Fantasy: Titus Groan

Because I’m doing a lot of school these days, that means I’m doing a lot of reading. Some of it I like, some of I could do without, and every now and then, I fall in love.

Titus Groan is a new love of mine. This novel by Mervyn Peake is simply fabulous. Has anyone else read it? (no spoilers, please — I haven’t gone to the second book yet)!

It is the first in the Gormenghast series, and though it moves slowly, it’s well worth the effort to read all 387 pages (depending on which version you have — I suppose the page lengths could change). In fact, its pace is part of what makes it so wonderful. Mervyn Peake takes things slowly and deeply so that you truly feel as though you live inside Gormenghast Castle, and you are learning to accept its horrible eccentricities every minute you lie enraptured with the book in your hands.

It’s really good. Let me just leave it at that.

Now, since I posted my response to Alice, I decided I might as well post (some of) my response to Titus. Please feel free to share your thoughts, too.

To me, Titus Groan is a story about age. The age that distances Fuchsia from her father, the years that separate Titus from Steerpike, and the generations that block ancient magic from Gormenghast. Just because the reader never witnesses any outright acts of magic in the novel does not mean that it isn’t there. In fact, Mervyn Peake shows us in current Gormenghast the shell of magic long ago, when the Castle itself was a youthful thing.

In Gormenghast, all thoughts of progress are squelched under the desperate and ritualistic obsession with a past that is already long dead. There is one important problem that perpetuates this: the people of the Groan household think old.

When I imagine the first few Groan Earls, I see a Gormenghast in which spells were cast, love was shared, animals spoke to their masters, and the Lords controlled the blossoms on the trees around the lake. All of this magic was honored, daily, through rituals and acts of reverence for the power of the Groans.

Over time, though, that reverence for magic warped and gave way to a reverence for ritual itself and unchangeable Law. By now the entire practice is utterly archaic and misunderstood, and, as a result, completely useless. The only hope for the dormant magic of Gormenghast lies in its youth, who are ignored or aged before their time.

Even the people of the Outer Dwellings suffer this curse. They have only the passionate years of childhood and young adulthood before the bright glow in their eyes and faces begins to fade and is replaced by something shadowed and twisted. In all of Gormenghast, people are either young, or they are very, very old.

Like a sweet fruit that was dropped behind a sofa and forgotten, there is a stench of rotting magic in Gormenghast to remind others that it was once there and still exists. Gertrude’s power over animals, Keda’s intuition, and the inexplicable hold that the Castle has over all who live in it or near it are the leftover bits of what I imagine was once a healthy and vibrant magic.

Steerpike, though he argues in favor of youth, is nothing more than a sociopath. He has no true interest in the beauty that is possible should new ideas be planted. Instead, he is the disease that grows from within when something so powerful is left to die.

The suggestion that Titus, as a child, is the only hope for the Groans is more than a subtle implication. He is the one who can bring back the magic of Gormenghast – though we must read the subsequent novels to find out whether he does.

C.S. Lewis wrote, in his letter to Mervyn Peake, “I would not for anything have missed Gormenghast. It has the hallmark of a true myth: i.e. you have seen nothing like it before you read the work, but after that you see things like it everywhere…”(Daniel, 23)
Daniel, Estelle. The Art of Gormenghast: The Making of a Television Fantasy. London: Harper Collins Entertainment, 2000.

This is something with which I totally agree. Gormenghast is a mythology of our own reality; in it I see things I had not noticed before but now recognize as if I’d known them my entire life. It is the dormant magic in all of us. And it’s the sadness, too.

I’ve tried to remove any spoilers from this paper before posting it, just in case someone happens upon this blog and hasn’t yet had the pleasure of reading Mervyn Peake’s beautiful work.

If you have read it (lucky you!), I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’ve noticed already in my class discussions that my view of the characters and Gormenghast is not universally accepted. Further conversation would be great so that I can get to know this text even better. 🙂

(note: this post originally appeared here before I created the new section)

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