Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines the treatment of evil in Mervyn Peake's work. In early works such as ‘The Touch of the Ash’ and his Slaughterboard tales, Peake amused himself with the cardboard characters of boys' stories. In Titus Groan, he depicted a character who consciously and deliberately chooses to do evil in pursuit of power, which led to his most developed – and literary – examination of human evil in Gormenghast, as Steerpike's choices reduce his options until he is cornered, literally and figuratively, and killed. Having done this, Peake began to reflect on the relationship between evil and art.
How do we know what is evil? What is evil to you is not evil to me.
Listen to her. ‘How do we know what is evil?’ she says. It is all written down. There are the ten commandments, heretic!
Not everything is written down. (Cave, Act III)
Crocodiles … cannot recognize fear any more than they can recognize evil. If they did recognize evil I doubt whether it would change their habits. But man is not like that. (MP118)
- O foul descent! that I …
- … am now constrained
- Into a beast, and mixed with bestial slime.
- (Paradise Lost, IX: 163; NAEL I: 1965)
THE NOTION OF EVIL came to preoccupy Peake with increasing acuity. In early works like ‘The Touch of the Ash’ and his Slaughterboard tales, he amused himself with the cardboard characters of boys' stories. In Titus Groan, he depicted a character who consciously and deliberately chooses to do evil in pursuit of power. This led to his most developed – and literary – examination of human evil in Gormenghast, as Steerpike's choices reduce his options until he is cornered, literally and figuratively, and killed. Having done this, Peake began to reflect on the relationship between evil and art.
Between writing Titus Groan and Gormenghast, he visited the newly liberated concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, and the experience no (p.172) doubt contributed to his depiction of Steerpike's villainy. It also made him question the nature of man and wonder if some people might have no ability to choose the good, or even awareness of having choice, and be therefore incapable of anything but evil. In the immediate postwar years, he wrote a poem about such a man, whose very head and hands, eyes and mouth ‘Leave him no option but to harm / His fellows and be harmed by them’ because he was ‘built for sin, / As though predestined from the womb’ (Gb1). In ‘Boy in Darkness’, written in the early 1950s, Peake explored these new anxieties (as hinted at by the title itself). For Titus Alone he created a character called Veil, ‘born with a skull so shaped that only evil could inhabit it’ (136). (The word veil is an anagram of evil as well as both vile and live. The reader may like to observe how often veil and vile appear in the quotations in this chapter: Peake associates them with evil right from the beginning of Titus Groan.) However, a character who can do only evil may be philosophically interesting but having no human complexity does not involve the reader. We cannot project into Veil as we can with Steerpike.
Peake was also worried by the accidental evil that characterizes all creation. ‘Bad’ things happen all the time, to animals as to man. During the Dark Breakfast in Titus Groan, rainwater leaking through the roof of the castle causes a puddle to form on the floor of the refectory. ‘Near the margin of this inner rain-fed darkness an ant is swimming for its life, its strength failing momently for there are a merciless two inches of water beneath it’ (TG406). The natural world can be ‘merciless’ because it is quite unaware of the consequences of its working. In Mr Pye, a drifting dead whale disrupts a missionary meeting. Such things are bound to happen in a world that enjoys freedom of action; they are caused, in nature as in man, by lack of awareness. (Peake never states what he seems to imply, that the ultimate cause is the absence of God.)
As we saw in the chapter on animals, creatures like the cat (TG57), the lynx, the hawk and the vulture (TG136), or the lilac jellyfish floating in the depths of the sea in Mr Pye (15), are conscious only of their own behaviour. The self-possession and self-sufficiency that distinguish them from man make them innocent. Conversely, when humans act without awareness and cause harm, they are to blame. Even the need to relieve simple urges like an itch or a full bladder provides Peake with examples. To scratch himself, Barquentine rubs his back against a wall,
disturbing in the process a colony of ants which (having just received news from its scouts that the rival colony near the ceiling was on the march (p.173) and was even now constructing bridges across the plaster crack) was busily preparing its defences.
Barquentine had no notion that in easing the itch between his shoulder-blades he was incapacitating an army. (G161)
By behaving with the unselfconsciousness of an animal, he causes a disaster in the world of the ants, just as nature's unthinking actions wreak havoc in ours. For Peake no thoughtless action can be called entirely innocent.
In Titus Alone a naked baby in the Under-River piddles on the ground. Within moments,
in all innocence, and in all ignorance, it has saturated a phalanx of warrior ants who, little guessing that a cloudburst was imminent, were making their way across difficult country. (TA122)
In that infant Peake would have liked to see ‘an innocence quite moving to behold. A final innocence that has survived in spite of a world of evil.’ But that would presuppose a total absence of self-awareness in the child, reducing it to the level of an animal, like the Thing or Tintagieu. So Peake was left with a paradox: ‘would it be too cynical to believe that the little child was without a thought in its head and without a flicker of light in its soul?’ he asks (TA122). He never resolved the problem of accidental evil.
On the other hand, he knew that self-absorption and private purpose in man make him behave with the unselfconsciousness of an animal. Peake regularly calls Veil the ‘mantis man’ for this reason, as much as for his physical appearance. (It also suggests a praying/preying pun.) Unlike the two women glimpsed smiling at each other ‘with unhealthy concentration’ in Titus Alone (27), Veil cannot be blamed for his behaviour. ‘His body, limbs and organs and even his head could hardly be said to be any fault of his, for this was the way in which he had been made’ (TA129). Steerpike, on the other hand, is fully human, able to experience and express a range of values such as Peake observes in the face of the newborn Titus: ‘Sin was there and goodness, love, pity and horror’ (TG96). But Steerpike decides on his own separate purposes and independent action: he inflates his self with ambition. Although he is represented at the last as ‘the skewbald beast’ of Gormenghast (G406 and 427), he is no animal, and not blameless. To Peake's missionary ancestors the evil of his purposes would have been obvious; today, when self-development and self-sufficiency are viewed as virtues, Steerpike seems (p.174) far less reprehensible to readers who admire his initiative and courage. He is a fine example of the attractiveness of evil depicted in art.
When he wrote Titus Groan, Peake believed in man's ability to choose, to discern ‘the gap between evil and innocence’ (G169). His characters may err out of ignorance or lack of self-awareness, but like Bellgrove they hope that ‘ultimate innocence, like a nest egg, awaits its moment in the breasts of sinners’ (G339). On the other hand, when they do things that they know to be bad, and abuse their freedom by deliberately choosing evil, a point of no return is soon reached. Steerpike's career is an exemplum of just such a journey to hell.
In writing as in drawing, Peake had the ‘poetical character’ defined by Keats: he took ‘as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen’; he made no attempt to censor the ‘light and shade’ of the imagination and its products ‘foul or fair’ (as Keats put it in his letter to Richard Woodhouse, 27 October 1818; NAEL 2: 894). Peake's terms for it are more Blakean: his pencil could evoke both ‘heaven and hell’ (CLP2). He depicted pure innocence and also created a horrific portfolio purporting to be ‘by Adolf Hitler’. Likewise Fuchsia imagines on her attic stage ‘fierce figures’ that ‘brooded like monsters or flew through the air like seraphs’ (TG80). Having no preconception of the plot of Titus Groan, and acting as an ‘Authorjehovah’, Peake granted independence to his characters, allowing them to evolve as they would. Created with this attitude, uncensored works of art inevitably depict good and evil alike. Thus the foul Steerpike rose from the shadow regions of Peake's imagination.
With eyes that, for all his 17 years, ‘were dark and hot with a mature hatred’ (TG45), Steerpike represents ‘the dark side’ right from the start. Exploiting one of the oldest symbolic polarities that associates light with good and dark with evil, Peake depicts him leaning against ‘the shadowy side’ of a pillar (TG32) in the foetid castle kitchen. Later, Steerpike tells Fuchsia that he loves her ‘as the shadows love the castle’ (G356). In the final pages of Gormenghast, as the flood waters rise and the hunt drags on, Titus recalls ‘the days when there was no Steerpike at large like a foul shadow’ (438). Once cornered, Steerpike takes refuge on a ledge ‘where the shadows were at their deepest’ (472). From first to last, Peake associates him with shadow; neither his motives nor his actions will bear the light of day.
To establish Steerpike as ‘a shape still darker than the darkness’ (G357) chapter 19 of Titus Groan, ‘Over the Roofscape’, opens with a passage in the anaphoric style of Dickens's evocation of fog in Bleak House:
(p.175) The darkness came down over the castle and the twisted Woods and over Gormenghast Mountain. … Darkness over the four wings of Gormenghast. Darkness lying against the glass doors of the Christening Room and pressing its impalpable body through the ivy leaves of Lady Groan's choked window. … Darkness over the stone sky-field where clouds moved through it invisibly. Darkness over Steerpike, who slept, woke and slept fitfully and then woke again. (TG131)
Darkness ushers in the night. A year later, as Steerpike looks down into the burning library from the top of his improvised ladder, Fuchsia, preparing to break the window from the inside, finds herself staring into ‘a face framed with darkness’ with eyes like ‘narrow tunnels through which the Night was pouring’ (TG319). With these dramatic words the chapter ends. There is no explanation for the capitalized ‘Night’ and no further reference to it in the book. Yet its terminal position suggests that it meant much to Peake.1 He knew the physiological reason for the look of Steerpike's eyes: their pupils have dilated the better to see in the dark. He shows the same thing in the Twins: as they gaze at Barquentine, their pupils are ‘so wide open as to cause these caverns to monopolize their faces to the extent of giving to their countenances an appearance of darkness’ (TG405–06). Symbolically, night stands for the primordial darkness before God declared ‘Let there be light!’ – what Milton calls ‘the wide womb of uncreated Night’ (Paradise Lost II: 150; capitalized in most editions but not in NAEL 1: 1839). He in turn would have known that for Spenser, Night is the mother of Falsehood. Whatever its origin, that capital letter in Peake signals that, as Steerpike discovers the pleasure of inflicting fear and pain on the Groan family, he stands for evil itself.
His first evil trait is his propensity to manipulate other people, treating them as disposable objects. Escaping from the kitchen, Steerpike divines the enmity between Flay and Swelter and attempts to play them off against each other. Flay locks him in the octagonal room while he thinks about what to do about him. Sent back to Swelter, Steerpike might ‘put it to the chef that he had been lured away from his province and incarcerated for some sinister reason of his own invention’ (TG125). Steerpike solves his dilemma by escaping them both. With its combination of exploitation, manipulation and incarceration, this little episode contains a pattern that (p.176) is repeated and amplified throughout Titus Groan and Gormenghast until it ends with Flay's death at the hands of Steerpike.
By allowing Steerpike to peep through the spyhole, Flay unwittingly provides him with a new aim in life: ‘an occupation among those apartments where he might pry into the affairs of those above him’ (TG53). This phrase not only reveals Steerpike's acquisitive mind but also contains a metaphor that Peake instantly literalizes (or should we say materializes, here?). Up is the direction of status and power. Steerpike becomes a social climber, up the wall from the octagonal room, and up through the ivy to the window of Fuchsia's attic, just for starters. He advances rapidly up the social ladder of Gormenghast: from the kitchen to the Prunesquallors' and the Twins'; then he becomes amanuensis to Barquentine, who through the ritual wields the true power in the castle. Steerpike wants power and the more he has, the more he wants. Eliminating Barquentine, he becomes Master of Ritual himself. With Titus still a minor, he is effectively the ruler of Gormenghast. As we know from Lord Acton, power corrupts, and it corrupts Steerpike absolutely.
Peake's spatialization of power along a vertical axis takes up a dead metaphor that permeates our language; a politician rises to power, or falls from it, for instance, just as we look up to someone we admire (which puts us in their power) and look down on those we scorn (and therefore feel we have power over). Steerpike does not have exclusive rights to this metaphor; even Fuchsia succumbs to it as she looks down from her attic window on the morning of her brother's birth. Seeing little knots of people congregating in the squares and alleys of the ‘poor quarter’ far below, she asks, ‘What are they all doing like a lot of ants down there? Why aren't they working like they should be?’ (TG82). Looking down upon the rest of the world has always aroused feelings of superiority.
Steerpike's aims crystallize in the episode of the stone skyfield. After escaping from the locked room, he decides to climb to the highest vantage point, ‘an area the size of a field’ overlooking ‘the heavy, rotting structures of adjacent roofs and towers’. By the time he reaches it, there is just enough light for his ‘greedy eyes’ to ‘devour the arena’ (TG130). Then ‘the sun withdrew’ (TG131). Unable to sleep, he undertakes to grope his way round this high terrace in the darkness. As he does so, the weather changes; ‘a kind of weight seemed to lift from the air, and … he stopped as though his eyes had been partially relieved of a bandage’. Steerpike is going to receive some kind of revelation:
(p.177) he felt, rather than saw, above him a movement of volumes. … That there were forces that travelled across the darkness he could not doubt; and then suddenly, as though another layer of stifling cloth had been dragged from before his eyes, Steerpike made out above him the enormous, indistinct shapes of clouds following one another in grave order as though bound on some portentous mission. …
Then came the crumbling away of a grey veil from the face of the night, and … there burst of a sudden a swarm of burning crystals, and, afloat in their centre, a splinter of curved fire. (TG133–34)
The moon that lights his darkness is the third motif associated with Steerpike.
There are two ways in which Peake associates the moon with evil. The first harks back to the artist and his created world that takes ‘the colour of the globe it flew from, as the world itself is coloured by the sun’ (D11). By appearing to shine with its own light, when in fact it only reflects the sun's, the moon comes to be associated with dishonesty and falsehood. Moreover, ‘it's a coward anyway. Only comes out at night!’ (TA176). When the wandering Titus sees the moon, he ‘hated its vile hypocrisy of light; hated its fatuous face; hated it with so real a revulsion that he spat at it and shouted, “Liar!”’ (TA11). The second link is equally traditional. In a poem, Peake writes how, ‘When God had pared his fingernails / He found that only nine’ slivers lay on his tray. ‘“Rebellion!” cried the Angels. “Where / Has flown the Nail of Sin?”’ (RoB20). It is there in the sky, the moon. As in Crabcalf's lifework, the moon ‘figures quite a lot’ (TA176) in Peake's writing.
While Peake does not specify whether Steerpike receives his ‘portentous mission’ directly from the moon and the ‘forces that travelled across the darkness’ or conceives for himself his ‘purpose most immediate’, of the effect there is no doubt. By the light of the stars and this ‘splinter’ of moonlight, ‘it was possible for Steerpike to continue his walk without fear’ (TG134). The next morning,
it was as though he found himself transplanted into a new day, almost a new life in a new world. Only his hunger prevented him from leaning contentedly over the warming parapet and, with a hundred towers below him, planning for himself an incredible future. (TG135)
Overnight Steerpike coalesces into a man of ambition. I write ‘man’ advisedly, for so far the narrator has referred to Steerpike as a boy; from now on, only the other characters call him ‘boy’. What is more, until this moment (p.178) Steerpike's name was ‘Smuggerly’ in Peake's manuscript; the change of name reflects his new identity. Under the pen of an ‘Authorjehovah’, he begins to lead his own existence, characterized by independent affirmation of self, and a quest for power conducted through guile, hypocrisy and lies. He becomes a Machiavel, exploiting every object and person that he encounters. His conscience he flings ‘so far away that were he ever to need it again he could never find it’ (G14).
More than four years after writing this passage, Peake saw his own creative process enacted by glassblowers at work. He was much impressed by the idea that sand, ‘once … perhaps, the sea-doomed castle of some long-dead child’, can be turned into a hollow glass vessel at the end of a blowpipe:
Far from gull-wailing strands, it has become the burning mother of transparency. Sand. No longer the fast sky; the coughing wave. Girdled in a grey fastness of masonry, welkined with crasser substance than the clouds, it has found its purpose. And from its huge transmutation lucence breaks.
The imagery combines not just the ‘grey fastness’ of Gormenghast, the sky and clouds of this moment of Steerpike's transformation, but even the cry of the gull, which is what he thought he heard when the infant Titus was being carried to the library (TG226). What is more, the glassman's final act is to knock the vessel from the end of his blowpipe ‘with frightening ease’ (Convoy 25). The object he has created becomes separate and independent. Like Steerpike, ‘it has found its purpose’ (Convoy 27).
Following this new departure, Steerpike has no more to do with the Flay-Swelter feud, and never returns to the peephole opposite the Countess's room. But the stone skyfield itself, which he wishes to exploit the moment he discovers it (TG130), becomes a means to manipulate Fuchsia (TG158–59). Furthermore, the bird's eye view that it affords feeds his desire to dominate and shows him two things: Fuchsia's attic window – his only means of re-entering the castle – and the Twins on their tree, so distant that they seem to be ‘about the size of those stub ends of pencil that are thrown away as too awkward to hold’ (TG137).
The Twins are Steerpike's first victims – and the cause of his downfall. He uses them as stooges, stand-ins for himself, feeding their jealousy and their desire for power, promising them golden thrones and making them set fire to the library. But he overestimates his ability to control people and events. Unable to prevent the Twins from talking about the burning, (p.179) and realizing that ‘through terrorism and victimization alone could loose lips be sealed’ (TG479), he pays them a nocturnal visit in the guise of Death. With Sourdust's skull stuck on the end of his swordstick, he threatens them with ‘strangling in a darkened room’ (481) if they cannot hold their tongues. He enjoys playing Death, savouring the phrase, ‘I murder in a darkened room’ (480). In the end, sensing that he is losing his grip on them, he carries out his threat by starving them in a windowless apartment, heartlessly discarding them like those pencil stubs that have become ‘too awkward to hold’.2 Like every murderer respectful of literary tradition, he returns to check that all has gone according to plan, unwittingly leading investigators to the scene of his crime.
With the Twins Steerpike discovers sadism. When he makes them sit in the lake, the ‘twist of his lips’ reveals ‘the vile, overweening satisfaction he experienced’ (TG475). At this stage he can still restrain himself. ‘Directly he had seen, tasted and absorbed the delicious essence of the situation, his voice rapped out: “Go back!”’ (TG475). Later, he becomes addicted to humiliating them, making them crawl beneath a carpet. Were it not for the sick pleasure this gives him, ‘it is to be doubted whether he would have gone to all the trouble which was involved in keeping them alive’ (G48).
At first it seems as though Steerpike might have a soft spot: as he prepares to burn down Lord Sepulchrave's library we learn that
destruction in any form annoyed him. That is, the destruction of anything inanimate that was well constructed. For living creatures he had not this same concern, but in a well-made object, whatever its nature, a sword or a watch or a book, he felt an excited interest. (TG264)
But even this scruple is swept away in pursuit of his aim. He pushes a priceless vase off a mantelpiece merely to impress the Twins; with evident satisfaction he breaks a ‘long oval window of blue glass’ that blazes ‘like lazuli – like a gem hung aloft against the grey walls’ (G257) of the castle. As Mr Pye discovers, feeding one's vices stimulates the appetite to the point where it becomes more natural to do evil than good.
In Titus Groan Peake avoids all reference to Christianity (except for (p.180) the name ‘Pentecost’). Steerpike is assisted by Hardyesque ‘questionable gods’ (TG144). Gormenghast, on the other hand, includes specific references not only to Satan – Barquentine swears at Steerpike ‘by the piss of Satan’ (G166) – but also to God, Heaven and Hell. The concept of sin (not mentioned in Titus Groan) is there too: in leaving the Ceremony of the Bright Carvings to seek out the Thing, Titus knows that he commits ‘the sin to cap all sins’ (G407). In this novel, ‘to sin was to sin against Gormenghast’ (G267). What is more, Peake conceived this book on an epic scale: ‘Surely so portentous an expanse should unburden itself of gods at least; scaled kings, or creatures whose outstretched wings might darken two horizons. Or dappled Satan with his brow of brass’ (G15).3 The language here recalls Milton's depiction, in the opening lines of Paradise Lost, of the Holy Spirit, ‘with mighty wings outspread’ (I: 20; NAEL 1: 1818) and later on of Satan's ‘contemptuous brow’ (IV: 885; NAEL 1: 1892). As Gormenghast progresses, Milton's influence becomes apparent.
In rising to become Master of Ritual and challenging the young Earl, Steerpike may be compared with Milton's Satan, who starts out as God's right-hand man, but loses this enviable position to the newly promoted Son. In protest Satan organizes a revolt in Heaven; defeated by God he is thrown down into Hell, which is specially created to receive him and his acolytes. Refusing to acknowledge defeat, Satan rejoices in his infernal kingdom. In Gormenghast Steerpike shares Satan's pride and desire for power. On his way through the uninhabited part of the castle where he has incarcerated the Twins, he
exulted in it all. In the fact that it was only he who had the initiative to explore these wildernesses. He exulted in his restlessness, in his intelligence, in his passion to hold within his own hands the reins, despotic or otherwise, of supreme authority. (G257)
Like Satan, Steerpike savours all the hellish qualities of the place:
The air was chill and unhealthy; a smell of rotten wood, of dank masonry filled his lungs. He moved in a climate as of decay – of a decay rank with (p.181) its own evil authority, a richer, more inexorable quality than freshness; it smothered and drained all vibrancy, all hope.
Where another would have shuddered, the young man merely ran his tongue across his lips. ‘This is a place,’ he said to himself. ‘Without any doubt, this is somewhere.’ (G258; Peake's emphases)
That Peake was thinking of Hell is confirmed by terms like ‘evil authority’. He even alludes to Dante's famous phrase, ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’. When Steerpike is finally surrounded by the flotilla of makeshift craft, he sees with ‘overweening pride … in this concentration of the castle's forces a tribute to himself’ (G471). Although he is no fallen angel, for he starts from the kitchen rather than an elevated place in Heaven (which suggests a parodic intent on Peake's part, as does the fact that Lord Sepulchrave has died while the son is yet an infant), there is often little to choose between Steerpike and Satan.
Peake's most Miltonic passage is also one of the most extraordinary in Gormenghast, a four-page account of Steerpike's journey across the castle, during which his shadow seems ‘every whit as predatory and meaningful as the body that cast it’. Even when it disappears for a moment, it remains ‘like the evil dream of some sleeper who on waking finds the substance of his nightmare standing beside his bed – for Steerpike was there’ (261; Peake's emphasis). The narrator wonders why this should be, and why this particular shadow should evoke a sense of darkness:
Shadows more terrible and grotesque than Steerpike's gave no such feeling. … It was as though a shadow had a heart – a heart where blood was drawn from the margins of a world of less substance than air. A world of darkness whose very existence depended upon its enemy, the light. (G263)
In Paradise Lost the existence of Hell depends on God, ‘the Celestial light’ (I: 245), whom the fallen angels consider as their enemy. Steerpike's shadow likewise depends on light for its existence.
At this point Peake causes an ‘almost unprecedented’ darkness to fall over Gormenghast (as occurred at Christ's crucifixion). A phrase like ‘the world had been swathed away from the westering sun as though with bandages’ harks aback to Steerpike's revelation on the stone skyfield. Although Peake declares it to be ‘a freak of nature and no more’ he simultaneously suggests that it might have a supernatural origin, ‘as though the sense of oppression which the darkness had ushered in had more than a material explanation’ (G262). (‘More than material’ is Mr Slaughter-board's euphemism for the spiritual in man.) To drive off this darkness, (p.182) the inhabitants of the castle light ‘every available lantern, burner, candle and lamp’ – a scene that is paralleled at the killing of Veil in Titus Alone, which takes place by the light of multiple lamps (131). As a result,
The walls of Gormenghast were like the walls of paradise or the walls of an inferno. The colours were devilish or angelical according to the colour of the mind that watched them. They swam, those walls, with the hues of hell, with the tints of Zion. The breasts of the plumaged seraphim; the scales of Satan. (G263)
In addition to all the verbal echoes of Paradise Lost in ‘devilish’, ‘angelical’, ‘hell’, ‘Zion’, ‘seraphim’ and of course Satan himself, the central statement about perception repeats Satan's claim that ‘The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n’ (I: 254–55; NAEL 1: 1823), which in turn reminds us of Hamlet: ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so’ (II.ii). Peake would have us believe that Steerpike's evil derives, at least in part, from Hell itself and participates in the eternal battle between God and Satan.
The following paragraph sees Steerpike ‘come to something very like an isthmus … that joined one great mass of sprawling masonry to another’ (G263). The image of the isthmus, followed by references to ‘continents of stone’, shows that Peake is thinking in terms of womb and tomb, life and death; indeed, Steerpike is on his way to kill Barquentine. His shadow moves ‘a little forward of its caster’, as though to anticipate the act, leading the way ‘towards those rooms where its immediate journey could, for a little while, be ended’ (G264) – as will Barquentine's life. But Steerpike bungles the murder. Outwitted, he saves himself by leaping out of the window with the burning Master of Ritual still clutching him; they fall into the stagnant moat below, where Steerpike drowns Barquentine. Above them, ‘the moon like a nail-paring floated unsubstantially in the low north. It cast no light upon the earth’ (G275). This sliver of moon is Sin, and the light that casts no light repeats Milton's celebrated oxymoron describing hell, where there is ‘no light, but rather darkness visible’ (I: 63; NAEL 1: 1819).4 Then Peake evokes the epic simile with which Milton compares Satan, after his fall into the burning lake of Hell, (p.183) with Leviathan, ‘in bulk as huge / As whom the fables name of monstrous size’ (I: 195–96; NAEL 1: 1822).
Deep in the horrible waters of the moat the protagonists … still moved together as one thing, like some foul subaqueous beast of allegory. Above them the surface water through which they had fallen was sizzling and steam drifted up invisible through the darkness. (G275)
In this episode Steerpike is badly burned, so that he himself suffers what he threatened to inflict upon the Groans and the Prunesquallors in the library fire; in addition to the post-traumatic stress that racked them, he experiences the physical pain that they were spared. Peake has a sense of poetic justice – and punishment by fire is traditionally what Hell is all about.
A few pages later, Satan returns as the name of the monkey that Steerpike acquires and dresses for Fuchsia (G355). What, one wonders, was Peake's intention here? Was it only so that, after Fuchsia has refused the gift, Steerpike can say that the monkey wants to know who he belongs to, which immediately tells us who Steerpike belongs to? At any rate, the monkey serves later as a literal stand-in for Steerpike, its tail being cut off by the Twins' great axe. Thereafter both tail and monkey disappear entirely from the story – except perhaps for the moment when the search for Steerpike begins: there is hope that ‘sooner or later, in the corner of some eye, the tail of his shadow would be seen’ (G389), thus ensuring that Steerpike's diabolical nature is kept before the reader's eye.
Meanwhile, Fuchsia's rejection of Steerpike and her accusation that he is ‘going soft’ (G357) bring home to him the precariousness of his situation: ‘there was that in Gormenghast that, with a puff, could blow him into darkness’. And in his mind's eye his future takes the shape of a pit into which he stares helplessly. ‘What then was this pit, wherefore was its depth, and why its darkness?’ he wonders (G361), echoing Satan's self-question on seeing Hell: ‘Into what pit thou seest / From what height fall'n’ (I: 90–91; NAEL 1: 1820). It's not only in Steerpike's mind that the pit – a traditional meronym for Hell and a favourite of Milton's – is present, for by the time he has reached the Twins' apartment ‘his darkred eyes were like small circular pits’ (G384) – and it's tempting to add (remembering the burning of the library) ‘through which the Night was pouring’ (TG319).
By now Steerpike has lost all self-restraint and thrills with ‘the evil knowledge of the power [of life and death] that was now his’ (G345). (p.184) He shudders with ‘a kind of lust’ for ‘unbridled evil’ (G385), ‘a lust for killing’ (G442). Just as Satan rejoices in having brought Death into the world, so Steerpike celebrates his success with a war dance around the skeletons of the Twins. It is the climax of his career, for he is observed; from this point on he can only go downwards towards that pit.
When Prunesquallor attempts to arrest him, Steerpike thinks he makes a choice, but Peake points out that his lust for evil is such that he has now passed beyond choosing. To capture, trial and punishment he prefers ‘a nether empire … the dark and terrible domain – the subterranean labyrinth – the lairs and warrens where, monarch of darkness like Satan himself, he could wear undisputed a crown no less imperial’ (G386). In other words, he adopts Satan's motto: ‘Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav'n’ (I: 263; NAEL 1: 1824).
Following Milton like this leads Peake to use terms like ‘empire’, ‘monarch’ and ‘imperial’ that are incongruous in the world of Gormenghast. We can accept that Steerpike should disappear ‘like a snake into a rock’ (G446) and that Titus should think of him as a ‘lithe and ingenious fiend’ (G489), recalling the serpent in the Garden of Eden (and the snake in the grass of Virgil's Eclogue III), because there has been a snake writhing beneath Steerpike's ribs ever since his first meeting with Fuchsia (TG163). Likewise the evocation of ‘the long-drawn hiss of the reptilian rain’ (G264) takes us to that moment in Paradise Lost when all the fallen angels are transformed into snakes and can only hiss their approval of Satan (X: 508–21). But Gormenghast contains military images quite alien to Steerpike's experience yet characteristic of Paradise Lost, which repeatedly evokes the vast armies of myth and history. For instance, realizing that all his plans are ruined, Steerpike shudders with ‘the glory of knowing himself to be pitted, openly, against the big battalions’ (G385). ‘It was war, now. Naked and bloody’ (G443). Thus we find his mind engaged in ‘a warfare of the gods’. It paces ‘over no-man's-land, over the fields of the slain, paced to the rhythm of the blood's red bugles. To be alone and evil! To be a god at bay! What was more absolute?’ (G444). This leads to his hope that, in his last stand, he will be able to
create some gesture of supreme defiance, lewd and rare; and then, with the towers of Gormenghast about him, cheat the castle of its jealous right and die of his own evil in the moonbeams. (G495)
(p.185) The military metaphors are pure Milton, and that final phrase, ‘jealous right’, is typical of Satan's view of God. Gormenghast becomes Peake's Paradise Lost.
THE IMPLICATIONS OF WHAT he had done were not lost on Peake. To start with, by making Steerpike the antagonist, not to say the hero of Gormenghast, he had been celebrating him, or at least celebrating what made him diabolical. Satan invented Sin by imagining revolt against God in Heaven (II: 760) and brought it into this world; Steerpike, with ‘his restlessness … his intelligence’ and ‘his initiative’ (G257) brought evil into the world of Gormenghast, where ‘Evil and doubt were one. To doubt the sacred stones was to profane the godhead’ (G267). What they share is their inventiveness, their ability to imagine the unthinkable, and the energy with which they pursue their malevolent aims. So Peake's ‘poetical character’ placed him in a position much like Milton's: as Blake observed, Milton ‘was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it’ (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell). Having recognized his camp, Peake began to write explicitly about the conflict between art and religion.
His plays of the 1950s dramatize the making of works of art and the fears that they awaken. In a radio play first broadcast in 1954 as ‘A Mural for Christmas’, then revised and broadcast two years later as ‘A Christmas Commission’,5 an artist is invited to paint ‘a fresco of Christ's Nativity’ (W&D106) on the wall of an English country church. The large white wall ‘yawning to be filled’ (106) by the artist's imagination rehearses the images and sense sequence of Peake's creative process identified in the opening chapter. The artist feels ‘frightened’ because the commission challenges his confidence in himself, ‘as an artist and as a man’, and in his faith – ‘or lack of it’ (111): he paints out of love for painting, not love of God. He is also afraid of how ‘the Little Men’ (112) of the congregation will react to his work. They correspond to those ‘countless apes’ (D8) that Peake opposes to the rebel artist; in Mr Pye, for instance, Thorpe has fled from ‘the jungle of London with its millions of apes’ (184). Here they are likened to ‘the hippopotamus, the scorpion, the gadfly and the python’ – people who, for lack of awareness, are impervious to beauty and aggressive towards artists. ‘How would you like them in your congregation?’ asks the painter. ‘They'd be a change from sheep,’ returns the vicar, dropping his voice (114). For all their protests, the Little Men are (p.186) not interested in ‘the glory of God’ either; they only want the even tenor of their lives, the ‘winter sleep’ (114) of their self-absorption, to continue undisturbed. The artist's work will inevitably shake them up.
These Little Men are largely inspired by fear. They fear all art that departs from their Christmas card stereotypes and ‘distracts’ (113) them from their worship. They also fear that, because art depicts evil, it may offend God and ‘blacken’ (Cave, Act II) them in His eyes. In another of Peake's plays on this theme, an artist has carved a gargoyle for the local cathedral. His father hates it and protests that he
would not be surprised if Our Lord came down those steps and beat you to the ground and trod upon your evil, blasphemous throat. I would not be surprised if He should burst apart this vile, unnatural Beast, this graven image. … It is revolting to think of it upon God's house – crouched on some buttress, leering like a devil. (Act II)
His artist son responds that a devil is just what it is meant to be – but ‘a happy devil. … Happier than many of us’. The Little Man's basic fear is summed up by the first Warden in ‘A Christmas Commission’:
I am an ordinary man. I have no pretensions. I am not a highbrow. But by God's grace I know when I am right. I know when there is danger to our church. I know the devil when I see him. I can smell him out. And this [mural] … this is one of his works. (W&D116)
For the Little Man, art brings with it a whiff of hell; it awakens fears of damnation.
Here Peake is revisiting Christianity's age-old quarrel with art. When the painter confesses that he feels that his ‘power to create is deeply challenged’, the response is:
Warden 1 ‘To create.’ Listen to him!
Warden 3 Creating should be left to the Creator.
Warden 1 He talks as though he were God.
Warden 3 Who is the only Creator. (W&D114)
But the artist knows that his God, as a fellow creator, would approve. In The Cave, the sculptor finds himself in the same camp as the heretic, Mary, who judges his gargoyle quite differently: (p.187)
God will enjoy it. Not the God of vengeance and torture. Not your great bully who sits astride the sky. It will make him angry. He will ask what it means. The great and impossible fool. (Act II; Peake's emphasis)
In short, Christianity equates the creative energy of the imagination that is expressed by art with the ‘quenchless vitality’ of evil (BiD191). Peake concludes that ‘Art and religion sail on separate keels / Through separate waters’ (W&D111) – the maritime metaphor reminding us that both are also responses to man's solitude. So their respective definitions of evil are equally different.
Art is procreative and forward-looking: it brings about change by imagining the new and different. Religion is reactionary and backward-looking; it clings to sameness and the past. In art, today's revolution is tomorrow's cliché – which the Little Men love. Peake's artist observes sorrowfully that Van Gogh's sunflowers ‘were high explosive once. They (p.188) made men angry. But now they are almost tame … the shock has gone’ (118). Out of their fear of change, the Little Men find the innovative art of their own time evil, and so the artist suffers from rejection of his work.
In ‘A Christmas Commission’, the congregation's immediate response to the new fresco is horror and hatred. Only a child finds it exciting and greets it with delighted laughter. After 10 years, though, familiarity makes it seem comfortingly banal, at which it's the artist's turn to protest:
Did you hear what they said? They find my mural ‘soothing’. O God, it used to live when it was hated. When people mocked it and spat at it.
He draws a parallel (already implied by the mocking and spitting) between Christ, whose revolutionary message has become soothingly conventional, and his painting, whose shocking originality is now perceived as ‘charming’ and ‘restful’.
Restful? Was Christ restful? I would rather have returned to find my fresco scraped to the plaster in a fit of passion. I would rather it was smashed by vandals, than to find this apathy … this unawareness. (118)
The Little Man's ‘unawareness’ is the animal side of man, his tendency to fall back into ‘the morasses of the valleys’ between ‘the giant crests of a mountain range that links the great rebels’ (D8). Art should offend and make people think differently, about God as well as about life, but the apes would rather not think – or feel (W&D118). The evil they see in art leads them to reject it.
This not only confirms that Peake was aware of being of the Devil's party, it also supports my view that the Titus books are about the creation of a work of art which experiences social rejection in Titus Alone. Starting as a revolutionary idea that is in itself change in a society dedicated to changelessness, it is ‘exhibited’ at the Black House.6 There Titus suffers ‘the supreme degradation’ (214), exposed, mocked, spat at and scratched (p.189) by Cheeta in a fit of passion. Around 1950, while Peake was reflecting on this topic, he produced a series of paintings and drawings depicting the mocking of Christ. The artist might wish the shock value of his work to endure, but it makes for persecution to be of the Devil's party. Being a creative artist not only parallels the work of God but leads to being treated as His Son was.
Nor is this all. Out of fear, the Little Men themselves bring evil into the world by inventing. In The Cave, the artist, Harry, has a conventional and rational brother, Miles.
There is only one creator. It is not for Man to create. Invention is a cleaner thing. The copestone, the lever, the wheel.
And the rack.
And the rack.
And the black instruments of modern war. (Act II)
From Gormenghast onwards, Peake sees man's inventions as potentially evil. Art may be explosive, but the shock of its vision and beauty has a vivifying power; it awakens man from his lethargy and jolts him into lively awareness. ‘The black instruments of modern war’ enable those who wield power (or usurp it, like Steerpike) to inflict pain and dominate or enslave the apes of the valleys. The artist's creations work for good; invention for evil. So Peake sets art back to back with technology, as he does art and religion.
The three are linked in Peake's mind. In The Cave, he illustrates his claim that man has always had ‘something to worship and at the same time something to fear’. Primitive man imagines a moon goddess and dreams of improved spears the better to defend himself against wolves; medieval man fuses worship and fear in ‘God & Hell fire & Witchcraft’ (PS 5 (October 1997), iii: 29); modern man, for lack of a God, fears loneliness and the applied science of the hydrogen bomb. Art, religious belief and technology are all responses to fear. With vision and courage the artist transforms his fear into works of beauty; the religious believer turns his into cowardly worship, and the scientist invents ‘the instruments of modern war’. This explains the capitalized ‘Fear’ that Titus feels shortly before encountering the product of his imagination, the Thing (G132). It also leads us straight to the world of Peake's fiction of the 1950s.
In ‘Boy in Darkness’ the Lamb reigns at the foot of a mineshaft or pit amid the wreckage of an industrial society. Enslaving men and turning them into animals, he is the antithesis of art. In fact he unites all the evils (p.190) of religion and technology, down to his blindness that contrasts with the artist's vision.7 Then comes the world of Titus Alone, where Peake uses the demonic power of his imagination to denounce the evil of man's inventions. Abuse of power and technology is epitomized by the scientists who annihilate all the animals in Muzzlehatch's zoo with some kind of death ray, and by their ‘factory’ where vast numbers of unidentified men and women suffer and die.8 Evil characters believe in the value of revenge and the infliction of pain; they also believe in that ‘great bully’ in the sky, ‘the God of vengeance and torture’ (Cave, Act II).
Peake associates all the evil characters of Titus Alone with the image of the pit, along with the fumes of hell and – a new motif that is loaded with physical revulsion – slime. This is most evident when Veil cruelly reminds the Black Rose of how he has bound her to him in an abuser/abused relationship. ‘O slime of the slime-pit!’ she retorts in scorn (TA127). Later, as Titus fights to release her, ‘Veil's face seemed to expose itself as though it were vile as a sore: it swam before his eyes like the shiftings of the grey slime of the pit’ (TA136). The scientist's ‘factory’ is qualified as a ‘ghastly hive of horror; a hive whose honey was the grey and ultimate slime of the pit’ (TA199). Until the Black House episode, Peake leaves ‘the pit’ undefined. Then he brings his motifs together in the image of the ‘great and horrible’ fleur du mal: ‘a flower whose roots drew sustenance from the grey slime of the pit, and whose vile scent obscured the delicacy of the juniper. This flower was evil, and its bloom satanic’ (TA225). Thereafter, ‘fumes’ serve as a shorthand for the evil that fills Cheeta's ‘inventive brain’ (199) and ‘her vision, as a pit can be filled with fumes’ (TA246). Because she is utterly heartless, she is ‘all sophistication; desirable, intelligent, remote. Who could have told that joined in deadly grapple beneath her ribs were the powers of fear and evil?’ (199). ‘An evil thing borne on an evil draught’ (250), she is the epitome of the intelligent person ‘gone wrong’: her parody of Gormenghast is an instance of the ‘mimic art’ that Peake denounced in his Introduction to Drawings.
Veil, on the other hand, embodies ‘the ape’ who is ‘wrong’ from the start. His evil stems not from misuse of the brain and its inventiveness, nor from lack of heart. So, ‘what is it threads the inflamed brain of the (p.191) one-time killer?’ asks Peake. ‘Fear? No, not so much as would fill the socket of a fly's eye. Remorse? He has never heard of it.’ Having no awareness, he has no conscience to fling away. ‘It is loyalty that fills him, as he lifts his long right arm. Loyalty to the child, the long scab-legged child, who tore the wings off sparrows long ago.’ So he was evil even as a small boy.9 Loyalty, we might recall, keeps Prunesquallor faithful to his animal companion, which suggests that Veil's childhood self may play a similar role for him. Finally, it is ‘loyalty to his aloneness’ that motivates him, along with
loyalty to his own evil, for only through this evil has he climbed the foul stairways to the lofts of hell. Had he wished to do so, he could never have withdrawn from the conflict, for to do so would have been to have denied Satan the suzerainty of pain. (TA136)
Inhabited by evil from the moment of his inception, Veil has made evil his companion in solitude, and to that evil self he remains faithful.
In Titus Alone Peake mourns the passing of innocence and the desecration of the planet:
Once there were islands all a-sprout with palms: and coral reefs and sands as white as milk. What is there now but a vast shambles of the heart? Filth, squalor, and a world of little men. (TA250)
He could be thankful that he had his art, painting and above all the novel, in which to express in all innocence the demonic power of his imagination and suffer only the scorn, or neglect, of Little Men.
(1.) At the climax of the Black House masquerade, Cheeta calls, ‘Let in the night!’ (TA227).
(2.) There is a similar macabre ominousness about Steerpike's dismissal of Nannie Slagg. ‘Leave her to me,’ he repeats in his first conversation with Fuchsia. ‘Leave her to me’ (TG165). In Gormenghast he dispatches her with poison purloined from Prunesquallor's dispensary.
(3.) The ‘brow of brass’ was a favourite with Nonconformists; it derives from ‘thy brow [is] brass’ (Isaiah 48.4) via Cowper's ‘Self-Acquaintance’, one of his Olney hymns, where it represents Presumption.
(4.) One of Peake's potential titles for Gormenghast was actually ‘By the Light of Darkness’, along with countless variations around the word ‘Chaos’ (on the endpapers of notebooks 3: v and 3: vi).
(5.) A conflation of the two scripts is available in PS 9 (April 2005), ii: 5–31.
(6.) The second edition of Titus Alone contains a surprising misprint. The narrator stated that an ‘exhibition’, instead of ‘expedition’, ‘had been mounted’ (202) to the Black House. As this reading was supported by neither manuscript, typescript, nor first edition, it is corrected in all editions since the early 1980s.
(7.) His eyes are regularly described as ‘veiled’ – e.g. pages 189, 191, 201 and 204. All three animals, Lamb, Goat and Hyena, are qualified as ‘vile’.
(8.) The chief scientist recalls Dr Mengele, who experimented on prisoners at the extermination camp associated with a factory, Auschwitz.
(9.) Psychologically, this is quite correct: cruelty to animals in childhood is a high-level predictor of criminal behaviour in adulthood. Cf, for instance, K.D. Becker, J. Stuewig, V.M. Herrera, and L.A.A. McCloskey, ‘A Study of Fire-setting and Animal Cruelty in Children: Family Influences and Adolescent Outcomes’ in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 2004; 43(7): 905–12.