The Future of Fantasy: The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake
Landmark, cornerstone – these are just some of the words critics use to describe Gormenghast’s literary triumph, so why is it not popular?
The eerie castle of Gormenghast was born from the unadulterated imagination of the visual artist and author Mervyn Peake. The first novel of the trilogy that tells of the castle’s fate was released in 1946, eight years before the world was swept by the vistas found in Tolkien’s Middle Earth Saga. But while Tolkien’s Middle Earth survived and thrived during the post-war era, Gormenghast, strange and bizarre, remained within the purview of a limited audience.
Marcus Sedgwick in The Guardian wrote why this is so despite being hailed by many fantasists (including anti-Tolkienist, Michael Moorcock) as one the greatest fantasy novels of the last century. He argued that Gormenghast came too soon, years before the trend for high fantasy exploded.
But we are past the grim of the world war and the subsequent boredom it created. We are now in an age when the world had never been more open and active. Borders collapse as internet reach every corner of the globe – bringing with it cultures and ideas that influence its users. Take for example the rise of the self published author who can now market their works online. The rise of the reading young adults emboldened by self-expression in many social media sites.There is none more advantageous time for an alternative fantasy than today. And Gormenghast fits the bill perfectly for a long awaited reimagining of our fantasy worlds heavily influenced by Tolkien.
Gormenghast – atmospheric and dark, invigorating, tragic and humorous in some parts – is a coming of age story that spanned 3 books (please forgive me if I ignore the fourth “unofficial” sequel). It doesn’t have heroes although it does have a formidable antagonist. It doesn’t have quests that has become staple in fantasy. It doesn’t even have a familiar pattern or the normal narrative structure. But what it has are rich and powerful imagery. It has corridors so black you start seeing monsters lurking in it.
Please consider the opening paragraph of the first novel Titus Groan (pub. 1946) as we are introduced to the main character of the books – the Gormenghast Castle –
“Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outerwalls…
Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven.”
From the first paragraph itself we are introduced to a different voice – one that is not excited by adventure. Perhaps even unimpressed by the virtues of heroic deeds. Here is a voice that is carefully and painstakingly carving out a world that only language can create.
I do believe that there is a large audience out there for this kind of literature. This audience has become suspicious of heroes or have become disillusioned with stories of saving the world. A generation that is angry at the failures of authority, or even democracy.
One only has to wonder how the Gormenghast Trilogy can make it’s grand entrance into mainstream or into the conversation of the literary community. Perhaps a more “faithful” adaptation than the BBC’s 2000 miniseries? Or maybe, a new edition with a better cover?
I can only guess, but it’s coming. Gormenghast will find its audience and it will haunt them forever.