The Gormenghast series (1946-1959) by Mervyn Peake

TitusGroan1I don’t know whether to be ashamed or defensive or just plain angry that I’ve never read the Gormenghast trilogy before, that I somehow stumbled on to Neil Gaiman and Harry Potter before even hearing of Mervyn Peake, but it certainly justifies the resentment I’ve harbored toward those randomly googled online recommender engines and chaotic message boards that badly steered my reading all those unplugged years. But what’s an unplugged reader to do? Why do we have to be so obsessive with the genre terrain in order to navigate around the Sanderson/Abercrombie/GRRM-type sand traps? Are there class action lawsuits for this sort of thing?

Finding good books shouldn’t take this much work.

But as difficult as it is to discover Gormenghast, it’s even harder to let it go. Gormenghast will cloak you, inter you in its walls, and deprive you of the sensory input from your own world. You’ll hear the muffled pattering of footsteps in distant stone hallways, smell the damp of undiscovered chambers, feel the heat of flickering flames in a dried up library.

And you’ll see everything. Whatever the difference is between describing and enmeshing, Peake does the latter. A visual artist first, he paints with words—but not with words alone, because words are static things, and Peake’s world is dynamic, a “listlessness of convalescence” (G, 741). People, places, and things pulse. Even the architecture.

The bricks had breath in them. To walk across this quadrangle was to walk across an idea. (G, 499).

As for meaning, it is a Room of Roots in its own right. Gnarly, unmanicured, and possibly unbidden, this is a plot of significances, the messages tangled in the soil, in the air, in the walls of Gormenghast castle. Select a root to follow, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself on a different root later, and then another, and then another. Is this…

a tale of class criticism? (The wall that cut her own people away, as though to keep out a plague… TG, 98)

a subversion of morality? (Of an illegitimate child, a pariah, a thing of not yet twelve years old, but a raven, a snake, witch, all the same… G, 578.)

an examination of social roles? (Utterly unfeminine—no man could have invented it. TG, 46)

a coming-of-age fairy tale? (He knew that he was talking a forbidden language. He trembled with excitement of telling the dangerous truth. G, 709)

a metafictional account of the author’s own struggles? (Were they coeval; were they simultaneous? These worlds; these realms – could they both be true? TA, 19)

the words of an artist losing touch with his brilliance? (small conical breasts, snowball-breasted lady, sumptuous cleft, trembling breasts and bosoms, etc. etc. etc., or, is this just another example of a coming-of-age fairy tale? TA, pick a page. This one could have been called Titus, groan…)

Who can say how long the eye of the vulture or the lynx requires to grasp the totality of a landscape, or whether in a comprehensive instant the seemingly inexhaustible confusion of detail falls upon their eyes in an ordered and intelligible series of distances and shapes, where the last detail is perceived in relation to the corporate mass? (TG, 143)

Gormenghast2The first book in the series is Titus Groan (1946). A babe is born, Titus, the seventy-seventh Earl of Groan. For a titular character, he is relatively invisible. A blank infant. Character drama swirls around him. In the second novel, Gormenghast (1950), Titus grows up, feels the weight of duty and expectation, desires anonymity. In this novel, Titus swirls the characters—or, maybe, actually Steerpike does– while the titular character, the castle, feels as alive and nuanced as any of the many scene-stealing characters.

The third novel is Titus Alone (1959), where Titus casts off the shackles of duty and steals into the real world. Written during Peake’s terminal struggles with dementia, it is broken, jagged, but made up of moments of artistic clarity. (It was a lipless smile. It was made up of nothing but anatomy. TA, 34. – he wrote THAT while ill.) I listened to the original publisher-approved version, and read the most recent re-RE-worked version and they both feel like drafts, at times like napkin notes. The jerky movements, like that of a child’s viewfinder toy, hint of recursive content, mirrored characters, and metafictional play, with strange differences in the two versions (the first publisher-approved version omits all mentions of “the scientist” and “the scientist’s daughter,” for instance).  It’s still pretty damn wonderful. (There is a fourth novel, Titus Awakes, written by Peake’s widow, that I decided to skip.)

The series is dark and vibrant, funny and snide. The characters seem to move Peake’s pen for him, in entertaining and unpredictable ways. Some characters are textured and effervescent: Lady Groan, The Prunesquallors, the professors. Other characters are intricate and cagey: Fuschia and Steerpike. I still don’t know what to make of Steerpike. I guess I wanted some Robin Hood out of him, but Peake’s not the type to fall into a pattern.

Steerpike had an unusual gift. It was to understand a subject without appreciating it. (TG, 173)

TitusAlone2As fresh and unique as it may feel, much of it will feel familiar to modern readers of fantasy. Reading Gormenghast AFTER reading many other famous fantasy writers (goddammit) will feel like a roadmap to what once felt like other people’s signature ideas. Peake’s DNA is everywhere. (That’s why you should read the classics.) (Even if it feels like mostly dudes.) (Especially because it’s mostly dudes.) (Because dudes keep refashioning the old stuff and sticking a new price tag on it.)

So, if you happen to be in search of The Great Modern Western Fantasy Novel amid the labyrinthine routes of industrial genre, you would do well to abide by this warning:

There is nowhere else,… You will only tread a circle, Titus Groan. There’s not a road, not a track, but it will lead you home. For everything comes to Gormenghast.’ (G, 747)

Here is the map. You are here. Start here.

 

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22 thoughts on “The Gormenghast series (1946-1959) by Mervyn Peake

  1. sjhigbee says:

    It is an amazing series isn’t it? And as it is one of works that helped mould the genre, it wasn’t until I read Peake that some of the quirkier fantasy genre conventions started to make sense. Thank you for a great review.

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    • Oh, absolutely! It’s definitely going down as one of my top favorite novels. Exactly like what I’ve always wanted to read, and very clearly the inspiration for some of my other favorites. Shame I never got to it before now.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Rabindranauth says:

    I recently finished the second, Gormenghast, and that quote you used at that end, I think, was one of the most spine tinglingly powerful moments in it. Absolutely crazy stuff. Your review says it all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m sure with all the fantasy you’ve read you’re seeing the influence (and lack thereof) too. He’s an incredible writer. I don’t trust any fantasy writer who isn’t directly influenced by his vision.

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      • Rabindranauth says:

        Yea, there’s no question he’s a big influence – I’d say Moorcock’s Elric is at least half-influenced by Peake, in addition to being the anti-Conan, just for one example. And you’re always finding people who quote him as an influence on their books, whether for marketing or not – Den Patrick’s Erebus Sequence is the most interesting one recently I can think of.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yeah, I was trying to come up with a biblical family tree for that branch of fantasy the other day: Peake beget Moorcock, then Moorcock beget Harrison, then Harrison beget Mieville…

          Having never heard of the Erebus Sequence, just knowing that the author cites Peake as an influence makes me take him seriously. Knowing Peake seems to be a reliable litmus test for finding good fantasy writers.

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  3. Peake is nowhere near as famous as he should be, given that the Gormenghast trilogy is one of the greatest achievements of twentieth century fantasy. (That only those in the know have even heard of.) Even with Titus Alone‘s understandable imperfections, it’s a masterful series.

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  4. Jesse says:

    Elric a descendat of Gormenghast? (Dare I add “?!?!?”) One is traditional sword and sorcery with a dark hero and written in a brevity of language, and the other is Gothic high fantasy written with the opposite of brevity in mind. I don’t know…

    Regarding the “imperfections” of Titus Alone, I would disagree also. (Is it the weather today?) It’s not consistent in style with the two prior books, sure. But like M. John Harrison’s Viriconium sequence, I think Peake was playing with the reality of the setting, and if a fourth book were ever published, it would have been set in our reality, thus completing the transition of a boy’s perspective into a man’s in the real world. But as his fourth has never been and never will be published, I’ll never know. Regardless, I loved the dream-like, magic realist tone of Titus Alone and how it seemed to play with the prior novel’s reality and show hints of ours. It seemed to suit the disillusion of a young man trying to find his own way, away from his home and parents, in the world.

    Does this mean you’ll be reading less crappy sf from the 60s – 80s and reading more intelligent fantasy? 🙂 If you look at the World Fantasy Award shortlists for the past decade or so you’ll find a lot of titles that fit that description. It’s not all Tor-inspired mediocre genre… (I want to create a t-shirt that says: The Hugo: Celebrating Medicore Genre for Decades!!)

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    • See, I haven’t read Moorcock because his stuff sounds so horrible, but I keep reading him in relation to Harrison, so I thought maybe there’s something he’s done that’s not tripe.

      On Titus Alone, yes, Peake’s plan was to play with reality. That I’m certain of. But I’m also certain that he was unable to access his language skills for much of the book. There’ll be a glorious metaphor in one paragraph, then baseline words strung together the next. That and his family’s reports of his struggles with Alzheimer’s, I don’t doubt that Titus Alone wasn’t exactly what he intended to achieve.

      One day I’ll probably dabble with the WFA list, but just the idea of reading only fantasy exhausts me. It can’t all be like Peake on that list, right? Besides, I love Gormenghast more for its gothic and magical realism qualities than for it as fantasy. Scifi is where I’m happiest right now and I’m still having a certain kind of fun reading the crappy scifi… so long as I’m not reading Tor junk every week.

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  5. S. C. Flynn says:

    Good that you liked this so much, Megan

    Liked by 1 person

  6. bormgans says:

    Found the first book in a second hand shop 2 weeks ago. Very intrigued! Thanks for the review!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. antyphayes says:

    I too am ashamed i haven’t yet read this and even worse I have no excuse having known of the works for 30 years or more. I even own the books! Meanwhile the to read list grows as the years peel away to nothing…

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I actually acquired a brick-like print collection of the Gormenghast trilogy about 20 years ago. And then decided to read something else first, and then something else… And after several years of putting it off, I weeded my shelves and threw Gormenghast in the donation box.

    Over the years I sometimes questioned that decision. But your review confirms: D’oh, shoulda kept it. Now I need to get myself a new copy.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Anton says:

    I read the first one (during my unplugged years), but I never moved past for reasons now unknown. I need to go back.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. […] psychologically-introspective, astronomically-extrospective commentary on the hubris of humanity. Gormenghast series (1946-1959) by Mervyn Peake, a splendid read, possibly SF’s first comedy of manners. Radio Free […]

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