The Novels

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Titus Groan, the first book of The Gormenghast Trilogy, may well be the only work in English literature whose most striking character is a building—the building being Gormenghast Castle, the immensely old and inconceivably huge ancestral home of the Groans. The story of Titus, the Seventy-Seventh Earl of Groan, is one that takes an extraordinarily long time to get under way. Titus Groan starts with Dr. Prunesquallor delivering Countess Gertrude’s baby, Titus, and by the end of the book, Titus is only one year old. The hundreds of pages between the first and last paint a detailed and loving description of the setting, Gormenghast Castle, and its principal inhabitants.

Gormenghast is a place absolutely isolated from the world of the reader: No one in the story knows or much cares what is happening outside their own time-bound society. Gormenghast, for as long as anyone can remember, has been ruled by the dictates of the Ritual, a code of behavior that prescribes the daily conduct of the castle’s inhabitants, particularly that of the reigning Earl. Titus will much later rebel against the stifling demands of the Ritual. That is in the future, however, when the story begins.

The plot of the first book begins with the introduction of Steerpike, an apprentice cook when he first appears, a villain whose will shapes the early story. Unlike the other characters, Steerpike has a genuine ambition. It is small at first—to escape the domination of Swelter, the head cook—but it soon grows until he dreams of taking complete command of the castle. After escaping from Swelter’s dominion, Steerpike discovers a possible center of power in this fragmented society: He wins the trust of the feeble-minded sisters of Sepulchrave, the twins Cora and Clarice. These witless old maids are members of the Groan family, yet simpletons he can manipulate. Through them, he plots to set fire to Sepulchrave’s library when the family gathers for a ceremonial; he plans to rescue the Earl and the heir from the fire to advance himself further in their affections. The arson goes as scheduled, and Sourdust, the master of Ritual, dies in the fire. Steerpike realizes that the position is one of central importance in the castle, but to his dismay, Sourdust proves to have a son, Barquentine, who assumes the post. Steerpike then attaches himself to Barquentine as his apprentice.

As this summary shows, the plot of the first book is largely the story of Steerpike’s ambition. There are, however, a number of subplots, principally the rivalry between the head cook, Swelter, and Sepulchrave’s devoted valet, Flay. The story of their mutual hatred provides the ending for this first part of the trilogy. In a climactic duel, Flay kills Swelter; Sepulchrave banishes his servant from the castle and then disappears himself. The first book closes with the proclaiming of the infant Titus as Seventy-Seventh Earl of Groan.

The second book, Gormenghast, begins with Titus at seven. Unlike his father, Titus has had no childhood postponement from the demands of the Ritual. From his earliest years, Barquentine, master of Ritual, orders and limits his daily existence. Barquentine has no particular affection for Titus: The old man’s only loyalty is to the Gormenghast Ritual and to the duty that he serves harshly and exactingly. Under Barquentine’s control, Titus yearns for the freedom simply to do what he likes.

One of the main contrasts between the second book and the other two is that Gormenghast provides much more humor, chiefly through the subplot of Titus’ school and its masters. The headmaster, Bellgrove, and his associates are grotesques—characters exaggerated to the point of comedy in their appearances and actions. The story of Titus’ schoolboy adventures is accompanied by the romance of Bellgrove and Irma Prunesquallor, the doctor’s sister. Yet this comedy is superimposed on the sinister backdrop of Steerpike’s continued plotting.

From the moment of his burning the library, Steerpike is linked with fire. It is his principal tool, and the image with which he is most often associated. In the first book, in an odd foreshadowing of a later event, old Sourdust catches some hairs from his beard in a door. Unable to...

(The entire section is 1753 words.)