The cast of the BBC Mini Series Gormenghast (2000).
Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels are cult classics of 20th Century English literature. Writer and philosopher John Gray considers what they tell us about the nature of the modern world.
“With every pace he drew away from Gormenghast Mountain, and from everything that belonged to his home.”
These are the closing words of Titus Alone, the last of three novels recounting the childhood and rebellion of Titus Groan, the 77th Earl of Gormenghast, an enormous, crumbling castle that stands isolated and self-enclosed somewhere on the margins of the world.
Governed more by ritual than by the hereditary rulers who have immemorially reigned over it, the castle confines Titus in a life of empty ceremony. At the age of 17, having fought a life-and-death struggle with an enemy he held accountable for the death of his father and sister, Titus rides out of the castle to look for another way of living.
Entering a world in many ways not unlike our own, he begins to doubt whether the castle ever existed.
He travels back to Gormenghast Mountain where he hears a gun boom seven times – the dawn salvo sounding for him. Yet he doesn’t return to the castle or even look at it, but instead turns on his heel and walks away, never to see his home again.
Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels – Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone – have been read in many ways. For some of their readers, they re-state the essential message of romanticism – the assertion of the individual against conventional restraints.
For others, the novels are a coming-of-age story – the story of how Titus ceases to be a child and becomes a man.
Yet others interpret them as belonging to a tradition that includes Tolkien – the author of Lord of the Rings – and some later writers of science fiction.