Chunkster Classics Fantasy Other

Gormenghast Read-along: Week 3

Titus Groan (Gormenghast trilogy)

Titus Groan

The Grotto – The Bloody Cheekbone

(p194 – p277) 


Steerpike’s evil plan actually worked! I thought that something would go wrong with his fire setting, so was quite surprised that everything went like clockwork. It is quite appropriate that things seem to be unravelling for him now though – Fuchsia is giving little hints about the convenience of the pre-cut ladder and those evil twins are demanding their reward. I like the way these seeds of trouble are spreading throughout the castle – it is giving the plot a fantastic sense of foreboding.

Despite his misdemeanors I still love Steerpike and this was especially evident when I felt sympathy for him during the cat attack.


The air is filled at once with the screaming of a hundred cats which, swarming the walls and furniture, leaping and circling the blue carpet with the speed of light, give the appearance of a white maelstrom. The blood streaming down Steerpike’s neck, feels as warm as tea as it slides to his belly.

Throughout the library fire I didn’t care whether any of the other characters were killed or injured. Steerpike is still the only character I connect with. Do you feel empathy for any of the characters?

I was never a big fan of Keda, but this week I realised that I don’t like her character. She seems out of place in this novel and the scene in which her lovers battled with each other made me think I was reading a different book. I had to stop and re-read the beginning of this chapter to remind myself who these strange men were, and once I realised, I found the whole episode a bit bizarre. It was like something from a Western and the outcome was so convenient that it reduced my opinion of the section even further. Did anyone else have a problem with the lover’s battle?

Photo Credit: KellyandRoger, Flickr

This week everything seems to have stepped up a level. The plot is getting more complex, the language appears to be increasingly dense and there is a greater frequency of events that make no sense to me. I am used to reading books based in reality and so I am finding some of the plot a bit strange. I am hoping that everything will be explained at some point as I don’t like this feeling that I’m not quite getting it. One example of this is the Sourdust’s burial. Why was he buried with the calf’s head? That seemed very weird to me.

Another is the Earl’s transformation into an owl. I feel as though there must be some symbolism behind this, but I haven’t quite worked it out yet.

This all sounds as though I’m being a bit negative, but that is not the case. I am still in love with this book and actually like the fact it is making me think; living in my thoughts long after I have closed the pages.

I’ll finish with the best quote about Titus Groan that I’ve found this week:

Titus Groan is not so much a book as it is a sensual feast for the brain. The Night Land Journal

23 replies on “Gormenghast Read-along: Week 3”

Isn’t it funny how the twins seem more evil than Steerpike, and he was the mastermind behind the arson? I like him, too, somehow, perhaps because he seems to be working mischief for good…if that’s even possible.

About the calf’s head, who knows for sure? I thought it was something to do with legend? That the calf head fulfills some kind of prophecy or something? I could be imagining this, or forgetting what I read (as I finished the book a few weeks ago.)

And, Lord Gormenghast turning into an owl is bizarre! I was quite taken aback by that, and at that point the story, which I still like very much, took a subtle turn for the worst for me. But, I remember a simple little line which said something about ‘the wings of knowledge’ and I can’t help but connect that to his love for reading and becoming an owl. A leap on my part, I’m sure.

Bellezza, It is really odd that the twins appear more evil than Steerpike. I think that their selfishness and stupidity adds to my lack of compassion for them, whereas Steerpike at least appears normal on the surface.

I missed the ‘wings of knowledge’ bit (or perhaps haven’t reached it yet?) I know what you mean about the story taking a turn for the worst. I’m hoping that it all comes together soon as there are a few elements that I’m questioning at the moment.

It’s funny but I don’t see it that way at all. I find the twins to be a bit child-like and amoral, rather than evil or immoral. I think Steerpike’s evil is really that he knows this and is manipulating them so that he gets all the benefit of their misdeeds and, if anything goes wrong, they will be the fall guys.

I wonder whether the symbolism of the owl is a reference to Athene, the goddess of wisdom. Her symbol was an owl and maybe it is representing Sepulchrave’s obsession with his books?

Falaise, I get what you mean, but I don’t think stupidity is an excuse for their terrible behaviour. They may not have the intelligence to foresee the effect that their actions will cause, but that makes them more dangerous (and therefore evil?) than Steerpike. They are similar in that both the twins and Steerpike want to better their situation, but I think the twins would do anything to get there, whilst Steerpike at least thinks his actions through and I get the feeling he does have his morals and wouldn’t go too far. (at the moment, although I can see that might change later in the book 🙂 )

I’ve gone right off Steerpike – fancy burning the library! But I agree that the twins seem more evil – they had no trouble thinking of burning people whereas Steerpike did intend to save them.

I find the Keda story distracting and so far I can’t see how it fits in. Each time I want to get back to the main story.

The pace certainly picked up this week and I was reading it eagerly to find out what happens next – a great incentive to read on. The story is most bizarre, but I don’t think Sepulchre turning into an owl is out of place, but tying the calf’s head on Sourdust was very odd. I was pleased that Steerpike was put out by Barquentine – loved the description of this old crippled man and his reactions.


I agree about the Keda storyline. At the moment I have no interest in it and every chapter with her in is like watching an advert break on TV – I just want to get back to the main happenings in the Castle.

I’m sorry to hear that you’ve gone off Steerpike. Hopefully he’ll win you over again – especially now he is being thrown out and must start winning their trust all over again.

Is it just the books that have turned you off him? If he had just burnt down a tower (without a library) would you like him more?

Margaret, I love the way we get to see the book through the eyes of different people during this read-along – proof that the reader really puts a lot of themselves into whichever book they are reading. I look forward to seeing how your opinion of Steerpike changes (or doesn’t!) through the course of the books.

I like the illustration of Steerpike – I don’t have that drawing in my version. I have to say I pretty much don’t like anyone too much anymore although I feel sorry for the Lord now and even Fuschia a little bit as she reacts and connects to her father’s over his breakdown. I keep thinking there was a reference earlier to the Tower of Flints and owls but the book is so big that I cannot find it and don’t know if it matters with the whole owl transformation or not. The Keda storyline keeps getting out there ( I have read a little further ahead) and seriously have no idea what it up with it. I totally hate how she treated the two men and seemed to be floating in her whatever state of bliss and just doing whatever. Later it seems she is suppose to be following some grand fate she is aware of and pathway? As for the calf head the ritual wouldn’t allow him to be buried without his head so they found a substitute not sure it mattered what. What was bizarre was who hit Flay and why did they even take Sourdust head in the first place. It is never explained….. That being said the book is still oddly fascinating. I have a feeling the storyline just continues into the next book and I don’t know how much wrap up we will get by the end of this?

Heidi, I do feel sympathy for the Lord (especially since he’s had his library destroyed) but I don’t really care about his character. If he died in the next chapter I wouldn’t really care, whilst I would be very sad to lose Steerpike. Fuchsia is still behaving like a spoilt brat, but I can see that I could warm to her as she matures.

The whole Keda thing is very weird and she is annoying me. I agree that her treatment of the men was dreadful and her weird floating is doing nothing to improve her standing in my eyes. I hope she has a good purpose later in the story (I’m secretly hoping she meets a gruesome death – is that the wrong thing to admit?!)

I actually like the fact that so many things are left unexplained. It is nice to have a few things wrapped up, but I like the endless discussion that results from never really knowing. I look forward to finding out where this story is going.

I didn’t quite finish this week’s reading, but I got far enough to make an attempt at your thought questions. I was surprised to find myself sympathizing somewhat with Fuchsia. There was a moment I thought she was going to fall for Steerpike and I realized that I was really invested in her keeping her innocence, even if it is a crude and selfish innocence.

During the fire, I was also really surprised that Steerpike’s plan worked so smoothly. I knew that Titus would escape, but I was worried for Fuchsia and Dr. Prune. Irma’s behavior simply cracked me up. I keep seeing her as Fiona Shaw because I’ve seen publicity pictures from the BBC series.

I felt no sympathy at all for Sourdust, but I did have to say I got a certain malicious glee when Steerpike’s plans for being the next Sourdust were thwarted by the old man’s crippled 70-year-old son. As to the calf’s skull, I’m not sure what all that is about, though the mania for the completeness of the body makes sense to me in the context of the rest of Gormenghast ritual. I imagine it was Swelter who stole the skull, but I’m interested to find out if/when it crops back up.

I liked Keda at first because she seemed such a normal counterpoint to the insanity of Gormenghast, but I really disliked this whole section about her. I felt that the lovers’ fight was pointless, and unless her child can somehow restore equilibrium to Gormenghast, I don’t see the point in her narrative. Still, I have faith that Peake will draw the threads together.

Birdie, I also got the feeling that Fuchsia would fall for Steerpike and I’m not going to rule that out yet. Perhaps her feelings for him are making me more tolerant of her 😉

I am just impressed by how much there is to talk about in one 90 page section of this book. In the majority of books so little would have happened, but Peake is cramming in so much plot and character development – I love it!

I agree with all your other comments and Peter (below) reveals that the skull does have a use, so I am very interested to find out what that is.

It’s exactly 40 years since I first read these books and was bowled over by them. At this distance in time it’s hard to recover my initial impressions, so I’m enjoying reading of yours. Rest assured: Sourdust’s skull has a use. Lord Groan does not actually turn into an owl – he just believes he is one. The Keda sub-lot is important but I agree, her emotions and actions are hard to understand. I believe Peake was trying to do something rarely achieved in fiction and didn’t quite manage to pull it off. I’ve discussed this at length in The Voice of the Heart: the working of Mervyn Peake’s imagination (pages 125–29) which you can view on Google books. There was a very good discussion of Steerpike in Faulks on Fiction (BBC2) earlier this year. A three-minute snippet with Joanne Harris (author of Chocolat) can be heard (and seen) on various sites, including Youtube ( Enjoy!

Peter, Thank you for commenting on my blog for the first time! I’ve just had a quick look at your site (I didn’t want to read much yet, for fear of spoilers, but will return to read more once I’ve completed the books) and am impressed by your knowledge of the books. It must be strange for you to read our thoughts on what might happen later in the book.

Thanks for letting us know that the skull has a use – I am intrigued as to what that might be.

I am also interested in your statement:

“Peake was trying to do something rarely achieved in fiction and didn’t quite manage to pull it off.”

What do you think he was trying to achieve? And why didn’t he quite pull it off? From where I am now I think he has achieved an amazing piece of writing. I haven’t read anything that comes close to the vividness of the world he has created and any flaws that might be present only add to the great discussions we can have as a result.

I hope that you’ll stick around and join in our conversations as your insight and knowledge of the books will be a great asset 🙂

I was deliberately avoiding spoilers and ‘explanations’ of Keda’s experience and resulting actions when she returns to the Mud Dwellings – but since you ask, Jackie, here are some thoughts.
Looking closely at passages like: ‘the fear that had swept [Keda] died and her heart leapt with inexplicable joy and … left her with an earthless elation and a courage that she could not understand’, I recognized a state that we can find in poetry – think of Wordsworth: ‘My heart leaps up when I behold…’ – but almost never in novels.
Her unexpected, inexplicable and wholly unlooked-for experience is ecstasy. It’s a state that comes out of blue and is characterized by ‘generalized love towards everything and everybody, and notably to what is normally repulsive’ (Marghanita Laski) like the mangy dog. Keda ‘felt her heart was breaking with a love so universal that it drew into its atmosphere all things because they were; the evil, the good, the rich, the poor, the ugly, the beautiful, and the scratching of this little yellowish hound.’
The fruit of ecstasy is the realization that to live the whole of the life we are capable of is to live entirely in the present, ‘the NOW that fills us’. It gives a sense of ‘invulnerability before the world’ – of extraordinary freedom. ‘I am clear – clear!’ says Keda.
But coming down from this height is tough. Keda’s subsequent behaviour is fairly typical of the ecstatic.
Such an experience is rarely described in novels because it is essentially wordless and leaves no images – simply unimaginable (until it hits you). You have to experience it to recognize it.
Peake tried to describe it here, and did not quite pull it off (because it’s impossible). But it’s the nearest thing to succeeding that I have found in prose.
I wholly agree, Jackie: Peake ‘achieved an amazing piece of writing. I haven’t read anything that comes close to the vividness of the world he has created.’ It is one of the great books of English literature. Read it once, and it’s with you for life. As C. S. Lewis wrote, ‘With Gormenghast’ Peake created ‘a new universal.’
(All my quotes except the Laski are from the Keda episode of TG.)

Peter, Thanks for the explanation. From this it sounds as though Keda is manic depressive. Is that right?

“Read it once, and it’s with you for life.”

I agree – I can’t imagine ever forgetting this book. 🙂

‘Manic depressive’? No, I wouldn’t say that, Jackie. That’s a durable medical condition, whereas what Keda goes through is a unique and deeply spiritual experience.
While I have your ear, so to speak, may I mention how extraordinarily creative Peake was? You can see hundreds (literally) of his drawings and paintings in Mervyn Peake: the man and his art. A couple of years back Carcanet brought out his Collected Poems and in a few days this will be joined by Complete Nonsense. (This contains all the well-loved poems from A Book of Nonsense which has been continuously in print for forty years, and adds another seventy or so, plus more than a hundred drawings.) Then next month, Methuen is bringing out a volume of Peake’s plays. For all its size, Titus Groan is but the tip of the ice-berg!
So much to enjoy!

Peter, I knew that he was a talented illustrator, but didn’t know that he wrote plays and poems too. I have fallen in love with his work so will ensure I seek it out once I’ve completed the Gormenghast journey.

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