[This is the text of a keynote I gave recently at a terrific conference in Edinburgh, ‘Deeper than Swords: Fear and Loathing in Fantasy and Folklore’. It’s also a rough sketch, I hope, for something larger. Warm thanks to Anahit Behrooz and Harriet MacMillan for inviting me to give it!]
I’d like here to consider the work of Mervyn Peake as an extended exercise in what I’m calling the ‘poetics of piracy’. Peake had a lifelong obsession with pirates, born in part from his boyhood obsession with Robert Louis Stevenson: he is said to have known Treasure Island by heart, and his illustrated edition of that text, published in 1949, confirmed its continuing centrality to his imaginative life and artistic practice. The first book he wrote and published was a pirate story, Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939). One of his earliest surviving experiments in prose fiction, the unfinished Mr Slaughterboard (c. 1933-6), links piracy to the work of the artist in disturbing ways. His early verse is filled with the vocabulary of piracy, and pirates continue to emblazon and trouble his visual and verbal art throughout his career. It seems to me that thinking about what piracy meant to Peake can help us map out his peculiar relationship to what has come to be known as fantasy literature; to pin down its elusiveness, much as the map in Stevenson’s novel pins down the whereabouts of Captain Flint’s buried treasure – though it’s worth remembering that in the novel the chart obtained by Jim Hawkins proves an untrustworthy guide to the current location of the treasure in question. But then, that’s the point of the poetics of piracy; it’s all about the elusive, the illegal, the unsettling and the endlessly alluring, as seen in relation to the seemingly fixed and inviolable rules that govern the authoritative discourses of society, religion and science. I don’t promise, then, that I’ll be able to offer a conclusive account of Peake as a writer of fantasy; but his fascination with buccaneering literature and folklore can certainly explain why he so exasperatingly refuses to locate himself at the epicentre of any genre, which is itself, I think, a crucial quality of good fantasy fiction.
Peake’s most celebrated works of fiction, the Titus novels, have always had a vexed relationship to the fantastic. Nothing explicitly impossible takes place in them; they contain no magic; and indeed one of Peake’s few uses of the term ‘fantasy’ in the texts – when Titus encounters a wild girl known as the Thing – seems firmly to differentiate the physical environs of the titanic castle of Gormenghast from the immaterial fabrications of the human mind:
He was propelled forward by his imagination having been stirred to its depths by the sight of her. He had not seen her face. He had not heard her speak. But that which over the years had become a fantasy, a fantasy of dreaming trees and moss, of golden acorns and a sprig in flight, was fantasy no longer. It was here. It was now. He was running through heat and darkness towards it; to the verity of it all. (673)
For Peake, then, the imagination is stimulated by what exists, by the rich evidence of the senses which forms the basis of the visual artist’s training, as he or she scrutinizes live or inanimate models with the aim of populating the mind with the precise proportions, textures, contours and colours of the real. At the same time the Thing, as represented to Titus’s imagination from his first sighting of her at the age of seven, has come to represent a range of qualities with associations to the pirate stories Titus loves as much as Peake does. A thief, a rebel and an outcast, the Thing’s opposition to the monumental authority of the boy’s ancestral home is embodied in the free-ranging agility of her frame, its seeming ability to defy the laws of gravity as well as of the books of ritual that restrict the daily movements of the castle’s denizens. Rooted or earthed in the real, despite her airiness, she represents the liberty to spin dazzling new structures from the materials afforded by empirical observation. And she is also deeply disturbing to him, as pirates are, even to lovers of pirate stories. In both these associations – with liberty and with inward disturbance – she has affinities with the faculty of fantasy which has been placed at the heart of a peculiarly modern literary genre.
Fantasy has always been a disreputable object. Its ancient Greek roots meant ‘making visible’, an exposure of that which has been hidden, perhaps for good reason; while in later Greek the word associated itself with the concept of having visions, as well as with the less alarming process of showing, demonstrating, pointing out. When used to refer to the imaginative faculty, the source of its disreputability comes to the fore. For early modern English speakers the Imagination or Fantasy was the part of your brain that received the evidence of the senses; but it was also capable of representing to your mind the images of things not actually present, which would seem to ally it with the faculty of Memory. The difference was that Memory was an orderly faculty full of shelves and files labeled in alphabetical and chronological order, grouped under headings and carefully connected with one another through a range of logical associations. The business of organizing mental images was that of the Understanding, which interposed itself between the unruly space of the Fantasy or Imagination and the storehouse of the Memory. Understanding, then, was a kind of sorting office staffed by efficient functionaries; while there was a wildness about the Fantasy before the Understanding got hold of it, an innate tendency to disconnect the mental image from all association with its original contexts, or to link images together which had never been conjoined in reality: tacking a fish’s tail or a horse’s body onto a human torso; assembling elaborate fusions of elements from different life forms to create griffins, dragons, and chimeras of all kinds. Memory was associated with maturity, with a settled awareness of one’s intellectual, social and moral responsibilities. Fantasy was associated with the playful, sometimes destructive or self-destructive exuberance of youth.
Some thinkers, like the Elizabethan poetic theorist George Puttenham, have always warned against inventing fictions altogether, since this could permanently distort one’s judgement of what is real. He split the fantasy into two kinds: the good sort, which conveyed things to the understanding ‘right as they be indeed’, and the bad sort that filled the analytical parts of the mind with false impressions. Poets, he said, should confine themselves to drawing on authentic memories or accurate representations of extant things when composing their verses; they should be historians. Writing about what never happened or could happen distorts not only the past but the efficient functioning of the present. Lawcourts could have their findings compromised by made-up testimony. Religions could become corrupted, as Plato said had happened in ancient Greece when poets allowed themselves to reimagine the gods. Governments could find their policies determined by non-existent threats or possibilities. For Puttenham as for Plato, irresponsible poetic fictions can proliferate like viruses, spawning insurrections, illusions and errors as they spread.
For the modern poet Jeffrey Robinson, Puttenham’s distinction between responsible and irresponsible fantasy – between the practice of poetic and intellectual realism and what we now call ‘making things up’ – endured in a subtly different form into the age of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and the revolutionary movements that arose from it. Robinson identifies the famous distinction between the Imagination and the Fancy in Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (1817) as a struggle to distinguish between the orderly functioning of the imaginative faculty as, in effect, a tool of authority, imposing its unified vision on everything it comes in contact with, and its deployment as an instrument of exploration or discovery, a light skiff or launch capable of skimming from image to image, from one idea to the next, irrespective of the accepted relations between the various objects of its attention. The Fancy, which is etymologically linked with Fantasy, is for Robinson the precursor of twentieth-century modernist poetic experiment; but his list of its qualities could also serve as a description of how the genre of Fantasy Literature has often been perceived in modern times:
A faculty that acknowledges ‘the referent’ through the playful, unpredictable, erotically engaged, unregulated mind of the subject, without a ruling regard for the socially acceptable […] The Fancy […] begins to emerge as whimsical, playful, trivial, physical, sexual, and popular, more than enough reasons for the poetry of the Fancy to trouble the cultural police. […] Indeed, its triviality and whimsicality is precisely what keeps it from remaining a polite ornament of the literary aristocracy. […] Poetry of the Fancy isn’t about ‘work’ or ‘usefulness’ but about play. As do children, poems of the Fancy play seriously.
The qualities of ‘fancy’ as Robinson describes them here have survived from the early modern period to the present day in attitudes to the word fantasy, which is now a term of opprobrium in ordinary discourse, no longer dignified by association with a necessary mental function but used to denounce the childish failure to take proper account of the material conditions that govern our economic, social, political or even physical circumstances. Fantasy is irresponsible, fleeting, flippant, self-indulgent, infantile, wayward. As a result it’s also dangerous, especially when used as a guide in our daily actions. Too much fantasy can make you go blind.
The poetics of piracy are not the same as Robinson’s poetics of fancy, and they aren’t necessarily connected to the fantasy genre as we now understand it, since the folklore of piracy springs from what are deemed to be real people and real social practices, rooted in history. The origins of modern pirate folklore lie in an early eighteenth-century book, Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1725), which recounts the purportedly factual adventures of a number of buccaneers whose names have passed into common currency: Bartholomew Roberts (better known as ‘the Dread’); Blackbeard; Calico Jack; William Kidd; and Israel Hands, who lent his name to the man shot dead by Jim Hawkins on the rigging of the Hispaniola. I don’t know if Peake was familiar with Johnson’s book, but all three of the principal texts he drew on for his boyhood dreams of piracy certainly were. Treasure Island is the first and foremost. The second, mentioned in Peake’s short story ‘I Bought a Palm Tree’ (1948), is that classic account of survival, piracy, and the healing powers of missionary work, R M Ballantyne’s The Coral Island; while the third is J M Barrie’s Peter and Wendy. To look at Peake’s work through the prism of these three novels is to recognize the dominant role played by buccaneers not just in his plots and images but in his aesthetic philosophy, not just in his early years but throughout his life. His poetry, prose and pictures owe an incalculable debt to the figure of the sea-wolf as imagined by Ballantyne, Stevenson and Barrie, and a full understanding of the development of his most celebrated creation, Gormenghast Castle, can only be achieved by asking oneself why the notion of piracy should have proved so endlessly suggestive to this quintessential mid-twentieth-century artist.
What, then, do the pirates of legend and literature bring with them? First of all, they’re associated with boyhood and youth, as Peake knew very well. Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor was a pirate book for children, and he drew dozens of pirate pictures for his sons in the Sunday Books – exercise books in which he sketched for them on Sundays – to such an extent that Michael Moorcock’s recent novelization of that document was more or less forced to take pirates as its subject. Like children, pirates have no sense of responsibility, breaking laws freely, abandoning families, friends and partners whenever they feel like it, killing each other on the slightest of pretexts without a qualm (children do this in play). Their resistance to convention is given physical expression by their mobility: pirate ships sail the seas at the whim of the crew, not in obedience to instructions from outside authorities as is the case with most seagoing vessels. At the same time there are severe constraints on a pirate’s freedom, the chief of these being the ship itself, which confines its crew within a narrow circuit more effectively than any building or institution. Pirates are also often subject to tyranny. The imposition of the captain’s will by force, widely practised on other vessels, takes its most extreme form in the spontaneous and inventive acts of cruelty practised by certain legendary leaders among the buccaneers – though there’s also a folkloric tradition of more or less democratic practices under the sign of the Jolly Roger. Rituals govern them: the necessary rituals associated with the everyday running of the ship, supplemented by additional oaths, codes, rules or agreements enforced with threats of appalling violence. Pirate ships are often represented as all-male communities, and this too imposes constraints: certain forms of behaviour are associated with masculinity in any given culture or period, and the lack of any alternative gender perspective can mean that notions of ‘manhood’ govern the pirate’s thoughts, desires and actions. Same-sex desire is perhaps more widespread under these conditions than in mixed-sex communities, and though this has traditionally tended to be eschewed in children’s fiction, it’s worth noting how central it is to Peake’s own children’s book, Captain Slaughterboard, which is one of the few narratives of the period to place what is clearly a homoerotic romance at its centre. Other piratical concerns are economic (they indulge in plunder – a word Peake uses repeatedly in his verse to describe the process of absorbing the physical wonders of the world through the eye – and conceal their treasure, which clearly works against the principles of capitalism); geographic and artistic (treasure maps are as inseparable from pirate culture as their icon, the Jolly Roger); and dramatic (pirates like to dress up and make theatrical speeches, and everyone else likes to dress up as pirates). To sum up: breaking national, international, moral and sartorial laws is what pirates do – sometimes by imposing laws of their own – and they do it as flamboyantly as possible. That, at least, is the folklore, and it’s from folklore as conveyed through literature that piracy derives its energy.
In the literary folklore there’s another association with pirates that hasn’t been much discussed, which is their complicated relationship with the middle classes. It’s Stevenson, I think, who’s responsible for this link. The young hero of Treasure Island, Jim Hawkins, is the son of an innkeeper – the kind of job in the service industry that a retired pirate might well choose for himself, as in effect Long John Silver has done when Jim first meets him; but when mutiny breaks out he decides to throw in his lot with the ‘gentry’ rather than the sea dogs. Jim’s allies in the book are the local landowner, Squire Trelawney, a physician called Doctor Livesey, and Captain Smollett, and his adventures see him make the transition from servant (he is employed before the cruise alongside the squire’s gamekeeper, and serves as cabin boy on board the squire’s ship) to junior partner in the economic enterprise of seeking the titular treasure. At the same time Jim is strongly drawn to the charismatic ship’s cook, Silver, who has an astonishing ability to make himself equally attractive to the working men of the crew and to their masters, and who switches sides between them at a moment’s notice when it suits his interests. Silver, in fact, represents another aspect of pirates: their ability to merge with other communities, springing spontaneously out of the disciplined ranks of a legitimate crew and melting away into anonymity as soon as they disembark at the end of a voyage. Whatever his class origins, Silver’s easy relations with all classes, his predatory focus on economic self-interest, his insouciant pleasure in legal and economic risk-taking, his constant reinvention of himself as innkeeper, cook, friend, conspirator, captain, rebel, trusty servant and eventually fugitive, all stand to endear him to the guilty bourgeoisie who secretly share many of his values and even some of his techniques. The ease with which Jim might find himself on Silver’s side can be measured by the speed of Ralph’s capture and impression as a pirate in The Coral Island; but where Ralph never feels at home aboard the pirate ship – at least until he acquires it for himself – one can imagine Jim feeling thoroughly at home with Silver once committed to his cause.
Piracy, in fact, can represent the middle classes’ flirtation with working class culture; and this is confirmed by the personality of that most middle-class of pirates, Captain Hook, who is haunted by his failures during his schooldays at Eton, and who shares his persona in crucial ways with Peter Pan: both feel the lack of a mother, both enjoy a little swordplay, and both tyrannize over their social inferiors, giving vent to their moods whenever they feel like it and indulging in occasional bouts of disloyalty or outright betrayal. Both, too, thrive on having enemies, to the extent that Peter’s bereavement of Hook at the end of the novel compounds the sense of desolation generated by his effectual marooning on his island by Wendy and the Lost Boys. Hook and Peter represent the middle-class view of piracy – a temporary game in a contained alien space which arouses forbidden lusts (for blood, dictatorship, extreme risk-taking, imaginative self-indulgence) only to suppress them as the book draws to a close, allowing its young reader to return, perhaps a little embittered, to his or her preordained role in polite society.
Mervyn Peake’s attachment to piracy is everywhere apparent in his poems. Pirates and the poetics of piracy as I’ve sketched it out enable him to articulate his fierce resistance to the economic and social pressures that threaten to curtail his practices as an artist, and to acknowledge the link he sees between the destructive energy of violence and the creative stimulus he derives from the natural world. The earliest verses in the Collected Poems figure the dawn as a potentially piratical act of murder: ‘The’invisible scimitar of Morn, / Again had passionately torn / And slashed the Sky’s pale neck’, which culminates unexpectedly in a birth: ‘And in that welter of living fire / Be-jewelled and robed to his heart’s desire / Was born – young Day’. This three-way link between blood, fire and new life continued to resonate in Peake’s mind into the 1940s, finding its most startling expression in the encounter between a decidedly piratical sailor and a newborn baby in the fires of the Blitz in his 1947 ballad, ‘The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb’. An equally troubling association between beauty and violence emerges from Peake’s frequent references to the artist’s absorption of information through his senses as a process of piratical looting. In ‘If I Could See, Not Surfaces’ (1937), for instance, he speaks of his desire to ‘plunder splendor / At the womb’, and of how this activity promises to feminize him so that he can ‘give bold birth / To long / Rivers of song’ (so birth comes into the equation here too). These are neither of them specifically buccaneering references, but there are plenty of those, from the description of the artist Mané Katz’s Paris studio as ‘a pirate’s glutted locker’ (1937) to the account of unemployed young men in ‘The Cocky Walkers’ (c. 1937) as skidding ‘Their careless privateer’ down the ‘seas’ of London streets ‘Agog for a gold island / Or a war / With penny pirates on a silver sand’. In 1942, when Peake suffered a nervous breakdown in the army, he pictured himself and his fellow patients at Southport Hospital as sickly sea-dogs, ‘The swashbucklers / Who have to be in bed by half past nine […] The unconvincing pirates of the ward’. And if in his last known poems pirates aren’t mentioned by name, the imagery of the sea and its devastations lingers on, as in ‘Great Hulk down the Astonished Waters Drifting’ (c. 1958), which records what could well be the aftermath of a life of piracy:
Where is her captain and the golden shore
Where danced the golden sailors? Where’s the sea
That sang of water when the heart was free
And mermaids sang where mermaids swim no more?
In all these verses, creativity and the artist’s receptiveness to beauty have an intimate connection to wandering, illicit adventures, flamboyant masculinity, playfulness, mutiny, pain and bloodshed – a potent and disturbing fusion that testifies to Peake’s sense that there is no officially sanctioned place for his kind of art (imaginative, grotesque, inflected by the influences of romanticism and popular culture) in the mid-twentieth century, any more than there is a place for psychiatric patients in the military machine.
For Peake as for Barrie and Stevenson, piracy is both at odds with and strangely attuned to the values of the middle classes. His most elaborate working-out of his buccaneering aesthetics was the eccentric prose narrative Mr Slaughterboard, whose titular pirate captain sails the oceans with a cargo of books lovingly preserved in a seaborne library, where he spends his days discussing literature with his manservant Smear, ‘An eyeless deformed creature dressed as if about to catch a train to London Bridge’. The narrative culminates in a massacre, Mr Slaughterboard having been assailed by an attack of creativity (‘the Captain was becoming aesthetic. Always dangerous’) which makes him command his crew to swim repeatedly under his vessel in a series of ever more demanding competitions until they are all wiped out. The captain claims to have a conscience, but it’s the kind that favours his leather-covered volumes of Dickens above human lives, that celebrates the aesthetic at the expense of his crewmembers, and that privileges the accumulation of an ever-increasing and diverse plunder of beauty – literary and visual – over everything else. Self-centred, murderous and godless, Mr Slaughterboard nonetheless shares the tastes of the bourgeoisie for all the components of conspicuous consumption – high culture, good clothes, congenial company and attractive surroundings – with a bourgeois disregard for the material processes by which they fall into his hands.
If the link between beauty and death lay at the heart of Peake’s aesthetics, then the outbreak of war must have come as a shock for him – not least because what it represented for him was a drastic extension of aesthetic ‘plunder’ for his inward piratical treasure chest or locker. As war swept over Europe he wrote two fine sonnets which responded with simultaneous horror and exhilaration to the beauty of warplanes: ‘The Metal Bird’ (c. 1937) and ‘Where Skidded Only in the Upper Air’ (c. 1939). During the Spanish Civil War he wrote a sonnet on the Spanish mannerist painter El Greco (1938), which reads his strangely elongated and brightly-coloured saints as premonitory visions of the bombing of Guernica: ‘Their beauty, ice-like, shrills – and everywhere / A metal music sounds, cold spirit shriven’. When World War 2 broke out Peake responded with a series of drawings in the style of Goya, showing works purportedly painted by ‘the Artist Adolf Hitler’ using the fields and towns of Europe as his canvas, in which standard studio subjects – ‘Family Group’, ‘Reclining Figure’, ‘Study of a Young Girl’ – are reconceived as images of atrocity, modeled on the real atrocities Hitler had sanctioned in his quest for power. Peake’s poetics of piracy had found a rival in the irresponsible, lawless, plunder-loving artist figure from Austria, who reproduced in actuality, using human material, the aesthetics of piracy as practised by Mr Slaughterboard. The collision between one version of piracy and another – between the buccaneering spirit of the lonely heart and the cold privateering of a would-be pirate dictator – provides the plot of the first two Titus books, Titus Groan (1946) and Gormenghast (1950). The books delineate an epic struggle over Peake’s imaginative territory, embodied in a monstrous post-medieval castle which doubles as a middle class household, its seemingly interminable rooms occupied by doctors, teachers, poets, and lonely children who might have been modeled on the inmates of British boarding schools. And it’s suffused from beginning to end with the poetics of piracy, shared freely between the youthful upstart Steerpike and the rest of the castle’s denizens, as if Peake is concerned to find a way to rescue his beloved buccaneering from its enforced association with the aesthetics of Nazism.
As G Peter Winnington has shown us, Gormenghast is an island full of natural wonders, prowled by bizarre creatures (all its denizens get linked to beasts at one point) and subject to violent natural forces, some of them as awe-inspiring as the tidal wave in The Coral Island (a calamitous snowfall, a period of scorching heat, a flood). As the novels proceed it becomes a territory ripe for exploring, inhabited by various tribes, each with its own exotic customs and cultural practices: the teachers of Gormenghast school, for instance, who can be seen ‘squatting like aboriginals upon their haunches’, or lurking in the shadows ‘like bandits in a bad light’. Despite being made of stone, it also resembles a ship by virtue of its creaking timbers, its cargo of unexpected treasures, the piratical manners of its crew. Like a ship the place is full of hammocks, from Rottcodd’s in the Hall of the Bright Carvings to the hammock Steerpike slings under the table at the Dark Breakfast, or the hammocks occupied by Bellgrove and Irma when the flood waters rise in the second volume. Even authority there has a piratical aura. The Master of Ceremonies, Barquentine, is named after a ship – the kind Captain Cook used when he sailed to Australia – and stumps around on a wooden leg like an elderly Silver, cursing and threatening violence wherever he goes. Lady Gertrude is a giant pirate with a booming voice, who has a horde of affectionate birds instead of a parrot, a bevy of white ship’s cats and an utter disregard for any authority besides her duty to what is effectively her ship – the castle itself. She is constantly being compared to a vessel, and her language is a pirate’s, as when she swears to track down the killer of her husband at the end of Titus Groan: ‘Let them rear their ugly hands, and by the Doom, we’ll crack ’em chine-ways’ (p. 347). Her daughter Fuchsia, meanwhile, is sometimes one of the natives of the territory colonized by the sea-wolves, sometimes the sea-wolves’ young accomplice, a female Jim Hawkins. She enters her private attic like a pearl diver entering the sea, ‘his world of wavering light’, and moves through it with the confidence of a Cherokee or a Sioux, knowing every inch of it ‘as an Indian knows his green and secret trail’. One of the items she keeps in the attic is a pirate portrait of ‘the twenty-second Earl of Groan’, who has ‘pure white hair and a face the colour of smoke as a result of immoderate tattooing’ (p. 57). Once ensconced in her lair beneath the rafters, she reads a nonsense poem about a seaborne cake who is pursued by an amorous and deadly piratical knife; and the poem proves prophetic, since it’s there that she encounters Steerpike, who presents himself (after reading her books and guessing at her tastes) as a bold adventurer, a rebel and a dangerous would-be lover – a kind of landlocked pirate.
The servant classes of Gormenghast, too, have piratical aspects. The grotesque physical appearances of Flay and Swelter recall the bizarre bodies and outlandish manners of Mr Slaughterboard’s crew, and its inspiration, Captain Hook’s crew in Peter and Wendy (‘Bill Jukes, every inch of him tattooed […] Gentleman Starkey, once an usher in a public school and still dainty in his ways of killing […] Noodler, whose hands were fixed on backwards’). The climactic battle between Flay and Swelter in the Hall of Spiders evokes the random duels to the death between grappling pirates in Treasure Island. They turn the Hall into a feverish nocturnal tropical island, full of ‘lianas’ of trailing thread, oppressive heat and reflections from water:
As pirates in the hot brine-shallows wading, make, face to face, their comber-hindered lunges, sun-blind, fly-agonied, and browned with pearls, so here the timbers leaned, moonlight misled and the rank webs impeded.
In this context Swelter comes into his own, moving ‘more and more like something from the deeps where the grey twine-weed coils the sidling sea-cow’. He also acquires a distinct resemblance to Long John Silver, who had, if you remember, ‘a face as big as a ham ’; so too, as Swelter stalks Flay we learn that he has a ‘great ham of a face’, which seems at odds with its earlier representation as a place of opening and closing cavities of fat. At the climax of the battle Swelter moves yet further into pirate territory. His freshly-slain corpse becomes a vessel, with Flay’s sword sticking out of it ‘like a mast of steel’ (p. 318). Flay’s own piratical apotheosis has to wait till he becomes marooned, transforming himself into a ragged and hairy Ben Gunn whose cave contains not treasure but – in the end – the Thing – for it’s in Flay’s cave that Titus finally catches hold of her, acquiring in the process the sort of imaginative ‘plunder’ Peake recorded in his poems.
The central form piracy takes in the Titus books is its embodiment in two boys: the upstart Steerpike and Titus himself. Both are rebels who dream of taking charge of their own destiny; both rove freely across the landscape of the castle; both detest the oppressive weight of authority, and both trigger acts of treason and rebellion again and again throughout the two novels. Steerpike, at the beginning, is the one who discovers the castle’s potential as a setting for romance, scaling its precipitous walls like a young adventurer scaling cliffs, unveiling its hidden wonders such as the terrace open to the sky, and spinning exotic yarns to Fuchsia like the old sea-cook Silver in his galley (and of course Steerpike begins the book in the galley or kitchen too). But Steerpike is also a thief, who steals other people’s romances – notably Fuchsia’s – and uses them to further his own ends, thereby destroying their imaginative landscapes as he destroys Lord Sepulchrave’s library. In the second book he seeks to supplant young Titus as the protagonist – and it’s striking how he seems if anything to get younger in that book, as if to make this possible: playing games such as walking on his hands for no good reason, tormenting the Twins like a bullying schoolboy, cutting off Barquentine’s hair in clumps with a pair of scissors as he walks behind him, acquiring a catapult which he uses to deadly effect. The analogy to Peter Pan grows increasingly obvious. As he approaches Barquentine’s bedroom, planning to murder him, his shadow gains an independent life of its own in one of Peake’s most astonishing virtuoso passages (the shadow grows and shrinks until it becomes a ‘thick and stunted thing – a malformation, intangible, terrible, that led the way towards those rooms where its immediate journey could, for a while, be ended’, p. 567). Later Steerpike learns the pipe, Peter Pan’s instrument; and before the end of the book he has started to crow like a cock, Peter’s trademark cry of triumph: first over the corpses of the Twins he murdered – then, fatally, as Titus plunges towards him through the ivy in the final showdown between the two young men.
Meanwhile, he retains both the adaptability of Long John Silver – able to speak to any denizen of the castle in his or her own language whenever he chooses – and his casual murderousness. When Steerpike kills Flay, he does it in much the same way as Silver kills the young sailor, Tom, who refuses to join his mutiny. In Treasure Island Jim watches in horror as John ‘whipped the crutch out of his armpit, and sent that uncouth missile hurtling through the air. It struck poor Tom, point foremost, and with stunning violence, right between the shoulders in the middle of his back’; and Silver follows the missile ‘agile as a monkey’ and ‘twice buried his knife up to the hilt in that defenceless body’ (p. 97). In the same way Steerpike flings a knife at Flay, watched by the horrified Titus, and ‘while the blade […] still quivered in his heart […] following the path of the flung knife, as though he were tied behind it, sped over their shoulders and was in the upper room before they could recover’. Once a fugitive after the killing, Steerpike seems to come into his own; he finds his Satanic solitude in the deserted places of the castle utterly congenial, and embraces it so completely that he generates a Silver- or Pan-like aura around himself even as the manhunt closes in, convincing his pursuers that he could ‘hide in a rudder’, as the Countess puts it.
Titus too is a rebel, an explorer of the castle, a congenital loner, and a player of games (though his game is marbles, not theatrical posturing). His imagination, much more than Steerpike’s, is possessed by pirates. As he muses in a sun-drenched classroom, one of his marbles spawns another astonishing flight of fancy – sunny and colourful, in marked contrast to the passage about Steerpike’s shadow:
Wading towards him, dilating as they neared until they pressed out and broke the frame of fancy, was a posse of pirates. They were as tall as towers, their great brows beetling over their sunken eyes, like shelves of overhanging rocks. In their mouths were hoops of red gold, and in their mouths scythe-edged cutlasses a-drip. […] And still they came on, until there was only room enough for the smouldering head of the central buccaneer, a great salt-water lord, every inch of whose face was scabbed and scarred like a boy’s knee, whose teeth were carved into the shapes of skulls, whose throat was circled by the tattooing of a scaled snake.
Following the pirates’ example, Titus breaks out of the ‘frame of fancy’ – making his daydreams real by playing hooky on Gormenghast Mountain, seeking out the castaway Flay in his cave, evading the rituals that are meant to define his days, and finally tracking down his rival Steerpike in a feverish daze, as if infected by the marshes of Treasure Island, to engage him in single combat. In the process of pursuing his piratical dreams, Titus sees the castle fulfil its potential as the stronghold of liberating romance, as against the authoritarian prison of the policed imagination – or the grim playground of a dictator, which is what Steerpike seeks to make it. At the beginning of the second novel, Peake points out how the castle holds all the ingredients of an adventure story, a boy’s own thriller: ‘Here all about him the raw material burned: the properties and settings of romance. Romance that is passionate; obscure and sexless: that is dangerous and arrogant’. By the end of the book the potentialities of that material, which lay dormant at the beginning, have been activated by the twin energies of Titus and Steerpike. As the floodwaters rise around it, making of it a fitting stage for the conclusive fight between them, Gormenghast becomes a true island, not just the copy of one; the morose Bright Carvers become pirates or Indians, skimming about the castle’s perimeters in the canoes they have carved; the Professors take to the water, steering their dilapidated boats through corridors in fulfillment of their own daydreams of liberation from their sun-drenched classrooms; Bellgrove and Irma take to their hammocks and find new contentment in their marriage; and the Countess becomes the pirate captain she was always meant to be, issuing orders for the summary execution of the traitor she has vowed to gut.
The interesting part about all this is that Titus, too, is a traitor, who proclaims his hatred for the castle’s ritual to his mother at the very moment when he brings her news about the whereabouts of the traitor Steerpike. If Steerpike was Fuchsia’s would-be seducer, Titus is the Thing’s, and both the women they covet end up dead. If Steerpike is a bundle of contradictions – cold and calculating yet whimsical, murderous yet capable of astonishing empathy, treacherous yet ready to master every detail of the pointless rituals he despises – Titus is full of contradictions too, in his love and hate for Gormenghast, his pride at and disgust with his inheritance as the Earl of Groan. This ‘terrible antithesis within him – the tearing in two directions of his heart and head’ – is made up of a ‘growing and feverish longing’, an ‘ineradicable, irrational pride’ in himself and his lineage, and ‘the love, as deep as the hate, which he felt, unwittingly, for the least of the stones of his loveless home’. The antithesis brings him so close to his enemy Steerpike that before long the other young man has stolen his boat – the light canoe or skiff he associates in his mind with the Thing – and paddled off in it as if to take his place at the centre of the narrative. Antitheses are the stuff of the poetics of piracy, as I hope I have shown. In placing them at the centre of his narrative, Peake made an enduring statement about the state of things – especially, perhaps, about the state of England in and after the Second World War – which he could have articulated in no other way.