Category: Mervyn Peake

book review – The Boy in Darkness

This book is described as being a stand alone off shoot to the Gormenghast trilogy with Mervyn Peake writing in his introduction that after suggestions he decided to put it out as a volume in its own right.

The problem is of course that unless you are familiar with the strange world of Gormenghast and the character of Titus Groan a great deal of the beginning of this story will mean very little. Titus starts off struggling to suppress his desire to rebel against the responsibilities that come with his position as the heir to the House of Groan.

As a result of his yearning for change he decides to act on his impulse and escape and head beyond the boundaries of his former existence and discover something new and encounter a world where he is no longer Titus Groan with all that comes with that surname.

He escapes while the festivities for his 14th birthday continue and after walking and stumbling through the landscape comes to a wide river he has never seen before. A boat lies by the bank with an island on the other side the tempting destination. But no sooner has he gone near the boat than the Peake imagination fires up and a pack of wild dogs joins him in the water and pushed the boat to its destination.

Once on the other side Titus collapses under the dual strain of hunger and tiredness and then when he wakes the real adventure begins.

Using a very Spartan collection of characters – a goat, hyena and a lamb – Titus is guided slowly through to a point where it becomes a question of life and death. On his way to meet the lamb he learns from overhearing the goat and the hyena that they were once men and that the lamb had the ability to pull out of them some sort of animal nature that allowed them to become the creatures that resemble animals but with some lingering human traits.

The lamb has watched all of his creations die away as he sits in the centre of an underground network of mines and the thought of fresh blood is something that forces him to slightly lose control. Lose it enough to allow Titus to sow the seeds of doubt in the goat and the hyena and then critically delaying his attack against the boy long enough to let Titus cleave his skull with a sword.

This is all made rather stranger by the positioning of this story, which ends with the dogs taking Titus back leaving two old men on the other side of the bank, as a tale suitable for children.

This is dark, not just the sense of the title but dark in its imagination. If I read this to my children there would be a lot of questions afterwards and then nightmares. This doesn’t sit comfortably with the usual Famous Five stories. That is not to say it doesn’t have its merit but really this doesn’t quite work as a stand alone book.

This does need a background knowledge of the Gormenghast trilogy to work and certainly a child would not have that along with a fair proportion of the readership. The imagination is rich but perhaps this episode should have been squeezed into the trilogy rather than left to be scrutinised on its own merits in the way that printing it as a single volume forces you to do.

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Boy in Darkness – post II

Although this is a story that doesn’t really go anywhere, nor adds a great deal to Gormenghast it will live long in the memory. It is one of those stories that acts as a perfect companion piece to the Gormenghast trilogy because you need that prior knowledge for the story to really work. Titus Groan is never really explained or is the setting of his location.

But understanding from the trilogy just how determined the teenager is to change his life it is no surprise that he encounters and survives the meeting with the lamb. With just the goat and hyena left of the many that have been transformed from men to beasts at the hand of the lamb Titus is clearly a candidate to join them.

But he resists and with the sweep of a sword ends not just a reign of terror but an entire finish to the kingdom of the mines. Titus then returns back to the castle with his determination for escape clearly not broken.

At the end of the book there is a page advertising more Children’s books from the same publisher. I would be frightened to read this to my children let alone encourage them to pick it up for themselves.

A review will follow soon…

Boy in Darkness – post I

If there is one word that you have to associate with Mervyn Peake it is imagination and it is a feature of this story from the very outset.

Those who have read the Gormenghast Trilogy will be familiar with the figure of Titus Groan. The boy runs away from his inheritance and the castle his family rule over in those stories and heads into strange worlds. This story is apparently what happened to him in between deciding to run away and when he got to the wilderness.

What happens here involves a relatively small cast it appears but dark ideas that are described in such a way that they become even darker if that makes sense. The idea of a goat, hyena and lamb talking and living in relative seclusion is made much darker with the revelation that they were once men and have been destroyed by the lamb. He has encouraged them to resemble and grow to become beasts and presumably with the arrival in his lair of Titus will try to do so once again.

The way evil and fear are portrayed and inspired is through the description of colour, particularly of eyes, and of the eerie use of animals, with dogs being a feature, before Titus even comes across the goat and his friends.

More tomorrow…

book of books – Mr Pye

Adding this book to the Gormenghast trilogy the themes of good and evil and the battle within to choose which to be are echoed across Mervyn Peake’s work. Just as Titus Groan has to find his own way and discover freedom that ultimately means that he has to leave his family Mr Pye has to adapt his plans to remain free of the influence of evil or good.

Mr Pye is an odd central character because he is not difficult to feel close to and his behaviour and antics, mostly secretive, are always a bit strange. But the reader gets caught up in the question of what is the right equilibrium between good and evil. Does one good deed have to be cancelled out with a bad one?

Plot summary
An odd man arrives on the island of Sark and through his good will towards everyone and his determination to make the island a beacon of love for God he manages to shake up the islanders quite rapidly. None more so than the landlady of his guest house Miss Dredger who discovers that she is no longer mistress in her own house and this odd little man has taken over. She becomes his first and most loyal disciple and goes along with everything he asks including inviting her bitter enemy Miss George to stay in her house. Meanwhile Mr Pye is working his odd magic around the island building up for what he hopes will be a night of glorious conversion. But as he preaches to the population in a cove a rotting whale is washed up on the beach and the impact of his speech is lost. Shortly afterwards he complains of having been bitten on his back and starts to grow wings.

The doctors in Harley Street cannot help and by the time he returns to the island he has started on a course of action sinning at every opportunity to get rid of the wings. After a while it seems to have worked, no doubt helped by the nightly meetings with the goat of Mendes for a bout of Satan worshipping. Pye starts to grow horns and after a yo-yo between the two decides the only way to get rid of the horns is to endure some public humiliation. So he shows his horns to the islanders which causes the police to be called and for a chase to ensue which ends when Pye sails over a cliff, unfurls his wings and flies off into the night.

Is it well written?
The reader realises quicker than the narrative describes that the horns are coming and rather than repeat the emotions Pye felt when the wings were discovered the story quickly marches onto a conclusion. That is the sign of a good story teller because he knows that to leave it longer would cause impatience. The question of good and evil is dealt with in such a way that you are left asking some questions of yourself. Questions left going through your head include the most fundamental one (bearing in mind the transformation in the book of Miss Dredger): is life better if you are infused with love and prepared to share it?

Should it be read?
It shows a different side to Peake after Gormenghast but also just how able he is to develop characters that are unusual. Pye, Dredger, the painter and his girlfriend could all have existed in the Gormenghast world but are depicted living in this one. There are also sketches at the start of each chapter by the author that are also of interest showing how the vision of the artists mind works both graphically and in words. A final reason for picking it up (apart from the picture of Derek Jacobi with wings from the television version from a few years ago) is the humour of a story about a modern and quite unusual missionary.

Summary
Angle or devil? The choice is like walking as tightrope.

book of books – Mr Pye

Adding this book to the Gormenghast trilogy the themes of good and evil and the battle within to choose which to be are echoed across Mervyn Peake’s work. Just as Titus Groan has to find his own way and discover freedom that ultimately means that he has to leave his family Mr Pye has to adapt his plans to remain free of the influence of evil or good.

Mr Pye is an odd central character because he is not difficult to feel close to and his behaviour and antics, mostly secretive, are always a bit strange. But the reader gets caught up in the question of what is the right equilibrium between good and evil. Does one good deed have to be cancelled out with a bad one?

Plot summary
An odd man arrives on the island of Sark and through his good will towards everyone and his determination to make the island a beacon of love for God he manages to shake up the islanders quite rapidly. None more so than the landlady of his guest house Miss Dredger who discovers that she is no longer mistress in her own house and this odd little man has taken over. She becomes his first and most loyal disciple and goes along with everything he asks including inviting her bitter enemy Miss George to stay in her house. Meanwhile Mr Pye is working his odd magic around the island building up for what he hopes will be a night of glorious conversion. But as he preaches to the population in a cove a rotting whale is washed up on the beach and the impact of his speech is lost. Shortly afterwards he complains of having been bitten on his back and starts to grow wings.

The doctors in Harley Street cannot help and by the time he returns to the island he has started on a course of action sinning at every opportunity to get rid of the wings. After a while it seems to have worked, no doubt helped by the nightly meetings with the goat of Mendes for a bout of Satan worshipping. Pye starts to grow horns and after a yo-yo between the two decides the only way to get rid of the horns is to endure some public humiliation. So he shows his horns to the islanders which causes the police to be called and for a chase to ensue which ends when Pye sails over a cliff, unfurls his wings and flies off into the night.

Is it well written?
The reader realises quicker than the narrative describes that the horns are coming and rather than repeat the emotions Pye felt when the wings were discovered the story quickly marches onto a conclusion. That is the sign of a good story teller because he knows that to leave it longer would cause impatience. The question of good and evil is dealt with in such a way that you are left asking some questions of yourself. Questions left going through your head include the most fundamental one (bearing in mind the transformation in the book of Miss Dredger): is life better if you are infused with love and prepared to share it?

Should it be read?
It shows a different side to Peake after Gormenghast but also just how able he is to develop characters that are unusual. Pye, Dredger, the painter and his girlfriend could all have existed in the Gormenghast world but are depicted living in this one. There are also sketches at the start of each chapter by the author that are also of interest showing how the vision of the artists mind works both graphically and in words. A final reason for picking it up (apart from the picture of Derek Jacobi with wings from the television version from a few years ago) is the humour of a story about a modern and quite unusual missionary.

Summary
Angle or devil? The choice is like walking as tightrope.

Mr Pye – post IV

The book ends with Mr Pye finally finding out which side of good and evil he is on and leaving Sark the poorer for his departure. A bit like the Poe things end here with your imagination still going and plenty of follow-up thoughts about what happened next there to entertain you after the book has finished.

Highlights from pages 214 – 254

* Mr Pye alarms Miss Dredger and the painter and his girlfriend by showing them his horns and decides that the only way to get rid of them is to do something humiliating and identifies the cattle fair happening the next day is the place he will venture out with his horns

* He fully expects to be caught by the police and hopes that he can somehow make his escape before the police arrive from Guernsey, at least forty minutes away, but the alarm is raised quickly and the islanders turn on him and it is only because of the painters girlfriend Tanty who suggests hide and seek and gives Mr Pye the key to the prison that he escapes

* When she catches up with him his horns are almost gone and he has grown wings and then with her help he jumps on a horse and carriage and heads off into the night chased by islanders who are witnesses as he rides to the edge of the cliff and hurtles over

* Unfurling his wings Pye flies off into the sky and leaves the island which returns to an insignificant rock with a small population

Review will follow later…

Mr Pye – post IV

The book ends with Mr Pye finally finding out which side of good and evil he is on and leaving Sark the poorer for his departure. A bit like the Poe things end here with your imagination still going and plenty of follow-up thoughts about what happened next there to entertain you after the book has finished.

Highlights from pages 214 – 254

* Mr Pye alarms Miss Dredger and the painter and his girlfriend by showing them his horns and decides that the only way to get rid of them is to do something humiliating and identifies the cattle fair happening the next day is the place he will venture out with his horns

* He fully expects to be caught by the police and hopes that he can somehow make his escape before the police arrive from Guernsey, at least forty minutes away, but the alarm is raised quickly and the islanders turn on him and it is only because of the painters girlfriend Tanty who suggests hide and seek and gives Mr Pye the key to the prison that he escapes

* When she catches up with him his horns are almost gone and he has grown wings and then with her help he jumps on a horse and carriage and heads off into the night chased by islanders who are witnesses as he rides to the edge of the cliff and hurtles over

* Unfurling his wings Pye flies off into the sky and leaves the island which returns to an insignificant rock with a small population

Review will follow later…