Gormenghast Read-along: Week 5

Gormenghast (Gormenghast Trilogy (Book Two))


One – Eighteen (p373 – p467)



This week’s Gormenghast discussion is written by Birdie, a blogger who reviews literary fiction with emphasis on British writers.

The beginning of Gormenghast, while retaining the absurdity of Titus Groan, has a slightly different feel to it.  I ascribe this difference to the fact that we get to see inside the characters’ heads a bit more often and in more detail.  In Titus Groan, we never really got the opportunity to understand Lord Sepulchrave’s motives, or the Countess’s, or even Prunesquallor’s, and it was the very last section of the book before we got to see into Flay’s personality (with the consequence that I sorely miss him in this text).  We did see into Steerpike and Fuchsia a bit more, but in this second book of the series we are meant to move into the world a little more.


This image of Gormenghast castle was created by ~Dream-Painter on Deviant Art.

Titus Groan was largely about viewing the world of Gormenghast from the outside: the first viewpoint we could really be said to follow was Steerpike’s and he was still an outsider to the culture of Gormenghast at the time. We are presented with the characters almost as Steerpike sees them. In other words, we see them from a more distant and sociological perspective. This perspective accounts for the difficulty many of us had in forming sympathetic relationships to the characters. In this second novel, Steerpike has established himself as an inevitability, training under Barquentine, spying on many of the castle inmates, engineering the disappearance of the twins and controlling them through terror. While he becomes a constant force in the castle, we as readers need his viewpoint less, and we gravitate toward the interiority of other characters just when Steerpike’s shallowness and sadism toward the aunts is demonstrated.

Gertrude, from the BBC production of Gormenghast

I find the sections of Gertrude’s thoughts particularly interesting, since she seems to have been cast as singularly thought-less in the first novel.  But in Gormenghast, we see her struggling to turn on her brain after years of neglect and we get an idea of what her internal character is like.  I have several questions that revolve around the Countess:  What is it that has awoken the mistrust in her mind/heart?  Does she sense Steerpike’s perfidy or is she simply reacting to the change necessitated by the loss of Lord Sepulchrave, Sourdust, Flay, Swelter, and the Twins?  We know that her animal/base instincts are incredibly strong since she has a greater affinity for animals and nature than for humans. What instinct, then, leads her to trust Prunesquallor?

Gertrude does not like change, which is unsurprising since the entire absurdist edifice of Gormenghast is built on the unchanging nature of out-dated ritual.  What is interesting is the way that other characters who might not have such a strong personal interest in this ritual are blindly loyal and extremely dedicated to the status quo.  In particular I’m thinking of the Professors of Gormenghast here, whose days are dictated as much by ritual as those of the seventy-sixth Earl had been, and who are also every bit as averse to change:

There had once been talk of progress by a young member of a bygone staff, but he had been instantly banished. (page 490)

What do you think Peake is doing with these characters? Is this simply more demonstration of the dangers of inertia or is Peake making a larger point about the educational system, not only of Gormenghast, but of the public schools that breed a sort of traditional mentality? Also, the narrator mentions several times that Titus is to be treated the same as the other castle whelps , presumably in order for him to understand multiple types of relationships and to humble him a bit.  But we have not seen Titus interact with any of his school fellows.  And though he is supposed to be treated the same, would there have been a school-wide search for any boy other than the young Earl?

Finally, we get to see inside Titus’s mind quite explicitly.  The boy seems to think primarily in colours and images rather than in logical thoughts.  His reflections on the marble on his desk seem related in this way to his discovery of the brightly coloured room in the castle and to his view of the separate copses as distinct from his vantage point on Gormenghast mountain.  What does this visual sense of apprehending the world tell us about Titus?

Other opinions on this section:

2606 Books and Counting

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?

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


Gormenghast Read-along: Week Two

Titus Groan (Gormenghast trilogy)

Titus Groan

Dust and Ivy – Preparations for Arson (p101 – p194)


This week’s Gormenghast discussion is written by Helen Leech, a librarian from Surrey Library Service. This is my local library system so I was really pleased when Helen offered to write a post for this read-along. Librarians are wonderful!

I think the one sentence I would use to sum up this chunk of the book is “Steerpike positions himself”.  He’s clearly up to no good.  He’s plotting something, and he’s building up to it:  weaselling and grovelling his way into the Prunesquallor’s house , polishing his deadly swordstick, mixing up all kinds of poisons, and planting seeds of bitterness and destruction in the ears of Cora and Clarice.

It’s a guilty confession, but I have to say that Steerpike is my favourite character.  I’ve tried to work out why, and I think I might have him down as a working-class hero.  Maybe Gormenghast is full of inbred weird aristocrats and their decaying servants, and Steerpike is the revolutionary force which is going to blast them away.  I’ll reserve judgement, though, until later.  Bad things are going to happen, and it’s clear Steerpike is going to be right at the centre of them.

Meanwhile, Gormenghast itself is emerging as the biggest presence in the book.  It looms in every scene, providing the backdrop and atmosphere for each set piece:  the clutter of Fuschia’s attics, the vaguely Georgian elegance of Prunesquallor’s house, or the bleak stone coldness of Sepulchrave’s library.  Even when Keda leaves,  the castle looms and dominates her village.  I’ve never seen Edinburgh castle without thinking of Gormenghast.

Photo Credit: Chilli, Flickr


And the scene where Keda goes home made a big impression on me too… it seems to me that the only place where there’s any life, any vigour and growth and love, is in the village and the carvings of the mud-dwellers.  Whatever love is in the castle is warped and puny.  But the villager’s lives are  overshadowed by impending age and death, in much the same way that the village is overshadowed by Gormenghast.

Here’s some questions for you: 

Why does Steerpike pretend to be unconscious when he meets Fuschia?

Why doesn’t Prunesquallor see right through Steerpike?

Do you think Peake identifies with any one of his characters?

A big thank you to Helen Leech for writing this post!

Please let me know if you’d like to write something for a week in this read-along.



Gormenghast Read-along: Week One

Titus Groan (Gormenghast trilogy)

Titus Groan

The Hall of the Bright Carvings – Near and Far (p1 – p100)



Welcome to the first installment of the Gormenghast readalong!

What were your first impressions of this book?

Mine were:

 arrrghhhh! What have I let myself in for?!

The first page was very difficult to follow and I was beginning to regret putting myself forward to host this read-along. I don’t think I could have coped if the entire book had continued in the same vein as the initial paragraph:

Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls.

Luckily, the writing quickly became easier to read and after about 10 pages I had been drawn into the wonderfully creepy world of Gormenghast castle.  I agree with those who mentioned the vividness of the descriptions in this book. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that creates an atmosphere as impressive or as visual as this one. I almost feel as though I’ve been there myself, instead of just having read about it.

I have no idea what is going to happen over the course of these four books, but a dark sense of foreboding is building. Evil seems to be everywhere, despite the fact there is no real evidence of it yet.

Photo credit: Poecile05, Flickr

The one thing I am intrigued by is the fact that all the animals seem to be white. I did a double-take when I discovered that the raven was described as “a bunch of feathered whiteness.” I’ll be interested to see if Master Chalk plays a greater role later in the book.

Does anyone know why the animals are white?


I am finding the cats very creepy:

As they passed through a carved archway at the far end of the room and had closed the door behind them he heard the vibration of their throats, for now the white cats were once more alone it was revived, and the deep unhurried purring was like the voice of an ocean in the throat of a shell.

Photo Credit: Rsndn, Flickr

I am normally more of a dog person, but this book looks as though it will push me further in that direction – those cats are sending shivers down my spine!.






I was pleasantly surprised to see some gentle humour mixed with the darker sense of foreboding and I particularly liked this quote:

….I said she was wicked, and then she said that everyone was – everyone and everything except rivers, clouds, and some rabbits. She makes me frightened sometimes.

Does anyone know why some rabbits avoid the “wicked” label?
I have mentioned a lot of the animals, but I also love the human characters. Every member of society seems to be present – from the new born baby to the elderly; from twins to lonely eccentrics. I’m particularly loving Steerpike at the moment. I always seem to be drawn towards characters that start off with nothing and use their cunning to elevate their position. I have a feeling that he is going to take things a little too far, but I am looking forward to seeing how his character develops.
Who is your favourite character so far?
Which scene have you liked the most?
Are you enjoying the book so far?
Use the comment section below to discuss any aspect of the first 100 pages, but please don’t mention anything that could be a spoiler for a later part in the book. Thank you!
Posts from fellow read-alongers:
(please let me know if I’ve missed yours)

Gormenghast Read-along Schedule

The Gormenghast Trilogy

Wednesday is Gormenghast Day!

For the next few months this blog will celebrate Gormenghast every Wednesday. The schedule for the read-along is detailed below. It would be great if different people could lead the discussion each week so that you don’t just get my opinion (and I don’t get Gormenghast post burnout!). If you’d like to volunteer to write a Gormenghast post at some point during the read-along then please leave a comment below. You don’t have to have a blog – I’d love non-bloggers to take part too. :-)

Titus Groan – June 2011

The Hall of the Bright Carvings – Near and Far (p1 – p100) 8th June

Dust and Ivy – Preparations for Arson (p101 – p194) 15th June

The Grotto – The Bloody Cheekbone (p194 – p277) 22nd June

The Twins Again – Mr Rottcodd Again (p277 -p361) 29th June

Gormenghast – July 2011

One – Eighteen  (p373 – p467) 6th July

Nineteen – Thirty-Seven (p467 – p565) 13th July

Thirty-Eight – Fitft-Eight (p565 – p659) 20th July

Fifty-Nine – Eighty  (p659 – p752) 27th July

Titus Alone – August 2011

One – Fifty-Eight (p759 -p854) 10th August

Fifty-Nine – One Hundred and Twenty-Two (p855 – p953) 17th August

Titus Awakes – September 2011

This book is 288 pages long – Ill update this post with the exact page numbers for this read-along once I have a copy and can check for appropriate chapter breaks.

Note: All page numbers for the Gormenghast Trilogy come from my Vintage Classics copy (ISBN: 0099288893), but if you have a different edition the page numbers may vary slightly.

I look forward to reading Gormenghast with you!