Uncertainty principles

castle keep
The roofless keep of Dinefwr Castle, Carmarthenshire, Wales

This is the third and last interim post about Titus Groan before I publish my review. This discussion will circle around certain patterns that I’ve detected in the novel, though whether they’re patterns which Mervyn Peake intended or merely the phantasms of my fevered mind I’ll leave for you to judge.

Peake himself was born on the ninth day of the seventh month, in a year — 1911 — which featured double digits. Was this what encouraged him (around 1940, when his first son Sebastian was born to Maeve Gilmore) to put the titular hero’s birthday as “the eighth day of the eighth month, I am uncertain about the year”? The 8th of August is the day before and a month after Peake’s own birth.

Is there any significance to this? Possibly. I think that there is a kind of duality to much of Titus Groan which the eighth day of the eighth month in a way prefigures. Let me give you some examples. First there is the way that aspects of Gormenghast Castle have their counterparts in the landscape around it. The Tower of Flints arising “like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry” is echoed in the omnipresent peak of Gormenghast Mountain; the pines and cedars that bear in on the castle walls are the equivalent of the Twisted Woods that clothe the flanks of the Mountain; the stream-fed Gormenghast Lake and remnants of moat that surround the buildings parallel the river and swamp that lie between Castle and Mountain.

There is more. There are two duels — one which takes place in a hollow near the Twisted Woods, the other which ends in the Castle’s Hall of Spiders — though the outcomes of the fights differ somewhat. There are seemingly two suicides, one in the Tower of Flints, the other (witnessed by Flay) on the mountain, though there remains a different kind of mystery attached to each.

Of course, there are the twin aunts, virtually indistinguishable from each other, to compound the sense of duality permeating the novel. The world of the Groan family itself contrasts with the life of the servants and the “denizens of the outer quarters”, existences which are somehow combined when we eventually hear that the titled Titus has a counterpart in his foster-sibling, offspring of the woman Keda who nursed the future earl until he was weaned.

Finally there is Titus himself who is approaching the end of his second year by the end of the novel. For all the text’s apparent exactitudes we can never be entirely sure of either space or time. I at first wondered if the fire which features so strongly in these pages was related to Guy Fawkes Night — if true a hugely symbolic coincidence — until Sourdust announced that it is “the seventeenth day of October”. This turns out to be the last exact date given; it is possible to construct a relative chronology but the frequent dislocations in time only add to the sense of unreality that clothes the sharp descriptions, much as the dark ivy cloaks the towers of Gormenghast.

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3 thoughts on “Uncertainty principles

  1. The more you relate details of Peake’s writing, the more I want to read the book myself.
    The mirroring of images and storylines is interesting – I wonder where that will lead the plot in forthcoming books. Are Steerpike and Titus’ storylines going to reflect each other?
    It’s an interesting way to frame a book, using mirrored plotlines to accentuate the differences between high and low born characters, village life and castle life.
    Looking forward to reading your final review of the book.

    1. Yes, though I have an inkling of where it’s probably going, Lynn, I am looking forward to how Peake narrates and relates it all, as Titus grows up and into his Earldom and the ‘Change’ begun here pans out.

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