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.