My first visit to Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast will not be the last


Titus Groan: Vol. 1 of Gormenghast – Mervyn Peake (1946)


            After almost 400 pages, and two years in the life of the title character, I have completed my first foray into the weird, wild, and oppressive world of Gormenghast.  This nearly 80-year old epic begins with the birth of Titus Groan, the heir to the current Earl of Gormenghast, a man whose family line has ruled this walled city-state for millennia.

            What let me know I was in for an unusual story was the initial section of this novel, as Mervyn Peake takes several pages to describe the walled city of Gormenghast, introducing us to the real main character of this tale, the city itself.  Mountains on one side and a forest lake on the other surround the ancient sprawling castle, if it can be rightly called a castle.  Inside the walls of the massive city, its denizens spend their every waking hour in the pursuit of their labors, dictated purely by ritual and birth.  Those born to kitchen workers will be kitchen workers.  Those born to the unfortunate people that live outside the castle, the mud dwellers, are destined to remain outsiders.  The individual duties and positions within the castle being determined not by human decisions but by the countless precedents set by previous Gormenghast Earls and their families.  Every single action is either part of a daily ritual, or mirrors some ancient rite, the reasons for it obscured by time and generations.  No one asks questions.  No one seeks to change his or her position in this world.

            Nowhere in this work does Mervyn Peake specify how many people live within the confines of Gormenghast.  It could be tens of thousands, or just a few hundred.  Either way, the vast expanse of this sprawling city-state lays mostly deserted, with rooms, towers, dungeons, and hallways remaining unused for decades at a time, until some event or dictated ritual requires it.  The people we are introduced to come mostly from the retinue of the Earl himself, Lord Sepulchrave (the characters all have such evocative names!).  There is the Head Cook, Mr. Swelter, a fat, slovenly man that runs a small army of servants and kitchen workers whose task is to prepare meals for the citizens as well as the various cyclical feasts and formal events in the castle.  There is Lord Sepulchrave himself, who spends most of his time away from his family, absorbed in books found within an ancient, massive library, of which only the Earl seems to frequent.  There is the Earl’s wife, Countess Gertrude, a very large woman whose sole interests lay in the cats and birds of Gormenghast.  There is the daughter and eldest child of the Earl, Fuschia Groan, a young woman with little purpose in life, and her nanny, Mrs. Slagg, an old, tiny woman who has essentially raised the Earl’s daughter, and will be tasked with the care of the infant Titus. 

Another critical character is introduced, a young man by the name of Steerpike who, after manipulating his way out of what would have been life-long servitude in the Gormenghast kitchens, begins to worm himself into the world of the top servants and the rulers of the castle.  This Steerpike will drive the plot forward as his ever more grand plans start to take shape.

Most novels introduce the characters and dive right into plot.  Not these Gormenghast books.  I venture that around 70% of the novel consists of detailed, meaningful descriptions of the castle buildings, walls, towers, plazas, hallways, rooms, and the surrounding countryside.  Initially this distracted me, as I am so used to the standard plot formats of 20th century fantasy fiction.  However, once my mind adapted to Mervyn Peake’s prose, it all made much more narrative sense.  The castle is eternal, or may as well be, having seen the rise and fall of dozens and dozens of generations, each one living and dying within the city walls, each one just a small blip in the lengthy life of Gormenghast castle itself. 

The lives of the Gormenghast residents mirror the lives of every heir to any throne in human history.  Their entire existence dictated by ritual, and formal decrees, forcing them to live by codes of honor, with no individuality allowed for it would disturb propriety.  If they are fortunate they end up handing the throne down to their children, who hand it to their children, etc.  There is always someone trying to take what is yours.  There is always some conniving relative attempting to either discredit or outright murder someone in order for his or her progeny to take the throne.  How many members of the British Royal family, for example, count as their only confidants and friends those who serve them?  This is the way of royalty, of entrenched ritual for ritual’s sake.  It is everything I despise in human governance.  Mervyn Peake seems to despise it as well, for the manner in which he details the people of Gormenghast is far less respectful than the way he describes the castle itself.  The castle has dignity, wisdom, and must be respected, whereas those who live within its walls are buffoons, dullards, and inbred.

The book ends with the title character, Titus Groan, reaching his 2nd birthday, and the formal celebrations that will mark him as the new Earl of Gormenghast.  Those most sensitive and perceptive can sense a great change coming.  Change is the ultimate evil in Gormenghast.  Change effects everyone, seen as unnecessary and unwanted.  The next book in this trilogy is titled Gormenghast.  I fully expect to immerse myself once more within the dark, sullen masonry and the weird, desperate characters that make it their home.  I already feel as if I will walk the halls and rooms of Gormenghast for the rest of my life.

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