This isn’t as much a review of the Gormenghast novels as a pleading: if you haven’t read this masterpiece of fantastic fiction, you should. Taken as a whole it’s one of the most incredible pieces of literature produced in the 20th century.
It holds as dear a place in my heart as Proust, and has inspired countless authors such as Christopher Paolini, who named it one of his two greatest influences, Neil Gaiman (who is set to adapt, although much news is still forthcoming), and Michael Moorcock.
One of Gormenghast’s original reviewers predicted a “smallish but fervent public” for Mervyn Peake’s books that would “renew itself, and probably enlarge, with each generation.” Due to errors in publicity and– perhaps greatest of all– the complete uniqueness of such a novel, Titus Groan received mixed reviews. The second performed better.
Throughout the years Mervyn Peake has been re-examined, and the publication of the Lord of the Rings helped bring fantasy into the public eye. Since then, it has enjoyed a cult following. Elizabeth Bowen’s prediction has held true.
“Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls…”Titus Groan , pg. 1 by Mervyn Peake
A Warning Before You Begin
The opening lines of Titus Groan build a picture of Gormenghast castle and continue for several sentences: massive, baroque, and overwhelming in its precise detail.
It should be said: these novels can be intimidating.
This isn’t because of its length—although it is long—but because it’s a demanding book. This doesn’t mean its not enjoyable, either: I’ve had some of the most fun reading the Gormenghast novels as from anything else. There are sections I could read a hundred times over and not grow tired of.
To explain, it’s helpful to know that Mervyn Peake is an artist, and he writes with a painter’s eye. Open to any page and you’ll come across poignant descriptions of landscapes, light and shadow, the skin of one’s face. Stringing these together, across hundreds of pages, he creates Gormenghast and the characters that inhabit it. Where he’s going with, say, the description of a turret or a section of wall is not always immediately apparent.
Mervyn Peake is an author that requires your trust. For those who give it to him, the result is unforgettable.
A portrait of Steerpike by Mervyn Peake, one of many such illustrations drawn into the margins of the paper as he wrote.
The entirety of Gormenghast and its story feels suspended in time. There are its Gothic influences, but also influences from his youth spent in China. Its grotesqueries are the product of a man that lived through World War I, but at the same time it transcends the confines of his era.
Titus Groan and its successors aren’t the Gothic tales they appear to be on the surface, branching into comedy and romance and even, later on, science-fiction. It defies easy categorization. There’s really nothing else quite like it.
The Intricate Machinery of Gormenghast
Let’s now speak of the characters, an area where Peake has shown mastery unlike anyone else I’ve read. It is here that Gormenghast comes alive and becomes a true delight. The cast is large and expands with each book, but each character seems as much a part of the castle as any of its stones.
Even ones that, at the beginning, I was sure I’d dislike soon became wonders. When a character dies or, in one case, is exiled, the absence is felt. As a writer, there’s as much that I’ve learned from Peake’s characterization as I’ve enjoyed.
Where to start- with Doctor Prunesquallor and his incessant laugh and pearly-whites? Perhaps with Irma and the swarm of cats that follow her around? Or the sisters Cora and Clarice, who speak in tandem and are obsessed with obtaining the throne (but are, unfortunately, quite dimwitted)?
The way Peake writes his novels absent of a single protagonist is perhaps most incredible of all. Not one, but all of the characters carry the plot along, and it forms intricate machinery not unlike a Rube Goldberg machine.
Reading the Gormenghast Novels
The Gormenghast novels are some of those rare novels that, while reading them, I didn’t want to read anything else.
This is a novel best taken in parts—it’s not one to read in a sitting. After getting my feet wet, I would listen to the wonderful narration by Simon Vance and read along for perhaps an hour at a time, these sessions sprinkled throughout the day. That was never the end of it, however. Soon the characters and the halls of Gormenghast stayed in my head as a world as real as this one, for all of its impossibilities.
“[Peake’s books] are actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we never had before, and enlarge our conception of the range of possible experience.”C.S. Lewis
It’s a mouthful, but it’s true. Reading Titus Groan and its subsequent novels fills you with life—it has for me, and the many others who have been captivated by Mervyn Peake.
This isn’t a full review or analysis of the Gormenghast novels, although you can expect more of that to come.
Rather, I want to share a gem that will hopefully bring as much joy to others as it has to me. If this convinces just one person to give it a try, it’ll be worth it.
The Gormenghast novels require your full attention: Mervyn Peake didn’t write something to passively consume, but it’s worth your attention—for a hundred reasons and more.
If you want to pick up the Gormenghast novels for yourself, their entirety is available in one volume accompanied with illustrations by the author. These were absent in the first publication, but provide wonderful snapshots into his imagination.
Have any fond memories from Gormenghast? Leave them in the comments below!
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