Mervyn Peake’s 1946 Titus Groan is a masterpiece. Point blank. An eccentric cast of characters inhabiting a gloomy castle, it is bitter tea with a sprinkle of sugar. It is a flicker of distant lightning in a sky of dark clouds, a flower petal floating in dirty water. Most importantly, it is human down to its bones. Part Charles Dickens, part Lewis Carroll, and all Peake, the crawling unravel of story is one of literature’s most unique experiences for those with the patience to stay its plod.
Peake a visual as well as literary artist, Titus Groan spreads like paint across a canvas. Slowly and deliberately the story creeps across the page, casting a net that either snags the reader for its mysteriousness of purpose, or leaves them aside, bewildered as to what others find so attractive about it. For the connoisseur of fantasy and literature, the detail by detail description of movement, place, and dialogue can be fascinating, heart-slowing reading. For others, it can be foreboding, perhaps even excruciating. The opening paragraph itself lets the reader know what their ticket gets them:
“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. They sprawled over the sloping earth, each one half over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the inner walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock. These dwellings, by ancient law, were granted this chill intimacy with the stronghold that loomed above them. Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.” (1)
Titus Groan is set in this vision of Gormenghast castle. Home to the Groan family for seventy-six generations, the story opens with the birth of its next heir, the eponymous Titus. Anything but typical, the cast of characters surrounding little Titus are full of quirks and idiosyncrasies. His father, the Earl Sepulchrave, is a grave, phlegmatic man prone to books and routine. His mother, the Countess Gertrude, hands the little boy off upon his birth asking that he not be brought back until after his sixth birthday, her hundreds of white cats and owl following her out the door. Titus’ older sister Fuchsia lives a secluded life, the daft but faithful Nanny Slagg her only real companion. And there are others: the nervous laughter of Dr. Prunesquallor, the shallow minds of the twins Cora and Clarice, and of course, our antagonist du jour, the unpredictably athletic, goofily clever, and ambitiously devious, Steerpike.
And it is in character and character interaction that the majority of delight in Titus Groan is to be found. Singular to the point of caricature yet unequivocally human down to their core, each of the eccentric citizens of Gormenghast speak in a distinct voice and act with individual demeanor—something Peake obviously took joy in creating. Plot seeming to develop as a result of their eccentricity, one tiny knot in the woodwork is removed at the beginning, which leads one character to go to another, who goes to another, and to another, and before long the whole ship is listing to one side, no one aware of how it came to be. A thread on the sweater of Gormenghast’s aristocracy pulled slowly, watching it slowly unravel, the slow stirring to life of characters and the resulting chaos is a joy to watch—Peake guiding his characters to the only fate they could have.
But there are deeper levels to Titus Groan. Very much a look at the stagnation of culture (e.g. the emptiness of ritual and frailty of age-old decadence), what seems a peculiar sequence of scenes on the surface reveals itself to be something more when put into context of the larger narrative. The strongest contrast is seen in the plight of Keda. Titus’ milk nurse until leaving the castle, the life she returns to in the forest is full to the brim. Possible to be taken as a scene from Pushkin’s “The Gypsies”, the carvers fighting for her love, the savor of food, and the salient unpredictability of it all admit to a deeper connection with what Peake would seem to say life really is, rather than the solemn habits that Sepulchrave and Sourdust, his Master of Ritual, solemnly carry out. Cementing this idea in place is the fate which awaits the loss of Sepulchrave’s rituals.
Working directly from this point is another aspect of the novel: revolutions and their beginnings. Granted the scope is limited (to a group of eccentric characters, nonetheless), but the undercurrent of story is one of change: the state of Gormenghast at the beginning is different than the end—subtly, yet still different. The seeds of revolution sown in Titus Groan, it remains for Gormenghast to see them blossom.
In the end, Titus Groan is a moody, melancholy comedy with an underlying wit and profundity that cannot be denied. Style its most prominent feature, Peake wades ponderously into the story, easing the reader in one word, one letter, one unspoken idea at a time. Characters slowly blossoming to life, the eccentric cast would act in a surreal fashion were it not for the virtues and vices of humanity motivating their actions. A subtle, ingenious plot the result, the birth of Titus portends more change for Gormenghast castle than could be expected given the staid circumstances into which he is born. A host of people since taking the cue, it’s fair to say Tim Burton, Neil Gaiman, Jeff Vandermeer, and any other creator and artist which employs Gothic surrealism has read the book.