Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The Gormenghast Trilogy is the title customarily given to the three major literary productions of Mervyn Peake—Titus Groan, Gormenghast, and Titus Alone—but there are problems with both “Gormenghast” (a title Peake himself never intended) and the generic classification of trilogy. Titus’ ancestral castle, Gormenghast, figures as the setting for only the first two books, but Titus himself appears in all three, the only character to do so. Whatever statement the work makes has more to do with Titus’ desire to free himself from dependence on and domination by others. The three romances are much more the story of Titus himself, his infancy, his growing up, and his assertion of his own independence, than of the castle. The critic John Clute argues that a better title would be “The Titus Groan Trilogy,” for certainly a main theme of the work is the search of the adolescent for self-definition, rather than acceptance of a definition imposed from outside, whether by tradition as in books 1 and 2, or by society, as in book 3.

Yet it would surely be a mistake to think of Peake’s romances as books written to illustrate a thesis, for even the word “trilogy” is inaccurate: Peake probably had no overall design for the work. He was working as an artist and book illustrator when he was drafted into the British army in 1940. In the cramped conditions of army life, it was impossible for him to paint, but he could write, and it was then, in those unlikely conditions, that he began to write the first volume. The second and third followed in time, and in the 1960’s, as Peake’s health declined toward his tragic end, he even began to write a fourth volume, only a few pages of which survive, which presumably would have followed Titus’ life even further.

Although the work was not planned as a whole, it is consistent in its themes. Those themes—freedom from restriction and the sustaining yet also stifling nature of tradition—were certainly ones that Peake must have felt keenly, especially as one of the most inept soldiers ever to wear a British uniform. Although these ideas never intrude, they are often voiced by Titus, especially at points of tension in the works.