7 Feb

There are very few works of fiction which so defy classification that they stand alone, a genre all to themselves. Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, consisting of Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone, published between 1946 and 1959, is such a work. Although usually labelled as fantasy, Peake’s trilogy really has few of the characteristics common to novels in the genre. For instance, though realised in the fantastical setting of the gothic, crumbling castle of Gormenghast, the books have no magic and no intelligent races other than humans. There is no ‘Quest’ or ‘MacGuffin’ (or indeed anything in the way of a conventional plot) and there is no focal antagonist to link the three books, although there is a memorable, almost Dickensian, cast of gothic and grotesque characters. The trilogy has been critically lauded and is recognised as one of the landmark literary achievements of the 20th century, however, for some reason it is largely ignored by many modern readers. This includes, strangely, a lot of fantasy readers, although this may be precisely because it has so few of the conventions of the genre, as described above. As far as I’m concerned though, for the Gormenghast trilogy to be eschewed in this way is not only unfair but actually a tragic omission from the experience of any lover of books in general. Peake’s novels are overflowing with imagination, humour (both light and dark), razor sharp dialogue and above all, beautiful, ornate, descriptive prose. For example, take Peake’s description of Gormenghast’s Tower of Flints, tallest of the castle’s spires, in the novel’s opening paragraph: ‘This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow’. Why doesn’t anyone write like that anymore?!

The story concerns Titus, heir to and afterwards 77th Earl of Groan and his adventures in the sprawling, dilapidated castle of Gormenghast. Titus comes to grips with his prime antagonist, the sinister kitchenboy Steerpike, amongst a brilliant profusion of characters and vivid detail. Gormenghast is, however, less focused on a central protagonist than many novels and, in a way, the main character could be seen as the setting itself, with the castle and social structure of Gormenghast taking a central role in unifying the story. On an even deeper level, all of the fantastical trappings of the novels could be seen as mere ornamentation for the underlying themes which Peake seeks to explore through his writing. A central theme is the passing of the old certainties of traditional England and the coming of a menacing new order. ‘Equality is the great thing’, says Steerpike ominously at one stage, as he slowly pulls the legs off a stag beetle and prepares to take on the whole hierarchy of Gormenghast, ‘equality is everything’. The conflict between personal freedom versus social duty and tradition is another important idea in the trilogy, which is played out chiefly through the central character of Titus. He longs to be free and follow his own course in life, but is bound, as the heir to the throne of the House of Groan, to the ancient laws and traditions of the castle. Most of the other characters are either seemingly oblivious to anything other than the life of the castle, or else they are fierce upholders of its laws. Ironically it is only Steerpike, the power hungry, psychopathic and devious rebel, who shares Titus’ contempt for the rules and traditions of Gormenghast. The conflict in Titus’ soul is mirrored in the outer world of Gormenghast. The dark, oppressive castle, with its dry, dusty, lifeless halls and corridors of grey stone, is constantly contrasted with the landscape outside, which although wild and desolate, is raw, untamed, and elemental.

Gormenghast is a remote and reclusive earldom dominated by the huge castle at its centre, and ruled by the noble family of Groan since time immemorial. It is never made clear whether it is set on Earth or some other world. The kingdom derives its name from the claw-like Gormenghast Mountain, and is isolated from the outside world by inhospitable regions on each side of it. To the north are marshy wastelands, to the south are salt grey marshes (and presumably then the ocean), to the east are quicksands and the tideless sea, and to the west are knuckles of endless rock, with the Twisted Woods and a river at their foot. Some contact with the outside world is implied: Dr Prunesquallor at one point sketches an ostrich skeleton, while Steerpike procures a monkey from somewhere. Otherwise, the impression given is that Gormenghast is stagnant, insular and introspective. A recurring theme is the time-consuming and pointless rituals that the inhabitants submit to regularly, the origin and purpose of which is long-forgotten. Gormenghast makes a stark contrast with the industrious and technologically advanced city which is the setting of the final novel in the trilogy. This is why the short, surreal oddity of Titus Alone is often considered the best by Gormenghast fans: finally leaving his castle home Titus finds the larger world stranger even than his birthplace. Peake had intended to write a series of books following Titus Groan through his life and at least two other novels, tentatively titled Titus Awakes and Gormenghast Revisited, were planned. Sadly, however, Parkinson’s disease and Peake’s ensuing death at the age of 57 in 1968 prevented him from writing down more than a few hundred words and ideas for further volumes. In the 1970s, Peake’s widow Maeve Gilmore wrote her version of Titus Awakes, based on the notes her husband left behind, and this novel was discovered and published at the end of 2009. I have to say that in my view the fourth Gormenghast book is probably only for diehard fans – it doesn’t sully the original trilogy in the same way as George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels do, but is probably more akin to the fourth Indiana Jones movie (i.e. fun but unnecessary).

Peake’s true legacy, as with many of the great novelists, is in his continuing influence on his many literary disciples. Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett and Michael Moorcock, to name just three of fantasy’s big names, are all avowed fans of Gormenghast and Peake’s touch is readily apparent in many of their works in terms of imagination, humour and epic storytelling. Incidentally, you may well have come across the lone television adaptation of Gormenghast from the year 2000 – the BBC series starring Ian Richardson, Christopher Lee and Jonathan Rhys Meyer among others. Although a serviceable adaptation in many ways, it fails to really do justice to the novels and I know many people who have been put off reading Peake’s masterpiece simply because they found the series hard to follow and enjoy. For this reason I’d strongly recommend that if you’ve never experienced Peake’s universe before the best way to do so is as their author intended, through the brilliant, powerful prose of his novels.

22 Responses to “Gormenghast”

  1. Alannah Murphy February 7, 2012 at 8:50 am #

    Great post. Never read the novels though I am familiar with them and plan to read them one day when time allows me to do so.

  2. Meredith February 7, 2012 at 10:28 am #

    I only read half of your review-slowly making my way through this novel and I didn’t want to spoil it for myself. It is damn gorgeous though.

  3. The Heretic February 7, 2012 at 10:58 am #

    Both the novels and the mini-series were awesome.

  4. Samir February 7, 2012 at 3:13 pm #

    Never heard of this before, but from the description you’ve quoted, it’s on my to-read list.

    Ash, stop giving me such good recommendations! I don’t know whether to be happy or angry (my reading list keeps growing) 😉

    • ashsilverlock February 7, 2012 at 3:41 pm #

      Apologies 🙂 If it makes you feel better I have a mountain of books to get through too!

  5. D. D. Syrdald February 7, 2012 at 4:18 pm #

    I haven’t read this yet, although I actually did buy the books long ago. I think they get ignored for exactly the reasons you cited: there’s no big plot, it’s not the usual sword-n-sorcery, and people just don’t know what to make of it. It seems like most people aren’t so much interested in good prose, as a ripping good yarn. That’s fine for awhile, but it’s like eating lots of cotton candy. Tastes good, but it’s never really enough.

  6. W. R. Woolf February 8, 2012 at 8:11 am #

    Oh, if I could write like that I would.
    “… seven flagstones became hidden from view beneath a catalyptic mass of wine-drenched blubber.”
    Every time I read it, I love it even more 🙂
    The first time I heard it was when my father read it aloud to me, even when I was young the characters gripped me.

    Thank you for posting 🙂

  7. Jess February 8, 2012 at 5:36 pm #

    So glad to see you posting about Gormenghast. I’ve not read ‘Titus Alone’ or ‘Titus Awakes’, but I adore the first two novels and also Peake’s poetry and short stories. His prose is so rich and intricate and unexpected. And ohmygoodness *that* scene (don’t want to spoil anything for those who’ve yet to read it) with Swelter, Flay, and Sepulchrave at the end of ‘Titus Groan’ is one of the most terrifying and beautiful sequences I have ever come across. Thank you for reminding me of it! *rushes to the bookshelf*

  8. darkrosemelody February 27, 2012 at 7:28 pm #

    I have always preferred the first two Gormenghast novels to Titus Alone. I love how Gormenghast itself is a character and how Peake so lovingly renders, I almost hate to say, it. It’s always good to see the novels appreciated as most of the people I know find them difficult to get into. I was hooked from the first paragraph. Who did the illustration you’ve posted?

    • ashsilverlock February 27, 2012 at 7:59 pm #

      Yes, I think it’s a great image, very appropriate for the world of Gormenghast. It’s from the first copy of Titus Groan that I ever read but I don’t know who the illustrator was.

      • Rach February 27, 2012 at 8:04 pm #

        Sadly I just have unillustrated paperbacks. They have an illustrated at my local bookstore but I don’t actually like Peake’s illustrations.

  9. Wordwytch March 4, 2012 at 7:42 pm #

    I’ve read the entire trilogy and find myself drawn back to it time and time again. In fact, it’s about time to read it again. When the series came on the BBC, I watched and enjoyed it. I found that as with Pratchett, Peake echos life and the twisted 90 degree turns which evolve into his stories.

    What is it though about England that brings such writers to the fore? Some of my favourites are Peake, Pratchett, Dahl, Gaiman, Tolkien… Having lived there for 10 years, I wonder whether it is the clash of cultures, climate or a mix.

  10. Howard G Charing March 9, 2012 at 6:28 pm #

    Thanks for the post – the Gormenghast books are amongst my all-time favourites. I found that Peake’s pacing is also incredible, the first book – slow and majestic, and the second just races along in an unputdownable way. I never watched the BBC TV adaptation, I avoided it as I didn’t want it spoil my pleasure with the books. I generally find that TV or movie versions can not compare with the original, a book has a ‘voice’ a perspective – and how can you get inside the head of the main character of the narrative?

  11. ilverai January 3, 2013 at 3:26 pm #

    Gormenghast has sort of become my own literary Mt. Everist…one day I’ll get through the whole thing. I’ve previously read about 200-250 pages into it, but as it is so different (I guess) I really struggled to get there. Part of me hopes I just wasn’t in the right mindset for it yet, as was the case first reading Brothers Karamazov and other books that I later came to enjoy.

  12. An Embarrassment of Freedom February 7, 2013 at 7:50 pm #

    I’ve just…this week …found Gormenghast and Titus Alone at a used bookstore….the writing is so rich and fantastic….taking it all in….but as soon as I started to read it I got some connections with Harry Potter ( which to be honest, I haven’t really read much of it or watched the movies as it isn’t really my preference…)…perhaps I’m wrong but the feeling crept up…Gormenghast, however seems more to my liking…

  13. elwoodcock August 12, 2013 at 6:24 am #

    I first read Gormenghast when I was 15, and it became one of my absolute favourite books (I’m talking about the trilogy as a whole) – up there with Howl’s Moving Castle and the Name of the Rose.

    I read it several times before the 2000 TV series and, although I enjoyed the series in its own right, it somehow corrupted my internal vision of Gormenghast, and I’ve never felt the need to read it again since :-/

    One of these days I might get back to it…

    My memories of it are still strong though, and it does inform a lot of my imaginative thinking. When writing my first novel I knew it had to feature a huge, rambling, falling down castle…

  14. Ron Williams August 21, 2016 at 1:07 pm #

    Although not as literate or literary as many of the other commenters here, I too read Peake’s novels at a relatively young age. The attribute they have that most drew me to them was the dense, almost obsessive description Peake gave to his creation. One is rarely in doubt about what the scene _looks_ like, although oddly this very detail is constructed from our own imagination. One is also rarely in doubt about what the scene _feels_ like, either.

    To be honest, I found the illustrations to be both unnecessary and a distraction, preferring the word-pictures Peake conjured up with his prose. In particular I prefer my vision of Lady Fuchsia, with whom I fell in love, regrettably unrequited.

    After reading Mervyn Peake’s writings, I have always been, for these forty-odd years since first encountering them, somewhat disappointed in the efforts of lesser authors; and that means, sadly, nearly all of them.

  15. speedie July 31, 2019 at 11:08 am #

    any idea how the name “Gornanghast” came about?

    • ashsilverlock July 31, 2019 at 12:11 pm #

      In the book it’s the name of a nearby mountain but I believe its etymology is “hill/hall of ghosts”, although I may be wrong.


  1. Thought of the Week: Gormenghast « Satis - July 31, 2012

    […] I haven’t read them yet. In fact, I would hand over the task of telling you about to Ash, who described them so well that I was compelled to seek them […]

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