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Mervyn Peake — the anti-Tolkien–Britain’s great, neglected fantasist

April 12, 2010

Mervyn Peake

It’s not as if Mervyn Peake gets no attention at all — the second book in his Gormenghast Trilogy won the Heinemann Prize for Literature in 1951. But he does stand deep in the shade cast by J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings. Now, thanks to the British Library, Peake is getting some much deserved attention.

The library raised £410,000 to acquire the Peake archive, including 39 Gormenghast notebooks, original drawings for his own work plus a complete set of Peake’s illustrations for Lewis Caroll’s Alice books, and his correspondence with contemporaries like John Berger and C.S. Lewis.

Peake's Alice, passing through the looking glass

News is already starting to tumble out of the archive. You can see a gallery of Peake’s drawings — he was a successful illustrator before he was a writer — at the Guardian website. Some of the Alice drawings are already on display at the library.

Digging deeper into the archive, Vanessa Thorpe, also writing at the Guardian, discovers the genesis of Peake’s disturbed and disturbing imagination in his work as a British combat correspondent during World War II.

“The writer and draughtsman had been sent out on assignment for the Leader magazine in 1945 and the unsettling impact of the scenes he witnessed is clear from nine letters he sent home to his wife, Maeve Gilmore.”

In one letter, Peake describes the devastation at Cologne, where everything had been bombed flat except for the untouched cathedral: “It is incredible how the cathedral has remained, lifting itself high into the air so gloriously, while around it the city lies broken to pieces, and in the city I smelt for the first time in my life the sweet, pungent, musty smell of death. It is still in the air, thick, sweet, rotten and penetrating…”

This lends credence to the notion, shared by Anthony Burgess, among others, that the prodigiously weird and sinister Gormenghast novels — Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950) and Titus Alone (1959) — are Peake’s response to World War II.

Among fantasy lovers, a line is sometimes drawn in the sand between Tolkien, with his rich gloss on Northern European mythology, language and medieval chivalry, and Peake’s denser, darker Gormenghast vision. Indeed, not a single wizard or elf or magical creature of any kind is to be found.

Thats’ why Peake is sometimes viewed as the anti-Tolkien. Evil is not the work of orc or mage, but arises from human corruption, greed, decadence and ambition. Yet at no point do the novels feel like anything other than a thrilling, terrifying fantasy. From the description of Gormenghast castle that opens Titus Groan, a sense of dire foreboding descends and never lets up:

“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.”

This first sentence gives some clue to the twisted joys to come, with the “mean dwellings” of the poor swarming “like an epidemic.” An eye cast at some of Peake’s character names is also instructive: the striving upstart Steerpike; the fragile, conniving Princess Fuschia, Lord Sepulchrave and his personal assistant Flay, Dr. Prunesquallor, Nannie Slagg, Doggit.

But really, as C.S. Lewis knew, it is possible to love Tolkien and Peake as equal in their very different achievements. “[Peake’s books] are actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we never had before, and enlarge our conception of the range of possible experience,” observed Lewis, a close friend to Tolkien — and a fair fantasy writer himself if you recall.

Peake, who was born in China to missionary parents, was admirably productive until he began to suffer the debilitating symptoms of Parkinson’s in the 1950s. He fought the disease by continuing to draw and write  in the long decline that ended in  his death in 1968.

Last year Peake’s granddaughter found a manuscript that turned out to be a fourth Gormenghast novel, this one written by Maeve Gilmore from “a couple of pages of prefatory notes made by her husband.” Titus Awakes will be published in the United States next year by the Overlook Press to mark Peake’s 100th birthday.

That gives us plenty of time to read — or reread — the other three books. And meanwhile — what the heck, let’s play: Do you think Peake matches Tolkien’s genius?


10 Comments leave one →
  1. April 12, 2010 8:19 am

    Here’s one measure: I can read and reread Peake, particularly TITUS GROAN. I can’t, on the other hand, get through more than ten pages of Tolkein. To me Peake is Dickens on laudanum—the dark, weird Dickens of OUR MUTUAL FRIEND, at that—and I love him for it.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    April 13, 2010 12:48 am

    To me, Peake is more original, but Tolkien is a masterful and deeply imaginative synthesis of all his sources. I’m the opposite of you, Jon, in a way. I can reread Tolkien endlessly, but the lack of narrative drive usually starts to bog me down somewhere in the middle of the second Gormenghast book, which is, er, Gorhmenghast. But I love them both. No need for them to be mutually exclusive.

  3. April 13, 2010 1:05 pm

    I haven’t a clue, Chauncey. Again, you expose me to a name I should know. I went through a Tolkien phase in my long ago youth but never heard of Peake. Wish I had because I was ripe for that sort weirdness and am sad to say I probably would no longer enjoy it.

  4. Candice permalink
    April 14, 2010 8:59 am

    Dunno, Mr. Chauncey Mabe, because, like Duff, I’ve never had the pleasure to read the books, though The Lord of the Rings was all the rage.

    Going by your column, Peake would be a hard read, though well worth the effort, I am sure. He also sounds very pessimistic about our (or England’s) social strata and such. I prefer books that celebrate the human spirit, where good overcomes evil like Tolkein’s tales. It’s hard enough to be optimistic in today’s world without books that bog us down so that we wallow in all the things wrong with the world.

    Of course, I haven’t read the Peake books, and may be completely wrong. Tell me.

  5. Candice permalink
    April 14, 2010 9:00 am

    P.S. Love the illustrations! Which may be reason enough to buy the book.

  6. Sean permalink
    April 15, 2010 2:16 pm

    Candice, I was thinking same about the illustration – I feel like I’ve just seen source material for Tim Burton’s imaginings. Chauncey, thanks. I knew of Peake but only vaguely. I look forward to reading ‘Titus.’

    p.s. What an amazing job that would have been – writer and illustrator sent to cover a war.

  7. July 9, 2010 5:43 am

    I read Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy in my middle teen years (1969-70), after having been enthralled by Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. While I appreciate both authors’ works and the worlds they created within those works, ultimately it is Peake whom I now appreciate more. The phenomenally successful (and admittedly beautiful) Lord of the Rings movies magnified Tolkien’s good vs. evil / the beautiful people vs the ugly people (or non-people) / white vs. black dichotomy to such an embarrassing extreme, it almost put me off Tolkien altogether. I’ve had enough of hearing about how evil the “bad guys” are and how we must perpetually go to war to stop them, emanating from our one-dimensional politicians and so-called world leaders. Personally, I appreciate much more those stories (whether books or movies) in which good and evil are not so clearly defined, in which everyone is capable of either, and in which the reader/viewer is left with a dilemma or a conundrum instead of a pat, tidy ending. For those of you who expressed reluctance to delve into the murky world of Gormenghast, I say, take a chance– you don’t know what you’re missing. Forget ‘Twilight”; read the Gormenghast trilogy.

  8. November 7, 2010 1:27 am

    Having read Tolkien in the mid 80s, there began a quest (fittingly) to find another writer of the same quality in the same veign.

    Let’s pass over the many years of truly turgid imitators. Time that should have been better spent, perhaps. One happy find was Peake – a very short list of great finds. You really shouldn’t compare Peake with Tolkien too closely. Apart from the fact that their books are set in imaginary feudal societies, there’s not that much in common. Peake was far closer to Dickens or Trollope than Tolkien.

    Michael Moorcock’s opinions on the two are well known. He wrote a long critique, and the comparison of Tolkien’s prose next to Peake’s is not flattering to Tolkien, as a writer.

    Tolkien is best seen as a storyteller, perhaps. Peake’s writing is far more interesting to me. Both highly enjoyable, in their own ways.

  9. November 19, 2011 12:59 pm

    Peake writes of the world we about to live in:
    (one cannot but help drawing parallels with the twin sisters of Ghormenghast, the Ladies Cora and Clarice Groan)
    Tolkein writes of the world film producers have hijacked. Peake’s family have admirably fended off the CGI merchants, I really shudder to think of a contempoary child’s first introduction to Gollum, for example, being anything other than the five or six (at least) dimensions of the imagination.

  10. Geza permalink
    August 28, 2012 5:46 pm

    The triumph of Peake’s imagination is the words themselves; never, not even in the sweeping word-paintings of Eudory Welty, have I read novels that are carried forward by page after page of jaw-dropping, stupefyingly astonishing description. The narrative takes as many unexpected turns as the hidden steps, tunnels, and passages of the castle, the characterizations are fountains of endless delight, but the enchantment is the extraordinary felicity and facility with which Peake conjures a unique world which stands alone in literature. Beside Gormenghast the no small achievements of Tolkien are juvenile entertainment. At my age — in my mid-fifties — to discover that there was still literature that could thrill me back into youthful fervour after decades of studying the masters, is a gift beyond all reckoning.

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