Titus Groan: A Clash of Generations
I suppose this novel, the first of what was intended to be a lengthy series unfortunately cut short by Mervyn Peake’s passing, can be hailed as a rarity. It is, in short, a fantasy that pre-dates The Lord of the Rings. In a genre where each new volume pretty much owes at least one iota of influence to Mr. Tolkien, it is startlingly refreshing to read a different take on the genre we all love. One whose themes are not a constant revolution of light versus dark, a journey of magic and adventure, or an account of battle scene after battle scene.
In truth, Titus Groan reads more like traditional Gothic fiction whilst riding on the coattails of the Victorian era. Peake’s prose really does bear a resemblance to the styles of 19th century novelists such as Dickens, Wilde, or Herman Melville. It truly is a hybrid novel that benefits from the best of both worlds. The lyrical prose quality of the literary genres of the past, mixed with the wealth of imagination that a writer is blessed with in a fantastical world. But heroes, quests, and overly ambitious villains were not in Peake’s mind as they were in the likes of Brooks, Goodkind or Jordan. His is a story of a castle, with the strikingly appealing name of Gormenghast, and the isolated and ageing society bound within its cold walls.
The lyrical quality of Peake’s prose is simply astonishing. The reader may find themselves frequently lost in scenes described in such intricate detail that they seem to breathe with life. The pictures painted of the Gothic castle Gormenghast and of the surrounding area are so vividly realised, so truly and thoroughly depicted it can sometimes seem that the images swim before your very eyes. Peake was a man obviously dedicated to his style and that is truly what makes this novel stand out, allowing his real-world themes to come alive in a world described as accurately and as beautifully as Peake manages. It is poetry in novel form, music on a page, and I will be a happy reader if I come across others with such talent with a pen.
It is a novel that understands its contemporary period of irreversible transition, perfectly capturing and predicting the social and cultural upheavals that gripped the Western world in the wake of the Second World War. Out with the old and in with the new as the saying goes, and nowhere is this old phrase as relevant than in the context of Titus Groan’s narrative, where we bear witness to the revolution of manipulation being orchestrated by the hands of the ingenious and malevolent youth, Steerpike.
Steerpike is the embodiment of change, the death of tradition and a quite literal anarchist in the social order of things. He is undoubtedly the core figure in this book with each and every one of his actions often having a severe impact on the inhabitants of the castle, the story serving as a chronicle of his rise in the ranks. Nothing detracts him from his goal to reach the top, not even murder, and in order to achieve his goal he has to pull the age old order down.
Characters such as Lord Sepulchrave, Sourdust, Mr. Flay, and the twins (Cora and Clarice, who begin to treat Steerpike like a god) are all caught up in their socially limiting roles. Sourdust, for example, is the Master of Rituals, a job title that reeks with formality. He serves as a dictator of monotonous social circumstances that constantly drive the other subjects of Gormenghast to boredom. Yet they do not complain. For them, traditional ceremonies are just a course of life. They accept it, because they do not know anything different.
And so, these characters are caught in an endless cycle of customs that inadvertently interrupt their stagnant regal lives. Peake makes the point that they live in an archaic world, every single one of them being middle aged or above and all of them distancing themselves from the passionate carvers that live in huts just outside the walls. Fuchsia serves as the only child in the story, but knowing nothing other than this world she is easily swept up by the promise of variety that Steerpike proposes and the opportunity to break away from the demands of the older generation prove too tempting to resist. Indeed, Steerpike’s radical actions to climb the ranks lead to the death of many of the older inhabitants as well as driving one to the depths of insanity, his mind unable to accept witnessing his secure society slipping through his very fingers.
No one captures the sense of extreme isolation from a world that is unstoppably changing around them more than Rotcodd. This man is only present in the first and last chapters of the novel, his moments in the sun serving as bookends to the novel’s vicissitudes. If anything, Rotcodd epitomises the story’s main theme, that of the inability of an older generation to adapt to the changing world. Rotcodd stays away from the other inhabitants of Gormenghast in the Hall of the Bright Carvings, where he works as a sort of in-house janitor. At the beginning of the story he is visited by Mr. Flay, a man who at least thinks to come and inform the aloof janitor of breaking news. He learns of the birth of Titus Groan, the titular character, who remains as an infant throughout the course of the story, and is able to acknowledge and appreciate this new development in the castle’s community.
However, at the end of the novel, after the seismic shift caused by Steerpike’s actions, the older generation, the characters who would have thought of Rotcodd or at least have remembered him, are gone. As new developments occur, Rotcodd is left ostracised from the rest of the world. He reflects that he hasn’t spoken to anyone for a year and the sense of horrible loneliness one feels when reading these passages could be equal to what an elder may experience once all those they loved and cared for have passed or moved on. But even though all Rotcodd can learn of the outside is whatever he might happen to see from his window, he feels a sense of flux, something that he considers dangerous and which he fears – an atmosphere that grips the very core of Gormenghast’s soul. Changes have happened, and are happening. Changes that neither Rotcodd, nor any of the other elderly inhabitants can stop. It is the change that comes with an ever growing world, the constant addition of new generations with new ideas that always grasp popular control, once the generation of the past loses its members one by one, through the endless passage of cyclical time.