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Literature / Gormenghast

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Fuchsia and Steerpike, as depicted by their creator.

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.
— Opening lines, Titus Groan

The Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake are three fantasy novels which take place in a Constructed World notable for eschewing the supernatural and the menagerie of beings associated with Lewis Carroll and J. R. R. Tolkien. The novels revolve around a series of grotesque and idiosyncratic characters who live inside a huge castle with surrounding huts which appears to be cut off from the rest of the world.

The books, more accurately called the Titus trilogy, concern the titular Titus Groan, the 77th Earl of Groan. 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 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.

Series entries in publication order:

  1. Titus Groan (1946) — The first novel introduces the Gormenghast castle, environs, and the plots concern the changes brought in the staid world of the court of the Earl of Groan with the birth of Titus Groan, and the arrival of Steerpike. Steerpike starts as an underling to Chef Abiatha Swelter but after getting lost in the castle, embarks on picaresque adventures that raise his profile.
  2. Gormenghast (1950) — The second novel more or less continues where Titus Groan leaves off, showing the Earl as a young man bored with the life of the castle, his school lessons and fascinated with an androgynous creature who lives in the wild. Steerpike likewise, continues his ascent and lust for power in parallel to Titus.
  3. "Boy in Darkness" (1956) — An Interquel novella set between the first two books but does not directly reference them. Here "a boy" (Titus, presumably) escapes the castle and wishes he hadn't.
  4. Titus Alone (1959) — The third novel radically departs from the setting and situations of the previous books, and features Titus visiting a modern city with automobiles, factories, and other amenities. An entirely new set of characters, chiefly Muzzlehatch, Cheetah and Juno, as well as the denizens of the Under River form the focus of the bulk of what is the shortest of three published books.

Although often called the "Gormenghast Trilogy", it is important to note this is a publisher's and critic's convention and not intended by the author. Only the first two novels constitute a single two-part story; he intended Titus Groan to be the central hook of the series and not Castle Gormenghast as it has come to be understood by critics. 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 made into the basis of a book by Peake's widow and published in June 2011, but it only contains a few pages of Peake's actual writing.

In 2000, the BBC adapted the work for television as a project explicitly for the new millennium, focusing on the first two books involving Steerpike. 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 Attractiveness: Both played straight and inverted with Steerpike in the TV series. The books (and Peake's own illustrations) depict Steerpike as skinny and creepy in appearance. In the series, he looks perfectly handsome and debonair. On the other hand, after being badly burnt while murdering Barquentine, the series has him looking hideous, while the books describe his facial scarring as giving him a striking appearance that Fuchsia even seems to find attractive.
  • Adaptational Heroism: To an 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.
  • Age Lift: In the books, Bellgrove is approaching ninety, whilst in the series he is played by Stephen Fry, presumably in his late '40s or 50s. Also a case of Adaptational Attractiveness, depending on who you ask.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Prunesquallor. His vocal disgust at Steerpike's naked chest (demonstrated on two separate occasions!) is a little too much protest. In The Series, he is played by Straight Gay actor John Sessions...
    • 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. By the end of the second book, only Titus, Countess Gertrude, Prunesquallor, Irma and Bellgrove are left alive out of the original main cast.
  • 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.
  • Artifact Title: Peake never quite conceived the series in terms of a trilogy or franchise, but it's generally called the Gormenghast series, and Gormenghast is the setting of the first two books alone, while the third one doesn't take place in Gormenghast at all.
  • 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.
  • Author Vocabulary Calendar: Take a shot every time Peake mentions somebody's "equipoise" or describes a surface as being "pranked" with something.
  • 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.
  • Book Ends: The first book, 'Titus Groan', ends in the same place where it begins, the Hall of the Bright Carvings, and with the same sole character, Rottcodd.
  • 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. "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 version.
  • Crystal Spires and Togas: The world outside Gormenghast.
  • Defector from Decadence: "The boy" in "Boy in Darkness".
  • 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's 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 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.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Steerpike can be charming and witty in a twisted way, notably to Fuchsia... but it's all manipulation.
  • Feral Child: "The Thing" the child of Keda, Titus's 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. 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.
  • 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.
  • Ominous Owl: In Titus Groan, Lord Sepulchrave is driven mad by the destruction of his library, starts believing he is "The Death Owl", and eventually commits suicide by allowing himself to be eaten by owls.
  • 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.
  • Putting on the Reich: In the 2000 adaptation, once Steerpike takes over, the Master Secretary's office boasts 1930s file cabinets, typewriters 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 moral status.
  • 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.
  • 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 a separate tale, while "Boy in Darkness" is its own thing.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Almost every character except Steerpike and Swelter, who aren't upper class.
  • 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?