Adding this book to the Gormenghast trilogy the themes of good and evil and the battle within to choose which to be are echoed across Mervyn Peake’s work. Just as Titus Groan has to find his own way and discover freedom that ultimately means that he has to leave his family Mr Pye has to adapt his plans to remain free of the influence of evil or good.
Mr Pye is an odd central character because he is not difficult to feel close to and his behaviour and antics, mostly secretive, are always a bit strange. But the reader gets caught up in the question of what is the right equilibrium between good and evil. Does one good deed have to be cancelled out with a bad one?
An odd man arrives on the island of Sark and through his good will towards everyone and his determination to make the island a beacon of love for God he manages to shake up the islanders quite rapidly. None more so than the landlady of his guest house Miss Dredger who discovers that she is no longer mistress in her own house and this odd little man has taken over. She becomes his first and most loyal disciple and goes along with everything he asks including inviting her bitter enemy Miss George to stay in her house. Meanwhile Mr Pye is working his odd magic around the island building up for what he hopes will be a night of glorious conversion. But as he preaches to the population in a cove a rotting whale is washed up on the beach and the impact of his speech is lost. Shortly afterwards he complains of having been bitten on his back and starts to grow wings.
The doctors in Harley Street cannot help and by the time he returns to the island he has started on a course of action sinning at every opportunity to get rid of the wings. After a while it seems to have worked, no doubt helped by the nightly meetings with the goat of Mendes for a bout of Satan worshipping. Pye starts to grow horns and after a yo-yo between the two decides the only way to get rid of the horns is to endure some public humiliation. So he shows his horns to the islanders which causes the police to be called and for a chase to ensue which ends when Pye sails over a cliff, unfurls his wings and flies off into the night.
Is it well written?
The reader realises quicker than the narrative describes that the horns are coming and rather than repeat the emotions Pye felt when the wings were discovered the story quickly marches onto a conclusion. That is the sign of a good story teller because he knows that to leave it longer would cause impatience. The question of good and evil is dealt with in such a way that you are left asking some questions of yourself. Questions left going through your head include the most fundamental one (bearing in mind the transformation in the book of Miss Dredger): is life better if you are infused with love and prepared to share it?
Should it be read?
It shows a different side to Peake after Gormenghast but also just how able he is to develop characters that are unusual. Pye, Dredger, the painter and his girlfriend could all have existed in the Gormenghast world but are depicted living in this one. There are also sketches at the start of each chapter by the author that are also of interest showing how the vision of the artists mind works both graphically and in words. A final reason for picking it up (apart from the picture of Derek Jacobi with wings from the television version from a few years ago) is the humour of a story about a modern and quite unusual missionary.
Angle or devil? The choice is like walking as tightrope.