The cast of the BBC Mini Series Gormenghast (2000).
Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels are cult classics of 20th Century English literature. Writer and philosopher John Gray considers what they tell us about the nature of the modern world.
“With every pace he drew away from Gormenghast Mountain, and from everything that belonged to his home.”
These are the closing words of Titus Alone, the last of three novels recounting the childhood and rebellion of Titus Groan, the 77th Earl of Gormenghast, an enormous, crumbling castle that stands isolated and self-enclosed somewhere on the margins of the world.
Governed more by ritual than by the hereditary rulers who have immemorially reigned over it, the castle confines Titus in a life of empty ceremony. At the age of 17, having fought a life-and-death struggle with an enemy he held accountable for the death of his father and sister, Titus rides out of the castle to look for another way of living.
Entering a world in many ways not unlike our own, he begins to doubt whether the castle ever existed.
He travels back to Gormenghast Mountain where he hears a gun boom seven times – the dawn salvo sounding for him. Yet he doesn’t return to the castle or even look at it, but instead turns on his heel and walks away, never to see his home again.
Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels – Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone – have been read in many ways. For some of their readers, they re-state the essential message of romanticism – the assertion of the individual against conventional restraints.
For others, the novels are a coming-of-age story – the story of how Titus ceases to be a child and becomes a man.
Yet others interpret them as belonging to a tradition that includes Tolkien – the author of Lord of the Rings – and some later writers of science fiction.
The heavy artillery had damaged the town walls and the moat had been filled with bundles of sticks, ready for the final onslaught. But still the inhabitants of Caen refused to surrender.
By 4 September 1417 Henry V and his army had been besieging the Norman town for 17 days.
That morning Henry heard three masses in his pavilion and ordered the advance. The army assaulted the town on three sides, using scaling-ladders to climb the walls.
As the trumpets blared and the troops rushed forward, the inhabitants fought desperately, throwing down rocks, boiling water and burning oil from the battlements, and shooting bows and crossbows, before reaching for their swords and taking up the hand-to-hand struggle.
Their efforts were in vain. The king’s brother, the Duke of Clarence, broke the resistance of the townsmen on his side of Caen, and the fighting moved into the streets. When the struggle was over, Henry ordered that every male over the age of 12 be killed – or so claimed a Venetian chronicler.
Eighteen hundred men and boys were put to death. A Dominican friar demanded of Henry how he could justify such killing. Henry replied in perhaps the most chilling tones imaginable: “I am the scourge of God sent to punish the people of God for their sins”.
For most English readers, this depiction of Henry V in action is difficult to accept. Surely Henry was a good man, and a great king? He was the Prince Hal in Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, as well as the charming, wooing, gracious and triumphant monarch in Henry V.
He founded monasteries, piously heard several masses every day, went on pilgrimages and contributed to the completion of Westminster Abbey. He was an English hero in his own lifetime – and a legendary figure in later years.
The influential 20th-century academic KB McFarlane described Henry as “the greatest man who ever ruled England”.
Hence the modern patriot instinctively argues that, if there was a massacre at Caen, there must have been a reason for it, and that attempts to condemn Henry for ordering the killing are simply a failure to understand the circumstances.
The fact is that the massacre at Caen is just one of many bloody events that mark out Henry V as one of the cruellest and most cold hearted kings that England has had.
Caen was not his first massacre – that had taken place at Agincourt in 1415, when he had ordered 200 English archers to cut the throats of a large number of French prisoners. Nor was it his last.
Similarly ruthless acts of brutality against the French took place at Pontoise (1419), Melun (1420), Rougemont (1421) and Meaux (1422).
At the siege of Rouen in the autumn and winter of 1418–19, the women and children who were sent out of the town during the siege found themselves trapped in the town ditch.
Henry forced them to stay there, without food or shelter, despite the harshness of the weather.
As far as he was concerned, they were the responsibility of the starving townsmen. Like the people of Caen, it was right that they should suffer for their countrymen’s ‘sins’.