The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

The Gormenghast trilogy was never meant to be a trilogy. Mervyn Peake published the first novel, Titus Groan, in 1946. Gormenghast appeared in 1950, and in 1959 the first edition of Titus Alone came out. Peake was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease and could not edit it. In 1970, a second edition of Titus Alone came out, restoring much of what the first editor had left out, and this is the accepted version. The fragmentary, posthumously printed “Titus Awakes” (1990) consists of a few pages and an outline Peake left, showing that he wanted to take Titus into adulthood. This has also been reprinted in the Overlook Press edition of Titus Alone (1992).

From the beginning, Peake places readers firmly in his alternate universe, the world of Gormenghast Castle. Titus is the son of Earl Sepulchrave and Countess Gertrude Groan, the brother of Fuchsia, and the nephew of twin aunts, Cora and Clarice. Steerpike, an ambitious kitchen boy, escapes from his master when Titus is born and decides to take over the castle by planning the destruction of the family and its many servants. These include the Masters of Ritual, Sourdust and later his son Barquentine, who preside over castle ceremonies; Flay, the earl’s loyal personal valet; Dr. Alfred Prunesquallor, the castle doctor; his unmarried sister, Irma; and Keda, Titus’ wet nurse, who has an illegitimate daughter called the Thing.

Steerpike gradually wins over Fuchsia, Cora, Clarice, and Irma. Dr. Prunesquallor values Steerpike’s intelligence, but nobody knows how carefully Steerpike is beginning to consolidate his hold on the castle community. His first major act is to get the aunts to burn Sepulchrave’s library as everyone ceremonially gathers there to greet Titus. Steerpike makes sure that he is there to rescue everyone, thus playing a heroic role, but Sourdust dies of smoke inhalation. Sepulchrave goes mad and thinks he is becoming an owl. Titus Groan ends with Sepulchrave’s death, Flay’s expulsion from the castle, Steerpike taking a new job as aide to the new Master of Ritual, Barquentine, and the Earling of Titus, the heir.

Gormenghast opens six years later. Titus is now a schoolboy, with a headmaster, Bellgrove, who...

(The entire section is 934 words.)