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Gormenghast /ˈɡɔːrmənˌɡɑːst/ is a fantasy series by British author Mervyn Peake, about the inhabitants of Castle Gormenghast, a sprawling, decaying, gothic-like structure. Originally conceived as a single on-going novel, the series was ended by Peake's death and comprises three novels, Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950), Titus Alone (1959) and a novella, Boy in Darkness (1956), whose canonical status is debated. Peake was writing a fourth novel, Titus Awakes at the time of his death, which was later completed and released by Peake's widow in 2009.
- Titus Groan
- Titus Alone
- Ruling family
- Other Castle dwellers
- Bright Carvers
- Beyond Gormenghast
- Freedom versus Tradition
- Other themes
- Literary influence
Although the first two instalments do not contain any overtly fantastical elements, Gormenghast is almost unanimously categorized as fantasy because of the atmosphere and pseudo-medieval setting. The series has received widespread acclaim from the speculative fiction community and mainstream literary critics, with some scholars arguing that it is a more accomplished work than the contemporary and better-known Lord of the Rings.
The series has been included in Fantasy: The 100 Best Books, Modern Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels and 100 Must Read Fantasy Novels as one of the greatest fantasy works of the twentieth century. Literary critic Harold Bloom has praised the series as the best fantasy novels of the twentieth century and one of the greatest sequences in modern world literature. Gormenghast is often credited as the first fantasy of manners novel. The books have been translated into over twenty languages.
The series consists of three books, Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950), and Titus Alone (1959). A short book, Boy in Darkness (1956), tells the story of a brief adventure by the young Titus away from Gormenghast, although it does not name the castle.
Peake had intended to write a series of books following Titus Groan through his life, as well as detailing his relationship with Gormenghast. At least two other books, tentatively titled Titus Awakes and Gormenghast Revisited, were planned but Parkinson's disease and Peake's ensuing death at the age of 57 prevented him from writing more than a few hundred words and ideas for further volumes. Only three pages of Titus Awakes were coherently written and Can be found in The Overlook Press edition of Titus Alone (ISBN 0-87951-427-2) and in the omnibus volume (ISBN 0-87951-628-3).
In the 1970s, Peake's widow Maeve Gilmore wrote her version of Titus Awakes, which she called Search Without End. The Peake family rediscovered this book at the end of 2009 and it was published by Overlook Press as Titus Awakes: The Lost Book of Gormenghast to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Peake's birth.
Gormenghast is a remote and reclusive earldom dominated by the huge Castle Gormenghast at its centre, and ruled by the noble family of Groan since time immemorial. The earldom derives its name from Gormenghast Mountain, and is isolated from the outside world by inhospitable regions on each side of it. To the North are marshy wastelands, to the South are salt grey marshes (and presumably then the ocean), to the East are quicksands and the tideless sea, and to the West are knuckles of endless rock. To the West also lies the claw-like Gormenghast Mountain, with the Twisted Woods and Gormenghast river at its foot. East of them are escarpments described as "an irregular tableland of greeny-black rock, broken and scarred and empty", then desolate swamp before the vicinity of the castle is reached. Gormenghast Mountain is said to be so large that from the castle it looks at most a few miles distant, whereas in fact it is a day's ride away on horseback. However, this is contradicted by events within the story, when various characters are able to travel on foot to the castle and back within a single day. Given that it is surrounded on three sides by watery regions, it is not implausible that the entire region can be flooded, as described in the second book, Gormenghast.
At the centre of the earldom is the vast, largely deserted Castle, whose remaining inhabitants centre their lives on the ritual surrounding the ruling family of Groan. The castle is described as being like an immense island of stone, its every outline familiar to the inhabitants, who know: "every bay, inlet and headland of the great stone island of the Groans, of its sheer cliffs, of its crumbling outcrops, the broken line of the towers". Dominating the ivy-covered, crumbling castle is the highest tower, the Tower of Flints, which is inhabited by great numbers of owls. The castle is so huge that most of the inhabitants do not venture outside except for certain ceremonies. Outside the castle, clustered under the northern walls, is a hodge-podge of mud dwellings inhabited by the "Bright Carvers", whose only purpose is to carve elaborate objects out of wood and present them to the Earl. They are in awe of the "Castles", as they call Gormenghast's inhabitants. Some contact with the outside world is implied; Dr. Prunesquallor at one point sketches an ostrich skeleton, while Steerpike procures a monkey from somewhere. Otherwise, the impression given is that Gormenghast is stagnant, insular, and introspective. A recurring theme is the time-consuming and pointless rituals that the inhabitants submit to regularly, the origin and purpose of which is long-forgotten. Gormenghast makes a stark contrast with the industrious and technologically advanced city which is the setting of Titus Alone.
The story begins with the birth of the eponymous Titus, as the heir to the throne of the House of Groan, and finishes just over a year later with his "Earling" or formal investiture as the seventy-seventh Earl of Groan, after the untimely death of his father Sepulchrave. As Titus is only an infant in this novel, he plays a minor role. The main plot therefore follows the somewhat bizarre inhabitants of Gormenghast Castle, and in particular chronicles the rise to power of Steerpike, a scheming kitchen boy. Steerpike successfully destroys the existing order of the castle by inciting the twin sisters of Sepulchrave, Cora and Clarice, to burn Sepulchrave's beloved library. This event drives Sepulchrave into madness and eventually into taking his own life. Although Cora and Clarice are not exposed as the perpetrators of the fire, they are now under Steerpike's power. A subplot involves the feud between Sepulchrave's loyal servant Flay, and the chef Swelter, which ends with them fighting and Swelter being killed.
The second book follows Titus from the age of seven to seventeen. As the 77th earl and lord of Gormenghast, he dreads the life of pre-ordained ritual that stretches before him. His desire for freedom is awakened by the sight of his foster sister, known only as "The Thing", a feral child who lives in the woods of Gormenghast (due to her mother being banished as an outcast) and who terrorizes the Bright Carvers, the inhabitants of the mud dwellings outside the castle walls. Her life of wild freedom makes him realise that an existence is possible other than the rigid formalities and ritual of the castle. Meanwhile, Steerpike continues his rise to power by killing Barquentine, the Master of Ritual, and taking his place, but he is eventually unmasked as a traitor and murderer. The castle is flooded by a rainstorm, and in a watery duel with Titus, Steerpike is killed, leaving the way clear for Titus to reign. However, his desire to leave Gormenghast is now overwhelming, Titus flees the castle for the wider world beyond Gormenghast Mountain.
The story follows Titus as he travels far from Gormenghast and finds a futuristic city dominated by scientists and advanced technology (in some ways anticipating the steampunk genre). He then travels to a region where a huge modern factory stands by a lake, filled with identical looking workers. There is a smell of death from the factory and it is hinted that sinister experiments are taking place there. Titus is increasingly haunted by his memories of Gormenghast and begins to realise its importance to his identity. At the same time, the world he encounters is so different from his old home that he begins to doubt that Gormenghast ever really existed.
Titus is helped by Muzzlehatch, the owner of a zoo, who drives a steampunk-style car and becomes a friend and mentor. He is also helped by Muzzlehatch's former lover Juno, who in turn becomes Titus's lover for a brief period. However, Titus also becomes involved with Cheeta, the daughter of the scientist who runs the factory, and who grows to hate Titus and sets out to destroy him. This novel is more randomly plotted than its two predecessors, without a strong lead character or a fixed setting. A heavily edited first edition was published in 1959; a fuller version compiled by Langdon Jones from Peake's early drafts was issued in 1970 and forms the basis for all subsequent editions.
Peake populated his imaginary world with a large cast of characters. These include:
Titus Groan: The main character of the series, and heir to the Earldom of Gormenghast. He succeeds to the title of 77th Earl while still a child, but as he grows older, he develops ambivalent feelings toward his home. He is torn between pride in his lineage and the desire to escape from the castle and its traditions. Titus is born at the beginning of the first book of the series, the son of Sepulchrave and Gertrude, and is an infant throughout the whole of Titus Groan. He grows up and reaches young adulthood in the second book Gormenghast, which ends with him leaving Gormenghast after defeating Steerpike in battle. In the third book Titus Alone Titus discovers a world outside of Gormenghast where the castle and its inhabitants are unknown. Titus also features in another book called Boy in Darkness which appears to take place during his youth in Gormenghast, but which is unconnected to the main story. Titus' character is one of yearning for freedom and the romance of being an ordinary person without the restrictions and responsibilities of the Earldom and the tradition that comes with it.
As for Titus, he was almost grown now to his full height. But he was of an odd highly-strung natures -- sullen and excitable by turns. Strong as need be for his years, he was more apt to have his energy sapped by the excess of his imagination than of his body.
Lord Sepulchrave: 76th Earl and Titus's father. He is a melancholy man who feels shackled by his duties as Earl, although he never questions them. His only escape is reading. However, when the castle's Library is burnt down, he is driven insane and comes to believe that he is one of the death-owls that live in the abandoned Tower of Flints.
... a dark figure stole forth, closing the door behind him quietly, and with an air of the deepest dejection.... His face was very long and was olive coloured. The eyes were large, and of an eloquence, withdrawn. His nostrils were mobile and sensitive. His mouth, a narrow line....
The Countess Gertrude: 76th Countess and Titus's mother. An immense, statuesque woman with coils of dark red hair, she pays little attention to her family or the rest of Gormenghast. Instead, she spends her time locked away in her bedroom, in the company of a legion of cats and birds, the only things toward which she shows affection. However, once given the chance to use her intelligence she turns out to be one of the cleverest people in the castle, when (along with Flay and the doctor) she recognizes and investigates the worrying changes transpiring in Gormenghast. She demonstrates unexpected leadership qualities during the flooding of the castle and hunt for Steerpike, but once the threat has passed she retreats back into her own world of isolation. According to Sepulchrave's sisters, the Ladies Cora and Clarice, Gertrude is of common blood and not of the noble bloodline of the Groans.
As the candles guttered or flared so the shadows moved from side to side, or up and down the wall, and with those movements behind the bed there swayed the shadows of four birds. Between them vacillated an enormous head. This umbrage was cast by her ladyship, the 76th Countess of Groan. She was propped against several pillows and a black shawl was draped around her shoulders. Her hair, a very dark red color of great luster, appeared to have been left suddenly while being woven into a knotted structure on the top of her head. Thick coils still fell about her shoulder or clustered on the pillows like burning snakes. Her eyes were of the pale green that is common among cats. They were large eyes, yet seemed, in proportion to the pale area of her face, to be small. The nose was big enough to appear so in spite of the expanse that surrounded it. The effect which she produced was one of bulk....
Fuchsia: Titus's sister. At times impatient, immature, and self-absorbed, she can also be extremely warm and caring. At first, she resents Titus, but gradually develops a deep bond with him. Of all Titus's family, she is the one he loves most. Fuchsia also develops a very close, but brief bond with her father, Lord Sepulchrave during his final mental breakdown after the Library Fire. Broken by disappointment and disillusionment, she is killed as she accidentally slips from the windowsill where she is contemplating suicide. As she falls, she strikes her head on the stonework, and drowns unconscious in the floodwaters surrounding the Castle.
... a girl of about fifteen with long, rather wild black hair. She was gauche in movement and in a sense ugly of face, but with how small a twist might she not suddenly have become beautiful. Her sullen mouth was full and rich -- her eyes smoldered. A yellow scarf hung loosely around her neck. Her shapeless dress was flaming red. For all the straightness of her back, she walked with a slouch.
Cora and Clarice Groan: Titus's aunts (sisters of Sepulchrave), a pair of identical twins. Both suffered from spasms in their youth, so the left-hand sides of their bodies are paralyzed. They have virtually the same personalities and neither of them is intelligent—they are perhaps even intellectually disabled—although Cora believes that she is slightly cleverer than Clarice. During the family breakfast, the narrator notes that both sisters are thinking the same thoughts. Both crave political power and dislike Gertrude, whom they believe robbed them of their rightful place in the hierarchy of Gormenghast. Their mindless ambition and thirst for revenge lead them to become Steerpike's pawns.
She and her sister were dressed in purple with gold buckles at their throats by way of brooches, and another gold buckle each at the end of hatpins which they wore through their gray hair in order apparently to match their brooches. Their faces, identical to the point of indecency, were quite expressionless, as though they were the preliminary layouts for faces and were waiting for sentience to be injected.
Other Castle dwellers
Alongside the ruling Groan family there is a large population within the castle who service its daily needs. Although the 'Castles' as they are known (to distinguish them from the Bright Carvers) are all commoners, they are nevertheless highly socially stratified, from the socially respectable Dr Alfred Prunesquallor and the Professors, to the lowly Grey Scrubbers, whose sole job is to clean the walls of the kitchen. However lowly the position of the 'Castles' may be, they consider themselves to be far superior to the Bright Carvers who live outside the castle walls.
Steerpike: A youthful outsider, beginning as a kitchen boy, who worms his way into the hierarchy of Gormenghast for his own personal gain. Ruthlessly murderous, with a Machiavellian, highly intelligent and methodical mind, and a talent for manipulation, he can appear charming and sometimes even noble. But due to his fundamentally evil nature, he has natural personal enmity with Titus. He is finally hunted down and killed by Titus, who holds him responsible for the death of his sister, Fuchsia.
His body gave the appearance of being malformed, but it would be difficult to say exactly what gave it this gibbous quality. Limb by limb it appeared that he was sound enough, but the sum of these several members accrued to an unexpectedly twisted total. His face was pale like clay and save for his eyes, masklike. These eyes were set very close together, and were small, dark red, and of startling concentration.
Mr. Flay: Lord Sepulchrave's personal servant, who believes in strictly holding to the rules of Gormenghast. Nevertheless, he is not completely hard-hearted and cares a great deal for Titus and Fuchsia. He is eventually exiled from Gormenghast for throwing one of the Countess's cats at Steerpike. However, he secretly keeps an eye on the doings in the castle, and plays a crucial role in Steerpike's eventual unmasking as a traitor.
Mr. Flay appeared to clutter up the doorway as he stood revealed, his arms folded.... It did not look as though such a bony face as this could give normal utterance, but rather that instead of sounds, something more brittle, more ancient, something drier would emerge, something more in the nature of a splinter or a fragment of stone. Nevertheless, the harsh lips parted. "It's me," he said, and took a step forward, his joints cracking as he did so. His passage across a room -- in fact his passage through life -- was accomplished by these cracking sounds, one per step, which might be likened to the breaking of dry twigs.
Dr. Alfred Prunesquallor: The castle's resident physician. He is an eccentric individual with a high-pitched laugh and a grandiose wit which he uses on the castle's less intelligent inhabitants. Despite his acid tongue, he is an extremely kind and caring man who also is greatly fond of Fuchsia and Titus. (In a few places in the text, Dr. Prunesquallor is given the first name of Bernard, but this was an error by Peake.) Although he appears at first to be foppish and weak, the doctor later shows himself to be both intelligent and courageous, and he plays an important role in defeating Steerpike.
The doctor with his hyena laugh and his bizarre and elegant body, his celluloid face. His main defects? The insufferable pitch of his voice; his maddening laugh and his affected gestures. His cardinal virtue? An undamaged brain.
Irma Prunesquallor: Doctor Prunesquallor's sister. Though she is anything but pretty, she is considerably vain. She desperately desires to be admired and loved by men. She becomes romantically involved with Bellgrove.
Vain as a child, thin as a stork's leg, and, in her black glasses, blind as an owl in daylight. She misses her footing on the social ladder at least three times a week, only to start climbing again, wriggling her pelvis all the while, She clasps her dead, white hands beneath her chin in the high hope of hiding the flatness of her chest.
Abiatha Swelter: The fat, sadistic head chef of Gormenghast. His profound hatred for Flay leads him to attempt his murder; however, he is killed by his intended victim.
Abiatha Swelter, who wades in a slug-like illness of fat through the humid ground mists of the Great Kitchen. From bowls as big as baths, there rises and drifts like a miasmic tide the all but palpable odor of the day's bellytimber. The arrogance of this fat head exudes itself like an evil sweat.
Nannie Slagg: An ancient dwarf who serves as the nurse for infant Titus and Fuchsia before him. She is somewhat unintelligent, deeply self-pitying and has an inferiority complex. Nevertheless she is kind and loving, and is the only figure who shows any real affection to the children when they are young.
... she is so minute, so frightened, so old, so querulous, she neither could, nor would, head any procession, even on paper. Her peevish cry goes out: "Oh, my weak heart! How could they?" and she hurries to Fuchsia either to smack the abstracted girl in order to ease herself, or to bury the wrinkled prune of her face in Fuchsia's side. Alone in her small room again, she lies upon her bed and bites her minute knuckles.
Sourdust: The Master of Ritual when the series begins. He is the one who coordinates the various arcane rituals that make up daily life in Gormenghast. After his death in the Library Fire, his position is taken up by his son Barquentine.
His beard was knotted and the hairs that composed it were black and white. His face was very lined, as though it had been made of brown paper that had been crunched by some savage hand before being hastily smoothed out and spread over the tissues. His eyes were deep set and almost lost in the shadows cast by his fine brow, which for all its wrinkles, retained a sweeping breadth of bone.
Barquentine: Follows his father into the role of Master of Ritual. He is lame in one leg, hideous, and unbelievably dirty. He is a consummate misanthrope who abuses and insults everybody he meets, and who cares only for the rigid application of the laws and traditions of Gormenghast. He makes the grievous error of allowing Steerpike to become his assistant.
The lynch-pin son of the dead Sourdust, by name Barquentine, Master of Ritual, is a stunted, cantankerous pedant of seventy, who stepped into his father's shoes (or, to be exact, his shoe, for this Barquentine is a one-legged thing who smites his way through ill-lit corridors on grim and echoing crutch.)
Bellgrove: School Professor. One of Titus's teachers, who eventually ascends to Headmaster of Gormenghast. In many respects, he is the standard absent-minded professor who falls asleep during his own class and plays with marbles. However, deep inside him there is a certain element of dignity and nobility. At heart he is kindly, and if weak, at least has the humility to be aware of his faults. He begins a rather unusual romance with Irma Prunesquallor. He becomes something of a father figure to Titus.
He was a fine-looking man in his way. Big of head, his brow and the bridge of his nose descended in a single line of undeniable nobility. His jaw was as long as his brow and nose together and lay exactly parallel in profile to those features. With his leonine shock of snow-white hair there was something of the major prophet about him. But his eyes were disappointing. They made no effort to bear out the promise of the other features, which would have formed the ideal setting for the kind of eye that flashes with visionary fire. Mr. Bellgrove's eyes didn't flash at all.
Also known as the Mud Dwellers or the Outer Dwellers, the Bright Carvers live directly outside the castle walls, crammed closely together in hovels of mud and straw. Their lives are hard and monotonous, and they live solely on jarl root (a kind of tree growing in Gormenghast forest), and crusts of bread lowered down from the castle walls each morning. Their sole obsession is the carving of beautiful wooden sculptures, brightly painted, which they present to the Groans on a particular day each year in June. Only three of these carvings are chosen by the Earl of Gormenghast to be kept and the rest are burnt. Fierce rivalry exists between the Carvers to present the best carvings, and their lives are dominated by this and by their own long-held feuds and grudges against each other. The Bright Carvers are a race apart from the Castle dwellers, living by their own cultural norms and customs, which are impenetrable to outsiders.
Keda: A woman from the Bright Carvers' village just outside the walls of Gormenghast. She is chosen to be Titus's wet nurse, but eventually leaves this position. She has two lovers Braigon and Rantel who fight a duel and both die for her, but not before one of them impregnates her. Eventually she kills herself by leaping off a crag, after giving birth to a daughter - The Thing. (In the film adaptation, she dies in childbirth.)
Dark, almost lambent like a topaz, she is still young, her sole disfigurement the universal bane of the Outer Dwellers, the premature erosion of an exceptional beauty - a deterioration that follows with merciless speed upon an adolescence almost spectral.
The Thing: The daughter of Keda, foster sister of Titus. Due to her illegitimacy she is an outcast who becomes a feral child living in the wilderness surrounding Gormenghast. She is fierce and untameable, living only for herself, and takes her revenge on the Bright Carvers by mutilating their carvings. Believing that she is in every way the opposite of Gormenghast, Titus becomes infatuated with her. She is killed by a bolt of lightning.
No: the face was more mask-like than expressive. It symbolised her way of life, not her immediate thoughts. It was the colour of a robin's egg, and as closely freckled. Her hair was black and thick but she had hacked it away, a little above her shoulders. Her rounded neck was set straight upon her shoulders, and was so flexible that the liquid ease with which she turned it was reminiscent of a serpent.
In Titus Alone Titus leaves Gormenghast and after a time spent wandering comes to the city, a futuristic place of glass and steel buildings, flying machines and other modern technology. Titus is disoriented by the huge contrast between the city and his old home, particularly since none of the people he meets have ever heard of Gormenghast or show much interest in it. In his journey through the city Titus meets a large number of characters, some friendly and some hostile. Later Titus leaves the city and travels to a land dominated by a sinister factory beside a lake.
Muzzlehatch is a man who drives around the city in a large shark-like car, who comes upon Titus lying faint on the waterfront and brings him home with him. He initially helps Titus not because he cares for him, but because he hates the city's police authorities, who are pursuing Titus as a vagrant. Muzzlehatch has a zoo at his house, and when not driving his car, he rides about on some of his animals, such as a stag or a llama. Despite his initial indifference, he becomes a mentor to Titus and helps him navigate his way about the city's confusing and dangerous life.
The Driver, a great, gaunt, rudder-nosed man, square-jawed, long-limbed, and muscular, appeared to be unaware of the condition of his car or of the danger to himself or to the conglomeration of characters who lay tangled among their nets in the rotting 'stern' of the dire machine.
Juno is a former lover of Muzzlehatch, who agrees to be Titus' guardian when he is captured and put on trial, in order to save him from going to an institution. Although she is twice his age, she and Titus become lovers, in a passionate but brief affair. However, after the initial excitement of their liaison, Titus feels increasingly trapped and leaves Juno to strike out into the city on his own.
Juno was a silhouette against the lighted entrance. From the full, rounded, and bell-shaped hips which swayed imperceptably as she moved, arose the column of her almost military back; and from her shoulders sprang her neck, perfectly cylindrical, surmounted by her classic head.
Cheeta is a woman about Titus' own age, who finds Titus wandering in a fever and nurses him back to health. In the process she becomes infatuated with him, and fascinated by his fevered ravings about Gormenghast. She is the daughter of a scientist who runs the factory where it is hinted at that sinister experiments are taking place. Although Titus is attracted to her, he spurns her advances, and she resolves to take her revenge. After hearing Titus telling many stories of Gormenghast, she arranges a mocking pageant or parade with grotesque caricatures of the inhabitants of the castle in order to humiliate him and unhinge his mind.
For hers was a presence not easily forgotten. Her body was exquisite. Her face indescribably quizzical. She was a modern. She had a new kind of beauty. Everything about her face was perfect in itself, yet curiously (from the normal point of view) misplaced. Her eyes were large and stormy grey, but were set a thought too far apart; yet not so far as to be immediately recognised. Her cheekbones were taut and beautifully carved, and her nose, straight as it was, yet gave the impression of verging, now on the retroussé side, now on the aquiline. As for the curl of her lips, it was like a creature half asleep, something that like a chameleon would change its colour. Her mouth, today, was the colour of lilac blossom, very pale.
Freedom versus Tradition
The eternal theme of personal freedom versus social duty and tradition is the main theme of the novel. This is played out chiefly through the central character of the book Titus Groan, who longs to be free and follow his own course in life, but is bound as the heir to the throne of the House of Groan, to the ancient laws and traditions of the castle. To a lesser extent his frustrations are shared by his sister Fuchsia; but most of the other characters in the book are either seemingly oblivious to anything other than the life of the castle, or else they are fierce upholders of its laws. Ironically it is only Steerpike, the power hungry, psychopathic and devious rebel, who shares Titus' contempt for the rules and traditions of Gormenghast. The conflict in Titus' soul is mirrored in the outer world of Gormenghast. The dark, oppressive castle, with its dry, dusty, lifeless halls and corridors of grey stone, is constantly contrasted with the landscape outside, which although wild and desolate, is raw, untamed, and elemental. The Outer Dwellers bear children of unearthly radiance, one of whom becomes Titus's foster sister; the child of Keda known only as The Thing. She becomes a feral child, caring nothing for others and living wild in the forests around Gormenghast mountain. She becomes a symbol to Titus of all the freedom that he longs for.
The contrast between Titus and Steerpike is at the heart of Gormenghast. Both are rebels, who hate the oppression and rigidity of the castle. Titus' rebellion is largely positive however, driven only by the urge to be free. Steerpike's rebellion is negative, as he desires to exercise control and power over others, seeking to overthrow the tyranny of Gormenghast with a tyranny of his own. Titus by contrast does not seek power over anyone else, only to control his own destiny. Though Steerpike manages to escape his life in the kitchens, he cannot see beyond the castle, while Titus wants to escape into the world outside. Titus's rage to be free, apparent throughout the first two novels, begins in earnest at the end of Titus Groan. He unwittingly blasphemes at his own baptism and again at his coronation, throwing the symbols of his office into the lake as his foster sister, the changeling who seems more an elemental spirit than a human child, calls to him over the water. As he grows to manhood, his emergence into liberation is darkly shadowed by the progress of Steerpike, who has declared "Equality is everything" whilst pulling the legs off a beetle. Steerpike's rise to power is psychopathic, fuelled by some fundamental urge to destroy the castle. He is not a true anarchist; he seeks only to destroy what he hates, utilizing all his formidable powers to force his way into the castle's establishment, becoming eventually Master of Ritual; the symbol of the fascism that Titus most detests. With the death of his foster-sister by lightning, Titus loses his boyhood; with the death of Fuchsia by drowning, his heart is hardened, and he has the strength to kill Steerpike. With the eventual execution of Steerpike, the last bond of connection with his immemorial home is severed and "...turning his back...Titus rode out of his world."
The immense awareness of Tradition in the novel, manifest in the Ritual that dominates and suffocates all life within its walls is personified by Sepulchrave, the 76th Earl of Groan and Titus's father, whose days are almost wholly consumed adhering to the obscure and esoteric tenets of Gormenghast tradition. The line of Groan has therefore supposedly been in existence for over a thousand years, perhaps as much as three. Sepulchrave is petrified by melancholia and is a paradigm example of the fantasy archetype known as the Knight of the Doleful Visage or Fisher King. The family is reduced to a few members whose mental and physical abnormalities are profound. Titus himself is frequently described as 'hideous'. Cora and Clarice are epileptic, delusional, feeble-minded mono-maniacs. Gertrude in some sense appears to typify a baleful Earth Mother; ponderous and heavy, loving and cruel by turns, impassive of her own child, tender to her bird and cats, she is "the Countess Gertrude of huge clay". Titus' dread and rebellion against the iron letter of Gormenghast Law (enforced and embodied in his lifetime by the stony and loathsome dwarf Barquentine) becomes one of the main factors leading to his preoccupation with freedom.
Though the castle is oppressive and tyrannical, Peake's language continually flames and shimmers with the love of youth, beauty and impermanence. "Deep within the fist of stone, a doll's hand wriggles, warm and rebellious. And, with his tiny entrance, enters change." At all times, the possibility of escape and beauty stands alongside the reality of imprisonment and death. Keda's suicide, the deaths of Rantel and Braigon, Fuchsia's dreams and reveries, Titus's small transgressions are all rendered in pellucid language that counterpoints and undermines the deadly weight of the castle.
The immense, overwhelming presence of Gormenghast Castle; its "umbrageous ceilings", its "empire of red rust" and the way in which it shapes and deforms the personalities of those who dwell in and under it, marks Gormenghast out as one of the great Gothic edifices, as Hill House in Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House or Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto. Gormenghast is frequently referred to as a personality by its inhabitants and may be the only true example of Gothic Expressionism in English literature. Author Anthony Burgess argued for the Gormenghast novels' status as a major classic of the Twentieth century; resounding with horrible images drawn from a century of war; the Holocaust in Sepulchrave's library; the attaching of a calf's skull to Sourdust's skeleton; Flay and Swelter enacting their danse macabre in the hall of Spiders.
The castle is the setting for the first two books in the series, Titus Groan and Gormenghast. It incorporates many of the elements of both medieval castles and Regency period stately homes, though in practice it operates like a small city-state. It has its own government, a Byzantine system of laws and rituals, a class system, and is seemingly self-sufficient. Vast areas of the castle are abandoned. It is possible that the blackened and jagged skyline of Gormenghast was suggested by the bombed ruins of London or Dresden following World War II; Peake was an official war artist and had been present at the opening of some of the Nazi concentration camps, an experience that touched him deeply and haunted him throughout his life. It has also been posited that Gormenghast had its ancient roots in the Forbidden City of Peking. Peake was born in China and lived there until he was eleven, a fact which might also have some bearing on the fantastical artworks of the Bright Carvers who dwell without the castle walls. The isolated Channel Island of Sark, with its then surviving feudal system of government may also be an influence, as Peake lived there for a time. In a chapter of Gormenghast, where Titus and his mother attempt to trace Steerpike's whereabouts, the placenames she reels off are all places on Sark.
An element of social comedy is introduced in the second book, which contains a romantic sub-plot concerning the vapid social-climber Irma Prunesquallor. Her preparations for a romantic soiree designed to net her a husband from amongst the ranks of the Professors and her subsequent wooing by the indolent old Headmaster Bellgrove, provides some light comedy almost in the manner of P.G. Wodehouse. The contrast drawn between their age and unattractiveness and the ardour of their perceived passion is a theme drawn from classical farce. The encounter between Dr. Prunesquallor and the Countess Gertrude when she demands goat's milk, and the subsequent attempts to procure it for her, also provide an element of comedy. These comic interludes are probably intended to provide the reader with some light relief from the otherwise dark and serious themes of the book.
It is impossible to ignore the significance of madness as well as its relationship with genius and (thwarted) artistic expression as a theme in the Gormenghast novels. Though Peake was an artist and poet who knew many years of perfect health and happy productivity, his paralysis caused by the Parkinson's disease that afflicted him during the last years of his life, is an undeniable influence on the novels. Several of the characters in the novel are passionate, sensitive and clever, but all have been subjugated by their environment. Fuchsia possesses a great and passionate love which, finding no outlet, wastes itself in frustration and is cruelly abused by Steerpike. Sepulchrave's great sensitivity to beauty and poetry and his prodigious mental powers are frozen in misery. Dr. Prunesquallor is likewise a man of elegance, wit and brains, deformed into an eccentric by his environment. The Poet, a cryptic figure in the novel, represents some hidden spirit of introverted aestheticism in the castle; he remains in the shadows. Conversely, the established professional academics, the schoolmasters of Gormenghast, are parodies of Oxbridge learning; pedantic, futile, vulgar, lazy and grotesque.
Gormenghast has no priests, no soldiers and no obvious economy.
The first book, Titus Groan, was published in 1946 to ecstatic reviews and the series has continued to grow in its critical reputation since Peake's death. Contemporary reviewers praise it for its iconic imagery and characters, and it is often cited as one of the greatest fantasy novels of all-time. Anthony Burgess called the series uniquely brilliant and stated that it has rightfully been hailed as modern classic. In their review Punch opined that the series constituted "the finest imaginary feat in the English novel since Ulysses, while Editor Langdon Jones commented that it was the sort of novel that one remembered for the rest of their life and that he felt it should be required reading in secondary schools. The Daily Telegraph has described Steerpike was one of the all-time greatest villains in western literature.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation produced a dramatization of all three Gormenghast novels. It was first broadcast in 1983 as eight one-hour episodes, and repeated in 1986 in four two-hour parts. This is the first adaptation that includes Titus Alone in addition to Titus Groan and Gormenghast.
In 1984, BBC Radio 4 broadcast two 90-minute plays based on Titus Groan and Gormenghast, adapted by Brian Sibley and starring Sting as Steerpike and Freddie Jones as the Artist (narrator). A slightly abridged compilation of the two, running to 160 minutes, and entitled Titus Groan of Gormenghast, was broadcast on Christmas Day, 1992. BBC 7 repeated the original versions on 21 and 28 September 2003.
In 2011, Brian Sibley, who had previously adapted the book for radio in 1984, adapted the story again, this time as six one-hour episodes broadcast on BBC Radio 4 as the Classic Serial starting on 10 July 2011. The serial was titled The History of Titus Groan and adapted all three novels written by Peake and the recently discovered concluding volume, Titus Awakes completed by his widow, Maeve Gilmore. It starred Luke Treadaway as Titus, David Warner as the Artist and Carl Prekopp as Steerpike. Also starring were Paul Rhys, Miranda Richardson, James Fleet, Tamsin Greig, Fenella Woolgar, Adrian Scarborough and Mark Benton.
In 2000, the BBC and the PBS station WGBH of Boston produced a miniseries, titled Gormenghast, based on the first two books of the series. The cast included Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Steerpike and Christopher Lee as Mr. Flay.
Also made in 2000, the 30-minute TV short film A Boy In Darkness (adapted from Peake's novella Boy in Darkness) was the first production from the BBC Drama Lab. It was set in a 'virtual' computer-generated world created by young computer game designers, and starred Jack Ryder as "The Boy" (a teenage Titus Groan), with Terry Jones narrating.
A minimalist stage version of Gormenghast performed by the David Glass Ensemble, relying heavily on mime, toured theatres in the UK during 2006 and 2007.
A stage version of Titus Alone was produced at the University of Sussex in 2001, using sound and physical theatre to evoke the strange world beyond Gormenghast Castle. It focused on themes of madness and the nature of reality to question whether Titus' memories of the castle are real, or merely fantasies of a damaged mind. It was particularly inspired by Mervyn Peake's loss of his mental faculties due to Parkinson's-induced dementia.
Carabosse Theatre Company produced a stage version of the first two books of the trilogy called ‘Gormenghast’ in October 2014 at the Chrysalis Theatre in Milton Keynes. The project was officially endorsed by Fabian Peake (Mervyn Peake’s son) and the Mervyn Peake estate. Co-writers of the company’s adaptation included its director Sally Luff and the actor Tim Dalgleish. This production used projection mapping, an elaborate set (designed by the artist Shelley Wyn-de-Bank) and colourful costume.
Irmin Schmidt, founder of seminal German experimental group Can, composed a three-act opera, Gormenghast, based on the novels. It premiered at the Opernhaus Wuppertal in 1998 and was released on CD the following year. A number of songs including "Stranger Than Fiction" and "Titus" by New Zealand rock group Split Enz and "The Drowning Man" by The Cure were inspired by Peake's work. The British progressive rock group Strawbs feature a Ford/Hudson composition called "Lady Fuschia" (sic) on their 1973 album Bursting at the Seams, about one of the protagonists of this trilogy. Northern Irish progressive rock band Fruupp included a song called "Gormenghast", inspired by the novels, on their 1975 album Modern Masquerades. The 1960s folk rock band Fuchsia was named after the character in the novels. The song "Room of Roots" on Al Stewart's 1970 album Zero She Flies is inspired by the chapter in Titus Groan about the tree roots painted by the sisters Cora and Clarice Groan; Mervyn Peake is credited in the sleeve notes.
The Gormenghast series has influenced other fantasy works.