Unique, extraordinary, gothic, grotesque, Peake.
Their are very few authors in the English language- or any language- like Peake. Although he is not the most popular author in history – only 5% of people who were asked if they knew him said yes- but that doesn’t mean that he isn’t one of the best writers and illustrators the world has ever been graced by. Peake’s books and artwork seemed to always reflect or parallel his own life in one way or another.
Peake was born on July 9th 1911, in Kuling, China. Peake’s father- Ernest Peake- was a missionary doctor, and Peake just so happened to be born 3 months before the republic of China was founded. Peake spent the first twelve years living, travelling and being educated in China- primarily in Tientsin. Peake spent a lot of time travelling all over China with his father, and seeing all the natural and factitious beauties the country had to yield. You can see in Peake’s artwork how the first twelve years of his life influenced him. Especially when you compare of photo of Peake’s birth place- Kuling- and Peake’s drawing of the castle and his description of Gormenghast castle and its surrounding areas; the similarities are unarguable. Even as a child Peake seemed to be a prodigy in the field of literature, already writing and illustrating his own publication by the age of ten. Even at a tender age the incredible potential of Peake was evident, his entire life was ahead of him and he could walk any path he chose.
However, his creation- Titus Groan- was not so fortunate. Born into a world in which he would inherit the title and lands of Groan, Titus is born in Gormenghast. Gormenghast is an old crumbling castle, operating as something akin to a prison of social roles and long, complicated traditions. Peake starts the first book with one simple word; Gormenghast. This one word is capable of establishing the setting and tone of the entire series. It also establishes the central character of the series, the castle Gormenghast itself. It’s interesting to note that Peake didn’t start writing Titus Groan until 1940- when he would have been twenty nine years old. From 1929-1939, Peake spent his time: studying art, writing scripts for plays, marrying the love of his life and putting his artwork up for exhibition in several European countries. It’s fair to say that Peake had many metaphorical plates spinning in those years, and that is also shown in his first book. Their are many ongoing subplots in Titus Groan, and they all revolve around the eccentric misfit characters who populate Gormenghast. It’s clear that Peake has made Gormenghast the center of the story, and this is deliberate, because Peake has designed his story to operate as a “fantasy of manners”. A fantasy of manners- or manner-punk story- revolves around the society and the characters assigned roles in said society. Because his world doesn’t operate with strict morale guidelines the morale ambiguity of the characters is self evident- making them seem more human. This shows that even in his youth Peake recognized that objective morality wasn’t necessarily relevant to the human experience. Titus Groan was finally published in 1946, by this time Peake had fathered 2 children and was adventuring far less than he did a decade before.
That wouldn’t stop him from going on a post war trip through Germany. Peake’s journey through Germany seems to have had a profound effect on Peake’s writing and artwork. This can be particularly seen in the character of Steerpike. During his travels through Germany Peake worked at the Bergen-Belsen death camp, while there he met a man condemned to die, a “Nazi war criminal Peter Back”. Peake’s son – Sebastian – claims that “His going into the condemned cell just a few hours before Back was hanged certainly influenced aspects of Steerpike. It must have haunted my father,”. It seems unfathomable that Peake wasn’t affected by his experiences in Germany or his encounter with Back. As Peake was a man who revelled in his life experiences, you do sometimes see a glint of the oppressing horror of the Nazi death camp in the atmosphere of Gormenghast. Six years after World War Two, Peake would go on to have a third child in 1949, release Gormenghast- the second book in Peake’s trilogy- in 1950, and finally get recognized for his great, thoughtful writing skill, when he won the Heimann award for Gormenghast in 1951.
In contrast to Peake’s life the second book in the trilogy is a strange creature. It’s a story of change. It has just as many subplots as Titus Groan had, however, their is no mistaking who the central character is. Titus takes center stage- albeit, mostly. The side characters of the story are just as dynamic and grotesquely alive as they were in Titus Groan. The main meat of this story comes in the shape of the rivalry between Titus and Steerpike, the theme of duty vs freedom and the growth of Titus from a boy to a man. The last theme is the most interesting to me, especially in the context of Peake’s own life. Peake was in a position where he was slowing down in terms of traveling and adventure. He finally had responsibilities in his life and had to step up to those responsibilities. With that being the case, to me, by the end of the novel, Titus becomes the main antagonist in the story- when you consider that technically Gormenghast and its ancient traditions are the main character. By the end of the book Titus turns away from his inherited role, abandoning his responsibilities and leaving his home, in order to to find himself as a human being, he goes against the current and creates his own path- much like Peake did when he was of a similar age to Titus. I believe this quote sums up Titus’ metamorphosis:
“for Titus had discovered himself. The ‘Thing’, when she had died in the storm had killed his boyhood. The death of Flay had seasoned him. The death of Fuchsia had left a crater beneath his ribs. His victory over Steerpike had given him a kind of touchstone to his own courage” page 743.
In 1959, Peake would publish his final book ‘Titus alone’. By this point in his life Peake was slowly deteriorating. Peake’s mind would slowly fall into the crippling grip of disease. It would take years for Peake to finally be diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Peake would spend twelve years in dozens of hospitals and receive different diagnoses. Peake would have to suffer a lobotomy, and despite the claims of the doctors that he would eventually get better, he did not recover. Eventually, Peake would move to the care home of his brother in law, and die three weeks after the move- from pneumonia. Peake spent the last days of his life in considerable comfort. Titus would go on a completely different path to his creator. In ‘Titus alone’, Titus finds himself alone for the first time, with an infinite number of possibilities at his feet. Titus finds himself in a position- for the first time in his life- where he doesn’t have any considerable social power.
This book is considerably different than the previous two, as for the first time the central character of the story is Titus, and not the castle Gormenghast. Throughout the story Titus meets what is concievably his greatest challenge, and it doesn’t come in the form of any person or character, but comes from the greatest shock that Peake has ever given his audience. The fact that, in this world, modern technology exists and is being applied. This is quite wondrous at first, and a whole plethora of new possibilites opens up. Although this wonderment is short lived, because- in Peake’s attempt to keep a prevailing tone of ambiguity- the audience is soon made privy to the dangers of thoughtless scientific advancement. Peake seems to construct his entire narrative around this idea of ancient tradition vs modern science, with Titus being the central force in the entire conflict- much like Frodo is the center character to the good vs evil conflict in the Lord of the Rings.
Never is the ambiguity of the world made more clear, than at the end of the book. Titus, after spending nine years away from home, finds it again. Titus considers going back, and hiding in his maze of rituals, away from the outside world, which had tested and challenged him to his limits. When given the chance to go home, Titus rejects, instead opting to travel a different route, and face new challenges.
“He no longer had any need for home, for he carried his Gormenghast within him. All that he sought was jostling within himself. He had grown up. What a boy had set out to seek a man had found, found by the act of living. There he stood: Titus Groan, and he turned upon his heel so that the great boulder was never seen by him ever again.”
To me this is one of the most powerful passages that Peake has ever penned. Peake would never finish his planned fourth book, unfortunately, but the legacy of Peake lives on through Titus. Whereas Peake was subjected to a life locked in a heavy schedule and little release, Titus was free to pursue his own destiny.
Proofread by Damon Maelor.