At Home He's a Tourist

He fills his head with culture/ He gives himself an ulcer.

Monday, August 04, 2003

Since Felix Asked...

I finally finished watching the Gormenghast miniseries. Mervyn Peake's jaundiced epic about a rigidly stratified, onerously ceremonial society hermetically sealed inside a sprawling castle received surprisingly lavish treatment from the BBC. Admittedly, Peake's story is not a fantasy work in the Tolkienesque vein; it doesn't depict any supernatural occurrences, exotic monsters, or apocalyptic battles that a special effects department would have to replicate. Still, the costuming, the interior design, and the picture quality are much better than in the Beeb productions I was used to seeing years ago. (Yes, I'm thinking about Dr. Who in particular.) Furthermore, the screenplay is faithful to the source material, and not much of the plot had to be sacrificed in the interest of time. (In fact, the books are so long primarily because of Peake's richly detailed descriptions and not because of an especially busy storyline.) Finally, the casting was excellent. (Although I always pictured Helena Bonham-Carter in the role of Fuschia, I'm not complaining about having to watch Neve McIntosh instead.)

I'd like to learn more about Peake's political opinions. The Gormenghast trilogy is pretty clearly an attack on aristocracy, since the joylessness of castle life is attributable to its impermeable class boundaries and levitical ritualism. (As Felix pointed out to me, the one fault of the production is that the interiors are too bright and colorful; in the book, Gormenghast's gloomy, cobwebby corridors better reflect the emotional state of its inhabitants.) On the other hand, the proletarian usurper Steerpike, who dreams of levelling economic inequalities, is hardly admirable or enviable in his monomaniacal, Machiavellian pursuit of power. If I had to guess I would say Peake is like his contemporary and compatriot George Orwell in condemning both the old aristocratic regimes and the new socialist tyrannies. (The first volume of the trilogy was published in 1946, just a couple of years before Orwell's 1984.)

Perhaps an even closer parallel would be T.H. White's Once and Future King, which, like Gormenghast, is an English medieval epic written in the shadow of WWII. In the first part of the story Merlin transforms the young Arthur into a variety of animals in order to give the future ruler the experience of living under different political systems. Both monarchy and socialism come off poorly. A school of fish instantiates monarchy. The King of the Moat, a pike, is described as having "a face which had been ravaged by all the passions of an absolute monarch--by cruelty, sorrow, age, pride, selfishness, loneliness and thoughts too strong for individual brains." He tells Arthur, just before attempting to devour him, "There is nothing except the power which you pretend to seek: power to grind and power to digest, power to seek and power to find, power to await and power to claim, all power and pitilessness springing from the nape of the neck." Later Arthur experiences socialism in the form of an anthive, and he is repelled by its mindless regimentation, incessant propaganda, and aggressive imperialism. Arthur enjoyed most his experience as a goose on a long migratory flight, and Titus Groan seeks the same freedom of travel when he leaves the castle at the end of Gormenghast.

I actually haven't read the third, unfinished volume of Peake's trilogy, but that's fine since the BBC version ends with book two.


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