In Titus Alone (1959), the third of Mervyn Peake’s ‘Gormenghast’ novels, the eponymous Titus Groan abandons the castle of Gormenghast and sets out into a wider world, as yet unglimpsed. The vast, crumbling castle is almost a character in its own right in the first two books, subject of Peake’s dazzling and often multi-sensory powers of description. Within the castle, the political manoeuvring of Steerpike sparks a revolution in its ancient rituals and turns the established order of the Earls of Groan on its head. So it is perhaps a little puzzling that Peake chose to abandon such a fully realised setting for the third book in the series. Reviewers and readers alike have found Titus Alone to be a little patchy in tone, if not erratically written. The fact that the book’s genesis coincided with Peake’s descent into early-onset dementia is often cited as a factor in its idiosyncrasies, from the sudden inclusion of seemingly ‘modern’ technology to the slightly random meanderings of the plot. And although I agree with the critics on many points, the book nevertheless holds a distinct attraction, in part because of its very difference from its predecessors. The gaping absence of the castle at the centre of the book creates a vacuum into which Peake hurls new material, offering a lightning sketch of a disturbing future.
Although Steerpike’s ambitions have been checked by the end of the second book, his Machiavellian schemes unable to help him once a biblical flood leaves just a few towers above the water, Titus still decides to reject his aristocratic birthright, leaving the castle for a world about which neither he nor the reader know anything at all. He is adrift on a river within the first ten pages, and he abandons his rescuer, the independent minded Muzzlehatch, a few hours later, as he will go on to leave his older lover Juno and spurn the icily cunning Cheetah, daughter of a scientist, later in the novel. The appearance of Muzzlehatch’s hot rod is the first indication that technology has moved beyond the medieval in this universe, and it is soon followed by an unmanned plane which approaches Titus as he crosses a vast pavement of grey marble:
‘This exquisite beast of the air; this wingless swallow; this aerial leopard; this fish of the water-sky; this threader of moon-beams; this dandy of the dawn; this metal play-boy; this wanderer in black spaces; this flash in the night; this drinker of its own speed; this godlike child of a diseased brain – what did it do?’ – Titus Groan, (Penguin 1970 edition, p. 34).
The above passage is highlighted in G. Peter Winnington’s The Voice of the Heart: the working of Mervyn Peake’s Imagination, as an illustration of Peake’s ambivalence about the vertical perspective. In the second book of the series, Gormenghast, the scheming steerpike engineers a periscope-like system of surveillance mirrors hidden in the walls and fireplaces of the castle, through which he gathers information on the castle’s notaries. The world of Gormenghast, whilst strictly hierarchical, nevertheless relies on a communitarian binding of Earl and subjects in rituals, rights and responsibilities, which could perhaps be seen as a more ‘horizontal’ perspective for all participants. Winnington suggests that, for Peake, the vertical perspective is that of a ‘godlike’ creature, free to observe and act in detachment, but that this perspective ultimately corrupts its subject.
While the first two books in the series are concerned only with the power that can be gained and lost in the solipsistic ecosystem of Gormenghast , Titus Alone opens up a much larger world in which governmental and scientific powers are seemingly carrying out systematic surveillance. Yet unlike Orwell’s vision of a totalitarian state in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), which must surely have influenced the dystopian world of Titus Alone, Peake is ultimately unconcerned with politics. Titus’s various pursuers are thinly-sketched and their designs never revealed or realised, from the early appearance of the unmanned plane, to a ‘glittering globe with its coloured entrails of exquisite wire’, and the mysterious men in a ‘kind of armour’ who cross the countryside with a ‘strange and gliding action’. However, while the goals of the men who direct and control this surveillance state remain unknown, Peake does offer some more information from the mouth of Muzzlehatch, when Titus has despatched the ‘intellectual globe’ with a piece of flint from Gormenghast:
‘These globes have origins. Somewhere or other there’s a backroom boy, his soul working in the primordial dark of a diseased yet sixty horse-power brain.’ Titus Groan, p. 106.
In this brief mention of a ‘backroom boy’, accompanied by the ‘diseased brain’ of the earlier passage, Peake gives us what may be the first depiction of a drone pilot in modern literature. Although drones are now associated most strongly with the war on terror, in reconnaissance and offensive roles, the concept is in fact remarkably old. The first unmanned aerial bombardment came in the form of balloon-bombs launched by the Austrians on Venice in 1849 (they were rather ineffective and some floated back over the Austrian lines), and pilotless radio-controlled planes were being produced to varying degrees of success from the First World War onwards. The word drone itself is said to have originated with a radio-controlled pilotless aircraft produced in Britain in the 1930s called the ‘Queen Bee’.
An insectoid thread runs through to popular names for the V-1 flying bomb, nicknamed Maikäfer or ‘maybug’ by Adolf Hitler, and ‘doodlebug’ or ‘buzz bomb’ by the British. Officially a cruise missile rather than a drone, as it is not designed for re-use, it was produced by Nazi Germany and launched against the South-East of England in huge quantities in 1944. Peake’s 1947 poem, ‘The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb’ (published 1962) tells of a sailor who discovers an orphaned baby in the debris of wartime London. In his delirium he carries the child to an already bombed-out church, where it flies above him and speaks, before both become aware of a ticking sound, ‘The stuttering of a far machine/Intent upon its course’. As the rocket approaches the church, the baby tells the sailor that he has ‘Not long, not long’ to die, since ‘the engine claws/God’s face and tears His hands’. Peake’s reference later on to the ‘silence of the cross’ is ambiguous: it refers to either a crucifix or the V-1 rocket itself, shaped like a cross. This blending of the mechanical and theological is perhaps another intimation on Peake’s part that technology has ended God’s monopoly on the vertical perspective. The poetic register is a natural vehicle for Peake to assign some degree of malevolent characterisation to what is in fact simply a rocket launched from a platforms, but to return to Titus Alone, he does also hint at the possibility of an unmanned aircraft acting independently:
‘What did it do but act like any other petty snooper, prying upon man and child, sucking information as a bat sucks blood; amoral; mindless; sent out on empty missions, acting as its maker would act, its narrow-headed maker […] a fatuous reflection of a fatuous concept.’ – Titus Groan, p. 34.
The plane may be ‘acting as its maker would act’, but the crucial point is that it can be considered to be acting at all – a remote possibility in the 1950s and 60s, and now perhaps an eerily close one (if the A.I. cheerleaders are to be believed!). Indeed, as Muzzlehatch goes on to say of the spy globe that Titus has destroyed, ‘If I remember rightly, I have already read about it and how it is reputed to be almost human. Not quite but almost.’ His final word on the matter is somewhat equivocal:
‘You have broken something quite hideously efficient. You have blasphemed against the spirit of the age.’ – Titus Groan, p. 106.
Peake, Mervyn – Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950) and Titus Alone (1959).
Gilmore, Maeve (Ed.) – Peake’s Progress: Selected Writings and Drawings of Mervyn Peake (Allen Lane, 1978).
Winnington, G. Peter – The Voice of the Heart: the working of Mervyn Peake’s Imagination (Liverpool University Press, 2006).