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Titus Groan UK editionBallantine Books US edition4.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsA sumptuous, poetic epic that took its author 13 years to complete, the Gormenghast Trilogy is considered by some to have an equal or even greater degree of importance to the development of modern fantasy as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. And though Tolkien might have set the formula from which the vast majority of later fantasy writers borrowed or stole (no sense in being coy about it), Mervyn Peake earns his position in the fantasy pantheon for this prodigious and masterful history of Castle Groan, a crumbling, sprawling edifice beside craggy Gormenghast Mountain.

Titus Groan US editionPerhaps much of the reason the Gormenghast trilogy has remained largely obscure to today’s fantasy readership is due to its unconventional narrative and unrelenting darkness. In a genre that has traditionally delivered the message “Good Will Triumph Over Evil,” these novels might be considered a grimdark precursor. There is nothing in Titus Groan in the way of a clear-cut hero, no brave Conan, no crafty Frodo out to save the world from the forces of evil, neatly encapsulated in the figure of a dark lord in his dark fortress or some similar cliché. No boilerplate fantasy tropes are present, no magic, no elves or fell beasts. Only the mythic setting earns the trilogy the label of fantasy. Virtually all of the players in Titus Groan seem corrupted, hollowed out, drained of life and goodness in some way. Titus Groan can be seen not merely as nightmarish fable, but as a disquieting allegory of modern society. Then again, as many critics before me have said, this trilogy works on such a multiplicity of levels, that one could run through dozens of possible interpretations. That is its chief claim to greatness. Tolkien’s will always be a seminal work of rousing escapist adventure, but Peake’s is the more real, the more visceral, the more darkly profound epic.

If any of the above makes this sound too depressing to even bother with, don’t you believe it. Peake delivers his cruelest barbs with a humor comparable to George Bernard Shaw or Oscar Wilde. His prose is a wonder to behold, lyrical without being stilted or affected. The story of Titus Groan concerns the interactions among the principal characters, and their reactions, both individually and as a group, to the birth of Titus, the heir to the throne of Groan and the 77th Earl of Gormenghast. From its opening chapter, futility seems the order of the day, as Peake scathingly attacks the rigidity of an overly soft and conventionalized society as a pointless beast perpetuating its own existence for nothing. The nearly city-sized castle is surrounded by a village of hovels whose inhabitants have no contact with those inside except once a year, during a festival in which brightly painted carvings by the town’s feuding craftsmen (the carvings seem the town’s only artisanry or industry of any kind) are judged by the castle lord. The winner receives the dubious honor of being allowed to pace the castle walls, and the winning carving itself is shunted off to a room in the castle and never viewed again, except by a little old man who cares for them, who himself never leaves the room and is never seen. It’s a world where social mobility is impossible, and not only will merit and hard work not elevate the common people above their station, there isn’t even a higher station worth aspiring to.

Throughout, the theme of real things being forgotten and lost (entire wings of the castle are unused and falling into ruin, and even some of their inhabitants are never seen) coexists with that of meaningless rituals repeated for their own sake. There is precious little human closeness. Lord Sepulchrave, the reigning lord, and his wife, Gertrude, have no real relationship at all, he being blanketed by a pall of almost unrelieved melancholy which finally becomes full fledged madness, and she an already delusional and pathetic creature who takes her only solace in the company of birds and a veritable army of white cats. Other characters are just as fragile, just as profoundly alone.

Yet out of the castle’s darkness three characters do attempt to emerge. Fuschia, the introverted adolescent daughter of Sepulchrave and Gertrude, seeks first to withdraw into a world of her own dreams, poems and fantasies, then finally allows herself to be more open in her resentment of the senseless and interminably old traditions that have squeezed the life out of Gormenghast and Castle Groan. Keda, a young woman from the village brought into the castle as a wet nurse for Titus, finally leaves with a brave declaration entirely out of character with her surroundings: “I must have love.” Yet even this desire is not without tragic consequences. But the most memorable player here is Steerpike, a youth who rises from a menial position in the castle to one of greater power and influence through the crassest and most brazen acts of manipulation and deception he can contrive. As Castle Groan becomes mired deeper and deeper in its moribund, rigid, and ineffectual tedium, Steerpike’s sinister machinations hit everyone like a shock wave, with devastating consequences. Steerpike is one of fantasy’s greatest villains, primarily because he represents not some supernatural or magical power, but the banality of true human evil, sociopathic avarice honed to an edge. Few fantasy writers have the ability to juggle readers’ emotions with the dexterity of Peake.

Great fantasy can simply entertain, but great literature is that which not only entertains but explores, reflects, and illuminates our own lives. It’s in this way that the Gormenghast Trilogy takes its place not merely as a masterpiece of the literature of the imagination, but as a masterpiece of literature.

Followed by Gormenghast.