Phil Smith's Reviews > Titus Groan
by Mervyn Peake
Certain books have got me through various phases of my life. My first year at high school, fraught with all its just-pre-pubescent worries? 1984. The fourth and fifth years, replete with exams and adolescent frustration? Terry Pratchett's Discworld books. Michael Moorcock saw me through the wilderness years of sixth form.
As for university? The only books I really remember reading during those wasted years were by Peake. Although I didn't plan to do so, I read Titus Groan in my first year, Gormenghast in the second and Titus Alone in the third. I wish I'd read them sooner.
Anyone who found C.S. Lewis preachy or Tolkien ponderous could do far worse than look to the Gormenghast trilogy. His castle is populated with grotesques, from the obese Swelter to the skeletal Flay. Each has his own role to play in the ritualised and ordered realm of Gormenghast, and few dare question it, even though their quirks have catapulted them from being merely eccentric to a state of damn near instability. With a few skillful sentences, Peake puts together a wonderful landscape, which for all its lack of wizards and goblins, is a million times superior to and more fantastic than any bog-standard fantasy world you could care to name. I may be resorting to hyperbole here, but it's the truth and I'll spank anyone who says different.
Still, into this world come two outsiders: the first is a baby, the titular Titus Groan, heir to the castle, title and everything else; and the scheming Steerpike. Condemned to work in the kitchens, Steerpike contrives to escape from the role fate has assigned him. He ingratiates himself with Fuchsia, Titus's older sister, becomes the assistant to Doctor Prunesquallor, but there is no limit to his ambition. He has bigger plans in store.
Steerpike is very much the star of this book. A cold, calculating sociopath, the sort we all love to hate. A magnificent bastard of the highest water. He quickly works out a plot to depose the current Earl of Gormenghast, influencing the Earl's vacant and greedy sisters to set fire to the Earl's library and drive him insane. This gives Steerpike a chance to play the hero and thus gain more power and influence.
By the end of the book the Earl goes mad and offers himself to the castle's vicious owls, his servant Flay is banished, Sourdust the secretary is burnt to death and young Titus has been made Earl, even though he is still a toddler. Steerpike's star is very much in ascendance...
I fail to do the plot justice. The descriptive text is first rate, the characters engaging and weird, the dialogue scintillating and the whole one of the greatest works of an author snatched from us well before his time. Read it now!