Gormenghast: A Forgotten Literary Classic

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It’s at this time of year, when the nights are drawing in and Halloween’s just around the corner, that many are in the mood for a book they can really sink their teeth into. Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy definitely fits the bill. Despite being said to rival Tolkien’s work in their sheer imaginativeness the three novels Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950) and Titus Alone (1959) have been largely overlooked by many lovers of literature.

An intensely dark and gothic fantasy, the events of the narrative take place in and around the immense, crumbling Gormenghast castle. The story begins with the birth of little Titus Groan the 77th Earl of Gormenghast and follows him on his journey to adulthood constrained by his title and the centuries of ritual and age-old tradition that govern his world. Meanwhile down in the bowels of the citadel Steerpike, a lowly kitchen boy, escapes his enslavement to Swelter the revoltingly obese chef and sets about lying, cheating and murdering his way to power – but will he succeed in taking over the castle?

The books’ characters are as original as they are varied; Flay, the stick thin man-servant, Fuschia, Titus’ dreamy, passionate sister, the hilarious Prunesquallor siblings, Gertrude, the cat mad countess who talks to birds, the hopelessly dim sisters in purple and of course Steerpike; one of the most evil literary villains you are ever likely to meet. If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on an illustrated copy Peake’s haunting pencil illustrations of these and many more personalities are to be savoured.

The trilogy is incredibly descriptive with wonderful, often dreamlike, imagery throughout. Such lush language can take a little getting used to and at times, particularly in Titus Groan, the story could be thought a little slow. Not to worry, however, as the pace certainly picks up in Gormenghast with Steerpike’s vendetta reaching a thrilling climax.

It would be terribly ironic if such a wonderfully original series had been written by a thoroughly ordinary author but Peake doesn’t disappoint. A talented writer, poet and artist he travelled extensively and lived a fittingly bohemian life before settling on the island of Sark with his wife and young family.

Though it sounds pretentious to say it these books truly are works of art and deserve to be read and recognised by everyone. So go on; settle down on a chilly autumn evening and lose yourself in Mervyn Peake’s world. You won’t be disappointed.

All books in the Gormenghast trilogy are written by Mervyn Peake and are distributed by Vintage Classics. The author has a website you can visit here.

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