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Sunday, September 13, 2015

Gormenghast (1950) by Mervyn Peake

An illustration of the castle from Gormenghast, depicted as being perched on top of a hill.

Book Review
Gormenghast (1950)
by Mervyn Peake

   Book two of the Gormenghast trilogy is also called Gormenghast.  Gormenghast, the place, is fictional earldom, isolated from other human settlements by mountains and seas, so that it exists in a stand alone universe all its own.  It may be hard to believe after a decade of Lord of the Rings movies, but at one time, people talked about the Lord of the Rings and Gormenghast trilogy in the same breath.  Unlike the Lord of the Rings, which is more of an adventure epic along the lines of the Odyssey or Beowulf, Gormenghast is more of a "fantasy of manners," more resembling an English country house novel with teeth than anything based on adventure.

  In Gormenghast, the 77th earl of Gormenghast, Titus grows up.  Like the first book in the series, Gormenghast, the location, is more of a main character than any of the actual characters.  The castle inhabited by the young Earl and his family- diminished at this point to his sister and mother after the events of the first book, takes center stage throughout its 550 pages.   The climatic event of this book is a flood, and Peake revels in descriptive passages describing the gradual escalation of the flood waters into the interior of the castle.

 As the flood waters recede near the end, the climatic battle between Earl Titus and his rival, Steerpike, almost seem like an afterthought, and modern readers will wonder how anyone ever could think to compare this series to the Lord of the Rings, with its Hobbits, Elves and Dragons.  Compared to that world, Gormenghast is a dreary world of grey and black and it is no wonder that as the Lord of the Rings has ascended to iconic status, Gormenghast has been relegated to the world of the minor classic.


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