A series by Mervyn Peake made of the novels Titus Groan
, and Titus Alone
and the lesser-known novella "Boy In Darkness", which take 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
) 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 Versus Cynicism
. They have been described variously as Dickens on acid
, an Edward Gorey drawing that goes on for a thousand pages, Kafka mainlining Yorkshire pudding and opium, and a Darker and Edgier
Shakespeare. 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 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, focussing on the first two books involving Steerpike. Peake purists criticised 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:
- 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...
- 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.
- 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, the 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.
- Author Existence Failure: Peake was planning on a cycle of seven novels, but contracted Parkinson's Disease, which aggravated his emotional and mental instability, before writing the third and died after finishing only one chapter of Titus Awakes, which would have been the fourth. The omnibus edition ends with a list of the tropes Peake intended to use later on (although not referred to by Wiki Word, of course) and the words "what these books could have been." This was perhaps the biggest Tear Jerker of the whole damn series. For example, there was going to be a revisitation of Gormenghast during an interregnum in which Prunesquallor is in charge. Titus Alone had to be edited severely because Peake had put in plot elements that arguably made absolutely no sense given the plots of the previous two books. You have to be pretty sick to forget the plot of your own epic...
- Awesome yet Practical: Steerpike kills people with a slingshot and a sword cane. The gag is that whenever a character plans a particularly dramatic method by which to kill somebody, it inevitably fails. (The Twins' execution axe device, Steerpike's initial plan for Barquentine, Swelter's obsessively detailed cleaver ritual) The library burning is the only instance that doesn't, and is particularly poignant in the post-9/11 conspiratorial era.
- 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, at the expense of everybody's sanity and lives.
- Crazy Cat Lady: Gertrude. She also likes birds.
- Creator Breakdown: The aforementioned Parkinson's Disease killed him at the age of only 57, three novels into a planned seven-novel sequence.
- 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.
- Disproportionate Retribution: When Cheeta discovers that Titus' interest in her is purely sexual, she responds by trying to drive him insane.
- Dying Like Animals: Mice, mostly, but there are some bats, ostriches, and sheep to spice things up.
- Evil Albino: Steerpike is described in terms reminiscent of albinism, but it is not clear that he is actually 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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).
- Purple Eyes: Titus' unusually coloured eyes are remarked upon even on the day of his birth.
- Red Eyes, Take Warning: Steerpike's eyes are red in colour, contributing to his ambiguous status as an Evil Albino.
- Royally Screwed Up: The Earls of Groan have ruled Gormenghast for centuries in a self-sustaining Kafkaesque bureaucracy, and as a family have acquired a large number of eccentricities over the years.
- Scenery Gorn: Much of the exquisitely detailed description of the dusty, decaying castle of Gormenghast.
- Scenery Porn: The wilderness surrounding Gormenghast.
- Shirtless Scene: Steerpike, constantly. He's soaking wet every time, and despite the fact that he's canonically stated to be unattractive, copious amounts of eye candy still get eaten by any female character present. Any female character... and Prunesquallor.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Idealistic, although the gloominess disguises this very well.
- The Sociopath: As Steerpike frequently observes, part of his manipulation of people involves having to fake such things as empathy, love, basically any human quality beyond personal ambition. Everyone he meets is just a tool he wants to learn how to use to his benefit.
- Space Amish: The world outside Gormenghast has Raygun Gothic technology and a Crystal Spires and Togas feel.
- Stranger in a Familiar Land: Titus, when he returns to Gormenghast at the end of Titus Alone.
- Straw Nihilist:
- The Philosopher leads a small cult of existentialist professors who only see the errors in his theories after he has been immolated.
- 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?