on December 29, 1999
I read the Gormenghast Trilogy for the first time when I was in high school, some eighteen years ago, and while many of the scenes and the overall mood remained in my memory, I completely missed most of the humor and beauty in the writing itself, as I discovered when recently rereading Titus Groan. The sonorous, skewed beauty of the language demands to be read slowly and savored as prose poetry -- I read only a few pages a day over several months. Take a passage like the following:
"Suns and the changing of the seasonal moons; the leaves from trees that cannot keep their leaves, and the fish from olive waters have their voices! ... Stones have their voices and the quills of birds; the anger of the thorns, the wounded spirits, the antlers, ribs that curve, bread, tears and needles. Blunt boulders and the silence of cold marshes -- these have their voices -- the insurgent clouds, the cockerel and the worm. ... Voices that grind at night from lungs of granite. Lungs of blue air and the white lungs of rivers. All voices haunt all moments of all days; all voices fill the crannies of all regions."
If you find this sort of thing boring, by all means skip this book. This has almost nothing to do with either Tolkien or his less skilled successors who churn out a 500-page volume every six months. I think it has more in common with a book like Moby Dick (which I have been advised not to read until I reach forty years of age), in that it demands that the reader relate the text to his own experience of life and literature.
Many of the characters are grotesque parodies, but as with other masters of satire, Peake's exaggeration rings truer to life than a more "realistic" depiction would. The characters are neither good nor evil -- even Steerpike, though ambitious and unscrupulous, is not the evil villain of so many fantasy epics, but is in many ways a sympathetic character. Perhaps the main character is the castle Gormenghast itself, the concrete embodiment of the venerable yet often dysfunctional traditions under which the human characters labor.
Mervyn Peake has here created a true fantasy -- a unique vision with its own consistency and texture, sometimes stifling and febrile, morbidly comic, but with glimpses of pathos and tranquility, sustained by an amazing elasticity of language and poetry.
on October 6, 2009
Titus Groan is often mentioned with Lord of the Rings and incorrectly categorized as epic fantasy. This is a gothic drama. The story revolves around a dysfunctional, simple minded, royal family that adheres to archaic traditions. Trouble ensues when an ambitious youth manipulates them in a grab for power. Titus Groan could have been a short story. Weighing in at 400 pages, with 350 pages of deeply poetic detail, you should only read it if you like authors like Charles Dickens. If you're a fan of richly detailed descriptions, you'll probably enjoy this book. In order to help you figure out if you'd appreciate Titus Groan, I've made a simple quiz:
1) Which description do you prefer?
A - Making use of the miniature and fluted precipice of hard, white discoloured flesh, where Fuchsia's teeth had left their parallel grooves, he bit greedily, his top teeth severing the wrinkled skin of the pear, and the teeth of his lower jaw entering the pale cliff about halfway up its face; they met in the secret and dark centre of the fruit - in that abactinal region where, since the petals of the pear flower had been scattered in some far June breeze, a stealthy and profound maturing had progressed by day and night. As he bit, for the second time, into the fruit his weakness filled him again as with a thin atmosphere, and he carefully lowered himself face down over the table until he had recovered strength to continue his clandestine meal. (+50 Points)
B - Steelpike bit into Fuchsia's pear. It was yummy. (0 Points)
2) For every one of these words that you know, give yourself 5 points.
a) perspicaciously (+5 Points)
b) escutcheon (+5 Points)
c) conflagration (+5 Points)
d) seraphic (+5 Points)
e) escarpment (+5 Points)
3) Do you like the style of the characters in Tim Burton movies?
a) Yes, the grotesque personifications are humorous. (+10 Points)
b) No, they look all weird and stuff. (0 Points)
4) Would you like to read about a rotten royal family in a crumbling castle fall to pieces through manipulation?
a) Yes, to hell with kings and monarchs! (+10 Points)
b) No, that sounds kinda lame and depressing. (0 Points)
5) Do you like parodies or dark humor?
a) Yes! (+5 Points)
b) Nope! (0 Points)
Ok, add up your points:_____
See what score is closest to your point total.
100 Points - You should buy the entire trilogy today! Your mind's eye will be filled with vivid images of manipulation, treachery, decay, and parody. You will reread this book again and again!
80 Points - You'll enjoy reading this book and will be deeply entertained.
60 Points - You may have trouble with the book, but you'll probably finish it because the story is entertaining.
40 Points - You should probably skip this book.
25 Points - There's enough drama on TV. There's no reason to read this book.
0 Points - If someone puts a gun to your head and forces you to read this book, take your chances and try to escape!
So, there you have it.
Titus Groan is impossible to classify. Is it fantasy? Is it gothic? Is it a Dickensian flight of fancy? Well it's been classified as all of these things, but none of these labels is quite adequate. It is perhaps ultimately best described as a black comedy. The book begins with the birth of the 77th Earl of Gormenghast, a gigantic castle were ritual rules all. Gormenghast castle seems to exist in an alternative universe to ours; however, there is no magic or cuddly hobbits, just grim realism.
The plot chronicles the ramifications of when the royal family and servants encounter Steerpike, a young kitchen worker who finagles his out of kitchen service (most jobs in the castle are assigned along heriditary lines). A self-possessed rebel and clever 17-year-old, Steerpike turns their world upside down. Steerpike is like many people you may know, manipulative, self-serving, and solicitous. However, the royal family and servants are so exceedingly self-occupied, that they are easily tricked by this young upstart. Steerpike may just be the most likeable villian ever; it's hard to blame him for the things he does considering the easy targets he selects.
The book is packed with other extremely memorable characters, including the sullen royal daughter (Fuschia), the Countess who seems to care only about her "pets," innumerable wild birds and and white cats, and her sisters-in-law, the identical twins (Cora and Clarice) who are the primary pawns of Steerpike. The book also provides splendid details about the castles and its world, not surprising considering that Peake is perhaps best known as an illustrator (a few of his illustrations are included here). The writing is dense and ponderous at times, but provides so many laughs and pleasures, that it is well worth the time investment. Of course, Titus Groan is just the first part of an epic. I have not read the remaining two books yet, but am tremendously excited to do. A most highly recommended read.
on February 3, 2000
This is one of those excellent books that I have been fortunate enough to find. I actually picked it up while in the waning stage of my annual Tolkien revival, hoping to find some similar fantasy. I was pleasantly surprised to find a story that was nothing like our present day conception of celtic/teutonic based fantasy. In fact, this book is so completely different that it reminds me more of Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shoppe than anything. Yet I believe, yes, I believe that I prefer this book to anything Dickens. Peake is a beautiful artisan of prose, but he also has a humerous bite to his language that plays strongly off the parody stereotypes introduced in this epic. I'm not British, but I cannot help but wonder if the English see this book as a parody of their monarchy. This may answer the reason for Titus's popularity in England, whereas we Americans don't seem to pay Gormenghast the attention it deserves.
So if you are into GOOD fantasy, read this book; and when I say GOOD fantasy, I'm refering to Tolkien, not the novel-a-minute writers whom we see so often at present. This book also takes a bit of work, so if you don't like Dickens, you probably won't like Peake.
on August 26, 1999
It is a serious mistake to discount Titus Alone as merely the weakest of Peake's magnificent trilogy. It is an expansion and development of his earlier themes, and considering the circumstances under which it was written (Peake was suffering from premature senility that eventually lead to his death, he could barely lift a pencil.) it is an extraordinary and painful novel. Leaving Gormenghast and its (surviving) inhabitants behind, the novel centres on the character of Titus, and crucially puts the earlier novels in context. Despite his mother's warnings at the end of Gormenghast, there is indeed a world beyond the walls, and a world which has progressed beyond the ritual and claustrophobia of the castle itself. There is technology here. And - most extraordinary of all - no one has ever heard of Gormenghast itself. Suddenly Titus is accused of insanity (among other things) and even begins to doubt the existence of his home himself. As disturbing and beautiful as anything that went before, Titus Alone was never meant to be the end of the series. Peake was planning to take Titus even further afield, but as merely a glimpse of the outside world, the novel is an essential part of an extraordinary work of literature.
This is the first entry in Mervyn Peake's three timeless Gormenghast novels. The novels cannot rightly be called a trilogy because Peake had planned to write more books in the series -- unfortunately he fell to insanity before he could do so and he required help in completing the third novel, "Titus Alone". When you reach that point, you'll find that the overall work is indeed unfinished, much as it would be as if you stopped reading at the end of "The Two Towers" in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
I'll be honest, your listening experience with the audiobooks will be much enhanced if you read the books first. The best choice is the all in one paperback volume, now available. However, reading the books is not a must. The performance of Simon Vance on this audiobook is so terrific that you will get the complete story, no problem. [Every prospective buyer should be aware that another narrator, Robert Whitfield, is available for this audiobook - my review is aimed at the Simon Vance version.]
One more point: there's not much use in listening to the first book unless you plan to also hear "Gormenghast", the second entry. The third book (or audiobook) is another matter altogether but I'll get to that later. Here is what *this* audiobook story is all about:
The Kingdom of Gormenghast is ruled by the 76th Earl of the line. He's a vague old duffer but still spry enough to sire a son during his sunset years. He also has a daughter in her late teens. This place is strange... fantastical. Peake made it a great challenge, impossible actually, to put your finger on a time or place. The ambiance is definitely gothic, (but not all three books are gothic novels.)
Gormenghast exists to exist. Over the centuries it has deteriorated to a place of strict ritual, pomp, and circumstance. Progress has ceased altogether and the biggest event is the annual selection of carvings produced by the Bright Carvers, the folks who pretty much make up the population outside this huge castle-fortress. There is an equally large population inside, chiefly servants and minions.
This first novel sets up the story. The place is described, the onerous principals are identified and everyone's purpose and relationship to one another is established in great detail. Titus Groan is born and this is a great joy for all in the kingdom since they now have an heir who will become the 77th Earl. But an undertone of malevolence suddenly gives rise to an accelerated miasmic decay in the Gormenghast heavily-structured way of life. This is largely attributable to one Steerpike, a fast-rising young sociopath, freshly-escaped from Chef Swelter's hellish kitchens. That's about as far as I can go.
Unlike Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings", do not look for orcs, elves, or dragons here - no magic either. But it always *seems* like their might be some magic around. Peake's style is unmatched.
This audiobook is made up of 15 discs, (17 ½ hours) and should play on your car CD player or elsewhere. However, at some point in time it was also available (or at least I think it was) on *one* disc, MP3 formatting. I think that many libraries favored this type so be aware of this if you buy a used "library copy" or a new one that mentions MP3. If you do acquire this type of compressed formatting, it will play on your computer auxiliary drive or if you have a CD player which accepts MP3 it will play on that as well. (I just bought such a portable player at Big Lots for $30).
I should mention some key points about the next two novels in the series since it might affect your decision to acquire this first novel. The second entry sees Titus Groan growing up. But the third novel is *very* strange and far-ranging in its scope. Titus leaves Gormenghast and goes into "the world". Everything changes and a lot of readers complain clamorously about this third novel. Personally, I fancy it and I think it's the best of the three but there, I am much in the minority. One could almost pigeonhole the third entry as science fiction.
So there you have it. You might think that there are way too many contingencies and red flags associated with this series based upon what I've told you. Therefore it's important to know that Gormenghast is an experience that you will never forget - there's nothing else like it and it defies genre classification, (at least for the overall series.) What I have discovered is that enthusiasts of the "Gormenghast" series are almost universally equally impassioned about "The Lord of the Rings" - but the reverse is not always so. I hope that observation helps. If you have further questions or comments I try to monitor my reviews and I'll attempt to respond if requested.
Highly recommended to fantasy, science fiction, and/or gothic fiction readers!
on August 3, 2000
Well do I remember the momentous day in 1975 when a good friend loaned me a copy of Titus Groan and suggested I might enjoy it. Enjoy it? I was hooked from that first glimpse of the Hall of Bright Carvings; utterly transfixed by strange but compelling stories of the denizens of Gormenghast: a weird place and weird people, to be sure, but not so weird as to be beyond recognition. Peake's prose is masterful throughout; his characters are so profoundly realised that you really do feel you know them: Fuschia, Prunesquallor, Steerpike, Titus himself, my personal hero Mr Flay...wonderful. The narrative has been critized for being ponderous, but bear in mind this is a "big read" and it is best absorbed at a steady pace. The action, when it comes, is all the more startling: consider the cobweb-strewn battle to the death between Flay and the loathsome Swelter, and in Gormenghast, Titus's deadly encounter with Steerpike (now evil personified) amid the stifling ivy. "Titus Groan" and "Gormenghast" are famously more satisfying than "Titus Alone", written when Peake was seriously ill and fading fast, but even "Titus Alone" has some strangely affecting characters and situations. Its strangeness is more disturbing than the first two books however, which are totally enthralling. Since that first encounter over 25 years ago I have re-read this trilogy many, many times, always with more enjoyment than the time before. I made a chess-set with characters from the book (grey scrubbers make great pawns) and have enlivened many a dull day at work by likening some of my colleagues (in my minds eye, of course) to some of Peake's so-called grotesques...the Civil Service is not without its Barquentines and Sourdusts, not to mention the Deadyawns and Cutflowers! This is one book (along with the Bible) I would just not want to be without.
on February 27, 2008
It really fits for me that this book was written by a professional illustrator. It reminded me not so much of other books as of the anime movie Spirited Away, or of a cartoon version of Alice in Wonderland. Action is so secondary to description - vivid, sensory description. There is a constant oppressive mood - not merely in the population of grotesques, but in the stream of pejorative adjectives. Were Peake to insert words before subjects like `rainbow', `puppy' and `light', I'd expect something along the lines of `malevolent', `ghoulish' and `cancerous' (or even `aspersing', `preternatural' and `internecine': Peake certainly loved a thesaurus). The characters are ghostlike, perhaps part of a theme that people are so transient compared to tradition or even buildings. They don't seem quite human, they are so defined by (generally wretched) appearance and perseverations. Gormenghast itself dominates everything in oppressive (as opposed to comforting) permanence.
I was surprised to see this in the BBC's top 100 list, although I can see that it would polarise readers: I can't say I've read anything like it before. There is a plot of sorts as the Machiavellian Steerpike rises, with enticing hints of crossing future events, but the book is hardly driven by story. Rather it saturates the mind's eye with uncomfortably detailed image after image. Perhaps that's why I'm unlikely to go on with the next two books (though I am tempted - compelled - is it something like your eyes being pulled towards misery or an accident?) - I've never had a particularly visual imagination. Although perhaps someone more empathetic to this sort of lurid, macabre thing would be repelled!
on April 6, 2014
For months I kept circling back to this book, wanting to read it and yet put off by the reviews that said it was grotesque, and the ones that made fun of the characters' names and claimed they were typical of the whole read. Finally I plunked down my virtual cash and dove in. I loved this book! It was weird in the eerie sense of weird, and absorbing. The author writes gorgeous descriptions of the scenes in and around the castle. Despite the emphasis on the bleak scenery and on the people who seemed to be wandering in a world of melancholy, this isn't a sad or depressing book. I didn't even think it was a static description of one place and one time, as some claimed. And you really do get used to the character names. Try a sample of the book and see if you're drawn in by the language and the weirdness of the story. Sure, the book isn't for everyone. But if it seems to speak to you, please give it a chance.
on September 5, 2000
I have never read anything quite like this!
The first book revolves loosely around a newborn Titus Groan that is heir to the earldom of Gormenghast and it's Castle, an archaic, monolithic, stiffly-traditioned place. Throughout the first volume, we meet various members of the castle staff, the royal family and even a few commoners. You'll love Peake's unique way of portraying characters with his hilarious attention to detail. I don't think I'll ever forget the eccentric Mr. Flay or the effeminate Dr. Prune... The Antagonist, Steerpike, has got to be the most villainous, calculating creature I've come across in any book. He's someone you'll love to hate, but also admire. Since this is one of those rare books in which you can easily become attached to the characters, I'll warn you, Peake is not hesitant to dispose of them!
At first, there doesn't seem to be a definitive plot to follow. But, as the story progresses and Titus matures, you begin to see that he is feeling more and more strangled by this static castle life. But, Titus and nearly all of the castle's dwellers are ignorant of what lies beyond Gormenghast. It's important to note that the reader is also kept in the dark. You get the impression that Gormenghast "Was, is and always shall be." And if it's inhabitants have ever dreamed of lands beyond, it is doubtful that any could consciously imagine any other place.
The truth is revealed in book 3. Believing there is nothing left for him, Titus does the unthinkable and abandons his castle, his people and more importantly, his duties as the 77th Earl. The world Titus finds is quite unlike his own. So different in fact that he begins to doubt it ever existed. Even as the reader, I couldn't help wondering if Titus imagined it all during some delirious state of mind. But, the ending satisfies...
I highly recommend this trilogy to lovers of fantasy and haters alike. This work is not classifiable fantasy in a strict sense, as there aren't any mythical beasts or obvious magics. It's kind of a mish-mash of fantasy, sci-fi and drama. But make no mistake, you'll reserve a spot for this classic epic right next to Tolkien. (Though I'm not comparing the two, each is a classic in it's own right).