Some thoughts on magic in Peake’s Gormenghast

One of the questions that preoccupies criticism of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels is whether they are generic fantasy. Of course, they were written and published at a time when there was no such thing–or no such thing in the sense that we mean today. That they are often referred to as a trilogy–despite numerous facts that run contrary to such a designation–implies a desire on the part of critics, reviewers, and capitalists to recuperate Peake under a generic, and therefore valorzing heading that will thus allow for further commodification. “Like Tolkien? You’ll LOVE Titus Groan! Please ignore all of the ways in which it is different… mumble… mumble… look over there! Yoink!” [Steals money, runs away.]

This is likely a debate not really worth having as the debate over whether Peake wrote generic fantasy has already agreed to the nature of genre and perhaps the nature of fantasy as a genre. That is, such a debate admits at the beginning to certain limitations, to a certain horizon. The only question that remains is where we set that limit, how far way or how near that horizon. I do not mean to imply that these debates are not useful, as work by Farah Mendlesohn, Brian Attebery, and others have productively investigated the nature and limits of generic fantasy, often finding that the limit or the horizon of the genre (however fuzzy such things are) has to do with the impossible.

If, as most critics seem to agree (starting most forcefully with William Irwin in the 1970s) that fantasy has to do with what we understand as impossible in our own world–the actual world as Stefan Ekman calls it–then the Gormenghast novels do not seem to be fantasy. After all, wherever Gormenghast Castle and Mountain are–on Earth, some other planet, or in another dimension of reality–nothing seems to take place at these locales that we would rightly call impossible in our own. Yes, the characters and the atmosphere of these places seems to us highly implausible, but perhaps no more so than the more eccentric characters and settings in Dickens’ London or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha.

And yet Peake always maintains a consideration of the impossible, even if such considerations remain situated within the individual reveries of his characters or in his gloriously purple prose. With regard to the former, for example, see Titus’ numerous dreams and daydreams in the first third of Gormenghast. With regard to the latter, see such passages as the following, from Titus Groan: “The Thing scraped the ceiling with its head and moved forward noiselessly in one piece. Having no human possibility of height, it had no height. It was not a tall ghost–it was immeasurable; Death walking like an element.” The reader knows what this ghost is; the characters witnessing it do not, and for them it is terrible and awesome. Regardless, the language here points towards something otherwordly, something that cannot be understood according to the way we know, to our epistemologies, to our sciences, etc. As in many other passages (see, for example, the opening chapter of Gormenghast with its discussion of ghosts, passages that move towards what Todorov calls the fantastic–the attenuation of the reader’s knowledge of what is “really” happening, something natural or supernatural, something uncanny or something marvelous), the accretion of comparisons here overloads our capacities, makes us question what we think we know about the world of the novel and our own as well perhaps. He begins with a generic “Thing”, elevated to some sublime status by a capital letter that singles it out amongst all the other things we might call things. It is beyond human scale, and therefore without height, which can only be measured here in comparison to a familiar body. It is Death, but without evidence for being such, and at the same time it is “like an element,” Death that is like something else, perhaps a death that is familiar insofar as an element can be familiar.

But none of this is precisely what I mean to discuss. Rather, I want to describe briefly another way in which Peake approaches fantasy (or the fairy tale, or sword and sorcery, or the ghost story, or what have you given that generic fantasy did not exist for Peake as it does for us). This other way has to do with magic and ritual.

Many people will be familiar with Marcel Mauss’ discussion of magic, which I take here to be useful insofar as it gets at a crucial distinction between the natural and the supernatural (whatever faults his theory otherwise might have).  He writes:

The successive gestures of an artisan may be as uniformly regulated as those of a magician. Nevertheless, the arts and crafts have been universally distinguished from magic; there has always been an intangible difference in method between the two activities. As far as techniques are concerned, the effects are considered to be produced through a person’s skill. Everyone knows that the results are achieved through the co-ordination of action, tool and physical agent. Effect follows immediately from cause.

To distinguish magic from arts and crafts, he writes:

 [I]n magical practices, words, incantations, ritual and astrological observances are magical; this is the realm of the occult and of the spirits, a world of ideas which imbues ritual movements and gestures with a special kind of effectiveness, quite different from their mechanical effectiveness. It is not really believed that the gestures themselves bring about the result. The effect derives from something else, and usually this is not of the same order.

It’s this “something else” that is at the heart of magic, a “something else” that cannot be grasped according to any empirical study nor any theory propounded by science.

The world of Gormenghast is, as one must always remark about that world, dominated by ritual. These rituals, performed by the Groans and overseen by the Master of Ritual (first the ancient Sourdust and later the slightly-less-ancient Barquentine). Like the cultures Mauss describes, the denizens of the castle have an absolute belief in these rituals. To be more precise, they concede the ritual in and of itself, regardless whether they wish to take part in it. They may wish to escape ritual (as Titus does consciously in the second novel and as Selpuchrave seems to unconsciously in the first), but they never question the ritual at the level of ritual; in short, they never question that the ritual should be, only whether they wish to participate. And this, no matter how absurd the ritual. The reader only barely glimpses the baroque nature of the ritual in Titus Groan, but at several points in Gormenghast the absurdity (by our standards anyway) becomes clear. (And here I might add that the existence of these rituals at all, which do not seem to do anything, are so implausible in their existence as to make that existence impossible and therefore, perhaps, transform Peake’s work into fantasy after all; more on this below, I think).

Take, for example, this description of the potential ritual for the day, given us on the occasion of Barquentine rising from bed and contemplating the weather (which may have an impact on which ritual or Alternative should be performed):

The ritual of the hours ahead was to some extent modified by the weather. Not that a ceremony could be cancelled because of adverse weather, but by reason of the sacred Alternatives, equally valid, which had been prescribed by leaders of the faith in centuries gone by. If, for example, there was a thunderstorm in the afternoon and the moat was churned and spattered with the rain, then the ceremony needed qualifying in which Titus, wearing a necklace of plaited grass was to stand upon the weedy verge and, with the reflection of a particular tower below him in the water, so sling a golden coil that, skimming the surface and bounding into the air as it struck the water, it sailed over the reflection of a particular tower in one leap to sink in the watery image of a yawning window, where, reflected, his mother stood. There could be no movement and no sound from Titus or the spectators until the last of the sparkling ripples had crept from the moat, and the subaqueous head of the Countess no longer trembled against the hollow darkness of the cave-like window, but was motionless in the moat, with birds of water on her shoulders like chips of coloured glass and all about her the infinite, tower-filled depths.

It is never clear why precisely such rituals take place. They are, as I suggest above, unquestionable (and hence Steerpike’s desire to command them and alter them for his personal gain, his desire for which is likewise unexplained except, perhaps, as a desire for power for its own sake). Barquentine, in a passage that immediately precedes this one, is shown to dismiss the living beings in the castle as transient figures and valorize the line of Groan. The “links” in the “chain” are to him unimportant; it  is the “chain” itself, the unending and seemingly without beginning legacy that must be maintained. Will some terrible fate befall the castle should the ritual remain un-performed? Does the ritual itself, as the impetus to the force of “something else”, drive the world of Gormenghast in a manner that is more than merely ritualistic, i.e. by virtue of some magic that derives from it, some appeasement of the gods, spirits, ghosts, demons, fairies, etc.?

We can never know, I think. To be clear: there is no evidence in the text, I think, that would suggest that the rituals are “really” magical, that they enact something beyond the combination of material, tool, and skill that comprise the craftperson’s art, a something else that provides for an effect that cannot be rationally predicted from the ritual itself the way that we might predict a chair from the combination of wood, hammer/saw/nails/etc., and technique.

We cannot know, however, because no character can ever question the ritual, whether through positive statement or through negative reaction. The ritual is like water to fish, like the air around us.  So deep is the assumption of ritual that its effects can be nothing but mundane, whether those effects are mundane as opposed to supernatural, or supernatural as rendered mundane by ubiquity.

To think through this issue from another direction: there is clearly magic in The Lord of the Rings and numerous other fantasies. In Tolkien, characters tend to react to magic with wonder (for example, as they do when witnessing Gandalf’s fireworks, which are most likely magical in some small way, or his toys, some of which are “clearly magical”), with awe (as with Gandalf’s combat with the Balrog or his charge at the conclusion of the Battle of Helms Deep–this awe coming from the POV of his allies, natch), or with terror (as with everyone’s reaction to the power of the ring, especially perhaps in the case of the elves in Lothlorien, who chastise Frodo for bringing it amongst them). In each case, magic is not mundane, is not everyday–and this in a world in which there is undeniably magic.

We might say that for magic to be magic, for the reader to know of its presence in a fantasy, that there must be some element of horror to the novel, some moment when a character recognizes that this should not be, even if this recognition leads to wonder rather than terror. Peake’s characters cannot know horror, because horror would require that they don’t know of the ritual or its effects. Instead, they know all too well both (even if the effects are “really” nothing).

Peake’s world may be the most magical of all, but as a result it remains a world inaccessible to the reader qua magical world.


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