Plot Summary: Gormenghast picks up in the detailing of the life of Titus Groan, seventy-seventh Earl of the Castle and inheritor of the endless monotony of rituals and symbols. As the boy grows, he wearies of his stagnant life and begins to eye the world outside of the castle with much interest. In particular, a mysterious girl—called “The Thing”– who holds the freedom Titus longs for. Not only is the life of the young Earl told, but also that of his sister Fuchsia, the banished servant Flay, and the manipulative mastermind Steerpike…
My Book Review: I loved the Gormenghast Series almost as soon as I started the first book, Titus Groan (see my book review here). Peake is marvelous! What vocabulary and descriptions! The colors this man uses! It is often said of Tolkien that he made up beautiful languages and names and then made up plots to fit around them. It’s my opinion that Peake (who was first and foremost an illustrator) made up picturesque settings and then made up plots to fit around them. Some may find that tedious and sometimes it does become so, but have patience and a colorful picture will emerge in your mind’s eye. I had to stop my reading every once in a while to give a gloriously contented sigh before I picked back up again.
“… Titus first thought consciously about the idea of colour: of things having colours: of everything having its own particular colour, and of the way in which every particular colour kept changing according to where it was, what the light was like, and what it was next to.”
These books aren’t action-driven; they’re not even exactly character-driven. Sometimes it is hard even to like the protagonists. But they are landscape-driven, and even color-driven. First and foremost is the Castle itself, a massive, crumbling monstrosity that is the entire universe for all our characters. There are even shadowy areas that the head servant Flay himself is not familiar with and needs to chart a new map so as not to get lost. Tunnels, wings, hallways, dungeons, dormitories, attics, towers… who could ask for anything more?
Titus apparently, as he realizes that Gormenghast cannot be Gormenghast unless it is in relation to somewhere else. He inwardly kicks at the infinite number of rules and regulations that keep the castle alive. They are so old that their symbolism has been forgotten but no one can deviate from them nonetheless. I had to stop and think about the idea of legalism—adherence to the letter, but containing no heart. The Master of Rituals, Barquentine fits this bill:
“The fanaticism of his loyalty to the House of Groan had far outstripped his interest or concern for the living—the members of the line itself…. It was the chain that mattered, not the links. It was not the living metal, but the immeasurable iron with its patina of sacred dust. It was the Idea that obsessed him and not the embodiment.”
Contrast this with the servant Flay. Although he adheres in a religious way to the laws of Gormenghast, he decides to take an alternative action for the sake of the people he cares about. The law of love is better. I could not help seeing a parallel between the Pharisees and Jesus in the Gospels.
One of the most interesting characters is the antagonist Steerpike. Intent on knocking off the pillars of Gormenghast one by one until he has unlimited power, this fellow is a chilly one indeed. It is often believed that villains aren’t “real” if they have no layer the reader can identify or sympathize with; bad guys are merely “misunderstood” or not given an ear in the first place. But there is such a thing as a sociopath [and for the record, DON’T ask Holmes], and I believe this describes our Steerpike. Lacking any moral conscience, he picks off his victims in various ways evil. His soul is hideous and his means are graphic.
But he doesn’t overtake the castle all at once—no, that would be too easily identifiable. His corruption of the place happens over a long period of time. This is often the case with real-life institutions as well. I am writing this at a time when I am reading daily of corruption that has infiltrated the church and other religious organizations. The previously wise and strong members become old or pass away, and others become mentally flabby or sleepy. After a while, reports begin to trickle in of abuse, scandal and misconduct.
“The sense of unreality which had spread through the castle like some strange malaise… so that although there was no lack of incident, and no question as to its importance, a sharpness, an awareness was missing and nobody really believed in what was happening. It was as though the caste was recovering from an illness, or was about to have one. It was either lost in a blur of unfocused memory or in the unreality of a disquieting premonition. The immediacy of the castle’s life was missing. There were no sharp edges. No crisp sounds. A veil was over all things, a veil that no-one could tear away.
“How long it lasted was impossible to say, for although there was this general oppression that weighed on every action, all but annihilating its reality of significance, making… a ceremony of dream… yet the sense of unreality in each individual was different; different in intensity, in quality, and in duration, according to the temperaments of all who were submerged.
“There were some who hardly realized that there was a difference. Thick bullet-headed men with mouths like horses, were scarcely aware. They felt that nothing mattered quite as much as it used to do, but that was all.
“Others were drowned in it, and walked like ghosts. Their own voices, when they spoke, appeared to be coming to them from far away.”
Will we wake up and take a good look at our surroundings and evaluate with them discernment? If we don’t, who will?
SPOILER ALERT: So disappointed that my favorite character, Fuchsia, was killed off in such a nonchalant way. Even though she wasn’t always likeable, I could identify with her in some ways and admired her fierce and passionate soul. But it felt like Peake was getting to where he didn’t know what to do with her, and so she was easily disposed of. It didn’t make sense to me and I wish that he had buried her with more ceremony. I’m so sorry for the loss of this heroine. She will be greatly missed. END OF SPOILER.
This book suffers a little from tedious minutiae and repetition, but the stretch it gives one’s brain muscles is well worth the exercise. Such great quotes out of this one! I even learned of a new-to-me genre that this series is classified under: Mannerpunk (hmm! Now I will have to go exploring that one!). Mervyn Peake is among one of my top all-time favorite authors; I seriously hope you will not skip him.
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