First things first: Even though Mervyn Peake wrote three books about Titus Groan and Gormenghast, these books aren’t really a trilogy. Had Peake lived longer, there would have been more; indeed, his wife, Maeve Gilmore, expanded on his rudimentary notes to write a fourth book, Titus Awakes, which is being published this month. In truth, only the first two books, Titus Groan and Gormenghast, both set at the sprawling castle of Gormenghast, work as a unit. The third book, Titus Alone, moves into an entirely different world, with Titus, the main character, the only link to the others.
Titus Groan opens with the birth of Titus, the 77th Earl of Gormenghast, and the novel ends when he is only a year old. Instead of being a book about Titus, Titus Groan is a book about his world and the people in it. The castle Gormenghast is a world unto itself, where tradition is the single most important element of life. Whatever happens, the rituals of the castle must be preserved. The characters seem to have no purpose in life beyond ensuring that the traditions continue. Thus, when they are not engaged in the rituals, they immerse themselves in activities (or non-activities) that pass the time. Titus’s mother, the immense Gertrude, surrounds herself with birds and cats. His father, Sepulchrave, closets himself with his books. Sepulchrave’s twin sisters, Cora and Clarice, nurse their grievances but take no action. The only characters who seem like living and breathing people are Fuchsia, Titus’s daydreaming sister, and Steerpike, the kitchen boy determined to raise himself to prominence, whatever it takes.
The overwhelming quality that I noted in Titus Groan is its weirdness. It’s aggressively weird. The language is complex, sometimes maddening. But the weirdness is strangely compelling. Every chapter introduces another corner of the castle or of the characters’ lives that I could never have imagined. There’s very little actual plot until the last half of the book, and what plot there is centers almost entirely on Steerpike. He brilliantly takes advantage of the characters’ weaknesses as he makes his way through Gormenghast. He’s not a character to root for, but it’s hard to root for the population of mostly grotesques who fill the castle. Perhaps Titus, now only a baby, will grow up to make the castle a place where life thrives. There are hints right from the start that the way of tradition will not be his way—so what will he bring to his Earldom?
The second novel, Gormenghast, opens when Titus is seven years old:
Titus the seventy-seventh. Heir to a crumbling summit: to a sea of nettles: to an empire of red rust: to rituals’ footprints ankle-deep in stone.
Withdrawn and ruinous it broods in umbra: the immemorial masonry: the towers, the tracts. Is all corroding? No. Through an avenue of spires a zephyr floats; a bird whistles; a freshet bears away from a choked river. Deep in a fist of stone a doll’s hand wriggles, warm rebellious on the frozen palm. A shadow shifts its length. A spider stirs…
And darkness winds between the characters.
This darkness seems to awaken many of the residents of Gormenghast. Irma Prunesquallor, for example, begins to long for a husband, so she sets about arranging for a comic courtship that leads to an even more comic (but oddly sweet) marriage. Gertrude and others start to wonder if some of the recent tragedies are connected, so they start asking questions taking action in ways they never had before (but without ever acting against the tradition). Steerpike is continuing his climb to power, and Titus is showing signs of independence.
I found Titus Groan compelling in its weirdness, but I can’t say that I enjoyed it. I was interested in it. But I really liked Gormenghast. I loved seeing how many of the characters—Gertrude in particular—could rise to the occasion when dangers and tragedies threaten their world. There’s an amazing sequence involving the flooding of Gormenghast that shows the characters at their very best. There’s still plenty of strangeness, and Titus himself is becoming a something of a mystery as he tries to uncover who he is and who he wants to be, but there’s also a lot more story. It’s not just scene setting anymore. The complex language in this second book feels less off-putting and more a part of the world. I felt like I was becoming fluent in Gormenghastian!
But the third book is something else altogether. Titus Alone follows Titus out of Gormenghast and into the wider world. Castles and boats and horses are replaced by factories and motorcars and helicopters. It’s startling! The switch from a pseudo-historical world to a futuristic one appealed to me very much. I can think of few fantasy series that do this, although I’m sure several exist. The only one that comes to my mind is Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, which actually mixes the two kinds of worlds, and I’d be surprised after reading these books to learn that King isn’t a Peake fan.
Unfortunately, the change in worlds brings with it some stylistic changes. Whereas the first two books are leisurely, filled with detailed descriptions of the castle and of the people, Titus Alone feels frenetic, the people and places are little more than sketches. I didn’t like the change much, and I found this third book not nearly as strong as the others. There’s lots more story, but there’s no opportunity to wallow in the weirdness.
One probable reason for the difference is that Peake wrote this near the end of his life, when Parkinson’s disease was making it difficult for him to work. Even had he been able to flesh out the characters and settings, I’m still not sure this book would have been as satisfying as the others. Titus is not at all likable, or even very interesting. He just goes from one thing to another, unwilling to do to the work of figuring himself out. And I found the depictions of women here particularly troubling, as most of them seem to exist for little more than Titus’s sexual pleasure. Even after he abandons them, they are driven—for good or for ill—by their feelings for him.
Toward the end of the book, there are some terrific scenes that rival the best moments in Gormenghast. The best is a sort of parody of Gormenghast castle itself, which I loved for its weirdness and for the way it affects Titus. Those moments, along with the final chapter of the book, led me to think that Peake was developing an interesting vision for Titus as a character. I can only wish that he’d been able to see his vision through.
If you’re interested in more on Mervyn Peake and Gormenghast, Overlook Press, who sent me their one-volume paperback edition of the three books (an edition that includes some helpful essays on the series), is having a monthlong Peake celebration this July in honor of Peake’s 100th birthday and the publication of Titus Awakes (which I have a copy of but may delay reading for a bit). Jackie at Farm Lane Books is also doing a Gormenghast readalong. (They’re about halfway through Gormenghast now.) I had been wanting to read the series for years, ever since I saw the BBC miniseries, and I’m glad all the celebrations finally got me to do it.