1940s Classics Fantasy

Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake

Titus Groan (Gormenghast trilogy)

You have seen nothing like it before … but after … you see things like it everywhere …. C.S. Lewis




Titus Groan contains the most vivid writing I have ever read. Mervyn Peake has created an amazing cast of characters, each one packed with a range of flaws and their own complex agenda. It is rare to enjoy reading about such unlikable characters, but the quality of the writing means that you can’t help but want to find out what happens to them.

The book is set in a creepy, sprawling castle which is so well described it almost feels alive. Gormenghast castle may be a sparse stone structure, but it contains many intriguing rooms – including the room of roots, the room of spiders and a room packed with white cats. I’d really like to know if JK Rowling has read this book, because I spotted a lot of things that appear to have influenced the Harry Potter books.

Into this dark castle a baby boy is born. This baby is Titus Groan, the heir to Gormenghast castle. His birth sparks a series of events which are impossible to predict, but fascinating to read about.

This is one of those books that defies genre. It is part fantasy, but has strong gothic undertones. The plot could easily have become far-fetched, but Peake somehow manages to ground his weird world in reality, giving a sense that this could even be  a piece of historical fiction.

The only problem I found was that it was occasionally too wordy, but this is a fault that lies with the reader, not the writer. I struggled to read the first few pages and sometimes found this situation repeated if I left too long between readings (especially if I’d read something light in between) but once I became used to the writing style I loved its complexity.

Titus Groan doesn’t come to any real conclusion, but as the first in a series of four books it sets the scene well and leaves me desperate to know what happens next. It is already one of my favourite books and if it continues to maintain this high standard I can see the Gormenghast series becoming my all-time favourite. I highly recommend that you give it a try.



Titus Groan

The Twins Again – Mr Rottcodd Again (p277 -p361)

We’ve reached the end of the first book! I am amazed at how much Peake has managed to cram into 361 pages. Most books manage to combine a few characters and a simple plot into this space, but we have a whole cast of different individuals, a vivid location and a complex plot.

Despite my raving review I did have a minor quibble with this final section. I thought that the “Reverie” for each character was a great idea, but it didn’t quite work. It was interesting to see their thoughts, but these sections jarred with the rest of the book and as I read them I was hoping for a quick return to the omnipotent narrator. Did you enjoy “The Reveries?

I loved the reappearance of the skull, but those twins must be really stupid to have fallen for Steerpike’s ghost costume. In the real world I’m sure that they’d have recognised his voice and the bit of white material and had a good laugh at his silly costume!  I’ll have to suspend my disbelief for this bit of the plot, but I’ll forgive Peake because it was at least entertaining.

I was interested to see Peake’s drawings of the twins. Their long necks remind me of aliens and I no longer think of them as being fully human. Whenever I read about them I am reminded of characters like Dren, from the film Splice. Are you picturing the Gormenghast characters as human? Or do you think of them as a slightly different species to us?

We have always suspected that Gormenghast Castle was an actual character, so I loved the final page in which the castle breathes:

The Castle was breathing, and far below the Hall of the Bright Carvings all that was Gormenghast revolved.

I thought this was a perfect ending and I’m really looking forward to reading the next book.

Did you enjoy reading Titus Groan? Are you looking forward to reading the rest in the series?

28 replies on “Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake”

I particularly liked the symmetry of beginning and ending the book with Rottcodd and the fact that he had been wholly isolated throughout the events of the book but could sense that change was afoot – not just in the ephemeral (for Gormenghast) sense of the change of Earl but in a more fundamental way.

I can now also see the point of Keda, although I still can’t really see the signifcance of the almost religious descriptions of her in the last part of the book. I can see her child becoming a counterpoint to Titus.

We are going to disagree a little on the Reveries section. I thought Peake’s ability to write stream of consciousness for each of the featured characters and still keep their individual personalities was admirable.

And I’m glad Flay beat Swelter. I found Swelter to be almost physically sickening in the way he acted and thought towards the kitchen boys.

Falaise, I agree about the symmetry of the beginning and ending. I noticed that and thought it was a nice touch.

I think you might be right about the point of Keda, but I still found her sections a bit weird and disconnected. I’m hoping she enters the story a little bit more as everything is better if it takes place within the castle walls. 🙂

Perhaps I’m just not a fan of stream of consciousness writing? I’ll take your word for the fact that it was well done, but I didn’t like reading it at all. I hope we don’t see too much more in the rest of the books.

I’m also pleased that Flay won. I was a little bit surprised that Swelter met his match so soon, as I thought he’d be a good character to run through all the books, but perhaps we’ll have some new ones to replace him?

I agree with Falaise. I loved the stream of consciousness of the Reveries. And I was so glad that flay beat Swelter. I picture the characters as kind of human but with exaggerated features – Flay’s stick insect type figure etc. The twins are stupid, completely self-obsessed and I found the ghost incident believable. But then I’m bowled over by the book!

Falaise, I’m still not convinced. I think my two small children (age 3 and 5) would spot a skull on a stick. Perhaps if they’d been brought up to believe in this sort of mythology things would be different, but I’m still sceptical.

Margaret, I’m pleased to hear that you are bowled over by the book too.

I love the way we can describe so many of the character’s appearances as I often read a book and realise that I have no idea what the central characters look like. In this book I’m sure I could sketch them, even without having seen Peake’s drawings.

I do think that Keda’s child is going to be more important later on but if I were just picking up Titus Groan by itself I wouldn’t see the point of her story.

I have 24 pages to go to the end of Titus Groan … after which I am bowing out of the readathon. It simply isn’t working for me. I was so looking forward to catching up this week but it appears I can handle this in 20 page snatches. By page 21 I’m falling asleep.

It is wordy – unnecessarily so in places. I’m seeking the symbolisms in everything and finding nothing but nonsense. (Though I did enjoy The Reveries ….)

Obviously I’m not the right reader for this and the thought of another 3 novels fills me with dread.

So sorry, Jackie. I don’t like being the first dropout but life is too short and my TBR is too tall for me to continue.

Lizzy, I’m sorry to hear things aren’t working out for you, but I’m impressed that you’ve made it (almost) all the way through a book you are struggling with. I find I can’t read very much of this book at one time either. I try to read about 15 pages each morning and evening as if I read any longer in one sitting I find it too much.

Thanks for making it this far with us. 🙂

I quite liked that Mr Rottcodd hadn’t realised a year had gone by at the end of the book. How often does time fly in the real world? It’s hard to think I started this book a whole month ago!

I do think Peake has been hugely influencial in the fantasy genre, I think on a par with Tolkein. There are so many parts where I thought of something else I’d read and seen the similarities. Even if Rowling was not directly impacted by Gormenghast, the worlds which she would have known about were. I love Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and I can certainly see a lot of Gormenghast in that!

On the human aspect, I see them as fairytale humans. Could be the same specis but there’s something a little different about all of them. Especially when you see Peake’s drawings.

I have to admit I skimmed over the reveries. I liked the idea but found the lack of punctuation hard to follow and I didn’t pay much attention.

Ellie, I liked the fact Mr Rottcodd didn’t realise a year had gone by, but thought time would pass quite slowly for him considering he doesn’t actually do anything!

It is good to know I wasn’t the only one to have trouble with the reveries – they do seem to divide opinion.

I agree about how influential this book has been in the fantasy genre – I love the CS Lewis quote at the top of my post – it is so true. I am seeing Gormenghast everywhere I look now. 🙂

I see them all as human, some more twisted and bizarre then others, but definitely human. I loved the atmosphere Peake creates with descriptions of the castle, the Bright Carvers village and the land surrounding both. I enjoyed the Reveries and feel Peake captures the qualities of each character very nicely.

I’m enjoying rereading the trilogy, but find that I need to take a break between the first and second books, and probably between the second and the third. I hope to get to Gormenghast in August. Until then I will follow along with this great conversation!.

Jackie, thanks so much for organizing this.

gavin, I know exactly what you mean about wanting a break. It is tough going, but I fear that if I took a break I’d forget too much and miss out on some of subtler aspects of the plot. I hope you have a nice rest and come back to discuss the rest of the books at a later date.

Judith, I’m afraid so, but make sure you add some supports to your pile – this book is so heavy it could cause your whole TBR pile to collapse 😉

I actually enjoyed the reveries because they rounded out the characters in a way and gave some insight into what they were actually thinking especially the Earl’s struggle with his sanity was interesting. I don’t know if I like the book so much as I just find it so unique, however sections of it I loved and I will continue to read due to just being curious. Plus like you if I don’t keep reading it thru I probably won’t get back to it:) The ending part with Titus on the raft felt overly dramatic and a bit much. The tie between the children just doens’t make any sense yet but perhaps will so later-I am sure there is supposed to be some coming together of the dwellers with the line of Groans or equalization or uprising something along those lines. Your comment on do you think of the characters as human or more ailien is really fascinating. I think of it more as a hybrid or like it was previously said fairytale humans. With the twins I just have this feeling like with many royal lines with marriage between close relations that they are just not right in the head and it does appear with the Earl that insanity runs in the family! I thought the image of them wading out in the water in their dresses completly oblivious somewhat chilling and bizarre.

Heidi, Sorry to hear that you aren’t loving this book, but at least you are finding a few things interesting.

I’m sure there will be a link between the children. I’m wondering if they will end up falling in love?

I also found the twins wading into the water a bit weird. I have a feeling they’ll be led to their death in a way similar to this before the end of the book.

The Book Whisperer,
“Have I got time to catch up do you think?” That depends how quickly you read. I think this book is best read at a slower pace and so I don’t think it would be a good idea to read more than 150/200 pages a week. So I think it would be possible to catch up, but it would probably take you a month or so to do so. I do hope you decide to join us though – I’m happy to discuss the book with you whenever you get to the relevant sections. 🙂

I have to say I have picked up this series of books many a time and wondered if they would be my think and then put them down with a ‘no probably not’. It sounds like I am really rather wrong and now wish that I had joined in this read-a-long with you as it sounds ‘so far, so excellent’ – hope it stays that way.

Simon, It didn’t sound like my kind of book either, but I thought it was one of those books I should try. I’m so pleased that I did and encourage you to give it a try one day 🙂

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