A Point Of View: Leaving Gormenghast

Cast of Gormenghast TV adaptation
Image caption The cast of the 2000 BBC TV adaptation of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels

Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels are cult classics of 20th Century English literature. Writer and philosopher John Gray considers what they tell us about the nature of the modern world. (May contain spoilers.)

"With every pace he drew away from Gormenghast Mountain, and from everything that belonged to his home." These are the closing words of Titus Alone, the last of three novels recounting the childhood and rebellion of Titus Groan, the 77th Earl of Gormenghast, an enormous, crumbling castle that stands isolated and self-enclosed somewhere on the margins of the world.

Governed more by ritual than by the hereditary rulers who have immemorially reigned over it, the castle confines Titus in a life of empty ceremony. At the age of 17, having fought a life-and-death struggle with an enemy he held accountable for the death of his father and sister, Titus rides out of the castle to look for another way of living.

Entering a world in many ways not unlike our own, he begins to doubt whether the castle ever existed. He travels back to Gormenghast Mountain where he hears a gun boom seven times - the dawn salvo sounding for him. Yet he doesn't return to the castle or even look at it, but instead turns on his heel and walks away, never to see his home again.

Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels - Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone - have been read in many ways. For some of their readers, they re-state the essential message of romanticism - the assertion of the individual against conventional restraints. For others, the novels are a coming-of-age story - the story of how Titus ceases to be a child and becomes a man. Yet others interpret them as belonging to a tradition that includes Tolkien - the author of Lord of the Rings - and some later writers of science fiction.

No doubt the novels are all of these, but perhaps they're something else as well. Too original to belong neatly in any genre, and too full of lovely indecipherable images to be read as anything like an allegory, they have no simple message to convey. Yet I think they may have something interesting and subversive to say about what it means to be modern.

We like to imagine that the coming of modern times marks a fundamental alteration in human experience. Whenever it began - some say with the decline of medievalism, others with the rise of modern science - our world is shaped by the belief that it's different from anything that existed before.

In some ways this is obviously right - we know more than we have ever done, we have more powerful technologies, we're richer and live longer than the majority of human beings have ever done. We're different in another way: we expect much more of the future than anyone did in the past.

Image caption Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Steerpike in the BBC TV adaptation of Gormenghast

Until a few hundred years ago, most people believed human history was cyclical - a series of rising and falling civilizations in which what some generations gained, others lost. Today, nearly everyone thinks otherwise. The modern world is founded on the belief that it's possible for human beings to shape a future that's better than anything in the past. If the Gormenghast novels have any continuing theme, it's that this modern belief is an illusion.

The trio wasn't meant to be a trilogy. Born in China in 1911 in the hill town of Kuling, where his father worked as a missionary doctor, Peake grew up in Tientsin, a city some 70 miles from Beijing. He lived in a great grey house in the hospital compound of the French concession, playing around the tennis court in what he described as "a world surrounded by a wall".

It seems to have been a happy time for him. He loved the house, and it was then that he began to draw. After the family returned to England in 1923 he began work as a painter and draughtsman, spending some idyllic years living in an artists' colony on the island of Sark.

After the war he would become the finest illustrator of his time, producing drawings for classic texts such as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Bleak House, Treasure Island and Alice in Wonderland. Along the way he produced arresting poetry, including nonsense verse and some moving poems of the Blitz.

He planned a fourth novel, Titus Awakes, but advancing illness prevented him making progress with it. After his death in 1968 a version based on Peake's notes was written by his wife, the artist Maeve Gilmore, and published two years ago.

The Gormenghast novels contain none of the hobbits or fairy folk dreamt up by writers who invent alternative worlds. The castle's inhabitants are people, situated - or trapped - in a version of the human world. Huddled in a small part of the ancient edifice, with the rest of the vast tenements a deserted labyrinth, they include the ruling family, several castes of servant, a school, a doctor and a poet.

Image caption Peake's notebook for Gormenghast, bearing his own illustrations

On the outer walls, clinging like limpets, are the mud huts of the Bright Carvers - a caste skilled in wood-carving, who also provide a wet nurse for the ruling family. There is no church or priest, and aside from a pervasive reverence for the castle itself, no religion.

Gormenghast is the scene of cataclysmic upheavals: the burning of the castle's library, a crime committed by the sisters of the ruling Earl and plotted by the destructively ambitious former kitchen boy Steerpike, the subsequent madness and suicide of the Earl, and a struggle between the Earl's devoted servant and the castle's chef that ends with the chef being killed by the servant, a great flood, and a fight to the finish between Steerpike and Titus.

Despite these disruptions the life of the castle goes on. Whatever its inhabitants do, however much they may revolt against it, the castle doesn't change.

In the third book, Titus Alone, the world that the title character finds when he leaves the castle, is also a human world - one of incessant change. When the book was first published in 1959, the life it portrayed must have seemed impossibly futuristic. Though it was deeply altered by the war, Britain in the 1950s was a stolidly cohesive society based on old-fashioned industrialism.

In sharp contrast, the world that Peake imagines is being continuously transformed by new inventions - little wandering spy globes, seemingly intelligent, follow Titus wherever he goes. It's a world littered with the casualties of unceasing innovation, some of whom take refuge in a subterranean realm beneath the city.

Image caption Beijing 1910: Peake grew up in, and was inspired by, China

It's often been noted that Peake may have drawn on his early years in China for his images of the castle. In a brilliantly realised BBC television series broadcast 13 years ago, the castle is imagined as resembling the Forbidden City in Beijing. But Peake may have also drawn on childhood glimpses of life in Tientsin - a city in which a million Chinese contended with a mix of feudal poverty and brutal modernity - for his depiction of the world Titus enters when he leaves the castle.

Like JG Ballard, whose work is full of echoes of his early life in Shanghai, Peake delved into his childhood to produce a prescient vision of the way we live now.

The dwellers in the castle may be mesmerised by tradition, but the modern world Titus enters when he leaves the castle is possessed by a dream of the future that's equally unreal.

Yet it's the world beyond the castle in which Titus chooses to live, and it's worth asking why.

When he turns his back on the ritual-bound castle, it's not because he accepts the modern myth in which the future can be fashioned by human will or intellect. He knows that's as much a dream as the stability of the past, and ultimately as stifling.

Peake's Gormenghast novels have been described as examples of fantastic literature. In fact they are creations of wit and fancy, and what they show is that it's the modern age that's based on fantasy. If we know anything, it's that our actions will produce a world that's quite different from anything we can presently foresee or imagine.

Leaving Gormenghast means leaving behind childish dreams - whether of the past or the future. Titus knows he can't change the modern world any more than he could change life in the castle. But maybe he can find what life in the castle denied him - a home in the present.

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