Saturday, April 14, 2007

Final thoughts on Gormenghast


One of the things about putting thoughts down in a review is that you miss the chance to make some other observations. So, despite the weeks that have passed since reading the trilogy, I wanted to get some final thoughts down about Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy.

The use of light and darkness
It would be too easy to say that characters are robed in black if they are evil – Steerpike being the most obvious example – but then you get characters that are more difficult to define like Flay who have the potential for murder but also for loyalty. Darkness is used to suggest potential problems and echoing the use with people it also cloaks parts of the castle with long dark passages both over and under ground being a feature of the disorientation.

The use of time
One of the hardest things to reconcile between the world’s described in Titus Groan and Gormenghast compared to Titus Alone is that they could co-exist with a world with aeroplanes, spying globes and telephones being in the same time as a castle run on completely medieval rules. Peake was ill by the time he wrote Titus Alone but it does make you question the security you felt in Gormenghast castle. It is as if reading the Fellowship and Two Towers all of a sudden as the final battle for the Ring is fought some tanks, medium range missiles and jet fighters turn up in The Return of the King.

The use of faces and eyes
One of the constant reference points in the books is the colour of eyes and the detailed descriptions of faces. So for instance you discover that Steerpike has red eyes that flash with anger or glint with malice and Titus has violet eyes that disturb his father. Throughout all three books it is usually the eyes, and Peake’s description of them that usually gives away a characters true intentions. Faces, particularly the descriptions of Swelter the cook’s

The use of animals
One link between the worlds of Gormenghast and the city in Titus Alone is the Muzzlehatch character that seems to love animals as much as Titus’s mother did. The relationship is one of master and servant but it is once his menagerie is lost that Muzzlehatch decides to blow up the factory. Likewise the Countess turns her anger on ‘The Thing’ because it is eating her birds and banishes faithful Flay from the castle when he dares to hurl one of her cats.

The use of the strange
The doctor’s hair, the Under-River world and even the scale of the flood that engulfs Gormenghast are all exaggerated to make an impact. The scale of the castle is a constant source of challenge to a reader and despite its gargantuan proportions there continue to be almost a handful of people living in it. None of the characters seem to be free of some sort of major character flaw with the Earl’s slide into madness an obvious one but even Titus is wrestling with his mind working out what to do with his future.


There are lots more things that could be said but writing this down has got the urge to comment off the brain for now…

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

When Peake was living in Tientsin as a boy, there was a flood one autumn that covered an estimated 15000 square miles (roughly half the size of Ireland): big enough for Gormenghast?

simon quicke said...

Point taken.

Anonymous said...

I should have said, I got this info from Vast Alchemies, Winnington's biography of Peake. Most of the features you mention here - light and darkness, faces, eyes, animals - are dealt with at some length in his new book on Peake, Voice of the Heart published by Liverpool UP last autumn.