Gormenghast, a Masterpiece

Just a year ago, I thought it was highly improbable I would discover a new literary masterpiece within my cultural environment. Not that there aren’t any masterpieces I haven’t read ( I’ve spent many years struggling with depression, so I’ve missed many books that would have added to my experience as a reader if my mood had allowed me to pick up one without dropping it instantly). And it’s not, either, that I know everything about literature; just that I do know what people who are more clever and more learned than I have said. So, what could be left outside bibliographies and textbooks, the must-reads in university courses, the works considered part of the western canon, and the titles published now and then in selections of the best novels ever, the best poetry works or the best whatever you can imagine. 

And then I found the Gormenghast books by Mervyn Peake.

Hidden in the corner of genre literature, often under the doubtful label of fantasy, the three volumes Peake was able to write before he was seized by illness were waiting for people like me who live outside the UK where the author has become more and more known and renowned after his lifetime. A most amazing wonder, literature of the finest kind, unravelling, picture after picture, a world and its workings. My wanderings around the Internet lead me to the fabulous word, Gormenghast, then to the news, then to the revelation, and then to Gormenghast itself. That is, to the landscape, the fictional world, the castle. 

But Gormenghast is more than a castle.  It’s a castle that is a town and a town that is a castle. It’s an overgrown building full of darkness and touched by light, made up of lots of minor buildings, houses, rooms, apartments, halls and corridors, squares, courtyards, cellars and attics, towers, gardens, alleys, classrooms, abandoned wings, derelict areas, crumbling walls, broken staircases and subterranean paths where madness ambushes the explorer who dares to trespass on its forsaken mazes. 

Gormenghast by Alan Lee. Apart from Mervyn Peake’s own illustrations, there are may by different authors who have felt the alluring spell of Gormenghast.

Accordingly, Gormenghast is the maximum achievement of the gothic dream, spawned from the primitive seed of Otranto and grown with time in many different ways and directions: the image of the most huge inner world closed behind the boundaries of its external walls and battlements; the castle as a world, apparently self-contained, whose features reflect both Time and Eternity. This is Gormenghast, the castle of castles. In its huge, convoluted inside life goes on, generation after generation, fixed, wrapped, and frozen by Law and Ritual. The narrator tells us that the Ritual probably had meaning in an unbelievably distant past; now all meaning is lost and Tradition is a trap for the Lord and his vassals. The purpose of the Ritual seems to be to stop time in repetition. Or maybe it has no purpose, but that’s what it does. There’s no time but the time of the Castle, an everlasting game where individuals are the pieces that wear off their lives following instructions. Outside the Castle there’s only the village of the Bright Carvers and the lands of the Earldom with its well-defined areas of woods and mountains, coasts and marshes. What lies behind is ignored, stubbornly disregarded. Gormenghast lives in the Ritual and denies any possibility out of it and out of itself. 

The Ritual, the characters, the secret life of passions that swell in darkness and burst undercover, the mix of costumes, habits, tools, objects, knowledge of different ages, the weight of the past over a single building and its inhabitants, all the contorted, overdone parts and plays have often earned the adjective “surreal”. But though certainly the Gormenghast books are connected with absurdism, there’s more “nonsense” than surrealism in their peculiar mixture of the grotesque and the unlikely, the tragic and the comical; of farce, horror, disproportion, lack of meaning and hidden sense. An important branch of the nonsensical British streak runs through these pages, and we even find some brilliant, beautiful examples of nonsense Rhymes in Lady Fuchsia’s books.

Certainly, Gormenghast is not fantasy in the sense of the modern genre of swords and magic, but it’s been classified there mainly because it takes place in a world which doesn’t have its correlate to our own. And one of the main tasks of the text is the creation of this very strange world, where there’s no magic, but things move to the brink of the fantastic by the magic of words, the qualities of the point of view, and the power of exaggeration. Everything is huge, terrible, grand in Gormenghast like its walls and towers, except the Ritual and its petty ceremonies, which are mean, suffocating, and consume the soul and energy of the people. The very small comes to a close-up and looks big under the lens. The castle is enormous and incredibly ancient. The weather brings fantastic deluges and deadly snowfalls. The characters are enslaved by strong passions: hate, fear, melancholy, thirst for power, rebelliousness, envy, pride, love… There are collective moods like spells or diseases, and each character has its dominant emotional note, and everything is so strong that even loneliness or loyalty swell to the size of a Gormenghastian passion. Only the doctor, who is dominantly guided by intellect, but not devoid of feelings, seems warm, devoted, and loyal with measure, in a positive, non destructive way. But he, too, is ridiculous in his demeanour. Probably there’s a general rule for the characters (I would like you to help me find out if it always applies): those who are not a bit monstrous (including Titus himself) or highly monstrous (like Steerpike and Swelter) are ridiculous, though often lovable like dr. Prunesquallor or professor Bellgrove.

BUT (and this is one of the marks of Peake’s genius) there is humanity in these characters. Maybe they have something of caricatures, of buffoons, of dwarfs and giants. And yes, the burlesque and the parodical are present. Anyway, those creatures are endowed with a human soul; those crooked villains and imperfect heroes have interesting and dismal psychologies. They display before our reading eyes the human hopes and desires, the longings, moods and obsessions that are familiar to us. They establish the connections where individuals dance the dance of attraction, repulsion, war and cooperation, giving life to that collective soul called Gormenghast.

And then, in that body and soul that has survived since time immemorial, the unimaginable takes place: Lord Titus, the young heir, doesn’t want to be Lord Titus. He doesn’t want to be the Earl of Gormenghast. Such catastrophe looms for the first time over the apparently indestructible order of the castle. This is rebellion. It’s treason. Nothing of the sort has happened before. And this “before” is unfathomable.

Previously, I’ve used the word “vassals”. It more or less describes the relationship between the Lord and his people. The Medieval root is alive, but the castle is not exactly medieval. Those cherubs on the ceiling of the dining room are not. That amazing jumble of things kept in the hidden attic speaks of different ages and different parts of the world, which are never mentioned within the walls of the huge manor. There’s always a mystery, a question hanging over the first two books, Titus Groan (1946) and Gormenghast (1950), which is not resolved until Titus travels to the outer world in the third, Titus Alone (1959): what epoch, what period of time does this strange world belong to? This mystery makes even more appealing our exploration of Gormenghast, the progress we make through halls, wings and towers, roofs, courts and basements, trying to understand the rules that shape life in this world so unlike our own.

The use of language is one of the main points that define a literary work. Peake’s use of language is highly personal, artistic and pictorial. This pictorial quality has been noted very often. Critics have traced its origin to Peake’s visual imagination and highly specialized view as an illustrator and painter. It’s the eye that writes, building a whole scene from details so small that they seem unearthly. He uses bright colours, impressive shades and all kind of magic lenses to show the hidden and highlight the qualities of beauty. He uncovers strange settings like the Tower of Flints, the Library, the room of the Countess. But he is not painting a huge still life. Movement comes in sooner or later. It comes slowly, it comes quick, it comes like joy or like terror. His pictures are in movement, assembling parts into a whole. He paints movement: the drop that falls containing the whole image of the castle, a carpet of white cats that flows over walls and meadows, scenes that evolve minutely where a representation takes place or life has the accent of a representation. The technique, especially in the first two novels, starts from details, subtleties, signs, minutiae. Then, stroke after stroke, it grows unto the big picture: the place, the dwellings, the woods, the castle, the figure falling in the vast distance, the ceremony, people hiding, exposing themselves, skulking, fighting, talking, rehearsing, acting the ridiculous parts of the Ritual, their souls laid bare before us like caged tempests.

So, is by any means this great work of Mervyn Peake a fantasy book? No, because it bursts at the seams of genre and definition. Furthermore, the third volume, or the third novel, Titus Alone, introduces a new element: Science Fiction. And then we find out: Gormenghast is not about a remote past, it’s the future. And I dare say it has a taste of The Prisoner, that TV series filmed eight years later. Both are deeply British, absurd in one way or another, a mixture of genres, in both of them the Gothic setting is a City.

We find in the castle a weird, anachronistic,  distorted version of British culture. But the fact that Peake was born in China also lends Gormenghast some of its peculiar features (the lands of Gormenghast look like China according to C. Peter Winninton and the closed world of Gormenghast reminds of the British community that lived by its own rules in a vast and differing world). 

The materials for Peake’s art, the triggers of his personal genius, were (like is the case with any artist) pieces, layers and reflections of the complex web of knowledge and experience that made up his inner world. His sensitivity was working from those early years in China, gathering information and patterns. It continued to do so at Eltham College or at the Island of Sark;  in London at various periods of his life, and in Europe during the Second World War. All those pieces and pains, layers and visions are here, in the magic of Gormenghast which acts the miracles of beauty, discovery and creation.

Instead of Notes I give you Quotes

On the surface Titus Groan is a brilliant, highly unusual gothic romance set in the sprawling castle of Gormenghast whose endless, ridiculous rituals echo a Kafkaesque nightmare and whose absurd and melancholic characters seem to have strayed from Dickens

–Carl Darnell: Mervyn Peake–

The Titus books constantly tease the reader as to where the action actually takes place, with the result that Peake ranks high among creators of secondary worlds.

–C. Peter Winninton: Burning the Globe. Another attempt to situate Gormenghast–

Wonderland and Gormenghast are not mere settings for the action to unravel; as places, their importance is assessed in the very titles of the works, and they are just as prominent and distinctive as the characters who inhabit them. What sets these locations apart is their own particular set of rules; upon entering them, the reader has to put aside her knowledge of the real world and accept that these places function differently. Here we find the trace of the “suspension of disbelief” which Tolkien (borrowing, of course, from Coleridge), considers as the root of fantasy.

Unlike the Gothic centre, which is identifiable in both worlds, those of Gormenghast and the City, there are no elements of science fiction in the former. This, however, is in a sense compensated with the presence of anachronic elements that seep into and multiply throughout the story all the way to the “break” that occurs when Titus leaves Gormenghast. Owing to an ancient feudal family and equally ancient castle, and a notable lack of electricity, sewage, television, radio and other advantages of modern life, Gormenghast initially appears to be a medieval world. However, “Gormenghast is not solely ‘medieval’ either: there are too many anomalies” (Hindle, 1996, p. 7). Medievalism in Gormenghast quickly, although never entirely, dissolves with the proliferation of the recognizable aspects of modern living such as coffee, sunshades, microbes, a Women’s column, tinted glasses, or knowledge of the anatomy of the human body, to name a few. And yet, in absence of its clear position in any known geographical place or period in human history, Gormenghast manages to preserve its medieval aura in the first two volumes. This medieval aura is largely shaded with typically Gothic tropes.

Like Gothic authors who typically gave “full reign to intuition, exuberance, variety, improbability, rough behaviors, and morbid fantasies” (Snodgrass, 2005, p. 153), so did Peake in Gormenghast

Malden M. Jakovleviç: Titus Groan’s Journey. From Gormenghast to the City

As for Peake’s work, Alice Mills is quite comprehensive in her statement that “Much critical ingenuity has been devoted to classifying Titus Groan (along with its sequel, Gormenghast) within one genre or several: the postmodern, the Bildungsroman, tragedy, romance, fantasy, the Romantic, allegory, the Gothic, the postcolonial, and more” (Mills 4). Conversely, the generic hybridity of the Alice books has been analysed by Henkle: “Critics in nineteenth-century England had a special term for fiction like Lewis Carroll’s Alice books that did not fit into the customary formal definitions of the novel. They were ‘sports’–that is, oddities, or hybrids of accepted generic formulas” (Henkle 89). Both books therefore, share a sense of generic confusion which accentuates their kinship.

–Isabelle Guillaume in Making sense of isolation. From Wonderland to Gormenghast–

Published by Mary Wolfhouse

Writer and freelance journalist. Mary Wolfhouse is a pen name and also an Internet avatar.

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