“Gormenghast” by Mervyn Peake


And so we return to Gormenghast.  Mostly the same characters as the first novel, this second entry in the trilogy is quite obviously the main event.  Really, the two are the same story; the first sets the stage and readies the reader for Titus’ crisis in book two.  Whereas the first book was mostly funny and a little dark, “Gormenghast” is the opposite: mostly dark and a little funny.  The main source of comic relief is again of Prunesquallor origin, but this time from Irma and her expedient fiance, the Headmaster Bellgrove (not appearing in book one).  The Doctor still has some great lines of dialogue, but he is in more of a supporting hero role and the reader is forced to take him more seriously than before.  Still love the guy, though.

Anyway, there’s a very excellent chapter on Irma’s party she throws for all the Professors, in the hopes that she can woo one of them in the course of the evening.  She’s determined to snag a husband; Bellgrove gets wind of this and he in turn becomes determined to be that husband; both of them are so desperately inept yet so formal that it is simply hilarious.  Soon after their marriage, reality sets in and, with all quirks exposed, their life together does not turn out to be all that they (independently) imagined.  [Yet isn’t that the case with all marriages?]

But in any case, Irma and Bellgrove are but a sidenote to the primary storyline:  the struggle within Titus between fulfilling his destiny as the 77th Earl of Gormenghast — last in the ancient line; required to fulfill an endless round of ritual and ceremonies, whose meaning has largely been lost to time — versus his desire to be free to explore the wider world and to make his own role within it.  I believe this is the same struggle that drove his father insane.  Titus, as a boy, subconsciously gives wings to his desire for freedom by running away from the castle a few times, but is able to avoid much consequence due to his young age.  At the very end of the book, he makes his decision final and goes for good.  Adventures of Titus to be continued in part three, presumably….

Steerpike also features heavily in “Gormenghast.”  His ambition has blossomed into an obsession for power at all costs and with no consideration of morality whatsoever.  Steerpike is the arch-fiend, with well-laid plans; yet he overreaches and makes a few critical mistakes, small yet enough to bring everything crashing down.  There’s a pretty gripping ending to the book dealing with the good guys hunting down the murderer Steerpike in the flooded castle; surprisingly action-filled for such a usually slow-paced, poetry-laden novel.

Just a note on this particular edition:  I didn’t think the new illustrations in this were anything special, but art isn’t really my thing.  If I were a book-buyer (as it is, I am strictly a library-only cheapskate) then I would think the older, not-so-illustrated edition would do just as well.


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