“Gormenghast, […] 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 the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.” -One of Peake’s descriptions of Gormenghast Castle
Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan is the first novel in the Gormenghast series. It was published in 1946. It tells the story of the Groan family and their servants, and it is set in the sprawling Gormenghast castle. The head of the family is Lord Sepulchrave, the 76th Earl of Groan. His wife, the Countess Gertrude, lives in a different part of the castle with a large collection of cats and birds. They have a teenage daughter, Fuchsia, and Titus is their newborn son.
It’s difficult to categorise this book. Wikipedia has it labelled as “Gothic”, and describes the book as “the first fantasy of manners.” It is often referred to as “fantasy” but it is not a traditional fantasy in the vein of Tolkien or LeGuin. It’s a story of castle intrigue, of ambition and madness, of familial relationships and jealousies. It could be interpreted as a social commentary on the British class system of the time, looking at the us-and-them interactions between the haves and have-nots. Whichever way you interpret it, it remains a work of vivid imagination written by a very visual artist who was painting fantastic pictures with words instead of paints. There are many beautifully detailed descriptive passages throughout this book.
“The crumbling castle, looming among the mists, exhaled the season, and every cold stone breathed it out. The tortured trees by the dark lake burned and dripped, their leaves snatched by the wind were whirled in wild circles through the towers. The clouds mouldered as they lay coiled, or shifted themselves uneasily upon the stone skyfield, sending up wreaths that drifted through the turrets and swarmed up hidden walls.”
Peake was a gifted wordsmith and created some very unique and memorable characters. These inhabitants of Gormenghast Castle are some of the oddest fictional people you are likely to meet, and they have been given such wonderful names: Rottcodd, Steerpike, Mr. Flay, Swelter the cook, Doctor Prunesquallor, Nannie Slagg, Sourdust, Barquentine and Bellgrove. There are often comparisons made with Dickens, especially regarding the characters’ names and their caricatured personalities. One of my favourite characters is Doctor Prunesquallor:
“Prunesquallor, as urbane as ever, had nevertheless something in his fish-like eyes that might almost be described as determination. One glance at his sister was sufficient to make him realize that to attempt to reason with her would be about as fruitful as to try to christianize a vulture.”
He is very funny. The unique way he talks and his mannerisms are brought to life in Peake’s writing. This is something I was surprised about in this book, the humour. The interplay between the characters had me laughing out loud at times.
“‘Aha!’ said Prunesquallor, stroking his smooth chin, ‘a comfortable stream, is it? Aha! v-e-r-y good. V-e-r-y good. Dawdling lazily ‘twixt hill and hill no doubt. Meandering through groves of bone, threading the tissues and giving what sustenance it can to your dear old body. Mrs Slagg, I am so glad.”
Marcus Sedgewick wrote a great article on Titus Groan in the Guardian. Here’s a quote from it:
“Titus Groan was ahead of its time. Furthermore it was, and remains, very, very strange indeed. This was why it blew me away at the age of 15 – I had never read anything so weird, and I loved it for that.” -Marcus Sedgewick
This is a wonderful book and comes highly recommended if you are looking for something a bit different. It sat on my shelf for years before I finally read it. Unlike Sedgewick, I don’t think I would have appreciated it as much if I’d read it when I was a teenager discovering Tolkien. I am just glad I finally dusted it off and got lost in Peake’s world.
It also contains this line which stuck in my head the most out of so many memorable ones:
“Something to remember, that: cats for missiles.”