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The History of Titus Groan: Titus leaves Gormenghast

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Brian Sibley Brian Sibley 16:30, Thursday, 4 August 2011

Editor's note: You can still hear the first four episodes (of six) of The History of Titus Groan on the Radio 4 website. Episode five is on Radio 4 this Sunday at 3pm and on the website soon afterwards. Brian Sibley, who has dramatised Mervyn Peake's classic novels blogs on dealing on the story of Titus after he leaves Gormenghast - PM.

Drawing for Titus Groan

Titus and Muzzlehatch: Image courtesy of the Mervyn Peake Estate

When Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast was first published in 1950, readers got to the end of the book and found that Titus Groan rides away from the ancient ancestral home that had been the setting for Peake's epic tale of ambition, intrigue, revenge and the relentless struggle between tradition and change.

Those early readers had no idea where Titus would go or what would become of him. Worse, they had to wait a further nine years, until the publication of Titus Alone, to find out and, when they did, it came as something of a shock, as it may also do for listeners following the radio dramatisation. Endlessly pursued by faceless representatives of authority, the character now finds himself in an alien world of motorcars and aeroplanes, where society is controlled by industrialists and scientists.

As a dramatist, having spent many months locked in the stifling, ritual-bound world of Gormenghast castle, I felt as anxious and uncertain as our hero when we had to turn our backs on the great sprawling castle and head off into the unknown.

Although I was sorry that there was no more dialogue to be written for Steerpike, Prunesquallor, Bellgrove and the others, there was the immediate compensation of a new and fascinating cast of curious and intriguing characters: Muzzlehatch, the bizarre menagerie-owner; the intensely loving Juno; and the beautiful, but dangerous, Cheeta and her sinister scientist father.

What also became quickly clear was that regardless of the new experiences that crowd in upon Titus, he is constantly haunted by the ghosts of his past, as a result of which we never totally lose sight of the arcane world he left behind.

Although the Titus books are often referred to as 'The Gormenghast Trilogy', Mervyn Peake's original intention was for a cycle of books, the next of which was to have been called Titus Awakes. By the time Titus Alone was published, however, Mervyn Peake's health was in serious decline and when he died in 1968 he had written no more than a fragment of his next book.

A few years later, his widow, the late Maeve Gilmore, took up the task and completed Titus Awakes. I read it first thirty years ago when Maeve loaned me the manuscript and when its publication was finally announced this year, I wanted to weave something of Maeve's Titus Awakes into Mervyn's Titus Alone and make of it a single story.

Drawing on an emotionally powerful episode from the fourth volume, I have tried to unite the two authors who - both as husband and wife and as artists - were so much part of each other's lives with the fate of their shared character and, at the same time, bring Titus' story full circle with a fitting and poignant coda.

Brian Sibley is a writer and broadcaster whose radio dramatisations have included The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Pilgrim's Progress and works by Roald Dahl, Ray Bradbury, James Thurber and J B Priestley. A former Secretary and Chair of the Mervyn Peake Society, he has been a long-standing friend of the Peake family and contributed an introduction to the recent publication of Maeve Gilmore's Titus Awakes.


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