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.)

Titus Groan, 1946

(Great Characters in Literature)


Steerpike, an ambitious kitchen-boy. With great cunning, he employs flattery and deception gradually to increase his status and influence, until he becomes the effective master of Gormenghast. He fosters the antipathy that exists between Flay and Swelter until it explodes into violence, seduces Fuschia into craven dependence, and encourages Lord Sepulchrave’s gathering madness. Initially rather pathetic in his smallness and seeming weakness, he becomes increasingly demonic as he masters the hidden byways of the castle. Although his rebellion against the petrifaction of the closed world of Gormenghast never acquires heroic status, he retains enough sympathy to avoid being seen as an outright villain until he begins to be corrupted by the power he has achieved.

Lord Sepulchrave

Lord Sepulchrave, the master of Gormenghast. He is a deeply melancholy man who needs the order imposed by Gormenghast’s many rituals but still has to take frequent refuge in his library. The eventual burning of the library hastens the onset of his madness, in which he seems to himself to be turning into an owl—although the real owls refuse to admit him to their company and punish his ambition horribly.


Gertrude, Sepulchrave’s wife, a forbidding individual who prefers the company of her birds and cats to that of humans.


Fuschia, Sepulchrave’s shy and reclusive daughter, who is attracted to Steerpike partly because she finds him so fearful. Initially portrayed in a sympathetic manner, she is so ineffectual in becoming a willing partner in her own victimization that she comes to seem rather contemptible.


Flay, Lord Sepulchrave’s valet. A skeletal figure obsessively devoted to his master, he flees into the wilderness after a fight with Swelter ends with the fatal stabbing of the cook.


Swelter, the supervisor of the castle kitchens. He is a massively obese and loquacious man, always at odds with his eventual killer.


Sourdust, the master of ritual who instructs Lord Sepulchrave in the regulations that govern the life of the castle. He dies in the library fire, whereupon his place is taken by his son Barquentine.

Alfred Prunesquallor

Alfred Prunesquallor, the castle doctor, a bespectacled aesthete whose friendship assists the first steps of Steerpike’s ascent to power.

Titus Groan

Titus Groan, the heir to Gormenghast, who comes into his troublesome inheritance while still a baby.

Gormenghast, 1950

(Great Characters in Literature)


Steerpike, who, having completed his rise to power by murdering Barquentine and becoming master of ritual, becomes overconfident in his domination of Fuschia and his control over the young Titus. His malevolent nature finds increasing expression until it is horrifically exposed when he casually revisits the scene of one of his murders—that of Titus’ twin aunts Cora and Clarice.

Titus Groan

Titus Groan, who becomes increasingly determined and accomplished in his resistance to Steerpike, whose destructively rebellious spirit he matches with a more adventurous one of his own, partly inspired by his forest-reared foster sister, the Thing. It is frank distaste rather than any nobler sentiment that eventually leads him to kill Steerpike, but the deed makes a hero of him nevertheless.


Gertrude, who accepts the responsibilities of her maternal role in respect of Titus, although she makes little real effort to protect Fuschia from Steerpike’s increasingly sadistic affections.


Fuschia, whose romantic illusions initially make her easy prey to Steerpike’s insincere protestations of love, although she knows what he is well enough to attack him at Nannie Flagg’s funeral. She eventually finds sufficient resolve to reject him.

Irma Prunesquallor

Irma Prunesquallor, the doctor’s sister. A vain creature who had earlier responded foolishly to Steerpike’s flattery, she now becomes the rather improbable object of the ardent affections of Bellgrove.


Bellgrove, the headmaster of the professors who have been entrusted with Titus’ education. He is an imposing man, but his advanced age and temperament make him an unlikely suitor, and his romance with Irma is a scathing parody providing a telling counterpoint to Steerpike’s quest to wed Fuschia.

Titus Alone, 1959

(Great Characters in Literature)

Titus Groan

Titus Groan, who is now a stranger traveling through a world that is the gaudy and anarchic antithesis of Gormenghast. He struggles to adapt himself to the wilderness of the city but remains helpless in its toils because he still carries the spirit of Gormenghast within him and cannot free himself from his heritage.


Muzzlehatch, a zookeeper who rescues Titus from the menacing Helmeteers and becomes his mentor. When his animals are killed, he seeks revenge against the scientists who are responsible for the zoo’s destruction, but he can achieve that revenge only at the cost of his own life.


Juno, Muzzlehatch’s onetime lover, who takes Titus under her wing. Her attitude toward him is a mixture of the erotic and the maternal, and his response to her is equally confused.


Cheeta, Juno’s rival for Titus’ affections. He turns against Titus and becomes a dangerous enemy working for his humiliation and destruction.


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Batchelor, John. Mervyn Peake: A Biographical and Critical Exploration, 1974.

Gilmore, Maeve. A World Away: A Memoir of Mervyn Peake, 1970.

Watney, John. Mervyn Peake, 1976.