The Gormenghast Trilogy 1 [Titus Groan] (1946)
Spine Front Cover Book Details
Mervyn Peake
Publication Date 1997
Format Leather-bound (235 x 160 mm)
Publisher The Easton Press
Genre Fantasy
Product Details
Series Masterpieces of Fantasy
No. of Pages 396
Paper Type Acid-neutral paper
First Edition No
Personal Details
URL This book on
Rating 9
No. of Reviews 77
Frontispiece/Illustrator Jill Bauman
Original Details
Original Title Titus Groan
Original Publisher Eyre & Spottiswoode
Original Publication Year 1946
Mervyn Peake's gothic masterpiece, the Gormenghast trilogy, begins with the superlative Titus Groan, a darkly humorous, stunningly complex tale of the first two years in the life of the heir to an ancient, rambling castle. The trilogy continues with the novels Gormenghast and Titus Alone, and all three books are bound together in this single-volume edition.

The Gormenghast royal family, the castle's decidedly eccentric staff, and the peasant artisans living around the dreary, crumbling structure make up the cast of characters in these engrossing stories. Peake's command of language and unique style set the tone and shape of an intricate, slow-moving world of ritual and stasis:

"The walls of the vast room which were streaming with calid moisture, were built with gray slabs of stone and were the personal concern of a company of eighteen men known as the 'Grey Scrubbers'.... On every day of the year from three hours before daybreak until about eleven o'clock, when the scaffolding and ladders became a hindrance to the cooks, the Grey Scrubbers fulfilled their hereditary calling."

Peake has been compared to Dickens, Tolkien, and Peacock, but the Gormenghast trilogy is truly unique. Unforgettable characters with names like Steerpike and Prunesquallor make their way through an architecturally stifling world, with lots of dark corners around to dampen any whimsy that might arise. This true classic is a feast of words unlike anything else in the world of fantasy. Those who explore Gormenghast castle will be richly rewarded. --Therese Littleton

Some fantasies are one of a kind; others are the first of their kind; still others are adaptations or extensions of familiar narrative patterns. Fairy tales, ghost stories, horror stories, myths, quests, journeys, Gothics - all these are traditional ways of delving into the fantastic for particular purposes, and a reader turns to them in the expectation of remembered responses and the hope for something more. The best of them satisfy expectations and offer, in addition, skill in execution, novel insights, or the extension of the pattern into new shapes or new territories.

Of course even familiar patterns began somewhere, but those origins were mostly long ago, in the dim, forgotten stirrings of story itself. Tracing that is the work of scholars. Some of the familiar pat terns have their origins in historic times, however, like the Gothic novel. Horace Walpole got that started in 1764 with The Castle of Otranto, and people have been elaborating ever since on the idea of haunted castles and endangered heroines.

Other celebrated works have been the first of their kind, or, at least, picked up previous myths and folktales and gave them a shape and a form so special that the process is difficult to differentiate from invention. Bram Stoker's Dracula, published in 1897, was like that, and to its persistent appeal, including the various film versions of the novel or those based on the films rather than the novel, we can trace the current morbid fascination with the vampire in all its permutations. Another seminal work was Mary Shelley's 1818 Frankenstein which combined the appeal of the Gothic with early 19th century potential for creating life. A third such work was J.R.R. Tolkien's 1954- 1955 The Lord of the Rings, which proved to skeptical publishers that best-sellers could emerge from fantasy and was succeeded by hundreds of what Tolkien called "subcreations" and others called "invented fantasy worlds." Tolkien revived "High Fantasy" as a genre, but it isn't the genre that is at issue here (although the Gothic novel might fall into that category) but works whose concepts or style created imitators and successors, like Robert E. Howard's Conan, which launched an entire category of "sword and sorcery" or "heroic fantasy."

The remaining group contains those creations whose originality permits no imitation and engenders no offspring. They are sui generis, one of a kind, unique, peculiar. These are the terms that describe Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast Trilogy - indeed, they describe Peake himself.

Born of missionary parents in Kuling, China, in 1911, Peake was educated in the Tientsin Grammar School and Eltham College, Croyden College of Art, and the Royal Academy Schools, graduating in 1933. He lived on Sark, one of the Channel Islands, from 1933- 1935 and 1945-1949. Between those spans of years he taught at the Westminster School of Art, served in the British Army from 1941- 1943 and then as military artist for the Ministry of Information. His early career was as an artist; he worked as a book and magazine illustrator and had one-man shows in 1943 and 1944, and the following year toured Europe as staff artist for The Leader. He taught at the Central School of Art in London from 1949-1960.

As a writer, he published the first volume of his masterpiece, Titus Groan, in 1946. The second volume, Gormenghast, was published in 1950, and the final, unfinished volume, Titus Alone, was published in 1959. A revised edition, reconstructed from the manuscript by Langdon Jones, was published in 1970. All three were published together, as The Gormenghast Trilogy in 1988. The 1988 volume includes pages from a planned fourth volume, Titus Awakes, but even the third volume was found in draft form only, as the author had already suffered the onset of the encephalitis that finally killed him in 1968.

John Clute, in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, wrote that the trilogy "was never in its author's mind a complete entity." And "it remains a series of texts whose power is remarkable, and the definition of which in generic terms is loaded with difficulties. Although couched in language which might point towards fantasy, it contains no fantasy elements; though redolent of a dying-Earth venue in its sense of belatedness and in the person of Titus's father - a fidgety, crotchet-ridden, entropy-exuding manic-depressive aristocrat whose like has haunted the dying-Earth habitats of writers from M. John Harrison to Richard Grant - the first 2 volumes cannot be thought of as [SF]. . . . ."

The National Observer, which called the Trilogy "an eccentric, poetic masterpiece," asked the reader to "speculate for a moment. Suppose you are a novelist, seeking to dramatize a great theme, per haps the most durable and engaging of all themes in imaginative literature. It is the theme of discovery: the discovery of self, of choice and independence, of what man is and the world is. The theme of Homer, Virgil, and Dante; of Cervantes and James Joyce. The theme of giants. . ."

The books themselves are dominated not so much by the narrative but by the image of Gormenghast castle and the densely pictorial way it is presented. Written by an artist (and illustrated with his own drawings), the first volume is (in Clute's words) "the most intensely painterly books ever crafted." It deals with the birth of the new heir to the castle, Titus, the 77th Earl of Groan, and the first two years of his life, and its greatest accomplishment is the depiction of the great, sprawling castle, virtually a world in itself, and the gallery of grotesques who populate its endless corridors.

"There would be tears and there would be strange laughter," Peake wrote. "Fierce births and deaths beneath umbrageous ceilings. And dreams, and violence, and disenchantment." And: "Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the season, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. 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 owls made of it an aching throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow."

The central portion of the trilogy is Gormenghast, is Titus's bildungsroman, his coming-of-age story. But it is also the story of the Machiavellian Steerpike (Titus's alter ego?), who murders and burns and hopes to marry his way toward the usurpation of the castle. In the final book Titus leaves the castle to explore the strange, futuristic world outside. Robert Irwin in The St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers suggested that "the enclosed and ritual-driven Forbidden City of Peking may have served as a partial model for Peake's castle." But he also offers the possibility "that the castle is an image of the labyrinth that is the human mind, with all its unexplored corridors and cellars. Towards the end of Titus Alone, Titus has the sensation that 'the earth wandered through his skull . . . a cosmos in the bone; a universe lit by a hundred lights and thronged by shapes and shadows; alive with endless threads of circumstance. . . action and event. All futility; disordered; with no end and no beginning.'"

As an author Peake was remarkable in other ways: he had, for instance, as many art books as novels: The Craft of the Lead Pencil (1946), Drawings by Mervyn Peake (1950), Figures of Speech (1954), The Drawings of Mervyn Peake (1974), Mervyn Peake: Writings and Drawings (1974), and Sketches from Bleak House (1983). In 1953 he published a non-Titus novel, Mr. Pye, about a visitor to the island of Sark who is so good he finds himself growing the wings of an angel and tries desperately to rid himself of them. Peake published an early book for children, Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939), and a later one, Letters from a Lost Uncle (1948). Two volumes of short stories were published after his death, including Peake's Progress: Selected Writings and Drawings of Mervyn Peake (1978), and nine volumes of poetry: Shapes and Sounds (1941), Rhymes Without Reason (1944), The Glassblowers (1950), The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (1962), Poems and Drawings (1965),A Reverie of Bone and Other Poems (1967), Selected Poems (1972), A Book of Nonsense (1972), and Twelve Poems 1939-1960(1975). He had two plays produced, The Connoisseurs (1952) and The Wit to Woo (1957), and several radio dramatizations, including one for Titus Groan in 1956.

Somehow they all seem overshadowed by Gormenghast itself, this monumental creation that consumed much of Peake's creative imagination and perhaps Peake himself. As New World said of him, "To discuss the work of Mervyn Peake presents a special difficulty; the reviewer is faced by the incredible diversity of his wide-ranging talents. Illustrator, painter, poet, novelist and playwright, he represents a creative phenomenon, a man with an intense and individual inner vision. . .

Clute summed up, "Throughout, the wealth of detail of the work makes Gormenghast one of the most richly realized alternate worlds in all the literature of fantasy or [SF]."

James Gunn
Lawrence, Kansas
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