Good Morning Gormenghast

I had attempted to read Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy several years ago, but I didn’t get very far. More recently, I decided it might be time to give it another try. It centers around an immense Gothic castle on a cliff where ritual is paramount, and everyone’s lives are dominated by meaningless ceremony. The rulers and staff are eccentrics with descriptive names that sound like parts of an allegory: the Groan family, the fat and sadistic chef Swelter, the Master of Ritual Sourdust, the personal servant Flay, and Dr. Prunesquallor. The doctor is one of the more likable inhabitants of the place, and I have to wonder if his habit of laughing inappropriately inspired that trait in Dr. Hibbert. Prunesquallor’s laugh, however, is described as being like that of a hyena. The first book, Titus Groan, sees the birth of a new baby to the Earl Sepulchrave and his wife Gertrude. Concurrent with this is the rise to power of a discontented kitchen boy named Steerpike. While we can initially sympathize with him as someone who hates his lowly position and wants to advance, we soon find out he’s totally sadistic, using whatever means he deems necessary to advance his own ends. Gormenghast continues with these themes but takes place over a much longer period of time, detailing young Titus’ coming of age and the unraveling of Steerpike’s conspiracy, as well as the budding romance between the doctor’s aged and unattractive sister Irma and the Headmaster Bellgrove. Titus abandons his home at the end, and Titus Alone tells of his adventures in a modern, technologically advanced society where nobody even believes Gormenghast exists. The characters are no less eccentric, however. Titus befriends a man named Muzzlehatch who has a menagerie of animals, and seeks revenge after a cold-hearted scientist kills them all with a death ray. The scientist’s daughter Cheeta falls for Titus, but when he spurns her she goes to elaborate lengths to set up a house of horrors based on the boy’s tales of Gormenghast. If this doesn’t get across just how bizarre this series can be, Sepulchrave dies when he goes mad and thinks he’s an owl. Peake intended to write more about Titus, but he died young, and I believe there are only a few incomplete tales in addition to the three main books. The edition I read, The Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy, includes Peake’s own illustrations.

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2 Responses to Good Morning Gormenghast

  1. I own the miniseries, which adapts what I think is the first book. I thought it was ok. I’m not a fan of Jonathan Rys Meyers, which may have influenced my impression of the show (he’s a fine actor, I just don’t care for him). I’d have to give it another shot, but it didn’t inspire me to read the books or go any further with the story.

  2. greymalkin says:

    I am a huge fan of this series. I loved the TV mini-series based on the books.

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