Friday 25 March 2022

Exchanging Certainty for Uncertainty: Mervyn Peake Explores the Realms of Children’s Fiction

This is the text of a paper I read at the 2011 conference for the centenary of Mervyn Peake's birth, organised by Professor William Gray and Peake expert G. Peter Winnington, at what was then the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy, Chichester University and is now the Chichester Centre for Fairy Tales, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction. With the other papers presented at the conference, it was published in 'Miracle Enough' ed. G Peter Winnington, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013.


First of all let me hand you my credentials, such as they are. I am not an academic. I have not made a literary study of Mervyn Peake.  I’m just a reader, who happens also to be a professional writer of fantasy adventure for children and young people. 

When I came up with the title for this talk – ‘Exchanging Certainty for Uncertainty’ – I felt that I had found something suitably academic-sounding and was quite proud of myself – until I saw the conference programme, stuffed to bursting with a menagerie of horrible words like Hermeneutic and Algorithm and Aporias – and began to realise that my choice of title had been only too apt. I was feeling very uncertain indeed; and then I began to wonder what Mervyn Peake himself might have done in the circumstances, so I went away and drew some pictures. 

Here we see the Hermeneut, practising interpretation:

And the fearsome Algorithm, calculating away…



And the Aporias, always in doubt, poor thing:


When I had done this I felt much better, and able to continue. 

So now you know what to expect. I am a children’s writer and I used to be a child, and that’s where I’m coming from. Children’s writers do grow up, but only in the way a tree does, adding height and rings with each year – but there at the core, the sapling forms the heartwood. 

Children can be brilliant, sensitive, intelligent readers, but their response is different from an adult’s: immediate and emotional. Where adults preserve some separation from a story, a child will identify closely with the main character and experience his or her adventures in a very personal way. This is one reason why it is so very difficult for a parent to predict what elements of a story are likely to frighten a child. Moreover, when we are talking about illustrated books, as we are today, there’s a double whammy: even for an adult I think pictures have a more immediate impact than prose. When I was about six, I was given an Enid Blyton book about Noddy, which my mother had to hide because a picture of a goblin jumping out from behind a tree terrified me so much. 

‘Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,’ says Robert Graves, expressing the experiential immediacy of childhood in his poem ‘The Cool Web’. For children, a story or a picture can be literally overwhelming, a medium in which they either sink or swim. Unlike us, children don’t have the words to ‘spell away the story and the fright.’

There’s a cool web of language winds us in,

Retreat from too much joy or too much fear…

The joy and the fear, however, are what children find in stories.

So this is going to be a personal, an emotional response to Peake’s children’s work, in particular to ‘Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor’ and ‘Letters from a Lost Uncle’, and we shall be looking at lots of pictures. 

In his inaugural lecture as Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English in the University of Cambridge, C.S. Lewis – another writer whose books enchanted me as a child – wrote with his customary verve and wit of his value as a sort of living dinosaur. He felt himself a citizen of what he termed Old Western Culture: in sympathy with it in a way in which he felt his audience was not.  And he offered this as both a disqualification and an advantage: 

You don’t want to be lectured on Neanderthal Man by a Neanderthaler, still less on dinosaurs by a dinosaur.  And yet, is this the whole story? If a live dinosaur dragged its slow length into the laboratory, would we not all look back as we fled?  What a chance to know at last how it really moved and looked and smelled and what noises it made!  … Where I fail as a critic, I may yet be useful as a specimen.

And so I shall not pretend to offer an exhaustive critical analysis of these works, or play at formal academic debate and bury us all under secondary sources. That is beyond my ability and not, I suspect, what I was invited here to do. I am simply bringing these stories to you as I found them – as a reader, as a writer, as a child – rich with echoes and suggestion and promise. I don’t know whether or not it will be of any value to you, but at least we will have had some fun.

Of  Peake’s books for children, Letters From A Lost Uncle is the only one which I myself encountered as a child – I was possibly about 14. I loved it at once. I loved the visual gag of the entire book, the cover designed like a package that had just popped through the letterbox; I loved the messy, type-written pages, and the beautiful, lyrical drawings. I appreciated the humour, but more than that I thrilled to the adventure, the romance of the story.  

I never came across Captain Slaughterboard at that age, and I’m not sure how much I would have liked it if I had.  I was the kind of serious, romantic child who finds clowns scary and comedy irritating.  It wouldn’t have been my kind of book back then, and I would probably have missed much of what was going on in it. 


Finally, I never read any of Peake’s nonsense verse when I was a child for the simple reason that I didn’t like nonsense verse – although it was difficult to escape Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll. In fact I still don’t have a taste for it, not really. It made me feel creepy. The Jumblies? No. The Dong with the Luminous Nose? No, no, no. Rhymes Without Reason? Absolutely, no! I wanted reason. I didn’t feel safe enough to let go of reason. I liked to know where I was in a book. I wanted heroes to be heroes and villains to be villains. I liked – and I kind of expected – certainties.

Naturally no book can be composed entirely of certainties, but nevertheless the sort of fiction available to me as a child offered a fair amount. There was plenty of danger and darkness. Think of the underground goblin caves in ‘The Princess and the Goblin’; the baby rabbits shut in the oven in ‘The Tale of Mr Tod’, the old house full of ‘enormous rats’ in ‘The Tale of Samuel Whiskers’. Think of Blind Pew in ‘Treasure Island’, and the terror of the Black Spot; think of the almost out-of-control hysteria of the Queen of Hearts in ‘Alice in Wonderland’. These books don’t ignore the dark side of life. They take children by the hand and lead them right up to the edge of the abyss. 

But they don’t let go. The certainties are still there. Goodness and bravery will prevail. Curdie’s defiant song will rout the goblins. Peter and Benjamin save the baby rabbits while the villains fight one another. A child is not always sure how much his parents really love him: Tom Kitten’s mother loves him enough to call in the joiner to take up the floorboards – imagine the mess! – and rescue him from the rats’ den. And as for Alice…

Let’s look at some pictures!

Here is Tenniel’s Alice, emerging out of the mirror into Looking Glass Land. Please take a moment to consider the feeling in this picture. 

Alice is barely halfway out of the mirror.  She’s not looking at us, she’s looking around and down at the room with an expression of calm interest. She is a little excited, perhaps, but not alarmed. I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel as though I’m there in the room, waiting for her, I feel as though I’m looking at her through the window-frame of the picture. We can glimpse part of the room, which appears to be well lit. The grinning clock is strange, but not threatening. Alice is firmly planted on the mantelshelf.  She has the chance to take her time, look around, and jump down when she chooses. To me, this picture says that Alice is about to have an adventure, but she is in control.

Here is Mervyn Peake’s illustration of the same moment.

Peake’s Alice appears through the misty glass like an apparition.  She is looking straight into our eyes, as though we are the first thing she sees.  Her face is very white, and so are her hands, outspread as though pressing through the glass – but also gesturing an ambiguous mixture of alarm and conjuration.  She is coming out of darkness, and there are no reflections to suggest what the looking glass room may contain – except us, for we are already there, waiting for her. 

We may not be friendly.

With one leg waving over the drop, she is about to fall off the mantelshelf into the room – her position is precarious and untenable. This is an Alice falling into the unknown.

Let’s compare two more, for I think this is interesting.  At the end of ‘Through the Looking Glass’, just as she did in ‘Wonderland’, Alice ends her dream and her dream-world with an act of terrified and angry violence. Let me read you the passage in all its surreal splendour:

And then (as Alice described it afterwards) all sorts of things happened in a moment.  The candles all grew up to the ceiling, looking something like a bed of rushes with fireworks at the top.  As to the bottles, they each took a pair of plates, which they hastily fitted on as wings, and so, with forks for legs, went fluttering about in all directions: ‘and very like birds they look,’ thought Alice to herself, as well as she could in the dreadful confusion that was beginning.

At this moment she heard a hoarse laugh at her side and turned to see what was the matter with the White Queen; but, instead of the Queen, there was a leg of mutton sitting in the chair.  ‘Here I am!’ cried a voice from the soup tureen, and Alice turned again, just in time to see the Queen’s broad, good-natured face grinning at her for a moment over the edge of the tureen before  disappearing into the soup.

There was not a moment to be lost.  Already, several of the guests were lying down in the dishes, and the soup ladle was walking up the table towards Alice’s chair, and beckoning to her impatiently to get out of the way.

“I can’t stand this any longer!” she cried as she jumped up and seized the table cloth with both hands: one good pull, and plates, dishes, guests and candles came crashing down together in a heap on the floor.

Tenniel’s illustration – here – is a real action shot.  Look at the determination in Alice’s stance as she yanks the tablecloth to one side.  This has to be something every child has always secretly wanted to do.  There’s a fierceness and joy in destruction here.  Just look at all the dishes clattering down in chaos!  Look at the candles shooting up like fireworks!  It’s frightening, but it’s fun, and Alice is doing it.


Now here’s Peake’s illustration.  Lit by three tall sinister candles – they look almost like funeral candles – Alice and the two Queens are being swept down into an inky black whirlpool.  What price the crown on Alice’s head now? – symbol of power, of being able to move anywhere on the board?  She’s pointing away from the whirlpool, but looking back at it over her shoulder, and there seems little chance she’ll escape being sucked down and drowned in a nightmare.  She seems helpless.

I may have spent too long talking about the Alice books, when I ought to be talking about Peake’s own stories for children, but the fact that he was a brilliant illustrator of many children’s classics, is all part of this discussion.  To illustrate a book means submerging yourself in its essence.  Good illustrators do not merely express the text, they also interpret it. 

I don’t think you can argue about it: Tenniel’s illustration is by far the closest to the text.  But for me, Peake seems to be tapping into something I felt strongly, if inarticulately, as a child: the Alice books teeter on the very brink of madness and chaos.  Some people – my mother, for example – find them playful, cerebral, witty, paradoxical – light.  I found their emotional aura dark, even frightening.  For me, they packed a fearsome emotional punch, and the only reason I could bear to read them is that Alice is so very self-possessed. 

I used to have a recurrent dream as a child, in which I lay in bed staring at the ceiling watching something come rolling diagonally across it, turning all its smoothness into crumples. I would feel as though the surface of the world was being torn off to reveal intrinsic chaos. It wasn’t a dream, it was a nightmare, and the Alice books came close to giving me that feeling: that you can’t trust the universe, that nothing makes sense.

This is why I didn’t like nonsense verse.  Maybe I didn’t see, as a child, that nonsense had its own logic… that looking glass land obeys the rules of chess… after all, I had never played chess.  A child’s days are spent learning the rules, learning how to live.  I wanted certainties. 


Peake’s own books for children are about South Sea Islands and pirates and galleons and polar bears and ice and jungles and explorers: in his own words -

            Of pygmies, palms and pirates,

Of islands and lagoons,

Of blood-bespotted frigates

Of crags and octoroons…

... exotic yet familiar subjects straight from the traditional canon of books such as ‘Treasure Island’, ‘The Coral Island’, ‘Robinson Crusoe’, ‘King Solomon’s Mines’: books widely separated in time – 1719 for ‘Robinson Crusoe’, 1883 for ‘Treasure Island’ – but still in print and in wide circulation right up to the 1960s when I was a child: because children are given books by adults, who remember what they themselves enjoyed.  Not so much now, but certainly when I was small, there was almost a built-in time-warp in children’s fiction.  We were all reading books fifty to a hundred years old, full of juicy adventure, but containing a lot of what you might call conservative attitudes.

Of course Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island’does offer ambiguities, but not always the kind spotted by child readers. Any child sees the attraction of wicked but charismatic Long John Silver, but they won’t feel that ‘Treasure Island’ is about him. I imagine that for most adult readers Long John Silver is unquestionably the main character, way the most interesting, the most nuanced. For a child the main character is just as obviously Jim Hawkins, because he is innocent, brave and good.  (And, of course, the narrator.) In the gap between those perceptions, a whole world lies.

Peake knows this.  Here is his illustration of Jim Hawkins with Long John Silver.  Look at the way Jim is clinging to Silver, while his face is full of distrust and terror. It’s an absolutely brilliant summation of the moment: Jim needs Silver to protect him, yet Silver is himself the source of all the danger on the island. It can even be stated in a more general way: a child needs adults, yet adults can be dangerous.

And so the unspoken bargain between adult writer and child reader is that goodness will be rewarded, wickedness – however swashbuckling and attractive – will be punished: and the hero will be a proper hero: someone who is brave and good.   A pirate like Long John Silver cannot be a hero.  Here are some of the certainties about pirates.  A pirate is bloodthirsty and bad: he must wear a cocked hat and eighteenth century clothing; he must fly the skull and crossbones, he may have a hook instead of a hand.  He makes people walk the plank.  Once established in a child’s mind, he is inerasable.  Pirates are such larger than life characters that it’s natural to have fun with them, as J M Barrie did with Captain Hook – but they remain fearsome even when laughable. A pirate ought to come to a bad end – hanged at Execution Dock, eaten by a crocodile.  Well, all right, Long John Silver escapes, and with a sack of guineas too.  But Stevenson, like Peake, is an artist who transcends convention: and in any case, as Jim reflects: “[Silver’s] chances of comfort in another world are very small.”

Captain Slaughterboard shapes up very well.  Here he is: clearly a comic pirate rather than a romantic one, but still scary. He has cunning little eyes in an enormous face. His crossed pistols threaten in two directions. The smoke shoots from his pipe like a blast from a steam whistle.  A dagger is stuck in the table.  And he is drinking beer...  So surely he can’t be the hero?  Surely he’s bound for a bad end? 

The book begins with a peaceful and beautiful picture of a ‘bright blue ocean that stretched for ever in all directions. There were little green islands with undiscovered edges, and whales swam around them in this sort of way.’ 

Into this peaceful paradise erupts Captain Slaughterboard’s ship, the Black Tiger, arriving on the crest of a sort of Hokusai tidal wave, guns blazing, the epitome of every kind of exciting disaster. We hear about his violent past: ‘Lots of his men had been eaten by sharks or killed in battle, and hundreds had been made to walk the plank.’ It looks bad news for the peaceful islands, especially when we notice that Peter Pop the cook has already killed the whale from page one.  There’s a knife and fork stuck in its nose, and a sword, skewering a piece of paper reading ‘Sunday Dinner’, stuck in its tail.  So many jokes going on here: that pirates even eat ‘Sunday Dinner’, for example – but the message is clear: Captain Slaughterboard is trouble. 

The jokes continue as the lookout spots a pink island: “Pink!” shouted the Captain, leaping to his feet.  “That’s just the sort I like.  Sail me there and hurry up, or I’ll chop you all into mincemeat.” And this is when Captain Slaughterboard spots the Yellow Creature – part animal, part native, part child – and instantly wants it. 


But why?  

Pirates traditionally go after treasure ships and gold doubloons, not weird animals. Wanting the Yellow Creature is outside the pirate job description. If this were a book about explorers and adventurers (like Ralph, Jack and Peterkin of RM Ballantyne’s  ‘The Coral Island’ and  ‘The Gorilla Hunters’, or Rider Haggard’s Allen Quatermain) it would be understandable.  They would be after the Yellow Creature as a trophy, or a scientific specimen.  Or, if the Yellow Creature is human (in the inferior genre of savage human), then the adventure-story parameters would allow the Yellow Creature to be recruited as a servant-companion: a faithful, simple Man Friday. 

But this isn’t what happens.  Captain Slaughterboard describes the Creature as “Just exactly the sort I’ve been wanting.” True, the Yellow Creature initially appears alarmed and has to be chased, but when the pirates catch him they lead him tenderly back to the ship, holding his hands as if he were a little child, and we are told in a comic non-sequitur that he doesn’t mind being caught after all “because he had been rather lonely on the island.  You see, nearly all the other creatures were purple.”

Now, normally speaking, people do mind being kidnapped by pirates. Peake is reversing all the conventions.  And the Captain is now behaving in a most un-piratical – although still despotic – way: enthralled by the Yellow Creature.  He sees something in it that his crew simply doesn’t get. Perhaps that’s why they don’t survive when The Black Tiger sails away:

… right over the horizon where they met with so many adventures and such terrible battles that at last the Yellow Creature and the Captain were the only ones left on board.

Aha! ‘The last two left on board’ is a critical situation quite common in pirate fiction.  There’s Jim Hawkins alone on the Hispaniola with Israel Hands.  There’s Ralph alone with Bloody Bill in Ballantyne’s The Coral Island.  In each case, the dilemma is that the plucky lad needs the pirate’s assistance to sail the ship to safety.  In ‘Treasure Island’, Jim shoots the treacherous Israel Hands dead, after Hands throws a knife at him: 

I felt a blow, and then a sharp pang, and there I was pinned by the shoulder to the mast.  In the horrid pain and surprise of the moment – I scarce can say it was by my own volition, and I am sure it was without a conscious aim – both my pistols went off, and both escaped from my hands.  They did not fall alone; with a choked cry the coxswain loosed his grasp upon the shrouds and plunged headfirst into the water.

Owing to the cant of the vessel, the masts hung far out over the water, and from my perch on the cross trees I had nothing below me but the surface of the bay.  ...As the water settled I could see [Hands] lying huddled together on the clean bright sand … A fish or two whipped past his body.  Sometimes, by the quivering of the water, he appeared to move a little … But he was dead enough for all that, being both shot and drowned and was food for the fish in the very place where he had designed my slaughter.

…I was no sooner certain of this than I began to feel faint, sick and terrified.   The hot blood was running over my back and chest… yet it was not so much these real sufferings that distressed me ... it was the horror I had upon my mind of falling from the cross trees into that still green water, beside the coxswain.

In R.M. Ballantyne's ‘The Coral Island’, under similar circumstances, Ralph achieves the death-bed conversion of the pirate Bloody Bill: 

“Ralph, I’ve led a terrible life. …I’ve been a pirate three years now.  … Since that time my hand has been steeped in human blood again and again. Your young heart would grow cold if – but why should I go on?  ‘Tis of no use, Ralph; my doom is fixed.”

“Bill,” said I, “‘Though your sins be red like crimson, they shall be white as snow.’ ‘Only believe’.”

A few seconds afterwards he said, “Ralph, let me hear those two texts again.”

I repeated them.

“Are ye sure, lad , ye saw them in the Bible?”

“Quite sure,” I replied.

My first care, the instant I could quit the helm, was to raise Bill from the deck … I then ran below for the brandy bottle and rubbed his face and hands with it, and endeavoured to pour a little down his throat.  But my efforts… were of no avail; as I let go the hand which I had been chafing it fell heavily on the deck.  …the pirate was dead!

These are both serious moments (and note the care Stevenson takes to let us know that the killing of Israel Hands is accidental, reflexive, defensive, and that therefore Jim remains innocent).  In each case the pirate dies: deservedly: because of their wicked lives.  

Now here is the Yellow Creature, alone on board The Black Tiger with Captain Slaughterboard under just these circumstances, and what happens?  They eat together, dance together, and decide to return to the island together – for good:

Captain Slaughterboard would never dream of leaving and can’t understand how he used to enjoy killing people so much. 

It looks very much as if somehow, in finding and appreciating the Yellow Creature, Captain Slaughterboard has found his soul. Something he knew he needed, something he knew he wanted – something he knew he didn’t have.

This is a sunlit tale. And yet I can’t shake the conviction that I would have found it dark, if I’d read it aged nine or ten.  Why on earth should I feel that way?  Is it because death and destruction lurk beyond the pages, where those pirates died? Or because the pirates are grotesque?  Is it because the book is amoral?  Or is it simply that strong sunlight casts very dark shadows?

In children’s literature, pirates are wicked in the way naughty boys are.  Out of control, carelessly cruel.  After all, who hasn’t wanted to be a pirate?  Free to sail the seas in your own ship, free to break the rules, do as you like, take what you want?  Pirates, whatever adults may make of them, have a huge zest for life.  They are fearsome as the ego is fearsome. 

And children are quite like fictional pirates, really.  It’s natural for them to be adventurous, bossy, selfish. It’s natural for them to want things, to quarrel and be bad.  Maybe what ‘Captain Slaughterboard’ says to a child is: it’s all right.  Enjoy life!  It’s good to be passionate, good to want things.  Life is full of beauty and weird and wonderful creatures and you can be part of it. You won’t be violent and angry forever (and we tend to forget how furiously angry children can be). Nobody forgives Captain Slaughterboard (not God, certainly not the Yellow Creature). He doesn’t even repent. He just learns how to be happy.

Editors and publishers often demand, as if in obedience to some kind of law, that books for young children should be ABOUT children.  The main characters should be children, or else animals or toys: children in another guise. The thinking is that children cannot empathise with adult characters. But I believe that’s all wrong.  For I think characters like Captain Slaughterboard and The Lost Uncle are themselves children in disguise.  Why should Captain Slaughterboard repent?  He was only being a boy.

Mind you, it’s such an unusual message that I think I might have misunderstood it if I’d read it as a child, schooled to expect the usual fictional certainties: the bargain between adult writer and child reader: the good win, the bad perish or repent.  Perhaps this is why I would have found it dark.  I might have resented Captain Slaughterboard, lying blissfully under the palm tree.  He was wicked, and he didn’t pay!  He didn’t eat his greens, yet he still got his pudding! 

I do not know how widely read ‘Captain Slaughterboard’ has been among children: but I think it may be fair to say that it’s no longer particularly well known, outside academia, as the children’s classic it undoubtedly is.  I took a quick straw poll amongst contemporary children’s authors of my acquaintance - people who not only take a professional interest in children’s literature, but who were mostly keen childhood readers themselves.  Twenty responded, and while all of them knew of Mervyn Peake as the author of Gormenghast, only four had heard of his children’s books.  Of those four, only two had ever read them – and as adults rather than as children.  One had been a bookseller, and commented that those who enquired for the books were usually (excuse me) ‘earnest academics’ rather than parents with children in tow. 

Now I admit this is hardly a scientific survey.  But it does suggest to me that my feeling of something dark in Peake’s children’s books may have been sensed by others, too – maybe by the adult gatekeepers who choose what children shall read: maybe by the children themselves.    

But if ‘Captain Slaughterboard’ does have a niche appeal for children, here is the testimony of one reader who absolutely got it.  (Perhaps crucially, she had the book read aloud to her: there is nothing safer and warmer than the relationship between parent and child reading together.)  Beatrix Howard, the friend of a friend, wrote to me in response to my straw poll:

My dad had already loved Captain Slaughterboard when he was little, so he loved reading it to us dramatically.  The unique illustrations for Captain Slaughterboard were of the way I desired the world to look, contained the creatures, the island, the pirates I wanted to see around me.  Here was someone who understood me. I wanted to be inside the pages.  I tried to draw like them. Captain Slaughterboard is genuine, I wasn’t being patronised.  There was so much to look at; I would absorb every little hair and grape. Of course the relationship between the Captain and the yellow Creature is so wonderful; the expression in the Yellow Creature’s eyes when he looks out at the reader when they are dreadfully lazy and eat fruit.

Beatrix asked her aunt Stefany for a quote too, and Stefany wrote:

Being a law-abiding and timid child, I felt some trepidation at encountering blood-thirsty pirates and felt a good deal of anxiety, but was charmed by the Yellow Creature and reassured by the Captain’s championing him.  It was [my brother’s] book, of course, which was always a recommendation.

“I felt a good deal of anxiety”. Yes! Opening a new book, for a child, IS an adventure. There may be something very frightening inside which he won’t be able to cope with (such as the picture of the goblin in the Noddy book which scared me). And it’s no use saying to a terrified child, ‘Don’t be frightened, it was only a story.’  This is no comfort at all. Only a story?  Children know what adults often fail to realise: a story is one of the strongest things there is.  And so for a child, reading a book with someone, some loved and known adult or older sibling, is like having a hand to hold as he ventures into the dark.

Turning to ‘Letters From a Lost Uncle’, the counterpart to the Yellow Creature is of course the enigmatic and sardonic looking Jackson, the Lost Uncle’s faithful retainer and living embodiment of the saying ‘no man is a hero to his valet’. Here he is – looking like a cross between human and turtle - along with the Lost Uncle’s description:

He has been my retainer for many years and has no conversation; but I wouldn’t swap him for six tins of condensed milk or a jug of hot rum.

The implications are as complex as their relationship.  What a child understands from this, is that the Lost Uncle is very fond of Jackson and doesn’t want to lose him.  But an adult will notice the way in which the Uncle refers to Jackson as if he were a commodity which could be bartered.  Both readings are possible, both views are valid.  A child feels reassured, not belittled, by an adult who hugs her tightly and says, ‘I wouldn’t swap you for all the tea in China’.  The child understands that she does, in a good sense, belong to her parents, and finds safety in the knowledge.  She recognises the statement as a declaration of love.

But in the adult view, Jackson is not a child.  In fact, he looks positively middle-aged.  So why is the Lost Uncle treating him like one?  Presumably because theirs is a mirror of the colonial relationship between ‘White Man’ and ‘Native’, and Mervyn Peake, as a conscious artist, is slyly subverting it.  Here is Robinson Crusoe, reflecting of Man Friday:

Never man had a more faithful, loving, sincere servant than Friday was to me; without passions, sullenness or designs, perfectly obliging and engaged; his very affections were tied to me, like those of a child to his father, and I dare say he would have sacrificed his life, for the saving mine, on any occasion whatsoever.

In the paternalistic, old-fashioned adventure book tradition, natives are considered to be like children.  They are sidekicks to be made use of – and this is exactly how the Uncle and Jackson meet, after the Uncle has paddled into land on a floating table:

It was dawn before I reached the land and stepped off the table onto a beach of red sand with turtle dogs littered all over it (asleep), one of whom is now sleeping beside me – Jackson, in fact.  I could see that he would be useful at once, as a beast of burden – and possibly as a friend.

‘Beast of burden’!  Peake is being deliberately provocative here.  And indeed, Jackson is depicted carrying all sorts of pots and pans, or hauling the Uncle on his sledge, or even acting as an easel for the Uncle’s paintings. 

He has always been quite willing to help, although I have never seen him smile.  Also he does not mind me hammering nails into his back to hang things on.  It doesn’t hurt him any more than when you have your fingernails cut, but some beasts might well take exception, nevertheless.

 But Jackson is no obliging, devoted Man Friday.  He manages to make his unspoken protest by spilling gravy on the Uncle’s notebook, or leaving footprints on it. Neither the Yellow Creature nor Jackson ever speaks, though the Yellow Creature learns to say ‘Yo Ho’ (another link to Treasure Island), so there is no verbal communication between them and their masters or friends.  But where the Yellow Creature is accepting of Captain Slaughterboard, Jackson has a powerful personality, and observes and perhaps judges with unsettling, sly detachment - smirking when the Uncle is attacked by a bear, for example.  And he isn’t an individual to be pitied either. There seems no special reason why he shouldn’t leave the Uncle, but he stays – perhaps because he is content to be dragged along in the wake of the Uncle like a child following an older sibling into some marvellous game.

Indeed their relationship often clearly reflects that of a bossy older child having to cope with an annoying younger one:  

Jackson has been most irritating, stumbling along over every little hump of ground and having to be picked up.  I stopped him to do a drawing for a great black sea was on our left with some peculiar icebergs on it, but he kept moving just when I got my pencil on the paper. Sometimes I wish I was on my own.

The petulant note at the end comes directly from childhood: “You’re just a nuisance!  Go away and leave me alone!” Children won’t worry about the unequal relationship between Jackson and the Uncle. They are used to it.  They are used to the family hierarchy, to being called upon to act as porters and gophers by older brothers and sisters, willing to pay the price for the privilege of being allowed into the game – and ready, too, to rebel if things go too far. 

So is the Lost Uncle a proper hero in the adventure story tradition?  On the face of it, he’s an acceptable adventurer in the mould of Scott, Shackleton, etc, although unheroically (and perhaps realistically) grumpy, selfish and dishevelled.  But it’s all very tongue in cheek.  His relationship with us, the reader, is ambiguous.  We stand in place of the nephew to whom the letters are – theoretically – being written, and the Uncle repeatedly explains that he is not enjoying the task, and that none of it is for our benefit:

Dear nephew, I have decided to write you a letter.  It is the first I have tried my hand at for many years.  It will certainly be the last.  I am sick of it already as a matter of fact.


 I can explain things better by making drawings as I go along – which I delight in doing – I do not want you to think that they are there simply to please you.  If you like them, that’s all the better, but I would do them anyway.

Of course, the letters accumulate to the number of fourteen, an entire book full. We learn quite a bit about his past, from babyhood on.  

            I was born in Tulse Hill, but ran away within the week.

He dodges school entirely: 

When I was old enough to go to school, I drank so much ink on the first day that I was seriously ill until I was old enough to leave.


He marries, but:

I began to collect different kinds of insects, mushrooms and rats.  The best place for them from my point of view was the lounge.  I began to notice that my wife was not so considerate as she used to be, so I had my meals out and usually slept in Cannon Street Station.

Soon he is leaving home on a ship, throwing his stiff collar into the sea, heading away for the ‘the coloured ports’ and beginning his quest for the White Lion.  The Lost Uncle – like any child – isn’t interested in the boring bits of life.  How lovely to be able to cut school, have all the pets you want, never work, ignore all your responsibilities, and head straight for adventure!  

Where William Golding, in ‘Lord of the Flies’, took the Coral Island myth – that  stranded boys will behave like perfect English gentlemen full of camaraderie and daring – and re-interpreted it as ‘boys are little savages’, Peake, for all his sly fun at the expense of the canon, isn’t out to demolish it. There is comedy but no cynicism in his work, and no anger.  What I immediately adored about the Lost Uncle was his – and Peake’s – humour, his love of adventure, and his appreciation of the amazing beauty and wildness of the world:

I sang aloud (a thing I seldom do) and swarms of fishes lifted their moonlit heads out of the water to listen to me, their eyes like shillings, and it was only after I’d no more breath left that they lowered themselves into the depths of the sea.

It reminds me of a passage from Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ – another text read by every child of my generation – and illustrated by Peake five years before the publication of the ‘Lost Uncle’ – at the point where the Mariner’s heart opens to the natural beauty around him, and the curse breaks:

Beyond the shadow of the ship,

I watched the water snakes:

They moved in tracks of shining white,

And when they rear’d, the elfish light

Fell off in hoary flakes.


Within the shadow of the ship

I watched their rich attire:

Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,

They coiled and swam; and every track

Was a flash of golden fire.


Oh happy living things! no tongue

Their beauty might declare:

A spring of love gushed to my heart

And I blessed them unaware…


The Lost Uncle is an innocent: an unaccursed and happy Ancient Mariner.

Where the artwork for ‘Captain Slaughterboard’ was sharp pen and ink outlines, with waves that break in fractal foam on palm-fringed beaches, the ‘Lost Uncle’ pictures are lyrical and magical, using swirling lines and blurred soft pencil shading to evoke the wonder of the natural world (perhaps with some kind of nod to those ubiquitous ‘The Wonders of Nature’ books we all used to have back then.) The places the Lost Uncle visits are those familiar categories: the Jungle, the Desert, and the Frozen North, ubiquitous in mainstream children’s adventure stories and in real-life tales of heroic explorers: Livingstone, Scott, Shackleton – but given a hugely fantastic twist.

The palace of the White Lion even owes something to Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Snow Queen’ – the glassy palace at the far north, and the explorer with – perhaps – a sliver of glass at the heart.  Because after all, maybe you have to have a little coldness at the heart to be able to leave your family behind?  And, visually, the Lost Uncle with his leg-spike is almost an amalgam of Captain Scott and Long John Silver – another man with a coldness at the heart.

In a traditional adventure story, the Lost Uncle would be out to shoot the legendary White Lion.   He’s enough of an adventurer to have put paid to several other animals on his travels, sometimes by impaling them on his leg-spike, with enormous panache.  (It’s a little gruesome, but at least it is done in self-defence.)   And he and Jackson seem to eat a fair amount of fried elephant seal. 

However, the Lost Uncle makes it clear from the outset that his goal is not to kill the White Lion, but to photograph him. 

It is my Ambition above all others to photograph the White Lion: it will prove that I have seen him.  Perhaps I will be doomed to disappointment and will NEVER see him!  Oh, blubber! that would capsize everything.

I suppose, in a way, the White Lion is the Lost Uncle’s Yellow Creature.  The Lost Uncle has spent years hunting for him. 

I scoured the tropics – and he wasn’t there. Cancer and Capricorn had never heard of him. I scrutinized every inch of the equator and he wasn’t there, either.

But if the Yellow Creature stands for an attainable contentment, the White Lion stands for the unattainable, ungraspable moment of enlightenment and joy which is like a lightning flash – there and gone.  Unrecorded even by a photograph, for the Lost Uncle’s camera is swept away by a whirlwind as, after a myriad adventures, adrift on ice floes, scaling mountains, nearly falling into chasms, being carried off by vultures, witnessing snow-spouts, and surviving a polar bear attack (by tickling the creature), the Uncle arrives at:

That weird and crystal region where everything I had longed for happened – everything I had searched the world for – and yet how different it was to what I had expected.  And rather sad too; not that Jackson realized this.  Bash my blubber! how irritating he is when there is tragedy in the air.  He never notices it.

The pair walk over the glittering ice towards the glassy palace of the White Lion, and climb a mysterious hill of snow lying before the doorway – the tension builds and builds – the snow heaves under them and scatters them down - 

And there against the sky with his mane billowing out like a cloud of white smoke and his eyes like platters of gold fire was the White Lion.

I have tried to remember and write down what I felt when I saw him, but nothing has come out right.

This final confrontation with the animal which the explorer has tracked for so long is the climax of the adventure story, just as the moment when ‘two are left alone on board’ is the climax of the pirate stories.  Here Ralph Rover of ‘The Gorilla Hunters’ faces his last gorilla.  (I can remember reading this book aged about ten, and taking Ballantyne’s ferocious gorillas completely at face value.):

I raised my rifle, aimed at its chest and fired.  With a terrible roar, it advanced.  Again I fired, but without effect, for the gorilla rushed upon me.  In despair I drew my hunting knife and launched it full at the brute’s chest with all my might.  I saw the glittering blade enter it as the enormous paw was raised to beat me down.  I threw up my rifle to ward off the fatal blow… The stock was shattered to pieces and the blow, which would otherwise have fallen full on my head or chest, …took effect on my shoulder …as I was hurled with stunning violence to the ground.

In ‘Letters From A Lost Uncle’, instead of this violent denouement, something almost religious happens. The White Lion is blind: past his prime and ready to die.  He paces into the wonderful ice cathedral, Jackson and the Lost Uncle following, over a frozen floor through which all the creatures of the depths can be seen, from little crimson fishes to a whale ‘as long as a street’.  Arranged on terraces around the hall are ranks of polar animals.  The Lion reaches his throne:

His eyes burned and he shook his head for the last time, and as it tossed in a tempest of white string, it hissed in the cathedral silence like a hundred snakes.

And then it happened.  He reared up on his hind legs, opened his great jaws, spread his paws as big as white hassocks against the air, and with a roar that set the high spires jangling – froze to death. 

He had become ice.  He had crystallized.  It does not matter what words I use to describe it, for there he was and there he will be for ever, alone and beautiful in the wild polar wastes – alone in his cathedral, my Lion of white ice. 



Really, there is no more to say.  No wonder, after this vision of transcendence, a herd of reindeer fighting off wolves is nothing much: ‘As though I hadn’t seen that sort of thing often enough.’

But reassuringly, life must go on.  Details must be sent to the Natural History Museum.  And the Lost Uncle will set off on other adventures. ‘I must sharpen my sword spike and be off, nephew; so goodbye. From your Lost Uncle.’

“From Certainty to Uncertainty”, I named this talk. Maybe I should have added, ‘and back to certainty again’: a different kind of certainty. For in spite of my own childish fears and prejudices about pictures of grotesque pirates, Peake’s stories celebrate what is best in the adventure stories he certainly enjoyed, preserving all their colour, drama and delight.  For a child courageous enough to pick up and read ‘Captain Slaughterboard’, or ‘Letters From A  Lost Uncle’ – and for a child the act of opening a book does take courage – ‘Facing,’ in Robert Graves’ words, ‘the wide glare of the children’s day, Facing the rose, the dark sky, and the drums’ – the reward is great. The joy will outweigh the fear.  And if I have a message for you, it has to be this: these books are meant for children. So, if you can, give one to a child! Better still, sit down with a child and enjoy it together. That is what they are for.

I would just like to end with the words of Beatrix Howard again, the reader whose words I quoted earlier, who loved Captain Slaughterboard so much as a little girl:

Because Captain Slaughterboard was my favourite, Dad got me ‘Rhymes Without Reason’ for my birthday which I read over and over and over for years. Then when a bit older I found Gormenghast in one of our bookshelves and realised with a cold shiver that this was a novel by the author of Captain Slaughterboard – one of the most thrilling moments of my life, that was.  I ran to find Dad OMG, what is THIS??? Why haven’t you told me?  From then on I was a fan of Mervyn Peake.

She adds,

It’s interesting but it’s hard to express myself because I love it so much.  It’s like trying to describe someone you love; words fail you.

They fail me too, and here, I think, is the end of the story. 



  1. This is brilliant. I only knew the Gormenghast trilogy (which I love). Maybe my children will receive the others so I can read them :).

  2. Thankyou - they're really worth reading and enjoying!