Literature / Gormenghast
Fuchsia and Steerpike, as depicted by their creator.
A series by Mervyn Peake made of the novels Titus Groan, Gormenghast, and Titus Alone and the lesser-known novella "Boy In Darkness", which takes place sometime before the second book. They are fantasy and take place in an imaginary world but do not have any elves, dragons, magic, or Patchwork Map. They focus on a group of weird and horrible people who live inside a huge castle with an apparently self-sustaining structure and no contact with the outside world other than a few villages, some lakes, and a mountain.

Titus Groan, the 77th Earl of Groan, is the ruler of Gormenghast, the eponymous castle. He dreads the long life before him, a life of ruling a single building, never leaving the moth-eaten, rusted-shut, claustrophobic, crumbling halls of pointless, decaying ritual. The castle/city's other inhabitants include the Magnificent Bastard Nietzsche Wannabe Antihero (or Anti-Villain) terrorist Steerpike, Titus's sister Fuchsia, the good Dr Prunesquallor, chef Abiatha Swelter, Titus's gloomy father Sepulchrave, and Titus's mother Gertrude, the original Crazy Cat Lady.

The novels are very gloomy, disguising their actually fairly left-handed place on the Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism. They have been described variously as Shakespeare on acid, an Edward Gorey drawing that goes on for a thousand pages, Kafka mainlining Yorkshire pudding and opium, and a Darker and Edgier Dickens. They are also cluttered and sprawling in a way that few major authors have managed to get away with before or since. The physical clutter of Gormenghast's sprawling castle and spiritual clutter of pointless custom and ritual are all lovingly described, sometimes at great length. In addition, there are whole passages where Peake departs from the plot(s) to stage dialogues and visit places and characters that are not even vaguely tied to the story and are never referred to again. Think The Lord of the Rings needed some ruthless editing? Gormenghast will have you reaching for the shears.

The series should have been the first three in a series which should have followed the protagonist's entire life; sadly Peake's rapidly-evolving Parkinson disease prevented this goal from being realized; the fourth novel would have been entitled Titus Awakes, the first few pages of which Peake wrote while he was still physically capable of doing so, along with a list of events which would have taken place in the following volumes. The fragment was turned into a book by Peake's daughter and published in June 2011, but it only contains a few pages of Peake's actual writing.

Michael Moorcock is a great admirer of Gormenghast, which he judges a masterpiece of fantasy and has praised vocally in several instances.

In 2000, the BBC adapted the work for the small screen as a project explicitly for the new millennium, focusing on the first two books involving Steerpike. Peake purists criticized it for being Lighter and Softer than the books.

Brian Sibley adapted the books for BBC radio twice - the first time also adapting the first two books as separate plays, the second as a series, The History of Titus Groan, adapting the entire trilogy.

This series displays the following tropes:

  • Adaptational Heroism: To a certain extent in the 2000 miniseries. While Steerpike's actions are still evil and are not glossed over, they're partly motivated by his love for and desire to attain Fuchsia; in the books he cared nothing for her and was only using her for his own ends.
  • Affably Evil: Steerpike can be charming and witty in a twisted way, notably to Fuchsia — but it's all manipulation.
  • A Man Is Not a Virgin: Averted with Prunesquallor, who is a fifty-something virgin and probably the single most Bad Ass character in the novels (a Badass Bookworm, no less!). Manly Tears are shed in many scenes involving him.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Prunesquallor:
    • His vocal disgust with Steerpike's naked chest (demonstrated on two separate occasions!) is a little too much protest. Also, in The Series , he is played by Straight Gay actor John Sessions...
    • Relatively early on in The Series, Steerpike flirts with him, presumably to gain an advantage in the arm of his schemes that he needs Prunesquallor for; Prunesquallor responds by calling him a clever little monster, but ends up complying with Steerpike anyway; the implication is more that the flirting wasn't an attempt at seduction as much as a threat that Steerpike could out him.
  • Ambition Is Evil: Although Gormenghast is a world of social immobility taken to truly ridiculous extremes, Steerpike's particular methods of bringing himself up in the world quickly veer away from the sympathetic.
  • Anyone Can Die: Major characters, including some of the hero's friends and family, die abruptly and grotesquely — usually thanks to Steerpike.
  • Appropriated Title: The intended focus of the series was Titus Groan, title character of the first book, not Gormenghast, the childhood home that he departed from two books into what should have been a longer series. Ironically, Titus Groan, the first book, does not significantly feature Titus as a character, as he's a very young child.
  • Asshole Victim:
    • Most people in Gormenghast are complete and utter tools. Steerpike kills a lot of people. Do the math.
    • Ax-Crazy Swelter might also count — except that he's not exactly a victim, as he dies in an equal fight of sorts with someone he was trying to kill.
  • Big Good: Countess Gertrude in the second book. She protects the people of Gormenghast, oversees disaster relief and personally commands the hunt to capture the unmasked murderer Steerpike.
  • Brilliant, but Lazy: Surprisingly, the Countess Gertrude; she actually has what's described as a 'brilliant brain', but it only wakes up on rare occasions - such as when Gormenghast is threatened.
  • Cast Full Of Crazy: The gloomy, suffocating athmosphere of the castle and the pointless, repetitive rituals unmistakably take their toll on the people of Gormenghast. Most of them live in their own little fantasy world, and those who don't are busy exploiting and abusing the others around them.
  • Cobweb Jungle: The attic in which Flay and Swelter fight.
  • Consummate Liar: Steerpike is possibly the only character in literature who never makes a single unambiguously truthful statement.
  • Cool Chair: Cora and Clarice desperately want a pair of thrones back that they once possessed when they were young. They don't want 'the throne' in the sense of ruling the kingdom, they just want the furniture.
  • Crapsack World: Gormenghast. In quite an original way - full of pointless rituals that must never be broken or ignored, at the expense of everybody's sanity and lives.
  • Crazy Cat Lady: Gertrude. She also likes birds.
  • Creepy Twins: Cora and Clarice. Although "grotesque" twins would be more accurate.
  • Cringe Comedy: The way the characters behave in the books qualifies as this, though this is played Up to Eleven in the television miniseries.
  • Crystal Spires and Togas: the world outside Gormenghast.
  • Deadly Decadent Court: Probably the only thing that stops more people in Gormenghast from killing each other is the stultifying tradition. It's deadly for the soul.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: When Cheeta discovers that Titus' interest in her is purely sexual, she responds by trying to drive him insane.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: Fuschia and the Thing both die due to seemingly arbitrary acts of happenstance.
  • Driven to Suicide: Sepulchrave is destroyed when his library is burnt down thanks to Steerpike, and eventually sacrifices himself to the owls. Which all fits Steerpike's nihilistic, improvisational plotting.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Lots of people die, and Gormenghast is devastated by floods — but in the end, Titus kills Steerpike and escapes the castle. It's a dark and twisted happiness, mind you.
  • Everything Makes a Mushroom: When Muzzlehatch messes up the chemicals at the factory to explode, it does so in a huge cloud that stains the sky orange, clearly referring to nuclear weapons.
  • Evil Albino: Steerpike is described in terms reminiscent of albinism - pale skin, red eyes - but it is not clear that he is actually an albino (his vision appears to be unimpaired, for example).
  • Evil Chef: Swelter, the castle's chief cook, exercised ruthless control over the kitchens and hatches several plots against his enemies. He is hinted to be cannibalistic.
  • Fat Bastard: Swelter, the Evil Chef in charge of the castle's kitchens, is morbidly obese, but still surprisingly physically capable.
  • Feral Child: "The Thing" the child of Keda, Titus' wet-nurse and foster sister, is abandoned in the wild on account of her illegitimacy. Titus is fascinated with her because she represents the freedom and adventure and being closer to nature. It's averted when they finally meet since the girl cannot speak, cannot understand human speech and behaves like an animal and ultimately gets struck by lightning.
  • Fisher King: Sepulchrave. All the Earls have this potential, and it seems like Titus is the only one aware of the curse of being captain aboard the sinking ship that is Gormenghast.
  • Foil: Steerpike serves as one to Titus. In many respects they're Not So Different; both are rebelling against the established order, but they go about it in very different ways.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Rather oddly, the Countess. Her cats follow her everywhere, a female goat flat out runs to her to be milked, she keeps plenty of birds... really, she gets on with animals much better than she does with people.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: Steerpike, climbing the ladder from kitchen-boy to near-supreme power, making this very much an Invoked Trope.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Just when it seems that Steerpike is going to achieve his goals by seducing Fuchsia and getting rid of Titus, he ruins all his efforts by returning to the room where the bodies of the Twins are, meaning Flay, Prunesquallor and Titus can follow him and find out about his crimes.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: It's implied that Swelter, the Evil Chef, is capable of... pretty much anything, including cannibalism.
  • Incendiary Exponent: Steerpike seems to do a lot of important things while on fire as does Muzzlehatch.
  • Interesting Situation Duel: Flay and Swelter have it out in the flooded, cobweb covered attic.
  • Judge, Jury, and Executioner: The Masters of Ritual—Sourdust, Barquentine, and Steerpike.
  • Kill Them All: By the end of the second book, only Titus, Countess Gertrude, Prunesquallor, Irma and Bellgrove are left alive out of the original main cast.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: Fifty-five prominent characters and many more bit parts.
  • Loony Laws: Gormenghast has so many strange laws and rituals that by the time someone has become its Earl they are probably quite insane themselves. So the laws and rituals become more insane. Gormenghast is the Crapsack World logical extreme of this trope.
  • Love Martyr: Fuchsia, the romantic Broken Bird who is manipulated into loving Steerpike, dies when the truth about her love is revealed.
  • Morally Ambiguous Doctorate: Zig-Zagged. Dr Alfred Prunesquallor is used by Steerpike, but he's still probably the most genuinely good character in the entire series.
  • Mrs. Robinson: Irma Prunesquallor, plus Juno in Titus Alone with rather more success.
  • Never Found the Body: An in-universe example. Due to being eaten alive by owls, Sepulchrave is never actually presumed dead.
  • Ocean Punk: The sequence in the second book where the entire land floods and the Bright Carvers and Mud Dwellers take refuge inside Castle Gormenghast, sees the flood rising so high, that the many towers and spires of the castle become islands and in order to move from one part to the other, they need to create boats. Since the trees from which they need the wood to build the boats is buried in the flood, they use the wood from the castle interiors, wooden beams and supports and since the Bright Carvers are obsessed with making things beautiful, they are decorated by sculptures from the castle.
  • Old Maid: Avoiding becoming an Old Maid is the motivation of Irma Prunesquallor. She marries an eighty-six year old man out of desperation, meeting him after holding a party with no women invited, wherein the only invitees were hopelessly pathetic professors of the castle's school.
  • Only Sane Man:
    • Prunesquallor. His introduction in the second book flat out states that his cardinal virtue is 'an undamaged brain'.
    • Titus is perhaps the only one in the whole of Gormenghast to see just how pointless and soul crushing society inside the castle is, and to try and get out before it destroys him.
  • Rottcodd, because he manages to ignore the events of Titus Groan, lazing off in his hammock.
  • The Ophelia: Fuchsia, after her hardships take their toll on her.
  • The Power of Hate: What nearly gives Barquentine the edge over his killer. Where someone else might be motivated by self-preservation, he's gripped by a bloody-minded loathing of a heretic and traitor which is so unexpected it shocks the attacker.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The 2000 serial adaptation, Gormenghast, which covered the first two novels, altered some plot and character elements (particularly the circumstances surrounding Fuchsia's death).
  • Proper Lady: Countess Gertrude, the mother of Titus and Fuchsia, and de-facto head of the house becomes this in the second book, cold, aloof and committed to duty. She also opens the castle to provide refuge to the Mud Dwellers and Bright Carvers and administrates the entire disaster relief efforts.
  • Purple Eyes: Titus' unusually coloured eyes are remarked upon even on the day of his birth.
  • Putting on the Reich: In the 2000 mini series, once Steerpike takes over, the Master Secretary's office suddenly boasts 1930s file cabinets, type writers and electric lamps, signifying Steerpike's evil influence.
    • The palace guards wear World War I-era German pickelhauben, with Soviet-style telogreikas dyed in German feldgrau.
  • Red Eyes, Take Warning: Steerpike's eyes are red in colour, contributing to his ambiguous status as an Evil Albino.
  • Rising Water, Rising Tension: Book Two sees the usurper Steerpike rising to higher levels in the castle-state\'s hierarchy. As he makes his final bid to overthrow the Groan family and become ruler, torrential unrelenting rain begins and the castle is flooded. The action of the book happens on two levels. As the lower levels of the castle are progressively swamped by floodwaters, its inhabitants struggle for survival, moving themselves and their possessions to higher and higher levels. This adds to the claustrophobic menace of the situation. The flooding becomes a metaphor for cleansing, both of an ancient civilisation strangling in its own history, and of the need to destroy a cancer in the social body - Steerpike. The water rises to menacing levels, and the Princess Fuchsia dies a lonely death by drowning; Titus Groan, the legitimate heir to Ghormenghast, seeks out and kills Steerpike at the point where the floodwaters rise to their highest. Symbolically, after Steerpike's death, the rain stops and the flood recedes.
  • Stuffed In The Fridge: Fuschia and the Thing die in order to further Titus's story.
  • Sympathetic Murderer: Steerpike, before he murders the twins.
  • Taking You with Me: Barquentine attempts this, but doesn't quite succeed. He does leave Steerpike burnt and with a severely rattled ego, though.
  • That Reminds Me of a Song: Peake was never shy about inserting his nonsense poems into the narrative, usually apropos of nothing.
  • Two-Part Trilogy: As noted by Michael Moorcock, Peake saw the series as a Saga more than a single long story. Titus Groan and Gormenghast is largely a single extended story with a complete beginning-middle-and-end, a common cast of regulars and single setting. Titus Alone was intended by Peake to start a new story in the saga and is essentially a separate tale, while Boy in Darkness is similar in style and scope but not really fitting into the series canonically.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Almost every character except Steerpike and Swelter, who aren't upper class. Gormenghast was written as a parody of English society.
  • Villain Protagonist: The devious Steerpike serves as the primary viewpoint character in the first two books, despite not being the title character.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Who was the person who knocked on Fuschia's door, causing her to slip off the windowsill and fall to her death?