Published in 1946, Peake’s sprawling Gothic fantasy is at least as important to modern fantasy as the Lord of the Rings books, although woefully under-read, something which celebrated author Marcus Sedgwick credits to Gormenghast being just ‘too good’ and too weird.
Titus Groan is a fantasy, but a curious one, with no elves, no swords and no sorcery. Instead, the book follows the birth to the first birthday of the heir to Castle Groan, baby Titus.
The story takes place in the vast, crumbling and imposing Castle Groan, under the shadow of craggy Gormenghast mountain.
Within the castle, Dickensian-ly named characters like Sepulchrave, Earl of Gormenghast, his faithful servant Flay and the hideous head cook Swelter exist in a kind of suspended animation, bound by the millennia of complex ritual that rules life in Castle Groan.
Peake’s prose is beautiful and poetic without ever being showy, and moves the reader from the mud huts of the villagers that dwell outside the castle walls, never to see within, to Countess Groan’s sumptuous rooms, carpeted with her many hundreds of white cats, with ease.
It’s obvious that Peake was also an artist, as he lovingly describes, light, textures and skin. He's also really funny.
The two most interesting characters in the novel are Sepulchrave’s daughter, Fuchsia, and the conniving, Machiavellian kitchen boy Steerpike.
Both characters are unique because they seem to be the only people with capacity for change within the castle, or at least the only people who are able to voice their resentment with the stifling atmosphere of Castle Groan.
Titus Groan is not only a masterpiece of fantasy, but a masterpiece of literature, period. You can order it today through Auckland Libraries.
Title: Titus Groan
Author: Mervyn Peake
Reviewed by Hannah C., Mount Albert Community Library
Hannah C. doesn't speak Elvish but she is fluent in emoji.