The Long Shadow: Mervyn Peake and Gormenghast

If you’ve never read this classic you just have no clue: Gormenghast, by Mervyn Peake is the real deal, a work that stands alone among the great fantasists. It is the opposite of a Tolkien world with its Christian mythos laid across the old English mind-set… No. Peake gave us a mad world of ancient cruelty and psychopathic charm, creatures drifting through a world where time is decaying and the inhabitants of this stone palace ritualize the very instability of Time itself through the weird notions of a family romance of pain and sadism. The opening paragraph is still one of the best in that genre:

Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping earth, each one halfway over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock. These dwellings, by ancient law, were granted this chill intimacy with the stronghold that loomed above them. Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.

—Mervyn Peake, The Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy

Peake’s work is anomalous. Asked in a radio discussion of Titus Groan whether he had tried to fit his book ‘into any known literary form’, he answered that for him there are

two kinds of books, one of which is on the classic side, where there is the mould – the mould which one accepts, then pours one’s words into. … And then there’s the other, which is not, I think, necessarily a formless thing [but which] creates its own form. (MPR 10 (Spring 1980), 14)

Sui generis! It is not easy to fit Peake’s work into any genre of the past two hundred years. As Peake once observed,

There are always those who wish to limit art to within the boundaries of their own faculties: to recognize only such work as reflects their own attitude to life and aesthetics. And this is natural, if unintelligent. A man is unable to see anything other than himself. A mule faced with an El Greco can only glare in a mulish way: can only receive what mules can receive. Similarly, a particular man can see only his own reflection. (D9)

Mervyn Peake was born of British parents in Kuling (Lushan) in Jiangxi Province of central China in 1911, only three months before the revolution and the founding of the Republic of China. His father Ernest Cromwell Peake was a medical missionary doctor with the London Missionary Society of the Congregationalist tradition and his mother, Amanda Elizabeth Powell, had come to China as a missionary assistant.

The Peakes were given leave to visit England just before World War I in 1914 and returned to China in 1916. Mervyn Peake attended Tientsin Grammar School until the family left for England in December 1922 via the Trans-Siberian Railway. About this time he wrote a novella, The White Chief of the Umzimbooboo Kaffirs. Peake never returned to China but it has been noted that Chinese influences can be detected in his works, not least in the castle of Gormenghast itself, which in some respects echoes the ancient walled city of Beijing, as well as the enclosed compound where he grew up in Tianjin. It is also likely that his early exposure to the contrasts between the lives of the Europeans and of the Chinese, and between the poor and the wealthy in China, also exerted an influence on the Gormenghast books.

His education continued at Eltham College, Mottingham (1923–29), where his talents were encouraged by his English teacher, Eric Drake. Peake completed his formal education at Croydon School of Art in the autumn of 1929 and then from December 1929 to 1933 at the Royal Academy Schools, where he first painted in oils. By this time he had written his first long poem, A Touch o’ the Ash. In 1931 he had a painting accepted for display by the Royal Academy and exhibited his work with the so-called “Soho Group”.1

The influence of Milton and Shakespeare is obvious in this vast work. Steerpike, like Satan’s appearance in Milton’s great poem Paradise Lost,  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 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)

As Winnington in his study2 of Peake remarks:  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)

  1. Mervyn Peake biography – 1911-1968″. 2013. Retrieved 29 August 2015.
  2. G. Peter Winnington. The Voice of the Heart: The Working of Mervyn Peake’s Imagination. Liverpool University Press; 1 edition (October 15, 2006)


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