violent revolutionary action, and Mary joins the ranks of enigmatic women who have provided the radical counterbalance to bureaucratic authoritarianism since the beginning of the series: Sophie in La fièvre d’Urbicande, Milena in La Tour, Tina Tonero in Brüsel, Hella in La route d’Armilia, Minna in L’ombre d’un homme and all the rest. All of these rebellious women are outsiders in the quasi-imperialist architectural fantasies of the Continent, invariably reduced to symbols, tools or erotic objects by the men who meet them, or banished completely from the city streets, as happens in Taxandria. Mary and her sisters confirm that one person’s Paradise is another’s Inferno, a saying that could apply just as well to the unified Europe of the European Union as to the fragmented alternative Europe of Alaxis, Xhystos and Pâhry.

One album in the series strikes me as saying something especially pertinent to Brexit, invoking as it does the symbiotic relationship between the underlying problems and visionary possibilities of a united Europe. Superficially, La route d’Armilia tells a simple story. A young boy is entrusted with the formidable task of carrying a crucial ‘formula’ to the City of Armilia at the North Pole. Without this formula the Continent is out of balance in some fundamental way: weather conditions are getting more extreme, communications systems are breaking down, compasses are going haywire and those who rely on them are getting hopelessly lost as a result. The formula must be carried as quickly as possible to the North Pole using the fastest conveyance in existence – an airship or zeppelin – in order that the machine there that governs the planet’s equilibrium may be recalibrated and order restored. The airship’s mission is not too urgent, however, to permit the occasional digression on the way. As it traverses the north-west corner of the Continent from its starting point in Mylos to København, and from there across the Arctic wastes to its destination, the airship’s captain is prepared to turn aside from time to time to offer help to a stranded vehicle, or to allow his passengers a better view of the cities over which they pass. The journey provides, in fact, a rich mixture of adventures and wonder, like the voyages extraordinaires of Jules Verne on which it is modelled: from the discovery in the hull of a young stowaway called Hella, who becomes the boy’s fast friend, to an encounter with a giant land-cruiser, which has lost its way owing to the disruption of its instruments by the problem at Armilia; from an outbreak of vegetation in Brüsel just as the zeppelin is passing overhead, to the loss of the document containing the precious formula, and foul weather in Polar regions – again produced (it seems) by the problem at Armilia – which smothers the zeppelin in ice from stem to stern and almost causes it to crash. Through portholes in the cabin the two children watch in awe as the Obscure Cities glide majestically by, their hypertrophied buildings dwarfing the dirigible, which steers between them as between the peaks of the Himalayas. Its progress is described through the diary of Ferdinand, the boy, and records his rising panic as he realises, after losing the document containing the formula, that he cannot recall the words of the formula itself. Hella, meanwhile, boosts his confidence with sound advice and unflagging cheerfulness, as enthused by every wonder on the journey as Ferdinand himself. The improbable climax of their trip is a hurried visit to København, where the quirkily beautiful towers of real-life Copenhagen have been expanded to many times their actual size and number, and where the famous Tivoli gardens are dominated by a roller-coaster twice the height of the highest buildings in New York. On the way there, they pass over Bayreuth – a city whose streets empty themselves completely whenever an opera is performed – and Brüsel, whose buildings make the skyscrapers of Chicago look like toys. This is Europe as a scattering of upwardly mobile city states, multiple polders whose swarms of flying machines inspired by the inventions of the fin-de-siècle artist Albert Robida. Between these urban centres the landscape is more North American than European, with desert dominating the territory between Mylos and Muhka, forests and mountains between Brüsel and København, and icy waters and mountains north of that. There is little agriculture in sight – apart from a field full of sheep at the aerodrome where the airship commences its journey – and no connecting roads or railways. The Continent here is exclusively devoted to adventure and wonder, with no space in it that doesn’t do service to these two urges.

p. 7

In fact, the single-minded dedication of the Continent to the fulfilment of Ferdinand’s adolescent fantasies begins to look increasingly suspicious as we read on. When the airship first takes off, the boy expresses the hope that the sheep he can see from the porthole, which are utterly unfazed by the silent rise of the giant dirigible, will not set the tone for the rest of the voyage: ‘J’espérais un peu plus de sensations. Pourvu que ce voyage ne soit pas trop tranquille!’ (p. 7).[6] Sure enough, pleasing or frightening things happen at every stage, as if in response to the premonition he expresses shortly afterwards: ‘Ah, comme je sens que ce voyage va me plaire’ (p. 11).[7] In fact, La route d’Armilia makes no secret of its own artificial nature. The pages of Ferdinand’s journal are penned in a neat italic script, with hand-drawn images carefully arranged around them for maximum decorative effect and emotional impact. It is embellished with attractive motifs: the tiny circular sections of map that announce the airship’s arrival in each new city – Porentruy, Muhka, Calvani, Genova; the narrow strips of landscape-drawing that occur on almost every page. A brief study of these strips confirms that they’re frequently repeated. One image of a desert landscape appears many times between pp. 7 and 25, an image of forested hills recurs between pp. 28 and 45, while a single picture of icy mountains and waters shows up again and again between p. 47 and the final page. The repeated images are, of course, a neat way of suggesting that the zeppelin is moving across vast geographical spaces, but they also suggest a certain lack of interest in minor details of the Continent, perhaps even an ignorance of them on the part of the journal’s author. What matters to Ferdinand are the highlights of his voyage, which occur with remarkable frequency. He visits three cities, for instance, in just one day, the 27th May, and makes no comment at all on what he sees between them. It’s as if the map of the journey provided on p. 10 has been compressed in certain places to ensure a regular provision of excitement en route to the North Pole.

The discovery of Hella

Other aspects of the narrative reinforce the impression that things are being arranged for Ferdinand’s benefit. The girl Hella, for instance, shows up very early in the journey as if in response to a child’s desire for someone his own age with whom to share his enthusiasms. There seem to be no other passengers on the airship, no supervising adult to help the boy discharge his crucial duty of delivering the formula. Like the young protagonists of many children’s adventure stories, Ferdinand is unencumbered by parents, having been entrusted with his mission by an absent ‘uncle’ who seems to have absolute faith in his nephew’s capacities. Smaller details are even more strikingly arranged for Ferdinand’s convenience. He has bunk beds in his cabin, for instance – as we learn on p. 46 – as if the captain has anticipated from the start the need for a second child to be berthed alongside Ferdinand, in the kind of bed young people like best. The menu on p. 11, which illustrates ‘les nourritures délicieuses’ served in the airship’s dining room,[8] is decidedly childish: chicken and chips for the main course, three different kinds of dessert – including chocolate cake and banana split – while the only drinks available are ‘Colibri Orange’ and ‘Zeppo Cola’. Tasty meals continue to provide significant highlights in Ferdinand’s account until the final page, when he and Hella are showered by the grateful inhabitants of Armilia with ‘nourritures merveilleuses et […] machines inconnues’,[9] as if it were Christmas. Meanwhile there is a strong element of play about the journey. When Ferdinand loses the document containing the formula and seeks to dredge up its contents from the depths of his memory, every new phrase he comes up with reads like a crossword clue, a riddle or a piece of nonsense: ‘LE SINISTRE ARLEQUIN MANGE TOUS LES MIDIS UNE TONNE DE LIMAÇONS’; ‘TAQUINE TANTE ADÈLE SOUS LE LIT DU MAÇON’; ‘MIDI VIENT DE SONNER: CHARLES QUINT DANS LA TENTE A LIMÉ SON MINISTRE’; while the formula itself, once retrieved, sounds just as playfully inconsequential as these alternatives (‘À QUINTE LA SINISTRE, À MIDI LA DÉTENTE, SONNE LE LIMAÇON’, pp. 59-60).[10] The very notion of entrusting the formula to a child suggests a playfulness about the airship adventure which is radically at odds with its apparent significance for the safety of the Continent.

Armilia

At the same time, there are darker elements to the story, hints that some sinister force may be at work to foil Ferdinand’s mission – as suggested by the presence of the word ‘sinistre’ in two versions of the formula. Early on, the boy’s sleep is disturbed by a nightmare in which the hull of the dirigible opens up to reveal an armillary sphere (pp. 12-13): a representation of the workings of time in space which occurs many times in Schuiten’s artwork, and on which the City of Armilia seems to be modelled, as we learn when the expedition finally reaches its destination. In the boy’s nightmare, the many circles and rings around the sphere in the zeppelin’s hull revolve with ‘une folle energie’,[11] as Ferdinand calls it. All at once they grind to a halt, unleashing a flurry of sheets of paper: ‘On aurait dit les pages d’un livre s’ils n’avaient été entièrement blanches’.[12] The sheets quickly cover the sphere, turning it white, and Ferdinand wakes up drenched in sweat as if half smothered by the paper avalanche. Next day he finds the stowaway Hella cowering in the hull of the airship, where the sphere hung in his nightmare. She tells him she has escaped from the factory in Mylos where the canvas that covers the hull was fabricated, and Ferdinand is horrified to learn that the airship was constructed with child labour (‘Quoi? Une enfant de votre âge employée dans les fabriques[!]’, p. 17).[13] He takes her to his heart at once as a fellow sufferer from bad dreams: ‘votre cauchemar est terminée,’ he tells her, ‘Désormais, vous êtes mon invitée à bord de cet appareil’ (p. 17).[14] But later the connection between Hella and nightmares gets reasserted, when after another restless night (‘J’ai mal dormi’, p. 24),[15] he is suddenly struck by the idea that the stowaway might be a spy, employed by some unknown enemy ‘pour me ravir la formule’.[16] In a panic he conceals the document containing the formula in the hull of the ship – the third item so far to be hidden there. Not long afterwards Hella accuses him of mistrusting her, and to prove her wrong he hurries to fetch the document from its hiding place; but to his horror it has disappeared. Ferdinand starts to reassure his friend that he can remember the formula in any case, having learned it by heart; but ‘les mots, soudain, se sont étranglés dans ma gorge’ (p. 35),[17] as he realises he has forgotten it completely. This is a cue for further nightmares:

La nuit, les mots se sont mis à danser dans ma tête comme des farfadets malfaisants. Ils couraient en tous sens, sautaient, grimaçaient, ricanaient; ils glissaient comme des ombres, échangeaient leurs habits, se cachaient sous des masques (p. 37).[18]

The sense of play that dominates the journal is here transformed into a piece of carnivalesque puppet theatre staged by some demonic descendant of the Belgian puppet-master Toone. For the first time the heroic adventure of which Ferdinand has made himself hero begins to look as if it might end badly, the smooth arc of its trajectory disrupted by the malicious twirling of sinister marionettes.

At this point the significance of those blank pages in the zeppelin’s hull gets a little clearer. If the boy’s memory remains a blank, the whole journey he is recording becomes futile, its purpose lost, and he might as well stop writing. From now on, nightmares begin to invade the children’s waking hours. As the zeppelin enters Arctic regions, Ferdinand and Hella are aroused from sleep when the vessel suddenly tilts in a gust of wind, unbalanced by the weight of ice that covers it. Later the boy’s efforts to recall the formula wake him a second time, startling everyone with his shouts, and he is forced to pretend that he has had ‘un simple cauchemar’ (p. 51).[19] As conditions in the cabin deteriorate, hunger, cold and lack of sleep ensure that these ‘simple’ nightmares spread to other members of the expedition in the form of mirages: the steward thinks he can see horsemen on the icepack below the vessel, the helmsman thinks they are flying over a desert. Alternative narratives threaten to disrupt the story of Ferdinand’s mission, until by the end of the journey the blank pages from his nightmare could stand for the possibility of writing anything on the blank pages of the world, since there is no structure to the universe, however strenuously one might struggle to impose an imaginative shape on its shapelessness, coherent rules on its primordial chaos. By this stage the constant disruptions to the airship’s voyage seem to enact the disruption of the Continent by the breakdown of the Armilian machine.

Final page

Yet in the album’s final pages all these nightmares and metaphysical torments get swept aside in a few swift strokes. On arrival at Armilia, Ferdinand is about to confess the loss of the formula to the city’s chief scientist, Professor Pym, when Hella suddenly hands the boy the missing document and he is able to read it aloud to Pym as his uncle intended. Hella later explains that she purloined the document as a ‘blague’ or joke, because she found Ferdinand too serious, too confident that he alone could save Armilia and the world. By concealing the paper from him she has made the journey a true collaboration between them; by restoring it she has reinstated playfulness as the mission’s dominant mode. Hella’s action confirms what Ferdinand once suspected – that she is not to be trusted; but it also identifies her as the perfect playmate, a trickster who performs practical jokes on her friend to ensure that his journey is everything he wsihes it to be, full of incident, danger and difficulty as well as of wonder. The potential complexity of the boy’s conspiracy theory has been rendered childishly ‘simple’, which is how Hella describes the motivation for her joke; the sinister has been rendered amusing. And when Ferdinand begins to complain about Hella’s behaviour, the girl closes the album by shouting another version of the formula, this time a clarion call to replace what is sinister with ringing laughter: ‘QUITTE CET AIR SINISTRE! DIS, L’AMI, DÉTENDS-TOI ET RIONS SANS FAÇON!’[20] In doing so she identifies herself as a bearer of her own formula, which celebrates the triumph of play over the rigidity of proverbs, inflexible rules and rote learning. Indeed, her playful philosophy seems to be shared by the Obscure Continent itself, since Professor Pym has to imaginatively decode the riddling formula delivered to him by Ferdinand before it can be used to fix the damaged mechanism of Armilia (p. 60). Her trick on Ferdinand is entirely in the spirit of the universe he seeks to save – at least in the journal’s version of that universe – which suggests that she herself is in some sense the formula he needs to restore its equilibrium.

Opening page

By the time this happens, however, the album’s readers are well aware that the playful plot in which Hella plays a part masks another, grimmer plot from which she is excluded, and which runs parallel to Ferdinand’s adventures in the airship. This second narrative is delivered in a style much closer to that of the conventional BD: a series of panels designed to be read from left to right, with dialogue conveyed in speech bubbles (there are no speech bubbles in Ferdinand’s journal). It kicks off in the first two pages of the album, where a pair of factory inspectors walk through a titanic industrial complex talking about a recent downturn in productivity, and promising to trace the source of the downturn as soon as possible. Ferdinand’s journal begins on p. 7 – effectively the third page of the album – with no indication as to how it might relate to the men’s discussion. From time to time, however, a return to the visual style of the opening pages reminds us of the unfinished factory plotline. At the bottom of p. 23, for instance, three consecutive panels show us a child in a strange kind of helmet, who is drawing a sketch of the land cruiser encountered by Ferdinand in the six previous pages. Who is the child in the helmet, we ask ourselves, and how does he know about the other boy’s mission? On p. 42, two more panels with speech bubbles show the factory inspectors for a second time: one of them says he has finally found the source of the downturn, while reaching for a handle fixed to the lid of a metal pod. These two panels interrupt Ferdinand’s narrative, cutting across the middle of a page of his journal, but they are quickly swept aside by the magnificent vista of København as viewed from the airship that takes up the opposite page, and then forgotten in the whirl of exciting events that follows. All at once Ferdinand announces in his journal that his adventures have been interrupted for a second time. ‘Mais que… Quel est ce bruit?’ he writes, and then inexplicably, ‘Vite!’ (p. 53).[21] Turning the page, the reader is confronted by the longest sequence of BD panels yet, all set in the factory. A speech bubble in the first panel announces ‘on le tient’ – ‘we’ve got him’. In the second we see the helmeted child from p. 23, crouching inside a metal pod whose lid has just been opened. The two inspectors glare down at him, pointing out to each other the cables he has disconnected to give himself light to read by. Scattered round him is a heap of books, and the inspectors express outrage at the thought of a worker reading fiction on company time. One inspector strikes the boy with one of the ‘bouquins’ (‘how do you like books now?’, he asks him viciously), then hurls the lot into a nearby furnace. At this point, the perspective of the panels opens out to show the boy as just one of a row of helmeted children in identical pods, each linked to the production line by a couple of cables at the back of his helmet. Under his helmet every child has additional cables embedded in his skull; we learn this on p. 54, when the boy’s helmet is knocked off by the book as it strikes his head. Disconnected from these cables the children will die, or so they believe: another child named Anton proudly explains as much when questioned by the inspectors. ‘Nous avons besoin des machines comme ils ont besoin de nous,’ he recites with a vacuous grin. ‘Si nous cessons de travailler, elles s’arrêtent et si elles s’arrêtent, nous mourons’ (p. 56).[22] Anton, at least, remembers exactly what he has been taught by rote, trotting out the correct answer at the precise point in the other plotline when Ferdinand is most anxious about having forgotten his own instructions. And the words he parrots reflect a philosophy of work which is the polar opposite of the philosophy of play embodied by Hella in the journal.

Friedrich discovered

At the same time, there are clear parallels between the factory plotline and Ferdinand’s journey to Armilia. In both plotlines something has gone wrong in the day-to-day functioning of a mechanised process: in the factory the production line has some sort of glitch, while the world itself is off kilter in the journal, due to the malfunction of a ‘machine inconnue’ based at the North Pole. Child workers are involved in both plotlines, with one child in each – Hella and the boy in the pod – showing a remarkable ability to imagine themselves into the positions of the moneyed classes to which they have presumably never had access. In both narratives a child forgets certain critical instructions: the rote lesson or the formula. And at the centre of both plotlines is the airship – though we have no way of knowing this in the factory plotline before the last few pages. In the final BD section we see the two inspectors walking away from the pods that house the child workers, congratulating each other on how they have handled the miscreant, the boy who reads (pp. 62-3). As the men leave the factory, the largest panel on p. 63 finally reveals what’s under construction there: an airship like the one in the journal. The inspectors agree that such a product ‘mérite bien quelques sacrifices’;[23] and the exact nature of those sacrifices is visible all round them as they walk, in the rows of adult factory workers – skulls sprouting cables like the skulls of the children we saw earlier – whose withered faces testify to the premature aging brought on by lifelong imprisonment at their stations. Here is another link between the plotlines. Ferdinand’s journey to Armilia, too, involves certain sacrifices – the voluntary sacrifices of the romance hero, hunger, cold and fear – while the factory workers are unwilling sacrifices to industrialism, plugged into the production line without hope of release. Ferdinand’s adventure, in other words, touches on the workers’ lives in the factory at numerous points; but where the factory is a prison, the journal gives its child protagonist freedom and space, and where the factory workers seem wholly passive – and permanently alienated from the product of their labour, the zeppelin – the child protagonist has agency in abundance, and enjoys the dirigible as a privileged guest.

Friedrich the writer-artist

In fact, however, the factory workers are not wholly passive. One worker has acquired a degree of agency against all odds, and this agency suggests another link between the plotlines: their shared concern with secrecy and playfulness – or more precisely with the clandestine plot as a means of finding space for liberating play. Not long before we learn what the factory is making, we find out that the child worker who likes to read is also writing the journal, and that his name is Friedrich. His clandestine work of creation runs parallel with the factory’s production of luxury goods denied to workers like himself. And the inspectors never find this out; to the end of the book it remains a secret between the album’s reader and the writer-artist in his pod. As we’ve seen, just before the inspectors open the pod the word ‘Vite!’ appears in the journal, and we later deduce that this signals the moment when Friedrich conceals what he has been writing. As soon as the pod is closed again, the boy takes the unfinished journal from its hiding place and goes on writing. Ferdinand’s adventures, in other words, are permitted to continue, in defiance of Friedrich’s near exposure as a creative spirit – a young rival to the inventor Axel Wappendorp, or the authors whose books he owns. Between the opening and closing of his pod, Friedrich has made another involuntary sacrifice – his books have been burned; but his own manuscript survives unscathed, and as a result the dirigible can proceed on its way to Armilia, and the story of the formula can achieve a satisfactory ending. If Ferdinand was a hero, Friedrich is doubly so, for both resisting oppression and imaginatively conjuring up Ferdinand and Hella as his unfettered alter egos.

Friedrich’s secret writing activities provide one more point of contact between the factory narrative and the journal plotline, while also suggesting another interpretation of Ferdinand’s nightmare of the armillary sphere in the airship’s hull. The whole journal is composed under threat of discovery by the inspectors; so the writing process it involves is effectively a spy story, much like the one that has Hella as its heroine. And the blank pages that smothered the sphere represent the possibility that this writing process will be cut short before it’s complete; that its time line will be arrested, just as the movement of the sphere was stopped by the paper storm. Friedrich incorporates this fear into Ferdinand’s journal in the first words he writes after the burning of his printed books: ‘Après ces nouvelles épreuves, plus cruelles encore que les précédents, je retrouve ces notes que j’ai craint de ne jamais pouvoir reprendre’ (p. 58).[24] At this point he mentions the various mirages suffered by the airship’s half-frozen crew, but he concludes by expressing hope that the story will achieve closure all the same: ‘Tous, nous sentons que nous allons bientôt toucher au but et ce sentiment nous redonne du courage’ (p. 58).[25] And his optimism proves well founded. When Ferdinand’s story comes to an end, it marks Friedrich’s triumph over the inspectors, and the implication is that this triumph also comes at the cost of further glitches in production, since the inspectors have never succeeded in identifying the source of the downturn they mentioned at the beginning – his writing activities, in other words. The mission of Ferdinand and Hella, which he has invented, can be read as a parable of the liberating power of writing, and as such it serves as both a metaphorical and literal act of sabotage against the oppression of industrial capitalism.

Friedrich’s triumph through the completion of his writing project is anticipated at the very moment of the inspectors’ interruption of his creative labours. As the two men prepare to leave the factory building on p. 57, satisfied that they have terrorised the recalcitrant worker into submission, the BD format of the factory plotline finds itself invaded for the first time by the journal narrative. Just as Friedrich closes his pod – supposedly to resume his duties – a BD panel shows a narrow strip of cloudy sky. In the next panel Friedrich pulls out the journal from where it was hidden in his overalls, and in the next the airship appears among the clouds. Friedrich begins to write, and in the final panel at the bottom of the page the airship is nearer. By this time the implication is that the inspectors and the factory have been supplanted in Friedrich’s mind by Ferdinand’s mission. The reader presumes that the following page will continue the journey to Armilia, which is indeed what happens. And the same supplanting of the factory plotline by the plotline of the journal occurs in the last three pages of the album. On pp. 62-3, we see the inspectors leaving the factory, delighted by their success in putting Friedrich in his place. But on the final page – p. 64 – all restrictions on Friedrich’s imagination have been lifted. Not only has Armilia been repaired and the balance of the world recovered, but the airship has been refuelled and reequipped for the homeward journey, so that its young passengers, reconciled, can set off on new adventures unrecorded by any later albums in the Obscure series. The creative process, in other words, remains alive and fructifying at the end, unbounded by the factory structure, or the album’s two plots, or even the meticulous planning of Schuiten and Peeters. The possibilities available to it are as unconstrained as the imaginations that developed the ‘machines inconnues’ and the soaring buildings of the Obscure Continent, or the dreams of the reader after the reading process is over.

Final page (again!)

The trajectory of the album from constriction to liberation, from dictatorship to playfulness, can be traced in its visual representation of the sky. Entirely obscured by smoke in the opening pages, partly hidden by clouds in the BD strips on p. 57, by the final page it has been swept clear of clouds altogether, showing cloudlessly blue above the airship as the vessel takes off from the Arctic wastes with the Continent made freely available to its newly refurbished engines. In Ferdinand’s journal (Friedrich’s manuscript), weather conditions were at first affected by the dysfunction of the strange machine located at Armilia. The correction of this meteorological imbalance in Friedrich’s story would seem to involve the effective erasure of the factory that barred him, along with the rest of its workers, from sight of the sky, and the handing-over of the factory’s products to the wage-slaves who helped to shape them.

The crossovers between the two plotlines of La route d’Armilia invite us to ask another question. How far is Friedrich’s story, about Ferdinand’s journey to the North Pole, a work of fiction or a record of something that in some sense ‘really’ happened? The books Friedrich has in his pod, and from which he presumably derives inspiration for his own composition, represent a mixture of genres, from science fiction (Jules Verne’s Voyages et aventures du capitaine Hatteras) to autobiography (Souvenirs d’un explorateur by the Polar adventurer Roald Amundsen), from fairy tale to Gothic short story (Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, Karen Blixen’s Winter’s Tales). Odder still, all these books come from our world; even the works of fiction, in other words, are ‘real’, in the sense that they are not the products of Obscure authors. And one of the books is Brüsel, an album from the same series as La route d’Armilia. In the Continent, Brüsel is presumably a work of non-fiction, like Amundsen’s Souvenirs in our own universe. The books, then, could be seen either as evidence of the existence of passages between our world and the Continent, or as passages in themselves, allowing us access between one kind of ‘reality’ and another. Their presence in Friedrich’s pod is from one point of view an anomaly: how could a child worker have acquired them? How could he even have learned to read? But it is also evidence of the power of books throughout the Obscure series to crop up in places where they are least expected, and to have an impact well beyond what might be expected wherever they happen to crop up. The burning of the books by the inspectors, in other words, is no guarantee that they will cease to affect the environment into which they were impossibly introduced; and their continued presence is in fact implied by Friedrich’s continuing story. His character Ferdinand, after all, is named after two heroes of Jules Verne’s, the Arctic explorer Captain Hatteras and the aeronaut Robur from Robur the Conqueror (the boy’s full name is Ferdinand Robur Hatteras, p. 16) – just as the name of Ferdinand’s contact in Armilia, Pym, recalls the name of another fictional explorer from our world, Edgar Allan Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym. The fiction found in Friedrich’s pod, in other words, continues to bear fruit, and attract new fiction to itself, after it is burned (Poe’s novel is not among the volumes mentioned by the inspectors when they confiscate Friedrich’s library). The mere existence of a book in one dimension makes it available, perhaps, in others. And this implies that Friedrich’s liberation through his writing – a work of fiction – may be in some sense, or some dimension, ‘real’.

p. 23

Its reality is obliquely implied, in fact, by Schuiten’s artwork. On p. 23, where we first see Friedrich working on the journal, Schuiten shows us the boy’s sketch of the land cruiser designed by Axel Wappendorp, with the airship overhead. Both the land cruiser and the airship are crudely drawn, as one might expect from a child of Friedrich’s age, though the boy’s handwriting is identical to the hand we have been reading as we followed the journal. In the panel that shows Friedrich’s sketch we are also shown the illustration he is copying from an unnamed book, which shows the land cruiser almost exactly as Schuiten drew it on p. 19, except that the illustration is in black and white, whereas Schuiten’s picture is in colour. The panel that shows Friedrich working on the journal, in other words, suggests the existence of three or four different levels of ‘reality’ on which his story operates. On one level, there is Friedrich’s reality, in which the volume from which he copies his picture of the land cruiser offers him an accurate representation of a real machine designed by the real inventor Wappendorp. On the second level there is Friedrich’s invented narrative in the journal, which is presumably inspired by the books he has been reading. On the third level there is Schuiten and Peeters’s version of Friedrich’s work, which converts his childish images into a more ‘realistic’ style, while conserving the exact appearance and wording of his written script. All these levels of reality are equally real – or equally fictional – from the point of view of the album’s reader, though we might be inclined to privilege one level of reality as more ‘real’ than another within the fictional universe. But this privileging of one level of reality over another is called into question by the care Schuiten has taken to represent the boy’s story about the land cruiser in ‘realistic’ terms – far more realistic than the picture the boy draws in his pod. The implication would seem to be either that Schuiten is representing Ferdinand’s adventures as Friedrich visualises them, or that he is representing them the way they ‘really’ happened, as Friedrich cannot, owing to his youth and lack of technical expertise as an illustrator. If the latter is the case, then Friedrich is a visionary or medium rather than a novelist. Another possibility exists – that the boy has been copying out Ferdinand’s adventures from some historical account not mentioned by the inspectors – but this does not explain the overlaps between Ferdinand’s story and the story of Friedrich, especially the point when Ferdinand anticipates the arrival of the inspectors themselves (‘Mais que… Quel est ce bruit?’, p. 53). The whole album, in other words, continually plays with questions of what’s real and what is fabricated. And Schuiten and Peeters continue to play on these fine distinctions between fact and fiction, the real and the fantastic, in later volumes of the Obscure series, sometimes with specific reference to Ferdinand’s adventures.

In Le guide des Cités, for instance, the story of Ferdinand and Hella is implied to be a myth or a work of fiction which may or may not have some basis in fact. The tale presumably forms the basis of an opera mentioned under the entry for the composer Dieter Dennis/Didier Denis, Les enfants d’Armilia (p. 154). Meanwhile the entry for Armilia in a later edition of the guide mentions that there is some uncertainty among historians as to whether or not a boy named Ferdinand Hatteras was really responsible for correcting the malfunction of the Armilian machine at the time of the worldwide crisis it brought about. The latter entry seems to confirm that certain details La route d’Armilia are deemed to be ‘true’ in the archives of the Obscure universe: Armilia did, it seems, break down at one point, and the consequences of its malfunction affected the Continent in its entirety. The album L’archiviste, meanwhile, concerns itself with the way legends and myths of the kind that Ferdinand’s adventures represent can have material effects. The archivist’s official task in this book is to demonstrate once and for all that the Obscure Continent, whose existence is mentioned in numerous baffling references throughout his archives, properly belongs to the section he works in – the section devoted to myths and legends. In other words, the archivist has been instructed to prove that the Continent doesn’t exist. Instead he finds himself increasingly convinced that it is in some sense real, and says as much in his report, which results in his dismissal. The album ends with his clandestine return to his old office, where he sits waiting for what he knows will happen next: the arrival of representatives from the Continent to take him away to the place he now sees as his spiritual home. At this point the archivist has become one of the inhabitants of the Obscure Continent by virtue of being represented in one of the volumes of the series; he has been absorbed into the archive he was studying, just as Ferdinand is absorbed into the archives of the Continent after Freidrich has invented him and Schuiten has drawn him. Like La route d’Armilia, then, L’archiviste provides testimony to the potency of reading, writing and drawing in the Obscure universe; and this potency is confirmed in a number of other albums. In L’Echo des Cités, for example, a young orphan – younger even than Friedrich – mysteriously learns to read, and is inspired by a book to organize a pilgrimage of children from his orphanage to an inter-urban book fair, the City of Books, which takes place near Brüsel. The same album records the miraculous rescue of ‘Les naufragés du Battista’ – the castaways from the vessel Battista – by the appearance of a titanic library in the open ocean; here they are able to disembark and wait in safety for the arrival of a relief expedition from the Continent. The fact that this expedition is led by a fictional character from a book in our world – Michel Ardan, the protagonist of Verne’s novel De la Terre à la Lune (1865) – and that the castaways themselves are from a ship named after a legendary figure – Giovanni Battista, protagonist of La Tour – who is himself named after a historical Italian illustrator, Giovanni Battista Piranesi – illustrates the complex interplay between books and ‘real life’ that permeates these volumes. The situation is rendered more complex still by the fact that the newspaper in which these events are reported, L’Echo des Cités, has begun to acquire a reputation for inaccuracy by the time the reports appear. Its editor, Stanislas Sainclair, is said to be something of a fantasist, and his paper is eventually shut down to be replaced by a more reliable organ, edited by Michel Ardan, who supports his reportage with photographic evidence (Ardan himself is a celebrated photographer, formerly employed by Sainclair, who supplied snapshots both of the ‘naufragés du Battista’ and the titanic library where they fetched up). However, Ardan himself is a work of fiction, which leaves us back where we started. Is there no egress from this Borgesian labyrinth?

There is not, of course, and this is precisely the point of the Obscure series. Throughout the series, the question of what’s real and what’s fantastic is a question of power, and each album subjects the power of determining between them to playful questioning. The designation of certain things as fictional – as frauds, fabrications or distractions from the ‘real’ – is a way of asserting the authority of the designating parties. Calling Mary von Rathen a fraud because of her disability, which means she walks at a 45-degree angle to the ground, is a way to suppress her and dismiss what she represents: an anomaly that renders questionable all the assumptions of the Continent’s scientists and technicians and of the politicians who rely on their services. Dismissing Friedrich’s books as ‘saletés’ – filth – is a way to keep Friedrich and the other child workers in their places. Identifying Sainclair as a fantasist enables one to supplant his version of the world with something better tailored to the interests of rival editors, ambitious politicians, urban developers, or all three. Meanwhile, telling the stories of people like Mary von Rathen, Stanislas Sainclair, Constant Abeels, Friedrich, Hella and others whose narratives have been suppressed or sidelined is a means of fulfilling the remit of fantasy as Rosemary Jackson sees it: of expressing ‘the unsaid and the unseen of culture’, and identifying the ‘reality’ of the powerful as fundamentally fantastic.[26] One might argue that every album in the Obscure series sets the fantasies of the authorities at odds with the fantasies of small-time rebels and resistance fighters, but this doesn’t adequately summarize the forces at work within them. A return to La route d’Armilia will help us to paint a more convincing picture.

Like every album in Les Cités obscures, La route d’Armilia involves a play-off between three opposed yet complementary forces – like three orbital paths around an armillary sphere – each of which is equally dependent on the technological and architectural resources of the Continent. The first force is that of the powerful, as embodied in the owners of the factory and their inspectors, who aim to take absolute control of these resources for their own exalted purposes. This in turn involves taking absolute control of the populace, shutting them in, setting them to work under rigidly constrained conditions, diminishing and anonymising them, terrorising them, and erasing anomalies from their ranks, such as Friedrich, the boy in the pod. For the exploiters other people are no more than puppets, suspended from cables rather than strings, and they justify their exploitation of these mindless automata by characterising themselves as visionaries, whose projects will bring enormous benefits, at least to the powerful, and therefore ‘mérite bien quelques sacrifices’ (p. 62), albeit on the part of the puppets, not themselves. Examples of these quasi-fascistic exploiters include the authoritarian members of the ‘Commission des hautes instances’ of Urbicande, the developer Freddy de Vrouw of Brüsel, and the nationalistic maréchal Radisic of Sodrovnie in La frontière invisible.

Ferdinand and Hella

The second force at work in the Continent is made up of creative open minds, like those of the child worker Friedrich, the children of Armilia Ferdinand and Hella, the inventor Axel Wappendorf, the leaning girl Mary von Rathen, the flower seller Abeel Constants, the adventurer Michel Ardan, and the editor Stanislas Sainclair, whose dream is to present all the cities on the Continent to one another in all their strangeness and wayward glory. Dedicated to embracing a world which is out of kilter, adapting themselves to its ebb and flow through the qualities of balance, play and heavier-than-air flight, and concerned to improve the lives of ordinary citizens by all means possible, these creative minds delight in disruption even as they struggle to harness it for the widest possible benefit. Champions of liberty as against the tendency of their cultures to privilege coercion and confinement, anomalies are for them opportunities to exercise and expand their imaginations rather than impose their philosophies on the world by force majeur. These men, women and children, too, are visionaries, and for this reason they are susceptible to exploitation by unscrupulous visionaries of the first order discussed above. Freddy de Vrouw for a while takes Constant Abeels under his wing; Mary von Rathen finds herself controlled by a succession of men before taking her fate into her own hands; the brilliant ‘urbatecht’ Eugen Robick is an employee of Urbicande’s Commission before he breaks free of their oppressive influence; Axel Wappendorf depends on wealthy, unscrupulous officials and entrepreneurs to bring his inventions into existence, and so on. The figures who embody this second, creative force are not too effective as revolutionaries – although they regularly get caught up in revolutions and rebellions – but their receptive delight in the properties of the strange world they inhabit sets them frequently at odds with the capitalist, industrial and military masters of the Cities they live in.

Brüsel in catastrophic bloom

The third force at work in the Continent is the most interesting: it’s the force of spontaneous change, as represented by the disruption of time and weather brought about by the broken machine at Armilia, the unexplained outbreak of vegetation in Brüsel, the dreams and nightmares that plague the passengers and crew of the airship as they approach the North Pole. In every album some similar crisis occurs, a phenomenon that has no bearing on the plots of the powerful or the projects of lonely visionaries or rabble-rousing radicals – a change of rules that alters the nature of the particular urban polder in which it takes place. The growth of the network or grid of Urbicande has no human source or explanation. The rise of the waters of the Senne in Brüsel defies all the efforts of the powerful to suppress it, while it both disrupts and abets the machinations of insurrectionists and visionaries. A sudden outbreak of stones and sand in the Brüsel of La théorie du grain de sable is as unsettling for Mary von Rathen and Constant Abeels as for the city authorities (the difference being that Mary, Constant and their friends learn to embrace the disruption where the authorities strive against it). Each of these crises emphasizes the autonomy of the Obscure Cities themselves, as organic phenomena whose sheer scale and ambition overwhelms every attempt to take control of them, while at the same time spurring the puniest of human beings into herculean struggles to respond appropriately – with respect and courage and imaginative ardour – to their unparalleled size and beauty. The European Union is something like this: a project that began with a dream of economic cooperation, which would encourage cooperation on political, philosophical and artistic levels, and ended by developing into an organic entity (no longer a project) which cannot finally be contained, controlled or properly measured, and may indeed be all the stronger and more delightful for this loss of containment, control and measure; a dream that sometimes morphs into a vision or a nightmare; an architect’s model that reduces human beings to tiny, semi-translucent sketches, yet liberates them to think in terms of vast, navigable spaces and endless journeys, their very tininess and translucency capable of extending their capabilities beyond all previous limitations.

The United Kingdom has shut itself off from this mysterious and absurd region of possibilities, transforming itself into a magically fenced-off polder that resists the playful to-and-fro that characterized its relationships with other European polders between 1973 and 2020. But passages exist that will bring us back to the games we used to play with them, either through the workings of our imaginations or in some other way we might consider more ‘real’. We can look for these passages in Brussels, city of comics, museums, fantasists and migrants. We can send for others via the internet, in the form of the albums of Schuiten and Peeters. Or we can dream them up for ourselves, and playfully open new passages to Brüsel, Mylos and Armilia from the precarious safety of our own front rooms. And after those passages have been opened, who knows what new friendships and imaginative networks might be formed?

København

 

NOTES

[1] Accounts of some of these exhibitions can be found in the volume Voyages en Utopie (see list below).

[2] The appendices of my edition of La fièvre d’Urbicande (see list below) offer a range of further readings, none of them comprehensive.

[3] It’s also inspired by the architectural engravings of Piranesi, as was made clear by the exhibition ‘Rêves de pierres’ in Villeneuve-sur-Lot in 1999 and later in the Musée Fesch, Ajaccio, between October 2000 and the end of January 2001. See Voyages en Utopie, p. 25.

[4] This is a point made by Thierry Groensteen in his article ‘La Légende des Cités’, on the website dedicated to the Cités obscures, Alta Plana. Groensteen points out that some albums in the Obscure series bear a closer resemblance to a ‘catalogue muséographique’ than to a conventional BD. https://www.altaplana.be/en/dossiers/neuviemeart/la-legende-des-cites

[5] Who can they be? What are they looking for?

[6] I’d been hoping for more in the way of sensation from this journey. Let’s hope it isn’t too quiet!

[7] Oh boy, I can tell this journey’s going to blow me away!

[8] Delicious dishes.

[9] Wonderful food and strange machines

[10] AT NOON EACH DAY THE SINISTER HARLEQUIN EATS A TON OF LIMAÇONS; TEASING AUNT ADÈLE UNDER THE BUILDER’S BED; THE CLOCK HAS STRUCK MIDDAY: CHARLES THE FIFTH HAS FILED HIS MINISTER IN HIS TENT; SINISTER AT THE FIFTH POSITION, A TRUCE AT NOON, SOUND THE LIMAÇON.

[11] A crazy energy.

[12] You’d have said they were the pages of a book if they hadn’t been completely blank.

[13] What? A kid of your age, working in a factory?

[14] Your nightmare’s over, [Hella]. From now on you’ll be my guest on board this aircraft.

[15] I slept badly.

[16] To steal the formula from me.

[17] Suddenly the words got stuck in my throat.

[18] At night the words took to dancing in my head like mischievous imps. They ran in all directions, jumped, grimaced, sniggered; they slid like shadows, swapped clothes, hid themselves behind masks.

[19] Just a nightmare.

[20] Enough with this gloomy posturing! Relax, will you, and have a laugh!

[21] But… what’s that noise? Hurry!

[22] We need the machines the way they need us. If we stop working they will stop, and if they stop we’ll die.

[23] Is well worth a few sacrifices.

[24] In the wake of these new trials, so much worse than any we have yet endured, I resume these notes, to which I feared I would never return.

[25] We all had the feeling that we are close to the end of our journey, and this premonition restored our courage to us.

[26] See Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London and New York: Routledge, 1981), p. 4.

 

EDITIONS USED

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, La Tour (Casterman, 1987)

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, Les murailles de Samaris (Casterman, 1988)

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, La route d’Armilia (Casterman, 1988)

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, La fièvre d’Urbicande (Casterman, 1992)

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, Brüsel (Casterman, 1992)

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, L’enfant penchée (Casterman, 1996)

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, L’ombre d’un homme (Casterman, 1999)

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, Voyages en Utopie (Casterman, 2000)

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, L’archiviste (Casterman, 2000)

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, L’Echo des Cités (Casterman, 2001)

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, Le guide des Cités (Casterman, 2002)

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, La frontière invisible, tome 1 (Casterman, 2002)

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, La frontière invisible, tome 2 (Casterman, 2004)

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, La théorie du grain de sable, tome 1 (Casterman, 2007)

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, La théorie du grain de sable, tome 2 (Casterman, 2008)

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, Souvenirs de l’Éternel Présent (Casterman, 2009)

Fantasy Brussels 1: Comics and Museums

Brussels: Grand Place with Maison du Roi or Broodhuis

As the UK bids farewell to the European Union I find my thoughts turning to fantasy on the European continent, and in particular to the most fantastic city on that continent, Brussels. This is a kind of polder in Belgium, as John Clute defined the word in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. Derived from the Old Dutch term for ‘a tract of low-lying land reclaimed from a body of water and generally surrounded by dykes’, Clute takes ‘polder’ to mean an ‘enclave […] of toughened Reality, demarcated by boundaries from the surrounding world’. The boundaries need to be maintained by powerful magic wielded by some figure who recognises the need to keep them in place. ‘A polder, in other words,’ Clute sums up, ‘is an active Microcosm, armed against the potential Wrongness of that which surrounds it, an anachronism consciously opposed to wrong time’. There could hardly be a better word for Brussels, in its capacity either as imaginary capital of Europe – set up to oppose the Wrongness of totalitarianism, corruption and international conflict – or as a cultural centre, protector of artistic innovators and eccentrics from Pieter Brueghel the Elder to Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Horta and Magritte. The figure maintaining the integrity of Brussels through magic remains obscure, but the magic is there for sure, as well as the notion of the city as a focus of anachronisms, a meeting place between multiple strands of history and the very modern social and economic problems it works haltingly to resolve.

The Belgian Revolution (1830) by Gustaf Wappers (1834)

Brussels is a linguistic as well as a cultural polder: a French-speaking capital city stranded in the middle of Flemish-speaking territory. Different rules apply here. Spatially it’s confusing, with its jumble of ancient, decrepit, out-of-date, modernist, postmodern and ultra-modern buildings, many of them highly eccentric, all locked inside a labyrinth of streets, both cobbled and tarmacked, to which no map provides an adequate key. It’s here that the Belgian Revolution started in 1830, the only political coup ever to have been triggered in an opera house. The work that got it going, La muette de Portici (‘The Mute Girl of Portici’), by Daniel Auber and Germain Delavigne – whose lead, bizarrely for an opera, is a voiceless woman performed by a dancer – is often described as the first Grand Opera, and the people of Brussels were so inspired by it that they rose against their Dutch oppressors and established the Kingdom of Belgium as an independent state in emulation of its central characters. The eccentricity that transformed Grand Opera into Revolution continues to mark the people of Brussels to this day, and a quick glance around the city will confirm its omnipresence there, embodied in the bizarre architectural structures and peculiar statues with which it is so well stocked.

The Museum of Musical Instruments, designed by Paul Saintenoy (1899)

Its eccentricity is also embodied in the extraordinary diversity of strange museums in the capital. There is no other city in the world that has half so many museums per capita (that’s a claim I’ve just invented, but I bet it’s true). From the Museum of Beer to the Museums of Freemasonry, Jazz, Chocolate, Clocks, Trams, Musical Instruments, Lace, and Fantastic Art, each of these institutions embodies an obsession, and many are housed in buildings which are themselves museum pieces (the Museum of Musical Instruments is a great example). The monumental Musée des Beaux-Arts near the royal palace, with its unparalleled collection of Flemish masters, was immortalised in an Auden poem [link]; he summed it up as the place where Icarus can be found, the boy who fell from the sky while everyone else went quietly about their business. That’s exactly what you’d expect to happen in Brussels. The city has been an artistic as well as a commercial centre for many centuries, providing a generous home for movements such as Art Nouveau, Symbolism, Expressionism and Surrealism, and between them the museums testify to the sheer oddness of the creative gestures the Bruxellois have found most congenial. Some museums also testify to its violent past: the Museum of Central Africa, for instance, full of traces of the Belgian atrocities in the Congo which underpin Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces in the Parc du Cinquentenaire, which when I last saw it was crammed with German helmets from the Second World War with bullet holes in them, mute reminders of the importance of the project of a unified Europe. Perhaps the strangest of the museums is the Wiertz Museum, dedicated to a painter of vast lurid pictures which he left to the state on condition they be displayed for ever in his majestic studio. Wiertz’s subjects include the body of Patroclus being torn apart as the Trojans and Greeks fight over it, a cholera victim who has been accidentally buried alive clawing his way out of his coffin, a half-naked man blowing his brains out with a pistol, and a young woman smirking at an undead skeleton. There is hope that Wiertz himself might one day become a museum exhibit; his body was embalmed according to Egyptian custom and stored safely in an underground vault.

The Berlaymont Building (1963-9), designed by Lucien De Vestel, in 1974, when I first knew it

I came to know Brussels in the early 1970s when my father went to work there as an official in the European Commission. He lived in a high rise just down the road from the Berlaymont building, many storeys above the street and accessible only by a small lift or many flights of narrow stairs; when he moved there, the larger items of furniture he owned had to be hauled in through the sitting room window. The kitchen of this flat had a chute with a metal flap on it through which you could post your rubbish, which went crashing down from storey to storey till it came to rest in a noxious refuse bin in the subterranean basement. If you visited the basement to take out rubbish that didn’t fit in the chute you had to dare the automatic lights, which turned off after several seconds leaving you stranded in the dark; you then had to grope your way to one of the switches, which glowed like the eyes of Morlocks in the George Pal movie of The Time Machine, and activate the lights again – for a few seconds, until they switched themselves off and plunged you once more in abysmal darkness. When we children stayed with my father we went to the Berlaymont every weekday for lunch, being introduced to such typically Belgian delicacies as ‘filet américain’ (a plateful of raw mince) and roast chicory wrapped in ham and doused in a thick cheese sauce. There were no Brussels sprouts in Brussels back in those days, which broke my father’s heart because he loved them more than any other vegetable; just chicory in unimaginable quantities. The most remarkable thing about the Berlaymont canteen in the 1970s was that it was the only place in the country where you could get a truly terrible meal. On special occasions we would go out to a proper restaurant such as Chez Léon, near the celebrated Grand Place or central square, to eat moules frites – mussels with chips – which is the Belgian national dish, the shellfish in question being doused in every kind of sauce you can possibly imagine and many you can’t. You can’t talk about Brussels, in fact, without talking about food and drink. The food there is as various and eccentric as the architecture, and somehow perfectly adapted to it, as full of curlicues and flourishes as the Maison du Roi in the Grand Place: a confection of Gothic revival balconies and images which houses the Brussels City Museum and is also known as the Broodhuis or Bread Hall, though it looks more like Miss Havisham’s wedding cake than a conventional loaf of bread. You see? Food and buildings exist in a symbiotic relationship chez les Belges.

François Schuiten’s version of the Palais de Justice as Poelart intended it, with a pyramid instead of a dome

On successive stays in Brussels I fell in love with some of the city’s bizarrer architectural manifestations, such as the futuristic Atomium (1958), constructed in the shape of an iron crystal – and extremely dilapidated when I first visited it – and Joseph Poelart’s Palais de Justice (1866-1883), the largest building constructed in the nineteenth century, which is essentially a monstrous portico with no rooms attached to it (though there are some very impressive staircases both inside and out). Some claim that Orson Welles wanted to shoot his version of Kafka’s The Trial among its halls and corridors, while Poelart himself is said to have gone mad while building it – just as the architect of Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum is said to have been driven to distraction by the discovery that his masterpiece had been constructed back to front, throwing himself off one of the building’s many towers in a fit of pique. At an early age I also became aware of the practice of ‘Brusselization’, which involves buying fine old buildings and allowing them to decay until they are completely irreparable, then tearing them down and building something hideous in their place. When I first went to Brussels the city was full of these carefully neglected ruins, which lent the streets an air of melancholy, as if some calamitous architectural disease were eating away at its vital organs. The effect was enhanced by the mania for preserving historical façades while tearing down the buildings they once fronted. The many ornate frontages with nothing behind them except scaffolding and gaping brick-fringed holes in the Belgian soil added to the impression that Brussels was a kind of conspiracy, a front for something deeply suspicious and possibly inhuman which was working towards the universal destruction of mankind.

Toone Puppet Theatre, bar area

Conspiracy theories like to portray human beings as helpless sentient puppets manipulated by monstrous unseen hands; and Brussels has a hidden gem ideally suited to the tastes of inveterate seekers-out of Rosicrucian plots and anarchistic machinations. This is the Toone puppet theatre, a tiny, shadowy cave tucked away in an inner courtyard off one of the narrow medieval streets that worm the vicinity of the Grand Place. The theatre doubles as a bar draped with superannuated puppets, like corpses in a painting by the manic Belgian etcher and painter James Ensor. It has been in existence since its foundation by Antoine ‘Toone’ Genty in about 1830. Disturbingly, all the puppet masters since have adopted the name of Toone, as if they were clones of their great precursor, carved by him out of wood and brought to life by some perverse blue fairy; or a succession of boy apprentices carefully trained in the supernatural art of bringing life to inanimate objects, each of whom got possessed by the spirit of Genty at a certain point in his professional development. One memorable Toone production I saw in my teenage years involved Lucretia Borgia’s murderous attempts to set herself up as ‘Papesse’ – a female Pope much addicted to poisoning her rivals. Another was a particularly violent version of Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, all acted in the Brussels dialect, a unique fusion of Flemish and French which ends up sounding very much like English. The Toone Theatre is yet another polder within the larger polder of Brussels, its inhabitants dusty people made of wood, cloth, wire and string, with unsettling painted eyes. It’s a museum too, of course, as well as a bar and theatre. I think perhaps every building in Brussels is also a museum. And a bar. And possibly a theatre too, now I come to think of it.

Rouge Cloître, with one of its fishponds

When my father moved to Auderghem, a former forest village in the south east of the city, we spent many afternoons among the etiolated trees of the Forêt de Soignes, where charcoal burners and hunters once plied their trades and where the tracks of deer can still be traced after each fresh fall of snow. Our favourite spot was a former monastery called Rouge Cloître: a cluster of buildings surrounded by woods, within whose precincts a succession of excellent restaurants and cafés have been set up over the years, none of which have lasted more than three or four seasons. One modest café there only ever served quiches, but they were the finest quiches in the whole of creation. Parokeets flew screeching through the nearby branches, Siberian chipmunks whisked along the tops of the crumbling walls, while huge carp surfaced in the ancient fishponds, some of them attached to the fishing lines of the many anglers who crowded the banks. When in town I drank at the famous bar À la mort subite – Sudden Death – near the city centre, an ornately decorated chamber thronged with indifferent lounging cats. There and elsewhere I discovered the astonishing diversity of Belgian beers, from Gueuze, Kriek and Hoegaarden to the much more potent abbey brews, blond, dark and russet. The abbey connection suggests that beer is something of a religion in that part of Europe. There’s a Scottish connection, too; when I moved to Glasgow in 1992 I learned that Scottish beer was more highly regarded in Brussels than in Scotland, and that at least one variety – Gordon’s Highland Scotch Ale – was still being brewed exclusively for the Belgian market in Edinburgh (production was transferred to Belgium after the millennium). I have never been to the Beer Museum, but I’ll wager it’s full of astonishing facts like this one.

Les Archers, the first Thorgal album I owned

All these details give some sense of the eccentricity of a city whose best-known symbol is a little boy having a pee, who gets dressed up in a different costume for every day of the year (there’s a museum for his costumes, of course: the ‘Garderobe Manneken Pis’). But I promised to talk about Brussels and fantasy, and for me the epitome of fantasy in Brussels has always been the comics. By comics I mean, of course, the bandes dessinées or BDs of the Franco-Belgian school, known to francophone commentators as the ‘ninth art’ (the eighth is television; I forget the rest). My father’s flat near the Berlaymont Building was crammed with BDs, and later so was his house in Auderghem. He had all the Tintin books, mostly in French with a few English titles thrown in; he also had the whole of Asterix, an Enki Bilal, some Lucky Lukes, and more. I read everything dozens of times, poring over the relationship between words and pictures, the transition from panel to panel, the colour schemes, and slowly discovering new puns, allusions and even plotlines as the years went by and my French improved. After a few years I began to collect BDs of my own: most notably Thorgal le Viking, by the Polish artist Grzegorz Rosinski and the prolific Belgian scenario-writer Jean van Hamme, and the Cités obscures series by the Belgian artist François Schuiten and the French novelist and scholar Benoît Peeters. My taste in comics was largely determined by my taste in drawing styles. I loved pictures I could study for hours on end and return to again and again, stumbling across new details and more ingenious juxtapositions, or simply marvelling at the skill that had been lavished on each panel, page or double spread. Such were the drawings of the French artist Jean Giraud, known as Moebius, which led me to his masterpiece L’Incal, scripted by the Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. The Brazilian writer-artist Leo drew me to his series Les mondes d’Aldébaran with his careful representations of peculiar alien animals, each of which is sufficiently close to some terrestrial life-form to disturb and amuse in equal measure. Régis Loisel’s flamboyant penmanship made me enamoured of La quête de l’oiseau du temps, scripted by Serge Le Tendre, while the rich textures and three-dimensional solidity of Juan Díaz Canales’s anthropomorphic dogs, goats, polar bears and rhinoceroses led me to the neo-noir adventures of the feline private eye Blacksad, written by Canales’s fellow Spaniard Juanjo Guarnido. Recent discoveries are the Valérian books by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières (I was alerted to these, of course, by Luc Besson’s film), the Orbital series by Serge Pellé and Sylvain Runberg, and Sillage by Jean-David Morvan and Philippe Buchet. The ten-volume Décalogue, conceived by Frank Giroud and drawn by several artists, delighted me by setting the first of its volumes in Glasgow, so that I had the pleasure of seeing the buildings I knew best magically embedded in the panels of a Franco-Belgian comic. I collected volumes or ‘tomes’ of BDs each time I went to Brussels to visit my father, often in the local Carrefour supermarket, sometimes in the Museum of Comics near the Grand Place – more accurately, the Centre Belge de la bande dessinée.

Museum of Comics, Brussels, designed by Victor Horta,

The Comics Museum is housed in a former department store designed by Victor Horta, so one could say that the BD industry has been built into the landscape of the city, entwined with the vegetable inventiveness of Belgian Art Nouveau. Another of Horta’s buildings houses material relating to the comics of François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters; this is La Maison Autrique, which contains a permanent display of Schuiten’s pictures honouring the Horta legacy. The Maison plays a central role in one of the final albums of the Cités obscures series, La théorie du grain de sable. Museums occur, in fact, with remarkable frequency in Franco-Belgian comics. Captain Haddock’s house, Moulinsart or Marlinspike, is effectively a museum stocked with family heirlooms going back many centuries, standing shoulder to shoulder with mementoes of the Captain’s travels with his young friend Tintin. So is Professor Tarragon’s house in Les sept boules de cristal, its contents based on research carried out among the Incan holdings of the Cinquentenaire Museum in Brussels. There is an actual museum in L’oreille cassée, and many more in Edgar P. Jacobs’s Blake and Mortimer series and Jacques Tardi’s Aventures extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec. Schuiten and Peeters’s Mémoirs de l’éternel présent includes a museum dedicated to forbidden things, mostly clocks and timepieces whose very existence suggests that the City of Taxandria hasn’t always existed in the eternal present, as its government insists. Bande dessinée, in other words, is as besotted with miscellaneous collections of displaced antiquities, forgotten or rejected customs and extravagant artworks as the city which is the BD’s spiritual home. The strange juxtapositions accidentally achieved in the display cabinets of scholarly collections are the stock-in-trade of the ninth art, and it’s with juxtapositions that my next blog post on Fantasy Brussels, dedicated to the comics of Schuiten and Peeters, will be concerned.

[To be continued.]

The Museum of Comics as represented by François Schuiten in La route d’Armilia
La Maison Autrique

Fantasies of War in the Poetry of Mervyn Peake

[This essay was first published in Peake Studies, Vol. 10, No. 4 (April 2008), 5-23, and can also be found online here, beautifully typeset by Peter Winnington. Among other things, it’s a supplement to my edition of Peake’s Collected Poems.]

Wartime sketch

Mervyn Peake was pre-eminently a war poet. Of course not all his poems concern themselves directly with armed conflict, but the condition of warfare infects the tissue of his major verse, shaping and distorting it whatever its primary subject. He began to publish poems in 1937, during the long approach to the Second World War, each step of which they record, from the bombing of Guernica to the September Crisis; and he wrote the bulk of his verse between 1939 and 1945.[1] Even his post-war poems continue to worry away at the themes and traumas of his wartime experiences. How could it be otherwise, when he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1942 after two fruitless years in the army, and later witnessed the aftermath of war in France and Germany, above all at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp? Like many who lived through it he internalized the global crisis, making it part of his inward landscape. He may even have laboured at times under the horrible illusion that the war had sprung fully-fledged from his imagination, like a monstrous version of the winged horse that springs from the floor of a station concourse in his poem ‘Victoria Station. 6.58 p.m.’.[2] It is this possibility I would like to look at here, with the help of a few fragments of poetry I was not able to include in my edition of his Collected Poems.

From The Drawings of Mervyn Peake (1949)

Peake’s imagination, after all, could be a fearsome place. From the beginning to the end of his writing career it preoccupied itself with violence, to the extent that artistic creation and physical aggression seem at times to be locked together in an intimate symbiotic relation ship inside his head. The relationship may be encapsulated in the duel scene between two rival lovers in Titus Groan, where the men, both sculptors, hack away at each other’s naked bodies in a knife-fight that parodies the process of carving a work of art from a block of wood.[3] Peake wrote this fight during the war, when it might be thought his imagination was unusually concerned with bloodshed. But one of Peake’s earliest surviving poems, a long Masefield-inspired narrative called ‘The Touch o’ the Ash’ (1929), constructs a story from an act of still more horrible brutality.[4] In it, a tyrannical ship’s captain flings an old sailor into the furnace of his vessel, in grotesque anticipation of the Nazi atrocities. The old sailor has his revenge; through a titanic act of posthumous will-power he makes a new body from the ashes of his old one, and visits the captain three times at night, killing him on the third visit after driving him insane. Clearly then, from the start of his career Peake was willing to make poetry from violence; aggression was part of his imaginative make-up. One wonders whether this had anything to do with his childhood experiences in China. He was born in 1911 during a savage civil war, which his father recorded in a series of graphic photographs; and as he grew up, his father’s work as a missionary doctor brought Peake into close proximity with pain and death. From an early age he watched him perform surgery, including amputations, and saw long lines of maimed or diseased patients entering and emerging from his clinic.[5] Did these youthful encounters with dismemberment and debility haunt his dreams, reconstituting themselves from the material made available by war, as the old dead sailor in ‘The Touch o’ the Ash’ repeatedly reconstitutes his body from the grey dust which is all that remains of him after his death?

Sketch

Certainly hauntings of one kind or another are a recurrent motif in Peake’s writing. A poem of 1939, ‘We Are the Haunted People’, figures the helpless lookers-on at the outbreak of war as visited by the shadows of ‘dark deeds’ on the continent – deeds that sow the horribly fertile seeds of propaganda and destruction. Then in Titus Groan (1946), the young earl’s father Lord Sepulchrave is a perpetually haunted soul, his brain thronged with imaginary owls, which eventually merge with the real owls in the Tower of Flints who tear him apart when he brings them Swelter’s corpse to feed on. And towards the end of his working life, Peake represents himself as troubled with apparitions just as terrible as the ones that killed Sepulchrave and the tyrannical captain. A manuscript of Titus Alone from the early 50s contains this fragment:[6]

Out of cloud the face emerges
Every night before I sleep
It is pale as when cold surges
Burn like frost upon the deep
It is pale this head of horror
Save for where its chin shines red
With the blood

The ghostly head, like the ashen body of the old sailor in ‘The Touch o’ the Ash’, is linked with the ‘cold surges’ of the sea; and it would seem that the nightmare recurred with increasing frequency as Peake’s final illness took a grip of him. After his hospitalization in 1958 he wrote the poem ‘Heads Float About Me’, in which phantoms float about the corridors of Holloway hospital terrifying Peake, while being ‘haunted’ themselves by ‘solitary sorrows’.[7] And the most frightening thing about these disembodied heads is that they ‘deny the nightmare / That they should be’. They are real, not just a nightmare; or else they embody something real, ‘the horror / Of truth, of this intrinsic truth / Drifting, ah God, along the corridors / Of the world.’ Since childhood Peake had known the worst of nightmares to be true, not merely fiction; and his experiences in the Second World War drove home ‘this intrinsic truth’ with terrible force.

Recently discovered sketch (c. 1940), with centaurs and soldiers

Two previously unknown drafts of poems he wrote about the Blitz during or shortly after the War give powerful, though quite different insights into the interaction between Peake’s fantastic imagination and the fantastic works of art being shockingly produced by global conflict. The first reminds us of something that Peake was intensely aware of: until he visited Bergen-Belsen in 1945, war’s atrocities were some thing he could only imagine, as he studied the astonishing shapes it left in the urban landscape – the visible marks both of its terrible impact and of its absence, the fact that he has missed the moment when that impact took place. His poems ‘The Shapes’, ‘London 1941’ and ‘The Craters’ (all published in his first collection, Shapes and Sounds (1941)) scrutinize the contours war leaves behind – the mournful beauty of shattered buildings, the emotional impact of the gaping pits and quarries dug by bombs; but for the events that produced them he had to turn to black-and-white newsreels and the colourful pictures furnished by his own imagination. And finding a way to imagine these events responsibly – to disengage them from what might be seen as his predisposition to glamorize violence, to revel in horror, and to delight in extremes of physical suffering for their own sake – was something, I suggest, that he found difficult. The two new drafts offer an insight into his difficulties.

The first of the drafts, ‘I was not there’, is a sketch for a poem first published in his prizewinning 1950 collection The Glassblowers and reprinted in Selected Poems (1975) and Peake’s Progress (1980). In all its published forms the title is ‘When Tiger-Men Sat their Mercurial Coursers’. And it was always printed without its final verse, so that nobody till now has known it had anything to do with the war. Indeed in Peake’s Progress it appears in a section called ‘Other Worlds’, as if to reinforce its nostalgic escapism. In one of his poetry notebooks, however – tentatively dated to around 1946, though many of the verses it contains were written earlier[8] – the poem is given a different title, and a fourth stanza, which fuses the other worldly with the experiences of the Blitz which Peake never lived at first hand:

I Was Not There

When Tiger-men sat their mercurial coursers,
Hauled into granite arches the proud fibre
Of head and throat, sank spurs, and trod on air
I was not there.

When clamorous Centaurs thundered to the rain-pools,
Shattered with their fierce hooves the silent mirrors,
When glittering drops clung to their beards and hair,
I was not there.

When through a blood-dark dawn a man with antlers
Cried and throughout the day the echoes suffered
His agony, and died in evening air
I was not there.

Even when Paul’s voluminous dome reflected
The apple-green and lilac fires; or swelling
Like an enormous Ethiopian breast, raw crimson
Weltered behind its rare
Sweep of plumbed midnight – when the air was madness,
When water shot like blood from serpent hoses,
And excellence was wrested from a nightmare
I was not there.

In this version, the notion of absence – of missing things – is enshrined in the title, whereas the title of the printed version laid emphasis on the visions Peake could conjure up so vividly despite never having seen them. And in ‘I Was Not There’, the central lack or loss is trans formed from a simple threnody for unwitnessed moments to a complex meditation on the relationship between the imaginary and the imagined, two spheres that get fused in Peake’s dreamscapes (and dreams are specifically evoked in the penultimate line). It’s worth reminding oneself here that much of Peake’s war was a time of frustration, as the young conscript was shunted from one army training camp to another in a quest to find some military role for him, while his appeals to have his real talents turned to good use through employment as a war artist were repeatedly turned down. Exclusion from the centre of things here extends from the source of his imaginative energy – the horses and man-horses which figure everywhere in his poems and pictures, and from which his conscription diverted him so fruitlessly – to the dazzling vision of St Paul’s Cathedral under bombardment, miraculously intact among the ruins of the City of London. The poet’s absence becomes an exclusion from ecstasy, both homoerotic and heterosexual, and one might detect in the poem at once the rage of the artist denied access to his art, the intense sexual frustration which is an integral component of military service, and the psychological disturbance generated by war’s perverse conversion of erotic energies and male bonding rituals into integral components of the military machine.

Illustration to a poem by Oscar Wilde

The first three stanzas record scenes of gigantic masculine energy. Each is marked by violence: the restraining of a horse as the rider hauls its head and throat into a semblance of architectural rigidity; the shattering of the peace of a mirror-like pool; the death (as it seems) of an antlered man, whose agony gives new voice and feeling to the old metaphor of the ‘blood-dark dawn’. Each stanza records the encounter between disparate elements: in the first, man and horse, concrete and air; in the second, centaur and water, clamorous thunder and silence; in the third, the antlered man and the air to which his suffering transmits itself. But the previously unknown fourth stanza is much more shocking. The disparate elements – the lights of the blazing city and the cathedral’s racialized darkness; the breast-like dome and the phallic hoses – are fused with more drastic violence than in any of the first three verses. The ‘raw crimson’ of the sky sounds like a wound, and the hoses like severed arteries, hideous pastiches of male and female genitalia. The wresting of excellence from a nightmare makes the agonized sexual act recorded here sound as though it has been forced on its participants, so that the work of art Peake imagines being created by the Blitz is also an act of violation, a dual rape. The stanza makes explicit what is only implicit in the first three stanzas – that the male energies being described there are erotic ones, which culminate in the orgasmic roar of a rutting stag, and that the sexual acts they describe are aggressive. The extent of that aggression is intensified by that fourth stanza, and rendered unnerving by the introduction both of an implied woman and of a racial dimension into the picture. The myth or legend of the first three stanzas thus becomes contaminated, forced to align itself with the abominable motives behind aerial bombardment.

‘Mother and Child’, from Peake’s Catalogue for an Exhibition of Work by the Artist Adolf Hitler (1940)

Many works of art produced in wartime, perhaps, have this sense of being the products of force or compulsion. One thinks of Peake’s well known poem about a Belsen inmate, which is filled with guilt about the cold artist’s eye he brings to the business of sketching the death agonies of a young girl, with a view to working it up into a great finished painting at some future date.[9] The fourth stanza of ‘I Was Not There’ is in some ways worse than this, in that its celebration of the ‘excellence’ of the fire-surrounded dome seems guilt-free. The fact that three clearly fantastical scenes have preceded it liberates the poet from the severe judgement to which he subjected himself at Belsen. Regretting that one was not present at the death of a legendary stag-man is unproblematic; regretting one’s absence from a real-life inferno is not; and it’s not clear from that fourth stanza whether the poet is ready to acknowledge the difference. It would be interesting to know if it was Peake himself or someone else who decided he should cut it when the poem went to press.

Illustration for The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (c. 1960)

The second of our two drafts comes from an early version of Peake’s long narrative poem, The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, a revision of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner (which Peake famously illustrated) written on Sark in about 1947.[10] I suggest in my introduction to the Collected Poems that this is the work in which Peake finally laid what he called his ‘war-ghosts’ to rest, sloughing off his sense of complicity with the global atrocities being perpetrated as he laboured to produce his art.[11] He achieved this exorcism, I think, by having the beauty of the Blitz witnessed by two innocents: a new-born baby (albeit an infant possessed of astonishing powers and unexpected knowledge), and the sailor who finds it in a gutter after a bomb has killed its mother. The innocence of these two witnesses is reinforced by the fact that both are denizens of a different element from the one in which they find themselves. The sailor is a figure from the maritime adventure stories Peake loved as a boy; his language makes him sound like a combination of Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver, the teenager and the murderously avuncular pirate, both of whom are badly out of their depth in wartime London. Cut off by fire from his beloved water, the sailor is confronted by real scenes more savagely absurd than anything in Stevenson’s fiction. And the baby, too, hails from the sea: the sailor calls it ‘little fish’, and when it suddenly gains a voice it reveals that it has shared many of his nautical experiences in previous lives. Together the pair reinvent the burning city as a scene from their seafaring past, turning blazing buildings into ships, flames into sea-flowers and red-hot ashes into the wide red mouths of figureheads. The baby’s comradeship gives the sailor courage to face his death, and by the time the ballad ends the ghastly beauty of the ruined metropolis has been retrospectively brought under control, tamed, as it were, by being harnessed to children’s fictions, without having its impact softened or diminished in the process.

Yet there is something missing from the poem: a specific absence at its core that becomes glaringly obvious once it’s been pointed out. As the pair take shelter in a shattered church, the sailor mounts the pulpit and announces that he is going to tell the baby a story. ‘Now listen to me while I sing you a tale,’ he announces, and goes on:

For the things I’ve forgotten for many a year
Are shouldering into my mind,
Of the time when my heart was a wave that heaved
To the gale of my sea-mad mind.

The infant at first seems keen to hear the narrative, but soon afterwards remembers that it has got plenty of sea-memories of its own, and asks instead to join him in a song. The early draft of the poem formerly held in the Bodleian Library, however, shows that the sailor did at one point begin to tell his tale; and it also shows why the full tale never got told. Here is the relevant section of the draft.

We had been at sea for a month or more
With the rich black coal below
But the storms had swept the bridge away
And the ship was a sheet of snow.

And the shining engines were red with rust
And the winter water lay
In mucky pools all over the coal
In the hold of our ship that day –

And there was no wind, and there was no warmth
And there was no water or food,
And our anchor was plunged in the freezing sea
As deep in the snow we stood.

The masts were gone and all was gone
But a thick white layer of snow
Like a poultice laid from end to end
With the two black dots to show

Where the last two men alive stood stiff
At the side of the ice-bound rail,
When out of the sea with a splash and a shout
Came a thing with a bright green tail.

Its cheeks were red as a sunset fierce,
And its hair streamed out behind
In a tangle of jet-black weed and its eyes
Were as yellow as lemon-rind.

Then up it lifted its great big head
From out of the murky sea
And opened the great salt merman curve
[Of] his mouth that was big as three.

‘And are you the crew of this ship of snow
That has so molested me
By dropping of your anchor at the door of my cave
At the bottom of the winter sea?

‘You have dropped your anchor across my door
And my wife is trapped inside
With our five blue chicks that are crying out their hearts
For a taste of the morning tide.’

Then the two stiff men cried, ‘Sorry we are
To have so disturbed your home,
But our captain it was who ordered us
To lower our anchor down.’

And our captain is dead and the crew is dead
And we are the last to go,
And we have no strength for to work the crank
And to haul back the anchor now.

‘We’re as frozen up as the engines are
And as cold as the ice on the rail.
But where O where did you get that hair
And that beautiful bright green tail?’

The merman he heaved himself aboard
And he swished the decks with his tail
And the white snow flew up into the air
And over the frozen rail.

‘Now I’ll answer you this and many things more,’
He said, ‘but I first must know,
With your arms so weak, what the deuce can be done
About the anchor that you’ve plunged below?’

His cheeks shone red and his yellow eyes
Were as bright as sovereigns in his head.
‘There’s only one thing can be done about this,
So listen to my words,’ he said.

‘You’ll never get home, and you’ll never find food
And you’ll have no strength to stir,
And you’ll freeze to death by the afternoon
If you go on standing here.

‘You must dive with me through the cold black sea
To my cave where your anchor stands,
And there you must marry a mermaid chill
With little white fins for hands.

‘And there you must marry a mermaid sweet
With a tail as long as your arm.
O it’s then you’ll have the strength for to move away
Your anchor from

And the rest is missing. By this point Peake must have known very well that his readers will have forgotten the Blitz, the baby and the sailor, as they mull over the problem of the trap the sailors find them selves in, and meditate, perhaps, on the relationship between this story and the old song ‘O ’twas in the broad Atlantic’. Peake has written himself into a dead end, and he dealt with it in the most sensible way he could: by stopping and going back to take up his tale at the point where the false trail began.

Long John Silver

This wasn’t the first time Peake had written himself into a hole, and on one occasion the hole had been very like this one. His unfinished early novel Mr Slaughterboard comes to a halt with another ship jammed in mid-ocean, impaled this time on a needle of rock improbably rising to within a few feet of the surface miles from the nearest shore.[12] The most notable feature of this ship, the Conger Eel, is its magnificent library, the Room of Books, where the Captain pores over the volumes he loves in the company of his eyeless servant Smear, and wonders what it would be like to add his own name to the illustrious register of dead authors. The closest he comes to doing so is by casually butchering his men, killing them off singly and in batches in the name of what he calls ‘art’. His brutality is unpleasant, but not especially disturbing, because it’s so obviously divorced from the world beyond the pages of Peake’s fiction. Smear’s eyelessness confirms his own and the captain’s determined self-segregation from the concerns and moral systems that govern other communities. As Peake puts it, ‘They formed their own Universe. Untouched by the workings of other minds, solely dependent upon themselves, they formed a cosmos of existence, a reality that moved and thought between the sea and the sky’. The marooning of the ship enables them to achieve their highest ambition: to be disconnected for ever from all inhabited countries, free to dedicate themselves to the workings of their own mental cosmos without reference to anybody else’s; and the Captain celebrates the moment with another bout of aesthetically-motivated slaughter. And this final orgy of killing again fails to disturb the reader because of the grotesqueness of the crew they slaughter, whose physical peculiarities mark them out as denizens of the Room of Books, like the Captain and Mr Smear.

‘Self Portrait’, from Peake’s Catalogue for an Exhibition of Works by the Artist Adolf Hitler (c. 1940)

But by the time he wrote The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, it was not so easy for Peake to justify casual slaughter in his writings, and the notion of aesthetically-motivated murder had become deeply disturbing. This shift in perspective was given visual expression in a series of pictures he drew in 1940, as a means of advertizing his skills to the War Artists’ Advisory Committee. The series purports to be a portfolio of pictures by the artist Adolf Hitler, and has as its frontispiece Hitler’s self-portrait, staring in horror out of the page at what was presumably once a mirror – but is now the reader, who seems to have been made complicit with the dictator’s crimes by becoming the focus of his gaze. At the time Peake drew this series he had not yet seen the horrors of war at first hand, and had to rely on reports and his own imagination to flesh them out. But he wrote The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb after witnessing the aftermath of atrocities on French, German and British soil, and the relationship between his wild imaginings and the world they obliquely reflected had undergone a radical change. No longer motivated primarily by a yearning to be absorbed into the world of books, his habitual use of the fantastic possessed a new urgency that fills the later pages of his novel Titus Groan. The merman fragment offers an opportunity to consider the nature of that urgency.

Illustration for The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (c. 1960)

Mr Slaughterboard’s ship and its occupants are things of fiction, which get transfixed in the course of a sea story that moves with seeming inevitability towards this goal. The story of the merman, by contrast, is dredged up from the sailor’s memory by what seems its polar opposite: the devastated London cityscape through which he wanders. The elements of fire and water have already become perversely fused for the sailor a few stanzas earlier, as the burning streets reassemble themselves into a bright pageant playing out his personal history: ‘And the ships of brick and the ships of stone / And the charcoal ships lurched by / While his footsteps clashed on the frozen waves / That shone to the scarlet sky.’ It is this pageant of fire and water, heat and cold that triggers his recollection of the merman incident, and he narrates it to the baby as a means of explaining the specific resonance that the London flames have struck in him, the particular ‘frozen waves’ he has in mind.

It’s clear enough why he sees these two traumatic moments of his life as related. The extremes of physical suffering produced by both environments – the Arctic seas and the wartime conflagration – are the same. In both cases, the miraculous emergence of a living person from a dead world is the same (the talking baby and the merman), suggesting against all likelihood that extremes of temperature may provide a congenial habitat for intelligent beings. And in both cases the being in question offers the sailor an uncanny escape route from what’s clearly an inescapable situation. In fact, both baby and merman can be read as the hallucinations of a dying mind, as it struggles to find an alternative to the intolerable inevitability of death. As the cold or heat becomes too intense to bear, the sailor discovers in each forbidding zone a native inhabitant, whose physical attributes – nakedness in the baby’s case, brilliant hues in the merman’s – proclaim their indifference to the flame or frost that is killing the sailor. This is a very different use of fantasy from Mr Slaughterboard’s exuberant self-indulgence; its escapism is a psychological necessity rather than a piece of adolescent whimsy, and the quest to find some sort of moral explanation, or even absolution, for the unjustified torment to which its protagonists are subjected, starkly contrasts with Mr Slaughterboard’s tormenting and slaughtering of his crew, which invites no moral justification at all.

‘Coming Up to Scratch’, from Figures of Speech (1954)

The merman story is sung in a church ‘To the tune of a bleeding hymn’; its impulse is religious, and marks religion in this context as a story that’s built from memory and fantasy, and from the desperation that fuses the two. The sailors in the narrative are frozen stiff until they are indistinguishable from the frozen vessel on which they’re stranded. There’s clearly no way out of their predicament except through death; and it’s in this extreme situation that a manifestation of the fantastic emerges godlike from the waves, adding the brilliance of oil colour – Peake’s painterly palette of greens, reds and yellows – to the whites, blacks and greys of the Arctic seascape. The merman also brings with him, godlike, both an accusation of guilt and a promise of forgiveness. Those who suffer invariably convince themselves that they deserve to suffer, so as to preserve some sense of the crude but safe moral coordinates with which they have been raised; and the merman brings a rationale for the sailors’ suffering in the form of a crime they have committed. The ship’s anchor has trapped his wife and children in their underwater cave, and the sailors will not be released from their torment until the anchor is raised again, the door of the cave opened and the family set free. Like Adam and Eve, or like conscripts accused of a crime against humanity, the sailors respond by transferring responsibility for their actions to a higher authority. It was the ship’s captain who ordered the anchor to be lowered, and the captain is now inaccessible, cut off from retribution, like most of his crew, by death. Like Adam and Eve and the rest of humanity, too, the sailors are incapable of atoning for their inadvertent crime under their own steam, as it were; they lack the strength to raise the anchor. Having confessed and sought to exonerate themselves, the men wait for divine judgement.

The merman’s judgement comes in the form of a solution to their impasse: they are to wed themselves to the elements that are killing them. First they must plunge into the inhospitable sea, then bind themselves by nuptial contract to an alien being: a ‘mermaid chill / With little white fins for hands’. Having performed this dual act of self-negation they will, he claims, gain the strength to raise the anchor, as if sexual and contractual union with a hostile environment has made everything within it easy for them. The merman anticipates their naturalization in the Arctic wastes in the fragment’s final stanza, where the once chilly mermaid is described as ‘sweet’, and her most alien feature – her tail – is measured against the familiar length of a sailor’s upper limb. In this way the fusion with ice and steel that was killing the sailors at the beginning of the extract is replaced by a marriage with cold black water and fishiness, that will inject them by some undisclosed means with the merman’s virile energy. Religion becomes the process of accepting – or rather of actively, passionately embracing – the causes of pain and destruction that you are too frail to fight. And it becomes, too, a fantasy, a dream born from desire, whose resistance to the remorselessness of wartime logic offers the only satisfactory solution to a problem insoluble by any other means.

Illustration to The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (c. 1960)

But the merman isn’t necessary to The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, as Peake recognized when he chose to stop writing about him. The sailor in wartime London has already found a god before he begins to tell this story – a miniature god which gently points out that it contains within itself all the sailor’s memories, desires and dreams – and this is the baby. While the sailor is gearing up to tell the merman story in the ruined church, the baby suddenly manifests its superhuman powers for the first time, responding to the sailor’s offer to narrate with a shrill cry of assent, then levitating in front of the pulpit, ‘Where it hovered with its hands clenched tight at its breast’ just next to an open Bible, like a latter-day version of Robert Southwell’s Burning Babe. The moment is a natural next stage in a process that began with the miracle of the baby’s discovery – when the sound of its heart in the midst of destruction astonished and awed the sailor. This miracle was reinforced by the sailor’s perception that the child is absurdly, insanely out of place (‘All bare and cold in that gutter of gold / You had no cause to be, / No more than it’s right for the likes of you / To be born in this century’); and led at last to his decision, after entering the church, to ‘worship’ the child for its ‘brand-new look’, its ‘fists like a brace of anemones’, and the miraculous ‘ticker’ it keeps in its fragile chest. The baby, then, provides an emblem of war’s absurdity, the incongruous juxtapositions it generates, and the fantasies that are the only apt response to these. And the comfort it dispenses is quite different from, and more imaginatively satisfying than, the strange sub-oceanic marriage offered by the sea-god as a solution to the sailor’s woes.

For one thing, the child refuses to adopt a position of judgement over the sailor – or of superiority to him – as the merman does. It refers to him as ‘sailor, saviour’, as if sharing its divinity with the dying man. Despite his scepticism, it extends to him the promise that he will share its ability to regenerate after death; and it gives him the benefit of its awareness that appalling events like the Blitz are nothing new, that they have precedents in history, and that therefore the sailor need not be erased from the earth with the disintegration of his body under the impact of the last flying bomb; after all, the baby is proof of this, with its new wrinkled arms and its astonishing memory for adventures, seascapes and people it has encountered in previous lives. Its only advantage over him, in fact, is that it remembers having ‘seen it all before’, and can therefore give him words of counsel as he drifts bleeding and blistered, with lacerated feet and unrecognizable face, towards his own particular death.

Illustration to The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (c. 1960)

More importantly, perhaps (and this is a comfort Peake needed as much as his Stevensonian seafarer) it reassures him that his fantasies – the visions of miracles which Peake always associated with his heart – have as much validity as a response to the world, and above all to the World War, as any historical, philosophical or political narrative lodged in the archives at the British Library or the Imperial War Museum. ‘For, sailor,’ it says, ‘there’s nothing that is not true, / If it’s true to your heart and mine, / From a unicorn to a flying bomb, / From a wound to a glass of wine’. It’s the sailor’s imagination, after all, that first made the baby’s environment bearable for it, as he showed it ‘the coloured lights’ of the burning city, ‘And the golden shoals of the falling stones / And the scarlet of the streets’ – thus making loveliness out of horror. It’s the sailor’s imagination which permits him to conceive of a loving afterlife, and to believe in the love he has found in this one, despite the fact that ‘There is no proof’, rationally speaking, of either. And it’s his imagination that gives the sailor his final, joyful vision, which transmutes the urban devastation into a maritime adventure far more dazzling than the merman narrative:

‘The masts are bright with silver light,
The decks are black with grass
And the bay’s so smooth that I can see
The blood beneath the glass.

‘And here’s a child, and there’s a child
Running across the bay.
They laugh and shout, “Look out! look out!
We haven’t long to stay!”

‘And here’s a man who somersaults
Across the mid-mast air.
The long-shore flames leap out to sea
And drag him by the hair.

‘And the guns that shine with oil and wine
Are smothered in sea-flowers deep,
And in the throat of every gun
A mermaid lies asleep.

‘And the figurehead with mouth so red
Is drinking up the sea…
O little babe, why won’t you leap
Aboard, and sail with me?’

So the mer-people do find a place in The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, after all, nestled in the mouths of cannons in an imaginary warship. And Peake’s wayward imagination, too, finds a role for itself with relation to the war. What may have made the War Artists’ Advisory Committee so reluctant to employ him was a perception that his work was better suited to conveying the unreal than recording ‘facts’.[13] The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, including the unprinted fragment about the merman, demonstrates the vital relationship between the material conditions of war and the fantasies to which it gives rise. Peake’s fantasies are composed of searing frost and scorching fire, of metal, stone, coal, glass, and all the matter that makes up a bomb or the destruction it causes. And they are anchored, above all, in the body, in its bones and internal organs, its flesh, skin, limbs and bowels. His position as artist can be summarized in one more unpublished fragment from the early 50s:[14]

Neither a sage nor plowboy dumb, I stand
A marvel and a clod in either hand
And in my breast a vacillating heart

Without Peake’s solid clods and marvels, fused together by his vacillating heart, our picture of what it was like to live through the calamitous nineteen-forties would lack one vital and little-explored dimension. The fragments unearthed here, with the evidence they give of the extent to which even Peake’s most extravagant fantasies are bound up with war and its aftermath, suggest that further exploration of fantastic writing in wartime would be well worth undertaking – no matter how inhospitable the land- and seascapes into which that exploration might take us.[16]

Illustration to The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (c. 1960)

NOTES

[1] Approximate dates for Peake’s poems are given in my edition of Peake’s Collected Poems, Fyfield Books (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008).

[2] Collected Poems, p. 165.

[3] See Peake, Titus Groan (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), pp. 281-85 (‘Knives in the Moon’).

[4] For‘The Touch o’ the Ash’ see Peake’s Progress, ed. Maeve Gilmore, corrected by G. Peter Winnington (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), pp. 45-61.

[5] See G. Peter Winnington, Vast Alchemies: The Life and Work of Mervyn Peake (London: Peter Owen, 2000), pp. 38-39, which gives an account of operations witnessed by Mervyn as a boy in China; also Malcolm Yorke, A Life of Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold (London: John Murray, 2000), pp. 24-26.

[6] UCL MS Add. 234, Box 4 (iv), sig. 32r. At the time of writing the manuscript was on loan to the library of University College London; it now forms part of the Peake Archive in the British Library.

[7] ‘Heads Float About Me’ can be found in Collected Poems, pp. 214-5.

[8] For details of the 1946 notebook – now in the Peake Archive at the British Library – see Peake’s Collected Poems, Introduction. ‘I Was Not There’ occurs on p. 14 of Notebook 2 (as I call it in my notes), and is typed.

[9] The Belsen poem is ‘The Consumptive. Belsen 1945’, Collected Poems, pp. 133-4.

[10] The full text of The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb is given in Collected Poems, pp. 178-201. The manuscript from which I took the text of the merman fragment was at the time on loan to the Bodleian Library, Oxford (Bod. Dep. Peake 5, fol. 33v-34v); it’s now in the Peake Archive in the British Library. I have added some punctuation. The rest of The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb is quoted from Collected Poems.

[11] See ‘They Move with Me, My War-Ghosts’, published in Peake’s first poetry collection, Shapes and Sounds (1941); also in Collected Poems, pp. 93-94.

[12] Mr Slaughterboard can be found in Peake’s Progress, pp. 63-94.

[13] Twelve of the 25 pictures are reproduced in Mervyn Peake: The Man and His Art (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 2006), compiled by Sebastian Peake and Alison Eldred, ed. G. Peter Winnington, pp. 66-69. An account of the series can be found on p. 65.

[14] Writing to Peake about his prospects of becoming a war artist, Sir Kenneth Clark observed that on the whole he seemed to be ‘much better away from facts’ (18th October 1940). Peake’s attempts to adapt his ‘non-factual’ artistic talents to the needs of the War Artists’ Committee – first by painting surreal representations of the Blitz, then by offering his services for the production of propaganda – can be traced through his (as yet unpublished) correspondence with Clark.

[15] The fragment was formerly held in UCLMS Add. 2.34, Box 4 (ii), fol. 30v, and is now in the Peake Archive. This contains an earlier draft of Titus Alone than the one in Box 4 (i), which gives as its earliest date December 1.

[16] Quite a bit has been written about fantasy in wartime since this was written; see for example Sara Wasson, Urban Gothic in the Second World War: Dark London (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010).