Wouldst thou read riddles?

Gormenghast Castle (image: Mark Robertson)

Titus Groan
by Mervyn Peake
(illustrated by the author).
Introduction by Anthony Burgess 1968.
Mandarin 1989 (1946)

So many insightful words have been uttered, printed, and shared about Titus Groan — and indeed about the trilogy as a whole — that it does seem pretentious to add any analysis and critique to what is simultaneously another entry in the long roll call of Gothick novels and a piece of baroque writing so individual it almost feels sui generis.

It is easy enough to attempt timelines, construct genealogies, discuss names or seek parallels with Gormenghast Castle in real-life edifices which the author may have himself experienced — in fact I have already done so — but much harder to do full justice to Peake’s vision of a crumbling structure peopled by inadequate and grotesque individuals who, nevertheless, deserve some sympathy, and to measure the beauty of the language he uses to describe it all.

I shall therefore restrict myself to giving random impressions of the work especially, as having left some time lapse after completing the work — to marinate, I tell myself — I’m finding the clear-cut outlines of the narrative blurring and fading.

Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire: only the small tower on the left of this engraving and the structure to its left are still standing

Gormenghast has been ruled by one family for two millennia, and the birth of Titus Groan means the succession is secured:

“Your name is TITUS,” said Sourdust very simply, “TITUS the seventy-seventh Earl of Groan and Lord of Gormenghast. […] I dedicate you to your father’s castle. Titus, be true.”

But all is not right in the domain: everything is either stultifying or decaying above stairs, while below stairs arises a malcontent, Steerpike by name, who proves to be a Loki to Lord Sepulchrave’s Odin and the bringer of a kind of Ragnarök to Gormenghast Castle. Compared to the castle’s noble family — Sepulchrave and his wife Gertrude, their daughter Fuschia, his sisters Clarice and Cora — the main functionaries, the kitchen staff and other servants are merely there to serve, held in thrall by roles that have seemingly not changed in centuries; and this doesn’t fit with Steerpike’s inclinations. Change, he decides, is coming.

Peake prefaces the novel with a couplet from Bunyan’s prologue to Pilgrim’s Progress about choosing between picking at meat or raising one’s gaze to heaven (though he omits the immediately preceding lines):

Wouldst thou divert thyself from Melancholly?
Would’st thou be pleasant, yet be far from folly?
Would’st thou read Riddles, and their Explanation?
Or else be drownded in thy Contemplation?
Dost thou love picking meat? Or would’st thou see
A man i’ th Clouds, and hear him speak to thee?

Peake seems to be agreeing that there may be something more sublime than mundane existence; but I actually find sublimity in his leisurely portrayal of an earthly estate and its community slowly going to the dogs.

Behind the decay lies of course the author’s own experience witnessing human degradation in China during the second decade of the 20th century, and bomb damage in wartime London; he will naturally have contrasted those memories with the ostentatious ceremonial trappings of late British imperialism and archaic notions of aristocratic entitlement and privilege.

Mervyn Peake: two studies of Steerpike

But I don’t see Titus Groan as particularly allegorical, it’s more in the nature of a documentary. In fact, being a painter as well as a poet Peake presents his novel almost like one of those teeming Bosch or Breughel canvases, or maybe like a museum diorama depicting a battle scene: the omniscient eye roams the castle grounds, peeping through windows, observing the routine actions of the figures, gazing at distant landscapes, taking its time to drink in the sights. Yet despite Gormenghast’s vastness it’s not a microcosm of its world, rather it’s a prison — one where just one or two individuals are able to escape its bounds to an uncertain future.

For here are constricting rituals, rigid hierarchies, straitjacket practices; positions of power are jealously guarded, for when they’re threatened violent deaths may ensue. We may unexpectedly became fond of certain characters despite their weaknesses, their waywardness, their wanton carelessness, and yet be as moved when a store of knowledge is lost through sheer malice than over the demise of one key individual. Here is a tottering society close to collapse though it doesn’t know it.

Old map of Tianjin City, China

Although Titus is in the title his presence is little felt in these pages; and while Steerpike is the catalyst for change and dissolution there is a brooding presence one must see as a character in its own right — the castle itself. A compound of various sites and influences (including Chinese walled cities, Arundel Castle, maybe even Fonthill Abbey) Gormenghast is both a structure and a symbol: like the decaying Palace of Westminster with its stone labyrinth housing the body politic, it’s emblematic of a wider malaise.

In his 1968 introduction novelist Anthony Burgess placed Titus Groan in its literary context, emphasising its uniqueness among works published in the aftermath of a global context. Oddly, half a century on from his glowing assessment the novel’s themes of societal, material and personal disintegration are no less resonant than during the war years when the work was conceived.


This link will take you to my earlier discussions of the opening instalment of the trilogy; I next hope to embark on a much delayed read of the next volume, Gormenghast

23 thoughts on “Wouldst thou read riddles?

    1. I’ve not really talked much about the plot — such as it is — more about the structure on which the novel is hung, and still haven’t done it any kind of justice. Having left half a decade between reading it and reviewing it many subtleties have gone by the board, I’m afraid, but I’m keen to get on into the second of the trilogy. But Bosch-Bruegel territory is an apt entrée, especially when you see Peake’s own sketches for his characters.

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      1. I must say I wouldn’t dare to review something 5 years after reading. You must have good memories to be able to write something as coherent and insightful as this.

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  1. It’s a long time since I read this one (it is on my list of books to return to, though). When you describe the novel’s characters as “inadequate and grotesque individuals who, nevertheless, deserve some sympathy” it made me think of Wuthering Heights – do you think there’s a similarity there, either in the dysfunctional interpersonal relationships, or in the importance of setting to the two narratives? And would you say these are gothic/k traits?

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    1. I confess that I have yet to read Wuthering Heights as I’m still ploughing through Charlotte’s mature work (with one excursion to Anne’s Agnes Grey). But it’ll be soon, Isobel, I’m determined!

      With regard to dysfunctional interpersonal relationships I’d say that’s true, though Peake’s characters are rather more two dimensional, and deliberately so, I think—their motivations rarely lead to them abandoning their preordained track, apart from a couple of individuals (you know which ones!) who dare to step aside from their allotted roles.

      But now I feel a critical mass building from bloggers who have urged me to get on with Emily’s novel!

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  2. What a lovely post (and illustrations!) I am a long-term lover of Peake’s work (in fact, I helped run the Mervyn Peake Society many moons ago) and I think he’s unique. His writing, his characters, the world he creates – complete one off (and no mean artist either). I re-read Titus Groan not that long ago and still adored it even after multiple readings – I may have to return to Gormenghast soon!

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    1. That’s fascinating to know you were a guiding hand in the Society, Karen, and pleasing that you thought I might have been able to capture a hint of Peake’s genius. Have you published your thoughts on the trilogy online? I’m looking forward to getting into Gormenghast now that I’ve read the first two summative chapters. I’ve also delved a bit into the memoirs written by Maeve and their son (Two Lives is it?) which I need to get back to.

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      1. I’ve covered my re-read of Titus Groan but that’s probably all if I’m honest. Most of my Peake reading was pre-blog, but I never lost my love of his work. I was lucky enough to meet Maeve Gilmore briefly just before her death – lovely woman.

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  3. This was always in the “fantasy” section, which made me disappointed in it because there’s nothing fantastic about the world or the characters, and I didn’t find any characters to like. Fuschia seems like a goth girl, moping about for no particular reason and not doing anything much.

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    1. If ‘fantasy’ means there has to be magic, Jeanne, then Gormenghast certainly isn’t fantasy in that sense, but as something fantastical — ‘conceived by an unrestrained imagination; odd and remarkable; bizarre; grotesque’ — I rather think it is. I guess for some of those like me in the 60s, brought up on Tolkien, Gormenghast seemed confusing — I couldn’t then get past the first chapter.

      But these days I see it differently, not only a late gasp of the Victorian Gothic tradition but also something Austenish (Emma springs to mind, weirdly) with a cast of characters resident within a fairly confined area. Fuschia? A poor little rich girl, maybe. Steerpike? A talented troublemaker like Highsmith’s Mr Ripley. And does one have to immediately like characters? Maybe it’s admissible to see Gormenghast like those Bosch or Bruegel landscapes I mentioned, populated by lots of curious individuals, and the trilogy lile a triptych?

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  4. This book must have left an impression on you, Chris! Such a glowing, insightful review five years after reading is a testament both to Peale’s evocative talents and your memory/emotions. However much I hate to say it, Titus Groan goes on my TBR 😅

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    1. Forget this is categorised as fantasy, regard it (as I suggested to Bart) more as fantastical and you’ll put yourself in a better frame of mind to approach it, Ola! Its leisurely winding through scenes and non events is very Victorian, the hulk of the castle is very Gothick, the incidents mix wry humour with tragic melancholy, and the whole is just … magnificent, a structure to behold and admire. I think you’d love it!

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  5. It has been suggested that G castle, maybe the atmosphere of the books also, find a resonance in the new Susanna Clarke book, Piranese.
    Maybe something to look out for.
    For myself, I am still hoping to find time to read the G books. How many lifetimes do we need?

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    1. Maybe that’s why we read fiction, to live the lives contained within the covers of a book but without the drudgery of all the daily chores that choke our existences and take up our time? 🙂

      I have a copy of Piranesi which I’ve kindly loaned my wife to read first, hoping she won’t be too long with it! It’s partly what reminded me I hadn’t yet reviewed Titus Groan. But good luck with finding time to read all you’d like to read!

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  6. I read these books about twenty years ago, after watching the BBC adaptation, and have been meaning to read them again ever since. I loved Titus Groan and Gormenghast, which I thought were fascinating and unlike anything I’d read before, but I’m particularly interested in re-reading the third book, Titus Alone, as the style felt so different from the others (I know Peake was becoming ill at the time) and I struggled to finish it. It’s possible that I might appreciate it more now that I know what to expect.

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