DAVID H. KELLER, M.D.
James Branch Cabell states that the true artist writes only to express Beautiful thoughts and, when doing this, has only one idea, the personal satisfaction obtained from his labors. This dictum is well illustrated in "The Worm Ouroboros." It took Eddison 30 years to write this remarkable fantasy. Obviously it was a labor of love, written only to obtain a final peace of mind. There could have been no idea of recompense from a monetary viewpoint. He must have realised while dreaming it and placing those dreams on paper that only a relative few would buy it, or buying it, appreciate its transcendental loveliness. The American edition sold poorly. Its charm has been appreciated only by those exceptional personalities who silently watch a sunset fade or hear the music of waves beating on a rockbound coast.
Mervyn Peake is pre-eminently an artist. He has also won some slight fame as a minor poet. Nine years ago he started to dream of an unknown world and after seven years finished his first novel. No doubt he worked as an illustrator during those years, partly because he enjoyed art and no doubt because there were obligations to meet and bills to pay, but as an avocation he wrote "Titus Groan." In thus doing he followed the pattern of Cabell, Eddison, Dunsany and all writers of the beautiful. His primary object must have been writing for his own pleasure; for had he spent an equal time working as a plasterer or plumber his work would have been less time consuming and far more remunerative. For the book he wrote in these seven lean years has not been appreciated by the average reader who does not understand it and is unwilling to make the effort to do so.
The sub-title, "A Gothic Novel," is, in itself deceptive, though there is a shadow of reason for its use. Elizabeth Bowen in the "Tatler" comes far closer to actual analysis when she writes, "Let us call it a sport of literature." Her use of the word sport is a fine example of the incorporation of biology into literary criticism; for a sport is something unusual in nature, a white blackbird. It occurs as rarely in literature as in actual life.
The narrative centers around the Castle of Gormanghast, which, since it is located in never-never land, cannot be found in either old or modern atlases. The persons living in it and around the Castle are the descendants of seventy-six generations of nobility and peasant and during all that time they have been completely out of touch with the world. For over two thousand years they have simply lived in the Castle or around it, in a weird isolation. During these centuries the Castle grew slowly, each lord making additions which were neglected by succeeding Lords who had their own ideas of architecture. Thus, when the last of the line, Titus, is born, the Castle was so vast that few, if any, had visited all the rooms, or going into one unentered for centuries, knew who had built it or why.
As this family built Gormengast they fabricated a code of behavior which, written in great detail, in massive books, completely enslaved and dominated the living family. This enforced servitude to ritualism was specially onerous to the head of the family, the Lord of the Castle who had to perform the ceremonies of every day in exactly the same manner that all the previous Lords had followed on that special day. This ritual was only known in its entire complexity by the Librarian Sourdust, who had devoted most of his 90 years to its study. Every morning he met the Lord at breakfast and dictated to him the day's program. From this there could be, and never was, any diviation.
cupboard in the armoury, and, with the traditional dagger which Sourdust had brought for the occasion,
of scratching on the metal back of the cupboard another half moon, which, added to the long line of
similar half moons, made the seven hundred and thirty-seventh to be scored into the iron. - It was not
certain what significance the ceremony held, for unfortunately the records were lost, but the formality
was no less sacred for being unintelligible."
Living in the shadow of the Castle a number of common people continued for many centuries an existence that was in its way as bound by routine convention as was that of the Groan nobility. The less fortunate of these served as menials in the Castle but those with artistic talent became wood carvers. Each year these artists in wood carved what they hoped would be a masterpiece. These were judged by the current Lord of Gormengast on the first morning of June. He selected the three best. That evening the discarded carvings were burned but to the three winners was thrown the traditional scroll of vellum, which permitted them to walk the battlements above their mud huts on the night of the full moon of every second month. The three prizewinning carvings were then housed with their predecessors of hundreds of years in the Room of the Bright Carvings. There they were dusted daily by the Curator, Rottcodd, who never left the room and for years at a time had no visitors, for no one cared to look at the carvings. A book was provided for visitors to write their names, but no one came to look and write.
If this novel contained nothing but the story of the woodcarvers and the dual fate of their carvings it would suffice to show that the author has a keen sense of the values of life. For this is life, not only in Gormenghast but all over the world. Man, striving for greatness, enters into competition with his fellow. Those who fail have their efforts destroyed; those who succeed walk in glory during every second full moon, proud that their work is honored by being placed in some Hall of Fame, not realizing that no one visits the hall and lingers over the beauty of their masterpiece. The novel ends in the Room of the Bright Carvings, where it began, thus, as in "The Worm Ouroboros," completing the circle, the symbol of immortality.
All the characters are prisoners in the web of fate woven by the Spider Destiny. Lord Sepulchrave, fettered by tradition and finding happiness only in his beautiful library; the Countess with her hundreds of birds and many white cats; Fushia, the 17-year-old daughter who lives in a world of dreams; Flay, the valet; Sourdust, the keeper of the archives; his one one-legged son, Barquentine, who waits for 54 years till he can become, through his father's death, the Librarian; the Ladies Cora and Clarice, twin sisters of Lord Sepulchrave, congenital hemiplegics; The chef, Swelter, who commands a small army of assistant cooks, 40 apprentices and 18 Gray Scrubbers; Dr. Pruneaquallor and his virginal sister Irma; the nurse, Mrs. Slagg, tiny and fluttering like a wren; Keda, the wet nurse; the unnamed Poet, slightly psychotic, as all true poets are.
All these are so clearly drawn that they stand out, not as characters in a book, but as living persons, not so far removed from those of our own world, if only we would take the trouble to find them, or finding them, recognise them. Once meeting them in the book it is most difficult to forget them. This is another reason for recognizing the greatness of the novel. Peake has not only created a world which has more than a semblance of reality, but he has peopled it with men and women, who, in spite of their peculiarities, seem very much alive. There is a biological correctness in the symbiosis of their existence; though they may not acutely realize it, they are all mutually interdependent irrespective of the sharp difference in the stratums of their social order. The greatest could not continue the sacred daily program unless aided by the lowest. How would Lord Sepulchrave spend the first day in June if there were, by the refusal of the carvers to compete, no carvings to judge? The very existence of all depended on each one doing his work as he had always done it, and provide for some one to carry on that work when he died.
secrecy. Centuries of experience had seen to it that there should be no gap in the steady stream of
Into this community of perfectly adjusted persons comes an iconoclast, Steerpike, a 17-year old boy, one of the Chef's apprentices, who rebels against convention and dreams of becoming the vicarious ruler of the Castle. He proceeds in unconventional ways, including arson, to secure power. As his program is entirely new to the nobility they have no power to protect themselves and thus fall victim to his attack. At last the sonless Barquentine, realizing that some day he will die, selects him as the future Librarian and begins his training. Thus the ambitious lad starts towards becoming the actual ruler of the Castle and the future dictator of the daily life of the new Lord, Titus Groan. Here again we see pictures, not a realm of fantasy, but an actual portrayal of actual monarchies, which growing old and bound by tradition, are unable to face new conditions. They either die like the royal families of France and Russia or, if living on, find the actual rulers of the land a Prime Minister instead of a king.
Peake has shown that he is pre-eminently an artist by illustrating the novel with beautiful pictures drawn with words instead of a brush. His description of various rooms in the Castle, the Library, The Room of the Roots, the Hall of the Spiders, the Hall of the Bright Carvings, the Attic where Fushia fled for solitude and dreams and painted pictures on the wall; all these are so vividly described that it is evident the writer simply wrote of pictures the artist has first seen in his dreams. Back of these pictures lies an allegory and it is easy to translate them into personalities, none pleasant, but all capable of finding counterparts in human cosmos.
All is decaying. The roofs of the Castle leak, the windows are broken, the armor rusts. Mould and dust creep insidiously; ivy clings to the massive walls and some day will tear them to pieces. The rulers share in the slow dissolution of all things that cease to grow.
Meantime there is an undercurrent of revolt in the subconscious of the Dwellers in the Mud Village. The Bright Carvers will, for a while, continue to compete in the yearly prize but the young men resent the pitifully inadequate charity of the Castle. Mrs. Slago, when she informs them of the birth of Titus says:
Just that; and nothing more.
Other young men will join him. They will cease to carve wood and instead, will swarm over the battlements and carve the Groans with the belief that their life will be happier if they can live in the Castle instead of the Mud Huts. In this they will find nothing but disappointing disullision, for the Castle will be but a decaying empty shell filled with traditions they cannot share and remnants of the past they can never understand. In changing habitat they simply loose their own traditions and for centuries will be unhappy forming new patterns of life.
Titus Groan simply retells the story of the futility of life. It follows the historic motif of men's efforts to build new ladders to enable them to reach the stars. The effort is made but too late they realize the shortness of the ladders and the distance of the stars. Wiser men would have taken the wood and built better arbors for grapevines, but men have never been wise and even philosophers fail to understand the true values of life.
The tale ends with an implication of disaster to the House of Groan. The new Lord, Titus, when vested with authority, throws the ancient emblems of his sovereignty into the water and looks appealingly towards his foster-sister across the lake. Steerpike bivalently dreams of the equality of men and looks forward to the time when he will become the sole autocrat of the Castle. Fushia, dimly resentful of the chains which may force her to drift into a life of senile virginity, confusedly tries to make the Doctor realize that she is in love with him. The Countess continues to love her birds and cats, broods over her vengeance and long for the complete domination of her son. The Poet writes more poems, the Gardner polishes more apples, The new Chef prepares meals, the Grey Scrubbers continue to wash the kitchen walls and Rottcodd daily dusts the Bright Carving; but they all move like phantasmogoria in a dream, without joy of life, without the stimulation that comes from the desire to attain new objectives.
"Titus Groan" achieves greatness because, within the confines of the Castle and the Mud Huts, it poses many of the important problems of all time. It is more than a narrative of the Groan Family; it is a resume of all human behaviour. To this allegory is added a weird beauty, a literary style that could be used only by an artist and presents a combination of values that is unusual in present day writing. Few will appreciate it; the masses will ignore it; but those who understand it will read and reread it pleasuring at new found beauty and thrilling at discovering a hitherto unseen lovely picture of a philosophical truth far older than the Castle.
Data entry by Judy Bemis
Updated June 29, 2015. If you have a comment about these web pages please send a note to the Fanac Webmaster. Thank you.