Review of The Gormenghast Novels by Mervyn Peake
The Gormenghast Novels
by Mervyn Peake
One of the more pernicious aspects of epic fantasy is medieval stasis. Even as we celebrate the freedoms made possible through democracy, we revel in escapism to an inherently oppressive setting, where hereditary titles are standard-issue and the plot often involves helping a rightful heir regain the throne. This is but one of the many tensions that arises in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast (or Titus) books. The eponymous castle is a grand affair in its own right, but it is the locus of a much grander, older tradition that involves and enslaves the entire castle. Titus Groan will be the 77th Earl of Gormenghast, and one day too he will live to perform the endless rituals set out in the ancient books and prescribed by their Master of Rituals. Gormenghast is more than just a castle or a place; it’s a world suspended in a water droplet.
I wasn’t surprised, when I read all the various introductions and critical assessments in this volume, to learn that Peake was an illustrator and a poet. The imagery and poetry of the Gormenghast books are profound. Peake creates in his description of Gormenghast and its inhabitants an atmosphere of stillness. The isolation of Gormenghast is so total that the people of the castle and the village that surrounds it have turned inwards and become professional navel-gazers. The only exception to this is Dr. Prunesquallor and, in later books, Titus himself. Prunesquallor seems to be something of a traveller; he speaks of having visited other lands. Titus eventually grows up and abandons Gormenghast to explore and try to find something meaningful in his life. For the majority of the books, however, Gormenghast is cut off from the outside world. Its inhabitants go through the motions of life, but it’s more like they are sleep-walking or automata moving on tracks. This sense of stasis is the backdrop against which Steerpike and Titus’ rebellions occur.
Steerpike is my favourite thing about these books. He is a villain but also, in many ways, a protagonist, and a character with whom the reader can identify (at least at first). When we first meet Steerpike, he has escaped from the kitchens and the tyranny of its cook, Swelter. He finds himself locked in a room, his own method of escape a dangerous ascent to the tiled roof of the castle. Gradually Steerpike inveigles himself into the affairs of the most prominent people in Gormenghast. His motivations are pure in the sense that all he is interested in doing is gaining power. The fact that he does this through a series of increasingly complicated plots is a bonus. Overall, watching Steerpike hatch schemes and manipulate people is a pleasure.
Titus, on the other hand, is a more problematic character. He’s just a baby in the first book, and more of a symbol than anything else. In Gormenghast he becomes the protagonist and a hero, confronting Steerpike in a climactic, heavily symbolic battle for the castle and the Groan honour. But this is not enough for Titus; he feels too constrained by the ceremonies and rituals imposed upon him as Earl. So in Titus Alone he strikes out on his own, turning his back on Gormenghast, and transforming from Earl to vagrant.
Titus Alone is like an ultimate identity crisis. It was very difficult to get through or enjoy this book, because it feels so very scattered. Unlike the first two books, its pacing is much faster. Rather than dwell and meditate on each character, Peake rushes through Titus’ encounters and interactions. This, as well as the novel’s relative brevity, make it difficult to do more than dip one’s toes into the water. It’s no wonder why the first two books are almost universally considered superior.
And oh what acclaim and criticism these books have received! If you are a Gormenghast enthusiast or a student of these works, this omnibus edition would make an excellent resource. It contains two introductions, and then at the end of the volume there is a selection of critical essays pertaining to Peake and these works. I’ll be honest: I did not read these too closely. Perhaps this is a response to finally being finished university; more likely I just wanted to be finished with Gormenghast … this series was, as I expected, a massive undertaking, and not a light one.
So it comes down to this: I liked Titus Groan, and to a lesser extent, Gormenghast. (I found the latter one dragged at the beginning, because there didn’t seem to be any direction, whereas Titus Groan is sustained by the trajectory of Steerpike’s schemes.) Both of those are solid four- or five-star works. I didn’t much care for Titus Alone—we’ll give it two stars.
I wish I could say I’ve fallen in love with the romance and surrealism of Gormenghast. I wish I could declare myself a Peake fanatic and turn towards devouring the remainder of his oeuvre. I wish these things, because I can see the castle from where I stand, far away—I can see why people enjoy these books so much. Despite this vision, I can’t replicate those feelings in myself. Gormenghast was an educational—and for the most part, enjoyable—experience, but it didn’t move me as much as it has others.