Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Gormenghast is a vast labyrinthine castle whose grotesque inhabitants live their lives based on ritual and caste. Two agents of change are introduced into this stagnant society at the very beginning of Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan.
The first, more obvious agent of change is the birth of Titus Groan, the heir to Lord Supulchrave, the seventy-seventh Earl of Groan. His birth interrupts the daily rituals which are practiced at all levels of the castle society, from the kitchens to the Hall of Bright Carvings in Gormenghast's upper reaches. An heir is born so rarely that none are entirely sure of how to deal with the event and such important personages as Mr. Flay, Lord Sepulchrave's major domo, find themselves without guidelines.
A major part of the ritual, both within Gormenghast and extending to the village growing around its massive walls, is the existence of a class structure. Peake elects to examine class by throwing in the ambitious seventeen year old kitchen worker, Steerpike. Unhappy with his lot, Steerpike is more than willing to overthrow the entire society to advance. It matters not at all to Steerpike and, by extension, to other revolutionaries, that the upper classes are not vindictive or intensionally cruel to their support classes. The upper classes are, if anything antipathetic towards those on who labor they live. Steerpike's ambition and success in climbing the ladder is the core of Peake's novel.
The names Peake gives his characters, and their personalities, tend towards the grotesque. They conjure images from the works of Heironymous Bosch. Their interactions also follow a line of grotesqueness. Throughout the novel, characters speak at each other rather than to each other and few are the moments when one character will hear what another says. Communication is lacking from nearly all relationships. The one character who, eventually, can be heard by other characters, Steerpike, is an outsider who refuses to tell anyone anything of importance.
Steerpike's ambition, as mentioned previously, is the driving force for the plot of Titus Groan. His entry into Gormenghast society, at the same time as Lord Titus is born, introduces a steady rate of change into a stagnant world. His actions precipitate changes in characters ranging from Mr. Flay and Swelter all thr way up to Lord Sepulchrave. Even Gormenghast itself is not immune to the changes wrought by Steerpike, who willingly destroys Sepulchrave's library in an attempt to further his own goals.
In the end, however, not much has changed, merely the actors who play their roles. The librarian, Sourdust, and his son, Barquentine, are so interchangeable that some of the characters don't even realize that Barquentine has taken over his father's position. This continuation of tradition, the current of history, is supported by the condition of Rottcodd, keeper of the Hall of the Bright Carvings. Rottcodd opens the book and closes the book, appearing not for an instant in between his two chapters. His constancy is reflective of Gormenghast as a whole.
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