It’s taken me long enough to pick up this classic fantasy book and explore the vast hallways of Castle Gormenghast. I couldn’t tell you why I waited so long to read this. The language is so up my alley, I ended up underlining half the book. Who’d have thought there’s a word for the amount that’s missing to fill a container (it’s “ullage”)? But discovering words was only a small part of the pleasure I got from reading this.
Published by: Vintage Classics, 1998 (1946)
Paperback: 477 pages
Series: Gormenghast #1
My rating: 8,5/10
First sentence: Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architecturial quality were it possible to have ingnored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls.
Mervyn Peake’s gothic masterpiece, the Gormenghast trilogy, begins with the superlative Titus Groan, a darkly humorous, stunningly complex tale of the first two years in the life of the heir to an ancient, rambling castle. The Gormenghast royal family, the castle’s decidedly eccentric staff, and the peasant artisans living around the dreary, crumbling structure make up the cast of characters in this engrossing story.
Peake has been compared to Dickens, Tolkien, and Peacock, but Titus Groan is truly unique. Unforgettable characters with names like Steerpike and Prunesquallor make their way through an architecturally stifling world, with lots of dark corners around to dampen any whimsy that might arise. This true classic is a feast of words unlike anything else in the world of fantasy. Those who explore Gormenghast castle will be richly rewarded.
Every character in this book is nuts! Not knowing what I was getting into, I expected some kind of protagonist to hold on to, some sensible soul wandering the crazy halls of Gormenghast with me. Neither did I find a protagonist nor anyone sane – but that was just as it should be.
Mervyn Peake takes his time introducing Gormenghast and its inhabitants. This old castle, seemingly cut off from the outside world, leads a life of its own. Inhabited by the Earl of Groan, his family, and a slew of servants, Gormenghast is elevated from a stoney building to a hive of pure crazy. Every chapter offers a glimpse into a new part of the castle, and shows it through the eyes of a different character. Only after everybody has been introduced do we return to them in other chapters, and by that time, their mannerisms, dialogue, and look has grown so familiar that you feel like you’re part of them. Soon I realised that this story is unlike any I’d read before. It’s hard to speak of plot when most of the fun comes from simply watching these deranged beings be themselves and when most of the writing is descriptions, either of the surroundings or of the characters themselves. Whether it’s Lady Gormenghast – the ultimate crazy cat lady – or cunning Steerpike, no matter if you follow Fuchsia and Nannie Slagg or the Twins, you will find that all of them are in serious need of a psychiatrist… sadly, even the castle’s Doctor Prunesquallor seems muddled at best.
So if this is not a traditional story, why is it so intriguing? Oh, for so many reasons. The language, the names, the characters, the castle itself, its traditions, the intrigue… I can’t pick just one.
The language is breathtaking. I already mentioned that I learned a bunch of new words but even without that added bonus, it’s just immensely enjoyable to read Peake’s long, beautiful sentences. For a book consisting mostly of description, it’s important that the description is somehow interesting. Mervyn Peake creates vivid images of Castle Gormenghast, not only – but also – because he uses the perfect words to make every room and person come to life. Sure, he takes his sweet time describing everything, but what the reader gets out of this is a fully-formed image, almost like a movie in your head.
Another part I absolutely loved was Peake’s original way of naming his characters. Names are important, names have meaning and, in a lot of fantasy literature, power. In this case, every name fits its owner so perfectly that it hurts. Flay – scrawny, creaky, sickly-looking – or Swelter – obese, sweaty, loud – Doctor Prunesquallor (Fuchsia calls him Prune, Lady Gormenghast calls him Squallor, and that says as much about them as it does about him)… I could go on. The names fit the personalities, or maybe the characters were formed by their names? Either way, the language made for a melodious read, even if it was just in my head. (Come to think of it, I must look if there’s a good audiobook version of this.)
So what’s this collection of crazy characters up to all the time, you ask. Castle Gormenghast is ruled by its traditions. With the birth of young Titus, the family line is secure but the young heir also requires a lot of traditional celebrations and rites that must be done exactly as they were always done. These ceremonies are as strange as they are funny. In fact, after a few chapters, I found the entire book quite hilarious, in a dark, creepy kind of way. It doesn’t take long for a character to do something and for me to go “oh, that’s so typically them”. After a while, you stop questioning the sense or purpose of these celebrations. They don’t have to make sense, they just have to be done by the book.
Titus Groan would have been excellent if it were just about following the characters around the castle, but there is more to it than that. Young kitchenboy Steerpike wants to get to the top and he is willing to do whatever it takes to reach his goal. His schemes are ruthless, but I followed them with interest nonetheless. I could also tell you long stories about the chapters involving him and the twins – probably the two dumbest people in the entire castle. Flay and Swelter have their own feud going on that keeps readers on their toes, and Fuchsia (one of the saner people) is just a young girl trying to find her place in the world. If I’ve scared you off with my ramblings, let me assure you – there is a plot. It’s just not the most important aspect of the book.
All characters, with their varying degrees of insanity, grew on me in a way. I couldn’t say that I gained more pleasure from reading about either of them because they are all unique. I did have a particular dislike for Swelter but reading about him was just as much fun as the rest of the cast.
While the castle seems to be self-sustaining and doesn’t interact with the wider world, there are people living just outside the castle walls. One of them, Keda, was quite interesting, if only because she seems slightly less crazy than the rest. For a while, at least. But she also made my literary spidey-sense tingle, in that I think her actions will have greater repercussions on the larger story. I may be wrong, but even so, Breda was fascinating in a less creepy way than, say, Steerpike.
If this sort-of-review lacks focus, that’s because whenever I think of this book, a billion thoughts come to my mind, none of them organised. It was an explosion of the weird, a challenging read that is truly unique. With its atmospheric setting, its vibrant cast, and their strange motivations, you have everything for a firework of the awesome. I read this on a tropical beach (so the setting couldn’t have been less fitting) but I still get chills when I think of Steerpike first following Flay through the stone corridors.
It took me a long time to finish reading this book, mainly because the language was so challenging, but in the end, every slowly-devoured page was worth it. I will wait for a week off work before I dive into the second book, Gormenghast, because this is the kind of story you want to savor. It’s not a book to read on train rides to work. I understand why this is a classic of fantasy literature, despite its complete and utter lack of actual magic.
MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Excellent!