Monday, May 9, 2011

"The ninth day of the month..."

I love the ninth day of the month, and there is a reason for this.

As a nerd, I'm prone to remembering very random lines from my favorite books and movies. Whereas my co-workers are likely to make up funny things to say, I'm more likely to quote a funny line (probably from Family Guy) for dramatic effect, but the things I truly find funny are far from everyone else's scope of entertainment. Also, I flatter my self that I'm very widely read.
Great new cover for the novel trilogy.

Back to the ninth day.

The line from the PBS adaptation of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast goes like this: Secretary Barquentine reads from the Tomes to the Earl of Groan (in the book, Barquentine's father reads from the Tome). The Earl, in accordance with the rituals, eats certain foods at each meal for each day of the year. That day's meal happened to fall on the ninth day of the month.

"The ninth day of the month," Barquentine says to the Earl. The servant places each piece of food on the Earl's plate as Barquentine speaks. He puts a red egg down.

"The ninth. Didn't I say the ninth?"

Silence.

"The egg should be blue, not red!"

My co-workers and friends, upon hearing this seemingly irrelevant statement, stare at me in wonder.

Fuschia Groan
Steerpike
The Gormenghast novels by Mervyn Peake are some of the best examples of early fantasy that I have ever seen. Set in an imaginary world, the city of Gormenghast is ruled by a decadent line of Earls who adhere to a set of rituals so equally decadent that they cease to retain any meaning. The plot revolves around the generation of main characters associated with the destruction of that decadence: Titus Groan (the next Earl of Groan), Fuchsia Groan (his sister), and the kitchen boy, apprentice doctor and murderer, Steerpike. In their attempt to become something other than what they are, each of these three characters' interactions bring about the upheaval of their entire kingdom. Some of them unwitting, such as Fuchsia's arguably unhealthy imagination and escapism, and some of them willingly, such as Steerpike's determination to overthrow the entire line of Groan. The story becomes an appeal to Socialism which is then crushed by the status-quo, bringing up important themes such as class equality and the freedom to follow our dreams (both sides of the spectrum being thoroughly represented in Titus Groan and Steerpike). The status-quo re-stabilizes under the new command of a female leader, Countess Groan, bringing to light female power, particularly of the mother, and crushes the dangerous threat from the outside in the form of a one-man uprising--versus the very passive threat of a young Titus' inability to cope with his destiny. The novels are overarching, broad, and filled with adventure, written, arguably, ahead of its time and simultaneously in context.

Titus Groan
Mervyn Peake's influence on modern fantasy speaks for itself, especially the larger influence over sword-and-sorcery author, Michael Moorcock (more so, perhaps than, say, J.R.R.Tolkein). Peake was also well known for his musings, poetry, and illustrations. The official omnibus version of the Gormenghast novels is fully illustrated with Peake's own interpretations of his characters. Peake's style is deeply imaginative in its detailed, romantic description of scenery and people. Each person in the novels receives their own unique description. The poet laureate of Gormenghast is described as having a wedge-shaped head. I still have trouble imagining that. Irma Prunesquallor's facial features and anatomy are repeatedly emphasized, characterizing her as vain (and blind to her flaws in more ways than one) without actually saying it. Peake's narration set the stage for modern fantasy by revealing events in third person omniscient style, following a linear plot structure that strengthens its didactic convictions through dialogue and interaction, the basis for the rules of good narration and characterization in fantasy fiction.

Now that I have laid out the foundation for my weird recitation, I would like to declare the ninth day of the month an official occasion. Every ninth of every month I will conduct an interesting play-by-play of facts and tidbits pertaining to important Ninth Days, even my own. And so, in the spirit of Gormenghast, let me be the first to announce that from this Ninth forth, the egg shall be blue, not red!    

4 comments:

  1. It was once said to me, by someone who was there, that the emergence of modern fantasy was essentially partisan: people in the Day either favoured Tolkien over Peake, or vice versa. Personally I prefer the notion of characters moving up and down in social strata, identifying and operating the machinery of power, to any of the largely linear journeys of Frodo and company. Very little actually 'happens' in Gormenghast compared to the epic journeys of 'stock' fantasy, but each event can be followed through, its impact assessed. The fact that so little changes makes the changes that do occur so much more apparent.

    The BBC adaptation is superb, too...

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  2. I loved the adaptation. When I first saw it I started recording it and bought it when they released the vhs. Glad to see someone else has actually read it. Generally speaking, even among my academic peers, I'm alone on this one. Even many of my professors hadn't read it for their degrees and it was apparently not important enough to include in my British Author's II class. Welcome to Texas...

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  3. Hi from near Stonehaven, NE Scotland.

    Something in my 14-y-o son's Maths homework took me straight to an image of the great Warren Mitchell as Barquentine in the BBC adaptation of Gormenghast.

    Barquentine is crippled and gets about on a pair of wooden crutches; in the red/blue egg scene he lifts himself up and down on them in a paroxysm of frustrated rage at the ritual sacrilege of presenting Lord Groan a red egg for his breakfast on the ninth day, for which is prescribed a blue egg. The comic effect is rib-cracking.

    Jonathan's maths homework recently comprised an exercise involving "rounding" whereby a list of numbers had to be rounded to the nearest "10"; as in 31 = 30, 44 = 40, 28 = 30, 45 = 50 and so on. For me, this is a simple task which, when I was at school all those aeons ago, was called "finding the answer by inspection" by applying a simple pre-existing rule.

    There were about 20 questions and I was glad to see J got them all right. I was less pleased to see his teacher's note at the end, next to the mark of 20/20, saying "Show working".

    Flashback straight to Barquentine bouncing up and down as if on springs howling " A blue egg! A blue egg!".

    I can't help but think his maths teacher is similarly bound to meaningless ritual by insisting on its observance, preferring form over function, method over outcome.

    What say?

    Kind regards

    John R

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  4. Hi John. Greetings from all the way in Texas! And Happy Ninth Day of the Month!

    I sort of always felt bad for Barquentine. He was a slave to Ritual. He existed because of Ritual, and not just because of his work. His father was Secretary before him, and produced just enough progeny to continue the line. But I definitely get the comparison.

    Barquentine always struck me as bombastic--yet strangely impotent. You know, sort of like a middle-school teacher. Imagine so many young earls bent on getting their own way, each with a different method for achieving the answer to the aforementioned math problems, methods that either confuse or undermine what our Barquentine-esque teacher knows and accepts--and has been told by an older, far more decadent set of governing bodies, that not only is it the right way, it's the only way. The answer to the United States' Barquentinian style of receiving an answer would be Standardized Testing, a very Gormenghast approach to teaching where everyone does the same thing repeatedly with no variation, where our young earls are not just coached into being the same, but penalized if they are not.

    "Show your work, damn you!" Barquentine sputters, because the meaning of his life, and the prosperity of the people above him, all hang in the balance.

    Try not to blame Barquentine. Gertrude was just as bull-headed, and it was well within her power to adjust. She just refused.

    Thanks for reading!

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