Mind, Body, Environment in Decay: Titus Groan
Like the bottom of Dante’s hell, Gormenghast is a flash-frozen world. Indifferent to the outside, its only concern is its ever-dwindling splendour. Everyone who lives inside the walls of fortress Gormenghast is captive to it, whether servant or Earl. And, inescapably, they are ensnared in time as well as place. It all seems to be at the end of its history.
Take the honoured Earl, Sepulchrave. His day begins with a vast breakfast that, every day, goes to waste. Afterwards, he spends his hours reenacting the rituals of Gormenghast, accompanied by Sourdust the librarian and keeper of ritual. True to his name, he is melancholic and withdrawn, taking some solace only in his vast collection of books. Learned and apparently great in intellect and grace, he nonetheless never wields his power as the Earl––there is no outlet for power. Whatever worlds he might have conquered are remote from the story, and he is isolated from all the others in his stone domain because of his legacy and duties.
Gertrude, his wife, has companionship a-plenty, though none of it human. Prickly and imperious around fellow people, she keeps her room filled with birds of all feathers, whom she dotes on. Perhaps more ominously, she owns a bevy of cats, often described in the language of the ocean as a “wave” of white fur. Wherever her husband is shrunken and defined by absence, she is defined by a distracted fullness: a large body, too many birds, too many cats.
They have a daughter, Fuchsia, but neither of them pay attention to her. She is left to the attic, her imagination, and the company of the castle doctor, Prunesquallor and the haggard Nannie Slagg.
At the beginning of Titus Groan, Gormenghast is thrown off balance by the arrival of a new male heir to the throne: the title character. Titus’ entry is of course expected, an event accounted for by well-honed tradition and ritual. There is his birth and his consecration as heir and that is that. But his birth coincides with a disruption of another kind; this one is named Steerpike. A kitchen boy with an outsized ambition and ruthless intelligence, Steerpike seeks power for himself and enjoys manipulating others. Titus and Steerpike are the main plot engines in Titus Groan, though the former, being an infant for its entirety, seems to be at a distinct disadvantage, royalty or no.
On the one hand, the helpless boy born and nurtured into power. On the other, the grasping youth who will do anything to take it. One has to ask, of course, why Steerpike is interested in power in such a cold and desolate place. Ruling over Gormenghast, it seems, is just the end goal of a game, since it should be apparent to him that possession of this stone fortress, even an absolute command of it, yields no advantage.
It’s difficult to say whether Titus Groan is fantasy, per se. It certainly is a masterpiece of fictional world building, creating an alien society that does not exist anywhere and filled with strange rules and customs. But there is no magic or anything supernatural at all. Where it’s most comparable to fantasy is its exploration of the feudal European world and, in this case, its inexorable decline. If Lord of the Rings is pastoral feudalism triumphant, Titus Groan is feudalism hollowed out and exposed in all its absurdity.
Absurdity is the right word, too. Though Peake has a terrific talent for building tension and resolving it effectively––the battle in the Spider Room is particularly memorable––much of the book is actually very funny. You probably notice the characters’ names, which are one part solemn fantasy nonsense and one part Lewis Carroll pun. Grave moments are undercut by uncomfortable disturbances, and characters like Dr. Prunesquallor manage to be both annoying and strangely endearing. The good Doctor, in particular, is prone to throw off some impressively composed nonsense:
“What did you say they were? My memory is so very untrustworthy. It’s fickle as a fox. Ask me to name the third lateral blood vessel from the extremity of my index finger that runs east to west when I lie on my face at sundown, or the percentage of chalk to be found in the knuckles of the average spinster in her fifty-seventh year, ha, ha, ha!––or even ask me, dear boy, give the details of the pulse rate of frogs two minutes before they died of scabies––these things are no tax upon my memory, ha, ha, ha!”
Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan (New York: Weybright and Talley, 1967), 185.
Long and verbose, the novel is nevertheless quite subtly developed because it allows its talkative and often ridiculous characters to expose themselves through their actions and thoughts rather than just directly stating what’s going on. Except for one chapter that recalls modernist stream-of-consciousness prose where we are let into the characters’ heads while they eat dinner together, we are often left to wonder what they are really thinking or planning, particularly side characters whose points of view we don’t normally see. Titus Groan is not particularly dense with incidents, but it is dense with manoeuvring, plotting, and skulking, all of which build towards the few key turning points beautifully.
What I most admire about the book, however, is its use of the Gothic to its full extent. It drains all the romance out of ruins, and instead substitutes an unyielding (but not un-humourous) grimness. There is grandeur in Gormenghast, but no life, no pulse. Its people and its walls alike are already ruins, and one gets the sense that the world has already passed it by. Capitalism and modern life will relegate it to a tourist attraction soon enough, and I’m not sure if its residents would be all that sad to see it go the way of Stonehenge. I’m sure it would make an excellent restoration job; maybe make one wing of it a hotel.
Of course, there are two books remaining in the core trilogy of Gormenghast, and I’ll be reporting back on them as soon as I can. For now, we can all rest assured that nothing will “out crumble” the great walls of Gormenghast.