Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Gormenghast review

I'm not generally a fan of fantasy fiction. If I do read fantasy, it's mainstream fantasy like the Lord of the Rings trilogy or the Narnia books. I thought that by having read those two series, I had pretty much covered the must-reads of the fantasy genre. So it was with surprise that I heard that some people consider Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy to be the best fantasy fiction ever written. I had barely heard of it. The only time it ever crossed my path was when I saw the DVD at the movie store, and, since the movie is made by the BBC, I knew it was probably based on a book.
I hate to be tiresome, but if you are going to read Gormenghast, it's best to start at the beginning and read Titus Groan first and then progress to Gormenghast. The third book in the series, Titus Alone, I haven't read yet, but the amazon customer reviewers—that wondrous body of literary information—say that it isn't as good as the other books.
So. Gormenghast castle is the home of the Groans, an ancient noble family with an unbroken line of descent for over seventy generations. Titus Groan begins with the birth of the titular character, the seventy-seventh Earl of Groan. And off we go. The Groans, after seventy-seven generations of rule have become so ritual-bound they can hardly function.
The genius of Peake's writing is in his descriptions. I don't think I've read better descriptive language anywhere. Peake is particularly skilled at describing the play of light and color throughout the vast and ancient Gormenghast castle. The characters of Gormenghast are often physically grotesque, or at least, odd-looking, with complex natures that are hard to pin down. The villain, Steerpike—a kitchen boy determined to take control of all Gormenghast-- is strangely compelling and you find yourself rooting for him when you know you shouldn't. I love the names Peake chose for his characters: Steerpike, Prunesquallor, Sourdust, Barquentine, Sepulchrave.
These are not comic novels, but they are funny at times. The reader soon becomes aware that one of Peake's pet peeves must have been thin women who go around thrusting their sharp hip bones out for all the world to admire. Indeed, Irma Prunesquallor provides excellent comic relief for both books.
Are these the best fantasy books of all time? I don't know. They're not as cuddly as LOTR or the Narnia books, but I do feel like I will want to read them again someday and I'm definitely going to rent the movie.


  1. To gain a clearer idea of the importance of Peake in modern fantasy literature, you might view the BBC's three-part series, "The Worlds of Fantasy", aired last March. The second instalment is about Tolkien and Peake. The cover of MP: the man and his art -- just shortlisted for a Locus Award -- carries quotes from China MiƩville, Michael Moorcock and others. You can see it here:

  2. Thanks Peter. That looks interesting.