Mervyn Peake: How to Build a Castle in the Air

Mervyn Peake's sketch of Titus Groan as a boy riding on a horse in front of Gormenghast castle.

Image copyright The Mervyn Peake Estate. Please do not reproduce without permission.

You know that dream you’ve had, at the back of your mind, forever?

The one you’ve been promising yourself you’ll get round to – one-day.

It’s not going to happen.

Why not? Because dreams don’t happen. Accidents happen. World events happen. Things just happen to happen to you. But not dreams. Dreams need someone to make them happen.

And nobody cares about your dream. Nobody needs it. No-one will lose any sleep if it never comes to pass.

Except you.

So unless you are doing something – today – to make it happen, it’s not coming true.

Now for the good news. Precisely because no-one needs it or expects it, it’s the last thing on their mind. So if you do it, it will come as a big surprise. You’ll take them unawares. Astonish them.

Just like Mervyn Peake.

For many of you, the author of the Gormenghast novels will need no introduction. But a surprising number of literature lovers have never heard of him. And even some fans of Titus Groan and Gormenghast are unaware of the breathtaking range of his talents – novelist, poet, playwright, painter, sculptor and illustrator. He once even wrestled an octopus.

To give you a flavour of his work, here are the opening words of his novel Titus Groan, describing the monumental castle of Gormenghast, where the story is set:

Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping earth, each one half way over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great walls, clamping themselves there like limpets to a rock.

(Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan)

If you haven’t read it, you should give it a go. Some of you will hate it. The rest of you will thank me for the rest of your lives – no half measures with Peake. Either way, I guarantee you will never have read anything quite like it.

You’ve probably guessed by now that Peake is one of my heroes. His example has a lot to teach anyone trying to create something original and unexpected – often in spite of the fact that people around them ‘don’t get it’, and dismiss their dreams as wishful thinking or castles in the air.

Peake took pen and paper and built the massive castle of Gormenghast out of thin air. Here’s how he did it – and how you can follow in his footsteps.

1. Remember It’s Unnecessary – and Do It Anyway

Mervyn Peake started writing Titus Groan when he was conscripted into the British Army during World War II. It would be a massive understatement to say that, at that point in time, the world had plenty on its mind and had no need of a novel about an imaginary castle inhabited by eccentric characters absorbed in bizarre rituals. The phrase ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ might have been invented for the young soldier writing and sketching in his notebooks as Hitler advanced across Europe.

Even within the context of English literature, Peake is an anomaly. When I wanted to study him for my bachelor’s degree, I had to do it all myself – because there were no tutors at the University who specialised in his work.

But because no-one expected anything like it, Titus Groan came as a welcome breath of fresh air, enthusiastically championed by a few reviewers. Of course, some of the critics hated it. But as Brian will tell you, you’re doing something wrong if you don’t make a few enemies.

By producing something totally original and unnecessary, Peake created a whole category of literature all to himself, in which he has no competitors.

Takeaway: Trust your gut. Ignore Everybody. Do the obvious, even if it’s obvious to no-one but you.

2. Fit the Medium to Your Vision (Not the Other Way Round)

Peake didn’t set out to be a novelist. He thought of himself primarily as an artist. He said he switched to writing when he realised he couldn’t find a canvas big enough to paint the huge castle of Gormenghast.

As he worked, Peake switched back and forth between writing and sketching, so that the manuscripts of his novels are littered with drawings of the characters. He even rewrote Titus Groan as a radio play and opera libretto. He was so fluent in different media that he could switch between them, to express different aspects of his vision.

Takeaway: Beware of getting too locked into your own discipline. If necessary, learn new skills or collaborate with people from different fields. If you’re a writer, consider transferring your talents to video; if you’re a filmmaker, ask yourself what you can learn from music; if you’re a designer, talk to a programmer and see what ideas emerge.

3. Listen to Your Creation

Mervyn Peake's sketch of Fuchsia and Steerpike, in the manuscript of Titus Groan.

Image copyright The Mervyn Peake Estate. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Peake had an unusual solution to writer’s block. Whenever he was stuck for a piece of dialogue to move a scene forward, he would draw a little sketch of a character’s head and ask himself “What kind of thing would that head say?”.

By ‘listening’ to his characters in this way he allowed them to come to life and take the lead in shaping their own destiny. This probably accounts for the sense of surprise and wonder we experience when we read his writing – the writing was a journey of discovery for the author as much as for his readers.

Takeaway: It’s great to start with a plan, but don’t get too attached to it. Whether you’re creating a work of art, a company or a software application, there comes a point where you may need to let go of your original ideas, and allow it to lead you in a new and unexpected direction.

4. Cultivate Illusions

Like any writer of fantasy, Peake had a lot of work to do to make his imaginary world seem believable. When writing Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien solved this problem by documenting Middle Earth in mind-bogglingly obsessive detail – its history, geography, mythology and even languages. Peake didn’t bother with any of that. He had a more audacious solution.

He created a series of visual illusions in his writing, using perspective, contrast and other tricks of the artist’s trade. His scenes are so vividly painted for the mind’s eye that they are utterly convincing, however logically absurd. For example, here’s part of the description of the Ladies Cora and Clarice taking afternoon tea, at a table perched improbably on the trunk of a tree growing out of the castle wall:

Upon the lit wall [the tree’s] perfect shadow lay as though engraved with superhuman skill. Brittle and dry, and so old that its first tendril might surely have begun to thrust itself for before the wall itself had been completed, yet this tree had the grace of a young girl, and it was the intricate lace-like shadow upon the wall that Steerpike had seen first. He had been baffled until all at once the old tree itself, whose brightness melted into the bright wall behind it, materialized.

(Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan)

Takeaway: Establishing credibility is key to success in the arts and in business. Of course, you need to have the goods to back up the image you project. But any marketer knows there are ways of presenting the truth to best advantage. How can you cultivate an image – or create a whole experience – that will entrance your audience?

5. Make the Most of Your History

The Gothic world of Gormenghast is clearly influenced by Peake’s English heritage – Arundel Castle in Sussex and Peake’s Victorian Gothic family home are two candidates for the original Gormenghast. But Peake spent the first eleven years of his life in pre-revolutionary China, and there’s a strong Chinese influence on his writing and artwork.

Takeaway: No-one else has lived your life. What do you know that other people don’t? What unusual skills or experiences do you have? What can you make of them?

6. Persist

Peake was halfway through writing Titus Groan when he left the manuscript on a train. Undeterred, he rolled up his sleeves and started all over again from the beginning.

Takeaway: No excuses. If at first you don’t succeed …

7. Don’t Be Afraid to Be Funny

One of my tests of a great writer is whether they don’t take themselves too seriously. Comedy can be just as profound as tragedy, and is more engaging. Peake’s writings and pictures are often dark and forbidding, but he can also be very funny. Like when the gloriously-named nursemaid Nannie Slagg tells the Lady Fuchsia “You will look as pretty as a flowering lamb, my big, untidy thing”.

Or when the stick-thin Mr. Flay pursues his arch enemy, the grotesquely fat chef Abiatha Swelter:

If ever man stalked man, Flay stalked Swelter. It is to be doubted whether, when compared with the angular motions of Mr. Flay, any man on earth could claim to stalk at all. He would have to do it with another word.

(Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan)

Takeaway: Don’t take yourself too seriously. Allow yourself to be human and share a joke with your audience or customers. You’ll all feel better for it, and it will strengthen the bond between you. Not to mention enriching the work itself.

8. Be Evil

The Machiavellian Steerpike – a kitchen boy whose rise to power is as meteoric as it is unscrupulous – is one of the great villains in literature, up there with Richard the Third or Hannibal Lecter. And some of Peake’s illustrations, such as the Nightmare Life-in-Death from Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, are deeply disturbing. By all accounts Peake was a nice guy, but he wasn’t afraid to explore the dark side of life in his work.

Here’s Steerpike, savouring the moment after having insinuated himself into a job that is the first rung on the ladder to power:

Moving quickly to the window he opened it. Across the courtyard the mountainous outline of Gormenghast Castle rose darkly into the night. The cool air fanned his big protruding forehead. His face remained like a mask, but deep down in his stomach he grinned.

(Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan)

Steerpike is a vicious psychopath, but Titus Groan and Gormenghast would be a pale shadow of themselves without the demented energy and ingenuity he brings to the story. Like many actors, Peake evidently took a mischievous glee in playing the villain.

Image copyright The Mervyn Peake Estate. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Takeaway: Everyone has a dark side. Claiming not to be evil will get you into trouble eventually. Much better to embrace your shadow, take it out and dance with it. You never know what it could teach you.

9. Destroy Your Dream

Without giving away too many surprises, one of the messages of the Titus books is that nothing lasts forever, no matter how much time and effort you have invested in building it up. Here are the words of Juno, a middle-aged heroine coming to terms with a lifetime of disappointments:

The past is over. My home is a memory. I will never see it again. For look, I have these sunbeams and these colours. A new life lies ahead.

(Mervyn Peake, Titus Alone)

Takeaway: One day, it will be time for your dream to die. It will have run its course and served its purpose. You may even have to shoot it, to put it out of its misery. This is as it should be. You have to let go of the old dream to make room for a new one …

Your Castles in the Air

Have you ever dreamt up something out of thin air – and made it happen? How?

What do you do when you come up with an idea you love, but people around you don’t seem to get it?

If you are new to Mervyn Peake’s work, the website offers an excellent introduction. And Mervyn’s son Sebastian Peake writes the Mervyn Peake Blog, which will keep you updated with Peake news and publications.

PLEASE NOTE: All images in this article are copyright the Mervyn Peake Estate and reproduced by kind permission of Sebastian Peake. Please do not reproduce them without permission.

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach. Subscribe today for more free tips on creativity and productivity.

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  1. Its really an awesome article for reviving our creativity thanks for sharing good things.

  2. This is very inspiring. Like Mervyn Peake, I have conjured many different stories in my head and made many sketches and writings about them. But so far not one of them has reached fruition yet. I’ve been working for several years now as a writer/editor and illustrator/painter/designer. Though my passions remain very strong, the need to make ends meet require that I work in companies and use my talents and skills, for other’s purposes. I’ve also learned how to use my skills to instruct others and make extra money for paying bills. But apart from writing articles, my biggest dream is to make a fully illustrated novel. It saddens me that the ideas come like water–complete, sudden, and in those least expected moments–but the arduous work of letting them fully materialize is taking great pains and a whole lot of time. Reading about your effective suggestions, and how you equate them with Peake’s creative process, as evident through his masterpiece, gives me that necessitated shove to move on and keep up with what little I have started. The only and biggest trouble that comes with fulfilling one’s dream is this nagging question: “Will this dream ever turn to reality?” And with all the odds present, it is so easy to lose hope. But what the heck? If this be the only way we can share ourselves to the world, then I do believe it’s worth every bit of the pain we have to go through for it.

  3. As Usual a Great post. We can find inspiration from many sources.

    I really like your headline ” Remember It’s Unnecessary – and Do It Anyway.”

    I think this is an important statement for anybody who needs to get over that 1st step and get busy on their dreams.

    I think that justification for creativity can stop us dead in our tracks. We should just work and let the world attempt to justify it for us. Of course they won’t be able to but hopefully they will at least connect with it.

  4. Wow. Not only is this a great post about living your dream, it makes me want to check out Peake’s novels! Thanks for this!

  5. Wow, this is a really great article. I have a real problem with facing my dreams or even giving myself permission to have them, but your post has made me look at things differently. Not only is it beautiful, but also highly practical.
    I had never heard of this writer (I’m not american) but I’ll check it out.
    Thanks so much for the post!

  6. Maris – “Will this dream ever turn to reality?” – How about replacing that question with this one: “What do I need to do to turn it into reality?”

    Michael – Creativity doesn’t need justification. Leave that to your biographer. 😉

    Catherine – I think you’ll find it time well spent.

    Alex – Thanks. And don’t worry, I’m not American either – and neither was Peake. 🙂

  7. Dear Mark,

    This is a completely fabulous piece about how to make a creative dream come true!

    I love your tips and recognize a lot of them from my own creative work with myself and my students. In my intuitive painting classes, whenever people are stuck I always encourage them to talk to the painting and ask the painting what IT wants next. And the willingness to go whole hog into your dark and evil side always releases tremendous energy and is the most fun ever!!!

    And yes, I created my whole creativity and expressive arts business out of thin air and made it happen, one painstaking step at a time. My favorite quotes as I was building Creative Juices Arts was by the actress Ruth Gordon ” Never give up. And never, under any circumstances, face the facts!”

    Thanks again!

  8. anupama says:

    just…wow !

  9. Chris – Yes, much better to be guided by the painting than try to force your own ideas on it. The same is true of poetry. (And I need to be reminded by my teacher…)

  10. Thanks for the article – much to ponder here.

    Steerpike is a vicious psychopath, but Titus Groan and Gormenghast would be a pale shadow of themselves without the demented energy and ingenuity he brings to the story. Like many actors, Peake evidently took a mischievous glee in playing the villain.

    I’ve just come back from a ten-day meditation retreat and it has made stark for me a dilemma I have been struggling with for years. That is, creativity seems to me egocentric and even negative. The message I was getting on this retreat (or part of the message) was not to express negativity in any way. Obviously, if one takes this idea on board, then Peake’s kind of creativity (and the kind that I am interested in) is right out. We are, apparently, only perpetuating misery in the world by indulging in it.

    This is an idea I find difficult to accept, but difficult, also, to deny completely. I feel I should give up creativity (give up on my dream), but I am almost certain that I can’t give up.

    Anyway, it’s interesting to me, in a timely sort of way, to read your recommendation here to be evil. Something that I do often, anyway, but something about which I have qualms.

  11. Fantastically written. Always convincing and plausible in its reverence. However, I feel a little thick now for not noticing the many funny parts in the book. Of course, I see most of them, but the one that is quoted (Flay stalking), for example, I didn’t take so much as funny, but simply as “weird”, “grotesque” perhaps. Anyway, not the laughing type, just a curious stylisation. And so it is for most parts of the book. Maybe amusing, but I have difficulty in seeing the overt comedy that some take it for.

  12. @ Quention – Well, you know, evil within reason. 😉

    @ Fred – Don’t worry, it’s probably just my warped sense of humour. 🙂

  13. incredibly inspiring. i see you presenting on TED soon!

  14. Mark,

    Insightful and inspiring once again. Thank you.

    When I have an idea that only seems to resonate with me, I follow my internal compass and thrash it out. The worst thing that can happen is I scrap it. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

    ‘Destroy your dreams’ – I couldn’t agree more. It is in the embers of burnt dreams that I have found the spark for new ones. I often find the same effect when scrapping a poem or a song. If I can even retrieve one line with which to start a new piece, it was worth the toil.