Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Peake, Mervyn

(1911-1968) China-born UK artist and writer, much influenced by his first 12 years in China, where he lived in a missionary compound overlooking a territory as alien to his world as the land surrounding Gormenghast seems alien to the readers of his great trilogy; the ornate and forbidding Edifice of Gormenghast may reflect something of the Forbidden City of Peking. Indeed, MP's rendering of Landscape is so expressionist, so austere and daunting, that readers frequently assume the Gormenghast or Titus Groan sequence – Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950) and Titus Alone (1959; rev by Langdon Jones 1970; with additional material, as coll 1991 US), all three assembled as The Titus Books (omni 1983; vt The Gormenghast Trilogy 1988 US) – must unequivocally be set in a Secondary World, but MP's signals as to the nature of his venue are ambiguous throughout. The first volume seems to be set in an exaggerated (but not impossible) version of this world; the third volume is set in a surreal, dystopic Wonderland; and the second volume is indeed set in something closely resembling a secondary world.

The sequence ostensibly recounts the life of Titus Groan, 77th Earl of Groan, from birth through young manhood; but the infant Titus is hardly visible in the first volume, his dark Shadow Steerpike dominates the second, and the somewhat faceless young heir only comes into his own in the surrealistic, sf-like third volume, after he has become an exile from his home and inheritance. A projected fourth volume may (or may not) have returned Titus to his domain, where some fitting Rite-of-Passage climax might have been mounted. The books – the first and third of which can be read alone without difficulty – are radically incomplete as a sequence.

Titus Groan is structured around the geography of the edifice of Gormenghast rather than around events as such – the main event being the birth of Titus. Traversing the vast aisles and abyssal Labyrinths of Gormenghast, the text introduces readers to the large cast, all of whom are defined in terms of their location in the hierarchical structure of the building. These characters include Lord Sepulchrave, a paradigm example of the Knight of the Doleful Countenance: withdrawn, withered, haunted by the Ritual observances which dominate the operations of Gormenghast, and ultimately doomed (after his Library has burned down) to be eaten by owls. Other characters – like Sourdust and Barquentine, who control Ritual, Titus's simplemindedly sullen and obsessive sister Fuchsia, his awful and dimwitted Nannie Slagg, Flay, Swelter and Dr Prunesquallor – seem to be affects of the building itself. Though there is nothing literally fantastic in their lives, the ensemble of those lives is so improbable and so extreme as to constitute a fantastic vision of the nature of the world.

In the first two books, the scullion Steerpike forces his Realpolitik way up the corrupt and vulnerable hierarchy of the Gormenghast world, until the half-grown Titus finally dispatches him as a great Flood threatens to demolish everything. (Gormenghast rather resembles the island of Sark – where MP spent much time – in profile; and when partially submerged is described as an Archipelago.) The tale of Steerpike's rise and fall is as close to a plot as the trilogy contains, and is at points superbly conveyed. Titus Alone is written in a condensed fragmentary style which may reflect MP's fatal illness, which progressively crippled his faculties; but (in the restored version of 1970) the narrative clearly benefits from paring down, as Titus hurtles through a world evocative of Franz Kafka's, and finally rediscovers his home domain, only to turn his back on it, in an abrupt final page. In an associated novella – Boy in Darkness (in Sometime, Never ed Kenyon Calthrop anth 1956; 1976 chap) – Titus (here unnamed) undergoes Beast-Fable experiences with human/animal figures; typically of the form, these experiences constitute part of his education.

The trilogy is perhaps the most intensely visual fantasy ever written. It is like a Gothic Fantasy stripped of all plot accretions, of all intrusions of the supernatural, until only impacted ambience remains. It is something of a masterpiece, and is certainly sui generis.

MP's other full-length text, Mr Pye (1953), is governed by a Slick-Fantasy plot, somewhat to its detriment. The eponymous hero comes to Sark, where his manipulation of the islanders for their own good causes the "Great Pal" to give him the slowly growing wings of an Angel; fighting back with deliberate wickednesses, Pye learns the impossibility of perfect Balance and finds himself sporting horns.

MP remains important for the central sequence. He is the most potent visionary the field has yet witnessed. [JC]

other works (poetry): Shapes & Sounds (coll 1941 chap); Rhymes Without Reason (coll 1944 chap); The Glassblowers (coll 1950 chap); The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (1962 chap); Poems and Drawings (coll 1965); A Reverie of Bone and Other Poems (coll 1967 chap); Selected Poems (coll 1972); A Book of Nonsense (coll 1972); Twelve Poems 1939-1960 (coll 1975 chap).

other works (miscellaneous): Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939 chap; rev 1945); The Craft of the Lead Pencil (1946); Letters from a Lost Uncle (1948 chap); Drawings by Mervyn Peake (graph 1950); Figures of Speech (graph 1954); The Drawings of Mervyn Peake (graph 1974), text by Hilary Spurling; Mervyn Peake: Writings and Drawings (coll 1974), ed Maeve Gilmore (MP's widow) and Shelagh Johnson; Peake's Progress: Selected Writings and Drawings (coll 1978; rev 1981), ed Maeve Gilmore; Sketches from Bleak House (graph 1983).

Mervyn Laurence Peake

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This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.