The Green Lady, Jane, Orual and other adult women in the novels of C S Lewis
21 June 2022 | 4:38 pm


I will begin with the Green Lady, Perelandra’s unfallen Eve, though the novel has very much the quality, simplicity and large theme of the medieval morality plays (Temptation by the Devil, the Prevention of a New Fall), and characterisation is consequently minimal. There are just three characters of any significance: Dr Ransom, the Lady herself, and the devilish Un-man, none of whom is particularly complex. The Green Lady is all innocence and majesty, the Unman devilish horror, while Ransom is Everyman, or Every Christian, whose task it is to tackle evil and fight the good fight even when he thinks he isn’t up to it. Though the workings of the plot involve plenty of jeopardy and tension, for me the book’s appeal rests largely in the rapturous, lyrical writing with which Lewis brings this Edenic ocean world to rich life.

            The Green Lady is a blend of mother-goddess and Mother-of-God, but we can learn quite a lot about Lewis’s view (circa 1941) of more ordinary women and their roles from the strategies of temptation to which she is subjected. At work to make her break Maleldil’s command never to sleep on the Fixed Land, the Un-man suggests that Maleldil’s hidden purpose is for her to become independent necessitating a disobedience which would really be a far higher obedience, and would make her wiser and ‘older’ than her absent husband the King. (Contextually, a bad idea.) To illustrate this argument the Unman tells her tales of tragic and noble heroines.

Each one of these women had stood forth alone and braved a terrible risk for her child, her lover or her people. Each had been misunderstood, reviled and persecuted: but each also magnificently vindicated by the event. The precise details were often not very easy to follow. Ransom had more than a suspicion that many of these noble pioneers had been what in ordinary terrestrial speech we call witches or perverts.

The Un-man’s appeal to the Lady is one of self-aggrandisement masked as self-sacrifice: ‘Do this for the King even if he doesn’t want you to: it will be for his own good.’ I’m not honestly sure how many witches that fits, or ‘perverts’ either – whomever or whatever Lewis intended by that term. Given that most of the people who ‘in ordinary terrestrial speech we call witches or perverts’ have in historical fact been innocent victims, it seems a bit rich for Lewis/Ransom to point the finger at them rather than at the witch-hunters. It is done for effect, doesn’t stand up to a moment’s thought, and should have been left out. But the clear implication of the passage is that busy-bodying interference in someone else’s life ‘for their own good’ is a female trait, or sin, and one the Green Lady as a woman is most likely to fall for. (Is it, though? Or is this the reaction of the little boy being made by Matron to swallow the cod-liver oil?) It becomes explicit when Ransom, ‘goaded beyond all patience’, loses his temper and

tried to tell her that he’d seen this kind of ‘unselfishness’ in action: to tell her of women making themselves sick with hunger rather than begin the meal before the man of the house returned, though they knew perfectly well that there was nothing he disliked more [my italics]; of mothers wearing themselves to a ravelling to marry some daughter to a man whom she detested; of Agrippina and Lady Macbeth.

From passive aggression to Lady Macbeth is quite an escalation. Ransom’s first example is sharp social observation but fails to investigate likely reasons why this test-case woman would delay her meal. What if she’s lonely? Who likes to eat on their own? What hour does the ‘man of the house’ get home? If she’s really ‘sick with hunger’, it must be late. Does he usually meet his friends in the pub for convivial drinks after work? Pubs in the 1940s were not places where women felt welcome. If he regularly abandons her in this way, of course he’ll detest this enacted reproach.

             The Un-man’s final temptation is his attempt to teach the Green Lady vanity and exceptionalism, encouraging her to wear a robe of feathers and a chaplet of leaves, and to look at her own face in a cheap mirror which – it claims – will become ‘the Queen’s mirror, a gift brought into the world from Deep Heaven: the other women would not have it.’ Ransom perceives that the image of the Lady’s beautiful body has been shown her ‘only as a means to awake the far more perilous image of her great soul’ – and realises that ‘this has to stop.’ The contest now changes from a three-sided metaphysical or moral argument to a very physical battle between the Un-man and Ransom.

The Green Lady is an impressive, even awesome presence who is able to philosophise as well as Ransom can, if not better. When I said she is two-dimensional (in that morality play sort of way) I didn’t mean Lewis didn’t think hard about her: he did. As he explained in a letter to Sister Penelope Cary of 9 November 1941,

‘I’ve got Ransom to Venus and  through his first conversation with the ‘Eve’ of that world: a difficult chapter.  ...I may have embarked on the impossible. This woman has got to combine characteristics which the Fall has put poles apart – she’s got to be in some ways like a Pagan goddess and in other ways like the Blessed Virgin. But if one can get even a fraction of it into words it is worth doing.’

The polarity he mentions – ‘Pagan goddess/Blessed Virgin’ – is not a black and white one of evil/good or sin/virtue, but of sensuality/purity, and nothing is wrong with either of those qualities per se. In the sinless world of Perelandra they are combined, whereas in our sinful world, in Lewis’s view, they are separated. The man who introduced the Bacchantes into Narnia had no real problem with pagan goddesses. All the same, the Un-man’s attacks on the Lady target what Lewis seems to think of as women’s especial weaknesses, in particular a tendency to reorganise others’ lives, personal vanity, and self-dramatisation.

Some of these issues turn up again in Lewis’s portrait of a contemporary and more complex female character, Jane Studdock in That Hideous Strength (1945). Jane is the lonely young faculty wife of aspiring lecturer Mark Studdock, and her predicament – she has given up her studies to become a housewife – is sympathetically drawn. Lewis describes her marriage as

the door out of a world of work and comradeship and laughter and innumerable things to do, into something like solitary confinement. ... She had never seen so little of Mark as she had in the last six months. Even when he was at home he hardly ever talked. He was always either sleepy or intellectually preoccupied. [...] Was it the crude truth that all the endless talks which had seemed to her, before they were married, the very medium of love itself, had never been to him more than a preliminary?

Here, couched in much more understanding terms, is the viewpoint of the nameless woman whom Ransom complained of in Perelandra: sharp, spiky, intelligent Jane is bored stiff, and wasted on the trivial domestic routine which has become her life.

She had just left the kitchen and knew how tidy it was. The breakfast things were washed up, the tea towels were hanging above the stove, and the floor was mopped. The beds were made and the rooms ‘done’.  She had just returned from the only shopping she need to that day, and it was still a minute before eleven. Except for getting her own lunch and tea there was nothing that had to be done till six o’clock, even supposing Mark was really coming home to dinner. But ... almost certainly ... he would ring up to say that ... he would have to dine in College. The hours before her were as empty as the flat.

Reading this we are immediately on Jane’s side, as Lewis intends. He is clear that Jane’s current existence is barren and pointless. But sympathetic as his portrayal is, this is no feminist take. Jane still hopes to complete an unfinished doctorate thesis on John Donne – but Lewis strongly hints that it’s not going to happen and that in any case it is the wrong way to go. What a married woman really needs is babies.

She had always intended to continue her own career as a scholar after she was married: that was one of the reasons why they were to have no children, at any rate for a long time yet. Jane was not perhaps a very original thinker, and her plan had been to lay great stress on Donne’s ‘triumphant vindication of the body’. She still believed that if she got out all her notebooks and editions and really sat down to the job she could force herself back into her lost enthusiasm for the subject.

Why has Jane lost enthusiasm for a thesis emphasising the ‘vindication of the body’? Perhaps, Lewis hints, because marital sex has proved a disappointment. Her husband Mark is ‘an excellent sleeper. Only one thing ever seemed to keep him awake after he had gone to bed, and even that did not keep him awake for long.’

           Lewis's unkindest cut is ‘not an original thinker’. Jane, he lets us know, is not top-class academic material: and if you’re not top-class you shouldn’t try. But then her husband Mark is hardly a committed scholar. He is a sociologist – this is intentionally damning since the discipline was regarded by Oxbridge as very much below the salt, in the 1940s – and the only work he does for the vacuously named National Institute for Controlled Experiments (N.I.C.E.) is hack propaganda. At least Jane studied literature! One of the conscious ironies of the book is that Mark’s apparent success in scrambling into N.I.C.E.’s ‘inner ring’ is due not to his merits but to the fact that they need to recruit his wife. Jane is a seer whose visions would be useful to them, but she has become part of the real Inner Ring, the community of St Anne’s on the Hill. She is at the centre of what’s really happening, while Mark is clueless.  

Lewis takes both characters on a pilgrim’s progress, but Mark’s is more convincing than Jane’s. One of the novel’s best passages is when Mark, who’s been desperately toadying the villains and is way out of his depth, finds the power to reject them when, asked to insult a crucifix, he has a Puddleglum-like moment: it may seem a trivial thing to trample an unfeeling image, but surely to insult the pain it represents would be a disgusting action. What side is he on? The worm turns, and he utters the natural but telling words, ‘I’m damned if I do any such thing.’

But Jane – sharp, unhappy, newly-married Jane – her road-to-Damascus moment comes when she is inexplicably bowled over by the male authority of Dr Ransom, now mysteriously transformed into the charismatic, golden-bearded Mr Fisher-King, aka the Pendragon – a sort of ur-Aslan, if you like. It is unbelievable: Ransom was never charismatic. We identified with him in the earlier books precisely because he was ordinary, modest, unsure. Dorothy Sayers put it fairly kindly in a letter to Lewis: ‘I don’t like Ransom quite so well since he took to being golden-haired and interesting on a sofa.’ Impossible to imagine the Ransom of Out of the Silent Planet or Perelandra expounding to Jane on courtship, ‘fruition’ and sexual enjoyment, or remarking: ‘No one has ever told you that obedience – humility – is an erotic necessity.’ So far as we know, Ransom has never married. Neither, at this point, had Lewis.

That Hideous Strength is a flamboyant but flawed mash-up of fantasy, science-fiction, horror, Christianity, the powers of the medieval cosmos and the Matter of Britain, and is strongly influenced by the ‘spiritual thrillers’ of Charles Williams – not to its benefit. Lewis seems to me never to have quite made up his mind what it’s about. Jane and Mark’s almost non-existent relationship is at its heart, but though their marital reunion is the culminating event of the book, they do nothing together. The lessons they learn are learned separately. Jane’s true destiny turns out to be wife-and-motherhood, albeit an enriched form following the conversion of both Mark and herself to a sacramental view of marriage with its duties and honours which include ‘the procreation of children’. There is even a suggestion from Merlin that the child she conceives should have been (or may yet be) one ‘by whom the enemies should have been put out of Logres of a thousand years.’ These are deep waters to drown in.  


There are several adult women in the seven Narnia books. Some are villains, like the White Witch/Queen Jadis (I’ve never been entirely convinced they’re the same woman: Jadis has more personality), and the lamia-like Lady of the Green Kirtle who is drawn very much from medieval romance and balladry. On the virtuous side there is Digory’s kind, homely Aunt Letty, a minor character who all the same is capable of telling Uncle Andrew a few home truths. There is Ramandu’s unnamed daughter, who is not much more than a consolation prize for Caspian, denied the chance to visit Aslan’s country – and there are brief glimpses in The Horse and His Boy of the adult Queen Susan ‘The Gentle’ visiting her suitor Prince Rabadash in Tashbaan, and Queen Lucy ‘The Valiant’ riding with ‘a merry face’ to the relief of Anvard, armed with helmet, mailshirt, bow and arrows.

Lewis has sometimes been criticised for what one critic has termed ‘the dearth of heroic adult women’ in the Narnia books. But such criticism is mis-aimed. Adults do not get to be heroes in children’s books; it is children who have agency, who are put to the test and triumph. And of course the Narnia books feature several girl-heroes: Polly and her tough common-sense, Lucy with her integrity, Aravis’s fiery courage, Jill’s stubborn independence, woodcraft and archery. Adults in children’s fiction are either villains, or else supporting cast such as parents, grandparents and teachers. We might as well ask where the heroic adult menare, in the Narnia stories? They don’t exist either – for the same reason. But there are plenty of adult male villains: Uncle Andrew, King Miraz, Gumpas, the Governor of the Lone Islands. Does Shift the Ape count? He masquerades as a ‘man’ towards the end of the book. Where the female villains are charismatic and powerful, the male villains are sly and repulsive: when Queen Jadis meets Uncle Andrew, the latter collapses into a grovelling heap. I don’t see any reason to complain.


 ‘Hope not for mind in women,’ Jane quotes bitterly from Donne. ‘At their best/Sweetness and wit, they are but Mummy possest.’ And she goes on to wonder, ‘Did any men really want mind in women?’ It turns out that Lewis did. His marriage late in his life to Joy Gresham, neé Davidman – a civil marriage in early 1956, followed by a religious ceremony in March ’57 was to him an emotional, mental and physical revelation. After her death from cancer a few years later, he wrote of her in A Grief Observed:

Her mind was lithe and quick and muscular as a leopard. Passion, tenderness and pain were all equally unable to disarm it. ... How many bubbles of mine she pricked! I soon learned not to talk rot to her unless I did it for the sheer pleasure [...] of being exposed and laughed at. I was never less silly than as H’s lover.

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold was published in 1956 and dedicated ‘To Joy Davidman’. They discussed it together as he was writing, and she wrote to her children’s father Bill Gresham that Lewis ‘says he finds my advice indispensable.' And it's Lewis’s masterpiece. It is the only work of fiction he ever wrote in the first person (he'd recently completed his own autobiography), and it is the exception to the rule that no matter whether he’s writing fiction, literary criticism or Christian apologetics, we always hear Lewis’s own voice in his books. Orual’s voice is stronger.

I will begin my writing with the day my mother died and they cut off my hair:

Batta, the nurse, shore me and my sister Redival outside the palace, at the foot of the garden which runs steeply up the hill behind. Redival was my sister, three years younger than I, and we two were still the only children. While Batta was using the shears many other of the slave women were standing around, from time to time wailing for the Queen’s death and beating their breasts, but in between they were eating nuts and joking. As the shears snipped and Redival’s curls fell off, the slaves said, “Oh what a pity! All the gold gone!” They had not said anything like that when I was being shorn. But what I remember best is the coolness of my head, and the hot sun on the back of my neck when we were building mud pies, Redival and I, all that summer afternoon.

A brilliant synthesis of voice, narrative and information, this does so much. We’re plunged into a vivid, ancient world of kings, queens and slaves, where little Orual and her sister, cared for by slaves, are so remote from their mother they’re not at all affected by her death and go on playing with mud ‘all summer afternoon’. We can see that Orual and Redival are at this time playmates; that Redival is pretty and Orual is not and that – at this time – Orual hasn’t realised it. All in one effortless paragraph. And Orual doesn’t sound like Lewis.

            Lewis had been considering a version of the myth of Cupid and Psyche back in the 1920s, when he tried and then gave up writing a narrative poem on the subject (in which, interestingly, Psyche has a sister named Caspian and a brother named Jardis, names that reappear in Narnia, gender-switched, as Prince Caspian and Queen Jadis). Three decades on, the story was still in his mind. 

            The myth of Cupid and Psyche, if it is a myth and not a fairy tale, first appears in Lucius Apuleius’ The Golden Ass. A picaresque romance of the second century AD, it is a ribald tale in which Apuleius is turned into a donkey by a Thessalian witch and has numerous bizarre adventures. In the 22nd chapter an old woman relates the story of a King with three daughters, the youngest of whom is so beautiful she attracts her people’s worship and the wrath of the goddess Venus. Obeying an oracle, her father takes her to a nearby mountain to become the bride or prey of a flying serpent. But Venus’ son Cupid has fallen in love with her, and she is carried away to a palace on the mountainside where each night he becomes her unseen lover. Psyche’s two sisters visit the mountain to mourn her fate, but are jealous when they discover her living in luxury. Warning that her lover may be a monster, they persuade her to disobey his command and light a lamp by which she can see and kill him. A drop of burning oil falls on Cupid, who wakes and flies angrily away. The envious sisters meet shameful deaths, but Psyche (now pregnant) sets out to seek her lover. Jealous Venus gives her a number of impossible tasks – sorting a heap of different kinds of grain, collecting gold wool from a flock of fierce sheep, fetching the water of death, and descending to Hades to beg Proserpina for a portion of her beauty. With fairytale assistance from ants, reeds, an eagle and a talking tower (!) Psyche succeeds, but is tempted to try some of Proserpina’s beauty on herself. The box contains a deadly sleep, and she falls senseless to the ground where Cupid discovers and wakens her. Jupiter makes Psyche immortal, and the lovers marry.

            Lewis preserved the pattern of a king with three daughters. All the characters are excellent – the Fox, the educated Greek slave who is the voice of philosophy, reason and civilisation; the King, the three girls’ father, a violent, bullying Henry VIII figure whom Lewis keeps three-dimensional because of the contradictions in his nature. But the characters are all mediated to us via the voice and perceptions of the eldest daughter, and Orual is a passionate and unreliable narrator. Till We Have Faces is her story not Psyche’s, and the narrative we follow is one which in the end she comes to reassess. In Orual’s account, Redival grows up a shallow, sly, envious, tattling, man-loving minx and Psyche is innocent perfection. In fact, though Apuleius’ Psyche is a persuadable simpleton, Lewis’s Psyche possesses considerable mental and spiritual strength, and she grows up. Orual often misreads her half-sister, and the intensity of her feelings for her is almost suffocating:

I wanted to be a wife so that I could have been her real mother. I wanted to be a boy so that she could be in love with me. I wanted her to be my full sister instead of my half sister. I wanted her to be a slave so that I could set her free and make her rich.

The last sentence is the giveaway: Orual’s love is toxically possessive. Low in self-esteem, ugly, and denigrated by her father, she is needy for love. Far from setting Psyche free, she manipulates and clings to her. In Apuleius’ tale the two sisters are jealous of Psyche’s wealth, her rich palace. Orual is jealous too: jealous of any person or thing that will separate her from her sister. She believes she is weak and powerless when in fact she is monstrously strong.

And yet we’re on her side; Lewis is on her side. We know this story: we know that the palace which Orual can’t (in Lewis’ version) see, is real; we know that Psyche’s lover is Love himself. And we see her making this dreadful, catastrophic mistake. Forcing Psyche to break her promise to her invisible lover, Orual sticks a dagger through her own arm and threatens to kill them both. If you’re anything like me you’re inwardly crying ‘Don’t do it!’ It’s the worst possible emotional blackmail. Here again is the woman Dr Ransom complains of in Perelandra, the woman who meddles, who takes it upon herself to re-organise someone’s life ‘for their own good’ against their will, the woman who knows what’s best. But Orual cannot see the invisible palace or the beautiful wine cup; to her the rich wine is simple spring water. She cannot see what Psyche claims is there, so Psyche must be deranged. In her shoes we would probably feel the same way. Braced for disaster, we know she’s wrong, yet still we can understand and empathise.

But Orual has no empathy, no space left for anyone else. After Psyche has been chosen as the sacrifice to Ungit, Redival comes running to her in tears, babbling:

‘Oh Sister, Sister, how dreadful! Oh, poor Psyche! It’s only Psyche, isn’t it? They’re not going to do it to all of us? I never thought – I didn’t mean any harm – it wasn’t I – and oh, oh, oh...’

            I put my face close up to hers and said very low but distinctly, ‘Redival: if there is one single hour when I am queen of Glome, or even mistress of this house, I’ll hang you by the thumbs at a slow fire until you die.’

Near the end, Orual reflects back on the time ‘when we were building mud pies, Redival and I, all that summer afternoon’. Tarin, a boy who was gelded and sold to punish his teenage romance with Redival, reappears in Glome as a diplomat in the service of the Great King and tells Orual that Redival was lonely after the birth of Psyche. ‘She used to say, “First of all Orual loved me much; then the Fox came and she loved me little; then the baby came and she loved me not at all.”’ Though Orual cannot quite believe him she admits that

one thing was certain; I had never thought at all how it might be with her when I turned first to the Fox and then to Psyche. For it had somehow been settled in my mind from the beginning that I was the pitiable and ill-used one. She had her gold curls, didn’t she?

It’s the beginning of her reassessment of her own life.

            Lewis revisits, with so much more insight and compassion, themes that have cropped up time and again in earlier books. In Perelandra, the Green Lady is tempted to break Maleldil’s law by the non-human Un-man, an evident devil. In Till We Have Faces Orual causes Psyche to disobey another apparently arbitrary divine command.  Orual even suggests that her lover ‘need never know’ – just as Queen Jadis suggests to Digory in The Magician’s Nephew that he can steal the apple of life for his mother and abandon Polly in Narnia, and nobody at home need ever know: ‘You needn’t take the little girl home with you, you know.’ Both suggestions are met with fiery disdain, but where Jadis is irredeemable, Orual’s ‘victory’ turns at once to ashes. She has made Psyche despise her. “[M]y heart was in torment. I had a terrible longing to unsay all my words and beg her forgiveness.’

There are other parallels. Motherless or abandoned children are scattered liberally throughout the Narnia books. In The Horse and His Boy, Shasta is stolen from his mother as a baby, and she dies long before he can be reunited with her, though there is no narrative reason why this should be. Prince Caspian’s mother is long dead, and his uncle Miraz gets rid of his nurse and mother-substitute. The youthful Prince Rilian of The Silver Chair loses his mother (Caspian’s queen) when she’s stung to death by a poisonous green serpent, and in The Magician’s Nephew Lewis re-imagines the events of his own mother’s death and gives Digory the miraculously happy ending he had prayed for as a child.

Yet in this book here’s Orual losing a mother and not caring a jot. All the caring is to come, when she makes herself surrogate mother of baby Psyche – to the exclusion of Redival. The passion Lewis explores in Orual is the passion of a strong-willed, capable, undervalued woman who knows she will never marry, never experience sexual love, never have children. There’s a lovely moment when she discovers Trunia of Phars in the palace gardens at night, on the run from his brother Argan, and he flirts with her in the dark: ‘I’ll bet a girl with a voice like yours is beautiful’. Orual finds this so unusual and so sweet she feels ‘a fool’s wish to lengthen it’, but knows it cannot go on.

So she cannot let go of those few to whom she is dear. Before fighting Argan of Phars in single combat she sets the Fox free – and dissolves in childish fear on realising that he may now wish to leave her. After an inward struggle he agrees  to stay – ‘his face very grey and his manner very quiet.’ Orual, embracing him, feels ‘only the joy.’  

The goddess Ungit, who is Aphrodite, is worshipped in Glome as ‘a black stone without head or hands of face’ and the old Priest of Ungit says that with her, ‘loving and the devouring are all the same thing.’ Orual makes an excellent Queen of Glome but she does devour those she loves, in particular her Captain of the Guard, Bardia, with whom she is in love. Jealous of his wife, she consoles herself by thinking her own relationship with Bardia is the more important. ‘Has she ever crouched beside him in the ambush? Ever ridden knee to knee with him in the charge? I have known, I have had so much of him she could never dream of.’ It’s selfish: we see she’s hard; we also see she doesn’t understand the damage she’s doing as without intending it, she works him to death.

With all her flaws and faults we remain on Orual’s side (perhaps because her faults seem familiar) as she finally comes to a painful understanding of herself. In dreams or visions at the end of her life she stands barefaced and naked before the gods and makes her accusation against them. She thinks she is reading from the book she has written, the book we have been reading. But it’s a tattered roll scribbled over with a terrible outpouring of jealousy, anger and hate:

I never really began to hate you until Psyche began talking of her palace and her lover and her husband. Why did you lie to me? You said a brute would devour her. Well, why didn’t it? I’d have wept for her and buried what was left and built her a tomb and ... and ... But to steal her love from me! ... What should I care for some horrible, new happiness which separated her from me?

Listening to her own ‘real voice’ Orual at last recognises that she has been a destructive lover, angry with those whose other commitments threatened her – Psyche’s to the god, Bardia’s to his wife, the Fox to his homeland. This is her ‘death before death’: the spiritual death of the Orual who felt these things. The gods can never meet us face to face, she realises, ‘till we have faces’. It is the process of writing her accusation – her autobiography, the book we have been reading – that reveals her long-hidden face. The vision ends with her acceptance by and reunion with those who have loved her. In her devouring love she has been Ungit, but in her suffering she has also been Psyche. 



All of CS Lewis’s novels explore the country of the spirit and this is eminently the case in Till We Have Faces. At the same time, in Orual he gives us the portrait of a lone woman, active in a man’s world. She has ruled a country and led her armies in battle – erasing Aslan’s remark about battles being ugly when women fight; all battles are ugly. She has killed men and passed judgements. Her reign has brought prosperity, stability and peace to Glome, and her people praise her. Her self-esteem is still low. On the brink of death she finds it strange that her women and Arnom the priest should weep for her: ‘What have I ever done to please them?’ Yet Arnom writes in her epitaph that she was ‘the most wise, just, valiant, fortunate and merciful of all the princes known in our parts of the world.’ Orual is a tour de force and is by far the most complex and interesting woman in Lewis’s fiction.  

If Joy Davidman helped him to understand her, she did a good job.


If you've enjoyed this essay about CS Lewis's work, you might also enjoy my book on the Narnia stories: 'From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in Narnia with my nine year-old self',published by Darton, Longman and Todd.

Picture credits:

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli

The White Witch by Pauline Baynes

Queen Jadis and Uncle Andrew by Pauline Baynes

Psyche and Amor by Francois Gerard 

Psyche's Wedding by Edward Burne Jones. 

The Katharine Briggs Lecture
17 June 2022 | 12:41 pm

I’ve had a busy summer thus far, and I’ve neglected this blog for a month or two but I will be putting up a new post soon! In the meantime I’ve had lovely news which some of you may already have seen on my facebook and twitter feeds: I’ve been asked to give this year’s Katharine Briggs Lecture to the Folklore Society. Katharine Briggs is one of my heroes and I feel tremendously honoured by the invitation. The event will take place on Tuesday 8 November at 18:30 at The Brockway Room, Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL. The title of my address is:

Fenrir’s Fetter and the Power of Stories. 

On the power of stories for both good and ill.

JRR Tolkien wrote: “Spell means both a story told, and a formula of power over living men.” This is a talk about the power of stories – folk tales, fairy tales, the scary urban myths children tell one another – and those stories handed down in families, communities and nations which confer identity and pride, but which can become exclusionary. Stories may offer wisdom, solace, joy; they may also frighten or alienate. For good or ill they can change our perceptions of ourselves and the world around us.

Tickets are free but prior booking is essential. If you'd like to book your place, please email thefolkloresociety@gmail.comand you can find the event on the Folklore Society’s website:


Exchanging Certainty for Uncertainty: Mervyn Peake Explores the Realms of Children’s Fiction
25 March 2022 | 2:36 pm

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 Uncleis 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 doingit.


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 savagehuman), 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 themselveschildren 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. Onlya 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. 


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